THE TREBLE CHANCE MURDER
Chief Inspector Cromwell is spending a fishing vacation in Kent when one of the locals is found dead in the village pond after winning £ 200,000 in Sherwood's Treble Chance. The coroner's jury brings in a verdict of wilful murder and Ironsides, much to his disgust, is instructed to take charge of the investigation. But it isn't until after a second murder, that the whily Cromwell gets ready for the kill...
THE TREBLE CHANCE MURDER
Detective Sergeant John Lister, of the Criminal Investigation Department, New Scotland Yard, was not himself. As he emerged from a nondescript doorway in Victoria Street, the May sunshine shone upon his careless grey sports-coat, his open-necked check shirt, and his creaseless flannel trousers. In a word, Johnny was in holiday attire, all set to drive off in his racy Aston Martin saloon.
Johnny held the view that it was foolish to commence a motoring holiday in smart and well-pressed clothes; they would soon get rumpled and dirty, anyway, so why not start off with them in that condition? So much more carefree and comfortable. He slung a suitcase and a soft travelling-bag into the boot of the car, and then glanced up at the sky.
Quite a nice blue, he decided, but nothing like the blue of the Italian skies for which he was bound. The blue sky above him at the moment was, of course, a snare and a delusion. Long before he reached Dover there would be sinister black clouds – and probably a gale in the Channel. Who but a chump would risk a holiday in the uncertain English climate?
He turned away from the car to re-enter the doorway – and reeled slightly. A figure stood there – a figure which, to Johnny’s shocked horror, was scarcely recognisable. True, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell was never exactly immaculate in his attire, favouring, as he did, shiny blue serge and a squashy soft hat. Johnny’s startled eyes now rested upon a shaggy tweed suit of heather mixture, and a bright green velour hat of Tyrolean aspect, complete with feather at the side.
»No!« said Johnny hoarsely.
He shut his eyes, and opened them again, hoping that his vision had played him false. But no. The frightful apparition was still standing in the doorway.
»Thought I’d come down to see you off, son,« said the lean, forbidding-faced individual who was known to his Scotland Yard colleagues as Ironsides. »You’ll have to look sharp if you’re going to get to Dover in time for that boat.«
Johnny Lister had not heard a word.
»What,« he asked fascinatedly, »is the idea of this fancy dress? Where, in God’s name, did you find that suit? And the hat! Velour hats of that vintage went out before I was born. Get inside quick before a crowd collects.«
Cromwell not only ignored this advice; he emerged from the doorway and joined Johnny on the pavement, beside the parked car.
»I’ve worn this hat, and this suit, young feller, on more fishing holidays than I care to remember,« he said complacently. »They don’t make clothes like this nowadays. Comfortable. Easy. Just right for outdoors.« He gave the car a critical inspection. »Mind you don’t go and kill yourself on those French roads. We’ve only got a fortnight’s vacation, and I shall want you in one piece when you get back.«
»The chances of my killing myself on ‘those French roads’ are about as even as the chances of you falling into your fishing river and getting drowned,« he replied lightly. »My God! What a holiday! Two interminable weeks in some rural English backwater, squatting on the bank of a river, festooned in mackintoshes, watching a float!«
»And what’s your holiday going to be?« countered the chief inspector tartly. »Two hectic weeks of tearing about the Continent, risking your neck three times in every hour. I believe in relaxation for my holiday, Johnny – complete rest and tranquillity. I shall get back to work fresh and fit. And you? You’ll be like a washed-out rag, your nerves torn to tatters, and you’ll be useless for over a month while you recover.«
»All right, Old Iron, we’ll agree to differ,« chuckled the young sergeant. »We had exactly the same arguments last year. Incidentally, I’m not going to tear about the Continent; in a couple of days I shall be on the shores of the Adriatic, and I’m going to do as much relaxing as you. But I’m going to be in the sunshine, and swim every day in the warm sea. As I sit back in my deck-chair, under a sun-umbrella, I shall think of you shivering in the rain while you wait for a bite.«
»Well, I will say that this car is better than the death-machine you owned until a week or two ago,« commented Cromwell.
