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23: Case Closed

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Author Topic: 23: Case Closed  (Read 46 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 10:47:31 am »

“WHY had he gone there? By chance or by appointment? Well, it’s pretty obvious he didn’t show up there by chance. I felt certain that he’d gone to meet Shenton for a final showdown about the girl. Either Shenton promised to do the right thing by Kitty or else . . . you get the set-up?” Meredith turned to Blampignon. “Last night I dropped into the Bar St. Raphael and had a word with the proprietor myself. Gibaud here kindly came along as interpreter. The result was we picked up a very significant clue. Hivert, the proprietor, noticed that when Shenton left the bar with Dillon about ten-thirty he was scarcely able to drag one foot after the other. Dillon, in fact, had to more or less haul the poor devil out to the car. Admittedly Shenton had knocked back a few brandies, but as Hivert pointed out he’d often seen Shenton drink twice as much without really being affected. In Hivert’s opinion he had the look of a man, not under the influence of drink, but drugs!”

“Drugs!” exclaimed Blampignon, suddenly stabbing a finger at Meredith. “You say drugs? Then is it not possible, mon ami . . . ?”

Meredith laughed.

“Just as I anticipated. You reacted to that observation exactly as we did. Shenton was drugged. And it was Dillon who’d slipped what was evidently a pretty potent dose of morphia into his brandy.”

“Morphia?” demanded Blampignon. “But how do you know that? Is it that M’sieur Hivert actually see----?”

Meredith shook his head.

“No, it wasn’t as simple as that. Hivert hadn’t spotted anything suspicious in Dillon’s actions. But the moment Gibaud and I suspected Shenton had been drugged, we arranged for an autopsy to be performed on the body in the mortuary. We had the doctor’s report about an hour ago. He’d been on the job all night. It was the result of the P.M. that proved our hunch was correct and that the drug employed was morphia.”

Eh bien!” said Blampignon with a gesture of impatience. “Please to go on.”

“Well, once Dillon had got the fellow into the car---Shenton’s car, remember---he drove all out to the corner of the Avenue St. Michel. By that time, I imagine, Shenton had passed out completely. Dillon then returned on foot to the villa and joined Miss Westmacott and his wife in the lounge.”

“Time,” put in Gibaud helpfully, “ten-forty.”

“Precisely,” nodded Meredith. “Giving him roughly ten minutes to get from the Bar St. Raphael to the villa. Which, in Gibaud’s opinion, is just about what we should expect. After a chat and a drink, Dillon, as we know from the girls’ evidence, went up to bed. And shortly after the young women also retired for the night. It was then just after eleven o’clock. And that’s more or less all the definite information we have concerning Dillon’s movements on the night of Thursday-Friday. The rest, I admit, must be in the nature of surmise, though based, of course, on a series of reasonable suppositions. But this, at any rate, is my reconstruction of the events that must have followed on Dillon’s retirement to his room.” Meredith paused a moment to relight his pipe, cleared his throat, and went on with undiminished energy: “Waiting until all was quiet in the villa, Dillon sneaked downstairs, let himself out of the house and returned to the parked Vedette. From the Avenue St. Michel he drove direct to the foot of the Col de Braus.”

“To the place where you discover the body, eh?” asked Blampignon.

“Exactly. To the point where that mule-track joined the road down to Escarene. The Sergeant and I noticed that the track, at any rate as far as we followed it, was quite wide enough to accommodate a car. As I see it, Dillon backed the car along the track until he reached a spot directly below the rock-face.”

“Shenton still in a drugged sleep, eh?” put in Gibaud, who was hearing for the first time this particular part of Meredith’s reconstruction.

The Inspector nodded.

“Well, what followed must have been a pretty grim and ghastly business. Dillon, I imagine, dragged Shenton from the car, stripped off his clothes and redressed him in the bush-shirt and shorts etc., which he’d brought along for this specific purpose. A set of clothes, mark you, that was an exact replica of those he wore himself the following morning. Nor did he forget to strap a rucksack on the poor devil’s back---the rucksack, of course, that contained the scarlet Thermos flask. This done, he deliberately battered the fellow to death, executing the gruesome job in such a way that Shenton’s features should be unrecognizable!

Mon Dieu!” murmured Blampignon with a shudder.

“Not exactly a bed-time story, eh? But I’m pretty certain that’s what happened. A moment ago I suggested Dillon must have backed the car along the mule-track. This isn’t just guesswork. I was thinking of those bloodstains on the bodywork and running-board of the Vedette. On the side opposite the steering-wheel, remember. That’s to say on the right of the car since the Vedette naturally had a left-hand drive. Well, there’s no doubt now how those bloodstains came to be there. When Dillon got to work with that blunt instrument the body must have been lying on the ground right beside the car. And that,” said Meredith, pausing a moment to mop his brow, “more or less covers the first part of my reconstruction. Any questions, gentlemen?”

“Just one,” put in Gibaud promptly.

“And that?”

“What do you say to an apéritif and a bit of a breather before you ring in the second half of your report?”

Meredith swung round on Strang and grinned broadly.

“To employ one of the Sergeant’s favourite colloquialisms---bang on, m’lad!”

---

“And now, gentlemen,” went on Meredith, considerably refreshed by the ten-minute interval, “we come to the brilliant idea that formed the real basis of Dillon’s alibi. But before I deal with that we’d better consider the rest of Dillon’s movements on that fateful night.” He turned to Gibaud. “You asked me a moment ago if the man seen at the wheel of the Vedette as it shot through Monti was Shenton. Of course it wasn’t. It was Dillon. The fellow was obviously driving down hell-for-leather off the Col de Braus in the direction of Cap Martin. Time---about two ack emma on Friday morning. At Cap Martin, as we know, he abandoned the Vedette, planted the dead man’s black béret out on the rocks as a red-herring, and hoofed it back to the villa. At a rough estimate I should say he arrived there about four a.m.”

