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Chapter 17

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« on: February 01, 2023, 03:01:56 am »

THERE was a long silence while Campion fitted these new and staggering data into the story as he knew it. Gradually the full significance of the facts became clear to him, and a dozen questions with one horrifying possibility shot into his mind.

"It wasn't a matter of making them squeal," Oates said suddenly. "Most of them talked, and not one had any idea he was working for the enemy. Some of them were almost funny on that subject. Do you remember a dreadful little man called Knapp--Thos Knapp, he called himself--we caught him when we frustrated the Cassiobury business; he was appalled at the suggestion he was working for Jerry, he thought it was a respectable job, he said; and he honestly did think he was working for Kuyper, the big shot in the silver racket. He went down for eighteen months and is now out in Italy, pulling his weight, I believe. He's a crook, but not a traitor."

"Was Kuyper in it?"

"No. He cleared out just before the war, he's in South America--resting. No, these chaps used his name on this occasion, that was all. The man who did the actual organizing was that fellow Whitey Smith."

Campion grimaced. "He was smooth," he said. "Where is he now?"

"In the bag. We got him to talk in the end only to find that he didn't know much. He was merely employed to organize the underworld and he certainly did his stuff. His immediate boss was a queer little cuss called King. He'd never been on our books before and had had a solicitor's office in London for some years before the war. Until this business there was nothing very much against him, but he had some rum contacts and in 'thirty-seven he was in serious need of money. Some time at the end of that year he got plenty. He won't speak; he's much more frightened of someone else than he is of our gentlemanly police force. And, of course, he knows all the tricks. We've got him inside, but only on a three years' sentence; he prefers to serve that rather than open his mouth."

"Is this as far as you've got?"

Oates looked at the younger man steadily. Campion remembered that cold appraisal of old and it had always made him feel slightly uncomfortable. "No, there's a bit more," said the Chief at last, "and that's where we come up against something interesting. How long have you known Carados?"

"Johnny?" Mr. Campion felt cold. All through the latter part of the Chief's revelation he had been trying to avoid this horrifying suspicion. "Oh no," he said, "no. That's out of the question. Think of his record."

"Exactly. That's how we all feel. That's how the R.A.F. feels; that's how the Home Office feels. Think of his record, think of his background, think of the man he is."

The Chief sighed, and stirred himself.

"That's why we're muffling ourselves up in kid gloves and doing our best to disbelieve our own eyes. It's a damnable business."

Campion remained obstinately blank. "You don't think," he began at last, "you don't think the size of the thing might have--well, have magnified the probable size of the--er--perpetrator, so that your people have naturally tended to, to--"

"Go a bit nutty," said Oates dryly. "No, I don't. Nor do I think that the fact that the crimes have been inspired by Fascists has deluded the poor, silly Police Force into thinking they must be the work of the upper classes. No, I wish you were wrong. I don't like the idea any more than you do. Or than he does, poor blighter. I don't believe he's sure, you know."

Mr. Campion felt his eyes flicker. "Who, Johnny?"

"I wish you wouldn't keep calling him 'Johnny'; his name's 'Carados.'"

"I'm sorry; he was called Johnny at school."

Oates smothered an exclamation of an un-police-chief-like nature. "There you are. 'At school.' Half the influential people in the country seem to have been at school with him."

"I wasn't. I only played cricket against him once or twice."

"It's the same thing. You've known of him for a lifetime, therefore he can't be a crook. I hear it on all sides, everybody says it. I admit I like him myself and I say that the fellow doesn't know if he's guilty or if he isn't."

Mr. Campion sat thinking of Johnny Carados, and the last conversation he had with him. Some of the remarks which had then sounded so fantastic were now being echoed by Oates, who was of all things not fantastical.

"Dual personality and what not?" he ventured dubiously.

Oates shrugged his shoulders. "I'm only an old copper, raised to my present eminence by a flash of intelligence in the head of some higher official," he said, "but in my opinion much of this mental disease we hear about is mainly moral. I know that man well, and I don't think he's mad. I also think he's a good chap, fundamentally; he's brave, he's original and he's used to thinking nothing's too big for him."

"Well then...?"

"Well then." Oates was not to be interrupted. "Consider the circumstances. It was a very funny time just before the war. Here's a chap who's devoted his life and his money to the care and fostering of beautiful things. Isn't there something about Art knowing no frontiers?"

