Alan Hunter: Gently Does It

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Alan Hunter Gently Does It
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    Gently Does It
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    Классический детектив / на английском языке
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Alan Hunter

Gently Does It


Chief Inspector Gently, Central Office, CID, reached automatically into his pocket for another peppermint cream and fed it unconsciously into his mouth. Then he folded his large hands one over the other on the guard rail and peered into the inferno below him with a pleased expression, rather like a middle-aged god inspecting a new annex for the damned.

It was something new in Walls of Death. It was wider, and faster. The young man in red leather overalls was not finding it at all easy to make the grade. He was still tearing madly round the cambered bottom of his cage, like a noisy and demented squirrel, trying to squeeze yet more speed out of his vermilion machine. Chief Inspector Gently watched him approvingly. He had always been a Wall of Death fan. He breathed the uprising exhaust fumes with the contented nostrils of a connoisseur, and felt in his pocket for yet one more peppermint cream.

Suddenly the gyrating unit of man and machine began to slide upwards towards him: a smooth, expert movement, betraying a brain which could judge to a hair. The ear-splitting thunder of a powerful engine in a confined space rose to a crescendo. The solid wooden wall vibrated and swayed threateningly. Higher it crept, and higher, and then, in one supreme gesture, deliberately rehearsed and breathtakingly executed, shot up to the very lip of the guard rail with a roar of irresistible menace and fell away in drunken, flattening spirals.

Chief Inspector Gently smiled benignly at the ducked heads around the guard rail. His jaw continued its momentarily interrupted champing movement. The steadying quality of peppermint creams on the nerves was, he thought, something that deserved to be better known.

Outside the Wall of Death the Easter Fair was in full swing, a gaudy, lusty battleground of noise and music. There were at least five contenders in the musical field, ranging from the monstrous roundabouts that guarded the approach from Castle Paddock to the ancient cake-walk spouting from the cattle-pens, wheezy but indomitable. All of them played different tunes, all of them played without a break. Nobody knew what they were playing, but that was not the point…

Chief Inspector Gently shouldered his way tolerantly through the crowd. He didn’t like crowds, by and large, but since he was on holiday he felt he could afford to be generous. He stopped at a rock-stall and inspected its brilliant array of starches. ‘Have you got any peppermint creams?’ he enquired, not very hopefully. They hadn’t, so he bought some poisonous-looking bull’s-eyes with orange and purple stripes to take back for the landlady’s little boy.

A newsboy came thrusting through the crowd, challenging the uproar with leathern lungs. ‘Lay-test — lay-test! Read abaht the…’ Gently turned, in the act of putting the bull’s-eyes into his pocket. The newsboy was serving a tow-haired young man, a young man still wearing a pair of scarlet leather breeches. Gently surveyed him mildly, noticing the Grecian nose, the blue eyes, the long line of the cheek and the small, neat ears. There was a note of determination about him, he thought. The peculiar quality which Conrad called somewhere ‘ability in the abstract’. He would get on, that lad, provided he survived his Wall of Death interlude…

And then Gently noticed the long cheek pale beneath its coat of dust and smears of oil. The blue eyes opened wide and the hand that held the paper trembled. The next moment the young man had gone, darted off through the crowd and vanished like a spectre at cockcrow.

Gently frowned and applied to his bag for a peppermint cream. The newsboy came thrusting by with his stentorian wail. ‘Gimme one,’ said Gently. He glanced over the dry headlines of international conferences and the picture of the film-starlet at Whipsnade: tilted the paper sideways for the stop-press. ‘Timber Merchant Found Dead,’ he read. ‘The body of Nicholas Huysmann, 77, timber merchant, was discovered this afternoon in his house in Queen Street, Norchester. The police are investigating.’ And below it: ‘Huysmann Death: police suspect foul play.’

For the second time that afternoon the jaw of Chief Inspector Gently momentarily ceased to champ.

Superintendent Walker of the Norchester City Police looked up from a report sheet as Chief Inspector Gently tapped and entered the office. ‘Good Lord!’ he exclaimed. ‘I was just wondering whether we should get on to you. What in the world are you doing down here?’

Gently chose the broader of two chairs and sat down. ‘I’m on holiday,’ he said laconically.

‘On holiday? I didn’t think you fellows at the Central Office ever had a holiday.’

Gently smiled quietly. ‘I like to fish,’ he said. ‘I like to sit and watch a float and smoke. I like to have a pint in the local and tell them about the one that got away. They don’t let me do it very often, but I’m trying to do it right now.’

‘Then you’re not interested in a little job we’ve got down here?’

Gently brought out the battered bag which had contained his peppermint creams and looked into it sadly. ‘They’ll send you Carruthers if you ask them,’ he said.

‘But I don’t want Carruthers. I want you.’

‘Carruthers is a good man.’

Superintendent Walker beat the top of his desk with an ink-stained finger. ‘I don’t like Carruthers — I don’t get on with him. We had a difference of opinion over that Hickman business.’

‘He was right, wasn’t he?’

‘Of course he was right! I’ve never been able to get on with him since. But look here, Gently, this case looks like being complicated. I’ve got implicit faith in my own boys, but they don’t claim to be homicide experts. And you are. So what about it?’

Gently took out the last of his peppermint creams, screwed up the bag and laid it carefully on the superintendent’s desk. The superintendent whisked it impatiently into his waste-paper basket. ‘It’s this Huysmann affair, is it?’ Gently asked.

‘Yes. You’ve seen the papers?’

‘Only the stop-press.’

‘I’ve just got a report in from Hansom. He’s down there now with the medico and the photographer. Huysmann was stabbed in the back in front of his safe and according to the yard manager there’s about forty thousand pounds missing.’

Gently pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. ‘That’s a lot of money to keep in a safe.’

‘But from what we know of Huysmann, it’s probably true. He was a naturalized Dutchman who settled down here a good fifty years ago. He’s been a big noise in the local timber industry for longer than I can remember and he had an odd sort of reputation. Nothing wrong, you know, just a bit eccentric. He lived a secluded life in a big old house down by the river, near his timber yard, and never mixed with anybody except some of the Dutch skippers who came up with his wood. He married a daughter belonging to one of them, a nice girl called Zetta, but she died in childbirth a few years afterwards. He’s got two children, a daughter who lives in the house and is very rarely seen out of it, and a son called Peter, from whom he was estranged. Peter’s known to us, by the by — he was the mate of a lorry-driver who got pulled for losing a load of cigarettes. He gave up lorry-driving after that and got a job with a travelling show.’

‘He’s a Wall of Death rider,’ said Gently, almost to himself.

Superintendent Walker’s eyebrows rose a few pegs. ‘How do you know that?’ he enquired.

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