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INCLINATION TO MURDER
By Harriet Hunter
Detective Inspector Shade of the Wellington C.I.B. had not enjoyed life very much since the first publicity of the link between smoking and lung cancer. An inveterate cigarette smoker, his first reaction was to cheat the spectre by switching to a pipe. But a pipe wasn’t the same somehow and after a few weeks he went back to his cigarettes, telling himself that he would give up smoking altogether if he couldn’t keep down to ten a day. This worked wonderfully for a few weeks—but only for a few weeks. Then his consumption started to climb by one, two, three, four a day until he was hitting the twenty- five mark again. True to his promise to himself, he gave up smoking altogether, but in no time at all half his staff put in for transfer and his wife was threatening to leave him. He dashed wildly out of the office one morning and came back happily puffing a cigarette.
“I shall just have to accept the fact,” he told himself and the young constable who happened to be in his room at the time, “that I am a cigarette smoker. However, if I can’t keep it down to—well, to reasonable levels—I shall just have to give it up again. That’s all there is to it!”
Nevertheless, there was more to it than that. For years now the inspector had been stopping and starting at regular intervals until he was a byword in the department. When he was in the throes of giving up everyone gave him as wide a berth as possible. To say that he was erratic at these times is putting it mildly.
One afternoon in November he was sitting at his desk in a state of lethargy. This lethargy always accompanied a bout of abstinence. His two thumbs rested against each other and his fingers beat a nervous tattoo on their own tips. Every now and then a hand would stray unbidden and pat the pocket of his jacket which, in happier times, housed his cigarettes and matches.
“Come in, come in, come in!” he said testily when there was a knock at his door.
When he said “Come in,” Inspector Shade had not stopped to think about the person knocking at his door. Even if he had, the surprise—or shock—would have been no less. In theory it was impossible for a member of the public to penetrate police headquarters undetected and to knock at the door of so important a personage as a detective inspector. The only people who could knock at his door were colleagues, the duty-sergeant, a constable, a typist perhaps, or the “boss”. This last was perhaps the most unlikely of all as the superintendent was inclined to stand on his dignity. When he wanted to see a subordinate he would ring for him or send a messenger.
The head which came round the door after Inspector Shade’s “Come in” was the self-assured blonde head of a girl.
“Am I in the right place?”
“What a stupid question!” snapped Inspector Shade. “As I have no idea what sort of place you want to be in, how can I possibly tell whether this is the right place or not? If you want a haircut—no. If you want to report a crime—yes. However, even in the latter contingency it is customary for members of the public to come to my room by appointment or at least escorted by the desk constable who first brings me a brief note of the business of the caller.”
A ripple of amusement came from the head and a most attractive figure, observed by Inspector Shade to be “attired in unwomanly fashion” followed the head into the room.
“Say—I’m awfully sorry to have gone about things the wrong way but I didn’t have much option, you know. I had no intention of telling my story to the young man at the desk— nor to the sergeant with the big feet—so I just had to exercise my ingenuity and slip upstairs unobserved.” An open, friendly smile flashed at the inspector. “To be quite honest with you, it is the sort of story that sounds a bit tall in broad daylight.”
“Look here, young woman—how about telling me your name and then starting at the beginning?”
“My name is Elizabeth Shade—”
The inspector started a little, quickly recovered himself and proceeded to write on a small desk pad.
“Look—don’t write any of this down while I’m talking—it makes me nervous. Let me tell you the whole story and then if you want any of the details we can go over it again afterwards.”
“Very well.” The inspector sat back in his chair, felt for his cigarettes and, frustrated, started gently drumming his fingertips.
“Mind if I smoke?” Without waiting for a reply, Miss Shade fished a battered packet of Lucky Strikes out of a satchel. “American cigarettes” wrote the inspector on his pad, “American cigarettes—American cigarettes.”
“Mind if I sit?” Without waiting for a reply from the inspector who had felt at a distinct disadvantage from the outset of this interview, the girl drew a large leather chair up close to the desk, made herself comfortable, and blew a cloud of cigarette smoke into the room.
“That’s better. Now, Inspector, I’ve thought all morning— and most of the night—about this business. I don’t mind telling you that I hesitated at first to come to the police because the whole thing had an eerie, almost supernatural, atmosphere. But I’ve had no experience of either crime or the supernatural and the more I thought about it the more obvious it became that I had no choice but to come to you and let you decide what, if anything, should be done.”
Early twenties, Inspector Shade was thinking—and dashed attractive. But I wouldn’t like a daughter of mine to get around dressed like this. When a girl gets past twenty pigtails are out—cut it off or pin it up. He became aware of the silence.
“Last night I finished work rather late—”
“What sort of work do you do?”
