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Our Library => Margery Allingham - More Work for the Undertaker (1949) => Topic started by: Admin on June 02, 2023, 11:36:28 am



Title: 8: Apron Strings
Post by: Admin on June 02, 2023, 11:36:28 am
HE awoke with the strong but unlikely impression that he had somehow got himself involved in romance. He was struggling to put himself clear on the subject when he became aware that the sound which had awakened him was the opening of his door, and that someone, whose hand was still on the knob, was talking in the passage just outside. It was Charlie Luke.

That remarkable voice, even when lowered to the gentle pitch of dalliance, set the lighter objects in the room vibrating, while the vital energy of the man surged through the doorway ahead of him.

‘. . . wasting your time on the roof,’ he was saying with an awkward gentleness. ‘You’ll also break your neck. It may be nothing to do with me and if I’m speaking out of turn I apologize, but---don’t take it like that. I’m only putting you straight.’

The tone, if not the words, put Mr. Campion in the picture. He listened for the reply, but the slender thread of sound, when it came, was unidentifiable.

‘I’m sorry.’ The D.D.I. sounded out of his element. ‘No, I shan’t tell anybody, of course not. What d’you think I am? The loudspeaker on a railway station? Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss White, I was not aware that I was shouting. Good morning!’

There was a violent movement outside and the door shuddered open an inch or so, but was closed again as he sent a parting shot after her.

‘All I say is, keep your feet out of the wheel.’

He came in at last looking worried rather than crestfallen.

‘Little toffee-nose,’ he said. ‘Well, she can’t say I didn’t warn her. Morning, sir. Renee gave me these when I said I was coming up, and I begged one for myself.’ He set a tray containing two cups of tea on the dressing-table. ‘It’s a homely little place for a murder, isn’t it?’ he went on, looking round the bedroom. ‘No tea where I’ve been all night. ‘You’d think there’d be something in all these urns,’ I said to the Super, but he didn’t catch on. He was cold, you know, and, say what you will, a place like that is depressing. Well, we got the old blighter up and into Sir Doberman’s galley-pots.’

He carried Mr Campion’s early morning tea to his bedside and comfortably settled himself on the throne-shaped chair.

‘Officially I’m interviewing Renee’s lawyer nephew,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose that tale’s going to wear but I suppose we may as well stick to it as long as we can.’

He filled the big chair and suited it. His muscles looked like stone under his coat and his diamond-shaped eyes were as bright as if he had spent the night asleep and not waiting in a cemetery.

‘Miss Jessica’s spotted me as a sleuth,’ observed Mr. Campion. ‘She saw us in the park.’

‘Did she?’ Luke was not surprised. ‘Oh, they’re not barmy, any of them. I told you that. I made that mistake in the first place. They’re not, are they?’

The thin man in the bed shook his head and his eyes were thoughtful.

‘No.’

Luke took a draught of cool tea.

‘Renee has a crazy tale about Pa Bowels last night,’ he began. ‘Some story about him making a coffin on appro for Edward. “That be damned for a tale,” I said.’

Campion nodded. ‘Yes, I noticed a delicate odour of fish. I don’t see the mechanism, though, do you? Lugg is staying over there, by the way. This should be a job for him. Not very ethical, perhaps, but they’re old enemies. What’s he passing? Tobacco? Or furs, perhaps?’

The D.D.I.’s face grew dark with anger.

‘Old perisher!’ he said. ‘I hate a surprise like that right on my own manor. That won’t do. Smuggling in coffins, the oldest blessed trick in the world. I’ll give him Bowels. I thought I knew this street like the back of my own neck.’

‘I may be wrong.’ Campion was careful to avoid a soothing note. ‘His passion would appear to be undertaking. His story may even be true. I shouldn’t be surprised.’

Luke cocked an eye at him in approval. ‘I never thought I’d hear an expert so “wide”. Sorry, sir, it slipped out. I’m irritated and that’s a fact. But that’s the truth. That’s the difficulty with people like these old blighters round here. The silliest blessed story may be true. I don’t say that Jas isn’t a good tradesman but I don’t know that I’d fall for the great artist stuff.’

‘What will you do? Go over the place with a tooth-comb?’

