The newspapers had a field-day on Tuesday.
Now that the Franchise affair was a court case, it could no longer provide a crusade for either the Ack–Emma or the Watchman— though the Ack–Emma did not fail to remind its gratified readers that on such and such a date they had said so and so, a plain statement which was on the surface innocent and unexceptionable but was simply loaded with the forbidden comment; and Robert had no doubt that on Friday the Watchman would be taking similar credit to itself, with similar discretion. But the rest of the Press, who had not so far taken any interest in a case that the police had no intention of touching, woke with a glad shout to report a case that was news. Even the soberer dailies held accounts of the court appearance of the Sharpes, with headings like: EXTRAORDINARY CASE, and: UNUSUAL CHARGE. The less inhibited had full descriptions of the principal actors in the case, including Mrs. Sharpe’s hat and Betty Kane’s blue outfit, pictures of The Franchise, the High Street in Milford, a school friend of Betty Kane, and anything else that was even approximately relevant.
And Robert’s heart sank. Both the Ack–Emma and the Watchman, in their different ways, had used the Franchise affair as a stunt. Something to be used for its momentary worth and dropped tomorrow. But now it was a national interest, reported by every kind of paper from Cornwall to Caithness; and showed signs of becoming a cause célèbre.
For the first time he had a feeling of desperation. Events were hounding him, and he had no refuge. The thing was beginning to pile up into a tremendous climax at Norton and he had nothing to contribute to that climax; nothing at all. He felt as a man might feel if he saw a stacked heap of loaded crates begin to lean over towards him and had neither retreat nor a prop to stay the avalanche.
Ramsden grew more and more monosyllabic on the telephone, and less and less encouraging. Ramsden was sore. “Baffled” was a word used in boys’ detective stories; it had not until now had even the remotest connection with Alec Ramsden. So Ramsden was sore, monosyllabic, and dour.
The one bright spot in the days that followed the court at Milford was provided by Stanley, who tapped on his door on Thursday morning, poked his head in, and seeing that Robert was alone came in, pushing the door to with one hand and fishing in the pocket of his dungarees with the other.
“Morning,” he said. “I think you ought to take charge of these. Those women at The Franchise have no sense at all. They keep pound notes in tea-pots and books and what not. If you’re looking for a telephone number you’re as likely as not to find a ten-shilling note marking the butcher’s address.” He fished out a roll of money and solemnly counted twelve ten-pound notes on to the desk under Robert’s nose.
“A hundred and twenty,” he said. “Nice, ain’t it?”
“But what is it?” Robert asked, bewildered.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t have anything on! After the old lady giving us the tip herself. Mean to say you forgot about it!”
“Stan, I haven’t even remembered lately that there was such a thing as the Guineas. So you backed it?”
“At sixties. And that’s the tenth I told her she was on to, for the tip.”
“But — a tenth? You must have been plunging, Stan.”
“Twenty pounds. Twice as much as my normal ceiling. Bill did a bit of good too. Going to give his missus a fur coat.”
“So Kominsky won.”
“Won by a length and a half on a tight rein; and was that a turn up for the book!”
“Well,” Robert said, stacking the notes and banding them, “if the worst comes to the worst and they end up bankrupt, the old lady can always do a fair trade as a tipster.”
Stanley eyed his face for a moment in silence, apparently not happy about something in his tone. “Things are pretty bad, ‘m?” he said.
“Fierce,” said Robert, using one of Stanley’s own descriptions.
“Bill’s missus went to the court,” Stan said, after a pause. “She said she wouldn’t believe that girl even if she told her there were twelve pennies in a shilling.”
“Oh?” Robert said, surprised. “Why?”
“Much too good to be true, she said she was. She said no girl of fifteen was ever as good as that.”
“She’s sixteen now.”
All right, sixteen. She said she was fifteen once and so were all her girl friends, and that wide-eyed-wonder didn’t fool her for a moment.”
“I’m very much afraid it will fool a jury.”
“Not if you had an all-woman jury. I suppose there’s no way of wangling that?”
“Not short of Herod measures. Don’t you want to give this money to Mrs. Sharpe yourself, by the way?”
