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The northeast corner of the lounge in the Mystery Authors' Club had been considered, at one time, the choice location of the premises. In those long-gone days of a quieter London, it had peered over the low gables of the Amberford residence across Pomfret Street, to give onto a pleasant view of Swan's Park, with its soft greenery, its beveled rough-stone walls, and the relatively peaceful sight of nursemaids pushing perambulators or seated suspiciously watching their well-behaved charges. The Club's newspaper rack had also been adjacent to that corner, so that those who frequented this haven were in the best position to catch the porter as he entered each morning, and thus guarantee a pristine crossword puzzle. In addition, it was the farthest point from the clatter of the kitchen, and the closest to the security of the bar. All in all, it was quite ideal.
In those early days, three deep chairs upholstered in rich, hand-tooled leather had been placed in this corner in such a manner as to form a sort of alcove, a protective fortress against the maraudering forays of newcomers, and these three chairs had immediately been preempted by the three founding members of the Club, who almost certainly had such a maneuver in mind when they pressed the committee to order them. True, at times some uninformed neophyte made the natural mistake of seating himself in one of the chairs, but he was usually ousted by a nervous waiter or a horror-stricken porter before any serious scene could occur. And in time, as the Club grew and consolidated, it became understood by all that the place was inviolate, and the three comfortable chairs set in their lazy curve before the highold-fashioned windows were left, together with their aging occupants, in peace.
But time, in addition to establishing prerogatives, had wrought other and less desirable changes. The pleasant view of Swan's Park, for example, had been lost when some group of energetic entrepreneurs had chosen to erect a twenty-storied building where the old Amberford mansion had stood, and now all that could be seen from the secluded alcove were pert shirt-waisted secretaries pounding on typewriters, or bowlered gentlemen entering and leaving the small cubbyholes across the way with frowns upon their dewlapped faces.
And the Club itself had also changed, and was no longer the comfortable sanctum it once had been. Increased membership, plus the publication of several successful anthologies by the expanding membership, had burgeoned the treasury with expendable monies, and a large portion of these unexpected riches had gone for the modernization of the premises. The ancient oak and the worn but homey carpeting made way for bright woods, exotic woven-rope rugs, and colorful but unintelligible paintings. The journal rack had been replaced by a newspaper-vending machine, American in origin and frightening in concept, which was located within coin sound of the secretary's office; while the kitchen was refurbished with a wealth of chrome and stainless steel such as to strike terror into the hearts of all but the most insouciant chefs. The bar, of course, was reestablished more in the path of the unconscious traffic pattern of arriving members. Despite the changes, however, the three originators of the Club still stuck stubbornly to their corner with all the rigor of defenders-to-the-end, although the time had long passed when anyone wanted to dislodge them.
"Let them stay there," said Potter, the new secretary, a bit disdainfully. "Let them stay there and vegetate."
"Personally, I can't imagine why they are even still tolerated as members," said a bright young thing who had written two short stories, both donated to a Midland weekly. She reached around vaguely to borrow a cigarette. "I know they once--But the fact is, they haven't published for years and years!"
"Ought to be thinking seriously about a revision in the bylaws," added a third darkly. One could scarcely accuse him of forgetting--since he had never known--that in their day the three old men in the northeast corner had been lionized from the depths of Soho to the heights of Belgrave Square, and this at a time when Prime Ministers and Presidents had not yet learned to read shilling shockers for relaxation.
"Still--" a fourth said with a bit of embarrassment, and then fell silent as if he had succeeded in making his point. The others looked at him a bit questioningly. "I mean," he added, squirming a bit in his chair, "well ... let them be. I mean, after all, nobody really wants their corner, now, do they?"
"I agree," said Potter, instantly the liberal. "Let them alone; let them stew. They're harmless."
It was not, of course, the first time that Mr. Potter had been wrong, nor, as far as that goes, was it to be the last.
