Seim Reap is now behind us and we are in the capital, Phnom Penh, named after the mother of the city, Madame Penh. Don’t you love the egalitarian nature of that fact?
Travelling by air across Cambodia brings home just how sodden parts of it are. Tonle Sap, the Great Lake we visited recently is fed by a river that in part joins the massive Mekong with one other and it is at this confluence that Phnom Penh is situated. The small oblong paddy fields could, from on high, be English farmland until you appreciate the quantity of standing water and see the stilted housing.
The city is, again from a distance, not much different to many others. At ground level it has the manic bustle of the developing world, the occasional gleaning tower surroundied by streets of chaotic housing and a macrame of wiring providing power. Our hotel is a former colonial building, all wooden balustrades and odd cul de sacs. The room, though, is huge and the bath bigger than our bed at home.
Tomorrow it’s the Royal Palace, a picnic and the National Museum but for today a couple of images.
Today’s story is prompted by this picture. The Vet’s boyfriend, the Pest Cotroller says it should envisage the murderer has just left by the window. But have they?
Again this is a two parter.
Who Killed Cocky Robin
Robin D’Estrange had many friends most of whom he did not trust. A few however were loyal to him and would always be there in time of need. He lived an epicurean lifestyle of excess, funded by an uncle who believed him his father thus leaving him riddled with guilt and easy prey to one such as Robin.
When his housekeeper, Mrs Crossword entered his apartment she expected to find a mess and maybe more than the contracted number of guests of both sexes. What she hadn’t expected was to find him dead.
Mrs Crossword wasn’t easily stirred to a passion but for all his many failings she liked Robin. Unlike many of her guests he treated her as he would those of the highest rank, with respect and appreciation. After particularly bohemian nights his apologies would smooth her feathers even if she maintained them ruffled merely for good form.
‘Mr Crossword!’ Her voice nearly broke; she swallowed, this would never do. ‘Come now. Master Robin is dead.’
The Justices were called and one of the new found police attended. Mrs Crossword attested to his dissolute lifestyle but contrasted this to his iron constitution and general good health, especially in the days leading up to the tragedy. Evidence was obtained from neighbouring occupants of a boisterous night the evening before his discovery, involving several persons. The noise appeared to have stopped at about 1am.
The policeman, an Inspector Grain noted marks on Robin’s neck who suggested he may have been strangled. This discovery caused ripples of gossip to pass along Bleak Street and into a nearby tavern, the Sheep, by noon. Who were the young man’s companions and did one kill him?
It took Whistling Jim, an old fellow so named for the way he whistled as he spoke through the gaps in his teeth, an hour to pluck up courage to find the Inspector. ‘I mind’s me own business, but seeing as the young lad’s dead I daresay he’ll not care. I was sitting on a barrel by the door to his lodgings from 8 till 3. Only one person came past me in that time, if you don’t count the fellow from the beer shop bringing supplies, a proper gent this one. Older, a bit sparse up top if you take my meaning.’ To Grain it seemed possible the old man might have dozed and missed some comings or goings but maybe not both.
Further enquiries showed no one had seen anyone leave the building until dawn was showing in the sky. Intrigued Grain spoke to the beer shop. Two separate deliveries had been made. The lad who brought the bottles attested to there being four men including Robin carousing in his rooms. They were all full of the spirit, he said. He also offered that one, a James Makepeace lived not two streets away and of course he would show the Inspector.
Makepeace, an apprenticed broker, was found at home sleeping heavily. When eventually he awoke he was horrified to hear of his friend’s demise. He recalled visiting but the latter part of the evening was a blur. He was as sure as he could be D’Estrange was very much alive throughout the evening. He proffered the names of the other two companions.
One, Christopher Humble told a similar story save in two details. First, he had a memory of climbing over a rough surface and in so doing cutting his hand. His hand had indeed been badly sliced. Second, he thought D’Estrange had been upset by something though he couldn’t recall what.
The third gentleman, a Membank Tweed was not home and appeared not to have come home that day.
One fact the Inspector did establish was that neither of the two young men he had seen suffered from baldness nor in the Inspector’s opinion could they be described as fitting the description of ‘a proper gent’ at least not when he saw them.
The Inspector went back to D’Estrange’s rooms. He studied the layout and noted an envelop on the desk. He moved slowly trying to envisage what might have happened. A thought struck him. There had been four participants yet he could only find three glasses. He asked Mrs Crossword who confirmed she had touched nothing, implying in her tone he was impertinent even to suggest it.