»Must be nice to have pots of money. How much did you drop on the exchange?«
»If you must know, I made five hundred quid on the deal,« replied Johnny proudly. »That open sports car was a real beauty, but she was too fast for our roads – and too open for our climate. This bus is more roomy, more comfortable, and she’ll do well over a hundred, anyway.«
They chatted for some minutes, and Johnny no longer kidded his superior. If Ironsides chose to go about looking like a relic of Edwardian days, it was his own concern. These two, so diametrically opposed in character and outlook, nevertheless made one of Scotland Yard’s most successful teams, and they even shared a bachelor flat. But when it came to the annual summer holiday, they went their different ways.
»If you’re ready, Old Iron, you might as well bring your bags down, and I’ll drop you at Charing Cross station,« said Johnny. »You’re going to some rustic retreat near Maidstone, aren’t you?«
»Yes, a nice little place called Wootton Mead,« replied Cromwell. »Never been there before, but I understand the fishing is good, and the Horseshoe Inn is something really special.«
»I’ll bet,« chuckled Johnny. »Burnt toast for breakfast – brown Windsor soup for lunch and dinner – and a lumpy custard and stewed fruit to finish off with. I know these rural inns! But what do you care, with your iron constitution?«
With this final sally, he grasped Cromwell by the hand, and got into the car. At the last moment he remembered that he had offered to give Ironsides a lift, but the latter waved him off, saying that he wasn’t ready yet, and would use a taxi.
So Johnny Lister went off on his Continental holiday in high spirits. In spite of Cromwell’s misgivings, he arrived at Dover in plenty of time to catch the cross-Channel boat. On one or two other occasions, he had used the air ferry, and had found it excellent; but this time he had booked his car on the Boulogne-Lyons car express, which struck him as an excellent scheme. Leaving Boulogne in the late evening, he and his car would arrive in Lyons at eight o’clock the next morning – with two-thirds of France behind him; and much as one may admire the scenery in south-eastern and southern France, it has to be admitted that the long motor roads of the north are dull and monotonous. There was also the time-saving element. By taking the car on the train to Lyons a whole day was gained.
As Johnny had half predicted, heavy, menacing clouds obscured the evening sky before the cross-Channel steamer had eased her way out of Dover harbour, and a keen wind was making the grey sea choppy. There was no apparent improvement in the weather at Boulogne. Indeed, a light rain was falling when Johnny drove his car on to the specially-equipped train. He had a hurried dinner in the buffet, and after he had paid the bill he made his way to his sleeping-berth on the train.
Being young and healthy, he slept like a top throughout the night, and awoke with barely sufficient time to wash and shave before the train rolled into the great station at Lyons – dead on time. Car drivers were requested to take the special buses to the railway yard, scarcely half a mile away, where the car-carrying coaches had been shunted. Within twenty minutes Johnny found his Aston Martin and drove away in hot sunshine under a blue sky.
»Just as I predicted,« he told himself complacently. »Once away from that bally Channel weather, the sun comes into his own.«
He took the famous Route Nationale 6, making for Chambery and the Italian frontier. He was feeling gay and carefree, and in real holiday mood. He chuckled as he thought of Bill Cromwell at this moment, looking out of his window at the Horseshoe Inn on a dripping green world, with rain-laden skies overhead. He pondered over the burnt toast and charred bacon which Ironsides was probably eating for breakfast.
He stopped for half an hour at a roadside restaurant for coffee and rolls, and then drove on contentedly. The car was purring as though she enjoyed the journey as much as he did. There was very little traffic, and he was able to maintain a steady seventy for long periods. Having passed through the interesting town of Chambery, he was midway between the villages of Aiguebelle and Épierre when he espied a lone figure on the road some distance ahead. There was no traffic at the moment, and this lone figure was standing out in the road, making unmistakable signs with his thumb.
Johnny frowned. A hitchhiker. Johnny was a companionable fellow, but he did not much care for the idea of picking up chance strangers – who might turn out to be insufferable bores. It was just as likely that they could not speak a word of English, or even French, which Johnny could manage. There were hitchhikers of all nationalities on the French roads at this season.
