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Chapter 13

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« on: January 31, 2023, 11:37:23 am »

THE journey from the Minoan to Bedbridge Row in Holborn in a pitch-dark and taxi-less London proved to be more of an undertaking than the exile had expected, and it was nearly an hour later when at last he groped his way up the worn stone steps of the narrow Georgian house in the corner of the half-ruined cul-de-sac. During his stumbling journey he had plenty of time for thought, and the closer he came to this new development the less he liked it.

There were times, too, when he fancied he was being followed, but in these dark empty streets it was difficult to tell. In a crowded city square he could have been sure, but none of his past experience allowed for these vast open spaces wherein one set of footsteps rang out loudly in the silence. He was not alone at any rate. Someone else made that journey as well as himself.

The house when he reached it might have been empty for years. His small torch beam showed a worn door with dirty iron furnishings and brass numerals green with neglect, but when he pressed the bell-push a sound like a fire alarm echoed in the hall within.

To his surprise the door opened instantly, and in the darkness a woman seized his arm.

"Oh, there you are at last," she said. "Do go up to him, we can't do anything with him, and he won't send for the police. Isn't it awful?"

Campion recognized Miss Chivers with surprise. He had not expected her. There was a faint blue light in the white-painted hall and her sensible face looked pallid in the gloom. She was still efficient, of course, and still preserved her confidential friendliness of manner, but alarm had intensified each characteristic so that she presented a caricature of herself.

"Don't stand there staring at me," she said. "I dare say you are surprised to see me here. I'm surprised to be here. But when he rang through I thought I'd better come. Gee-gee Gold is up there with Dion Robson, the doctor. Johnny rang me at Carados Square and told me to fetch him. I came along to see if I could do anything, but he won't speak to me. He's in the front room on the first floor. The others are all in the bathroom higher up; I'm keeping here to mind the door and to stop the old housekeeper coming up from the basement. My God, they are a lot."

"Doesn't the housekeeper know what's happened?"

"Nobody knows except us. It's madness, of course. They'll hang Johnny if he doesn't look out. He's gone out of his mind, Mr. Campion, the war's gone to his head."

"Is Bush actually dead?"

"He may be by this time. He wasn't half an hour ago--not quite. He will die, though, and then there will be an almighty row. For heaven's sake go upstairs, and get some sense into Johnny and make him send for the police."

She gave him a push which all but over-balanced him, and he started off down the passage obediently. At the foot of the stairs he paused, and looked back.

"Are you all right down here alone?"

"Me? My dear man, don't worry about me," she said, laughing irritably. "I'm only the secretary of the madhouse. It's the master you've got to look after."

Mr. Campion mounted the stairs and came into an elegant little hall with a grey-carpeted floor. If Theodore Bush did not bother about the outside of his house any more than he did about the outside of his bottles, like them the inside had considerable merit. The glossy door to the large living-room faced the stair head, and all was silent behind it. From further up the stairs the sound of voices and restless movement floated down. Campion tapped on the door and waited.

"Hello, that you, Dion?" Johnny's voice was almost casual.

"No. Campion here."

"Well, come in, you ape. I'm not waiting behind the door with a club."

Campion entered a large and graceful yet entirely masculine room and looked about him. Carados was partially hidden in an enormous blue leather arm-chair, his legs stretched out to the fire and his big chin resting on his breast. He did not move as the other man came over to him, but raised his eyes.

"This is a stinker," he said. "What do you know about this, eh?"

"Almost nothing," said Campion. "I'm hoping to pick it up as I go along. What have you done to him? Hit him on the head with a bottle?"

"Oh no. No, I was much more subtle than that." The grey-blue eyes rested on Campion's face with an expression in them which he did not immediately recognize. Only gradually did it occur to him that Carados was afraid. "No, I poisoned the poor old boy," he said at last. "I did, Campion. I gave him God knows how much chloral hydrate and I saw him mix it in a tooth-glass and knock it back at one go. Dreadful, I shall never forget it. Poor old Theo. He was a bit of a crank, of course. Believed in all the wrong things and was heaven's own peculiar prize bore, but to kill him, Campion! To kill him like that, all defenceless, in a neat little tucked shirt and blue pants. No, I'll never forgive myself, never as long as I live."

