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27: Farewell Apron Street

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Author Topic: 27: Farewell Apron Street  (Read 115 times)
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« on: June 04, 2023, 11:17:06 am »

IT was a quarter past two in the morning by the freckled-faced wall clock, and the air of the office was blue with tobacco smoke, when Jas Bowels raised a weary but still cautious eye to see how he was doing.

The coffin had been removed and its occupant was still in the hands of the police surgeon. Luke and Campion were in shirt-sleeves and Yeo, puffy-eyed with lack of sleep, was yet still alert. Sergeant Dice, melancholy as ever, sat at the end of the table with a pile of notes before him, and in the corner the inevitable bareheaded uniformed boy scribbled unceasingly in shorthand.

‘It was done out of kindness.’ The undertaker spoke with dogged obstinacy. ‘Put that down in writing and never let it be forgot. ’Unted animals, that’s ’ow I saw them, and that’s ’ow I saw him in the finish.’

‘In spite of the fact that, on your own evidence, both you and Wilde the chemist had been forced by James, after a long period of financial pressure, to take part in this---ah---outrageous traffic?’ Yeo was growing ponderous, giving his celebrated imitation of Counsel I Have Known, a sure sign that he was enjoying himself enormously.

Mr. Bowels took breath. Some of his wiliness was giving place to resignation.

‘Yes, we got behind with our money, me and Wilde,’ he agreed. ‘First to the bank and then to him privately. You’ll never understand him, though, if you don’t understand Apron Street. It was changing, you see, and he wouldn’t have it.’ He laughed abruptly. ‘He tried to stop the clock.’

‘For a bloke who was merely trying to preserve ancient monuments he didn’t propose to do himself so badly,’ observed Luke, waving a long hand towards the impressive array of packages which had been taken from the coffin. They lay on the desk in rows, treasury notes, negotiable securities, bags of coin even.

Jas turned his eyes away, no doubt out of some kind of modesty.

‘The idea took hold on him,’ he admitted calmly. ‘It was bound to when he found it was so easy. I was talking about the beginning when it started, four years ago. At that time of day he was only determined that things should go on as they always had done in ’is father’s and grandfather’s time before ’im. It was a sort of a mania with ’im. Later on, the idea of getting rich took ’im by the throat, so to speak. It takes a lot of money, stopping the clock.’ He paused and shook his magnificent head. ‘He didn’t ought to ’ave turned to murder. That was doing too much to it altogether. I couldn’t bring meself to believe it of him, not at first.’

‘Yet afterwards you did, you know,’ Campion put in gently, ‘because after you had made the mistake of asking your brother-in-law to get me to investigate you were terrified lest he should find out that you had done so.’

Mr. Bowels’s mild eyes turned to him sharply.

‘Ah, you noticed old Congreve in my kitchen that night, did you? I wondered. You’re very quick, Mr. Campion, I’ll say that for you. Congreve came round nosing and asking funny questions, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether he was doing it for James or not. That’s the long and the short of it, as we say in the trade. I didn’t think ’e was, because Mr. J. never trusted ’im, but I wasn’t going to speak in front of him. I made sure he’d gone when he heard me let you in. It gave me a turn when I saw ’im standing there.’

Mr. Campion leant back. The last little tangles in his nearly level cord were pulling out.

‘Why did you cosh young Dunning?’ he inquired abruptly. ‘Or did your son do it?’

‘It was neither of us, sir. That you very well know.’ Jas made an O of his tiny mouth, which, with the two teeth in the middle of it, now made him look like an enormous parrot-fish. ‘It was a mystery to us and it startled us good and proper, until it suddenly come to me what had happened. It was Greener did that, Mr. Campion, with the butt of ’is gun. Didn’t want no noise.’

The likelihood of the explanation came as a relief to everyone in the room, and the old man continued uninterrupted.

‘Greener came to my door just after dark, as was arranged. I was to hide him until Wilde, who was windy, was ready. The man was green, sir. He was pretty well out of ’is mind with fear. You could smell it off ’im. But I daren’t let him into the house, because Magers had arrived unexpected and was setting there large as life and twice as nosey. So I sent Greener down to the shed, all unknowing that Rowley, who’s only young ’imself, had let it to the boy Dunning. Greener must have been there in the loft, getting anxious because we were late, when the young man came in and started looking about for a place to sleep. I don’t know what happened exactly but I can guess. Greener was a killer and he was on the run.’

