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Chapter 18

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« on: February 01, 2023, 03:25:24 am »

WHEN Campion pulled open the door it was not the familiar figure in blue battle-dress who stepped briskly into the room, but a slender pink-faced young man in a neat office suit.

"Mr. Campion, I presume?" he said innocently. "Mr. Oates? Oh, there you are, sir. I hope I've done the right thing, but in the circumstances I thought I ought to find you."

The Chief turned to Campion, who was looking at the newcomer as if he did not believe in him, and made the introductions.

"This is my secretary," he said. "How did you get here, Tovey?"

The young man stood up stiffly and made his report as if he were in court.

"I heard from Superintendent Yeo that you, sir, had followed Mr. Campion who was presumed to be searching for his employee, Lugg. Recollecting that you had told me that the man Lugg was reputed to be strongly attached to a pet animal which he kept in Carados Square, I set out there assuming that you, sir, would by that time have attained your quarry. I found the man and with some difficulty persuaded him to direct me here. If I might suggest it, sir, your presence in your office now would be advisable."

"He talks like a good book, doesn't he?" said Oates to Campion. "But he's got here, which is the answer, if you're interested."

Tovey grew pinker with pleasure but remained at attention when invited to proceed.

"In your absence, sir," he began, "Chief Inspector Holly has interviewed a person by the name of Angus Sloane, who came to lay evidence concerning the alleged discovery of several items listed in the files of missing articles. In consequence of this interview Chief Inspector Holly despatched Sergeant Dacre to bring in Lieutenant Don Evers of the U.S. Army, and there is some doubt in my mind about the legality of this step. At any rate, I thought you should know of it, because when the young man arrived he had someone with him, sir."

"Someone with him? What are you talking about, Tovey? You're so damned exact I can't follow you. Whom did he have with him?"

Tovey swallowed. "He had a Bishop with him, sir," he said. "When I saw that I thought I'd better find you."

Reflecting that it was hard luck on his uncle that on his first night out for ten years he should end up at Scotland Yard, Mr. Campion cut in to the somewhat startled silence.

"Is that Angus Sloane, the Bond Street man?" he enquired.

"Yes, sir. He's a very reputable art dealer, I believe."

"Yes," said Mr. Campion. "I suppose that covers it."

"He's the man, isn't he?" murmured Oates. "What's he got hold of?"

Tovey looked uncomfortable. "I think he said he knew where the Croker Venus was, sir."

Both men were staring at him.

"And in consequence of this Inspector Holly called in Don Evers?" demanded Campion.

"Yes, sir."

Oates took Campion's arm. "We'll go at once," he said.

Tovey beamed. "The car is against the kerb, sir. This way."

As he sat beside Oates in the back of the sedan, while the efficient young man drove them through the dark streets, Mr. Campion permitted himself a brief deviation from the matter in hand.

"Hardly a success as a fugitive, our Lugg?" he suggested. "The searching cops just cover their eyes with their hands when they see him coming, I suppose?"

The Chief stirred irritably. "He's safer there than anywhere. There are more chains than clank, as we used to say when I was a boy. Yeo has him when he wants him, and hasn't when he doesn't, which is more to the point. No one wants his evidence at the moment; no one wants to lose the big fish in a row over a silly society woman."

Mr. Campion reflected that the peccadilloes of the breed had pepped up considerably while he had been away, but he did not say so, and presently the Chief spoke again.

"Would Sloane know the Croker Venus if he saw it? Know if it was genuine, I mean."

"Oh, I think so. He makes his living giving that kind of opinion."

"Does he?" Oates groaned. "I wish I did," he said seriously. He was still unsmiling some ten minutes later when he was questioning Holly rather more closely than a Chief Inspector expects to be questioned as to the precise nature of the invitation which had brought Lieutenant Evers to the Yard. Holly was nettled, his eyes were arctic, but he remained smooth.