"Puppies!" growled Clifford Simpson. He was a tall beanpole of a man who filled out but one edge of his wide chair and looked like a tweed-covered carpenter's rule, awkwardly unfolded.
Beside him Tim Briggs's tiny face wrinkled in a smile. "I might agree with the family, but never with the age," he said, and bobbed his head as if it were being controlled by someone unfamiliar with the technique. He shrugged. "I suppose, though, one must forgive them. What do they know? They'll never know the fun we had in the old days." His tiny eyes brightened. "Do you remember when we first had the brilliant idea of setting up this club? Do you remember when we first discovered these rooms, and when we established this corner?"
"And," continued Simpson, his fingers tented precariously as he fell into the mood, "do you recall that housekeeper we had? Before we could afford porters, I mean? What was her name? The first one, you know--the bosomy one." He chuckled in reminiscence, nodding toward the third member of their group. "Billy-boy here certainly ought to know. He was quite taken with her, as I recall."
Billy-boy--William Carruthers--smiled gently. With the shock of white hair framing his broad face, and his portly stomach resting comfortably upon his wide lap, he looked like an outsized cherub or a small Sidney Greenstreet.
"I was indeed," he said happily, and sighed. "Those were certainly the days. You know, I planned to put her into every novel I ever wrote. I wonder what ever happened to her?"
"Well, following the great tradition of the mystery novel," Briggs invented, pushing his wizened body further into the protective depths of the huge chair, "she got married. That's right--what else? She was courted and swept off her feet by a draper's second assistant who later turned out to be none other than Lord Elpus, an Italian count in disguise, and she ended up with pots of money. She would have lived happily ever after, too, except that one morning she came tripping down to breakfast and found his Lordship lying in his gore on the fender. Of their car, that is...."
He hesitated a moment, his eyes screwed up, and then continued. "Scotland Yard would have sworn the culprit was the butler, who not only had a driver's permit but was also known to have sworn a vendetta against Lord Elpus in his native Sicily. In the end, of course, it turns out that the guilty party is the four-year-old niece who suffered from compulsive asthma."
He snorted sardonically. "That's the new theme. That's the way you've got to write them to sell today. Today the murderer has to be either the shapely widow who hired Mike Sunday in the first place or else the teen-aged nymphet who simply gets tired of being repulsed by the aging--that is, the twenty-five-year-old--victim."
"Have you read Marshall's latest?" Simpson asked with the air of one not changing the subject, but simply advancing it. "I hear he got a six-hundred-quid advance from the publishers, and they tell me it's the worst piece of trash you can imagine. Six hundred quid!"
"Well, now," Carruthers said reasonably. "It'll sell, you know; and he did write it, you must admit. We're scarcely in a position to criticize Marshall or anyone else, because we don't even write any more. And we all know why: because we can't sell. We're old hat; we're aeons out of date. Face it."
"Oh, I don't know," Simpson said with a frown. He studied the ash of his cheap cigar with greater concentration, possibly, than the thing deserved. "I think we could if we were willing to follow the trend. But I'll be damned if I'll write the horrible stuff that Marshall does, just because it happens to make a lot of money!"
"And why did we write the horrible stuff we did, if it weren't for a lot of money?" Briggs asked sarcastically. He shook his tiny head. "I agree with Billy-boy that we don't write the junk Marshall does for the very simple reason that we couldn't if we tried. It's a trick, and we don't have it. Although," he added thoughtfully, "I doubt it's a worthy trick. I don't suppose either one of you actually read that six-hundred-quid masterpiece?"
The other two shook their heads.
"Don't feel sorry for each other," Briggs said, and grinned an elfin grin. "Feel sorry for me, because I did. And d'you know how he has his murderer kill his victim? Now, get this; it's extremely clever. Absolutely brilliant. It seems the villain owns a newspaper, and, knowing that our poor victim is a bit fey on the subject of nuclear warfare, fallout, et cetera, he simply keeps printing hydrogen-bomb scares until our poor victim goes completely scatty and blows his brains out. It's the God's truth!" He chuckled. "What happens to the other nineteen people who read the same journal, Marshall never reveals."
