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Our Library => John Bude - The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937) => Topic started by: Admin on August 29, 2023, 06:13:55 am

Title: 8: Mystery on the Roof
Post by: Admin on August 29, 2023, 06:13:55 am
TUCKED away behind Numbers Four, Five and Six of Regency Square, dwarfed by the spacious Georgian architecture of the surrounding houses, was a small, old fashioned cottage which, before Cheltenham’s rise to popularity as a spa, had probably stood in the midst of broad, green fields. In it lived the widowed Mrs. Harrington with her small son, Percy. Four times a week Mrs. Harrington visited Number One and tidied up the litter left by Miss Boon’s incorrigible pack. Unfortunately an acute attack of asthma had put Mrs. Harrington to bed for a few days, with the result that Miss Boon, out of the kindness of her heart, was now visiting the cottage in order to tidy up the litter left by her charwoman’s incorrigible son Percy. To do this she walked out through her own back gate into the narrow lane (where the dustbins lived) which ran parallel with three sides of the square. This walk took her past the back garden of Number Four, Fitzgerald’s house.

On the afternoon of 1st July, drawing level with the high wall belonging to Number Four, Miss Boon was surprised to hear the sound of low-pitched voices coming from just inside the closed garden door---surprised because one of the voices belonged to Joyce Fitzgerald and the other to Cotton’s man-servant, Albert. In the ordinary course of events Miss Boon was not unduly interested in other people’s affairs. In their dogs and canine ailments---yes---but not in their doings or quarrels. But the secretive and hostile exchange of words proceeding behind that wall was so inexplicable that even her sluggish curiosity was aroused. With one ear to the wall she stopped and listened. As luck would have it the spaniel which she had on a lead gave her a perfectly legitimate excuse for waiting, outwardly impatient, in the lane.

Even with her hand cupped to her ear she was not able to hear the whole sequence of this mysterious conversation. It came to her as a series of disjointed phrases, both startling and intriguing.

First there was Joyce’s voice, quiet yet charged with repressed anger---the impatient voice of somebody struggling with stubborn obstinacy.

“Found out even now . . . of course . . . must hand it over . . . you know where it’s hidden . . .”

Then Albert’s sibilant objection.

“Not me . . . a ’undred pahnds . . . worth that, eh miss?. . . one ’undred pahnds down and . . .”

“. . . that it’s impossible . . . my husband’s already paid . . . that was for the Captain . . . expect you benefited . . .”

Then Albert again.

“. . . ’elp ’is bleedin’ worries . . . know ’e did the murder . . . motive any ’ole hows.”

On hearing the dread word “murder” Miss Boon grew tense and alert. As one who still guided the destinies of a Girl Guide Troop she knew exactly what to do. Hastily she pulled out a memorandum pad and pencil from her handbag and jotted down the main points of what she had just heard. The rest of the conversation she copied out word for word with the dog-lead slipped over her wrist. Luckily for her attempts to write the spaniel was still completely occupied.

“How dare you . . .” she wrote rapidly, “. . . what proof? . . . If you think you can . . .”

“Easy now, miss . . . I won’t . . . you pays up . . . keep quiet about ’im being out . . .”

“And the other matter? . . . before the police look through . . .”

“ . . . a ’undred I said . . . no more nor less . . . get that straight . . .”

“ . . . last word?”

“It is, miss . . . otherwise I might ’av a word . . . that ’ud be bad, eh? . . . you an’ your ’usband . . .”

Aware of a conclusive tone in Albert’s voice Miss Boon did not dare wait a moment longer. It was obvious that Albert had slipped into Number Four via the back gate of Number Five. It would be awkward if she were seen. Dragging the resistant dog along, regardless of its unmoving legs, she hastened round the corner, retracing her steps to Number One.

What did it mean? What was it that Joyce insisted should be handed over? What did Albert mean by his reference to the murder? Was he suggesting that Fitz . . . poor old Fitz? Impossible! Unthinkable! But for all that Miss Boon was deeply perturbed. She felt that something underhand, something criminal even was in progress, and had been in progress for some time, between the two adjacent households. No wonder Fitz had been looking off his oats. No wonder Joyce’s pretty, though rather simpering and unintelligent features, had looked a little drawn.