How, the good Inspector wondered, had the men left the building when so incapable with drink without someone noticing? He realised he should ask Messers Humble and Makepeace’s neighbours if they remembered them coming home and if so when. It was as he stood by the window looking out at the town that he noted the tile with a fresh crack and the broken glass pane. Could that be how they left? Was that where Humble cut himself? Maybe with some prompting they might remember.
A commotion on the stairs brought his attention back to the room. A florid gentleman in a stained coat burst in followed by Mrs Crossword. ‘I tried to stop him, sir but he insisted on seeing you. I told him…’
Grain held up a hand. ‘Mrs Crossword, let him speak. Then I need a word, pray. Sir?’
The man, now he had the Inspector’s attention couldn’t speak. Finally he mumbled, ‘A letter. In his hand.’ He indicated the bed.
Gradually the Inspector teased out the story. The man, Brill, was charged with helping move the body. As the stiffening eased he realised the man had something in his hand. A letter. Or part of one. His employer realised it might be important and sent Brill forthwith to find the Inspector.
Grain read the torn sheet. It spoke of fraud and money problems and the need for help. Grain pulled the envelope he had found from his pocket; it was addressed to the deceased in the same hand, a clearly educated one.
‘Mrs Crossword, who occupies the apartment there?’ Grain pointed to the roof with the broken tile below where he stood.
‘A Mr Tweed.’
Grain smiled. Indeed. ‘Do you have a key?’
‘Yes sir. Would you…?’
‘I would. And thank you Mr Brill and thank your employer. You are public spirited people.’
On entering the apartment, Grain was struck by a mix of strong smells which he couldn’t immediately place. While Mrs Crossword hesitated by the door Grain looked around. It did indeed look barely used for sleeping though one room was full of glass bottles and jars. He noted the apartment had a door to the rear yard. ‘Where does that go?’
‘Into the Cross Keys courtyard, sir. Would you?’ She held out her keys; he nodded.
Once outside he crossed to the back bar and entered. It was quiet at that time of the morning. The barman looked up warily; he knew the policeman as Grain knew him.
‘James Preacher, if I live and breathe.’
‘Grain. What do you want?’
‘Not you. Last night, did you see anyone out back? Anything unusual?’
‘I’d not say if I did.’
‘I understand. Just consider. A young man was murdered in his rooms and I have reason to believe the killer or his accomplices may have left this way.’
‘I’m still blind for you.’
Grain left, disappointed. He really needed to put the word out about Tweed. And find out if Robin had money problems.
The next morning Grain sat in his office when there was a commotion outside. He stood and went to the lobby. The inn keeper was there, held by two sergeants. He saw Grain. ‘I ain’t no lover of the police but that young’un was murdered, you say?’
‘Doesn’t deserve that. Yes I saw three fellows, two in a bad way. Drink I expect. One was bleeding badly. They hailed a cab and disappeared north. That was about 2am.’
‘The one not in a bad way. Did you see him?’
Preacher hesitated. ‘Fellow called Tweed. Lives across the yard. Doing some experiments I think. Keeps himself to himself, mostly. He was in charge.’
Grain thanked the man. Tweed had left with the other two who sounded drunk and helped them away. Was this some conspiracy? Had they robbed the deceased? Maybe it was Tweed’s letter asking for money and it was he who had the money problems. Yet he could afford to rent two rooms in town. Grain returned to both apartments in town while sending his men to see if they could find the cabby who took the men away.
At two pm, he was writing up his report when Mrs Crossword appeared with Whistling Jim. ‘I don’t like to bother you, sir, but this old fool says that gent what he mentioned was asking after the young Master Robin, God rest his soul. He seemed right put out with the news.’
The old man shuffled his feet, gripping his hat tight. ‘I told him it was an evil thing that cast a pall, yes, a pall over the place. He said, if I heard any more to send word.’
Grain controlled his breathing. ‘And where would you send word?’
‘Why his lodgings, of course. He paid me in advance if I needed to find a lad to take the message.’
‘And these lodgings, they would be where?’ Grain did well not to shake the old boy.
He fumbled in his jerkin and pulled out a card, handing it over. Grain wrote the address and thanked Mrs Crossword and Whistling Jim for their help. Jim seemed miffed. ‘Don’t I get paid?