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18: Reconstruction of the Crime

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Author Topic: 18: Reconstruction of the Crime  (Read 40 times)
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« on: April 26, 2023, 08:47:43 am »

“MIND you,” said Aldous Barnet, “you’ve let me have little glimpses of the case, here and there, but frankly, Meredith, I still can’t help marvelling. After all, when I’m working out the plots for detective yarns, however complex, I’m in the happy position of knowing as much about the murder as the murderer himself. Even then it’s quite easy to trip up on minor details and let your detective utilize some clue which he hasn’t even discovered. But you’ve got to start from scratch. You’ve got to prove yourself right at every step, test every theory, corroborate if possible every scrap of evidence. How the devil do you do it?”

The two men were seated one afternoon, shortly after the sensational arrest of John Rother, under the gigantic chestnut which towered over the lawns at Lychpole. They were lounging back in deck-chairs in the deep shade, with cooling drinks placed ready at their elbows. At Barnet’s invitation Meredith had run out on his first half-day to enlighten the crime writer about the details of his successful investigation.

“He’ll respect your confidence,” the Chief had told Meredith. “I’ve known Barnet for years. He’s longing to get his teeth into the case. Those fellows have got an insatiable appetite for what they politely call ‘copy’, Meredith, and, since he’s been a lot of help to you, I think it’s only fair to let him into a few of your professional secrets.”

So Meredith had arrived at Lychpole perfectly prepared to give a detailed account of the Rother cases from A to Z. Barnet’s honest admiration was very flattering, he felt.

“How the devil do you do it?” asked Barnet.

Meredith laughed.

“You make our work sound very much more sensational and complicated than it actually is. At least seventy per cent of it is pure routine in which, if necessary, we have the co-operation of the whole of the police organization. I reckon one’s personal contribution is patience and common sense, aided by a trained observation. Take this case, for example. . . .”

Barnet stretched out his long legs, settled his gaunt frame deeper in his chair, and unobtrusively slipped a notebook out of his breast-pocket.

“That’s just what I’d like to do. I’d like to follow your train of reasoning from beginning to end. Would you like to put the whole thing before me?”

“If it won’t bore you,” smiled Meredith.

“Bore me! My dear chap---my one hobby is crime. This is a heaven-sent opportunity for me to get a bird’s-eye view of an actual murder investigation from the discovery of the crime to the arrest of the murderer. You talk and let me take notes. Perhaps, by altering a few names and details, I could work this case up into a novel. You yourself reckoned that it might make a darned good story.”

“All right. Where shall I start?”

“July 20th,” snapped Barnet without hesitation. “That’s when the whole thing started, wasn’t it?”

“Very well then---July 20th---the day that John Rother set out for Harlech. But before we deal with the actual events I think it would be as well to analyse the relationship existing between the three principal figures in the drama: John, William, and Janet Rother. In one respect, Mr. Barnet, you were wrong when we discussed this matter. You had an idea that, although John was wildly in love with Janet, she didn’t return the compliment. Personally I think she was even more deeply in love with John than he was with her. She married William, but she could never have really cared for him. They might have hit it off all right if domestic economics hadn’t forced them to live at Chalklands. If they could have had a place of their own I dare say this tragedy could have been avoided. Unfortunately they were forced to set out on a married career in a domicile which included John, a man who dominated his brother and, from all accounts, had a very strong attraction for women.

“When John set out, or rather, pretended to set out, for Harlech, things had reached a climax in that unfortunate household. The plot to get rid of William had been hatched, not weeks before, but for the best part of eighteen months. The means by which this was to be accomplished had been thought out to the minutest detail, a scheme in which Janet and John were to play an equal part.

“One of the first essentials in this scheme was for John to work up an unassailable alibi. It was necessary for him to be able to disappear after his supposed murder under Cissbury to a spot where his presence would arouse no comment. Hence the Jeremy Reed trick and the purchase of Brook Cottage. You’ll agree with me that it was a stroke of genius to work up this alibi within a few miles of his own doorstep. For one thing, he had to reach his hide-out as soon as possible after he had staged the murder under Cissbury, for another he hadn’t the time to travel very far afield over the week-ends. He appeared first in Bramber about January a year ago, where he cleverly suggested that he was an eccentric recluse with an interest in butterflies. His disguise, to my mind, was badly overdone, but it seemed to go down with the more gullible villagers. The old man’s arrival was a seven days’ wonder, but by the time I went down there to investigate the interest in him had more or less died down. They accepted the fact that he was a queer bird and left it at that. This was due, of course, to John’s cunning in introducing Jeremy Reed to Bramber a long time before his scheme was put into operation.

