Authors: George Bellairs
Littlejohn took out his torch and looked at the names on the gateposts, the iron gates and railings of which had been removed, probably in the futile wartime collection of old iron. Finally, he arrived at the one he was seeking. Two pillars of dirty brick with terra cotta caps. On the front bases of the latter, the name of the house â or what was left of it â was just visible in relief. Wind, weather and corrosion had removed most of it. On one side
; on the other
HE SY MO
â¦ Like the strange inscriptions of an ancient tomb.
A wooden gate had been fixed to replace the former iron one and this was fastened by a loop of rusty wire. A long flagged path, with a garden of some kind or other â probably a ruin â which Littlejohn couldn't make out. Three steps and a large door with a semi-circular fanlight, from which a jet of light pierced the darkness. In the beam, a steady drizzle descended, like magnified motes in sunlight. There was a bell-push in the middle of the door. Littlejohn pressed it, but there was no sound at all. The room to the right had the blind down, but was illuminated; the other bay window on the left was in complete darkness. Littlejohn seized the large black-lacquered wrought-iron knocker and beat a tattoo with it.
There was a pause and then footsteps. The door opened and a woman with a long, dead face and a mop of hair the colour of grey mould stood there. She peered in the darkness.
âWho is it?'
âIs this Mr. Sam Barnes's house?'
âYes. What do you want?'
âCould I have a word with Mr. Barnes? My name's Superintendent Littlejohn.'
The woman's face registered no emotion. She seemed to hesitate, and then the door of the lighted room opened and Sammy Barnes himself appeared. He wore the same blue trousers, but had changed his reefer coat for a grey cardigan jacket. He had old leather slippers on his feet and a knotted scarf round his neck.
âThat you, Super? Quite a surprise at this hour of night. Better come in out of the rain.'
He pushed the woman aside and stood on the step making gestures of welcome.
Littlejohn went inside and Barnes closed the door.
It was a large hall with a broad staircase rising from the right. Worn red stair-carpet, steps which had once been
varnished and now needed a fresh coat, imitation marble paper on the walls. The whole had an air of ill-attended, slovenly shabbiness. A lamp in a cheap parchment shade, which had been singed down one side, shed a stark light over everything.
Barnes was smoking a short pipe with a cracked bowl. Before his strong tobacco filled the air, Littlejohn got the faint aroma of Russian cigarettes.
âCome in here. â¦'
Barnes opened the door on the left and switched on the light.
âYou'll excuse us. The wife's just entertainin' one or two women to supper. That was Mrs. Barnes who opened the door. She's not been too well.'
Barnes wobbled into the room, struck a match, and bent with difficulty to light a gas-fire. One of the elements was broken.
They sat opposite each other on the mouldering skin hearthrug on saddleback chairs upholstered in horsehair, which Littlejohn could feel penetrating the cloth of his trousers. The furniture was old-fashioned and commonplace. It looked as if Barnes had bought the house cheaply and then filled the rooms he needed with heavy items from a public auction. The carpet was too large for the floor and had been turned back along one edge to fit. The pattern had vanished.
Barnes looked fatter than ever. When he sat in the chair, his huge paunch seemed to slide down to his knees. In the light of the bare lamp, hanging in a lustre shade with two of the drops missing, Littlejohn could make out more of him. A gross round face, red and with thick lips, a head like an orange with close clipped grey hair, a heavy bulbous nose, and large fleshy ears. The eyes, small and heavily pouched, were of filmy blue, like pieces of glass, and
seemed lifeless, even though Barnes was smiling all the time; a fixed treacherous smile, too.
âWhat makes you call at this hour, Super?'
âI was in the neighbourhood. â¦'
âWorkin' three shifts, eh?'
âI thought I'd call, if you can spare me a few minutes. I gather you are a prominent citizen of the locality and know everyone. Perhaps you can help me.'
âI'll do my best. Have a drink?'
âSmoke, then? Cigar? I have some good ones. No? I don't smoke cigarettes. Haven't any in the house. Smoke your pipe if you like.'
