Conflict of Interest
Despite being still sodden from the downpour, Parker was whistling as he ran up the flight of stairs into his office. D.I. Garman, with whom he shared the place, stared as Parker jauntily tossed his rain-darkened felt hat onto the stand.
Coarser souls – among whom, normally, he was inclined to class Garman – might have attributed his elation to the lunchtime Lafite '75. Old Peter, on the other hand, would babble of honey-dew and milk of paradise. He, Charles Parker, alone knew the source of his deep, bubbling well of joy. She's given that Bolshevik cad his ring back. And she was there, with me, at lunch. And she said, 'That would be delightful' when I asked if I might look her up over the next day or so, in case she found it dull with Peter out of Town.
He slid behind his desk and reached for a file, a Cheshire-cat grin splitting his features.
Garman raised his eyebrows. "You look like I feel."
"Oh?" Parker leaned back in his chair, looking across his desk at his colleague. "Things going well?"
Garman waved his fountain-pen. "I've only managed to wrap up the Neasden pub killing. Five days after they put me on the job. If I can manage to finish this report in time, the whole file will be off to the DPP this evening. Should look well next time they're talking about promotion, shouldn't it? Of course, with only free trips to Neasden as a perk, I wasn't going to spin it out, not like you with your Paris wangle."
Since the only possible response to that sally was a pained smile, Parker managed the appropriate convulsion of his lips and returned to the main topic. "So? Who did it?"
"Blythe. The traveller in wines and spirits. In cahoots with the landlord's daughter. Cold-hearted little cat. All that wailing and moaning when the pot-man 'discovered' her father's body, and when I finally got to carry out a proper search of the place, what did I find thrust into an old holdall in the attic but one of the girl's skirts. The hem had a patch of human blood that must have been three fingers deep, if it was an inch."
Parker felt a sudden digestive lurch that had nothing to do with Staple Inn's superlative saddle of mutton. Garman, oblivious, continued with his account.
"'Course, when I confronted her she tried to bluff it out; it was Blythe whose nerve broke. They'd cooked up the entire scheme between them to get their hands on the tenancy – oh, and cover up one or two little diddles Blythe and the girl had going between them. Seems like her father had been invoiced for quite a few cases of wines and spirits that never went anywhere Plummet & Rose's books. I've tipped them the good word; you know commercial travellers. What Blythe had going at the Ring O' Bells, Neasden, most likely he was trying on at the Royal Oak, Billericay. Or anywhere else there was a susceptible woman he could charm into colluding with him. Still, that won't be the Yard's problem."
Garman fished out his cigarette case and offered it to Parker, who refused. Garman lit up himself, and gestured in an eloquent swirl of smoke.
"The only danger is that some smart K.C. will claim the girl wasn't in it from the beginning, and Blythe pressured her into tidying up the crime scene and giving him his alibi after he'd done the killing off his own bat. Complete balls, of course; if you ask me, she's most likely to have come up with the scheme in the first place. A female criminal is fifty times more cold-blooded than a man, once she makes her mind up to it. Yet if a jury sees a pretty blonde sobbing pathetically in the dock, nine times out of ten they'll acquit, just to spite us."
A morbid compulsion forced Parker to mutter, "Oh, she's blonde, is she?"
Garman winked. "And all nice and natural, too, so the wardress tells me. Oh, yes; she's a looker, if you like 'em tall, which I, personally, don't. Always something a bit hard about tall women, don't you think? One chap I served with claimed any woman over five foot nine was bound to be frigid; said he'd read it in some psychological paper somewhere. Still, whether she delivered the goods or not, she'd certainly got all the men on a string. Blythe – the pot-man – even that poor devil of a beat constable. He'll be lucky if he keeps his job over this; he's certainly said bye-bye to his promotion."
The saddle of mutton seemed determined on escaping back to the green, green grass of home by way of Parker's gullet. He gulped, and said, "The beat constable?" hoping it hadn't come out as too much of a strangled squeak.
Garman nodded emphatically. "Yes. He got onto the scene pretty soon after the pot-man found the body. While they were waiting for the doctor and so forth, looks like the girl got him on one side and pitched him a sob-story. Claimed her father had a habit of knocking her about – a complete taradiddle, or so the neighbours say. Their opinion is he'd have done better to have taken the back of his hand to her a bit more when she might have been young enough for it to do some good. The constable was a new kid; hadn't been on that beat long, and, like I said, the girl was a looker, with those big violet blue eyes that just seem to ooze sincerity – I'm sure you can visualise the type."
