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17: Pow-Wow with Penpeti

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Author Topic: 17: Pow-Wow with Penpeti  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 25, 2023, 07:59:40 am »


SEATED in the commodious but rickety basket-chair in his oak-beamed bedroom after a really excellent meal, Meredith opened his notebook and began his first unhurried analysis of the facts.

Of two things he now felt sure. (1) Terence Mildmann had been lurking near that pond. He was there for some nefarious purpose, since it was evident that he was hedging on the real reason for not accompanying Mrs. Summers to Downchester. (2) The man whom Arkwright had met up in the Parker girl’s room some ten days before was the same man seen by the gardener and his wife passing their cottage window shortly before ten the previous night. True, on that second occasion, he hadn’t been wearing his teddy-bear overcoat and he had evidently changed his tweed cap for a shooting-hat; but for the rest the two descriptions matched up perfectly. And further, wasn’t it safe to assume that it was this man Hilda had heard upstairs and later in the hall? And further still, wasn’t this the man who had taken a crack at Arkwright in Welworth, when the lad was returning from a fancy-dress dance dressed as Penpeti?

At once Meredith’s deft mind pounced on another possibility. This man had made an attempt on Arkwright’s life, thinking him to be Penpeti. Did it mean that poor Mildmann had lost his life for the same reason?

By heaven, it was a plausible assumption! Very plausible! Mildmann had been poisoned, not because he was Mildmann, but because the murderer had believed him to be Penpeti. For some reason this mysterious intruder had a grudge against Penpeti. In the light of all the evidence to date, a very suggestive line of thought. This man was obviously well-acquainted with Penelope Parker. He knew all about her habits and his way about the Dower House. He had known her, without doubt, at Welworth. Was he more than a mere friend or acquaintance? Was he, by any chance, her lover? Or more precisely, had he at one time been her lover? An exalted position he had held in the girl’s life until Penpeti came along and threw a spanner into the works.

Meredith grinned. The same old motive---jealousy. The same old triangular set-up---two men, one woman. But in this case the most logical of all the theories he could put up. Accept this relationship between the three of them and so much was explained away. The shooting affair in Welworth; the secret visits to the Dower House; perhaps the murder itself. Doubtless Inspector Duffy could help him to make a more precise assessment of this relationship, for during his investigations at Welworth, Duffy had probably unearthed far more information than Arkwright realised.

Well, The Leaning Man was on the telephone. So was the Borough H.Q. of the Welworth Garden City Police. So what was he waiting for? If he wanted the best information---Duffy had it!

Ten minutes later Meredith was speaking with Inspector Duffy. He had left H.Q., but the sergeant-on-duty had given him the number of Duffy’s private residence. Luckily the inspector was in.

He talked well and he talked a lot. A nice stream-lined summary of what he called the “Mayblossom Cut Case”. And when some twenty minutes later Meredith rang off, he knew he had been barking up the right tree. This middle-aged, well-set-up gentleman had visited Penelope Parker, late one night, at her Welworth house. In fact, almost directly after the shooting incident in the Cut! Penpeti, too, had been seen by Duffy himself, paying the girl a visit. Good heavens, yes! It was all lining-up a treat. Duffy was posting off the dossier of the case that night.

“Right!” thought Meredith, now brimful of mental energy. “Accept two facts. This man in the teddy-bear coat---we’ll call him ‘Ted’ for short---is the murderer. Mildmann was poisoned because Ted thought he was actually Penpeti. Now how does this fit in with the circumstances surrounding the case? First, the murderer must have seen Mildmann in the guise of Penpeti approaching the Dower House. Otherwise how could he have anticipated his arrival? No point about Ted having overheard any conversation between Arkwright and his employer about the proposed visit. If he’d done that, he’d have known that Mildmann wasn’t Penpeti. No---somehow he must have spotted the disguised Mildmann coming towards the house. But is this possible? Accept Hilda’s evidence and the answer is definitely ‘Yes’. It was for this reason that Ted nipped out via the french windows. Precisely! And if he’d nipped out through the french windows, he couldn’t have nipped back up the stairs and poisoned the sherry. There just wouldn’t have been time to do this and get clear before Mildmann was in the room. Besides, the Parker girl wouldn’t have stood there quite calmly, while Ted dashed in, doped the sherry and dashed out again. So what? The theory’s a dud. Unless, of course, the Parker girl told him that Penpeti was coming to visit her that evening. But, confound it, he wasn’t! Only Mildmann dressed as Penpeti. And the girl didn’t even know that Mildmann was going to visit her. So that theory also went up in smoke. Just one other possibility, eh? Ted doctored the sherry on the off-chance that, sooner or later, Penpeti would turn up and take a swig of the stuff. Umph---not worth a second thought. Too chancy. Too indefinite. After all, the girl might have taken a drink immediately after Ted’s departure. Result---instantaneous death. Body discovered. Sherry found to be poisoned and removed before Penpeti ever came near the damned decanter. So the theory that Ted had murdered Mildmann, thinking him to be Penpeti, was a wash-out. Cul-de-sac! Boomp! Just like that!”

