DOPE AND SWASTIKAS
Peter Partridge, alias The Squirrel (pronounced Squirl in the States, where he served a long apprenticeship), ran a well-manicured forefinger down a page headed “Erethism—Escape,” paused at “Erf—a garden-plot in South Africa,” chuckled and filled in three vacant squares on the sheet before him.
It has always been Peter Partridge’s ambition to produce an insoluble crossword puzzle.
“Come in, Buddy,” he called, and pushed the dictionary aside with something like a deep sigh.
The masterpiece on the table before him now read:
H R E
E F O
With certain reservations Mr. Partridge was quite pleased with it. At least a dozen false starts had already been consigned to the waste-paper basket. In a flatter receptacle, labelled “Outgoing-Mail,” on the generous expanse of knee-hole desk, three other attempts awaited the critical scrutiny of the mastermind that had ferreted out “Rhabdomesodon” and “Erf.”
Outside the ground-glass door inscribed:
Mr. PETER PARTRIDGE,
the shadow still hovered, stooping, vaguely discernible against the bright light of a corridor window.
“Come in!” shouted The Squirrel a trifle irritably, and crossed an office furnished with unnecessary luxury to straighten his bow-tie before the glass over the fireplace.
The portrait that met his gaze was that of a shortish, stoutish man in the late forties, with a high dome of forehead surmounted by some lonely wisps of dark hair, a thin nose, a mouth rather like a rat’s, and curiously narrow, pointed ears. It was a moot point whether his alias had derived from mere facial peculiarities, or from his habit of saving things up, rodent-like, for such time as he would need them.
The door-handle rattled furtively.
“Dammit!” murmured Mr. Partridge. “I must have locked it.”
Rectifying the oversight, he allowed to slide over a polished linoleum surround on to the Chinese carpet a lean, snuffling scarecrow of a man, clutching the greasy brim of a greenish bowler.
The key turned again.
“Sit down, Buddy,” invited Partridge, kicking forward a chair which on rare occasions supported blushing aspirants for a music-hall career. “You look het-up. What’s the excitement?”
“Lorenzo!” gulped the newcomer. He clawed at a ragged, unshaven chin and appeared to be gasping for breath. “Been ’anging around the You-Know-Where ’alf the night . . . ’Azey Courtney gave me the wire. . . . Not ’alf ’e didn’t . . . Pres’n’y Frosty Sayers and two more come in and starts to chin-wag, quiet-like. I plays one-over-the-eight in a corner, knowin’ what was comin’ to me if they twigged.”
The scarecrow grabbed at one of Partridge’s arms and hugged it.
“Boss, you got to beat it. That Portuguese is going to frame you for giving the Yard the low-down over that snow-racket—”
“Put me on the spot, eh?” smiled Peter Partridge, opening a concealed cocktail-bar at the gentle press of a button, and selecting a tall bottle with a label garnished with stars. “Lorenzo’ll have to get up mighty early!”
His unsavoury visitor followed him across the floor, accepted the tumbler Partridge held out, and tossed its contents down a throat as inured to neat spirit as the average sword-swallower’s to cold steel.
“You don’t get me,” he complained, regarding the uncorked bottle thirstily. “Some other guy’s for the ’igh-jump; not you. Frosty never let it out who it was. ’E’s to be found by them telephone-boxes under the arches—Charing Cross, at abart one termorrer morning—and it’s going ter look like your job, ’and-writing and all! Some’ow or other, the Yard’s goin’ to ’ear about it, private-like. Mark my words. Boss, you’ll ’ave Mister Detective-Inspector James Treat at the office, waiting for you in the morning. If you’re ’ere to meet ’im—”
“Which I most certainly shall be, Fergy Couzens,” interrupted Partridge, still smiling. “You don’t, by any chance, happen to know of a word of five letters, beginning with—No, of course, you wouldn’t.”