Campion sat down and crossed his long, thin legs.

"I hate to be vulgar, but that won't be long if this is the story you're telling," he said affably.

Carados grunted. "I've got the wind up," he said. "Someone's being horribly clever. I suspected it when I saw that wretched woman lying dead in your flat. I thought then that someone was going all out for me. Afterwards I wondered if perhaps I was making myself too important in the story, but now I know I was right. Someone is not only trying to get rid of me, but they're trying to prove I'm ga-ga first. What about you? Are you for me, or against me?"

"I'd take a drink from you," said Mr. Campion, considering it was a handsome offer in the circumstances.

"I wouldn't." Carados was bitter. "I wouldn't touch me or anything I had handled with a barge pole. I'm dangerous."

"Well, I don't know how long it's necessary to suffer to be interesting," said Campion with calculated brutality, "but I'll buy it. What did you think you were giving him?"

Johnny's face cleared and he felt in the breast pocket of his tunic. "The expert's calm is very important when you need it," he said. "Look. See this?" Campion took what appeared to be a small imitation-leather cigarette case from his outstretched hand. It was buttoned down, envelope fashion, and embossed on the grain in gilt script was the legend: "Zo-zo. Pour l'ennui de l'estomac. Gilbert Frères. Paris. 15ième."

Mr. Campion raised the flap cautiously. Inside the case was divided into ten small partitions, each one of which normally contained a phial stoppered by a metal cap and sheathed in typical blue-and-green-striped metal paper. At the moment there were seven left.

"French bismuth type?" he enquired.

Carados nodded. "Yes. Only obtainable over there, and very expensive as those things go. About fifty francs, that lot, I suppose. There was a mild fashion for it over here just before the war, and when I saw Theo yesterday he was bewailing the fall of France, for all the wrong reasons as usual, and he mentioned the disappearance of these things as one of the minor evils which had come out of it. 'And to cap it all, you can't even get a Zo-zo,' he said, the silly old ape. He looked so miserable I told him I thought we probably had some about the house, and that I'd look them up for him if I could."

He spoke casually and Campion remembered this peculiarity of his. The incident was typical of him. In common with many big men of wide interests he had that side to him. He was a person who always did do little errands for people, not necessarily his closest friends. He was a man who remembered birthdays, and if a guest could not eat oysters, or always smoked Turkish cigarettes, and more than likely he would go out of his way to see such little desires were gratified. It was one of his most charming characteristics, but as an attribute it was rare enough to make his present story unconvincing to a jury.

"Go on," said Campion.

"Well, I did find them," said Carados, "and I brought them along when I called for the old man. He asked me to meet him here because there were one or two points in this business of Les Enfants turning up like this, which he felt we ought to discuss. He was certain the wine wasn't genuine and he wondered if we ought to make a statement. Good Lord, how small peace-time affectations seem these days, Campion. What fools we all were."

"It all depends on how you look at it," said Mr. Campion cautiously. "I don't know if our present occupation is very bright, fireworks and death. Still, get on with the story. You brought this stuff with you, did you?"

"Yes, I did. Theo was late and was changing. Apparently Theo can't give his opinion on a rare bottle if he isn't in virgin linen. It's against his religion, perhaps. Anyway he asked me to come up and talk while he dressed. I gave him that packet and he fell on it; from the way he behaved I thought he'd had chronic dyspepsia since nineteen thirty-nine. He said he'd take a dose at once if I didn't mind. I watched him take his tooth-glass, pour one of these things into it, stir it up in water, and gulp it down. Ten minutes afterwards he was in a coma. God knows how much chloral he's had."

"How do you know it's chloral?" Campion demanded.

"Because I recognized the stink of the stuff." Johnny told his appalling story in his usual casual way, apparently unaware of its weakness; only the new darkness in his eyes betrayed him.

"This is what happened," he said. "I noticed Theo getting a bit thick and wavery, but when he flopped it took me by surprise. He collapsed across the bed and began to breathe like a bomber. I didn't think it was heart and it sort of came to me--you know how it does--that he'd taken something. The only thing I knew he'd taken was this stuff I'd brought him. The empty phial was still on the dressing-table and I took it up and sniffed it; then I recognized it."

