Bats in the Belfry: A British Library Crime Classic

Bats in the Belfry: A British Library Crime Classic

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS Bruce Attleton dazzled London's literary scene with his first two novels—but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering ...

About The Author

E.C.R. Lorac

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from ...

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Chapter I

 

“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort. No dawdling, well up to time and all that, but, my godfathers! What a farce to have to go to it at all. Didn’t make a ha’porth of difference to the party concerned.”

Bruce Attleton mixed himself a whisky and soda calculated to reduce funereal impressions to a minimum, and swallowed it rather more quickly than was customary in such a gathering. Neil Rockingham holding in his own hand a glass containing a milder version of the same drink, raised an angular eyebrow as he replied:

“Well, funerals never worry me. One good point about them—and weddings too, for that matter—is that they do get on with the doings—preamble, main theme, and blessing for curtain, and there you are. Snappy, as you say. Not like some of these infernal parties where you stand on one leg and wonder when you can decently depart. I do like a focus-point to an entertainment.”

Bruce grinned, and his dark, sardonic face lighted up as he threw himself into a comfortable chair by the log fire. It was March, and the evenings were cold, so that the warm, slightly scented air of Sybilla Attleton’s drawing-room struck a man as cosy after the raw air outside. A nice room, this of Sybilla’s, meditated Rockingham. Peaceful, well-designed, chairs large enough to sit in, and plenty of them, not too many fallals for a man to trip over, and yet definitely a woman’s room, with its colour scheme of faint grey and silver, lilac and deep blue. A sociable room, but not the right spot to swill down whisky like that nervy blighter, Bruce, was doing.

Sybilla, an exquisite figure in silver lamé with a short ermine cloak round her shoulders, lighted a Balkan Sobranje, and made a little face at her husband.

“I gather the funeral did make you shed a tear after all, Bruce—not for sorrow about our dear departed brother, but a tear of self-indulgent sympathy, that you should have been called upon to make the frightful effort of standing by a graveside.”

“Caustic, what?” Robert Grenville, a little embarrassed by the tone of Sybilla’s voice, decided that jocularity was the vein to follow. “If it’s not being unreasonably inquisitive, who was the party concerned, so to speak? The bury-ee, or interee, or what you call him.”

“The ‘dear departed’ or the ‘late lamented’ is the accepted term,” replied Bruce amiably enough. “On this occasion, it was a young chap named Anthony Fell—a cousin of sorts, though I can’t tell you the exact degree. Family ramifications always beat me. However, this one turned up from Australia a few months ago—architect, hearty sort of chap. Doing quite nicely in the interim, building large-scale blocks on the modern housing principle, complete with the best in plumbing. Unfortunately he didn’t manage the plumbing of his own car as well as he did that of his working-class flats. Came blinding down Porlock Hill in a fog, in a last year’s racing model—a yellow sports car that made me sick to look at it. His brakes failed just when he needed ’em at a pinch and he somersaulted—what ho, she bumps!” He picked his glass up again and looked towards the tantalus. “So that was that, and we buried what was left of him to-day. Old Neil here, came in as best man—very sporting of him. Not my idea of a good day, though.”

“Miserable business,” said Rockingham soberly enough. “Fell only showed me the car a few days ago, gassing about how he always vetted it himself. Whale of a chap with engines according to his own estimate.”

“Poor young man—and you grudged him a few hours at his one and only funeral,” put in Elizabeth Leigh. She was sitting on the lilac tuffet, warming her beautiful slim legs at the good heat of the cedarwood fire. Red-headed, white-skinned, with the round face of very young girlhood, Elizabeth appeared fit for a Da Forti halo and lute when she looked pensive, as now. “Dead in a strange land, and no one to shed a tear. If you’d told me about it, I’d have come myself, and cast rose leaves on the coffin.”

“And what good would that have done, Eliza?” inquired Bruce. “Nix, and you know it. Our family doesn’t seem to have any staying power. They all pop off early, except the Old Soldier. He’s about a hundred, and still going strong. Some one told me he bought an annuity when he was fifty-five, and got it cheap because he’d a dicky heart. The company he bought it from have written him off as a bad debt. They’ve given up hoping he’ll die, and call him the Old Soldier. They don’t, you know.”

