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15: Two Days Later

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Author Topic: 15: Two Days Later  (Read 27 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 06:45:38 am »

IT was a very small ward, no more than a ragged pipe-seamed segment walled off to make some larger room a tidier shape. At the moment it was crowded and almost dark, since the single bulb, a light near the door, was heavily shaded. Mike Dunning, looking more like a worried bull-terrier than ever under his bandages, was talking as best he could for his dizziness and the deep sense of misgiving which a brief ownership of a petrol-driven vehicle had implanted in him towards the police.

He was still very ill. Waves of nausea, followed by vivid terrors which he dimly recognized as unreasonable, overcame him every so often, so that he hesitated and smiled secretly as if he were drunk.

Sergeant Dice, who hovered in the doorway, and Luke and Mr. Campion, who sat one on either side of the white iron bed, were little more than shapes in the gloom. But the young nurse, who in daylight looked like an advertisement for holidays in Devon, was tall and steady at his feet. Her white coif caught what light there was comfortingly and sometimes he forgot and told his story to her.

‘Clytie,’ he said again. ‘It’s Clytie I’ve got to think about. She doesn’t know a thing. It’s the way they’ve brought her up. You wouldn’t understand.’ He would have shaken his head but the pain warned him just in time. ‘She’s a kid. She’s so sweet, but she didn’t know a thing when I found her. She frightened me. She wasn’t safe out. Why did you send her away?’

‘She’ll come back,’ said the nurse. ‘Tell these gentlemen how you came to get hurt.’

‘Don’t hold out on a chap, ducks.’ His dark eyes, fringed with coarse fair lashes, were anxious. ‘You don’t know those Palinodes. They’ll get hold of her again and shut her up until she grows like them. That’s why I took her in hand. I had to.’ He swayed a little and a secret smile, apologetic and foolish, passed over his soft boy’s mouth. ‘I’m responsible for her,’ he said, opening his eyes wide. ‘She hasn’t got anybody but me.’

‘Who hit you?’ repeated Charlie Luke for the fifth time.

Mike considered the question. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Funny thing, I don’t know at all.’

‘After you left your landlady you decided to sleep with your bike,’ Campion began softly.

‘That’s right.’ He seemed surprised. ‘The old bath-tub turned me out. I was jolly annoyed. It was after midnight and she came down in her old man’s warden’s greatcoat, with her hair in curlers. She gave me my ration-book and then the door shut.’ He was silent for a while. ‘I must have walked,’ he said.

‘From right out there?’ murmured Luke in the dusk. ‘How long did it take you?’

‘I don’t know. A couple of hours . . . no, not as much as that. I heard two strike when I was watching them.’

‘Watching who?’ Luke’s question was a little too eager, a little too loud. The patient closed his eyes.

‘I forget,’ he said. ‘Where’s Clytie now?’

‘On the third seat on the left of the corridor, just outside the door,’ said Campion promptly. ‘She’s all right. Was it still raining when you stood watching?’

His eyes, half hidden by the ugly lashes, became thoughtful again.

‘No, it had stopped by then. It was dark, you know. The street lights go out early. But I thought I’d better get to the bike because there wasn’t a lock on the door and I was worried about it. I hadn’t anywhere else to go, either, nowhere I could afford.’

He paused, but this time there was no prompting, and presently his exhausted voice continued.

‘I turned into Apron Street and pushed on to the mews. There was enough light from the sky to see one’s way, but I went quietly because I didn’t feel like explaining to any darned bobby.’ He blinked. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. But that’s what happened. I was right on top of the coffin shop when the door opened and they came out, old man Bowels and the son, who let me the shed. They were the last people I wanted to meet just then, so I side-stepped promptly. The only cover was the shop window itself, which juts out from the wall about a foot. I thought they were bound to see me, but it was pretty dark and I held my breath. They would not get on with it. There was a hell of a lot of mucking about in the porch, locking the door, I suppose.’ He grinned. ‘The young one put his head out and I swear I felt his breath. Then he said, “There’s no one in the street, father,” just like a kid. I thought I was going to giggle. I was half a mind to, just to see him jump out, but I wasn’t as barmy as that, and presently they went over the road together. I could see them because the light was grey, like a neg, and old Bowels had a sheet over his arm.’