She thought: “I must see Pratt about this. He’s a bit of a pompous ass but he’ll know what to do. Yes---I’ll see him now. Harrington must wait!”

She stumped back through the square and rang the doctor’s bell resoundingly.

“Urgent,” she said to the maid. “No excuses. I must see the doctor without delay. Where is he---having tea?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thought so. Send in another cup and I’ll take it with him. Well, bustle along!”

The maid tactfully scurried off, whilst Miss Boon, calling loudly to her spaniel, banged down the hall and burst decisively into Pratt’s drawing-room.

“No---don’t get up,” she boomed. “I want to talk. I’ve just heard something extraordinary. Want your advice. Now get on with your tea, my dear man, and listen.”

Save for a momentary interruption when the maid entered with the extra cup and saucer, Miss Boon spoke without a break for five minutes. Her monologue included the verbatim notes which she had made of that perplexing conversation. At the end of those five minutes Pratt got up without a word and crossed over to the phone.

“What are you up to?” demanded Miss Boon suspiciously.

“I’m ringing up next door to see if that chap Meredith is in.”

“Damned abominable laziness, Pratt. You’re sure this is a police matter?”

Pratt nodded emphatically as he dialled the number.

“I certainly am. Don’t you realize that this may have some important bearing on their investigations?”

If Meredith was intrigued by Miss Boon’s staccato collection of facts he allowed no vestige of it to appear on his features. With his usual methodical care he took a copious series of notes, copying out word for word the most vital section of her evidence. Once clear of the doctor’s house, he slipped up to his own room and sat by the open window poring over the strange and unexpected information which had just come to hand. What precisely did it mean? Why were this ill-assorted couple in such close and secret confabulation behind the wall of Number Four?

The longer Meredith studied the notes the more he was struck by two of the principal phrases. No less than three times Albert had made mention of a “ ’undred pahnds.” And later he had stated this bald and simple fact: “Know ’e did the murder.” The more he puzzled over the matter the more Meredith felt that these two phrases were interrelated. It suggested---surely he was right in supposing this?---that Albert was coolly, calculatingly blackmailing the Fitzgeralds. Blackmailing the bank-manager because he had some hold over him concerning the murder. A later phrase seemed to offer further enlightenment . . .“keep quiet about ’im being out.” Out where? In the square possibly. Out in the square, some time after eight on that fateful night, although Fitzgerald swore he had been indoors listening-in to that concert. Did it mean that Fitzgerald had called in to see Cotton, found that he was out at Buller’s, seen the Captain in the open window, returned to his house, fetched the bow and arrow, sneaked along to the Empty House, somehow forced an entry and committed the crime? And had Albert, perhaps, seen him either going or returning from West’s place with that tell-tale bow?

“Here, but wait a minute,” argued Meredith. “I’m going too fast. What possible motive could Fitzgerald have for wanting Cotton out of the way? Cotton wasn’t making up to his wife. An ideally happy couple according to the square . . . But, confound it, he must have had a motive if he did do it!”

Meredith again returned to a concentrated perusal of his notes. Was there anything in his wife’s words which hinted at a possible motive? Nothing as far as he could see. No---wait a bit! Miss Boon had said something about “my husband’s paid . . . for the Captain.” Yes---here it was “. . . my husband’s already paid . . . that was for the Captain . . . expect you benefited . . .” This obviously suggested that the bank-manager had already paid out something and not, in his case, to Albert but to Cotton himself. If this were so then there were two distinct cases of blackmail to be investigated. And if it could be proved that Fitzgerald had been paying out silence money to the Captain, here was a cast-iron motive for the murder. But what hold had Cotton over his neighbour? Something detrimental which he knew about his past life? Something criminal connected with his job at the bank? Misappropriation? A woman in the case? What?

Curious how, in talking to Long the week before, he had put forward this precise theory and coupled it with the further theory that Fitzgerald had rifled the safe to get back his own “hush” money. Did it mean that the murder, too, could now be fixed on the same man?

