The Question Mark
The story of the Crooked Crook, the telltale ticket and the girl who was: "frightfully interested in crime"
WHEN Miss Chloe Pleyell be-. came engaged to Sir Matthew Pearing, K.C., Mr. Albert Campion crossed her name off
his private list entitled “Elegant Young Persons Whom I Ought to Take to Lunch” and wrote it in neatly at the foot of his “People I Ought to Send Christmas Cards to” folder.
He made the exchange with a smile that was only partially regretful. There had been a time when Miss Pleyell had seemed to him to have a lightheartedness all her own, but once or twice lately it had occurred to him somewhat forcefully that lightheadedness might be a more accurate description. Without the slightest trace of malice, therefore, he wished Sir Matthew, who was a monument of humorless pomposity, joy of his choice.
He was still wishing him every happiness, albeit a trifle dubiously, as he stood in the big old-fashioned office at the back of Julius Florian’s Bond Street shop and watched the astute old silversmith persuading Chloe to decide whether Mr. Campion should signify his goodwill on her marriage with the Adam candlesticks or the baroque epergne.
Chloe was in form. She sat on the edge of the walnut desk, her cocoa ermine coat slipping off her shoulders and her small yellow head on one side. Her eyes were narrowed, their vivid blue intensified by the tremendous mental effort involved in the choice.
Mr. Florian appeared to find her wholly charming. He stood before her, his round dark face alight with interest, all the more remarkable since they had been in the shop for the best part of three quarters of an hour already.
“The epergne is exquisitely fashionable now,” murmured Chloe, “and I adore it. It’s so magnificently silly. But the Adam things will be there always, won’t they, like a family butler or something?”
Old Florian laughed.
“So truly put,” he observed with a little nod to Mr. Campion. “Which shall it be then? The fashion of the day or the pride of a lifetime?”
Miss Pleyell sighed heavily.
“The fashion,” she said resignedly. “I know I shall regret it, but I can’t help it. It’s just my destiny or my character; I can’t bother to decide which. Besides, I hate introspective people. I’ll have the epergne, Mr. Florian. And you’re an angel to give it to me, Albert. Every time I look across it at poor Matthew sitting at the other end of the table I shall think of you.”
“That’ll be nice for both of us,” said Mr. Campion cheerfully, and Florian, who was a past master of practical psychology, swept the candlesticks hastily out of sight.
Chloe slid off the desk and drifted to the side table, where the epergne stood holding out its little silver baskets on slender curling arms. The silversmith trotted after her. “A lovely thing,” he said. “Fine early George the Third,
eight sweetmeat baskets hand pierced and chased, gadroon edges, ball feet. It is a very beautiful thing. A ve-ry beauti-ful thing. I can tell you its entire history. It was made for Lord Perowne and remained in that family for seventytwo years, when it was purchased by a Mr. Andrew Chappell, who left it to his daughter who lived at Brighton and—” Chloe’s laugh interrupted him.
“Mow sweet !” she said. "Like a dog. Having a pedigree, I mean. I shall call it Rover. All my furniture’s going to have names, Albert. I’ve got a stupendous sideboard from Matthew’s uncle, the judge. I’m going to call it Maude. After his dead wife,” she added patiently as he merely looked bewildered.
“Charming thought,” said Mr. Florian, also a little at sea.
Chloe glanced at him sadly and he coughed.
"When one buys a fine piece of silver one usually likes to know something of its history,” he said stiffly.
Miss Pleyell’s brain struggled with the information and came out on top.
“Oh, of course, in case it’s stolen,” she said brightly. “I never thought of that. How fascinating! Tell me, do you deal much in stolen stuff, Mr. Florian? By accident, I mean,” she added belatedly as the small man’s face grew slowly red and then more slowly purple.
CAMPION hurried to the rescue.
“Miss Pleyell thirsts for sensational information,” he murmured, scowling at her. “The police lists protect you from all disasters of that, sort, don’t they, Mr. Florian?” The silversmith regained his poise and even his smile. "Ah yes,” he said graciously. “The police lists are very interesting. I’ll show you one.”
He touched a bell on his desk, and went on talking in his slow, slightly affected voice.
“Whenever there has been a robbery, the police circularize the trade with a list of the missing valuables. Then, if the thief or his agents are foolish enough to attempt to dispose of the haul to any reputable firm, they can be—ah —instantly apprehended.”
“How lovely!” said Chloe with such emphasis that Campion glanced at her sharply, only to find her gazing at Mr. Florian with an eager interest in her china-blue eyes which was utterly disarming.
The silversmith thawed visibly, and by the time his clerk reappeared with the folder he was beaming.
“I don’t show these to everybody,” he said archly, his black eyes twinkling at Chloe. “Here’s a list of things taken from a mansion in Surrey. And here’s another very curious thing. These are the valuables taken from the Hewes-Bellewe house in Manchester Square. No doubt you read of the burglary? I found it particularly interesting because I’m familiar with Lady Hewes-Bellewe’s collection
of silver. Most of these pieces have been through my hands from time to time for special cleaning and minor repairs.”
“Fascinating.” murmured Chloe, glancing down a column of technicalities with what was only too obviously an uncomprehending eye. “What’s an early silver muffineer with BG, LG.”
