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25: Up Apron Street

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Author Topic: 25: Up Apron Street  (Read 39 times)
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« on: June 04, 2023, 08:59:07 am »

THE two buildings, the undertaker’s shop and the bank, divided only by the entrance to the mews, were silent and black in the rain. The downpour had increased. It had cleared most of the streets and made moonlit lakes of the woodblocks round every lamp-post. Even the wide Barrow Road was deserted save for an occasional late bus, and in the ill-lit streets there was no one, not a policeman, not a lover, not a cat.

The crowd before Portminster Lodge had shrunk like a flannel patch in the wet, but the nucleus of it remained and pressed forward in new excitement. Five minutes earlier Dice had opened the front door and invited the gentlemen of the Press inside for what he was pleased to call ‘a bit of a chat with Inspector Bowden’, and as the last soaked overcoat passed gratefully within, the four men, who did not wish to be observed and for whose benefit this somewhat elementary subterfuge had been arranged, came quietly up the area steps, pushed out through the loafers at the gate, and disappeared ostensibly in different directions.

They met in the mouth of the mews. Lugg and Charlie Luke went round to the front entrance of the bank and Yeo and Campion stood on the stone step of the small side door, dark and grimy under the archway. To their right was Apron Street, with the gleam of the Palinode windows making glittering pathways in the streaming roadway; to their left was the chasm of the mews, its ancient cobbles and old stable bricks catching what light there was and producing an interesting woodcut effect.

Yeo moved closer to his companion. His murmur was puzzled and a thought aggrieved.

‘Why does Luke keep calling the chap “Bloblip”?’

‘It will emerge, I hope.’ Campion bent his head to listen at the door.

Already the shrill clamour of the bell, whose push Lugg was leaning against on the other side of the house, stole out to them through the wood. It went on steadily without pause, like the rain.

For a long time there seemed to be no other sound in the world, and then at last, as their ears could bear it no more, it became a background noise, like the far-off hooting of tugs on the river and the lumbering of the undertaker’s horses nearer at hand.

Yeo was restive. In his late middle-age he had become a heavy breather and now his whisper crept gustily through the sighing of the rain.

‘Funny. Must be someone there, even if the manager’s out. Must be a night-watchman, servant, somebody. I’m not breaking in without a warrant, Campion, I warn you. I’m trusting you. We’re all trusting and depending on you, but there are limits.’

The noise of the door-bell ceased and he waited. The silence sang in their ears for a long time and presently he went on again, grumbling, puffing out the words.

‘It’s all very well to say “proof”, but there’s been a general call out for him all day---area wireless cars, and I don’t know what else. This damned boy Luke is just like his father. He’s wild because we had to leave him short-handed when the Greek Street business was on, and today he’s been getting his own back. He’ll be in dutch if there’s nothing to show at the end of it, and if the chap has been hiding here, right under your noses, you’ll both be ruddy lucky if you’re only laughed at.’

Campion did not hear him. He had ceased to listen some moments before, and since then had been struggling with the dull certainty that they were too late. Proof, perhaps, was still possible, but even so it was risky to break into a bank for it on uncertainty.

A wave of panic such as he had not felt since his twenties dashed over him as he envisaged the size and quality of the inevitable fiasco.

A new clamour, this time of alarm bells both inside and on the front of the building, brought both men to their toes, Yeo had just time to swear violently before a shadow, jaunty and silent as an alley-cat, bore down upon them from the street.

It was Luke. Recklessness had made him off-handedly cheerful.

‘Okay,’ he murmured. ‘It’s Lugg. He’s gone in through the window in a shower of glass. Damn it, he’s a burglar, isn’t he? He’ll get the door open, hop it, and we’ll rush in and protect the property. Sorry, Super. I’m working for my ticket this time, anyhow.’

Mr. Campion divined rather than saw Yeo’s face and could have laughed had the moment been any other than the dizzy one of failure. He could see himself opening that corner cupboard and finding it empty or full of books.

Luke pulled his sleeve. ‘Time we cops did our duty and answered the bell before our efficient inferiors hear it from over the way.’ He was grinning, but there was appeal and trust in his voice. Campion found them horrific. ‘Come on, sir, do your bit of magic.’

