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13: Inspector Meredith Gets Cracking

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Author Topic: 13: Inspector Meredith Gets Cracking  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 24, 2023, 12:08:15 pm »


INSPECTOR Meredith mounted the steps of New Scotland Yard with his customary springy step, issued a nod, a grin and a brisk salute to the commissionaire at the door and went through to his office. For the last six weeks he had been investigating a particularly dull and unenterprising forgery case in Finchley and he was feeling, to use his own phrase, “about as lively as a Welsh evangelist on a wet sabbath in Swansea.” It was one of those cases calling for tremendous patience, a relentless attention to detail and a strict adherence to an unswerving routine. In short, it was typical of the ninety-nine out of a hundred jobs that the average C.I.D. man is called upon to tackle. And from Meredith’s jaundiced point-of-view the case looked like stretching itself out for another six weary weeks. He stuck his lanky legs under his desk, sighed deeply and began to collate material from a number of depositions he had recently placed on file.

Barely had he got down to work, however, when the buzzer of the internal telephone sounded at his elbow. Meredith took up the receiver.

“Hullo? Yes---speaking. What? Immediately? O.K. I’ll be right along.”

As he wended his way along the corridors he wondered what was in the wind. The call had been put through by the Chief’s private secretary. The Chief wanted to see him without delay. Why?

Meredith didn’t have to wait long for his answer. The Chief, as usual, wasted no time in preliminaries.

“Morning, Meredith,” he barked. “Seen the morning editions of the papers?”

“I just had time to skim the headlines over a bolted breakfast, sir---nothing more.”

“Then you obviously didn’t spot this item in the stop-press. Take a look at it.”

The Chief handed over a copy of the London Daily Echo. Meredith read:

Mystery death of two well-known members of religious sect known as Children of Osiris was reported late last night. Tragedy occurred at Old Cowdene Park, Sussex, where Summer Convention of movement is now taking place. Police called in.

As he handed back the newspaper, Meredith asked:

“And what exactly has this got to do with me, sir?”

“At the moment . . . nothing. In the future . . . toil, tears and sweat, Meredith. At least, that’s what I suspect. Chief of the West Sussex County rang through from Chichester this morning. Old friend of mine. Wants a Yard man to go down at once and take over the case. It seems that there’s more to it than meets the eye. What are you on at the moment?”

“That Finchley forgery case, sir.”

“Who’s working with you?”

“Haddon, sir.”

“Then Haddon had better take over entirely. I want you to take the first train down to Tappin Mallet---that’s the village adjacent to Old Cowdene. Ring Chichester and let them know when you’ll be arriving. They’ve promised to send over a Superintendent to meet you.”

“Right, sir.”

“Oh, and you’d better ring your wife to pack a grip and be prepared to do without you for a few days. You’ll have to be on the spot. You ought to find accommodation in Tappin Mallet. All clear, Meredith?”

“Yes, sir.”



Superintendent Rokeby was on the platform at Tappin Mallet station when Meredith, in plain-clothes, stepped off the London train. Rokeby had no difficulty in spotting his man, for the lean wiry frame and aquiline features had been reproduced a dozen times in the press. He shook hands warmly.

“Glad you’ve been detailed, Inspector. We’ve never met before, but I know you well enough by reputation.”

“Thanks,” smiled Meredith.

“I’ve a car outside,” went on the superintendent. “I suggest I run you along to The Leaning Man and see if they can fix you up. Then we might have a pint in a quiet corner while I give you the low-down on the affair. After that we’ll slip over to Old Cowdene.”

Twenty minutes later Meredith had arranged for accommodation at the inn, and the two men were seated in a corner of the deserted saloon-bar over a couple of pints of bitter. Rokeby set out the main details without delay.

“We were called in late last night, so naturally I’ve had no time to investigate. But the set-up is roughly this---a Miss Penelope Parker found dead in an upstairs sitting-room of the Dower House---that’s a smaller establishment south of the actual manor but inside the boundaries of the park. Cause of death---poison. A cerebral depressant. Suspected prussic acid. The girl was seated in an armchair. Tray of drinks nearby. So far so good. All straightforward, eh?”

“Well it’s homicide or suicide cut-to-pattern, if that’s what you mean,” admitted Meredith.