Meredith pattered off on a new scent.

“Suppose Ted’s intention was simply to murder the girl and that Mildmann’s death was merely an unfortunate P.S. to the main plot? Quite. I’ve thought of this before. Objection to acceptance? Simply this---if Mildmann’s death were accidental, why the devil had he troubled to put on his gloves once inside the Dower House? So I’m back where I started, eh? Mildmann poisoned the sherry in order to kill the girl and then committed suicide. This means that Ted merely sneaked into the house to see Penelope, had a talk with her, crept down the stairs, saw Mildmann approaching the house and cleared out through the french windows. Ted didn’t tamper with the sherry at all. Well, what about it? The most common-sense of all explanations to date. No need to evolve elaborate reasons for the lack of Ted’s finger-prints on the decanter. They weren’t there for the simple reason that Ted didn’t touch the decanter.”

Meredith sighed, burrowed deeper into his basket-chair and idly watched his pipe-smoke mounting to the ceiling. So he was back where he had started and progress in the case was, precisely, nil! No---that was wrong. Surely he had now identified and vindicated two persons whom he might have considered as possible suspects---Terence Mildmann and this mysterious friend of Penelope’s. Although both had been seen near the locale of the crime on the evening of the double tragedy, neither could, according to the available evidence, be implicated. What Terence was doing by that pond at nine o’clock on a wet night, the Lord only knew! Why that other fellow had broken into the Dower House and waylaid the Parker girl . . . well, the Lord only knew that, too! But the answers to these teasing questions didn’t matter a damn. They were quite irrelevant. What mattered was this---it now left Eustace Mildmann as the only possible suspect. And he’d already half-convinced himself that Mildmann couldn’t have done it. After all, if Mildmann were to be accepted as the murderer, then the motive for the crime was obviously the recovery of the letters. Penelope had refused to hand them over, so Mildmann had slyly poisoned the sherry, persuaded her to take a drink, waited until she collapsed, broken into her desk and removed the letter-case. A drastic bit of skullduggery, to say the least of it, when he could have bound and gagged the girl whilst rifling the desk. So even the motive seemed a thin one. But what followed seemed even more illogical. Having recovered the letters, Mildmann suddenly decided to commit suicide. But, in heaven’s name, why? The whole business just didn’t add up. Why take such care to leave no finger-prints when, ten minutes after the crime, he knew he’d be a dead man? What had he done with his gloves? Why had he succumbed far more slowly to the effects of the prussic acid than the girl? Yet, unless he had entered the Dower House without intention to murder the girl, why had he carried the poison phial on his person?

“Oh hell!” thought Meredith, suddenly feeling tired and depressed. “Where the deuce do I go from here?”


The next morning June came into her own again with a shimmering blue sky and the dew lying late on the grass, with the birds in full song and distant cuckoos calling to each other over a countryside rich with the scent of a new-washed earth and foliage. As Meredith gazed from his wide-open window into the village street below, his overnight depression vanished. After all, hadn’t he been expecting a little too much of providence? A complicated case is not to be broken wide open in a mere twenty-four hours. Experience had taught him that a major crime was usually cleared up only after weeks, even months of patient, hum-drum work.

Over a substantial breakfast in the low-ceilinged dining-room Meredith began once more to turn over the circumstantial evidence and the peculiarly tricky problems which the lay-out of the crime had postulated. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the case was his inability to state with any conviction just what type of crime he was investigating. Was it a double murder? A murder plus suicide? A double suicide? Or a couple of deaths from misadventure? During the course of the previous day he had reviewed all these possibilities, analysed the pros and cons in each instance and gone to bed with an open mind. There was, however, one set-up he had so far failed to consider. Remiss of him but, in the rush of events, perhaps excusable. It was this. Had Penelope Parker, by any chance, murdered Eustace Mildmann and then taken her own life?

