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11: The Missing Report

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« on: November 09, 2023, 10:33:50 am »

ON THE whole, the sudden death of an unpopular member of a small circle is calculated to produce more depression than that of the greatest favourite. This was Pettigrew’s reflection as he surveyed the lounge at the Fernlea that Friday evening. Miss Danville had been a butt, a nuisance, an object of ridicule. Now she had taken an unfair advantage of them all by suddenly becoming a tragic figure. Her former tormentors felt, inevitably, a sense of guilt and at the same time obscurely resentful towards her for putting them in the wrong. It was not easy to find words which would express a proper respect for the dead without at the same time sounding hopelessly false. The presence of Miss Brown, genuinely and speechlessly grief-stricken, made the position still more awkward for them. The result was one of the most silent evenings that Pettigrew could remember having endured since he had come to Marsett Bay.

The appearance of Mrs. Hopkinson brought a little animation to the scene. She had fewer inhibitions than most people, and she had at least something concrete to talk about. She described at length for the benefit of everyone within the range of her voice exactly what she had seen and heard that afternoon, and at still greater length exactly how she had felt and what she had said about it.

“It was all so sudden, I just couldn’t believe it had happened,” she said for the fifth time. “She just collapsed and went over like that. And then I saw her face and it looked too ghastly! I’m sure I shan’t sleep to-night.”

“Try not to think about it,” said Pettigrew, knowing quite well that this was the last thing she would want to do. She was, in fact, enjoying herself more than a little, whether she was aware of it or not.

“Do you suppose they’ll make me give evidence at the inquest?” she asked hopefully.

“I should hardly think so. I don’t really think you need worry yourself about that.”

Mrs. Hopkinson sighed deeply, whether in disappointment or not it was hard to determine, and Pettigrew hoped that he had silenced her, but a moment later she began again.

“It was so sudden!” she repeated. “What happened, do you think, Mr. Pettigrew? Did her heart stop beating all at once?”

“I’ve no doubt it did,” said Pettigrew shortly. It was a fairly safe guess to make about anybody who was dead, he felt.

“I mean, what exactly did she die of?”

“Really, I haven’t the least idea. We shall have to wait for the inquest to tell us that, obviously.”

“When do you suppose that will be?”

“Very soon, I have no doubt. I’m not very familiar with the way they arrange these things, but I suppose there will be a post-mortem examination at once, and after that the inquest. Until then, I don’t really think there is anything to be gained by discussing this unhappy business.”

Pettigrew was a little out in his timing of the procedure. It so happened that on this particular Friday the coroner for the district was conducting an inquest some miles away. His car broke down on his way home, and in consequence the death of Miss Danville was not reported to him until late that night. Nothing in the report indicated any exceptional urgency about the case, and next day in the ordinary course he authorized the county pathologist to carry out a post-mortem examination to ascertain the cause of death. That hard-worked official was instructed on Saturday morning, as he was on the point of leaving for a much needed weekend holiday. He therefore arranged with the coroner to perform his task on Monday morning, and the inquest was fixed for that afternoon.

At half-past ten on Monday morning, Police Constable James Gunn, the coroner’s officer, entered the mortuary at Marsett Bay hospital to prepare the body of Honoria Danville for the examination.

At half-past ten on Monday morning, Pettigrew was surprised, but by no means displeased, by Miss Brown announcing that Inspector Mallett wished to see him. It was the first visit he had paid to his room and Pettigrew made him welcome. The sight of that substantial figure on the opposite side of his desk seemed to bring a whiff of reality to the bloodless operations of the Pin Control.

“Your secretary doesn’t look too good this morning, sir,” Mallett observed as he settled down gingerly on the narrow office chair.

“No. I’m afraid she’s had rather a shock. We all have, indeed. But Miss Danville was a particular friend of hers.”

“Ah yes, Miss Danville, I heard about that. A sad affair. But now, sir, about this business of ours----”

“You mean, I suppose, the Blenkinsop prosecution, Inspector?”

Mallett looked surprised.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “But---weren’t you expecting me here this morning, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“No, in point of fact I wasn’t. Not that I’m not very glad to see you, of course.”

Pettigrew thought he could see something disapproving in the inspector’s eye, and wondered in what way he could have offended.

