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Authors: George Bellairs

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BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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‘Never. …'

She puffed her cigarette and slowly emitted the smoke.

‘Why should I?'

‘He was a jewel thief. I wondered. …'

‘If I had any jewellery worth taking? No, I haven't. We aren't as well-off as that.'

‘May I ask where your bedroom is? Front or back?'

‘Front. It is the one over my brother's quarters.'

‘Did you hear anything unusual just before seven o'clock on Wednesday morning?'

‘I was fast asleep. I'm a good sleeper. Is that all you wished to ask me?'

She was stretched on the couch, one leg on the red hassock, the other foot on the carpet, her arm hanging over the back. The pose was voluptuous, almost challenging.

‘I hope my visit hasn't disturbed you, Miss Macready. May I ask how you pass the time here whilst your brother's busy at work? Are you his housekeeper?'

It seemed a stupid question to ask. The manicured nails, the well cared-for hands, the expensive clothes, the general appearance of the woman gave the answer right away.

‘We have a daily woman who does the housework. I look after my brother. He is really not the type who could look well after himself. He is so lost in his interests that he would forget to eat or even sleep. Even now, as I said, he pays no heed to the clock. He sleeps when he fancies it. In my spare time, I visit friends in London, or travel. Or else I do some writing. I contribute regularly to the fashion journals. Also, I do the cooking here. We both like good wine and food. Would you like to see this place? You seem
to find it difficult to believe that we can be happy and comfortable in it.'

He thought about the room next door, which he had visited the day before. The doctor, just awake, unshaved, with the remains of a breakfast on a tray. And the quick view he had, on entering, just received of the kitchen, strewn with dirty pots and pans.

She was on her feet. She opened the door and led him into the narrow corridor.

‘Follow me. …'

The visit didn't include the kitchen at the end of the lobby.

The stairs were heavily carpeted in red. A narrow well of a place. The steps creaked under the carpet. A blast of perfume met them half-way.

She halted at the top of the stairs. There was a short landing with two doors leading from it. At the stair-head another door.

‘That is the bathroom. …'

She didn't show him inside but made for the door which led to the room at the front of the house.

‘This is my room.'

More thick carpet, a divan with a carved-wood headboard, a dressing-table and a large Louis XV wardrobe. The perfume was heavy and almost caught him by the throat. Over the fireplace, which had a wooden Adam surround, hung an eccentric still-life in reds and yellows. Heavy curtains of scarlet velvet. Littlejohn drew one of them aside and peered out.

The street was silent. Not a soul about. Shabby, almost repulsive, and out of keeping with the house he was now visiting. At an angle opposite, he could see the spot where Mrs. Jump's ‘body', as he and his wife now called it, was lying as she hurried to church.

He pointed to the spot.

‘That is where the body was found. I'm surprised your brother didn't tell you about it, especially after my visit.'

‘He forgets things. Besides, I suppose compared with the work he has on his mind, it wasn't of much importance to him.'

‘The lives of royal rakes, I think he said it was.'

‘Whatever it was, it would occupy all his mind whilst he was thinking of it. Is that all?'

‘Yes, thanks. You have made this place very nice, if I may say so.'

‘It was the only way to be happy here. Now, I don't think either of us would be happier elsewhere.'

Littlejohn followed her out on the way back. As he passed it, he paused at the door of the other room.

‘That is my brother's bedroom. He sleeps downstairs in his study most times. He likes it that way. Then, when the mood takes him, he will come up to his bedroom for a spell.'

She didn't offer to show him the place and he didn't press her. They went downstairs one behind the other.

‘I'm sorry, Superintendent. You must think me most inhospitable. I didn't offer you a drink. Would you … ?'

‘No, thank you, Miss Macready. I must be on my way. Briefly, your brother, although he looked through the window when the body was lying opposite this house, didn't see it; and you were asleep whilst the murder was committed right over the way. …'

‘That is true. If my brother had seen the body, he wouldn't have denied it. Why should he? And incredible as it may seem to you, I slept through the murder. That isn't so incredible so early in the morning, is it?'

