The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

2

Inspector Grant

Superintendent Barker applied a carefully manicured forefinger to the ivory bell-push on the under side of his table, and kept it there until a minion appeared.

“Tell Inspector Grant that I want to see him,” he said to the minion, who was doing his best to look obsequious in the great man’s presence, but was frustrated in his good intention by an incipient embonpoint which compelled him to lean back a little in order to preserve his balance, and by the angle of his nose which was the apotheosis of impudence. Bitterly conscious of failure, the minion withdrew to deliver the message and to bury the memory of his confusion among the unsympathetic perfection of files and foolscap from which he had been summoned, and presently Inspector Grant came into the room and greeted his chief cheerily as one man to another. And his chief’s face brightened unconsciously in his presence.

If Grant had an asset beyond the usual ones of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage, it was that the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height and slight in build, and he was — now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that; but if you can visualize a dapperness that is not of the tailor’s dummy type, then that is Grant. Barker had for years striven unsuccessfully to emulate his subordinate’s chic; he succeeded merely in looking too carefully dressed. He lacked the flair for things sartorial as he lacked flair in most things. He was a plodder. But that was the worst that could be said about him. And when he started plodding after some one, that some one usually wished he had never been born.

He regarded his subordinate now with an admiration untinged with any resentment, appreciated his son-of-the-morning atmosphere — he himself had been awake most of the night with sciatica — and came to business.

“Gowbridge are very sick,” he said. “In fact, Gow Street went so far as to insinuate that it was a conspiracy.”

“Oh? Some one been pulling their legs?”

“No, but last night’s affair is the fifth big thing in their district in the last three days, and they’re fed up. They want us to take this last affair over.”

“What is that? The theatre-queue business, is it?”

“Yes, and you are O.C. investigations. So get busy. You can have Williams. I want Barber to go down to Berkshire about that Newbury burglary. The locals down there will want a lot of soft soap because we have been called in, and Barber is better at that than Williams. I think that is all. Better get down to Gow Street right away. Good luck.”

Half an hour later Grant was interviewing the Gowbridge police surgeon. Yes, the surgeon said, the man had been dead when he was brought into hospital. The weapon was a thin, exceedingly sharp stiletto. It had been driven into the man’s back on the left side of the backbone with such force that the hilt had pressed his garments to a wad which had kept any blood from flowing. What had escaped had oozed out round the wound without coming to the outer surface at all. In his opinion the man had been stabbed a considerable time — perhaps ten minutes or more — before he had collapsed as the people in front moved away. In a squash like that he would be held up and moved along by the crowd. In fact, it would have been a sheer impossibility to fall if one had wanted to in such a closely packed mob. He thought it highly unlikely that the man was even aware that he had been struck. So much pressing and squeezing and involuntary hurting went on on these occasions that a sudden and not too painful blow would not be noticed.

“And about the person who stabbed him? Anything peculiar about the stabbing?”

“No, except that the man was strong and left-handed.”

“Not a woman?”

“No, it would need more strength than a woman has to drive the blade in as it has been driven. You see, there was no room for a backsweep of the arm. The blow had to be delivered from a position of rest. Oh no, it was a man’s work. And a determined man’s, too.”

“Can you tell me anything about the dead man himself?” asked Grant, who liked to hear a scientific opinion on any subject.

“Not much. Well nourished — prosperous, I should say.”

“Intelligent?”

“Yes, very, I should think.”

“What type?”

“What type of occupation, do you mean?”

“No, I can deduce that for myself. What type of — temperament, I suppose you’d call it?”

“Oh, I see.” The surgeon thought for a moment. He looked doubtfully at his interlocutor. “Well, no one can say that for a certainty — you understand that?” And when Grant had acknowledged the qualification: “but I should call him one of the ‘lost cause’ type.” He raised his eyebrows interrogatively at the inspector and, assured of his understanding, added, “He had practical enough qualities in his face, but his hands were a dreamer’s. You’ll see for yourself.”

Together they viewed the body. It was that of a young man of twenty-nine or thirty, fair-haired, hazel-eyed, slim, and of medium height. The hands, as the doctor had pointed out, were long and slim and not used to manual work. “Probably stood a lot,” said the surgeon with a glance at the man’s feet. “And walked with his left toe turned in.”

“Do you think his assailant had any knowledge of anatomy?” asked Grant. It was almost incredible that so small a hole had let a man’s life out.

“It wasn’t done with the precision of a surgeon, if that’s what you mean. As for a knowledge of anatomy, practically every one who is old enough to have lived through the war has a working knowledge of anatomy. It may have been just a lucky shot — and I rather think it was.”

