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Our Library => Freeman Wills Crofts - The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) => Topic started by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 05:15:27 am

Title: 19: The Last Lap
Post by: Admin on September 02, 2023, 05:15:27 am
NEXT morning Inspector French was early occupied in making the necessary preparations for his great coup. The first of these involved a visit to Messrs. Dashwood and Munce, and the business day had scarcely begun when he presented himself once more at their office.

“I am sorry, Mr. Dashwood, for troubling you so soon again,” he apologised, “but I want to ask you one other question. Can you tell me whether Mr. Whitman saw your partner during his call? In other words, if Mr. Whitman were to meet Mr. Munce, would he recognise him?”

Mr. Dashwood raised his eyebrows, but he answered without hesitation.

“Mr. Whitman was shown in to me, and so far as I know, he did not meet my partner. But Mr. Munce is in his room. We can ask him.”

The junior partner was a more good-natured looking man than Mr. Dashwood, and French was sorry he had not had to deal with him throughout.

“No, I didn’t see him,” he said with a pleasant smile. “As a matter of fact I was out at the time you mention. I went over----” he looked at Dashwood---“to see Troughton about eleven and I did not get back till after lunch.”

French nodded.

“Now, gentlemen,” he went on, “I am obliged for what you have told me and I am going to ask for your further help in this matter. What I want is very simple. If any letter or wire or telephone call comes to you from Whitman will you please advise me before replying? That is all.” He repeated to Mr. Munce what he had already told Mr. Dashwood as to his suspicion of Whitman’s criminality, stating that under the circumstances he felt sure he could count on the assistance of both gentlemen.

Mr. Dashwood hemmed and hawed and was inclined to demur. He was, he pointed out, a stockbroker, not a detective, and he didn’t see why he should be involved in Inspector French’s machinations. If the Inspector wished to make an arrest it was up to him to do it himself. But fortunately for French, Mr. Munce took the opposite view.

“Oh, come now, Dashwood, hang it all,” he protested, “we’ll have to do what the Inspector wants. If this Whitman is a murderer we’re pretty well bound to. Besides, Mr. French doesn’t want us to make any move, only to sit tight and not spoil his plans. What do you say, now?”

Mr. Dashwood made a gesture as if washing his hands of the whole affair, and announced stiffly that if his partner considered such action in accordance with the traditional relations between stockbroker and client he would not press his own views. Mr. Munce thereupon smiled genially at French and assured him that he could count on his wishes being carried out.

This was all right so far as it went, and it paved the way for French’s next proceeding. Going to the nearest telegraph office, he saw the postmaster, showed him his credentials, and explained that he wished to send a reply prepaid telegram, the answer to which was not to be delivered at its address, but was to be sent to him at Scotland Yard. Then drawing a form towards him he wrote:—

    “To Whitman, care of Macdonald, 18, Moray Street, Pentland Avenue, Edinburgh.
    “Serious fall in Brazilian stocks impending. Advise modification of plans. Would like an interview. Munce travels to Aberdeen by 10.0 a.m. from King’s Cross, Tuesday. Could you see him at Waverley where train waits from 6.15 to 6.33?
    “Dashwood & Munce.”

This, French thought, should draw Roper. Unless the man was extraordinarily well up in Brazilian politics, of which the chances were negligible, he would suspect nothing amiss. And if he did not suspect a trap he would almost certainly turn up. Not only would he really be anxious about his money, but he would see that it would be suspicious not to show such anxiety.

All the same French believed that the telegram should be confirmed by a letter. In the ordinary course of business such a letter would necessarily follow, and Roper might notice the omission.

To ascertain the form of Messrs. Dashwood and Munce’s correspondence French adopted a simple expedient. He wrote confidentially to the firm saying he had just learnt that the man in whom he was interested had particularly small ears, and asking whether Mr. Dashwood had noticed Whitman’s. This letter he sent by hand and in an hour back came an answer. It took a comparatively short time to print a similar letter form, and on this French typed the following with the same coloured ribbon and spacing:---

    “Dear Sir,---Confirming wire sent you to-day. We beg to state that we have just had confidential advices from our agents in Brazil, warning us that unsettled conditions are imminent which are likely to depress Government securities considerably. Under these circumstances we feel that we would like to discuss the question of your investments, as we think you would be wiser to modify your original proposals. In such matters a personal interview is more satisfactory than correspondence, and as Mr. Munce happens to be passing through Edinburgh next Tuesday, we thought perhaps it might be convenient to you to see him at the station. The train waits long enough to enable him to explain the situation fully.
    Yours faithfully,”

French copied the “Dashwood and Munce” signature and despatched the letter by the evening mail. He was in hopes that it would allay any suspicion the telegram might have raised in Roper’s mind, while at the same time involving no reply to the stockbrokers other than that of the prepaid wire which would be delivered at the Yard.

