To my old friend Mario
with happy memories of delicious food
at the Caprice.
The afternoon of the 9th of September was exactly like any other afternoon. None of those who were to be concerned in the events of that day could lay claim to having had a premonition of disaster. (With the exception, that is, of Mrs Packer of 47, Wilbraham Crescent, who specialized in premonitions, and who always described at great length afterwards the peculiar forebodings and tremors that had beset her. But Mrs Packer at No. 47, was so far away from No. 19, and so little concerned with the happenings there, that it seemed unnecessary for her to have had a premonition at all.)
At the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, Principal, Miss K. Martindale, September 9th had been a dull day, a day of routine. The telephone rang, typewriters clicked, the pressure of business was average, neither above nor below its usual volume. None of it was particularly interesting. Up till 2.35, September 9th might have been a day like any other day.
At 2.35 Miss Martindale’s buzzer went, and Edna Brent in the outer office answered it in her usual breathy and slightly nasal voice, as she manoeuvred a toffee along the line of her jaw.
‘Yes, Miss Martindale?’
‘Now, Edna-that isnot the way I’ve told you to speak when answering the telephone. Enunciateclearly, and keep your breathbehind your tone.’
‘Sorry, Miss Martindale.’
‘That’s better. You can do it when you try. Send Sheila Webb in to me.’
‘She’s not back from lunch yet, Miss Martindale.’
‘Ah.’ Miss Martindale’s eye consulted the clock on her desk. 2.36. Exactly six minutes late. Sheila Webb had been getting slack lately. ‘Send her in when she comes.’
‘Yes, Miss Martindale.’
Edna restored the toffee to the centre of her tongue and, sucking pleasurably, resumed her typing ofNaked Love by Armand Levine. Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested-as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography. In spite of lurid jackets and provocative titles, his sales went down every year, and his last typing bill had already been sent in three times.
The door opened and Sheila Webb came in, slightly out of breath.
‘Sandy Cat’s asking for you,’ said Edna.
Sheila Webb made a face.
‘Just my luck-on the one day I’m late back!’
She smoothed down her hair, picked up pad and pencil, and knocked at the Principal’s door.
Miss Martindale looked up from her desk. She was a woman of forty-odd, bristling with efficiency. Her pompadour of pale reddish hair and her Christian name of Katherine had led to her nickname of Sandy Cat.
‘You’re late back, Miss Webb.’
‘Sorry, Miss Martindale. There was a terrific bus jam.’
‘There is always a terrific bus jam at this time of day. You should allow for it.’ She referred to a note on her pad. ‘A Miss Pebmarsh rang up. She wants a stenographer at three o’clock. She asked for you particularly. Have you worked for her before?’
‘I can’t remember doing so, Miss Martindale. Not lately anyway.’
‘The address is 19, Wilbraham Crescent.’ She paused questioningly, but Sheila Webb shook her head.
‘I can’t remember going there.’
Miss Martindale glanced at the clock.
‘Three o’clock. You can manage that easily. Have you any other appointments this afternoon? Ah, yes,’ her eye ran down the appointment book at her elbow. ‘Professor Purdy at the Curlew Hotel. Five o’clock. You ought to be back before then. If not, I can send Janet.’
She gave a nod of dismissal, and Sheila went back to the outer office.
‘Anything interesting, Sheila?’
‘Just another of those dull days. Some old pussy up at Wilbraham Crescent. And at five Professor Purdy-all those awful archaeological names! How I wish something exciting could sometimes happen.’
Miss Martindale’s door opened.
‘I see I have a memo here, Sheila. If Miss Pebmarsh is not back when you arrive, you are to go in, the door will not be latched. Go in and go into the room on the right of the hall and wait. Can you remember that or shall I write it down?’
‘I can remember it, Miss Martindale.’
Miss Martindale went back into her sanctum.
Edna Brent fished under her chair and brought up, secretly, a rather flashy shoe and a stiletto heel that had become detached from it.
‘However am I going to get home?’ she moaned.
‘Oh, do stop fussing-we’ll think of something,’ said one of the other girls, and resumed her typing.
Edna sighed and put in a fresh sheet of paper:
‘Desire had him in its grasp. With frenzied fingers he tore the fragile chiffon from her breasts and forced her down on the soap.’
‘Damn,’ said Edna and reached for the eraser.
Sheila picked up her handbag and went out.
Wilbraham Crescent was a fantasy executed by a Victorian builder in the 1880’s. It was a half-moon of double houses and gardens set back to back. This conceit was a source of considerable difficulty to persons unacquainted with the locality. Those who arrived on the outer side were unable to find the lower numbers and those who hit the inner side first were baffled as to the whereabouts of the higher numbers. The houses were neat, prim, artistically balconied and eminently respectable. Modernization had as yet barely touched them-on the outside, that is to say. Kitchens and bathrooms were the first to feel the wind of change.
There was nothing unusual about No. 19. It had neat curtains and a well-polished brass front-door handle. There were standard rose trees each side of the path leading to the front door.
Sheila Webb opened the front gate, walked up to the front door and rang the bell. There was no response and after waiting a minute or two, she did as she had been directed, and turned the handle. The door opened and she walked in. The door on the right of the small hall was ajar. She tapped on it, waited, and then walked in. It was an ordinary quite pleasant sitting-room, a little over-furnished for modern tastes. The only thing at all remarkable about it was the profusion of clocks-a grandfather clock ticking in the corner, a Dresden china clock on the mantelpiece, a silver carriage clock on the desk, a small fancy gilt clock on a whatnot near the fireplace and on a table by the window, a faded leather travelling clock, withROSEMARY in worn gilt letters across the corner.
Sheila Webb looked at the clock on the desk with some surprise. It showed the time to be a little after ten minutes past four. Her gaze shifted to the chimney piece. The clock there said the same.
Sheila started violently as there was a whir and a click above her head, and from a wooden carved clock on the wall a cuckoo sprang out through his little door and announced loudly and definitely:Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckoo! The harsh note seemed almost menacing. The cuckoo disappeared again with a snap of his door.
Sheila Webb gave a half-smile and walked round the end of the sofa. Then she stopped short, pulling up with a jerk.
Sprawled on the floor was the body of a man. His eyes were half open and sightless. There was a dark moist patch on the front of his dark grey suit. Almost mechanically Sheila bent down. She touched his cheek-cold-his hand, the same…touched the wet patch and drew her hand away sharply, staring at it in horror.
At that moment she heard the click of a gate outside, her head turned mechanically to the window. Through it she saw a woman’s figure hurrying up the path. Sheila swallowed mechanically-her throat was dry. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to move, to cry out…staring in front of her.