The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

9

The London–Larborough road was a black straight ribbon in the sunshine, giving off diamond sparks as the crowded traffic caught the light and lost it again. Pretty soon both the air and the roads would be so full that no one could move in comfort and everyone would have to go back to the railways for quick travel. Progress, that was.

Kevin had pointed out last night that, what with present ease of communications, it was quite on the cards that Betty Kane had spent her month’s vacation in Sydney, N.S.W. It was a daunting thought. She could be anywhere from Kamchatka to Peru, and all he, Blair, had to do was a little thing like proving she wasn’t in a house on the Larborough–Milford road. If it were not a sunny morning, and if he were not sorry for Scotland Yard, and if he didn’t have Kevin to hold his hand, and if he were not doing pretty well on his own so far, he might have felt depressed.

Feeling sorry for Scotland Yard was the last thing he had anticipated. But sorry he was. All Scotland Yard’s energies were devoted to proving the Sharpes guilty and Betty Kane’s story true; for the very good reason that they believed the Sharpes to be guilty. But what each one of them ached in his private soul to do was to push Betty Kane down the Ack–Emma’s throat; and they could only do that by proving her story nonsense. Yes, a really prize state of frustration existed in those large calm bodies at the Yard.

Grant had been charming in his quiet reasonable way — it had been rather like going to see a doctor, now he came to think of it — and had quite willingly agreed that Robert should be told about any letters that the Ack–Emma might provoke.

“Don’t pin your hopes too firmly to that, will you,” he had said, in friendly warning. “For one letter that the Yard gets that has any worth it gets five thousand that are nonsense. Letterwriting is the natural outlet of the ‘odds.’ The busybodies, the idle, the perverted, the cranks, the feel-it-my-duties ——”

“‘Pro Bono Publico’——”

“Him and ‘Civis’,” Grant said with a smile. “Also the plain depraved. They all write letters. It’s their safe outlet, you see. They can be as interfering, as long-winded, as obscene, as pompous, as one-idea’d, as they like on paper, and no one can kick them for it. So they write. My God, how they write!”

“But there is a chance ——”

“Oh, yes. There is a chance. And all these letters will have to be weeded out, however silly they are. Anything of importance will be passed on to you, I promise. But I do remind you that the ordinary intelligent citizen writes only one time in five thousand. He doesn’t like what he thinks of as ‘poking his nose in’— which is why he sits silent in a railway carriage and scandalises the Americans, who still have a hick interest in other folk — and anyhow he’s a busy man, full of his own affairs, and sitting down to a letter to the police about something that doesn’t concern him is against all his instincts.”

So Robert had come away pleased with the Yard, and sorry for them. At least he, Robert, had a straight row to hoe. He wouldn’t be glancing aside every now and then and wishing it was the next row he was hoeing. And moreover he had Kevin’s approval of the row he had chosen.

“I mean it,” Kevin had said, “when I say that if I were the police I should almost have risked it. They have a good enough case. And a nice little conviction is always a hitch up the ladder of promotion for someone. Unfortunately — or fortunately for the citizen — the man who decides whether there is a case or not is the chap higher up, and he’s not interested in any subordinate’s speedy promotion. Amazing that wisdom should be the by-product of office procedure.”

Robert, mellow with whisky, had let the cynicism flow past him.

“But let them just get one spot of corroboration, and they’ll have a warrant at the door of The Franchise quicker than you can lift a telephone receiver.”

“They won’t get any corroboration,” said the mellow Robert. “Why should they? How could they? What we want to do is to disprove the girl’s story ourselves, so that it doesn’t damn the Sharpes’ lives for as long as they live. Once I have seen the aunt and uncle tomorrow we may have enough general knowledge about the girl to justify a start on our own investigation.”

Now he was speeding down the black shining Larborough road on the way to seeing Betty’s relations in Mainshill; the people she had stayed with on the memorable holiday. A Mr. and Mrs. Tilsit, they were. Tilsit, 93 Cherrill Street, Mainshill, Larborough — and the husband was travelling agent for a firm of brush-makers in Larborough and they had no children. That was all Robert knew about them.

He paused for a moment as he turned off the main road in Mainshill. This was the corner where Betty Kane waited for her bus. Or said she waited. Over there on the other side, it must have been. There was no side turning on that side; nothing but the long stretch of unbroken pavement as far as one could see in either direction. A busy enough road at this time of day; but empty enough, Robert supposed, in the doldrum hour of the late afternoon.