However, this particular hitchhiker, with his rucksack and his khaki shorts, was unquestionably British. A tall, lithe, young man, with a mass of chestnut hair and an eager, expectant expression on his face. Johnny, who had half made up his mind to drive straight on, hadn’t the heart to ignore that hopeful look. He trod on the brake and pulled up.
»I say, this is awfully decent of you,« said the young man eagerly. »I spotted your English number and wondered if you could give me a lift.«
»Why not?« said Johnny cheerfully. »Hop in.«
He liked the stranger at first sight, and did not regret stopping.
»Lovely car you’ve got,« commented his companion, as the Aston Martin gained high speed. »I’m hoping to get into Italy. Any chance that you’re going in that direction?«
»You thumbed the right man,« laughed Johnny. »I’m not only going into Italy, but across Italy. Rimini, on the Adriatic, is my objective. Where are you for?«
»Anywhere!« said the other promptly, his eyes glowing with satisfaction. »Anywhere as long as it’s in Italy. So much cheaper than France. I can’t afford French prices – particularly the meals. I crossed over two days ago, and was lucky enough to get a lift in a long-distance truck as far as Lyons. I say, this is marvellous. Thanks most awfully. I promise I won’t be a bother.«
»If you are, I always have a simple remedy – hoof you out,« said Johnny, with a laugh. »Lister’s the name – John Lister.«
»Mine’s David Conway.«
Johnny liked the other’s firm, warm clasp.
»I’m hoping to spend about three weeks in Italy,« said David Conway. »It’s not too difficult, doing it on the cheap. I’ve never hitchhiked before...« He paused, half-frowning, as though some vague thought was troubling him. »I say, I’ve heard your name before,« he went on, looking hard at Johnny’s profile. »John Lister. Sounds familiar. You’re not a writer, are you? I’m hoping to be a writer...«
»Do I look like a writer?« laughed Johnny.
»How can you tell? Writers don’t wear labels. You must be an actor, or... Good lord!« Conway started. »I’ve got you now! You’re a Scotland Yard chap! I was reading about a murder case a month or two ago... one of the Big Five named Cromwell was in charge, and your name was mentioned.«
»I’m glad to hear that, at any rate,« said Johnny. »Ironsides generally gets all the credit. Yes, he’s my chief. We’re both on vacation at the moment, but he’s dug himself into a lonely Kentish backwater for the fishing. I hope he’ll have a good time in the rain.«
»Some Kentish backwaters can be very lovely,« replied Conway seriously. »And it doesn’t always rain.« He changed the subject. »Did you say Rimini? Shall I be an awful nuisance if I ask you to take me all the way?« A note of anxiety entered his voice. »It’s an awful cheek, I know... There are some wonderful Roman remains at Rimini, and I might be able to get some useful local colour for an article.«
»So that’s what you do? Write articles?«
»Just one or two, and an occasional short story,« said the other. »But I’m not very good. What I really want to do is a long, serious novel.«
Johnny Lister grimaced.
»Are you one of these Angry Young Men?«
»Heaven forbid! Not the kind you mean, at any rate. I’m a countryman, born and bred, and I want to write about agriculture – particularly fruit farming,« said Conway, becoming very serious. »English fruit – and particularly Kent fruit – is the best in the world. It makes me boil when I see all the neglect. With modern methods, a great and thriving industry in fruit could be organised. Not all the fruit farmers are backward, of course, but some of the others...« He broke off. »I want to write a novel that will shake people up.«
Johnny smiled at his companion’s enthusiasm.
»And you’re not an Angry Young Man?« he said slyly.