“Clink!” suggested Mr. Couzens, holding out his glass. “Noose is a good ’un, and that’s what—”
“Never knew you had a vocabulary.” Peter Partridge poured steadily and without stint. “So Lorenzo da Costa, the great financier, friend of ministers and princes, is about to touch the magic button destined to consign the Squirrel to oblivion! And what do they suppose I’ll be doing?”
“Ask me another!” responded Couzens promptly though hollowly, because he was still drinking and his lips were screened by his glass.
Partridge allowed the bar to slip back into the wall.
“Treat has no reason to suppose I’m a killer,” he said. “There are some points, I admit, upon which we may not see eye-to-eye; but a killer. Couzens —Definitely no.”
“Well, I’ve warned yer,” the scarecrow reminded him, wiping his mouth on the back of his grimy hand; “and you can’t say I ’aven’t. ’Ow about the dough, Boss?”
“Dough!” reiterated Partridge, and shuddered. “All the best people say ‘the beans,’ Fergy.” Pulling open a small drawer, he removed an automatic delicately, so as to give easy access to a japanned cash-box with a patent lock. “How would you prefer it, Mr. Couzens? All notes—or some silver?”
Fergy Couzens blinked.
“It all depends—” he began, and broke off suddenly, startled at the event of his patron’s generosity.
“A tenner’s my price,” announced Partridge. “I’m giving you seven ones, five halves and ten bob in silver. You’d better check it.” He passed Couzens and unlocked the door.
“Thanks, Boss,” stammered his visitor. “I—I wasn’t expecting all that.” Peter Partridge fingered his chin thoughtfully.
“It is a lot,” he mused aloud, opening the office door a few inches. “Come to think of it, it’s a helluva lot. On second thoughts—”
But Fergy Couzens, who put no faith in second thoughts, had wriggled through like an eel, and was gone.
The Squirrel leaned against the panel, laughing his curious little piping laugh and dabbing a moist forehead at intervals. Here again the aptness of his nom-de-plume was manifest. There was something only half-human about that laugh: it might indeed have been the disturbed chittering of a brown-eyed rodent, heard through a screen of leaves—and it might not have been humour at all. To carry the resemblance further, Fergy Couzens could have been a friendly rat, dropping in on a neighbour’s hiding-place.
“Squirrel,” he could have piped: “That dirty stoat’s after your blood again. I just thought you ought to know.” And the recipient of the tidings, appreciating the full value of the information, could have compensated his visitor with a generous proportion of his store of nuts.
Partridge rinsed Fergy’s tumbler at the tap of a concealed wash-basin, dried it on a towel and returned it to its original recess. His glance fell on the automatic, reposing where he had put it, midway between the basket marked “Outgoing Mail” and a blotting-pad scrawled all over with crossword suggestions.
The automatic, dark and conveniently portable, slipped slowly into a jacket pocket.
“A frame-up!” said Peter Partridge to himself. “That’s torn it, my friend! Lorenzo da Costa, this time you’ve overstepped the mark. You’re for it!” Sitting once more in the swing-chair, Peter Partridge wrote “SKUNK” to the right and parallel with “ERF,” and rubbed it out regretfully, fully aware that the dictionary contained no word commencing with “RK.”
Mr. Partridge had his code. A man had to live; although, in the over-fed Lorenzo’s case, he doubted if even this was necessary. Lorenzo and his associates turned over huge sums of money in this “snow-racket”; but that was not all. During the cocktail-orgies at Lorenzo’s luxury flat in Park Lane and his secluded country-house near Guildford, quite nice women whom Partridge had known and liked had become incurable drug-addicts.
The Squirrel resented this, as he resented any attempt to prey on the helpless. Incidentally, he hated Lorenzo da Costa more than any man he had ever known. He admitted himself to be a crook, but not a dirty crook; a fence hiding his real calling behind a vaudeville agency; a man whose moral code did not insist on marriage, but compelled him to be faithful to one woman at a time. For months past he had been putting spokes in Lorenzo’s wheel, doing everything, in fact, short of putting Scotland Yard directly on da Costa’s trail.
It was not surprising, in the circumstances, that the Portuguese had reverted to American methods and determined to put Peter Partridge on the spot.