‘No. I don't suppose it is. Well, thank you for receiving me so kindly and for your help. I won't detain you any longer.'

They said good-night in the narrow lobby. As he stood
there momentarily, Littlejohn heard the creak of a board behind the door of the doctor's room. Macready was up and listening. …

Still nobody about in the street. Littlejohn crossed the road to the empty house and, as he did so, the light in the doctor's room went on. Quickly, the Superintendent slipped into the deserted garden and behind the screen of shabby trees watched the house opposite. He had not to wait long. The light went out again, the front door suddenly opened, the doctor's figure was silhouetted against the open hall, and then he hurried down the path and took the direction of the church and vanished round the corner. His speed and springy step belied the decrepit alcoholic Littlejohn had visited the day before. Hastily he made for the gate. With luck, he might reach the road past the recreation ground before Macready disappeared.

Before he could make a move, however, the door of No. 19 opened again. Miss Macready appeared this time, wearing a winter coat and a scarf over her head. She looked in both directions and briskly took the one her brother had followed. As she turned the corner, Littlejohn hurried after her.

When he reached the road they had taken, however, there was nobody in sight. The lamps shone down on empty streets and old neglected houses with their blinds drawn and lights shining through.

The Macreadys had gone.

Chapter 6
Sackville Street

Littlejohn slowly filled and lighted his pipe. July Street was silent; past each end, the steady streams of traffic rushed along the main roads.

Dr. Macready and his sister had disappeared in the region of Sackville Street, where Mrs. Jump's church was situated and which ran along the side of the recreation ground. Light traffic used it considerably to avoid the busy main road through Willesden. The pair of them couldn't have vanished into thin air; presumably they'd called at one of the houses in Sackville Street.

Sammy Barnes had said he lived there, but Littlejohn had no idea in which house.

He strolled to the main Willesden road and crossed to the
Admiral Rodney
. The place had seen better days. It was large and spacious and the main bar was a long one in a vast shabby room, with marble tables of another generation dotted here and there. A lot of workmen standing drinking at the counter, all reflected in the huge mirrors which almost covered the wall behind the beer-pumps.

The landlord was chatting across the counter to a group of customers and quickly detached himself and came to welcome Littlejohn.

‘Good evening, sir. Can I get you anything?'

‘Good evening, landlord. A double whisky, please.'

Littlejohn seated himself at one of the ancient tables and shook the rain from his coat.

The landlord was back. A stocky little Scot, with a large moustache, who, although his pub was almost on its last
legs, seemed to keep it clean and in good order. He eased himself into a cane chair opposite Littlejohn.

‘Have a drink with me, landlord?'

No sooner said than done. The man ordered a pint of beer from the full-bosomed barmaid in charge of the pumps, who seemed to be making a great hit with some of the customers.

‘Your very good health, sir.'

‘And yours.'

‘Does Sammy Barnes come in here much?'

The landlord brushed his moustache with his forefinger.

‘Quite a lot. You know him?'

‘Yes.'

‘Pity. You've just missed him. He was here for his two or three pints and left about a quarter of an hour ago.'

‘He lives in Sackville Street, he tells me.'

‘Yes. A big old house he bought for a song. It's called
The Sycamores
. I don't know why. No trees there nowadays, though there might have been once. It was a good residential quarter in days gone by. I believe a banker once lived in Barnes's place.'

The landlord hesitated.

‘You from the police?'

‘Yes. Do I look it?'

‘No. You're the Superintendent in charge of this July Street affair, aren't you? I thought I knew your face. I've seen your picture in the paper. Superintendent Littlejohn, isn't it?'

‘That's right.'

‘What a pity the missus is out for the night. Gone to see her sister at Bexley Heath. She's a great admirer of yours. Follows all your cases. She'll be sorry she missed you.'

‘I'll probably be in here again very soon.'

‘Nothing wrong connected with us, I do hope.'

‘No. It's very convenient for a drink when we feel a bit under the weather.'

