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22: Slip-Knots

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Author Topic: 22: Slip-Knots  (Read 59 times)
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« on: June 04, 2023, 07:16:08 am »

WHEN Charlie Luke finally returned it was morning on the day of Miss Evadne’s revel. Campion was still in bed, but not asleep. He had been awake for some time and was lying with his hands behind his head allowing his thoughts to boil gently. They eddied and streamed, turned over and spread out, whilst he looked down on them from some aloof and godlike vantage point. The facts in this oddest of his cases had emerged in no sort of order. They had jostled and contradicted each other, explained themselves or become more and more unlikely as the days had raced on. But now at last he thought he was beginning to see their pattern. It was still confused in places and the face which must provide the central motif remained obscure, but the basic design was emerging.

He had awakened, too, with a query. It had been thrown up, complete and vital, by his subconscious mind in sleep, and the more he considered it the more obvious and elementary it became.

His pen lay on the bedside table and he unscrewed it to scribble a note to Sergeant Picot on the back of an envelope. As he put it down he saw by his watch that it was close on a quarter to seven. There was still no sign of Lugg, he observed with dismay. At the same time he became aware that the house was not only stirring, but that some sort of upheaval was taking place. He slid into a dressing-gown and opened his door, to meet an offensive of strange odours which suggested that Miss Jessica had been cooking again. He paid little attention to it, however, for on the other side of the landing Miss Roper was smacking Charlie Luke’s face. She was wearing a thick brown robe fashioned from an army blanket, and her lace boudoir cap had given place to a green bandana tied firmly over curlers. She was as angry as a disturbed setting hen.

Charlie Luke, grey with weariness but still remarkably good-tempered, picked her up by the elbows and held her kicking a foot or so from the floor.

‘Come on, Auntie,’ he said, ‘be a good girl or I’ll have to send a real policeman with a helmet to you.’

Miss Roper let herself go limp and he set her down, but she still barred his way.

‘One of your young men has been with him all night, and Clarrie and I have had a dreadful morning with him. Now he’s asleep and you’re not to wake him; he’s an ill man.’

‘I bet he is, but I’ve got to see him.’

Renee caught sight of Campion, whom she hailed as a deliverer.

‘Oh, ducky,’ she said, ‘make this stupid boy see a little reason. The Captain’s had an accident. He doesn’t often do it and he’s not used to it, but when he does it’s enough to kill him. Charlie’s got a crazy idea he’s been writing anonymous letters, which is one thing he wouldn’t do, that I will say for him---though I could wring his wicked old neck for him this minute. I’ve got him to sleep and he won’t be fit to speak to for hours and not to look at for a week. Do make him leave him alone. He can’t stand, much less run away.’

A dismal sound from the room behind her confirmed her diagnosis and her small brown body fluttered like a bird’s.

‘Oh, run along do!’ she said to Luke. ‘If he’s been up to anything you shall make him answer for it as soon as he’s halfway to being himself. I know him. He’d admit to anything now just to get a minute of peace.’

Luke hesitated and she pushed him before her.

‘Oh, I have got a day,’ she said bitterly. ‘There’s all this to clean up, the boy’s coming from hospital at noon and has to go straight to bed, and then there’s this damn silly party. Evadne’s asked half London by all accounts and we’ve nothing to give them. Take Mr. Luke into your room, Albert, and I’ll send you both up a bit of breakfast.’

Another and more violent groan from the stricken warrior made the D.D.I.’s mind up for him.

‘I’ll give him half an hour,’ he said, and then, catching Campion’s eye, raised both thumbs in an expressive gesture. ‘Right on the target,’ he said as he closed the bedroom door after them and turned his head away resolutely from the one comfortable chair. ‘I hand it to you.’

Mr. Campion seemed modestly pleased. ‘Is the lady in the bag?’

‘In the cells, crying all over the floor.’ Luke shook himself expressively. ‘We’ve had her on the carpet most of the night and now the whole station’s wet. Funny thing, she was explicit enough on paper but we couldn’t get a word out of her except, “Oh, my God!” for close on three hours. I left her to cool between two and four this morning and had a bit of kip so I’m fairly fresh.’ He yielded to the chair’s invitation as he spoke and propped his lids open.

‘It’s her all right,’ he said.

‘Did she admit it?’

‘Yes. At a quarter to five this morning. We picked her up at her house at half-past eleven last night. We found the paper, the ink and the envelopes, as well as a sample of the disguised handwriting on a bit of blotting paper. But she wouldn’t come across until dawn. Just sat there like a bull frog.’ He blew out his cheeks, lowered his brows, and made himself a high-corseted bust with his hands. ‘Then she broke like an egg. We heard all about the dear Captain and what a gentlemanly soul he’d got. She did it all for him, she says. He was so helpless and put upon. He touched her heart and moved her to do what she knew she didn’t ought, having been brought up very different. How do these old boys do it? Pull out their empty pockets and cry?’