There was an electric bell-push under the Chinese carpet, especially designed so that Partridge’s patent-leather shoe could find it conveniently and unnoticed: incidentally, it operated a soft buzzer over Haidee Shustari’s typewriter in the adjoining room—one buzz signifying Peter required the presence of Haidee and her notebook; two that she needn’t bring her notebook, and three that it was incumbent on her to bring a gun.
It was many months since Partridge had been constrained to buzz three times.
So far as she knew Haidee’s father was Persian. She possessed coal-black hair, an attractive, rather mystifying expression, a nice figure and a tendency to show her claws.
Partridge referred to her as his “Persian Kitten.”
Three years and more ago, she had blown in from the streets in search of fame as a tap-dancer—and had stopped to tap Peter Partridge’s typewriting machine, and help keep his secrets.
He pressed the buzzer twice.
“Haidee,” he inquired as a slim form came through a doorway the average caller would not have noticed, “if Mr. Lorenzo da Costa tried to frame you, and you heard about it from a third party, what would be your reaction?”
The Persian Kitten, evidently in a purring mood that morning, swung herself up on to Peter’s blotting-pad and planted a loud kiss in the vacant plot above that vast dome of forehead.
“I would keel him, mon cher,” she responded with a rippling laugh.
“Thanks! That was all I wanted to know.” Peter Partridge raised a slim hand with blood-red nails to his lips and remained for some moments regarding a diamond ring with expert eye. “H’m! what did I give for that. Kitten?”
“Seven hundred,” pouted Haidee, holding it at arm’s length. “It is very beautiful. I love it.”
“Might be better.” Partridge smoothed his chin. “I must get you another. That middle stone’s too yellow. Yellow!” The thought jerked him back to his original theme.
He tweaked the lobe of Haidee’s left ear.
“Keel him, eh, you little tiger-cat?”
“Slowly,” added the Kitten, gazing straight out of a window across Long Acre, at a bright display of oranges on a stall. “That man no good at all, mon ami.” The head came round and dark eyes met Partridge’s at close range. “You know that thing the carpenters use?—a drill, eh?”
“Brace and bit,” suggested Partridge, recognising the movement.
Haidee nodded brightly.
“Very well.” She tapped a point over Partridge’s heart. “I would tie him down and begin there—slowly, very slowly . . . Then I would go quick . . . and then very slow again; and all the time I would watch his face . . .”
“Two minds—with but a single thought!” quoted Partridge, apparently addressing his remark to one of a series of fat cherubs he had once paid a down-and-out artist to set in flight on a pate-blue ceiling. “And, all the time, Kitten, you would watch his face.”
“Watch—Eediot!” spat the Kitten disrespectfully.
“To be sure!” murmured Partridge, lifting her from her perch. “Now, run away and type. If those Japanese hand-balancers look in, tell them I’ve fixed them for Birkenhead on the 20th with Bolton and Darwen to follow. Oh, on second thoughts, Kitten, I don’t think I’ll use that brace-and-bit.”
“Too cruel, perhaps?” smiled Haidee from her doorway.
“No, too messy! So long!”
For a long while after the Kitten’s departure Peter Partridge remained deep in thought.
The news that he was about to be framed had startled him a little—sufficiently at any rate to deter him from getting down to details. Otherwise, he might have probed into Fergy’s cryptic remark concerning his “ ’and-writing and all”; although it was more than probable Fergy, whose intellect was dulled by drink, had been merely quoting verbatim something Frosty had said.
So far as Peter Partridge was aware, he had no distinctive “handwriting”; rather had he always prided himself on the absence of incriminating technique.
Nor, in this law-abiding community, the direct antithesis to the country Partridge had once known, did a man of Lorenzo’s standing stage a murder merely out of pique.
A glance at his watch reminded the Squirrel suddenly that it was time for lunch.
He went out slowly drawn by the yearnings of a flaccid stomach and still haunted by that all-important problem—who was to be bumped-off under the arches at Charing Cross, and why?