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14: Police Inquiries

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« on: November 10, 2023, 05:37:54 am »

FROM THE police-station to the offices of the Pin Control was a quarter of an hour’s walk. Mallett, brushing aside an offer of a police car, covered the distance in slightly less than ten minutes. Jellaby, panting beside him, was astonished how fit and active the bulky man proved to be. He had to save his breath for walking, and the journey was made in silence on his part. Such observations as Mallett threw out had no bearing on the matter in hand. Once within the grounds of the mansion, Mallett turned towards the side entrance.

“Where’re we going?” Jellaby asked.

“I thought we must have a talk with Mr. Palafox first. It seems only civil to start with the head of the department.”

“Can’t just go bursting in on a man in his position, can we?” Jellaby objected. “You’re in charge, of course, but I’d have thought he’d want an appointment.”

“We have an appointment for eleven fifteen,” said Mallett. “I arranged it this morning before I came round to see you. Sorry if I hurried you coming along, but I was afraid we’d be late.”

“And I thought you meant to stay gassing in my office all morning! Should have known better, I suppose.”

“I don’t know why you should,” rejoined Mallett mildly, as they entered the side door. “Good morning, Miss Unsworth!” he went on. “Is the Controller ready to see us?”

Miss Unsworth, the Controller’s secretary, gave the two men the malevolent look with which she always greeted anybody likely to trespass on her principal’s time. But she had no excuse ready to put them off. The appointment had been made, and a glance at her watch told her that the visitors were neither too early nor too late for it. She had to content herself with saying sourly, “Mr. Palafox has a conference fixed for a quarter to twelve.”

“Oh, we shan’t keep him nearly as long as that,” Mallett assured her, without producing any softening effect in her severe expression.

The detectives were ushered into the large, bare library, where, with his back firmly turned on the magnificent view over the bay, the Controller sat behind an enormous desk.

“This is Detective-Inspector Jellaby of the County Police, sir,” said Mallett.

“Just so,” said the Controller, vaguely. His voice was rich and plummy and he prided himself on the distinctness of his articulation. He waved Jellaby towards the less comfortable of the two chairs in front of the desk, and thereafter addressed himself exclusively to Mallett.

“I am very much concerned,” he went on, “with the occurrence of last Friday.” He paused, to let the significance of his concern have its full weight. “The loss of your report, Inspector, which has only recently been reported to me, is a development which I can only characterize as disturbing.”

“Quite so, sir.”

“It must of course, be recovered. I am sure I need not stress the importance of that.”

“It has been recovered, sir.”

“It has? But this is very surprising. When did this take place?”

“Yesterday.”

“How is it that this has not been reported to me?”

“I am afraid that I am to blame for that, sir. But both my colleague and I have been rather preoccupied with another inquiry since then.” Then, seeing the look of perplexity on the Controller’s plump face, Mallett continued, “I should explain that I have been put in charge of the investigation into the death of Miss Danville.”

“Miss Danville? The lady who----? Yes, of course. Then that explains the presence of this gentleman here.” He indicated the speechless Jellaby, who was not accustomed to being treated as a piece of furniture in his own police division. “But Inspector, am I then to understand that you have come here to interview me about a case of murder?

“I think that you can be of some assistance to us, sir,” said Mallett deprecatingly. “If only in a negative direction,” he added.

“In a negative direction---just so.” Mr. Palafox had evidently decided that the situation called for a touch of humour. “It is a process known in your profession as eliminating a suspect, is it not?”

“That isn’t exactly what I had in mind, sir,” Mallett replied gravely. “The purpose of my inquiry is this: I wish to establish---if possible, who might be expected to have been at or near the scene of Miss Danville’s death at the critical time. Now the layout of this building is such that anyone coming towards this room from the main part of the office would have to pass the room where Miss Danville was found.”

“Or vice versa, Inspector, let me interpolate, or vice versa.”

“Exactly, sir. Now I take it that from time to time members of your staff do come to see you here?”

“Heads of departments naturally come to consult me occasionally; senior assistants less often; members of the staff of lower grades very rarely indeed. For ordinary purposes, in any case, I prefer to make use of the internal telephone system if it becomes necessary to discuss any point viva voce.”

“Very good, sir. Now on Friday last----”

“You need not labour your point, Inspector, I apprehended it some time ago. On Friday---but I will not trust my memory. Miss Unsworth will have a record of my engagements for that day and we will consult her.”

Miss Unsworth, when appealed to, produced the Controller’s diary of engagements.