“Quite---but now comes the twist. Shortly before this Miss Parker was found dead in her sitting-room, she’d been visited by a man. It appears that he’d been driven over to the Dower House by his chauffeur, who waited outside for him in the car. By the way, this man is news, Meredith. He happens to be the founder of this Children of Osiris cult---a decent respected sort of cove, as far as I’ve been able to gather. Name of Mildmann---Eustace Mildmann.” Rokeby took a pull at his tankard and nodded his satisfaction. “Landlord knows how to keep his beer here, eh? Clear and cool. Well, Mildmann was in the house for about ten minutes according to his chauffeur, when he suddenly staggers out gasping that he’s ill, scrambles into the car and tells his man to drive like hell for the North Lodge---that’s where he was staying during this convention. Point is this, when the chauffeur goes to help him out of the car, he finds the poor chap slumping back in the seat dead as a door-nail. Maxton, the police surgeon, went over with me from Chichester last night. He has no doubt that Mildmann had also been poisoned. Same cerebral depressant. A few facial contusions and a broken tooth in his upper denture. In Maxton’s opinion probably the result of convulsions prior to his collapse. Well, there’s the bare bones of the case. Interesting, eh?”

“Very,” agreed Meredith dryly.

“Now for a rather curious complication. When Mildmann called on Miss Parker he was disguised---very cleverly and completely too.”

“As anybody in particular or just . . . disguised?”

“No---that’s the odd point. He had got himself up to look like his second-in-command of this hazy-dazy religious order. A certain foreign-looking fellow by the name of Penpeti.”

“Umph,” mused Meredith. “Puzzling. This fellow Mildmann---is he married?”

“Widower---one son.”

“And Penpeti?”


“I see.” Meredith drained his tankard, set it down smartly on the glass-topped table and picked up his hat. “Tell me, Rokeby, anything moved in the room where the girl was found dead?”

“Nothing. Door’s been locked since I left last night. Local constable on duty at the Dower House.”

“Good.” Meredith got briskly to his feet. “Suppose you drive me to the Dower House first. After that I’ll take a look at the other body at this North Lodge you mentioned. All set?”

“Let’s go,” said Rokeby.


Once Meredith was inside that room he ignored everything except the set-up of the crime. Rokeby posed one or two trite questions, but when he received no more than absent-minded grunts in reply, he sensibly held his tongue. He watched Meredith’s approach to the lay-out with ever-increasing admiration. The inspector examined everything but touched nothing. He dealt methodically with every detail that caught his eye, without haste, without comment.

At the end of twenty minutes, he straightened up, drew on a pair of rubber gloves and moved to the inlaid table on which was set a sherry decanter and a set of glasses. Meredith had already noticed that two of the glasses had been used. One by one he picked them up between his finger and thumb, sniffed at them, then at the contents of the decanter. He turned to the superintendent.

“Well, Rokeby, that solves one little point at once. Both these glasses were filled from the decanter without a doubt and that decanter has been tampered with.” He took it up again, removed the glass stopper and held it under Rokeby’s nose. “Take a sniff!”

“Umph---bitter almonds,” commented Rokeby. “That’s prussic acid right enough. Maxton and I guessed as much last night. But it wasn’t for me to put preconceived ideas into your head, was it?”

“But you see what it suggests?”

“You mean that Mildmann----?”

“---poisoned the girl and then poisoned himself,” rapped out Meredith.

“So it’s either a suicide pact or homicide plus suicide, eh?”

“I think we can fairly assume that,” replied Meredith cautiously.

“So it looks as if we’ve got you down here on false pretences. Mildmann murdered the girl and then took his own life.”

“Whoa! Whoa!” cried Meredith, amused. “Not so fast. I said we could assume the fact. But we can’t be sure. There’s the disguise factor to consider. And also,” Meredith crossed quickly to the bureau by the door, “this! Note the splintered woodwork round the lock. The lid of this thing’s been forced and recently, too. No assumption about that. Something’s evidently been taken from this desk and, in the circumstances, I imagine Mildmann must have been the thief.”

“Do you think he adopted that disguise in an attempt to pin the murder on to this Penpeti fellow?”

“No I don’t,” replied Meredith abruptly. “If he were all set to commit suicide then he certainly had no intention of trying to conceal his guilt. He would have realised that the moment he was dead his body would be subjected to a pretty detailed examination. And his disguise wouldn’t stand up to a proper once-over, would it?”

“Then why the disguise?”

“Exactly. That’s one of the points we’ve got to elucidate. And now,” added Meredith, “let’s see if we can isolate any prints. Either on these glasses or the decanter. I take it that none of these exhibits has been handled?”

Rokeby grinned.

“Is that a slam at the poor old County Police? Even we provincial flatfeet are familiar with our alphabet!”

Meredith chuckled and, taking out a small bottle of grey powder, he got down to work. At the end of half-an-hour, during which he made constant use of his magnifying-glass he said rather sourly:

“I’m afraid we’re off to a bad start. One set of recent prints on one of the glasses. None on the other and none, confound it, on the decanter. What do you make of that?”