As usual, Meredith attacked this supposition by setting up all the “againsts.” As far as he could see the strongest objection to the bank-manager being the criminal was the difficulty he would have in entering the Empty House. All the doors, save the front, were bolted on the inside. All the windows were locked. The front door opened with a Yale. Surely it hadn’t been possible for Fitzgerald to take a wax impression and have another key made? Always a risky procedure because of the necessary confederate. Then how the devil had he got in? There was no other----

Meredith let out a muffled exclamation and clicked his fingers. Good heavens! the skylight! The flat roof. Wasn’t it possible that Fitzgerald had made an overhead journey from Number Four to the Empty House? There and then he decided to stroll round and, surreptitiously, take a look. In order to help the police investigation West had sensibly surrendered his own key to Number Two and Meredith now made use of it. Setting up the crates and climbing out once more through the skylight on to the roof, he took a rapid survey of Fitzgerald’s possible route. He was interested at once. The roof of Number Four, unlike that of Number Three which it abutted at right-angles, went up to an apex. In the triangular face thus formed above the flat roof of Matthews’ house was a small window. Screening himself as much as possible behind the chimney-stacks, not wanting to arouse anybody’s curiosity, Meredith worked his way along the roofs to this small window. He noticed instantly that it was ajar and that the cement wall directly beneath it was scored with a number of light, and obviously recent scratches. His interest deepened. Did it mean that he was on the right track? Those scratches certainly suggested that somebody had used that little window as a means of getting out on to the roof. But who exactly had----

Meredith suddenly lent down and let out a small grunt of satisfaction. Imprinted on the grimy cement, with which the flat roofs were covered, clearly discernible, were a series of foot-prints. Footprints with certain peculiar characteristics. Whoever had climbed out of that window had certainly worn rubber soles and heels, the pattern of which consisted of a number of hollowed circles surrounding an embossed centre about the size of a sixpence. The prints both came and went from the window and, with little difficulty, Meredith was able to follow this mysterious track. But what did it mean? Despite all his fine theories the footsteps did not terminate at the skylight of the Empty House. They proceeded a short distance across the roof of Number Three, skirting a chimney-stack, turned toward the front of the house and were brought up short by the low, crenellated coping. But why? What on earth was the point of this unknown prowler standing mid-way along the Vicar’s roof and looking down into the square? It was obvious that the man---or woman?---no, the footprints were surely those of a man?---that the man had stood at this point for some time. Quite an accumulation of match-ends and cigarette-butts littered the spot. Meredith collected one or two of the butts---Craven A cork-tipped. Well and good---all he had to do now was to find this gentleman who smoked that brand of cigarette and wore that particular sort of rubbers on his shoes.

A little later he was on the phone to Long.

“For reasons which I’ll let you know later, it’s absolutely necessary that you arrange to interview Fitzgerald in your office. A further cross-examination, perhaps, with regard to his movements on the night of the murder. That might prove useful anyway now. I’ll come round and let you know what’s happened since I last saw you. Can you arrange to have Fitzgerald round in about an hour’s time?”

As the bank-manager came into the Inspector’s office at Clarence Street, Meredith was shocked by his appearance. If he had thought him ill on the night of the murder, what about the poor devil now? He looked like a walking skeleton. Even his voice was utterly without animation, a dead, disinterested monotone. Long asked him to sit down and the cross-examination politely and methodically proceeded. No---he was sorry but he had only his wife’s statement to corroborate his own evidence about his movements on the thirteenth. Yes---it was certainly unfortunate but one couldn’t very well manufacture evidence when it didn’t exist, could one? Was he very friendly with the late Captain Cotton? No hardly that. The friendship---if indeed it existed---was very one-sided. But it was quite true that he often visited Cotton and that Cotton often came in for a drink in the evenings. His wife’s attitude toward the Captain? Well, frankly, she detested him. She thought he was an unpleasant and shifty type. There was a pause whilst Long ostensibly jotted down a few notes. Meredith picked up the cigarette-box from the desk and offered it to the bank-manager.

“Smoke, sir? Oh---sorry. I hadn’t noticed. Long, you’ve run short of cigarettes.” Meredith fumbled in his own pockets. “Confound it---I’m in the same state. Sorry about that, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

“Here---have one of mine,” said Fitzgerald, holding out his case.

“Thanks,” said Meredith.

