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13: Legal Angle

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Author Topic: 13: Legal Angle  (Read 31 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 05:07:19 am »

THE dingy office, pathetic with an outmoded elegance of brass rail and threadbare carpet, was exactly what Mr Campion had envisaged. He and Miss Jessica had approached it up two flights of dusty stairs, and the smell of newsprint from the small local newspaper office on the ground floor hung round them depressingly.

The elderly clerk who had greeted them was in character also. He was Dickensian in costume, doubtless by design, but could not help explaining the grudging deference with which he treated Miss Palinode by mentioning that he remembered her father.

As they followed him through a vast outer office, which now housed only himself and two fourteen-year-old girls instead of the eight or ten clerks for whom it had been designed, Campion prepared himself to deal with a formal patriarch as full of prejudice as a very old gardener. Therefore, when at last they found him, Mr. Drudge was something of a surprise. He sprang up from behind a desk which if not an antique was at least a curio, and came round it to meet them. At first glance it seemed unlikely that he was anywhere near thirty, and his clothes were sporting, not to say festive. His camel-cloth waistcoat, if dirty, was gay, and his suède shoes had once been wonderfully conceived. His youthful face displayed frank apple blossom and innocence, qualities enhanced to absurdity by a tremendous sink-brush moustache.

‘Oh, hullo, Miss Palinode. Nice of you to blow in. Things a bit umpty at home, I rather suspect. Take a chair. Don’t think I know you, sir,’ he added.

The hearty voice, pitched to rise above the noise of machinery, rang out happily.

‘No flap on here,’ he said. ‘Pretty damned quiet. Anything I can do?’

Miss Jessica performed the introductions. It startled Campion to find that she knew exactly who he was himself and what he was doing in the affair. It was not that he had made any great mystery about it, but the preciseness and accuracy of her information suggested that a textbook had been her informant. She was watching him, too, and the curl of her lips suggested that she was amused.

‘This Mr. Drudge is of course the grandson of the Mr. Drudge who attended to my father’s affairs,’ she continued placidly. ‘His father died at the end of the war and this Mr. Drudge inherited the practice. You may be interested to know that he has a D.F.C. and bar as well as the necessary legal qualifications.’

‘Oh, I say, come, come!’ The protest was uttered in a single howl.

‘And that his name is Oliver,’ went on Miss Jessica as if there had been no interruption. ‘Or,’ she added devastatingly, ‘Clot.’

Both men looked at her with some embarrassment and she showed her small teeth in a brief smile.

‘A flying term,’ she said. ‘Now you must read these letters, Mr. Drudge; one from Evadne and one from Lawrence. Then you can give Mr. Campion all the information he may require.’ She placed two chits in his hands. Both had been written on the smallest possible piece of paper and Mr. Drudge’s large fingers had some difficulty in negotiating them.

‘I say, this is pretty comprehensive, don’t you know,’ he announced at last, peering at her with enormous baby-grey eyes. ‘No offence to you, sir, but I have to protect my clients. These instruct me to bare the soul, so to speak. Not that there’s anything to hide.’

‘Exactly.’ Miss Jessica spoke with great satisfaction. ‘I’ve been talking to my brother and sister and we decided to trust Mr. Campion implicitly.’

‘Don’t know if that’s wise or civil. The poor type has his own loyalties.’ He smiled at Campion disarmingly. ‘However, there’s not a lot to divulge, is there?’

‘No, but he may as well know all there is.’ Miss Jessica smoothed her muslin skirt, which had become festooned on the clinging crimson under-dress. ‘You see,’ she said to Campion, ‘we are not fools. We are self-centred and we live out of the world . . .’

‘Pretty ingenious, if you can do it,’ interposed her legal adviser with apparent envy.

‘Quite. But, as I said, we are not utterly unpractical. While my sister Ruth’s death was merely the subject of vulgar suspicion we thought it best to ignore the whole thing. That may strike you both as old-fashioned, but that was the way we were brought up. You would be surprised to know how much unnecessary worry a simple policy of polite disinterest can save one. However, since we now see that the matter is more serious than we had hoped, we have decided to protect ourselves as best we can from any mistake the police may make, and the best way to do that is obviously to give them every facility, as indeed Mr. Campion has pointed out.’

She made the little speech with dignity and Clot Drudge, after eyeing her with surprising shrewdness for a moment or so, sighed with relief.

‘I care for that,’ he said seriously. ‘Definitely I care for that. Press on, sir, won’t you?’