He seemed to be fencing, seeking an opening to betray Littlejohn's real purpose for turning up there.
Littlejohn lit his pipe and sat back in the chair.
âI think I told you when we met in the street, Mr. Barnes, that the body found in the canal, which we are almost sure was the one seen early on Wednesday morning in July Street, was that of a French jewel thief. His name was Jourin, Etienne Jourin. I'm wondering if you might give us some lead as to what a first-rate cracksman from Paris should be doing in July Street so early in the morning, and dead.'
Barnes grinned and puffed at his empty pipe. He took out a pouch like a bladder and began to ram tobacco in the bowl.
âWhy ask me, Super? Your guess is as good as mine.'
âYou own a garage at the end of July Street. I wondered if Jourin might have called there for petrol or anything.'
âAfter I saw you, I made some enquiries at the garage, but there was nobody unusual there at all on Tuesday, day or night and, of course, so early on Wednesday mornin' the place wasn't open.'
âIt seems that a dairy runabout, parked in front of your
place, was used to take the body away after it had been discovered, and dump it in the canal. You knew that?'
âI heard about it. I asked among the men, but nobody knew anything about it.'
He seemed good at making enquiries. He was also probably good at keeping the answers to himself, too.
The house was quiet, as though someone was listening. The silence was broken by the hissing of the gas-fire and Barnes's heavy breathing, which sounded as if he were panting after heavy exertion. Now and then, a car passed the door. Whenever an unusually heavy vehicle went by, the drops of the lustre shade trembled and tinkled.
âAre you in charge of the affair?'
âUnusual, isn't it, in a case of this sort? A top-ranking man from Scotland Yard. I'd have thought a local chap would have handled it.'
âI happen to be interested in it.'
âMy wife's daily help was the first to find the body.'
Barnes laughed loudly, opened his mouth wide and displayed his tongue and two sets of badly cleaned false-teeth.
âThat's a good one. That's all right for a tale. I bet there's somethin' more behind it. Is it an Interpol affair?'
The smile had faded. Barnes was glaring now. He wasn't getting all the answers and was nettled.
âI suppose you've got a theory about the murder.'
Barnes still wasn't satisfied. He tried another tack.
âYou must have a drink with me. I need one. No; I won't take a refusal.'
He bounced to his feet and opened the door.
âAda! Ada!' He bawled down the passage.
The dejected woman appeared again.
âYou've been a long time. Me and the Super. need a drink. Bring the whisky and don't forget the syphon.'
She hurried away and returned with an armful.
âPut the stuff on the table. By the way, this is Superintendent Littlejohn, from Scotland Yard. He's here on a case. I don't suppose it's any use tellin' you which it is. You wouldn't be interested.'
She shook hands awkwardly with Littlejohn and then backed out.
âShe doesn't get out much. She had an operation a few months since and doesn't seem to pick up. Insists on doing all the 'ousework, although I could pay for a staff of servants if she'd only use 'em.'
He poured out some whisky and passed over the syphon.
âHere's to you, Super.'
They drank in silence.
âWhere were you on Tuesday night, Mr. Barnes?'
Barnes looked over the rim of the glass, lowered it, and grinned.
âI like that! He drinks my whisky and as good as accuses me of committing a murder! Well, I suppose it's what you call routine. I heard you'd been at every house in July Street checking-up. No reason why I shouldn't be checked-up as well. Let me see. I went for my usual few pints at the
. That would be from eight till nine. If you ask them at the
, they'll tell you they can set the clock by me. Same time in, same time out, every night of the week. On Sundays, we go to Stockwell to see my daughter, so I don't go then. I got home here about ten-past nine, had a drink, and went to bed. From ten till seven, we were both in bed. In the same big bed, Superintendent. She's not much to look at nowadays, Super., but without her beside me, I couldn't sleep a wink.'
âWhat time did you go out in the morning?'
âEight o'clock. I usually go to the garage about then.'
âDid you know the dairy runabout was left overnight at the garage?'
âYes. Trodd told me about it all.'