“Oh, but he must, sometime,” put in Sybilla. “Some one said to me the other day that when you’re born there’s only one thing which can be said about you with any certainty, and that is that you’ll die—sometime. Nothing else is certain, but that is.”

“Cheery thought.” Thomas Burroughs had been sitting silent, just behind Sybilla, until that moment, and the sound of his voice made Bruce Attleton scowl. It was a deep voice, and resonant, but Bruce said it sounded fat, “reeked of money”—and the rather stout, heavy-jowled Burroughs certainly was not hard-up.

“Nice way of greeting the son and heir,” went on the latter. “Here you are, little ’un, and you’re for it one of these fine days. Just a matter of time, what?”

“And the beautiful part is that no one knows when their time will be up,” said Elizabeth, in her sweetest voice. She disliked Burroughs—one of the few things she had in common with her guardian, Bruce Attleton. “A slip, a skid, a fit, an aneurism, a syncope, and the lustiest becomes a mere bury-ee. I like that word,” she added, her ingenuous blue eyes gazing hard at the wealthy stockbroker.

“Food for worms,” put in Robert Grenville blithely. “I say, jolly topics we seem to be on. All flesh is grass, I know; still, it doesn’t do to ponder over it.”

“By way of cheering you all up a bit, I’ll tell you of a competition that’s been set for the monthly evening at my club,” went on Elizabeth, averting her eyes from Burroughs’ heavy face with a nicely calculated little moue of distaste. “We always have an intellectual exercise of sorts, and notice is given of it beforehand. The problem this month is as follows: If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any future liabilities? Highest marks will be given for a method which is not only ingenious, but possesses the elements of practical common sense.”

There was an outbreak of exclamations. Robert Grenville chuckled, and said, “By Gad, that’s a corker!”

Attleton laughed and refilled his glass, saying, “Give us a moment to think it out, Liza.”

Burroughs expostulated. “Rotten morbid ideas you modern girls go in for. Club, indeed! You want spanking and sending to bed.”

Sybilla said languidly, “Don’t be Victorian, Tommy. Everyone plays these murder games. Just use your wits as though there were money in it.”

Rockingham, standing by the fire, smiled down at Elizabeth. He was a tall fellow, very fair, looking older than his forty-two years by reason of premature baldness. He had a very fine head, and the smooth lofty brow sloped back slightly to meet the magnificent domed skull. His hair, fair and smooth, was thick enough at the back, but his baldness gave him a professorial look, at odds with his fresh-skinned face. Rockingham took Elizabeth’s problem quite seriously in the manner of one who loves a problem for its own sake.

“We need some more data,” he said to her. “Are we to assume that we’ve corpsed the subject ourselves, or are we just obliging a friend?”

“I asked that too,” said Elizabeth, replying to his friendly twinkle with a smile of angelic virtue. “It is assumed that one has created the corpse oneself, either by accident or malice aforethought, as may be most convenient.”

“It’s a nice point,” said Bruce. “Imagine that I’d done some one in, here on this hearth-rug, and I wanted to get ’em clear out of the way, so as not to leave a trace—not too easy.”

“I think you’re being too casual.” This time it was Grenville who spoke. It was Elizabeth’s problem, and he particularly wanted to stand well with Elizabeth. “Never go and murder any one in a hurry—that’s the first axiom. Think it all out carefully.”

“Go on,” said Elizabeth. “Elaborate. I want ideas.”

“Assume that I’m going to murder a chap named Tom Brown. I’ve got to work it so that no one will know I was the last person whom he was seen with. I can’t make an appointment with him in case any one else hears about it.” Grenville was leaning forward now, his chin on his fists, his brow corrugated in thought. “I’d go to one of those dud car-marts—one of the places where you can get something that’ll go for a couple of hundred miles for about ten pounds. I’d pay a deposit and drive out with some old car one wet evening, and I’d meet old Tom Brown on his way home from the station or something and say, ‘Rotten evening, old boy. What about a lift?’ Once he’d got in. I’d bat him one on the boko, and drive on to a little place I’d have taken on the edge of the outer suburbs—simple life and all that, every tenant builds his own house. I’d have got the garage up, and a nice hole ready in the floor, and I’d bring old Tom in and shift a bit of concrete on top of him, and then return the car to the mart and pick up my deposit. No connection between me and Tom, and the car.”

