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17: Fatal Plunge

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Author Topic: 17: Fatal Plunge  (Read 41 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 12:28:02 am »

PUNCTUAL to the minute, having forgone that four course lunch for a deliciously fluffy omelette aux fines herbes, Meredith and Strang joined their French colleagues in Gibaud’s office. For once the smile on Blampignon’s moon-like countenance was conspicuously absent. He slumped in his chair, contemplating his upturned feet with the disgruntled expression of a small boy, who, at the last minute, had been deprived of some long anticipated treat. He grunted without preliminary:

“This is bad news, mes amis. It is a complication we did not anticipate. You have no doubt that Shenton has been murdered, eh?”

“Well, if the bloodstains on the car are anything to go by, somebody’s been murdered---or at any rate pretty badly wounded. But I’m not saying, ipso facto, this ‘somebody’s’ Shenton.”

“What have you learnt since Gibaud rang me from the villa?”

Meredith gave details of the information he’d picked up during his interviews with Mrs. Hedderwick and her niece. He went on:

“If we assume that Shenton’s kaput, then we can’t shut our eyes to the significance of Miss Westmacott’s evidence concerning Dillon’s movements after dinner last night. After all, if the fellow’s in love with the Linden girl . . . well, there’s a possible motive for the crime.”

Mais oui—the motive,” agreed Blampignon. “But what of the modus operandi? Consider the facts. The car is found out on Cap Martin and it is quite a long distance from the Avenue St. Michel to Cap Martin. And what is the time available? You say Dillon leave the villa at nine-thirty and return a little after ten-thirty. One hour, eh? Is it possible that Dillon could have been there and back in the time?”

Meredith pulled a wry grimace.

“On the face of it---no. But taking into consideration all the known facts, I still think we can put forward a plausible reconstruction of the crime. This way. Suppose Dillon had arranged to meet Shenton outside the villa---perhaps to discuss their relationship in regard to the Linden girl. And suppose Shenton was standing beside his parked car when Dillon showed up. The roads in the vicinity of the Villa Paloma, I imagine, would be fairly dark and deserted at night. O.K. then. Dillon draws a knife, stabs Shenton before he can defend himself, and conceals his body at some suitable spot nearby---retaining, of course, that tell-tale black béret. He then drives the Vedette hell-for-leather out to Cap Martin, abandons it by the roadside, and plants the béret on the rocks to suggest the body’s been dumped in the sea.” Meredith turned to Gibaud. “How far do you reckon it is from the Avenue St. Michel to the point where the car was discovered?”

Gibaud made a quick mental calculation and announced:

“At a rough estimate about two and a half kilometres. That’s to say a little over a mile and a half.”

“So by ten o’clock, I reckon Dillon could have been all set for his homeward journey, leaving him about thirty-five minutes in hand.”

“And no car,” put in Blampignon instantly.

“Quite,” nodded Meredith. “But even if he failed to cadge a lift or pick up a providential ’bus, I still think he could have covered the distance quite easily on foot... I mean, of course, in the time available. He’s an athletic type and from what I’ve seen of him in pretty good trim.” Meredith glanced round enquiringly. “Well, gentlemen, what do you think of it? Any objections?”

“Well, I don’t exactly want to butt in, sir,” put in Freddy deferentially.

“Well, Sergeant?”

“If Shenton was stabbed beside his car wouldn’t there be bloodstains on the road or pavement at the spot where the poor devil must have collapsed?”

“Perhaps there are,” contested Meredith succinctly. “So far we haven’t looked. It might be a sound scheme if we did.”

“Quite apart from searching the environs of the villa for the missing body,” suggested Gibaud. “Not that I’m criticizing your excellent reconstruction, my dear fellow. It certainly forms a working basis for our immediate investigation.” He turned to Blampignon. “You agree, sir?”

Blampignon hesitated a moment, then said with a lugubrious air of caution:

“I am not so sure of it, Gibaud. There are many little points to consider. The blood on the clothes of M’sieur Dillon, par exemple. Mam’selle Westmacott make no mention of this, but sacré nom! They would have been there! Nor does Mam’selle Westmacott tell us that he was in a state of agitation when he returns to the villa. She say nothing about this. But a man who has just committed a murder and walked, perhaps, some two and a half kilometres in----” There was a rap on the door. “Entrez!” sang out Blampignon. “Eh bien?”

“M’sieur Meredith is wanted on the telephone. It is Mam’selle Westmacott, M’sieur.”

“Your inamorata, eh, Sergeant?” said Meredith with a malicious glance. “I wonder what the devil she wants? Excuse me, gentlemen. Shan’t be a minute.”

