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16: The Missing Playboy

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Author Topic: 16: The Missing Playboy  (Read 41 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 01:38:08 pm »

“CHALKY’S” arrest the following morning was effected without a hitch. The job was done so quietly and efficiently that nobody in or near the Maison Turini realized what was happening. “Chalky”, himself, caught on the wrong foot, made no serious attempt to deny his identity. A moment’s bluster, a few querulous protests and, recognizing the hopelessness of his position, he threw in the towel. Seated between Meredith and Strang in the back of the local police-car, he was whisked off through the sunlit streets to the Commissariat, where he was to be placed under lock and key until Blampignon arrived to take him over to Nice. On the steps of the Maison Turini, Madame Grignot, with much wringing of hands, watched her erstwhile “husband” pass out of her life---presumably for ever. She’d been warned to hold herself in readiness for further cross-examination. Gibaud had made it clear that she might be charged for withholding information from the police and as an accessory both before and after the fact.

Once “Chalky” had been safely deposited in the lock-up, the three officials returned post-haste to the car and drove all out for the Villa Paloma. After all, they weren’t going to have that redoubtable old harridan, Madame Grignot, tipping the wink to Shenton. They’d been caught that way in the case of Latour.

Parking the car just short of the villa gates in the Avenue St. Michel, Meredith detailed Strang to take up his position in the garage-yard and ordered him to keep a close watch on the rear of the building. As the Inspector pointed out there was always the chance that Shenton might smell a rat and endeavour to make a bolt for it. The moment Strang had slipped in through the wicket-gate, Meredith turned to Gibaud.

“All set?” Gibaud nodded. “O.K. Let’s go.”

As on his previous visit, it was Lisette who answered the Inspector’s ring at the front door. But on enquiring if Mr. Shenton were in the girl threw him an evasive glance and said haltingly:

“I am sorry, M’sieur---but . . . but I think M’sieur Shenton is not here.”

Meredith rapped out anxiously:

“You mean he’s away---on a visit somewhere?”

“No---not exactly, M’sieur.”

“Just out and about somewhere, is that it?”

The girl’s embarrassment increased.

“Well, no, M’sieur. I think that he . . .” She broke off and concluded with a little rush: “Perhaps you would care to see Madame Hedderwick? It is better, perhaps, that she should explain.”

“Very well,” agreed Meredith, puzzled by the girl’s strangely hesitant manner. “Kindly tell her it’s Inspector Meredith, will you?”

Once the girl had ushered them into the Chinese room and retired, Gibaud observed:

“There’s something odd about this. Either the fellow’s here or he isn’t.”

“Quite. Can’t make out why the girl was hedging. Anyway, we’ll see what Mrs. Hedderwick has to say.”

Nesta Hedderwick, as it transpired, had plenty to say! She was in a state of considerable agitation. With her customary directness she came to the cause of her perturbation without delay. The outstanding points of her non-stop narrative were these---Shenton hadn’t come down to breakfast. Half an hour ago she’d gone up to his room and discovered that his bed hadn’t been slept in. His car was gone from the garage. She’d questioned the other members of her household but apparently nobody had set eyes on Shenton since dinner the previous evening. Madame Bonnet, the cook, however, was convinced that she’d heard him starting up the Vedette shortly after 9 p.m. So it was possible that he’d gone out for a drive and the car had broken down. But if so why hadn’t he telephoned to say that he’d be spending the night away from the villa? It was unlike him, declared Nesta, to leave her in suspense, knowing how anxious she’d be. It was strange that the police should have turned up, as she was just about to put through a call to the Commissariat.

“And now that you have turned up,” asked Nesta shortly, “what do you want with Mr. Shenton?”

“A private matter,” said Meredith vaguely. “We just want to ask him a few questions---that’s all.”