“Now let’s return to July 20th. When John left Chalklands that evening there was a perfect understanding between himself and his brother’s wife. She knew well enough that he wasn’t going to Harlech. She knew that it was the arranged date for John’s disappearance. Their initial scheme, curiously enough, did not include the actual murder of William. That was scheme Number Two, only to be put into operation if the first plot went off the rails.

“Briefly their idea was this---John was to so set the stage that it should appear as if he had been attacked and killed at that lonely spot up Bindings Lane. The fake murder was to be so arranged that suspicion would naturally fall on William. They hoped, of course, that the law would bring about William’s death without their interference. As a matter of fact, at one point, I was pretty well convinced that William was the guilty party. Everything pointed to the fact. The only snag was that a shepherd up near Hound’s Oak had seen a man in a cloak and broad-brimmed hat legging it over the downs just about the time that the ‘murder’ had been committed. This wanted explaining away. We couldn’t arrest William until we had a line on the identity of this stranger. For all that, we had practically decided to issue the warrant when we learnt that William had been found dead at the foot of the chalk-pit.

“Before I come to the murder that really was a murder I’ll run over the details of what transpired on the 20th. As in every murder investigation the time factor is important. So I advise you, Mr. Barnet, to take a careful note of the various times mentioned if you want to get a really comprehensive view of the mystery. John left Chalklands at 6.15. At 6.45 he reached Littlehampton. At 6.50 he went into the post office and sent the following telegram to Chalklands: Please come at once your aunt seriously injured in accident taken to Littlehampton General Hospital---Wakefield. With more than commendable cunning he addressed the telegram to himself, knowing quite well that, as he was supposed to be on his way to Harlech, William would naturally open it in his place.

“This telegram reached Chalklands at 7.15. At 7.25 William set off for Littlehampton. A little after 7.30 he stopped at Clark’s garage in Findon and had petrol put in his Morris. Clark saw him take the Littlehampton road. John Rother, in the meantime, had set off via Goring to Worthing. Later, when I had anticipated that he had taken this route, I was able to corroborate the fact on the evidence of a farmer who had noticed John Rother sitting in his car on the front at West Worthing.

“William arrived in Littlehampton just after 8 o’clock. He went, just as John anticipated he would, first to the hospital, then to Dr. Wakefield, and then on to his aunt’s flat. He left for Chalklands just after nine. This was the only time about which John could not be particularly certain, though he had so planned things to allow himself a fairly wide margin of error on this point. About the same time, as far as I can reason, John left Worthing for Findon and Bindings Lane, arriving under Cissbury some time before 9.30. We know that he was seen by the Findon postman just outside the village shortly after 9. William declared in cross-examination that he had arrived at Chalklands round about the same time, or possibly fifteen minutes later. No matter what time he had left Littlehampton, however, there was no chance of the two cars meeting each other. As you know, the Littlehampton road enters Findon on the north side of the village, whilst John entered from the south side and turned up Bindings Lane before reaching the Littlehampton fork. On the other hand, William could not deny that he had been near Findon, and ipso facto the scene of the supposed murder about the time when the crime was fixed to take place.

“Now, as to what really happened under Cissbury,” went on Meredith, after pausing for a long draught of cider-cup.

“Ah!” breathed Aldous Barnet, his pencil ready poised over his open notebook. “Exactly.”

“All very simple really. John parked his car among the gorse bushes, splintered his wind-screen, broke the glass of the dashboard dials, and stopped the clock at 9.55. He reckoned that we should be smart enough to spot that clock, which was an essential clue if we were to suspect William. I mean if the murder could have taken place at six the next morning there was little point in getting William to pass through Findon on the evening before. It was essential to John’s scheme that we should notice that clock. As a matter of fact I nearly slipped that. He nearly overrated our intelligence, eh?” Meredith chuckled and went on:

“The blood-stains are easily accounted for. John made a deep gash in the back of his left fore-arm, allowed the blood to drip on to the upholstery, the running-board, and the tweed cap. He then placed the cap a few feet away from the car to look as though it had fallen off in a struggle. He bandaged his arm just above the wrist, and apparently the place didn’t heal too well because he was still wearing that bandage when he set out on the night of August 10th to murder William. Two of the Crown witnesses noticed that bandage.