He sucked a tooth thoughtfully.

‘We had some strange clients.’

Yeo said something in an undertone to Luke, who nodded and turned to Dice.

‘You said James had notes on him from Raymond and who else?’

‘Steiner, sir. That was the fence we had the inquiry about last year.’

‘Raymond?’ Yeo sounded more than gratified. ‘If we get something fastened on him at last all this will have been worth the trouble for that alone. How very ingenious, and conventional, of James to work through the big receivers. Thorough-going little business man, isn’t he?’ He straightened himself in his chair and lit another cigarette. ‘Well, now, it’s very late, Chief. Do we want any more from Bowels at the moment?’

Luke eyed Campion, who seemed mildly unhappy.

‘There’s always Ed Geddy,’ the lean man said awkwardly, and for the first time Jas Bowels grew rigid in his chair.

‘Ed Geddy,’ echoed Yeo with contempt. ‘Well, he killed a poor little girl who couldn’t have blacked his eye for him even if he’d given her the chance. He got away in this conjuring cabinet, did he? That’s a crime in itself.’

Campion hesitated. ‘He got away, but he didn’t quite arrive,’ he murmured at last. ‘It was Ed Geddy who gave Apron Street its bad name among the fraternity. Either the drug was too powerful, the coffin too tight, or the journey too long. Ed died in the box. In view of the line he took when he thought Luke was going to raise the subject, Pa Wilde evidently diagnosed the drug.’

In the deep silence which followed, during which every glance in the room was upon him, old Jas Bowels took a long sighing breath. His wicked eyes, in which there was yet the saving grace of guts, met Yeo’s own. He was pallid and sweating, but he kept his head.

At last he spoke softly and deferentially as ever.

‘It’ll be a question of proof, sir, won’t it, if it’s true?’

He was unanswerable: he knew it quite as well as they did.

After a while they dismissed him to the cells uncharged with the more serious crime.

‘I wonder how much loot he filched out of the coffin before he screwed it down,’ the Superintendent remarked almost cheerfully as the departing footsteps diminished down the corridor. ‘It’s to his credit he didn’t take the lot, I suppose. Your boys are taking his place apart now, are they, Charlie? Did you tell me you’d found the shares Campion keeps nattering about? Oh? They were with him?’

‘All present and correct.’ Luke patted a long envelope on the desk before him and raised his head to meet a uniformed man who had just come in.

The constable, who was one of the clerical staff, was grey-haired and harassed. He came to the table and spoke softly across it.

‘Message from the doctor, sir. He’s very sorry, but he has to tell you that he may be some hours yet. I was to say that for your information the drug was probably chloral hydrate. The prisoner has had a heavy dose and at one time the doctor thought he might lose him . . .’

‘Hell!’ said Luke. ‘That’d spoil everything.’

‘Yes, sir. He understood that. He’s got him past it. The danger’s over.’

‘Okay. Anything else?’

‘Only one thing. We don’t want to trouble you, sir, but it’s the reporters. There’s not a lot of us left in the front office and they’re very persistent, sir. It’s like a siege.’

‘Where’s Inspector Bowden?’

‘At the bank, sir. The main branch seems to have arrived complete. I’ve never seen gentlemen so upset.’

‘No. I suppose not. What did they come in---hansom cabs?’

‘Rolls-hire, sir.’

‘I thought Inspector Gage was due from Fowler Street?’

‘He’s at the undertaker’s. Young Bowels has just been brought in and charged. Mr. Pollit has gone for Jelf with two men, and Sergeant Glover has gone to see if he can wake the coroner’s department.’

Luke laughed and indicated the shorthand writer.

‘Take him,’ he said. ‘Tell ’em we won’t keep ’em longer than we can help and that Superintendent Yeo will be making a statement shortly.’

‘What’s this?’ demanded Yeo in high good humour as the door closed behind the men. ‘Trusting me, Charlie?’

Luke grinned at him. ‘Relying on you, Guv,’ he said cheerfully.

Yeo made a sound midway between a laugh and a hiccup and turned bodily in his chair.

‘Campion, I always thought you were a clever chap,’ he began, his eyes twinkling. ‘All I know is that the prisoner killed the old woman for money. That’s the most convincing theory I’ve ever heard you advance in all the years I’ve known you. I believe you before you take it a step further. It took you plenty of time, didn’t it? It was so orthodox you nearly missed it, I suppose.’