“Your only afternoon engagement on Friday,” she said, “was at two-thirty. The Establishment Officer came to see you and brought Miss Clarke with him. They left at five minutes past three.”

“Just so. I recollect now, it was in relation to a rather awkward situation that had arisen with regard to Miss Danville. That reminds me, Miss Unsworth, you may cancel the memorandum I dictated on that subject. In view of what has since supervened it will not now be necessary. Thank you, Miss Unsworth. Does that meet your point, Inspector?”

“Perhaps Miss Unsworth can tell us whether anybody came to see Mr. Palafox without an appointment that afternoon?”

“And failed to get past the Cerberus at the gate? That is always a possibility, is it not? Many call but few are chosen. What say you, Miss Unsworth?”

“There was nobody,” said Miss Unsworth drily. She looked again at the diary and added, “From three fifty-nine till four five you were speaking on a call you had put through to London, and at four ten a call came through from Birmingham, which you answered.”

“Thank you, Miss Unsworth. I am sure the inspector will take due note of the alibi you have so thoughtfully provided for me. I, on my side, can, I think, perform a like service for you. At both those times I heard your voice informing me that my connection had been made, and in the interval I was aware of your typewriter functioning next door. Is that all, Inspector?”

It was Jellaby, tired of being ignored, who answered.

“This isn’t the only room on this side of the building,” he said. “There could have been visitors to them, I suppose?”

The Controller regarded him with the interest he might have accorded to a child who had made an unexpectedly clever remark in grown-up company.

“The point is well taken,” he said. “But not, I fear, a good one. There are two other rooms besides mine at this end of the corridor. One belongs to the head of Export Control, Mr. Bissett, and he, you will find, has been away on leave since Tuesday last. The other was until a fortnight ago in the occupation of a liaison officer from the Ministry of Manpower, when the Treasury in its wisdom decided that co-operation with other branches of the Government was a luxury that could not be tolerated in time of war. The answer to your question is, therefore, No. There could---or, rather, should---have been no visitors to those rooms.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mallett. “I think that covers all we have to ask you.”

“Very good; and now I have something to ask you, Inspector. What is the explanation of this extraordinary incident of your report that lost itself and was found again?”

Mallett concisely recounted the facts of the disappearance and rediscovery of the report, and Mr. Palafox listened with grave attention.

“I dislike repeating myself, but after listening to you I am more than ever concerned at this matter,” he said, when the inspector had finished. “And have you no hope of identifying the person responsible?”

“I would not go so far as that, sir, but the circumstances make it a very difficult inquiry.”

The Controller sighed.

“It is hideous to contemplate such things occurring in a department under my control,” he said. “But what can one expect with the material at one’s command? The temporary civil servant is the bane of government in war-time.” He looked up, caught a furious glance from Miss Unsworth, and concluded hurriedly, “With exceptions, of course, with very marked exceptions. But I must detain you no longer. Good day, gentlemen, good day.”

As the two detectives were leaving the room, Mallett turned back to say, “Would there be any objection, sir, to our having the use of one of the vacant rooms for the purposes of our inquiry? We shall want to interview several members of your staff, and it would be a very great convenience----”

“Certainly, that shall be arranged. Miss Unsworth, will you please see that these gentleman are accommodated and that they have everything they require?”

“Well,” grunted Jellaby, as they settled down in Mr. Bissett’s comfortable room, “I don’t know what we got from that interview.”

“I do,” replied Mallett with a grin. “We’ve got a room of our own in the Control, where we can see people without disturbing them or being disturbed. Do you think I could persuade the Unsworth to send for Miss Clarke if I spoke to her very sweetly over this telephone?”

The interview with Miss Clarke was not a particularly easy one, nor did it prove very rewarding to the investigators. They learned from her, what they knew already, that Miss Danville had been an extremely inefficient member of the Licensing Section and they heard, with unimportant variations, a repetition of the story of the scene in the lounge of the Fernlea Residential Club on the evening before her death. Miss Clarke professed herself to have been seriously shocked by what had occurred on that occasion.

“I had always considered her to be seriously lacking in common sense,” she said. “Obviously she was not entirely normal. She was so religious, for one thing. I don’t mean I have anything against religion, in its proper place, of course, but poor Miss Danville was---well, morbid is the only word for it. But I had no idea that she was really mental. Naturally, the moment I realized it, I determined to speak to the Establishment Officer about her. It is hardly fair on the rest of the Section to have a person in that condition working with them. If I had had my way she would not have come to the office on Friday at all. She was in no state to work.”