The next point to be considered was the matter of Roper’s identification. French did not believe he could manage this himself. He had never seen the man. He had, of course, a copy of the photograph on the passport, but he did not consider this sufficient. In a matter of such importance he dared not leave a loop-hole for mistake. He felt he must have some one who knew Roper there to assist him.

He thought at once of Ruth Averill. Of all the persons he had come across she probably knew Roper’s appearance best. But he felt the job was not one for a young girl and he cast round for some one else.

No one at Thirsby seemed suitable. Several people there had been acquainted with Roper, but he did not think any had known him sufficiently intimately to penetrate a disguise, should the man still be wearing one. Nor did he believe any one at Kintilloch would be much better, though for a while he considered getting Sergeant McGregor.

Finally, he decided that he would ask Philpot. Philpot had known Roper intimately at the Ransome and had seen him at intervals up till the tragedy. He was now in Glasgow: nearer than any one else that French could get. Moreover, Philpot hated Roper and would no doubt be glad to put the final spoke in his wheel. French was sure he would come for the asking.

Accordingly he drew a sheet of paper to him and wrote:---

    “Strictly private and confidential,
    “New Scotland Yard.
    “Dear Dr. Philpot,—You will be surprised to hear from me, and particularly to learn that I believe I have got my hands on the man wanted for the affair I have been working on. I do not wish to give details in a letter, but it is a man whom you know well and whom we all thought to be dead. You can probably guess from this.
    “We have found that under an alias he has been transferring his money abroad, and in the name of the stockbrokers concerned I have asked him to meet their junior partner at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, on Tuesday next at 6.15 p.m. on the arrival of the 10.0 a.m. from King’s Cross. The junior partner will not be there, but I shall, and I hope to make the arrest.
    “My difficulty is that I cannot myself identify the wanted man. In this I want your kind help. Will you please meet me under Scott’s Monument at 5.0 p.m.? I shall then ask you to accompany me to the station and from some inconspicuous place keep a look-out for him. When you see him you will tell me and I shall do the rest.
    “I ask you to assist me in this, and feel sure that when you consider all the circumstances of the case you will agree to do so.
    “Will you please wire your decision on receipt of this letter.
    “Yours faithfully, Joseph French.”

For the next few hours French was like the proverbial hen on the hot griddle. Every time his telephone bell rang he snatched up the receiver hoping that the caller was the post office from which he had sent his message. Every time the door opened he looked up eagerly to see if it was not an orange coloured telegraph message that was being brought in. He found it hard to settle to work, so much depended on his plans succeeding.

When, therefore, about four in the afternoon a wire was brought to him, he had to exercise real self-control not to snatch the paper from the messenger. And then he could have laughed with delight. The message had been handed in at the General Post Office in Edinburgh, and read:---

    “To Dashwood and Munce,
    “Dover House,
    “Gracechurch Street,
    “Your wire. Will meet Munce as suggested.

So far, so very excellent! Here was the major difficulty overcome! On Tuesday evening the public career of John Roper would come to a sudden stop. The end of the case was at last in sight.

Early the next morning a second telegram was handed to French, which gave him almost equally great satisfaction. It was from Philpot and read:—

    “Will meet you place and time stated.”

There was now just one other point to be settled. Roper was coming to the station to meet Munce. But Munce was not going to Edinburgh. Some one must therefore take his place.

It would be better to have some one as like Munce in appearance as possible. In spite of the statement of the partners, Roper might have got a glimpse of Munce or at least have had his description. In view of this very summons he might make it his business to learn what the man was like. French considered his brother officers and he soon saw that Inspector Tanner, with a slight make-up, could present himself as a very passable imitation of the junior partner. The men were about the same build and colouring, and an alteration in the cut of Tanner’s hair, a pair of spectacles, different clothes and a change of manner would do all that was necessary.

French went to Tanner’s room and arranged the matter. Tanner was to call and see Munce on some matter of a prospective investment which would afterwards fall through, and while there observe his model. He would then make himself up and travel to Edinburgh by the 10.0 a.m. from King’s Cross. On reaching Waverley he would co-operate with French as circumstances demanded.

To enable him to keep his appointment with Philpot, French found he must leave London on the Monday night. He therefore took the 11.35 p.m. from Euston, and about eight o’clock the next morning reached Princess Street Station. He had not been to Edinburgh for years, and emerging from the station, he was struck afresh with the beauty of the gardens and the splendour of the Castle Rock. But Princess Street itself, which he had once thought so magnificent, seemed to have shrunk, and its buildings to have grown smaller and plainer. “Too much foreign travel,” he thought, vaguely regretful of his change of outlook; “the towns abroad certainly spoil one for ours.”

