Telephone Talk
by Peter Cheyney

CALLAGHAN sat at the corner table in the deserted bar of the Blue Jay Club. His chair was tilted backwards against the wall. In front of him his third whisky and soda stood on the table. He looked up casually as the ponderous form of his assistant, Windemere Nikolls, came through the doorway, threaded its way between the tables.

Callaghan said: "Well, Windy?"

Nikolls sat down on a chair opposite Callaghan. He eyed the whisky and soda enviously. He said: "Look, believe it or not, we got some business."

"No?" said Callaghan. "At eight o'clock at night?"

"Yeah," said Nikolls. "I was just leaving the office an' she comes in. Boy - is she a babe! She's lovely. She's got a skin like grade A milk. She's a blonde - a real one - with the bluest sorta eyes that make you go all funny inside. An' does she know how to dress - "

Callaghan interrupted casually. He said: "She seems a considerable sort of girl. What does she want?"

Nikolls said: "I wouldn't know. But she needs a detective. She wouldn't talk to me. She wants to see you."

Callaghan asked: "Where is she now?"

Nikolls said: "She's gone off some place. She wanted to stick around in the waitin' room, but I wouldn't have that. I said maybe I could put my finger on you, that if I could maybe you'd come back to the office and see her at half past eight. I said she'd better come back then."

Callaghan nodded. He said: "All right."

Nikolls asked: "You gonna see her?"

Callaghan said: "Perhaps. Perhaps not. But you can go off, Windy. Come in at ten o'clock to-morrow morning."

"O.K.," said Nikolls. He went away.

Callaghan drank the whisky and soda slowly. Then he tilted his chair back against the wall again. He looked at his wristwatch. It was five past eight. He got up, put on his black soft hat, went out of the bar.

AT twenty past eight, Callaghan unlocked the door of the outer office, crossed the room and entered his private office. He had time to switch on the lights, help himself to a cigarette from the silver box on the table, when the telephone jangled. Callaghan picked it up. A harsh staccato voice said: "Is that Callaghan Investigations?"

Callaghan said: "Yes."

"Are you Callaghan?" asked the voice.

Callaghan said: "I'm Mr. Callaghan. What's your trouble?"

The voice said: "I haven't got any trouble. The trouble's all yours. You've either had a visit, or you're going to have a visit - from my wife - Mrs. Raven. You can't mistake her," the voice continued sarcastically, "she's very beautiful, But my advice to you, Callaghan - or Mister Callaghan if you prefer that - is not to take anything she says too seriously. She has a very vivid imagination. In fact her name ought to be Ananias, not Isobella."

Callaghan said: "Thank you for nothing. Is that all?"

The voice said: "Yes, that's all. I hope it's enough."

Callaghan said amiably: "Thank you for calling through. And nuts to you!"

He hung up the receiver with a jerk just as the outer office door bell rang.

THE woman sat in the big leather armchair opposite the desk. Slumped back in his chair, Callaghan looked at her sideways through the haze of cigarette smoke. He thought that Nikolls had been right about her. She was beautiful, exquisitely turned out. Her furs were expensive, and the one hand not hidden by the small muff she carried, was small, white and artistic.

He said: "Well, Mrs. Raven?"

She spread her hands despairingly. Callaghan thought she was very beautiful. And her eyes were piteous - a woman who had been hurt badly, he thought.

She said: "I'm afraid it's the usual story, Mr. Callaghan, with, possibly, a slight variation. I have been married for eighteen months. I married my husband because I was practically forced into it by my people, both of whom have since died. Well, life hasn't been easy."

Callaghan said: "No, married life isn't easy sometimes. That's practically the first thing a private detective learns."

She went on: "I've stuck it as long as I could. Well, two or three months ago something happened."

Callaghan said: "I can guess. You fell in love with somebody else."

She nodded. "I fell in love with somebody else. Can you understand that, Mr. Callaghan?"

