The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

3

Danny Miller

Grant opened his eyes and regarded the ceiling of his bedroom speculatively. For the last few minutes he had been technically awake, but his brain, wrapped in the woolliness of sleep and conscious of the ungrateful chilliness of the morning, had denied him thought. But though the reasoning part of him had not wakened, he had become more and more conscious of mental discomfort. Something unpleasant waited him. Something exceedingly unpleasant. The growing conviction had dispelled his drowsiness, and his eyes opened on the ceiling laced across with the early sunlight and the shadows of a plane tree; and on recognition of the unpleasantness. It was the morning of the third day of his investigations, the day of the inquest, and he had nothing to put before the coroner. Had not even a scent to follow.

His thoughts went back over yesterday. In the morning, the dead man being still unidentified, he had given Williams the man’s tie, that being the newest and most individual thing about him, and had sent him out to scour London. The tie, like the rest of the man’s clothes, had been obtained from a branch of a multiple business, and it was a small hope that any shop assistant would remember the individual to whom he sold the tie. Even if he did, there was no guarantee that the man remembered was their man. Faith Brothers must have sold several dozens of ties of the same pattern in London alone. But there was always that last odd chance, and Grant had seen too much of the queer unexpectedness of chance to neglect any avenue of exploration. As Williams was leaving the room an idea had occurred to him. There was that first idea of his that the man had been a salesman in some clothing business. Perhaps he did not buy his things over the counter. He might have been in the employ of Faith Brothers. “Find out,” he had said to Williams, “if any one answering the dead man’s description has been employed by any one of the branches lately. If you see or hear anything interesting at all — whether you think it is important or not — let me know.”

Left alone, he had examined the morning’s press. He had not bothered with the various accounts of the queue murder, but the rest of the news he scrutinized with some care, beginning with the personal column. Nothing, however, sounded an answering chord in his brain. A photograph of himself with the caption, “Inspector Grant, who is in charge of the Queue Murder investigations,” caused him to frown. “Fools!” he said aloud. He had then collected and studied a list of missing persons sent in from all the police stations in Britain. Five young men were missing from various places, and the description of one, who was missing from a small Durham town, might have been that of the dead man. After a long delay, Grant had succeeded in talking on the telephone to the Durham police, only to learn that the missing man had originally been a miner and was, in the Opinion of the Durham inspector, a tough. And neither “miner” nor “tough” could be applied to the dead man.

The rest of the morning had been occupied with routine work — settling about the inquest and such necessary formalities. About lunchtime Williams had rung him up from the biggest branch of Faith Brothers, in the Strand. He had had a busy but unproductive morning. Not only did no one recall such a purchaser, but no one remembered even selling such a tie. It was not one of a range that they had stocked lately. That had made him want further information about the tie itself, and he had come to the headquarters and asked to see the manager, to whom he explained the situation. The manager now suggested that if the inspector would surrender the tie for a little it should be sent to their factory at Northwood, where a list could be furnished of the destination of all consignments of such ties within, say, the last year. Williams now sought permission to hand over the tie to the manager.

Grant had approved his action, and while mentally commending Williams’ common sense — lots of sergeants would have gone on plodding round London because they were told to and it was their duty — thought not too hopefully of the hundred or so branches of Faith Brothers all over Scotland and England. The chances narrowed slightly, however, when Williams appeared with a fuller explanation. Ties like that, it appeared, were made up in boxes of six, each tie in the box being of a different shade though usually in the same colour scheme. It was unlikely that more than one, or at the most two, ties of the exact shade of their specimen had been sent to any one branch. There was therefore more hope of a salesman remembering the customer who had bought it than there would have been if the tie had been merely one of a box all the same shade. The detective part of Grant listened appreciatively while the looker-on part of him smiled over the sergeant’s fluency in the jargon of the trade. Half an hour with the manager of Faith Brothers had had the effect of studding the sergeant’s habitual simplicity of word and phrase with amazing jewels of technicality. He talked glibly of “lines” and “repeats” and similar profundities, so that Grant had, through his bulk, in a queer television a vivid picture of the manager himself. But he was grateful to Williams and said so. That was part of Grant’s charm; he never forgot to say when he was pleased.