They moved towards the street, but as he came out into the rain, and just before he turned the corner, Campion looked back. The sound he made stopped the others and they turned. In the centre of the mews was a sight of fantasy.

From a dark coach-house, whose doors must have been standing open unseen in the gloom, a monstrous anachronism had appeared. It was a large black horse-drawn vehicle, sinister in shape, with a high box-seat for the driver and an ominous flat body entirely enclosed. Swaying and glistening in the light of its own old-fashioned lamps, the coffin brake swung away from them and moved lightly and with surprising swiftness towards the Barrow Road exit of the mews.

Yeo’s hand felt like iron on Campion’s shoulder. The Superintendent was out of his depth.

‘What the hell’s that?’ he demanded. ‘Who is it? Where’s he going at this time of night?’

Campion laughed aloud. He sounded hysterical.

‘It’s Jas,’ he said. ‘He’s saved us---or rather, Luke’s inspired general call has. He’s going “up Apron Street” before our eyes. Can we get a car?’

‘Can do.’ Luke strode off across the road with suspicious alacrity.

Above them the burglar-alarm continued its panic-stricken cacophony. Yeo was deeply quiet for a second before he moved nearer to his old friend. Then he cleared his throat and said with a deferential restraint which lent the announcement the force of an explosion: ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’

‘Hope on, Guv’nor.’ Campion spoke devoutly.

At that moment a long black car appeared out of the curtains of the sheeting rain and Luke stepped off the running-board to their side.

‘In the back if you please,’ he said politely, adding with defiant pride, ‘it’s got all the doings.’

Yeo grunted. Wireless cars were his pet private idea of crass extravagance. He had never grown used to them, hardly believed his own ears in them, thought their cost was fantastic, and, most unreasonably, their use a trifle sissy. The fact that such a vehicle should have been waiting outside Portminster Lodge, even at such a moment, scandalized him by its prodigality.

‘What about the bank?’ he demanded.

‘Dice and a couple of chaps are just behind me, sir. They’ll take care of it.’ Luke handed him into the car, and, after thrusting Campion in after him, would have followed himself had not a large wet figure, furious as a startled fowl and making much the same noise, descended upon them from the soaking darkness.

‘ ’Ere, ’ere, ’ere! What’s the game, eh? What’s on the ivories? What are you all playin’ at?’ Lugg was drenched. His bald head ran water and his moustache was hung with diamond drops. He thrust Luke aside and shot into the tonneau like a cannon-ball of wet washing, to subside on the floor on the far side, where he added considerably to the discomfort of all concerned.

As the door closed after Luke, and the car started, he was still expostulating.

‘Broken glass in me armpits, me finger-prints all over the door which is now ajar, and you scarpering like a pack of silly kids . . . I can believe it of some of you, but what you think you’re doing, Mr. Yeo, I don’t know!’

Luke placed a large but not unfriendly hand over his face.

‘Now, sir,’ he said briskly to Campion, ‘what’s the message?’

‘Light, sir?’ A new voice from the front seat put the question politely and at once the rest of the party came into view, two uniformed men, a driver and his operator in ear-phones.

The message, which caused comment over the entire circuit, went out in a matter of seconds.

‘Car Q23 calling all cars. Car Q23, calling all cars. Chief Inspector Luke. Am pursuing black horse-drawn vehicle with single passenger driver. Technical name coffin brake, repeat coffin brake. Last seen Barrow Road, West, proceeding north. Inform all call points. Over.’

It came back to them again and again, both from Control and other cars.

‘Central Control calling Car Q23. Central Control calling Car Q23. Chief Inspector Luke. Flash received. Black horse-drawn, repeat horse-drawn, vehicle. Technical name coffin brake, C for Charlie, O for orange, F for Freddy, F for Freddy, I for ink, N for nuts. Please confirm. Over.’

As they approached the old tram terminus at the top of Barrow Road, and the seventh or eighth message had just ceased, giving them a moment of silence, Yeo could bear it no longer.

‘Where’s the fire?’ he muttered to Campion, who was jammed in beside him. ‘No one on God’s earth could miss an archaic contraption like that. You can’t lose it. An ordinary Area Call must have picked him up in half an hour. What are we playing at?’

‘It’s imperative he doesn’t stop. We must get him before he stops, that’s vital.’

