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19: Whose Body?

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Author Topic: 19: Whose Body?  (Read 40 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 07:11:31 am »

ON learning from Dilys Westmacott that Kitty, although still badly shaken by the morning’s experience, was now prepared to make a statement, Meredith ordered Strang to collect the dead man’s effects and hastened off to the Villa Paloma. He found the girl stretched out listlessly on a settee in the lounge, a haunted expression in her big dark eyes, her features blanched and haggard in the bright evening sunlight that streamed through the french windows. There was something so forlorn and defenceless about the young woman that Meredith was moved to pity as he crossed the room to greet her.

But the moment Dilys had withdrawn, closing the door behind her, he pulled up a chair and, stifling his feelings, made ready to begin his interrogation. The questioning of a witness still under the stress of recent shock was something he’d always abominated. But duty was duty and if the job had to be done the sooner it was over the better. For all that, he refused to stampede the girl. After a few quiet words of sympathy for the ordeal she’d been through, he gently led her on to tell him the story of the morning’s tragedy.

Little by little it all came out---the drive up into the mountains; the halt near the Col de Braus for lunch; after the meal, Dillon crossing the road ostensibly to take a look at the view; Kitty smoking a cigarette on the rug spread out beside the car; her sudden realization that Dillon had climbed the fence and was standing on the very brink of the precipice; her warning cry; her attempt to reach him before he fell; his tortured cry as he plunged into space; the horror and panic that overwhelmed her as she stumbled off blindly down the road in search of help; and finally her collapse by the roadside and Bucknell’s providential arrival in his car.

It was all very much as he’d anticipated. The details of her story tallied exactly with those he’d already harvested for himself. But why no mention of the relationship that had clearly existed between her and the dead man? Quietly, unemotionally, almost without the girl realizing it, Meredith began his cross-examination.

“You’ve known Mr. Dillon for some time, Miss Linden?”

Uncertain whether the Inspector meant this as a statement or a question, Kitty glanced up with a startled look. For an instant she hesitated, then she said in a flat voice:

“No---only since he came to stay at the villa.”

“Why exactly did Mr. Dillon ask you to accompany him this morning?”

“Because he thought I’d enjoy the drive. It was just a casual, friendly sort of invitation.”

“He had no definite reason for asking you?”

“Reason?” Again the gleam of apprehension in the girl’s dark eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Just this, young lady. I suspect that Mr. Dillon asked you to join him because he was anxious to discuss something with you. A highly intimate matter that he couldn’t very well discuss except when you were alone.”

With a pathetic attempt to brazen it out, Kitty flashed the Inspector a hollow smile.

“Really, Inspector, I don’t know how you pick up these fanciful ideas.”

“By observation and deduction,” said Meredith with a meaning glance. “By putting two and two together, Miss Linden. By asking questions. By poking my official nose into what you would call ‘other people’s business’. Your business, young lady. Your relationship with Mr. Shenton, for example.”

Kitty looked up sharply and demanded with a sudden show of spirit:

“What do you know about Tony Shenton? What’s he got to do with it? I really don’t see why you should drag Tony----”

“Now be sensible, Miss Linden. You were in love with the fellow. I say ‘were’ advisedly because I happen to know that quite recently you’d quarrelled. And that’s less than half of what I know.” Groping in his pocket, Meredith pulled out the silver wrist-watch and held it out on the palm of his hand. “Ever seen this before?”

The girl uttered a cry and shrank back against the cushions.

“Yes---it’s Bill’s---Mr. Dillon’s! Where . . . where did you find it? Was he wearing it when you . . . when you . . . ?”

Meredith nodded and observed quietly:

“I unstrapped it from his wrist, Mrs. Dillon.”

“Mrs. Dillon!” gasped Kitty, dumbfounded. “Then you . . . ?”

“Yes, I read the inscription on the back,” Meredith smiled wryly. “Now suppose we stop fencing with each other, young lady, and get down to brass tacks. Why not be frank with me? Far better all round, y’know. Why didn’t you tell me at once that you and Bill Dillon were married?”

“Yes, I suppose it was silly of me. It was just that I’d got so used to thinking of myself as Miss Linden . . . of playing a part that . . . that . . .”

“You couldn’t bring yourself to tell the truth, eh?” put in Meredith helpfully. “Well, why not take me into your confidence, my dear? It’ll clear the air.”