Callaghan said: "I can understand most things. All right, so you're in love with another man. Go on, Mrs. Raven."

She said: "My only other friend in the world besides this man is my uncle. Two or three months ago I went to him and told him the whole story. He was sympathetic, but he did not believe it would be a good thing for me to break up my marriage. He believed that if my husband and I went on for a little longer we might straighten out our differences. He said that if we tried it for another six months - if I would promise not to see this man for six months - he would give my husband and myself five thousand pounds each, with which, as he put it, to begin life afresh."

Callaghan said: "I see. Well, is it worth the five thousand pounds you get if you go on living with your husband, Mrs. Raven?"

She said: "No. But I wanted the money, so I agreed. But I'm afraid I've fallen down on the job. I've continued to live with my husband, but I see the man whom I love. Oh, don't think there's anything wrong in it. We just have tea or something like that in a public restaurant. We feel we must see each other."

Callaghan said: "In other words you're trying to have it both ways?"

Her shoulders drooped. She said: "Can't you understand, Mr. Callaghan?"

Callaghan said: "I understand. Well?"

She said: "Mr. Callaghan, my husband is plotting something. I don't know what it is. I'm perfectly certain that he knows nothing of these clandestine meetings, but he suspects. He's a strange, odd man. I don't think he's quite sane. He said the other day that he was perfectly certain I was only staying with him until I got that five thousand pounds, that once I'd got it I'd leave him."

Callaghan said: "He's right, isn't he?"

She said miserably: "Yes. He's right."

Callaghan said: "Well, you can't expect him to like it, can you?"

"No." She shook her head.

He asked: "Mrs. Raven, what's worrying you?"

She said slowly: "This: he said there was one way that he could stop me getting that money - one way."

Callaghan asked: "I wonder what that would be?"

She said: "I believe he's going to commit suicide. I believe that's what he meant. He thinks if he did that I shouldn't get the money."

Callaghan said: "Maybe you're right. He's not awfully fond of you, is he? He doesn't sound an awfully attractive sort of person."

She looked at him. Her cornflower blue eyes wide with amazement. She said: "What do you mean?"

Callaghan said: "He was on the telephone to me a few minutes ago. He said some very uncomplimentary things about you."

She asked tremulously: "And did you believe them?"

Callaghan said: "Now that I've seen you I can't say I do. By the way, how did he know you were coming here?"

She said: "That's my fault, I'm afraid. Two or three days ago a friend of mine mentioned your name. She said you were the best private detective in London, that you were clever and that underneath that very tough exterior you were sometimes kind. To-day I felt quite desperate about things. I made up my mind to telephone you. I went to the telephone in the hall, found your name in the book. Then I heard his key in the lock. I hung up the telephone, went away. But he's very clever, Mr. Callaghan, I've a habit that a lot of women have of scoring under the name I want to ring with my fingernail. Foolishly when I left the telephone I didn't close the book. There's not the slightest doubt that he looked through the names, found the fingernail mark under your name and put two and two together. He's that sort of man."

Callaghan said: "I see. Well, Mrs. Raven, and what do I do?"

She said pleadingly: "Mr. Callaghan, I want you to keep my husband under observation. I want you to see what he does, where he goes. I'm frightened. Perhaps -I can see you again in a few days and you can tell me what you think?"

Callaghan said: "Do you mean you would like me to go and talk to your husband, Mrs. Raven?"

She said: "If you thought it would do any good. If you would."

"All right," said Callaghan. "What's his address?"

"It's in St. John's Wood," she said. She gave him the address.

Callaghan said: "And the other man - the man you love - where does he live?"

She answered: "His name's Eustace Lyster. He lives in Kensington at 323 Alfred Place. But..."

Callaghan said: "It's all right. I shan't bother him. But I like to have all the facts. Come and see me in two or three days' time. Maybe I'll have some news for you."

