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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 04:52:57 am

Title: 18: Cumulative Evidence
Post by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 04:52:57 am
INSPECTOR French’s satisfaction in this new development was but slightly marred by his knowledge that a certain amount of the credit for it must be allotted to his Chief. Mr. Mitchell had certainly spotted the true significance of the discarding of the wedding rings, but French now saw that this was a comparatively unimportant achievement. In the first place it was not due to superior ability, but to the lucky accident that the rings had fallen on the lighter instead of going overboard. In the second---and this French thought fundamental---the episode at the best had only hastened matters. If he had been left alone he would certainly have traced one of the notes. Perhaps indeed this would have proved quicker in the end.

But what, French asked himself, had led to the whole dénouement? Was it not his, French’s, foresight and ingenuity at the inquest? He had devised and skilfully baited a trap for his victim, and lo! the victim had walked into it with the most commendable promptness. He had fallen for the dope, as French’s former acquaintance, Mrs. Chauncey S. Root of Pittsburgh, would have put it. And now a little energetic action and the man would pay the price of his folly.

For some time after reaching his room French busied himself in putting in motion against the ingenious purchaser of rings the great machine of which he was a part. A telephone warning was sent to all stations that the man whose description had already been circulated in connection with the Starvel murders had disguised himself with a moustache and tinted glasses and had recently been in London occupied in certain business involving taxis and wedding rings. A number of men were put on to trace the taxi or taxis employed, others to try to obtain further information at the jewellers’, while still others were sent round the hotels in the hope of picking up a scent. It was not indeed until the late afternoon that French had time to settle down really to consider where he now stood.

In the first place it was clear not only that Roper had remained in the country, but that he had kept himself in touch with events in Thirsby. Of course this latter did not mean much, for the circumstances of the Starvel case had created widespread interest and the details which came out at the inquest were fully reported in the papers. But Roper had evidently been uncertain as to how much the police knew, and French’s evidence had had the desired reassuring effect.

It might, of course, have happened that Roper’s hand had been forced. He might have run out of cash to live on or he might have required a lump sum, say, to leave the country. But whatever the reason, he had determined on a coup. And very cleverly he had arranged it. He must have made over £18 a purchase, and if he bought forty rings in a day his profits would amount to over £700. £700 a day was not bad.

The following day was Sunday, but by Monday evening reports had begun to come in from French’s little army of workers. Sixteen more shops had been found at which Roper had bought rings and changed £20 notes, and one of these notes bore a Starvel number. Moreover it had been established that his activities had extended over at least three days. Inquiries at the fashionable restaurants had revealed the fact that on the Tuesday a man answering Roper’s description had paid for his lunch at the Carlton with a similar note. French received these items thankfully, and having made a skeleton time-table of the three days in question, fitted each item into its appropriate place.

But none of those who had come in contact with Roper had been able to add to his knowledge of the man or to give a clue to his present whereabouts. It was not indeed until the middle of the following forenoon that information came in which promised more satisfactory results.

Within ten minutes of each other two telephone messages were received stating that taximen who drove Roper had been found. These men on discovery had been ordered to report themselves at the Yard, and they arrived almost simultaneously. French had them up to his room in turn.

The first driver said he had been hailed by a man of the description in question about 10.0 a.m. on Tuesday of last week. The fare had explained that he wished to engage his vehicle up till one o’clock. He was a traveller in precious stones and he wished to be taken to certain jewellers of which he had a list. The taximan had done as he was asked. Starting near the Marble Arch, he had visited one jeweller after another during the whole morning. Shortly after one the fare had instructed him to drive to Marylebone Station, which was then close by. There the taxi had been paid off, the fare disappearing into the station.

Asked if he could remember all the shops he called at, the man said he thought he could, and French at once despatched Sergeant Carter with him to drive over the same ground and make inquiries en route.

The second taximan had a very similar story to tell. About three o’clock on the Thursday afternoon he was driving slowly down Aldwych, when he was hailed by a man of the description the sergeant had given him. The man had engaged him by the hour and had told him of his business in precious stones and they had driven to a number of jewellers, ending up about five-thirty at Malseed’s, in the Strand. There the man had paid him off and he had seen him entering the shop as he drove away.

This driver also said he could remember the places at which he had called, and French sent another of his satellites round with him to amass information.

As far as it went, this was satisfactory enough. If the other taximen could be found, every minute of Roper’s three days would soon be accounted for. And it would be a strange thing if amongst all those with whom he had come in contact, some one person had not learnt or noticed anything which would help to find him. French could recall many instances where a chance recollection of some physical peculiarity, of some word or phrase uttered, of some paper or small article dropped, had led to the identification of a criminal and he thought the chances of similar good fortune in the present instance were not too remote.

All through the afternoon information continued to come in, and when he had added the items to his skeleton time-table he found that he had learnt where thirty-one rings had been bought and where Roper had lunched on each of the three days in question. Of course, this information did not directly help with his present problem, but there were two other items of news which seemed more promising.

