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Authors: George Bellairs

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BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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‘When Mass was over, what then?'

‘When I went back on my way to the bus in Willesden Lane to go to the bank, I made myself take July Street again. My heart was in my mouth, but it was starting daylight, so that was better. I found the body wasn't there. I thought I'd fallen asleep in church and just dreamed it all. Perhaps I did. But I had to tell Mrs. Littlejohn to get it off my mind. I was that bothered by it, dream or real.'

‘You never thought of getting help or calling the police?'

‘I thought as the body had gone, there was no point. But, as I said, I had to tell Mrs. Littlejohn and she said I'd better let you know, just in case.'

‘Quite right, Mrs. Jump.'

‘We've always been decent people and we've never been mixed-up in anything with the police before.'

Mrs. Jump sniffed as though shedding a tear in the dark.

Hardly any use getting out of the car and prowling about the dismal, damp street. The spot had been exposed to the weather and other hazards all the day. Even now, the rain might be eliminating the last traces of a crime.

Littlejohn took Mrs. Jump to Palm Street and saw her safely indoors. The house was dark and he waited until she'd unlocked the front door of her cottage, a terraced house of the same type as those named after the months of the year. She put on the light and bade him good-night.

Alone, he felt the urge to look again at the spot in July Street. He slowly returned.

It was still drizzling. People passed on the main road, coat collars turned-up, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, shadows between the street lamps. Vague, illuminated figures like waxworks as they hurried under the amber lights. Now and then, a form would detach itself from the rest and go an independent way, neuter, moving like a mechanical doll. One or two turned down July Street. Shafts of light, briefly, as doors opened. The chilly haze was illuminated, then darkness again. A monotonous, secret quarter where nothing seemed to happen.

Yet, Mrs. Jump had found a body there. And when she'd returned to make sure she hadn't dreamed it, the body had vanished, as though spirited away.

Littlejohn left the car at the end of the street and walked between the parallel roads which passed it at each end. Near the recreation ground, two drunks were arguing it out. Their voices rose and fell, hoarse and slurred. The
neighbourhood was so quiet, that their abuse sounded all over the place. And then it died away, like the noise of a gramophone when you lift the needle.

Two shadowy cats crossed his path at the trot and disappeared among the rank foliage of a garden. Their caterwauling was suddenly silenced by someone who opened a window and hurled out something bulky at them. Between the window opening and closing, the sound of a child crying in the room behind wafted out and then suddenly stopped.

The spot Mrs. Jump had indicated stood opposite the front gate of one of the terraced cottages. There were no lights in the house. The blinds were not drawn and the front gate was ajar. The garden was crowded with old overgrown rhododendrons, now weeping with rain. The mass of unruly dark evergreens almost hid the front door and cut the single small bay-window to the right of it from view. Even by the dim light of the street lamps the place seemed quite deserted. Littlejohn looked over the gate. In the window he could see a square sheet of white paper. He shone his torch on it.
For Sale. Apply Hollows and Son, Willesden Green
.

There was a faint smell of fish and chips on the air from some unseen supper bar or other. The rain was searching and cold. No sense in prowling about in the dark any more. Littlejohn walked to the end of July Street and looked up and down the main road. No telephone box visible, but across the way at an angle, a pub.
The Admiral Rodney
. It was closed, for it was well past time, but there were lights on in the bar.

Littlejohn knocked on the locked doors of the vestibule. A potman, with a florid face and bald head and wearing a large apron, opened it. He was carrying a brush and shovel.

‘We're shut. You ought to know that. Can't you tell the time?'

He seemed pleased with the information he was giving and leered. His large mouth was full of big false teeth and gave him the appearance of wearing a hideous carnival mask.

‘Police.'

‘You've nothin' on us. This is a well-run 'ouse.'

‘I'm sure it is. May I use your telephone, please?'