“I’m an artist. I’m not employed by anyone. I paint landscapes for my bread and butter—or even posters if I’m driven to it. I’m most interested in portraiture but my portraits aren’t good enough yet to keep me in bread and butter—let alone cigarettes. In any case, I think most people in this country would sooner have a nice studio photograph than an oil painting.” Inspector Shade nodded his agreement with this view.
“My studio is on the top floor of the Leicester Ballin Building. Sometimes I sleep at the studio—though of course I’m not supposed to—strictly non-residential. Still, I have a divan there and almost everything I need in an emergency except a bath. You see, I live with an aunt out the Hutt and it’s a long way to go home if I’m working late. I don’t like catching a train later than midnight. Of course my aunt is used to my comings and goings but there it is—if I don’t catch the eleven fifty-seven then I sleep at the studio.” She paused and her gaze drifted idly round the room. Then she took out another cigarette and lit it.
“Last night—” a wisp of smoke pricked Inspector Shade’s nostrils . . . “I caught the eleven fifty-seven. I got into the second front carriage. There were quite a few people in the carriage but I didn’t take much notice of anyone. I was feeling pretty tired and I’d had a bit of a rush catching the train. I just settled down in a seat near the back of the carriage, lit a cigarette and looked out of the window at the harbour all the way to Petone. No matter how tired I am I always find that trip relaxing if I can get a seat by the window on the harbour side.” She looked at the inspector again.
“Yes . . .?”
“Well—I did notice that a lot of people left the carriage at Petone. There’s nothing to look at once the harbour is left behind so I started to look around the carriage. There were about a dozen people left. I didn’t notice anyone in particular except a young couple in the seat in front of me—and I only noticed them because they looked so absurdly young—far too young to be out on a date. I was interested in the girl’s face. She kept half turning her head and looking up at the boy. Do you know, I’d be willing to swear she wasn’t a day over thirteen!” She got up from her chair and started to walk up and down the room. “At Ava two or three more got out of the carriage. The same thing happened at Woburn. No sooner had the train left Woburn than a man sitting up near the front of the carriage got up and walked down towards me. He was the most insignificant-looking man you can imagine. In fact, the only thing I really registered about him before he spoke was the fact that he was wearing one of those short car coats which the younger men are wearing. It somehow looked rather out of place on this man. Well, when he reached my seat, he leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder. ‘I’d get off at the next stop if I was you, Miss.’ I didn’t answer him. I didn’t like a strange man, however harmless-looking, making up to me late at night. I looked straight ahead and pretended to ignore him. He tapped me on the shoulder again. I looked up at him. He jerked his head towards the front of the carriage where the only person left was a dark-haired man in a light coat. ‘I’d get out at the next stop if I was you,’ he said. ‘I think that bloke’s dead.’ The train was slowing down for Waterloo and I had to decide quickly whether to get off the train with this strange man, miles before my stop, or to journey on alone in a carriage with what might be a corpse. I jumped to my feet on an impulse and hurried out on to the platform just before the doors shut and the train slid away. There was no sign of the man who had warned me but there were a dozen or so people making for the subway. I followed them deciding I would get a taxi if there were one on the stand. I didn’t have enough money on me but I was feeling a bit rattled by this time and decided I could get the taxi to wait when I reached home while I went inside and got some money. Luckily there was a taxi on the stand and I jumped in . . .” The girl lapsed into silence. ,
“Well . . .?”
“Well, there isn’t any more. I got home all right and managed to fix up the taxi and get rid of it without disturbing my aunt.”
“Why didn’t you ring up the police on the spot so that they could check up on the train before it got to Upper Hutt?”
“Well, my aunt isn’t on the phone—it was pretty late and I don’t mind admitting I was feeling a bit too shaken to toddle off to the nearest phone box—which is three blocks away—on my own. You might just as well ask why I didn’t make sure the passenger on the train was dead before getting off miles before my stop. You could ask me all sorts of questions and I wouldn’t know the answers. The whole thing was a matter of atmosphere—and I was half paralysed like you are in a nightmare . . . I’m not easily scared. I’m used to going around on my own. I’ve taken myself round the city now at all hours of the day and night for years. I’ve never felt scared before—not like I did last night.”
The girl looked at the inspector and he could see that she had really been afraid.
“And after sleeping on it you decided you’d better tell the story to the police?”
“Yes—only, as I told you before, I didn’t do much sleeping.”
Inspector Shade leaned forward. “Miss Shade—there are one or two things in all this that are not quite clear to me. Would you mind a few questions? When I’ve got all the details I’ll be in a better position to decide what, if anything, we can do about it.”
“Of course not. I don’t mind how many questions you ask. You’ve no idea how much better I feel already. It is almost as if a ton weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”
“Right—Well, first of all can you tell me some of the thoughts you had last night after you got home and were thinking the whole thing over while the incident was fresh in your mind?”
“The first thing I thought once I began to feel safe was that the whole thing was ridiculous. People don’t sit down and die in the eleven fifty-seven to Upper Hutt—much less are they done to death! These things might happen in the London Underground or the New York Subway, but here in New Zealand—never! No, it was obvious that the man who warned me to get off the train was a practical joker.”