Grant thanked him and came to business with the Gow Street officials. On the table were laid out the scanty contents of the man’s pockets. Grant was conscious of a faint dismay when he saw their fewness. A white cotton handkerchief, a small pile of loose change (two half-crowns, two sixpences, a shilling, four pennies, and a halfpenny), and — unexpected — a service revolver. The handkerchief was well worn but had no laundry mark or initial. The revolver was fully loaded.

Grant examined them in a disgusted silence. “Laundry marks on his clothes?” he asked.

No, there were no marks of any kind.

And no one had come to claim him? Not even any one to make inquiries?

No, no one but that old madwoman who laid claim to every one the police found.

Well, he would see the clothes for himself. Painstakingly he examined each article of clothing. Both hat and shoes were well worn, the shoes so much so that the maker’s name, which should have been on the lining, had been obliterated. The hat when new had been bought from a firm who owned shops all over London and the provinces. Both were good of their kind, and though well worn neither was shabby. The blue suit was fashionable if rather too pronounced in cut, and the same might be said of the grey overcoat. The man’s linen was good if not expensively so, and the shirt was of a popular shade. All the clothes, in fact, had belonged to a man who either took an interest in clothes or was accustomed to the society of those who did. A salesman in a men’s outfitter’s, perhaps. As the Gowbridge people had said, there were no laundry marks. That meant either that the man had wanted to hide his identity or that his linen was washed habitually at home. Since there was no sign of any obliteration of marks it followed that the latter was the reasonable explanation. On the other hand, the tailor’s name had been deliberately removed from the suit. That and the scantiness of the man’s belongings pointed certainly to a desire on his part to conceal his identity.

Lastly — the dagger. It was a wicked little weapon in its viperish slenderness. The handle was of silver, about three inches long, and represented the figure of some saint, bearded and robed. Here and there it was touched with enamel in bright primitive colours such as adorn sacred images in Catholic countries. In general it was of a type fairly common in Italy and along the south coast of Spain. Grant handled it gingerly.

“How many people have had their hands on it?” he asked.

The police had commandeered it as soon as the man had arrived in hospital and it could be removed. No one had touched it since. But the expression of satisfaction was wiped from Grant’s face when the information was added that it had been tested for fingerprints and had been found blank. Not even a blurred one spoiled the shining surface of the smug saint.

“Well,” said Grant, “I’ll take these and get on.” He left instructions with Williams to take the dead man’s fingerprints and to have the revolver examined for peculiarities. To his own sight it seemed to be an exceedingly ordinary service revolver of a type which since the war has been as common in Britain as grandfather clocks. But, as has been said, Grant liked to hear authorities on their own subject. He himself took a taxi and spent the rest of the day interviewing the seven persons who had been nearest the unknown when he collapsed the previous night.

As the taxi bore him hither and thither he let his thought play round and over the situation. He had not the faintest hope that these people he interviewed would be of use to him. They had one and all denied any knowledge of the man when first questioned, and they were not likely to alter their minds as to that now. Also, if any of there had seen a companion with the dead man previously, or had noticed anything suspicious, they would have been only too ready to say so. It was Grant’s experience that ninety-nine people proffered useless information where one was silent. Again, the surgeon had said that the man had been stabbed some time before it had been noticed, and no assassin was going to stay in the immediate neighborhood of his victim until the deed was discovered. Even if the possibility of a bluff had occurred to the murderer, the chances of a connexion between himself and his victim being established were too good to allow a sensible man — and a man bent on self-preservation is usually shrewd enough — to indulge in it. No, the man who did it had left the queue some time before. He must find some one who had noticed the murdered man before his death and had seen him in converse with some one. There was, of course, the possibility to be faced that there had been no converse, that the murderer had merely taken up a place behind his victim and slipped away when the thing was done. In that case he had to find some one who had seen a man leave the queue. That should not be difficult. The Press could be called to help.

Idly he considered the type of man it would be. No thorough Englishman used such a weapon. If he used steel at all he took a razor and cut a person’s throat. But his habitual weapon was a bludgeon, and, failing that, a gun. This was a crime that had been planned with an ingenuity and executed with a subtlety that was foreign to an Englishman’s habit of thought. The very femininity of it proclaimed the Levant, or at the very least one used to Levantine habits of life. A sailor perhaps. An English sailor used to the Mediterranean ports might have done it. But then, would a sailor have been likely to think of anything so subtle as the queue? He would have been more likely to wait for a dark night and a lonely street. The picturesqueness of the thing was Levantine. An Englishman was obsessed with the desire to hit. The manner of the hitting did not habitually concern him.