“I see,” Mallett was saying. “Of course, I can understand with all the upset about poor Miss Danville you won’t have had time to read my report.”

“Certainly I’ve read your report,” Pettigrew protested. “Some days ago, in fact. I’ve sent it to London, with the rest of the papers, recommending a prosecution.”

“My second report, I meant, sir.”

“I haven’t seen any such thing.”

“That’s very odd, sir,” said Mallett, pulling at his moustache. “You should have had it on Friday.”

Pettigrew rang for Miss Brown.

“There are some papers missing in the Blenkinsop matter,” he told her. “They came in on Friday, or should have done. Have you seen them anywhere?”

Miss Brown shook her head.

“There were no fresh papers in Blenkinsop on Friday,” she said positively. “If there had been, I should have entered them in my register and put them with the others.”

“You are quite sure? You remember Friday was the day you came back from leave, and shortly after that, we---we were all rather concerned about other matters. Don’t you think you may have overlooked them, or put them with the wrong file by mistake?”

“I am quite certain I didn’t, Mr. Pettigrew. You see, after Miss Danville---after Miss Danville was taken away, I was feeling rather upset, so to calm myself down I made a special effort to clear things up before I left the office. There were quite a number of papers that had come in while I was away, which hadn’t been properly registered”---she looked at Pettigrew reproachfully---“and I went through all those. Then I checked up all your files and saw that they were in order. I must have noticed if there were any loose Blenkinsop papers.”

“It’s very strange,” said Mallett. “I left my report with the Controller’s secretary on Friday morning, and it was to be sent through to you direct. I nearly left it in this room myself, but she talked some mumbo-jumbo about sending a transit slip through to the Registry, and I thought I’d better conform to the office routine, more’s the pity.”

“I suppose the Controller’s secretary forgot about it, and it’s there still,” said Pettigrew. “Miss Brown, I think you’d better go along and make inquiries.”

Miss Brown was hardly out of the room before the telephone rang. Pettigrew answered it.

“It’s for you,” he said, passing the instrument over to Mallett.

“Yes?” said Mallett into the telephone. “Speaking. . . . She---what? . . . This is rather unexpected, Mr. Jellaby. . . . Yes, I know, but it isn’t my case, you appreciate that. I’m only here to. . . . Very well, but of course that’s a matter for your Chief to decide with the Commissioner. . . . While I’m here, I’ll keep an eye on things unofficially, but I can’t possibly conduct the inquiry unless. . . . Yes, certainly I’ll tell him. . . . Yes, of course. . . . Certainly. I’ll see you this afternoon, then. Good-bye.”

The inspector replaced the receiver, his face as impassive as usual. But having done so, he pulled his moustache extremely hard, which was the only way in which he was ever known to express emotion.

“That was Inspector Jellaby,” he said. “He was speaking about Miss Danville.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. There has been a rather surprising development in that case, Mr. Pettigrew. You were one of the first people on the spot. Was there anything you noticed that suggested violence?”

“Violence? Certainly not. I thought she had had a seizure or something of the kind.”

“Well, when the coroner’s officer stripped the body this morning for the pathologist to do his post-mortem, he found what appeared to be a stab wound in the centre of the abdomen.”

“Good heavens, Inspector, but surely this isn’t possible! I was actually with the poor woman when she died, and I swear I noticed nothing.”

“Neither did the doctor who came at the time, apparently. Internal haemorrhage, I suppose, and no trace outside, except a small hole in her dress which nobody would see without looking for it. I have known such cases. We shan’t know for certain till the pathologist makes his report, of course. But Mr. Jellaby tells me you have been warned to attend the inquest this afternoon and he asked me to let you know what to expect.”

“But---this must be murder!”

“It certainly looks like it, sir. No doubt Mr. Jellaby will want a full statement from you in due course. Your evidence may be important. But so far as the inquest goes, I should think that the coroner will now simply take evidence of identification and the medical evidence and then adjourn. So I dare say your evidence won’t be wanted, at this court.”

Miss Brown came into the room at this point.

“The Controller’s secretary is quite certain that the papers were marked out to you on Friday afternoon,” she said. Her face was rather pink, and Pettigrew, who had met the leathery, vinegary spinster who acted as the Controller’s watchdog, knew without being told that there had been something of a scene when she was accused of mislaying documents.

