Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
“Discretion,” said Fen with great complacency, “is my middle name.”
“I dare say. But very few people
their middle names… Calm, now: because I think I shall tell you about it in spite of everything. It’s possible you can help. And God knows,” said Humbleby seriously, “this is a case where we can do with some help.”
He had been standing by the window. Now, with an air of decision, he turned and planted himself firmly in the swivelchair behind the desk. His office, to which they had returned immediately after the identification parade, was high up, overlooking the river, in a corner of New Scotland Yard: a small overcrowded room with a large number of (illegal) gas and electric stoves over which you tripped every time you attempted to stir. Filing-cabinets lined the walls; queerly assorted books were piled in tottering heaps in the corners; and the decorations ranged from a portrait of Metternich to a photograph of an unattractive pet Sealyham which had passed to its reward, at an advanced age, in the year 1919. Scotland Yard is as strictly run as any other office, and more strictly than most. But Humbleby’s position there was a peculiar one—in that for reasons which seemed good to him he had always refused to be promoted to Chief-Inspector—and so to a considerable extent he was allowed to legislate for himself in the matter of his surroundings. To that eyrie had come many who had allowed its untidy domesticity, and the tidy domesticity of its occupant, to make them over-confident. And not one of a long succession of Assistant Commissioners, on first introduction to it, had been short-sighted or stupid enough to do anything more than smile.
Sprawled in the one armchair, Fen waited. And presently Humbleby—having outlined on the blotter, to his own immense satisfaction, a fat bishop—said: “We start, then, with this more than ordinarily cagey, more than ordinarily well-organised
. It’s two years now since we first became aware of its existence; and although we’ve got a complete, or almost complete, list of the members’ names, together with a certain amount of good court-room evidence, we’ve been avoiding making arrests—for the usual reason that there’s been nothing very damning so far against the man we know to be in charge, and we’ve been hoping that sooner or later his agents, if left to themselves, will incriminate
. In that respect we’re not, even after last evening, very much better off than we were at the outset; and I think it’s quite likely that in view of Mocatelli’s arrest, which but for the murder we shouldn’t have contemplated, the head man will pack it up and we’ll never catch him. However, that remains to be seen.”
“Any speciality?” Fen asked.
“No. They’ve been very versatile: blackmail, smuggling, smash-and-grab, arson—all the fun of the fair. From our point of view it hasn’t been any fun, though, and that for more reasons than one. So there was a good deal of rejoicing the other evening when one of the gang, a man named Stokes, got drunk. picked up one of these crazy children who start painting their faces and wearing high-heeled shoes at the age of fourteen, and attempted a criminal assault in an alley within five yards of a constable on his beat.
“We didn't rejoice at the actual
, of course: that was as nasty and depressing as these things always are. But it did enable us to arrest the man and to search his rooms. There, in due course, we came on a letter addressed to him and typewritten in code; and it wasn’t exactly difficult to deduce that this letter had something to do with the operations of the gang.
“As you know, we’ve got a biggish Cipher Department here on the premises; and you’re aware, too, that complex ciphers—such as this one obviously was—are dealt with by quite elaborate team-work, helped out by machines. That’s as it should be, of course—but at the same time it tends to be rather a slow business: method, as opposed to intuition, always is slow. On the off-chance, then, of getting results more rapidly, I gave a copy of the cryptogram to Colonel Browley, and—”
“Browley?” Fen interrupted. “You mean the man who ran the Cipher Department of M.I.5 during the war?”
“That’s him. He retired in 1946 and went to live in Putney, where he’s been spending most of his time on botany and scientific gardening and stuff like that. But we still used him as a consultant expert from time to time, because there’s no doubt that he had a real flair for codes, and could sometimes solve them by a sort of inspired guess-work.”
Fen nodded. “Putney,” he said. “Direct Tube-line to Westminster—and that was about where I picked him up.”
“Oh yes: it was Browley who was murdered, unhappily. And having got that far, you’ll easily see why.”
