Meg's marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett promised to be one of the season's happiest events. Until Meg began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, who had presumably been killed in WWII. Meg called upon old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry--until a brutal triple murder occurred.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
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'IT may be only blackmail,' said the man in the taxi hopefully. The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.
Already the traffic was at an irritable crawl. By dusk it would be stationary. To the west the Park dripped wretchedly and to the north the great railway terminus slammed and banged and exploded hollowly about its affairs. Between lay winding miles of butter-coloured stucco in every conceivable state of repair.
The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. They were keeping apart self-consciously, each stealing occasional glances in the same kind of fear at their clasped hands resting between them on the shabby leather seat.
Geoffrey Levett was in his early thirties. He had a strong- featured uncommunicative face and a solid, powerful body. His brown eyes were intelligent and determined but not expressive, and both his light hair and his sober clothes were well and conventionally cut. There was nothing in the look of him to show the courage of the man, or the passion, or the remarkable if untimely gift he had for making money. Now, when he was undergoing the most gruelling emotional experience of his life, he appeared merely gloomy and embarrassed.
Meg Elginbrodde sat beside him. He was much more in love with her than he had ever believed possible, and every social column in the country had announced that she was about to marry him.
She was twenty-five years and three weeks old, and for the five years since her twentieth birthday she had believed herself a war widow, but during the last three weeks, ever since her engagement had been announced, she had been receiving through the post a series of photographs taken in the city streets. They were all recent snapshots, as various landmarks proved, and in each of them there had appeared among the crowd a figure who either was her late husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, or a man so like him that he must be called a double. On the back of the latest picture to arrive there had been a roughly printed message.
'It may be only blackmail,' Geoffrey repeated, his deep voice carefully casual. 'That's what Campion thinks, isn't it?' She did not reply at once and he glanced at her sharply, accepting the pain it gave him. She was so lovely. Queen Nefertiti in a Dior ensemble. Her clothes seemed a part of her. Her plum-coloured redingote with its absurd collar arched like a sail emphasized her slenderness. Since it was fashionable to do so, she looked bendable, bone and muscle fluid like a cat's. A swathe of flax-white hair protruded from a twist of felt, and underneath was something not quite true. Exquisite bone hid under delicate faintly painted flesh, each tone subtly emphasizing and leading up to the wide eyes, lighter than Scandinavian blue and deeper than Saxon grey. She had a short fine nose and a wide softly painted mouth, quite unreal, one might have thought, until she spoke. She had a husky voice, also fashionable, but her intonation was alive and ingenuous. Even before one heard the words one realized, albeit with surprise, that she was both honest and not very old.
'That's what the police think. I don't know about Albert. No one ever knows quite what he thinks. Val certainly doesn't and she's his sister. Amanda may, but then she's married to him.'
'Didn't Amanda talk of it at all?' He was trying very hard not to be irritable. One of those solid men whose feet seemed to keep by very nature firmly on the ground, he was finding the inexplicable and unconventional unnerving.
Meg moved her head slowly to look at him, and he was aware of her new perfume.
'I'm afraid neither of us did,' she said. 'It was rather a beastly meal. Daddy kept trying not to say what was in his mind and she and I behaved like nicely brought up little boys and didn't notice. It's all a bit unbearable, darling.'
'I know.' He spoke too quickly. 'The Canon genuinely thinks it's Martin, does he?' and he added 'Your husband' with a formality which had not existed between them for a year.
She began to speak, hesitated, and laughed uncertainly.
'Oh dear, that was terrible! I nearly said "Daddy always thinks the worst" and that isn't at all what I meant–either about Daddy or about Martin.'
He made no comment and there was a long and unhappy pause during which the cab leapt forward a foot or so, only to pause and pant again frustrated. Geoffrey glanced at his watch.
'There's plenty of time, anyway. Now, you're sure it is three-thirty that you're meeting Campion and this Inspector?' 'Yes. Albert said we'd meet in that yard place at the top of the station, the one that used to smell of horses. The message just said, "Bath train, three forty-five, November eight" – nothing else.'
'And that was on the back of the photograph?'
'It wasn't in Martin's handwriting? Just block capitals?'
'I told you.'
'You didn't show it to me.'
She met his glance calmly with her wide stare. 'Because I didn't want to very much. I showed it to Val because I work for her, and she called up her brother. Albert brought the police into it and they took the photograph, so I couldn't show it to anyone.'
Geoffrey's face was not designed to show exasperation or any other of the more helpless emotions. His eyes were hard as he watched her.
'Couldn't you tell if it was like him?'
'Oh, it was like him.' She sounded helpless herself. 'They've all been like him, even that first one which we all saw. They've all been like him but they've all been bad photographs. Besides–'
'I was going to say I've never seen Martin out of uniform. That's not true, of course, but I did only see him for a short time on his two leaves. We were only married five months before he was killed – I mean, if he was killed.'