“Not too good,” said Elizabeth; “and rotten as a story. It might work, but I couldn’t hope to win a prize with a garage floor as depository.”

“That’s perfectly true,” said Rockingham; “though the touch about giving Tom a lift unexpectedly on a wet evening appeals to me as simple and effective. Pass that, cut out the garage floor, and drive Tom out to one of those dene holes somewhere and just tip him in. They’re said to be almost bottomless.”

“You tire me.” It was Sybilla’s languid voice which uttered this deflating phrase. “If there are such things as dene holes, they must be about chock-full with fictitious corpses. I’m tired of them.”

“Well, what’s yours?” asked Elizabeth eagerly.

Sybilla drew in a long breath of cigarette smoke.

“I’m not up to batting people over the head,” she said dreamily. “I have a fancy for electricity. I’d connect up the power to the water in the wash-hand basin and say, ‘Darling, do have a wash,’ and when all that was over…” She tilted her head up meditatively. “A sunk bath, in the floor, you know. Tilt him in, and then concrete, plenty of it, and the bath mat on top. All quite simple.”

“Good God! Sybilla, I wouldn’t have believed you’d have thought about anything so—so—” gasped Burroughs, and Attleton laughed.

“Gives you a turn, old boy? Quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?”

“Never mind that,” put in Elizabeth. “I think Sybilla’s got more originality than you others.”

“Quite a nice touch, that, about setting old Tom into the permanent fabric of the establishment,” murmured Attleton, and Rockingham, seeing Burroughs’ bulging eyes, put in:

“It’s only a matter of exercising the imagination, Burroughs. Don’t you read thrillers?”

“But I say, Elizabeth, you haven’t told us your brain-wave yet,” said Grenville. “Out with it! I bet it’s pretty grim.”

“It is,” said Elizabeth complacently. “Much grimmer than Sybilla’s, then. You know there are a lot of those big Georgian churches in London with lovely crypts—where they put people in family vaults? I know one in Bloomsbury. The furnace for heating is in the vaults, and it’s quite easy to find the way down and slip in without being noticed. In my story, you get old Tom to come exploring with you, and bat him over the head at the further end of the vault, where it’s very dark, and you come back next day and hide till night, and then you get busy unscrewing one of the old coffins—they’re on ledges, you know, and just pop Tom in and do it up again.”

“Good lord! The kid’s got ideas, Neil. What about that for a Grand Guignol sketch? You’re a dramatist. Can’t you see the possibilities?”

“I certainly can,” said Rockingham slowly, “but the theme’s almost too macabre for production. It has the makings of a good short story, Elizabeth. Why not try it?”

“It wouldn’t work—not in practice,” said Burroughs, helping himself to another drink. “You’d have the deuce of a time getting the screws out of the coffin, and there’d be a lead lining inside.”

“I’d thought of all that,” said Elizabeth calmly. “A drop of oil in the screws, and garden secateurs for the lead lining. Would you like to come there with me just to get the atmosphere?” She smiled impudently at the heavily-built, well-tailored stockbroker, and Bruce put in with a laugh:

“Don’t you risk it, Burroughs. She might feel disposed to put her theory into practice. Thanks for the tip, Liza. I’ll bear it in mind in case of need.”

“If you want to visit the scene of the projected crime, why not invite me?” Grenville pleaded to Elizabeth. “I’d make the perfect collaborator—and if the actual murder wasn’t necessary, we might screw a column out of the idea and share the boodle.”

“If ever you take to crime, Elizabeth, take my tip and play a lone hand,” said Sybilla severely. “All this accomplice business is childish. Meantime, if you can bear it, my child, come and read over that new script of Vine’s. I’m not sure if I like my part. The men can have a rubber of bridge to amuse themselves.”

She got up with the deliberate grace characteristic of her, and with the calm determination which Rockingham had long noted as being an essential of her apparently lazy make-up, said good-night to her guests.