‘All right, if you say so. Any idea at all where he’s going?’

‘I think to Fletcher’s Town. What’s the address, Lugg?’

The sodden bundle heaved itself into a more comfortable position.

‘Peter George Jelf’s? Seventy-eight Lockhart Crescent. Going to broadcast that? You won’t see him for skid marks!’

‘Peter George Jelf? That’s a name from the past.’ Yeo sounded surprised and gratified. ‘You put an inquiry out for him, Luke, but we couldn’t trace him until quite by chance this morning. Old Pullen came in to see me. He’s retired, but like the rest of ’em can’t keep away. He happened to mention he’d run into Jelf on Euston Station as he came into town. The man seemed quite respectable, which is a contradiction in terms, and said he’d got a little haulage business in North London. Inspector Pullen was tickled because, when out of force of habit he glanced in the van, the only thing the chap had on board was a packing-case marked “Conjurer’s Stores”---singularly appropriate when one thinks back over his career. What’s the matter, Campion?’

‘Conjurer’s Stores . . .’ The lean man’s lazy voice was soft with relief and satisfaction. ‘So it’s arrived at last, has it? That’s my one superstition. When at last the little coincidence turns up unsought and unhoped for I know the angels are on my side exactly like Auntie said. Conjurer’s Stores . . . well, well. So that’s how they got the coffin back; I wondered about that.’

‘Back?’ said Luke, sitting up. ‘Back?’

Mr. Campion was about to explain. He had begun, ‘I’ve been making little inquiries on that all day . . .’ when the loudspeaker interrupted him.

‘Central Control calling Car Q23. Central Control calling Car Q23. Black horse-drawn vehicle thought to be coffin brake you reported seen twenty-three forty-four hours corner of Greatorex Road and Findlay Avenue N.W. proceeding north up Findlay Avenue at fair speed. Over.’

‘Hullo, he’s round the park,’ announced Yeo, the intrinsic excitement of the chase suddenly hitting him. ‘Seven and a quarter minutes ago. He’s shifting, Campion. Astounding. No traffic, of course, but a dangerous surface. Here, turn up here, driver. It’ll take you to Philomel Place. There’s a way through right at the north end which will bring you to the Broadway. Cross the Canal Bridge there and you get out into---blow it!---thingummy street . . . I’ll think of it in a moment. It’s a rabbit warren just there.’

‘We mustn’t lose him. Mustn’t miss him in the side streets.’ Campion spoke abruptly, the gleam of flying street lamps glinting on his spectacles as the car turned. ‘He mustn’t get to Jelf and he mustn’t stop. That’s vital.’

‘Why not call one of the other buses? J54 is up in Tanner’s Hill.’ Luke was fidgeting. ‘He could get down to Lockhart Crescent and hang about for him. They can hold him till we come, can’t they?’

‘I suppose so.’ Campion did not sound happy. ‘I want him to go on feeling he’s safe. All right, though. Probably best.’

Luke saw that the message went out as they raced through the dark built-up streets. Yeo, whose knowledge of London was legendary, had begun to enjoy himself, and the driver, also not without experience, became gratifyingly respectful.

The rain continued doggedly. It had settled into its stride and appeared to have achieved inevitability. For what seemed hours they passed no living thing. Even lighted windows were scarce. The entire city seemed to have gone to bed in disgust.

They passed down Findlay Avenue, its shabby-genteel mock-Gothic mansions turning blind eyes to them, and plunged into Legion Street at the roundabout where that great high-road settles down to its uninterrupted run to the north-western suburbs.

‘Steady.’ Yeo could not have spoken more softly on the banks of a trout stream. ‘Steady now. Even if he’s kept up his pace he can’t be far now.’

‘ ’Im and ’is packets of fags,’ said Lugg under his breath.

‘Him and his lip, you mean,’ said Luke.

Yeo had begun to rumble quietly. It was a sort of verbal doodling of which he was scarcely aware.

‘This is the old Duke’s estate . . . Wickham Street . . . Lady Clara Hough Street . . . There’s a little crescent up there. I wonder . . . No, road turns back here. Wickham Place Street . . . Wick Avenue . . . slowly, boy, slowly here. Any of these little side turnings would save him a quarter of a mile if he knows. May not risk losing himself. You can go on faster now. There’s no turning for a hundred yards. Blast this rain! I can’t see where I am half the time. Oh, yes, there’s the Peculiars chapel. Come on, now, come on. Coronet Street . . . slowly again now.’

