THE CRIMSON QUERY
How the Squid Got Besuckered
DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR LEE NORTON was in the act of fattening the straps of his travelling-trunk when there came a tap on the cabin door.
“A Marconigram, sir,” announced the steward who answered.
“For me?” There was a note of surprise in Lee’s voice. The liner had already passed through the Solent and was now steaming slowly up Southampton Water on her way to the docks which lay but a few miles ahead. “Rather late for a wireless, isn’t it? In a few minutes the voyage will be over.”
“I suppose whoever sent it didn’t know we were so near berthing, sir,” the man answered. “We’re hours overdue on account of that fog we ran into last night, and for all the sender knew we might be still down-Channel. It was the last message that ‘Sparks’ got before he closed down. I knew it would be urgent, so brought it straight along.”
“Thanks,” said Lee, and slipped a coin into the man’s expectant palm.
Left alone, Lee Norton opened the envelope. As he did so he noted, with that subconscious sense of perception which his profession had engendered in him, that the gum of the flap was still moist.To the ordinary reader the message would have appeared like the alphabet in a state of anarchy and chaos:
To one as familiar with the official code as Lee Norton, however, its meaning was plain enough. His features twisted into an expression of humorous resignation as he read it through.
“Ah, well, I suppose there is no rest for those who have the Eye-that-never-sleeps,” he muttered with a laughing shrug. “ ‘Proceed Westdown immediately. Instructions local police-station. Lambert.’ Well, the chief might have given me at least a pat on the back and a few days’ leave after my having landed that shoal of deep-sea confidence-sharks so neatly.” Then his face brightened. “But I suppose I ought to feel bucked. It must be a case of some importance for the very unlamblike Lambert to summon me from the vasty deep to undertake it. I wonder where Westdown is, anyway? Must be somewhere near Southampton, or I shouldn’t have been ordered to proceed direct.”
A perusal of the Railway Guide in the smoking-lounge brought to light the pleasing fact that his destination was but a twenty-eight minutes’ journey from Southampton, and the depressing fact that he would have a three-hour wait before he could get a connection. By the time he had digested these pieces of information, the snorting of the winches on deck told him that the boat was being warped alongside the landing-stage. So, consoling himself with the reflection that there was no need to hurry ashore, he lit his pipe and stepped out on deck.
“And why so sad and thoughtful, Mr. Norton?” said a laughing voice behind him. “Did your wireless message tell you that all the poor crooks, whom you delight so much in hunting, have gone on holiday, or that a close season has come into force?”
Lee turned, and his grey eyes lit up as they encountered the mischievous blue ones of the girl who had addressed the bantering inquiry.
“No, Miss Chalmers,” he answered, and there was a rather grim note underlying his jesting tone. “Contrary to the general idea, crooks are most hard-working people. Their only holidays are the ones they take at the Government’s expense and their only close season is when they’re in close confinement.”
“Really?” Beryl Chalmers was the kind of girl who looks most bewitching when she laughs, and now she seemed positively bubbling with merriment. “I suppose you keep each other busy—a kind of mutual give-and-take arrangement.”
The smile which twitched the corners of his mouth was one of pity rather than of self-satisfaction as he made answer:
“Yes, poor devils! They give themselves away and we take them in charge. The average crook is a most unimaginative and incompetent person.”
“I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been disappointed with them up to now,” she returned lightly; “but I suppose it would not be proper for me, as a law-abiding citizeness, to wish you better luck in future. But, seriously, I hope you have not received bad news.”
“But I have—the worst possible.” His twinkling eyes belied his tragic tone. “I’ve just been ordered to a place called—let me see . . .” He made a dramatic pause while he searched for the Marconigram and consulted it. “It’s a place so unspeakable that it’s literally unpronounceable, and I shall have to spell it. It’s called Z-H-V-W-G-R-Z-Q!”
She gave an exaggerated shudder.
“How frightful! A place with a name like that must be too bad even to talk about! Where is it—Russia?”
“It certainly has a Moscovitish sound,” he answered with a smile.
“I’m sorry that you have to leave England again so soon, Mr. Norton.”
On the face of it, it was an ordinary enough remark; but something in her voice as she said the words caused Lee to glance sharply up with a sudden catch of his breath. Was it only his conceited fancy, or was there really a note of lingering regret in her tone? They had met five days since, as fellow members of the inevitable “entertainment committee” which seems to spring into being on even the briefest sea-voyage, and till now their conversation had been limited to the usual commonplaces of shipboard life: the weather, the ship’s daily run, and so on. But Lee had felt himself irresistibly drawn towards this lighthearted, butterfly-like creature who had chanced to flutter across his path. But his longings had not materialized into the vaguest of hopes. It did not need a detective’s acumen to tell him that Beryl Chalmers belonged to an entirely different world from his own. True, there had been a time when they might have met on a more equal footing; for he had been an Oxford undergraduate with an allowance which far exceeded his present salary when the crash came which changed his father’s valuable Russian oil-shares into so much waste paper; but Lee Norton was not one to let past might-have-beens influence his present conduct. But now—if she cared ever such a little . . .
He turned towards her again and felt his heart thumping curiously as he noted her flushed face and the eyes which seemed dim with wistful regret.
“It’s good of you to say you are sorry, Miss Chalmers,” he began, “but I am really not deserving of your sympathy on that point. You see . . .”
“Any more for the shore?” bawled a voice from the gangway. “Hurry along, please, or the boat-train’ll be gone before you’ve passed the Customs.”
Looking up, Lee saw that, save for the impatient quartermaster, the deck was deserted.
“Are you going to London?” he asked; but she shook her head.
“My car is waiting,” she returned. “Poor Captain St. Quentin will think I am never coming.”
She turned and passed quickly down the gangway. Lee, snatching up his bag, hastily followed.
“Anything to declare, sir?” asked the Customs officer as he passed through the shed on the dockside.
The excited young man had a whole lot to declare—but not to him.
“Yes—no—that is, of course not,” he answered absently as, his eyes and thoughts still on the girl ahead, he made to pass through the barrier. To the lynx-eyed official, however, his agitation seemed the very embodiment of conscious guilt.
“I should like to have a look inside that bag, sir, if I—you don’t mind,” he said politely but firmly. “Kindly step this way.”
Under other circumstances Lee’s professional admiration might have been excited at the thoroughness of the search to which his belongings were subjected, but now every second of delay was torture. It seemed ages to him before the man handed him back his bag with the intimation that he was free to go. Dashing out of the shed, he saw that his worst fears were realized. The only sign of Beryl Chalmers was the tail-end of her car disappearing in the direction of the dock gates.
“And that’s that!” he said with a wry smile. “And I didn’t even see the number of the car. What rotten luck to welcome me back to the Old Country!”
He started to follow, only to be arrested by the sound of his own name being shouted behind him. Turning, he saw the Customs officer running towards him with an envelope in his hand.
“Is your name Lee Norton?” the man asked.
“That’s me,” said Lee, his surprise for the moment getting the better of his grammar.
“Then this letter must have fallen out of your bag. I found it on the floor near the barrier.”
With a word of thanks, Lee took the envelope and broke the seal. Inside was a sheet of paper bearing a few roughly printed words:
Why go to Westdown and lose your life—why not sham ill and quit while you are safe?
Underneath, by way of signature, or to give emphasis to the grim warning, a large note of interrogation had been drawn in red ink.
Lee frowned thoughtfully as he folded the paper and placed it carefully in his pocketbook.
“It seems as if there were people on board that ship who know a good deal more than is good for them—or me!” he muttered grimly.