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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) => Topic started by: Admin on August 08, 2023, 07:58:42 am



Title: 6: Enquiries
Post by: Admin on August 08, 2023, 07:58:42 am
UP till now French had not had an opportunity of examining the Observer which Earle had been reading immediately prior to his disappearance, though he had brought it away with him for that purpose. Though unlikely, it was conceivable that the man had seen something in the paper about which he had wished to consult one of his neighbours, and had there and then gone off to deal with it. After breakfast next morning French therefore took half an hour to go over the two pages which had been exposed. However, a careful search revealed nothing interesting.

Referring to the list he had made on the previous evening, he saw that there were a number of local enquiries to be made, obvious enquiries of the routine type, and he wondered if he could shove these over on to the Farnham men. Making his way to the police station, he asked for Sheaf.

“Well, super,” he greeted him, “I was passing and I thought I’d look in and have a word with you. I’ve been out to St. Kilda and had a look round.”

Sheaf took a cigarette from a box on the table, then pushed the box over to French.

“Got anything?” he asked, sitting back in his chair as if prepared for a chat.

“Nothing very startling so far. I’ve really been trying to get the thing into my head. There’s another man in it.”

“Another man?”

“Yes, a man called Slade. He and the missus have been going rather strong. He seems to have done seven calls in fourteen days, and besides that she’s been out different times with him in his car. In fact there’s been trouble all round. Earle and the wife don’t pull, and he’s running after this woman in London and Mrs. Earle after Slade. It seems to me we’re not going to have much difficulty about motive, at all events.”

“Motive for what?” Sheaf asked innocently.

“For what’s happened,” French answered, with a twinkle in his eye.

Sheaf grinned. “And what’s that?”

French grew serious again. “I’m hanged if I know,” he admitted. “I had a bit of a think over the thing last night and I’m hanged if I could tell whether it was murder or a voluntary disappearance. You can make a tolerably decent case for either. We’ll have to get a deal more information before we know.”

“I thought so myself. What are the special points that struck you?

“There are a lot of points which cut both ways,” French answered, leaning his arms on Sheaf’s desk. “That one of yours, for instance, about not arranging for a fortnight’s grace before reporting the disappearance, and others of the same kind. But the two most important point opposite ways. Earle does not seem to have made financial provision for a new life, and if he didn’t, he never disappeared voluntarily. On the other hand, if he was murdered, where’s the body?”

Sheaf nodded without replying.

“If Mrs. Earle and her sister and Slade were all in it,” French went on, “the thing might be possible. The women might have drugged Earle and handed the body over to Slade to get rid of. Otherwise I don’t see just how it could have been done.”

“That means a deal of enquiry,” said Sheaf.

“It does, and that’s really what I called in about. Some of these enquiries are purely local and could be best done by men who know the district. Others I could do better, such as the finding of the woman Earle met in London. What I want to know is, Can you take on any of the purely local ones?”

“I thought there was something behind all this palaver,” Sheaf declared darkly.

“There’s always something behind everything,” French somewhat enigmatically explained.

“Yes, but what’s the good of getting a dog and then barking yourself?”

“You needn’t bark,” French pointed out, “though I’m sure no one could do it better. All I want is one or two other little things. An enquiry or two along the roads and so on.”

Sheaf made a hopeless gesture. “Let’s hear the worst,” he invited.

French opened his notebook. “I took it that the first point we had to settle was: Did Earle leave the neighbourhood that Sunday night? I jotted down a few enquiries that I thought we might make between us.”

“Go on.”

“First of all, there’s the question of whether he was seen along any of the roads. Your people would know who might have been out on Sunday evening: your own patrols, doctors, domestic servants, perhaps members going to or from the golf club house. Will you do the local enquiries and I’ll fix up a broadcast?”

“Right,” said Sheaf, making a note.

“Then,” French went on, “was he picked up by a road vehicle? I thought we might see the conductors of buses running in the neighbourhood, and perhaps owner drivers and chauffeurs of private cars.”

Sheaf made another note.

“Then there are the railway stations. That’s a big job: there are the deuce of a lot of them. You see, we’ll have to cover a radius of the longest distance the man could have walked. Of course only the larger stations are likely. I should say Guildford was the most likely of all. Earle I suppose might be known at Farnham station?”

“He might not. I understand he generally travelled in his car. Well, we’ll do our best.”

“Good,” French approved. “There is next a bicycle: Did Earle own or hire or borrow a bicycle? Can you see to that?”

