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11: The Time for it

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Author Topic: 11: The Time for it  (Read 27 times)
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« on: June 02, 2023, 12:32:16 pm »

THE black bar of dried blood looked hideous in the fair hair, and the pathetically young if slightly puggy face beneath it was a dangerous colour, but there was life there.

Campion laid a hand on Clytie’s shuddering back.

‘It’s not going to happen,’ he said quietly. ‘Now then, how did you find him?’

From the other side of the sprawling body Charlie Luke, squatting on his haunches, nodded encouragement.

‘The doc’ll be here in a minute. He’s had a spiteful cosh by an expert but he’s young and he’s tough. Now come on, Missis.’

She did not raise her head. Her black silk hair made curtains across her cheeks.

‘I didn’t want anyone to know.’ Her voice was weary with pain. ‘I didn’t want anyone to know, but I thought he was dead. I thought he was dead. I thought he was dead. I had to shout for someone. I thought he was dead.’

Her grief was childlike and abandoned. All the dignity of the youngest of the Palinodes was submerged in tears and surrender. Her working clothes, which were shapeless and unlikely rather than unsuitable, enhanced the sadness of her crumpled body.

‘Oh, I thought he was dead.’

‘Well, he’s not.’ Charlie Luke mangled the words into an inarticulate grumble. ‘How did you find him? Did you know he was here?’

‘No.’ She raised a face, shiny and dirty as a weeping child’s, to Campion. ‘No. I knew he’d got permission to keep the bike here. He arranged it yesterday. Last night we said good-night rather late, after ten. You saw me coming in. But then this morning at the office I waited for him to ring me up.’ She struggled with the words and gave it up. The tears rolled miserably down her short nose. Campion produced a handkerchief.

‘Perhaps you’d had a quarrel?’ he suggested.

‘Oh no!’ Apparently that horror was unthinkable. ‘No. He always rings me up. It’s almost business. He sells us photographs---I mean his firm does. He didn’t ring. He didn’t ring this morning. Miss Ferraby---she’s in the downstairs office as well as me---was due in at any moment. I get there first and so . . . and so . . .’

‘And so you rang him, of course.’ Campion was peering at her through his round glasses with complete sympathy.

‘He wasn’t there,’ she said. ‘Mr. Cooling, who works near him, said he hadn’t been in and if he wasn’t ill it would be just too bad.’

Charlie Luke put a hand over his eyes by way of comment. Mr. Campion continued to look intelligent.

‘So then you telephoned his home,’ he said coaxingly.

‘No, he hasn’t got a home. I rang his landlady. She---she---she---oh I can’t!’

‘ “No I won’t, Miss, ’ooever you are!” ’ Charlie Luke produced a shrill insulting sound which was also, somehow, telephonic. ‘ “No! And while I’ve got you there I may as well say you ought to be ashamed. Out all hours of the night . . . wasting good money . . . good-for-nothing . . . poor woman . . . got to live myself . . . not a charity if some people think so . . .” What had the old tank-trap done? Turned him out?’

For the first time she looked at him directly, tragedy, bereavement, even love forgotten in her amazement.

‘How do you know?’

The D.D.I. was still a young man and even a handsome one in his own peculiar way. At the moment both attributes were apparent.

‘It’s occurred before,’ he said, adding with an exquisite gentleness unexpected in him, ‘come on, kitty, open your eyes. It’s a shocking experience but you’ve got to do it some time. Ma Lemon was waiting up for him and slung him out with his other shirt and his mother’s portrait, did she?’

Miss White sniffed deeply.

‘I think she kept the shirt.’

‘Old shorthorn,’ said Charlie Luke. ‘Well, you guessed he’d be somewhere near the bike. That right?’

‘Well, it was all he had, except me.’

The D.D.I. met Mr. Campion’s eyes and looked away.

‘Of course you’re not grey yet,’ murmured Campion to him.

‘Ah, but my wind isn’t what it used to be.’ Luke spoke absently and he bent down to take another look at the wound in the fair head. ‘Hair’s very thick,’ he pronounced. ‘It may have saved him. Very expert coshing, though. Very nasty. Someone meant business.’ He returned to Clytie. ‘Do I understand you just walked out of the office and came down here to find him or traces of him? Was the door unlocked?’

‘Yes. Mr. Bowels was going to put a lock on today. We only hired it yesterday.’