The man looked away from her out into the fog and the scurrying shadows in it.
'And dear old Canon Avril seriously believes that he's come back to stop you marrying me five years after the War Box cited him "Missing believed killed"?'
'No,' she protested. 'Daddy fears it. Daddy always fears that people may turn out unexpectedly to be horrible, or mental, or desperately ill. It's the only negative thing in his whole make- up. It's his bad bit. People only tell Daddy when it really is something frightful. I know how he feels now. He's afraid Martin may be alive and mad.'
Geoffrey swung round slowly and spoke with deliberate cruelty, aimed mainly at himself.
'And how about you, pretty? What are you hoping?'
She sighed and leaned back, stretching her long slender legs to dig one very high heel into the jute mat. Her eyes were watching his face and they were entirely candid.
'I knew I'd have to tell you all this, Geoff, so I thought it out.' The drawl was not unsuited to frankness. Each word had its full value. 'I love you. I really do. As I am now, with these last five years behind me, I am a person who is quite terribly in love with you and will always be – or so I think now, today, in this taxi. But I did love Martin when I was nineteen, and when I knew – I mean when I thought – he was dead I thought I'd die myself.' She paused. 'Somehow I think I did. Your Meg is a new girl.'
Geoffrey Levett discovered with horror that he was in tears. At any rate his eyes were smarting and he felt sick. His hand closed more tightly over the slender gloved one and he banged it gently up and down on the cushion.
'I'm a damned fool,' he said. 'I ought not to have asked you that, my dear, dear girl. Look, we'll get out of this somehow and we'll go through with the whole programme. We'll have everything we planned, the kids and the house and the happiness, even the damned great wedding. It'll be all right, I swear it, Meg. Somehow, it'll be all right.'
'No.' She had the gentle, obstinacy of her kind of woman. 'I want to tell you, Geoffrey, because I've thought it all out, and I want you to know so that whatever I do, well at least you'll understand. You see, this message may mean just what it looks to mean, and in an hour I may find I'm talking to Martin. I've been thinking how horrible that'll be for him. You see, I've forgotten him. The only thing I keep remembering and dreading is that I must tell him about the dog.'
'The dog?' he repeated blankly.
'Yes. Old Ainsworth. He died soon after Martin was – presumed killed. Martin will hate that. He loved Ainsworth. They used to sit and look at each other for hours and hours. It's horrible, but it really is the clearest thing I remember about either of them. Martin in pyjamas and Ainsworth in his tight brown skin, just sitting and looking at each other and being quite happy.'
She made a small gesture with her free hand. Its arc took in a lost world of air-raids and hurried meals in crowded restaurants, hotels, railway stations, khaki, sunlight – stolen pools of peace in chaos.
'When he was in the Desert he wrote a poem to Ainsworth – never to me, you know – but he did write one to Ainsworth.' Her husky voice filled the rain-drenched world. 'I've never forgotten it. He sent it home, probably for Ainsworth. You'd never imagine Martin writing verse. It went:
'I had a dog, a liver-coloured mongrel With mild brown eyes and an engaging manner.
She was silent and Levett did not move. It was as though the fog had brought coldly a third person into the cab. At length, since something had to be said, he made the effort
'A queer chap,' he murmured briefly.
'I don't think so.' It was evident that she was trying to remember. 'He was being a soldier then, you see. He was doing that all the time I knew him.'
'Oh God, yes!' He recognized the haunt at last from his own days in that strange hinterland of war which was receding faster and faster with every day of the fleeting years. 'Oh God, yes! Poor little chap. Poor silly little chap.'
Meg bowed her head. She never nodded, he noticed suddenly. All her movements were sweeping and gracious, like an Edwardian woman's, only less studied.
'I never saw him out of war,' she said, in much the same way as she might have said 'I never saw him sober'. 'I didn't know him, I suppose. I mean, I don't really know him at all.'
The last word faded and ceased uncertainly. The taxi started again and, seizing an opportunity, swung sharply into the station approach.
'Are you coming with me, Geoff?'
'No.' The disclaimer was altogether too violent, and he hastened to soften it. 'I don't think so, do you? I'll telephone you about five. You'll be all right with Campion and his bloodhound, won't you? I think you'll be happier without me. Won't you?'
The final question was genuine. The flicker of hope appeared in it unbidden. She heard and recognized it but hesitated too long.
'I just don't know.'
'You go along.' He kissed her lightly and had the door open just before the taxi stopped. As he helped her out she clung to his sleeve. The crowd on the pavement was large and hurried as usual and they were crushed together by it. Once again he saw her as he had been seeing her at intervals all the afternoon, afresh, as if for the first time. Her voice, reaching him through the bustle, sounded nervous and uncertain. The thing she had to tell him was altogether too difficult.
'I haven't really told you, Geoff. I'm so muddled. I'm so sorry, darling.'
'Shut up,' he said softly and thrust her gently away.
