Authors: Anne Perry
Byam turned at last and faced them, his expression bleak and the faintest shadow of a smile touching his lips.
“He came to me about two years ago and told me he was related to someone who had been a servant in the hall at the time, and knew that Lady Anstiss and I had been lovers, and that she had taken her own life when I ended the affaire.” He came over towards the sofa opposite them. “I was taken aback that anyone should know anything about it, beyond what was public”—he shrugged very slightly—“that she had died tragically. I suppose my face reflected the feeling of guilt I still have, and he fastened onto it.”
At last he sat down. “Of course I denied that I was her lover, and he may have believed me or not, but he affected not to.” His smile became broader and more bitter. “No doubt to illustrate to me how unlikely it was that society would either. The general assumption would be that no woman as lovely and charming as Laura Anstiss would take her own life over something so trivial as the ending of a flirtation.” He crossed his legs. “It must have been a great passion to affect her so.” His face was filled with a dark, self-mocking humor. “It wasn’t, I assure you. It was so very far from it it is ridiculous! But who would believe that now?” He looked at Drummond. “I should be ruined, and I cannot bear to think what it would do to my wife—the pitying looks, the whispers, the quiet amusement and the doors that would
be so very discreetly closed. And naturally my career would be ended, and in time I should be relieved of my position.” He moved one hand dismissively. “No reasons would be given, except a quiet murmur and an expectation that I should understand; but it would all be as relentless as the incoming tide, and as useless to fight against.”
“But it would be his word against yours,” Drummond pointed out. “And who would accept, or even listen to, such a man?”
Byam was very pale. “He had a letter, or part of a letter to be more precise. I had not seen it before, but it was from Laura to me, and very—very outspoken.” He colored painfully as he said it and momentarily looked downward and away from Drummond.
“So you paid him.” Drummond did not frame it as a question, the answer had already been given.
“Yes,” Byam agreed. “He didn’t ask a lot, twenty pounds a month.”
Pitt concealed his smile. Twenty pounds a month would have beggared him, and any other policeman except those like Drummond with private means. He wondered what Drummond thought of the yawning difference between Byam’s world and most men’s, or if he was even aware of it.
“And do you believe Weems might have kept this letter, and record of your payments in some way traceable to you?” Drummond said with slight puzzlement.
Byam bit his lip. “I know he did. He took some pains to tell me so, as a safeguard to himself. He said he had records of every payment I had made him. Whatever I said, no one would be likely to believe it was interest upon a debt—I am not in a position to require loans from usurers. If I wished further capital I should go to a bank, like any other gentleman. I don’t gamble and I have more than sufficient means to live according to my taste. No—” For the first time he looked at Pitt. “Weems made it very plain he had written out a clear record of precisely what I had paid him, the letter itself, together with all the details he knew of Laura Anstiss’s death and my part in it—or what he chose to interpret as my part. That is why I come to you for your help.” His eyes were very direct. “I did not kill Weems, indeed I have done him no harm whatever, nor ever threatened to. But I should
be surprised if the local police do not feel compelled to investigate me for themselves, and I have no proof that I was elsewhere at the time. I don’t know precisely what hour he was killed, but there are at least ninety minutes yesterday late evening when I was alone here in the library. No servant came or went.” He glanced briefly at the window. “And as you may observe it would be no difficulty to climb out of this bay window into the garden, and hence the street, and take a hansom to wherever I wished.”
“I see,” Drummond agreed, and indeed it was perfectly obvious. The windows were wide and high, and not more than three feet above the ground. Any reasonably agile man, or woman for that matter, could have climbed out, and back in again, without difficulty, or rousing attention. It would be simple to look out far enough to make sure no one was passing outside, and the whole exercise could be accomplished in a matter of seconds.
Byam was watching them. “You see, Drummond, I am in a predicament. In the name of fellowship”—he invested the word with a fractionally heavier intonation than usual—“I ask you to come to my aid in this matter, and use your good offices to further my cause.” It was a curious way of phrasing it, almost as if he were using a previously prescribed formula.
“Yes,” Drummond said slowly. “Of course. I—I’ll do all I can. Pitt will take over the investigation from the Clerkenwell police. That can be arranged.”
Byam looked up quickly. “You know through whom?”
