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Authors: John Dickson Carr

Below Suspicion

BOOK: Below Suspicion
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BELOW SUSPICION

HOLLOWAY PRISON, which houses female prisoners and those women awaiting trial, is in Islington. You will find it no very cheerful neighbourhood even in summer. This evening, with a cold March wind rushing and whining at the few street lamps, might have been the evening before an execution.

The Rolls-Royce limousine—its owner, forbidden by law to run a small car, could have both limousine and chauffeur as 'expenses'—drew up before the prison gates. In its tonneau sat Mr. Charles Denham, the solicitor, and Mr. Patrick Butler, K.C., the barrister.

Yet, when Butler opened the door of the car and Denham made a move to follow, the barrister waved his companion back.

"No," Butler said in his warm and friendly voice.

Denham's eyebrows, dark against the thin sincere face, drew together in anxiety.

"But don't you think I ought to be there when you talk to her?"

"Not at a first interview, Charlie. No. I want to"—Butler waved his hand with an easy gesture, and smiled—"take her emotional temperature, as it were."

That smile, the complete ease of manner for so comparatively young a man, seemed to inspire in Denham a kind of professional agony.

"The charge against her," Denham cried, "is murder."

"Of course it is," Butler assented cheerfully. "Or I shouldn't be here, should I?"

"Well," muttered the other, as though half conceding a point. "Well!" He peered out of the limousine towards the ugly, dim-lighted bulk of Holloway. "I hate women's prisons!" Denham added.

The handsome Mr. Patrick Butler, known to some as The Great Defender' and to others as 'that damned Irishman,' stood with one foot on the running board of the car, facing in; and he laughed. In another ten

years he might be too heavy, and with a far more florid tinge in his face. At the moment he was fort)- years old, and looked about thirty. His arrogant nose was offset by a wide humorous mouth, his intellectual contempt for others offset by a twinkling blue eye. If he fiad not been genuinely kind-hearted, and free with money to a point of idiocy, there might have been those who hated him.

"I tell you," repeated Denham, "I hate women's prisons!" "You exalt the sex," Butler told him dryly. "Now I love em, mind you! I love their ways and their eyes and their lips." He mentioned other charms as well. "But I keep 'em in their place, Charlie. Have you ever talked to Ferguson?"

"WTio's Ferguson?"

"The Governor of the prison."

Denham, whose tight-drawn thin face appeared older than Butler's though actually he was younger, shook his head impatiently as though to clear it.

"Ferguson," he said. "Of course! Stupid of me. But—"

"Do you know how to keep 'em happy in prison?" Butler pursued amiably. "Give each one a mirror in her cell, and a decent comb. Don't appear to notice what fantastic makeshifts they use for powder and lipstick. Besides, in this year '47, are their lives more drearv than the life we lead outside?"

Denham swallowed hard.

"Look here," he said. "We didn't come to this place to talk about female convicts. We're here to help Miss Ellis, an innocent girl." His voice sharpened. "You do think she's innocent?"

All amusement died out of Butler's manner. His expression became almost portentously solemn.

"My dear fellow, of course she is! Give me half an hour with her; that's all I ask."

And, with his confident swing like the walk of an emperor, he strode away.

Fifteen minutes later, hat in hand, Patrick Butler was standing in a little whitewashed room with two barred windows that showed a muddy red sky westward. A single electric bulb, in a wire cage, hung from the ceiling. Its light stippled the room with cold cage-shadows, weaving the net round a plain deal table and two chairs.

Patrick Butler had been here many times. And yet, despite his light tone to Denham, he had never liked it. It was too much like being

locked up in a room at the heart of the Great Pyramid, with a suffocating sense that in\nsible hands were beating at the bars all around you. Big and comfortable in his fine overcoat, obtained after much wangling with black-market coupons, he sat down at one side of the table. And a matron brought in Miss Joyce Ellis.

"Lord!" was Butler's thought. "A good-looker! Handsome's the word, rather. That is, if she had any animation. Not my type. But attractive."

Joyce Ellis, a middle-sized, dark-haired girl with large grey eyes, looked startled as he rose to his feet. She had to clear her throat before she could speak.

"Mr. Denham?" she said inquiringly, and looked round the room for Charlie without finding him. She was frightened.