“Very well,” mumbled Kitty, “now that you’ve found out I suppose there’s little point in holding my tongue.”

And once again it all came out---her unhappy marriage; her extra-marital friendship with Tony Shenton; her acceptance of his invitation to join him in Menton; her husband’s unexpected arrival on the scene; his efforts to win her back; the dreadful realization that she was going to have a baby and that Shenton was the father; Dillon’s willingness to divorce her and her anguished appeal to Shenton that, since she was bearing his child, he should marry her; his blunt and angry refusal; the bitter knowledge that although she was desperately in love with him he’d never really been in love with her.

“And your husband knew just how you felt about Shenton, about this baby, Mrs. Dillon?” Biting her lip to keep back her tears, Kitty inclined her head. “He took it badly, eh?”

Kitty said in a choking voice: “Yes, naturally. But he was so desperately in love with me that even then he . . . he was prepared to give me my divorce if Tony would marry me.”

“I see. And you still uphold that your husband didn’t suggest this morning’s expedition in order to discuss these matters?”

“No---I lied to you about that,” admitted Kitty. “Tony must have told my husband that he’d refused to marry me. Anyway Bill was terribly unhappy about it all. He asked me again if I’d go back to him.” Overwhelmed with misery the tears started to the girl’s eyes and she gulped out: “But I couldn’t, Inspector! I couldn’t! I knew it wouldn’t work out. Do you blame me for being honest with him? If I’d gone back to him because of this child it would have meant living a lie, because I knew I didn’t love him, that I never had... that I never could! Oh, I’ve behaved vilely to him. If it hadn’t been for me all this would never have happened. Don’t you see, Inspector? He took his life because . . . because he knew that, no matter what happened, I’d never, never go back to him!”

Sobbing bitterly, the girl fell back limply against the cushions burying her distorted face in her hands. For a moment Meredith remained silent, then he said slowly:

“There’s just one other little question. Did you at any time this morning see anything of Tony Shenton?”

“Tony!” cried the girl brokenly. “But how could I have seen him? I thought he was----”

“Missing, eh? Yes---quite. But you still haven’t answered my question, Mrs. Dillon.”

“I haven’t seen Tony since dinner last night. I swear I haven’t, Inspector. I’ve no idea where he is or what’s happened to him. That’s the truth. You must, must believe me, Inspector!”

Realizing the girl was at the end of her tether, Meredith sensibly decided to bring the interview to a close. Before he took leave of her, however, he jotted down the details relevant to the identification of the body and made an enquiry about Dillon’s next-of-kin. According to the young woman both her husband’s parents were dead and the only relation he’d ever mentioned was an uncle living in the Isle of Man. Thanking the girl for her frankness and co-operation Meredith went in search of Mrs. Hedderwick. He was anxious to lay hands on the young man’s passport. Encountering Dilys in the hall, he learnt that her aunt, succumbing to the shock of the day’s events, had retired to bed. It was Dilys, therefore, who showed him up to Dillon’s room and helped him search his belongings for the passport. But to Meredith’s surprise the document appeared to be missing.

“Curious,” he thought. “The confounded thing must be somewhere. He couldn’t have got around without one. For one thing he’d have to produce his passport at the bank when changing his traveller’s cheques. And since it wasn’t on the body, I wonder . . . ?”

---

Anxious to snatch a few uninterrupted minutes from the whirl of the day’s events, the Inspector returned at a leisurely pace to the Commissariat. How much of the girl’s story had been true and how much careful and calculated prevarication? That she was going to have this baby Meredith didn’t doubt; nor did he question her declaration that Shenton was the father of the child. This just wasn’t the sort of thing a young woman would attempt to make up. No---with regard to the explosive set-up between her and the two men she’d unquestionably been frank to the point of indiscretion. But had she been equally frank about the series of events that had led up to Dillon’s suicide? True, the details of her halting narrative fitted in with what he’d already learnt for himself about the morning’s expedition. But the question remained---Had Shenton been on the spot when Dillon went over the crag and was the missing man actually responsible for the fatal fall?

