The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey


Raoul Legarde

But over the telephone Grant heard something which put all thoughts of tea out of his head. There was waiting for him a letter addressed in capitals. Grant knew very well what that meant. Scotland Yard has a wide experience of letters addressed in capitals. He smiled to himself as he hailed a taxi. If people only realized that writing in capitals didn’t disguise a hand at all! But he sincerely hoped they never would.

Before he opened the letter that awaited him he dusted it with powder and found it covered with fingerprints. He slit the top delicately, holding the letter, which was fat and softish, in a pair of forceps, and drew out a wad of Bank of England five-pound notes and a half-sheet of notepaper. On the notepaper was printed: “To bury the man who was found in the queue.”

There were five notes. Twenty-five pounds.

Grant sat down and stared. In all his time in the C.I.D. a more unexpected thing had not happened. Somewhere in London tonight was some one who cared sufficiently for the dead man to spend twenty-five pounds to keep him from a pauper’s grave, but who would not claim him. Was this corroboration of his intimidation theory? Or was it conscience money? Had the murderer a superstitious desire to do the right thing by his victim’s body? Grant thought not. The man who stuck another in the back didn’t care a hoot what became of the body. The man had a pal man or woman in London tonight, a pal who cared to the tune of twenty-five pounds.

Grant called in Williams, and together they considered the plain, cheap, white envelope and the strong, plain capitals.

“Well,” said Grant, “what do you know?”

“A man,” said Williams. “Not well off. Not used to writing much. Clean. Smokes. Depressed.”

“Excellent!” said Grant. “You’re no good as a Watson, Williams. You get away with all the kudos.”

Williams, who knew all about Watson — at the age of eleven he had spent hunted moments in a hayloft in Worcestershire trying to read The Speckled Band without being discovered by Authority, who had banned it smiled and said, “I expect you have got far more out of it, sir.”

But Grant had not. “Except that he’s a poor hand at the business. Fancy sending anything as easily traced as English five-pound notes!” He blew the light, soft powder over the half-sheet of notepaper, but found no fingerprints. He summoned a constable and sent the precious envelope and the bundle of notes to have all fingerprints photographed. The sheet of notepaper bearing the printed message he sent to the handwriting expert.

“Well, the banks are shut now, worse luck. Are you in a hurry to get back to the missus, Williams?”

No, Williams was in no hurry. His missus and the baby were in Southend with his mother-in-law for a week.

“In that case,” Grant said, “we’ll dine together and you can give me the benefit of your ideas on the subject of murders in queues.”

Some years before, Grant had inherited a considerable legacy — a legacy sufficient to permit him to retire into idle nonentity if such had been his desire. But Grant loved his work even when he swore and called it a dog’s life, and the legacy had been used only to smooth and embroider life until what would have been the bleak places were eliminated, and to make some bleak places in other lives less impossible. There was a little grocer’s shop in a southern suburb, bright as a jewel with its motley goods, which owed its existence to the legacy and to Grant’s chance meeting with a ticket-of-leave man on his first morning out. It was Grant who had been the means of “putting him away,” and it was Grant who provided the means of his rehabilitation. It was owing entirely to the legacy, therefore, that Grant was an habitué of so exclusive an eating place as Laurent’s, and — a much more astonishing and impressive fact — a pet of the head waiter’s. Only five persons in Europe are pets of Laurent’s head waiter, and Grant was thoroughly conscious of the honour, and thoroughly sensible of the reason.

Marcel met them halfway down the green-and-gold room, with his face screwed to an expression of the most excruciating sorrow. He was desolated, but there was not a table worthy of Monsieur left. There were no tables at all except that much-to-be condemned one in that corner. Monsieur had not let him know that he was to be expected. He was desolated, desolated simply.

Grant took the table without a murmur. He was hungry, and he did not care where he ate so that the food was good, and except for the fact that the table was directly outside the service door there was no fault to be found with it. A couple of green draught-screens camouflaged the door, and the door, being a swing one, kept the rattle of crockery to a faint castanet music that blossomed every now and then in a sudden fortissimo as the door swung wide and closed again. Over their dinner Grant decided that in the morning Williams should visit the banks in the area indicated by the letter’s postmark, and with that as a basis, track down the history of the bank-notes. It shouldn’t be difficult; banks were always accommodating. From that they turned to the discussion of the crime itself. It was Williams’ opinion that it was a gang affair; that the dead man had fallen foul of his gang, had known his danger, had borrowed the gun from the only friendly member of the crowd, and had never had a chance to use it. The money that had arrived tonight had come from the secretly friendly one. It was a good enough theory, but it left out things.