She said: "Mr. Callaghan, I can't tell you how grateful I am."

He got up. He said: "I shouldn't think your meeting with your husband to-night would be very pleasant."

She said: "I shan't see him. Luckily I'm not going back home. I'd arranged to stay for a few days with a girl friend at Hampstead. My address will be 14 Towers Road."

Callaghan said: "Well, I'm glad of that. Your husband didn't sound too good-natured to me. Good-night, Mrs. Raven."

He showed her to the door.

SOMEWHERE in the neighborhood a clock struck ten. The cold had increased and a slight mist was creeping along the deserted street. Callaghan pushed open the gate of the Raven house in St. John's Wood, walked up the tiled path to the front door. He pressed the bell button, waited. Nothing happened. He stood playing tunes on the bell-push for five minutes, then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and started work on the door.

Three minutes later he stepped into the hall, closing the door quietly behind him.

A peculiar sense of heat, a rush of warm air, came towards him. At the end of the hallway he could see a gleam of light beneath a door. He crossed the hall, opened the door, stood in the doorway.

The room was small, comfortably furnished. The heat was terrific. A heaped coal fire blazed at one end of the room, at the other an electric fire burned. Slumped beside the armchair in front of the fire was the figure of a man. An automatic pistol lay close to his right hand. The carpet was soaked with blood.

Callaghan crossed the room, stood looking at the body. It seemed as if Raven had carried out his threat.

He went out of the room, across the hall, took the latch off the front door, went out into the street. He walked until he found a telephone box a hundred yards from the house. He called Nikolls. He said: "Listen, Windy, I'm at a house called Templeton just off Acacia Road, St. John's Wood. Get the car and get out here as quickly as you can. Bring a fingerprint outfit with you. Get a move on."

Nikolls said: "O.K."

Callaghan hung up. He went back to the house, stood in front of the fire, moodily smoking. At a quarter to eleven Nikolls said: "If there were any fingerprints on the butt of that gun, I've got 'em. But they'll be his, won't they? He shot himself - look at the powder burns round the wound."

Callaghan said: "Perhaps - perhaps not."

"All right," said Nikolls. "Maybe not. So who else done it - Mrs. Raven's boy friend, hey?"

"Why not?" said Callaghan. "It would be interesting to know what he was doing to-night."

Nikolls scratched his head ruminatively. "What the hell?" he said. "This guy threatened to commit suicide. It looks like a suicide."

"Perhaps it is," said Callaghan. He picked up the automatic pistol with his gloved hand, took out his handkerchief, wiped the gun butt.

Nikolls looked at him in amazement. He said: "Look, Slim, what is this - you get me round here to take the prints off this gun and then you clean it up? You know what you're doing - you're destroyin' evidence."

Callaghan said casually: "That's what I thought. Let's go."

They went out of the house.

Down the street Callaghan paused at the call box, went inside. He telephoned Whitehall 1212.

When Scotland Yard answered he asked for the information room. He was put through quickly. He said: "There's a dead man in a ground floor sitting-room at a house called Templeton, just off the Acacia Road, St. John's Wood. I think he's shot himself. I thought you might like to know."

The soft voice of the policewoman on the switchboard said: "Thank you very much. And who are you, please?"

Callaghan said: "Santa Claus." He hung up.

When he came out of the call box, Nikolls said: "Look, if you're right, this boy friend of Mrs. Raven's is a tough egg."

Callaghan said: "He might be. I'll go and see him to-morrow. It would be amusing if he hadn't got an alibi for this evening. And by the way, Windy, I'm a little bit worried about Mrs. Raven. She's staying with a girl friend at 14 Towers Road, Hampstead. Just keep an eye on her for the next day or two. I don't want anything to happen to her."

AT eleven o'clock next morning Callaghan went into a sitting-room at 323 Alfred Place, Kensington. Lyster came towards him, his hand outstretched.

