By half-past ten on Monday morning he was sitting in front of a steaming cup of coffee in the Karena. He began with the Karena because when one thinks of coffee at all one thinks of a Karena, with the smell of the roasting coffee downstairs in the shop and the liquid version waiting upstairs among the little tables. And if he was going to have a surfeit of coffee he might as well have some good stuff while he could still taste it.
He was holding the Ack–Emma in his hand with the girl’s photograph open to the gaze of the waitresses as they passed, hoping vaguely that his interest in it might cause one of them to say: “That girl used to come in here every morning.” To his surprise the paper was gently removed from his grasp, and he looked up to see his waitress regarding him with a kind smile. “That is last Friday’s,” she said. “Here.” And she proffered that morning’s Ack–Emma.
He thanked her and said that while he would be glad to see this morning’s paper he would like to keep the Friday one. Did this girl, this girl on the front page of Friday’s, ever come in there for coffee?
“Oh, no, we’d have remembered her if she did. We were all discussing that case on Friday. Imagine beating her half to death like that.”
“Then you think they did.”
She looked puzzled. “The paper says they did.”
“No, the paper reports what the girl said.”
She obviously did not follow that. This was the democracy we deified.
“They wouldn’t print a story like that if it wasn’t true. It would be as much as their life’s worth. You a detective?”
“Part time,” Robert said.
“How much do you get an hour for that?”
“Not nearly enough.”
“No, I suppose not. Haven’t got a Union, I suppose. You don’t get your rights in this world unless you have a Union.”
“Too true,” said Robert. “Let me have my bill, will you?”
“Your check, yes.”
At the Palace, the biggest and newest of the cinemas, the restaurant occupied the floor behind the balcony and had carpets so deep that one tripped on them, and lighting so subdued that all the cloths looked dirty. A bored houri with gilt hair, an uneven hem to her skirt, and a wad of chewing gum in her right jaw, took his order without ever glancing at him, and fifteen minutes later put down a cup of washy liquid in front of him without letting her eyes stray even approximately in his direction. Since in the fifteen minutes Robert had discovered that the never-look-at-the-customers technique was universal — presumably they were all going to be film stars the year after next and could not be expected to take any interest in a provincial clientèle — he paid for the untasted liquid and left.
At the Castle, the other big cinema, the restaurant did not open until afternoon.
At the Violet — royal purple everywhere and yellow curtains — no one had seen her. Robert, casting subtleties aside, asked them bluntly.
Upstairs at Griffon and Waldron’s, the big store, it was rush hour and the waitress said: “Don’t bother me!” The manageress, looking at him with absent-minded suspicion, said: “We never give information about our customers.”
At the Old Oak — small and dark and friendly — the elderly waitresses discussed the case interestedly with him. “Poor love,” they said. “What an experience for her. Such a nice face, too. Just a baby. Poor love.”
At the Alençon — cream paint and old-rose couches against the walls — they made it plain that they had never heard of the Ack–Emma and could not possibly have a client whose photograph appeared in such a publication.
At the Heave Ho — marine frescos and waitresses in bell-bottomed trousers — the attendants gave it as their unanimous opinion that any girl who took a lift should expect to have to walk home.
At the Primrose — old polished tables with raffia mats and thin unprofessional waitresses in flowered smocks — they discussed the social implications of lack of domestic service and the vagaries of the adolescent mind.
At the Tea–Pot there was no table to be had, and no waitress willing to attend to him; but a second glance at the fly-blown place made him sure that, with the others to choose from, Betty Kane would not have come here.
At half-past twelve he staggered into the lounge of the Midland, and called for strong waters. As far as he knew he had covered all the likely eating-places in the centre of Larborough and in not one of them had anyone remembered seeing the girl. What was worse, everyone agreed that if she had been there they would have remembered her. They had pointed out, when Robert was sceptical of that, that a large proportion of their customers on any one day were regulars, so that the casuals stood out from the rest and were noted and remembered automatically.
As Albert, the tubby little lounge waiter, set his drink in front of him, Robert asked, more out of habit than volition: “I suppose you’ve never seen this girl in your place, Albert?”
Albert looked at the front page of the Ack–Emma and shook his head. “No, sir. Not that I recollect. Looks a little young, sir, if I may say so, for the lounge of the Midland.”