“One little point, mon ami,” put in Blampignon. “What of the clothes he remove from the body of Shenton? You think he conceal them somewhere up on the mountain?”

Meredith exchanged a meaning glance with Gibaud.

“As a matter of fact we’d already thought of that one. Gibaud’s detailed a couple of fellows to make a thorough search around the spot where we found the body. They’re on the job now.”

Bon!” ejaculated Blampignon, with a nod of approval. “That is good sense. Please to continue.”

“Well, we come now to the Friday morning expedition that Dillon and his wife made up into the mountains. As the young woman told us, he persuaded her to accompany him so that they could have a final discussion about the damnably unhappy situation in which they found themselves. It was absolutely vital to his plans that his wife should agree to the outing. The reason, of course, is clear. He wanted her to witness his ‘suicidal’ leap over that precipice.”

“But why?” demanded Blampignon with a bewildered expression. “Since you find only the body of Shenton, it is evident now that he did not throw himself off the crag.”

“But he did!” contested Meredith emphatically. “Every detail of the girl’s statement was true. He did cross the road, climb the fence and chuck himself over the edge. Don’t forget we’ve got corroborative evidence of this fact.”

“Hamel, eh?” said Gibaud. “His identification of that portrait?”

“Exactly. You see where that left me when I discovered, without any shadow of doubt, that it was Shenton’s body in the mortuary. Here were two independent witnesses who saw Dillon plunge into space off the Col. There should, of course, have been two bodies in the valley below. But there weren’t!”

“But mon Dieu!” spluttered Blampignon, “how do you explain? A . . . a . . . now how do you say?---un corniche, perhaps?”

“A ledge,” chuckled Meredith. “No---I thought of that. I drove out and carefully examined the rock-face. Smooth as a baby’s derrière, my dear fellow.”

Blampignon threw wide his hands in a gesture of despair.

Sacré nom! Then what is the answer?”

“Remember what I told you about the mystery of the three rucksacks? One on Shenton’s body containing a scarlet Thermos. One containing the picnic meal put up by the cook at the villa, including the blue Thermos. Later found by the Sergeant stuck away under the driving-seat of Dillon’s car. And the third attached to Dillon’s back when he went over the crag.” Meredith paused and gazed round expectantly at the blank, puzzled faces of his colleagues. “Great Scott, don’t you get it now? That third rucksack contained a parachute!

“A parachute!” exclaimed the three men in unison.

Meredith nodded.

“A specially designed short-drop parachute. You see, Dillon had been working on the evolution of this particular type of parachute in his spare time. The Yard forwarded me the information which they’d picked up from the Hawland Aircraft Company, the firm in which Dillon was employed. Aerodynamics---that was his pet line. And what that fellow didn’t know about aerodynamics you could write on a pin’s head. At least that seemed to be the opinion of his boss in the research department. Dillon had spoken to the chap about his spare-time experiments with short-drop parachutes. He’d evidently thought up an entirely new principle and was hoping to patent it. It was this that first put me on to the modus operandi of his alibi---plus the fact that he’d been in the Airborne during the War. No question that his recent jaunts up in the mountains were connected with these experiments. Heaven knows! Dillon’s got guts.”

“You mean he’s been trying out experimental jumps ever since he arrived in Menton?” asked Gibaud.

“Yes---acting as his own guinea-pig. And, if you ask me, the place he finally selected for these tests was the rock-face up on the Col de Braus. That’s why he was familiar with the lie of the land. Daresay that is how he came to hit on the amazing idea behind his alibi. Simple, eh? But devilish subtle.” Meredith shrugged. “Well, that, gentlemen, more or less covers my reconstruction of the crime. I may be mistaken about some of the details, but I’m certain that----”

There was a knock on the door.

Entrez!” sang out Gibaud.

A constable entered and, crossing to the Inspector’s desk, dumped on it a dusty bundle of clothes.

Voilá, M’sieur!

“Well, I’ll be darned!” breathed Meredith. “A perfect piece of timing, eh?” He turned to Gibaud. “Ask him where he found the confounded things.”

After a brief catechism in French, Gibaud congratulated the constable, dismissed him and turned back to Meredith.

“Pushed in under a thick clump of scrub near the roadside, about half-way between the mule-track and the Col itself. He says there’s a few oddments in the pockets, including a wallet.” As the others crowded round the desk, Gibaud examined the clothes in silence---cream silk shirt, American lumber-jacket, fawn worsted trousers, chequered silk socks, white-and-tan shoes. From the hip pocket of the trousers he pulled out the wallet and extracted from it a thick wad of notes, several visiting-cards and an international driving-licence. “Well,” he announced, holding up the licence and pointing to the attached photo of the dead man, “this settles the question of identification. They’re Shenton’s clothes right enough.”

“Here, wait a minute!” snapped Meredith, making a grab at the notes. “Let’s take a dekko at----” A smile spread over his aquiline features---a smile that broadened to a grin, and finally resolved itself into a prolonged and unchecked roar of laughter. “Well, of all the . . . !” he spluttered. “What do you know about that? I reckon M’sieur Hivert of the Bar St. Raphael’s all set for a pretty nasty jolt.”

“What do you mean, mon ami?” asked Blampignon.

Meredith held up the notes and flicked through them with a forefinger.

“These notes, gentlemen. All guaranteed original works of the master! Perfect examples of Cobbett’s later period! Any bids, gentlemen?”

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