He wriggled himself more deeply into the cushions and made an attempt to keep his eyes at least half open.

‘To do him justice, she’s misleading. I don’t suppose he had the faintest idea what he was stirring up under that mumbo-jumbo-I-see-all exterior. He probably just rambled on, trying to make himself interesting.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr. Campion, ‘and how did you get on with her brother?’

Luke frowned. ‘We slipped up over Bloblip,’ he admitted. ‘As she opened the front door to us he slid out of the back. I left an officer to wait for him but by the time I came out this morning he hadn’t showed up. We shall collect him in the end, of course, but meanwhile it’s annoying.’

‘Was her letter-writing his idea?’

The red-rimmed eyes flickered wide at the new suggestion.

‘I---shouldn’t---think so. There was no hint of it. No, I think Psychic Phoeb was just letting out her own stays, if you get my meaning. That’s what’s so peeving. You know how it is better than I do. Usually in these affairs, once you do get a genuine lead’---he pulled an imaginary thread with delicately adjusted thumb and second finger---‘the whole thing comes unravelling out like Auntie’s jumper. But this just takes us to an evil-minded old blossom with a schoolgirl crush on the Captain and a grievance against the Doc. He snubbed her, by the way. That sticks out a mile, although all she’ll say is that she used to go to him for her stomach, but stopped. He is a bit short with hysterical patients, I’ve heard that before. It can’t get us very far, though. The whole thing’s practically a dead end, isn’t it?’

‘I wonder. It’s extraordinary she should have been right. She accused the doctor of overlooking a murder and he had. That’s pretty good going for mere spite.’

Luke was not satisfied. ‘She got it from the Captain. That’s why I want to talk to him myself. He may have said more than he knew. You know how it is when a chap comes pouring out his troubles twice a week. He forgets what he said last time; you don’t. She got the idea out of him. What would Bloblip know about what went on over here?’

Mr. Campion did not argue but began to dress. Presently he inquired if Sergeant Picot was still on duty. Luke forced himself to sit upright.

‘No, he’s in hospital, poor bloke,’ he said apologetically. ‘Put his knees out jumping from a bus going home last night. Pure accident, and just at the wrong moment. D’you want to see him in particular, or can I get you another man?’

Campion glanced at the note in his hand.

‘No,’ he said hastily, ‘no, it doesn’t matter in the least. All the better in one way. When does Miss Congreve come up before the Magistrate? Do you want to be there?’

‘Ten. And Porky can see to her. She’ll get bail. Anything I can do for you?’

Campion grinned. ‘If I might advise it, I should take an hour or two’s sleep in my bed. By the time you wake the Captain may be almost intelligent if not affable. Meanwhile I should like to follow up a night-thought of my own. Where shall I find the local coroner’s office?’

The final question cut short Luke’s protest. He was too well trained to ask a direct question, but he sat up at once, alert and curious.

‘Twenty-five Barrow Road,’ he said promptly. ‘I’ve got several chaps released for duty now, though. No need to do your own homework.’

Campion’s tousled head appeared through his shirt.

‘Don’t give it another thought,’ he said. ‘I may so easily be wrong.’

He had breakfasted, escaped from Renee, avoided the Palinodes, and seen from the newspapers that the police were confident, by a few minutes before nine, and he came hurrying down the front steps to find only Mrs. Love and her pail barring his way. She wore a sky-blue coif and a white overall for morning, and was gaily arch as usual.

‘Company today,’ she shouted, winking a rheumy eye at him and adding in a whisper, which was like a fall of sand, ‘there’s a lot coming because of the crime. I say there’s a lot coming because of the crime. We’ve nothing to give ’em.’ She laughed like an evil child, light-hearted mischief in her rosy face. ‘I say we’ve got nothing to give ’em. It’s the rationing. Don’t fergit the party. Come back in time. I say come back in time.’

‘Oh, I’ll be in long before that,’ he assured her, and plunged out into the misty sunshine, his coat flapping round his long legs.

Yet he was mistaken. His call took him far into the morning and its consequence was a series of further visits. These were delicate encounters, demanding all the tact in his not inconsiderable store. Relatives were tracked and questioned, next-of-kin located but not confirmed; but, by the time the setting sun had achieved a blood-red Apron Street, he came striding down it with new excitement in his step and a certain grim pleasure in the line of his wide mouth.