‘Oh yes, now we know we’ve got him for whatever it is. Unless you’d like him left until this other business is over, sir? A thing like that will keep, of course. We may as well get him with a packet of the stuff and let him have a real holiday.’

Mr. Campion considered Mr Bowels. ‘He’ll expect you,’ he said. ‘My publicity agent would never forgive me, either, if I didn’t show ordinary intelligence.’

‘Lugg? I’ve heard of him but we’ve never met. They tell me he’s been inside, sir?’

‘Ah, that was before he lost his figure. He did one inartistic little cat-burglary. No, I fancy you’ll have to go over the Bowels emporium if only as a matter of form. If you find anything, he’s a negligible rogue after all this notice.’

‘And if we don’t he’ll lie low until he thinks he’s safe, and then we’ll pull him in.’ The D.D.I. took a handful of waste-paper from an inside pocket and picked it over carefully. Once again Campion was impressed by the graphic quality of his every movement. The scribbles became almost loudspeaker announcements as he glanced at them; this was unfortunate, that was unimportant, the other could wait, and so on, all done by fleeting lights and shadows passing over the vivid bony face.

‘Hyoscine hydrobromide,’ he announced suddenly. ‘Now then, sir, what are the chances of Pa Wilde and the chemist having a basinful of that in his locker?’

‘Small,’ Campion spoke with the authority he felt was expected of him. ‘My impression is that it’s rarely used in medicine. There was a fashion for it some forty years ago as a depressant in cases of mania. It’s the same sort of thing as atropine, but more powerful. It earned its reputation as a poison when Crippen tried it on Belle Elmore.’

Charlie Luke was not satisfied. His eyes were very narrow above his huge cheekbones.

‘You must see that shop,’ he said.

‘I will. But I wouldn’t stir him up until you must. Try the doctor.’

‘Okay. Very likely.’ He made a mark on the scrap with a very small pencil. ‘Hyoscine hydrobromide. What is it? D’you happen to know, sir?’

‘Henbane, I think.’

‘Really. What, the weed?’

‘I think so. It’s very common.’

‘I should think it is, if it’s the plant I mean.’ The undercurrent of force in Luke’s voice was like an accompaniment of growls. ‘I had a crush on the teacher when I was at school and my nature book was on the hot side, lovely lined-in drawings, “Yes, Miss, I have worked hard . . . thank you, Miss . . . you ain’t half got a thin blouse on, Miss . . .” Henbane, yes I know, little yellow flower. Awful stink.’

‘That’s it.’ Campion felt he was being visited by a dynamo.

‘Grows everywhere.’ The D.D.I. was lost in wonder. ‘Damn it, you could find it in the park.’

Mr. Campion was silent for some seconds.

‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘yes. I suppose you could.’

‘But then you’d have to make the muck.’ The D.D.I. shook his dark head on which the curls were as tight as a lamb’s. ‘I’ll try the Doc first, but you’ll have to see Pa Wilde if it’s only to widen your mind. Then I must tackle the bank manager. Have I mentioned him?’

‘Oh yes, a neat little soul. I met him for a moment coming out of Miss Evadne’s room. She did not introduce me.’

‘If she had she’d have given him a fancy name and you’d have got no further. He’s due for a visit. “The bank can give no information whatever save under subpoena,” that’s what he told me.’

‘Meaning it nasty?’

‘No.’ The diamond-shaped eyes were serious. ‘I wondered but as he went on talking I could see he was just conscientious. He’s right, of course, and I’m all for it in theory. I like to feel my two half-crowns in the Post Office are a deadly secret between me and the girl behind the wire. Still, I don’t see why he shouldn’t tell us a bit in his private capacity, do you?’

‘As a friend of the family? Yes, we’ll enquire, anyway. Miss Ruth was spending too much money before she was killed; I’ve got that far. That may be a motive or it may not. Yeo says that money is the only respectable motive for murder.’

Charlie Luke made no direct comment. He had returned to his little pieces of paper.

‘Here we are,’ he said at last. ‘I got all this out of Renee, not without coaxing. Mr. Edward paid her three quid per week and got his washing done. Miss Evadne pays the same now. Full board, that is. Mr. Lawrence pays two pound for part board. That means damn all, because she won’t see anybody hungry. Miss Clytie pays twenty shillings because that’s all she’s got, poor kid. She doesn’t get lunch. Miss Jessica pays five shillings.’