“Not me. You’ll be going out there sometime today, and you can give it to her if you like. But see you get it back and put it in the bank or they’ll be picking it out of flower vases years hence and wondering when they put that there.”
Robert smiled as he put the money away in his pocket to the sound of Stanley’s departing feet. Endlessly unexpected, people were. He would have taken it for granted that Stan would have revelled in counting those notes out in front of the old lady. But instead he had turned shy. That tale of money in tea-pots was just a tale.
Robert took the money out to The Franchise in the afternoon, and for the first time saw tears in Marion’s eyes. He told the tale as Stanley had told it — tea-pots and all — and finished: “So he made me his deputy”; and it was then that Marion’s eyes had filled.
“Why did he mind about giving it to us?” she said, fingering the notes. “He’s not usually so — so ——”
“I think it may be that he considers that you need it now, and that that makes it a delicate affair instead of a matter-of-fact one. When you gave him the tip you were just the well-off Sharpes who lived at The Franchise, and he would have turned over the proceeds to you with éclat. But now you are two women out on bail of £200 each in your personal recognizances and of a similar sum by one surety on behalf of you each; to say nothing of having the expenses of a counsel to come; and are therefore, I think, in Stan’s mind not people that one can hand over money to easily.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Sharpe, “not all my tips have had a margin of a length-and-a-half on the right side. But I don’t deny that I am very glad to see the percentage. It was very kind of the boy.”
“Should we keep as much as ten per cent?” Marion asked doubtfully.
“That was the arrangement,” Mrs. Sharpe said equably. “If it hadn’t been for me he would be short by the amount of a bet on Bali Boogie at this moment. What is a Bali Boogie, by the way?”
“I am glad you came,” Marion said, ignoring her mother’s quest for education, “because something unexpected has happened. My watch has come back.”
“You mean you’ve found it?”
“No, oh, no. She sent it back through the post. Look!”
She produced a small, very dirty, white cardboard box, which contained her watch with the blue enamel face and the wrapping that had been round the watch. The wrapping was a square of pinkish tissue paper with a circular stamp reading SUN VALLEY, TRANSVAAL, and had evidently started life embracing an orange. On a torn piece of paper was printed: I DON’T WANT NONE OF IT. The capital I was dotted like a small letter, after the fashion of illiterates.
“Why do you think she turned squeamish about it?” Marion wondered.
“I don’t for a moment think she did,” Robert said. “I couldn’t imagine that girl ever relinquishing anything that her hand had closed over.”
“But she did. She sent it back.”
“No. Someone sent it back. Someone who was frightened. Someone with a rudimentary conscience, too. If Rose Glyn had wanted to be rid of it she would have thrown it into a pond, without a second thought. But X wants to be rid of it and to make restitution at the same time. X has both a bad conscience and a frightened soul. Now who would have a bad conscience about you just now? Gladys Rees?”
“Yes, of course you are right about Rose. I should have thought of that. She never would have sent it back. She would have put her heel on it sooner. You think perhaps she gave it to Gladys Rees?”
“That might explain a lot. It might explain how Rose got her to court to back up that ‘screaming’ story. I mean, if she had been the receiver of stolen goods. When you come to think of it, Rose could have very little chance of wearing a watch that the Staples people must quite often have seen on your wrist. It is much more likely that she was ‘large’ with it in favour of her friend. ‘A little thing I picked up.’ Where does the Rees girl belong to?”
“I don’t know where she belongs to; somewhere the other side of the county, I think. But she has come to work for that isolated farm beyond Staples.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“So she could wear a new watch without question. Yes, I think it was Gladys who sent back your watch. If ever there was an unwilling witness it was Gladys on Monday. And if Gladys is shakeable to the point of sending back your property, a faint hope begins to dawn.”
“But she has committed perjury,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “Even a moron like Gladys Rees must have some glimmering of awareness that that is not well seen in a British court.”
“She could plead that she was blackmailed into it. If someone suggested that course to her.”
Mrs. Sharpe eyed him. “Isn’t there anything in English law about tampering with a witness?” she asked.
“Plenty. But I don’t propose to do any tampering.”
“What do you propose to do?”
“I must think it over. It is a delicate situation.”