“Well, you can’t if he’s not here!” retorted Nesta acidly. Then with a sudden change of mood, she went on: “I can’t help wondering if he’s had an accident. It’s something I’ve always dreaded. But I suppose if there had been an accident----” Nesta, aware that the door had opened behind her, glanced over her shoulder and demanded tartly: “Well, Lisette, what is it?”

“Please, Madame, M’sieur Gibaud is wanted on the telephone. It is the Commissariat, M’sieur.”

Mrs. Hedderwick uttered a thin wail of alarm.

“There, what did I tell you? I knew I was right! I had a premonition. Something dreadful’s happened. I’m sure of it.”

During his colleague’s absence, Meredith did his utmost to reassure the distracted woman, but when, in a few moments, Gibaud returned, Meredith realized at once that something was definitely wrong.

“I’m afraid I’ve some rather disturbing news for you, Madame.”

Nesta shrank back in her chair with an inarticulate cry and gasped out:

“It’s Tony, isn’t it? There has been an accident. I knew it! I knew it! He’s . . . he’s not . . .?”

Gibaud shook his head.

“No, not exactly an accident, Madame. But a report has just come in that his Vedette was found abandoned this morning out on Cap Martin. The Desk Sergeant knew I was here so he rang me direct.”

“But Tony . . . ?” enquired Nesta faintly. “Have they no news?”

Gibaud lifted his shoulders, hesitated a moment, and then announced quietly:

“A man’s béret was found on the rocks close to the sea, about a hundred yards from the point where the car had been parked. A black béret, Madame, decorated with a red pompom and silver badge of the English Air Force.”

With a shivery moan, Nesta buried her distorted face in her hands.

“Yes . . . yes . . . it’s Tony’s. There . . . there can’t be any mistake. Oh, what does it mean? What does it mean, Inspector?”

“That,” said Gibaud with a sympathetic headshake, “is something that we still have to find out. We have a car outside, so with your permission, Madame, I suggest we drive out to Cap Martin without delay.”

---

The manager of one of the hotels perched on the rocky escarpment overlooking the cape had sent in the information concerning the abandoned car. It had first been noticed by a member of the staff cycling out from Menton about six-thirty that morning. The manager hadn’t telephoned immediately, thinking that the owner of the car might have been taking an early-morning walk in the vicinity. But when, later, he himself had strolled down and found the car still there, he’d come to the conclusion that the matter should be reported without delay. A further factor lent urgency to his decision. The running-board opposite the driving-seat was spattered with blood!

There and then he got in touch with the local gendarme, who, after inspecting the Vedette for himself, rang the Commissariat at Menton. It was this gendarme who’d picked up the black béret on the edge of the rocks, opposite the spot where the car had been abandoned.

When Meredith, Gibaud and Strang arrived on the scene, they found the fellow on duty by the Vedette. After Gibaud had heard his report, the two Inspectors got down to a thorough examination of the car. There was no questioning the veracity of the manager’s evidence. Several small bloodstains were visible on the off-side running-board, and a closer inspection revealed further spots of blood on the actual bodywork just above the running-board. At a casual glance, due to the crimson paintwork, these stains had been practically invisible.

“Well,” demanded Gibaud, as they straightened up from their preliminary investigation, “what do you make of it?”

“Curious, to say the least of it. No bloodstains anywhere inside the car. Merely these scattered spots along the side opposite the driving-seat. If there’s been foul play of any sort . . . well, you see the implication?”

“You mean that if Shenton were attacked the assault must have taken place after he’d got out of the car?”

Meredith nodded.

“And the moment we assume that, we’re up against another peculiar factor.”

“And that?”

“The bloodstains are on the side opposite the driving-seat---that is to say on the right of the car. And since Shenton would obviously get out on the left, it suggests he must have walked completely round the car before he was attacked. Peculiar, eh? You’d have thought his assailant would have nobbled him as he was actually clambering out---that’s to say, when he had him at a disadvantage. A small point, I admit, but one worth remembering.”