“Good-night, Tom. I shall be out of town till the end of the month, remember. Half-past one at the Berkeley Grill on the 1st—All Fool’s Day. Good-night, Mr. Rockingham. Thank you for holding Bruce’s hand at the funeral. Good-night, Mr. Grenville. Leave Elizabeth to her own murders. Come along, angel face.”

She drew Elizabeth’s arm through her own and they went out of the room, leaving the four men standing by the fire. Burroughs made no bones about taking his departure once Sybilla had gone.

“I’ve got to go down to my club to see a fellow—” he began, and Bruce Attleton cut in:

“…about a dog. That’s all right, Thomas. Good-night.”

Burroughs pursed up his mouth in a manner that deepened the heavy lines running from nose to lip and replied, “That’s about the size of it. Good-night, Attleton. You don’t look too fit. Cut up about that young cousin of yours. Shocking thing. Too much wild driving about. Safety first’s my motto. ’Night, Rockingham. ’Night.”

He nodded to Grenville and Bruce strolled to the door with him and chatted casually while the stockbroker got into his coat. Returning to the drawing-room, he said:

“Come along into the library, Neil, and you, Grenville. It’s more comfortable in there.”

Rockingham shook his head.

“No. We’ll bung off. You don’t want us here, I know that. I’m sorry you were cut up about that accident to young Fell. I feel a bit unhappy about it. He did show me his damned car, and I know a sight more about them than he did. I ought to have looked at his brakes.”

“Oh, rot! That’s hair-splitting in an attempt to blame yourself, old man. Besides, I don’t believe in theories of accident. I’m a fatalist. Young Anthony had got his ticket, his time was up, and if it hadn’t been faulty brakes on Porlock Hill, it’d have been a train smash or a pneumonia bug. It’s quite true, I was cut up. I liked the beggar, what I saw of him, and considering how our whole family’s been at loggerheads for generations, it was rather refreshing to find a cousin I liked. They all quarrelled like Kilkenny cats. Old Uncle Adam began it—the Old Soldier. He quarrelled with the whole clan and later generations kept it up. We’re a nice crowd!”

He turned away from the fire, adding, “I was damn grateful to you for coming. I loathe funerals. I’ll go and wash it off, soak in a Turkish bath for an hour or two. Good-night, old boy. See you in Paris next week.” He turned to Grenville, adding, “And look here, young fella me lad, I’m always glad to see you here, but don’t go imagining I’ve changed my mind. I haven’t. Cheer ho! Weller’ll let you out.”

Weller was the butler, who presided over his duties in the Attletons’ picturesque little house in Park Village South with the air of a pontiff, and a skill which was half the secret of the perfectly run house. Every one liked Weller, and particularly the servants who worked under him, consequently Sybilla Attleton was able to keep a contented domestic staff in a house which had basement kitchens and awkward stairs and cellars.

Just as Bruce Attleton opened the drawing-room the butler appeared and glanced at his master, who said, “Well, what is it now?” in his quick irritable way.

“I didn’t get the opportunity of telling you earlier, sir. A gentleman named Debrette phoned while you were out.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” snapped Attleton. “If he rings up again, tell him I’ll bash his bloody head in. Got that? No other answer.”

Rockingham took Grenville’s arm and urged him towards the hall, and the butler followed them and busied himself with their coats, apparently quite unconcerned at his master’s outburst of ill-temper. Grenville, who had caught sight of Attleton’s face when he spoke, had been considerably taken aback. Bruce was frequently nervy and jumpy, but to answer a servant in such a manner, and in the presence of guests, betokened something more than ordinary ill-temper.

Rockingham, however, seemed quite unperturbed, and chatted cheerfully to Weller as he put on his coat and muffler.

“It’s turned into a real nasty evening, sir,” the butler was saying. “The fog’s thickened a lot. Always bad in the park, and now it’s just pouring in from over there. Chilly as Christmas.”

“It is that, and it was damn’ chilly in that graveyard this morning, Weller,” replied Rockingham. “Hope Mr. Attleton hasn’t caught a chill. Miserable business.”

“It was indeed, sir. I felt badly over it. A nice cheery young gentleman he was, too. No relatives to speak of, I understand, barring Mr. Attleton. At least that saved breaking the news.”