“She mightn’t look so young with a hat on,” Robert said, considering it.
“A hat.” Albert paused. “Now, wait a minute. A hat.” Albert laid his little tray down and picked up the paper to consider it. “Yes, of course; that’s the girl in the green hat!”
“You mean she came in here for coffee?”
“No, for tea.”
“Yes, of course, that’s the girl. Fancy me not seeing that, and we had that paper in the pantry last Friday and chewed the rag over it for hours! Of course it’s some time ago now, isn’t it. About six weeks or so, it must be. She always came early; just about three, when we start serving teas.”
So that is what she did. Fool that he was not to have seen that. She went into the morning round at the cinema in time to pay the cheaper price — just before noon, that was — and came out about three, and had tea, not coffee. But why the Midland, where the tea was the usual dowdy and expensive hotel exhibit, when she could wallow in cakes elsewhere?
“I noticed her because she always came alone. The first time she came I thought she was waiting for relations. That’s the kind of kid she looked. You know: nice plain clothes and no airs.”
“Can you remember what she wore?”
“Oh, yes. She always wore the same things. A green hat and a frock to match it under a pale grey coat. But she never met anyone. And then one day she picked up the man at the next table. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
“You mean: he picked her up.”
“Don’t you believe it! He hadn’t even thought of her when he sat down there. I tell you, sir, she didn’t look that sort. You’d expect an aunt or a mother to appear at any moment and say: ‘So sorry to have kept you waiting, darling.’ She just wouldn’t occur to any man as a possible. Oh, no; it was the kid’s doing. And as neat a piece of business, let me tell you, sir, as if she had spent a lifetime at it. Goodness, and to think that I didn’t spot her again without her hat!” He gazed in wonder at the pictured face.
“What was the man like? Did you know him?”
“No, he wasn’t one of our regulars. Dark. Youngish. Business gent, I should say. I remember being a little surprised at her taste, so I don’t think he could have been up to much, now I come to think of it.”
“You wouldn’t know him again, then.”
“I might, sir, I might. But not to swear to. You — er — planning any swearing to, sir?”
Robert had known Albert for nearly twenty years and had always found him of an excellent discretion. “It’s like this, Albert,” he said. “These people are my clients.” He tapped the photograph of The Franchise, and Albert gave vent to a low whistle.
“A tough spot for you, Mr. Blair.”
“Yes, as you say: a tough spot. But mostly for them. It is quite unbelievably tough for them. The girl comes out of the blue one day accompanied by the police, to whom she has told this fantastic story. Until then neither of the two women has ever set eyes on her. The police are very discreet, and decide that they haven’t enough evidence to make it a good case. Then the Ack–Emma hears about it and makes capital out of it, and the story is all over Britain. The Franchise is wide open, of course. The police can’t spare men to afford constant protection, so you can imagine the lives these women are leading. My young cousin, who looked in before dinner last night, says that from lunch-time on crowds of cars arrived from Larborough, and people stood on the roofs or hoisted themselves up on the wall to stare or take photographs. Nevil got in because he arrived at the same time as the policeman on the evening beat, but as soon as they left the cars were swarming again. The telephone went continually until they asked the Exchange not to put through any more calls.”
“Have the police dropped it for good, then?”
“No, but they can’t do anything to help us. What they are looking for is corroboration of the girl’s story.”
“Well, that’s not very likely, is it? For them to get, I mean.”
“No. But you see the spot we are in. Unless we can find out where the girl was during the weeks she says she was at The Franchise, the Sharpes will be in the position of being permanently convicted of a thing they haven’t even been accused of!”
“Well, if it’s the girl in the green hat — and I’m sure it is, sir — I’d say she was what is known as ‘out on the tiles,’ sir. A very cool customer she was for a girl that age. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”
“Butter wouldn’t melt in her little mouth,” the tobacconist had said of the child Betty.
And “on the tiles” was Stanley’s verdict on the pictured face that was so like “the bint he had had in Egypt.”
And the worldly little waiter had used both phrases in his estimate of her. The demure girl in the “good” clothes, who had come every day by herself to sit in the hotel lounge.
“Perhaps it was just a childish desire to be ‘grand’,” the nice side of him prompted; but his common sense refused it. She could have been grand at the Alençon, and eaten well, and seen smart clothes at the same time.
