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17: Illumination at Eastbury

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Author Topic: 17: Illumination at Eastbury  (Read 11 times)
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« on: November 10, 2023, 07:11:57 am »

“INSPECTOR MALLETT would like to speak to you, Mr. Pettigrew,” said Miss Brown.

Since his visit to Jellaby’s office on the day of the inquest, Pettigrew had seen nothing of Inspector Mallett. During the past week he had watched the excitement about the case of Miss Danville rise to a fever pitch, and then slowly subside as day succeeded day without any fresh development. It had been an extremely difficult week to live through. Work at the office had been thoroughly demoralized, and only the efforts of a few staunch devotees of routine, such as Miss Clarke, had succeeded in preserving a semblance of order among the staff. Life at the Fernlea had been almost unbearable. Inevitably the inhabitants had begun to look askance at one another as each became aware that suspicion pointed towards their group. Nothing was said in terms, but feelings showed themselves in an unusually elaborate and distant courtesy of utterance, breaking down now and then into angry altercations over trifles. The sudden disappearance of Wood had relieved the tension momentarily, but when it became known that he had merely been suspended on account of misbehaviour and not arrested for murder, the gloom of mutual distrust settled down on the company again. Naturally enough, Pettigrew welcomed the inspector’s reappearance as the sign of a relief from intolerable suspense.

When Mallett came into the room, Pettigrew was quite shocked to see how tired he looked. Colour had deserted his cheeks, there were dark patches under his eyes and even his moustache points drooped a little. It was the face of a man who had been working long hours under great pressure, and it was not the face of a man who had carried his work to a successful conclusion.

“I came to tell you, sir,” said Mallett in level, expressionless tones, “that Blenkinsop Limited were committed for trial yesterday on all charges.”

“Oh!” said Pettigrew in a disappointed voice.

The inspector caught his eye for a moment but did not comment on what was in both their minds.

“Both prosecution and defence were anxious for the case to be dealt with as soon as possible, so it has gone to Eastbury Assizes, which start to-day week.”

Pettigrew pricked up his ears. Eastbury was on his own beloved Southern Circuit. At that moment circuit life appeared to him like an Eden from which he had madly shut himself out. If he could only get away from this dreadful place just for a day or two to the sweet sanity of the circuit mess, he felt that life would be tolerable again. But Mallett was still speaking.

“Mr. Flack has been nominated to prosecute,” he said. “He has suggested that, although a plea of guilty is anticipated, it would be desirable for a witness to attend from this office to prove the receipt of the returns submitted by the defendants.” He coughed and added, “Mr. Flack thought that as legal adviser you might be a suitable person.”

Pettigrew caught Mallett’s eye again, and this time he detected something very like a wink.

“Would it be right,” he inquired, “to describe this arrangement as a wangle between the pair of you?”

“Well, sir,” Mallett admitted, “Mr. Flack did indicate that the circuit had missed you a lot lately, and it occurred to me that in the present circumstances you might be glad of a little change.”

“I am very much obliged to you both,” said Pettigrew, “and I shall certainly be at Eastbury, though Mr. Flack knows as well as I do that the evidence could be given by any of the clerks. Is there anything else you want to tell me, Inspector?”

“I don’t know whether you want to hear about the Wood affair, sir. We are still clearing up a few doubtful points and I expect to be in a position to submit a report to you in a fortnight or so. But if you would like to discuss it now----”

“No,” said Pettigrew. “Emphatically I do not want to hear about it now---or later, for the matter of that, though then I expect I shall have no choice in the matter.”

“In that case,” said Mallett, looking more tired than ever, “I have nothing else to tell you this morning.”

“I’m sorry,” Pettigrew said, and the genuine sympathy in his voice broke down the inspector’s reserve.

“I’m at my wit’s end, Mr. Pettigrew,” he confessed, “and that’s the fact. This Danville case has got me down as no case in all my experience has done. Mr. Jellaby and I have made every inquiry conceivable, we have interviewed about three quarters of the staff of the Control, many of them two and three times over, there’s a mountain of papers at the police-station which I’ve been through again and again, and it all adds up to just nothing.”

Pettigrew murmured sympathetically. He could see that it was doing the man good to relieve his feelings.

“It’s against all reason!” Mallett burst out. “Here you have a woman killed in broad daylight in a building crammed with men and women, within a few yards of half a dozen people at least, and there’s not a rag of evidence against one of them. The only man of known criminal propensities has a complete alibi. So far as the others are concerned, there’s nothing whatever to choose between them on the ground of opportunity but in not one case is there the faintest trace of motive discoverable.”