‘The place belongs to the Bowels, does it?’

‘It belongs to the old Mr. Bowels, but the young one let it to us. I don’t think his father was going to know at first.’

‘I see. You just ran out of the office and came down here and looked in the shed. Why did you come upstairs?’

Miss White considered. There was nothing that was not frank about her hesitance.

‘I had nowhere else to look,’ she said at last. ‘If he wasn’t here he . . . well, he was gone. I was frightened, I suppose. Oh, don’t you know how you feel if someone’s lost?’

‘Oh yes.’ Campion was matter-of-fact. ‘Naturally. You just went on looking, saw a ladder, and---er---went up it. As I recall, that’s in order, Inspector.’

Charlie Luke grunted. ‘Recall is the word. And then what?’

Clytie’s face, which had lost its fiery colour, was now very white and tight-skinned.

‘Then I saw him,’ she said, ‘and I thought he was dead.’ She turned her head away as the sound of feet in the shed below signalled the arrival of the reinforcements.

‘Just one thing, Luke.’ Campion sounded diffident. ‘Who is he?’

‘Howard Edgar Wyndham Dunning, or was when we last asked to see his driving licence.’ Luke kept irritation out of his voice by the hair of its tail.

Miss White won. ‘I call him Mike,’ she said.

Sergeant Dice was the first up the stairs and he turned to assist the doctor, who was inclined to resent it. That this was Doctor Smith, Campion had no doubt whatever. In fact, it was with surprise that he realized that they had not met and that his recognition was based solely on the D.D.I.’s description. Here was the ‘tallish old boy, nagged to a rag, over-worked, over-conscientious’. His head stuck out from his collar just like a tortoise’s and his curious over-emphasized cleanliness was foreign in the dusty loft.

‘Morning, Luke, what have you got here? More trouble? Eh? Yes, yes. Oh dear.’ He had a clipped accent and a small quiet voice, and he approached the patient with a certainty with which a man approaches his own particular property. ‘Your man couldn’t find the police surgeon so he brought me,’ he went on, kneeling beside the body. ‘Move out of the light, young woman. Oh it’s you, Clytie. What are you doing here? Never mind, move right back. Now. Ah!’

There was a long silence and Campion, who stood next to Miss White, could feel her shaking. Luke stood just behind the doctor, his hands in his pockets, his huge shoulders hunched until he looked like a bludgeon himself. His eyes were very dark and small and his mouth was twisted into a grimace of anxiety and distaste.

‘Yes, yes. Well, he’s not dead, and that’s a minor miracle. He must have a skull of iron.’ The precise words sounded cold. ‘This is a beastly blow, Luke, utterly brutal. He didn’t do this by accident. Someone meant to kill him. He’s very young, you know, very young indeed. Ring up St. Bede’s. Tell them I said it’s urgent.’

As Dice disappeared down the stairs Luke touched the doctor on the shoulder.

‘What’s it done with? Can you tell?’

‘Not unless you show me the weapon. I’m not a magician. Something designed for just such a purpose, I should say.’

‘What? You mean a real cosh, not a tyre-lever?’

‘I don’t think so. Not unless, of course, you can produce one covered with blood and hair. The assailant may have had a superhuman strength.’

‘But if he hadn’t?’

‘Then I think he must have had help from his weapon. That’s all now, Luke. I must get him to bed. He’s cold. Is this filthy raincoat all there is to cover him?’

Clytie pulled off her Raglan, which was both too long and too wide, and handed it to the doctor without speaking. He put his hand up to take it, hesitated, glanced at her face, and changed his mind about protesting. He took the boy’s pulse again and nodded non-committally as he replaced his watch.

‘When did it happen, Doc?’ Luke inquired.

‘I was wondering. He’s very cold. I don’t think I can give you any sort of definite answer to that question. Late last night . . . or early this morning. Now we must get on.’

Charlie Luke went down the ladder to talk to the subordinates, who were arriving in some force, and Campion took Miss White by the elbow.

‘He’ll be all right now,’ he said. ‘If I were you I’d come home and get another coat.’

‘No.’ Her arm was as unresponsive as stone. ‘No, I shall go with him.’ She was perfectly calm now and slightly alarming in her composure. There was a trace of Miss Evadne’s assurance in her quiet obstinacy.