Cherrill Street was one long series of angular bay windows in dirty red brick, their forward surface almost scraping the low red-brick wall that hemmed them in from the pavement. The sour soil on either side of the window that did duty for a garden had none of the virtues of the new-turned earth of Meadowside Lane, Aylesbury; it grew only thin London Pride, weedy wallflowers, and moth-eaten forget-me-not. The same housewife’s pride obtained in Cherrill Street as in Aylesbury, of course, and the same crisp curtains hung at the windows; but if there were poets in Cherrill Street they found other outlets for their soul than gardens.

When he had rung unavailingly, and then knocked, at 93 — indistinguishable from the others as far as he could see except by its painted numerals — a woman flung up the bedroom window next door, leaned out and said:

“You looking for Mrs. Tilsit?”

Robert said that he was.

“She’s gone to get her groceries. The shop at the corner.”

“Oh, thanks. If that’s all, I’ll wait.”

“Shouldn’t wait if you want to see her soon. Should go and fetch her.”

“Oh. Is she going somewhere else?”

“No, just the grocer’s; it’s the only shop round here. But she takes half a morning deciding between two brands of wheat flakes. You take one packet up right firm and put it in her bag and she’ll be quite pleased.”

Robert thanked her and began to walk away to the end of the street, when she hailed him again.

“Shouldn’t leave your car. Take it with you.”

“But it’s quite a little way, isn’t it?”

“Maybe, but it’s Saturday.”

“Saturday?”

“School’s out.”

“Oh, I see. But there’s nothing in it ——” “to steal,” he was going to say but amended it to “Nothing in it that’s movable.”

“Movable! Huh! That’s good. We had window-boxes once. Mrs. Laverty over the way had a gate. Mrs. Biddows had two fine wooden clothes posts and eighteen yards of clothes rope. They all thought they weren’t movable. You leave your car there for ten minutes you’ll be lucky to find the chassis!”

So Robert got obediently into the car, and drove down to the grocer’s. And as he drove he remembered something, and the memory puzzled him. This was where Betty Kane had been so happy. This rather dreary, rather grimy street; one of a warren of streets very like itself. So happy that she had written to say that she was staying on for the rest of her holidays.

What had she found here that was so desirable?

He was still wondering as he walked into the grocer’s and prepared to spot Mrs. Tilsit among the morning customers. But there was no need for any guesswork. There was only one woman in the shop, and one glance at the grocer’s patient face and the cardboard packet in the woman’s either hand, made it plain that she was Mrs. Tilsit.

“Can I get you something, sir,” the grocer said detaching himself for a moment from the woman’s ponderings — it wasn’t wheat flakes this morning, it was powdered soap — and moving towards Robert.

“No, thank you,” Robert said. “I am just waiting for this lady.”

“For me?” the woman said. “If it’s the gas, then ——”

Robert said hastily that he wasn’t the gas.

“I have a vacuum cleaner, and it’s going fine,” she offered, and prepared to go back to her problem.

Robert said that he had his car outside and would wait until she had finished, and was beating a hasty retreat; but she said: “A car! Oh. Well, you can drive me back, can’t you, and save me carrying all those things. How much, Mr. Carr, please?”

Mr. Carr, who had taken a packet of soap-flakes from her during her interest in Robert and wedged it into her shopping-bag, took her money, gave her change, wished her a thankful good-day, and cast a pitiful glance at Robert as he followed the woman out to his car.

Robert had known that it was too much to hope for another woman with Mrs. Wynn’s detachment and intelligence, but his heart sank as he considered Mrs. Tilsit. Mrs. Tilsit was one of those women whose minds are always on something else. They chat brightly with you, they agree with you, they admire what you are wearing, and they offer advice, but their real attention is concentrated on what to do with the fish, or what Florrie told them about Minnie’s eldest, or where they have left the laundry book, or even just what a bad filling that is in your right front tooth; anything, everything, except the subject in hand.

She seemed impressed with the appearance of Robert’s car, and asked him in to have a cup of tea — there being apparently no hour of the day when a cup of tea was not a possible article of diet. Robert felt that he could not drink with her — even a cup of tea — without making plain his position of opposing counsel, so to speak. He did his best, but it was doubtful if she understood; her mind was so plainly already deciding whether to offer him the Rich Tea or the Mixed Fancy biscuits with his tea. Mention of her niece made none of the expected stir in her emotions.

“A most extraordinary thing, that was, wasn’t it?” she said. “Taking her away and beating her. What good did they think that was going to do them? Sit down, Mr. Blayne, come in and sit down. I’ll just ——”

A bloodcurdling scream echoed through the house. An urgent, high-pitched, desperate screaming that went on and on, without even a pause for breath.