“Thank you, Miss Brown,” he said and let her go. He did not feel equal to discussing Mallett’s ghastly news before her.

“This is rather a serious matter, Mr. Pettigrew,” the inspector observed, as soon as Miss Brown had left.

“Serious? You are putting it very mildly, Inspector. Who on earth could have wanted to harm that poor, innocent creature?”

“I wasn’t thinking of that, sir. I was talking about the report of mine that’s missing.” Then, seeing Pettigrew’s surprised expression, he went on, “You see, sir, this affair of Miss Danville isn’t my case. It may possibly become mine later on, and I’ve promised Mr. Jellaby to give him a hand, unofficially, if I can. Whoever handles the case is going to regret these three days wasted with no inquiries made, and I don’t envy him his job. But it isn’t my affair. My affair, sir, is the Blenkinsop matter, and I say that the loss of my report is serious.”

Mallett emphasized his words by another tug at his moustache points.

Really, thought Pettigrew, this is carrying professional detachment too far. How can he expect me to interest myself in his twopenny halfpenny report at a moment like this? However, to humour him, he said, “It is certainly very annoying for you. I appreciate that. I suppose you haven’t kept a copy, and this means the loss of a good many days’ hard work?”

Mallett opened the little despatch case he had brought with him, and produced from it some twenty sheets of typed paper, pinned together.

“Naturally, I have a copy, sir,” he said. “I can hardly expect you to read it all now, but I’d just like you to cast your eye over”---he flicked over a number of sheets---“pages 8 and 9, if you wouldn’t mind. Then perhaps you will follow what I mean when I refer to the loss of the original as serious.”

Pettigrew unwillingly set to work to read the rather blurred carbon copy which Mallett put before him. His mind still running on Miss Danville, the words under his eyes seemed at first completely meaningless, and he had to read the first sentences two or three times before they conveyed any sense to him. Then, with an effort, he focused his attention on the pages and read them through with care.

“It occurs to me,” he said when he had finished, “that what is exercising your mind, Inspector, is not so much the loss of your report as the possibility that someone may have found it.”

“Exactly, sir. As you will have seen, the report deals with what I may call the background of the Blenkinsop affair. In itself, that’s a small matter---a quantity of stuff disposed of without licences, and at illegal prices. We shan’t have any difficulty in proving our case, as I think you agree, and so far as it goes it will be a very useful little prosecution. But that isn’t what I came up to Marsett Bay for. I’m concerned with a very widespread evasion of the Control, of which the Blenkinsop case is only one small instance. And it’s an evasion that I’m convinced could only take place with connivance and assistance from inside. I won’t bother you with the details, sir, they are all in the copy report you have there. But knowledge of the Control’s methods of fighting the Black Market is getting outside.”

“And, to judge from the passage I have just read,” said Pettigrew, “if this report gets into the wrong hands, a good deal more knowledge is going to get outside.”

“This report,” said Mallett seriously, “contains a full statement of the whole case. It sets out all the evidence we have got so far, what evidence we are hoping to get in the future and how we mean to set about getting it. It gives our plan of campaign, suggestions for tightening up the security system inside the office and outside it---in fact, the whole works. If it has gone the wrong way, the case is as good as dead. I might as well go back to the Yard to-morrow and say the inquiry is a failure.”

“Unless you stayed up here to investigate Miss Danville’s murder,” Pettigrew could not help saying.

Mallett smiled.

“I know what you’re thinking, sir,” he said. “You think this business is all very small beer compared to the other. And so it may be. You know how hard it is to feel enthusiastic about these war-time regulations. But I have my reputation to consider, whatever the nature of the inquiry may be.”

“At any rate, nobody can blame you for what has happened. That is, if it has happened. Aren’t we rather jumping to conclusions, Inspector?”

“That brings me to the next point. We shall have to investigate now and see at what point the report may have gone astray. Do you mind if we have your secretary back for a moment?”

Pettigrew wearily agreed. Depressed and bewildered by the tragedy that had overtaken Miss Danville, he felt utterly uninterested in the fate of Mallett’s report or the Blenkinsop prosecution or the black market in general. Still, it was a job that had to be done, and, unhappily, he appeared to be the man who must do it.