The first was that seven of the thirty-one shop assistants who had been interviewed had noticed a fresh cut on Roper’s thumb, small, but peculiarly shaped. This was an additional identification which might be useful in dealing with waiters, dining-car attendants, hotel porters and others who would be likely to observe a customer’s hand.

The second item French received with deep satisfaction. Roper had spent the Tuesday night at the Strand Palace Hotel. This seemed to negative the suggestion that the man was living in London, and French therefore became much more hopeful of the prospects of finding his whereabouts on the Thursday night, the point at which he must start if he was to succeed in tracing him.

But it was not until the next afternoon that his hopes were fulfilled. When he reached the Yard after lunch he found that a telephone message had just been received from Sergeant Elliott, who was working the hotels in the Bloomsbury area. Roper, the man reported, had spent the Thursday night at the Peveril Hotel in Russell Square.

Within twenty minutes French had reached the building. Sergeant Elliott was waiting for him in the lounge.

“How did you get on to him?” French asked, after they had greeted each other heartily and withdrawn into a quiet corner.

“Just pegging away, sir; no special clue. This is the sixteenth hotel I’ve been to. But I think there’s no doubt it’s him. He turned up here about 7.15 on Thursday evening and asked for a room. On the plea of having a chill he had a fire in his room and dined there. Next morning he paid his bill to the waiter and left about 9.45.”

“Did he take a taxi?”

“Not from the hotel, sir. He just walked out, carrying a small suitcase in his hand.”

“Wasn’t taking any risks. Confound him for giving us all this trouble. See Elliott, you look round and get hold of the men who were on point duty hereabouts on Friday morning. Some of them may have noticed him. Then go round to the nearby Tube Stations. I’ll go back to the Yard and get the taxis and the terminal stations worked. You follow me?”

“Right, sir. I’ll go now.”

French turned to the manager’s office to check his subordinate’s information. There his inquiries speedily convinced him that Roper had indeed stayed in the hotel. It was true that he had registered under the name “Jas. Fulton, Manchester,” but the handwriting set the matter at rest. That it was Roper’s, French had no doubt whatever.

Except that one of the waiters had noticed the cut on the man’s right thumb, this unfortunately was the only result of his inquiries. Though he was as thorough and painstaking as ever, he could find no clue to the man’s present whereabouts.

Returning to the Yard, he recalled the men who were engaged on the hotels and jewellers’ shops and set them new tasks. Some of them were to look for a taximan who had taken up a fare of the suspect’s description in the neighbourhood of Russell Square about 9.45 on the morning of the previous Friday, the remainder were to visit the great stations in the hope of learning that the same man had left by train.

French was accustomed to prompt and efficient service, but when within an hour the wanted taximan had been found, he could not but admit pleasurable surprise. He therefore paid a somewhat unusual compliment to his subordinate on his prowess, and told him to fetch the man along.

The driver proved to be a big brawny Irishman. He stated he had picked up a fare like the man described at the Russell Square end of Southampton Row about the hour named. The man had carried a small suitcase and had been walking away from the Square. The driver had not seen his face clearly, as he had his collar turned up and his hat pulled low, but when French heard that he spoke with a Scotch accent, he felt that things were going as they should. It was therefore with keen interest that he waited for a reply to the question, where had he driven him?

“To Gracechurch Street, sorr,” the man answered, “to a block o’ buildings half-way down the street on the left-hand side.”

“Could you find it again?”

“I could, sorr, surely.”

“Then drive there.”

An inspection of the plates at each side of the entrance door showed that the “block o’ buildings” contained eleven suites of offices. French stood contemplating the names and wondering in which of the firms Roper had been interested.

None of them seemed very promising at first sight. There were two coal merchants, a chemical analyst, a stockbroker, an engineer and architect, three shipping firms and three commission agents. Of these the shipping firms seemed the most hopeful and French decided to start with them.

Obtaining no information at the shipping offices, he went on to the remaining firms, and at the seventh he struck oil. The office boy at Messrs. Dashwood and Munce’s stockbrokers, remembered such a man calling at the hour in question. He had, he believed, seen Mr. Dashwood, and it was not long before French was seated in the senior partner’s room.

Mr. Dashwood, a tall, thin man with a shrewd expression and keen eyes, listened attentively while French stated his business.

“I admit,” he said, “that the description you give resembles that of our client. But you must be aware, Inspector, that a client’s dealings are confidential, and unless you can prove to me that this is really the man you want and that it is my duty to discuss his business I do not think I feel called on to say any more.”

“I thoroughly appreciate your position,” French returned suavely, “and under ordinary circumstances agree that you would be absolutely right. But these circumstances are not ordinary. Firstly, here are my credentials, so that you will see that I really am an officer of Scotland Yard. Secondly, I must take you into my confidence to the extent of telling you that the man is wanted for a very serious crime indeed---a triple murder, in fact. You will see, therefore, that you cannot keep back any information about him which you may possess.”