Littlejohn rang up the police at Willesden and told them Mrs. Jump's tale briefly. They promised to send a man to look over the empty house in July Street. Mr. Hollows, the agent, lived in Willesden and would probably have the key. The sergeant sounded surprised at the request, but put on his best posh voice and good manners for the occasion. He ended up by talking to Littlejohn as though he were somebody they had to humour, just to ease his mind.

‘Leave it to us, sir. We'll do the necessary. You may rely on us. …'

‘I've no doubt at all about that. Good night, sergeant.'

The potman was still leering when Littlejohn returned from the telephone.

‘You'll pay for the call, I 'ope?'

‘Send me a bill to Scotland Yard.'

The man looked so surprised and hurt that Littlejohn laughed and slipped a shilling in his waistcoat pocket. He left the potman searching the lining of the garment; there was a hole in it.

Littlejohn felt tired. The dismal scene, the damp persistent drizzle, the amber, etiolating glow of the street lights. Passers-by looking like yellow corpses walking in some strange hell. And over all, the squalor and fetid air of a neighbourhood over-crowded with sleepers and overhung by property in various stages of decay. He always felt jaded when his spirits were damped. He wished he'd asked the barman for a double whisky. He could guess the answer.

Chapter 2
Morning in July Street

The rain had passed with the night and the morning was fine. That was the best that could be said of it. Now that the drizzle had gone, it looked ready to turn foggy any minute.

Littlejohn was on the job at about eleven. He knew he might be making a fool of himself if Mrs. Jump had imagined it all. But Mrs. Jump wasn't the imaginative sort and he felt he wanted to get at the truth, whether she'd dreamed it or not.

He had called at The Yard, examined his post, found nothing much to worry him, and arranged with the Willesden police to join them at the station. Cromwell was with him. In a region like July Street on a dirty November morning he felt the need of some cheerful moral support.

The Willesden police seemed to wonder what Littlejohn was bothering about. A constable had called at what turned out to be 20, July Street, the empty house with the
For Sale
bill in the window. The place was locked and the bobby had used the key supplied by Mr. Hollows, the agent. He had found a few handbills and a circular or two, undisturbed behind the door. He had searched the house from top to bottom by the light of his torch. There were no cellars and no attics. Intent on his work, he had even peered through a manhole at the top of the stairs and looked among the rafters. Quite a feat, fifteen stone balancing on two packing-cases, one on top of the other, and holding a torch. Nothing. Not a sign of a break-in. When he'd finished among the accumulation of dust, the constable looked like a coon.

Added to which, Mrs. Jump had said she was going to
first Mass, which was said at seven o'clock on Wednesdays, the day of her adventure. She was just in time for the start of the office. That meant she was passing along July Street at about 6.55.

At seven o'clock, a policeman on the beat, making his way back to the station, had passed the end of July Street. The lamps were still burning and he had glanced down the street to see that all was in order. He'd seen no body then, and he was sure that if there'd been one on the spot described by Mrs. Jump, he'd couldn't have missed it. He remembered the time well, because as he was at the end of July Street, the milk-van, a type of electric runabout, had just turned down there. He'd spoken to the milkman.

The milkman had just been questioned when Littlejohn arrived. A little, happy man, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, called Hibbs. He must have passed the spot less than ten minutes after Mrs. Jump. Absolutely nothing unusual.

Besides, there seemed to be nobody missing. Or, at least, nobody had reported anything of the kind to the police during the morning. If there had been a body in July Street before Mass, who's was it and where was it?

It looked as if Mrs. Jump had fancied it after all.

And yet, Mrs. Jump wasn't that sort. She'd neither screamed nor roused the whole neighbourhood when she came across the body, or whatever it was. She wasn't the kind to start a scare to attract the limelight. All she wanted was to be left alone. She'd kept quiet about it in the first place to avoid trouble for herself. The fact that she'd mentioned it casually for something to say and had unthinkingly chosen a policeman's wife for her confidences, had triggered-off the whole affair.

Littlejohn called back home on his way to Willesden, just for the sake of seeing Mrs. Jump in daylight.

