For the fiftieth time, Paul Maitland asked himself if he was just being a fool and why, instead of being tucked up in his own comfortable bed he was huddled in a sleeping bag in of all places the chocolate kiosk of the Bijou Cinema.
It was only that Chalky Smith had been sure about it all. Paul had been in the rear yard of the Cinema that morning giving the display boards a fresh coat of paint – one of the many odd jobs his work as a so-called “manager’s assistant” involved, when the irrepressible Chalky had ambled towards him.
“Cor!” Chalky had chortled appreciatively, as he eyed the curvy blonde on the poster that Paul was fixing to one of the boards. “What a dish! Coming shortly, too!”
“Yes,” said Paul, surveying his work with satisfaction, “A Gloria Gilroy picture. Ought to do pretty well with it.”
But it was obvious that Chalky was on a more serious errand that discussing the merits of film stars. He said: “There’s a rumour going the rounds that it’s the Bijou’s turn tonight.”
Paul was startled. There had been a number of recent robberies in the little market town, one at the Post Office, another at the jeweller’s, but up to now the Bijou had escaped the thieves’ attention.
“Where did you hear that?” Paul asked, but without much hope of getting reliable information.
“Down at the Amusement Arcade … thought I’d better warn you. But keep me out of it.”
“Thanks. And I will,” said Paul, who knew that Chalky and the police had not always seen eye to eye.
Mr. Morris, the manager, had shrugged his shoulders when Paul had told him.
“We can’t do more than lock everything up, and tip off the Bobby on the beat,” he said.
But Paul had other ideas.
For one thing, he was in love with Mary, the manager’s daughter. What a leg-up it would be if he managed to catch the thief single-handed! The result of this cogitation was his present midnight vigil and a sleeping bag on the cement floor.
The last of the traffic had stopped and a deep silence settled over the empty building. A clock in the town struck twelve. A melancholy sound. To cheer himself up, Paul let his thoughts stray too Mary. He sighed. It was madness to think she would look at him, especially now she was going around with that “smoothy” Jeff Conway. Only that evening the two of them had called in at the Bijou, n their way to the Carnival Dance at the Palais.
Mary had worn a pretty blue shepherdess costume which certainly did things for her and as she stepped into the car, with Conway of the wheel, she had looked like a princess. How Paul wished he could have been the one to take her to the dance! To dance with her, to hold her in his arms and kiss her good night afterwards. But there was a lot of difference between himself, a £20 a week manager’s assistant and Conway, who owned three betting shops and had a finger in Lord knows how many other pies.
Paul stirred uncomfortably and cursed his luck. By now the revels of the Palais would be at their height; it would be another two hours before Mary and Conway left the hall. To hours that Paul would have given his right arm to have, dancing cheek to cheek with the girl he loved.
The stillness was broken as a last late car rattled off in the distance; quiet descended once more.
Then Paul heard a sound which sent a thrill of excitement along his spine. The front doors of the Cinema were being gently rattled.
He leapt to his feet, softly pushed open the door of the kiosk, and crept across the vestibule towards the tall glass doors. A figure was standing outside, silhouetted against the dim light of the street lamps. Paul shone his torch and then gave a grasp of relief as the beam picked out a policeman’s helmet. He bent down and unbolted the big door.
“Sorry, sir, if I startled you,” said the man in blue. “Just trying the doors.”
“They’re safe enough,” laughed Paul. He added: “They’d better be, with the week’s takings in the safe!”
“You’re late tonight, sir? There was a hint of a question in the man’s tone.
“Had some work to clear up. Shan’t be long now, constable. Good night.”
“Goodnight,” answered the man and stumped off.
Having refastened the doors, Paul settled down once more in his sleeping bag. Even more, what with the unyielding floor and the night’s chill, his project seemed less attractive than it had done in the daylight. He had dreamed of catching a thief single- handed … but all he had caught was a policeman.
Something which had been worrying away at the back of his mind suddenly claimed his attention.
Black gloves! In the light of the torch Paul had noticed them quite plainly and they had struck an odd note. Did the police wear black gloves? White ones, sometimes, certainly, but black ones...?
Paul began to feel uneasy, as other remembered details occurred to him.
The gentle rattling of the door, not be all adult wrenching a real bobby would give it. Then, the man’s manner, to servile all together. Suppose ...
A tiny sound, clearly audible in the dead silence, came from somewhere above and once again set his nerves tingling. Someone was trying to break in! To his left, carpeted stairs led-up to the balcony lounge and where a door led to the manager’s office, as well as to an iron staircase leading to the projection room. Paul knew for certain that no one could get into the office from inside the building, but it occurred to him in a flash that there was another way in – and that was via the fire escape.
In case of fire, the projection room had an emergency exit by means of a door high up in the rear wall of the Cinema from which an iron fire escape led down to the yard. The exit door had only an easy Yale lock!
Paul suddenly felt anything but brave, but summoning all his courage he got up quietly and, softly opening the doors which led into the body of the cinema, groped his way the full length of the small auditorium, not even daring to switch on his pocket torch in case someone was watching.