In the afternoon, having given up hope of learning anything more by it, he had sent the dagger to the laboratory for analysis. “Tell me anything you can about it,” he had said; and last night when he left he was still waiting for the answer. Now he stretched out an arm into the chilly air and grabbed at the telephone. When he got the number he had asked for, he said:

“Inspector Grant speaking. Any developments?”

No, there were no developments. Two people had viewed the body last night — two separate people — but neither had recognized it. Yes, their names and addresses had been taken and were lying on his desk now. There was also a report from the laboratory.

“Good!” said Grant, jammed the earpiece on the hook and sprang out of bed, his sense of foreboding dispelled by the clear light of reason. Over his cold bath he whistled, and all the time he was dressing he whistled, so that his landlady said to her husband, who was departing to catch an eight o’clock bus, “I’m thinking it won’t be very long now before that horrible anarchist is caught.” “Anarchist” and “assassin” were synonymous terms to Mrs. Field. Grant himself would not have put it so optimistically perhaps, but the thought of that sealed package waiting on his desk was to him what a lucky packet is to a small boy. It might be something of no importance and it might be a diamond. He caught Mrs. Field’s benevolent glance on him as she set down his breakfast, and it was like a small boy that he said to her, “This my lucky day, do you think?”

“I don’t know about luck, Mr. Grant. I don’t know as I believes in it. But I do believe in Providence. And I don’t think Providence’ll let a nice young man like that be stabbed to death and not bring the guilty to justice. Trust in the Lord, Mr. Grant.”

“And if the clues are very thin, the Lord and the C.I.D.,” Grant misquoted at her and attacked his bacon and eggs. She lingered a moment watching him, shook her head in a gently misgiving way at him, and left him scanning the newspapers while he chewed.

On the way up to town he occupied himself by considering the problem of the man’s non-identification, which became momentarily more surprising. True, a few persons every year are thrown up by London to lie unclaimed for a day or two and then vanish into paupers’ graves. But they are all either old or penniless or both — the dregs of a city’s being, cast off long before their deaths by their relations and friends, and so, when the end came, beyond the ken of any one who might have told their story. In all Grant’s experience no one of the type of the dead man — a man who must have had the normal circle of acquaintances if not more — had remained unidentified. Even if he had been a provincial or a foreigner — and Grant did not think he was; the man’s whole appearance had proclaimed the Londoner — he must have had a dwelling in London or near it; hotel, lodgings, or club, from which he must now be known to be missing. And the appeals from the Press that the fact of a missing person should be communicated to Scotland Yard without delay would most certainly have brought some one hurrying to report it.

Then, granted that the man was a Londoner — as Grant most heartily believed — why did his people or his landlord not come forward? Obviously, either because they had reason to think the dead man a bad lot, or because they themselves had no wish to attract the attention of the police. A gang? A gang getting rid of an unwanted member? But gangs didn’t wait until they got their victim into a queue before dispensing with his services. They chose safer methods.

Unless — yes, it might have been at once a retribution and a warning. It had had all the elements of a gesture — the weapon, the striking down of the victim while in a place of supposed safety, the whole bravado of the thing. It eliminated the backslider and intimidated the survivors at one and the same time. The more he considered it the more it seemed the reasonable explanation of a mystery. He had scouted the thought of a secret society and he still scouted it. The vengeance of a secret society would not prevent the man’s friends from reporting his loss and claiming him. But the defaulting member of a gang — that was a different thing. In that case all his friends would either know or guess the manner and reason of his death, and none would be fool enough to come forward.

