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Chapter 21

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« on: February 01, 2023, 04:44:18 am »

NO ONE moved until the old woman had gone, lifting herself painfully up the dangerous stairs. When the sound of her feet died on the tiles above, Oates took Campion's elbow.

No word was spoken, but they all four went up quietly into the hall, which was dark, yet dappled with many coloured patches of sunlight streaming in through the stained glass in the porch.

The drawing-room door was closed, but one beside it stood open, and Campion, who had not wasted his time during the original interview, led the way into a small anteroom in which there was another of the glass-and-iron doors like that through which they had first observed Miss Pork at breakfast. It led into an alcove in the drawing-room as he had noticed, and it was ajar.

Miss Pork's voice was audible to them now, although she was out of their sight hidden by a pedestal supporting a brass pot which had pampas grass sprouting from it, but they could see Johnny and the woman beside him. He was standing a little in front of his companion with his hands in his pockets, his strong, good-natured face strangely expressionless.

The little crowd in the anteroom concentrated on the woman, and Campion, as he looked at her, felt a thrill of disappointment and dismay. She was the one woman who could make no difference to the evidence, the one woman whose appearance in the matter did not alter Johnny's position in it. It was Miss Chivers.

She was standing solidly on her heels, her hands folded across her bag, and her cheerful face raised enquiringly. As usual, she conveyed that she was tolerant but quite above the difficulty whatever it might be; yet Campion suspected that she was rattled, for there was a suppressed urgency about her which he had not noticed before.

Miss Pork's voice, the quack in it more pronounced than ever, continued at speed. Obviously so far the visitors had had very little opportunity to speak at all, and even now their chances of doing so did not seem high.

"Oh, you mustn't think I mind," she was saying. "It's no trouble at all, and I knew you'd understand about the damp. Pretty things need air, everything needs air, we do ourselves; look at the flowers. So I just brought them up here and treated them exactly like my own treasures. Some of them are charming, you know, well worth taking care of, but I expect you know that. Where would you like me to send them and when? There's a very good lorry in the village which often needs a second load and--"

"Wait," said Johnny suddenly. He had spoken more loudly than he intended and the word thundered in the room. "I'm sorry," he went on hastily, "I didn't mean to shout at you, but--"

"Of course you didn't," put in Miss Pork indefatigably. "People often do, though, I find. It's nervousness, I expect. You don't look it, but were you nervous as a child?"

She made the question an important one, but he was not to be side-tracked.

"There has been a mistake," he said doggedly. "I'm afraid most of the things you have here are not mine. I've been trying to tell you. There is only one box which--"

"Not yours? Oh, but I understood they were. I don't think I should have taken them in if I hadn't been sure of that, you know, and you made it clear to me, didn't you, my dear?" she added, turning no doubt on Miss Chivers. "You're the secretary, are you? I didn't realize that at the time, you know, I thought you were the representative of the storage firm. I may have been a little muddled, but I don't think you said secretary; I should have remembered that."

At Mr. Campion's side Oates stirred as he noted the point.

"Oh yes, I'm sure I should have remembered that." Miss Pork did not laugh aloud, but the quack had a snigger in it. "I don't store things for ordinary people; why should I?"

"No, I don't think you would, and I do thank you for it." Johnny was talking resolutely, the words advancing steadily under her fire. "But there's been a mistake. Only one case of mine was sent down here and that contained a puppet theatre..."

"A puppet theatre--cardboard? Oh yes. I've got that, I..."

"Which," said Johnny Carados firmly, "belongs to a friend of mine called Ricky Silva. He made it himself and values it highly, and to please him my secretary sent it down to the country. She tells me she did this in the ordinary way, and when the storage firm had to give up the premises they had hired in Chessing they notified her, and she, rather than have the thing sent back to London, took the liberty of asking you to mind it."

"Why did she choose me?" said Miss Pork very reasonably.

"She had heard of you from Susan Shering. Susan and her first husband, who was a great friend of mine, spent a week in town with me about a year ago. Miss Chivers heard Mrs. Shering speak of you then, and she remembered your name and the name of the village, probably because she knew Ricky's theatre was stored down here. When she had made an arrangement with you she told the firm what she was doing, and they seem to have sent all their goods to you. That is so, isn't it, Dolly?"

"Yes, that's what happened." Miss Chivers sounded sorry for the woolly-mindedness of all the rest of the human race. "They were unreliable, stupid people who took on more than they could chew, I imagine."

