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5: Penpeti Turns the Screw

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Author Topic: 5: Penpeti Turns the Screw  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 23, 2023, 12:35:03 pm »


INSPECTOR Duffy didn’t keep Mr. Penpeti waiting long in suspense. Barely had the latter arrived home from lunch, when the gate clicked and the dapper little figure of the inspector came briskly up the path. Penpeti, steeling himself for an ordeal he was most anxious to have done with, showed Duffy into the somewhat cramped yet comfortable sitting-room. Then with a carefully assumed expression of bewilderment he asked:

“What exactly do you wish to see me about? I trust there’s nothing wrong? It’s not bad news is it, Inspector?”

Penpeti’s foreign accent had never been more pronounced. He seemed to have heightened it deliberately for this unpleasant interview. But Duffy, who had never spoken to him before, was naturally unaware of the deception.

“Bad news?” smiled the inspector. “Maybe you’ve already heard about the theft from the Osiris Temple in Carroway Road?”

“Theft?” exclaimed Penpeti with enormous innocence. “I’ve heard nothing.”

Duffy consulted his notebook.

“It appears that a valuable piece of altar-plate was stolen, presumably between the hours of seven yesterday evening and nine o’clock this morning. I understand that you visited the building after seven o’clock. So we’re hoping you may be able to give us some information, Mr. Penpeti.”

Penpeti looked genuinely astonished.

“I visited the temple? Never! I haven’t been near Carroway Road, Inspector, for the last two days. What exactly is missing?”

“I understand you call it a Crux Ansata.”

“The Crux Ansata!” breathed Penpeti. “But, good heavens, that’s worth----”

“A great deal of money, eh, Mr. Penpeti? You can see why we’re anxious to gather in all available evidence.”

“But as I didn’t enter the building yesterday, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“But, look here, sir---you were seen by the caretaker coming out of the place just after nine o’clock. How about that?”

“I can only suggest that Mrs. Williams was the victim of an optical illusion. Unless she had some form of psychic materialisation. She may have seen somebody, but most certainly it wasn’t me!”

“But she claims that the figure she saw was wearing a fez. Not exactly a commonplace form of headgear in this country.”


“And you still uphold that you didn’t enter the building last night?”

“Most certainly.”

“Then may I ask what you were doing, say, between the hours of eight-thirty and nine-thirty?”

“I was here in this room, writing letters.”

“Can you produce a witness to corroborate this evidence?”

“No---I’m afraid not. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Apart from a daily help, who leaves at midday, I live here alone.”

“I see. Not very satisfactory, of course. However . . .” Duffy shrugged his shoulders and jumped up from his chair. “Well, there’s no need for me to trouble you any further, Mr. Penpeti. I’m only sorry you haven’t been able to help us.”

“So am I,” retorted Penpeti wryly. “Profoundly sorry. Because naturally, until you discover who it was that Mrs. Williams saw coming out of the temple, everybody’s going to assume that it was me. And it wasn’t. Rather unpleasant for me, as you’ll admit.”


And it was unpleasant---decidedly so! But as is so often the case, no sooner has Fate landed an upper-cut, when it will as swiftly put out a helping hand. With a single powerful yank, some two hours later, Fate hauled Mr. Penpeti out of the dark pit of depression into which he had fallen. This slice of good fortune was even more agreeable because totally unexpected. When Penpeti had gone round to Penelope’s house later that day, he had not expected to come away with a cheque for fifty pounds in his pocket. But that is precisely what happened. After a particularly passionate interlude, in which all reason and restraint were thrown to the winds, Penelope suddenly abandoned her previous miserly attitude. In the afterglow of Peta’s tempestuous love-making, her infatuation reached new heights of abandonment and when for the umpteenth time Peta mentioned his “temporary financial embarrassment”, she abruptly reached for her chequebook and fountain-pen.

Penpeti was elated. If his little goose had laid one golden egg then, according to all natural laws, she would probably lay another. And another and another. The possibilities were inexhaustible. And Penelope, with the veils of her mysticism torn aside, was a far more attractive woman to make love to than Penpeti had dared hope. She wasn’t his type, admittedly, but in this most imperfect of worlds it was no use baying for the moon.