"Probably also blew their brains out," Simpson said with a grin. "It doesn't seem to me the proper way to maintain circulation, though."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Carruthers chided, smiling gently. "You may joke all you want, but the fact remains that the book will sell, and Mr. Marshall shall have money to burn. The six-hundred advance is the least of it. It will go into a cheap edition, the cinema will snap it up, and together with the foreign translations and the American rights, I should be rather surprised if our Mr. Marshall doesn't come out of it with well over ten thousand pounds in his purse."
"Ten thousand pounds!" Briggs's voice indicated the reverence in which he held this sum. He shook his head hopelessly. "Ten thousand pounds! And here we are, dipping into the last of our Postal Savings! What couldn't we do with ten thousand pieces-of-twenty!"
Simpson neatly stubbed out his cigar and stowed the ragged remains away in one of his innumerable pockets. "What would ten thousand pounds bring in the way of income, d'you suppose?" he asked idly, little knowing the fuse he was lighting.
"More than any one man needs," Carruthers answered automatically. His answer seemed to give him grounds for further thought. "It would do quite nicely for the three of us. Placed in certain securities, the interest from such a sum would handle our present problems more than adequately." And then he laughed shortly. "All we need, of course, is the ten thousand quid."
"It really does seem a pity," Briggs said stubbornly, shaking his small head. "Here is Marshall in line to make all of that money, and on the purest sort of tripe. And here we are, the three of us, probably the finest exponents of the gentle art of mayhem and slaughter in all England, and we can't seem to sell a line. Somehow it doesn't seem right."
"It isn't right," Simpson agreed gloomily. "It just is."
"Even Potter," added Carruthers, falling into the mood. "Our not overly bright secretary. I was unfortunate enough to read his latest. He has a plumber who has a rival; some disagreement over the chairmanship of the local football-pool selection committee, or some such nonsense. At any rate, they're rivals, and this plumber fiendishly decides to eliminate this other fellow by fixing his bathroom fixtures to constantly drip. Poor man eventually goes berserk and drowns himself. The tragic scene where this chap is sitting in the darkened bathroom--in only his socks, mind you--waiting for the constant drip to fill the tub sufficiently for his suicide, is pure Chekhov."
He started to laugh, but the laugh disappeared abruptly, turning into a plaintive sigh.
"Whatever happened to the old cosh?" he asked, with nostalgia tinging his voice. "Or the sudden shot in the dark?"
"Or the knife between the ribs?" Simpson wondered. "Preferably in a dark alley in Limehouse?"
"Or even Indian poison?" Briggs contributed helpfully. "Smeared on an arrow and shot from a passing tram?"
They were silent for a moment, lost in memories of the glorious past.
"Gone," Carruthers finally sighed sadly. "All gone!"
"What is happening," Simpson announced firmly, "is that the British public is being duped. Criminally, shamefully, and completely duped. Romance is being denied them; in its place they are being fed a jumbled mess of psychological claptrap. A man, for example," he went on, intrigued by his own argument, "whose wife is cheating with a footpad will feel no fear of that footpad, albeit the footpad is known to be a person of violent habits. Instead, he will live in terror of his wife's other friend, a college professor, who has the terrible weapons of Freud and Adler at his command."
"I can recall," Briggs remarked idly (and he was later to remember the exact moment he said it), "when the safest way to kill someone was to simply walk up to him in the middle of Piccadilly in broad daylight and bash him with a brick."
"It still is," Simpson said simply. "But today you'd never get anyone to believe it. These new college men at Scotland Yard would undoubtedly claim that you bashed Citizen A because what you really wanted to accomplish was to give Citizen B, a bystander, a violence complex which would eventually lead him to his ruin."