“Why did she insist on coming to the office on Friday?” Mallett asked.

Miss Clarke shrugged her shoulders impatiently.

“She said something ridiculous about wanting to make the office tea. But that was quite absurd, of course. In any case, if that was all she meant to do---and certainly it was all she was fit for---why on earth should she have come in the morning? But it is impossible for anyone to say what was in her mind. You can’t judge her behaviour as though she was a normal person.”

“At all events, she did go to make the tea in the ordinary way, with the results that we know. Tell me, Miss Clarke, where were you at that time?”

“In my office, waiting for my tea.”

Jellaby produced a plan from his pocket.

“The Establishment Officer kindly lent me this yesterday,” he explained. “Let me see, your Section works here, does it not?”

“That is right.”

“Only two doors down the corridor from the pantry, I see,” said Mallett. “And when you speak of your office, you mean this small part partitioned off from the rest of the room?”

“Quite.”

“It has no exit of its own to the corridor?”

“No. There was a suggestion of having one made, but I considered that it would promote better discipline among my staff if I were to go through the main room whenever I came in or out. It gives me an opportunity of noticing, unobtrusively, whether work is being properly attended to or not.”

“I follow. Then on Friday you were in your office the whole afternoon?”

“After my return from speaking to the Controller and the Establishment Officer, yes.”

“Can you tell us whether any of the members of your Section were absent during that time?”

“They were all in their places when I returned. After that, I could not tell you. I was particularly busy, and I remained in my own office until on hearing a disturbance, I came out to find Mrs. Hopkinson in a state of great excitement and learned what had occurred.”

Miss Clarke waited while Jellaby jotted down a few notes and then said, “I will return to my work now, if you will allow me. I happen to be particularly busy this morning.”

“Just a moment, if you don’t mind,” said Mallett. “There are some other questions which I should like to ask you. Firstly, would you say that Miss Danville had any enemies?”

“No,” said Miss Clarke without hesitation. “You couldn’t feel enmity towards a useless creature like that. She was very annoying and aggravating in her silly way, but that’s not the same thing. She certainly had no friends, except for that ridiculous Mr. Phillips and Miss Brown whom he was always running after. Even Mr. Pettigrew only tolerated her. But enemies---no. If you want to know the truth about this business, she did it herself, just to revenge herself on other people by causing them a lot of trouble.”

Mallett made no comment on this theory. Instead, he asked, “You don’t think that Miss Danville may have made any enemies as a result of her attitude towards what was known as the Plot?”

But at this Miss Clarke shut up like a clam. She had nothing whatever to say about the Plot. At first she endeavoured to convince the detectives that she had never heard of its existence, and even when Mallett had gently manoeuvred her out of this untenable position she remained sullenly uncommunicative. It had nothing whatever to do with the case, she persisted. It was just a silly game got up to pass the time among some of the people in the Control, and if she had taken any part in it it was only in order to see that it did not go too far. She refused to divulge any of its details, of which she professed herself largely ignorant. Jellaby was all for pressing her further, and exposing what he felt convinced was a manifest lie, but Mallett forbore. He quickly formed the opinion that Miss Clarke was by now heartily ashamed that she should have imperilled her official standing by taking part in anything so irresponsible and was simply anxious to forget her participation in the undignified affair as quickly as possible. He moved on to another subject.

“There is one other possibility on which I should like your opinion, Miss Clarke,” said Mallett. “I am sure I can rely on your discretion to treat it as a matter of confidence. There have been suspicions that confidential matters have been allowed to leak outside the Control with the assistance of individuals within it.”

Miss Clarke was properly shocked at the suggestion.

“I have never heard of such a thing,” she said at once. “And I am quite certain Miss Danville could have had no part in anything of the kind. She hadn’t the sense, to begin with.”

“That may be so. The possibility remains, however, that she might have detected someone else in an irregularity----”

Miss Clarke laughed outright.

“Irregularity?” she exclaimed. “My good man, Miss Danville’s official career was simply a series of irregularities. How would she know if anyone else was acting irregularly or not? She never succeeded in grasping the simplest principles of the office System.”

“None the less, if she were to have seen somebody---let us say---abstracting papers to which he was not entitled----”

“She’d have thought it the most natural thing in the world. I’m not exaggerating, Inspector. You have no idea what a scatter-brained creature she was. When I think how she let Mr. Edelman walk away with the Blenkinsop file, without a transit slip or anything! It was the merest chance I found out where it had gone to. And when I did get it back it was in the most shocking state. It was disgraceful.”

