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8: Near Miss


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« on: May 24, 2023, 05:39:36 am »

I

IT was at this interesting point in his investigation that Inspector Duffy got bogged down. No fresh evidence, no unexpected clue, no further development. The mystery shooting in Mayblossom Cut was evidently destined to remain a mystery. Sid Arkwright was soon back at the wheel of Eustace’s luxurious Daimler. Mr. Penpeti continued to parade about the Garden City in his bizarre ensemble. Duffy often saw Miss Penelope Parker out and about in the shopping centre. The Man in the Teddy-Bear Coat was not, as far as the inspector knew, seen again in Welworth.

The Garden City, in fact, seemed to settle down to its customary winter-time activities. There was the usual seasonal outburst of amateur theatricals, lectures, chamber-music, religious, political and educational meetings. There was the usual spate of head colds, chills, neuralgia, catarrh and laryngitis---striking impartially at meat-eater and vegetarian alike. There was the inescapable arctic wind blowing down Broadway, constant, penetrating, bitter, so that before March was out tempers were frayed and the lightest disagreement liable to break out into downright hostility.

Poor Eustace was miserable to a degree. The feeling that all was not well in the world of Cooism, deepened. Several ugly quarrels flared up between members of the Inmost Temple over trivial matters of procedure and dogma. Periodically Mrs. Hagge-Smith descended on Welworth from her country seat to attend these meetings, put several spokes in several wheels, issued a few high-handed manifestos concerning finance and publicity, paid a few lush compliments to her dear Mr. Penpeti and departed in a whirl of last-minute amendments and reminders. To Eustace she was polite rather than friendly, still angry over his refusal to produce The Nine Gods of Heliopolis. It was, in fact, a lonely and unhappy period for the High Prophet. Opposed by Alicia and Penpeti, seemingly abandoned by Hansford Boot, humoured like a small child by Penelope, high-hatted by his worthless offspring, he grew more and more morose. There were times when he wanted to run away from it all; to resign his high office and cut himself adrift for ever from the Movement he had originated. If it had not been for his pride and Penelope, perhaps he would have left the Garden City. Of late his letters had grown more passionate, more outspoken, more demanding, until, finally driven almost desperate by her detachment, he actually wrote and asked her to marry him. Penelope was very kind, very tactful, but very firm. She thought that, in the circumstances, it would be better if Eustace refrained from writing her in the future. She was sorry, but for his own sake . . .

Sadly Eustace took the hint and, from that day onward, continued to worship her, but only from afar.

II

During those winter months Penpeti realised that, from a financial point-of-view, he was sitting pretty. Hansford was disbursing with the regularity and efficiency of a ticket-machine. Yacob, aware that his own interests were being served by these extortions, remained comparatively tractable. Provided he got his rake-off from the blackmail, and occasional extra slices of “the necessary” (for what he termed his “running expenses”) he was prepared to leave Penpeti, more or less, alone. On top of all this Penelope seemed not only ready to loosen her purse-strings, but to leave them permanently untied. Of course he had to work hard to retain her in this generous mood, but as Penpeti, since the age of sixteen, had taken to love-making as other boys to cricket, wood-carving or stamp-collecting, he was blessed with that facility of execution which accrues naturally from years of practice.

Yes---from the financial angle, Penpeti was satisfied that he was doing very well for himself. Yet his peace of mind was not without blemish. The shooting affair in Mayblossom Cut had not escaped his attention and he was fly enough to spot the joke that had been levelled at him by the ingenious Sid Arkwright. And the more he analysed the incident, the more certain he grew that he had been the intended victim of those shots in the dark. When Yacob next slipped up to Welworth and sidled in through his front door to collect “the necessary”, Penpeti showed him the reports in the local papers. Yacob whistled.

“So it’s like that is it? Dear! Dear! You don’t suppose that----?”

“I’ve my own suspicions,” broke in Penpeti. “That’s why I showed you these cuttings. I want your opinion, Yacob.”

“You’re thinking of Gaussin, eh?”

Penpeti nodded solemnly.

“Naturally.”

“But that’s impossible!” exclaimed Yacob. “Out of the question. I happen to know that Pierre Gaussin’s out of town. He’s been out for some months now. Working the Cote D’Azur. The usual racket.”

Penpeti breathed an audible sigh of relief.

“You’re sure of your facts?”

“Certain! I’ve always made a point, a very special point, my dear fellow, of checking up on Pierre’s movements. After all”---Yacob flashed Penpeti a quick, meaning smile---“you know I’ve always got your interests at heart. Oh no---you can’t pin this onto Gaussin. He’s a slippery customer, but he’d have to work darn fast to put anything across me.” Yacob paused, lit a cigarette and suddenly observed: “There’s another possibility, you know.”

“Well?”

“Our mutual friend. The plump pigeon you’re now picking.”

“Sam Grew?” exclaimed Penpeti. “Confound it! I hadn’t thought of him. But he wouldn’t dare try anything as drastic as that.”

“A cornered rat will dare anything,” commented Yacob sagaciously. “If you’ll take my advice, you’ll watch your step with Mr. Sam Grew. You can leave Pierre out of it.”

One dark night towards the end of March, Penpeti had good cause to remember Yacob’s advice. He was just entering the house, when something whizzed by his left ear and thudded into the woodwork of the door. Even before it had stopped quivering, Penpeti had wrenched the object free and swung round on the gate. Unfortunately a large lilac bush afforded perfect cover and, by the time he had rushed into the roadway, he saw no more than a rapidly diminishing shape receding into the shadows. The sequence of events had been so rapid that Penpeti had difficulty in believing that they had really happened. But the long, wicked-looking knife in his hand proved unquestionably that they had!

Penpeti shuddered as he let himself into the house. He felt sick and dizzy. Another inch to the right and . . . he shuddered again. Like Eustace, he had grown acutely aware of the malignant forces abroad in the Garden City. Was Yacob right? Was it Sam Grew alias Hansford Boot who had thrown that knife? He doubted it. Hansford didn’t strike him as the type of man to make a cold-blooded and calculating murderer. Too weak-kneed. Too imaginative. But if Pierre Gaussin were in the South of France . . . then who, who?

Thereafter, Penpeti never went out after dark. He pretended to Penelope that his eyesight was failing. But refusing to be diddled of his company during the long evenings, she finally persuaded him to stay the night. He bowed his head to the inevitable and, to prevent the domestics from gossiping, slunk away from Elysium before Hilda and the cook were awake.

He toyed with the idea of discarding his caftan and fez. But in the end he realised that such a move might prove dangerous. It might mean questions, awkward questions, and questions were something he was most anxious to avoid. For that same reason Penpeti never made any mention, save to Yacob, of the knife-throwing episode. He knew only too well that he was in no position to suffer the searching cross-examinations of a police enquiry.

III

And so it was, with all these unsolved enigmas hanging like a huge question-mark over the Cult of Coo, that the hierarchy of the Order, towards the end of May, made preparations for their imminent departure to Sussex.

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