‘I see. Case looks like being a hard nut to crack, eh?'

‘Does Dr. Macready ever come in here?'

The landlord curled his lips.

‘Not him. He's not the pub type. He drinks in private and, from what I hear, he puts quite a lot away, too.'

‘You know him?'

‘We've been here nearly fifteen years, although judging from the way the custom's declined since these bowling and bingo crazes started, we shan't be here much longer, unless we start bowls and bingo ourselves. When we first came here, the doctor was in practice down the road. He was steady and well-liked then. Then he started drinking and got worse and worse. He was never available when you wanted him. He got a young woman as assistant and worked her to death. She died in a 'flu epidemic and that did him no good. He lost a lot of patients. They were very fond of Dr. McHarry – that was the lady assistant. Good-looking girl in her twenties. First job after she qualified. Always ready to help. Caused a scandal, I'll tell you. Macready sold out not long after that. Went to live in July Street. A house he owned and used for a local surgery.'

‘A monied man?'

‘I never thought it of him. In the old days he was always in debt to the local shops. But he must have a bit, or else he came into money. He couldn't put whisky back the way he does if he hadn't some money.'

‘Did his sister live with him when he was in practice?'

‘No. His wife was alive then. Died just before he gave up. Probably medical neglect. A very decent sort of woman she was, too. He treated her badly. No; his sister turned up shortly after his wife died. Some say she isn't his sister at all; just a woman he's living with. If you've ever seen
them, they're not a bit alike and she's years younger than him. It's nobody's business but their own, I say.'

‘Quite right.'

A newcomer, a little man in an old raincoat and a cloth cap, had just entered. He seemed on top of the world, in spite of his bad cough and sickly appearance. Littlejohn recognised him from Cromwell's description. It was Peeples. He was celebrating.

‘Give me a pint of the best, Lucy.'

‘How are the kids, Lionel?'

Mr. Peeples took a good swig and cleared the froth from his upper lip by using the lower one like a squeegee.

‘Comin' along fine. Believe it or not, the police prescribed for 'em.'

‘You don't say?'

Some of the other drinkers gathered round to hear the news.

‘One of the detectives on the July Street case called, and I told him about the kids. It seems he's kids of his own who've also had the whooping-cough. He gave 'em a herb called mouse-ear. Ever heard of it?'

Everybody said they hadn't.

‘Well, it's a ruddy marvel. You brew it like tea and then simmer it for half an hour. Second dose did 'em good. They'll soon have hardly a cough left between em. …'

There were murmurs of congratulation and somebody bought Peeples another drink.

‘Some of these police chaps are decent blokes. In spite of what's said about 'em. They're yewman like us.'

‘Hear that?' said the landlord. ‘Have another. On the house.'

‘No, thanks. I must be getting along.'

‘I hope you'll be back soon.'

‘Thanks. Good night.'

It was still raining outside. The traffic had thinned out. Now it was mainly heavy vehicles going in and out of London. The few odd pedestrians about seemed in a hurry to get on with their business and in out of the rain. The pavements shone with the reflections of the amber lights above the road. Here and there, a loafer who seemed to have nowhere to go, and in a shop doorway, a loving couple embracing frenziedly.

Littlejohn made his way to Sackville Street, past the spot where Mrs. Jump had found the body of the Silver King. A bigger mystery than ever why a first-class cracksman from Paris should have ended in the gutter of July Street. At the house where the Jamaicans all lived, a couple who looked like new immigrants, a man and woman with a shabby fibre suitcase apiece, were knocking at the door. The man wore a panama, which had gone soft in the rain and hung dejectedly over his face, like a little, collapsed bell-tent.

Sackville Street was a broad thoroughfare of old houses, large and once probably what estate agents would call very desirable. Now the tide had taken away the types who used to flourish there. The property was shabby and neglected. Some of it looked like tenements. A long row faced the recreation ground, the tall dark trees of which were sodden and dripped with rain.

BOOK: Death Before Breakfast
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