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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: May 22, 2023, 12:19:46 pm »

ON the evening after Rockingham had given it as his opinion that the dead man in the mortuary was indeed the man whom he had seen speaking to Attleton, Macdonald got out all his notes on the case and went through them with all the concentration of which he was capable.

A good many points had been cleared up during the course of the day. Debrette’s hiding-place had been traced down by means of information which had filtered in through various channels, and now it was clear that for the past fortnight he had been living in a room (described as “an American flatlet”) in Camden Town. The owner of the house---an unpleasant-looking Jew who called himself James Stuart---could give no information about his tenant beyond the fact that he had paid a month’s rent in advance when taking his room. This fact was, from Mr. Stuart’s point of view, the best sort of reference obtainable. The room contained a bed, a hanging cupboard, a table and a chair; its amenities included a sink and a gas-stove, and it had a Yale lock on the door. The house in which it was a unit consisted of similar rooms similarly let, tenanted by strange shabby folk who were out all day, and who knew nothing of one another. Jenkins, who first investigated the house, said that he doubted if one of the tenants could look the law in the face, and none of them was willing to admit any knowledge of “Mr. Barbler,” the name by which Streaky Beaver was known to his landlord.

The only things found in the room which were of any interest to the police were the script of a play which Bruce Attleton had written shortly before his death, and Bruce Attleton’s watch, the latter identified by number by the makers. This last piece of evidence weighed down the scales of probability in the eyes of the “P.T.B.’s” that Debrette was guilty of the Belfry crime, and that he had also knocked Grenville over the head, and himself slipped into the river from the treacherous snowy surface of the wharf as he tried to dispose of Grenville’s body in the Thames.

Macdonald, with all the evidence before him, was in a quandary. In one respect he needed time---and plenty of it. He might obtain an adjournment of the inquest once, but the process could not be repeated indefinitely without good reason. If all the evidence were to be produced now, a verdict against Debrette seemed inevitable---the reasoning (which Macdonald himself had pieced out), was complete.

Yet time was what he needed. To trace down, through the complex registrations of Somerset House, an individual named Thomas Burroughs who refused all account of himself was no simple matter, and Macdonald was far from satisfied over the excellent explanation given by that gentleman of his presence at the Belfry. In addition were the complications of Weller and his “accident,” and the abortive fire in Elizabeth Leigh’s car. Whether time were on the side of the law in the matter of Mr. Robert Grenville, Macdonald was less sure. Despite his firmly expressed optimism of the morning, he was beginning to doubt. The last bulletin had been far from reassuring, and if Grenville died before he was capable of being questioned, it looked as though the case would have to be decided by the balance of probabilities---a process which Macdonald distrusted, having met too many wild improbabilities in his dealings with criminals to be satisfied with anything but first-hand proof.

Sitting smoking his pipe, his papers arranged on the table in front of him, Macdonald looked the most imperturbable of beings, apparently settled down for a good evening’s work. At the back of his mind he was waiting for something to happen---waiting for the word “go.” The activities of the past few days, when event had crowded on event all too quickly, were the preamble to a climax which he hoped he had himself precipitated.

He thought over the position of his “contacts” as a chess player might ponder over his pieces. Grenville and Weller in hospital---both hors de combat (Knight and rook, two powerful pieces). Burroughs was at large, with Reeves watching him. Sybilla Attleton was at home (in her silver boudoir perhaps). Elizabeth Leigh was at her club, Neil Rockingham at The Small House, whence he had lately telephoned to Macdonald for news of Grenville, as had Elizabeth Leigh. In his little house in Chiswick the “Old Soldier” lay defying death, watched over by the faithful “young Alice,” who had talked all too freely to her favourite Mr. Bruce.

The telephone rang at Macdonald’s elbow and he caught it up and heard the urgent voice at the other end.

“Macdonald? Rockingham speaking. Can you send a man down? Something rather odd . . .” A report sounded over the wire which set the receiver vibrating, a veritable cannon shot it seemed, startling in its intensity.

Macdonald heard a clatter at the other end---the receiver falling apparently---and the line went dead. Plugging in to another line he called “Car ready---and follow instructions.” Another second and he was calling “Exchange? Trace that call. Quickly.”

It seemed ages before the reply came, but never had the telephone authorities worked more quickly to give Scotland Yard the help it wanted.

