THE MYSTERY OF THE TWO SUITCASES
By Peter Bartram
Author Editor Journalist
“We’ve got the evening all to ourselves.”
My girlfriend Shirley raised her glass of white wine. I hoisted my G&T. We clinked glasses and wished each other a happy Valentine’s Day.
“It’s great to have a night off from the Chronicle,” I said.
We were at a corner table in the Railway Bell, a pub just outside Brighton station. The Dave Clark Five were belting out Glad All Over on the juke box. A smoochy couple on the next table looked as though they would be by the end of the night.
“So what would you like for your Valentine’s treat?” Shirley said.
“Before that,” she said.
“I thought we’d have a quiet dinner at the Four Aces, then home for an early night,” I said.
This time, Shirley grinned.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked round.
“Colin Crampton, isn’t it?” A thin man with a whiskery chin and watery eyes was looking down at me. “You’re that crime correspondent. Remember me? Charlie Dixon. From the left luggage office in the station. You interviewed me six months ago about the body in the cabin trunk.”
I hadn’t forgotten. The body turned out to be a shop-window mannequin. But I’d been the real dummy for wasting time on a bum tip-off.
Charlie pulled up a chair. “Don’t mind if I join you? Only, I’ve got another hot tip.”
I glanced at Shirley and shrugged.
Charlie missed the body language and ploughed on. “Well, it goes like this,” he said. “Yesterday morning, a tall geezer comes into the left luggage office and hands over his reclaim ticket for a blue suitcase. Battered job it was, with a stain on one side.”
I winked at Shirley. “Man claims luggage sensation.”
“Two hours later, he’s back with a red suitcase – brand new – and deposits it.”
“Man leaves suitcase scandal,” I said.
“I know what you’re thinking. Waste of time. But listen to this bit. This morning, the geezer’s wife comes in with the same battered old blue suitcase and asks us whether we’ve handed over the wrong one. Well, we hadn’t. But she makes a song and dance about it and eventually clears off in high dudgeon.”
“Angry woman in suitcase muddle,” I said.
“Thirty minutes later, the tall geezer is back to claim the red suitcase.”
I took a strengthening pull at my G&T. “Where’s all this leading?” I said.
“Well, here’s the point,” Charlie said. “I happen to know that they live just up the hill from the station in Buckingham Road. I’ve seen the wife come out of the corner house with the bright red door. While I’m on my way to work, you understand. So why should they want to leave suitcases in the left luggage when they live so close nearby?”
“Did you ask them?” I said.
Charlie’s lips pursed in a disapproving moue. “Couldn’t do that. More than my…”
“…jobs worth,” I said. “So we’ll never know.”
“There’s something else. I work early shifts. But I mentioned it to Arthur Purkiss who does lates. He remembers the blue suitcase being handed in by a posh bloke two days ago. Pulled up outside in a Bentley. Big maroon job. He wondered why a bloke with a flash car should have such a cheap case.”
“Because he spent all his money on the car?” Shirley chipped in her two pennyworth.
“Well, just thought I’d let you know.” He sloped off to the bar to buy another pint.
Shirley’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of something,” she said.
“It was Charlie’s last point,” I said. “Could be just a coincidence. But the only maroon Bentley I’ve ever seen in Brighton belongs to Hector Summerfield.”
“You mean the slimeball who owns the Majestic hotel?”
“The very same.”
“I knew a chambermaid who worked there. Word among the female staff was you kept your back to the wall when he was around. More arms than a Mexican wave – know what I mean?”
I nodded. “So why,” I said, “was he depositing a tatty blue suitcase in the left luggage?”
“There are three characters in this mystery – Summerfield, the tall geezer and the geezer’s wife,” I said. “But the only one who’s handled both blue and red suitcases is the tall geezer.”
“So that’s why we’re starting with him?” Shirley said.
I nodded. We were huffing and puffing our way up the hill to Buckingham road. The street lights were on. The evening was cool. Dinner was postponed.
“There’s another puzzle,” I said. “Why did Summerfield never come back to reclaim the blue suitcase?”
It wasn’t difficult to spot the house with the vermillion door.
We walked up some steps. A helpful card beside the doorbell read: “Mr and Mrs Bert Protheroe”.
I pressed the bell. Footsteps hurried up the hall and the door was opened by a man who could definitely be described as a tall geezer. Six foot three in his socks, I’d have said.
He’d had a welcoming smile on his face, but that faded when he saw we weren’t who he was expecting.
