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Authors: George Bellairs

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BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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No. 19 was a tidy-looking house, recently painted black outside and with decent curtains up at the windows. There was a bell on the doorpost, too, which Littlejohn pressed. It was far and away the best kept house in July Street.

A tall woman answered the door. She looked between thirty and forty. In her younger days, she must have been strikingly beautiful. Even now, she was handsome, in a dark aquiline way and had a good figure and pale white skin. She wore a long blue house-coat and red slippers. Her hair was trimmed short and as black as jet. Littlejohn introduced
himself and asked if she were the occupier of the house.

‘The doctor's only just got up. Won't it do later?'

She spoke well, and gave the impression by her speech and movements of being, at some time or other, on the stage.

Mann subsequently told them that the house was occupied by a retired medical man who had formerly run a practice in a large house nearby. He had spent most of his money on whisky, and had lost most of his patients through neglecting his business. The woman was his sister.

‘Come in, then. This way.'

She opened the door on the left of the small passage, which was well furnished and carpeted in dark red. The room inside and overlooking July Street was probably the largest in the house. A living-room used as a bedroom, as well. The unmade camp-bed massed with an untidy hump of bedclothes in one corner; one wall covered with books; a large table littered with books and papers and, on one corner on a spot roughly cleared of rubbish, a tray of used breakfast dishes.

The doctor was sitting in an armchair by the gas-fire, unshaved, unwashed, wrapped in an old dressing-gown. He had evidently been reading the morning paper. A glass of whisky stood on a side-table. An elderly, white-haired man, thin, with dark hollow-ringed eyes and the prematurely lined and aged face of an habitual alcoholic. His thin hair was brushed back from a broad forehead and until deterioration set-in from his excessive drinking, he must have been highly intelligent.

He spoke in a high-pitched, spiteful tone.

‘I suppose you're the police. As I was getting up, I noticed a lot of coming and going in the street. Are you hunting burglars? Or is it a murder this time? In any case, what do you want with me?'

‘Just a little help, doctor, if you can give it.'

‘Well, sit down. I can't stand people fidgeting around the room. What help are you wanting? Not medical, I hope. That would be too much!'

‘Did you happen to be up and about at seven o'clock yesterday morning, sir? A woman passing on her way to Mass about five minutes to seven, tells us she saw a body lying on the pavement right opposite your window.'

‘Yes, I was up. I have no fixed hours for sleeping. I often read far into the night and sometimes I don't keep track of the time and work until daylight. My time's entirely my own and I refuse to be a slave to it. I am, at present, engaged in research on the health, illness, and mental conditions of royal rakes. I was enjoying their company at seven o'clock, or thereabouts, when Mrs. Jump passed my house. …'

‘You know her?'

‘Every Wednesday morning for the last five years, at least, Mrs. Jump has passed here at exactly the same time on her way to Mass. Although I may not look it, I am very interested in everything human that goes on around me. After hearing the same footsteps at the same time on the same day every week, I enquired to whom they belonged. I eventually learned from the milkman, who is sometimes on his round when the woman passes by.'

‘Did you look out of the window yesterday, by chance, doctor?'

‘I did. The sound of footsteps roused me from my work, I peered round the curtains, and saw the woman passing the lamp almost opposite.'

‘Did you hear any other footsteps?'

‘Yes. Almost immediately before those of the woman.'

‘Did either of them stop opposite your window?'

‘No. They continued until they died away, without a
break. The first lot were heavier than the woman's. Anything more?'

He looked at Littlejohn with his deep-set, mocking eyes, as though having some kind of sarcastic joke at his expense.

‘Did you see any signs of a body on the pavement opposite, sir?'

‘I did not. There was no body there. I'd have seen it if there had been.'

‘Did you hear anything unusual happening outside about that time? Voices, noises other than the footsteps … ? Perhaps the sound of a closing door or a window opening … ?'


‘You would be prepared to sign a statement to that effect, sir?'

‘Yes, if you wish it.'

‘Thank you, sir.'

‘Anything else?'

Still the same mocking look.