That made Grant think of motive, and he considered the more obvious ones: theft, revenge, jealousy, fear. The first was ruled out; the man’s pockets could have been picked half a dozen times by an expert practitioner in such a crowd, without any more violence than a fly bestows in alighting. Revenge or jealousy? Most probably — Levantines were notoriously vulnerable in their feelings; an insult rankled for a lifetime, a straying smile on the part of their adored, and they ran amok. Had the man with the hazel eyes — he had, undoubtedly, been attractive — come between a Levantine and his girl?

For no reason whatever Grant did not think so. He did not for a moment lose sight of the possibility, but — he did not think so. There remained fear. Was the fully loaded revolver prepared for the man who slid that sliver of steel into the owner’s back? Had the dead man intended to shoot the Levantine on sight, and had the assassin known it and lived in terror? Or was it the other way about? Was it the dead man who had carried a weapon of defense which had not availed him? But then there was the unknown man’s desire to slough his identity. A loaded revolver in these circumstances pointed to suicide. But if he contemplated suicide, why postpone it while he went to the play? What other motive induced a man to make himself anonymous? A brush with the police — arrest? Had he intended to shoot some one and, afraid of not getting away, made himself nameless? That was possible.

It was fairly safe, at least, to suppose that the dead man and the man whom Grant had mentally christened the Levantine had known each other sufficiently well to knock sparks from each other. Grant had very little belief in secret societies as the origins of picturesque murders. Secret societies delighted in robbery and blackmail and all the more squalid methods of getting something for nothing, and there was seldom anything picturesque about them, as he knew from bitter experience. Moreover, there were no impressive secret societies in London at present, and he hoped they would not start. Murder to order bored him stiff. What interested him was the possible play of mind on mind, of emotion on emotion. Like the Levantine and the unknown. Well, he must do his best to find out who the Unknown was — that would give him a line on the Levantine. Why had no one claimed him? It was early yet, of course. He might be recognized by some one at any minute. After all, he had only been “missing” to his people for the space of a night, and not many people rush to see a murdered man because their son or brother has stayed out for the night.

With patience and consideration and an alert mind, Grant interviewed the seven people he had set out to see quite literally to see. He had not anticipated receiving information from them directly, but he wanted to see them for himself and to sum them up. He found them all going about their various business with the exception of Mrs. James Ratcliffe, who was prostrate in bed and being attended by the doctor, who deplored the nervous shock she had received. Her sister — a charming girl with hair the colour of honey — talked to Grant. She had come into the drawing-room quite obviously hostile to the thought of any police officer being admitted to her sister in her present state. The sight of the police officer in reality was so astonishing that she looked again at his card quite involuntarily, and Grant smiled inwardly a little more broadly than he permitted himself outwardly.

“I know you hate the sight of me,” he said apologetically — and the tone was not wholly acting —“but I wish you would let me talk to your sister for just two minutes. You can stand outside the door with a stopwatch. Or come in, if you like, of course. There is nothing at all private in what I want to say to her. It’s only that I am in charge of the investigations in this case, and it is my duty to see the seven people who were nearest the man last night. It will help me enormously if I can write them all off the slate tonight and start on fresh lines tomorrow. Don’t you see? It’s mere form but very helpful.”

As he had hoped, this line of argument was a success. After a little hesitation the girl said, “Let me go and see if I can persuade her.” Her report of the inspector’s charms must have been a rose-coloured one, for she came back in less time than he had dared to hope and took him up to her sister’s room, where he had an interview with a tearful woman who protested that she had not even noticed the man until he had fallen, and whose wet eyes regarded him continually with a dreadful curiosity. Her mouth was hidden behind a barricade of handkerchief which she kept pressed to it. Grant wished that she would take it down for a moment. He had a theory that mouths gave away more than eyes — certainly where women were concerned.

“Were you standing behind him when he fell?”

“Yes.”

“And who was alongside him?”

She could not remember. No one was paying attention to anything but getting into the theatre, and in any case she never noticed people on the street.

“I’m sorry,” she said shakily, when he was taking his departure. “I’d like to be of use if I could. I keep seeing that knife, and I’d do anything to have the man that did it arrested.” And as Grant went out he dismissed her from his mind.

Her husband, whom he had to travel into the City to see — he could have had them all to the Yard, but he wanted to see how they were occupying their time on this the first day after the murder — was more helpful. There had been a fair amount of churning in the queue, he said, as the doors were opened, so that their relations with their neighbors had altered a bit. As far as he could remember, the person who had stood beside the dead man and in front of himself was a man who had belonged to a party of four in front of that again, and had gone in with them. He, like his wife, said that he had not consciously seen the man until he had fallen.