“You mean that he’d succeeded in decoding this letter; and that the letter was so important to the gang that they had to silence him and steal his report.”
“Exactly… I can’t say”—here Humbleby wriggled uncomfortably—“I can’t say that any of us
Browley very much. He was one of those men who somehow contrive to be fussy and careless at one and the same time—an exhausting combination—and latterly his mind had been going to seed rather: he was getting on for seventy, you see, though admittedly he didn’t look it… Well anyway, to get back to the point, Browley rang me up yesterday afternoon about this letter. I was out, as it happened; so he just mentioned his success and told the constable who answered the phone that he’d be coming here with his report during the evening—by which time I myself would be back. I’d warned him, you see, that the report was to be delivered to me and to me only.”
There was a brief silence; then:
“Oh,” said Fen, in a particular tone of voice.
“So that when the constable offered to have it collected from Putney, Browley said that he had to come in to Town in any case, on some private errand or other… with the result you witnessed. From what we knew of this gang, Mocatelli was by far the likeliest man to have done the job. So we picked him up, and you and the Ayres woman have now identified him as the murderer, and that’s that.”
“The sedan,” said Fen, “was
for Browley—not following him. It was
that he was coming.”
And reluctantly Humbleby inclined his head. “Oh yes,” he said, “there’s a leak all right. There’s a leak somewhere in this Department. That’s half the reason why Mocatelli and his merry men have been getting away with it so easily—though since I first suspected a leak, some weeks ago, I’ve been keeping the more important information about the gang unobtrusively to myself; I imagine that if I hadn’t done that, we’d hardly have found Mocatelli at home when we went to call on him last night… Well, there it is: not a nice situation. Rare, thank God—miraculously so, when you compare our salaries with what a well-heeled crook can afford to offer—but very bad when it
happen.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m seeing the Assistant Commissioner about it in five minutes’ time. If you’d like to wait till I get finished, we can have lunch together.”
Fen assented. “And you’ve no notion,” he added, “about what was in the stolen report? You didn’t find any rough notes, for instance, in Browley’s house?”
“None. His training had made him careful about
sort of thing, at least. and he‘d certainly have destroyed anything at all revealing before leaving home to come here… There’s this, of course.” Humbleby fished in a dossier and produced a crumpled scrap of paper. “It was evidently torn off the bottom of one of the pages of his report when the thing was snatched out of his hand.”
Fen raised his eyebrows. “The blow came first, you know, and the snatching not till—” He checked himself. “No, wait, I’m being stupid. Head injury: cadaveric spasm.”
“That’s it. I had the devil of a job getting this fragment away from him, poor soul… But it doesn’t help at all.”
Fen examined the line or two of typewriting on the paper. Literally transcribed, it ran:
‘…so that x in the treatment of this var eetyof cryptogam care mut be taken to…’
“Not,” Fen observed, “one of the world’s more expert typists, was he?”
“No. All his reports were like that. And he could never resist the temptation to incorporate sermons, on the basic principles of deciphering, in everything he sent us. If only he’d stuck to the point, that bit of paper might have been useful. As it is—” Humbleby broke off at a knock on the door. “Come in!” he called, and a youthful, pink-cheeked Sergeant appeared. “Yes, Robden? What is it?”
“It’s about the contents of Colonel Browley’s pockets, sir.”
“Oh yes. it was you who turned them out, wasn't‘t it… All the stuff will have to go to his lawyer, as there aren’t any relatives. I’ll give you the address. And do
remember, this time, to get a detailed receipt.”
“I say, Humbleby”—Fen spoke pensively—“may I ask the Sergeant to do an errand for me? I’ve just developed the first symptoms of an idea—though it probably won’t come to anything.”
“Well, provided it isn’t anything too elaborate or lengthy—”
“No, just a phone-call.” Fen was scribbling some words on the back of an old envelope, which presently he handed to Robden. “And from an
phone, please, Sergeant. I don’t want there to be any possibility of your being overheard.”