»No, I’m not angry – I’m impatient,« said Conway. »There are fruit farms around Wootton Mead that are a positive disgrace. They could bear double and treble the yield if they were only properly cared for.«
»Did you say Wootton Mead? Well, well! It’s a small world,« chuckled Johnny. »I’ve always said that coincidences in real life are more far-fetched than those in fiction. Bill Cromwell, my chief, has gone to Wootton Mead for his holiday.«
»No? Really?« said Conway, with lively interest. »My father’s the vicar. Well, I’m damned!«
»You must know an inn called the Horseshoe. That’s where Bill Cromwell is staying – poor chap. I wish him luck with the kind of grub they’ll dish out.«
»He won’t need any luck,« said Conway, with a smile. »Obviously, you don’t know the Horseshoe. Mrs. Grant runs it, and it’s the finest inn for miles – probably the finest in Kent. As for the food, you don’t get better in a West End restaurant – at four times the price.«
»You surprise me,« said Johnny. »The wily old devil! He never told me the Horseshoe was all that good. And here I’ve been commiserating with him, and wondering if his digestion would hold out.«
The fact that this pleasant young man was a native of Wootton Mead drew Johnny closer to him. It seemed to give them a mutual interest. And as the day proceeded, Johnny found his companion more and more likeable. They lunched at a modest hotel in Modane, a little French town in the heart of the mountains, with frowning peaks reaching to the sky all around. Johnny had selected the cheap hotel out of regard for Conway’s pocket – and was pleasantly surprised to find that the meal was excellent in every way, although modest in price.
They travelled on during the afternoon, and after crossing the Italian border, with the usual token formalities at the Customs, they drove on, avoiding Turin, and finally landing up for the night at the Hotel Royal in the interesting Italian town of Asti.
At the moment they sat down for dinner, Bill Cromwell, far away in rural Kent, was finishing his soup in the oak-raftered dining room of the Horseshoe Inn. And a more delightful, charming room could scarcely be imagined. It was not large, but everything about it was perfect in its own way. The little tables gleamed with white linen, highly polished glassware and shining silver. Ironsides had already discovered, from his lunch, that the food was beyond reproach. Mrs. Grant, the proprietress, was a woman in a thousand. She conducted her little establishment with something more than efficiency. Indeed, the cuisine at the Horseshoe was celebrated for many miles around, and local farmers and fruit growers and such-like habitually turned up for lunch and dinner. Not only was the dining room full on every day of the year, but very often the customers had to be accommodated in relays.
The Horseshoe, in a word, was one of those country inns which are all too rare in England. It was a shining example of what could be done under good management and with brains. Mrs. Grant, a widow – middle-aged, but slim and smart – was the guiding genius. The inn catered for residents also, but no more than half a dozen, and Cromwell considered himself lucky to have booked for the fortnight. Incidentally, he had given his name as William Oliver, having no wish to be stared at and made the subject of whispered discussions. When on vacation, Ironsides preferred to hide his light under a bushel. He was simply a somewhat elderly man down for the fishing who kept himself to himself.
The excellent meal over, Cromwell retired to the sprawling, comfortable lounge, and settled himself in one of the big easy-chairs in a corner. The Horseshoe was more than a mere eating place; in the evenings, it became a sort of local club, where the worthies of the district congregated for a drink and a chat. Every Saturday evening there was a dance in the Old Barn – a roomy outhouse at the rear of the inn.
Cromwell found much quiet entertainment in listening to the general talk, and identifying the various customers. Curious glances were sometimes cast in his direction, but he gave his fellow men no encouragement. He preferred to be a listener rather than a participator. He had spent a happy afternoon selecting a likely spot on the river, and he was confident of good sport on the morrow.
Towards nine o’clock the little bar, in an alcove off the lounge, began to fill. Most of the customers were men, true country types. Cromwell, sitting in his corner, quietly enjoying his leisure and a drink, was easily able to »place« the various men. They were generally greeted by name on entry, and Ironsides soon knew who they were. George Fitch, the man who owned the Long Farm, just outside the village – burly, ruddy complexion, with a big and hearty laugh; Wilfred Adams, who ran the local flour mills near the river – lean, hard-featured, with big horn-rimmed spectacles and dressed more like a business man than a mill owner; Colonel John Bascombe, very much the local squire – loud-voiced, boisterous, stating his opinions in a hearty, authoritative manner, and glaringly defying anybody to disagree with him. Cromwell smiled quietly to himself over this latter gentleman; he knew the type so well.