The other five Grant found equally innocent and equally unhelpful. None had noticed the man. That amazed Grant just a little. How had no one seen him? He must have been there all the time. One doesn’t shove in at the head of a queue without attracting a most uncomfortable amount of attention. And even the most unobservant of people will recall what their eyes have seen even if they were unconscious of taking notice at the time. Grant was still puzzling when he got back to the Yard.

There he sent a notice to the Press which asked any one who had seen a man leave the queue to communicate with Scotland Yard. Also a full description of the dead man, and as much of the progress of the investigations as was to be given to the public. Then he summoned Williams and demanded an account of his stewardship. Williams reported that the dead man’s fingerprints had been photographed according to instructions and sent up for investigation, but he was unknown to the police. No corresponding fingerprints were to be found among those betraying dockets. The revolver expert could find nothing individual about the revolver. It was probably second hand, had been used quite a lot, and was of course a very powerful weapon.

“Huh!” said Grant disgustedly. “Some expert!” and Williams smiled.

“Well, he did say there was nothing distinctive about it,” he reminded.

And then he explained that before sending the revolver to the experts he had tested it for fingerprints, and finding quite a lot had had them photographed. He was now waiting, for the prints.

“Good man,” said Grant, and went in to see the superintendent, carrying the Print of the dead man’s fingertips with him. He gave Barker a précis of the day’s events without adducing any theories about foreigners beyond remarking that it was a very un-English crime.

“Precious unproductive kind of clues we’ve got,” said Barker. “All except the dagger, and that’s more like something out of a book than part of an honest-to-goodness crime.”

“My sentiments exactly,” said Grant. I wonder how many people will be in the Woffington queue tonight,’ he added irrelevantly.

The knowledge of how Barker would have speculated on this fascinating question was lost forever to mankind by the entrance of Williams.

“The revolver prints, sir,” he said succinctly, and laid them on the table. Grant picked them up with no great enthusiasm and compared them with the prints he had absentmindedly been carrying about. After a short time he stiffened to sudden interest as a pointer stiffens. There were five distinct prints and many incomplete ones, but neither the good prints nor the broken ones had been made by the dead man. Attached to the prints was a report from the fingerprint department. There was no trace of these prints in their records.

Back in his room Grant sat and thought. What did it mean, and of what value was the knowledge? Did the revolver not belong to the dead man? Borrowed, perhaps? But even if it had been borrowed there would surely have been some indication that the dead man had had it in his possession. Or had the dead man not had it in his possession? Had it been slipped into his pocket by some one else? But one could not slip anything of the weight and bulk of a service revolver into a man’s pocket unknown to him. No, not a living man, but — it could have been done after the knife-thrust. But why? Why? No solution, however far fetched, presented itself to him. He took the dagger out of its wrappings, and considered it through the microscope, but could mesmerize himself into no hopeful state over it. He was stale. He would go out and walk a bit. It was just after five. He would go down to the Woffington and see the man who had been doorkeeper at the pit last night.

It was a fine still evening with a primrose sky, and London was painted against it, in flat washes of a misty lavender. Grant sniffed the air appreciatively. Spring was coming. When he had run the Levantine to earth, he would wangle some leave — sick leave, if he couldn’t get it any other way — and go fishing somewhere. Where should he go? You got the best fishing in the Highlands, but the company was apt to be darned dull. He would go fishing in the Test — at Stockbridge, perhaps. Trout were poor sport, but there was a snug little pub there, and the best of company. And he would get a horse to ride there, and turf to ride it on. And Hampshire in spring —!

So he speculated, walking briskly along the Embankment, on things far removed from the business on hand. For that was Grant’s way. Barker’s motto was: “Chew it over! Chew it over continually, sleeping and waking, and you’ll find the kernel that matters.” That was true for Barker but not for Grant. Grant had once retorted that when he had chewed to that extent he couldn’t think of anything but the ache in his jaws, and he had meant it. When something baffled him he found that if he kept on worrying it, he got no further, and lost his sense of proportion in the process. So when he came to a dead stop he indulged in what he called “shutting his eyes” for a little, and when he “opened” them again he habitually found a new light on things that revealed unexpected angles and made the old problem a totally new proposition.