“Motive is of course the crux of this case,” said Pettigrew, more for the sake of keeping the conversation going than because he thought he was adding anything original to the discussion. His remark had the effect of setting the inspector off again.

“Somebody wanted to kill Miss Danville,” he said. “And that’s not all. Somebody felt that Miss Danville had to be killed, in a hurry, and took a colossal risk to do it. Why? I tell you, Mr. Pettigrew, I’ve got to find out that reason and lay my hands on that somebody. I’ve got to! The thought of that person being at large fairly frightens me.”

“It is disturbing,” Pettigrew agreed.

Mallett looked at him strangely.

“Do you realize, Mr. Pettigrew,” he said, “that your own life may be in danger?”

Pettigrew could not help smiling.

“I don’t think anybody would go out of his way to eliminate me,” he said.

“I shouldn’t be so sure of that,” Mallett retorted. “Miss Danville would have said the same a fortnight ago. Where you have a hidden motive, who can tell whether he stands in the way of the killer?”

“It’s good of you to interest yourself in my welfare,” said Pettigrew. “But after all there’s no reason why I should be picked on especially.”

Mallett’s momentary animation had disappeared. He rose from his chair and towered above Pettigrew’s desk, a weary giant of a man. Looking into the other’s eyes, he said slowly, “Perhaps there is, Mr. Pettigrew.”

A moment later he had gone.

Some time later, Miss Brown came into the room with some letters for signature. Pettigrew read them through and signed them without comment. It occurred to him as he did so that even relations between himself and his secretary had deteriorated during the past week. They seemed now to have nothing to say to each other except what was strictly necessitated by office business. Perhaps it was as well, he reflected. It was always a mistake to mix up human relationships with one’s work. There had been a time when he had been quite exercised over Miss Brown’s little problems. And now, he felt, he really didn’t care a damn. It was a relief to have that worry off his shoulders now. Or was it? He looked up to find her still hesitating beside his desk.

“What is it, Miss Brown?” he asked rather sharply.

“Did---did the inspector have anything to say about Miss Danville?” she faltered.

“No,” said Pettigrew. “That is---No. He came to talk about the Blenkinsop case,” he added lamely.

Miss Brown, who had, he now observed, been looking very pale of late, went a shade whiter.

“I see,” she murmured.

“That reminds me,” Pettigrew went on, “I shall be going to Eastbury Assizes next week. I shall be away two nights---or three, if I can spin it out so far. You still have some leave owing to you. Would you care to take it then?”

Miss Brown shook her head.

“Thank you, Mr. Pettigrew, but I don’t think I shall. As a matter of fact, I had been meaning to mention it---I was thinking of adding my extra days to my Christmas leave.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Yes. And after that”---she hesitated for a moment or two, and then the words came with a rush---“I don’t quite know what my plans will be, but I think I may be leaving the Control altogether.”

So that was that! A week ago, she would have said outright, “I am going to marry Mr. Phillips at Christmas.” Well, if she chose to keep her own affairs to herself, thought Pettigrew peevishly, she was at perfect liberty to do so. After all, he had never invited her confidence at any time. All the same, he should have thought. . . .

What he should have thought, he did not stop to determine. Instead he said drily, “I see. Well, I shall miss you, Miss Brown.”

Miss Brown opened her mouth as though to answer, but apparently thought better of it, for after standing irresolutely for a moment, she turned abruptly on her heel and walked rather hastily out of the room.

The question of her Christmas leave and what was to follow it was not raised between them again.

+++

The Bar mess at the Blue Boar at Eastbury would have appeared to a stranger a rather ordinary sitting-room in a second-rate country hotel, filled with commonplace men, mostly elderly, talking not very interesting shop. To Pettigrew, in his then mood, it was sheer heaven. He sat back luxuriously in his chair, listening to the ebb and flow of circuit gossip around him. Even the conversation of men whom he had been wont to consider bores now sounded in his ears like exquisite wit.

“Are you prosecuting me for abortion to-morrow, Johnny?”

“I am, my boy. I suppose you’re pleading guilty.”

“Pleading guilty! I thought you were going to tell me you were offering no evidence. My client is the most injured, respectable . . .”