“You’re right. Rotten job sending condoling cables. Good-night, Weller.”

“Good-night, sir. No taxi?”

“Not for me. In a fog like this I’d rather walk. What about you, Grenville?”

“I’ll come along with you, if I may. Ugh! What a climate!”

The two men stepped out into a cold, white mist, in which all sound seemed to be muffled, as is the curious paradox of fogs. In actual fact the silence was due to the slowing down of the traffic.

“Nervy beggar, Bruce. That business of Anthony Fell’s death shook him up rather.”

Rockingham spoke absent-mindedly, but Robert Grenville replied with some heat:

“Nervy he is, I grant you, but I’m more than a bit mad with him. I don’t see why I should suffer permanently from his caprices. He’s Elizabeth’s guardian, and he’s right to take his duties seriously, but confound it, if she’s willing  to marry me, and lord knows, I’m crazy to marry her, why should he exert his powers to prevent us marrying? It’s not as though she’s a big heiress. I’m not fortune-hunting. I’ve got enough income to ensure that she’ll be comfortable, over and above her own little fortune. What’s he got against me, Rockingham?”

“I don’t suppose he’s anything against you, my dear chap. In fact, I know he hasn’t. He likes you, but Elizabeth’s a very young thing. Probably Bruce thinks it’d be a mistake for her to get tied up before she’s seen enough of the world for her to know her own mind.”

The two men had at first followed the curve of the Outer Circle as they made their way from Park Village South towards Mayfair, where Rockingham had his abode, but when they reached Park Square they turned towards the Marylebone Road and crossed over to Park Crescent, thereafter walking diagonally across the network of streets between Portland Place and Baker Street. Crossing the Marylebone Road, Grenville burst out:

“Well, I call it damnable! Elizabeth does know her own mind now, and he’s just giving her the chance to get unsettled. I hate all this feminist club business, and Sybilla may be a corking fine actress in modern comedy and satire, but she’s no sort of example to an unsophisticated girl like Liza. Take the way she runs merchants like that fat blighter, Tom Burroughs—spoiling the Egyptians! I like Bruce all right, or I would if he’d only be reasonable, but Sybilla and her push make me sick. Wouldn’t it be better for Liza to be married and have a home of her own, than to go trailing round with all these over-sophisticated, man-hunting, pseudo-intellectual females who see life all awry?”

Rockingham chuckled a little. “I can see your point, of course, though it’s not up to me to criticise Sybilla. She’s Bruce’s wife, on the one hand, and as an actress she knows her stuff. Let’s leave her out of it. You say you like Bruce. The fact of the matter is, I’m worried over him. I think he’s got something on his mind, and it’s probably that that’s making him awkward over you and Elizabeth. His mind refuses to cope with more than one problem at a time.”

“What is it? Money?—or the Debrette gentleman to whom he referred so genially just now?”

“What do you know about Debrette?”

“Nothing—except that Sybilla mentioned his name one day, and Bruce went off into the devil’s own fury over it.”

“H’m. Look here, what about coming into my place for a drink, if you’ve nothing else to do? We might talk things over a bit. I’m in a bit of a quandary, and you’re no fool, Grenville. Besides, you might get a line on the fellow, with your journalistic experience. I don’t like talking in this fog. Gives me the feeling that Mr. Debrette may be prowling around like the hosts of Midian. Come in and talk for a bit.”

“Thanks. I’d be glad to. I’ve often thought of writing your house up as a unique example of history crystallised in the West End. It’s an amazing spot.”

“Good spot, but it’ll be too damned expensive for me if I don’t strike it lucky with a new play soon. Hell! I swear there is some one following us, Grenville. Listen!”

Rockingham stopped dead, holding his companion’s arm, and Grenville said:

“Yes. I heard footsteps. They’ve stopped now. Wait a jiffy.”

He plunged suddenly into the fog, leaving Rockingham standing under the blurred light of a street lamp, looking warily round him. There was something absurd about the feeling of tension that possessed him, here in the heart of the West End, with the smug-looking door-plates of fashionable specialists all around him. He lighted a cigarette and shrugged his shoulders, but breathed a sigh of relief all the same when Grenville appeared again beside him, saying:

“I lost the bloke in the fog. Funny do, what? Let’s make for your quarters. I agree with you, a fog’s no place to discuss odd doings.”

