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26: Conjurer's Stores

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Author Topic: 26: Conjurer's Stores  (Read 46 times)
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« on: June 04, 2023, 10:48:50 am »

THE undertaker pulled up the moment he saw the danger. The road was too narrow for him to hope to turn and he made a virtue of the circumstance. He let the mare stand gratefully, the steam rising up from her flanks into the rain. From the high box he looked down inquiringly, water running in streams from the brim of his hard hat.

‘Why, it’s Mr. Luke.’ He sounded both friendly and surprised. ‘Terrible night, sir. Your car hasn’t broken down, I hope.’

Luke took the mare’s head.

‘Get down, Bowels. Come on, right down into the road.’

‘Why certainly, if you say the word, sir.’ He managed to convey complete mystification and began at once to unwrap himself from the various layers of oilskin which swaddled him.

Campion, who had gone round quietly on the outside, swung himself up to take the heavy whip out of its socket, and the old man stared at him with enlightenment.

‘Mr. Luke,’ he began, lowering himself cautiously on to the wet surface. ‘Mr. Luke, I think I understand you, sir. You’ve had a bit of a complaint from one of your officers.’

‘Talk at the station,’ said the D.D.I., woodenly official.

‘But I’d like to explain, sir---it’s not as if we were strangers.’ The reminder was eminently reasonable and not without dignity. ‘It was a goodish way back, a constable suddenly jumped out at me. He was like a lunatic, sir, though I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. I didn’t see ’is uniform at first in the rain, and I’m afraid that in my nervousness I struck out at ’im. It was to save ’is life and that’s a fact. The mare had taken fright and I’ve only this minute quietened ’er. She’s taken me half a mile out of my way as it is. That’s why I’m here. I ought to be on the lower road, and I would be if she’d not bolted.’

‘Tell it all at the station.’

‘Very good, sir. But this isn’t like you. Bless my soul, what’s that?’

A sound from the back of the brake had startled him. Mr. Campion was closing the back of the body, which fastened with iron butterfly-bolts and opened upwards, piano-fashion. As he came back towards them Jas smiled.

‘As you’ll have seen, sir, I’m on my lawful occasions,’ he said heartily. ‘A gentleman ’as died in a nursing home and has had to be took to his son’s for the interment. The firm employed couldn’t see their way to shift ’im tonight and the nursing home couldn’t keep ’im, so their foreman came to me. I obliged. You have to keep all the goodwill you can in my trade.’

‘Hurry up, my man.’ Yeo appeared in the darkness and took the horse’s head. ‘Take him to the car, Charlie.’

‘Yes, sir. I’m going, sir.’ Jas sounded hurt rather than annoyed. ‘Can any of you gentlemen drive? The mare’s not quite like a motor. Excuse me asking, but she’s had a fright and I wouldn’t trust her.’

‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll bring your horse myself. Get in the car.’ The Superintendent’s voice, stiff with authority, was yet not unfriendly, and the undertaker was quick to see that he had made an impression.

‘Very good, sir,’ he agreed cheerfully. ‘I’m in your hands. Shall I go first, Mr. Luke?’

He climbed into the car in silence and sank down in the seat Yeo had vacated. As he removed his sopping hat he came face to face with Lugg. It was a shock, but he said nothing. His fine big head with its crown of white curls remained erect, but his complexion had lost some of its aggressive health and his eyes were thoughtful.

The procession set out immediately, Yeo leading with Campion on the box beside him. The wind, now full behind them, blew the oilskin rugs which they had thrown round their shoulders into tall black wings. They glistened and flapped like sails in the headlights, lending the brake the illusion of unnatural speed.

The ill-lit half-drowned city swept by them, and in each vehicle the sense of urgency grew as, in silence, they made the return journey, to draw up at last under the blue lantern of the Barrow Road Divisional Police Station.

Abruptly Luke handed his captive over to the startled constable who had come hurrying down the steps to meet him, and then, followed by Lugg, strode along to the brake, which had pulled up just ahead.

‘He’s behaving damned naturally,’ he announced without preamble.

‘That’s what I thought.’ Yeo was blunt with misgiving, and both men looked anxiously at the slender figure, now almost obscured by its cloak of dripping oilskin.