“. . . He was a tartar! When somebody was bold enough to suggest that the sentence was a bit stiff, he just looked at him and said, ‘The indictment was wrongly drawn, or I could have flogged the man!’ ”

Pettigrew smiled. He had invented that story twenty years before, and it was pleasant to find it still going the rounds in not too distorted a form. A hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up to see the Clerk of Assize, beaming with pleasure at the lost sheep returned to the fold.

“Glad to see you, Pettigrew. Are you defending the bigamy to-morrow?”

“Alas! I am neither prosecuting nor defending. In fact, I am here on false pretences. For the time being, I am the lowest thing in the scale of human creation.”

The Clerk’s bushy eyebrows met in a frown. “You’re not going to tell me you’ve been summoned on a jury?” he said incredulously.

“No. I had forgotten jurymen. Besides, they really rank with the animal creation, to judge by the way they are treated. I am that harmless, necessary thing, a witness. I doubt whether I shall even be necessary, as I hardly expect to be called, but in any case to-morrow I shall have the indignity of disputing with you the proper amount of my expenses.”

“I shall make a point of disallowing them,” said the other firmly. “Meanwhile, what are you drinking?”

After dinner, Pettigrew found that he was not to escape without paying for his holiday. Flack, the most methodical of men, had decided to call a conference with Mallett, and this Pettigrew could not do less than attend. It was a dull enough affair. He listened to Flack expounding a number of Defence Regulations and Orders made thereunder, which he already knew by heart, while Mallett hardly referring to the mass of papers he had brought with him, dealt competently with the questions of fact. But in the middle of the conference a small event occurred that was to have important consequences.

Mallett was called away to answer the telephone and in his absence Flack raised a point of detail which Pettigrew was quite unable to answer. In an endeavour to be helpful he dived into the inspector’s papers in the vain hope of finding the right place in the right file. Opening one of these more or less at random, he was astonished to find his own name in neat capital letters at the head of the page.

“Pettigrew, Francis”: he read: “barrister; bachelor; no criminal record.” What on earth? He turned back to the beginning of the file, and found that it was headed: “Danville case Index of personnel.”

“Dear me!” Pettigrew murmured half aloud, “this is quite embarrassing!”

“What did you say, my dear fellow?” asked Flack. “Have you got the letter of the 5th April there? I’m sure my copy is incorrect.”

“Sorry,” said Pettigrew, “I can’t find it. We’ll have to wait till the inspector comes back.”

He could not resist reading further:

“Born, 1888; called to bar, 1912. Legal adviser to Pin Control since 1st October. Relations with deceased---apparently friendly. Relations with other suspects---mainly negative, but obvious affection for Brown, Eleanor (q.v.) Query, jealousy of Phillips, Thomas (q.v.)?”

Really, this was too much! Pettigrew could not trust himself to read any further, although the entry under his name covered the rest of the closely written sheet. In disgust, he turned the page over to shut the offending passage from his sight, and found himself confronted with:

“Phillips, Thomas: solicitor’s clerk; widower; no criminal record. Born, 1890; married, 1916, Sarah Emily Richards, who died 1934. Employed Messrs. Mayhew and Tillotson, 1919 to 1939. Temporary assistant, Pin Control, since December, 1939.”

Pettigrew had read thus far when Mallett’s noiseless reappearance at the door made him hurriedly and rather guiltily close the file and thrust it away beneath the other papers. Thereafter the conference proceeded fairly rapidly to its conclusion. Mallett, who was staying at another hotel in the town, left immediately. If he had noticed Pettigrew’s interest in the file of the Danville case, he made no allusion to it. Shortly afterwards Pettigrew went to bed, but it was some time before he could sleep. He was in a mood of intense annoyance---annoyance with himself for having fallen into the temptation of reading what was obviously not intended for his eyes, and double annoyance with Mallett for what he felt to be both an unpardonable piece of impertinence and a most uncharacteristic piece of stupidity. But when this feeling had begun to subside, he realized that there was something else he had read in the file that had struck him. It was all the more irritating in that he could not for the life of him remember what it was. He tossed and turned in his bed for what seemed an eternity, his tired mind nagging at the tiny problem and refusing to be quieted. When at last he found what he was seeking, it proved to be a fact so trivial that his trouble in tracing it seemed utterly disproportionate to the result. Feeling more dissatisfied than ever, but with his mind composed, he finally went to sleep.

