To Paint A White Room Red (The Alcester Detectives Book 1)
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The voice startled Gossett almost as much as the hideousness of the place had chilled and depressed him.
A torrent of oaths and threats would have seemed in keeping with the surroundings and with so much of the man as was visible; the slow Oxford drawl, the gentle weariness came as an incredible shock. I came down to have a few words with you on business. Like her damned cheek. I don't know who you are, sir, but do I look like receiving visitors here?
Good night. You haven't seen my cabin yet. A tall figure, a man in rough, blue serge trousers, a fisherman's jersey and without tie or collar, suddenly loomed into shape. His hair was unkempt but his features matched his voice. What kept Gossett for the moment motionless, however, was the fact that he was looking into the barrel of a shotgun. I do shoot a duck sometimes, at this hour of the night, and I was, in fact, just loading my gun when you arrived.
It would pain me to use my weapon for any less lawful purpose. I cannot endure curiosity, however, so I am compelled to ask you to descend into my cabin and, so long as you have found your way here, to tell me why you came and what you want. Gossett considered the situation for a moment. In a loosely hanging little pocket easily accessible through the slit in his mackintosh, he possessed a much deadlier lethal weapon than the carelessly held shotgun which he was convinced the man on the ketch had no intention of using.
He shrugged his shoulders, therefore, and gave in. The man kicked some steps into position. Carelessly though he held his gun, he evidently had no intention of parting with his apparent advantage. Gossett scrambled down and followed his host into the cabin. The latter inspected him curiously under the hanging oil lamp. I have an inherited aversion to a loaded sporting gun. He broke it and, extracting the cartridges, slipped them into his pocket and stood the gun up in a corner. Then he seated himself opposite his visitor and leaned across the strip of table.
Gossett's eyes wandered round the place in a curiosity which he took no trouble to hide. The ketch had evidently been used as a yacht, for the cupboards were of thick mahogany and had been kept in decent repair. On one side were bottles, mostly whisky and brandy bottles and unopened; on the other side were books, books of extraordinary variety and quality. There was an exquisitely bound copy of Verlaine's poems, half a dozen volumes of Alfred de Musset, a rare edition of Shelley and a Chiswick Press Shakespeare. Sprawling across them, half-opened, was an outrageous copy of Le Sourire.
What do you think of me? However, the fact remains that, whatever her profession may be, the lady whose name you recognised managed to rake together ten pounds, which she handed over to me as a fee to come down here and see if I could help you out of your troubles. I have already, I must confess, lost my desire to do so. You probably don't deserve help and don't want it.
The owner of the ketch leaned forward. His mouth had lost its half-humorous curve, his expression was somewhat more unpleasant. The other man's muscles seemed to stiffen and tiers was an ugly glitter in his eyes. Gossett continued, however, indifferently:. I decided that the suspected criminal, or even the actual criminal, if he become so through no fault of his own, deserved some measure of help in the world and could probably afford to pay for it.
I struck out a profession of my own. I have not found a suitable name for it yet, but outside my office, Number Seventeen, Macadam Street, you will find a brass plate bearing the name of Malcolm Gossett and nothing else. You seem to be very well supplied. I should like a whisky and soda. Gossett's host produced a bottle of a choice brand, a syphon, and two glasses.
He sneered at his visitor's modest portion, filled a tumbler half full of whisky for himself and splashed in a little soda water. Here's how!
There was a moment's silence. From outside came the gurgling from the backwash of a passing steamer.
There was no other sound. The two men seemed equally tense, their eyes fixed on each other. It was the owner of the ketch who relaxed.
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She has a conscience. Earn your ten pounds. Otherwise, I shall deduct my expenses and hand back the balance of my fee to—your lady friend. Gossett, if that is your name. You've got the smell of the policeman about you still. You'd be off to Scotland Yard if I told you my story. You can tell me your story, if you have one, as you would to a lawyer.
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If I can help you, I shall tell you so. If I can't, not a word of what you have said will ever be repeated. Ever hear the name of Alexander Hurlby? It was one of the reasons why I left the Yard. I am dead enough.
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This is my burial place and you're sitting in my coffin. Have a drop more whisky? Gossett rose to his feet and swung the chain-hung oil lamp so that the light shone full into his neighbour's face, then he resumed his seat. Yes, I'll have a drop more whisky. On one condition, though. Drink like a human being—two fingers and not more. I'm a corpse and this is my coffin. Nothing left for me in life but to get drunk here or to steal out in one of those back streets, on the other side of the river where the police don't come, and look for my fun there.
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Much more respectable to get drunk like a gentleman here. In the war, you got your D. When you retired—".