"No. That's Science."

"Same thing. Anyway, there he was, all ready for some clever chap from the other side to work on."

"Yes, I know, but I can't see him dealing with the underworld."

"He wouldn't have to, King would see to that. He wouldn't even handle the cash; he'd just lend his name and make the original contacts."

"You think he might not have realized how it was going to be run?"

"I think he might not have cared," said Oates grimly. "Don't you read your newspapers? There's a lot of cultured people who believe a life or two is well spent protecting the right kind of picture or pot. He doesn't mind risking his own life, we know that. Very few people do, funnily enough. They only differ about the things they die for. Suppose he doesn't think he's ever been working for Germany; suppose he's certain he's simply been working for Art; suppose he settles his conscience this way?"

"Then he's mad."

"Is he? I don't think the best counsel in the world could prove it in court."

Campion turned this new possibility over in his mind. Everything but his reason revolted against it.

"I don't like it," he said. "I don't want to believe it possible."

"That's everybody's reaction," said Oates. "I told you, yet all the evidence leads straight to him."

"Circumstantial evidence?"

"Naturally, or we'd have had to arrest him." The Chief put both hands on his knees to rub them thoughtfully. "I'm not trying to make a case against the chap," he complained, "I'm trying not to. We all are. It's these damnable instructions; they still come to him from time to time."

"From the other side?"

"Yes." The Chief took the pipe out of his mouth and began to use it to point his story. "We hadn't a ghost of a line on anybody until just about ten months ago, when one of the neutral governments put in a query to my office about a naturalized Rumanian living in Streatham. I suppose you know how the friendly neutrals do these things? They don't lay information, they just ask a shy little question, and that's all there is to it. When the opportunity occurs, we return the compliment."

Mr. Campion had known it, but wasted no time in saying so.

"We nabbed the bloke just at the right moment," said Oates. "Caught him with a house full of incriminating stuff. He was untidy, that was the thing which damned him. He was the only agent I've ever known who wasn't meticulous. He left papers in his collar drawer, even under the bed; I suppose he thought he was safe. He'd been over here thirty-five years, and had a house and a little block-making business in the City, and he'd changed his name to something good and Scots and all his dear old pals of the eight-fifteen swore he was as loyal as a Trafalgar Square lion. But he hadn't a hope, of course. He died in the Tower, very bravely, really. He had some deep emotional dream about castles and counts and kings and mountains and what not, but all in Rumania, unfortunately."

The Chief paused and shook his head. "What a world," he said. "Well, among this chap's activities was the usual one of forwarding letters. He used to get them via some six or seven accommodation addresses near where he worked. They get into the country in various ways. A refugee smuggles in what looks like a straight love-letter from a chance acquaintance, and nearly always he acts in complete innocence. He posts it in the ordinary way. Some of the others I honestly believe are dropped.

"Suppose a country chap finds a sealed letter lying in the road. It is stamped and addressed; sometimes he opens it, and its contents mean very little to him. More often than not he just sticks it in a letter-box. Our Rumanian decoded those he received, typed out the message neatly on his little machine and sent them off as ordinary business letters. When he was caught, he was actually doing one. We got the message both in the code and the clear; it was addressed to Carados."

"I see. And when you showed it to Johnny?"

"He said he'd be damned," said the Chief. "He convinced me completely. He was so interested, so keen to help and so naturally angry. No innocent man could have behaved more normally. He let it get him for a bit, and kept turning up with suggestions; he gave us every facility and we went over all his papers. We turned his houses out, we talked to all his associates, and we watched his mail, and there wasn't a thing to pin on him. Yeo was in charge of the enquiry, and you know him. He was like an old woman looking for a postal order she thought she had somewhere; he went on and on and over and over, never tired, and always remembering just one more place to look. Finally he gave it up and said he would as soon suspect himself. Meanwhile the instructions kept coming in to Carados."

"How? Oh I see. You kept the Rumanian's establishment open. What about the address?"

"Ah, that was the snag. The Rumanian insisted he used Carados's private address and nothing could shift him on that point. But when we decoded the next message to come in and sent it along there, there was hell to pay. Carados opened it and came roaring round to us with it at once. He swore it was the first he had received, and I must say he convinced me."

Campion shrugged his shoulders. "That's probably it," he said. "Someone was using his name. Possibly even the enemy was deceived. Jerry is extraordinary in that way."