The doctor glanced at Campion. ‘It’s useless,’ he murmured. ‘Cause less trouble if you don’t argue. She can wait in the hospital. He’s a sick boy.’

‘Doctor Smith?’ Clytie’s voice was precariously balanced.

‘Yes?’

‘I shall rely on you not to mention this to my aunts, or---or to Uncle Lawrence.’

‘I expect you will.’ He spoke absently. ‘No, my dear, I shan’t rush round telling tales. How long has this been going on?’

‘Seven months.’

He got up stiffly from the dirty boards and dusted his trousers.

‘Well, you’re eighteen and a half, aren’t you?’ he said, his small head swaying out at her and his bothered eyes searching her face. ‘It’s the time for it. A fool isn’t damned until he’s older than that. It’s human, too. That’s a change in your family, if you’ll permit me to say so. Were you with him when this happened?’

‘Oh no, I found him just now. I can’t think what---how---who did it. I thought he was dead.’

He considered her, to see if she was lying, no doubt, and turned to Campion, who was effacing himself with his usual success.

‘It’s another mystery, is it?’

‘It would appear so.’ The slightly high voice was misleadingly foolish. ‘Unless of course it’s the same one.’

‘Good heavens!’ His eyes widened and his rounded back was more hunched than ever. ‘This is dreadful. The worry! The possibilities involved . . . The doubts which naturally arise in one’s mind . . .’

Clytie interrupted with a cry of protest.

‘Oh, don’t!’ she said, her voice breaking. ‘Don’t bother about that. Don’t bother about anything unimportant. Will he get better?’

‘My dear,’ there was apology and gentleness in him suddenly, ‘I shouldn’t be surprised. No, I shouldn’t be surprised at all.’ As the words left his lips he raised his head to listen and they heard the ambulance bell, its shrill frightened voice sounding high above the deep snore of the distant traffic.

By the time the white van had taken up its burden and departed, with Sergeant Dice and Miss White stiff and polite with mutual distrust seated side by side on the spare bunk, the crowd had faded as miraculously as it had assembled. Charlie Luke stood in the shed, frowning, his fingers playing with the loose coins in his pocket.

‘I want to talk to you, Doc,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the report from the P.A.’

‘Oh.’ The old man drooped as though a further burden had been placed on his bent back.

Campion made haste to excuse himself and Luke led him to one side.

‘As a matter of fact I feel I could do with ten minutes purely private conversation with Jas Bowels, sir,’ he said. ‘I feel it would do me good if not him. I don’t know if I make myself clear.’

‘Utterly,’ said Mr. Campion with pleasure. ‘You’ll have a man by Dunning’s bed until he speaks?’

‘Oh yes. Dice will be there until the cows come home, or don’t, as the case may be. I can’t think that cosh was coincidental and it puts a rather new light on the whole thing. We’ll have to have a bit of a conference as soon as we can. Could you face a penn’orth of Ma Chubb’s special luncheon sausage at the Platelayers about noon?’

‘Make it half-past. It’s later than you think, as the sundials say.’ Campion sounded happy. ‘Until lunch, then. All success to your---er---undertaking.’

He came out into the misty sunlight of the autumn morning and stepped quietly out of the mews. The grey city, which has a strange preoccupation all its own, spread out round him like a gigantic jigsaw, pale and dirty and mysterious. He walked quickly out of Apron Street and the maze of little roads to the north swallowed him.

It took him some time to find Lansbury Terrace and when he came upon it at last it proved to be a wide road not far from the canal where the original Regency houses had made way for smaller, modern residences with mock-Tudor windows and gabled roofs. Each one was neatly painted and carefully kept and the general air was of affluence and unaggressive respectability.

Number Fifty-nine was as pleasantly anonymous as the rest. The dull red door was shut, the net curtains demurely unrevealing.

Campion hurried up the wide stone steps and touched the bell. To his intense relief it was opened by a middle-aged woman in the dark apron of a housekeeper. He confronted her with disarming embarrassment.

‘I’m afraid I’m late,’ he said.

‘You are, sir. They’ve been gone over half an hour.’

He stood wavering, a lean column of open indecision guaranteed to arouse the executive instinct in any practical woman.

‘Which way? I mean it’s down there, isn’t it?’ He pointed vaguely behind him.

‘Well, sir, it’s quite a distance. You’d better take a taxi.’