It was a new slant that definitely demanded exploration. Motive? Well, suppose Penelope were violently in love with this queer fish, Penpeti, and suppose it had occurred to her that once Mildmann were out of the way, Penpeti would become the top-side prophet of the Movement? Perhaps the position carried a worth-while stipend, which would put an even keener edge on her motive! And the modus operandi? Well, the poisoning of the sherry must have been more of a spontaneous act than a deliberate piece of malice aforethought. After all, Penelope didn’t know that Mildmann was to visit her that evening. On the other hand there was a feasible reconstruction of events.

Mildmann gets into her room by means of the Penpeti trick, and once there demands the return of his somewhat impulsive love-letters. Penelope refuses to hand them over. Whereupon Mildmann draws out his wooden revolver (Arkwright’s evidence) and frightens her into revealing where the letters are kept. While he’s busy at the desk, Penelope seizes the chance to poison the sherry, suggests in a sporting sort of way that he’s the winner and what about having a drink to celebrate his cleverness. Whereupon Mildmann----

Meredith shook his head. Good God! The theory was riddled with holes. He mentally tabulated them. (1) If Penelope were frightened into handing over the letters, she would have saved him the trouble of breaking open her desk by handing him the key. (2) How did she come to have a phial of prussic acid all ready and waiting on her person? (3) Could she have persuaded Mildmann, who was a strict teetotaller, to have joined her in a drink? (4) Finally accepting the above motive, what was the point of taking her own life? Could she have acted with such altruistic fervour even if she were desperately in love with Penpeti? After all, the idea of Penpeti becoming High Prophet would surely include her participation in the event?

Meredith hastily finished his last cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. As he did so, a neat black “sports” swished into the commodious inn-yard and a figure in uniform jumped out. Meredith called out through the open window.

“Sergeant from Chichester, eh?”

“Yes, sorr.”

“Good. Come on in. Door there on your left. I’m Inspector Meredith.”

One glance at Sergeant O’Hallidan and Meredith knew that Rokeby had picked him a winner. Irish, tough, blue-eyed, broad humorous mouth, and a lilt in his voice that would have made poetry of the telephone directory. The inspector nodded to him to be seated and, since the dining-room was at that moment deserted, he quickly outlined the salient factors in the case. When he had concluded, O’Hallidan chuckled.

“An’ it’s meself the Sooper has seen fit to send to you in your throuble, sorr. If iver there was a more bemusing case then Oi’ve to meet it! Accident, suicide, murther---’tis even money on any of ’em. Sure an’ it’s a case demanding the patience o’ Job an’ the determination o’ Hercules. But, by the Holy, sorr, an’ ’tis ourselves that won’t rest until we’re through with it.”

“An echo of my own sentiments, O’Hallidan!” laughed Meredith. “Now I tell you what I----” He suddenly broke off with a warning nod over the sergeant’s shoulder. “Tsst! Take a careful look round, Sergeant. This, if I’m not mistaken, is a gentleman in whom we have a very natural interest. Must be staying here. I’d no idea.”

Cautiously O’Hallidan edged round in his seat and eyed the eccentric figure that had just occupied a table in a far corner of the room. The bearded, slightly sinister features, the fez and the caftan—he had no difficulty in recognising the man from Meredith’s description.

“Will ye take a look at that now!” he said in a hoarse whisper. “If ’tisn’t the craytur ye suspect to be in love with the dead girl, sorr. And, by the Holy, ’tis himself looks more like a murtherer than a ladies’ man!”

“Well, whatever he looks like,” commented Meredith, sotto voce, “I’ve no doubt by now he’s the High Prophet elect of this mumbo-jumbo crowd in the park. I’ve wanted to have a word with him, and as there’s no time like the present . . .”

Meredith rose and took up his attaché-case. “Stay here a minute. I’ll try and get a line on the fellow.”

With a casual air the inspector sauntered across the dining-room. Penpeti glanced up sourly as Meredith, with an affable nod, greeted him with:

“Good morning, Mr. Penpeti. I’ve been hoping to run into you. My name’s Meredith. Detective-Inspector Meredith. I’ve no need to tell you why I’m down here in Tappin Mallet.”

