This volume offers eighteen delightful mysteries from the Queen of Crime that will baffle the most ingenious of armchair detectives—and even, at times, the imperturbable sleuth Albert Campion himself.
Enjoy one of England’s great golden-era writers at her witty best as she spins delicious tales of high-risk heists and domestic deceptions in this exquisite short story collection.
“A perfectly splendid collection of short stories.” —H. R. F. Keating
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
Read an Excerpt
London was having one of her days. Outside, the streets glistened dully with half frozen sludge and the air was thick, dark and apparently contaminated with poison gas. But inside the varnished cabin which overhung the huge circular bar of the Platelayers' Arms, W2, there was still civilization and comfort. In this nest which possessed a staircase direct to the street, privileged customers drank in all the peaceful privacy of a St James's Club yet without sacrificing anything of the fug and freedom of the true hostelry. Mrs Chubb, the licensee, who was a genius in such matters called it "my little room".
Charlie Luke, at that time the Divisional Detective Chief Inspector of the district, was sitting on the table, his muscles spoiling the cut of his jacket and his hat pulled down over his eyes. He looked like a gangster, was a tough, and with his live dark face and diamond-shaped eye sockets, he lent a touch of badly needed theatre to the rest of us. We were about half a dozen I suppose, no one of staggering distinction but all friends, resting for half an hour before making the routine after-work effort to totter off home.
Mr Campion, owlish behind the spectacles for which he had set such a fashion, was chipping Luke gently and affectionately like a man knocking out a favourite pipe. "You put your success as a detective down to your height, Charles?" he was saying. "Really? You astound me. I shouldn't have thought it. Height of brow? Or merely length of leg?"
"Reach, chum." Luke was in fine ferocious form, his eyes snapping and his teeth gleaming in his dark skin. "And I wasn't talking of my success — I could do with a basinful of that — I simply said that it was my height that got me into the CID. I was on the beat — see?"
He adjusted an imaginary helmet strap under his chin and strained his Adam's apple against an imaginary tunic collar. He was away. You could see him fifteen years younger, with pink satin cheeks, loping along, bright, eager, green as lettuce leaves. It was his great gift; as he spoke whole pictures came alive and people one had never heard of seemed to step into the room. Mr Campion settled back, grinning.
"It was a night just like this, cold and thick as a landlady's kiss and my little beat, which was usually quiet at night except for the rats, had come alive for a change. Our DI was expecting a burglary."
He blew out his cheeks, sketched himself a pair of flaring eyebrows and a waterfall moustache with a careless hand and sped on with his narrative, having introduced us to a fussy, worried personality without drawing extra breath.
"Set out!" he said. "Caudblimeah! I thought he was expecting to be a father, until seven in the evening when the cars turned out! My sergeant took pity on me in the end and gave it me in clear. News had come through on the grapevine that Slacks Washington, who was one of the slicker practitioners, had run out of money and had been taking sights round a little bookmaker's office in Ebury Court. From information received — and you know what that means ..." he favoured us with a wide-eyed leer which was somehow wholly feminine and conjured up a traitress of a very definite kind ... "they'd learned that tonight was the night. The bookie kept his cash in a safe which wouldn't keep out pussy and he was careless. He relied on the position of the office."
There was a square whisky bottle on the mantelshelf — a dummy, as many generations of Ma Chubb's clients had discovered through the years; Luke leant forward without rising and, stretching out a long arm, took it up with which to demonstrate.
"This is just about the shape of Ebury Court," he remarked, placing the bottle on its side. "There's a narrow-tunnelled entrance off the Commercial Road, two perfectly blank thirty-foot walls made of soot-blackened brick, smarmed with posters, and, at the end, here at the bottom of the bottle, is a little nest of offices. A small printery on the ground floor, the bookie above and a commercial art studio above that ... nothing to attract anybody. All deserted at night."
He grinned at us. "They could have cut short the whole exercise by just putting me in the passageway," he said cheerfully. "Naturally. But our DI wasn't wasting anything. Slacks was two and one-sixth yards of ill repute at that time. He was tall and thin and dangerous, he used a gun, he was dirty, and he stole." He measured two yards in the air as a woman does with outstretched arm and held his nose for a moment. "AÂ badÂ crook," he said. "So, it was decided to take him with the stuff on him just to make a nice clean open-and-shut case which no smarty legal-eagle could muck up. It was also to be an object lesson to a collection of new young gentlemen from the CID (at that time of day, half the stuff they were recruiting spoke so refined their superior officers couldn't understand a word they were saying) and old Superintendent Yeo from the Yard was to be present himself just to hand out the congratulations." He laughed joyfully. "Talk about a police-net!" he said. "The trouble was to prevent it looking like a football crowd caught in the rain. I was the only man allowed to show myself. I was to keep my usual times and 'behave normal' and I was just bright enough to know that didn't mean stopping in a doorway for a fag.