"I'm afraid Mr. Denham couldn't make it," said Butler, with his best big-brotherly manner. He smiled deprecatingly. "But you won't mind me, I hope? I'm your counsel. My name is Butler. Patrick Butler."

"Patrick Butler?" echoed the girl.

He saw that the name had registered.

The matron—female attendants are never called 'guards' or 'wardresses'—did not remain in the room with them. But the blue-clad matron would be just outside the door, watching through a glass peephole; she would be into that room if Butler so much as tried to shake hands with his client.

For a moment, after the door had closed, Joyce Ellis stood staring.

"But I... I haven't any money!" she cried. "I can't... I mean...."

Butler laughed outright. He was a product of Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford. But often, very deliberately, he would inflect his speech with a trace of Dublin accent which the English called a brogue; they loved it and fell for it.

"Faith, now, and what does that matter?"

"But it does matter!"

"Not the least bit in the world," he told her truthfully. He was so genuinely contemptuous of business matters that fortune, in turn, showered money on him. "If it makes you feel better, my dear, I'll take my fee out of the next rich blacketeer who really is guilty."

Unexpectedly, and though she hated it, tears came into the girl's eyes.

"Then you believe I didn't do it!" she said.

Butler's smile implied assent. His mind, a cool weighing-scale, was appraising thus:

"She's got a beautiful figure; those dowdy clothes hide it. Probably

she's as sensually passionate as the devil; I'm glad there's no man mixed up in this. And she'll do well in the witness-box. Those near-tears look almost real."

"I ought to have known" Joyce said wth fierce sincerity, "you wouldn't believe I was guilty. I've—I've read about you."

"Oh, they overrate my poor services."

"They don't!" said Joyce, and clasped her hands together and lowered her eyes. She was sitting opposite him at the table, with a cage of shadow-bars across her face.

"Anyway," she went on, "let's leave my thanks for another time. I don't want to make a fool of myself and cry. Do you want me to tell you . . . what happened?"

Butler considered for a moment.

"No," he said. "Let me tell you what happened; and I can ask questions as I go along. For instance, how old are you?"

"Twenty-eight," Joyce answered. She looked at him in surprise.

"And your background, my dear?" His rich inflection made it 'me dear.' "Your family, now?"

"My father was a clergyman in the north of England." She swallowed hard. "I know that sounds like a stupid joke in a book; but he really was. My father and my mother were killed during an air raid on Hull in '41."

"Tell me something about yourself."

"I'm afraid there isn't anything to tell. I worked fairly hard at home; but I wasn't brought up to do anything very useful. During the war I was in the Waafs. I—I didn't like it much, though I suppose I oughtn't to say that."

"Go on."

It was very casual, even inconsequential. Yet Butler's presence, radiating confidence like a furnace, was drawing the tensity from her body, the black misery from her mind.

"Well!" she said. "After the war, of course, there wasn't much for me. I was fortunate to get this position as a sort of companion-nurse-secretary to Mrs. Taylor."

"You are accused," Butler said quietly, "of poisoning Mrs. Taylor, with antimony or tartar emetic, on the night of February 22nd."

And then, for one terrifying instant, both of them were conscious of the matron's eye at the glass peephole. It was as though that eye swallowed up the room.

Jovce, with her eyes fixed on the table, merely nodded. Her forefinger traced a vertical line on the table-top, then a horizontal line across it at the lower end. Her black hair, cut in a short old-fashioned bob, gleamed under the harsh bulb-light. The sense of the prison, where she awaited trial two weeks from now, again became suffocating.

"How long were you with Mrs. Taylor?"

"Nearly two years."

"What was your opinion of her?"

"I iiJced her," said Joyce, and stopped drawing designs.

"According to my notes," pursued Butler, "Mrs. Mildred Taylor was about seventy. She was very rich, very fat, and an imaginary invalid."

The grey eyes flashed up.

"Wait!" said Joyce. " 'Imaginary invalid' doesn't exactly . . . Oh, I don't know how to describe it!"

"Come, my dear! Try to describe it."

"Well, she had a passion for taking medicines. Any kind and every kind. If she thought she had heart trouble, for instance, and she accidentally came across somebody's box of indigestion-pills, she'd swallow the indigestion-pills just to see what happened. And she always kept dosing herself with Epsom salts and Nemo's salts."

Butler nodded.

"Ever since her husband died, I understand," he continued, "she's been living in Balham, on the edge of the Common. In a big old-fashioned place with a coach-house at the back."