Suddenly Long looked up and said: “You’ve never by any chance let Cotton have any money, have you, sir?”

A fleeting expression of alarm crossed Fitzgerald’s features.

“Of course not,” he protested. “What on earth put that idea into your head?” He smiled wanly. “I may be a fool but not quite such a fool as that, Inspector.”

“And you don’t think your wife----?”

“Joyce? Good heavens---no!”

“Did you know Cotton before he arrived in Cheltenham, sir?”


“And previous to your appointment here you were at----?”

“Poulson’s Swiss Cottage branch in the Finchley Road.”

Meredith pricked up his ears and exchanged a quick glance with the Inspector.

“Did you know Mrs. Fitzgerald then, sir, or hadn’t you met?”

The manager hesitated a moment, clearly embarrassed by this unexpected question; then he said flatly: “Yes---we met in Hampstead and when I had been down here for six months we were married.” Adding quite extraneously Meredith thought: “My wife is an orphan, you know. She lived with her aunt for a time but when we met in Hampstead she was living on her own. She had a job in the West End.”

Long said amiably: “I expect you think all these questions a bit unnecessary, eh, sir? Most witnesses do---but, believe me, it’s often some entirely chance question which lets in the daylight.”

After a few more polite exchanges of this sort, Fitzgerald took his departure. Instantly Meredith crossed to the door and picked up a smooth, damp rubber mat which had been specially placed just inside the office.

“Well?” demanded Long anxiously.

Meredith spread the mat out on the desk.

“What do you think of that, Long? Conclusive, isn’t it?”

“And that cigarette you so cunningly cadged?”

“Craven A, Long---cork-tipped.”

Long whistled.

“Now what’s his little game, I wonder? Did ’e do the murder? If so why didn’t those bloomin’ footprints o’ yours end at the skylight? Notice how fidgety ’e was when we started to pump him about his previous job. Hampstead, eh? Cotton lived in West Hampstead, didn’t he? Must have been within a stone’s throw of each other at that time. And they never met! Well, well, well---what a coincidence. Three people, all more or less living in each other’s pockets in Hampstead. One of ’em moves to Cheltenham and hey presto---the other two follow in father’s footsteps.”

“Yes, I’ve got the same feeling,” said Meredith slowly. “I’ve got the glimmerings of an idea. Just a spark. You don’t think that Mrs. F was living with Cotton when Fitzgerald first met her?”

“Oh, tut-tut! Is she that sort o’ lady?”

“I’m not sure,” went on Meredith after a moment’s thought. “Only, you see, if Fitzgerald did do the murder he must have had a motive. Now my idea is---taking into consideration that conversation Miss Boon overheard---that Cotton was receiving money from him. He had some hold over Fitzgerald, and I’m beginning to think now that this hold had something to do with Joyce Fitzgerald.”

“You mean the Captain knew they weren’t married and threatened to let the cat out of the bag unless Fitz paid up?”

“Yes---that’s one possibility.”

“And he’d naturally be a bit pipped---I mean Cotton---if ’is bit o’ goods had ’opped off with another man. That type always are. Think their own powers of attraction can’t be resisted. I seen some o’ that, I can tell you.”

“There’s an alternative supposition, too,” went on Meredith. “What if Cotton and the girl were married? That’s possible. I’ve an idea that Cotton would have found Mrs. Fitz rather in his line. Well, suppose she got fed up with her husband’s immoralities and cleared off, eventually meeting Fitzgerald and falling in love with him. Isn’t it possible, Long, that when Fitzgerald got the job here, he thought he’d be far enough away from Cotton to take the risk?”

“You mean, for appearances sake, they went through a marriage ceremony?” Meredith nodded. “Bigamy on her part, eh?” Meredith nodded again.

He went on to explain further: “Cotton finds out what has happened, sees his chance to turn a dishonest penny and takes a house next door to his legal wife. Quite a nice little situation. Pleasant for poor old Fitzgerald with his reputation to keep up for the sake of his job. The bank authorities, you bet, wouldn’t stomach any sort of a scandal.”

“And when the opportunity comes Fitz puts his unwelcome neighbour out of the way?” exclaimed Long, obviously impressed by Meredith’s theory. “Then why did those footsteps only go as far as the middle of the coping on Matthews’ roof?”