Mr. Campion sat down on a chair which had once been upholstered in fine red leather. It protested faintly and shook a little, possibly at the words.

‘I don’t want to intrude into anything which may not be actively helpful,’ he was beginning, when Miss Palinode intervened.

‘Of course you don’t. But you would like to see if anyone had a money motive, and I expect you’d like to know if there are other motives still at large. You can look up my sister Ruth’s will at Somerset House, but you don’t know the provisions of mine, or Lawrence’s, or Evadne’s, do you?’

‘Oh, I say, hold it,’ Clot Drudge interposed. ‘I don’t think you ought to go as far as that.’

‘I disagree. If we don’t give the police the details they may imagine the wrong ones. For charity’s sake, I think we should begin with Edward.’

‘Edward rather began things,’ Mr. Drudge conceded, caressing his moustache as though to keep it quiet. ‘Wait a moment. I’ll get the griff.’

He went out and she bent forward confidentially.

‘I fancy he may be going to consult his partner.’

‘Oh, there’s a partner, is there?’ Campion sounded relieved.

‘Yes. Mr. Wheeler. Our Mr. Drudge only has a few clients as yet, I’m afraid, but he’s highly intelligent. Don’t be misled by his vocabulary. After all, it’s not more extraordinary than the one lawyers customarily use, is it?’

‘I suppose not,’ he said, laughing. ‘You get a lot of fun, don’t you?’

‘I try to be rational. Now about Edward. Not to put too fine a point upon it, he was a gambler. He had vision and he had courage, but not judgement.’

‘An unfortunate combination.’

‘I suppose so. But,’ she added with an unexpected flash in her intelligent eyes, ‘you’ve no idea how exciting it was. Consolidated Resins, for instance: one day we were worth hundreds of thousands. Lawrence was going to endow a library. And the next day, just when we’d got used to it, we were almost penniless. Old Mr. Drudge used to get so angry. I’m not at all sure that the strain didn’t bring on the trouble which killed him. But Edward was magnificent. He put his faith in Dengies, and then there was always the Filippino Fashions.’

‘Crikey!’ said Mr. Campion with a sort of awe. ‘Did he touch Bulimias?’

‘Now that’s a name I remember,’ she admitted. ‘And something Sports. And Gold Gold Gold United; that was such an interesting name. And then there was the Brownie Mine Company. What’s the matter? You look quite pale.’

‘Passing faintness,’ said Mr. Campion, pulling himself together. ‘Your brother sounds to me to have had a gift. He went by the prospectuses, I suppose?’

‘Oh no. He was very informed. He worked very hard. He just chose the wrong shares. Evadne and Lawrence lost faith in him and they kept seven thousand pounds each. I went on longer. Edward died worth seventy-five pounds in cash and one hundred thousand pounds in various shares.’

‘Nominal value?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where are they?’

‘Oh, he left them to various people. None of them are saleable at the moment, I am afraid.’

The lean man in the horn-rims sat looking at her for a moment or so.

‘Well, it was a performance,’ he said at last. ‘Did he keep faith in these ventures? Did he hope they’d recover?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said softly. ‘I used to wonder if he knew they were valueless, or if he still thought of them as money. He was used to being rich, you see. There’s a great deal in being used to a thing. I’m afraid he died just in time.’ There was a moment’s silence before she said suddenly: ‘To the uninformed Edward’s will might look as if he’d died wealthy. All our wills suggest that we have money. That is why I wanted you to come here and learn the facts.’

‘I see,’ he said. ‘You’ve all made little presents of a thousand or so Gold Gold Gold Uniteds to kind old friends everywhere, have you?’

‘We’ve shown that we would have looked after our people if we had been able,’ she said stiffly.

‘Dear me. And is there any hope at all of any of these securities gaining value?’

Miss Jessica looked a little hurt. ‘Not all the companies are in liquidation yet,’ she said. ‘Mr. Drudge watches them for us, but he says Edward was very thorough. That’s a joke, of course.’

Campion thought it wisest not to comment. Mr. Edward Palinode appeared to have had a genius for finance in reverse.

The office clock on the wall struck the half-hour and Miss Jessica rose.

‘I don’t want to miss my walk,’ she said blandly. ‘I like to be on my seat by the path just after three. I’ll leave you to the documents if you don’t mind.’

He crossed the room to open the door for her, and as he handed her her bag a spray of wilted leaves sprouting out of it reminded him of something.