“Well, John had an attaché-case in the car which contained a long black cloak and a broad-brimmed black hat. These he put on and cut up by Hound’s Oak to a point on the downs above Steyning, where he had already hidden his Jeremy Reed disguise in a suit-case. Unfortunately a shepherd named Riddle happened to spot him making up through the woods there. He called out, but John was not such a fool as to stop and pass the time of the day with this very undesirable witness. On the hills he discarded the cloak and hat, noticed that some of the blood had seeped through the bandage on to the cloak, and decided to bury it under some bracken. The hat and cloak were found later by a Steyning child, whose father informed the police. Rother then changed from his plus-four suit into his Jeremy Reed rig and put on his dark glasses. Rather a stupid thing to do in the middle of the night, perhaps, but he couldn’t risk being recognized, because in that case his whole scheme of incriminating William would have gone up the spout. After all, you can’t have a murder without the murdered man!

“The plus-four suit John placed in the suit-case, together with the attaché-case which he had taken from the Hillman. He then walked down off the hills into Bramber, where he was seen by Wimble, the carrier, just after midnight. For the next three weeks Rother used Brook Cottage as a hide-out, having already laid in a good supply of food from Fortnum and Mason’s. To strengthen the idea that the cottage was uninhabited he pulled down the blinds, closed all the windows, locked the doors, and stole an agent’s board from a near-by house that happened to be for sale. With this stuck up in the garden he felt pretty safe from intrusion, I reckon. Moreover, he knew that if anybody did inquire at the agents about the property, the agents would deny having Brook Cottage on their books. So much for the events which transpired on the 20th.

“We now come to the most confusing element in the whole case---the bones. You see, Rother was not going to be content with the discovery of the blood-stained car alone---he wanted to bring the ‘murder’ much nearer to William’s doorstep. It was essential to his scheme that an inquest should be held and a verdict of murder brought in, and though it is possible to hold an inquest without the remains having been found, it’s by no means usual. So John set to work and did the only thing possible . . . he supplied the remains! It was on this point that I really blew up. It was not until nearly two months after I had started my investigations that I began to suspect that the bones were other than John Rother’s. It was a chance remark of yours, Mr. Barnet, at an early interview which first put the idea into my head.”

“Of mine? I don’t remember ever having----”

“Oh, you’ve probably forgotten by now,” broke in Meredith. “But as luck would have it I’d incorporated that little remark of yours in my written report of that particular day’s work. We were discussing the Rother family in a general sort of way, the day after William’s death, and you happened to mention that John Rother was supposed to bear a remarkable resemblance to his great-grandfather, Sir Percival Rother, who was the last of the family to be buried in the family vault. You mentioned a portrait of the old man which hung in the Chalklands sitting-room.

“My original suspicions were aroused when we discovered the missing skull wrapped in Rother’s plus-four suit out at Brook Cottage. Professor Blenkings pointed out that this could not possibly be John Rother’s skull, and mentioned, among other things, that the skull had an undershot jaw. The next day, therefore, I came out to you, if you remember, borrowed the Chalklands key, and went and had a look at that portrait. Well, to cut a long story short, Sir Percival had got an undershot jaw, although in build he exactly resembled his great-grandson. That was good enough for me! I drove down to the Vicarage and explained matters to the Vicar, who gave me permission to investigate the Rother family vault. It was just as I had anticipated---Sir Percival’s bones were missing!”

“Good Lord!” exclaimed Barnet with a shudder. “What a horrible idea!”

“Yes---it’s curious, isn’t it, how far a man’s infatuation for a woman will drive him? At any rate there was that part of the mystery solved. I then recalled Kate Abingworth’s evidence about that strange meeting of John and Janet on the lawn at Chalklands a week before the supposed murder. Janet had been carrying a suit-case. Why? Because they were spending the night together somewhere? Not a bit of it. Because they were going down to the church to collect poor old Sir Percival’s skeleton.

“I reckon now that John severed the bone framework so that it could all be stuffed into the suit-case and hid the case its undershot jaw was probably left at Brook Cottage before the 20th, or even hidden with the cloak and broad-brimmed hat in that attaché-case. All Janet had to do was to slip out each night, scatter a few of the bones in the kiln, cover them with a layer of coal and chalk, and carry on until the whole of the skeleton had been disposed of.