He went in to have lunch, and then spent a large part of the afternoon trying to reach Mrs. Wynn on the telephone. Mrs. Tilsit had no telephone and he had no intention of involving himself in a Tilsit conversation again if he could help it. When he failed he remembered that Scotland Yard would most certainly, in that painstaking way of theirs, have a description of the clothes the girl was wearing when she went missing. And in less than seven minutes, he had it. A green felt hat, a green wool frock to match, a pale grey cloth coat with large grey buttons, fawn-grey rayon stockings and black court shoes with medium heels.
Well, at last he had it, that setting-off place; that starting-point for inquiry. Jubilation filled him. He sat down in the lounge on his way out and wrote a note to tell Kevin Macdermott that the young woman from Aylesbury was not such an attractive brief as she had been on Friday night; and to let him know, of course — between the lines — that Blair, Hayward, and Bennet could get a move on when it was necessary.
“Did she ever come back?” he asked Albert, who was hovering. “I mean, after she had ‘got her man’.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing either of them again, sir.”
Well, the hypothetical X had ceased to be hypothetical. He had become plain X. He, Robert, could go back tonight to The Franchise in triumph. He had put forward a theory, and the theory had proved fact, and it was he who had proved it a fact. It was depressing, of course, that the letters received so far by Scotland Yard had all been merely anonymous revilings of the Yard for their “softness” to the “rich,” and not claims to have seen Betty Kane. It was depressing that practically everyone he had interviewed that morning believed the girl’s story without question; were, indeed, surprised and at a loss if asked to consider any other point of view. “The paper said so.” But these were small things compared to the satisfaction of having arrived at that starting-point; of having unearthed X. He didn’t believe that fate could be so cruel as to show that Betty Kane parted with her new acquaintance on the steps of the Midland and never saw him again. There had to be an extension of that incident in the lounge. The history of the following weeks demanded it.
But how did one follow up a young dark business gent who had tea in the lounge of the Midland about six weeks previously? Young dark business gents were the Midland’s clientèle; and as far as Blair could see all as like as two peas anyhow. He was very much afraid that this was where he bowed out and handed over to a professional bloodhound. He had no photograph this time to help him; no knowledge of X’s character or habits as he had had in the case of the girl. It would be a long process of small inquiries; a job for an expert. All he could do at the moment, so far as he could see, was to get a list of residents at the Midland for the period in question.
For that he went to the Manager; a Frenchman who showed great delight and understanding in this sub rosa proceeding, was exquisitely sympathetic about the outraged ladies at The Franchise, and comfortingly cynical about smooth-faced young girls in good clothes who looked as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. He sent an underling to copy the entries from the great ledger, and entertained Robert to a sirop from his own cupboard. Robert had never subscribed to the French taste for small sweet mouthfuls of unidentifiable liquids drunk at odd times, but he swallowed the thing gratefully and pocketed the list the underling brought as one pockets a passport. Its actual value was probably nil, but it gave him a nice feeling to have it.
And if he had to turn over the business to a professional, the professional would have somewhere to start his burrowing. X had probably never stayed at the Midland in his life; he had probably just walked in for tea one day. On the other hand, his name might be among that list in his pocket; that horribly long list.
As he drove home he decided that he would not stop at The Franchise. It was unfair to bring Marion to the gate just to give her news that could be told over the telephone. He would tell the Exchange who he was, and the fact that the call was official, and they would answer it. Perhaps by tomorrow the first flood of interest in the house would have subsided, and it would be safe to unbar the gate again. Though he doubted it. Today’s Ack–Emma had not been calculated to have an appeasing effect on the mob mind. True, there were no further front-page headlines; the Franchise affair had removed itself to the correspondence page. But the letters the Ack–Emma had chosen to print there — and two-thirds of them were about the Franchise affair — were not likely to prove oil on troubled waters. They were so much paraffin on a fire that was going quite nicely anyhow.