‘Don’t,’ he said gently, ‘Don’t doctor the locals. No more poppy tea.’

She did not look at him and the hand which took the bag trembled.

‘Oh, I have been wondering about that . . .’ she said. ‘But I haven’t broken my rule. I always taste everything first.’ She glanced up, her eyes earnest and imploring. ‘You don’t believe I killed him, do you, not even by mistake?’

‘No,’ he said stoutly. ‘No, I don’t.’

‘Nor do I,’ she said and sounded unexpectedly relieved.

A few moments later Mr. Drudge returned with a folder. He was making a not unpleasant whirring sound under his breath, a fact of which he appeared happily unaware.

‘Here we are,’ he said. ‘Oh, she’s faded, has she? Not a bad idea. Lets one loosen up a bit. Well, I’ve been chinning with the old Skip and he says Bang on, jolly good show, first ray of light they’ve shown. Here’s the essential gen. Miss Evadne and Lawrence have both got two hundred and ten per a. from gilt-edged three per C’s. Poor little Jess in the trimmings has forty-eight quid. Forty-eight, mind you, in the same stock: not a hell of a lot of ackers. When Miss Ruth died her net negotiable assets were seventeen shillings and ninepence, a Breeches bible, and a garnet necklace, which we hocked to pay for her funeral. No one’s killing them off for the money in it. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it?’

‘Partly. The rest of the stock is genuinely worthless, is it?’

‘Absolutely plugholed. My dear old owl---sorry, I feel I’m getting to know you---it’s utterly in the mire.’

In his new expansiveness Mr. Drudge was developing a slight stammer.

‘Do---oh---n’t think we hadn’t thought of that. The Skip was on to it like a sto---oh---at. Even I thought of it. We’ve gone over the scrip with eagle eyes, absolutely eagle. It’s amazing. The old boy never bought a sausage that didn’t pong like a go---oh---at. No wonder my old man had heart failure.’

‘How did it happen?’

‘He wouldn’t see reason. He was obstinate and no one could hold him. Kept on pranging. Never learnt.’

‘Do I understand that all this worthless stuff is distributed among the family?’

‘No such luck. It’s spread round the landscape.’ Mr. Drudge’s round grey eyes were serious. ‘Give your mind to this, sir. My old man, who had handled the family’s affairs since the Flood, got written off just before Edward Palinode blew up and went down in flames.’

Campion nodded to indicate partial comprehension.

‘Face it,’ said Clot. ‘My partner, the Skip, knew nothing of any will Edward had made until the tax harpies vultured down for death duties. He showed them the light pretty damned quick and during the engagement he got a bellyful of Palinode. At this point I blew in and he shot me the whole basketful. I got cracking and one of the things I did was to make old Ruth, who wasn’t an utterly unsporting number, understand that she’d be doing more for her loved ones if she left them a fiver each instead of the odd ten thousand in Bulimias or Filippino Fashions, and she rewrote her homework. However, by the time she died, not long after, the silly kite had spent even the fivers.’

‘I see.’ Mr. Campion had begun to feel deeply sympathetic. ‘Could you give me a list of the people who were going to get shares and then had or didn’t have cash?’

‘Definitely. The whole briefing is here. We’ve been going over it ourselves. Take it home and use it as you think fit. Miss Ruth’s trouble was that she loved everybody. She put them all in her will, the jolly old grocer, the chemist, the doctor, the bank manager, the landlady, the undertaker’s son---even her own brother and sisters. The whole family is round the bend, you know, definitely.’

Campion took the folder of carbons and hesitated.

‘Miss Jessica was saying something just now about the Brownie Mine Company,’ he ventured. ‘Wasn’t there a faint rumour of possible life there a few months or so ago?’

‘Whizzo!’ Mr. Drudge was admiring. ‘You types know your stuff. There was, just after she died. She held a fairly hefty parcel of the stuff and I felt I was clot by name and clot by nature because I convinced her that the scrip was toilet paper pure and unmedicated. In fact I laid it on so thick that she insisted on leaving it all to an old boy who had pinched her room. One of the lodgers. His name’s in there. Beaton, is it?’

‘Seton.’

‘That’s right. She did it to annoy him. I got the wind up when the rumour eased out, but there you are, it was nothing.’

‘A brutal joke of hers,’ Campion said slowly.