“Simple. Mildmann must have worn gloves.”

“But did he?”

“Well, he was gloveless when I examined the body last night. But that means little enough.”

“For all that, it’s something we’ve got to find out. Was he wearing gloves when he entered the house? Had he a pair of gloves on his person? Why did he trouble to conceal his finger-prints---if indeed that was his idea---when he knew he was going to commit suicide?”

Meredith turned to the dead girl. She presented a gruesome sight as she slumped back in her chair, one bare slender arm dangling over the side, her stiffened fingers touching the carpet. Her head was canted over on to one shoulder as if she were listening acutely to something that she alone could detect in the deathly silence of the room. To a layman it would have proved a horrible and distracting spectacle, but to Meredith, inured by years of hard experience, this was but the centre-piece of yet another major crime.

Taking out a small ink-pad and official f-p form from his well-worn attaché-case, Meredith deftly took the necessary specimens of the dead girl’s finger-prints. These he examined carefully through his magnifying-glass, at the same time comparing them with the excellent prints he had developed on one of the two recently used sherry glasses. He turned back to the waiting Rokeby.

“These are the girl’s prints all right---just as I imagined. I see no reason now why the body shouldn’t be moved. Maxton was quite satisfied that poison was the prima facie cause of death?”

“Completely satisfied.”

“Then the constable had better get some help and have the body laid out properly in the bedroom. By the way, what about the domestic staff?”

“A parlour-maid and a cook, as far as I can gather. There’s also a man for the outdoor work---a local chap working for the owner of the estate.”

“Right! I’ll cross-question them later. Before I do, I’d like you to drive me to the North Lodge.” Meredith’s grey eyes twinkled. “I prefer to work to a proper interrogatory sequence.”

“Sounds impressive!” chuckled Rokeby.


The High Prophet of Coo, mantled by a sheet twisted yet untroubled, lay on the bed in the humble, homely little room. Death, coming sooner than later, had solved his earthly problems. His spirit was now sojourning among the manifold gods of his faith.

Meredith noticed as he pulled down the sheet that he was still garbed in his disguise, even to the lifelike black beard that fringed his rigid jaw. His convulsed attitude was typical of the post-mortem appearance of a man who has died by a fatal dose of prussic acid. Quickly Meredith took a complete set of the finger-prints; then, drawing on his gloves, he carefully went through the dead man’s pockets. To his surprise he found nothing. Every pocket in the trousers and long semetic caftan was empty. He drew Rokeby’s attention to the fact.

“I’m not sure if it means very much,” pointed out Rokeby. “He probably put on these clothes just before he was driven over to the Dower House. As you can see from that tab on the hem, they were hired from a London theatrical costumiers in Panton Street. The pockets would naturally be empty.”

“But what about those gloves? If he wore them over at the Dower House, as the f-p evidence suggests, he must have disposed of them somewhere.”

“What about the car?”

“Yes, I’d like to take a dekko at the car and the fellow that drove it. But before I do, we’ll have a word with that lad of his.”

Terence, looking pale and heavy-eyed, received the two officials in the parlour. Meredith cross-questioned him, quietly yet efficiently. What had been his father’s relationship with the dead woman? Terence didn’t know. Why had his father disguised himself as Penpeti in order to visit the dead woman? Terence hadn’t the faintest idea. Was he at the North Lodge when his father set out? No, explained Terence, he’d left for Downchester with the housekeeper shortly after lunch and not returned until after eleven o’clock. In brief, Terence had little worthwhile information to hand over to the inspector. As a witness he was a broken reed.

Sid Arkwright, however, proved to be a very different cup of tea. For the first time Meredith found himself harvesting data that really threw some light on the strange events of the previous night. Once inside the barn, he set the ball rolling by asking Sid the all-important question:

“Why had Mr. Mildmann disguised himself to resemble this Mr. Penpeti?”

Thereafter Sid had talked and talked a lot. Meredith barely had time to jot down a summary of this expansive deposition. He told the inspector everything he knew---the reason for the disguise, the reason for the visit, the threat that had been held over his employer’s head by Miss Parker and Penpeti. Meredith listened with ever-increasing interest.

“But this much I do know!” cried Sid in conclusion, “the guv’nor never killed Miss Parker! I tell you straight, the guv’nor wouldn’t have harmed a fly, the guv’nor wouldn’t. Timid, kind-hearted chap he was---always out to do the decent thing by everybody. Why he should have killed ’isself, the Lord only knows, Inspector. Looks bad, I admit, but maybe it was the thought of terrifying Miss Parker into handing over them letters what made him do it. Sort of ashamed of ’isself. Acted on the spur of the moment like. And if you want my opinion, which I daresay you don’t, I reckon Miss Parker was given the works after the guv’nor had left!”