“I suppose so.”

“The question of his finances I’ll undertake and also the broadcast. The watch at the docks and the general search through the country you arranged, but I have sent a more complete description than was available at first as well as photographs. Then the next point is Slade; can you tell me anything about him?”

“Is this what you call a division of labour?”

French looked up anxiously. “Do you think I’m taking more than my share?”

“I haven’t discovered what your share is yet.”

“The London lady,” French said, with an air of a man who effectively uses a small trump. “I want to get on to tracing her, but if you can’t see your way to look after these one or two little matters I’ve mentioned, I’ll have to stay here and do them.”

“Have you mentioned them all?”

“All I have a note of,” French admitted. “Can you think of any other line we should follow up, super?”

“No, and don’t you either. You’ve thought of quite enough things. Are you going back to Town now?”

“I’m going out to have a chat with Slade. If nothing comes of that I’ll go back to Town. Now, super, you’ve not answered my question about Slade. Can you tell me anything about him?”

Sheaf pressed a button. “I don’t know him myself, but Constable Black lives out there somewhere. We’ll have him in. He may be able to help you.”

The constable wasn’t able to help very much after all. His father had a small farm at the edge of the wood, not far from Altadore, Colonel Dagger’s house. Slade was Mrs. Dagger’s brother. He was not thought highly of in farming circles. He was a good judge of horse-flesh, but there his excellences appeared to begin and end. He attended every race meeting in the country and was supposed to lose huge sums of money. He and Dr. Campion from Binscombe, and Mr. Gates from Polperro, near Compton, were a trio: all friends and all keen on betting and all believed to be hard up. Crime? Oh, that was a different matter. He didn’t believe Mr. Slade would stand for serious crime, though for all the constable could say to the contrary, he might take a short-cut with cards if he saw the chance. Yes, the constable was only guessing about that: he knew nothing of the man’s card-playing abilities. Yes, sir, he understood that he should only refer to what he actually knew as a fact.

None of this was very illuminating, but it did to some extent prepare French for his coming interview. He decided, however, he would first pay a call at St. Kilda, and followed the constable from Sheaf’s room.

Once again French enjoyed his ride out to Hampton Common through the pleasant Surrey scenery. It was an extraordinarily fine spell of weather for the time of year, and in the warm sun the scent of the pines was as aromatic as at midsummer. In fact, except for the changing colours of the leaves, it might have been midsummer. Birds were strongly in evidence, and twice French disturbed a rabbit as he rode past.

On reaching St. Kilda he went to the garage. He had asked Sheepshanks whether the car had been taken out on the Sunday night, and Sheepshanks had said that he believed not, as he had felt the radiator and found it cold. It had since occurred to French that it is an easy matter to cool a warm radiator by changing the water. He now opened the drainage tap and looked at the water running out. It was brown and rusty, too brown and rusty to have been recently put in. Sheepshanks’ evidence, then, was satisfactory and the car had not been out.

One other item he had omitted to check. He got Julia to take out the car, run along the road, come back, stop at the gate, and start away again, while he listened from the kitchen. The sounds were very distinctly audible. French was satisfied that no car could have stopped and restarted on the Sunday evening unheard by Julia and Marjorie.

French took the opportunity of asking Julia something about Slade. She was not communicative and French did not learn a great deal.

“Can you tell me the last time you saw him before the disappearance?” he went on presently.

“Yes, on Saturday after lunch.”

“Where, madam?”

“Where?”

“Where, madam?”

“I don’t see what it has to do with the case or what business it is of yours, but if you must know, it was here in the drawing-room.”

“Thank you. Was anyone else present?”

Julia hesitated momentarily. “During our interview?” she said. “No.”

French could not see why she had used the first phrase. He therefore questioned blindly. “Not necessarily during your interview. What I mean is: Did anyone else see Mr. Slade?”

Again Julia hesitated, but as before, only very slightly. French imagined she was wondering whether or not to tell the truth, immediately deciding to do so. “My husband saw him for a moment.”

“Oh yes?” said French. “When exactly was that?”

“This seems to me the most utter waste of time,” she said resentfully. “However, since it is so excessively important, my husband was in the drawing-room when Mr. Slade was announced. They were speaking when I entered, but my husband shortly went out of the room. Is that what you wanted to know?”

“Very nearly, madam. If you will tell me what they were saying when you entered the room, it will be all.”

“I don’t know what they were saying. I’m not in the habit of listening to other people’s conversations.”