“It’s easy to imagine,” retorted Penpeti, waving Meredith ungraciously into a vacant chair. “A tragic, unsavoury affair. I suppose it’s out of order for me to ask if you’ve made any progress in solving the mystery?”

Meredith grinned.

“Well, I’m not allowed to talk out of turn, you know. Miss Parker was a very close friend of yours, eh, Mr. Penpeti?”

“She was a staunch colleague of mine inside the Movement,” corrected Penpeti acidly. “I have, as you can imagine, many close friends inside the Movement.”

“Is it premature of me to congratulate you on your promotion? Mrs. Hagge-Smith---hinted to me yesterday----”

Penpeti inclined his head.

“I was informed of the honour late last night after an Extraordinary Meeting of the Inmost Temple. But it grieves me to think that I should have been elected to this high office in such tragic circumstances.”

“You’ve heard, of course, that Mr. Mildmann adopted a disguise in order to get into the Dower House? Miss Parker had, I understand, refused him admittance.”

“Yes---I’d heard that.”

“And you realise the nature of his disguise?”


“The point I’m trying to make is this, Mr. Penpeti.” Meredith had already exchanged his easy friendliness for a more official attitude. He sensed that Penpeti was watchful, on the defensive. “Mr. Mildmann disguised himself to look like you because his chauffeur had found out from the domestic staff at the Dower House that they had orders to admit you without question at any time of the day or night. This rather suggests that Miss Parker was a close friend of yours, doesn’t it? A very close friend. That you had a privileged place in her private life, eh?”

“Well, as a fellow member of the executive committee of----”

Meredith broke in sharply:

“Good heavens, Mr. Penpeti! Why the devil can’t you be frank with me? I happen to know that you and Miss Parker were on terms of the greatest intimacy. Why trouble to hedge?”

A fleeting expression of uneasiness crossed Penpeti’s swarthy features. He snapped out:

“I really can’t see what this has to do with your investigations. May I be allowed to finish my breakfast in peace? I’ve an extremely busy day in front of me, as you can imagine.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Penpeti. But I can’t let anything stand in the way of my duty. I’m investigating a very serious case. Now, on the night of the tragedy, where were you exactly?”

“You’re not suggesting----?” began Penpeti with a truculent look.

“I’m not suggesting anything!” commented Meredith. “I want to know just what you did, say, between the hours of eight and ten last Thursday evening.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to insinuate, Inspector,” sneered Penpeti, “but whatever your suspicions, I’m afraid I must disillusion you. I had dinner as usual at the Manor and left there about ten minutes to nine. I then walked through the park to the Chinese summer-house.”

“A minute.” Meredith drew out his sketch-map, studied it closely for a second or so and placed his finger on a small blacked-in circle near the point where the main drive forked into the subsidiary drives that led to the Manor and the Dower House respectively. “You mean this building just here, eh?”

Penpeti glanced at the map and nodded.

“Mrs. Hagge-Smith has had the place converted into a temple. During the convention we have organised what we call an Unbroken Chain of Meditation. Members have pledged themselves to attend the temple and give themselves up to an hour’s meditation on certain aspects of our faith.”

“You mean a roster has been drawn up for the whole fortnight of the convention?”

“Precisely. And it so happened that one of my promised hours of attendance occurred between nine and ten on Thursday evening.”

“So you left the Manor, walked down the drive to the temple and stayed there until ten o’clock?” Penpeti nodded. “You were alone in the temple?”

“No. We have our official times of attendance but anybody is free to make use of the temple at any time of the day or night. As far as I can recall there were at least half-a-dozen other members present when I arrived that evening. Some only stayed for a short period---others were still at their meditations when I was officially relieved at ten by my successor on the roster.”

“From whom did you take over at nine o’clock?”

Penpeti hesitated.

“Really, Inspector, I can’t be expected to . . . No---wait a minute. It was a member from one of our north London temples---a Mr. Abingdon. But, if you consider all these details relevant to your investigations, why not consult the official list? I’m certain our camp-commandant, Mr. Boot, would only be too happy to assist you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Penpeti.” Meredith rose. “A most useful pow-wow. You’re staying at The Leaning Man for the duration of the conference, eh?”


“Well, I’m glad you’ve been so frank and concise in your information.”