Threading his way out of the Larborough traffic, the silly phrases came back to him; and he marvelled all over again at the venom that these unknown women had roused in the writers’ minds. Rage and hatred spilled over on to the paper; malice ran unchecked through the largely-illiterate sentences. It was an amazing exhibition. And one of the oddities of it was that the dearest wish of so many of those indignant protesters against violence was to flog the said women within an inch of their lives. Those who did not want to flog the women wanted to reform the police. One writer suggested that a fund should be opened for the poor young victim of police inefficiency and bias. Another suggested that every man of goodwill should write to his Member of Parliament about it, and make their lives a misery until something was done about this miscarriage of justice. Still another asked if anyone had noticed Betty Kane’s marked resemblance to Saint Bernadette.
There was every sign, if today’s correspondence page of the Ack–Emma was any criterion, of the birth of a Betty Kane cult. He hoped that its corollary would not be a Franchise vendetta.
As he neared the unhappy house, he grew anxious; wondering if Monday, too, had provided its quota of sightseers. It was a lovely evening, the low sun slanting great golden swathes of light over the spring fields; an evening to tempt even Larborough out to the midland dullness of Milford; it would be a miracle if, after the correspondence in the Ack–Emma, The Franchise was not the mecca of an evening pilgrimage. But when he came within sight of it he found the long stretch of road deserted; and as he came nearer he saw why. At the gate of The Franchise, solid and immobile and immaculate in the evening light, was the dark-blue-and-silver figure of a policeman.
Delighted that Hallam had been so generous with his scanty force, Robert slowed down to exchange greetings; but the greeting died on his lips. Along the full length of the tall brick wall, in letters nearly six feet high was splashed a slogan. “FASCISTS!” screamed the large white capitals. And again on the further side of the gate: “FASCISTS!”
“Move along, please,” the Force said, approaching the staring Robert with slow, polite menace. “No stopping here.”
Robert got slowly out of the car.
“Oh, Mr. Blair. Didn’t recognise you, sir. Sorry.”
“Is it whitewash?”
“No, sir; best quality paint.”
“Some people never grow out of it.”
“Out of what?”
“Writing things on walls. There’s one thing: they might have written something worse.”
“They wrote the worst insult they knew,” said Robert wryly. “I suppose you haven’t got the culprits?”
“No, sir. I just came along on my evening beat to clear away the usual gapers — oh, yes, there were dozens of them — and found it like that when I arrived. Two men in a car, if all reports are true.”
“Do the Sharpes know about it?”
“Yes, I had to get in to telephone. We have a code now, us and the Franchise people. I tie my handkerchief on the end of my truncheon and wave it over the top of the gate when I want to speak to them. Do you want to go in, sir?”
“No. No, on the whole I think not. I’ll get the Post Office to let me through on the telephone. No need to bring them to the gate. If this is going to continue they must get keys for the gate so that I can have a duplicate.”
“Looks as though it’s going to continue all right, sir. Did you see today’s Ack–Emma!”
“Strewth!” said the Force, losing his equanimity at the thought of the Ack–Emma, “you would think to listen to them we were nothing but a collection of itching palms! It’s a holy wonder we’re not, come to that. It would suit them better to agitate for more pay for us instead of slandering us right and left.”
“You’re in very good company, if it’s any consolation to you,” Robert said. “There can’t be anything established, respectable, or praiseworthy that they haven’t slandered at some time or other. I’ll send someone either tonight or first thing in the morning to do something about this — obscenity. Are you staying here?”
“The sergeant said when I telephoned that I was to stay till dark.”
“No one over-night?”
“No, sir. No spare men for that. Anyhow, they’ll be all right once the light’s gone. People go home. Especially the Larborough lot. They don’t like the country once it gets dark.”
Robert, who remembered how silent the lonely house could be, felt doubtful. Two women, alone in that big quiet house after dark, with hatred and violence just outside the wall — it was not a comfortable thought. The gate was barred, but if people could hoist themselves on to the wall for the purpose of sitting there and shouting insults, they could just as easily drop down the other side in the dark.
“Don’t worry, sir,” the Force said, watching his face. “Nothing’s going to happen to them. This is England, after all.”
“So is the Ack–Emma England,” Robert reminded him. But he got back into the car again. After all, it was England; and the English countryside at that; famed for minding its own business. It was no country hand that had splashed that “FASCISTS!” on the wall. It was doubtful if the country had ever heard the term. The country, when it wanted insults, used older, Saxon words.
The Force was no doubt right; once the dark came everyone would go home.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01