Their discussion was interrupted by their usual waiter, for it was the hour for tea. As they sipped with the ineptness born of ill-fitting dental plates, they avoided watching each other with studious politeness, but instead stared somberly across the way at the mountain of chrome and glass that blocked their view of Swan's Park. When the last cup had been drained and laid aside, the last crumb brushed fastidiously from worn lapel, and the last gum surreptitiously cleansed with probing tongue and plates then reseated, they leaned back to once again resume their conversation.
"Ten thousand quidnuncs!" Briggs repeated, as if to himself, and then belched gently. This ritual over, he added dreamily, "What couldn't I do with even a part of it! The first thing I'd do is get a decent set of plates!"
Simpson sighed. "And I? Could I use it? For once in my life I'd like to go for a walk in Hyde Park without the blind beggars covering their cups when they hear me approach. They seem to be able to divine my necessity by sound."
"They probably read your intentions in your eyes," Briggs gibed. "They--"
"Conversation, conversation!" Carruthers interrupted, staring blankly into space. The other two eyed him curiously, for he had taken small part in the discussion, and his preoccupation during tea had been demonstrated by his limiting himself to six cakes. And the tone of his voice indicated thoughts far from the norm.
"Ten thousand pounds," he went on, bringing his ice-blue eyes sharply down to his two companions. "We talk about it as if it were the moon, but it really isn't, you know."
"What's different about it?" Briggs demanded, and grinned.
But Carruthers was deadly serious. "Do you really want to know? Well, I'll tell you. I'm also tired of being on the verge of genteel starvation, if there is such a thing, and our conversation this morning made me realize suddenly that we are suffering without necessity."
His thick fingers idly traced the myriad delta cracks that spread across the worn leather of his chair arm. "You know, Tim, you remarked that here we are, the leading experts in mayhem in all England, and very little in pocket for being so. You also mentioned at some point in the discussion that the safest way to eliminate somebody would be to simply brain them in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded street." He nodded sagely. "Put together these two profound observations, and I do believe they might well spell the answer to our financial difficulties."
"I couldn't agree with you more if I knew what you were talking about," Simpson remarked, smiling. "By the way, what are you talking about?"
The cherubic figure stiffened a bit. "I'm talking about what I just said. To combine our talents--the only talents we have, admittedly--to find illegal solutions to the problems of people, and to come up with a sum total for these efforts of ten thousand pounds. For us. Which we direly need."
"Don't try to clarify it," Briggs begged, his eyes twinkling. "Just elucidate it."
"What Billy-boy means," Simpson explained, turning to Briggs with exaggerated patience, "is that we try writing one of our old-style thrillers. But this time we all write it. And we kill the victim by a combination of cosh, knife, and genuine arrow poison. All at the same time." He pretended to mull the matter over for a moment. "Oh, yes, I forgot. We also bash him with a brick in Piccadilly. And if he isn't dead by then, we all come back here and have tea."
Carruthers eyed them both in disgust.
"Let's be serious," Briggs said, sitting up a bit in his chair. "Billy-boy has something on his mind, and if it might even distantly mean money I think we ought to listen to him. But if you are talking about any form of writing," he added, turning to the chubby figure beside him, "then I say forget about it. It's hopeless. We've agreed that we can't write what the public wants, and the public have apparently made a blood pact that they don't want what we can write." His small eyes peered up at Carruthers unblinkingly. "Admit it: we couldn't ghost-write a letter to the editor and get it published."
"I am not speaking of writing," Carruthers said patiently. "Let us take it as read that our fiction days are over. I am speaking of the possibility of employing our rather unusual talents in real life."
Simpson adjusted himself a bit in his chair. It was almost as if he were being refolded into a more compact package. He studied the serious face of Carruthers for several moments.
"Exactly what are you proposing?" he asked slowly, and then smiled; it was evident that he still refused to treat the matter with proper sobriety. "Robbing a bank? I can see it now. We shall kill a guard and escape with ten thousand of the best, carefully packed in a nondescript suitcase in a black sedan with covered number plates. Going west, into the setting sun, of course."