‘Yes, yes, I will. I shall know it, shall I? I mean . . . these big cemeteries . . . two or three at a time . . . confusing. Awkward to arrive wrong---er---wrong function. Dear me, how stupid of me! I am late. Tell me, they’re limousines, are they?’

It was a princely dither and she took pity on him.

‘Why, you can’t miss it, sir,’ she said. ‘It’s horse carriages. Very nice and old-fashioned. There’s a lot of flowers and a lot of people. You’ll see Mr. John, too.’

‘Yes, yes, indeed yes.’ Campion looked back and down the steps. ‘I must hurry, I see that. I shall know it. A great many flowers on a perfectly black coffin.’

‘No, sir, on an oak coffin. Rather light. You’ll know it, sir, of course you will.’

She stared at him a little oddly, as well she might, but he had raised his hat nervously and was hurrying off in the wrong direction.

‘I shall take a taxi,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Thank you very much. I shall take a taxi.’

She went back to the house thinking that he hardly seemed to know to whose funeral he was going, and meanwhile Mr. Campion sought a telephone booth. His tread was lighter, his back straighter, and his pale eyes more vacant at every step.

He found a little red temple at the corner of the dusty road and spent some time consulting the directory chained inside.

‘Knapp, Thos, Conf. Tob. Wireless Parts.’

The words stared at him from the page. The number was a Dulwich one and he dialled it, hardly daring to hope.

‘ ’Ullo.’ The voice was reedy and suspicious. His heart leapt.

‘Thos?’

‘ ’Oo’s that?’

Mr. Campion’s smile broadened.

‘A voice from the past,’ he said. ‘The name is Bertie, or used to be, I recall with some distaste.’

‘Gawd!’

‘You exaggerate.’

‘ ’Ere’---the voice rose and wavered---‘you go on talking for a bit.’

‘You’re getting cautious in your old age, Thos. Not a bad idea, of course, but it seems odd in you. Let me see, seventeen years ago---or say once upon a time---a fine upstanding lad with a perpetual sniff lived with his lady mother in Pedigree Place. He had a charming hobby connected, almost literally, with telephones, and his name was Thos T. Knapp, the “T” standing as I remember for “tick”.’

‘Got yer!’ said the telephone. ‘Where yer speaking from? ’Ell? I made sure you was dead. ’Ow are yer?’

‘Mustn’t grumble,’ said Campion, keeping in the picture. ‘What are you doing? You’ve gone into trade, I see.’

‘Well----’ The voice was affable. ‘In a way yes, and in a way, no. Muvver’s gorn, you know.’

‘No, I didn’t.’ Campion hastened to express his regret as a recollection of that rag-bag of a giantess appeared vividly in his mind.

‘Cut it out.’ Mr. Knapp was averse to sentiment. ‘She ’ad a pension, didn’t she? Went out like a light when ’er time came, bottle in ’er ’and. Comin’ down for a chinwag? S’pose you couldn’t do with a hundred thousand electric light bulbs and no questions asked?’

‘Not at the moment, but thank you kindly and I’ll keep it in mind. I’m busy. Thos, ever heard of Apron Street?’

There was a long silence, during which he had time to envisage that little ferret face and long prehensile nose. The conviction that there must be by now a moustache below it filled him with dismay.

‘Well?’ he murmured.

‘No.’ Mr. Knapp was only partially convincing, a fact he appeared to appreciate for he went on almost at once: ‘I tell you what, Bert, old chum, as one pal to another, keep orf it, see?’

‘Not very clearly.’

‘It’s unlucky.’

‘What is? The place?’

‘I don’t know about the street, but you don’t want to go up it, not from what I ’ear.’

Campion stood frowning into the receiver.

‘I’m in the dark,’ he said at last.

‘So am I.’ The irritation in the thin voice was convincing. ‘I’m out of the know these days. It’s a fact. I’ve got a missus on the up and up. But I ’ear a bit of news occasionally as one does, and that’s a slice of the latest. Don’t go up Apron Street, that’s what they tell me.’

‘Care to look about you?’

‘Don’t mind if I do.’ There was a flicker of the old enthusiasm in the acceptance.

‘It’s worth about five bar.’

‘I’ll do it for love if it costs me nothing,’ said Mr. Knapp generously. ‘Okeydoke. Same address?’

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