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18: The Poison Puzzle

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Author Topic: 18: The Poison Puzzle  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 25, 2023, 09:59:33 am »


DURING the last few weeks there had been a profound change in Hansford Boot---not only a physical but a psychological change. The threat of exposure which Penpeti held over his head was a Damoclean sword that had undermined his sense of security and screwed up his nerves to breaking-point. He paid his blood-money without a murmur. Quite. But the threat remained. At any minute Penpeti might turn ugly. He might go to the police. And from that instant he would be doomed. There was no eluding the fact that it would mean a stretch in “stir”, probably a long stretch. The useful, interesting, respectable life he was now leading would be over and done with. He’d never recapture it.

It was easy to imagine Hansford’s feelings, therefore, when Meredith, followed by the uniformed sergeant, walked into his office as camp-commandant. He scrambled to his feet with a little grunt of alarm and stood facing the two officials with an expression of the wildest anxiety.

“Morning,” he jerked out in his peculiar shorthand English. “Anything I can do? Something you want? An enquiry to make? Eh?”

Meredith introduced himself and quietly explained the reason for his visit. Hansford appeared to relax a little, though Meredith had been quick to note his reaction to their sudden appearance. But his readiness to help was undeniable. In no time he had produced the “Chain of Meditation” roster for Meredith’s inspection and sent a runner round the camp to find Mr. Abingdon, whose hour of meditation had preceded Penpeti’s, and Miss Mummery, who had taken over from him at ten o’clock. While the messenger was away, Meredith wasted no time in digging out a little more information.

“You’re on the executive committee of this movement, Mr. Boot?”

“I am.”

“Then you can probably tell me all I want to know about this office of High Prophet. Does it carry a stipend?”

“It does.”

“How much?”

“Considerable amount. D’you want it exact? Sub rosa, really. But if you insist . . .”

“I’m afraid I must.”

“Five thousand a year.”

Meredith whistled.

“Five thousand---phew! And what about the position originally held by Penpeti---was it an honorary one?”

“Five hundred,” said Hansford shortly.

“I see. So Penpeti has gained considerably through Mildmann’s death?”

“To the tune of four thousand five hundred a year. Exactly four thousand five hundred more than he’s worth.”

“You don’t like the fellow, eh?”

“Don’t trust him. Never have. Ambitious. Hypocritical. Cunning.”

Meredith nodded but made no comment. Inwardly he was thinking that Boot’s assessment of Penpeti’s character ran counter to his own. And if Penpeti were two-faced and all that he appeared to be, then, with such a financial gain in the offing, he might well have poisoned Mildmann. The motive was there. But what about the time-factor?

With the arrival of Mr. Abingdon and Miss Mummery, however, Meredith’s suspicion fell flat on its face. Abingdon swore that Penpeti had arrived at the Chinese temple at nine o’clock. Miss Mummery swore that she had taken over from Penpeti at ten. Both claimed that several other members were in the temple at the time.

“So that it would have been impossible for Mr. Penpeti to have left the temple between the hours of nine and ten without his absence being noticed?”

Both witnesses agreed that it would have been utterly impossible. Abingdon went on:

“But why not question Miss Minnybell? I understand she came into the temple shortly after Mr. Penpeti arrived and stayed there until Miss Mummery took over. I warn you, Inspector, she’s a most extraordinary little woman. But observant. Extremely so.”

Meredith turned to Boot.

“Could you send somebody to find Miss Minnybell. I want to make quite sure about this point.”

And when, some ten minutes later, Miss Minnybell arrived, Meredith received final proof that Penpeti was not the wanted man. Miss Minnybell was at her most excited and voluble. It was a long straggling tale, pitted with irrelevances, but too full of circumstantial detail to be anything but true. She had, so she said, chanced to be outside the Manor when Penpeti had left the place after dinner. She had, in fact, followed him down the drive to the Chinese summer-house. Once there she had decided to enter, and she had chanced to stay there until it was time for him to be relieved at the end of his official period of meditation. Then she had chanced to follow him half-way down the drive towards the North Lodge, at which point she had turned aside to the Ladies’ Compound.

“There seems to be a very generous element of chance in your movements on Thursday evening,” commented Meredith with a twinkle. “You’re quite sure it was chance, Miss Minnybell? You weren’t following Mr. Penpeti for any specific reason, eh?”

Miss Minnybell suddenly emitted a sharp little whinny of astonishment.

“Oh, how clever of you, Constable! How very clever of you! I thought it was my own little secret. But I see it’s no use trying to keep any little secrets from you. In fact---no really, I think it would be foolish of me to do so. I ought to have thought of this before.”