The crush snatched her and bore her from him into the dark archway of the entrance, which was festooned like a very old theatre proscenium with swathes of fog. She turned to raise a small gloved hand to him, but a porter with a barrow and a woman with a child frustrated her, and she was swept on out of his sight as he stood watching, still with the cab door open.
Meanwhile, Mr Albert Campion and Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke, who was Father Superior of the second most tough police division in metropolitan London and proud of it, stood in the covered yard of the southern end of the terminus and waited. Apart from bleaching him, the years had treated Mr Campion kindly. He was still the slight, elegantly unobtrusive figure exactly six feet tall, misleadingly vacant of face and gentle of manner, which he had been in the nineteen- twenties. The easiest of men to overlook or underestimate, he stood quietly at his point of vantage behind the rows of buffers and surveyed the crowd with casual good temper.
His companion was a very different kettle of fish. Charlie Luke in his spiv civilians looked at best like a heavy-weight champion in training. His dark face, with its narrow diamond- shaped eyes and strong sophisticated nose, shone in the murky light with a radiance of its own. His soft black hat was pushed on to the back of his close-cropped curls and his long hands were deep in his trouser pockets, so that the skirts of his overcoat bunched out behind him in a fantail.
Members of that section of the district who had most cause to be interested in him were apt to say that 'Give him his due, at least you couldn't miss him. He stuck out like a lighthouse.' He was some inches taller than his companion, but his thick-set build made him seem shorter. As usual he conveyed intense but suppressed excitement and rigidly controlled physical strength, and his bright glance travelled everywhere.
'It may be just some silly game, a woman playing the goat,' he remarked, idly sketching in a pair of horns with his toe on the pavement. 'But I don't think so. It smells like the old "blacking" to me. All the same, an open mind, that's what we want. You never know. Weddings and so on are funny times.'
'There's a man involved, at any rate,' objected Mr Campion mildly. 'How many photographs have you got of him in all – five?'
'Two taken in Oxford Street, one at Marble Arch, one in the Strand – that's the one which shows the movie advertisement which dates it as last week – and then the one with the message on the back. That's right, five.' He buttoned his coat and stamped his feet. 'It's cold,' he said. 'I hope she's not late. I hope she's beautiful too. She's got to have something if she can't even recognize her old man for sure.'
Campion looked dubious. 'Could you guarantee to recognize a man you hadn't seen for five years from one of those snapshots?'
'Perhaps not.' Luke put his head under an imaginary backcloth, at least he ducked slightly, and sketched in a piece of drapery with waving hands. 'Those old photographers – mugfakers we call 'em – in the street don't use very new cameras or very good film. I'm allowing for that. But I should have thought a woman would know her own husband if she saw the sole of his boot through a grating or the top of his hat from a bus.'
Mr Campion regarded him with interest. It was the first trace of sentimentality he had ever observed in the D.D.C.I. and he might have said so, but Luke was still talking.
'If it's blackmail, and it probably is, it's a very rum lark,' he was saying. 'I don't see how or when the bloke expects to collect anything out of it, do you?' His eyes were snapping in the smoking mist. 'The ordinary procedure is "Give me fifty quid or you'll be up for bigamy". Well, she's not married again yet, is she? Crooks can be peculiarly wanting in the top storey but I've never heard of one who'd make a blob like that. If it had been her wedding which had been announced and not her engagement it might have made sense. Even so, what's the point of sending her one picture after another and giving us all this time to get on the job?'
Mr Campion nodded. 'How are you getting on with the street photographers?'
The other man shrugged his shoulders. 'I'd rather ask those sparrows,' he said seriously, nodding towards a cluster of the little mice-like birds twittering over some garbage in the gutter. 'Same result and less halitosis. They all take several hundred snaps a day. They all remember photographing someone exactly like him, only it wasn't quite he. They all lost money on the deal. My boys are still working on it, but it's a waste of time and public money. The pics themselves are covered with fingerprints. All five show the same bleary, smeary figure in the street. Nothing to help at all. This last one with the train time on the back is the craziest of all, to my mind,' he added earnestly. 'Either he wants to get the police on the job or else he expects the young woman to be a darned sight more windy than she appears to be. You say she's not lying. I haven't seen her; I wouldn't know. I'm just taking your word for it. That's why I'm here getting so perishing cold.'
Excerpted from "The Tiger In The Smoke"
Copyright © 1952 Margery Allingham.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meg Eginbrodde has cause to be upset. On the eve of her wedding to Geoffrey Levett photographs of her first husband, who died in the war, suddenly start turning up. Someone wants her to think Martin Elginbrodde is still alive, and she doesn't know what to do. At a loss, Meg and Geoffrey turn to Albert Campion and Charlie Luke to help solve the problem. Campion and Luke are sure that Martin is dead, but they don't understand why someone is bent on proving otherwise. First an actor dies, then Geoffrey disappears, then a series of brutal killings points to someone who is desperately seeking information that Martin left for his wife before he died.