In this Meredith underestimated the duration of his absence. It was a full five minutes before he returned to Gibaud’s office. As he glanced slowly round the circle of enquiring faces, there was a grim expression on his aquiline features.

Eh bien?” shot out Blampignon impatiently. “What is it? You look as if you have heard bad news, mon ami.”

“I have,” said Meredith curtly.

“Well?” demanded Gibaud.

About an hour ago our friend Dillon committed suicide!

“Suicide!” exclaimed Blampignon, springing up in amazement.

Meredith nodded.

“He threw himself over a precipice!”

---

Blampignon was the first to recover from the shock of Meredith’s unexpected announcement.

“How did Mam’selle Westmacott learn of this?”

“Kitty Linden’s just been brought back to the villa in a state of collapse. She was picked up in a fainting condition somewhere near a spot called the Col de Braus by an American tourist. The girl was evidently able to gasp out what had happened and give her address before she passed out completely.”

Tiens!” exclaimed Blampignon. “And this American?”

“He’s driving round here straight away. He’s promised Miss Westmacott to pilot us to the place where the tragedy occurred. So far the body hasn’t been recovered. I reckon that unfortunate lady’s got a tidy lot on her plate this morning---what with her aunt on the verge of hysterics and this Linden wench flat out on the sofa. Just didn’t know where to turn for help. That’s why she rang me.”

“Suicide, eh?” put in Gibaud with a sagacious nod. “Accepting your theory that Dillon’s responsible for Shenton’s disappearance, this might be the logical outcome of his actions.”

Meredith observed:

“Death due to a guilty conscience, eh? The same thought occurred to me. But until we----”

All further speculation was cut short by the entry of the Desk Sergeant with the news that an American gentleman by the name of M’sieur Bucknell had called to see Inspector Meredith.

Très bien,” said Blampignon. “The Inspector will join him in a moment.” He turned to Meredith. “It is necessary that I return to Nice for a conference, mon ami. You will let me know the details of what happen this morning up on the Col de Braus. Also what progress you make in the case of the missing Shenton. I understand, naturellement, that now you have made the arrest of Cobbett, your assignment is officially at an end. But I am ringing the Yard at once to ask the Commissioner if he will not allow you and Sergeant Strang to stay on here until we solve the puzzle of Shenton. You are agreeable to this?”

“Nothing I’d like better, my dear fellow, if the A.C.’s prepared to play.”

Bon! Then that is settled.” Blampignon swung round on Gibaud. “I wish for Cobbett to be taken out to my car---hooded and handcuffed. You understand? Perhaps when we have---how do you say?---grilled him a little he will tell us where we may find M’sieur Latour! We must not forget that he is still at large. Nor must we forget the possibility that he might have knifed our friend Shenton. For reasons that, at the moment,” concluded Blampignon, “are not apparent to us.”

---

Bucknell’s car, a long sleek glittering saloon, took the gradients up from Menton like a thoroughbred. The American handled the car with the casual ease of a man who has spent a lifetime crossing continents and mountains behind a steering-wheel. He was an uninhibited, talkative sort of chap and, in the first ten minutes, Meredith had learnt quite a bit about him. He was on his way to Rome for an international get-together of hoteliers, having nosed his way over the Alpes Maritimes via Grenoble. The fact that his journey south had been interrupted by this unexpected contretemps left him utterly unruffled.

Some little way beyond Castillon, Bucknell slowed down and pointed out the spot where he’d found the girl slumped by the roadside.

“I noticed the parked auto about a mile up the road. I guess that marks the actual spot where this guy, Dillon, went over the edge.”

“Wonder why the girl didn’t make use of the car?” observed Meredith.

“I asked her that myself. Seems that she can’t drive. If you ask me it’s darned lucky I happened along when I did. Not exactly a traffic jam up here, huh?”

Bucknell was right about that. It was strange, after the colourful activity of the coast towns, to find oneself after a comparatively short run amid the grandeur and desolation of the mountains. When a few minutes later Bucknell pulled in beside the parked car and Meredith stepped out, the panorama stretched out before him took his breath away. The road at this point, curving round a spur of the mountainside with a precipice dropping away sheer on its outer edge, formed a kind of natural look-out. Dillon’s Stanmobile had been parked in a providential recess on the inner side of the road, and since a large tartan rug had been spread out on the rocky verge beside the car it was obvious that the couple had selected this spot for their picnic lunch. Meredith noticed that a low wooden fence had been erected, presumably by the local authorities, along the outer curve of the road. As Strang, who’d been sitting in the back of the car, came forward to join him, Meredith observed:

“Well, this precludes the possibility of accident. The fence isn’t particularly high, I admit, but nobody could go over the edge without first climbing it. I couldn’t see why the girl was so certain that Dillon threw himself over deliberately. Now it’s obvious.”

