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21: The Rucksack Riddle

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Author Topic: 21: The Rucksack Riddle  (Read 43 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 08:45:12 am »

“BY the way,” said Gibaud, after Hamel had hobbled down to the waiting car, “I had that blood test put in hand. The result should come through this morning.”

“Blood test?” enquired Meredith with a puzzled look.

“In connection with the stains on the side of the Vedette. You suggested they might have been planted there to mislead us---that it might have been animal blood.”

“Oh, I get you,” nodded Meredith. “My theory that Shenton was anxious for us to think he’d been scuppered, so that he should have a watertight alibi for the murder of Dillon. But, hang it all, we know now that he couldn’t have killed Dillon.”

“So the chances are,” put in Gibaud, “that it is human blood.”

“Exactly.”

“Then how did the bloodstains get on the car?”

“Eh?”

“You heard me,” grinned Gibaud.

Meredith inelegantly scratched his head with the stem of his pipe.

“Umph . . . puzzling, eh? It brings us back to our old assumption that Dillon did murder Shenton and then took his own life. And we know now that the only time he could have committed the murder was between the hours of two and six-thirty ack emma yesterday morning.”

“Quite. And during these hours he was fast asleep in bed at the villa. At least, that’s what we’re bound to assume from the evidence to hand.”

“O.K.,” said Meredith briskly. “Suppose we don’t assume it. Suppose we assume that Dillon crept out of the house during the small hours, managed somehow to make contact with Shenton---perhaps after Shenton had driven down from the mountains---and then stabbed him. Isn’t it possible that some member of the Hedderwick household heard the fellow sneak out?” Meredith swung round on Strang. “Look here, Sergeant, I’ve got to get over to Nice to see Blampignon. No need for you to come along. I want you to get up to the Villa Paloma without delay and make very careful enquiries about this point. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll meet for lunch at the Poisson D’Or and you can report to me there. Poisson D’Or . . . one o’clock.”

“Right, sir. Just one other small matter . . . Dillon’s personal effects. The rucksack, that Thermos-flask and----”

“Oh, hand ’em over to Miss Westmacott. She can keep them with the rest of his belongings until we can trace his next-of-kin and have the whole lot sent on.”

“Very good, sir.”

---

It was strange that this casual decision was destined to alter the whole aspect of their investigation. It was, in fact, the quart-sized scarlet Thermos-flask found in Dillon’s rucksack that was to lead Meredith eventually to a final solution of the problems confronting him. The point was that when Dilys took the flask through to the kitchens, Madame Bonnet, the cook, failed to recognize it. She was emphatic. The flask that she’d filled with coffee before the young couple had set off the previous morning on their ill-fated expedition to the Col de Braus was, admittedly, a quart-sized flask---but it was blue, not red! There wasn’t, in fact, a scarlet Thermos-flask in the house.

“But she’s crackers!” declared Freddy bluntly, when Dilys had rejoined him on the terrace. “It must be the flask she filled. She put up their lunch, didn’t she?”

“Yes---in Bill Dillon’s rucksack. As a matter of fact, Kitty handed me the rucksack and I took it through to the kitchen myself.”

“And it was this particular rucksack?” asked Freddy.

“Yes---or one exactly like it.”

“Look here,” said Freddy with a solemn expression, “d’you mind shooting a few questions at Madame Bonnet for me? We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. There’s something screwy about it.”

And when Freddy, with the aid of his charming interpreter, had concluded the brief interrogation, two further facts emerged that considerably deepened the mystery. Certainly Madame Bonnet claimed to recognize the rucksack as the one handed to her by Miss Westmacott, but the crumpled paper-bags and the bits of orange peel . . . how, she demanded, had they come there? She had packed the sandwiches in greaseproof paper, together with a carton of gâteau and petits fours, but certainly no oranges. If this was the rucksack found on poor M’sieur Dillon’s body then what could have happened to change the blue flask to a red and the grease-paper into paper-bags?

Learning that Kitty was spending the morning in bed, Freddy got Dilys to slip up and see her. He was anxious to check up on Madame Bonnet’s statement. After all, it was Kitty who must have opened up the rucksack prior to that picnic meal up on the Col de Braus.

It was some ten minutes later when Dilys rejoined him in the lounge.

“Well, what’s she got to say about it?”