"Oh," said Miss Pork, advancing into the line of vision from the alcove door, intense disappointment in every blush. "Then, if much of what I have here is not yours, whose is it? You must have been very surprised when you got my letter."

"I was," Johnny said. He was still expressionless, still unusually quiet. "I found it waiting for me when I got home last night. You had marked it 'Personal' and it hadn't been opened. I couldn't understand it at all, so I phoned Miss Chivers at her flat although it was very late, and when she came round and explained I decided we'd come down here at once."

Miss Pork stood looking at him with her head on one side, her embarrassingly shrewd eyes fixed on his own. "To see if the toy theatre was safe, no doubt," she said dryly.

In his corner the Chief grimaced, but Campion did not see him, his attention was fixed on something else. Johnny did not answer, Miss Pork gave him no opportunity.

With a sudden gesture, which in almost any other woman would have been wholly charming, she stepped a little closer and peered up into his face.

"Cards on the table," she said. "There's something very wrong, isn't there? What have I got? A lot of stolen property?" Again she gave him no chance to speak. "I'm not quite a fool," she said, "and I know something like that must have happened. The police are in the cellar, you know."

"The police?"

"Yes, nice conscientious men, working very hard. They didn't say so outright, but I knew they must have some very good reason for calling, and they have, haven't they, Miss Secretary?"

The speed with which she swung round on Miss Chivers was extraordinary, and the girl, who was in the act of taking her handkerchief out of her bag, paused to stare at her.

"Have they?" she said dully.

"Yes, of course they have." Miss Pork's aggressiveness was startling. "Don't you treat me like a silly old woman. That's one of the few things I'm not. I've got my wits about me. When you came to see me last year you represented yourself as an employee of the storage company, and you arranged that I should look after all these boxes, not only the one with the toy theatre in it. No, don't speak. I know what I'm saying. You told me they all belonged to the Marquess because you thought I was an old snob, as I am, you're quite right, and you thought that would keep me quiet and loyal, as it did. You arranged it all, and you gave me the inventory."

Miss Chivers did not change colour; she had moved up to Johnny and now stood close to his elbow. She towered above Miss Pork.

"The firm sent you the inventory three days after I called," she said.

"Ah!" There was triumph in Miss Pork's cracked voice. "How do you know? How do you know, my girl?"

There was a moment of terrifying revelation, and then Mr. Campion moved with the speed of long practice. He snatched the brass bowl from the ebony pedestal and sent it, pampas grass and all, hurling across the room just as the shot rang out.

Miss Pork made a thin sound, and one of the chandeliers burst, sending a shower of glass beads all over the room. It was a big room, full of obstacles, and as Holly pitched himself across it towards the woman with the revolver there were many man-traps in his way.

Dolly Chivers escaped him. The gun with the handkerchief still round it dropped to the floor, and she turned from side to side like a cornered animal. Oates barred her way to one door, and Johnny, his face blank with incredulity, was between her and the other. She leaped for the low window half obscured by its decoration of drapery, flower-baskets and bird-cages, and threw herself at it as if it were no more than an opening, an avenue to freedom.

They saw her. They all saw her face. In one dreadful moment, which, as such moments do, spread itself into a long nightmare of understanding, they saw the reckless terror there. They saw her strong, cheerful efficiency blotted out by fear; they saw also the madness of the fear, the stark terror in which reason had no longer any part. It blazed from her as from a demon in possession and the glass splintered and tore and crashed as her heavy shoulder hit it squarely.

"The area!" screamed Miss Pork. "The area!"

Dolly Chivers did not scream. For a long time afterwards Mr. Campion could remember that silence of hers, and it shook him more than any sound he had ever heard. There was not a whimper, not a sigh, not a strangled breath. There were other noises. The thin harsh sound of the glass, the dreadful soft thud and ring of bone on stone, and the scraping. And then only the silence.

They saw the area afterwards. It was one of those narrow, damp shafts built like a grave, and designed to give grudging light to kitchens which any architect might well have preferred to keep obscure. It lay out only a few feet from the house and was protected from the garden by a narrow railing of cast iron. From above it had no protection, but gaped upward greedily like the mouth of a heraldic fish.

---

While they awaited the local police, the doctor and the Chief Constable, Oates and Campion stood under a copper beech on a lawn cut into as many shapes as a sheet of pastry before baking. Johnny was still in the house in grim conference with Holly, and Tovey was doing his best to settle both Miss Pork's nerves and her curiosity.

The Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department was rooting up a daisy with the toe of his shoe. "I didn't see it happening," he said. "It riles me and it frightens me. I'm getting old, Campion. If you hadn't been so quick, we'd have had the wrong corpse on our hands. All the same, I can't believe him now. You may be right, but I can't see it yet. She might have held the gun in her handkerchief simply so that it shouldn't be seen."

Campion took his arm. They were both shaken without realizing it, and when he spoke his quiet voice was unusually tense. "She might," he agreed, "but she didn't. She held it like that for the good old-fashioned reason that she had no intention of allowing it to show fingerprints. I've looked at it, it's perfectly clean, unnaturally clean. There's only one thing that can mean. No, I'm sure I'm right. It all hangs together at last. It's Johnny's gun, that's the important thing."

"Oh, I see what you mean. I understand you, but I don't accept it yet." Oates was still dubious. "He certainly identified it at once. Said he'd left it in his desk for his leave, didn't he? I don't like it, Campion. It's the same as all the other incidents. He comes right up to the point of exposure and then side-steps. At the moment he seems stupefied, but is that genuine? I don't understand the chap and I don't see how he's doing it."

"Look," said Mr. Campion imploringly, "just for a moment take it that he isn't doing it and hasn't been doing it. Let us consider what we've seen with our own eyes. We saw that girl sidle up to him so that she stood in a position as near his own as dammit. She fired with his gun, holding it with a handkerchief at a woman who was exposing her. Those are the facts, aren't they?"

"Yes."

"You agree?"

"Yes."

"Well then, my dear chap, suppose you hadn't seen them, suppose you had still been down in the cellar where she thought you were, suppose you had heard the shot and come beetling in and found Miss Pork dead and Johnny with a gun in his hand and no fingerprints but his own on it; what then, whose story would you believe then? His, or Dolly Chivers?"

Oates was impressed, but not convinced. "Why should he be holding the gun?"

"Because as soon as she fired the girl intended to give it to him."

"How on earth can you deduce that?"

"I think it likely, because that's what she always did, figuratively speaking. She always handed the baby to him. She left Mrs. Stavros in his bed, poisoned with his chloral, she left the capsule for him to take to Theodore Bush, she told Miss Pork that the packing cases belong to him. Now at last we've actually seen her doing it, and we know it was done."

Oates shook his grey head. "It's not quite right," he said. "You've got something there, but it's not quite right yet. I think I almost grant you those mechanics, there can't be two killers, and we know for a fact that she was one. But you know she didn't do this thing alone."

Mr. Campion was silent for a while, facing the dreadful possibility which had leapt into his mind in the beginning. "No," he said at last, "no, she can't have done it alone, not all of it. She was a lieutenant, not the principal. I rather think, you know, Oates, that she was a lieutenant who lost her head and tried to shoot her way out. She was out of her mind with terror, that girl. She started to kill and couldn't stop."

"Oh yes, she was afraid." Oates spoke softly. "That was the thing which startled me. She went through that window like a lunatic. Even if that damned death-trap hadn't been outside the window how could she ever have hoped to escape? She wasn't thinking; her mind wasn't working." He paused and sighed. "Yes, it's very consistent. The murders were like that, wilder and more reckless as they went on. I think that's about the size of that, Campion. I think so, and I hope so, but--why did she keep on involving Carados unless he was the principal himself?"

Now that the thought was out, put into unrelenting words, Mr. Campion stared at him fascinated. Oates walked on, skirting the beds shaped like crescents and the beds shaped like stars.

"Now I'll do some supposing," he said. "Supposing she did most of the donkey-work, got herself thoroughly involved and then saw, as they must all have seen, that it wasn't going to work out, in fact that the war wasn't going to end that way. That must have left her with a pile of worry." He paused, feeling round in his mind for the truth of it. Then he said: "Then she must have done something that gave her away. Something careless."

"Something to do with the wine," said Mr. Campion. "I see there's one case of Les Enfants Doux downstairs in the cellar. The other must have been broken into, possibly, even, the bottles were loose in their straw, anything might have happened in that hurry. She took them thinking they were valueless, and Stavros and his missus got to her and blackmailed her, perhaps. Anyway, at some point she must have lost her head and decided to kill the woman."

