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Chapter 26 - ‘Cherchez la Femme’

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Author Topic: Chapter 26 - ‘Cherchez la Femme’  (Read 16 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 08:57:12 pm »

‘If you’d only keep quiet,’ said Michael Prenderby, edging a chair between himself and the vigorous Martin who was loudly demanding particulars. ‘I’ll tell you all about it. The garage is half-way down the Lea Bridge Road, on the left-hand side not far past the river or canal or whatever it is. It’s called “The Ritz”—er—because there’s a coffee-stall incorporated with it. It’s not a very big place. The usual type—a big white-washed shed with a tin roof—no tiles or anything. While the chap was fixing the plug the doors were open, so I looked in, and there, sitting in a corner, a bit like “Dora” and a bit like a duchess, but unmistakably herself, was Colonel Coombe’s original mechanical brougham.’

‘But are you sure?’

Martin was dancing with excitement.

‘Absolutely positive.’ Prenderby was emphatic. ‘I went and had a look at the thing. The laddie in the garage was enjoying the joke as much as anyone. He hadn’t had time to examine it, he said, but he’d never set eyes on anything like it in his life. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t think I’d wait and see the fellows without telling you because I didn’t know what schemes you were hatching, so I told the garage man that I’d like to buy the bus as a museum piece. He told me that the people who brought it in were coming back for it some time tonight and he’d tell them. I thought we’d get down there first and be waiting for them as they came in. Of course the old car may have changed hands, but even so—’

‘Rather!’ Martin was enthusiastic. ‘We’ll go down there right away, shall we? All of us?’

‘Not Meggie,’ said Abbershaw quickly. ‘No,’ he added with determination, as she turned to him appealingly. ‘You had your share of von Faber’s gang at Black Dudley, and I’m not going to risk anything like that again.’

Meggie looked at him, a faintly amused expression playing round the corners of her mouth, but she did not attempt to argue with him: George was to be master in his own home, she had decided.

The three men set off in Prenderby’s small Riley, Abbershaw tucked uncomfortably between the other two. Martin Watt grinned. ‘I’ve got a gun this time,’ he said. ‘Our quiet country week-end taught me that much.’

Abbershaw was silent. He, too, had invested in an automatic, since his return to London. But he was not proud of the fact, since he secretly considered that its purchase had been a definite sign of weakness.

They wormed their way through the traffic, which was mercifully thin at that time of night, although progress was by no means easy. A clock in Shoreditch struck eleven as they went through the borough, and Martin spoke fervently. ‘Good lord, I hope we don’t miss them,’ he said, and added with a chuckle, ‘I bet old Kennedy would give his ears to be on this trip. How far down is the place, Prenderby?’

‘Not far now,’ said Michael, as he swung into the unprepossessing tram-lined thoroughfare which leads to the ‘Bakers’ Arms’ and Wanstead.

‘And you say the garage man was friendly?’ said Abbershaw.

‘Oh, perfectly,’ said Prenderby, with conviction. ‘I think we can count on him. What exactly is our plan of campaign?’

Martin spoke airily. ‘We just settle down and wait for the fellows, and when they come we get hold of them and make them talk.’

Abbershaw looked dubious. Now that he was back in the civilization of London he was inclined to feel that the lawless methods of Black Dudley were no longer permissible, no matter what circumstances should arise. Martin had more of the adventurous spirit left in him however. It was evident that he had made up his mind about their plan of campaign.

‘The only thing these fellows understand is force,’ he said vigorously. ‘We’re going to talk to ’em in their mother tongue.’

Abbershaw would have demurred, but at this moment all conversation was suspended by their sudden arrival at the garage. They found ‘The Ritz’ still open, though business even at the coffee-stall was noticeably slack.

As soon as the car came to a standstill, a loose-limbed, raw-boned gentleman in overalls and a trilby hat came out to meet them. He regarded them with a cold suspicion in his eyes which even Prenderby’s friendly grin did not thaw.

‘I’ve come back to see about the old car I wanted to buy—’ Prenderby began, with his most engaging grin.

‘You did, did you?’ The words were delivered with a burst of Homeric geniality that would have deceived nobody. ‘But, it’s not for sale, see! You’d better back your car out, there’s no room to turn here.’

Prenderby was frankly puzzled; clearly this was the last reception he had expected.