Grimly, Parker indicated that he could, indeed, summon up a very clear picture.
"Anyway, the long and the short of it was she confessed she'd done the deed – semi-accidentally, knocked her father over in self-defence when he'd gone for her in his cups, head smashed in on the corner of the fender – you get the picture. Obvious nonsense. The beat copper might have gone goopy over the girl, but he had a pair of eyes in his head, and nothing in the story stacked up, from the wrong time of death – which the doctor confirmed, along with the fact that the dead man hadn't had more than a pint or so in the few hours before he died - to the fact that whoever did it had moved the barrels, and no girl could have done that. In fact, her story couldn't have fooled a baby. So naturally he leapt to the obvious conclusion."
"That the girl was shielding someone," Parker said. His voice sounded so hollow in his own ears he was surprised Garman didn't notice. His colleague only jabbed a nicotine-stained figure towards him.
"You've got it. And, the obvious suspect for who she'd be shielding was the pot-man, who she'd been walking out with, off and on, for a few months, as the neighbours were more than happy to confirm. There, unfortunately, was where the constable got a bit too clever for his own good. I suppose he fancied presenting CID with a case already sewn up, by the time they arrived. So he confronted the girl, tried to come over all fatherly and supportive – despite being only a couple of years older than her, if that, in terms of the calendar. To say nothing of about a century younger in terms of experience. And he managed – well, in fact all the managing was on her side of the business - to talk her into admitting the first confession had been a taradiddle."
Parker made a business of bending over to get something out of his desk drawer, in case Garman saw his hotly flushed face. "And?" he asked, his voice plausibly muffled by the awkward position.
"Oh, that was where he made his big mistake. He didn't mention he'd ever spoken to the girl about it. Why drag her into things, now he'd "proved" her confession was a phoney? Instead, he arrested the pot-man and got commended on a smart bit of work by the CID Sergeant. The girl, of course, put on a good show of being distraught, though just that bit too emphatic in proclaiming the pot-man's innocence, if you know what I mean. Everyone spoke well of her loyalty to her face and pitied her gullibility behind her back. I daresay she lapped it all up; after all, once someone hanged for the murder it would leave everything nice and clean for her and Blythe to step into her father's shoes."
"Good God!" Parker said.
"I know; nasty story, isn't it? But that's these smart janes all over. Don't care who gets it in the neck if they get their own way. What stopped it, in this case, was a million-to-one chance. "
Garman paused, as if marshalling his thoughts. "One of the most damning things was the pot-man's story about his whereabouts that night. First he claimed to have been home in bed, then he changed his story to say he'd been drinking after hours with some people he didn't know well in a place he wouldn't recognise again. Obvious lies, both of them."
He smiled. "Funny how things work out, isn't it? Quite by coincidence, the cops in Brent stumbled on an illegal cock-fighting racket – completely barbaric, with big sums changing hands in side bets, like something out of George IV's time. As it turned out, the ringleader was more than prepared to name names if it got him a shorter sentence. And guess who'd been holding the purse and taking the bets that night? Our friend the pot-man. So we were back to square one, except that Blythe and the girl had had a few days to try to cover their tracks even more effectively. And that's when I was brought in."
"Smart work," Parker said. At least his admiration for what sounded like a solid bit of policing could be unfeigned. "Must have been tough working out the girl had deliberately tried to throw people off the track by making a confession too far-fetched to be believed."
Garman, for the first time, looked slightly flustered. "Ah, well, there I had a bit of a stroke of luck. The first time I interviewed her, she was just going to return her library books to Boots. All 'tec stories. My missus is wild for them, too; she will insist on telling me the plots, even when it's the last thing I want after a day at the Yard. And the top one just happened to be some highbrow muck by one of these Oxford and Bloomsbury women. Martha borrowed that very same book a fortnight ago. And you can guess what the plot turned on."
Parker gritted his teeth. She was talking like somebody in a blood-and-thunder novel. Hadn't Peter said something like that recently? Peter – oh, God, Peter.
"I wish," he said with sudden fury, "we could put some of these writers on trial. It's bad enough with what criminals think up for themselves, without having people give them ideas." He pushed back his chair decisively. "I've got to see Sir Andrew at once. You've given me a new line on the Riddlesdale business. And I think I ought to get a second opinion as soon as possible."