"You recognized chloral hydrate?"

Carados shook his head. For the first time he looked embarrassed. "Not exactly, I--I recognized Bromot."

"What's that?"

Carados sat forward in his chair and stubbed the fire.

"It's damned awkward," he said.

"I've heard worse, slightly," said Campion.

"You wait. There's bags to come. Bromot is a proprietary mixture sold to make you sleep. It's dangerous. Dion prescribed it for me years ago when I was going through a bad patch. You take about a fifth of the quantity which would go into one of those phials and it's got chloral hydrate in it, potassium bromide, and one or two other things, I forget what. The chief danger of it is the high specific gravity of the stuff makes it fall to the bottom, and you're always warned not to take the last dose in the bottle. I never did." He paused. "I bet there were a dozen bottles with one dose left in each kicking about the house just before the war," he said. "I remember them; they stood in a row at the back of the medicine cupboard. I always meant to tell someone to chuck them away, but I never did."

Campion said nothing, and Johnny nodded towards the case of phials.

"You sniff those," he said. "Five are Zo-zo, the other two, one at each end, are Bromot. The third which Theo took was Bromot too. Devilish, isn't it?"

"Didn't he notice the taste?"

"He must have done. The famous palate can't have been as bad as that, but he took it at a gulp, you see. They both looked vaguely alike, muddy and uninviting. He did say it was different, I remember, but it would never have occurred to him to doubt me. I mean, why should I kill him?"

"Yes," said Campion gravely. "Why should you kill him? Why should anybody kill him, for that matter?"

Johnny stirred. "It's all part of this other damned business," he began, and was silent.

Campion let him wait for a long time.

"I think I should tell it all," he ventured at last. "It's just an opinion, but I think I would. As the story stands there's not a Counsel in England who'd touch it."

Carados lay back in the chair. "I know it," he said. "I've been sitting here thinking it. It's frightful. You don't know the full strength of this business. The devil of it is that it keeps coming back to me. Whichever way one turns, whatever new line one takes, all paths lead back to me. To me, mind you. Whenever I get a thread and follow it up and see a vague figure disappearing at the end of it, and I press on until I see his face, whom do you think it turns out to be? Me, Campion. Myself. My God, it would almost be a relief to think I was mad."

Behind his spectacles Mr. Campion blinked. There had been times of late when he had thought that he was getting old and that there were no more thrills, no more surprises in the bag for him. But now, as he sat looking into those cold steady eyes and heard the terrible confession, the half-forgotten trickle ran down his spine again.

Johnny went on talking. "I don't think I'm permitted to tell you anything," he said. "We'd better have Oates up here, I suppose; but he's not sure of me, at least I don't think he is."

"No policeman is ever sure of anybody. That's the first thing they learn at the college," said Campion. "Let me get one part of the story clear in my own mind. Where did you get this Zo-zo stuff today? My dear chap, you'll have to explain that. Whatever else you choose to be chivalrous about you can't leave that in the air."

Carados eyed him. "You're very shrewd, aren't you?" he said savagely. "I'm not shielding anyone, at least not anyone in particular, but I've got to be sure. You must see that. I got that packet of Zo-zo off the table in the back hall of my own house just before I went out with the Admiral this morning."

Campion's face remained blank.

"Just like that?" he enquired. "You just saw it and picked it up?"

"No, not quite. Look here, Campion, if I tell you this you've got to treat it as confidential until I give you the word. I'll tell you exactly what happened. I was in London all day yesterday; I came up on Sunday, as a matter of fact, and at midday I looked in at the Junior Greys where I found about a dozen enquiries for me from Bush. It seemed urgent and I got hold of him. We had a chat and fixed up this gathering this evening. It was then he mentioned the Zo-zo. Later on in the afternoon I went to my own house, taking Eve with me. No one was in at all, not a servant, not a soul. I made a note of the Zo-zo so that I shouldn't forget it and left it on the pad on that table in the back hall where I always did leave notes. It was a custom of the house in the old days. I'd write down what I wanted and whoever knew something about it would see to it that the thing was got or done or seen to somehow."