“A sugar sifter with a blue glass lining.” Mr. Florian seemed delighted to explain, and it occurred to Mr. Campion that a lot of beauty went a remarkably long way. “That’s a very interesting piece,” the silversmith went on. “I had it here once when we gave a little loan exhibition of rare silver. It has a charming design of ivy leaves, hand pierced, and on one of the leaves a little putto in a boat has been engraved. Engraving with hand piercing is comparatively rare, and I told Lady Hewes-Bellewe that in my opinion the putto must have been the brilliant work of some eighteenth-century amateur. What a tragedy to think it’s gone!”
“Frightful,” agreed Chloe, blank but game. “But it all depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it?”
Campion felt it time to be helpful.
“I remember that burglary,” he remarked. “That was the Question Mark’s last escapade, wasn’t it? The fellow the newspapers call the Crooked Crook.”
“That’s the man.” The suave Mr. Florian was almost excited. “The police can’t put their hands on him, and I understand they think he’s responsible for at least half a dozen London burglaries. I'm particularly interested in him because he has a mania for fine silver. He must be quite a connoisseur in his way. I can’t bring myself to believe he has that beautiful stuff melted down. It must go abroad.”
Chloe smiled at the old man with ingratiating earnestness.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “I feel I’m learning trade secrets. I like his name too —the Question Mark. Sounds quite thrilling. I thought burglars were always most disappointing people in real life—flat ears and no foreheads, and starving wives and things. This man sounds positively entertaining. Why is he called the Question Mark and the Crooked Crook?”
“Because he walks with a stoop, my child,” explained Mr. Campion, coming to the rescue of Mr. Florian, who was showing sighs of exhaustion. “He’s been seen once or twice, a thin bent figure lurking in dark passageways and on unlighted staircases. Frighten yourself to death with that vision, my poppet, and come along.”
"He’s a cripple? How devastating!" Miss Pleyell was thinking rapidly, and the unaccustomed exercise brought most becoming spots of color to her cheekbones. “Tell me, how does he get up drain pipes and do all the energetic things burglars do do?”
FLORIAN smiled, and Campion saw with relief that he liad evidently decided to get into line with the rest of Chloe’s acquaintances and consider lier an adorable half-wit.
“Ah, but he’s not a real crookback.” he said, lowering his voice as though he were speaking to a child. “He was nearly captured on one occasion. A servant girl caught sight of him from an upper window and gave the alarm. He took to his heels, and the woman told the police that he straightened up as he ran.”
“How very peculiar,” commented Chloe unexpectedly. “Not really.” Florian’s tone was still gently humorous. “Most crooks have their little foibles, their little trademarks. It’s a tradition. There’s one man who always cuts a heart-shaped hole in the pane of a downstairs window, and lifts the piece out carefully with a small rubber sucker so that he can get to the latch. There’s another who disguises himself as a milkman before he cracks a crib. This fellow, the Question Mark, probably looks quite normal in private life, but the police hunted for a long time for someone with a pronounced stoop.”
“Really?” said Chloe, her breathlessness a little overdone.
“Oh yes. Dearme, yes. Crooks are extraordinary people. Ask Mr. Campion, lie’s the expert. Why. I remember when I was a young man first in business there was a thief who had our whole trade by the ears. We dreaded him. And he used to do his work in a Guardsman’s uniform, red tunic, mustachios, a swagger cane and all.”
Campion looked up with interest.
“That’s a prize effort,” lie said, laughing. “I’ve never heard of him.”
Florian shook his head.
"Ah well, it’s thirty-five years ago at least. But he existed, believe me. We were all very much relieved when he was caught and jailed. I don’t know what happened to him when he was released. Some of your older friends at Scotland Yard might remember him. They called him The Shiner. Dear me, that comes back to me after all these years. Yes, well, Miss Pleyell. you don’t want to hear any more of my reminiscences. I'm sure. I'll have the epergne dispatched to you immediately.”
Mr. Campion carried Miss Pleyell away.
“It’s sweet of you.” she said, thoughtfully eyeing him across the little table in the crowded but fashionable
lounge where she had elected to take tea. “I shall treasure Rover always.”
"But not next to your heart,” murmured her host absently. His thoughts had wandered to a curious little notion which had come to him during the silversmith’s lecture on the crooks of the past. It was an odd little idea, and presently he put it out of his mind as ridiculous.
He grinned at the girl.
“I hope you didn’t let old Florian bore you?” he said.
“Bore me? My dear, you know I’m never bored.” Chloe’s eyes were gently reproachful. “Besides, the funny little creature was quite amusing. As it happens, I’m frightfully interested in crime just now.”
“Oh?” Mr. Campion’s eyebrows rose apprehensively.
Chloe’s smile was candid and confiding.
“Albert, my pet,” she said, “I want your advice. I don’t know if I’ve been frightfully clever or terribly childish.”
Her host resisted the impulse to cover his face with his hand.
“Criminal?” he enquired casually.
“Oh, no!” Chloe was amused. “Quite the reverse. I’m just employing a detective, that’s all. It’s really to oblige Gracie. Have you seen Gracie, my maid? She’s a girl with little black eyes. She has Bulgarian blood, or something. She sews exquisitely. I couldn’t lose her. She’s invaluable.”