No “spoof” calls to fool Macdonald---he had met that game too often. Rockingham’s voice, speaking from The Small House, and a shot. Macdonald was downstairs and in a police car a few seconds after Exchange had spoken, and the chauffeur, his foot on the clutch and hand on the wheel, let the big car shoot forward while the traffic was held up for them. They shot round Parliament Square and up Storey’s Gate with a police gong clanging, past Wellington Barracks and the Palace and up Constitution Hill at a pace which disturbed many a gaily-clad theatre goer. They cut across Hyde Park Corner by the prohibited central road and into the Park against the traffic lights---assisted in this by the point-duty man who had heard the gong approaching. One person at least was enjoying himself on that rush across London, and that was the C.I.D. chauffeur, one of the finest drivers Macdonald had ever seen. To cut straight across London without a speed limit, to disregard all established canons of the road, and to hurtle round Hyde Park in this style, was an experience after the driver’s own heart. At Stanhope Gate they were again assisted by the point-duty men, and dashed into Mayfair in a manner reminiscent of a smash and grab raid. As they approached the mews where The Small House was situated another note competed with the police gong---the deep-toned bell of a fire engine---and by the time they drew up outside Rockingham’s house, the escape ladder was being set against the red brick walls.

Police---sprung up from nowhere, it seemed---were keeping back the crowd which always materialises in London when any unusual incident occurs, and as Macdonald jumped out of the big police car, the officer in charge of the fire engine said to him:

“We can’t get any answer, sir, and there are steel shutters to those lower windows.”

“I know,” said Macdonald. “I’ll go up through the bedroom window. No one seen entering or leaving the house, Fuller?” (This to the C.I.D. man who had been on duty in the mews.)

“No one, sir. Mr. Rockingham came home at four o’clock and he’s not been out since.”

Macdonald went up the escape ladder with the fireman close behind him, smashed the window and unlatched it, pushed up the sash and was through in a trice. There was a smell of burning in the air, and the two men dashed through the immaculate little bedroom and into the sitting-room across the landing. Here was a scene of chaos. Drawers had been pulled out and overturned, glass-fronted bookcases smashed and the contents scattered, chairs, tables and china flung here and there. An electric stove, still burning, was pushed up against the writing bureau, gradually setting fire to the hard rosewood. Macdonald, after one look round, made for the door.

“He’s not here---leave that for your men to deal with. Come on.”

Kicking the stove away from the bureau as he passed, he ran on, searching the little house. Bathroom and cupboards were inspected in a trice; downstairs they went and through the dining-room, lobby and offices, with the same result. No one, alive or dead, was there to account for that wrecked room upstairs.

“There was blood on the landing floor,” said Barnes, the fireman, and Macdonald retorted impatiently:

“I know there was---on the stairs, too. There’ll be a cellar somewhere---wine cellar or something. Over there, in that corner.”

Macdonald knew what he had been doing when he had enlisted the assistance of the fire brigade in a venture for which he would have to stand responsible. Forcing doors was a business which came frequently into their activities. If a locked and bolted door stands in a fireman’s way it is up to him to get it open, and the ancient door which guarded the wine cellar of The Small House gave way with a rending sound of torn woodwork to the fireman’s hatchet.

Steps descended from the doorway to the cellar below where wine racks stood, a few holding bottles but mostly empty. A torchlight showed the small apartment to be empty, but Macdonald said:

“There’s a way out somewhere. Must be. There’s nowhere in the house where you could hide one man, let alone two. In the roof there, above the rack---give me that lever.”

The trap-door yielded to a sound of tearing wood, and as it gave, Barnes heard another sound---that of a motor engine backfiring. Macdonald, his head and shoulders through the trap-door, shouted back, “Get your engine running and turn her round---it’s in the mews parallel to the other. We may catch him at the corner. Meet me at the Mayfair Mews corner.”

Barnes dashed back to the front door, having caught the idea in a trice. If the engine of the car which had just left the garage was running badly, it might be possible to head it off in the twisting Mayfair streets, and no driver, however desperate, would ram a fire engine. Also, if it came to a pursuit, the Brigade’s bell would clear a path through the streets more efficiently than any police gong. Every driver in London would pull aside and make way for that warning note.