Campion regarded him with affection.

‘You give me a cigarette and I’ll tell you the little I know. It’s a brief, sad tale of how not to do it. He was casual to begin with, and over-elaborate at the end.’

He accepted the light Luke gave him and leant back.

‘There’s going to be gaps in this until you fill them, I warn you, and the first one was how it was that James learnt that Brownie Mines are due to produce Ingredient A in vast quantities almost at once. That is one of those burn-before-reading top secrets which have a disconcerting habit of leaking out these days. Anyway, he did learn it and it interested him because old Miss Ruth, gambler and family nuisance, not only possessed eight thousand first preference negotiable shares in the company, but, well knowing they were worthless since she had been trying to raise money on them for years, had left them to him in her will.’

Luke put his feet on the desk.

‘When you say it like that it sounds a great temptation,’ he observed seriously.

‘It was. Not only that. The opportunity to kill her presented itself every other day. She was always trotting into his office on some excuse---an errand from one of the others or a straight touching operation of her own---and---this is the point---believe it or not, whenever the Palinodes interviewed their bank manager, either at home or in his office, they expected to take a glass of sherry wine with him.’

‘Get away!’ Yeo was taken off his balance. ‘No bank’s done that for fifty years.’

‘Except this one. You know Emett’s drawings of trains? Clough’s is an Emett-train sort of bank. That’s why I was completely fogged until this afternoon.’

‘Ah, that was the significance of the green sherry glass,’ put in Luke. ‘I just thought you’d gone nuts. I had almost.’

Campion nodded. ‘The whole thing was given me on a plate---or rather, on a tray---the first time I met Miss Evadne. She and James were conferring when I went up to her room, and when I appeared she camouflaged the glasses and hid the empty bottle, presumably because it was empty. I had forgotten the incident until this evening, when dear little Miss Cardboard Hat spoke about the apple-green glasses. Then the explanation hit me between the eyes and I went in to Lawrence and asked him if the family took refreshment at the bank when they called. He simply said yes. It did not occur to him that it was even unusual. His father expected it. The bank manager’s father expected it. So do their children. That’s the sort of people the Palinodes are. Every time the world goes thud they put their heads back in a book.’

‘Well I’m damned.’ Yeo seemed more shaken by this survival of past elegance than by the crime. ‘So he merely slipped a dose in the old girl’s glass one morning? I didn’t realize he inherited the shares.’

‘He didn’t. I tell you, as a murderer he was a failure. If he hadn’t had to have gone to the trouble of getting the poison I’d have said he had killed her on the spur of an exasperated moment. He got nothing out of it except trouble. Miss Ruth had changed her will since she last told him about it and had made her most irritating bequest to her latest bête noire, Captain Seton, with whom she was quarrelling over a room. The news did not break at once and soon after the anonymous letters started, the police came down on the street like a herd of buffaloes, and the fat was in the fire.’

Yeo permitted himself an old man’s chuckle.

‘You two lads couldn’t have been good for his ferry service.’

‘Quite. That’s what Jas felt so strongly. We mucked up everything. The Bowels had to assemble the coffin in Portminster Lodge cellar, to avoid Lugg. Greener had to be smuggled away at the last moment in a packing-case, coffin and all, and Bella had to go with him in the truck, widow’s weeds notwithstanding.’

‘How did Jas do that exactly?’ Luke inquired. ‘Did he forge the death certificates to get the coroner’s order-to-export?’

‘Better than that. Jas can’t write, much less forge. He merely duplicated his client. I spent most of today going round to the addresses I got from the coroner. In seven of the ten cases in which Bowels had applied for an order in the last three years, the family had not arranged for anything of the sort and the relative had been interred over here. The gunmen went out with a genuine dead man’s name on the lid. The Edward Palinode name-plate was made, I think, in honest error when Jas made certain he was going to get the job. Some wretched crook didn’t get his passage that time. There was a long gap between Jackson and Greener. Probably no other genuine client came along at that moment. People don’t die to order.’

‘Very pretty,’ Yeo declared. ‘Very neat. Funny James was so careful over one business and so slapdash in the other. I always say a murderer isn’t a crook except when he’s both. He still went for the shares, though, that’s the significant thing.’