“Do you think he could have shot the arrow from that point?” asked Meredith.

“You should know the answer better than me,” protested Long. “You took a look round from up there this afternoon.”

“Yes, and was fairly well satisfied that Cotton couldn’t have been hit with any certainty from that point. As a matter of fact Buller was seated in the same armchair in just the same position. I could just see the crown of his head and his bald patch. But only just---if Buller moved at all half his head disappeared behind the window-frame. Besides, what about the arrow? The angles, both the vertical and horizontal would have been quite different. No, Long, if Fitz did kill Cotton then, in some way, he must have entered the Empty House.” Meredith sighed. “I wish the devil we could find out what Albert saw on the night of the thirteenth. He’s got some damaging evidence up his sleeve---damaging that is for Fitzgerald. Do you think we could frighten him into speaking?”

Long rubbed his chin reflectively, then leaning forward selected a couple of memo-slips from a tray on the desk.

“I took Albert into a pub the other day, partly to find out what he really knows and partly to get a line on him. Usual stunt with a specially polished glass to get his finger-prints. Not the first time Gertie has helped me in this way. Also got Stinns to plant himself behind the laurel bushes in front of West’s place and get a few useful snapshots. Fitz, his wife’s, Matthews, Miss Boon’s and, o’ course, Albert’s. I had the finger-prints photographed and sent them up to the Yard, together with an enlargement of the chap’s dial. Result came to hand this morning. E’s been identified. Two convictions for theft. And that’s not all---the Yard have got him docketed alongside our friend the Captain. They know they’ve worked together. Confidence stuff mostly. Cotton’s never been convicted but the Yard have got a few details of his career filed away. He’s always been too fly for them to make an arrest.”

“Well---what’s your idea?”

“Oh, have him along here and put him politely but firmly through a bit o’ third degree. I’ve an idea that Miss Boon’s evidence can be used to good account. Shall we say eight o’clock here this evening if we can lay our hands on him.”

At eight o’clock precisely Shanks ushered a somewhat alarmed and wary Albert into the Inspector’s office. After Meredith had handed him a cigarette, Long got down to work.

“Remember the autumn of 1929, Albert?”


“Yes---remember it?”

“Why should I?”

“Oh, I only thought you might do. No particular reason. Or even the summer of 1932. You didn’t see much o’ that summer did you, Albert? In cramped quarters, eh?”

“ ’Ere, ’arf a mo---wot’s this all abaht? You’ve got nothing----”

“O.K. O.K. Forget it,” said Long soothingly. “That’s past history anyway. I’m more interested actually in something that happened this afternoon. You’re a careless sort o’ chap, Albert. If you take my advice next time you want to pluck a pigeon do it indoors---otherwise the feathers are inclined to fly about. You never know oo’s going to pick them up. The constable here, for example, might be walking down a lane behind Regency Square and ’ocus-pocus . . . a few feathers come floating over the wall from Mr. Fitzgerald’s garden. O’ course you weren’t ever in his garden were you, Albert?”

“Don’t talk silly. You know I wasn’t.” Albert looked uneasily from Meredith to the Inspector and cast a suspicious glance at Shanks, who was standing with a poker-face in the doorway. “ ’Ere, wot are you trying to lay on me?”

Long picked up a slip of paper and examined it casually. Clearing his throat ostentatiously he read: “ ‘. . . a ’undred pahnds . . . worth that, eh miss? . . . one ’undred pahnds down and . . .’ And what, Albert? Pity some o’ the feathers floated out o’ the constable’s reach. But we’ve got a tidy lot in the bag, believe me. Well,” rapped out Long on a sharper note, “are you going to speak?”

Albert’s shifty eyes slithered cunningly over the three men. Meredith noticed that the hand attending to his cigarette was trembling. He had gone a little pale, too, about the gills. He had the appearance of a weak-kneed man who suddenly finds himself trapped in a very ugly corner.

“Well---come on! Out with it!”