Her escort blinked.
“Perhaps I’m not quite right in the head,” he remarked affably. “I don’t get the hang of this at all. Is the detective keeping an eye on Gracie to see she doesn’t wander off into the blue?”
“No. dearest.” Chloe was patient. “The detective is engaged to Gracie—for the time being. It won’t last. It never does. She’s so temperamental. It’s her Bulgarian blood. I ’m simply giving him a job so she won’t marry him and start a shop or something frightful. You don’t follow me, do you? I’ll explain it all most carefully because I’d like your advice. I think I’ve been rather bright.”
THE TALL young man in the horn-rimmed spectacles sighed.
“Put the worst in words of one syllable,” he invited. Chloe leaned forward, her expression childlike and deadly serious.
“First of all you must realize about Gracie,” she said earnestly. “If I were cynical I should say that Gracie was the most important person in my life. Without Gracie, my hair, my style, my clothes, my entire personality would simply go to pieces. Do you understand now?”
Mr. Campion thought she looked very charming and he said st>. Chloe looked almost worried.
“Yes, well, there you are,” she said. “I’m not a fool. I give Gracie full credit for everything. I’m simply hopeless alone and I know it. I simply can’t afford to lose her. Unfortunately she’s frightfully susceptible. It’s her middle-European blood. It’s always coming out. She’s had nine serious love affairs in the past two years. Of course I always give her frightfully good advice, and I beg her to hang on until it wears off. So far it always has, although there was a young taxi driver last summer who gave me heart failure for months.”
“Dear me,” said Mr. Campion mildly. “And now she’s in love with a detective?”
“Ah yes. But he wasn’t a detective to begin with.” explained Miss Pleyell, and went on airily: “He was out of work, you see, and Gracie was passionately sorry for him. She gets all worked up on these occasions, urgently maternal and all that.”
“Her Bulgarian blood, no doubt,” put in Mr. Campion soberly.
“Yes. She can’t help it. She wanted to marry Herbert immediately and invest her savings in a shop so that she could settle down and make something of him. What are you thinking, Albert?”
“Thank heaven she can sew.” murmured her escort piously. “When did you turn Herbert into a detective?” “Oh I didn’t do it. It was entirely his idea. You see, when Gracie first told me about him I begged her to wait. A man must have the kind of work he really loves, mustn’t he? Even I know that. I told her that she simply must make Herbert find out what his vocation was and then I’d see he got into it. Then we could both wait and see how it worked.”
She hesitated and smiled brightly across the table.
“And Herbert thought he felt the call to become a ’tec?” Mr. Campion’s lean face split into a smile of pure amusement. “How charming ! What did you do? Bribe a private agency to take him on?”
“No, I didn’t.” Miss Pleyell was wide-eyed. “That would have been an awfully good way of doing it. wouldn’t it? I never thought of that. No, I simply employed him myself at two pounds a week. Gracie usually takes about six weeks to get over a passion, and I thought it would be the most inexpensive way of doing it.”
Her companion looked at her almost affectionately. “You have a sort of flair, my child, haven't you?” he said. “He just loafs around until Gracie’s Bulgarian eye lights on another victim, I suppose?”
Chloe hesitated and evidently decided to make a clean breast.
“Well, no,” she said at last. “Unfortunately he doesn’t. In a way it’s rather awkward. Herbert’s devastatingly conscientious. He will work. He just insists on detecting all over the place. I put him onto mother for the first week, but he found out that her cook was taking bribes from the tradesmen and had the idiocy to want the woman dismissed. Mother was furious, of course, as cooks are so scarce. I had a frightful time with the three of them. Now I’ve been rather clever, I think. I’ve told Herbert to keep an eye on Matthew. Matthew is the complete model of rectitude. He never forgets his dignity for an instant. I think Matthew will exhaust Herbert, don’t you?”
MR. CAMPION took off his spectacles, a sign with him of deep emotion. In his mind’s eye he saw again the pompous young K.C., so correct and conventional that even his mother did not dare to use any diminutive of his Christian name.
“You astound me." he said simply. “You have my undying respect. How did you get Sir Matthew to stand for it?"
Chloe was silent for some time, her glance resting thoughtfully on the middle distance.
“1 didn’t." she said at last. “Herbert is very discreet, so 1 didn’t think it very necessary to mention it to Matthew at all. Do you think that was unwise?"
Mr. Campion’s face grew blank.
“My good girl," he said flatly. “My good insane girl."
Miss Pleyell colored and glanced down at her plate.
“It did just occur to me once or twice that it might not be such a good idea as it looked. That’s why I mentioned it to you." she murmured defensively. “Matthew’s ridiculously stiff in some ways, isn’t he?”
Since he did not trust himself to speak, her host made no comment. She forced a smile.
“Still, he’ll never notice Herbert,” she said. “Herbert’s such an ordinary, nondescript little man. Matthew never notices unimportant people.”
Mr. Campion took himself in hand and when he spoke his voice was almost gentle. For ten minutes Miss Pleyell sat and listened to him, her vivid eyes wide and her cheeks bright.
