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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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BOOK: Petrella at 'Q'
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Albert was fat, and a bit of a coward. He started to bluster, and when he had been knocked down twice, he looked fearfully out of a fast-closing right eye, and said, “What’s it all about? What do you want?”

“You know bloody well what I want,” said Cookson. “I want the truth.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The larger of the men closed in again. Cookson said, “Hold it. We want him in one piece. He’s going to sign a confession.”

“I got nothing to confess to,” said Rugg. “Just because that cunning bastard Tasker tried to put the blame on me. I ought to sue him for libel.”

“I tell you what we ought to do,” said the second of Willie Cookson’s assistants. “I seen this on television. We tie him in a chair, and take his shoes and socks off. And we put one foot on the electric fire. It’s effective, see?”

“It sounds effective,” agreed Cookson. “Let’s give it a try.”

In no time at all, they had Albert lashed to a dining-room chair. When he started to shout they stuffed the socks they had removed into his mouth, and tied them there with a tea-towel.

At this point the doorbell rang. Cookson said, “See who it is and send them away.”

One of the men went out. As he opened the flat door it came inward at him with a crash and Stan and Les Corner came in fast, supported by a cousin called Lew.

Stan Corner said, “Lucky I happened to see these bastards come in,” and battle was joined. It was a lovely fight. The railway men were large, and determined. The Corner boys were smaller, but had a slight edge in skill and experience. They used for weapons whatever pieces of furniture came to hand.

The only people who took no part in the fight were Albert Rugg and Willie Cookson. Albert, because no one had time to untie him. Willie, because he was hit on the head by a small table and lost interest.

Fortunately, before anyone could be killed, a soap-stone model of St. Paul’s Cathedral was thrown by Stan Corner through the window and landed at the feet of P.C. Owers, who summoned assistance on his pocket wireless and went to join the party.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Petrella to Watterson, “but no one seems to want to prefer charges.”

“Not even Rugg? Owers says they had him tied up with his socks in his mouth.”

“I think Rugg has got a guilty conscience,” said Petrella.

“I suppose we could charge them with a breach of the peace.”

“It was a fairly private fight,” said Petrella. “Until they nearly brained Owers with that cathedral.”

“We must do something about it. If we don’t, we shall have a gang war on our hands.”

This was the second prediction which Superintendent Watterson had made. It, too, was proved false. The final act took place, some weeks later, in Mr. Tasker’s office, near the Oval.

A deed was signed by William Cookson and Albert Rugg (“hereinafter called the partners”). Cookson supplied the money, which the insurance company had now reluctantly paid up, and Rugg supplied the premises. The new garage was to be called the Premier-Octagon.

“It’s called rationalisation,” said Petrella, when he heard about it. He was reading a particularly unpleasant anonymous note.

The Death of Mrs. Key

 

The letter, written in capitals on a sheet of plain white paper, said:

 

“HOW MUCH DID FRED BARRON PAY YOU TO PERJURE YOURSELF? I EXPECT SCOTLAND YARD WOULD LIKE TO KNOW. SO I’M GOING TO TELL THEM. NOT NOW. PROBABLY NEXT WEEK. THINK ABOUT IT.”

 

“When did you get this?” said Petrella.

“This morning,” said Constable Owers. He looked half amused, half angry. “I kept the envelope. I thought you’d want it.”

The envelope was a large yellow one, and Constable Owers’s name and address was neatly typed on it.

“Whoever sent it,” said Petrella, “can’t have known a lot about police procedure.”

Fred Barron had long been under suspicion of being a receiver of stolen goods, and this was the charge that the police would dearly have liked to pin on him. The Director of Public Prosecutions had studied the available evidence, and had advised against it. A summons under the Shops Act, which they could make stick, had been substituted. Constable Owers had been the main police witness, but the decision on which charge to prefer had been nothing to do with him.

“I wasn’t worried,” said Owers, “but I thought you ought to see it. I heard a buzz that quite a lot of people have been getting billy-doos like this.”

“I heard the same,” said Petrella. “I did wonder if Mrs. Key might have been getting them.”

