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Authors: George Bellairs

Death Before Breakfast

BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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Death Before Breakfast

George Bellairs

This work contains language that some readers may find offensive, but has been reproduced in its original form to accurately reflect the era in which it was written. There may be attitudes to race, gender, religion or sexuality in this work that are no longer acceptable. Any such views expressed are not shared or supported by the publisher.

Contents

Chapter 1 Mrs. Jump's Murder

Chapter 2 Morning in July Street

Chapter 3 Whooping Cough

Chapter 4 A Body Arrives

Chapter 5 The Silver King

Chapter 6 Sackville Street

Chapter 7 Mr. Peeples is Nervous

Chapter 8 Sens

Chapter 9 Seaside Excursion

Chapter 10 The Great Deception

Chapter 11 ‘Paris, Ma Tristesse'

Chapter 12 Mr. Barnes is Bored

Chapter 13 Chamber Concert

Chapter 14 The Last Straw

A Note on the Author

Chapter 1
Mrs. Jump's Murder

‘Mrs. Jump is calling to see you to-night.'

Bernadette Jump, née Halligan, born Liverpool
, as her passport had it when she'd brought the application to Mrs. Littlejohn for help in filling it up prior to her pilgrimage to Lourdes.

She had been Mrs. Littlejohn's daily help for more than five years, and the Superintendent had never met her. His wife spoke of her appreciatively now and then, but to the Superintendent she had never materialised. He knew of her by her energy in keeping the flat clean, by the occasional vanishing of some familiar object or other which had ‘fallen apart' as she dusted it, or by the odds and ends she left behind her now and then – an old comb with a tooth or two missing, a stray glove, and once a box of Dr. Godfrey's cough lozenges. He was aware of her only by her works and by hearsay, in the way that theologians are convinced of the existence of the Almighty. And, of course, by the greeting-card, glittering with tinsel and good wishes, she always sent at Christmas.

‘She thinks she saw a murdered man early this morning.'

Littlejohn carefully laid down his knife and fork beside the cutlet he was eating. The dog, sitting upright by his side, trying to look hungry, yapped to call his attention to her continued existence.

‘Has she told the police?'

‘No. She was on her way to early Mass and didn't want to be late. Besides, she had to be at the bank at eight.'

Mrs. Jump proudly cleaned a bank, too, before she came to the Littlejohns'.

‘So she just didn't bother.'

‘She's the kind who wouldn't miss Mass for anything. She said if she'd gone to the police it would have meant she'd let down the bank, which was unthinkable.'

‘So she left the body where it was.'

‘After service, she went to the spot where she thought she'd seen the dead man. But the body was gone. So she assumed that someone else had told the police. She did add, too, that with due respect to the Superintendent, once when she saw a dog killed in the street, it took the police two hours to take a statement from her. She couldn't afford the time this morning. … She'll be here at eight.'

‘You persuaded her?'

‘Yes. I said it was her public duty to report it. She said she'd only report it to you.'

‘She lives Willesden way, doesn't she, Letty?'

‘Yes. But eat your dinner and don't worry. She'll tell you all about it when she arrives.'

And arrive she did. Just as the four clocks, which Littlejohn amused himself by synchronising, struck the hour.

Mrs. Jump spent a long time in the hall talking to Mrs. Littlejohn in whispers, assuring herself that she was not intruding; then she entered.

She was dressed in her best. A widow, clothed from head to foot in black, as though either still mourning the late Mr. Jump, who had been dead for ten years, or else prepared for the ‘passing-on', as she called it, of the next victim in her family, which was a large one with very wide ramifications.

A plumply built, middle-aged woman, with a square sallow face and a look of resignation. She carried a large black imitation-leather bag, which might have held the necessities for staying the night.

Mrs. Littlejohn introduced her to her husband.

Mrs. Jump looked at him cautiously, assessing whether or not he came up to expectations. She seemed satisfied and sighed.

‘Shall I tell him what I told you, madam?'

One of those voices at the same time shrill and weary, worn-out by battling with the petty worries of life.

They found her a seat and a large cup of very sweet tea. Strong Indian tea; she regarded Littlejohn's favourite Earl Grey as effeminate. She had contracted a deep hatred of the blend, too, because the leaf was large and she couldn't pour the tea-leaves down the kitchen sink when Mrs. Littlejohn's back was turned.

Even when settled and feeling comfortable in surroundings already very familiar to her, Mrs. Jump still showed diffidence.

‘I feel I'm wasting your time, sir. The more I think about it, the more I think I imagined it. …'

She cast a bewildered look around the room and ended her survey by a queer glance at Littlejohn.

‘But, although I say it myself, I'm not one who imagines things. Thank God for that. I've enough to worry me without imagining some more.'

The dog thereupon cast a knowing eye on the large black bag and whined dismally, as though sharing Mrs. Jump's troubles. Mrs. Jump opened the bag, took out a mint imperial and gave it to the dog, who swallowed it whole, like an elephant with a bun, seemed satisfied that a ritual was finished, and settled to sleep.

Mrs. Littlejohn was knitting a child's jumper for one of her sister's many offspring. She paused.

‘Tell the Superintendent what you told me this morning, Mrs. Jump. He'll know best what to do.'

