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18: The Parked Vedette

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Author Topic: 18: The Parked Vedette  (Read 40 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 04:22:28 am »

WITH the mortal remains of Bill Dillon swathed in the tartan rug and accommodated in the back of the car, Meredith set off on the homeward run. Strang, sensitive to his superior’s unpredictable change of mood, tactfully refrained from discussing the latest developments in the day’s fast-flowing stream of events. It was evident that behind his sweetly-drawing pipe the Inspector was engaged in a spot of high-pressure thinking.

Meredith’s thoughts, in fact, were in a state of flux. The totally unexpected discovery that Kitty and Bill Dillon were man and wife forced him to reorient his earlier views concerning the motive for the young man’s suicide. What if he were wrong? What if Dillon’s fatal act had nothing to do with Shenton’s ominous disappearance? In short, what if it were connected, not with Shenton, but with Kitty?

Here was an explosive set-up that might well drive an honest chap like Dillon to take his own life. Look at it this way. Kitty was infatuated with Shenton (that much was certain since Mrs. Hedderwick had gone out of her way to stress the fact). Dillon, learning that his wife was staying at the Villa Paloma, rushes down to Menton, doubtless hoping to break up this illicit and, to him, odious relationship. He tries to persuade Kitty to return to him. She refuses. O.K.---what then? Dillon persuades the girl to drive with him up into the mountains---on the pretext, no doubt, of a last desperate attempt to repair the breach between them---and there, up on the Col de Braus, with a final perverse and melodramatic gesture, he forces the girl to witness the ultimate outcome of her infidelity. In brief---Dillon hadn’t committed suicide to escape from the hauntings of a guilty conscience, but to free himself from a situation that had become intolerable.

Well, argued Meredith, there might be something in it. Kitty’s refusal to return to him might well be the prima facie motive for the suicide. But here was another point to consider. What if Dillon, knowing that he was about to take his own life, decided to erase Shenton before executing his own obliteration? Motive, of course, jealousy---a desire to revenge himself on the man who’d broken up his marriage and more or less run off with his wife.

Assuming that Dillon had killed Shenton, they’d already discussed, of course, the possible modus operandi of the murder. Gibaud, in fact, following up Meredith’s theory that the actual stabbing had taken place in the vicinity of the Villa Paloma, had promised to instigate an immediate investigation of the nearby roads and gardens. Doubtless, this investigation was already under way. They had three definite objects in view. (a) To ascertain if there were bloodstains on the road or pavement where the murder had actually been committed. (b) To carry out enquiries among the neighbouring villas to see if anybody had noticed the parked Vedette or anything, in fact, that might corroborate their theory. (c) To comb through all possible places of concealment in the locality in the hope of unearthing the body of the missing Shenton.

It was possible, thought Meredith, that by the time they reached Menton, Gibaud might have already picked up a worth-while clue.

---

When he arrived back at the Commissariat, however, he learnt from the Desk Sergeant that Gibaud and two plain-clothes constables were still out on safari. He was anxious that Dillon’s body should be removed from the back of the Stanmobile and placed in the mortuary, but discovering that the Sergeant couldn’t understand a word of English Meredith found himself in a quandary. He made one or two stilted attempts in his execrable French to explain the situation. The Sergeant, however, remained dismally unresponsive. A hasty flick through his pocket phrase-book convinced Meredith that the editor had failed miserably to provide a phrase suitable to the occasion. To order a taxi; to ask the time; to comment on the weather; to argue with a disobliging porter---yes! But when it came to the conveyance of corpses to the public mortuary the editor was infuriatingly reserved. Meredith was just trying out:---

Voulez-vous transporter le cadavre dans l’automobile au le mortuary publique,” when to his intense relief Gibaud strode briskly into the office.

“Ah, thank God you’ve turned up!” exclaimed Meredith with a look of relief.

“Why---what’s wrong?” enquired Gibaud.

In a few sentences Meredith outlined the results of their run up to the Col de Braus and explained to Gibaud that the body of the unfortunate Dillon was still in the back of the car.

“And you want the remains removed to the mortuary, is that it?” Meredith nodded. “O.K. I’ll deal with this. Go through to my office. I’ll join you in a minute. I’ve some sizzling hot news for you.”