He spent most of the day in exploring the historic buildings of the old town, then as five o’clock approached he entered the Princess Street Gardens, and strolling towards Scott’s Monument, took his stand in an inconspicuous place and looked around him.

Almost immediately he saw Philpot. The doctor was muffled in a heavy coat, a thick scarf high about his ears, and fur-lined gloves---a get-up, French shrewdly suspected, intended more as a disguise from Roper than a protection from the cold. He was approaching from the Waverley Station direction, walking slowly, as if conscious that he was early. French moved to meet him.

“Well, doctor, this is very good of you. A surprising development, isn’t it?”

Philpot shook hands, and glancing round, said eagerly: “Look here, I want to understand about it. I was quite thrilled by your letter. You tell me you know the Starvel murderer, and you seem to hint that it is Roper---at least, I don’t know whom else you can refer to. But surely, Inspector, you couldn’t mean that?”

“Why not?”

“Why not? Why, because---I don’t know, but the idea seems absolutely absurd. Roper’s dead. If he is not dead, whose was the third body found? Are you really serious?”

“Yes,” French said in a low tone. “I am quite satisfied that Roper escaped from that house and that some poor devil was murdered and buried in his place. And what’s more, I’ll have him in an hour’s time. Come. Let us walk to the station and take up a position before he arrives.”

They moved off, while Philpot clamoured for further details. French, true to his traditions of caution, was not overcommunicative, but he explained some of the reasons which had led him to believe in Roper’s guilt, and told of the purchases of rings which the man had made to get rid of his tainted money. Philpot evinced the keenest interest and plied the other with questions.

French told him as much as his training would allow, which was as little as he conveniently could, and then he switched the conversation on to the coming scene. Did Philpot know the station? If so, where had they best hide so as to see the train arrive while remaining themselves unobserved?

On reaching the platform French introduced himself to the station-master and explained his business. He had arranged for Tanner to travel in the last first-class compartment in the train, and he now found out from the station-master where this coach would stop. Opposite was the window of one of the offices, and on French asking whether they might use it for reconnoitring purposes, the station-master at once gave them the unrestricted use of the room. There, hidden from view by a screen, the two men took up their positions and began to scrutinise those who were assembling on the platform to meet the train.

Philpot was fidgety and nervous, and from one or two remarks that he made, French saw the direction in which his thoughts were running. Evidently he was afraid that if he assisted in Roper’s capture, the man would round on him and try to make trouble for him about Mrs. Philpot’s death. In vain French attempted to reassure him. He was clearly uneasy in his mind, but presently he seemed to master his fears and concentrated his attention on the platform outside.

Time passed slowly until the train was almost due. A large number of persons had collected and were strolling slowly up and down or standing talking in little groups. French and his companion watched the moving throng from behind their screen, but no one resembling Roper put in an appearance. This, however, was not disconcerting. It was not unlikely that the man had also taken cover and was waiting until he saw some one who might be Munce before coming out into the open.

French, as the time dragged slowly away, was conscious of the thrill of the hunter who waits before a clump of jungle for a hidden man-eater. The crisis that was approaching was almost as important to him as the tiger’s exit to the sportsman. This was the last lap of his case, the climax of the work of many weeks. If he carried off his coup all would be well; it would bring the affair to a triumphant conclusion, and to himself possibly the reward he coveted. But if any slip took place it would be a bad look-out for him. There was his and Tanner’s time besides the expense of these journeys to Scotland, not to speak of his own loss of prestige. No, French felt he could not afford to miss this chance, and insensibly his brows contracted and his lips tightened as he stood waiting for what was coming.

Presently a movement amongst the passengers on the platform and a heavy rumble announced the advent of the express. The huge engine with its high-pitched boiler and stumpy funnel rolled slowly past, followed by coach after coach, brightly lighted, luxurious, gliding smoothly by. A first-class coach stopped opposite the window and French, gazing eagerly out, presently saw Tanner descend and glance up and down the platform.

Now was the moment! Roper could not be far away.

But Tanner continued to look searchingly about him. The additional bustle of the arrival waxed and waned and the platform began to clear, people drifting away towards the exit or clustering round carriage doors close to the train. And still no sign of Roper.