There had been a matinée that afternoon at the Woffington, but he found the theatre in its usual state of shrouded desolation in front and untidy dreariness behind. The doorkeeper was on the premises, but no one was very sure where he was to be found. In the early evening his duties were many and various, it seemed. After several panting messengers had returned from the bowels of the building with reports “No, sir, there wasn’t a sign of him,” Grant himself joined in the exploration and eventually ran the man to earth in a dim passage behind the stage. When Grant had explained who he was and what he wanted, the man became voluble in his pride and eagerness. He was used to being within hailing distance of the aristocracy of the stage, but it was not every day that he had the chance of conversing on friendly terms with that much more august being, an inspector from the C.I.D. He beamed, he continually altered the angle of his cap, he fingered his medal ribbons, he dried his palms on the seat of his trousers, and he quite obviously would have said that he had seen a monkey in the queue if it would have pleased the inspector. Grant groaned inwardly, but the part of himself that always stood aloof whatever he did — the looker-on part of him which he had in such abundance — thought appreciatively what a character the old boy was. With that providing for a hypothetical future which is second nature in a professional detective, he was taking a friendly farewell of so much devoted uselessness, when a charming voice said, “Why, it’s Inspector Grant!” and he turned to see Ray Marcable in her outdoor things, and evidently on the way to her dressing-room.

“Are you looking for a job? I’m afraid you can’t have even a walking-on part at this late hour.” Her still small smile teased him and her grey eyes looked at him friendlily from under the slight droop of her lids. They had met a year previously over the theft of a fabulously expensive dressing-case which had been one of her richest admirers’ gifts to her, and though they had not met again since she had evidently not forgotten him. In spite of himself he was flattered — even while the looker-on bit of him was aware of it and laughed. He explained his business in the theatre, and the smile faded from her face instantly.

“Ah, that poor man!” she said. “But here is another,” she added immediately, laying a hand on his arm. “Have you been asking questions all the afternoon? Your throat must be very dry. Come and have a cup of tea in my room with me. My maid is there and she will make us some. We are packing up, you know. It is very sad after such a long time.”

She led the way to her dressing-room, a place that was walled half with mirrors and half with wardrobes, and that looked more like a florist’s shop than any apartment designed for human habitation. She indicated the flowers with a wave of her hand.

“My flat won’t hold any more, so these have to stay here. The hospitals were very polite, but they said quite firmly that they had had as much as they could do with. And I can’t very well say, ‘No flowers,’ as they do at funerals, without hurting people.”

“It’s the only thing most people can do,” Grant said.

“Oh, yes, I know,” she said. “I’m not ungrateful. Only overwhelmed.”

When tea was ready she poured out for him, and the maid produced shortbread from a tin. As he was stirring his tea and she was pouring out her own his mind brought him up with a sudden jerk, as an inexperienced rider jabs at his horse’s mouth when startled. She was left-handed!

“Great heavens!” he said to himself disgustedly. “It isn’t that you deserve a holiday, it’s that you need it. What did you want to italicize a statement like that for? How many left-handed people do you think there are in London? You’re developing the queerest kind of nerves.”

To break a silence and because it was the first thing that came into his head, he said, “You’re left-handed.”

“Yes,” she said indifferently, as the subject deserved, and went on to ask him about his investigations. He told her as much as would appear in the morrow’s press and described the knife, as being the most interesting feature of the case.

“The handle is a little silver saint with blue-and-red enamel decoration.”

Something leaped suddenly in Ray Marcable’s calm eyes.

“What?” she said involuntarily.

He was about to say, “You’ve seen one like it?” but changed his mind. He knew on the instant that she would say no, and that he would have given away the fact that he was aware that there was anything to be aware of. He repeated the description and she said:

“A saint! How quaint! And how inappropriate! — And yet, in a big undertaking like a crime, I suppose you’d want some one’s blessing on it.”

Cool and sweet she put out her left hand for his cup, and as she replenished it he watched her steady wrist and impassive manner and wondered if this too could be unreasonableness on his part.

“Certainly not,” said his other self. “You may be suffering from attacks of flair in queer places, but you haven’t got to the stage of imagining things yet.”

They discussed America, which Grant knew well and to which she was about to make her first visit, and when he took his leave he was honestly grateful to her for the tea. He had forgotten all about tea. Now it wouldn’t matter how late he had dinner. But as he went out he sought a light for his cigarette from the doorkeeper, and in the course of another ebullition of chatter and good will learned that Miss Marcable had been in her dressing-room from six o’clock the previous evening until the call-boy went for her before her first cue. Lord Lacing was there, he said, with an eloquent lift of his eyebrow.

Grant smiled and nodded and went away, but as he was making his way back to the Yard, he was not smiling. What was it that had leapt in Ray Marcable’s eyes? Not fear. No, Recognition? Yes, that was it. Most certainly recognition.

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