A young man who puzzled him for some time, and whom he could not immediately place, was the local doctor. He came in for a drink at about nine-thirty, accompanied by a very pretty girl with strikingly red hair. Slim and graceful, she caught the chief inspector’s appreciative eye at once. He liked her merry laugh, and the gay sparkle in her bright eyes. He caught one or two chuckles from two men who were sitting near him.
»Good thing young Conway’s away on holiday,« said one of the men, with a laugh. »Dr Drummond seems to be making a hit with Debbie. Smart girl, that.«
»Damned pretty, too,« said the other man, almost enviously. »I saw her more than once when I was in hospital with my leg a couple of months ago – and I was sorry that she wasn’t one of the nurses.«
From the casual conversation, and a few other remarks which passed to and fro, Cromwell gathered that Deborah Fraser was secretary to the hospital’s surgeon, and that she was the fiancée of a young man named David Conway, who appeared to be indulging in a hitchhiking holiday on the Continent. Conway, it appeared, was the son of the Reverend Augustus Conway, of the Vicarage.
All very pleasant and congenial. Ironsides was quite content to sit in his corner and view the scene as a mere spectator. He was enjoying himself immensely. This was his kind of rest-cure. Fishing in the daytime, and taking his ease in the lounge of the local pub in the evenings. Better than dashing through France and Italy in a fast car, like that young fathead, Johnny. This was real peace.
Or was it?
The quiet murmur of general conversation in the lounge was suddenly disturbed by a sound of shouting from outside, and a moment later the door burst open to admit a wildly excited man, followed by two or three others who were pushing him in. In a moment, the serene, placid peace of the lounge was destroyed. Mrs. Grant, behind the bar, looked shocked.
»Now, Mr. Barlowe, you know better than this,« she protested, as the excited man reached the bar. »Good heavens! What ails you? You can’t be drunk already.«
»Drinks for everybody,« shouted Barlowe, with a wide sweep of his hand. »Order anything you like, boys – double whiskies – champagne – anything!«
»You are drunk,« said Mrs. Grant tartly.
»Must be,« muttered one of the men who sat near Cromwell. »Barlowe hasn’t treated anybody to a drink ever since I’ve known him. He must have loaded up in Maidstone, after he left his office.«
»Call me a drunk if you like, Mrs. G. – but I’m not drunk with liquor,« shouted Barlowe, thumping a hand fist on the bar. »What about those drinks? You as well! Everybody!« His face was red, his eyes inflamed. »Think I’m potty, don’t you?« He laughed wildly. »I’ve just won two hundred and five thousand quid in Sherwood’s Treble Chance!«
For a moment, there was complete silence following this announcement; then an absolute babble of talk rang out. Men crowded round Barlowe, thumping him on the shoulder, pumping his hand, and offering their envious congratulations.
»The jackpot!« panted Barlowe hoarsely. It only knew about it for certain a couple of hours ago – when two of Sherwood’s people called on me.« His voice almost cracked. It staked one-and-six on nine lines in the No Limit Treble Chance. Can you imagine it? The very last day of the football season – the last matches! And I scooped the ruddy pool.«
The man was almost beside himself with intoxication – the heady intoxication of excitement. Even Mrs. Grant ceased to call for order. This was a unique occasion. The only previous pools excitement in Wootton Mead had occurred a couple of years earlier when old Jerry Saunders, who worked at the sawmills, had won a couple of hundred pounds – a mere triviality compared with this monstrous windfall.
»Two hundred thousand!« muttered Fitch, the farmer, who was standing near Cromwell. »My God! The luck of some people! What’s he ever done to deserve it?«
»Don’t know him,« said another man, who was with Fitch.
»Peter Barlowe – lives across the Green in a house called Five Elms – runs an estate agent’s business in Maidstone,« said Fitch. »His wife ought to be happy now – I’ve heard they quarrel like cat and dog. By the way, see that pretty girl with the red hair? She’s Barlowe’s wife’s sister.«
A little later, after things had quietened down somewhat, Bill Cromwell mused over the amount of information he had gathered merely by sitting still and keeping his ears open. On his first evening at the Horseshoe he already knew who many of these people were, and how they lived. He regarded it as an object lesson. No need to ask questions. Nothing like a village pub for gleaning information. Not that the information he had gleaned in this case was of any importance.