He gave to a sigh of relief when he reached the bottom exit of the hall. The iron bolts were heavy, but he was well used to them and was able to let himself out into the yard with barely a sound. As he stood there listening, he heard the noise of a car with its engine running, but before he could investigate further, he had kicked over the pot of white paint he had been using in the yard that morning.
He swore softly, and then stood watching in amazement as a dark figure detached itself from the shadows, in the yard and made off at speed towards the waiting car.
Not too worried about his pals, I guess, thought Paul. Going to save his own skin at all costs.
He looked up towards the exit from the projection room at the top of the fire escape. As he had surmised, although not a sound from that direction was to be heard, the exit was wide open. He went up the iron rungs, two at a time, closed the open door softly and locked it with a key from his own bunch. Then, once more, he groped his way back through the pitch black auditorium.
As he came out into the vestibule, he stood listening again, and then quietly tiptoed up the stairs to the door of the manager’s suite.
Taking a deep breath, he grasped the handle and flung the door wide open. It was questionable who was the more surprised – Paul, or the two brawny youths kneeling in the brightly lit office with a heap of notes and coins in front of them.
Within seconds, however, the situation had dawned on them, and both youths made a dash for the iron stairs leading to the projection room.
Paul grinned, as he heard them clatter upwards, then he slammed and locked the door of the office suite. He was satisfied that he had them nicely bottled up, and went downstairs to telephone Mr. Morris and the police.
Twenty minutes later, Sergeant Butler and a constable, with Paul, confronted the two disgruntled louts in the manager’s office.
“Who put you up to this?” asked Butler, “Don’t tell me only lads like you are behind these robberies.”
The two youths kept a sulky silence for some minutes, but under Butler’s persistent questioning they at last let slip a name that gave Paul a shock of surprise.
“It was Conway. Him as keeps the betting shops. Promised us a hundred quid each if we done the job.”
“But Conway’s at the Palais with my daughter,” said Mr. Morris. “They left here at ten.”
“Better get him in, Smith,” said Butler to his constable, “Miss Morris had better come too. She may have something useful to tell us.”
PC Smith was quick off the mark, and not more than ten minutes of passed before he had brought back with him a coolly insolent Conway and a very worried-looking Mary.
“Have they disturbed your slumbers again, Sergeant?” sneered the bookie. “Don’t tell me you have enough evidence already to make an arrest!”
“There’s no question of an arrest, sir – yet. Just want you to tell me where you have been all the evening.”
“The whole thing’s absurd,” said Conway. “This girl here can vouch for the fact that I’ve been with her the whole evening, ever since we left here at ten.”
“Is that right?” asked Butler, looking at Mary.
“Yes, quite right,” she confirmed.
A small silence fell. Paul was thinking about Mary as he had seen her earlier in the evening in her pretty shepherdess costume. He wondered whether Conway had also worn fancy dress.
“May I put in a word, Sergeant? I just thought of something.”
The sergeant nodded to Paul to go ahead.
“Are you certain that Conway was with you all the time, Mary? Absolutely all the time?”
Mary look surprised and thought for a moment.
“Except for the few moments when he went to the cloakroom to put on his costume. It was nylon, and too hot to wear all the time.”
“What was the costume?” asked Paul.
“A Ku-Klux-Klan hood with slits for the eyes. He only wore it for the half hour the costumes were being judged.”
“So the person under the costume could have been someone else, not Conway at all?”
Mary nodded uncertainly. “Yes, I suppose it could.”
Conway began to bluster. “This is all pure supposition…” but Butler ordered him peremptorily to be quiet. He turned to Paul.
“You’re a smart lad, and you’re probably right. Half an hour would have been all that was necessary to engineer this job.”
Then he spoke to Conway again.
“You say you were at the Palais, sir, all the evening?”
Conway, an immaculate figure in his black dinner jacket, lit a cigarette with a hand that was not entirely steady.
“Every minute of it. She will be me out.”
“And you came nowhere near the cinema this evening? Yet Miss Morris says you went to the cloakroom to put on your costume, where you could have easily change places with an accomplice?”
“This is ridiculous,” bluffed the bookie, with more than a hint of uneasiness in his tone, “Surely a fellow can pay a visit to the cloakroom without being accused of a major crime. I repeat, I was nowhere near that the Bijou at any time during the evening. And now, if you have finished, perhaps you will allow me to see this girl home.” He took Mary by the arm, and turned to go.
“Just a moment, sir. I’m afraid you will have to come down to the station and make a statement.”
Conway began to protest, but Butler went on, “Mr. Maitland here saw somebody in the rear yard waiting with the getaway car. I have strong reasons to think it was you. If you will slip off your jacket, you will see what I mean.”
Reluctantly, Conway slid out of his black jacket. Butler took it from him and held it up to show marks of still-sticky white paint across the back of the garment.
At first, the series of smudges made no sense to any of them, and then Conway’s look of quiet self-assurance turned to one of furious anger as he succeeded in mentally reversing the telltale capitals.
“Coming Shortly,” whispered Mary, amazed, then shot an appealing look towards Paul.
“Let me take you home, Mary,” he said gently to the shaken girl. I can explain if you want me to.”
“And you are coming with me,” said the sergeant to Conway, who made no attempt to resist. He knew it was quite useless.