Meredith barely had time to fill and light his pipe before Gibaud came through from the main-office and flung himself, with a sigh of exhaustion, into his desk-chair.

“Phew! Quite a relief to take the weight off my feet. Been out on the beat ever since you left.”

“Well?” demanded Meredith impatiently.

“Well . . . what?”

“This sizzling hot news of yours.”

“Oh that!” chuckled Gibaud, with an exasperating inability to come to the point. “Now don’t get me wrong. We’ve seen no sign of bloodstains anywhere in the vicinity of the villa and we haven’t found the missing body. But we have picked up some pretty useful information.”

“Then, for crying aloud!” exploded Meredith. “Why not let me in on it?”

“Very well---I will. At about eleven p.m. last night a certain M’sieur Picard, who owns a villa not far from the Hedderwick establishment, noticed a car parked by the kerb at the corner of the Avenue St. Michel and the Avenue St. Jeannet. The fellow was returning home on foot after a visit to some friends in the Avenue Thier.”

“Well?”

“The car was a crimson Vedette.”

“A crimson Vedette!” echoed Meredith excitedly.

“Yes, and that’s not all,” smiled Gibaud with a certain justifiable smugness. “Picard noticed it particularly for two good reasons, (a) Its hood was raised. (b) Its side screens were fixed in place.”

“The devil they were! How did you get hold of this information?”

“A house to house enquiry. Luckily I caught Picard just after he’d got back from his office.”

“You think his evidence can be relied on?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Did he notice if there was anybody in the car?”

“Yes, I asked him about that. He’s not prepared to swear to it because the street lights were reflected back from the screens and it was difficult to see into the interior. And, in any case, he only took a casual glance as he went by.”

“Well?”

“He’d an idea there was somebody sitting in one of the front-seats. But, as I said before, Picard’s not prepared to commit himself to a definite answer.”

For a moment Meredith, who was standing by the window, turned and gazed down reflectively into the busy street below. Then suddenly swinging round he announced in puzzled tones:

“I just don’t get it. If this was Shenton’s car---and on the face of the evidence it must have been---what the deuce was it doing on the corner of the Avenue St. Michel at eleven p.m.?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Good heavens, man, isn’t it obvious? If the Vedette was parked a few hundred yards from the Villa Paloma at that particular hour of the evening, then my beautiful assumption that Dillon murdered Shenton and drove the car out to Cap Martin goes up the spout. Damn it all, both Kitty Linden and the Westmacott girl swore that Dillon was back in the house by ten-forty. And according to my reconstruction of the crime the car must have been abandoned out on the cape somewhere around ten o’clock. As I said before, I just don’t get it.”

“If Picard did see a figure in the car do you think it was Shenton?”

Meredith nodded.

“Who else could it be? Confound it all, Gibaud, it was Shenton’s car.”

“But if the fellow was still alive at eleven p.m. when was he murdered?”

“Ask me another. Quite frankly I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t made a thumping big mistake.”

“Over what?”

“In convincing ourselves that because Shenton’s disappeared he must, ipso facto, have been murdered.”

Gibaud stared at his colleague in astonishment.

Mon Dieu! You actually think he’s still alive?”

“After taking Picard’s evidence into consideration . . . yes. The one clue suggestive of murder is those bloodstains on the bodywork and running-board of the Vedette. Take those away and what have we? An abandoned car and a painfully obvious red-herring in the shape of a black béret with a red pom-pom picked up on the rocks out at Cap Martin.”

“Look here,” said Gibaud with a disgruntled expression, “I may be inordinately stupid but if Shenton’s still alive and kicking, who parked his Vedette out on the headland? And who placed that tell-tale béret on the rocks?”

“I’ve a very strong suspicion,” said Meredith in measured tones, “that Shenton did himself.”

“Shenton!” cried Gibaud. “But why?”

“Because he was anxious to kid the world that he had been scuppered. I may be wrong about this just as I was wrong over my reconstruction of Dillon’s movements last night. A great deal depends on Kitty Linden’s behaviour during the next few days.”