“Why had he no identification marks on him, then?”

“Perhaps,” said Williams with electrifying logic, “it’s a gang habit. No identification if they’re caught.”

That was a possible theory, and Grant was silent for a little, thinking it over. It was with the entrée that he became conscious, with that sixth sense which four years on the western front and many more in the C.I.D. had developed to an abnormal acuteness, that he was being watched. Restraining the impulse to turn round — he was sitting with his back to the room, almost facing the service door — he glanced casually into the mirror. But no one seemed to be taking the slightest interest in him. Grant continued to eat, and in a moment or two tried again. The room had emptied considerably since their arrival, and it was easy to examine the various people in the vicinity. But the mirror showed only a collection of self-absorbed people, eating, drinking, and smoking. And still Grant had that sense of being subjected to a long scrutiny. It made his flesh creep, that steady, unseen examination. He lifted his eyes above Williams’ head to the screen that hid the door. And there, in the chink between the screens, were the eyes that watched him. As if conscious of his discovery, the eyes wavered and disappeared, and Grant went serenely on with his meal. A too curious waiter, he thought. Probably knows who I am, and just wanted to gape at any one connected with a murder. Grant had suffered much from the gapers. But presently, looking up in the middle of a sentence, he found the eyes back at their examination of him. This was too much. He stared stolidly in return. But the owner of the eyes was evidently unaware that he was visible at all to Grant, and continued his watching uninterrupted. Now and then as a waiter came or went behind the screen the eyes disappeared, but always they returned to their furtive gazing. Grant was seized with a desire to see this man whose interest in himself was of so absorbing a character. He said to Williams, who was seated not more than a yard in front of the screen, “There is some one at the back of the screen behind you who is taking a most abnormal interest in us. When I click my fingers fling back your right and knock the screen sideways. Make it look as much like an accident as you can.”

Grant waited until the waiter traffic had lulled for a little and the eyes were steady at gaze, and then gently snapped his middle finger and thumb. Williams’ brawny arm shot out, the screen quivered for a moment and collapsed sideways. But there was no one there. Only the agitated swinging of the door showed where some one had made his hasty exit.

Well, that’s that, thought Grant, as Williams was apologizing for the accident with the screen. You can’t identify a pair of eyes. He finished his dinner without further annoyance and strolled back to the Yard with Williams, hoping that the photographs of the prints on the envelope would be ready for his examination.

No photographs had come, but there was a report on the tie which had been sent to Faith Brothers’ factory at Northwood. The only consignment of that pattern of tie sent out in the last year was a box of six in various shades which had been sent as a repeat order at the request of their Nottingham branch. They returned the tie and hoped that if they could be of any further use the inspector would command them.

“If nothing important turns up between now and tomorrow,” said Grant, “I shall go down to Nottingham while you are doing the banks.”

And then a man came in with photographs of the envelope prints, and Grant took from his desk the photographs of the other prints in the case the prints of the dead man’s fingertips and the prints found on the revolver. Nothing but smudges, the report said, had been found on any of the bank-notes, so Grant and the sergeant applied themselves to the examination of the envelope prints. A variety of impressions were apparent since several people had handled the envelope since the writer had posted the letter. But clear and perfect and without possibility of doubt was the print of a forefinger to the right of the flap, and the forefinger was the same forefinger that had left its mark on the revolver found in the dead man’s pocket.

“Well, that fits your theory about the friend who supplied the gun, doesn’t it?” said Grant.

But the sergeant made a queer choked noise and continued to look at the print.

“What’s the matter? It’s as clear as a kid’s alphabet.”

The sergeant straightened himself and looked queerly at his superior. “I’ll swear I hadn’t a glass too much, sir. But it’s either that or the whole fingerprint system is balmy. Look at that!” He pointed with a not too steady forefinger at a print in the extreme lower right-hand corner, and as he did so he shoved the dead man’s fingerprints, which had lain slightly apart, under Grant’s nose. For a little there was silence while the inspector compared the prints and the sergeant, over his shoulder, half-fearfully corroborated his previous view. But there was no getting away from the fact that faced them in irrefutable whorls and ridges. The fingerprint was that of the dead man.

It was only a moment or two before Grant realized the simple significance of that apparently staggering fact.

“Communal notepaper, of course,” he said offhandedly, while his looker-on half mocked at him for having allowed himself to be victimized even for a moment by the childish amazement that had overcome him. “Your theory blossoms, Williams. The man who lent the gun and provided the money lived with the dead man. That being so, of course he can spin any kind of yarn he likes to his landlady or his wife or whoever would be interested about the disappearance of his chum.” He took up the telephone on his desk. “We’ll see what the handwriting people have to say about the piece of notepaper.”