Before ten o’clock many of the men were a little the worse for drink – an unusual circumstance at the Horseshoe. Barlowe was reckless – he was pressing drinks on all and sundry and footing the bill with the air of a kindly overlord.
His antics, as he took more drinks himself, were becoming slightly comic – and, in Cromwell’s opinion, pathetic.
More than once Ironsides saw Mrs. Grant glancing rather anxiously at the clock at the back of the bar; she was evidently glad that closing-time was near at hand. Another half hour of this, and Barlowe would be incapable – or violent. Probably the latter. He seemed to be that type.
»Pools!« thought Cromwell dubiously. »Ten-to-one, this sudden wealth will do the man a damned sight more harm than good. I’ve known it happen before now.«
He began to dislike Barlowe more and more. He had instinctively taken an aversion to the man from the start, and the wily chief inspector seldom went awry in his judgment of character. His trained eye had not failed to detect a curiously shifty expression on Barlowe’s face – something that broke through his outward boisterous excitement; and his eyes seemed incapable of holding another’s gaze.
»Time, gentlemen, please,« came Mrs. Grant’s polite, but firm voice.
Last drinks were ordered – and again Peter Barlowe insisted upon paying.
»Money’s nothing to me now!« he bragged, his voice thick. »What have I spent? A few measly quid! I’m rich – I’m worth a fortune. To hell with everything!«
»Go home, Barlowe,« said Colonel Bascombe, going across and laying a fatherly hand on the man’s shoulder. »Stop acting like a fool, and...«
»The squire himself!« interrupted Barlowe, reeling slightly as his wild, bleary eyes focused the colonel. »Well, well! You’re not the big shot any more, Bascombe! You and your bloody great estates! I’m the big shot now. My God, I could buy and sell you.«
»Peter, for goodness’ sake stop saying silly things like that,« cried the red-haired girl, running up and taking him by the arm. »Help me, please, Doctor. I’m so sorry, Colonel Bascombe,« she added, flushing. »He’s not usually like this. It’s been too much for him.«
The worthy colonel, who had been about to explode, controlled himself with difficulty.
»That’s alright, my dear – take him away!« he said gruffly.
Slowly, the lounge emptied itself; the voices of the departed revellers came through to Bill Cromwell as he still sat in his corner.
»A pity,« he told himself, with a shake of the head. »Who was it said that money’s a curse? I don’t think there were any football pools at that time, but he certainly had a pretty good knowledge of human nature.«
The sky was blue, the air was warm, and Johnny Lister and David Conway were strolling leisurely down the Viale Gramsci in the charming coast resort of Riccione, a few miles from Rimini. They were nicely settled in the Hotel Romagna, which was not only reasonable in its charges – and suitable for Conway’s pocket – but comfortable in the extreme. The food was excellent, the service beyond reproach, and the proprietor’s daughter, who spoke good English, was a very charming person, and ever ready to help the residents.
»This is the life,« said Johnny contentedly, as he lit a cigarette. »A nice bathe, a leisurely lounge on the beach, and a good dinner in prospect. We’re lucky to have found such a nice hotel – and so near the beach.«
»Rather more than I can afford, I’m afraid, but I shall be able to stay a day or two, anyway,« said Conway. »Not that I’m keen on shifting. Riccione is lovely. And I haven’t thanked you, yet, for putting up with my company...«
»Rats!« interrupted Johnny.
The evening was very pleasant, after a hot day. Both the young men were attired in open-necked shirts and shorts. They were taking a pre-dinner stroll, after the fashion of most visitors, to the main part of the town. Reaching the end of the comparatively narrow road, they turned left into the Viale Ceccarini, with its gay shops and its numerous cafes, each of the latter with its open-air frontage. The scene was all the more colourful because the different cafes favoured contrasting colours with their tables and chairs.
Johnny did not regret having teamed up with David Conway. The latter had proved himself to be a most likeable companion, and ready to fall in with Johnny’s every wish. He seemed to have the impression that he was imposing on Johnny’s good nature, and his repeated expressions of thanks were actually becoming somewhat embarrassing.