But Carruthers was not to be deterred. "Not a bank," he said, refusing to be irritated by Simpson's light manner. "In fact, not robbery at all. To begin with, our particular talents do not run to burglary or crimes of that nature, and the whole purpose of my suggestion is that we employ our talents to their best advantage. Besides, the rewards of bank robbery are far too uncertain in relation to the risks involved, and to our physical capacity--or, rather, incapacity." He looked genuinely sad. "We must face the fact, gentlemen, that we are no longer spry enough to make an assured, or even a dignified, getaway."
"I know!" said Briggs, leaning forward. "Blackmail!"
Carruthers shook his head sharply. "Definitely not! Even in my writing days I avoided blackmail as a subject because the thought of blackmail has always been extremely distasteful to me. It is a repulsive crime. Besides, we do not have any facts at our disposal which would warrant anyone paying us a tanner for their suppression. No," he went on calmly, "I ask you gentlemen to return to our original thesis: we are experts in the field of inventing foolproof means of eliminating unwanted persons." His voice dropped as he peered at his two colleagues from beneath his shaggy white eyebrows. "If you must have it placed to you bluntly, I shall be blunt. I mean murder!"
"A murder league?" Briggs asked incredulously.
Carruthers smiled in fond congratulation. "You were always by far the best of us for titles, Tim. May I congratulate you. The Murder League it shall be!"
"You know," said Simpson thoughtfully, serious at last. "That's really not a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all. The only thing is, whom shall we murder?" He glanced involuntarily across the room toward the group in the southeast corner. "And be paid, I mean."
Carruthers shrugged the question aside. "A glance at the daily journals will show you gentlemen that people are being murdered quite regularly; for insurance, for love, for hate, for money--in short, for all the sordid motives we know so well." He raised an admonitory finger. "And consider this: other people are being severely punished for these murders with almost equal regularity. Why? Because they are amateurs attempting to do a professional job. Certainly there must be a wide field for our abilities among people of this nature."
"True," Simpson admitted. "We would have the distinct advantage of not being connected with the victim in any way."
"With our experience in plotting murder stories," Briggs added, now thoroughly intrigued, "we should easily be able to make all of them appear as either accident or suicide."
"Plus," said Carruthers, clinching his original argument, "there being three of us, by alternating--assignments, shall we say?--we would avoid that repetitious appearance at the scene which so often leads the police to second thoughts about accidents, or even suicides." He nodded his head in satisfaction. "I could go on, of course, and list the advantages that would accrue to our clients by dealing with us rather than allowing their passions to get out of hand, but I am sure with your experience you gentlemen can see these quite readily."
"It is really a very good idea," Simpson said, nodding. "And it would be fun to be plotting crimes again, with all the intricacies of method, and weapon, and all that. And, best of all, not even have to worry about motive. I have only one question." He looked across at Carruthers, a small frown of worry adding further wrinkles to his high brow. "Don't you feel that possibly we might be too old?"
"The ability to murder is one of the few things not taken from man by advancing age," Carruthers responded dryly. "I was not considering any hand-to-hand tussles as a means of fulfilling any obligations we might contract."
"Anyway," Briggs argued, "I'm only seventy, and I must be at least a year older than either of you. No, that's not the problem as I see it. What I should like to know is, would it pay enough?"
"Enough?" Carruthers stared at him. "What's enough? As it is, none of us is earning a farthing, and hasn't for ages. And actually, I imagine it could prove to be quite lucrative. At one thousand pounds per murder, let us say, we should easily arrive at our figure of ten thousand pounds well within three months. And that's only planning on one victim a week, which you'll grant is scarcely excessive."
"One thousand pounds?" Simpson shook his head doubtfully. "Just to kill someone? It seems to me rather dear. We wouldn't want to frighten away custom."
"Better too dear than too cheap," Briggs said decisively. "Otherwise we could easily find ourselves killing quite a low-grade person for quite shabby reasons."