"Yes!"

"But Mrs. Taylor and yourself were the onlv persons who actually slept in the house?"

"Yes! The servants all slept in rooms over the coach-house. That's what makes it so awful for me!"

"Aisy, me dear!" The Dublin accent soothed her again. Butler's ruddy face was a study in sympathy. How well, he thought in admiration, Joyce Ellis acted the part of trembling innocence!

"You see," the girl persisted, "Mrs. Taylor didn't often go out. And she hated motorcars. When she did go out, the coachman always dro\e her in a carriage called a landau. There's a stable attached to the coachhouse; she's kept a horse there for years. And that's where. . , ."

"That's where somebody got the poison?"

"Yes. I'm afraid so."

"In a wooden cabinet attached to the wall of the stable," said Butler, "there was an old Nemo's salts tin that hadn't contained any salts for some time. It was a quarter full of a deadly poison called antimony. The coachman . . . what was his name?"

"Griffiths," said Joyce. "Bill Griffiths."

"The coachman," Butler went on, "used it in solution for keeping the horse's coat glossy." He fixed his eyes on her. "Antimony is a white crystalline powder, easily soluble in water; it looks exactly like Nemo's salts."

"I didn't kill her, I tell you/"

"Of course you didn't. Now take up the story: tell me exactly what happened on the afternoon and evening before her—death."

"Nothing much happened. It never did."

Butler's face, despite himself, must have betrayed impatience. Fear, and a pouring contrition, shone in her grey eyes.

("By George," he thought, "she's falling for me!" His female clients often did, and it was damned awkward.)

"It was a cold day, with a high wind," said Joyce. She wrenched her gaze away from him, and looked at the past. "Mrs. Taylor stayed in bed all day, with a big coal fire burning. I did her hair in the morning— Mrs. Taylor liked her hair to be as blonde as a copper kettle, for all her age—and she wasn't as jovial as she usually was. In the afternoon she had visitors."

"I see. What visitors?"

"Dr. Bierce, that's her regular doctor, dropped in about half-past two. Young Mrs. Renshaw (Mr. and Mrs. Renshaw are Mrs. Taylor's only relatives), young Mrs. Renshaw got there about three o'clock. That surprised me."

"Oh? Why did it surprise you?"

Joyce made a hesitant gesture.

"Well! The Renshaws live a long way off: at Hampstead. They seldom get as far into the wilds of South London as Balham and Tooting Common. Anyway, Lucia Renshaw was there. She's a natural blonde, and awfully pretty."

Joyce's tone implied, "Whereas I'm a frump." She started to add something else, but checked herself and bit her underlip.

"Go on!" said Butler.

"Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Renshaw and Dr. Bierce were in Mrs. Taylor's bedroom—it's a sitting-room, really, with a big old-fashioned wooden bed in it—at the front of the house. I was in my bedroom at the very back of the house, reading, when the electric bell rang in my room.

"You see," Joyce explained, "Mrs. Taylor wanted a lot of attention. But she didn't want anybody near her, 'fussing,' when she wanted to be alone herself. So she had this electric bell installed in my room. It's —it's going to hang me.

"No, please don't interrupt!" cried Joyce, as her companion made a gesture. "Let me tell it!

"When I heard the bell ringing like mad, I almost ran to Mrs. Taylor's room. Dr. Bierce and Mrs. Renshaw had gone. Mrs. Taylor was sitting up in bed, with her hand still on the bell-push. It's the sort of bell-push they have in hospitals, with a long white cord fastened on the wall behind the high old headboard of the bed. Sometimes it gets swung round to the back of the bed, and then you have to stand on the bed to fish it up again.

"Mrs. Taylor was furious. I'd ne\er seen her like that before. I know it sounds silly and ludicrous, but the reason was: she'd gone into the bathroom adjoining, and the tin of Nemo's salts was empty. Now she was craving salts as—as a drunkard craves whisky. She looked even fatter in a pink silk nightgown.

"Of course I immediately offered to run down to the 'village' and get another tin. It isn't a village really; only a suburban shopping-centre at the foot of Bedford Hill Road, near the Underground station. But, when I got halfway down the road, I suddenly remembered it was Thursday. Early-closing day. There wouldn't be a chemist's open unless I took the Underground all the way in to the West End.

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