Moving leisurely with the crowds, gazing occasionally into the shop windows, attracted by the loveliness of the Italian girls, the pair eventually came to a shop with large stalls stretching out across the wide pavement.
»What-ho!« said Johnny. »English newspapers – today’s, too. Wonderful how they get them over so quickly.«
They each bought a paper and strolled along, glancing at the headlines – and not particularly interested. It is curious how the average British tourist, who reads the morning paper avidly at home, pays it very scant attention when he happens to buy a copy abroad. More often than not, he will spend his entire holiday without seeing an English newspaper of any kind.
»Same old guff,« commented Johnny. »Opposition raising a stink over some idiotic triviality – frightful congestion on the roads during the weekend – some lucky stiff has won a lot of money in the pools...«
He was interrupted by a sudden gasp from David Conway – a gasp which practically amounted to a yell – as the latter came to a halt in the middle of the crowded walk, causing other people to bump into him, staring in surprise.
»What the devil...« began Johnny.
He stopped. Conway was standing stock-still, completely unaware of his surroundings. He was staring at the newspaper in his hands, and he was trembling from head to foot. There was an expression of shocked surprise on his fresh, good-looking face.
»What’s wrong?« asked Johnny quickly. »Bad news?«
Conway tried to speak, and failed. Perspiration was streaming down his pallid face, and his eyes were protruding. Johnny began to feel uncomfortable. People were staring at them in a most embarrassing manner.
»I don’t understand,« muttered Conway, at last. »It says here that Peter’s won the jackpot in Sherwood’s Pools. Sherwood's Pools!« he repeated, almost wildly. »Good God! Two hundred and five thousand pounds!« The mention of the exact sum seemed to galvanise him. »Oh, my God! I’ve won two hundred thousand pounds,« he shouted, waving the newspaper. »I don’t believe it! It’s too good to be true! Two hundred thousand quid...«
»Steady,« interrupted Johnny, taking a firm grasp of the other’s arm, and deciding that this nuisance should be abated. »You’ve got it all wrong, you poor ass. I’ve just been reading the same item in my paper – and the chap who’s won it is named Barlowe. For the love of Pete, pull yourself together!«
»It’s not true!« shouted Conway excitedly. »Barlowe couldn’t have won it. It’s mine. It’s my coupon. Oh, my goodness! Two hundred thousand quid!« He kept repeating the sum as though in a dream. »Now I can marry Debbie – now I can write that novel! I never imagined for a moment that either of us would ever win...«
»Chuck it!« snapped Johnny curtly. »Let’s get away from here. Too many people. They’re already beginning to think we’re crazy.«
He forced his companion to move forward, and after walking a few paces Conway’s demeanour underwent a change. The wild excitement which had affected him until now changed subtly into a quiet, subdued excitement. The incredulous stupefaction had died out of his eyes, leaving them sparkling with serene happiness.
»Sorry I blew up like that...«
»Save it,« interrupted Johnny firmly. »Still too many people.«
He had decided to steer Conway back to the hotel, but changed his mind as they were about to enter the Viale Gramsci. Instead, he continued straight on until they had reached the sea front, only a short distance away. Crowded as the shopping centre had been, the wide esplanade was practically empty. The evening sun was shining on the blue waters of the Adriatic, and on the seaward side of the esplanade the long lines of bathing-cabins were gay in their various colours. It was possible to catch an occasional glimpse of the golden sands – sands which extended for miles along this perfect bathing coast.
Johnny did not relax the pressure on Conway’s arm until they reached a quiet seat, where no other pedestrian was within a hundred yards of them. An occasional car sped by along the front, but otherwise they had the place to themselves.