Miss Brown, when appealed to, was able to carry the matter a little further. The Controller’s secretary had been very precise in detailing the movements of the papers up to the time they had left her. After the Controller had seen the report, she had taken it from his desk, addressed it to Pettigrew with an official label, pinned securely to the front and left it in her out-tray. From that tray, she had impressed on Miss Brown in a way that could leave no room for ambiguity, she had seen the messenger remove it, with a number of others---seen him, she had repeated more than once, with her own eyes.

“What time would this be?” Mallett asked.

“In the afternoon, when the messenger made his second round, she told me.”

“Then I can fix it,” said Pettigrew. “It would be just before half-past three. I always hear him come down the corridor from the Controller’s room about that time.”

“It should have reached you at half-past three, then?”

“No. For some reason, although he comes past my door at that time, he never delivers to me until some time later, usually about twenty-past four, when I am just finishing my tea. It is only surmise on my part, but I have always imagined that it had some connection with his own tea.”

“The next step, clearly, is to see the messenger. Where is he to be found?”

“There I’m afraid I can’t help you,” said Pettigrew. “It’s remiss of me, perhaps, but the private life of messengers has always been a closed book to me. Perhaps it is because they always bring me such extremely tiresome stuff with them when they call that I have instinctively averted my eyes from the subject. Miss Brown, you have a much more practical mind than I. Where would you look for our man?”

Miss Brown looked at her watch.

“Just now,” she said with assurance, “the messengers will be having their elevenses in the messengers’ room. That’s the little room on the landing half-way up the back stairs.”

“Marvellous! But I knew you could be depended on. Do you feel brave enough to penetrate to his lair and bring him down here?”

“Wait a minute,” said Mallett. “I suppose these men change their beats from day to day. How do we know which was on duty here on Friday?”

“That’s all right. For once in a way, I did notice him yesterday. I had to get his assistance to open the door to the pantry where Miss Danville was. Of course, you haven’t heard all the details of that matter, Inspector. But you saw him too, Miss Brown. A heavy, darkish man. Slow and dependable, I should say.”

“His name is John Peabody,” said Miss Brown. “Shall I fetch him, Mr. Pettigrew?”

After she had gone, Pettigrew remarked, “A secretary who takes the trouble to find out even the messengers’ christian names is a bit out of the ordinary, Inspector.”

“I’m prepared to believe that she’s not very likely to lose important papers, at any rate,” was Mallett’s comment.

John Peabody, when he appeared a few minutes later, was evidently not too pleased at being called from his refreshment to answer an enquiry into a missing document. In any event, he pointed out, there was a recognized procedure to be followed when any papers had gone astray. It involved, to begin with, filling up a form in triplicate, one copy of which went to the Registry, one to the head messenger and the third to the branch originating the missing file. After that, the next step was. . . .

“I’m afraid we haven’t time for all that in this case,” said Mallett.

“It doesn’t say anything about time in the regulations,” Peabody replied severely.

“Perhaps I ought to explain,” said Pettigrew, “that this gentleman is from Scotland Yard----”

“Ah!” Peabody was visibly impressed.

“Special Branch,” he added quite untruthfully.

“Oh! Pleased to meet you, sir!”

“So you can understand we want to fill up as few of these forms and things as possible.”

Peabody pursed his lips and nodded wisely.

“What do you want to know, gents?” he said.

“The missing papers,” said Mallett, “were taken by you from the Controller’s secretary’s room on Friday afternoon. That would be about half-past three?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you do with them?”

“The usual.”

“What is that?”

“Put ’em on the shelf while I went for me tea.”

“The shelf? What’s that?”

“Well, it’s a shelf, so to speak. In the corridor here, just beyond this door.”

“Do you always do that with papers at this time of day?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“So’s not to have to take ’em upstairs to me tea and down again, of course.”

“Do the other messengers follow the same procedure as you when they are on this beat?”

“Any that have any sense do.”

“Very good. Then after tea you came downstairs, went to the shelf and found the papers had gone?”

“Wrong both times,” said Peabody with great satisfaction. “After me tea I come down the back stairs and go through half a dozen rooms emptying their out-trays, till I gets back here. Then I pick up off the shelf and back I go delivering, see? As for finding the papers gone, I never did any such thing. I dare say there was half a dozen bundles I laid down there, and how was I to tell if there was only five when I comes to pick them up again?”