“The same as Madame Bonnet,” said Dilys, dumping the rucksack on a chair. “Blue Thermos-flask, sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof and no oranges. When they’d finished the meal, Kitty replaced the Thermos in the rucksack, together with all the litter, and handed the rucksack to Bill.”

“And he restrapped it on his shoulders there and then, eh?”

“I asked her about that. And as far as Kitty can remember, he didn’t. He walked over to the car with it.”

“In his hand?”

“Yes. Kitty sat on the rug for a time smoking a cigarette. When Bill rejoined her a few minutes later the rucksack was on his back.”

Freddy shook his head.

“You know, darling, the more we probe into this the more crazy it gets. If poor old Dillon was all set to chuck himself over that crag, why had he troubled to put on the rucksack? Why not just dump the bally thing in the back of the car? And it’s all the more crazy because I just don’t see how it could have been the same rucksack. Dammit all! That Thermos couldn’t have changed colour in mid-air. No---for some reason or other, when he walked over to the car he must have swapped the original rucksack for the one we found on the body. Kitty didn’t notice that they were different?” Dilys shook her head. “Then we can only assume that the two rucksacks were identical, eh? But why? That’s the point. Why two rucksacks?”

“Well, don’t look at me,” smiled Dilys. “I’m as mystified as you are.”

“What about Dillon’s car---is it still round in the garage?” Dilys nodded. “Good! Suppose we nip round and take a dekko at the old bus.”

It took Freddy exactly four and a half minutes to prove that his theory about the two identical rucksacks was a winner! He found the second one rammed away under the detachable leather cushion of the driving-seat. When the cushion was lifted out of its metal frame, there was a hollow space between the underside of the seat and the floor-boards large enough to accommodate the object in question. Inside the rucksack was a blue quart Thermos-flask, several screws of greaseproof paper, a crumpled carton bearing the imprint of a well-known Menton pâtissier and no orange peel!

---

Meredith was already seated in the gay little courtyard of Le Poisson D’Or when Strang showed up for lunch. There was a glum, preoccupied expression on the Inspector’s sun-browned features as he sprawled back in his chair with his legs thrust out and his hands deep in his pockets. On seeing the Sergeant he glanced at his watch and shot out:

“Ten minutes late! Couldn’t drag yourself away from that young woman, I suppose. Quite happy to let me sit here kicking my heels until----”

“Sorry, sir,” cut in Strang, as he sidled somewhat apprehensively on to his chair. “But I promise you I haven’t wasted a minute. Fact is, sir, I’ve picked up some pretty puzzling information.”

“You mean Dillon was heard sneaking out of the villa during the small hours of yesterday morning?”

“No, sir. I drew a blank there. If he did creep out then it’s a dead cert nobody heard him.”

“Then what’s this ‘puzzling information’ you’ve been yammering about?”

“Well, sir, it’s this way...”

And Freddy handed on the mystifying evidence that he’d gleaned during the course of the morning’s investigation. As he proceeded, Meredith’s dour expression gave way to one of ever-increasing interest. His hands came out of his pockets. He straightened up in his chair. He leaned forward eagerly across the table, utterly absorbed by his subordinate’s quick-fire narrative.

“But, good heavens!” he exclaimed when Strang had finally rounded off his report, “the whole thing’s ridiculous. What was the point of substituting one rucksack for another about a couple of minutes before he flung himself off that crag?”

“I’ve been worrying that bone, sir, ever since I left the villa. I suppose it couldn’t have been a mistake?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, Dillon was probably in a pretty keyed-up sort of mood. When he walked over to the car he might have dumped the first rucksack and, a bit later, picked up the second rucksack and strapped it----”

“Balderdash!” broke in Meredith, crushingly. “Rucksack Number One wasn’t just slung in the back of the car. It was carefully concealed under the driving-seat. So that theory’s out for a start.” Meredith reached for the menu-card. “Now suppose we order lunch and start analysing the evidence bit by bit. No good rushing to conclusions. We want a logical answer to the mystery, not a high-faluting possibility.”

Although during lunch they did to a certain extent discuss the problem before them, Meredith for the most part remained silent. He had a feeling that somewhere within the framework of this fresh evidence lay the final answer to the enigma of Shenton’s disappearance. Two questions above all others hammered away in his mind. Why had Dillon troubled to conceal the first rucksack and substitute the second? And why had he troubled, in any case, to strap it on his back? Time and again he came back to these two puzzling factors in the set-up. But when at length they rose from the table, Meredith had to admit that he was still completely flummoxed.