The Sergeant glanced at the envelope and then at Humbleby, who nodded; whereupon, collecting the address which Humbleby had jotted down for him, he took himself off. “No questions for the moment,” said Humbleby, rising, “because it’s time I visited the A.C. But I shall expect an explanation when I get back.”
Fen smiled. “You shall have one.”
“And also I shall expect a conference about this business we’ve been speaking of. Over beer. It’s been well said that salt, once it has lost its savour—”
“Do stop talking, Humbleby, and go.”
“Wait here, then, and try not to meddle with things. I shan’t be long.’
In fact he was not absent for much more than a quarter of an hour; and his return coincided with Robden’s.
“No, sir,” said the Sergeant cryptically. “Nothing of that sort. He
sent in one or two, but they’d always been rejected, and he was so angry about that that the Editor was positive he’d never try again. There was nothing commissioned, in any case.”
And Fen sighed. “You’re much too unsuspicious for a policeman, Robden,” he said mildly. “And much too unsuspicious for a crook. And for the two things combined, quite hopelessly gullible.”
His tone altered. “It apparently never occurred to you that I sent you to an outside phone in order to have time to ring the Editor of
before you did. And the story he told me—and which he assured me he would tell you also when you telephoned—was rather different from what you’ve just said.”
Robden had gone white, so that dark rings appeared round his normally candid brown eyes. He looked, and was, very young. But Fen, as he gazed out across the river at the expanses of South London, was thinking of old women in little shops who might one day go in intolerable fear because their protection against the thug and the delinquent had become a mockery and a sham; of pimps and bawds who might flourish at the cost of a few pounds slipped weekly into the right hands; of night-watchmen burned alive without hope of reprisal in well-insured warehouses, and of little girls violated by degenerates whose services were valuable to their bosses and whose immunity was therefore worth paying for. Robden’s youth and folly, weighed in the scale against these possibilities, were no better than a pinch of sand, and so Fen hardened his heart, saying:
“It’s possible, of course, that the Editor of
did in fact tell you a story different from the story he told me. But since he agreed to have witnesses listening to what he said—very friendly of him, that, in view of the fact that he didn’t know me from Adam—that’s not a point we need argue about for the moment.”
Humbleby echoed dreamily. He had already nudged his leg against a bell-push in the knee-hole of his desk, and now, as Robden backed abruptly towards the door, a revolver appeared, as if by some kind of noiseless magic, in his right hand; so that all at once Robden was rigid and motionless.
“Just so,” said Fen. “Here is a botanist with a private errand in Town. He is found standing outside the offices of Vegetation with an article on cryptogams in his hand.”
A class of plants without stamens or pistils. So it seemed worth while getting in touch with the Editor of
and finding out if he was expecting such an article from Browley. And he was.
“This article is what the murderous Mocatelli stole; and very disappointed he must have been when he found out what he’d got. But since, as we know, Browley definitely had the report on the gang’s code-letter with him, what in the world became of
Mocatelli simply grabbed the wrong typescript and ran—he didn’t do any rifling of Browley’s pockets. Nor did anyone else, subsequently, because I myself stood guard over the body and refused to allow it to be touched. Which leaves the police.
was a traitor—that much was already certain. So that when the Sergeant who turned out Browley’s pockets failed to mention the code-report which must certainly have been there, I set a trap for him and he fell into it head first.”
Out of a dry mouth Robden said:
“Plenty of people had to do with Browley’s body before I did.”
“No doubt. But you’re the only person so far who’s lied about the
article. And since you would come under immediate suspicion if the truth about that article were known, it’s not difficult to see just why you lied.”
Behind Robden the door opened quietly, and at a nod from Humbleby the two constables advanced to grip their whilom colleague’s arms. For an instant he seemed to contemplate resistance; but then all the valour went out of him, and he shrivelled like a dead leaf in a flame.
“He’ll get a stiff sentence, I’m afraid,” said Humbleby when the party had gone. “Much stiffer than he really deserves. That’s always the way when one of
goes off the rails, and you can see why.” He brooded; then: “Cryptogams,” he muttered sourly.