She was there after her first job of the day at the bank. Impassive as ever, washing-up in a cheap flowered overall. She looked very different without her grim black hat and mourning clothes. She had a tight bun of grey hair which made her look older, and without the protection of her hat, the light fell full on her pale face and revealed lines of age and difficulty and her blue washed-out eyes. She smiled, however, when he bade her good morning and asked her if she had slept well after her excitement of the previous day.

He asked her if she still persisted in her story of the night before.

She turned her pale eyes on him and her mouth tightened.

‘I'm sure I haven't made it up and I didn't imagine it.'

And she turned and began to wash-up again, removing the dishes vigorously from the sink and thrusting them viciously in the draining-rack.

He gathered that she thought now that he was doubting her word, so he said good-bye and went on to Willesden.

July Street looked a different place in daylight, instead of under yellow electric lamps. Two blocks of eight houses each on both sides of the street. Some of them tumbledown and badly short of paint and carpentry. Others, interspersed indiscriminately among the shabby ones, were trim, painted in all the colours of the rainbow by their owners, and generally well turned-out. This strange contrast was caused by Hollows' Building Society, as the owner liked to describe it.

Mr. Hollows, the agent, was, when new applicants applied for an empty house, in the habit of encouraging them to buy it for the same amounts in weekly instalments as tenants paid in rent. The snag was, that Mr. Hollows was responsible for the painting and repairs of the let properties, which he never painted or repaired, but left to rot. The
purchasers paid for everything; every hazard, inside and out. Owning a house of their own, most occupiers developed a pride of possession and spent much of their spare time in embellishing it. There was even keen competition between them in painting and otherwise ornamenting their property.

The street was full of children, some of them in magnificent perambulators, flourishing in the fetid air. Others, sturdy ragamuffins, were nearly all in mischief, watched nonchalantly in places by slatternly women. Five-year-olds scrambling over walls and railings, tormenting one another, fighting, engaged in mock gun duels in the street, even pilfering anything loose. One boy, larger than the rest, had climbed a downspout and was standing on the roof of a house, clinging to the chimney, unable to move, waiting for the fire brigade to arrive and get him down. …

The body had been seen, according to Mrs. Jump, on the verge of the pavement in front of No. 20. Inspector Mann, of the local squad, who accompanied Littlejohn and Cromwell, had brought the key with him and let them in. It was as the constable had reported earlier, apparently undisturbed. There was dust about the place and the odds and ends left by the previous tenants – all worthless. The two packing-cases which the bobby had used for exploring the loft were standing where he had left them. They had been abandoned as worthless by the broker's-men, who had sold-up the last occupants for back rent.

The case, if there was one, was going to be difficult to organise. On the strength of Mrs. Jump's statement, it looked as if the police would have to question everybody in the street about whether or not they'd seen or heard strange goings-on about seven o'clock on Wednesday morning. This wouldn't by any means be an easy job. Some of the occupants were, to put it mildly, not likely to prove co-operative. Several had served stretches in gaol. The end house near the recreation ground was occupied by immigrants
from Jamaica, too. At first, two of them had arrived as a sort of vanguard, later to be followed by most of their friends and relations from overseas.

‘They're living there like peas in a pod,' Mann told them.

Mann was a bit supercilious about the whole affair. He'd expressed a private opinion to his colleagues that Mrs. Jump was leading them all up the garden path, and he stuck to it still.

‘Where do we go from here?' he said as he locked the door of the empty house.

‘Let's try the houses nearest to the spot where the body was supposed to be lying,' said Littlejohn. ‘I'll try number 19, right opposite. You, Mann, take No. 18, and Cromwell No. 22.

By this, half the street was out watching them. You could tell the ones who'd tangled with the police by their comments. Someone was quick to inform Cromwell that the tenants of No. 22 were out at work and wouldn't be back until evening. The man was a porter on Willesden station and his wife was a clippie on a 'bus. Cromwell turned in at No. 24, which had a newly-painted light blue door, and strips of metal pasted up and down the windows to make them look like lead-lights. Obviously one owned with the help of Hollows' Building Society.

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