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7: Answer to a Letter

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Author Topic: 7: Answer to a Letter  (Read 5 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 07:36:24 am »

PETTIGREW ONLY had to wait a week for the answer to his letter. He found it a very slow and anxious week to live through, and before it was over had become illogically impatient with his correspondent for the delay. Although his reason told him that Miss Brown must be perfectly safe until she was both insured and married to Phillips, the spectacle of the two lunching together in the canteen, or sitting side by side on the sofa in the Fernlea’s lounge, filled him with the deepest disquiet. Not usually given to showing his feelings, he was appalled one evening to overhear a murmur from Rickaby, “I do believe the old chap’s getting jealous!” which told him that his anxiety had been observed and misconstrued. The monstrous accusation drove him out two nights running to the Gamecock, where, not meeting Mallett, he drank rather more beer than was good for him.

So far as the question of insurance was concerned, he found a simple way of playing for time. He merely told Miss Brown that the terms offered by the Empyrean were perfectly fair and reasonable, but that before deciding in the matter it would be as well to compare them with those of some other companies---the Galaxy, for example, or the Sidereal. Miss Brown accepted his advice and said that she would get particulars from the Empyrean’s rivals. The matter was thus shelved for the time being.

Pettigrew felt that he had at least put a spoke in the enemy’s wheel; but if so, the enemy did not appear to notice it. Phillips remained throughout as agreeable and civil as ever, as friendly as was consistent with the difference, freely admitted and indeed insisted on by him, between a mere solicitor’s clerk and a gentleman of the bar. At the same time, he continued to be quite non-committal. Neither to Pettigrew nor to anybody else did he ever mention the name of Miss Brown nor the subject of life insurance. The same sang-froid which enabled him to carry on his courtship in the most difficult and public conditions imaginable seemed also to have made him indifferent to the dark suspicions with which he was regarded. And yet, Pettigrew reflected, he must know that the girl has consulted me about the insurance. Knowing what he knows, he must surely guess what my reactions to that would be. Or does he take me for a complete fool? Then he remembered that at the heart of almost every murderer there is to be found a deep-seated vanity that blinds him to the risks he runs and so often leads to his undoing---after the event. Contemplating the amiable, affable Mr. Phillips, he became gloomier than ever.

Then the looked-for letter arrived. It was short and to the point.

“Dear Frank,” it ran, “I have done your commission, though I’m hanged if I can find any duties of this sort included in the covenants of my tenancy of the chambers. The answers to your questions are: (a) £2,347 10s. 8d. (b) Yes. (c) No policy moneys are included in the estate, which consisted of stock exchange securities, cash at bank and the usual small trimmings. (d) Consequently does not arise. I hope you are satisfied.

“By the way, you told me to ask no questions and I’m not doing so. All the same, I couldn’t help wondering whether your inquiry was not the result of reading one of the gory romances of your colleague who calls himself Amyas Leigh. Just in case this should be so, I ought to tell you that I have ascertained from Tillotson that the lady had been for three years before her death in the same hospital where she is recorded to have died. I fear, therefore that any notions you may have cherished of establishing a sudden and violent end for her must be laid aside.

“Yours ever,


“P.S. Just to rub it in, I have even now, through devious means which I will not divulge, ascertained that there was a policy with the Empyrean on Mrs. Phillips’s life for the modest sum of five hundred pounds. It was allowed to lapse, for non-payment of premiums! Are you quite happy now?”

So that was that! For the second time in the space of a few weeks Pettigrew saw himself self-convicted of shameful, puerile credulity. Once more he felt the sense of anti-climax that goes with relief from the apprehension of danger. Phillips, it was now evident, was no more than a perfectly ordinary, respectable widower, bent on making a perfectly ordinary, respectable re-marriage. Miss Brown’s future was as safe as the earning capacity of a solicitor’s clerk and a small private income could make it. No doubt she would (in a perfectly ordinary, respectable way) be extremely happy. The load of responsibility which he had shouldered so unwillingly was removed. Nothing could be more satisfactory.

If telling himself that he was relieved and pleased at finding himself mistaken could have made him look so, Pettigrew should have gone about with a positively radiant face. But for some reason which he was quite at a loss to explain the feeling of disappointment persisted. He carried it with him on a solitary walk along the cliffs the next Sunday morning. It was a day of blustering wind and when he reached the headland that forms the northern point of Marsett Bay the sound of the surf far below was so loud that he was unaware of approaching footsteps until a voice said close to his ear, “Good morning, sir!”