‘A what?’ Charlie Luke forgot his caution as the macabre highlight slid into the boy’s dark picture.

‘A sheet,’ the patient persisted. ‘It must have been. Nothing else looks like a sheet, does it, except a tablecloth? He had it neatly folded over his arm. It gave me the willies. They went over to the chemist’s and stood there for a bit and I thought they must have rung the bell because I heard a window open upstairs, and somebody spoke, although I couldn’t hear what was said. And then after a while I couldn’t see the gleam of the sheet any more, so I took it they’d gone in.’

‘Sure it was the chemist’s?’

‘Quite. I know Apron Street pretty well now by any light.’

Any ungracious comment from the D.D.I. was forestalled by Mr Campion.

‘That was when you heard the clock strike two, was it?’ he inquired, reflecting that his own interview with the undertakers, from the window of Renee’s drawing-room, must have taken place some time after three.

Mike Dunning hesitated. The scene was returning to him slowly and it surprised him all over again.

‘No,’ he said finally. ‘No. That was when I saw the Captain and Lawrence.’

‘Were they there too?’

‘Not at the chemist’s. After the bone-snatchers had gone, I went over the road to the Palinode house.’

‘What for?’ Charlie Luke demanded.

‘To look at it.’ He was so tired that he spoke without even truculence, yet nobody in the room, not even Sergeant Dice, pretended that the reason was unapparent. ‘There was no light in Clytie’s window---her room’s in the front, you know---and I don’t think I should have risked chucking a stone at it if there had been one. I just made sure she was asleep. I was turning away when I saw Lawrence Palinode---that’s her uncle and the worst of the lot of them---come sneaking out of the front door and down the steps.’ His smile grew mischievious, like an urchin’s. ‘I thought he was after me,’ he said. ‘X-ray eyes and all that. But then I realized I wasn’t in it. There is one street lamp on that corner which is kept alight all night and it happened to shine on him as he stepped off the path. I heard him shoving quietly through the bushes until he came up against that row of stucco urns they call a wall. I wasn’t very far from him, as it happened, but I was in complete shadow from the house, I could just see about half his face when he leaned over out of the laurels.’

‘Where was the Captain? With him?’

‘No. He was across Barrow Avenue on the corner of the terrace, by the postbox. Lawrence was watching him and I was watching Lawrence. It was all damned silly but I daren’t move. I couldn’t think what everybody was doing beetling about in the dark. That was when I heard the clock on the R.C. church in Barrow Road strike two.’

‘How could you see Captain Seton at that distance?’

‘Oh, I couldn’t.’ Mr. Dunning’s naturally cheerful disposition was reasserting itself. ‘I couldn’t see him at all for a long time. Old Lawrence was watching something over there and I watched too. Then I saw someone step out of a doorway, pass in front of the pillarbox, and look up the Avenue towards the Barrow Road. He was only there a minute and then nipped back again. Presently the whole thing happened again, and something about the shape of the chap---the way his hat went, I think---struck me as familiar.’

‘Was there enough light for you to see all this?’ The D.D.I. was fascinated.

‘Yes, I told you it was like a neg. Black shadows and everything else a sort of chilly grey. I kept getting different silhouettes of the chap every time he appeared, and every time I got more certain it was the old boy. He’s all right; Clytie likes him. Then the woman turned up.’

Campion saw the whites of Charlie Luke’s eyes, or thought he did. The D.D.I. was splendidly silent.