Cautiously climbing the fence, Meredith inched his way to the brink of the precipice and gazed down. Admittedly the Inspector had a good head for heights, but even he was affected by a momentary vertigo as his eyes raked the rock-strewn valley below for any sign of the body. Then suddenly, as his head cleared, he saw a gleam of white against the dun-coloured background of rock and scrub.

He announced grimly:

“The poor devil’s there all right. But how the deuce we’re going to---” He broke off and added excitedly: “No---wait! There seems to be a rough track running up the valley. Looks like a mule-track or something of the kind.” Climbing back over the fence, Meredith whipped out the large scale map that Gibaud had sensibly thrust into his pocket before leaving the Commissariat. For a moment he studied it intently; then he rapped out: “Yes---it’s a mule-track right enough. See here---it’s clearly marked.”

“And by the look of it, sir,” put in Strang, who was now at Meredith’s elbow craning over the map, “it links up with this road here, running down to L’Escarene.”

Meredith turned to the American.

“Look here, Mr. Bucknell, it seems unnecessary to take up any more of your time. We may be up here for at least a couple of hours. And if we do manage to reach the poor devil . . . well, it won’t be a particularly pleasant sight. And now that Dillon’s car’s available . . .”

“I guess you’re right,” nodded Bucknell. “No real point in me hanging on.” He pushed out a large and friendly hand. “Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, Inspector. I guess the folks back home’ll be tickled to death when I tell ’em I’ve met a real live guy from Scotland Yard.”

After thanking him for his co-operation and helping the American to back his car to a place where it was possible to turn it, Meredith and Strang hastened back to the Stanmobile. Folding up the rug and throwing it on to the back seat, Strang took his place beside Meredith, who was already at the wheel. A few hundred yards ahead they came to a weather-beaten signpost and, forking left, began the slow and tortuous descent towards the distant village of L’Escarene. For a time the road seemed to swing away from the great buttress of rock that formed the precipice. Then, to Meredith’s satisfaction, it doubled back and headed directly for the base of the crag. A moment or so later Meredith braked up hard and brought the Stanmobile to a slithering standstill.

“There’s our mule-track, Sergeant. Damn nearly wide enough to get the car along, I reckon, but we’d better not risk it. If the track narrows we shan’t be able to turn.”

Jumping from the Stanmobile they set off briskly along the loose and stony surface of the glorified bridle-path; Strang, at Meredith’s suggestion, carrying the folded rug over his arm. Then only a short distance from the road, rounding a bulky outcrop of rock, they came on the body of the unfortunate Dillon.

He was sprawling face-downward; one arm flung out, the other doubled under his chest. He was dressed in a bleached khaki bush-shirt, white shorts and rubber-soled shoes. On his back, still securely strapped in place, was a large and serviceable rucksack.

Gingerly Meredith rolled the body over and together he and Strang gazed down into what had once been the dead man’s face. Hardened as he was to such physical horrors, Meredith was unable to repress a shudder of revulsion.

“Umph,” he commented, swallowing hard, “not particularly pleasant, eh Sergeant?”

“Ghastly, sir. Anyway, he couldn’t have known much about it. That’s one consolation. The poor devil certainly picked the right place to scupper himself.”

“So appropriate,” agreed Meredith, “that I think we can safely rule out the assumption that he acted on impulse. If you ask me, Dillon was familiar with the lie of the land around the Col de Braus and this morning, when he set off with the girl, he deliberately headed for this particular----” Meredith broke off abruptly and, dropping on one knee, placed his ear to the dead man’s left wrist. “Well, can you beat that, Sergeant! His watch is still going---glass isn’t even broken.” Unbuckling the pigskin strap Meredith examined the watch more closely. Then, straightening up, he said sharply: “Good heavens! Take a look at the inscription on the back of it.”

To Bill from his loving wife, Kitty,” read Strang. “But . . . but what the blazes does it mean, sir?”

“Precisely what it says, Sergeant. No mistake about it. Unless they’ve been divorced in the interim, it means that Miss Kitty Linden’s actually Bill Dillon’s wife. At least,” amended Meredith with a nod towards the mutilated figure slumped at his feet, “she was his wife until her husband decided to chuck himself off that crag!”

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