“Is there any point,” asked Penpeti with a sardonic smile, “in being otherwise, Inspector? I have, over a long period of time, been able to develop considerable psychical powers. But I can assure you that I’ve had no cause to exercise those powers during the last ten minutes. My common-or-garden savoir faire has been more than sufficient to reveal to me just what was in your mind. When you sat down at this table, you rather suspected that I might have had some connection with the tragic events at the Dower House. But I warned you that you would be disillusioned. Good morning, Inspector.”


Once outside, seated in the police-car, Meredith said:

“Drive towards the park, O’Hallidan. When we find a nice secluded spot, draw in off the road. I want to consider our immediate plan of action.”

Some five minutes later, O’Hallidan swung the car on to the broad verge under the shade of some overhanging elms and shut off the engine. Meredith pulled out his pouch and slowly filled his pipe.

“A queer devil,” he observed. “A pretty cool and callous customer, too, when you come to think of it.”

“Mr. Penpeti, sorr?”

Meredith nodded.

“According to Arkwright’s evidence Penpeti was in on this ramp to blacken Mildmann’s character by making public these letters of his. I’ll bet you a penny to the Bank of England that he put the Parker girl up to that nasty little game. Yet to hear him talk just now you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth! Has it occurred to you, Sergeant, that it’s Penpeti who has benefited most from Mildmann’s death? Particularly if this new office of his carries a good salary.”

“Oi suppose it’s not the murtherer you’re making him out to be, sorr?” asked O’Hallidan with a knowing glance.

“I admit that idea was chasing through my mind when I questioned him just now. But he seems to have got his alibi all right. A seamless alibi, eh?”

“But ye’ve only got his word to go on, sorr.”

“No---you’re wrong there. Arkwright told me when I first interviewed him that Mildmann had chosen the time and date of his visit to coincide with Penpeti’s official period of attendance in that temple. As Arkwright said, they couldn’t risk Penpeti showing up at the Dower House that night or accompanying Miss Parker back from the Manor. For all that, we’ll check up at once. Penpeti mentioned the camp-commandant. Suppose we make his H.Q. our first port of call?”

“Sure an’ you’re still not convinced, sorr.”

“Frankly, Sergeant, I’m not! I don’t see how Penpeti could have murdered either Mildmann or the girl. In the latter case I don’t see why he should want to, considering that he was obviously very friendly with her. But I’ve got a sort of hunch about that fellow. And my hunch tells me that he’s a rotten egg. I mentioned that queer meeting of his with an unknown man when I first primed you with the main facts of the case?” O’Hallidan nodded. “Well, the few phrases Arkwright was able to overhear are suggestive of shady business. No doubt about it.” Meredith drew out his notebook and consulted it. “Yes---here we are. ‘Parker girl’s all right, though . . .’ ‘Mildmann will take the rap’ and so on. That’s all in reference to the letters, of course. Needs absolutely no explanation. But now listen to this. ‘Asking you to wait a few weeks . . . must have patience . . . pay you out then O.K.’ ‘Safe bet, I assure you . . . in clover if things go . . .’ Not much to go on, but surely enough from which to draw a few plausible conclusions?”

“ ’Tis blackmail you’re hinting at?”

“Looks remarkably like it.”

“With Penpeti in the divil of a tight corner?”


“And himself onable to pay the blood-money at all an’ his blackmailer a-turning the screw.”

“A situation,” pointed out Meredith, “that he hoped to rectify the moment he was promoted to Mildmann’s position in this confounded Movement. Which suggests, O’Hallidan, that this High Prophetship, or whatever they call it, carries a money prize, eh?”

“Sure an’ that seems the way of it, sorr.”

“And then there’s another thing,” went on Meredith. “You notice the wording of Penpeti’s phrases? The use of the colloquialisms ‘O.K.’, ‘Safe bet’, and ‘In clover’ and so on. Well, that wasn’t the kind of phraseology he used a few minutes back. If anything, I thought he was rather pedantic. As for that touch of the foreign accent, Arkwright said he seemed to have dropped it entirely. The point is this, when in private he appears to use this slangy sort of speech. In other words, the man’s a poseur, a fake, two-faced. With Penpeti the Prophet as the least natural of his two selves.” Meredith pushed away his notebook. “At any rate, we’re now going to check up on the fellow’s movements and find out a little more about this office of High Prophet. Suppose you drive me now to the camp-commandant.”

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