By the time Macdonald had run across the garage and gained the open doors, he saw the car which had just got out making speed up the empty mews. He ran after it to the corner and saw it turn off towards Grosvenor Street, but it was still backfiring, and the driver seemed unable to accelerate. Macdonald’s whistle shrilled a warning in the hope that the car might run so badly that a constable might jump for the running-board, and then the fire engine came up, having backed up the mews and turned at the corner with a neatness incredible in such an apparently unwieldy vehicle. Jumping on to the running-board as it slowed beside him, Macdonald said, “He’s turned east down Grosvenor Street. See what you can do.”

With bell clanging, the magnificent engine accelerated and the vehicle leaped forward like a live thing. They saw their quarry, only a hundred yards ahead now, swing north into North Audley Street, but the driver now had his engine under control, and he accelerated in a manner which meant business.

“One way street ahead, sir, he daren’t try that,” said the man who was holding on beside Macdonald sounding the bell as they went. “That’ll mean Oxford Street. He can’t go far there. The traffic jams for the lights---don’t we know it!”

Eastwards into Oxford Street they turned---a clear run to Selfridge’s eastern corner, and then the dark car ahead found a way through the cross stream from Duke Street, and tore on.

“Force him into the pavement if you can draw level---here’s a clear stretch. Lord, what’s he doing now? He’s going to turn down Marylebone Lane, and give us a run for our money. No, he isn’t, he’s pulling up. I know his game.”

The game was evident. Realising that he was fighting a losing battle in competing with the engine behind him, which had everything in its favour while he had nothing, the driver had decided to “abandon ship” and take to his heels down a lane where neither fire engine nor police car could pursue him. Macdonald knew something of the network of little streets around old Marylebone Lane---the one his quarry had chosen was the little footway known as St. Christopher’s Place, connecting Oxford Street and Wigmore Street by means of a narrow passage at the Oxford Street end. Whoever it was Macdonald was pursuing (and he realised with a flash of grim humour that even now he was not quite certain---there might be a body in that abandoned car), this man could run. He went down the little pavemented street at a pace which would have done credit to a freshman competing for a place in his college half mile, and was across Wigmore Street with Macdonald (once a trained runner, but now on the wrong side of forty) close behind him. At the junction of Marylebone Lane, on the north side of Wigmore Street, Macdonald had to swerve to avoid crashing with a portly pedestrian, and he lost a few yards. The flying figure in front swung round to the right and then turned sharply into an alleyway leading to a small yard. Instinctively Macdonald feinted, and crouched low as he overran to the far side of the opening instead of turning sharp into it, and a shot went over his head. Almost bent double, he jumped, leaping forward with outstretched arms and head low, and caught his antagonist round the knees as a second shot went wide. The two men came down together, and a third shot rang out as the hand which held the pistol struck the ground in falling, and a deep groan followed. A second later Macdonald was able to see the face of the man he had pursued. With black wig awry, and runnels of sweat making light lines down the swarthy cheeks, Neil Rockingham’s ghastly face looked up at him. A phrase flashed across Macdonald’s mind as, panting, he bent instinctively to the work of first aid to the wounded, “Logical reconstruction number five.”


When Macdonald got to bed that night, the rush of events had put one question out of his head. What logical reconstruction lay at the back of the events of the evening? Rockingham, before he died, had confessed to the murders of Attleton and Debrette and had asked for a priest---a fear in his glazing eyes which Macdonald never forgot. Rockingham was a Roman Catholic, it seemed, and feared to die unshriven. It was not until he sat on his own bed, long after midnight, that Macdonald argued out the final bid, not for victory, but for escape which had been Rockingham’s last move.

With the trap-door in his own ancient wine cellar connecting with a stable building now turned garage, Rockingham had an easy getaway. He knew that Macdonald would find it, and had staged a scene to indicate a desperate fight---with himself as victim, removed by the trap-door to the garage. He had put through his telephone call to summon the police---and then found that the engine of his car had let him down. With the perversity that an engine will sometimes exhibit, it choked and would not start up. Macdonald thought of the murderer working at the maddening engine, knowing that by his own challenge, pursuit would be upon him---a grim thought.

“He wanted to be too clever, and must have his ‘curtain’ at the end,” thought Macdonald. “Losh, he nearly had the laugh of me, though, with his never-failing tricks. He admitted once he studied medicine. Dissecting, Drama, and Devilment. Cold-blooded devil!”

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