Pettigrew was early in court next day, in time to witness the familiar ceremonial of the opening of the Assize. He felt oddly naked, sitting unrobed in the tiny, box-like courthouse where he had so often appeared in the past, and deliberately chose to perch himself upon one of the comfortless public benches at the back rather than join his fellow practitioners further forward. While the commission was being read, he found his mind dwelling, not on the spectacle before him nor on the business that had brought him to Eastbury, but upon his experience of the previous evening. The more he reflected on it---and he could not help reflecting on it---the more irritated he became. A man who always endeavoured to be honest with himself, he forced himself to analyse his feelings, and he quickly came to the conclusion that the real sting in a phrase which might otherwise have only caused him amusement lay in the fact that it came from Mallett, a man whose judgment and penetration he had every reason to respect. Was his complaint, then, thought Pettigrew, relentlessly pursuing the matter while with the outward eye he watched the judge precariously balancing a three-cornered hat on a full-bottomed wig, was his real complaint precisely that there was some truth in the remark? Because if so. . . .

Damn it, no! The inspector was simply being grossly obtuse, and he, Pettigrew, was a fool to imagine that because he had once known Mallett to make a lucky shot in a tricky case he was anything more than a very ordinary, blundering policeman. Remembering now the other matter that had cost him an hour of sleep the previous night, Pettigrew felt all his absurd admiration for him dwindle away. Judgment and penetration indeed! Why, the fellow couldn’t even get his facts right! It was too bad! The least one could expect from a man in that position was accuracy in plain matters of detail. And a glance---the merest glance---at his own notes was sufficient to convict him of gross carelessness. This from a high officer of Scotland Yard! He felt like writing a letter to the Times about it.

There was an additional reason now for Pettigrew’s feeling of annoyance, which had long since been transferred from himself to the peccant inspector. He had, as he now recognized, been profoundly shocked and distressed by Miss Danville’s murder. He had realized from the start that the inquiry would be a difficult one; but he had taken it for granted that sooner or later it would be resolved. Now he was not so sure. His faith in Mallett had sustained a serious blow. What chances were there of a problem like this being solved by an officer capable of making such egregious---Pettigrew found himself positively mouthing the word---egregious blunders?

At this point in his reflections his train of thought was broken by the movement in Court as the Judge, the commission opened, left the bench. When he sat down he was for the first time aware that the man who was and had for some time been standing beside him was Mallett himself.

The inspector’s trick of silently materializing, often where least expected, was, though professionally useful, apt to be disquieting. To Pettigrew in his then mood it seemed the crowning insult, and his reply to Mallett’s genial “Good morning!” was decidedly taciturn.

“I hope you slept well, sir,” the man went on, as though determined to be tactless.

“As a matter of fact,” said Pettigrew shortly, “I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry about that, sir,” Mallett answered, with his usual look of grave concern. “I can’t say that I got too much sleep myself last night.”

“Oh?” Pettigrew did not feel interested in anybody else’s insomnia at the moment.

“No. And it wasn’t this Blenkinsop business that kept me out of bed, either. I had a rare lot of stuff in the Danville inquiry to go through again.”

Pettigrew said nothing. Mallett could go through papers till the cows came home for all the good it would do, he was thinking.

“Inspector Jellaby has been putting a lot of work into the case,” Mallett continued. “A tremendous lot of work. I dare say you noticed, sir, among my papers last night, a very useful little file he has prepared on the personnel of the case.”

“Silence!” roared an usher, and Pettigrew, his mind in a whirl, rose to his feet with the rest as the judge returned to the bench to begin the business of the day. Dimly he felt that he had been making a fool of himself, if only to himself.

“Jellaby did that?” he murmured as they resettled themselves on their comfortless seats. “Well, all I can say is, from the little I saw of it, it’s utterly unreliable.”

Mallett shot a looked of pained inquiry at him, but his words died on his lips as the Clerk of Assize called out the names of the first prisoners.

Three weedy young men appeared in the dock and severally pleaded guilty to office-breaking and larceny. Their case disposed of, Mallett turned to Pettigrew again.

“I can’t agree with you, sir,” he said. “Mr. Jellaby may not be very subtle, but I can assure you his work is very sound when it comes to facts.”

“I can assure you it’s not,” Pettigrew retorted, deliberately ignoring the obvious implications in the reference to Jellaby’s lack of subtlety. “I’ll give you one example. I just happened to glance at the page relating to Phillips last night, and I saw that he had put down that Mrs. Phillips died in 1934. It’s a very small point, but----”

“There must be silence in Court,” came a chill voice of reproof from the bench, and Pettigrew realized that he, the most punctilious of men, had interrupted the reading of an arraignment for bigamy.