“Who are you?” he said.
I smiled. “My name is Arthur Purkiss from the left luggage office at Brighton station. And this,” I stood to one side to let him see Shirley, “is my assistant, Miss Sowerbutts.”
Shirley kicked me in the ankle. I winced.
“We’d just like to clear up a discrepancy in our paperwork,” I said. “Shouldn’t take a minute. May we come in?”
Indecision on Protheroe’s face turned to concern. He glanced at his watch. “I can spare you five minutes. I’m expecting somebody.”
He turned and marched down the hall. We followed. I closed the door behind me but left it on the latch.
Protheroe led us into a small sitting room crammed with dowdy furniture. He gestured us to a sofa behind the door. We sat.
“Is your wife in?” I asked.
“She’s out. Works as a waitress at the Majestic hotel. Never gets back until gone eleven. Besides, what’s this got to do with her?”
“It’s about the blue suitcase she brought to the left luggage office yesterday morning.”
“Sadie took the suitcase to the left luggage?” It was clear from his puzzled frown that he hadn’t known about her visit.
“Seemed she thought the blue suitcase you’d collected was the wrong one. Just so we can check, could you confirm what was in it?”
“I don’t know that’s got anything to do…”
The front door slammed shut and high heels clicked their way up the hall. A large woman with beehive hair burst into the room.
She was wearing a long and sumptuous mink coat.
She flashed heavily mascaraed eyes at Protheroe. Didn’t notice Shirley and me on the sofa.
“Bertie, I love it, I love it,” she cried. She hugged the coat to herself in an ecstasy of delight. “A perfect Valentine’s present.”
Protheroe started to speak: “Candace…”
But Candace was brooking no interruptions. This was her moment. Nothing was going to stop her being the star of this show.
“And to show how much I love you, you’ll never guess what I’m wearing underneath it.”
Her hands deftly slipped the mink from her shoulders and it fell to the floor.
“Jeez,” said Shirley, “I’ve not seen a bum like that since the hippo house at the zoo.”
“When Candace walked in with the mink, it all became clear,” I said.
Shirley and I were sitting at the window alcove table at the Four Aces. The lights were low. The music was soft. We were eating lobster Newburg and drinking champagne.
We’d hastily made our excuses and left while Protheroe was recovering his composure and Candace what remained of her modesty.
“When Protheroe told me that Sadie worked at the Majestic, I realised Summerfield must have given her the ticket for the blue suitcase he’d deposited in the left luggage,” I said.
“But why?” Shirley asked
“She’s been having an affair with Summerfield,” I said. “He wanted to give her a mink. But plainly she couldn’t take home an expensive coat without Protheroe asking some awkward questions.
“So they devised a sneaky plan. Summerfield stashed the mink in the blue suitcase. Sadie pretended to Protheroe she’d found the left-luggage ticket for the case by chance – perhaps in the street. I expect she used the finders-keepers argument on him and persuaded him to go and collect the case.”
“All the time thinking that when he got the case home and found it contained a mink, he wouldn’t be able to resist giving the coat to her,” Shirley said.
“Exactly. It was a cunning touch on her part to get him to collect the case – removing suspicion that she could have had anything to do with its contents. But she’d overlooked one important point.”
“Other women love mink coats,” said Shirley.
“And Protheroe obviously opened the case before he took it home. He discovered the mink and decided that it would make the perfect gift for his own mistress, Candace.”
“So he transferred the mink to the red suitcase and stashed it in the left luggage office while he arranged to have it delivered to her as a Valentine’s gift.”
“And probably filled the blue suitcase with some cheap cast-offs from Mangy Mabel’s before giving it to Sadie,” I said.
“She must have been furious when she opened the case,” Shirley said.
“But she couldn’t say so. She can’t be sure what’s happened to the coat. And she can’t raise the matter with Protheroe without blowing open her affair with Summerfield. And he won’t want to alert his own wife that he’s been playing away from home,” I said.
“Trouble is I don’t have a story. None of them are going to own up to what’s really happened.”
“So you’ve had a wasted evening?” Shirley said.
“Not entirely. We’ve learnt something.”
“There’s a lot of truth in that old proverb ‘love will find a way’.”
Shirley smiled. “And I suppose you’re going to show me the way you had in mind,”
“I’ll raise a toast to that,” I said.
We clinked glasses and drank to lovers everywhere.
© Peter Bartram 2018
This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.