"That's it," said Oates, his grey eyes dark as they always were when the chase ran close, "that's it. And because she realized that if ever it did come to a showdown all the proof lay against her and not her principal, she did her best to put the blame on him. How's that?"

Mr. Campion thrust his hands deep in his pockets and his chin sank into his collar. "There's no proof whatever against him," he said.

"There never is against a big man in this sort of business." Oates spoke bitterly. "But I'll get him," he added grimly. "In the end."

Campion glanced towards the drive. There was still no sign of police cars. The gardener on duty by the arch had his back towards the dreadful sight within it, and was rubbing his neck with a coloured handkerchief. Neither Holly nor his quarry had yet appeared. It was all very sunny and ugly and comfortable.

"You can't hold him," said Campion at last. "Not on present evidence?"

"No, of course I can't." For Oates the voice was harsh. "But on the other hand I can't lose him."

"How do you mean?"

Oates laughed savagely. "A man in his position with a name like his and a job like his can't hide himself in a country this size in its present restricted state," he said. "That's the one break I've got. All England is a cage for him until I get the proof I want. There's no way out for him, none at all."

Campion could think of one, but he did not mention it. The emotional effect upon him of the new developments went deeper than he cared to admit. It was not so much that Johnny Carados was an old acquaintance as that he was a figure long admired. Treachery from him was more than treachery; there was insult in it and betrayal. As the reflection spread through his mind, others followed it, and he remembered those other well-loved figures whom the war had revealed unworthy of the general pride. Was Johnny Carados to join that dismal parade? The question so shook him that it was with relief that he saw Holly striding across the grass towards them. The Inspector was excited, and the essential policeman in him was very evident.

"Two things, Mr. Oates," he said. "First I've been on to the Yard and spoken to Superintendent Yeo. Then I've had it out with Carados. He sticks to his story, by the way; it's straightforward and I can't shake him. He seems genuinely upset about the girl--sort of stunned. Also he says he's got to get back to his duty."

"Well, he can't at the moment, that's certain."

"I've told him so, but he says he must be back on his station by tonight. He says it's vital."

The Chief allowed his lips to form several words before he chose the one he wanted. "Do you see any way we can hold him, Holly?"

"No, sir. Seeing who he is we can't step over the line anywhere. He swears he'll be back for the inquest if it's any time after noon tomorrow."

Oates shrugged his shoulders. "There's nothing for it, is there?"

"I don't think so, sir." Holly was as gloomy as his superior officer. "I don't think he can get away though. He thinks he's safe and he can't make a run for it. Anyway, we've got nothing on him as far as the killing is concerned. We saw it happen. If we hadn't been there..."

"Ah, but we were," said Oates. "We were, and we weren't quick enough or that poor girl could have told us something."

"Poor girl, sir?" Holly was startled at this commiseration for the first cold-blooded murderer he had ever been privileged to witness in action.

Oates noticed it and was unimpressed. "I'm always a little sorry for anyone who completely loses his nerve," he said, adding irrelevantly, "especially if they're as valuable as that poor woman could have been to us. No, we'll have to let him go again, but it's the last time, Holly, the very last time. What about Yeo? He's not too pleased with us, I expect."

"I think he felt we might have waited for him, sir."

"So we ought to have done. I could give myself the sack for that." The Chief spoke complacently. "But we've justified ourselves. We got here just at the right time. You told him?"

"Yes, Mr. Oates, I did. And he's got something. They've been busy, and they've found the storage firm."

"Really?" Oates was astounded. "I'd have bet on it that they were entirely fictitious."

"No, they're not. They exist all right. It's very small, only one little office, but it's been established some time. There's one elderly woman clerk who does what work there is, and according to her story the business changed hands just before the war when it was in very low water. It was taken over by a Mr. Jesso who brought in a lot of accounts of a special kind--evacuation of furniture to the country."

"Good God!" said Oates piously, "it's coming unstuck at last. Have they got Jesso?"

"No, not yet, sir. Apparently things are very quiet now, and have been for some time. He comes in very seldom and the woman doesn't know where he lives. She's quite honest, apparently. But they have got the books with all the addresses of the various warehouses, barns and halls and other country storage places. They're getting on to that now. And if we're right--"

"If we're right, we'll recover the blessed lot. This is terrific, Holly. Any more?"