“Of course I do,” Drummond said a trifle sharply, and Pitt had a momentary flash of being excluded from some understanding between them, as if the words had more meaning than the surface exchange.
Byam relaxed fractionally. “I am in your debt.” He looked at Pitt directly again. “If there is anything further I can tell you, Inspector, please call upon me at any time. If it has to be in my office in the Treasury, I would be obliged if you exercised discretion.”
“Of course,” Pitt agreed. “I shall simply leave my name. Perhaps you could answer a few questions now, sir, and save the necessity of disturbing you again?”
Byam’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly as if the immediacy took him aback, but he did not argue.
“If you wish.”
Pitt sat forward a little. “Did you pay Weems on request, or on a regular and prearranged basis?”
“On a regular basis. Why?”
Beside Pitt, Drummond shifted position a fraction, sitting back into the cushions.
“If Weems was a blackmailer, you may not have been the only victim,” Pitt pointed out courteously. “He might have used the same pattern for others as well.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed Byam’s face at his own stupidity.
“I see. Yes, I paid him on the first day of the month, in gold coin.”
“How?” Byam repeated with a frown. “I told you, in gold coin!”
“In person, or by messenger?” Pitt clarified.
“In person, of course. I have no wish to raise my servants’ curiosity by dispatching them with a bag of gold to a usurer!”
“Yes.” Byam’s fine eyes widened. “To his house in Cyrus Street.”
“Is it? I fail to see how.”
“Weems felt no fear of you, or he would not have allowed you to know both his name and his whereabouts,” Pitt explained. “He could perfectly easily have acted through an intermediary. Blackmailers are not usually so forthright.”
The irritation smoothed out of Byam’s expression.
“No, I suppose it is remarkable,” he conceded. “I had not considered it. It does seem unnecessarily rash. Perhaps some other victim was not so restrained as I?” There was a lift of hope in his voice and he regarded Pitt with something close to appreciation.
“Was that the only time you went to Cyrus Street, sir?” Pitt pursued.
Drummond drew in his breath, but then changed his mind and said nothing.
“Certainly,” Byam replied crisply. “I had no desire to see the man except when it was forced upon me.”
“Did you ever have any conversation with him that you can recall?” Pitt went on, disregarding his tone and its implications. “Anything at all that might bear on where he obtained information about you, or anyone else? Any other notable people he might have had dealings with, either usurious or extortionate?”
A shadow of a smile hovered over Byam’s lips, but whether at the thought or at Pitt’s use of words it was impossible to tell.
“I am afraid not. I simply gave him the money and left as soon as I could. The man was a leech, despicable in every way. I refused to indulge in conversation with him.” His face creased with contempt—Pitt thought not only for Weems, but for himself also. “Now I suppose it might have been an advantage if I had. I’m sorry to be of so little use.”
Pitt rose to his feet. “It was hardly foreseeable,” he said with equally dry humor. “Thank you, my lord.”
“What are you going to do?” Byam asked, then instantly his features reflected annoyance, but it was too late to withdraw the question; his weakness was apparent.
“Go to the Clerkenwell police station,” Pitt replied without looking at Drummond.
Slowly Drummond stood up also. He and Byam faced each other in silence for a moment, both seemed on the verge of speech which did not come. Perhaps the understanding was sufficient without it. Then Byam simply said thank you and held out his hand. Drummond accepted it, and with Byam giving Pitt only the acknowledgment required by civility, they took their leave. They were shown out by the same footman, who was now considerably more courteous.
In another hansom clopping along out of the quiet avenues of Belgravia towards the teeming, noisy streets of Clerkenwell, Pitt asked the blunt questions he would have to have answered if there was to be any chance of success.
“Who do you know, sir, that you can have a murder case taken away from the local Clerkenwell station without questions asked?”
Drummond looked acutely uncomfortable.
“There are things I cannot answer you, Pitt.” He looked
straight ahead at the blank inside wall of the cab. “You will have to accept my assurance that it can be done.”
“Is that the same acquaintance who will have informed Lord Byam of Weems’s death?” Pitt asked.
Drummond hesitated. “No, not the same person; but another with the same interests—which I assure you are beneficent.”
“Who do I report to?”
“If this usurer was blackmailing Lord Byam, I assume there may be other men of importance he was also blackmailing.”