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Callaghan," he said. "Isobella told me she was going to see you to ask your advice about her husband. I suppose you've come to see me about that."

Callaghan said: "Yes and no. Tell me something, Mr. Lyster. What were you doing last night between half past eight and ten o'clock?"

Lyster said: "Well, I'd made up my mind I was going to have a show-down with Raven. I'd made up my mind I was going to tell him exactly what I thought about him and his treatment of his wife. I walked out to his place in St. John's Wood, but when I got there I changed my mind. I just walked around for a bit and came home."

Callaghan said: "I see. You didn't take an automatic pistol with you, did you?"

"What!" exclaimed Lyster. Then he eyes moved to a desk across the room. He said: "Whatever do you mean?"

Callaghan said: "Raven either shot himself last night or somebody shot him. It looked like suicide. Perhaps you'd like to examine that desk you were just looking at and see if your gun's there."

Lyster crossed the room with quick strides. He opened the drawer. He said: "Good heavens - the pistol's gone."

Callaghan raised his eyebrows. He said: "So the pistol's gone. And you went for a walk last night to St. John's Wood to see Raven. But you didn't go into the house. Well, I hope the police believe your story, Lyster."

Lyster said: "But they must believe it. They..."

Callaghan said: "Take it easy." He held out his cigarette case in a gloved hand towards Lyster. He said: "Have a cigarette and relax. If you didn't do it, you'll be all right."

Lyster took the case, opened it, took a cigarette, lit it. His fingers were trembling. He handed the case back.

Callaghan said: "Well, I'll be on my way."

BACK in the office he handed the cigarette case to Nikolls. He said: "Check the prints on that case, Windy. They're Lyster's."

Nikolls answered: "If they're the same as the one's I took off the butt of that gun he's the guy."

Callaghan grinned at him. "That's right, Windy," he said. "Now get going."

OUTSIDE the evening rain beat on the window pane. Callaghan sat relaxed in his office chair, a cigarette hanging from one corner of his mouth. He was playing a tattoo on his blotting pad with his fingers.

Effie Thompson came in. She said: "Mr. Callaghan, Mrs. Raven is here."

Callaghan said: "Show her in." He got to his feet as the woman came into the office. She wore a black coat and skirt underneath her fur coat, and a small, very smart, tailor-made hat.

Callaghan said: "I think you look wonderful. Won't you sit down?"

She sat down in the chair opposite his desk. He went on: "I'm sorry about your husband, Mrs. Raven."

She looked at him. She said: "Are you surprised? I told you he intended to commit suicide."

Callaghan nodded. He lit a cigarette. He said: "Yes. That's too bad. That means to say you don't get the five thousand pounds from your uncle."

She shook her head. She said: "No." She smiled at him. "I've been lucky. I saw him this morning. And he realizes what an outsider my husband was. He's given me the money. I'm glad because now I can pay you a proper fee, Mr. Callaghan."

Callaghan said: "That's marvellous." There was a pause, then he went on: "You know, Mrs. Raven, your husband didn't commit suicide."

She looked at him in astonishment. "No?"

"No," repeated Callaghan. "I went round to the St. John's Wood house after our first interview. I found him lying by the side of the armchair in front of the fire. I must say it looked like suicide."

She said: "It was suicide, surely."

Callaghan raised his eyebrows. "You really think so?" he said. He went on: "I got my assistant Nikolls round and we took the fingerprints off the gun. They were the prints of your boy friend Mr. Lyster. If it had been suicide they should have been the prints of your husband. They weren't. And Lyster had no alibi. He told me that he went round that evening to see your husband to have a showdown with him, that he changed his mind and went away. Incidentally, the gun belonged to Lyster."

She said: "My God! So Eustace killed him."

Callaghan said casually: "Yes, that's what the police would have thought, but I didn't see why they should. I didn't think it was a good idea. You see, Mrs. Raven, you're my client and I knew you were in love with Lyster. I knew you wouldn't want him pulled in on a murder charge."