Rockingham’s little house lay in the angle between Park Lane, Culross Street and Shepherd’s Market. To reach the entrance it was necessary to walk through a narrow archway at the end of a mews; this opened on to a surprising little square of greenery where stood a tiny square house of two stories, built as a country cottage, perhaps, or an annexe to some manor house in the latter days of Queen Anne’s reign. How the comely little building had survived, built around on all sides, was one of the puzzles which delight the heart of the London antiquarian, but there it was, of pleasant rose-red brick, with a tiny forecourt of crazy paving, and a great plane tree towering behind it in the garden of some lordly house which still survived the devastating hand of the modern flat builders.

In the fog, as Rockingham and Grenville passed under the archway, it looked more fantastic than usual, with its square lantern shining above the bleached oak front door, and a gleam of orange light above the fanlight.

Letting himself in with a latchkey, Rockingham led the way up the little straight staircase to his panelled sitting-room on the first floor, and invited Grenville to sit down while he poured out drinks at a side table.

“It’s this business about Debrette I want to talk about,” he began abruptly. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it if you hadn’t, but I’m glad to have the chance of discussing it with some one. You know Attleton well, and you’ve a vested interest in his welfare, so to speak, because of Elizabeth. Can you find out who this Debrette is? Have you ever heard the name in connection with any Art Exhibition, or anything of that kind?”

Grenville shook his head. “No. Never. Have you ever seen the chap?”

“Once only. I answered the telephone once while Attleton was out—Weller told me there was some chap who seemed anxious for an answer, and this man Debrette was cursing at the other end of the line, saying he’d got to speak to Attleton, or the heavens would fall. That gave me a chance to hear Debrette’s voice—he’s a foreigner, undoubtedly. Then a few days later I was just turning into Park Village with Attleton when I heard the same voice over my shoulder saying, ‘Just a moment, Mr. Attleton. It’s for your own sake, you know.’ I saw him that time, a queer-looking dago with a pointed beard and huge convex lenses set in the widest rimmed specs I’ve ever seen. He’s a noticeable chap because he’s got a streak of white in his beard. You may wonder why I’m telling you all this. Quite frankly, I want to find out who this Debrette johnny is. Attleton won’t tell me. He shuts up like a clam when I mention the subject. I’ve known you long enough to trust you, Grenville. You know how to hold your tongue.”

“Lord, yes. I know that. If I split on some of the funny yarns I’ve hit while searching for copy I might have made a spot of trouble—for myself as well as other people.” He lit another cigarette and studied Rockingham’s frowning face. “Having trusted me so far, you’d better trust me a bit further. I’m game to look into the Debrette gentleman’s antecedents provided you give me adequate data—and reason.”

“Right. You can use your own imagination as easily as  I can use mine. If Attleton’s in a frenzy of nerves over this chap, and yet won’t tell his own friends anything about it, the answer’s easy. Attleton’s being blackmailed, or threatened in some way. Now if that’s so, the cure’s easy too—police. Any sane man ought to know that it’s safer to turn a blackmailer over to the police than to bargain with him. My position’s this. I can’t get anything out of Attleton, so I want to run this bird to earth so that I can get him dealt with if need arises. The story’s too nebulous at present. It sounds like a penny dreadful—a dago with a beard uttering crazy warnings. I’m a plain man—don’t hold with this stuff off-stage. Besides, it’s second rate.”

The disgust on Rockingham’s severe face made Grenville laugh.

“Yes—but you didn’t feel so complacent in the fog just now. Funny things do happen in London—don’t I know it?—and the police don’t always get there in time. Now, I’ll accept your reasoning. You want your bird run to earth so that you can lay a hand on him in case of need. Now for your data. You’ve got something more to go on than the chap’s name, and a beard with a white streak in it, I take it?”

“Yes, I have.” Rockingham hesitated a little and then said, “I don’t know if I shall wake up in the morning and curse for having spread myself like this. However, no use shilly-shallying. I’ve a notion the chap hangs out in a studio somewhere in Notting Hill. I was out to dinner there last week—a damned rotten dinner, too—and I turned into a quiet pub on my way to the station to have the whisky I’d longed for all the evening and hadn’t got. The pub was called The Knight Templar—somewhere off the Alton Road. I saw Debrette go out as I went in.” Rockingham got up and stood by the fire.