“Quite,” agreed Gibaud. “And assuming Shenton’s been scuppered it’s reasonable to suppose that his assailant then carried his body across the rocks and dumped it in the sea. En route his béret fell off and----”

“Whoa! Whoa!” cut in Meredith sharply. “Not so fast, my dear fellow. Presuming this is the spot where the attack was carried out why aren’t there any bloodstains on the road? I know damn well there aren’t because I’ve been looking for ’em.”

“There is that,” admitted Gibaud with a crestfallen look. “Then what’s your explanation?”

“That’s if Shenton’s been murdered---and, for heaven’s sake, let’s keep that ‘if’ bang in front of our noses---then the job was done elsewhere. The murderer merely used the Vedette to convey the body to this particular spot. Probably, as you suggest, to dump the remains in the sea.”

“Well, it might explain away the hood,” agreed Gibaud.

“The hood?”

“Yes. It struck me at once. An open car with its hood raised and its side-windows fixed in place is a rarity in these parts. As far as I can recall, we haven’t had a drop of rain for a fortnight. There was certainly no rain last night. As a matter of fact, it was exceptionally warm and windless.”

Meredith nodded.

“I get your point. The hood was up and the screens in place because the murderer wanted to conceal the fact that there was a corpse in the back-seat. There may be something to it. Though I can’t help feeling that if he’d shoved the body in the well and covered it with a coat, all this palaver wouldn’t have been necessary. After all, his one thought must have been to get away from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible.”

Strang, who throughout this exchange had been listening with both ears wide open, put in deferentially:

“And there’s another point, sir.”

“Well, Sergeant?”

“Well, sir, it’s that idea of the body being dumped in the sea.”

“You don’t like it, eh?”

“No, I’m darned if I do, sir. You see, when Miss Westmacott and I walked out over the rocks yesterday we found it pretty hard going. Devilish difficult to keep your feet in daylight. But for a chap to negotiate them at night carrying a dead weight, say, of twelve stone . . . well, he’d be lucky if he didn’t break his leg, let alone his neck!”

Meredith nodded his approval of this point.

“Quite an intelligent appreciation of the facts, m’lad.” He turned to Gibaud. “You agree?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Gibaud, “since I put forward the theory I’ve had some second thoughts about it myself.”

“How do you mean?”

“A question of the tides. Along this stretch of the coast they’re practically non-existent. Not a bit like your English tides. Even if the body were carried out from the rocks, I’m pretty certain it would be washed ashore again in a few hours.”

“More sound sense, eh? And there’s yet another fact that helps to put the kibosh on this ‘dumping’ theory.”

Strang asked: “What’s that, sir?”

“Good heavens! Don’t you get it? The Vedette! If the murderer hoped to dispose of the evidence in this way why abandon the car about a hundred yards from the spot where the body was dropped into the water? Crazy, eh? It’s simply drawing attention to the very thing he was anxious to conceal.”

Exactement!” exclaimed Gibaud. “But the béret? Mrs. Hedderwick was convinced that it belonged to Shenton.”

“I think it did,” said Meredith. “But isn’t it possible that the béret was planted out on the rocks deliberately?’

“You mean as a red-herring, sir?”

“Precisely, Sergeant. The set-up as I see it is this. A murder is committed at Point A. The murderer’s car is abandoned at Point B. And the body is concealed at Point C. Always assuming,” added Meredith with his usual caution, “that a murder has been committed. And always bearing in mind that if it has the victim may not be Tony Shenton.”

---

But for all Meredith’s conviction that the body hadn’t been dumped in the sea, they very sensibly made a long and exhaustive search along the rocky shores of the outermost point of the cape. They found nothing. Not even a bloodstain to suggest that the body had been man-handled from the road to the water’s edge. It was just as they’d anticipated.

With Gibaud at the wheel of the Vedette and Meredith and Strang in the police-car, they drove back along the coastroad to the Villa Paloma. While Gibaud was telephoning Blampignon about these latest developments, Meredith seized on the chance to have a further talk with Nesta Hedderwick.