“You couldn’t have entered the room without overhearing something. I do not want the whole conversation, only what you overheard.”

“I don’t know what they were discussing,” she replied frigidly, but with evident irritation. “They stopped speaking when I entered.”

From her manner French imagined that she knew, but didn’t wish to say. He decided, however, to let it pass for the moment, believing he could get the information more easily later. He nodded.

“Then, madam, when did you next see Mr. Slade?”

She seemed relieved. “On Monday. He heard of my husband’s disappearance and came down to offer help.”

“Then you didn’t see him on Sunday?”

“No. I should have thought that followed from my previous answer.”

“In this sort of question and answer it’s very easy for misunderstandings to arise,” French said smoothly. “I am much obliged to you, madam. That is all I want.”

He next went to the kitchen. He had been extremely polite to Lucy when taking her evidence, and the result now was that she smiled when she saw him enter.

“Well, Lucy,” he said, with an equally satisfactory smile, “here I am to bother you again. Do you think you could give me a glass of water? It’s a thirsty day.”

“I can get you a bottle of beer,” she answered, “if you wait half a sec.”

“No, no, thanks; don’t mind the beer. A glass of water’s all I want. Very good of you all the same.”

She let the tap run for some seconds to get, as she explained, the water cold. While she was doing so French continued chatting, but when he had had a few sips of the water he turned to her and spoke more seriously.

“I want you to tell me, Lucy, about the unpleasantness between Dr. Earle and Mr. Slade on Saturday last.”

It was a barefaced bluff, and yet, he thought, a legitimate enough deduction from Julia’s manner. But bluff or no bluff, it worked. Lucy stared.

“How did you know?” she asked, with something like awe in her manner.

“Oh,” said French, “I know all about it. But you may be asked about it in court, and I want to be sure of what you’re going to say. Start at the beginning and repeat your lesson like a good girl, then you won’t be bothered about it again. You showed Mr. Slade into the drawing-room where Dr. Earle was alone? Isn’t that what happened?”

He completed her discomfiture by producing his notebook and writing at the top of a fresh page in large characters, “Unpleasantness between Dr. Earle and Mr. Slade on 8th October. Miss Lucy Parr’s evidence.” “Now, Lucy, if you please,” he encouraged her.

Her story didn’t amount to a great deal after all. Slade, it appeared, had asked for Julia, and Lucy had shown him into the drawing-room in ignorance that Earle was there. She knew that Earle disapproved of Slade’s visits and she always endeavoured to keep them from meeting. When she opened the drawing-room door she did not see Earle; then she was horrified to hear his voice asking in very unpleasant tones, “Well, what do you want?” Slade had seemed taken aback and had not replied at first, but before she closed the door Lucy heard him stammering something about returning a book that Mrs. Earle had lent. She could not bring herself to return instantly to the kitchen, and she therefore heard Earle’s reply in an equally unpleasant but somewhat louder voice: “Well, you can put it on the table there and then get out.” By this time Slade had evidently lost his temper, for she heard him replying angrily. Lucy was thrilled and listened eagerly for more, but at that moment she had heard Julia’s step on the stairs, and fled to the kitchen. From the kitchen she could not hear what was said, but for some time the voices continued loud, and then the door opened and Earle went upstairs. By dinner-time the bad feelings seemed to have died down, for both Julia and Earle appeared quite normal. Slade had stayed about half an hour altogether.

Though French could not help smiling internally at the fact that Slade had found himself greeted on different occasions by both husband and wife with the same welcoming phrase, “Well, what do you want?” he could not but recognise the importance of this news. A row between Earle and Slade might well have been the last straw which precipitated the calamity. He asked a few more questions, and then with thanks for her help, took his departure.

A short distance down the road in the direction of Farnham was the Daggers’ place, Altadore, as the plate on the gate indicated. It was a larger house than St. Kilda, and evidently much older. The grounds were tastefully laid out and well kept. Here even the grass was good, which, as French had by this time learned, was something of a triumph on this sandy soil. Like St. Kilda, the place was surrounded on three sides by the wood, and on the fourth was screened from the road by shrubs.

French was interested to see that the boundary between the two places was merely a fence of rough posts set far apart, and bearing only two wires. This ran through the wood and of course presented no barrier to persons, even if carrying heavy weights.

Going to the door, he asked for Slade, handing in a plain card bearing only the words “Mr. Joseph French.” He was shown into a small sitting-room and asked to wait.