‘Eh?’

‘Five shillings. Fact. I said to Renee, “Don’t be a ruddy fool, ducky, how do you do it?” and she said, “What did I expect? The woman won’t eat a thing except the boiled horse-feed she cooks up herself, and her room is right at the top of the house,” and so on and so on. “You’re barmy,” I said. “You can’t keep a dog for five bob these days,” and she said Miss Jessica wasn’t a dog, she was a cat. “You see yourself back in panto,” I said. “The fairy godmother.” That brought out the truth. “Look here, Charlie,” she said, “suppose I do put it up, then what? She has to get it from the rest of the family, doesn’t she? They’ll all have to economize then,” she says, “and who loses, you great ape? I do, don’t I?” She’s dead right. She could clear them all out, of course, but I think she likes them. Feels they’re high class and remarkable . . . like keeping kangaroos.’

‘Kangaroos?’

‘Well, armadilloes. Interesting and unusual. Something to tell the neighbours about. There’s not much entertainment these days. You have to find it where you can.’

As usual he was talking with his hands, face and body, painting in Renee by making a curious pinching gesture with his thumb and forefinger. Why this should have exactly reproduced that lady’s sharp little nose and rattling tongue Campion did not know, but he saw her vividly all the same. He felt invigorated, as if life was coming back to a long-numbed corner of his mind.

‘And Miss Ruth?’ he inquired, laughing. ‘She just paid one-and-ninepence and left it at that, I suppose?’

‘No.’ The D.D.I. had been saving the best until last. ‘No. For the last year before she died, Miss Ruth used to pay erratically. Sometimes it was as much as seven quid, and sometimes she brought pence, literally. Renee was supposed to keep strict account. She says she was about a fiver down at the finish.’

‘That’s suggestive. What was Ruth’s official figure?’

‘Three pounds, like the others. I tell you what, though, Renee’s rich.’

‘She must be. Sort of latter-day Lord Shaftesbury, on the evidence.’

‘She’s got money, a lot of money.’ Charlie Luke sounded sad. ‘I hope she’s not in something with Jas Bowels. That would destroy my faith in women, that would.’

‘I hardly think so. Would she have dragged me down in the middle of the night to catch him if she were?’

‘That’s right.’ He brightened. ‘Well, I’ll trot along now and do some homework. Shall we go and see this bank chap? His name is Henry James. (I don’t know why that name sounds familiar.) I’d like to get there round about ten.’

‘What’s the time now?’ Campion felt guilty at being in bed. His own watch appeared to have stopped, since it said a quarter to six.

Luke glanced at a silver turnip which he brought out of his coat pocket. He thumped it vigorously.

‘You’re about correct. Ten to six as near as dammit. I came in soon after five, but didn’t wake you before in case you’d had a late night.’

‘We old men, we like our sleep,’ said Campion, grinning. ‘You’ve got a few hours’ routine work now, I take it?’

‘Lord yes. They don’t wait for me. We’re short-handed, too. This came in, by the way. Oh, you can’t read it; I made the note myself.’ He studied a cleaner scrap than the rest. ‘Just a memo. Came on the blower last night. The Governor of H.M.’s prison at Charlsfield reports that they have one Looky Jeffreys up on a two-year stretch for housebreaking in their infirmary. He’s dying, they think. Got something nasty in his innards.’ He paused. ‘Poor chap,’ he said seriously. ‘Anyway, he’s delirious, and all the time he keeps whispering “Apron Street, don’t send me up Apron Street.” Says it over and over, apparently. As soon as he’s lucid they question him, but then, of course, he can’t or won’t explain. Says he’s never heard of the place. But as soon as he’s off again he starts once more, “Apron Street, don’t send me up Apron Street.” There’s three Apron Streets in London, so they’ve notified the police of each district. Probably isn’t anything to do with this one. Still, makes you think.’

Mr. Campion sat up, a familiar tickle, partially and shamefully pleasurable, running slowly down his spine.

‘Do I understand he’s frightened?’ he demanded.

‘Seems so. There’s a note on the end: “Physician reports sweating and deep agitation. Although other words, all of a filthy character, are uttered with normal volume, the references to the street are always whispered.” ’

Campion pushed back the bedclothes.

‘I’ll get up,’ he said.