Drummond stiffened. Apparently the thought had not occurred to him.
“I suppose so,” he said quickly. “For God’s sake be discreet, Pitt!”
Pitt smiled with self-mockery. “It’s the most discreet job of all, isn’t it—tidying up after their lordships’ indiscretions?”
“That’s unfair, Pitt,” Drummond said quietly. “The man was a victim of circumstance. He complimented a beautiful woman, and she became infatuated with him. She must have been of a fragile and melancholy disposition to begin with, poor creature, and could not cope with a refusal. One can understand his wanting to keep the matter private, not only for himself but for Lord Anstiss’s sake as well. It can benefit no one to have the whole tragedy raked over again after twenty years.”
Pitt did not argue. He had considerable pity for Byam, but he was uneasy about the certainty with which Byam had called on Drummond and had manipulated the placing of a police inspector sympathetic to him to take charge of the case. It was a mere few hours since the body had been found and already Drummond had removed Pitt from his current case, called upon Byam at his home, and now they were going to Clerkenwell to override the local man and take over the case themselves.
They rode the rest of the way without resuming the conversation. Pitt could think of nothing else relevant to say. To have made polite conversation was beneath the respect they had for each other, and Drummond was apparently consumed
with his own thoughts, which to judge from his face were far from comfortable.
At Clerkenwell they alighted and Drummond went in ahead of Pitt, introduced himself, and requested to see the senior officer in charge. He was conducted upstairs almost immediately, leaving Pitt to wait by the duty desk, and it was some ten or twelve minutes before he returned looking grim but less ill at ease. He met Pitt’s eyes squarely.
“It’s settled, Pitt. You are to take over the case. Sergeant Innes will work with you, show you what they have so far, and do any local investigations you may wish. Report your progress to me.”
Pitt understood him perfectly. He also knew him well enough not to doubt his integrity. If it proved that Byam had killed his blackmailer, Drummond would be distressed and deeply embarrassed, but he would not defend him or seek to conceal it.
“Yes sir,” Pitt agreed with a bare smile. “Does Sergeant Innes know I am coming?”
“He will in another five minutes,” Drummond answered with a flicker of humor in his eyes. “If you wait here he will join you. Fortunately he was here at the station—or perhaps it was not fortune …” He left the rest unsaid. Such a thing had become possible with the invention of the telephone, a magnificent and sometimes erratic instrument which made immediate communication possible between those possessed of one, as was Byam, and presumably someone in the Clerkenwell station.
Drummond took his leave, back to Bow Street, and Pitt waited in the shabby, overused hallway until Sergeant Innes should appear, which he did in a little more than the five minutes promised. He was a small, wiry man with a very large nose and a sudden smile which showed crooked white teeth. Pitt liked him straightaway, and was acutely aware of the indignity of the position he had been put in.
“Sergeant Innes.” Innes announced himself a trifle stiffly, not yet knowing what to make of Pitt, but having appreciated from his rank that it was not Pitt who had engineered this sudden overtaking of his case.
“Pitt,” Pitt replied, holding out his hand. “I apologize for this—the powers that be …” He left it unfinished. He
did not feel at liberty to tell Innes more; that was presumably the reason the local station was not permitted to conduct the affair themselves.
“Understood,” Innes acknowledged briefly. “Can’t think why, very ordinary squalid little affair—so far. Miserable usurer shot in his own offices.” His expressive face registered disgust. “Probably some poor beggar he was squeezing dry ’Oo couldn’t take it anymore. Filthy occupation. Vampires!”
Pitt agreed with him heartily and was happy to say so.
“What do you have?” he went on.
“Not much. No witnesses, but then that would be too much to hope for.” Innes flashed his amiable smile. “Usury is a secret sort of business anyway. ’Oo wants the world to know ’e’s borrowin’ money from a swine like that? You got to be pretty desperate to go to one o’ them.” He started to walk towards the door and Pitt followed. “Easiest ter see the corpse first,” Innes went on. “Got ’im in the morgue just down the road. Then we can go to Cyrus Street, that’s where ’E lived. ‘Aven’t really ’ad much time to look ’round that yet. Just got started when a constable came flyin’ ’round ter tell us ter stop everythin’ and come back ter the station. Left the place locked and a man on duty, o’ course.”