"Off we went. There were police in the area, police on the tiles, police disguised as disappointed lovers waiting for their girls, police disguised as drunks singing in the gutter, police disguised as postmen, police disguised as police going home." He crossed his eyes and his fingers and made an idiot face. "It was quite a do," he said. "It was a wonder to me Slacks pushed past 'em all. There was no one else about. There never were many people around at that time of night, but the rain and the fog seemed to have cleared the district. By midnight I'd given up hope, but at a quarter to one he showed up. He got off a bus on the corner, leaving the man who was tailing him to ride on as arranged, and came striding down the pavement with his raincoat flapping and his long legs making shadows on the pavement under the street lamp. I recognised him at once from the pictures I'd been shown. He saw me and said, 'Good night, officer!' as he passed. He was so much at ease that it was me that gave the guilty start. I made a police-like noise and strolled on — you know." The DDCI rubbed his cheek and miraculously we saw him as he must have been then, skin like pink satin and the kitten-blue still in his eyes.
"Slacks went into the trap," he went on. "Walked straight into the Court like a man in a hurry, which was the only way; the dark mouth of the tunnel through the houses swallowed him up and after that you could have heard a cat cough.
"It had been arranged that the arrest should be made as he came out of Ebury Court. The idea was that since he was known to be dangerous the actual cop should be covered at all points. It was to be a demonstration, as I said. The whole thing was to be done like the book, neat, swift and with the minimum danger to all present. Since I'd done my little bit, I walked back when I reached the boundary and crossed the road to see the performance.
"There it was, set out like a stage set. There was a man on either side of the entrance waiting to step forward and pin him. There was a car twenty paces up the road and another one thirty paces down, stationary but with engines running. Opposite, there was a borrowed General Post Office van with two fake postmen in attendance, and all round — hidden, they hoped, in the dusk and weather — there were the privileged audience. We waited. We waited. We waited some more. People began to get windy. There had been time for Slacks to open twenty safes and count the money as well. I could feel our DI shaking although he was forty yards away. I know what he felt like. But I was puzzled myself because I knew there was no other way out and the roofs were manned. I found myself wondering if the chap could have broken his leg or something, knocked himself out, perhaps, with the bookie's Scotch. And then quite suddenly, between thought and thought as it were, with no one quite ready in spite of everything, a revolver shot rang out clearly from inside the Court. There was a yelp like the cry of a lost soul (whatever that's like) and someone came staggering out into the street.
"I saw him, and I recognised him, and I had the shock of my life. The men on the tunnel caught him and he collapsed in their arms and died there, poor chap, at that moment, with a bullet through his windpipe.
"I was one of the first to get there, although there was soon a big enough crowd round the three of them.
"The DI charged up spluttering" — Luke blew the imaginary waterfall moustache in and out until we saw it for ourselves — "he kept the watch on the archway intact, though; he was no fool, the Old Man. He turned to me. 'Who the so-and-so is this, constable?' he demanded, as suspiciously as if he thought it was all mine. 'Know him?'
"I said, 'Yessir!' smartly, and I told him. It was a little runt called Church — some relation to the proverbial mouse, I think — he was a crank who spent all his spare time flyposting for some society he was interested in. I always remember those little posters of his, they were printed in emerald on yellow and he stuck them wherever he could on the hoardings, quite illegally. They said: 'YOU'VE GOT A RIGHT TO IT', and then, in some very small type:Â Society of Humanity. Meeting Tuesday. Somewhereorother Hall.'Â That was all. The most innocent little chap alive. I went to one of the meetings once, but it emerged that the only thing I'd got a right to was the speaker's views, and they didn't get me far. Church was daft, that was all. A poor daft little bloke. He must have been hiding in the Court for hours — thinking all the ding-dong was for him, I suppose.
"We could see what had happened. He'd surprised Slacks and got the full benefit. Strewth I was riled!" Even at this distance in time the DDCI's diamond-shaped eyes grew narrow at the recollection. "I was all for charging in like a hero and getting the next bullet," he said with a lightning change of mood. "Mercifully, I had no enemies among my superiors at that time and I was restrained. We all waited there till morning. Finally, after sufficient conferences to start a Peace, old DI Everett himself went in. God bless him he was a brave old boy. He had a bullet-proof shirt on, so his tummy was safe, but the etiquette of the time required him to rely on the natural armour plating of his own skull should Slacks have aimed high. He had four of his own boys behind him, but I got there next, there being no great competition.
"We found Slacks sitting on a packing-case outside the printery, smoking and admiring the view. He was quite affable, all things considered."
Luke paused and eyed Campion.