‘He’s been told to hold his tongue,’ whispered Martin, and then, turning to the garage man, he smiled disarmingly. ‘You’ve no idea what a disappointment this is to me,’ he said. ‘I collect relics of this sort and by my friend’s description the specimen you have here seems to be very nearly perfect. Let me have a look at it at any rate.’

He slipped hastily out of the car as he spoke and made a move in the direction of the darkened garage door.

‘Oh no, you don’t!’ The words were attended by the suspicious and unfriendly gentleman in the overalls and at the same moment Martin found himself confronted with the whole six-foot-three of indignant aggressiveness, while the voice, dropping a few tones, continued softly ‘There’s a lot of people round here what are friends of mine. Very particular friends. I’d ’op it if I was you.’

Martin stared at him with apparent bewilderment. ‘My dear man, what’s the matter?’ he said. ‘Surely you’re not the type of fellow to be unreasonable when someone asks you to show him a car. There’s no reason why I should be wasting your time even.’

He chinked some money in his pocket suggestively. The face beneath the trilby remained cold and unfriendly.

‘Now look ’ere,’ he said, thrusting his hands into his trousers pockets through the slits in his overalls. ‘I’m telling you, and you can take it from me or not as you please. But if you do take it, and I ’ope for your sake you do, you’ll go right away from this place. I’ve got my reasons for telling you—see?’

Martin still seemed bewildered. ‘But this is extraordinary,’ he said, and added as if the thought had suddenly occurred to him, ‘I suppose this doesn’t interest you?’ A crackle of notes sounded as he spoke and then his quiet lazy voice continued. ‘So attractive I always think. That view of the Houses of Parliament on the back is rather sweet—or perhaps you like this one better—or this? I’ve got two here printed in green as well. What do you say?’

For a moment the man did not answer, but it was evident that some of his pugnacity had abated.

‘A fiver!’ he said, and went on more reasonably after a considerable pause. ‘Look here, what is this game you’re up to? What’s your business is your business and I’m not interfering, but this I ’ope and arsk. I don’t want any fooling around my garage. I’ve got ‘undreds of pounds’ worth of cars in ’ere and I’ve got my reputation to think of. So no setting fire to anything or calling of the police—see? If I let you in ’ere to ’ave a look at that car that’s got to be understood.’

‘Why, of course not. Let us have a look at the car at any rate,’ said Martin, handing him the notes.

The man was still doubtful, but the money had a warming and soothing effect upon his temper. ‘Are you all coming in?’ he said at last. ‘Because if so you’d better hurry up. The owners may be back any time now.’

This was a step forward at any rate. Abbershaw and Prenderby climbed out of the Riley and followed Martin with the visibly softening proprietor into the garage. The man switched on the light and the three surveyed the miscellaneous collection of cars with interest.

‘There she is,’ said Prenderby, his voice betraying his excitement. ‘Over in that corner there. Now, I ask you, could you miss her anywhere?’

The others followed the direction of his eyes and an exclamation broke from Martin. ‘She certainly has IT,’ he said. ‘Once seen never forgotten.’ He turned to the garage proprietor. ‘Have you looked at her, Mr—er—er—?’ he hesitated, at a loss for the name.

‘ ’Aywhistle,’ said the man stolidly, ‘and I ain’t. I don’t know anything about ’er nor don’t want to. Now, ’ave you seen enough to keep you ’appy?’

Martin looked at him curiously. ‘Look here, Captain,’ he said. ‘You come over here. I want to show you something if you haven’t seen it already.’

He moved over to the old car as he spoke, Mr. Haywhistle following him unwillingly. Martin pulled up the bonnet and pointed to the engine. ‘Ever seen anything like that before?’ he said.

Mr. Haywhistle looked at the machinery casually and without interest at first. But gradually his expression changed and he dropped upon his knees and peered underneath the car to get a glimpse of the chassis. A moment or two later he lifted a red face towards them which wore an expression almost comic in its surprise. ‘Gawd lumme!’ he said. ‘A bloomin’ Rolls.’

Martin nodded and an explanation of these ‘Young Nob’s’ interest in the affair presented itself to the garage owner: ‘Pinched it, did he?’ he said. ‘Oh! I see now. But I pray and arsk you, sir, don’t ’ave any rowin’ in ’ere. I’ve ’ad a bit of trouble that way already—see?’ He looked at them appealingly.