Campion had a gift for lucidity when he chose to employ it. and his short lecture on the gentle art of blackmail and its perpetrators was clear and to the [mint. He also touched upon the more ethical side of the arrangement, with a direct reference to the dictates of good taste. His feelings carried him away, and he only came to an abrupt pause when Miss PleyelFs small face began to pucker dangerously.
“Oh, how awful!” she said, waving away his belated apology. “I never looked at it like that. It never entered my head that Herbert might be dishonest. I do see it’s dangerous and rather beastly, I do now, but before it never occurred to me. I was simply thinking of not losing Gracie. What shall I do? Anything except tell Matthew. I daren’t do t’hat. I just daren’t. He wouldn’t see it in my way at all and I am terribly fond of him. What shall I do?”
She looked so small and pretty and woebegone that Mr. Campion felt a brute.
“Call the watchdog off,” he said cheerfully. “Go round to Paul Fenner of the Efficiency Detective Bureau and tell him from me to give Herbert a temporary job at your expíense. Then keep quiet. Don’t tell the story to anybody.”
“No, of course I won’t." Miss Pleycll’s relief was charming. “You’re a darling,” she said. “A perfect dear. I’m terribly grateful to you. Albert. You’re so frightfully clever. I'll do exactly what you say and then everything will be all right, won’t it? You don’t think I’m a fool, though, do you? I couldn't bear that.”
Mr. Campion surveyed her with great tolerance.
“I think you’re fantastic, my child.” he said gravely.
HE MADE a different and more forceful remark about her the following morning when her telephone call coincided with his early tea. She was tearfully incoherent at the other end of the wire.
“It's happened.” Her whisper reached him, shaken with tragic intensity. “It’s Herbert. What shall I do?” “Herbert?” Mr. Campion shook the sleep out of his head and strove to collect his thoughts. “Oh yes, Herbert’s the amateur detective. I've got you now. What’s lie done?” "Can I tell you on the phone?”
“Well, 1 hope so.” Mr. Campion raised his eyebrows at the instrument. “What’s he doing? Demanding money?” “Oh nono worse than that. Albert, lie’s found out something about Matthew and he wants to go to the police.”
“Something about Matthew? What about Matthew?" Miss Pleyell gulped. «
“Herbert says he's got proof that Matthew’s a crook.” There was a long silence from Mr. Campion’s end of the wire and his caller repeated the 0|>erative word.
“A c-r double o-k. He wants to go to the police. Can you hear me? What shall I do?”
Campion held the receiver an inch or so from his ear. “Yes. I can hear.” he said dryly. “My voice had left me, that was all. Well, my dear young friend, your course* is clear. Tell Master Herbert to go to the police and make his accusation by all means. When he changes his tone and you get down to the vital question of the fiver he has in mind, threaten to send for the police. In fact, do send for them if he doesn’t go quietly, but I don’t think you’ll have any difficulty.”
“Oh, I see.” Chloe sounded partially convinced. ‘Then you think Herbert’s simply lying about Matthew being a mysterious thief and all that? He’s very convincing. Are you there, Albert? Listen, you don’t think it’s true? What’s the matter with your voice? Why does it keep going like this?”
“It’s a form of nervous paralysis,” explained Mr. Campion gently and rang off.
While he was dressing he thought of Chloe and shook his head over her. She was beautiful and she was charming and at heart a dear, he reflected, but unfortunately hardly safe out. He hoped most devoutly for her sake that the
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dignified Sir Matthew would never hear of Gracie’s Herbert.
A morning at the Leicester Galleries and a protracted luncheon at the Junior Greys kept him away from the Piccadilly flat until halfway through the afternoon. He let himself in with his key, and was walking down the corridor to his study when an unexpected vision on the floor of his sitting room caught his eye through the half-open doorway. He paused and stared at it.
1YING ON the carpet was a battered J portmanteau, while round it, spread out in dazzling array, was as choice a collection of unfamiliar silver as ever he had seen. Blinking a little, he pushed open the door and glanced round. A sturdy, respectable figure with a round face and a permanently injured expression rose stiffly from an upright chair.
Campion surveyed the man in astonishment. He was a perfect stranger and was neatly dressed in nondescript tweeds.
“Mr. Campion?” he demanded in a brisk, high-pitched voice so often possessed by men of his figure. “Your man said I could wait ’ere for you.”
“Oh yes, quite.” Campion’s gaze wandered back to the array upon the floor. “You’ve brought your—luggage, I see.” “My name’s Boot,” said the visitor, ignoring the remark. “Miss Pleyell said I was to see you before I went to the police. Come what might, I was to see you first. That’s what she said.”
A great light dawned slowly upon Mr. Campion.
“You’re not Herbert, by any chance?” he enquired.
Mr. Boot blushed.
“My young lady calls me Herbert.” he admitted grudgingly. “I’m a private
enquiry agent in the employ of Miss Chloe Pleyell. She said she’d mentioned me to you. Is that right?”
“Oh yes. Yes, she did. She did indeed. Won’t you sit down?”
Mr. Campion’s pale eyes were narrowed behind his spectacles. Gracie’s young man was not at all the type he had expected.
“I’d rather stand if you don’t mind,” said Herbert without impoliteness. “Time’s short. I’ve been here since noon. Notice anything about this lot?”