Nothing in Mallett’s face betrayed the smallest interest in the Blenkinsop file.

“Really?” he said drily. “Well, I see that you cannot help us any further, Miss Clarke. Thank you very much. Would you be good enough to ask Mrs. Hopkinson to give us a few moments of her time?”

“It’s the Government’s time, not hers,” retorted Miss Clarke tartly, as she retired. “But I’ll send her along.”

After she had gone, the two men looked at each other.

“Edelman and Blenkinsop,” said Jellaby. “Curious.”

“Very,” said Mallett. “It looks as if this inquiry might help me to clean up the other affair after all. It would be satisfactory to kill two birds with one stone.”

“Side issue,” said Jellaby firmly. “I’m not interested.”

“I know you’re not. But think how happy we should make the Controller! However, we’ll leave that at the back of our minds for the present. Just now, let’s concentrate on Mrs. Hopkinson.”

It was, indeed, quite an effort to concentrate on Mrs. Hopkinson. She had been ever since the result of the inquest became known in a state of bottled up excitement and the summons to be interviewed by the police had the effect of drawing the cork.

“This is simply the most ghastly business!” she exclaimed, before a question could be put to her. “Honestly, I never dreamt that someone had actually done her in! I was actually there at the time, you know, and I hadn’t the ghost of an idea. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard. Who could have wanted to hurt the poor old soul? That’s what I want to know.”

“So do we all,” said Mallett drily. “Now, Mrs. Hopkinson, suppose you help us by answering a few questions.”

“Rather! Anything you like, of course. But of course, I don’t honestly know a thing, except simply that when I found the door was locked----”

“What were your movements on Friday afternoon?”

Mrs. Hopkinson looked somewhat dashed at the abrupt question.

“Ooh,” she said doubtfully. “I dunno. The usual, I suppose. I had lunch in the canteen, with Judith Clarke actually. Then I went back to the office and worked away like a good girl till tea-time.”

“You didn’t leave your work, then, till you went to the pantry to see what had happened to Miss Danville?”

“No. . . . Wait a sec, though, that’s not quite right. I’ve got to be awfully particular, talking to the police, haven’t I? Let’s see. I was working when the whistle affair from that kettle started to blow. Miss Danville rushed out straight away. She had the door open and was listening for it. She was a bit deaf, you know, but this time she heard it right away. Then I slipped out after her and went into the you know what.”

“You mean the ladies’ lavatory?”

“That’s right.”

“The entrance to that is on the opposite side to your room,” said Jellaby, looking at his plan, “and next door to the pantry?”

“Yes. Well, I was in there quite a bit. Nobody else there, so far as I could see. And then when I came out, blessed if the old whistle wasn’t still going hard. So I came along to see what was up. I thought she was saying her prayers in there, or something. She used to do that sort of thing, you know---go off into a holy swoon when you weren’t expecting it. Quite uncanny, it was. Well, of course, I found the door locked, and just then Miss Brown came along with Mr. Pettigrew.”

“I think we know what happened after that,” said Mallett, to the evident disappointment of Mrs. Hopkinson, who felt herself unfairly baulked at the most thrilling point in her recital. “Now, I’d like to ask you about another point. Had Miss Danville any enemies, so far as you know, among the other workers in the Control?”

“If you mean me,” said Mrs. Hopkinson belligerently, “I’ll tell you straight out. I didn’t like her, and I don’t mind admitting it. I had a jolly old row with her only the night before. But it doesn’t mean that every time I have rows with people I go about sticking things into them, I’d have you know.”

“Nobody has suggested that yet, Mrs. Hopkinson.”

“I dare say not, but I like to know where I am, and I like other people to know it too. And what’s more, I don’t mind telling you what the row was about.”

“You need not trouble. It was about her encouraging Mr. Phillips’s attentions to Miss Brown, was it not?”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, rather deflated, “so you know about that, do you?”

“I think the immediate cause of the trouble was that you told Miss Danville that Mr. Phillips was a married man?”

“Yes. And a proper fool I made of myself, I don’t mind telling you. It’s no good asking me where I got the idea from, but I was as positive of it as I am that I’m standing here. And when I get an idea like that in my head I just can’t help letting it out. I’m like that. I just couldn’t bear to see a young girl being taken in. When Mr. Pettigrew told me he could prove Mrs. Phillips really was dead, I was struck all of a heap. And he fairly put the wind up me, talking about law actions and things. But it’s no good holding that against me now, because I got in first with Mr. Phillips that very night, before I went to bed. I just told him straight what I’d said and how I knew it was wrong now and so did Miss Danville, and I must say, he was ever so nice about it---took it ever so quietly, quite like a gentleman. Not that he is one, really,” Mrs. Hopkinson added by way of an afterthought, “and I still maintain that he’s only after Miss Brown’s money. But I don’t see how he could sue me after he’d taken my apology, do you?”