“What on earth are you driving at?” demanded Gibaud impatiently. “What’s the Linden girl got to do with the case?”

“As I see it . . . everything. She was infatuated with Shenton. According to Mrs. Hedderwick the fellow more or less reciprocated her feelings. That’s two sides of the eternal triangle. The third, of course, is supplied by Dillon. You see, during this afternoon’s investigations I discovered that Dillon and the Linden wench were married.”

“Married!” exclaimed Gibaud. “But how the deuce----?”

Hastily Meredith described the way he’d stumbled on this unexpected scrap of information. He went on:

“Suppose Shenton and the girl wanted to get married---and suppose Dillon refused to divorce his wife. A pretty dynamic set-up, eh? With only one logical way out of the impasse, my dear fellow. Now do you get it?”

Mon Dieu---yes! You’re suggesting Dillon didn’t commit suicide. He was deliberately pushed over the crag up on the Col de Braus.”

“Exactly. Shenton had fixed for the girl to lure Dillon to that particular spot, where he was already lying in wait. Hence his attempt to hoodwink us into believing that he himself had been the victim of foul play. After all, my dear Gibaud, dead men don’t commit murders. Persuade the world you’re dead and you’ve got just about the finest alibi on the market. See the point? Of course, as an alibi it has one inescapable disadvantage. After committing the crime you’ve got to stay dead. In other words you’ve got to clear out of the locality where the crime occurred and start up afresh under an assumed name. That’s why I suggested that Kitty Linden’s behaviour during the next few days should give us a pointer as to whether we’re thinking along the right lines. If the girl suddenly packs up, leaves the villa and melts away into the blue, then it’s a penny to the Bank of England that she’s gone to keep a rendezvous with that exceptionally dead man, Tony Shenton.” Meredith paused, yanked out a handkerchief and vigorously mopped his brow. “Well, what’s your reaction? Any comebacks?”

“Snag One,” grinned Gibaud. “What about the bloodstains on the car?”

“Like the black béret on the rocks, perhaps . . . deliberately planted there. Probably animal blood. Why not a cat or a dog?”

“Well, that’s something we can decide one way or the other. Easy for the laboratory wallahs at Lyons to make an analytical test of the stains. Do you want it put in hand?”

“At once, if possible. Any further objections?”

“Yes---a rather crushing one, I’m afraid. Didn’t Mrs. Hedderwick stress the fact that Shenton and the girl seemed to have been at loggerheads these last few days? The suggestion of a slap-up quarrel, eh? Well, if the couple were up against each other would they suddenly come together and collaborate in a major crime? Doesn’t sound particularly feasible to me.”

“Umph,” reflected Meredith, somewhat deflated by this perfectly logical argument. “You’ve got something there, confound you! That bit of evidence had slipped my memory.” Then brightening a little, he added: “Of course they might have been putting on an act. Anyway, it’s crazy to accept or dismiss my pretty theory at the moment. We’ve got to interrogate the girl herself, and the sooner the better. Suppose I ring the villa now and see if she’s sufficiently recovered to make a statement. Is that O.K. by you?”

“Of course,” nodded Gibaud. “And what about the identification of the body? Admittedly both you and Strang have met Dillon more than once, but from the official point of view I reckon we ought to have the corroboration of somebody outside police circles, eh?”

“But heavens above!” protested Meredith. “Surely we needn’t drag the poor kid down to the mortuary to view the remains? Facial identification’s out of the question anyway. After all if the girl saw him go over the edge . . . well, you see the point?”

“Yes, of course,” agreed Gibaud. “It should be enough to get a detailed description of what he was wearing, colour of hair, eyes, any distinguishing marks and so forth. In any case we can check up on her information with his passport. Better see if you can lay your hands on the document. It wasn’t on the body.”

“Then there’s the question of getting in touch with his next-of-kin,” pointed out Meredith. “The Yard should be able to help us there. I’ll have a word with Blampignon once I’ve interviewed the girl. You see,” added Meredith with a wry smile, “it’s well on the cards that the A.C. may decide I’m wanted back home now that ‘Chalky’s’ been pulled in. This Shenton-Dillon affair’s merely a postscript to my original assignment. Now suppose I put through that call to the villa.”

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