She looked at him steadily. She said: "So...?"

Callaghan said: "So I cleaned the prints off the butt of the gun."

She said: "Wasn't that an extraordinary thing to do. Surely there ought to have been some prints on the gun. Somebody must have held it."

Callaghan said: "No, the prints of the person who shot your husband never appeared on it."

She moved a little in her chair. She said: "Exactly what do you mean?"

Callaghan said: "I mean you killed Raven." He looked at her. He was smiling.

She said: "Mr. Callaghan, I think you must be mad."

"No," said Callaghan. "I'm not mad - merely intelligent. You see, I had an idea that I'd like to keep an eye on you, so when I left the house after I'd found your husband's body, and we'd taken the prints off the gun, I got Nikolls to keep an eye on you. He's been on your tail for the last two days. He knows about the gentleman you've been meeting - the man you're really in love with."

She looked at Callaghan. Her eyes were like burning coals.

He said: "You killed Raven before you even came to see me. Quite a clever idea, you know."

She laughed - a brittle laugh. She said: "Really, Mr. Callaghan, having regard to the fact that my husband telephoned you and warned you against me just before I came into your office, it would be difficult to know how I could have killed him."

Callaghan said: "Nevertheless, you killed him. You see, he didn't telephone me. The man who telephoned me was the man you've been visiting during the last two days - not Lyster. Lyster was just your stooge." He went on: "About seven o'clock on the night that you came to see me, you had a talk with your husband in the sitting-room at St. John's Wood. You had stolen the automatic pistol from Lyster's desk, but you never handled it with your hands. You were wearing gloves. You carried it inside that muff that you had on the night you came to see me.

"Well... you went up near to your husband. You put the muff close to his head, and you shot him. You held the gun so close that there'd be powder marks round the wound. Then you put the gun by his side. The only fingerprints on it were Lyster's. You knew that. I rather think you encouraged Lyster to go and have an interview with your husband that night. He was stupid enough to go, but he didn't see your husband because he couldn't get in. He rang the doorbell but nobody answered. Then you came to see me. You knew I wasn't in my office. You'd watched me leave. You came afterwards. You sent my assistant out to find me. You'd probably seen me go into the bar round the corner. You waited outside in the darkness. When you saw me come back to the office you telephoned your boy friend No. 2, and he rang through pretending to be your husband. He warned me against you - a very clever scheme."

He yawned. "That's why you made the fire up and turned on the electric fire in the St. John's Wood sitting-room before you left, so that the body should still be warm, so that rigor mortis wouldn't set in, so that the police doctor couldn't say within an hour or two as to what time Raven was actually killed."

He looked at her. She said nothing. Callaghan went on: "A marvellous idea. You got rid of Raven. Lyster would have been picked up for the murder if the police had seen his prints on the gun, if they'd known he'd been round to the St. John's Wood house on that night. And you'd have got your five thousand pounds and the man you want. As it is..." He shrugged his shoulders.

There was a knock at the door. Effie Thompson came in. She said: "Mr. Callaghan, the police car's here. Detective-Inspector Gringall is waiting outside."

Callaghan got up. He said: "Well, they've come for you, Mrs. Raven."

She said in a hard voice: "You're damned clever, Callaghan. But it was a good scheme."

Callaghan said: "Not too bad. Somebody once said that the criminal always makes a silly mistake. You made it."

She smiled. She looked very beautiful. She said: "Tell me my mistake, Mr. Callaghan."

Callaghan said: "At your first interview I asked you how your husband knew you were coming to see me. You told me you'd left the telephone book open, that you'd scored underneath my name, with your fingernail, that he would realize you'd been me." He stubbed out his cigarette on the ashtray.

She said: "Well...?"

Callaghan said: "Well, you see, Mrs. Raven, my telephone number isn't in the telephone book."

End of Telephone Talk by Peter Cheyney