Now, at any rate, he could await Yacob’s return with equanimity. In fact, with the money in his pocket, Penpeti did something he had never done before. He wired Yacob to travel down to Welworth without delay. He had sound reasons for his apparent impatience. Ever since overhearing Hansford Boot’s virulent tête-à-tête with Mrs. Hagge-Smith, the conviction had grown that he and Yacob had met the fellow before. And Yacob had the memory of an elephant.

Two days after the disappearance of the Crux Ansata, therefore, Yacob came slinking up the flagstone-path between the scarlet bay-tubs and slid like an animated shadow into the house. Once in the little sitting-room, Penpeti drew the curtains against the wet November dusk, poked the fire into a more cheerful blaze and got down to business. First, with a casual air, he slapped a wad of notes onto Yacob’s knee and watched him count them. Yacob was satisfied . . . at least, for the time being. He nodded amiably.

“Well, that’s all fine and dandy. I won’t ask how you raised the necessary. Tactless, eh my dear fellow? But I’m damned if I can see why you were so impatient to settle your little debt. I gave you fourteen days. Still four days to run. What the devil’s come over you? You’re usually pretty reluctant to----”

Penpeti pushed a large unframed photograph under Yacob’s nose.

“Take a good look at that, will you?”

“Good God! What is it? Amateur dramatics?”

“That,” explained Penpeti with a certain hauteur, “is a photo of the high officials of our order, taken in their ceremonial robes. Do you recognise anybody?”

Yacob indicated a figure with a yellow-stained fingertip.

“You,” he chuckled. “The spit and image of Svengali, eh? Good God! If they only knew.”

Penpeti silenced him with a look.

“Take another look,” he suggested.

Yacob did so. Suddenly he jerked out:

“By heaven! This chap standing in the back row with the bald head and horn-rims. If that’s not Sam Grew I’ll swallow my watch and chain! But what the devil’s he doing in this crowd? You remember Sam Grew, surely? Only in the old days he had more hair and swagger little moustachios.”

“Sam Grew!” repeated Penpeti softly; adding with a malicious smile: “Oh yes, I remember Sam Grew all right. So that’s who it is! I knew I’d seen the fellow before. It’s all coming back to me now.” He gave a little whistle. “Yacob, I’m not sure, but I think we’re in clover. I think we’re going to make things pretty uncomfortable for Mr. Sam Grew. I think we’re going to twist Mr. Sam Grew’s tail until he squeals for mercy.”

“You mean,” shot out Yacob, suddenly interested, “that there’s money in him?”

Penpeti nodded.

“I couldn’t recall just where I’d met the man before. What’s more I couldn’t recall the exact nature of his business. But now you’ve given me his real name, it’s jerked my memory into action. Moldoni’s Dive in Soho, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve said it! Dope peddling. Snow was his stock-in-trade.”

“Cocaine! The drug racket! Of course.”

Yacob nodded appreciatively.

“Sam did pretty well for himself until the dicks got him on the run. Made a pretty tidy fortune, I reckon. Then he folded up. Just vanished from the scene and was never heard of again.” He grinned and added with a meaning wink: “Until now. Until now, my dear fellow.”

“Exactly. And since I knew Sam Grew far better than he knew me, I think I’ve got him just where I want him.” Penpeti slowly closed his fist. “In the palm of my hand.”

“You mean, we’ve got him just where we want him!” shot out Yacob with sudden suspicion. “I’m in on this, my dear fellow. Get that clear from the start.”

“I see no reason why you should be,” contested Penpeti with a scowl. “If I take the risks then I take the profits. I’m not asking you to turn the screw, am I?”

“Maybe not. But I think you’re going to give me a twenty per cent rake-off.”

Penpeti was aghast.

“Twenty per cent!”

“If you start squealing I’ll make it fifty-fifty. So you’d better watch your step.”

“But my dear Yacob----” began Penpeti pleadingly.