‘I'm sorry to disturb you, sir. Perhaps if anything further occurs, I may call on you again?'

‘At your service; but if I happen to be asleep when you call, don't expect my sister to admit you. She's my housekeeper, watchdog, censor and even my doctor rolled in one. …'

Littlejohn had noticed the absence of the woman and wondered if she were listening behind the almost closed door of the room. The stillness in the rest of the house seemed to indicate something of the sort.

‘Good morning, then, doctor. …'

‘My name's Macready, just for the record. Good morning, Superintendent. Success to your enquiry.'

He rose to see Littlejohn out. A tall man with pyjamas and spindly ankles showing below his dressing gown. His sister met them at the door of the room.

‘I'll see the Superintendent out, Will. You'll get cold if you stand about.

She led Littlejohn to the door and gave him an almost patronising smile.

‘Good morning.'

He might have been an itinerant vendor of brushes and combs or detergents from whom she wanted nothing. Come to think of it, Littlejohn's present job was remarkably like that of a salesman. Knocking on doors asking the same question. He paused at the gate which stood at the end of a narrow flagged path a couple of yards or so long. The garden to the right of him was neglected like most of the rest in the street. Another overgrown, shabby rhododendron and a leafless drooping tree which might have been a laburnum. He filled and lit his pipe and watched the daily turmoil of July Street. A small boy with a single roller-skate strapped to one foot and punting himself along with the other, almost knocked him down.

Mann emerged from No. 14, followed by a woman in a pink jumper and with bright yellow hair. She was talking animatedly to him. He seemed a bit embarrassed by her rolling eyes and the expanse of bare arms and bosom she was displaying, in spite of the chilly day. Finally, she patted him affectionately on the shoulder and told him to come again any time. She watched him off until he joined Littlejohn. Then she waved her hand carelessly at him and went inside.

‘You seem to have been making progress, Mann.'

Mann gave him a queer look. Littlejohn smiled blandly.

‘I mean you've visited 14, 16 and 18 in quick time.'

‘I'd forgotten Marlene lives at No. 14, or else I'd have left her to Sergeant Cromwell. I've run her in once or twice for soliciting in the old days. Now she advertises in the newsagent's shop round the corner. A cheeky bit of work. …'

‘Did she see or hear anything yesterday morning early?'

‘Of course she didn't. She says she doesn't get up till ten in the mornings and, as she has an easy conscience, she was fast asleep when it all happened. Or did it happen?'

‘I don't know, but I'm not satisfied yet. How about the other two houses?'

‘They said the blinds were down and it was dark. You might expect that answer. We'll get the same tale where-ever we try. At No. 16, they were still asleep in bed; at No. 18, the wife was in the kitchen getting her husband's breakfast. He's night watchman at a bank and doesn't get home till after seven. He didn't return until 7.30 yesterday morning.'

‘We'd better come back after lunch, then, and try some more. It may be that, sooner or later, we shall get a hint which will confirm or disprove Mrs. Jump's tale.'

‘If you don't mind, I'll have to cry-off after lunch. I'm at court this afternoon, sir.'

‘That's all right, Mann. Cromwell and I will carry on. Where is Cromwell, by the way?'

As if in answer to his question, the sergeant emerged from No. 25, shown out by a little haggard-looking man, who seemed eager to see the last of him.

Cromwell was smiling and looking very pleased with himself. He joined the other two.

‘The pair in No. 22 are at work. In any case, the woman next door told me, they leave for their jobs just after half-past six. He's on the railway and she's on the 'buses. I went to No. 24, too. They've five children and the woman who was at home, asked me if I thought she'd any time with that lot, to hear anything or peep round window blinds at that hour. She was persuading them to get up, and she'd her hands full. They're obviously expecting another, too. Her husband, it seems, was in the kitchen, making his own sandwiches for lunch. He works in the boiler-house of the local hospital.'

‘What about No. 25? Judging from your appearance, you had a successful visit there.'

‘I did. The man who let me out looked round the blind at just before seven and saw the body.'