His first impression on catching sight of the house was that it must be on fire. The crowd had grown to mounted police proportions, and there was a first-night squad of cameramen at each approach. Corkerdale, reinforced by two uniformed men, was holding the gate and garden walls, while the front door at the top of the steps stood wide and tantalizing. Miss Evadne’s conversazione had begun.

Inside, the atmosphere was tremendous. An air of hospitality had been achieved by the simple method of leaving all the doors open, while a sheaf of dusty laurestinus, obviously cut from the garden, hid the patch of bad wall between the service staircase and the old dining-room door. Someone---Campion suspected Clarrie---had fixed an old brass four-pronged candlestick on the flat top of the newel-post. The candles guttered in the draught and there was rather a lot of tallow about, one way and another. But the general effect was not ungay.

No sooner had his foot touched the mat than Renee bobbed out at him from the drawing-room. She was unexpectedly magnificent in solid black, save for a small white silk afternoon tea apron adorned with rosebuds. He thought at first that her histrionic instinct had prompted her to dress up as a stage housekeeper, but her first words corrected him.

‘Oh, it’s you, dear,’ she said, catching his arm. ‘Thank God for someone with a mite of respectability. I’m the only one in the house who’s remembered to put on a speck of mourning. It’s not that they’re heartless, but they’re so busy thinking they don’t have time to think, if you see what I mean.’

‘Perfectly. It suits you. You look lovely.’

She laughed at him, the sun coming out in her worried eyes.

‘You wicked boy!’ she said. ‘There’s no time for that kind of talk now. I wish there were. I say, Albert’---she lowered her voice and peered down the hall---‘is all this true about the police now knowing who they want and flinging out a net and closing in on them?’

‘I hadn’t heard it,’ he said curiously.

‘Well, you’ve been out all day, haven’t you? I think you’ll find it’s right. Clarrie told me not to tell a soul, and I shan’t, of course, but there’s dozens more police about, just watching, waiting for the word.’

‘What a pity no one gives it.’

‘It’s nothing to laugh at, dear. They’ve got to have proof, haven’t they? Oh, I shall be glad when it’s all over, however horrible the shock is, and I’ve had a few. Look at my old Captain!---sneaking out to have his fortune told and play handy-pandy with a---well, I won’t demean myself, Albert, but really I---an old haybag. She’d make fifteen of me. She put the fear of God into him by writing the letters. He must have known. He swears he didn’t, the old liar, but as I told him, I may have kept my figure, but I wasn’t born yesterday.’

She was very militant and utterly feminine. Her eyes were flashing like an angry girl’s.

‘Of course he’s sick and sorry now,’ she said, ‘and one can’t help forgiving him, but when he took his dying oath that he didn’t even guess it was her until she admitted it, and had the cheek to threaten to post one to Lawrence in the box outside the house, well, I could have given him a fourpenny one! He says he stopped her posting the letter that night, but when he found she’d still sent it the next morning and Lawrence was right on the track, he sneaked up the stairs in a blue funk and put himself clean out with a bottle I didn’t even know he had. I could kill him, I could really.’

Campion laughed. ‘What are you doing now?’ he inquired. ‘Watching to see he doesn’t get out?’

‘Ducky, he can’t stand!’ Her chuckle was barely malicious. ‘He’s very penitent, tucked up waiting to be waited on. No, I’m just standing here catching old pals as they go upstairs. It’s just to tell them that Clarrie’s got a bit of a bar going down in the kitchen. There’s a little gin and plenty of beer. It’s not much, we know, but it’s something. You go up and talk for a bit, but don’t drink anything, especially that yellow stuff they’re serving in the glasses. She makes it with groundsel and it has a very funny effect. When you’ve had enough uplift come down to the basement. I can’t have friends treated to nothing when they come to the house.’

He thanked her and smiled down at her with genuine affection. The evening light was streaming through the doorway directly on to her face, picking out the contours of the delicate bones under her wrinkled skin. As he turned to go upstairs his glance travelled through the open doorway of Lawrence’s room to the chimney-piece. He stared at it for a moment and then looked at her again, a startled expression on his pale face.

Another knot in the tangle pulled smoothly out as he watched it and her hitherto incomprehensible place in the household was suddenly explained and made rational. He took a chance.

‘Renee, I believe I know why you do all this.’

The moment he had spoken he knew it was a mistake. Her face grew bleak and her eyes secretive.

‘Do you, dear?’ There was a warning in the edge of her tone. ‘Don’t be too clever, will you? See you in the kitchen.’

‘As you like,’ he murmured, and hurried on, well aware that as she looked after him she was not smiling.

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