Mr. Campion ran a thoughtful eye over the glistening treasure trove at his feet. One item in particular caught his special attention. It was a large Georgian sugar sifter lined with blue glass and decorated with a design of hand-pierced ivy leaves. The centre of one leaf was exquisitely engraved with the tiny likeness of a cupid in a boat.
“Dear me,” said Mr. Campion.
“Seen the police lists lately, sir?” Herbert enquired, his aggrieved expression deepening. “I have. Do you know what this collection represents? It’s the proceeds of a robbery committed on the night of the fifteenth at a house in Manchester Square. Hewes-Bellewe was the family’s name. In the papers the police were said to be looking for a person they’re pleased to call the Question Mark. Now you see, sir, whatever you or Miss Pleyell may say, I must go to the police with this stuff. I must. It’s my duty and in a way my privilege. I owe it to myself. I’ve found it. I’ve got to report it. I know there’s a dangerous criminal masquerading as a gentleman of title, and although I’m very sorry for Miss Pleyell I’m in a cleft stick. I’ve got to do my duty.”
Mr. Campion felt a little giddy.
“Look here, Herbert,” he said at last, “let me get this clear. You’re not thinking
of accusing Sir Matthew Pearing of being the Question Mark, are you?”
Herbert’s bright brown eyes became belligerent.
"I’m telling the police all I know,” he said. “Since he done it he ought to be made to pay for it, lord though he may be.” “Baronet,” corrected Mr. Campion absently, his mind grappling with the absurdities of the situation. “Before we go along to the Yard I think you’d better tell me the full story.”
“Would that be Scotland Yard, sir?” Mr. Boot’s tone was suddenly respectful. ‘T’ve always wanted to go there and see the big shots,” he added naively. “I was afraid I’d have to take these along to a common police station and let some jackin-office of a local inspector take most of the credit.”
“Oh, I’ll take you to Scotland Yard all right,” said Mr. Campion, feeling a little foolish. “We’ll go and have tea with the superintendent, if you like. Where did you get all this incriminating property?”
Mr. Boot smiled. The mention of the name Scotland Yard seemed to have thawed him into childlike affability. He sat down.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “Out of the cloakroom at Charing Cross. Fancy that.” “Fancy indeed,” echoed Campion. “Where did you get the ticket?”
“Ah ...” Herbert raised his head. “Where do you think? Out of one of his lordship’s own blessed suits, and that’s a fact. I’ve got witnesses.”
IT SEEMED to Mr. Campion that ever since he had met Chloe on the previous afternoon the very flavor of life had been touched with the fantastic, a circumstance he had attributed entirely to the influence of her personality, but this was a frank absurdity and he began to doubt his ears. Herbert beamed at his perplexity.
“I’ll tell you the story,” he said. “I can see you’re a bit took back and I don’t blame you. I was myself when I first opened this case. I was put on to Sir Matthew Pearing by Miss Pleyell, who got to know of me through my young lady. Just keep an eye on Sir Matthew, she said. Naturally I asked her in what way, and she said she didn’t know but she thought there was something definitely mysterious about him. Those were her very words, sir; ‘definitely mysterious.’ ”
Campion groaned silently and Herbert continued.
“Well, I kept an eye on the gentleman,” he said, folding his hands on his waistcoat. “And what did I find? Nothing at all for a long time. That Sir Matthew’s a sly bird. For weeks he went on living a most regular life with his servants as solemn as he was. And then—chance took a ’and.”
He nodded complacently.
“Then I got a bit o’ luck. There’s a Mr. Tuke who is ’is lordship’s valet. I ingratiated myself with ’im. He’s one of these lazy overpaid gent’s gents, and I found out he 'ad the sauce to send ’is master’s suits down to the quick cleaners to save ’isself the trouble of doing the pressing. ’E paid for them out of ’is own money, I daresay, but it wasn’t right. I said nothing of course, and as it happened that little trick of Master Tuke’s was lucky for me. This morning I was in the kitchen -I often go round there early—and Mr. Tuke asked me if I'd do him a favor by slipping down to the cleaners and collecting a dinner jacket outfit he’d left there last night. I went, and when the girl gave me the parcel she handed over a little black wallet that had been left in the pocket. I examined it in accordance with my duties, and inside I found two penny stamps and a cloakroom ticket.”
“You hung on to the wallet?”
“I did.” Herbert spoke firmly. “I examined it in front of the girl. I’m very careful. You have to be in this business. I made her make a note of the case, the stamps and the number of the ticket. Then I came away. I gave the suit to Mr. Tuke, who identified it, mind you, but I kept the wallet and I went down to Charing
Cross. I gave up the ticket at the cloakroom. I got this suitcase in return and I opened it before the attendant. ‘Now, my lad,’ I said to him when I see what was inside, ‘I’m a detective. Take a good look at me. Here’s my card,’ I said. ‘Take a look at this stuff,’ I said. ‘I’ll need you as a witness.’ After that I gave ’im a signed receipt for the case and kept the cloakroom ticket. I took a copy of the receipt and I mentioned the number of the cloakroom ticket on each slip of paper.”
“Did you, though?’«’ said Mr. Campion, whose respect for Herbert’s perspicacity was slowly mounting. “Then you went to Miss Pleyell and she sent you on to me, I suppose?”