‘Oh yes, he got Lawrence to buy them and accepted them as part security for a small personal loan---at least that’s my bet. Lawrence’s attitude over them smelt that way to me. There again it looks as if Ruth’s murder was somehow incidental. Otherwise I don’t see why he didn’t do the same thing with her in the first place. But all through there is this double motive. The hooey we made got him down and he staged today’s well-nigh crazy performance, which was designed to put Lawrence out and clear up the mystery, and the street, by incriminating Miss Jessica. It was a silly, theoretical scheme, utterly unpractical.’

‘Don’t you be so sure, my lad.’ Yeo spoke grimly. ‘I’ve known clumsier attempts than that to put an innocent party in the dock, particularly when the police didn’t know quite where else to look. You’d have been hard put to it yourselves to know what line to take if he hadn’t suddenly got frightened and bunked. Why did he do that, anyway?’

‘Because in the middle of the party, after he had done his stuff with Lawrence, Miss Evadne suddenly informed him that Glossop had been to the house. He put two and two together and they added up to Brownie Mines. Since he had also gathered that the hue and cry was on for somebody, he assumed the worst and had to go up Apron Street.’

‘Whereas, of course,’ said Luke, ‘the hunt was on for Bloblip. He was hiding in the bank, silly sausage. We never thought to go over it; you don’t with a bank.’

‘Bloblip? His intention was blackmail,’ Campion continued. ‘That’s fairly obvious. But he doesn’t seem to have tried it until today, probably not until after the party, when he got just about what he was asking for, the old and respected bang on head. The rest of the time he appears to have been footling about trying to get evidence. I can’t imagine what put him on the idea in the first place.’

A discreet cough from the other end of the table brought everyone’s attention to Dice. He was unusually animated and seemed a little surprised himself by the phenomenon.

‘I really do believe I can explain that, sir,’ he began. ‘It clarifies Mr. Campion’s other point, too. I didn’t like to interrupt at the time, but this seems to be the moment. You said, sir, that James had got to get the hyoscine from somewhere. He hadn’t. It was there. That’s what Congreve knew. I got it out of him in hospital. It’s in my report. What foxed him was that he thought Miss Ruth came into the bank on the afternoon of the day she died. When he was convinced that she hadn’t, he thought it must have been the afternoon of the day before. Everyone told him no, but he’s a stupid, obstinate old beggar and he thought he was right.’

Yeo turned round to regard the sergeant as if he were a domestic pet who had suddenly decided to hold forth.

‘What do you mean, the hyoscine was there? Where?’

‘In the corner-cupboard in the manager’s room, sir, along with the sherry decanter and the glasses and a lot of other objects.’

Hyoscine?

‘Yes, sir. Congreve says so. It was when he noticed that it had gone that he and his sister looked it up in the family medical compendium and remembered Miss Ruth’s symptoms, which the sister had heard about from the Captain.’

The silence from his audience was so uncompromisingly blank that he made haste to amplify the statement.

‘Congreve had worked at the bank all his life. He was there in the prisoner’s father’s time. That gentleman used to keep some hyoscine in a sealed glass box to show to visitors. It was labelled and marked “Poison”, of course. Peculiar, really.’

‘Staggering,’ said Campion drily. ‘What for?’

The sergeant cleared his throat. His dull eyes developed a gleam.

‘As a curio, sir. It was the poison Dr. Crippen used.’

‘God bless my soul, he’s got it!’ Yeo bounded in his excitement. ‘I well remember the most respectable people behaving like that over the Crippen case. Hyoscine was comparatively new then. Was that what you were about to say, Dice?’

‘Yes, sir. I understood there was a good deal of morbidness about at the time, sir. The case, as they say, caught the public’s imagination.’

‘It did, it did. I remember well. It’s a good point too. Any judge will believe it. Excellent, Dice.’

Luke broke up the party. He was still incredulous.

‘Wasn’t this cupboard ever cleared out? We’ve had two wars since Crippen was hanged.’

‘Cleaned but not cleared, sir.’ Dice was almost smug. ‘It’s like a drawing-room piece when you get the door open. Full of what you might call relics. The whole place is a bit like that. We found all the relevant papers in an antique wine cooler in his bedroom. We shall trace all his associates.’