Mrs. Jump carefully removed her black cotton gloves to show she meant business and started to talk.

The story had taken most of the day to tell to his wife and Littlejohn had to make a précis of it for the file, where it appeared shorn of its many excursions and sidetracks and its long explanations.

As the clocks struck ten Mrs. Jump was still talking and had to pause against such powerful opposition.

The early departure for Mass in the darkness of the damp November morning. The body in a quiet side-street which was a short cut to the church. The terrified and hasty crossing to the other side. The turmoil in Mrs. Jump's mind, torn between the body, the sacred office, the bank waiting to be cleaned. Then, after Mass, the anguished return to the spot. And the body wasn't there.

The tired, shrill voice went on and on and ceased suddenly when the clocks began to chime.

‘I must go. Then I'll get home before the public houses turn out. I can't abide drunken men. …'

The late Gus Jump had been one, and had ended by hitting a lamp-post in the van he drove.

She rose, blew in her best gloves, put them on, and gathered up her bag.

Littlejohn rose as well.

‘I'll get out the car and take you home, Mrs. Jump.'

She showed no signs of pleasure or otherwise on a deadpan face.

‘I can get the 'bus at the corner, sir. It'll drop me a few minutes from home.'

She paused. She must have been pleased and flattered by the offer of a lift, but it was conventional with her type to put up some resistance.

Littlejohn went for the car.

‘I think the best thing will be, Mrs. Jump, for us to drive to the street where you saw the body and you can show me exactly where it was.'

Mrs. Jump was sitting in quiet ecstasy beside Littlejohn, preparing the story she was going to tell in detail to her friends next day about driving home with the famous Superintendent from Scotland Yard. She withdrew from her daydreams.

‘As I said before, I'm not sure.'

‘All the same, let's try.'

They continued in silence to Willesden Lane where Mrs. Jump awoke from another reverie and began to take her bearings.

‘We're getting near now. Do you want to take the motorcar the way I went to church?'

Littlejohn knew the neighbourhood well. Half-way between Brondesbury Park station and Willesden Green some Edwardian builder or other had started a scheme of putting-up terraced houses in streets at right-angles to the main road. Two blocks of about eight houses on each side of the streets, which were called after the months of the year.

January Street, February Street … All the way to September, and then, as he approached the winter months again, the builder had tired of it, or died, or gone bust, and there were no more.

On the other side of the main road, a similar set-out of terraced dwellings, this time named after the trees of the forest. Mrs. Jump lived in Palm Street. At first the builder had thought of Eucalyptus Street, but the local authorities had objected.

Mrs. Jump explained by words and gestures that she usually left Palm Street, crossed the main road, turned down July Street, at the far end of which the church was visible, backed by a recreation ground.

‘If you weren't here, sir, I'd be frightened to death.'

It might have been true; or it might have been a compliment to repay Littlejohn for the ride.

‘Why afraid, if you weren't sure you did see a dead body?'

She was silent. Littlejohn could imagine her biting her lips in the dark and twisting her gloved fingers.

‘How did you know the body was dead, Mrs. Jump? Was it a man's or a woman's?'

‘A man's. It was a corpse, right enough. I've seen enough bodies to know the quick from the dead.'

They turned down July Street. A short, quiet thoroughfare of little houses, two up and two down and a scullery, with small gardens in front and rickety paling fences. At the far end of the street, which was lighted by a few electric lamps mounted on old converted gas standards about fifty yards apart on each side, the trees of the recreation ground were just visible silhouetted against complete blackness.

It had started to rain, fine cold drizzle, which clung to everything in drops and cast a nimbus round the street lamps. There was nobody about, but lights showed in most of the houses, some in upper, some in lower rooms. Here and there, an illuminated fanlight projected a long shaft through the mist of rain. At a bedroom window without a blind, a man in his shirt peered out and watched the passing car. He vigorously scratched his head with both hands, vanished, and the light went out.

Somewhere a clock struck half-past ten.

‘It's getting late.'

Mrs. Jump went silent as though expecting something sinister to occur.

‘Show me where you saw the body.'

‘A bit further. …'

He moved slowly along in bottom gear. They passed a house where someone was playing an accordion.
I'm wild about Harry. …

‘Here it was. …'

He halted.

Mrs. Jump pointed through the semi-circle on the windscreen cleared by the wipers.

The pavement was plainly visible in the semi-darkness between two street lamps.

‘He was lying full-length, his head just over the edge of the kerb, and his body and feet like this. …'

With her finger Mrs. Jump indicated a direction almost parallel with the pavement.

‘Face downwards?'

‘It must have been. I don't remember seeing the eyes and nose. … Yes – down.'

‘Anybody else about?'

‘As I said, there was somebody in front of me, walkin' on the same side as me. Somebody in a hurry. He walked ahead of me and vanished round the corner.'

‘In which direction?'

‘He crossed at the end of the street and went the opposite way from the church along the railings of the recreation ground. I was glad, I can tell you, because I couldn't have followed him a step if he'd kept on walking in front of me all the way. I hurried over to the other side of July Street, and when he started to cross to turn the corner, I went back to the side I was on at first. I realised as I was sitting quiet in church he must have been the murderer. There was nobody else about.'

BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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