As Grant turned into the Yard he was revising in his mind the various London gangs that flourished at the moment. Danny Miller’s was cock of the walk, undoubtedly, and had been so for some time. It was three years since Danny had seen the inside, and unless he made a grievous error, it would be still longer before he did. Danny had come from America after serving his second sentence for burglary, and had brought with him a clever brain, a belief in organization that was typically American — the British practitioner is by nature an individualist — and a wholesome respect for British police methods. The result was that, though his minions slipped occasionally and served short sentences for their carelessness, Danny went free and successful — much too successful for the liking of the C.I.D. Now, Danny had all the American crook’s ruthlessness in dealing with an enemy. His habit was a gun, but he would think no more of sticking a knife into a man than he would of swatting the fly that annoyed him. Grant thought that he would invite Danny to come and see him. Meanwhile there was the packet on his table.

Eagerly he opened it and eagerly skipped the slightly prosy unimportances with which it opened — Bretherton of the scientific side was inclined to be a pompous dogmatist; if you sent him a Persian cat to report on, he would spend the first sheet of foolscap in deciding that its coat was grey and not fawn — and picked out the salient thing. Just above the junction of the handle with the blade, Bretherton said, was a stain of blood which was not the blood on the blade. The base on which the saint stood was hollow and had been broken at one side. The break was merely a cut which did not gape and was almost invisible owing to the bloodstain. But when the surface was pressed, one edge of the rough cut was raised very slightly above the other. In gripping the tool the murderer had made the fracture in the metal gape sufficiently to injure his own hand. He would now be suffering from a jagged cut somewhere on the thumb side of the first finger of the left hand, or finger side of the thumb.

Good so far, thought Grant, but one can’t sift London for a left-handed man with a cut hand and arrest him for that. He sent for Williams.

“Do you know where Danny Miller is living now?” he asked.

“No, sir,” said Williams; “but Barber will know. He came up from Newbury last night, and he knows all about Danny.”

“All right, go and find out. No, better send Barber to me.”

When Barber came — a tall, slow man with a sleepy and misleading smile — he repeated his question.

“Danny Miller?” Barber said. “Yes, he has rooms in a house in Amber Street, Pimlico.”

“Oh? Been very quiet lately, hasn’t he?”

“So we thought, but I think that jewel robbery that the Gowbridge people are busy with now is Danny.”

“I thought banks were his line.”

“Yes, but he has a new ‘jane.’ He probably wants money.”

“I see. Do you know his number?”

Barber did.

An hour later, Danny, who was performing a leisurely and painstaking toilet in the room in Amber Street, was informed that Inspector Grant would be very much obliged if he would have a short talk with him at the Yard.

Danny’s pale grey, wary eyes surveyed the plain-clothes man who had brought the message. “If he thinks he has anything on one,” he said, “he has another guess coming.”

The plain-clothes man did not think that the inspector wanted anything but some information from him.

“Oh? And what is the inspector inspecting at the moment?”

But that the plain-clothes man either did not know or would not tell.

“All right,” said Danny. “I’ll be along right now.”

When a portly constable led him into Grant’s presence Danny, who was small and slim, indicated the departing one with a backward jerk of the head and a humorous lift of an eyebrow. “It isn’t often any one troubles to announce me,” he said.

“No,” said Grant, smiling, “your presence is usually announced after your departure, isn’t it?”

“You’re a wit, Inspector. I shouldn’t have thought you’d need any one to jog your brains along. You don’t think you’ve got anything on me, do you?”

“Not at all. I thought you might be of some use to me.”

“You’re certainly flattering.” It was impossible to tell when Miller was serious or otherwise.

“Did you ever know by sight a man like this?” While he described in detail the murdered man, Grant’s eyes were examining Danny, and his brain was busy with what his eyes saw. Gloves. How could he get the glove off Danny’s left hand without deliberately asking for its removal?

When he came to the end of his description, particularized even to the turn-in toe, Danny said politely, “That’s the deader from the queue. No, I’m very sorry to disappoint you, Inspector, but I never saw the man in my life.”

“Well, I suppose you have no objections to coming with me and having a look at him?”

“Not if it’ll set your mind at rest, Inspector. I’ll do anything to oblige.”