Campion said nothing. He climbed quietly down from his seat and went round to the back of the brake. As soon as a constable had taken the mare’s head the others followed him. He had got the lid open by the time they arrived and his torch beam was playing on the coffin within. It was black and shining, of unusual size, and the gilding on it would have been less remarkable on a State coach.

‘ ’At’s it, cock. ‘At’s the one.’ Lugg’s thick voice was more husky than ever and he laid a cautious hand on the wood. ‘The ’inges must run along the edges, ’ere and ’ere. Can’t see ’em, can yer? Artist in his way, Jas is, the old perisher. I see ’im wonderin’ if ter mention Beatt the ’ole way along.’

Yeo produced his own torch.

‘Looks normal to me,’ he pronounced at last. ‘I’m hanged if I like this, Campion, but it’s for Luke to decide.’

The D.D.I. hesitated and glanced at Campion, his own doubts showing clearly in his deep-set eyes. The lean man was as expressionless as was usual when he was very excited.

‘Oh, I think so, you know,’ he said gently. ‘I think so. Take it in and open it up.’

In the D.D.I.’s shabby office, where the green-shaded lights hung down on long flexes from a dirty ceiling, Campion and Lugg arranged two wooden chairs in the same pattern as those they had found in the chemist’s back bedroom.

Presently, Luke, with Dice and two constables, came slowly in, carrying the coffin between them. They set its glistening length down tenderly on the chairs and stood back, while Yeo, who had followed them, his hands deep in his pockets, began to whistle a little tuneless dirge to himself.

‘The weight’s about right,’ he observed to Luke.

The younger man glanced at him unhappily, admitting the suggestion. However, having committed himself, he did not waver. He nodded to the sergeant.

‘Bring him along.’

After a moment or so they heard the undertaker and his escort coming down the corridor. He had a confident step as heavy as the police officer’s own, and when he stepped into the room, bareheaded and without his heavy driving cape, he looked sleek and stalwart and infinitely respectable.

Every man in the room watched his face as he caught sight of the coffin, but only one fully appreciated his remarkable control. It was true that he stopped in his tracks and the familiar stars of sweat appeared at his curling hair line, but he was outraged rather than afraid. With unerring instinct he turned to Yeo.

‘I hardly expected this, sir,’ he said mildly. ‘It may be forward of me to say so, but this isn’t very nice.’ The understatement embraced the sordidness of the apartment, the sacrilegious handling of the decently dead, the rights of the individual, and the high-handedness of officials generally. He stood before them, an honest, scandalized tradesman.

Luke met his eyes squarely and strove, Mr. Campion felt, to avoid anything faintly like defiance.

‘Open it, Bowels.’

Open it, sir?’

‘Right away. If you won’t, we will.’

‘No, no, I’ll do it, I’ll do it, Mr Luke. You don’t know what you’re suggesting, sir.’ His readiness was far more disconcerting than his shocked protests. ‘I’ll do it. I’m bound to do anything you say. I know my duty. You gentlemen know best, no doubt, but I’m surprised, very surprised I can’t say more nor less.’ He paused and looked round him with distaste. ‘Did I understand you want me to do it here, sir?’

Once again Yeo had begun to whistle just under his breath. He seemed unaware that he was making a sound and his glance never wavered from the wide pink face with the sharp little eyes and small, unpleasant mouth.

‘Here and now.’ Luke was obdurate. ‘Got a screwdriver on you?’

Jas made no attempt to procrastinate. He felt in his coat pocket and nodded.

‘I have, sir. Never move without my tools. I’ll just take my jacket off if you’ll permit.’

They watched him strip to the very white shirt with the old-fashioned stiff cuffs. He took the gold links out carefully and laid them on the edge of the desk. Then he rolled up his sleeves, revealing forearms like a navvy’s.

‘Now I’m quite ready, sir. But there’s just one little thing.’

‘Speak up, man.’ Yeo interfered without intending to. ‘You’ve every right to say what you like. What is it?’

‘Well, sir, I wondered if I could ‘ave a drop of Lysol in a bucket of water, just to put my ’ands in.’

While a constable scuttled off to fetch it for him he took out a large handkerchief, white as his shirt, and folded it cornerwise.

‘The gentleman died of a bad trouble,’ he said deprecatingly to the room at large. I’ll ask you to stand a foot or so back for the first minute or two. It’s for your own sakes. You’ve got your work to do, but there’s no need for you to run into more danger than you need. You’ll excuse me, I know.’