Mrs. Tilsit humped her parcels in a movement of exasperation. She leaned near enough to Robert to put her mouth within shouting distance of his ear. “My kettle,” she yelled. “I’ll be right back.”

Robert sat down, and again considered the surroundings and wondered why Betty Kane had found them so good. Mrs. Wynn’s front room had been a living-room; a sitting-room warm with human occupation and human traffic. But this was clearly a “best” room, kept for visitors who were not intimate enough to be admitted to the back regions; the real life of the house was in the poky room at the back. Either kitchen or kitchen-sitting-room. And yet Betty Kane had elected to stay. Had she found a friend? A girl-next-door? A boy-next-door?

Mrs. Tilsit came back in what seemed like two minutes, bearing a tray with tea. Robert wondered a little at this promptness of action until he saw the tray’s contents. Mrs. Tilsit had not waited to make a decision; she had brought them both; Thin Wine and Sweet Shortbread. At least, he thought, watching her pour, that this woman explained one of the oddities in the affair: the fact that when the Wynns had written to have Betty sent home at once, her aunt had not flown to a telegraph office to break the news that Betty had left for home nearly a fortnight ago. The Betty who had gone a fortnight previously would be much less real in Mrs. Tilsit’s mind than the jelly that was cooling on the back window-sill.

“I wasn’t worried about her,” Mrs. Tilsit said, as if in echo to his thoughts. “When they wrote from Aylesbury about her, I knew she would turn up. When Mr. Tilsit came home he was quite upset about it; he goes away for a week or ten days at a time you know; he’s agent for Weekses; carried on like a mad thing, he did; but I just said you wait and she’ll turn up all right, and she did. Well, nearly all right.”

“She said she enjoyed her holiday here enormously.”

“I suppose she did,” she said vaguely, not looking gratified as Robert had expected. He glanced at her and realised that her mind was already on something else. The strength of his tea, if one was to judge by the direction of her eye.

“How did she pass her time? Did she make friends?”

“Oh, no, she was in Larborough most of the time.”

“Larborough!”

“Oh, well, when I say most of the time, I do her an injustice. She helped with the house in the mornings, but in a house this size and me used to doing everything myself there isn’t much to do. And she was here on holiday, wasn’t she, poor thing, after all that school work. What good all that book work is to a young girl I don’t know. Mrs. Harrap’s daughter over the way could hardly write her name but she married the third son of a lord. Or perhaps it was the son of a third son,” she said, looking doubtful. “I forget for the minute. She ——”

“How did she spend her time in Larborough? Betty, I mean.”

“Pictures, mostly.”

“Pictures? Oh, the cinema. I see.”

“You can do that from morning till night if you’re given that way, in Larborough. The big ones open at half-past ten and they mostly change mid-week and there’s about forty of them, so you can just go from one to another till it’s time to go home.”

“Is that what Betty did?”

“Oh, no. She’s quite sensible, Betty is. She used to go in to the morning round because you get in cheaper before noon, and then she’d go bus-riding.”

“Bus-riding. Where?”

“Oh, anywhere the fancy took her. Have another of these biscuits, Mr. Bain; they’re fresh from the tin. She went to see the castle at Norton one day. Norton’s the county town you know. Everyone imagines Larborough is because it’s so big, but Norton’s always been ——”

“Did she not come home to lunch, then?”

“What? Oh, Betty. No, she’d have coffee lunch somewhere. We always have our real meal at night anyhow, you see, with Mr. Tilsit being out all day, so there was always a meal waiting when she came home. It’s always been my pride to have a good nourishing sit-down meal ready for my ——”

“What time would that be? Six?”

“No, Mr. Tilsit doesn’t usually manage home before half-past seven.”

“And I suppose Betty was home long before then?”

“Mostly she was. She was late once because she went to an afternoon show at the pictures, but Mr. Tilsit he created about it — though I’m sure he had no need to, what harm can you come to at the pictures? — and after that she was always home before him. When he was here, that is. She wasn’t so careful when he was away.”

So the girl had been her own mistress for a good fortnight. Free to come and go without question, and limited only by the amount of holiday money in her pocket. It was an innocent-sounding fortnight; and in the case of most girls of her age it undoubtedly would have been that. The cinema in the morning, or window gazing; a coffee lunch; a bus-ride into the country in the afternoon. A blissful holiday for an adolescent; the first taste of unsupervised freedom.