The inspector put his hand into his pocket and brought it out full of coins, as if to make sure of his loose change before setting out. A sixpenny piece slid through his fingers and rolled swiftly across the smooth surface of the table towards Miller, and Miller’s hand shot out in an abrupt preventive movement as it was about to drop off the table’s edge to the floor. He fumbled for a moment with his gloved hand and then laid the coin down on the table.

“Trifling things, these,” he remarked in his flat amiable voice. But it was his right hand that he had used to stop it.

As they were driving down to the mortuary in a car he turned to the inspector with the almost noiseless expulsion of breath that in him did duty for a laugh. “Say,” he said, “if any of my pals see me now, they’ll all be boarding a dangler for Southampton inside five minutes and not waiting to pack.”

“Well, we’d do the packing — back,” said Grant.

“Got us all taped like that, have you? Would you bet on it? I’ll lay you five to one in dollars — no, pounds — five to one in pounds that you don’t have one of us settled inside two years. You won’t take it? Well, I think you’re wise.”

When Miller was brought face to face with the body of the murdered man, Grant’s eager eyes could trace no shadow of expression on that poker face. Danny’s cool grey glance wandered over the dead man’s features in a half-interested indifference. And Grant knew certainly that, even had Miller known the man, his hope of a betraying gesture or expression had been a vain one.

“No,” Danny was saying, “I never saw the man in my —” He stopped. There was a long pause. “Say, but I did!” he said. “Oh, gosh, let me think! Where was it? Where was it? Wait a minute, and it’ll come.” He beat a hectic tattoo on his forehead with his gloved palm. Was this acting, thought Grant? Good acting, if so. But then Miller would never make the mistake of acting badly. “Oh, gosh, I can’t get it! I talked to him, too. Don’t think I ever knew his name, but I’m sure I talked to him.”

In the end Grant gave it up — he had the inquest in front of him — but it was more than Danny Miller did. The fact that his brain had gone back on him was an outrage in his eyes and quite insupportable. “I never forget a man,” he kept saying, “any more than a ‘bull’ does.”

“Well, you can think it over and telephone to me,” said Grant. “Meanwhile, will you do one thing more for me? . . . Will you take your gloves off?”

Danny’s eyes shut suddenly to bright slits. “What’s the big idea?” he said.

“Well, there isn’t any reason that you shouldn’t take them off, is there?”

“How do I know that?” snapped Danny.

“Look here,” said Grant good-naturedly, “a minute ago you wanted a gamble. Well, here’s one. If you take your gloves off, I’ll tell you whether you’ve won or not.”

“And if I lose?”

“Well, I have no warrant, you know.” And Grant smiled easily into the gimlet eyes boring into his own.

Danny’s eyelids lifted. His old nonchalance came back. He drew his right glove off and held out his hand. Grant glanced at it and nodded. Then he slipped off his left glove and extended his hand, and as he did so the right hand went back into his coat pocket.

The left hand that lay open to Grant’s gaze was clean and unscarred.

“You win, Miller,” said Grant. “You’re a sportsman.” And the slight bulge in Danny’s right-hand coat pocket disappeared.

“You’ll let me know the minute you have a brainwave, won’t you?” Grant said as they parted, and Miller promised.

“Don’t you worry,” he said. “I don’t let my brain go back on me and get away with it.”

And Grant made his way to lunch and the inquest.

The jury, having swallowed at one nauseating gulp the business of viewing the body, had settled into their places with that air of conscious importance and simulated modesty which belongs to those initiated into a mystery. Their verdict was already certain, therefore they had no need to worry themselves over the rights or wrongs of the case. They could give themselves up wholly to the delightful occupation of hearing all about the most popular murder of the day from lips of eyewitnesses. Grant surveyed them sardonically, and thanked the gods that neither his case nor his life depended on their intelligences. Then he forgot them and gave himself up to the rich comedy of the witnesses. It was strange to compare the grim things that fell from their lips with the pretty comedy they themselves presented. He knew them so well by now, and they all ran so amusingly true to form. There was the constable who had been on duty at the Woffington pit queue, brushed and shining, his dampish forehead shining most of all; precise in his report and tremendously gratified by his own preciseness. There was James Ratcliffe, the complete householder, hating his unexpected publicity, rebelling against his connexion with such an unsavoury affair, but determined to do his duty as a citizen. He was the type that is the law’s most useful ally, and the inspector recognized the fact and mentally saluted him in spite of the fact that he had been unhelpful. Waiting in queues bored him, he said, and as long as the light was good enough he had read, until the doors opened and the pressure became too great to do anything but stand.