Meredith shook his head.

“I’m afraid you’re wrong there. For one thing Mr. Mildmann didn’t frighten Miss Parker into handing over those letters. In order to recover them he was forced to break open the lid of her bureau. And for another, I can’t help feeling that Mr. Mildmann went to the Dower House with the deliberate intention of murdering Miss Parker. You see, Arkwright, even if a man decides on the spur of the moment to take his own life, he wouldn’t have made provision for carrying out his intention. Get the point? When your employer entered the Dower House the poison must have been on his person. And surely, if he had provided himself with the poison, it suggests that he meant to murder Miss Parker.”

“But why, sir?” gasped Sid, perplexed. “Why did he murder her?”

“Presumably because she refused to hand over those letters.” But despite Meredith’s deadly logic, Sid seemed unconvinced. Meredith went on: “By the way, where are the letters? They weren’t on Mr. Mildmann’s person.”

“They’re here, sir,” explained Sid. “In the back of the car---just where the guv’nor must have placed ’em last night. I naturally haven’t touched a thing in the back of the car because the Sooper here locked the doors last night and took the key.”

“Quite right,” said Rokeby, drawing out his key-ring. “Arkwright merely got the body out of the car and into the lodge. In fact, he didn’t garage the car until after we arrived.”

As Rokeby unlocked one of the sleek, shiny doors, Meredith once again drew on his rubber gloves. Prominent on the spacious back seat of the Daimler was a sleek red leather letter-case. In a matter of seconds Meredith was dusting it over for the development of latent prints. The result was perplexing.

“Good God! Rokeby, what do you make of this? Again there’s only one set of prints decipherable---prints that match up perfectly with those of the dead girl. Mildmann’s are again absent.” He turned to Arkwright. “Tell me, when your employer entered the house was he wearing gloves?”

“As far as I remember---no, sir.”

“And when he came out?”

Sid reflected for an instant and then shot out excitedly:

“Well, I’ll be---! Funny about that. I hadn’t thought about it afore. When he came out of the house he was wearing gloves---sorta dark leather gloves.”

“And he was carrying the letter-case?”

“Yes---I noticed that particular, seeing as that was what he’d gone for to the Dower House.”

“And when you got the body out of the car, did you notice if Mr. Mildmann was still wearing his gloves?”

“No, sir,” said Sid emphatically. “I’m darn sure he wasn’t.”

“Then he must have pulled them off in the car.” Quickly Meredith entered the back of the car and made a thorough search. There was no sign of gloves! He turned again to Sid. “Were the back windows of the car open or shut?”

“Shut as you see them now, sir. As you may recall it was raining.”

“Curious,” muttered Meredith.

“Isn’t it possible that he opened one of the windows, threw away the gloves and closed the window again?” asked Rokeby.

“Possible,” admitted Meredith, “but not probable. Think of the circumstances, Rokeby! Here was a man in a state of convulsions just prior to his death from a killing dose of prussic acid. Would you be strong-willed enough to go through such a complicated performance? And, in any case, what was the point? Why get rid of the gloves?”

“Exactly,” agreed Rokeby. “Why? In the circumstances, utterly senseless. Yet somehow he must have disposed of them.”

Meredith again concentrated on Sid.

“When your master came out of the house what exactly did he say?”

“Little enough, sir. He just managed to gasp out in a wheezy sort of voice ‘Drive home quickly---I’m ill!’ ”

“He appeared to be in a pretty bad state?”

Sid nodded.

“I was waiting behind a clump of trees on a bend of the drive so naturally I didn’t see anything of him until he’d more or less reached the car. Before I could get down and give him a hand, poor chap, he’d wrenched open the door and more or less gone flat out on the back seat. I could see by the way he staggered that he was in pain.”

“You then drove all out to the North Lodge?”

“More or less, sir. I had to nip out and open the gate of the Dower House drive. You see, they have to keep it shut because there’s often sheep grazing in the park. Otherwise I drove as fast as I dared.”

“Mr. Mildmann was dead when you arrived back here?”


“Who else knew about the existence of these letters?”

“As far as I know, sir, only Mr. Penpeti.”

“I see. Well, Arkwright, that’s all for the present. You’ll be served with a subpoena to attend the inquest. And even if the news-hounds get after you, keep your mouth closed. Understand?”

“O.K., sir.”

Meredith turned to Rokeby.

“And now what about returning to the Dower House and having a word with the servants there?”

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