“Exactly,”’ his visitor agreed. “And now, if you please, sir, I’d like to go to Scotland Yard.”
Mr. Campion glanced at the silver at his feet.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes. Quite. I think you’d better. I’ll come with you.”
A LITTLE over an hour later, Superintendent Stanislaus Oates sat behind his desk in his private office at the headquarters of the Central Branch and stared at his friend Mr. Albert Campion, a slightly bewildered expression in his bright blue eyes.
Herbert had retold his story once and was now obligingly doing so again to a sergeant in another room, while a constable wrote it all down. The two friends were alone.
“It’s idiotic,” said Oates suddenly. “We’ll check up on Boot’s story, of course, and it may be false, yet I’m open to bet it’s the truth. I know that type. We’ve got plenty of ’em in the Force. What an extraordinary thing!”
Campion lit a cigarette and his eyes were thoughtful.
“Oh, our Herbert is honest,” he said. “Herbert’s as honest as the day. You’re sure you can identify the stuff?”
“Certain.” Oates glanced toward the battered suitcase on the table in the corner. “There’s no doubt of that. You heard what Inspector Baker said. He’s working on the case. He’s seen photographs and studied descriptions. Besides, my dear chap, it’s all there. That’s the proceeds of the Question Mark’s Manchester Square haul all right; no doubt about it. We’ll check up on the cloakroom attendant and the girl at the cleaners', and if these are okay we’ll have to interview Sir Matthew. There’s no other way out. We must find out where that ticket came from. He’ll be able to give us an explanation all right, but we must have it.”
Campion thrust his hands into his pockets and his lean face was troubled.
“That’s going to be infernally awkward, isn’t it?” he ventured. “You’ll have to drag in Herbert to protect yourselves and he’ll have to mention Miss Pleyell to protect himself.”
Oates, one of the kindest and most sympathetic of men, spread out his stubby fingers in a gesture of regret.
“He’s a lawyer,” he said. “Her name will come out in the end. You can’t suppress it. She’s asked for it, you know.”
Campion nodded. “Still, it seems a pity she should get it,” he said and grimaced. “Sir Matthew’s obviously not the Question Mark himself and it’s a pity to drag him into it. He’ll never forgive her. He’s not that type.”
The superintendent did not smile.
“I know, I know, my lad,” he said. “You needn’t tell me. I’d like to do all I could for the girl. Indirectly she’s put us on to a very important thing. But what other course is open to me? I ask you.”
The tall young man in the horn-rimmed spectacles was silent for some moments. The vague idea which had come to him on the previous afternoon when Mr. Florian had been talking to Chloe, and which had been knocking at intervals on the door of his mind ever since, suddenly presented itself as a concrete thing. He looked up.
“What was the number of the ticket for the suit?” he demanded.
“The cloakroom ticket?”
"No, that was for the suitcase. What was the number of the cleaner’s ticket that Tuke gave Herbert when he sent him down to claim Sir Matthew’s dinner jacket?” Oates regarded him silently.
“Wait a minute,” he said at last. “I’ve got it here. Boot got it from the girl and gave her a receipt instead. He’s a cautious lad, is Herbert. I rather like him. Here you are—one hundred and sixty-one.”
He pushed over a small square of magenta paper on which the figures were roughly printed beneath a single line of very small type announcing the Birch Road Quick Cleaning Co’y. Campion folded the heading over carefully and turned the slip round before he gave it back.
“How about that, if a girl was in a hurry?” he enquired.
The superintendent’s heavy eyebrows rose as he stared at it.
“That’s an idea,” he said cautiously. “A genuine idea. You get ’em, don’t you?” Campion leaned over the desk.
“Come down yourself to the cleaners’ with me now and bring the wallet,” he said. “I’ve got an idea.”
“I think so. It’s a notion which has been fidgeting me all day. There’s just a chance I may be on to the man you want. Those two descriptions of the Question Mark which you had, one from a postman in the Clarges Street show and one from the nurse in the earlier business, both agreed that he was a stooping, sinister figure, didn’t they?”
“Yes, but the other woman who saw him running said he straightened up when he was on the move,” Oates objected.
“Ah, but she saw him from above,” said Mr. Campion. “Will you come down to the cleaners’ with me?”
The superintendent rose, grumbling. “I don’t mind you working yourself to death for your friends,” he said, “but I resent it when I’m expected to do the same. She’s pretty, this Miss Pleyell, I suppose?”
Oates sighed. “That’s a comfort,” he said. “If she was only crackers, I should loathe this. Come on, we’ll take Herbert and a sergeant. I hope you have got something up your sleeve.”
“So do I," murmured Mr. Campion fervently. “I should hate to have to take back that epergne.”
'T'HE Birch Road Quick Cleaning Company’s establishment was not a large affair. It was situated in a back street some way behind the magnificent block in which Sir Matthew Pearing had his super-flat, Herbert and the sergeant remained in the taxicab some little distance down the road, while Campion and the superintendent interviewed the harassed but by no means unintelligent young woman in charge.
She left the steaming press in the window and listened carefully to their questions.