"There was never any question of arrest; he came as a favour to us, Mr. Oates," he explained. "We put it to him and he came at once, bringing with him the friend with whom he was dining."

"With the Bishop of Devizes," supplemented Oates grimly. "It will sound good on an official chit from the U.S. Army authorities."

Holly's chill began to pervade the room. "No one could have expected him to be dining with a Bishop," he protested, unreasonably Mr. Campion thought. "However, it's all right, Mr. Oates. At least, I think it is. They were both very nice about it as far as they went. I said I was very sorry, of course, and up to a point the young man was cooperative, except that..."

"Has there been a row?"

"No, Mr. Oates, not exactly. No unpleasantness, you know, but..."

"Good Lord, Holly, you didn't detain them?"

"No, Mr. Oates. I know my limitations. I did ask them if they'd wait a bit."

Oates consulted his watch. "Are they here now?"

"Yes, they are as a matter of fact. They're very comfortable in my office..."

The Chief groaned.

"What authority have you over your uncle, Campion?" he enquired.

"Let's call it influence," said Campion. "I'll go down, shall I?"

Inspector Holly cleared his throat. He was excited, and it was evident that although he appreciated the danger of his tactics, he felt he could afford them. "This statement of Mr. Sloane's ought to be considered, Mr. Oates," he said. "It'll only take you five minutes to read, or I can give you the gist of it in two. I think when you hear it you'll feel I've been justified."

Oates leant back in his chair. "What is it? I hope it's good."

"I think it's what we've been waiting for." For a moment Holly became the eager young plain-clothes man whose tenacity had earned his promotion. "This fellow Sloane came here this afternoon and when he found I was out said he'd wait. He didn't want to talk to anyone except the Inspector who had sent out that confidential list we put round to the art dealers in March. I didn't get back till eight, but he was still waiting. When I saw him he told me straight that he'd got an irregularity to report and I told him not to worry but to go ahead."

Oates nodded encouragingly.

"He said he knew where the Croker Venus was," Holly continued, "and he convinced me that he knew what he was talking about. It appears he had an enquiry from a client who told him that he had heard that the picture was in private hands, and gave him the address of a woman living in the Home Counties. The client evidently did not realize that the picture had been stolen; it's not one of the well-known things on the list, is it? This chap imagined some purchase must have been made, and he asked Sloane if he'd enquire if it would be sold again. That was where Sloane went wrong."

"In not coming to you at once?"

"Yes, that was what he ought to have done, and he knows it." Holly sounded aggrieved but tolerant. "No, he thought he'd be clever and trot down to the address he'd been given. It turned out to be a quiet house in the country and he asked to see the lady." He took a deep breath. "I wish you had seen Sloane," he said. "He's a fattish, self-important little fellow, and he looked positively scared when he told me this.

"The old servant took him into the drawing-room to wait for her mistress and he says as he walked in he practically dropped. The whole room was plastered with missing stuff. It was like a dealer's daydream by the sound of it; priceless treasures cheek by jowl with Victorian junk. The little Venus was there, he said he'd know it anywhere, hanging over a desk in the corner as if it had been done by somebody's aunt, and Dedham Pightle was over the fireplace. It's the Lauderdale House lot, by the sound of it. That was the second lot that went, if you remember, Mr. Oates."

"I do." The Chief waved him on.

"Well, he says there was a Cellini bronze on the whatnot, and the Scribe collection of miniatures in a glass-topped table, all mixed up with paper-knives and crested china."

Excitement was raising the Inspector's voice, and his colour was growing.

"The whole place was alive with stuff, and he stood gasping. He does know what he's saying, too. He's one of the very big men in his line. What about that for a story? If I've forgotten one or two points of procedure, I'm sorry, but it's knocked the breath out of me."

Triumph and truculence had robbed him both of years and dignity. He looked like a boy. The others sat staring at him; then Oates laughed suddenly. Campion remained serious.