Certain now that her forebodings hadn’t led her astray, the poor woman was on the verge of a collapse. Although the Inspector was careful to avoid the suggestion, she quickly grasped the fact that the police, after their visit to Cap Martin, now suspected foul play. With an effort, however, she managed to pull herself together and answer Meredith’s questions with reasonable composure.

From the Inspector’s point-of-view this interview was highly successful. Quite a lot of significant information was forthcoming. When Mrs. Hedderwick claimed that nobody had seen Shenton since dinner the previous evening, it now seemed that the statement was not strictly accurate. Admittedly, when she’d discovered that Shenton’s bed hadn’t been slept in, she’d trailed round the house asking everybody if they’d seen anything of him. But there were two members of the household whom she hadn’t been able to question for the simple reason that they weren’t there. Directly after breakfast that morning, Kitty Linden and this fellow, Dillon, had driven off in the latter’s car to spend a day up in the mountains. According to Mrs. Hedderwick they’d taken a picnic lunch---so the chances were that they wouldn’t be available for cross-examination until some time that evening. So much for that.

Questioning the unhappy woman about the relationship between these young people, Meredith found himself face to face with a really significant clue. During the last few days there’d been a marked coolness between Kitty Linden and Shenton, though previously they’d been more or less living in each other’s pockets. There was no doubt in Mrs. Hedderwick’s mind that Kitty was hopelessly infatuated with Shenton, a feeling that to a certain extent the young man had reciprocated. Now they’d evidently had a drastic quarrel and Kitty, that morning, had gone off for the day with Dillon. Was there anything in it? wondered Meredith. Here, at any rate, was the familiar and everlasting triangle that time and again had supplied a motive for murder. And in this case? Was it outside the bounds of reason that Dillon, consumed by jealousy, had quarrelled with his rival and in a blind and impassioned moment stabbed him? Well, such things had happened before and they’d happen again. It would be interesting to know if Dillon could have made contact with Shenton the previous evening, possibly, somewhere outside the villa.

But here Mrs. Hedderwick proved a broken reed. Immediately after dinner she’d gone up to her bedroom with a headache. She’d no idea whether Dillon had left the house or not during the remainder of the evening. But why not ask her niece? She would probably know.

He found the girl out on the terrace, more or less entwined with Acting Sergeant Strang. Apart from this visual clue, their embarrassment at his unheralded appearance clearly showed that they hadn’t been wasting their time. And Meredith was equally determined not to waste his! A few deft questions and his interest in Dillon as a possible suspect was injected with a new liveliness. The girl’s evidence was clear and to the point. Summarized in the Inspector’s notebook it read thus:---

9 o’clock (circa) Madame Bonnet, the cook, heard Shenton drive off in the Vedette.

9.30 (circa) Dillon seen leaving house by Dilys W. When questioned by girl stated he was going to take stroll down to sea to get some fresh air.

10.40—Dillon returned and joined girl and Kitty Linden in lounge. After a brief chat and drink went up to bed.

11.10—Dilys and Kitty went up to bed. Dilys heard sound of running water in wash-basin of Dillons room. Called out “Good-night”. Dillon answered.


Thanking the young woman for her co-operation, Meredith, followed somewhat reluctantly by his chastened subordinate, strolled out to the car where Gibaud was already seated at the wheel.

“Well,” demanded Meredith, “how did our good friend Blampignon react to the news?”

“He’s coming over without delay. One good bit of news anyway. Bourmin’s been pulled in without any trouble. But this latest twist had got poor Blampignon thoroughly rattled. He suggests we have a scrambled lunch and meet him in my office at one-thirty. Can you make it?”

Meredith glanced at his watch.

“Five past one.” He grinned. “Five minutes to reach the hotel, leaving us twenty minutes to get outside a four course lunch! Well, I suppose it can be done. Don’t worry, my dear fellow, we’ll be there.”

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