Martin turned to the others. ‘I don’t think we need do anything in here, do you?’ he said. ‘If Mr. Haywhistle will let us wait in his yard at the side, with the gates open, as soon as Whitby comes out we can follow him. How’s that?’

‘That suits me fine,’ said Mr. Haywhistle, looking at them anxiously. ‘Now I’ll tell you what,’ he went on, clearly eager to do all that he could to assist them now that he was not so sure of himself. ‘This is wot ’e says to me. Early this morning, about eight o’clock, ’e comes in ’ere with the car. My boy put ’er in for ’im, so I didn’t ’ear the engine running. I came in just as ’e was leaving instructions. As far as I could gather he intended to meet a friend ’ere late tonight and they was going off together in the car as soon as this friend turned up. Well, about eight o’clock tonight, this gentleman ’ere,’—he indicated Prenderby—‘ ’e calls in and spots the car and mentioned buying it. Of course I see where ’is artfulness comes in now,’ he added, beaming at them affably. ‘ ’Owever, I didn’t notice anything fishy at the time so when the owner of the car comes in about ’alf an hour ago. I tells him that there was a gentleman interested in the old bus. Whereupon ’e went in the air—a fair treat. “Tell me,” says ’e, “was ’e anything like this?” Thereupon ’e gives a description of a little red-’eaded cove, which I see now is this gentleman ’ere.’

He nodded at Abbershaw. ‘Perhaps it’s your car, sir?’ he suggested.

Abbershaw smiled non-committally, and Mr. Haywhistle went on.

‘Well, what eventually transpired,’ he said ponderously, ‘was this. I was not to show ’is property to anybody, and a very nasty way ’e said it too. ’E said ’e was coming back this side of twelve and if ’is friend turned up before him I was to ask ’im to wait.’

Abbershaw looked at his watch. ‘We’d better get into the yard straight away,’ he said.

Mr. Haywhistle glanced up at a big clock on the bare white-washed wall. ‘Lumme, yes,’ he said. ‘ ’Alf a minute, I’ll come and ’elp you.’

With his assistance they backed the Riley into the dark yard by the side of ‘The Ritz’ and put out their lights.

‘You get into ’er and sit waiting. Then as soon as they come out on the road you can nip after them—see?’ he said.

Since there was nothing better to do they took his advice and the three sat silent in the car, waiting.

Martin was grinning to himself. The promise of adventure had chased the lazy expression out of his eyes and he appeared alert and interested. Prenderby leant on the steering wheel, his thin pale face utterly expressionless.

Abbershaw alone looked a little perturbed. He had some doubts as to the Riley’s capabilities as far as chasing the disguised Rolls were concerned. He was also a little afraid of Martin’s gun. He realized that they were on a lawless errand since they were acting entirely without proof, and any casualties that might occur would be difficult to explain afterwards even to so obliging a person as Inspector Deadwood.

He was disturbed in his reflections by Martin’s elbow gently prodded into his ribs. He looked up to see a tall burly figure, in a light overcoat and a cap pulled down well on his head, standing in the wedge of light cast through the open doorway of the garage.

‘ “The butler”,’ whispered Prenderby excitedly.

Abbershaw nodded; he too had recognized the man.

Mr. Haywhistle’s manner was perfect. ‘ ’Ere you are sir,’ they heard him say cheerfully. ‘Your friend won’t be long. Said ’e’d be round just before twelve. I shouldn’t stand out there,’ he went on tactfully, as the man showed a disposition to look about him. ‘I’m always ’aving cars swing in ’ere without looking where they’re going. I can’t stop ’em. It’s dangerous you know. That’s right. Come inside.’

As the two figures disappeared, a third, moving rapidly with quick, nervous steps, hurried in out of the darkness. The three men in the car caught a glimpse of him as he passed into the garage. It was Whitby himself.

‘Shall I start the engine?’ murmured Prenderby.

Martin put a warning hand on his. ‘Wait till they start theirs,’ he said. ‘Now.’

Michael trod softly on the starter and the Riley began to purr.

‘Keep back, see which way they turn, and then after them,’ Martin whispered sharply. ‘Hullo! Here they come!’

Even as he spoke there was the soft rustle of wheels on the concrete and then the curious top-heavy old car glided softly and gently into the road, taking the direction of Wanstead, away from the city.

Prenderby dropped in the clutch and the Riley slipped out of its hiding-place and darted out in pursuit, a graceful silver fish amid the traffic.

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