The express was timed to wait for eighteen minutes, and of these at least fifteen had slipped away. Porters were already slamming doors, and the guard was coming forward, lamp in hand, ready to give the right away signal. Tanner stepped forward clear of the train and once again gazed up and down the platform, then as the hands of the clock reached the starting time he turned back and retrieved his suitcase from the compartment. The guard whistled and waved his green lamp, the coaches began to glide slowly away, the dull rumble swelled up and died away, and in a second or two some rapidly dwindling red lights were all that were left of the train.

French was almost speechless from chagrin. Had his plan failed? Was it possible that Roper had been one too many for him? Had the man suspected a plant and kept away from the station? Or was he even now in some hidden nook on the platform doubtful of Tanner’s identity and waiting to see what would materialise?

As the minutes slipped away French, unspeakably disappointed, found himself forced to the conclusion that the affair had miscarried. Roper must have become alive to his danger. Perhaps he had suspected French’s wire and had replied as he did merely in order to gain time to disappear. Perhaps by this time the clue of the tobacconist’s shop itself was a washout. French swore bitterly.

But they could not remain in the office for ever, nor could Tanner be left to pace the platform indefinitely. With a word of explanation to Philpot, French passed out, and the two men strolled in the direction of Tanner. French greeted him quietly and introduced Philpot, and the three stood talking.

“Washout?” Tanner said laconically, glancing at his colleague.

“Looks like it,” French admitted, and turning to Philpot, began to apologise for having brought him from Glasgow on a wild goose chase. “I’m sorry that I can’t stay and offer you hospitality either,” he went on. “I must get round to police headquarters and start some further inquiries. But let us go and have a parting drink to our mutual good luck in the future.”

They passed into the refreshment room, French pre-occupied and, for him, somewhat brusque, Tanner frankly bored, and Philpot showing evidences of mixed feelings of disappointment and relief.

“I wish you people weren’t so infernally close about your business,” the doctor complained as they stood at the bar waiting for the three small Scotches and sodas French had ordered. “Here am I, vastly interested in the affair and anxious to know what your further chances are, and you’re as close as a pair of limpets. Surely I know so much that a little more won’t hurt. Do you think you’ll get him soon?”

French laughed disagreeably.

“I don’t say exactly how soon,” he answered grimly, “but you may take it from me that we’ll get him all right. We have a hot scent. We’ll have the man before any of us are much older. Well, doctor, here’s yours.”

He tossed off his whisky, while Philpot, picking up his glass, murmured his toast. And then suddenly French stiffened and stood motionless, staring at the other’s hand. There in the flesh at the right hand side of his right thumb and projecting slightly on to the nail was an almost healed cut of a peculiar shape: a shape which French had had described and sketched for him by seven of the men who had sold rings to the changer of twenty-pound notes in London! French’s brain whirled. Surely, surely, it couldn’t be!

Philpot noted the other’s change of expression and followed the direction of his gaze. Then with a sudden gesture of rage and despair he dropped his glass, and his left hand flashed to the side pocket of his coat. French had noticed that this pocket bulged as if it contained some round object of fair size such as an apple or an orange. Philpot drew out a dark-coloured ball of some kind and began desperately fumbling at it with his right hand. And then French saw what the man was doing. The object was a Mills’ bomb and he was pulling out the pin!

With a yell to Tanner for help, French flung himself on the doctor, and clutching his left hand, squeezed it desperately over the bomb. The pin was out, but the man’s hand prevented the lever from moving. If his grasp were relaxed for even an instant nothing could save all three from being blown to atoms!

Philpot’s mild and gentle face was convulsed with fury. His lips receded from his teeth and he snarled like a wild beast as he struggled wildly to release his grip. His right fist smashed furiously into French’s face and he twisted like an eel in the other’s grasp. Then Tanner also seized him and the three men went swinging and rolling and staggering about the room, knocking over tables and chairs and sweeping a row of glasses from the bar. Philpot fought with the fury of desperation. To the others it seemed incredible that so slight a man could show such strength. He strove desperately to free his left hand from French’s clasp, while French with both hands tried for nothing but to keep it tightly closed on the bomb.

But the struggle was uneven and only one end was possible. Gradually Tanner improved his grip until at last he was able to use a kind of jiu-jitsu lock which held the other steady at the risk of a broken right arm. This lock he was able to maintain with his left hand, while with the other he took the pin of the bomb from the now nerveless fingers and with infinite care, French shifting his hands to allow of it, slipped the pin back into place. A moment later the bomb lay safely on the counter, while its owner sat faint and exhausted and securely handcuffed.

By the good offices of the barmaid French was able to wash the blood from his face, and a few minutes later a taxi was procured, and almost before the excited throng on the platform had learnt what was amiss, the three actors in the little drama had vanished from their ken.