“Aw! Cut that out,” snapped Yacob with a gesture of impatience. “Either I get that rake-off or . . .” He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and lit it in leisurely fashion. “For God’s sake, have a little common-sense. You’re in a jam and a man in a jam isn’t in any position to bargain. I suppose you take me for a sap. Aw shucks!” He spat viciously into the fireplace. “I don’t want to squeeze you dry, but fair’s fair. I’ll take twenty per cent---understand? Neither more nor less. Twenty ruddy per cent. Get me?”

Penpeti nodded.

“All right, Yacob---if you insist. But don’t forget it’s just possible that he won’t----”

Yacob cut in scornfully:

“Oh he’ll play ball, if that’s what’s biting you. His kind always do. Looks as if he’s been sitting pretty here for ten years. Worked up a nice steady little alibi, too. It’s on the cards that he’s actually done a repentance act and decided to go straight. So much the better, eh?” Yacob clapped his hat jauntily on his head and sprang up. “Good God! It’ll be like taking milk from a blind kitten.”

“There’s always a risk,” pointed out Penpeti.

“Not in his case, there isn’t. He can’t afford to ask for police protection from a nasty-wasty little blackmailer, can he? The nasty-wasty little blackmailer holds all the pretty-witty cards. My dear fellow, it’s money for jam! Money for jam! And twenty-wenty-per-centy of it for poor hardworking little Yacob.” His swarthy face was wreathed in smiles, as he added: “By the way, what’s his moniker these days?”

“Boot,” said Penpeti. “Mr. Hansford Boot.”


With his customary energy Peta Penpeti wasted no time in cogitation. It was action he wanted---quick, neat, decisive action. The next day, therefore, shortly after breakfast, he walked round to Hansford Boot’s mock-Victorian villa in Hayseed Crescent and rang the bell with considerable assurance. To say that Hansford was surprised when Penpeti was ushered into his study is to put it mildly. He was flabbergasted. Never before, due to the antagonism which divided them, had Penpeti put foot inside his house. Then what on earth had driven him to make this unexpected call? Was it something to do with the missing Crux Ansata? Had Penpeti lied to Inspector Duffy and, after a bad night of it, come along to confess to the theft?

Penpeti’s first words disillusioned him.

“I suppose I have you and Eustace to thank for putting the police on to me, eh, Mr. Boot? Very stupid of you, of course. It would have been better to have checked up on Mrs. William’s evidence before jumping to foregone conclusions. You were convinced that I’d taken the Crux Ansata, weren’t you?”

“You? Not a bit of it! Hoped you might have useful information---that’s all. Didn’t suspect you. Of course not. Ridiculous!”

Hansford hummed and hawed uncomfortably, aware that Penpeti’s dark eyes were fixed on him with a look of acid amusement.

“Really, Mr. Boot---be honest. You can’t wriggle out of this, you know. I was on the other side of the partition when you lunched our dear Mrs. Hagge-Smith at the Rational. I overheard everything!

“What? You what?” exclaimed Hansford, obviously disconcerted.

“And do you know what struck me as the most curious part of your unwarrantable behaviour, Mr. Boot?”

“No idea.”

“That you should, in any way, want to make any sort of contact with the police.”

“What the deuce do you mean?”

“I think you’ve a very shrewd idea.”

“None whatsoever. Talking Greek. Don’t follow. Obliged if you’d clarify.”

“I will, Mr. Boot. And not without a certain justifiable pleasure. After all, you’ve given me little cause to like you. The opposite in fact. So you’ll have to forgive me if I show evidence of enjoying this little tête-à-tête. Because I am enjoying it.” Adding with a poisonous little smirk: “Immensely!”

“In heaven’s name—!”

“All in good time, Mr. Boot. Now where shall I begin? Might I suggest Moldoni’s Dive in Soho? It should prove a familiar starting-point.”

“Moldoni’s?” Hansford’s face underwent a transformation that was startling. His rather bland amiable expression gave way to a look of wild apprehension. His eyes, behind their horn-rims, stared at Penpeti, fearfully, incredulously. “What do you know about Moldoni’s?”