‘Oh, very good, very good indeed, sergeant. Nicely told and very good work.’ Yeo rose and pulled down his waistcoat. ‘Well,’ he said, turning to the others. ‘Now for the nice not-too-modest statement to the Press. Trot along and wake ’em up, sergeant, will you?’

He waited until they were alone and then fixed them with his bright, kindly eyes.

‘You’ve got out of this a damned sight better than I thought you were going to,’ he said, separating the words evenly by way of emphasis. ‘If you want to know, I put it down to my heartfelt prayers. Charlie is more like his old man than anyone has a right to be, and you, Campion, you always were a lucky blighter.’

---

The rain had ceased and a clear sweet dawn was breaking as Luke let himself and his friend out by his private way through the back yards behind the station, and they walked round the houses to Apron Street. He was supremely happy. He walked, Campion reflected, like a proud cat. His square shoulders were lithe and easy, and his rain-soaked hat sat at gangster angle. He was full of affection rather than gratitude, which was endearing, and when they paused on the corner outside the shabby old mansion, from which the crowd had departed, he was laughing.

‘I was thinking,’ he said. ‘If my bank manager offered me a glass of sherry in his office I’d expect hyoscine in it. Well, good-bye. God bless. And next time I’m in trouble you’ll get a wire, if not an escort.’

He hesitated and eyed the house, and his expression was speculative.

‘Think they’ll marry?’

‘Clytie and Mike?’ Campion was taken by surprise. ‘I don’t know. It does happen.’

Charlie Luke pulled his hat an inch farther over one eye and arched his lean stomach.

‘I’ll betcha,’ he said. ‘It’s my manor. He doesn’t know it, poor kid. But in my opinion he’s just teaching her the words.’

Campion looked after his jaunty figure until, with a wave, it disappeared round the bend. He wondered.

But as he went quietly up the path he was grinning. Miss White was certainly going to have fun.

There was no sign of Lugg, who had gone on ahead to pack his bag, but the door was on the latch and he let himself in softly. He was making across the hall when he saw he had underestimated Renee. There she was in her happi-coat, bright as a bird, sitting on the bottom step of the staircase.

‘And about time, too,’ she said, flinging her arms round his neck with an abandon she kept for very special occasions. ‘Oh, you’re a wonderful man!’

Considered as a purely spontaneous tribute, Campion felt it was the best he had had. She tucked her arm through his and urged him towards the back staircase.

‘Come and have some coffee. Oh, we have had a night! A proper Press Reception! Just like the old days at the Manchester Hipp. I don’t know what’s going to be in the papers in the morning. Come along, ducky, you must be dead. Jessica’s been making you one of her little nasties, but I’ve put it down the sink, and I shall say you drank it and liked it. That’s the way to treat her, poor pet. Come on. Clarrie has been taking special care of Mr. Lugg . . . what a charming man! . . . with a little something I saved. You’re not to be angry with them. Just don’t take any notice. They were both so thirsty after all this trouble.’

He burst out laughing. So far she had not let him speak and even now forestalled him.

‘Oh, I was forgetting again. There’s a letter for you. It came yesterday morning and nobody thought to give it to you. There it is, dear, it’s on the tray. It’s a woman’s writing so it may be personal. You’d better read it. I’ll go and pop the kettle on. Hurry up. We’ll all be waiting.’

She fluttered off like a crumpled but valiant butterfly, and he took up his letter and moved under the hall lantern to read it. His wife’s distinctive hand smiled at him from the single page.

‘Dear Albert,

Thank you for letting me know that we are not going to govern that island. I am so glad. The new Cherubim jet is almost ready for her trials so I shall be here with Alan and Val whenever you want me.

Young Sexton Blake draws all day long---nothing but mushrooms, which I thought were innocently fairylike and a good thing until I read the captions. They all consist of the same single word---“Wham!”

I have been following your case as well as I can from the newspapers, but the reports are very sketchy, I am afraid, and I fear that any comment I might make would be so wide of the mark as to be irritating. I hope we see you very soon.

Lots of love,

Amanda

P.S.—I can’t help it. Have you thought of the bank manager? So shady.’

Campion read the note through twice, and the postscript five times. He was folding the page carefully into an inside pocket when a curious smothered wailing reached him faintly from below stairs. At last he identified it. Someone was trying to sing, not with entire success, a simple escapist ditty concerning his determination not to leave the Congo. He listened in some trepidation. It sounded ominously like Lugg.

THE END

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