But the handwriting experts had nothing to add to what Grant already knew or guessed. The paper was of a common type that could be bought at any stationer’s or bookstall. The printing was that of a man. Given a specimen of a suspect’s handwriting, they would probably be able to say whether or not the printing had been done by him, but so far they could be of no more help than already indicated.

Williams departed to his temporarily bereaved home to comfort his uxorious mind by reminding himself how short a week was, and how pretty Mrs. Williams would be when she came back from Southend; and Grant remained where he was, trying to mesmerize the dagger into giving up its tale. It lay on the dark green leather surface of his desk, a graceful, wicked, toy-like thing, its business end in its slender viciousness making a queer contrast to the bluff saint on the handle with his silly, expressionless face. Grant considered the saintly features sardonically. What was it Ray Marcable had said? You’d want a blessing on an undertaking as big as that. Well, Grant thought, he would choose a more potent saint as O.C. affairs than the ineffectual holy one on the handle. His thoughts went to Ray Marcable. This morning’s press had been full of her projected departure for America, the popular papers expressing themselves in lamentation and the more high-brow in bitterness and indignation that British managers should allow the best musical comedy star of a generation to leave the country. Should he go to her, Grant wondered, before she left and ask her bluntly why she had looked surprised at the description of the dagger? There had been nothing to connect her even remotely with the crime. He knew her history — the little semi-detached villa in a dreary suburb that she had called home, and the council school she had attended, her real name, which was Rosie Markham. He had even met Mr. and Mrs. Markham over the affair of the suitcase. It was exceedingly unlikely that she could throw any light on the Queue Murder. And it was still more unlikely that she would if she could. She had had her chance to be frank with him over that tea in her dressing-room, and she had quite deliberately kept him outside any knowledge she might have had. That knowledge, of course, might be entirely innocent. Her surprise might have been due to recognition of the dagger’s description, and yet have nothing to do with the murder. The dagger was far from unique, and many people must have seen and handled similar weapons. No, either way he was not likely to get much satisfaction from another interview with Miss Marcable. She would have to depart for the United States uninterrogated.

With a sigh for its unproductiveness he locked the dagger away in its drawer again and set off for home. He came out on to the Embankment to find that it was a fine night with a light, frosty mist in the air, and he decided that he would walk home. The midnight streets of London — always so much more beautiful than the choppy crowded ones of the daytime fascinated him. At noon London made you a present of an entertainment, rich and varied and amusing. But at midnight she made you a present of herself; at midnight you could hear her breathe.

When at length he turned into the road where he lived he had come to the stage of walking automatically, and a starry mist possessed his brain. For a little while Grant had “shut his eyes.” But he was not asleep, actually or metaphorically, and the eyes of his brain opened with a start at the dim figure that was waiting on the opposite corner just outside the lamplight. Who was hanging about at this hour?

He debated rapidly whether or not to cross and walk down the other side of the street, and so come within criticizing distance of the figure. But it was rather late to change his direction. He held on, ignoring the loiterer. Only when he was turning in at his own gate he looked back. The figure was still there, almost indistinguishable in the gloom.

It was after twelve when he let himself in with his latchkey, but Mrs. Field was waiting up for him. “I thought you’d like to know that there has been a gentleman here asking for you. He wouldn’t wait and he wouldn’t leave a message.”

“How long ago was that?”

More than an hour, Mrs. Field said. She didn’t see him rightly. He had stood well out beyond the step. But he was young.

“No name?”

No, he refused to give a name.

“All right,” said Grant. “You go to bed. If he comes back, I’ll let him in.”

She hesitated in the doorway. “You won’t do anything rash, will you?” she said solicitously. “I don’t like the thought of you being here all alone with some one who might be an anarchist for all we know.”

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Field. You won’t be blown up tonight.”

“It isn’t blowing up I’m afraid of,” she said. “It’s the thought of you lyin’ here perhaps bleeding to death and no one knowing. Think how I’d feel when I came in in the morning and found you like that.”

Grant laughed. “Well, you can comfort yourself. There isn’t the slightest chance of anything so thrilling happening. No one has ever spilt my blood except Jerry at Contalmaison, and that was more by luck than good management.”