"That is correct," Carruthers said, and smiled at Briggs in the manner of a professor confronted with the expected proper answer from a star pupil. "And really, you know," he added for Simpson's benefit, "One thousand pounds isn't all that expensive when you consider it. After all, if a man can afford to pay more than a thousand pounds for a new motorcar, certainly it should be worth as much to eliminate a nagging wife, or a wealthy aunt." He raised one hand. "Wherever possible, of course, we should try and select clients whose victims, shall we say, represent no great loss to society?"
"Agreed," Briggs said. "There certainly should be ample of those." He paused thoughtfully. "One thing," he added, "if we go into this we shall have to be quite firm about charity work. It is certain that we would be approached by many prospective customers with sad stories of desperate need, but with empty pockets. We shall have to turn down all offers that appear to be hardship cases. Whether their victims merit extinction or not."
"Yes," Carruthers said sadly, shaking his head. "It is true that people exist who are ready to take advantage wherever and whenever they can. You are quite right; as far as the financial aspects are concerned, I'm afraid we shall be forced to become quite hardened."
"And no credit," Simpson added. They looked at each other solemnly and nodded agreement at this logical clause. Then Simpson suddenly leaned forward, his frown returning.
"But how would we go about finding clients?" he asked, worried.
"By advertising, of course," Carruthers replied quite simply. "It's the rage now, you know, and I'm told it's remarkably effective. I can't imagine why, but there you are. In one of the more widely circulated journals, of course. But not the News of the World, or anything like that. Their readers scarcely run to thousand-pound fees, I shouldn't judge. The Times, possibly, or the Statesman."
"If they can sell some of the worthless services they do," Briggs interrupted, "then what we are offering should--"
"I didn't mean that!" Simpson's tone was testy. "I was merely thinking it was a bit open. A bit overt. Not subtle, if you know what I mean. Why, for example, would a journal like the Times ever accept an advert offering murder as a service?"
"Simply because they could never conceive of it as being an advert offering murder as a service," Carruthers replied calmly. "They will consider it the opening wedge in a campaign to sell a new Christmas toy or game, or something equally logical. Let us only hope that their readers are less gullible."
"But the police?"
"The police?" Carruthers shook his head slowly. "I can't see where they should present any problem. You certainly don't credit them with less imagination than the editors of the Times, I hope?" He looked at his two friends with a cheerful smile. "Well, gentlemen? Are we agreed? Is the Murder League a going concern?"
There was a moment's pause.
"All right," Simpson said at last. "You've answered my questions. I think it's a grand idea. The only thing is--" he frowned slightly--"do you think we should wait a few years? After all, they're talking quite a bit about abolishing hanging, and shouldn't we give ourselves every break?"
"Nonsense!" Briggs said. "We're not of an age where we can wait a day, let alone a few years. The worst that can happen if anything goes wrong is that we do hang. And they've yet to convince me it's any worse than slow starvation."
"Fine!" Carruthers said, pleased. "All right, gentlemen, as of this moment the Murder League is in business!"
They reached across and clasped hands across the low oaken table. The bouquet of interlaced fingers caught the attention of those in the southeast corner.
("A suicide pact, d'you suppose?" Potter asked, and was pleased that his mot received the laughter he had hoped for.)
The three founding members of the Club--and now the founding members of the League--leaned back and eyed each other in secret congratulation. Then Carruthers leaned forward.
"Well, gentlemen," he said softly, "I'd best get cracking on that advertisement."
He took a pencil from his pocket and began to scribble on the back of an old menu. His face wore the satisfied expression of a man finally engaged in an important endeavor he should have contemplated and tackled long before.
Briggs leaned back slowly, tenting his fingers, lost in the huge chair, and also lost in his dreams. His share of the interest on ten thousand pounds was already being subdivided in his mind among the multiplicity of his creditors.
Simpson fingered the ragged cigar butt in his pocket softly, his busy mind already delving among past writings for possible means and methods of moderately safe murder.
The Murder League was functioning.