Barnes sat puffing his pipe and drinking his whisky. He seemed quite content.
âDo you want alibis? If you do, I'll send for my old woman again. She'll tell you, and she's not the sort to lie. One thing about Ada, she's got a conscience.'
âNo. I'll take your word, Mr. Barnes. You know the neighbourhood very well. Is there any reason why Etienne Jourin should be in this area? Why should a jewel thief from Paris fetch up in July Street?'
âPerhaps he was burgling here, too.'
âIs there anything worth burgling?'
âThen you don't suspect anyone of killing him?'
âIf you ask me, he must have had a partner and done a bunk with the swag, and the partner got on his trail. He perhaps caught up with him in July Street. Did he have any jewellery on him when you found him?'
âNo. Whoever dumped him in the canal also removed traces of identification.'
âHow did you find out who he was, so soon, then?'
âWe circulated his pictures. Also, whoever tried to hide his identity, forgot to remove his keys from his trousers pocket. They were French made.'
Barnes took another swig and filled up his glass.
âI've got to hand it to you chaps, Super. You don't let the grass grow under your feet, do you? I suppose by to-morrow you'll have found out who killed him.'
âPerhaps. I think we'll need a little more time, though. By the way, do you know Dr. Macready well?'
âAs a neighbour, that's all. Why? He's not suspected, is he?'
âNo. I called to see him, and he seems to be an interesting character. His sister, too. They're a strange couple to be living in a place like July Street.'
âThat's their business, isn't it? The doctor owned the house and he's the sort who could live anywhere. He seems to spend most of his time reading and thinking. I guess people of that sort don't mind much where they live, so long as they can get a bit of peace.'
âHis sister's a different type, though. Not the July Street sort, at all.'
âOf course, she isn't, and she gets away from it whenever she can. She's a talented musician. Plays the harp. Paints, too. Like her brother, if she can get a bit of peace and quiet to do as she likes, I don't suppose she cares much where her home is. They've made the place nice, I can tell you. She's a fine woman. She's good-lookin' now. When she was younger, she must have been a real bobby-dazzler.'
âYou've visited them, then?'
Barnes leered at Littlejohn.
âYou're askin' a lot of questions, aren't you? What have the Macready's got to do with the killin' of an unknown French thief?'
âI'm interested in everybody and all that goes on in July Street until we've laid the murderer by the heels, Mr. Barnes.'
âWell, I have visited them. They run a car. Garage it at my place in a lock-up at the back. Sometimes, when they forget, I have to call with the bill for the rent and other odds and ends. Now are you satisfied?'
âOf course. â¦'
He was mollified, poured out two more glasses, added soda, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh.
âYou don't understand. I'm not a man like the rest of 'em round here. Three quarters of 'em were born in these parts and haven't been outside 'em beyond the three-mile
limit. I've been all over the world and done all sorts of jobs. Then I got a wound in the war and it seemed to take all the guts out of me. I had to settle down. That's why I'm here. And perhaps my ugly body might be comfortable, but my mind isn't. It's travellin' all the time to the good places I've been to, the things I've done there, and the women I've known. To look at me now, you wouldn't think I was once a devil with the women. â¦ You're not listenin'!'
Barnes was losing his temper again. He took a large gulp of his whisky, choked, hawked, and spat on the floor.
âI'm listening, Mr. Barnes. That's why you took a fancy to Dr. Macready. He's different, too. And so is his sister.'
Barnes didn't answer for a minute and then he burst out again.
âWhat the hell are you gettin' at?'
âYou were going to tell me that, weren't you? Excusing yourself for being friendly with such a queer, such a different couple from everybody else round the place.'
âI'm not making excuses.'
âPerhaps you're not.'
âWell, then. What are we gettin' ratty about?'
Barnes was a queer type, with his round head and a solid skull, which looked to be made of hard bone all the way through. His cunning eyes, too, were like those of some country horse-dealer of days gone by, trying to sell an old nag, sizing up the buyer and how far to go with him, and next minute looking as innocent as a child.