"That's what we thought," Oates agreed placidly, "until we heard from Gonfalon."

"Lord Gonfalon? Loopy Clarence?"

Oates sniffed. "You know that, do you? That's the snag, of course."

"I know Gonfalon is the prize crank of all time," said Mr. Campion. "Eight hundred years of solid loafing are behind him, and considered purely as the result, he's logical. After that, the word doesn't apply."

"We found that out, of course." The Chief's gloom deepened. "He has a remarkable wife, though; she's a French woman, a burning patriot. I understand his family considered it a mésalliance, but good Lord, without her he'd be penniless, certifiable and probably dead. She lets him do what he likes up to a certain point, but when it begins to look dangerous, she lays about him. Do you know her?"

"Sweet Hortense? Only from the song," said Campion flippantly. "No, really, any evidence connected with that pair can't be taken seriously."

"There again you take the conventional view." Oates was injured rather than annoyed. "Now I'll tell you what happened. One day, soon after we'd decided Carados wasn't implicated, this old fellow Gonfalon walked in to see me, and he told me an absurd story about rare peonies and Siamese cats and I don't know what else, and finally announced in so many words that just before the war he'd been in communication with the enemy government concerning the preservation of these and other treasures in event of danger. He was quite open about it; he said his wife had now discovered the whole business and had sent him up to see me to make a clean breast of it."

"Was there any truth in it at all?"

"Oh yes. We went into it, of course, and Holly went down there and brought back all the correspondence he could find and the cats and the greenhouses, not to mention about five acres of mounted armour of all periods, as well as any quantity of valuable or semi-valuable junk. We read the letters, and I must say he seemed to me to have completely fooled the enemy as to his importance in the country. They certainly had the idea that he was one of our hereditary rulers, and while I don't know what his own letters to them were like, having had one or two from him myself, I can well imagine they were impressive and mysterious to a foreigner.

"To do them justice they didn't trust him with much, but they gave him painstaking details concerning the best way to preserve his valuables, and when war did break out he got a communication, probably via the Rumanian, instructing him to communicate with Carados if anything important occurred, and he should need advice or assistance."

"Wasn't that to be expected?" said Campion quickly. "I mean, once we've accepted the fact that someone was using Johnny's name, then..."

"Yes, yes, I know." Oates was impatient. "But you see he had a reply."

"From Johnny?"

"Yes, we've got it."

Mr. Campion stared at him briefly. "I should have thought that was the finish," he said.

"No, it wasn't. That was the unsatisfactory part about it. It wasn't." Oates considered a moment before he went on. "The whole incident was crazy and the explanation we had from Carados was just feasible, yet it left an unpleasant taste. Gonfalon is definitely sub, you see."

"Oh yes, definitely. Hardly human."

"No, I wouldn't say that; he's a crank. What happened was that one day one of our planes accidentally dropped a practice bomb in the field next door to one of Gonfalon's largest greenhouses. The whole thing came down and he lost two or three of his rarest plants. In his excitement at what he took to be a direct attack, he wrote at once to Carados reporting the occurrence, mentioning their secret brotherhood, and saying, in effect, what about it? Carados replied in the same vein, and promised 'to attend to it.'"

"Did you see Gonfalon's original letter?"

The Chief's sallow face grew a shade darker. He looked uncomfortable.

"Well, yes, I did, as a matter of fact," he admitted. "We got it from Carados. He had had it framed for his Mess."

Campion laughed. "That's what I should have expected," he said. "Did it actually mention an association with the enemy?"

"No. Gonfalon said he was trying to be cautious, and the actual phrase was 'the august body whom we both serve.' Carados said he thought he was talking about the Royal Horticultural Society."

"I should say that was fair." Campion was still mildly amused. "Everybody knows of Gonfalon, you see; he's good for a laugh before he does anything. No, I don't think you'll get much by barking up that tree."

"I don't know." Oates remained grave. "After he got the letter and framed it and had everybody laughing at it, Carados did go to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent training aircraft flying anywhere near the Gonfalon estate. He has influence, you see, and he did make a point of it. Now that doesn't sound quite like a joke to me."

Campion made no comment, and the Chief went on:

"He told a wonderful story, and on the face of it we had to believe it, but he admits he's no personal friend of Gonfalon. He knows the man is sub-normal and yet he goes out of his way like this. Why? It's not too satisfactory, is it?"