But Betty Kane was no normal adolescent. She was the girl who had told that long and circumstantial story to the police without a tremor. The girl with four weeks of her life unaccounted for. The girl that someone had ended by beating unmercifully. How, then, had Betty Kane spent her unsupervised freedom?

“Did she go to Milford on the bus, do you know?”

“No, they asked me that, of course, but I couldn’t say yes or not.”

“They?”

“The police.”

Yes, of course; he had forgotten for the moment that the police would have checked Betty Kane’s every sentence to the limit of their power.

“You’re not police, I think you said.”

“No,” Robert said yet once again, “I’m a lawyer. I represent the two women who are supposed to have detained Betty.”

“Oh, yes. You told me. I suppose they have to have a lawyer like anyone else, poor things. To ask questions for them. I hope I’m telling you the things you want to know, Mr. Blayne.”

He had another cup of tea in the hope that sooner or later she would tell him something he wanted to know. But it was mere repetition now.

“Did the police know that Betty was away on her own all day?” he asked.

She really thought about that. “That I can’t remember,” she said. “They asked me how she passed her time and I said that mostly she went to pictures or bus-riding, and they said did I go with her and I said — well, I’ll have to admit I told a white lie about it and said that I did now and then. I didn’t want them to think that Betty went to places alone. Though of course there was no harm in it.”

What a mind!

“Did she have letters while she was here?” he asked as he was taking his leave.

“Just from home. Oh, yes, I would know. I always took the letters in. In any case they wouldn’t have written to her, would they?”

“Who?”

“Those women who kidnapped her.”

It was with a feeling of escape that Robert drove in to Larborough. He wondered if Mr. Tilsit had always been away “ten days at a time” from his home, or if he had got the travelling job as an alternative to flight or suicide.

In Larborough, Blair sought out the main garage of the Larborough And District Motor Services. He knocked at the door of the small office that guarded one side of the entrance, and went in. A man in a bus inspector’s uniform was going through papers on the desk. He glanced up at Robert and without asking his business continued his own affairs.

Robert said that he wanted to see someone who would know about the Milford bus service.

“Time table on the wall outside,” the man said without looking up.

“I don’t want to know about times. I know them. I live in Milford. I want to know if you ever run a double-decker bus on that route.”

There was silence for a long time; a silence expertly calculated to end at the point where Robert was about to open his mouth again.

“No,” said the man.

“Never?” Robert asked.

This time there was no answer at all. The inspector made it plain that he was finished with him.

“Listen,” Robert said, “this is important. I am a partner in a firm of solicitors in Milford, and I——”

The man turned on him. “I don’t care if you are the Shah of Persia; there are no double-decker buses on the Milford run! And what do you want?” he added as a small mechanic appeared behind Robert in the doorway.

The mechanic hesitated, as if the business he had come on had been upset by a newer interest. But he pulled himself together and began to state his business. “It’s about those spares for Norton. Shall I——”

As Robert was edging past him out of the office he felt a tug on his coat and realised that the little mechanic wanted him to linger until he could talk to him. Robert went out and bent over his own car, and presently the mechanic appeared at his elbow.

“You asking about double-decker buses? I couldn’t contradict him straight out, you know; in the mood he’s in now it’d be as much as my job’s worth. You want to use a double-decker, or just to know if they ever run at all? Because you can’t get a double-decker on that route, not to travel in, because the buses on that run are all ——”

“I know, I know. They are single-decks. What I wanted to know was whether there ever are two-deck buses on the Milford route.”

“Well, there are not supposed to be, you understand, but once or twice this year we’ve had to use a double-decker when one of the old single ones broke down unexpected. Sooner or later they’ll be all double-deck, but there isn’t enough traffic on the Milford run to justify a double, so all the old crocks of singles eventually land on that route and a few more like it. And so ——”

“You’re a great help. Would it be possible to find out exactly when a double-decker did run on that route?”

“Oh, certainly,” the mechanic said, with a shade of bitterness. “In this firm it’s recorded every time you spit. But the records are in there,” he tilted back his head to indicate the office, “and as long as he’s there there’s nothing doing.”

Robert asked at what hour there would be something doing.

“Well: he goes off at the same time as me: six. But I could wait a few minutes and look up the schedules when he’s gone if it’s very important to you.”

Robert did not know how he was going to wait through the hours till six o’clock, but six o’clock it would have to be.

“Righto. I’ll meet you in the Bell, that’s the pub at the end of the street, about a quarter past six. That do?”

That would do perfectly, Robert said. Perfectly.

And he went away to see what he could bribe the lounge waiter at the Midland into giving him out of hours.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04