This was on Saturday. Mrs. Key had died on the Thursday. She was a frail lady, in her middle sixties, crippled with arthritis. Some time during the evening, when her companion and helper, Mrs. Oldenshaw, had departed and she was quite alone, she had wheeled herself, in her invalid chair, into the kitchen, had shut the windows and door and blocked up the gap under the door with a roller towel, and had turned on all the taps on her gas cooker.

Neighbours coming back late that night had smelled the gas and called the police.

“What makes ‘em do it?” said Owers. “Send letters like that, I mean. That last bit, about waiting before reporting me. It was meant to make me sweat, wasn’t it?”

“One part badness and three parts madness. If everyone was as sensible as you, and brought them straight along to us, we might have a chance of catching them. I wonder how many people have had them and kept quiet about them?”

An unexpected answer to this question was in the offing.

Sunday was not a guaranteed day of rest for a C.I.D. officer, but when the exigencies of his job allowed, Petrella liked to go to Matins or Evensong at St. Marks, which was the Parish Church of Riverside South. He enjoyed the Rector. The Reverend Patrick Amberline had been many things before, late in life, he had come to the church. He was a man who was large in every dimension of body and mind.

On this particular Sunday evening, having heaved himself up into the pulpit like a circus elephant mounting a tub, he opened the proceedings by saying, “I have some news for you. I am—” he consulted a paper which he had in his hand, “a lecherous beast and a seducer of young girls. In fact, a thoroughly dirty old man.” After a moment of stunned silence, the church rocked with laughter.

When order had been restored, the Rector said, “It’s really no laughing matter. I propose to pin this remarkable communication on to the notice board in the porch, so that you may see it for yourselves. The bit about my making improper advances to the ladies in the choir, you’ll have to take with a pinch of salt. I’m too fat to make advances, and they’re much too sensible to receive them. However, my object in mentioning this”—he paused and looked round the congregation, “was a serious one. If any of you have received these products of a sick mind, don’t hide them. The answer to corruption is fresh air. Show them to everyone. Above all, show them to the police. And now, to my text—”

During the sermon Petrella cast an eye over the young ladies of the choir, and wondered which of them the anonymous letter writer had had in mind. Two rather severe ones, with glasses. Two flashy blondes, two or three who were obviously schoolgirls. One red-head, a bit older than the others, and more self-possessed. She looked the most plausible candidate.

Coming out of church, and noticing the chattering groups which had gathered at the door, he came to the conclusion that Father Amberline had done the preliminary part of the police work more effectively than they could possibly have done it themselves.

The results started to come into Patton Street Police Station at an early hour on Monday. Petrella left the scholarly Sergeant Ambrose to deal with them and walked round to Mrs. Key’s little terrace house in Smarden Lane.

He found two people there. He had met Mrs. Oldenshaw before. She was a woman designed by nature to be a companion, being negative in character and accommodating in disposition. The young man with her wore large round spectacles which made him look like an owl. He turned out to be Ronald Blanshard, Mrs. Key’s nephew.

Petrella said, “I don’t want to bother you with a lot of questions at a time like this, but we’ve got the inquest on Wednesday and there are one or two points we must clear up.”

The owl-like young man blinked at him and Mrs. Oldenshaw said, “I can’t hardly bring myself to speak of it. She was driven to it, poor soul, that I do know.”

Petrella said, “That’s what I was wondering about. She didn’t leave any note behind her, but it did occur to me—”

He let the sentence hang. Mrs. Oldenshaw looked at the young man, who stared sadly back at her.

“If there was anything,” said Petrella gently, “we must be told.”

“It was all so beastly,” said Ronald. “I’ve seen some of the letters. The ones she kept. Mrs. Oldenshaw just showed them to me. They accused her”—he seemed to have difficulty in getting the words out, “of killing both her brothers and her husband.”

Petrella stared at him.

“They were all killed in action. Her older brother, my uncle Edward, on the Somme in the first war. Her younger brother George – that was my father – he was killed in Germany in 1945.” The young man paused, blinked in a very owl-like way, and added, “I can’t remember him at all. To me, he’s just a photograph and some relics my mother keeps in a drawer at home.”

Petrella said, “And her husband?”

“He was in the R.A.F. He was shot down on a bomber raid.”

“But how could she possibly be blamed—”

“Read them for yourself,” said Ronald.