---

Dropping Strang at the hotel, where the Sergeant was to write up an official report of his morning’s enquiries at the villa, Meredith set off on a leisurely drive along the promenade towards Cap Martin. It was his intention to find some shady, isolated spot out on the headland and settle down for a quiet pipe and a long, uninterrupted spell of concentrated speculation. In point of fact the Inspector never arrived at the cape.

Half-way along the Promenade Marechal Joffre a sudden, electrifying idea shot across the terminals of his mind. It was, in essence, not exactly a new idea. Rather was it a variation on an original theme. It stemmed, in fact, from his previous supposition that the body at the foot of the crag might well be that, not of Dillon, but of Shenton. So startling was this new conception that Meredith automatically swung the car into a quiet side road and, braking up, settled down to analyse the possibilities of his theory.

Suppose Shenton, despite the girl’s denial, had been up in the mountains when Dillon and his wife had set out on that ill-fated drive. And suppose, for some reason or other, Dillon had strolled off on his own and encountered Shenton without the girl being aware of the fact---perhaps even by appointment. And suppose the spot where they’d met was not up on the Col de Braus but at the foot of the precipice over which Dillon had ostensibly plunged to his death! Well, there was a set-up that completely altered the whole aspect of the mystery.

Shenton had been murdered, perhaps, only a few yards from where the body was found---presumably battered to death by some blunt instrument so that his features should be unrecognizable. Thereafter Dillon must have rejoined his wife and driven up on to the Col de Braus, where the couple eventually had their picnic lunch. So far so good.

Now for Dillon’s alibi. Suppose on his previous expeditions up in the mountains Dillon had made a careful survey of the spot where he’d leaped over the crag. Suppose he’d noticed that a few feet below the actual brink of the drop there was a ledge on to which he could safely jump and thence inch his way back on to comparatively level ground. He could bank on the girl not caring to look over the edge of the crag. What’s more he could rely on her to convince the world at large that he’d deliberately taken his own life.

Admittedly this reconstruction of the crime didn’t account for the bloodstained and abandoned Vedette out at Cap Martin, nor for Dillon’s peculiar actions in regard to the rucksacks. But, again, there was a possible explanation. Once Dillon had disappeared over the lip of the rock-face he’d be a man on the run. Wasn’t it possible that, anxious to avoid any idle speculation, he’d wisely decided to give all shops and cafés a wide berth and be self-supporting? In brief---hadn’t that second rucksack been packed with enough provender to see him well on his way out of France? Well, it was an idea and in the circumstances----

Meredith swore under his breath. What the devil was he thinking about? The second rucksack had been removed from the body. And if it were Shenton’s body then there must have been a third rucksack. But why? Well, wasn’t there a perfectly logical answer? Kitty Dillon might recall that when her husband had disappeared over the crag he had a rucksack on his back. So, ipso facto, there had to be a rucksack on the body at the foot of the crag. Otherwise the discrepancy might arouse suspicion.

The longer Meredith ruminated on these fresh deductions, the more inclined he was to accept their feasibility. It naturally argued from Dillon’s point of view the execution of a carefully laid scheme. A second set of clothes, for example, secreted in the car, in which to dress the body after the murder. Three more or less identical rucksacks. Some subtle means of persuading Shenton to meet him at a certain spot at a certain time. The evolution of a careful time-table. An excuse to rid himself of the girl’s presence so that he could meet Shenton alone. True, at first sight, it seemed crazy to take the girl along at all, but she was, of course, an essential factor in the creation of his alibi. It was vitally necessary that she should be on the spot to witness the faked suicide.

So much for that. But how to check-up on his theory?

Well, thought Meredith, that at least was simple. His latest reconstruction of the crime depended on one basic feature in the set-up---that ledge below the brink of the precipice. If there was no ledge then all the rest of his theorizing wasn’t worth a row of beans. Very well, he’d drive up to the Col de Braus and settle the point once for all.

And within the next hour the point was settled! Parking the car beside the low wooden fence that edged the precipice, Meredith climbed the fence, stepped cautiously to the brink of the drop and gazed down. Meticulously, without haste, his eyes raked the smooth and gleaming rock-face. Then, with a violent oath, he swung round and returned, dejected, to the car.

For three hundred feet the great wall of rock rose sheer and unbroken from the valley below. There was no ledge! In a split second his latest theory had, so to speak, come to pieces in his hands.


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