After all, Shenton must be somewhere. Already Meredith felt sure that when M’sieur Picard had seen the Vedette parked near the Villa Paloma at eleven p.m. the previous evening Shenton had been sitting in the vehicle. So at that hour of the evening the fellow was evidently still alive and kicking. By that time Dillon was back in the villa; where, after a brief chat with Dilys and Kitty, he’d gone up to bed. So if Shenton had been murdered some time after 11 p.m. Dillon, on the face of it, wasn’t the killer. Then who? Was it Latour? He’d disappeared from the villa on Sunday night and nothing had been seen of him since. So Latour was a possible suspect. Motive, of course, unknown.

On the other hand, until they actually discovered the whereabouts of Shenton’s body it was utterly impossible to say whether the fellow had been murdered or not. That was the stumbling block in the pursuit of any feasible deduction.

“Very well,” thought Meredith, “for the moment I’ll assume the fellow’s alive, and that he killed Dillon by shoving him over that precipice. Motive, of course, to get Dillon out of the way so that he could marry the girl. But does this motive really stand on its own legs? Isn’t Kitty’s explanation about his refusal to marry her more in line with Shenton’s character? Certainly it explains away their recent coolness towards each other. And again, she claimed that Dillon, knowing this kid was on the way, actually offered to stand aside, give the girl her divorce, so that Shenton could marry her. And what I’ve seen of Dillon suggests that this is equally ‘in character’. So what? If the girl’s story’s true then Shenton would have no motive for killing Dillon. But if Dillon knew Shenton had refused to marry Kitty then, by heaven, Dillon certainly had motive for erasing Shenton!”

Meredith stopped dead in his tracks and stood for a moment in the middle of the pavement oblivious of the curious stares of the passers-by. A staggering idea had just flashed through his mind; an idea so fantastic that it hardly seemed worth a second thought. And yet he gave it not only a second thought, but a third and a fourth. From that moment until he arrived back at the Commissariat de Police and found Gibaud waiting for him in his office, Meredith didn’t cease from analysing and enlarging on this sudden electrifying idea.

Gibaud rapped out:

“Hey! Come alive, old man. What’s up? Seen a ghost? Had a revelation?”

“A revelation!” exclaimed Meredith. “That’s just about what I have had. Do you realize, Gibaud, that we may be labouring under an inexcusable delusion?”

“About what?”

Meredith strode over to the rear window of the office and, with a dramatic gesture, pointed down into the courtyard.

“The body that’s lying down there on the mortuary slab.”

“You mean Dillon’s body?”

“Yes---but is it?” cried Meredith, suddenly swinging round on his bewildered colleague. “Is it Dillon’s body?

Gibaud said with an ironic lift of his brows:

“Is this over-indulgence or a touch of the sun? Damn it all! You collected the remains yourself from the foot of that crag, didn’t you? Are you suggesting that by some miraculous piece of legerdemain I substituted another corpse for Dillon’s when I was having the body moved from the car to the mortuary?”

Meredith said grimly:

“No, I’m serious about this, Gibaud. Do you realize that it may not have been Dillon who went over the brink of that precipice.”

“But his clothes,” protested Gibaud. “You got a full description of Dillon’s attire from the girl, eh?”

“I did. And it tallies exactly with the clothes found on the body. Khaki bush-shirt, white shorts, gym shoes and so forth. But remember, my dear fellow, clothes don’t make the man. This rig-out may have come from Dillon’s wardrobe but it doesn’t follow that the man inside ’em was actually Dillon. Think of the poor devil’s face.”

Gibaud shuddered.

“Practically unrecognizable---I admit it.”

“No---not ‘practically’,” corrected Meredith. “Completely unrecognizable. Don’t forget I’d met Dillon, and if I had to base my identification of the remains on facial recognition . . . well, frankly, I couldn’t do it. Nor could Mrs. Dillon or anybody else for the matter of that.”

Still obviously unconvinced, Gibaud chuckled:

“You’ve been reading too many detective yarns---that’s your trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s a well-worn double-cross, isn’t it? Whenever a corpse turns up in a crime story with its face battered beyond recognition, you can bet your bottom dollar that it isn’t the corpse you think it is. Don’t mind confessing it. I’ve been diddled that way myself. But we happen to be dealing with facts not fiction.”

“Quite. But I still think I may be right.”

“But, good heavens, if it isn’t Dillon out there in the mortuary, who the hell is it?” demanded Gibaud with a sudden crackle of irritation.

“Shenton,” said Meredith tersely.