‘God, yes!’ The grey eyes bulged. ‘I told her. I tell ’em all but they don’t hitch on. I tell you what about the Palinodes. I know that breed. Met it in the war. They think everything, think what they feel. You don’t feel so fierce if you only think it. Deep, this, but jolly true. They know what they’d think if anyone played such a stinker on ’em, but they don’t know what the poor clot would feel because they don’t. Got that?’

‘Yes, I think so.’ Campion was looking at him curiously. ‘What did you and your partner make of the Brownie Mine incident? Did you consider it at all?’

‘We gave it our best.’ He was very solemn. ‘Lord, yes, we’re reasonably alert. We rather cared for the idea of the old lodger writing her off as the hope of fortune hove in sight, but then we thought perhaps not. Type would have had to know about the legacy, and there’s no proof that he did. That’s one thing. And then the tip about Brownies was never even a likely starter. Finally, too, the Skip feels that a lad in that position would have hit the besom over the head with a bottle and not fiddled about with beverages. How do you feel?’

Campion considered Captain Seton and the more he thought of him the less he liked the theory.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you know when I’ve read this lot.’

‘Jolly good show. Don’t hesitate to call on us. We feel our clients are screwy but not bloodstained. Besides, we take a dim view of their massacre. If anyone writes ’em off it ought to be us; that’s our view.’

He was still chatting affably as he conducted his visitor through the outer office to the head of the stairs. Mr. Campion remained thoughtful.

‘You haven’t a young man called Dunning on your books, have you?’ he said as they shook hands.

‘Fear not. Why?’

‘No reason at all, except that he has just got himself banged over the head with a bottle or something like it.’

‘Good lord! Same wrap-up?’

‘It would appear so.’

Mr. Drudge held on to his moustache. ‘I’m blistered if I see how that fits in,’ he pronounced.

‘So am I,’ said Mr. Campion truthfully and they parted.

Out in the Barrow Road it was raining in that curious secret way which is a London speciality. The tarred blocks of the road, worn into a thousand wrinkles, glistened like black water. Hurrying passers-by looked as if they had damp sweat patches on every prominent area. Yet there were no visible drops in the air or on the clear toffee-coloured pavements. Every building was the same indeterminate grey.

Campion walked up Barrow Road. Apron Street lay to his right but he did not turn. He wandered on, disregarding the rain, his chin tucked into his coat collar. It was the first break he had had in which to give his mind to the various brightly coloured threads which made up the puzzle, and at the moment it looked the most impossible knot of human monkey-business he had ever seen. He walked for a long time, considering each strand in the tangle, following each loose end as far as it would take him. It was an instructive experience, but he was still a long way from the solution and the rain had turned into the blue fog of late afternoon when he turned aside to plunge into the web of small roads which must take him back to Portminster Lodge. His mind had left the Palinodes and he was thinking of Clarrie Grace as he stepped out from the pavement to cross over a narrow side street. A ramshackle truck with a wobbling black hood was advancing towards him down the otherwise deserted way and he paused in the centre of the road to allow it to pass.

Its sudden murderous swerve towards him astounded him, even as his instinctive leap saved his life. The lorry’s swing was completely reckless and impulsive and appeared to be intentional. Campion was as amazed as if the ancient vehicle had snapped at him. The driver made no attempt to stop. After his single abortive dart he recovered his course and scuttled on, the bunched tarpaulin curtains at the back swinging out like pigtails.

In the second before the lurching shape disappeared into the blue shadows, Campion caught a fleeting glimpse of its interior. A single packing-case, very long and unusually narrow, lay across the jolting boards, and from the darkness just above it a woman’s plump face peered out at him. As their eyes met a stupid, frightened smile of recognition passed over her mouth.

It was Bella Musgrave. She was older and heavier than when he had seen her last, and now an ex-army oilskin cloak had been huddled over her black coat, but she was unmistakable. She was sitting on the packing-case, her podgy body swaying as the truck staggered round the bend and vanished.

The sight of her squatting there, round and sinister, shook him much more than his own narrow escape. In view of her various professions her driver should have been a death’s-head, he reflected grimly, and it occurred to him suddenly that it was probably Rowley who had recognized him and had yielded to the sudden temptation to try and run him down.

He was so certain of this that when he ran into the Bowels, father and son, walking demurely down Apron Street together about five minutes later, he was astounded. He was also deeply interested, for whoever the driver had been he had certainly recognized him, and that with a definite lack of enthusiasm which argued that he was an old enemy. This in turn made him a professional practitioner. So far, the professional crook element had been conspicuously absent from Apron Street. Campion was delighted, not to say relieved, to find a trace of it at last.

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