She remembered Herbert perfectly, which was not unnatural since he had taken so much care that she should, and readily produced his receipt for the suit and the wallet. Moreover, she remembered Mr. Tuke, who was a regular customer, bringing in the dinner jacket on the previous evening. She also identified her own official ticket.
“One hundred and sixty-one,” she said. “I remember it.”
Campion turned the magenta slip round.
“How about one hundred and ninetyone? It’s an easy slip if you look at it quickly,” he suggested.
She glanced up at him with shrewd cockney eyes.
“It could ’ave ’appened,” she admitted. “But it didn’t. I remember the suit. See? The suit I give the gentleman who gave me the receipt was the suit I took from Mr. Tuke.”
“Very likely, miss.” Oates beamed upon
her in his most avuncular fashion. “But that’s not the point. It’s the wallet we’re interested in. What happens when something is left in the pocket of a coat which comes in to be cleaned?”
The girl’s face cleared.
‘That’s about it,” she said suddenly. “Just a minute.”
As she crossed the shop to the inner room, Oates glanced at Campion.
“She’s sharp,” he said. “We’re lucky.”
“George,” shouted the girl, “come here, will you?”
A tall thin man, clad in bedraggled trousers and a singlet, came out of the steam chamber, wiping his face and arms with a towel.
“This is my brother George,” the girl explained. “He does the suits. He’d know what you want.”
George stared at the black wallet which the superintendent showed him for some little time before he committed himself.
“That’s right,” he said at last. “I found it in an inside pocket in a waistcoat. It was very nearly empty when I saw it—a couple of stamps and a ticket.”
“That’s right. It’s of no value. But what did you do with it?”
“Put it in here, like I always do when I come across things.”
George pulled open a drawer in the cash desk, where several odds and ends were stacked neatly, each with a slip of paper attached.
“See?” he said. “I lay the article in here and I write the number of the suit I took it from on a bit of paper and lay it on top of the thing. When Sis gives the clothes back, she just matches the numbers and returns the property.”
Campion sighed with relief.
"Then it would have been possible to mistake the number one-six-one for onenine-one, for instance?”
GEORGE hesitated. “It might,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing, if it’s any help to you. I took that wallet from the inside waistcoat pocket of a brown tweed suit. I remember it distinctly—a brown tweed suit. What the number was I can’t say.”
The girl pounced on the ledger and ran her finger down a column of hieroglyphics.
“You’re right,” she said, grinning at Campion. “That’s how it happened. I took George’s writing the wrong way up. One-nine-one was a brown tweed suit. The fellow came in for it half an hour ago.”
A muffled exclamation escaped the superintendent, but Campion interrupted him.
“Just a minute,” he said. “Was he by any chance a very tall, well-set-up man, about fifty-five to sixty? Grey hair, perhaps. ”
“Yes, he was.” The girl seemed surprised. “I didn’t see his hair because he had a hat on, but he wasn’t young. I noticed him particularly, being so tall. He was a bit hasty too. He said his landlady had taken the suit to be cleaned without his knowing—seemed quite shirty about it.
I told him she only meant to be kind. He didn’t ask about the wallet.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” said Campion. “He wouldn’t want to call your attention to it.” “He’ll come back,” put in Oates suddenly. “When he gets that parcel undone and finds he’s lost the wallet he’ll come back, if he doesn’t see us first. We must clear out. Now look here, my dear, here’s the wallet. It’s got two stamps and a ticket in it. When he comes, give it to him, and whatever you do, don’t act in any way that may make him suspicious. Can I rely on you?”
She nodded and stretched out a firm, capable hand for the black folder.
The superintendent hurried his friend from the shop and the waiting sergeant received his instructions.
“Right you are, sir,” he said, touching his felt hat. “I’ll lay for him and I’ll tail him. He won’t get away from me.”
Oates nodded and thrust Campion into the cab. »
“The Yard first to get the stuff and then Charing Cross,” he said briefly. “Is that
how you were figuring it .out, Campion?” The younger man leaned back in the cab. “Perfect,” he said contentedly. “There’s nothing like a fair cop.”
Herbert, who had watched the proceedings with his little ferret’s eyes glistening with excitement, ventured a question.
“Are we going to see Sir Matthew now, sir?”
Campion glanced at Oates.
“No,” he said. “Sorry to disappoint you, Herbert, but no. For the time being, the aristocracy is out of it. But we’re going to meet a celebrity, I fancy, and when we see him we’re going to take his fingerprints.”
The superintendent regarded his friend with eyes that were bright and suspicious.
“I want a word or two with you, my lad,” he said. “What do you know about this chap we’re after? When did you see him?”
“I haven’t,” said Mr. Campion.
“What about that description you gave the girl?”
The younger man grinned.
“That was rather good, wasn’t it?” he agreed. “I made that up.”
Oates opened his mouth to speak, but caught sight of Herbert’s fascinated gaze and thought better of it.
“Wait till I get you on your own,” he murmured darkly, and rapped on the window to urge the driver to hurry.
THE NEXT fifteen minutes did not give anybody much opportunity for conversation. The cab paused for a moment at the Yard to take on board two plain-clothes men and the bag of silver, and afterward swung round to speed back to Charing Cross station.