Campion sat very still. He was thinking of Johnny and that other story which he had told less than a couple of hours before; the story of the poisoning of Theodore Bush. That, too, had been a wonderful story and one which, on the face of it, had had to be believed. He did not forget Johnny's peculiarity, however; his passion for going out of his way to do little things to assist people he knew but slightly.

"It's very difficult," said Oates. "We've locked Gonfalon up on his estate, of course, but you don't know what to believe quite, do you?"

Campion did not care to comment. Instead he said abruptly:

"What about this bottle of wine?"

"Oh," said Oates, "you're in on that too, are you? I did wonder. I saw Yeo just now; in fact I went down to Bedbridge Row with him, and he told me you said you had been followed from the Minoan. It's funny, I saw Carados on this very subject in Eve Snow's dressing-room this afternoon, and he didn't tell me you were to be one of the party."

A question which had been bothering Mr. Campion for some time was answered, and instead of replying directly he raised his eyebrows.

"You've been allowing Johnny 'to collaborate' on the side, I take it?" he enquired. "That's a dirty old police trick, Stanis; I'm embarrassed by you."

"That's why you'll never make a policeman," said Oates seriously. "You don't see it as I do; you see a man, I see a menace. I wouldn't put it past you to feel that if a man has a kink it doesn't matter so much what he does, but I never feel like that. If Carados is the man I'm beginning to believe he must be, then from my point of view he's an evil thing and I'll treat him as I'd treat a typhus germ. I know we've just about won this war but we haven't won the next, nor the one after it, and while men like this are free and in power we're in danger. When it's a case of freedom versus slavery the lad who hasn't got his mind quite clear is against you. I don't care what I do to catch him and crush him and the others with him."

He broke off abruptly and laughed at himself.

"So far, I admit, he's either been honest enough or clever enough to appear remarkably straight," he conceded. "He came to me with this story about the wine as soon as Bush approached him, even though it brought him right back into the business again, which is suspicious in itself at this stage. Once again I was forced to believe him. He didn't tell me that you were going to be one of the tasting party, though. Now why was that?"

"Possibly because he didn't know," said Mr. Campion. "Don Evers invited me and I told Johnny I was coming when I saw him at the theatre."

"How did he take it?"

"He seemed unexpectedly pleased."


"No, I don't think so. He did seem very pleased."


Campion did not reply. The full weight of the evidence against Johnny Carados was piling up upon the scales before him. The dreadful possibility was now a probability and tragedy imminent. He stole a glance at Oates, sitting grey and impartial by the empty stove, and remembering all he knew of him reflected that here was the most nearly just intelligence he had ever met. Clearly the time had come when he must be forced to make his own contribution to the facts as known to the police. Yet it was a very distasteful duty. He began abruptly.

"Theodore Bush nearly died tonight," he said. "Someone intended to kill him. This is the story as I had it from Carados, but I warn you that in spite of all you've told me since I still believe it."

Oates did not speak until the whole story of the evening had been laid before him. He had a gift for listening, never interrupting, never missing a point.

"So I left them," said Campion finally. "Bush will recover, and I shall be astounded if he prefers a charge against Carados. The doctor may be more difficult, but I doubt it."

Oates rose to his feet. He looked tired. "There you are," he said, "it's always the same. Every lead takes us straight to him; whatever turns up has him slap in the middle of it and he always has an explanation which is so daft that you can't believe it can be anything but the truth. However, this time he's worked a bit too fast. That woman we found in your flat had enough chloral in her to kill her if she hadn't been smothered first."

"So I gathered."

"Did you? How?" Oates pounced on him suspiciously. "That's a piece of information we haven't released. How did you know, did he tell you?"

"No, he didn't. Lady Carados conveyed it. She said she changed the bottles."

The Chief made no coherent sound, but he ran a finger round the inside of his collar.

"Something will have to be done with that woman," he said. "She's loose without a keeper for the first time in her life. Don't you think so?"

Campion stood wondering about the woman who had talked so long and so terrifyingly in Theodore Bush's mannered room, and a new and startling idea occurred to him. Here was a person who had a curious outlook on life if ever there was one; here was a person with an imperious will, who believed in astonishing privileges for certain people; here was somebody whom Johnny would shield.

"I say, Oates," he began diffidently, but got not further. Someone was tapping discreetly on the flame-scarred scullery door.

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