“Of what?” demanded Meredith, amused yet puzzled.

“Why the law will protect me, of course.” She lowered her voice and drew Meredith away from the others into a far corner of the little marquee. “The fact is, Constable, my life is in danger! At any moment now he may make up his mind to strike! He’s only awaiting the opportunity until I’m off my guard and then----”

Meredith broke in:

“A moment, Miss Minnybell. Let’s get this straight. Who will strike?”

“Why Ali Hamed, of course. I thought, perhaps, you’d realised.”

“Ali How-much?” shot out Meredith, astonished.

“But surely you’ve guessed that Mr. Penpeti’s not his real name? Oh dear me, Constable, I felt sure you’d guessed the whole story. He’s really Ali Hamed, you know. And I have to watch him. I have to watch him very, very closely. Yes indeed, for months now I’ve . . .”

And bit by bit the whole fantastic tale was unrolled. Chancing to catch the inspector’s bewildered glance during this gabbled recital, Hansford tapped his forehead meaningly and nodded towards Miss Minnybell. However, when she had at length concluded, Meredith assured her that she had no further cause to worry. The police would now take the whole matter in hand. He commended her on her sensible decision to place the whole affair in the hands of the law. Then, gently, Meredith dismissed her.

“Phew!” he exclaimed, mopping his brow.

“ ’Tis fey she is an’ no mistake, sorr,” observed O’Hallidan.

“Borderline case,” explained Hansford. “Quite harmless. Lives at Welworth. Well-known character there.”

“Do you think her evidence about following Penpeti is reliable?” asked Meredith.

Hansford nodded. Already he had regained his self-possession, aware that on this occasion, at any rate, the police had not come to “pick him up.”

“Certainly I do. I’ve noticed it myself. Acting like Penpeti’s shadow. Thought it odd. But knowing how it was . . .” Hansford lifted his shoulders.

“Well, thanks for your assistance,” said Meredith, edging towards the entrance. “Come on, Sergeant.”


Barely had the two officials left the tent when O’Hallidan exclaimed:

“Sure an’ there’s somebody wanting to see us by the look of it, sorr. In the divil of a hurry, too.”

Meredith followed the line of his outstretched arm and saw a figure advancing rapidly down the drive, waving wildly to attract attention. A second or so later, Meredith recognised the gardener from the Dower House cottage.

“Hullo---what the deuce do you want?” he asked.

“You, Oi reckon, surr,” he said breathlessly. “ ’Tis something that’s come to my notice. To do with that little talk we had yesterday afternoon over to the Dower House. And in case you don’t catch on, Oi’m ’Erbert ’Uskings, the gardener at----”

“Oh I recognised you all right. What’s the trouble? Suppose we stroll towards the Dower House while you tell me. Too many people about here.”

As they set off over the springy turf beneath the shade of the great oaks and elms, Huskings began to talk.

“ ’Tis this way, surr. Last night down to the White Harte at Brocklebye chaps got a-talking natural like about this y’ere to-do at the Dower House. Seems they all got h-ideas as to ’oo dun it and why they dun it. Oi reckon we can take that with a darn good pinch o’ salt, o’ course. But one thing Oi did ’ear which struck me as h’odd. Chap named Charlie Bates---cowman up at Major Dobells ’e is---was going ’ome by the road south o’ the park, see? Tidy dark night ’twas as you know. Well, Charlie suddenly walks slap into a car what had been parked off on the road-edge. No lights on, ’e said, an’ nobody in it. Anyways, thinkin’ it a bit queer, Charlie strikes a match or two an’ has a good look-see. Stanmobile Eight, ’e says it was---saloon. Maybe you don’t know, but there’s a bit of a wood edging that stretch o’ the road. Well, Charlie suddenly ’ears somebody blunderin’ through that there wood, an’ ’e crouches back under some ’azel bushes to see what’s cookin’. Well, to cut a long story short, chap crashes through the ’edge and makes for the car with a small pocket-torch in his ’and. Charlie ’ad a good view of’im afore ’e druv off. There weren’t no mistake about it, Oi reckon, surr. ’Twas same chap as me an’ Ruth seed pass our cottage a-Thursday night. Shooting ’at an’ no coat an’ everything.”

“And a very useful piece of information, too,” exclaimed Meredith, with a nod of approval. “Now what time was this? Did your friend happen to say?”

“Oi asked ’im the very same question myself. Just after ten, ’e reckoned. An’ that, surr, fits in pretty tidy with what we already knows!” Huskings’ Sussex burr took on a note of triumph. “Ar! An’ that’s not all, surr!”