Mr. Dashwood shrugged.

“What you say alters the matter. Tell me what you wish to know.”

“First, your client’s name and address.”

Mr. Dashwood consulted a small ledger.

“Mr. Arthur Lisle Whitman, c/o Mr. Andrew Macdonald, 18 Moray Street, Pentland Avenue, Edinburgh.”

“Was he an old client?”

“No, I had never seen him before.”

“And what was his business?”

“He wished us to purchase some stock for him.”

“Oh,” said French. “Did he pay for it?”

“Yes, he paid in advance.”

“In notes of £10 and less in value, I suppose?”

Mr. Dashwood shot a keen glance at the other.

“That’s right,” he admitted. “It seemed a peculiar way of doing things, but he explained that he was a bookmaker and had been doing some big business lately.”

“What was the amount?”

“Roughly two thousand pounds.”

“No twenty-pound notes, I suppose?”

“None. He counted it out here, and ten was the highest value.”

French was delighted. There was no doubt he was on the right track. Further, three days at £700 just made the required sum.

“In what stock were you to invest?”

“Brazilian. A thousand in Government five per cents, and the rest in rails.”

This was satisfactory too. French remembered Roper’s Brazilian passport. At the same time he was slightly puzzled. Surely the man was not mad enough to imagine he could get out of the country? Still, if he thought he was not suspected he might try to do so.

“Where was the interest to be paid? Did he say he was going out?”

“Yes. He said he was sailing in a few weeks and that he already had an account in the Beira Bank at Rio, to which the dividends were to be paid.”

French laid his photograph and description on the other’s desk.

“That the man?”

Mr. Dashwood examined the photograph and slowly read and re-read the description.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “At first glance I should say not, but on consideration I’m not so sure. If it was he, he was disguised.”

“I have reason to believe he was disguised.”

“Then probably it was he. The features which he couldn’t alter, such as his height and build, correspond all right.”

“Have you got a specimen of his handwriting?”

Yes, Mr. Dashwood had his signature to certain forms. French gazed at the four specimens of “Arthur Lisle Whitman” which were produced. And then he felt himself up against the same difficulty which had confronted Mr. Dashwood. At first sight the signatures were not so obviously Roper’s as those in the Peveril register, but as French examined them he felt more and more satisfied that the man had indeed written them, though he had obviously made some attempt at disguise.

French was more than pleased with his interview when, after warning Mr. Dashwood to keep the affair secret, he took his departure. In the first place the whole of Roper’s scheme of escape was at last revealed. The man had evidently set himself two problems, first, to change his possibly incriminating twenty-pound notes in such a way that any which might afterwards be identified should not be traceable to him, and secondly, to get this money into Brazilian securities, payable in Brazil, with a similar immunity from risk. And very cleverly he had solved both these problems.

But he had made an error, and French smiled grimly as he thought of it. He had given an address to Dashwood and Munce. A bad, a fatal error! A trip to Edinburgh for French, and Master John Roper’s career would meet with a sudden check. And with that the Starvel Hollow crime would be avenged and French---he hoped against hope---would come in for his reward.

Could he not, French wondered, find out something about that address without leaving London? He turned into a telegraph office and sent a wire to the Edinburgh police. Early next morning there was a reply.

It seemed that Mr. Andrews Macdonald of 18, Moray Street, Pentland Avenue, through whom “Mr. Arthur Lisle Whitman” was to be approached, was a small tobacconist with a rather shady reputation. It was evident therefore that Roper had adopted a time-honoured expedient to obtain his correspondence secretly. Letters could be addressed to Macdonald and for a consideration they would either be re-addressed to Roper or be kept till called for. In either case Macdonald would not know who his client really was or where he was to be found, in the event of questions from inquisitive seekers.

French saw that Macdonald, at least if he was a man of strong character, could give a lot of trouble. He would admit that he kept letters for Whitman, but would state that Whitman always called for these and that he did not know where his client was to be found. And the closest watch kept by the police might be quite unavailing. French remembered a case in point in the East End. Here a small newsagent had been chosen as the intermediary, and though the place was kept under observation for several weeks, the criminal was never seen. It was only when he was captured through an entirely different line of research that the reason came out. The newsagent had guessed his establishment was being shadowed and he had exhibited a prearranged sign. He had placed a certain article in a certain place in his window. The criminal, riding past in a bus, had seen the danger signal and had kept away.

In the present instance French wished if possible to avoid the chance of a similar expensive and irritating delay. If he could devise some other method of attack, this clue of the tobacconist could be kept as a last resource.

He took his problem home with him that night, and after he had dined he drew an arm-chair up to the fire and settled down comfortably with his pipe to think the thing out. For a considerable time he pondered, then at last he thought he saw his way. He worked at the details of his plan until he was satisfied with them, then with a smile of triumph on his lips and deep satisfaction in his heart he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, switched off the lights and went up to bed.