“Shenton!” echoed Gibaud. “How could it be?”

“Easily!” snapped Meredith. “Shenton’s missing---suspected murder. No sign of the body. No clue, at present, to suggest the actual locale of the murder. Suppose the girl lied to me when she swore she hadn’t set eyes on Shenton since last night. Suppose Shenton did show up on the Col de Braus and, after a violent scene, Dillon threw him over the edge of the crag. Not actually meaning to murder the fellow. Result---panic. A determination to cover up if possible all traces of the tragedy. Helped by his wife Dillon drives down to the spot where the body is lying, realizes that Shenton’s features are unrecognizable and suddenly sees the perfect way out of his dilemma.” Meredith paused a moment, mopped his perspiring brow and went on: “Don’t forget I met Shenton at the villa and it struck me at the time that the two fellows were very much alike in physique and general appearance. Same blonde hair and blue eyes, eh? Well, the same thought might have occurred to Dillon. So with the girl’s help he strips the body and substitutes his clothes for Shenton’s. Then he takes off his easily identifiable watch and straps it on Shenton’s wrist and fixes the rucksack on his shoulders. He then drives the car back up on to the Col de Braus and, dressed in Shenton’s clothes, sets off on foot across the mountains, leaving the girl to broadcast the yarn of his ‘suicide’. In short, the young woman’s been laying on a very clever and convincing act.”

“But would she?” objected Gibaud. “I thought she hated her husband. Damn it all! Hadn’t she left him for Shenton?”

“Maybe, but when she found Shenton, having got her with child, wasn’t prepared to marry her she may have suffered a sudden change of heart.”

“Eh? What’s all this? A kid on the way?”

“I was forgetting,” said Meredith. “I picked up the information this evening from the girl herself.” Deftly Meredith outlined the main details of Kitty Dillon’s evidence and went on: “And there’s another little factor that seems to underline the probability of my theory.”

“Oh?”

“Dillon’s passport appears to be missing. And if he’s trying to get to hell out of the country, it’s the one thing he’d hang on to, eh? The one thing he couldn’t leave on the body. Well, what’s your reaction to my little assumption?”

“Lukewarm,” said Gibaud succinctly. “It could be possible but I don’t think it is. To begin with there’s the time-factor. Those clothes couldn’t have been changed in a few seconds. You try undressing a corpse and see for yourself.”

“But hang it all!” argued Meredith, “we don’t know what time Dillon and the girl arrived up on the Col de Braus. We do know they left the villa immediately after breakfast and if they’d gone direct to the spot where we found the parked car then they’d have had several hours in hand. Don’t forget it was early afternoon before Bucknell landed the girl back at the villa.”

“But what about the abandoned Vedette and the black béret---the clues that you claim were deliberately planted to suggest that Shenton had disappeared off Cap Martin? Your theory was that he’d staged a vanishing-act because he was out to murder Dillon. Now you say Dillon has murdered him. You can’t have it both ways.”

“Quite. But Shenton may have met the couple up on the Col de Braus meaning to commit a murder. In the subsequent struggle he got the worst of it---that’s all.”

Gibaud shook his head and declared obstinately:

“I still don’t like it. You’ll never persuade me that Dillon thought up such a complicated alibi on the spur of the moment. At any rate it all boils down to the identification of the remains. Same coloured hair and eyes, same build, but what about distinguishing marks? Maybe Dillon’s had his appendix out and Shenton hasn’t. Or vice versa.”

“Well, there’s only one witness who could probably put us wise about any kind of physical
peculiarities . . . I mean, in both cases. And she’s not likely to talk.”

“Kitty Dillon?”

Meredith nodded.

“But I’m darned if I’m going to badger the poor kid again tonight. Suppose we sleep on this latest theory of mine. Maybe it’ll look different in the morning. Things often do, you know. Anyway I’m going to ring the Yard at once and get them to make contact with the Hawland Aircraft Company. They may be able to tell us something of Dillon’s background. He was employed there in the research department.” Meredith reached for his hat. “By the way, have you had dinner?” Gibaud shook his head. “Then why not join us at our hotel? Expect Strang’s wondering where the devil I’ve got to.”

“Thanks,” said Gibaud. “I’d like to---on one condition.”

“Well?”

“That we don’t ruin a good meal by talking shop!”

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