“Mr. Blair, the intricacies of the Law have always been beyond me, and are always likely to be, but you won’t get yourself put away for contempt of court, or something like that, will you? I can’t imagine what the present situation would be like without your support.”
Robert said that he had no intention of getting himself put away for anything. That he was a blameless solicitor of unblemished reputation and high moral principles and that she need have no fear either for herself or for him.
“If we could knock the prop of Gladys Rees from under Rose’s story it would undermine their whole case,” he said. “It’s their most valuable piece of evidence: that Rose had mentioned the screaming before there was any suggestion of a charge against you. I suppose you couldn’t see Grant’s face when Rose was giving evidence? A fastidious mind must be a great handicap in the C.I.D. It must be sad to have your whole case depend on someone you would hate to touch with a barge-pole. Now I must be getting back. May I take the little cardboard box and the scrap of paper with the printing?”
“It was clever of you to have seen that Rose would not have sent it back,” Marion said, putting the scrap of paper into the box and giving it to him. “You should have been a detective.”
“Either that or a fortune-teller. Everything deduced from the egg-stain on the waistcoat. Au revoir.”
Robert drove back to Milford with his mind full of this new possibility. It was no solution to their predicament, but it might be a lifeline.
In the office he found Mr. Ramsden waiting for him; long, grey, lean, and dour.
“I came to see you, Mr. Blair, because it wasn’t a thing that could be said over the telephone very well.”
“Mr. Blair, we’re wasting your money. Do you happen to know what the white population of the world is?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Neither do I. But what you’re asking me to do is to pick this girl out of the white population of the world. Five thousand men working for a year mightn’t do it. One man might do it tomorrow. It’s a matter of pure chance.”
“But it always has been that.”
“No. In the first days the chances were fair. We covered the obvious places. The ports, the airports, the travel places, the best known ‘honeymoon’ places. And I didn’t waste your time or money in any travelling. I have contacts in all the big towns and in a lot of the smaller ones, and I just send them a request saying: ‘Find out if such and such a person stayed at one of your hotels,’ and the answer is back in a few hours. Answers from all over Britain. Well, that done, we are left with a small proposition called the rest of the world. And I don’t like wasting your money, Mr. Blair. Because that is what it will amount to.”
“Do I understand that you are giving up?”
“I don’t put it like that, exactly.”
“You think I should give you notice because you have failed.”
Mr. Ramsden stiffened noticeably at the word “failed.”
“It’s throwing good money away on a long chance. It isn’t a business proposition, Mr. Blair. It isn’t even a good gamble.”
“Well, I have something for your consideration that is definite enough to please you, I think.” He fished the little cardboard box out of his pocket. “One of the witnesses on Monday was a girl called Gladys Rees. Her role was to supply evidence that her friend Rose Glyn had talked to her about screams at The Franchise long before the police were interested in the place. Well, she supplied the evidence all right, but not con amore, as you might say. She was nervous, unwilling, and was obviously hating it — in contrast to her friend Rose who was having the time of her life. One of my local colleagues suggested that Rose had got her there by pressure, but that didn’t seem very likely at the time. This morning, however, the watch that Rose stole from Miss Sharpe came back by post in this box, with the printed message enclosed. Now Rose would never have bothered to return the watch; she has no conscience at all. Nor would she have written the note; having no desire to repudiate anything. The conclusion is inescapable, that it was Gladys who received the watch — Rose could not have worn it without detection anyhow — and that that was how Rose got her to back up her lies.”
He paused to let Ramsden comment. Mr. Ramsden nodded; but it was an interested nod.
“Now we can’t approach Gladys with any kind of argument without being accused of intimidating witnesses. I mean, getting her to go back on her story before the Assizes is not possible. All we can do is to concentrate on breaking her down at the Assizes. Kevin Macdermott could probably do it by force of personality and persistent questions, but I doubt it; and anyhow the Court might stop him before he had achieved anything. They are apt to look sideways on him when he begins to ride a witness.”
“What I want to do is to be able to put this printed scrap into court as evidence. To be able to say that it is Gladys Rees’s writing. With the evidence that it was she who had the stolen watch, we make the suggestion that Rose used pressure on her to testify to what is not true, Macdermott assures her that if she was blackmailed into giving false evidence she will probably not be punished for it, and she breaks down and confesses.”