"Things like 'Ink on the study carpet,' or 'Gone to Scotland' or 'Out of toothpaste,'" suggested Campion with interest.

"Yes. That sort of thing. Everybody did it, not only me. I suppose the butler used to dole out the jobs in the days when we had a butler. I never thought any more about it, I'm afraid. If it was on the pad no one could say they hadn't been told, it saved time and argument. That was the idea."

"I see. And yesterday you left a message there in the ordinary way. Is that message still in existence?"

"I expect so. I didn't notice, I just happened to see the stuff lying on the table when I went to get my coat and I pocketed it."

"I see. Can you remember the message you left?"

"Yes, I can. I just wrote: 'Please see if there is any Zo-zo in the house.' I think I probably added 'Burp mixture,' or something like that, to remind whoever it was what the stuff was like."

"Did you say it was for Bush?"

Carados raised his eyes and blushed. "I did, you know," he said. "I did, I know I did. It's so darned kiddish, isn't it, so silly? I didn't want anyone to think it was for me, I suppose. I know I added: 'Mr. Bush wants it,' like a school child. I've been sitting here remembering that and cursing."

"It's human enough," said Campion. "It'd pass, I think."

He sat quiet for some time, frowning. They were undisturbed, no sound reached them from the floor above and there was no traffic in the street outside. There was a blankness in the situation, a sense of frustration and defeat. At length he asked the inevitable question.

"Which one of them put it there?"

"I don't know." Carados spoke so softly that his voice scarcely reached across the hearthrug. "That's the hell of it. I have no idea whatever. I can't believe it of any one of them. There's only one really reckless damned fool in the whole gathering, I should have said, and that's--me."

Campion cocked an eye at him. "That way the loony bin lies," he said. "You have no idea when the stuff was left on the table except that it must have been some time between three or four yesterday afternoon and about twelve-thirty this morning. Is that so?"

"Yes."

"And during that time all the old gang has been in the place, not to mention the Admiral, myself, Susan, and, of course, Eve?"

"Yes."

"Anyone who knew the house well could have got at your Bromot dregs?"

"Anyone. They and the Zo-zo were probably on the same shelf. It only needed the necessary filthy idea."

"I see." The scene of the morning with the odd incident of the rose and the pearls returned vividly to Mr. Campion's mind. That remarkable package also had been found upon a hall table, as far as he remembered.

"Who knew you were going to have this bottle party with Bush?" he enquired.

"Half London," said Carados wearily. "Bush made such a set-out about getting hold of me that I should think everybody knew that he wanted my opinion on a bottle of wine. He seems to have said everything except the actual name of the stuff. How much do you know about it, Campion?"

"I know what the wine is and where it came from. I know about the loss of the lorry and the two men in it."

"And that's all you know?"

"Practically all. Is there much more?"

Carados looked away. "Quite a bit," he said briefly. "Lives, and treasure, and something rather more important. It's Oates's pidgin. If he hasn't told you, I can't. Oh, Lord," he said, "I wish this hadn't happened to Bush. I don't know what they think they're doing upstairs. Gold is helping Dion, you know. They wouldn't have me. They must have washed him out by this time. They're trying artificial respiration, I suppose, but it's no good, I saw what he took."

Mr. Campion got up. One of the principal mysteries of the past twenty-four hours had been explained to him. His suspicions had been confirmed; whatever might be the precise nature of the nightmare which had overtaken him so suddenly the previous evening, it was no simple story of theft and murder. He felt like an actor who had stepped on to the stage half-way through some considerable drama. He was far too experienced a performer to attempt to do any more just then than play his part blindly.

"I'll go up and see," he said. "Where are they? At the back of the house?"

"Yes. You'll see when you get up there. Tell them to come down. I'll have to do some explaining to Dion, I suppose. He's been dragged out here without ceremony."

With his hand on the latch, Campion turned and looked back. "One other thing, Johnny," he said. "Did your mother come to the house last night?"

As soon as he had spoken he saw the change in the man. His strong heavy body sagged. "I can't tell you," he said. "I don't know. She may have done, I can't tell you. Someone else may remember."

Mr. Campion was sorry for him. "If she was there, someone else will, you know," he said awkwardly, and opened the door.

The Dowager Lady Carados was standing outside.

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