“But she did die in 1934,” whispered the inspector, ten minutes later, the bigamist having been dealt with. “I gave Jellaby the date myself.”

“Then you gave it wrong. She died in 1931.”

“1934.”

“1931.”

“I assure you, sir, I’ve seen her death certificate and it is dated the 12th of April 1934.”

“But that is nonsense, Inspector. Why, I know for a fact that her will was proved in 1931. The solicitor couldn’t have made a mistake about that. I’ll show you his letter if you---Oh, Lord! he’s calling our case on now.”

The case of Rex v. Blenkinsop, although a plea of guilty, lasted over three-quarters of an hour. It might well have been longer. Flack, for the prosecution, had first to persuade a slightly incredulous judge that such a thing as the Pin Control existed and then to take him through all the relevant Regulations and Orders---a process which his rather dreary manner did not make any the more enlivening---before dealing with the fairly simple facts of the case. The defence had briefed Babbington, the most fashionable and expensive silk on the circuit, and although what he had to say in mitigation could have been put into a couple of sentences he contrived to spin out his address to twenty minutes. Babbington always prided himself on giving his clients their money’s worth, and in this case his long-windedness reduced his rate of pay to the very reasonable figure of fifteen guineas a minute. The costs of the defence and the substantial fine which was imposed upon the defendants taken together had the effect of reducing their liability to Excess Profits Tax by quite an appreciable amount.

While all this was going on, the officer in charge of the case and the official witness for the prosecution sat side by side, their thoughts miles away from the matter in which they were nominally engaged. Had either of them been called upon to give evidence, he would have made a very indifferent figure in the witness-box. Pettigrew was puzzling over a problem which seemed at first sight completely unimportant and which left to himself he would probably have dismissed as an unaccountable aberration on the part of a normally reliable solicitor. But he was aware that Mallett, ordinarily so solid and immobile, was actually quivering with suppressed excitement. The emotion was contagious, though he could not guess its cause. Something was in the air, something more important to him than all the Controls put together. He found himself beginning to quiver too. What had Mallett got up his sleeve? Would this stupid case never come to an end?

No prisoner ever waited more anxiously for sentence to be pronounced than did Mallett and Pettigrew on this occasion; but when at length the judge finished speaking neither of them had the vaguest idea what his decision had been. The last words were scarcely out of his mouth when the inspector caught his companion by the arm in a grip that almost made him shout with pain.

“You mentioned a letter just now, Mr. Pettigrew,” he whispered hoarsely. “Was that the one you showed Miss Danville the night before she was murdered?”

“Yes.”

“Giving the date of Mrs. Phillips’s death as 1931?”

“Yes.”

“And you told Mrs. Hopkinson about it too?”

“Yes, but what----?”

“The link, sir! I don’t know what it means yet, but I believe I’ve found it at last! The link I’ve been hunting all this time!”

Pain seemed to have made Pettigrew suddenly clairvoyant.

“By God, Inspector, I believe I see it!” he exclaimed. “If the thing could be done that way, that’s how it was done! But could it? That’s what we’ve got to settle!”

Completely oblivious now to the niceties of behaviour in Court, he stumbled noisily out, dragging the inspector after him. In the corridor they saw Flack coming towards them, his owl-like face bearing a self-satisfied expression.

“Well, Pettigrew,” he began on catching sight of him, “I don’t think that was a bad result, do you? A bit tricky, these Regulations, but I don’t think I dropped any bricks.”

“Bricks? My dear chap, I didn’t hear so much as a pin drop.”

“D’you know, I thought at one moment the judge was going off the rails about Paragraph 2AC, but I think I managed----”

“Look here,” said Pettigrew, interrupting him without ceremony. “Were you or were you not a solicitor before you were called to the bar?”

“Was I a----? Why bring that up at this time of day? Certainly I was a solicitor, for several years in fact.”

“An active, working attorney, proving people’s wills and all that sort of thing?”

“A very active attorney, I assure you.”

“You do know how to prove a will? You have actually done it?”

“Of course, I have. Dozens of them, I should say. But what’s all this about, Pettigrew? You look quite warm!”

Pettigrew steered him into the robing-room without replying.

“I hope you’re not asking me to become your executor,” Flack went on, removing his wig. “Because I really think----”

“I’m not asking you to become my executor. I’m not asking you to think. I’m not asking you to do anything the least difficult. All that the inspector and I are asking you to do is to solve a perfectly simple little case of murder that’s been worrying our heads off the last two weeks.”

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