They were detailed, ingenious and horrible masterpieces of innuendo and spite. And they all said the same thing. “You drove your men-folk to the war. They didn’t really want to go. You talked them into it. Whilst you sat safely at home, they were torn to pieces by shrapnel, burst apart by high explosive, burned. Think of your husband, trapped in that bomber, roasting to death as it went down into the sea. Are you satisfied with the results? You’ve got all the family money now, you selfish barren bitch.”

“Why on earth did she keep them?” said Petrella. “Why did she ever open them at all.”

“That was the devilish part of it,” said Ronald. “They all came in different shapes and sizes of envelopes, with different sorts of typing on them. She couldn’t avoid seeing them. Unless she refused to open any letters at all.”

“There were telephone calls, too,” said Mrs. Oldenshaw. “When she was alone here, in the evening. Whispering things to her.”

Petrella swung round abruptly on his heel. He said, “I’ll take all these letters. I see she kept some of the envelopes. I’ll take them as well.”

Back at Patton Street he found Sergeant Ambrose with a heap of papers on the table in front of him.

“Eighty-five to date,” he said, “and more coming in. All handwritten in block capitals. All the envelopes typed.”

Petrella said, “I want them analysed. By recipient, by the subject matter of the threats, by date, by post mark, and by typewriter. Get all the envelopes up to Central. They’ve a man there who can tell you the make of machine from a line or two of typescript. I want the answers as quickly as possible.”

He walked out of the room as abruptly as he had come into it. Sergeant Ambrose stared after him. He had not seen Petrella angry before. However, it was the sort of job he enjoyed and he set to work quickly and neatly.

Petrella made a telephone call to Central to make sure that the expert he wanted would be available and then paid a visit to the offices of Messrs. Mellors and Rapp, Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths, who had an office in the High Street. They were the largest firm in Riverside South. They did most of the police court work in that area. The senior partner, Mr. Charles Rapp, was tall and thin. He knew Petrella and received him without delay, in his private room, a centre-point of calm in a maelstrom of clacking typewriters, buzzing telephones and hurrying clerks.

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t know about it,” he said when he had grasped what Petrella wanted. “As soon as we can get probate, a will becomes public property. Mrs. Key’s will was very simple. She left a sum of forty thousand pounds to her nephew and only surviving relative, Ronald Blanshard, provided he survives her by one clear month. That’s put in to avoid double death duties. Anything left over after payment of debts and duties and this legacy is to be invested in an annuity for her companion, Mrs. Oldenshaw.”

“Will there be anything left?”

“Oh yes. I should think so. Possibly as much as ten thousand pounds. It should provide a comfortable little annuity.”

Petrella phrased his next questions cautiously. He knew that he was treading on delicate ground. He said, “Have you ever met Ronald?”

“He did come in here about a year ago I think. To make his own will. He’s an architect, I believe. He seemed a very nice young man.” Mr. Rapp cocked a tufted eyebrow at Petrella.

“Oh, very,” said Petrella. “I happened to run across him when I went round to the house. Do you know if he’s married?

“I fancy not. But I believe he told me he was engaged. I seem to remember warning him that when he got married, it would invalidate his will, and he would have to make another one.”

Petrella thanked Mr. Rapp and took himself off. On the way out he thought he saw a head of hair which he recognised, bent over one of half a dozen typewriters in the general office. The typist looked up, and the impression was confirmed. It was the red-headed young lady from the choir of St. Marks.

Petrella walked back slowly to Patton Street. A picture was shaping itself in his mind. It was blurred and indistinct as yet, like a photograph taken out of focus. And it was not a pleasant picture.

Sergeant Ambrose had his first report ready. It covered ten foolscap pages of careful handwriting, and divided and subdivided the anonymous letters into every possible category, and carefully analysed each. Petrella took it home with him that evening and read it over his supper. His wife observed the bleak look on his face and refrained from asking any questions.

On the following afternoon, the report on the typewriters came in from the Yard. Six different machines, it said. Two newish Lexingtons. One older and one very old Remington, one Italian Pulchrion and one German Obermark. The report added, “None of the type-faces are perfect. If a sample could be obtained from a suspect machine, a positive identification would be available.”

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