“Far more than is good for my peace-of-mind, Mr. Grew.”

“Grew? What the----?”

“Yes---Sam Grew. For a long time I’ve been worried by your likeness to somebody I knew in earlier days. Now I’m no longer worried.”

“But it’s nonsense! Piffle!” blustered Hansford, his eye roving unhappily over his cosy familiar little study. “Ridiculous mistake. Often happens. We all have doubles.”

Penpeti shook his head.

“I’m sorry you’re going to be obstinate.” His voice hardened and he flashed out viciously: “If you refuse to admit that I’m right, I’ll go to the police. I’ll tell them I’ve a strong suspicion that a certain Sam Grew, who disappeared some years ago, has turned up in Welworth. A one-time dope pedlar with a hide-out in Soho. I think Scotland Yard might be deeply grateful for the information.”

“By God!” cried Hansford with a cornered look, “You wouldn’t do that. What proof have you?”

“Oh, I should leave all that to the police. They have a neat way of getting at the truth. No, Mr. Grew, you wouldn’t stand a chance under cross-examination, and you know it.”

“You want to ruin me?” groaned Hansford, no longer trying to brazen it out but pale and trembling. “Is that the idea? But why? I’ve done you no harm.”

“Really?” observed Penpeti coldly.

“For God’s sake, give me a chance. Once I was a fool. I admit it. But that’s over and done with. My heart’s genuinely in my work here. I tell you, I’m a reformed man. A new man. A different man. Sam Grew’s dead. D’you understand? Dead and done for. Forgotten.”

“Not by the police,” Penpeti reminded him with a sarcastic smile. “Do you know, you’re in a devilish awkward position, Mr. Grew?”

“What do you want?” asked Hansford on a sudden note of practicality. “What’s your price, eh? What’s your silence going to cost me? You didn’t come here without a definite idea in mind. I’m not a fool, you know!”

“Shall we say a regular three-monthly donation to the upkeep of my official position as Prophet-in-Waiting? As a reward for my future discretion.”

“Blackmail, eh? Just as I thought.”

“Sound business, Mr. Grew.”

“I always sensed that you were a twister. I’ve tried to warn the others. You’re a fake, Penpeti. Using the Movement for your own ends.”

“Oh and that reminds me,” went on Penpeti smoothly, “from now on you will work to rehabilitate me in the eyes of Mildmann and our dear Mrs. H-S. You’ll scotch the foul suspicions you’ve roused against me. Understand?”

“Is that part of our . . . bargain?”

“It is.”

“I see. And how much . . . ?”

“Oh I shan’t be unreasonable. As the first of four quarterly instalments, shall we say fifty pounds?”

“Fifty pounds!”

“Preferably in one pound notes. Shall we say . . . by to-morrow, Mr. Grew? That will give you time to cash a cheque.”

Hansford Boot at that moment had a murderous gleam in his eye, but he nodded dumbly as Penpeti took up his gloves and fez and crossed jauntily to the door. There he turned and said with a casual air:

“Oh, and by the way, it may interest you to know that I didn’t steal that Crux Ansata. You were off the rails there, Mr. Grew. Your little chat with Alicia was dangerously near libel. But as you’ve enough trouble to cope with at present, I’m prepared to overlook the matter. I told you that I was never unreasonable. Au revoir, Mr. Boot. I shall expect you to return my visit to-morrow. And I advise you not to forget!”


Mrs. Hagge-Smith, who had always looked upon Hansford as one of the most reliable and intelligent Children of Osiris, had good cause in the few days left before her return to Old Cowdene to modify her opinion. Hansford’s volte-face concerning Penpeti bewildered her. Without the slightest warning he substituted praise for vilification, admiration for suspicion, and left poor Alicia in a flat spin. Hansford’s explanation for this change of front, however, was both subtle and ingenious. He had, so he said, dreamed a dream in which the great god Osiris himself had appeared out of a cloud and spoken to him in a voice of thunder. His message was brief and to the point. Peta Penpeti was a good and noble man, worthy of the select position he held in the order. To believe anything else was to display a miserable lack of faith and perception. Hansford was to spread news of this important revelation. He was to make amends for his own wicked persecution.