"I know Sloane," he said. "He's not an over-enthusiastic bird. Rather cautious as a rule. He hasn't gone mad, Inspector, by any chance?"

"He's had a shock," said Holly, revealing a flash of unexpectedly handsome teeth, "but he's all right; he knows what he's doing."

"Did he see the woman?" Oates demanded.

"Oh yes. He behaved very sensibly. She seems to have been a surprise to him too. I don't know what he expected, but she wasn't it. He says she was elderly and unmarried, and very strong-minded, and he didn't believe she had the faintest idea what she'd got hold of."

"What line did he take?" enquired Campion, fascinated.

Holly shrugged his shoulders. "I've only got his story, but he says he was most careful. If you ask me, he was thunderstruck and stood there goggling at her, but he says he'd given his name to the maid, and not being able to think of any other story on the spur of the moment he just told her he was representing his firm and had heard she might be willing to sell some pictures."

"Yes?"

"Then she threw him out."

"Did she?"

"Yes. But in a perfectly genteel way. She just said No, she hadn't any need to sell her treasures, and would he go, please."

"And that's all he got?"

"No." Holly's voice was rising to a squeak. "He said he apologized, and admired the Venus in passing. And she said Yes, it was very pretty, and she was minding it for a friend. Sloane didn't ask her outright for a name, but just as he was going she couldn't help mentioning that her friend was a nobleman and that she had agreed to help him out when a hall in the village which had been hired by a storage firm to house evacuated furniture had suddenly been commandeered by the military. So he went down and found the hall..."

"Did he, by Jove. Good man. He didn't get the name of the firm, I suppose?"

"He did," said Holly reverently. "It seems like a miracle when you think of all we've done without results, but Sloane is energetic. He found the hall was owned by the local parish council; and he looked up the parish clerk who had the name in his ledger. Here it is: 'Peters and Jack, Ledbury Street, Clerkenwell.' I've put Sergeant Pelly on to it. He'll get it all out of them before they know they're talking, and then if the name of the nobleman is the one I expect, most of our work will be done."

Campion remained hunched up in his chair. He was very weary, but his eyes behind his big spectacles were alive and thoughtful.

"I wonder," he said. "They may not have any books; in fact, neither Peter nor Jack may be in, don't you think?"

Holly grimaced. "You think the whole thing may be phoney," he said. "That's an idea."

"It would be one way of doing it, don't you think?" ventured Mr. Campion. "Ever since I've heard this story I've been wondering about their chief problem, which obviously is where to keep what must be now rather embarrassing possessions. All this stolen stuff is the kind which has to be taken care of, you see. Even at the time, it couldn't have been easy, when they only expected to hang on to it for a few months. But now when their bosses certainly aren't going to come for it, it must be a nightmare to them. A bogus haulage and storage firm is probably the answer."

"In that case we'll get the lot," said Holly flatly. "I hope you're right. Pelly is a terrier on things like this, he'll worry his way through anything. He'll get them if they're there at all. Now I hope you'll feel I've done right, Mr. Oates."

"Eh?" The Chief looked at him gloomily. After the first shock his reaction to the news had been steadily more and more depressed. "What?" he said. "Yes. Oh yes. Very good work. Very good luck. But I still don't see why you wanted to pull that American boy in. What has he got to do with it?"

Holly burst out laughing. "Why, I am a fool," he said, in what appeared to be delighted surprise, "I've left out what I was trying to tell you. The client who put Mr. Sloane on to the woman in the first place was an American, Mr. Oates, a Mr. Evers of New York. This young man's father. And in his letter to Sloane he says distinctly that he had heard the Venus was there from his son, who was in the army over here. I had to see the youngster, didn't I?"

Oates breathed heavily through his nose. "Yes, of course," he said. "And is his explanation satisfactory?"

Holly did not answer immediately. "Up to a point," he said, "but he knows more than he's saying... Which is very funny, when you come to think of it."

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