“Suppose we get back to Miss Danville,” said Mallett, when Mrs. Hopkinson’s eloquence had at last run down.

“Miss Danville? Well, there’s nothing much else to say, is there? She was a proper nuisance, always messing things up in the office and I just couldn’t stand the way she was always egging Miss Brown on to marry Mr. Phillips. Not that I ever heard her, you know, but I’m sure she was. What she ever saw in him, I don’t know. If Miss Brown wanted to marry an old man, why didn’t she take Mr. Pettigrew? Anyone could see with half an eye that he would have her if he could. Ooh! That’s an idea, isn’t it? Suppose Mr. Pettigrew killed Miss Danville because she was the one who stood in the way of his marrying Miss Brown? You were asking about enemies, Inspector. He’s the one who was her real enemy, or ought to have been.”

Mallett’s moustache points were quivering, but he contrived to keep his voice steady as he said, “You have already nearly got into trouble once, Mrs. Hopkinson, from making accusations which proved to be unfounded. You had better be a little more careful in future.”

“Right oh!” said Mrs. Hopkinson, unabashed. “It was just an idea that came into my head all of a sudden, so to speak. I won’t breathe a word to anyone, honest I won’t. Is there anything else, because I don’t mind telling you, it’s getting on for my dinner time?”

“Only this. Would you like to tell us anything about what was known as the Plot?”

“Oh, the Plot! The poor, giddy old Plot! You don’t imagine that could have anything to do with it, do you? It was just a rag, really. It all started the night we found out Mr. Wood wrote detective stories. Then it grew and grew, and he kept suggesting things and Mr. Edelman kept suggesting things, till my poor head simply couldn’t hold all the stuff they were going to put into it. I wanted to turn it into a play and have it acted as a Christmas jollification, but the others wouldn’t hear of it, and after that I got a bit fed up with it, to tell you the truth. It all seemed a bit silly, really, carrying on like that. Still we did get quite a kick out of it, and it was rather a lark, creeping about the place, working out how Miss Danville was to murder the Controller without anyone knowing.”

“It was rather too much of a kick for Miss Danville, when she found out,” Mallett observed.

“Oh, that was all Mr. Rickaby’s fault. He never had any call to let it out like that. He’s a nasty bit of work, and we oughtn’t never to have had him in it at all.”

“But if you had made a play of it, as you wanted, Miss Danville would have found out just the same,” the inspector pointed out.

“Yes, but that’d have been different. More of a rag, I mean. Of course, she was bound to know some time, I admit. Mr. Edelman kept on saying he wanted to see her reactions. Well, he got her reactions good and proper. My word, he did!”

“You spoke of ‘creeping about the place’ just now,” said Mallett. “That was, in fact, just in the neighbourhood of the pantry, was it not?”

Mrs. Hopkinson nodded.

“It sounds awful, doesn’t it?” she said. “But that’s the truth. There was me and Mr. Edelman and Mr. Wood, and I think Mr. Rickaby came once, only he played the goat so much we had to warn him off. And then Mr. Pettigrew caught us and I didn’t half look a fool! That man seems to be always catching me on the wrong foot, so to speak.”

“Did you ever do it again after that occasion?”

“I didn’t. What with having to dodge Judith at one end and Mr. Pettigrew at the other, I couldn’t face it. I don’t know about the others, though. I’d begun to think it a bit silly by then, anyhow.”

“Silly or not,” said Mallett, “the result of all this was that quite a few people were in a position to know just how and when to get to this particular place without being noticed.”

“That’s a fact,” Mrs. Hopkinson admitted. “I just hadn’t thought of that before, I give you my word. Ooh, Inspector, d’you think all this Plot business was just a blind to do away with Miss Danville? Because if it was, I hadn’t an earthly---I just thought it was a rag, really and truly I did!”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer any questions of that sort,” Mallett replied in his chilliest official tone. “I think that is all I want to ask you Mrs. Hopkinson.”

“Well, I’m for my lunch, and I hope there’s something left,” said the lady, and withdrew.

After she had gone, Mallett turned to Jellaby with a deep sigh of relief.

“I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I feel like following her example.”

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