It was Inspector Mallett, his cheerful red face gleaming with the exertion of his walk, his moustache points limp in the salt-laden air. Pettigrew felt that he had never seen a healthier-looking man. “Eupeptic,” he decided, was the only adjective that fitted him. The impression that he gave the inspector was not the same.

“If I may say so, Mr. Pettigrew,” Mallett remarked, “you’re not looking quite the thing to-day. No bad news, I hope?”

“Not at all, Inspector. Rather the reverse, if anything.”

“Indeed! I’m glad to hear that,” Mallett replied in disbelieving tones. “Which reminds me, sir, I don’t seem to have had any news from you about my little business.”

“I’m afraid not. I have been pretty busy over my own work lately.”

“So I gathered, sir. You and Miss Brown have had your work cut out, I understand.”

Pettigrew looked at him sharply, but the detective’s face seemed entirely innocent of any double meaning that might be attached to his words.

“Yes,” he agreed, “we have. But we seem to be through the worst of it now. And what about your inquiries?”

“I can’t say that we’re through the worst of them yet, sir. All the same, I think I may say we are progressing.” He looked up at the sky. “It looks as though it might come on to rain,” he observed. “Do you think we ought to be getting back?”

They left the headland and took the path back towards the town.

“Yes, we are progressing,” Mallett continued. “We’re some way from getting at the root of the trouble, but we have established that there are two departments in the Control involved---not the whole departments of course, I mean, but individuals in two different jobs who must be working together. And without turning the whole place upside down and upsetting everybody---which we don’t want to do and Mr. Palafox won’t hear of anyway---it’s very difficult to ascertain just who is involved. Meanwhile, I’ve been running about the country in the last week or two, and on the way I’ve unearthed what looks like a very pretty little Black Market affair which affects the Control. Your Enforcement Branch is working on it now, and I dare say it will come your way for an opinion before long.”

“That will be delightful,” said Pettigrew unenthusiastically.

Mallett caught the implication in his tone.

“Ah, sir!” he said. “It’s dull work, all these offences against Orders and Regulations. I’d sooner do a nice murder any day, wouldn’t you, Mr. Pettigrew? Give me regular crime every time!”

“The war has certainly produced a fine new crop of offences,” replied Pettigrew. “And an astonishingly large number of people only too eager to commit them. I sometimes wonder whether there are any honest people left.”

“I wouldn’t say that sir,” said the inspector judicially, “but I tell you what---there aren’t enough honest people to go round.”

They talked of indifferent matters until they reached the outskirts of Marsett Bay. Then Pettigrew remembered a question he had been meaning to ask for some time.

“I was very much impressed the other evening,” he began, “by the amount you and Jellaby seemed to know about all the people working at the Control.”

Mallett permitted himself to chuckle quietly.

“Not all of them, Mr. Pettigrew,” he said. “I’m afraid we were rather showing off that time. The fact is, we had been making rather a study of the Fernlea crowd.”

“Is that where you expect to find the people you are looking for?”

“That would be telling, sir. I don’t want to embarrass you by putting suspicions in your mind about the people you are meeting every day and passing the salt to at breakfast. You’d find it very uncomfortable.”

Pettigrew needed no telling how very uncomfortable such a situation was.

“I quite understand,” he said. “But that wasn’t what I really meant to ask you. It occurred to me after I left you at the Gamecock that there was one of the Fernlea people whom you never mentioned.”

“Was there, sir?”

“Yes---Miss Danville.”

“Oh, bless my soul, Miss Danville! She’s all right. At least----” he grinned. “She’s an innocent so far as the trade is concerned. I sometimes wonder where the Government picks them up, I do really.”

And no more about Miss Danville could Pettigrew get from him.

They parted under the first scattered drops of rain in the High Street.

“Good day, sir,” said Mallett. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your walk as much as I have. It gives one a wonderful appetite, that sea air. If only there was something waiting on the table to make an appetite worth while!”

Pettigrew, who knew the inspector’s reputation as a trencherman, expressed his sympathy.

Mallett sighed. “There’s a little café in Bridge Street, the second turning on the left from here,” he said. “It’s just due for a prosecution under the Food Regulations, Mr. Jellaby tells me. I think it would be worth your while to visit it, sir, before it’s too late. They say the stuff there is wonderful. As a policeman,” he concluded dolorously, “I can’t very well be seen inside it myself.”

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