»Now, my lad, explain yourself,« said Johnny, tapping his newspaper. »It says here, in plain, unmistakable English, that a man named Peter Barlowe has won two hundred and five thousand pounds in the No Limit Treble Chance...«
»Yes, I know that,« interrupted Conway. »It’s got it in my newspaper, too. I’m frightfully sorry I made such a scene back there. But when I saw Peter’s name in the newspaper... I mean, it distinctly says Sherwood’s Pools. That’s what gave me such a shock.«
»Clear as mud.«
»But it’s my money – I won it.«
»Look, old lad, you’re a bit mixed up,« said Johnny gently. »You’ve won nothing. Don’t for the love of Mike, get all excited again.«
»I won’t,« promised Conway, with a laugh. »It’s quite all right, of course. These newspapers have got it wrong, that’s all. For some reason Peter didn’t tell them.«
»Didn’t tell them what?«
»That it was my coupon.«
»One of us is nuts, and it’s not me,« said Johnny, in exasperation. »Don’t look so damned pleased with yourself, Conway. You seem to have imagined that you’ve won this tremendous fortune...«
»That’s just the point – I have,« broke in the other happily. »I say, give me a cigarette! Thanks.« He lit up and puffed vigorously. »Can you wonder that I’m looking pleased with myself? How often does a man win two hundred thousand pounds – straight out of the blue? I know it has happened before.«
»Are you telling me that your name is Peter Barlowe?«
»No, of course not. I’ll explain,« said the other, as he leaned back and stared dreamily into the blue sky. »Peter and I have had a little private arrangement all through the season. I’ve known him since I was a kid, of course, and his wife’s sister is my fiancée. That makes us even closer than ordinary friends. The trouble, of course, is my father.«
»You don’t like your father?«
»Good lord, it’s not that. The governor’s one of the best, but, like a lot of vicars, he has some bigoted views on gambling,« said Conway, with a little grimace. »He’s bitterly opposed to the pools and... well, I live at home. Awkward to have pools coupons coming to me every week through the post. The very sight of them would upset the old man like the devil. So I had to do a bit of wangling.«
»Yes, I can understand that,« said Johnny. »Awkward for you, having such letters coming to the house. My own father has some pretty caustic views about the pools, and I don’t think I’d like to offend him by...«
»That’s just it,« said Conway eagerly. »I didn’t want to offend him. But, dammit, there’s nothing wicked in having a little flutter on the pools. I made an arrangement with Peter at the beginning of the season, and it’s worked like a dream all the time. He’s been sending my coupons to Sherwood’s, and his own to Littlecope’s. Using his own address for both, of course.«
»And his own name for both?«
»A syndicate of two, eh?«
»Oh, no. All he did was to post off my coupon for me, using his own name,« explained Conway. »If he won anything on Littlecope’s it was his. If I won anything on Sherwood’s it was mine. As a matter of fact, we did have a bit of luck earlier in the year, and Sherwood’s whacked out fifteen quid odd, which Peter handed over to me on the spot. He’ll naturally do the same with this big money.«
»Wow!« said Johnny Lister, with a serious face.
»Did you have anything in writing about this arrangement?«
»No, of course not. I’ve known Peter since I was a kid – as I told you a little while ago. He’s my best friend. He’ll be as excited as I am over this win.«
»It says nothing in the paper about...«
»About me?« broke in Conway. »Of course, it doesn’t. Why should it? Peter’s simply waiting until I get home. I still can’t believe it, you know,« he added dreamily. »Neither of us ever expected to take in more than a few pounds on any coupon. Not a sausage all the season – and now this!«
»Don’t you call fifteen quid a sausage?«
»Comparatively speaking, I mean,« laughed Conway. »Naturally, we did ask one another what we’d do if we ever clicked a big prize – but we never allowed our imaginations to go beyond three or four hundred quid. Peter said he’d put the money into his estate agency, and I said I’d use mine to keep things going while I wrote my novel. Of course, we were only gassing. We never really thought...« He broke off, and swallowed. »Now this! The ruddy jackpot! The kind of Treble Chance win you sometimes read about – but never dream that it could be you.«
He fell silent, and Johnny Lister permitted him to continue his dreaming. Perhaps the young
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: Victor Gunn/Apex-Verlag.
Images: Christian Dörge/Apex-Graphixx.
Cover: Christian Dörge/Apex-Graphixx.
Editing: Mina Dörge.
Publication Date: 12-23-2020
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