“Charlie’s a likely lad. Bin a Boy Scout ’e ’as. ’E chanced to notice the number o’ that there car, ’e did!” Huskings drew out a grubby dog’s-eared envelope. “Took it down there an’ then in the White Harte, surr. AHL-2414. Aye, that’s it right ’nuf. Smart lad ’is Charlie Bates!”


Twenty minutes later, ringing from the Dower House, Meredith was in touch with the Car Registration Department of the County Offices at Hertford. His request was simple. He wanted the name and address of the owner of car number AHL-2414. Hertford promised to do their best.

“As you know, sir,” the clerk pointed out, “we can’t guarantee any result. The car may have changed hands since its original registration here. Or the owner may now be living in another county, in which case he’ll no longer be applying to us for a renewal of licence. Sorry, Inspector, but if your luck’s in I’ll ring you back in half-an-hour.”

Barely had Meredith turned from the ’phone, when O’Hallidan, who had been waiting by the front-entrance of the house, came in to report that a despatch-rider had just arrived from the Yard.

“Good!” exclaimed Meredith. “That’ll be the report from the police analyst. Sign for the receipt of the package, Sergeant, and tell the constable he can report back to Chichester.”

A few minutes later Meredith was devouring the analyst’s report with unconcealed eagerness. O’Hallidan watched him with a speculative eye. Suddenly Meredith snapped his fingers and slapped the report down on the hall table.

“Well, I’ll be----!”

“It’s something ye didn’t anticipate, sorr?”

“You’ve said it, Sergeant! Something totally unexpected and, to my mind, completely inexplicable. I asked Luke Spears, the chief analyst at the Yard, to make an analysis of the contents of the decanter and the liquid residue in the two glasses. This is his answer.” Meredith snatched up the typewritten sheet and read: “ ‘Conclusive tests show that the amount of prussic acid in solution in the two glasses was equal---in each case a high concentration of HCN being present. In the case of the decanter, however, a far weaker concentration of the acid was noticeable. It appears, therefore, that the two glasses were not filled from the decanter; or, if so, an extra dose of acid had been added after the solution had been poured out. There is little doubt that the poisoned sherry in the glasses would have been sufficient to bring about an instantaneously fatal effect. That in the decanter, however, was diluted enough to have given the victim a fair chance of recovery if medical treatment were available within a reasonable period of time.’ Well, O’Hallidan, what the devil are we to make of that? A further complication, eh? I just can’t fathom it.”

“An’ it’s myself that can’t make head or tail of it either, sorr. But ’tis most likely as the analyst suggests---an extra dose o’ the prussic acid was added after the weaker solution o’ the poisoned sherry had been poured out.”

“But, in heaven’s name, why?” demanded Meredith with a flash of irritation. “Why trouble to poison the sherry in the decanter at all, when the acid was to be poured direct into the glasses? It just doesn’t add up.”

They fell silent for a moment, wrestling with this queer unexpected twist in the evidence. Suddenly O’Hallidan observed:

“Sure an’ there’s one ither way it might have happened.”

“And that?”

“P’what if one of the poisoned glasses was poured into the decanter, sorr? Each o’ the glasses would then contain a residue o’ equal strength but the decanter, being half-full o’ sherry, would then contain a far weaker solution.”

“Good God, Sergeant! I believe you’ve got something there. It’s certainly a possible explanation. But I can’t for the life of me see why it was done. If Mildmann had poisoned the girl, and wanted to suggest that he had poisoned himself and then disappeared, it might make sense. But Mildmann happens to be dead and we know that he died of prussic acid poisoning. It just doesn’t work out. On the other hand----”

The telephone on the nearby table began to ring stridently. Meredith snatched up the receiver.

“Hullo---yes? So my luck’s in, eh? Splendid! Half-a-minute---I’ll make a note. John Keith Dudley, The Grove, Bridge Street, Hitchin. O.K.---yes. I’ve got that. Most useful. Thanks. Good-bye.” As Meredith hung up, he swung round, elated, on O’Hallidan. “Well, that’s something on the credit side. Hertford have traced the owner of that car. I’ll get on to the Hitchin police at once and get them to take a statement.” He was already dialling exchange. “Perhaps if we get a line on this mysterious gentleman, we shall be half-way to solving the rest of our problems. Hullo! Hullo! Exchange? Give me the Hitchin police will you? No---I don’t know the number. All right, ring me back the moment you’re through. It’s an urgent police call.”

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