“Are you sure this was what you did on Friday?”

“Yes. Why not?”

“But Friday was rather an unusual day wasn’t it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, it isn’t every day you find ladies dying in the pantry, surely?”

Peabody sucked his teeth reflectively.

“That’s so,” he admitted. “I dare say that little business may have made me as much as half a minute late on my round, not more. As soon as I saw the lady was gone, I just carried on as usual. It was none of my business, anyway.”

“I see. Are there any questions you want to ask, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Thank you, Peabody. That is all.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Well,” said Mallett, after Peabody had retired to finish his elevenses, “it seems clear enough how the papers could have disappeared. For about three-quarters of an hour they were lying outside there on the shelf for anybody who chose to lift them.”

“It sounds simple enough,” said Pettigrew, stifling a yawn.

“Anybody who chose,” the inspector repeated slowly. “That implies a good deal, when you come to look at it. It isn’t everybody who would choose, is it?”

“Obviously not,” said Pettigrew, beginning to feel like a participant in one of Plato’s dialogues when Socrates really got going.

“Somebody,” Mallett went on remorselessly, “who knew what to look for. Somebody who was expecting this very document, or something like it. That means, somebody who knew what was going on in this case already. Have you lost any other papers since you’ve been here, sir?”

“No. I often wished I could, but not one has managed to escape before. But----”

“But what?”

“Three-quarters of an hour is ample time in which to prig a few papers, skim through them, even copy the parts that interest you most and replace them.”

“If,” Mallett put in, “if the individual had taken the trouble to ascertain beforehand exactly what the messenger’s movements were. And----”

“By Jove!”

“Yes, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“Only something that has just struck me. But go on with what you were saying.”

“I was going to say: Why take the risk of stealing this report, which was bound to be found out, instead of just reading it and replacing it, if there was all that time to spare?”

“Because on Friday there wasn’t time to spare,” said Pettigrew, now beginning for the first time to shew some animation. “Because on Friday, before the messenger came back on his round, there was Miss Danville in the room next door----”

“Wasn’t she always there about the same time?”

“Yes, yes, but she was deaf anyway. She doesn’t count. But this time, there was also Miss Brown and Mrs. Hopkinson and myself, trying to get in.”

“Somebody else, too, before that,” observed Mallett very quietly.

“Somebody else? I don’t quite follow.”

“Unless, of course, either you, or Miss Brown or Mrs. Hopkinson stabbed Miss Danville.”

“Good God, yes! For the moment I had forgotten. The whole thing fits in. . . . Look here, Inspector, you’ve simply got to take up the Danville case now!”

“It’s certainly beginning to look like it,” said the inspector. He did not seem at all unhappy at the prospect.

“Of course,” Pettigrew went on, “the person who pinched your report may have been the same person that killed Miss Danville.”

“That is a possibility. But aren’t we running on a little too fast? Where I should like your assistance, sir, is in trying, to determine who that somebody we spoke of just now could be. This is a fairly quiet corridor as a rule, isn’t it? You should know who is normally about this part of the building in the afternoon and who not. Have you noticed anything----”

“Stop, stop, Inspector! Give me a moment to collect my thoughts and I will answer all your questions and several you haven’t asked yet. I’m beginning to understand quite a lot of things about this madhouse which I never did before. Now, listen and I will a tale unfold that. . . . No, Miss Brown I am not going to sign those letters now. I don’t care if they miss the midday post or not. I’m busy. And I shall not answer the telephone, not for the Lord Chancellor himself. . . . No, I am not expecting him to ring me up, but in case he should. . . . Please, please Miss Brown, go away! . . . Now, Inspector, just see what you can make of this. . . .”

“Excuse me, Mr. Pettigrew,” said Miss Brown, a quarter of an hour later.

“Miss Brown, I said I was busy!

“I know, but I think you should see this. It seems to be important.”

“Very well then, put it down on the side-table, and I’ll attend to it directly. . . . What is it, anyway?”

“The Inspector’s report about Blenkinsop, Mr. Pettigrew. It came in just now, by the midday messenger.”

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