‘She came wruffling up the pavement,’ the husky voice continued, ‘and I never saw her face, of course, but I guessed she was oldish from the way she walked, and I could see she was fat although she was all bundled up. The Captain stepped out and spoke to her as if he knew her, and they stood there talking for about ten minutes. I thought they were arguing. The old boy was wagging his hands about. Lawrence was half over the wall. That neck of his stuck out like a stalk. He was trying to hear what they were saying, I think, which was absurd even if they’d shouted. At last the woman turned away and came straight for us, or I thought she was going to. Actually she crossed to the other side of Apron Street and went into the mews. The Captain came into the house and Lawrence went in himself. I know, because I had to stay where I was until he’d gone.’

Charlie Luke scratched his head. ‘Sounds as if it must have been the Captain and he was waiting for her. Pity you didn’t see her. Are you sure she went into the mews?’

‘Absolutely. I watched. There’s a way through into Barrow Road.’

‘You’re sure the Bowels didn’t come back into the mews?’

‘No. How could they? There’s no back way to the chemist’s shop and I wasn’t ten yards from the front window.’

‘Then what happened?’

Mike leant back farther in his pillows and the nurse seemed to be about to declare the interview at an end. He rallied, however, and went on eagerly.

‘I went into the mews and found the bike,’ he said. ‘That’s right. There was a light under Bowels’s back door and I remembered the son had told me they’d got a relation staying with them. I sidled down to the shed, afraid that the chap might hear me. The bike was there all right. I shut the door before I lit a match to see. I hadn’t a torch.’

‘Did you notice anybody?’

‘No, there was no one downstairs. I thought I heard someone in the loft and I spoke, I think. I can’t remember. Anyway there was no more noise and I thought I must have heard one of the horses next door. There was nothing to sit on and the bricks were pretty well running with damp, and so I thought I’d be better off upstairs. I was tired as hell and I’d got to think. I’d only got a pound in the world until pay-day.’ His forehead wrinkled under his bandage. ‘That’s another problem,’ he said, and grinned disarmingly. ‘We’ll give that our attention later. Well, I lit a match and held it down to keep it alight, and tottered up the ladder. That’s absolutely all I remember. Somebody socked me, I suppose. Who was it?’

‘Hardly the Captain’s girl-friend,’ said Campion foolishly.

As they got up Dunning put out a hand to him.

‘Send her in, there’s a good scout,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve got to talk to her. You don’t know what sort of mess she’ll get into without me.’

‘Of course, that’s when it’s serious,’ remarked Campion to the D.D.I. as they walked down the concrete steps of the hospital together after the errand had been completed.

‘Poor ruddy little kids!’ exploded Charlie Luke unexpectedly. ‘No one’s looking after either of ’em so they’re taking care of each other.’ He paused, ‘Like a couple of drunks,’ he said. ‘Well, it wasn’t Lugg’s relations after all.’

‘No, it would appear not.’ Campion was puzzled. ‘I think I should like a chat with Jas.’

‘He’s all yours. I’ve got to go down and see Sir Doberman now. There was a message from him just before this call came through from the hospital about Dunning. I don’t know what the old boy’s dogged up now.’

They had reached the gates and he stood for a moment, restless and unhappy. His eyes were worried and deep in his head.

‘Do you know where this blasted case is getting to, sir?’ he said. ‘I know I’m short-handed, what with H.Q. pinching half the chaps, and I know it’s a difficult assignment, the Palinodes being such unusual people, but do you see any light in it at all? Perhaps I’m just losing my grip.’

Campion, who despite his height looked slighter and smaller than the other man, took off his spectacles to regard him mildly.

‘Oh, it’s coming, Charles,’ he said. ‘It’s teasing out, don’t you know. As I see it, the point to keep in mind now is that there are clearly two different coloured threads in the---er---coil. The question is, are they tied at the end? I feel they ought to be, but I don’t know. What do you think?’

‘I sometimes wonder if I can,’ said Charlie Luke.

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