“You may well ask why don’t I run him to earth myself. It’d be easy enough, assuming that he lives somewhere in the Alton Road district. The point is this. Debrette knows me by sight. He saw me with Attleton and he’s talked to me over the phone. If he sees me on his trail in his own neighbourhood, he may do a bunk, so that I shall lose sight of him. He’s never seen you, presumably, so if you come into contact with him he’ll have no grounds for smelling a rat.”

“That’s quite sound,” agreed Grenville. “Well, I’m game. As you say, it oughtn’t to be difficult to run him to earth. Now say if I spot him—what d’you want me to do? Scrape an acquaintance?”

“Lord, no! I only want to know where he hangs out. I may be being a damned fool to interfere at all. It’s probably more sensible to mind one’s own business, but I’m fond of Bruce. He’s got no more sense than a child, in spite of all his wit and learning. If ever a man wanted a nursemaid, he does. But look here. Don’t for God’s sake go butting in and getting yourself mixed up with that Debrette merchant by going to see him, or anything of that kind. I tell you frankly I don’t like the look of him. I’m not of a nervous disposition, but if I needed to have any dealings with Mr. Debrette, I’d see to it that I left my note-case behind and took a stick with me to help reason in case of need. I don’t want to have you on my conscience.”

“And another funeral, with Elizabeth strewing rose-leaves and never a spray of yew,” laughed Grenville. “Don’t you worry. I’m quite capable of looking after myself. However, I gather that the commission on this occasion is merely to find the blighter’s address?”

“That’s it, Grenville. It’s in your own interests, in one respect. If we can get this tom-fool business of Debrette out of the way, perhaps Bruce will see reason over your marrying Elizabeth. Anyway, trust me to do my best for you—but it’s no use talking to him when he’s as nervy as St. Vitus.”

“Thanks. Jolly decent of you. By the way, when shall I report progress—if there’s any to report? Didn’t you say you were going over to Paris in a few days?”

“Yes—on Wednesday, the 18th, to see the premiere of that new Maudet farce. I shall be away about a week or ten days. I’ll let you know for certain later. A letter here will be safe enough. As a matter of fact, there’s no hurry. Bruce is going to run over to Paris while I’m there. Perhaps it’d be better to put off this little sleuthing do of yours until we came back.”

The irresolution in Neil Rockingham’s voice made Grenville laugh. “‘Letting I dare not wait upon I will.’ It’s not like you to temporise.”

“No. The fact is I’ve let the whole silly business get on my nerves a bit. Don’t know now whether I wasn’t a fool to set you on to it. Anyway, for God’s sake don’t go asking for trouble!”

“I won’t. Any old how, it won’t do any harm to collect the bird’s address. You’ve trusted me to do a job for you. I won’t make a mess of it.”

“Stout fellow! What about another night-cap?”

“Make it a short one. I’ve got to get home to Chancery Lane on shanks’ mare. There won’t be a thing moving in this fog. Come and see my quarters some time. They’re not in the stud-book neighbourhood like yours, but they’re not un-amusing. A cottage off Fleet Street, complete with grass plot in front.”

“Good lord! Funny city, this is. Never know what you’ll find in it. I’ll come and look you up when I’m home again.”

“Good. Good-night—and thanks for letting me in on the story. I rather like my part of the job.”

“I’m glad—only no funny stuff, remember!”

“Right you are. I’m the world’s most discreet. Cripes! What a night!” and he plunged off into the blanket of fog.

Reviews of

Bats in the Belfry: A British Library Crime Classic

“The intricacies of the characters’ relationships and the trove of secrets Scotland Yard Inspector Macdonald uncovers make for riveting reading.”

Booklist

“The mystery is so complex, in fact, that Lorac, the pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), requires the services of some aggressively facetious suspects, a low-key lead detective who’s a welcome change of pace, and an army of nondescript and interchangeable satellite police officers. Ah, those were the days.”

Kirkus Reviews

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