She conceded the point. “See you have a bite before you go to bed,” she said, indcating the food on the sideboard. “I got you some English tomatoes, and the beef is Tomkins’ best pickled.” She said good night and went, but she could not have reached her kitchen before a knock sounded on the door. Grant heard her go to the door, and even while his brain was speculating about his visitor, the looker-on in him was wondering whether it was spunk or curiosity that had sent Mrs. Field so willingly to answer the knock. A moment later she threw open the sitting-room door and said, “A young gentleman to see you, sir,” and into Grant’s eager presence came a youth of nineteen or twenty, fairly tall, dark, broad-shouldered, but slight, and poised on his feet like a boxer. As he came forward he shot a furtive glance from his brilliant dark eyes into the corner behind the door, and he came to a halt some yards from the inspector in the middle of the room, turning a soft felt hat in his slim gloved hands.

“You are Inspector Grant?” he asked.

Grant motioned him to a chair, and the youth, with a completely un-English grace, subsided sideways on to it, still clutching his hat, and began to talk.

“I saw you tonight at Laurent’s. I am in the pantry there. I clean the silver and things like that. They told me who you were, and after I think for a while, I decided to tell you all about it.”

“A very good idea,” said Grant. “Carry on. Are you Italian?”

“No; I am French. My name is Raoul Legarde.”

“All right; carry on.”

“I was in the queue the night the man was killed. It was my night off. For a long time I was standing next the man. He trod on my foot in accident, and after that we talked a little — about the play. I was on the outside and he was next the wall. Then a man came to talk to him and came in in front of me. The man who was new wanted something from the other man. He stayed until the door opened and the people moved. He was angry about something. They were not quarrelling — not as we quarrel — but I think they were angry. When the murder happened I ran away. I did not want to be mixed up with the police. But tonight I saw you, and you looked gentil, and so I made up my mind to tell you all about it.”

“Why didn’t you come to Scotland Yard and tell me?”

“I do not trust the Sûreté. They make very much out of nothing. And I have no friends in London.”

“When the man came to talk to the man who was murdered, and pushed you back a place, who was between you and the theatre wall?”

“A woman in black.”

Mrs. Ratcliffe. So far the boy was telling the truth.

“Can you describe the man who came and went away again?”

“He was not very tall. Not as tall as me. He had a hat like mine, only more brown, and a coat like mine”— he indicated his tight-fitting, waisted navy-blue coat —“only brown too. He was very dark, without moustache, and these stuck out.” He touched his own beautifully modelled cheek and chin bones.

“Would you know him again if you saw him?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well enough to swear to?”

“What is that?”

“To take your oath on.”

“Oh, yes.”

“What did the two men quarrel about?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t hear. I was not deliberately listening, you understand, and though I speak English, I do not understand if people talk very quickly. I think the man who came wanted something that the man who was killed would not give him.”

“When the man went away from the queue, how is it that no one saw him go?”

“Because just then the policeman was walking down saying ‘Stand back’ to the people.”

That was too glib. The inspector took out his notebook and pencil and, laying the pencil on the open page, held it out to his visitor. “Can you show me how you stood in the queue? Put marks for the people, and label them.”

The boy stretched out his left hand for the book, took the pencil in his right, and made a very intelligent diagram, unaware that he had at that moment defeated the distrusted Sûreté‘s attempt to make something out of nothing.

Grant watched his serious, absorbed face and thought rapidly. He was telling the truth, then. He had been there until the man collapsed, had backed with the others away from the horror, and had continued backing until he could walk away from the danger of being at the mercy of foreign police. And he had actually seen the murderer and would recognize him again. Things were beginning to move.

He took back the book and pencil that the boy extended to him, and as he raised his eyes from the consideration of the diagram he caught the dark eyes resting rather wistfully on the food on the sideboard. It occurred to him that Legarde had probably come straight from his work to see him.

“Well, I’m very grateful to you,” he said. “Have some supper with me now, before you go.”

The boy refused shyly, but allowed himself to be persuaded, and together they had a substantial meal of Mr. Tomkins’ best pickled. Legarde talked freely of his people in Dijon — the sister who sent him French papers, the father who disapproved of beer since one ate grapes but not hops; of his life at Laurent’s and his impression of London and the English. And when Grant eventually let him out into the black stillness of the early morning, he turned on the doorstep and said apologetically and naively, “I am sorry now that I did not tell before, but you understand how it was? To have run away at first made it difficult. And I did not know that the police were so gentil.”

Grant dismissed him with a friendly pat on the shoulder, locked up, and picked up the telephone receiver. When the connexion was made, he said:

“Inspector Grant speaking. This to be sent to all stations: ‘Wanted, in connexion with the London Queue Murder, a left-handed man, about thirty years of age, slightly below middle height, very dark in complexion and hair, prominent cheek and chin bones, clean-shaven. When last seen was wearing a soft brown hat and tight-fitting brown coat. Has a recent scar on the left forefinger or thumb.’”

And then he went to bed.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01