“Do you still think there is any possibility of that?”
“No. I wouldn’t have come to you had I not been certain in my own mind that there was something badly wrong. I am equally sure that I could not be so mistaken about a face. That little man had never played a practical joke in his life—not even when he was a kid on April Fools’ Day!”
“Then . . .?”
“The next thought I had was that he had tried to get me off the train in order to follow me and assault me in some dark street.”
“Do you still think that might be a possibility?”
“Well—no. A girl doesn’t really make that sort of mistake about a man. He wasn’t remotely interested in me as a girl. It’s the sort of thing a man can’t disguise—whether he likes it or not he gives out signals. No, it would have been the same if I’d been an old lady of eighty.”
“Where does that leave us then?”
“It leaves only one thing I can think of—the man up the front of the carriage was dead.”
“Did he look dead?”
“I couldn’t swear to it. You see, so many people who’re going right up the line go to sleep on the late trains. He could have been asleep. All I could see was a dark-haired head above a light-coloured coat collar—I think it was one of those trench coats. It was that sort of colour and I think it was some sort of rainproof material. The head was resting against the back of the seat . . . Look, Inspector, shall I tell you what I think?”
“Of course—that’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Well, I think he was dead. And I think he didn’t just die from natural causes. I’ve got nothing whatever to go on except the atmosphere.” She searched the inspector’s face for a glimmer of understanding.
“Are you an imaginative person, Miss Shade?”
“Of course I am. But don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not given to making a drama of everyday life. I’m not hysterical, I don’t practise theatrical gestures and I’m not normally nervous beyond the dictates of caution. No, you can take it from me, I didn’t imagine the atmosphere that scared me.” A small involuntary shudder passed over the girl. She shook herself clear of it and looked straight at the inspector. “If I’m right in this intuition of mine then you’ll find you’re up against something most unpleasant.”
“Well, that’s as maybe. But tell me, what made you reject the idea that the man who warned you wasn’t just trying to waylay you? That is, what, other than this intuition of yours?”
The girl looked at him sharply.
“No, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not belittling woman’s intuition. I’ve been married for twenty years!”
“Well, I decided fairly quickly to get off the train. I couldn’t waste any time because, as you probably know, there are only a few minutes between stations round about there and the units stop for only a matter of seconds at a station. By the time I got off the train there was no sign at all of the man. I kept my eyes open for him because I couldn’t, under the circumstances, treat him with anything other than suspicion. He wasn’t among the group of passengers who went through the subway. He had just vanished into thin air. Therefore I concluded he wasn’t interested in me except—”
“Except perhaps as someone to be got out of the way.
“I see. Well, of course that would imply that this man was more than a bit of a villain, wouldn’t it?”
“Do you think he was?”
“I don’t know. I told you right at the beginning that he was an insignificant-looking man. There was evil in that carriage but I can’t tell you whether it was coming from him or not.” The girl took out her packet of cigarettes and was sufficiently recovered to remember to hand it to the inspector. “Cigarette?”
Without thinking of anything except the girl, Inspector Shade helped himself to a Lucky Strike, let his visitor light it for him and sat back in his chair suddenly full of a sense of wellbeing. It was not until he was surrounded by a happy cloud of smoke that he realised what he had done. By then it was too late. After all, you can’t accept an American cigarette and stub it out after a few puffs right under the giver’s nose! American cigarettes don’t grow on bushes. There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” sang the inspector. Constable Cummings put his head round the door. He took in the girl with the plait and the unorthodox clothes, the smoking inspector who was obviously exhaling bonhommie with each puff of smoke, and the aroma of American tobacco.
“Sorry, sir—I’ll come back later,” he said and withdrew his head.
“Well, Miss Shade, I want to think about this story of yours a bit and make a few of the obvious routine inquiries that will have to be made. I suppose I can find you at your studio—top floor, Leicester Ballin Building, didn’t you say?”
The girl got up. “Thank you, Inspector. I would like to know what you decide to do. I think that I am still hoping underneath that you will be able to find a perfectly innocent explanation.”
“Oh, there’s just one more thing—do you think you would recognise the man who warned you if you saw him again?”
“Yes, I think I would. I wouldn’t like to swear to it though unless I did see him. Honestly, he couldn’t have looked more ordinary. Still, I think I would.”
Inspector Shade stood up and escorted the girl into the corridor.
“Tell me before you go—how did you manage to get to my room without being stopped and questioned by someone?”
The girl took a few steps along the corridor where the curtains were blowing out from an open window. She lifted back a curtain and pointed. “Fire escape.”
“I’ll be damned!” said the inspector.
She gave him a quick smile and, before he knew what was happening she swung herself out the window and was gone—the way she had come.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” muttered the inspector a second time.
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