It is easy to imagine what it had cost poor Hansford to concoct this beautiful story. But this was his story and he stuck to it. With the result that Mrs. Hagge-Smith, before she returned to Sussex, was once more prepared to accept Penpeti as her closest ally and confidant. Eustace’s stock again slumped. Hansford breathed more freely.

But from that moment onward he was a man without any real peace-of-mind. He realised that as long as Penpeti held the threat of exposure over his head he was destined to walk the tight-rope. And Penpeti’s silence was going to prove an expensive luxury, a sad strain on his finances. He could see no end to the situation—at least, no happy ending. After ten years of comparative ease and safety, his past, like a bolt from the blue, had struck him down. It was a bitter blow, for during those ten years he had worked energetically to wipe out the disgrace of his earlier activities. His devotion to Eustace and the Movement was genuine and wholehearted. He believed in Cooism. His one thought now was to serve the Cause.

And now this! Damn Penpeti! How had he discovered his guilty secret? Where had Penpeti seen him before? How was it he knew all about Moldoni’s Dive in Soho?---for to know that cesspit was to be branded as a criminal. Hansford had only to close his eyes to see again the green-chequered table-clothes, the hardwood chairs, the reckless, ferrety, slick, sly clientele that patronised that basement inferno. But amidst that shifting and shifty crowd he had no recollection of Penpeti, not even of a man who might have been a younger, clean-shaven and less oddly-garbed Penpeti. If only he could place Penpeti in that nightmare of his past, then without doubt he, in turn, would discover something to hold against him. And with that knowledge he could bargain and free himself from his predicament. His silence for Penpeti’s. And failing that? Sam Grew shuddered. To think along that line was madness! Silence was one thing, but everlasting silence . . . murder! No! By heaven, no! He must not and could not add any further burden to his conscience.

And yet?

A shadow of Hansford’s tormented state of mind darkened the existence of the one man to whom he was blindly devoted. With the departure of Mrs. Hagge-Smith and Denise for Old Cowdene, Eustace found himself with far more time for uninterrupted reflection. True, Terence’s return did something to mitigate the sudden silence that descended on “Tranquilla”, but Terence was in a decidedly untalkative mood. Grunts and nods seemed to have usurped the place of speech. He eyed his father with a surly expression, determined to show him that his resentment was still on the boil. But it was not Terence’s uncompromising attitude that tortured poor Eustace. It was his own over-deepening infatuation for Penelope Parker.

He had within ten days stepped far beyond the boundaries of pretence. Now he was writing her quite openly, without a blush, as My very dearest and sweetest Penelope. His moral deterioration had been so rapid that Eustace had barely noticed it. He only knew that when Penelope smiled on him and was kind, the sun blazed from a cloudless sky; that when she was cross or critical he was encompassed by a pea-soup fog of depression. He thought out a score of little ways to see her alone. He wrote her every day. He sent her expensive little gifts which he thought might amuse or charm her. And the more effective he became as a man, a male, the less efficient he was as a High Prophet of Coo. Disciples began to notice his air of distraction, his fumblings and absent-minded gaffes.

As for Penelope, launched on a full-blooded affair with her dark-eyed Penpeti, she felt she could afford to be generous. Eustace’s outpourings at first piqued, then amused and, finally, touched her. He was so naïve, so pathetic in his frank adoration. Oh yes, she could afford to be generous. So Penelope replied to his impassioned letters and occasionally granted Eustace the luxury of seeing her alone. Once she squeezed his hand in the vestry. On another occasion she kissed him on the brow. But all the time she took the greatest care to conceal from Eustace the full significance of her relationship with Penpeti. She knew that they were hostile to each other and she didn’t want to further any more enmity. In his present mood even the mild Eustace, bitten by jealousy, might prove a veritable demon of wrath!

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