Chapter 3
Whooping Cough

Cromwell Knocked Despondently at No. 25. If he'd as much luck there as he'd had at 22 and 24 opposite, he felt he'd recommend Littlejohn to call it off. Nobody was more loyal to his chief, but this time, Cromwell was beginning to doubt Littlejohn's instinct. Sure enough, the premonition the Superintendent seemed to have when something was wrong, hadn't failed him often, but now they were working on the sole basis of the half-baked testimony of a daily help, a woman who might have fancied a shadow in a dark street on a rainy morning was a corpse. All this television and crime news seemed to be making hysterical people fancy murders had been committed when they hadn't.

He knocked again. And then again. His face grew longer. This looked like being another blank.

Then, suddenly a cascade of angry footsteps running down uncarpeted stairs came from behind the door and it was flung open by a pale man, almost jaundiced, with pale hair, too, brushed back and tousled. He was no larger than three-pennyworth of copper and was in his shirt and trousers. And he was hopping mad.

‘What the hell are you doing? Trying to break the door down. I heard you first time, but I was in bed, tryin' to snatch a few hours sleep …'

He eyed Cromwell up and down. The dark suit and overcoat, the bowler hat, the benign, serious face. The lot. He decided at once that Cromwell was either delivering tracts or selling religious books. They got quite a lot of that sort in July Street, where every type of earnest well-wisher seemed to think everybody wanted to be Saved.

‘Go away! I don't want anything.'

Cromwell smiled.

‘But I do. I want a word with you. Police.'

Instead of showing fear or hesitation, the little man grew angrier than ever.

‘Has somebody reported a disturbance in the night? Because, if they have, I'll get a doctor's certificate about it. I didn't give my kids the whooping-cough. I can't help it. Like as not, they caught it from the kids of those who're complainin' – the people next door. They've knocked on the wall three times in the night. As if that would do any good.'

Cromwell couldn't get a word in edgeways. It was like an infuriated tape-recorder gone mad. He raised his hand.

‘Will you kindly shut-up a minute, sir? It's nothing to do with whooping-cough and if you'll let me inside and allow me to ask you a few questions, I'll get along and let you get back to bed.'

Then, from an upper room in the house a child began to cough, was joined by another, and a duet commenced. It was painful to hear. The barking rose in a terrifying crescendo and seemed to end by both the sufferers being sick.

The little man tore his hair.

‘It's been like that for three nights. I've had to get off my work. If I can't sleep, I can't work, and I've been up all and
every night since Monday. Some people say it goes on for weeks. If it does, I'm going to put my head in the gas oven. I'm getting. …'

He'd started again, hysterical with distress and sleeplessness.

Cromwell pushed him inside and closed the door behind them.

‘Hush! Let me speak. I've children of my own and I've been through it. Perhaps I can help you.'

The little man showed sense for the first time. He almost smiled.

‘I'll do anything. Anything.'

‘Well, listen. Have you had the doctor?'

‘Of course we've had the doctor. You don't think with them so bad we'd. …'

‘All right. All right. So you've had the doctor. …'

‘Yes. He gave them a bottle and some pills. At first little Rufus started. He's five. Then he passed it on to Amy, she's seven. When one leaves off, the other starts and, as likely as not, they're both at it together. The medicine's only to make them sleep. But they cough in their sleep and it wakens them. Then, he gave us some tablets. They're just as useless.'

‘Have you a herbalist round here?'

‘Yes; just along the main road. Why?'

‘I've three girls. They're grown-up now almost, but the elder two got whooping-cough and were just like yours. It lasted almost a fortnight and I was just as bad as you are now. A wreck. Then the third got it. Somebody recommended my wife to get some mouse-ear. Got that? Mouse-ear. It's a herb from the herbalist and it did the trick. Cured her in two days. My wife's recommended it to other people and it's done the same. You ought to try it.'

The man was without collar and in battered carpet slippers, but he hastily grabbed a raincoat and cap from a
bamboo hat-stand in the narrow lobby and started to put them on. He couldn't wait.

BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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