“One vital point, however, had not escaped John’s notice. It is very difficult to identify a victim when only the bones remain---and, in this case, charred bones at that. So what does Rother do? Gets Janet to chuck in his actual identity-disc, which he always wore, and his own belt, which had a specially designed clasp. Here, unfortunately for him, his genius didn’t take him far enough---he forgot that the murderer would also want to rid himself of his victim’s clothes, with the consequence that when we came to look for buttons, cuff-links, and so on we couldn’t find ’em. Because of this we searched Brook Cottage for the suit and stumbled upon the skull! So much for the bones. Now we come to the real murder. You’re sure I’m not boring you, sir?”

“On the contrary,” Barnet assured him, “you’re hypnotizing me. Already I’m casting round to find a good locale into which to fit this case. There’s a first-class story in this tragedy, Meredith---heaven-sent I might say---particularly the plot!”

“Just as I said,” agreed Meredith. “There’s nothing queerer than reality. Your one trouble will be to make your readers believe in your yarn. Strange---but a fact.” Meredith stretched himself contentedly, took another drink, relit his pipe and went on: “Well, let’s deal with William Rother’s death. You know, of course, how he was found at the foot of the chalk-pit on August 10th. You were present at the inquest. So it’s more than possible that I shall be running over ground that you’ve already traversed.

“One thing still puzzles me---how did John get to know that William had not been arrested? No newspapers were delivered at Brook Cottage while he was using it as a hide-out. No letters arrived from Janet Rother, for the simple reason that John was supposed to be dead after July 20th. Yet in some way those two must have got in touch with each other. Janet must have kept him informed as to the progress of my investigations. The only way in which this could have been worked, to my mind, was for Janet to have taken a bus to Bramber during the day and hidden a note in some prearranged spot. John then crept out in the early hours and collected this very necessary information. That’s only guesswork---but it’s certain that John must have realized some days before August 10th the exact direction in which the wind was blowing.

“I don’t for a moment suspect that the plot to do away with William was hatched in a few days. The scheme which was to be put into operation if we failed to make an arrest, as I suggested before, was probably worked out at the same time as scheme Number One. It is quite possible that the faked confession which was planted in the dead man’s pocket was drafted at least a year before it was utilized.

“The general plan of scheme Number Two was to stage William’s death in such a way that it looked like suicide. For example, the wires above the pit were to be deliberately cut and the pliers left in such a position that the police were bound to find them. John reckoned that if his first scheme ran according to schedule the police were bound to place William on their suspect list. He knew his brother had a highly strung, nervous sort of temperament. What more natural that William, fearful of what might eventually befall him, should anticipate justice and take his own life? One must realize that William had a very powerful reason for wanting to do away with John. We realized that at once. In the same way we could clearly understand his reason for wanting to commit suicide.

“Unfortunately John made one or two minor errors in the staging of this tragedy. He was over-cautious. When he typed that faked confession he took care that no finger-print should give him away. He obviously took the precaution of wearing gloves. The same with Janet when she placed the confession in Williams pocket---with the result that we hit upon the curious and suspicious fact that the sheets and envelope bore no finger-prints at all! Again, the wound in William’s temple was uppermost when he lay at the base of the pit, although the medical evidence insisted that it would have been impossible for him to have turned over on his own accord. It was this, you may remember, which suggested to me that William had suffered that wound before he fell over the cliff. The rest of our evidence you heard at the inquest.

“Now for an actual reconstruction of the murder. Naturally all the evidence I have got against Rother is purely circumstantial. It’s for the jury to decide whether he really did kill his brother in the way in which I’m just going to describe.

“At any rate we know that on the night of August 10th John Rother set off from Brook Cottage on a bicycle. He was seen mounting the machine by Biggins, the landlord of the ‘Loaded Wain’. He had once more adopted a new disguise. He had used his three weeks’ concealment to grow a beard, and he was now wearing a respectable black suit and a bowler hat. I imagine that this disguise had been specially chosen for his flit to London directly after the murder. It was just the sort of disguise which would pass without comment in Town. He was seen again that same night, turning up off the main road on the cart-track which led up past the kilns to Chalklands. I suspect that he hid his bicycle in some bushes and proceeded on foot to the point where he had arranged his rendezvous with William.