“If I know the type we shan’t have long to wait,” said Oates as he and Campion took up their positions in a convenient doorway, which afforded them a good view of the cloakroom window. “As soon as he gets his hands on that ticket he’ll beetle down here and make sure that the stuff is safe. I’m trusting that girl.”
Campion glanced casually across the station to where two inconspicuous plainclothes figures were lounging by the bookstall.
“The clerk’s giving them the sign, is he?”
Oates nodded. “Yes, they understand one another. He’s a good man, that clerk. The way he corroborated Herbert Boot’s story was intelligent and convincing. He realized the necessity for haste, too. A fool in that position might have held us up for hours. My fellows have got to rely on him. They haven’t the least idea who they’re waiting for, see?”
“I don’t think they’ll miss him,” he murmured. “He’s a distinctive sort of chap, you know.”
Oates swung round on him.
“Blast it, Campion, what do you know about this business?” he demanded. “Nothing that I haven’t told you.” “But this tale about the tall elderly man, where did you get it from? What are you playing at?”
“Wait.” Campion laid a restraining hand on his friend’s arm and nodded toward a figure which had come striding in through the crowd. The man was striking and even distinguished. Well over six feet four, he was very erect, with a clean-shaven, sharp-featured face which must in youth have been remarkably handsome. •
Oates stiffened, a startled expression creeping into his eyes.
“Recognize him?” murmured Campion. “Yes, I think so.” The superintendent’s voice was wondering, and he stepped forward at the same moment as the two Yard men darted out into the open and closed in on either side of the stranger as he took the heavy, battered suitcase from the cloakroom counter. There was only a very brief struggle.
The tall man glanced shrewdly at his adversaries.
“I guess I’m too old for a scrap, boys,”
be said. ‘TU corne quietly. It’s all there in the bag—oh, you know that, do you?”
AS MR. CAMPION and the superman. tendent drove quietly back to the I Yard together, Oates was still thoughtful. “It must be nearly thirty years ago," he said at last. “I was a sergeant at the Thames Court Police Station, I remember, and we had that fellow in the cells there for a couple of days. I can’t think of his name, but as soon as I set eyes on Ihm this afternoon I recognized him. He looks much older, of course, but you can’t mistake that height or that face. We’ll get his prints when we get back and identify him. What was his name now'?’’
Mr. Campion hesitated.
“Does The Shiner convey anything to you?” he said diffidently.
“The Shiner! That’s it. The Shiner!” The superintendent’s voice rose with excitement. “By George, it’s the same lark too. Old silver shipped to a fence in Amsterdam. That’s him. Good heavens, Campion, how did you know?”
The younger man looked pleased.
“Oh, it occurred to me. you know,” he said modestly. “I w'as in old Florian’s shop yesterday, talking about these burglaries, and he got reminiscing about crooks who had specialized in old silver in the past. He mentioned this chap, The Shiner, and said he hadn’t been heard of since he came out of jail, which made me think he[d probably gone abroad. Florian also said that The Shiner used to do his early burglaries in full Guardsman’s uniform.” “That’s right," said Oates. “So he did. Amazing vanity these fellows have. A Guardsman before the War was a picturesque figure and there were a lot of them about in London.”
Campion ignored the interruption. "The fancy dress appealed to me,” he said, “and I was thinking about it, and also about your mysterious Question Mark, when the astonishing points of similarity between the twro occurred to me. I didn’t see how it worked out. of course, until I’d heard Herbert’s contribution and put things together a bit.”
Oates shook his head.
“I’ll buy it.” he said. “I don’t see any similarity between the Question Mark and
The Shiner. One was a bent, sinister figure straightening up to run, and the other made himself conspicuous in a red tunic. They both pinched silver, I know, but if you can see any other likeness between the two you’re a cleverer man than I am, or off your head.”
“It’s imagination you lack, guv’nor ” Mr. Campion regarded his friend regretfully. “Think of the fellow. See him in your mind’s eye. What is his one inescapable and most damning characteristic? His height. There’s six foot four of the wretched chap. Think of it ! What was he todo?”
“Good lord!” The superintendent sat up. "You’re right,” he said slow'ly. “Of course. It didn’t occur to me at once. The uniform disguised him when he was young, it didn’t make him conspicuous. Everyone expected to see a tall soldier in a scarlet tunic. A shorter man would have looked peculiar. When he came back and started up again, he had to think of something else, I suppose, so he counterfeited a stoop for the actual job, only straightening up when he made a dash for it. Wait a minute, though; he was seen running. The witness didn’t mention his height.”
“Because she didn’t see it,” Campion protested. “She only saw him from above. It was that that strengthened my first suspicion. By the way, there’ll be no need to interview Sir Matthew now, I take it?” “No, it’s a fair cop.” Oates spoke with satisfaction. “We caught him with the stuff. That’s good enough. You’re saved again, Campion, or your girl friend is. Give her my regards and tell her she doesn’t know how lucky she is to have a lucky pal.”
Mr. Campion opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it. In his experience it was far more comfortable to be considered lucky than clever by any policeman. He was silent for some time and sat looking out of the window, a faint smile playing round his lips.
The superintendent glanced at him. “What are you thinking of now?” he enquired suspiciously.
“I was wondering,” said Mr. Campion truthfully, “I was just wondering who young Gracie is going to get engaged to next.”,