“So you want another specimen of Gladys Rees’s printing.”
“Yes. And coming along just now I was thinking about it. I have the impression that her present job is her first one, so it can’t be very long since she left school. Perhaps her school could furnish one. Or anyhow, provide a starting-off place. It would be enormously to our advantage if we could come by a specimen without provocateur methods. Do you think you could do something about it?”
“I’ll get you a specimen, yes,” Ramsden said; as who should say: Give me any reasonable commission and it will be executed. “Did the Rees girl go to school here?”
“No, I understand she comes from the other side of the county.”
“All right, I’ll find out. Where is she working now?”
“At an isolated place called Bratt’s Farm; over the fields from Staples, the place behind The Franchise.”
“And about the search for the Kane girl ——”
“Isn’t there anything you could still do in Larborough itself? I can’t teach you anything about your business, I know that, but she was in Larborough.”
“Yes, and where she was we traced her. In public places. But X may live in Larborough, for all we know. She may just have gone to ground there. After all, a month — or practically a month — is an odd time for that sort of disappearance, Mr. Blair. That sort of thing usually ranges from a week-end to ten days but not longer. She may just have gone home with him.”
“Do you think that is what happened?”
“No,” Ramsden said slowly. “If you want my honest opinion, Mr. Blair, it is that we have missed her at one of the exits.”
“That she went out of the country, but looking so different that that butter-wouldn’t-melt photograph didn’t convey her at all.”
“Well, I don’t suppose she was provided with a phoney passport, so she would presumably travel as his wife.”
“Yes, of course. I took that for granted.”
“And she couldn’t do that looking as she does. But with her hair swept up and some make-up on, she would look quite different. You have no idea the difference sweeping-up hair-dressing makes to a woman. The first time I saw my wife with one I didn’t recognise her. It made her so different, if you want to know, that I felt quite shy with her; and we’d been married twenty years.”
“So that’s what you think happened. I expect you’re right,” Robert said sadly.
“That’s why I don’t want to waste any more of your money, Mr. Blair. Looking for the girl in the photograph is not much use, because the girl we’re looking for didn’t look a bit like that. When she did look like that, people recognised her at first glance. At the cinemas and what not. We traced her easily enough during her time on her own in Larborough. But from then on it’s a complete blank. Her photograph doesn’t convey her to anyone who saw her after she left Larborough.”
Robert sat doodling on Miss Tuff’s nice fresh blotting-paper. A herring-bone pattern; very neat and decorative. “You see what this means, don’t you? We are sunk.”
“But you have this,” Ramsden protested, indicating the printed scrap of paper that had come with the watch.
“That merely destroys the police case. It doesn’t disprove Betty Kane’s story. If the Sharpes are ever to be rid of this thing the girl’s story has to be shown to be nonsense. Our only chance of doing that is to find out where she was during those weeks.”
“Yes. I see.”
“I suppose you have checked on private owners?”
“Planes? Oh, yes. The same thing goes there. We have no photograph of the man, so he might be any one of the hundreds of private owners who went abroad with female companions in the specified time.”
“Yes. Pretty well sunk. Not much wonder Ben Carley was amused.”
“You’re tired, Mr. Blair. You’ve been having a worrying time.”
“Yes. It isn’t very often a country solicitor has something like this dumped on his shoulders,” Robert said wryly.
Ramsden regarded him with what amounted on the Ramsden visage to a smile. “For a country solicitor,” he said, “it seems to me you’re not doing badly, Mr. Blair. Not badly at all.”
“Thanks,” Robert said, really smiling. Coming from Alec Ramsden that was practically an O.M.
“I shouldn’t let it get you down. You’ve got an insurance against the very worst happening — or will, when I get that printed evidence.”
Robert flung down the pen he had been doodling with. “I’m not interested in insurance,” he said with sudden heat. “I’m interested in justice. I have only one ambition in life at this moment. And that is to have Betty Kane’s story disproved in open court. To have the full account of what she did during those weeks made public in her presence and duly backed up by irreproachable witnesses. What are our chances of that, do you think? And what — tell me — what have we left untried that could possibly help us?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Ramsden said, seriously. “Prayer, perhaps.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01