"You ought to have been there," he said. "It was like one of your tame pigeons. The crib was cracked, the cash was gone, Church's little paste-pot and Escapist Literature were lying in the yard, but Slacks hadn't a bob on him and nor had he a gun.
"Everett's men took the whole place apart. It was the first time I'd ever seen a full-dress CID search and it opened my eyes. They took up the drains, although anyone could see they hadn't been disturbed for twenty years, they took the offices apart, they tapped the stones and the walls and they emptied the paste-pot — so it wasn't what you're thinking — and meanwhile Slacks sat placidly in a nice warm room overlooking the river and swore he couldn't think what they were all talking about and hadn't heard a shot or even handled a gun, whatever next.
"No one told me to go off duty, so I stayed around. When they were all exhausted and the place looked like the scoured inside of a well-kept saucepan, the CID boys were called off. The old DI was nearly out of his mind. He was standing alone in the middle of the court with the sun shining down through the airshaft between the building and glinting on his old bald head. The bookie and the printers and the commercial artists were all besieging the entrance behind us and he knew that sooner or later he'd have to let them in and lose the proof forever.
"Since there was no one else there he spoke to me.
"'Where did he put it, constable?' he said. 'Where in the name of Gog and Magog did he put that gun — the gun and wad of money as big as a brick?'
"I cleared my throat — I was a bit husky when speaking to DIs in those days. 'He's a tall man, sir,' I said.
"He turned and looked at me and I remember I took my cape off and stretched up my hand — my reach was eight inches longer than his own. 'Church was a little man, sir,' I said, and I pointed to one of the 'YOU'VE GOT A RIGHT TO IT' posters, which was a good two feet higher than the rest, slapped on in the very midst of an out-of-date Cinema Masterpiece which covered half a wall. He opened his mouth and said a word which was new to me — Hindustani it was. He was an elderly man. He went over and reached up. He wasn't tall enough, but I waited for orders and saw the look on his face when he gave them."
Luke sighed and on his dark face there was a gleam of remembered triumph. "It was there," he said. "In a little hole made by the erosion of a couple of bricks. The bill posters always papered over it, but within a day or so the paper always rotted. Slacks, looking round wildly after the shot, must have guessed that he was trapped. He saw the hole, shoved the loot and the gun out of sight, and then spotted the paste-pot and the bills.
"I remember the DI holding the stuff in his handkerchief. He was grinning all over his face, like this" — Luke's smile was wonderful to see. "'You think I'm going to take the credit for this, my boy, don't you?' he said. I said, 'Yessir,' and he laughed. 'How right you are,' he said. 'Learnt anything?' I said: 'Yessir, always take the paper off the wall, sir.' That made him laugh. 'You'll do,' he said. 'You'd better report to me.' So that's how I joined the CID."
Mr Campion was laughing.
"Brilliant observation," he remarked. "And — er — if I may say so, wonderful restraint."
Luke chuckled, and appealed to the rest of us.
"He always spots the second degree," he said. "Yes, of course you're right, chum! I saw it at once as soon as I stepped into the yard. That hole in the wall was where I kept my sandwiches. It was just high enough to be private. All the same I had to wait my moment — 'Honour where honour is going to be duly appreciated'."CHAPTER 2
Three is a Lucky Number
At five o'clock on a September afternoon Ronald Frederick Torbay was making preparations for his third murder. He was being very wary, forcing himself to go slowly because he was perfectly sane and was well aware of the dangers of carelessness.
A career of homicide got more chancy as one went on. That piece of information had impressed him as being true as soon as he had read it in a magazine article way back before his first marriage. Also, he realised, success was liable to go to a man's head, so he kept a tight hold on himself. He was certain he was infinitely more clever than most human beings, but he did not dwell on the fact, and as soon as he felt the old thrill at the sense of his power welling up inside him, he quelled it firmly.
For an instant he paused, leaning on the rim of the wash-basin, and regarded himself thoughtfully in the shaving glass of the bathroom in the new villa he had hired so recently.
The face which looked at him was thin, middle-aged and pallid. Sparse dark hair receded from its high narrow forehead and the well-shaped eyes were blue and prominent. Only the mouth was really unusual. That narrow slit, quite straight, was almost lipless and, unconsciously, he persuaded it to relax into a half smile. Even Ronald Torbay did not like his own mouth.
A sound in the kitchen below disturbed him and he straightened his back hastily. If Edyth had finished her ironing she would be coming up to take her long-discussed bubble-bath before he had prepared it for her and that would never do. He waited, holding his breath, but it was all right: she was going out of the back door. He reached the window just in time to see her disappearing round the side of the house into the small square yard which was so exactly like all the other square yards in the long suburban street. He knew that she was going to hang the newly pressed linen on the line to air and although the manoeuvre gave him the time he needed, still it irritated him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Allingham Casebook"
Copyright © 1969 Margery Allingham.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
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