The interruption from the loudspeaker came as a relief. The unnatural voice with the metallic undertone seemed unusually loud.

‘Central Control calling Car Q23. Central Control calling Car Q23. Attention. At twenty-three fifty-eight hours Constable 675 calling from Box 3Y6 stroke N.W. corner Clara Hough and Wickham Court Roads nor-west, reports attack at twenty-three fifty hours approx. by driver black horse-drawn vehicle thought to be a coffin brake. Acting on instructions given in your message 17GH, he advanced to intercept but was struck down by driver with heavy weapon, believed whip handle. Brake made off at fair speed, Wickham Court Road proceeding north. Will repeat in one minute. Over.’

‘Damn! Now he knows.’ Campion spoke savagely. ‘He’ll unload at the first opportunity.’

‘Wickham Court Road---we’re almost on him!’ Yeo was bounding in his seat. ‘He’s not shifting as we are, whatever he’s got in the shafts. Up here, driver. Turn left at the top. It’s barely midnight now. Keep your hair on, Campion; we’ll get him, boy. We’ll get him. Stands to reason.’

As they turned into the wind the rain descended on the windows in a solid sheet of water. Yeo, crouching over the driver’s shoulder, peered through the lunettes made by the screen wipers.

‘Now right, and at once left!----oh, very good. Now---hullo! hullo! what’s this? Hoardings? These are new since my time. Houses behind them caught a packet, I suppose. Wait, driver, wait. We’re on Wickham Hill now. Wickham Court Road is down there on the left! It’s very long and the police box must be close on a quarter of a mile down it. He must have come out here less than five minutes ago. Now then, Luke my boy, which way did he go? He didn’t come to meet us. If he went left to Hollow Street and the trams, he’d be running into the next cop sure as eggs, so there’s two alternatives; Polly Road, which is down there about fifty yards if it hasn’t been blown to blazes, or this little lane. It’s called Rose Way. It goes through to Legion Street again.’

‘Wait a minute.’ Campion opened the door and as the car stopped, slid out into the rain. He was in a narrow hissing world of brick and water. The hoardings, standing back from improvised fences, rose up over his head on one side, and on the other were scarred blocks of old-fashioned flats, nearly all of them dark as the grave. He listened, straining his ears for a single unusual sound in a mechanized age. Far away the whisper of the city came to him through the rain, but there was nothing nearer, not a footfall, nothing but the trickle and gurgle of water in the gutters.

Luke stepped quietly out beside him and he too stood listening, his strong chin upraised, the downpour soaking him unheeded.

‘He won’t risk going on. He’ll unload.’ Campion let the words out softly. ‘He’ll get away with it.’

The loudspeaker in the car sounded so clearly at their elbows that they both started. The message blared at them, the impersonal statement echoing bewilderingly through the night.

‘Central Control calling Car Q23. Central Control calling Car Q23. Message for Chief Inspector Luke. Attention. Joseph Congreve, 51B Terry Street West, found dangerously ill following murderous attack. Locked in cupboard upstairs room, Apron Street branch Clough’s Bank, zero, zero, zero two hours. Over.’

As the repeat message croaked its way to the end Luke came out of his stunned silence and caught Campion’s coat. He was shaking with shock and disappointment.

‘Apron Street!’ he exploded bitterly. ‘Apron Street! Bloblip’s in Apron Street. What the hell are we doing here?’

Campion was standing perfectly still. He put up his hand for silence.

‘Listen.’

From the far end of the lane which Yeo had called Rose Way came an unmistakable series of sounds. As they waited the noise grew louder and louder, until it seemed to fill the air. The galloping hoofs advanced towards them and behind them was the whisper and rustle of rubber-tyred wheels.

‘Legion Street took him by surprise. He funked meeting the police and turned.’ Campion was hardly articulate. ‘My hat, we may have done it after all. Quickly, driver, quickly! Don’t let him get away.’

The police car slid forward over the mouth of the lane at the moment when, with a clatter of hoofs as the iron beat the tarmac, the coffin brake appeared.

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