“I happen to know now just how the note arranging that fateful meeting was worded, for the simple reason that we found it stuffed into a wallet, which we took from John Rother when he was searched after arrest. Careless, you’ll admit---but quite understandable. It’s very easy for a criminal to be lulled into a false sense of security when he is not arrested or suspected directly after the crime. As a matter of fact I’ve got that note with me---perhaps you’d care to see it? A genuine period piece for a criminal museum, eh? Any offers, Mr. Barnet?”

Barnet smiled and stretched out his hand for the note. The address he noted was typewritten.

“Were you able to decipher this post-mark?” he asked Meredith as one connoisseur in crime to another.

“Yes---London. Janet, I happened to learn from Kate Abingworth, went up to Town a few days before William’s death. That’s what we call a significant fact!”

Barnet chuckled.

“You don’t miss much, do you? Thank heaven I haven’t decided to commit a murder yet.” He carefully extracted the single typewritten sheet from the crumpled envelope.

If you want to know who murdered your brother [he read] I can give you precise information which will lead to an arrest. Make no mention of this letter to the police. I will meet you on High Meadow at 2 a.m. on August 10th, provided that you come alone and make no mention of my part in the solution of this crime.

“And very cleverly worded too,” was Aldous Barnet’s comment as he handed back the note to the Superintendent. “If I had been in William’s shoes I’m quite certain that I shouldn’t have failed to keep the appointment.”

“Quite.” Meredith kept silent for a space, then asked quietly: “Notice anything peculiar about that note? Or should I say characteristic?”

“Characteristic? I don’t quite follow.”

“Do you remember that evening you called on me at Arundel Road with William’s note?” Barnet nodded. “Well, we had a discussion then about typescript. I explained how it was possible to recognize work from the same machine and, in most cases, work which has been typed by the same pair of hands.”

“I recall that perfectly. It was this knowledge which enabled you to mark down that confession as a fake.”

“Yes, and since then it has told me something more. Something so vital that Rother’s life may depend upon it. This note, Mr. Barnet---it has been typed upon the Chalklands portable Remington, and the manner in which the keys have been struck bears a very strong resemblance to that in the case of the confession. I was never able to get hold of a sample of John’s typewriting, curiously enough---but I’m beginning to think now that he typed not only this note but the confession as well. We’re now trying to trace down a business letter sent out by John Rother to one of their lime customers and if that letter shows the same type characteristics as this note and the confession . . . well, I guess we’ve got him by the short hairs! I have an idea that John took the precaution of destroying every sample of his typewriting before he set out on that pretended journey to Harlech. Pity he was so careless over that note, eh?”

“And as to the actual way in which William was murdered?”

“Assumption only,” acknowledged Meredith. “I reckon John used a flint. The type of wound rather suggested this. He then dragged the body to the edge of the cliff and swung it out so that it would drop clear of the base.”

There was a long silence, threaded only by the drowsy hum of industrious bees and the sleepy twitter of sparrows in the cool branches of the chestnut. Suddenly Barnet leaned forward and asked abruptly:

“Will he hang?”

“Maybe,” said Meredith with a non-committal shrug. “That part of the case is out of my hands: I can only display the Crown evidence in the best possible light and leave the rest to the barristers and the jury. Witnesses are an unreliable race. They’re like some cricket teams---all right on paper! Many’s the time I’ve been in court when the pet witness for the prosecution has proved to be the star witness for the defence and vice versa. That may well happen in this case.”

“And Janet Rother?”

“I doubt if we’ll ever lay our hands on her. We’ve been in touch with the Continental police, but of course they can’t help. Too long a start, I reckon. No, as my son Tony would put it, she’s ‘gone over the side’. In other words, got clear.”

“Are you sorry?”

Meredith rubbed his chin with the stem of his pipe.

“Well, you’ve put me a bit of a poser there, sir. According to regulations, a detective should have about as much feeling as a bed-post. But it’s been my experience that the completely official machine never makes a really good detective. You see, Mr. Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery---at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element. As a ‘minion of the law’, as the newspapers have it, I should look upon Mrs. Rother’s escape as a misfortune. But sometimes the law is at war with the man, and if you asked me in the second capacity . . . well, here’s luck to her! We’re all of us misguided sometimes in life, but I reckon she was more misguided than most---that’s all!”

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