There was his wife, whom the inspector had last seen sobbing in her bedroom. She still clutched a handkerchief, and obviously expected to be encouraged and soothed after every second question. And she was subjected to a longer examination than any one else. She was the one who had stood directly behind the dead man.

“Are we to understand, madam,” said the coroner, “that you stood for nearly two hours in close proximity to this man and yet have no recollection of him or of his companions, if any?”

“But I wasn’t next to him all that time! I tell you I didn’t see him until he fell over at my feet.”

“Then who was next in front of you most of the time?”

“I don’t remember. I think it was a boy — a young man.”

“And what became of the young man?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you see him leave the queue?”

“No.”

“Can you describe him?”

“Yes; he was dark and foreign-looking, rather.”

“Was he alone?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so, somehow. I think he was talking to some one.”

“How is it that you do not remember more distinctly what occurred when it is only three nights ago?”

The shock had put everything out of her head, she said. “Besides,” she added, her gelatinous backbone ossified suddenly by the coroner’s ill-hidden scorn, “in a queue one doesn’t notice the people next one. Both I and my husband were reading most of the time.” And she dissolved into hysterical weeping.

Then there was the fat woman, shiny with satin and soap-and-water, recovered now from the shock and reluctance she had displayed at the crowded moment of the murder, and more than willing to tell her tale. Her plump red face and boot-button brown eyes radiated a grim satisfaction with her rôle. She seemed disappointed when the coroner thanked her and dismissed her in the middle of a sentence.

There was a meek little man, as precise in manner as the constable had been, but evidently convinced that the coroner was a man of little intelligence. When that long-suffering official said, “Yes, I was aware that queues usually go two by two,” the jury allowed themselves to snigger and the meek little man looked pained. As neither he nor the other three witnesses from the queue could recall the murdered man, or throw any light on any departure from the queue, they were dismissed with scant attention.

The doorkeeper, incoherent with pleasure at being so helpful, informed the coroner that he had seen the dead man before — several times. He had come quite often to the Woffington. But he knew nothing about him. He had always been well dressed. No, the doorkeeper could not recall any companion, though he was sure that the man had not habitually been alone.

The atmosphere of futility that characterized the inquest discouraged Grant. A man whom no one professed to know, stuck in the back by some one whom no one had seen. It was a sweet prospect. No clue to the murder except the dagger, and that told nothing except that the man was scarred on a finger or thumb. No clue to the murdered man except that a Faith Brothers employee might have known the person to whom he sold a fawn patterned tie with faint pink splashes. When the inevitable verdict of murder against some person or persons unknown had been given, Grant went to a telephone revolving in his mind the Ratcliffe woman’s tale of a young foreigner. Was that impression a mere figment of her imagination, brought into being by the suggestion of the dagger? Or was it a genuine corroboration of his Levantine theory? Mrs. Ratcliffe’s young foreigner had not been there when the murder was discovered. He was the one who had disappeared from the queue, and the one who had disappeared from the queue had most certainly murdered the dead man.

Well, he would find out from the Yard if there was anything new, and if not he would fortify himself with tea. He needed it. And the slow sipping of tea conduced to thought. Not the painful tabulations of Barker, that prince of superintendents, but the speculative revolving of things which he, Grant, found more productive. He numbered among his acquaintances a poet and essayist, who sipped tea in a steady monotonous rhythm, the while he brought to birth his masterpieces. His digestive system was in a shocking condition, but he had a very fine reputation among the more precious of the modern littérateurs.

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