He tied the sling over the lower part of his face and plunged his hands in the homely white bucket which the constable held out to him. Then, after shaking a shower of odorous rain over the bare boards, he got down to work.

His blunt hands worked swiftly over the screws. They appeared to be set in steel worms and moved easily, but there were a great many of them and he took his time setting them out neatly in a row beside the cuff links.

When at last he had finished, he paused and looked round, finally motioning Yeo and Luke to step a little nearer. He halted them some five feet from the casket and, glancing from one to the other, nodded briskly to show that the moment had come.

As they watched him, with the fascination which the truly horrible engenders, he whipped up the lid.

Everyone in the room caught a glimpse of the body. The form was shrouded with something white and gauze-like, but the hands, folded at the waist, were unmistakably real and human.

A single note of Yeo’s whistled tune sounded loudly in the silent room and Luke sagged a little, his wide shoulders suddenly less square.

A grip like a vice on his wrist took him utterly by surprise and Campion thrust him the remaining foot or so forward without effort.

At the instant when Jas Bowels was about to replace the lid it was knocked bodily out of his hold, and Luke’s hand, guided by Campion’s own, came down on the folded fingers in the shroud. The D.D.I. recoiled and recovered himself, and as Yeo, whose reflexes were older, came up beside him, he bent forward and took the folded hands and turned them over. The next moment he had snatched the gauze from the whitely powdered face and the entire room was in commotion. It was a most extraordinary sight.

A man clad in thick woollen underclothes was lying trussed in a contraption which, although faintly surgical in appearance, had yet something of the padded Victorian love-seat about it. A webbing corselet strapped him securely in position, and across his body just below the hands was a wooden partition securely dividing the top from the lower half of his cage. His head and the upper part of his chest were free, and ingeniously concealed holes or slits, invisible from the outside of the box, permitted the air to reach him freely. He was breathing heavily but without a great deal of noise, and his hands were secured by leather bracelets which, although they gave them little play, were yet slack enough to permit him to beat on the roof of his prison.

Yeo spoke first. He was white to the lips but still authoritative.

‘Doped,’ he said huskily. ‘Alive.’

‘Oh yes, he’s alive.’ Campion sounded tired but very relieved. ‘They were all alive, of course. That was the object of the exercise.’

‘They?’ Yeo’s glance wandered to the undertaker, who stood stiffly between two constables, his handkerchief-mask hanging limply round his neck like a noose.

Campion sighed. ‘Greener, your Greek Street bird, was the one before this,’ he said softly. ‘Before him, Jackson the Brighton gunman, I think. Before that, Ed Geddy, who killed the girl in the kiosk. I haven’t caught up with the others yet.’

Yeo straightened his back. His eyes were very hard.

‘What is it?’ he demanded. ‘An escape outfit?’

‘Rather a good one. Awfully well done, no expense spared. Courtesy, sympathy, comfort in transit, in fact.’ Campion was getting back to normal. ‘They go to Ireland like this, and after, by more orthodox conveyance, to anywhere they may take a fancy. As a rule there’s a mourner laid on to weep them through the Customs. She has the coroner’s order-to-ship tucked in her worn black handbag.’

He paused and ran his fingers over the inside of the coffin wall.

‘This is a lovely job, worth the price of admission alone. The organization is really quite beautiful.’

‘Good God!’ Yeo looked at Jas Bowels’s curling and venerable head. ‘Who was doing it all? Him?’

‘No, that’s the boss.’ Campion nodded to the sleeping form. ‘A genius in his way, but hopeless at murder. How he managed to kill Miss Ruth successfully I really don’t know. He foozled everything else concerning it.’

Yeo waited. Reaction was making him both red and irritable.

‘Campion!’ he burst out at last. ‘That’s no way to give evidence. A junior constable six weeks in the Force could do better than this. What’s the first thing, man, what’s the first thing?’

Luke came out of his trance with a jolt.

‘Sorry, sir,’ he said smartly. ‘His name is Henry James. He’s the manager of the Apron Street branch of Clough’s Bank.’

‘Ah,’ said Yeo with deep satisfaction, ‘that’s more like it. Now we’re getting somewhere.’

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