The Chief Inspector did not speak immediately. A faint smile played round his small mouth. "There's no proof of this yet," he said at last, "but they've got a description of Jesso from the woman and it is rather significant. Superintendent Yeo told me to repeat it to you in her words. She says he's a particularly small man with a very deep voice and that he wears a small, pointed beard."

"Gold," said Campion abruptly.

Holly nodded to him approvingly. "That's what the Superintendent thought. He's arranging for a chance meeting between the two."

The Chief whistled. "We're getting very close to Carados," he said.

Mr. Campion stood thinking. He was remembering the details of the last interview he had had with Gee-gee Gold less than twelve hours before on the landing just outside Theodore Bush's bedroom. "Johnny is sans reproche," he had said, and had meant it. What exactly did that signify? Had Gold seen Johnny as a leader to be followed blindly, or was it possible that he might have seen him as a cloak? The Chief's brisk voice cut into his meditations.

"Ah, here are the cars at last," he was saying. "That civilian is the doctor, I suppose. Now we can get on."

He and Holly strode forward to meet the newcomers, but Mr. Campion did not accompany them. He found a small uncomfortable concrete seat between two atrocious Germanic gnomes, and sat down. He had his fill of casualties and was not interested in the police doctor's test for death. Death was there all right. Nor did he wish to hear again the endless formalities, the apologies, and the explanations, the interviews and the sworn statements. He sat thinking that it was nearly forty-eight hours now since he had first missed his train and that there was still more trouble to come to delay him. The conviction was growing upon him that he had a duty to perform, one which demanded all his resource and experience. There was the tremendous likelihood of failure to consider, and the strong possibility of another eventuality, even more unpleasant.

He was still sitting there, hunched up in the bright sunlight, when Johnny came out of the mock-Gothic porch. He stood for a moment looking round for his car and Campion rose and went to meet him. Carados was already at the driving-wheel when the other man came up. There was a change in him, but it was not the one Campion had expected. He was no longer dazed but was still expressionless, and behind it all there was an air of determination, a grimness, almost a courage. His clear-cut, terrifyingly intelligent face was pale but he was quite steady and his voice was casual.

"Hello, Campion," he said. "Sorry to leave all this to you, but it can't very well be helped." He paused, aware that the words were too light altogether. "It's shaken me, you know," he said. "I'd known her for eight years."

"Do you know," said Mr. Campion slowly, "I rather doubt that."

Carados peered at him through the open driving window. "Yes," he admitted. "There's a lot in that. It's terrifying to think that you can see people every day and never know them. She was mad at the end, I think; utterly insane. Did you see her? Yet I came down with her this morning and never noticed anything. I didn't even think about her. She seemed just the same, efficient, you know, jolly, and unget-at-able." His voice was betraying him a little now, the edges wearing thin.

"She was insane with fear," said Campion.

The man in the car shivered. "God, how horrible!" he said.

Campion took a deep breath. "I don't want to butt in," he began wretchedly, "but is it absolutely necessary that you should get back just at this particular moment?"

"Afraid so." Again the curious, reserved expression showed for an instant in the blue eyes. "I must. I knew I had to get back, that's why I came down in the night. I shan't touch London; I shall go straight from here. I've known about the date some time, it's vital, I'm afraid."

"But I thought that if all had gone well you were getting married this morning?"

It might have been supposed that the words had escaped Campion by accident. He coloured slightly, and apologized. "I'm sorry," he said, "it's nothing to do with me."

Carados ignored the entire incident. His reserved expression deepened and he changed the subject.

"I'd better get on," he said. "Work to do. It's a hell of a life."

"Yes," said Campion, and added with an innocence not altogether natural in him, "Doing any flying yourself?"

The other man pressed the starter. "Now and again, you know," he said above the purr of the engine. "They say one gets too old for it, but I can't bring myself to believe it."

Campion held the car door as if he would restrain the machine by force. "I'll see you at the inquest," he said.

"Eh?" said Johnny Carados. "Oh yes. Right ho."

"I'll see you at the inquest," Campion repeated. "I'm relying on you, and I think you'll come."

"Do you?" said Carados. "What a queer chap you are, Campion. I wonder why you do? Good-bye. If I can, you know, if I can."

He let in the clutch very gently, and the car rolled slowly away, shaking off Mr. Campion's restraining hand without roughness.

The other man stood looking after it as it disappeared among the trees. From the house behind him came the sound of voices and Oates and the poker-backed Chief Constable appeared in the porch. Very slowly, Mr. Campion turned to join them.

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