“I didn’t say nothing like that,” protested Albert in a wavering voice. “You got it wrong. It musta been somebody else wot was talking wiv Mrs. Fitz. I never----”

“Mrs. Fitz!” snapped Meredith, swinging round on Albert’s cringing figure. “Who said anything about Mrs. Fitzgerald? That was a bad give-away, m’lad. That’s just the proof we were after. The sooner you let us have the truth the better. Get me?”

Albert flared up weakly: “Wot if I was talking to ’er---nothing wrong in that is there?”

“Only if you were being foolish enough to try and get money from her by threats,” added Long smoothly. He rose and planted himself squarely in front of the man. “Look here, m’lad, if you’ve got any sense in that head o’ yours you’ll tell us all you know. You’ve got something to tell us---we’ve a good idea what it is too---but we must have a signed statement. Well?”

“What d’you wanter know?” asked Albert sullenly. “Maybe I can ’elp if I wants to.”

“First of all,” said Long briskly, “were you with the Captain when he lived in West Hampstead?”


“Ever see Fitzgerald at that time?”


“He came to the Captain’s flat perhaps?”

“I’m not saying ’e didn’t am I?”

“What about Mrs. Fitzgerald?”

“Wot, Joyce?” Albert grinned. “She’s a bit o’ orlrite ain’t she?”

“Seen her before I dare say?”

“Wot me? Watcher think? You ain’t telling me that you didn’t know, eh?”

“Know what?” rapped out Meredith suddenly.

“That she an’ the Captain was living together in ’Ampstead.”

“Living together,” echoed Long impatiently, “O’ course we knew that.” He winked at Meredith. “ ’E doesn’t quite realize what we do know, does he? Married weren’t they?”

“Wot the ’ell d’you think all the fuss ’ud be about if they wasn’t spliced? Ole Fitz wouldn’t ’av parted so easy unless the Captain ’ad that ’old over him.”

Long assumed a terrific air of disinterest.

“How long had this blackmail been going on?”

“ ’Ere easy!” cried Albert in alarm. “That ain’t a nice word to use. Just a friendly business arrangement wot the Captain fixed up with ole Fitz when ’e first took that ’ouse in the square. Let’s see---eighteen months back we come ’ere.”

“And now,” broke in Meredith quietly, “that your master’s no longer in the business you thought you’d take over the stock and goodwill and do a little speculating on your own account. Is that the idea, Albert?”

The little man moved uneasily on his chair and looked down fixedly at his boots.

“Well a bloke must live some’ow these days,” he mumbled, adding on a brighter, more assertive note. “ ’Tain’t as if I’ve made anything out of it . . . yet.”

“Luckily for you, m’lad,” was Long’s immediate observation. “And I suppose this document that Mrs. Fitzgerald---or rather Mrs. Cotton was after was her marriage certificate?”

“It didn’t take much outer you to think o’ that,” commented Albert drily. “ ’Course it bloomin’ well was. She ’ad an idea that the perlice or some relation might go through the Captain’s papers an’ find the thing, see? Then the cat ’ud be properly aht of the bag for all ’er ole pot-an’-pan’s money wot ’ad been paid aht to the Captain.”

“You know where this certificate is, of course?”

“I do,” said Albert promptly.


“ ’Ere,” replied Albert diving into an inside pocket and holding out a stout, sealed envelope. “If I ’ands this over you’ll make it orlrite for me, eh? Shows I wanter to go straight, don’t it, if I ’and over the evidence. Mrs. Fitz’ll tell you that no money’s bin paid aht.”

Long looked across inquiringly at Meredith who, after a moment’s hesitation, nodded.

“O.K.,” said Long. “We’ll call it a deal, Albert, provided nothing else comes to light in the future. Get that? Now then let’s have a look.”

Taking the envelope he dropped back into his desk-chair, whilst Meredith crossed over and stood by his shoulder. The envelope was inscribed: Duplicate Marriage Certificate---J. R. C.---M.C.---and securely fastened at the flap with sealing-wax. Breaking this seal, Long thrust in his hand and drew out a single sheet of paper which he spread out on the desk. Meredith craned over. Albert, overcome with curiosity to see this valuable document which, so far, he had not troubled to slip from its envelope, also approached the desk and leaned over.

Simultaneously all three men let out an exclamation, scarcely able to credit the evidence of their eyes. The sheet of paper was blank!