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21: Death Down the Lane

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Author Topic: 21: Death Down the Lane  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 25, 2023, 11:27:16 am »


“AND what now, sorr?” asked O’Hallidan some minutes after the Hitchin police-car had swung out of the inn-yard.

Meredith chuckled.

“Well, Sergeant, I really don’t see why you shouldn’t call it a day. There’s a beautifully polished brass-rail in the saloon-bar and I’m sure your foot’s just itching to rest on it. For myself, I’m going to put young Terence Mildmann out of his misery. I made a promise to that young lady, remember.”

Although the sun was already lowering, the June air was still warm and fragrant as Meredith set off down the lane to the North Lodge. But the inspector was far too preoccupied to notice the tranquil beauty of the evening. When he wanted to think, he was able to shut himself away from his surroundings, and at that moment his mind was brimming over with speculation. He was still uncertain of Dudley. His explanation of that ten minute wait in the shrubbery might well be the simple truth. On the other hand . . . Precisely!

Terence was now cleared of suspicion. Penpeti had his alibi. The latest evidence suggested that Mildmann could not have been the murderer. And if he dropped Dudley from the list, where the devil was he? Some other person presumably, so far unsuspected, was responsible for the crime. All fine and dandy---but who? Hilda? Sid Arkwright? The redoubtable Mrs. Hagge-Smith? Possibles, of course, but by no means probables. No apparent motive. But if all his previous suspects went up the spout, then dammit he’d have to start looking around for new ones.

There was no question, after the fresh evidence put out by Dudley, that Penpeti had the strongest motive for the crime. He’d realise well enough that if it became known that he was the father of Mrs. Dudley’s child his chances of that five thousand a year and the High Prophetship would be slim. The double-murder, from his point of view, would be a logical step towards the realisation of his ambition. With the girl silenced, there was a good chance that the secret of their intimacy would die with her. With Mildmann snuffed out, the way was clear for his promotion. But Penpeti’s alibi was perfect because it could be vouchsafed for by several disinterested witnesses. In a nutshell: motive---strong; alibi---stronger.

And with these arguments and counter-arguments processing through his brain, Meredith arrived at the North Lodge. Both Terence and the housekeeper were in, but to say that they welcomed his appearance would be grossly to exaggerate. They opened the door to him with about as much fervour as a couple of canaries might have opened their cage to a cat. But in less than five minutes the transformation was magical. Terence, at his best an inarticulate young man, just sat in the parlour and beamed. To be cleared of this foul suspicion and to hear that the girl he adored had pleaded with the police on his behalf . . . it was overwhelming, marvellous! He tried to thank the inspector, then he rubbed his bare knees with his ham-like hands and returned to his inane beaming. It was Mrs. Summers who stepped in and saved the situation. She insisted that Meredith should join them at supper. Meredith accepted. He was not particularly enthusiastic about nut rissoles but, hang it all, he’d got to eat somewhere.

To his astonishment Mrs. Summers served some excellent lamb cutlets with green peas and new potatoes.

“Good heavens!” he observed to Terence. “You’re straying from the straight and narrow, aren’t you?”

Terence reddened.

“Matter of fact, you know,” he mumbled. “I’ve been gastronomically repressed. Mrs. Summers, too. It may not be cricket, but we’re having a bit of a fling now. You can’t blame us, sir.”

“He used to have dreams,” put in Mrs. Summers with a maternal smile, “about carnivorous food. Poor boy! Astral manifestations and all that sort of thing.”

It seemed to Meredith that, apart from the shadow of the recent tragedy, Terence Mildmann was a young man whose real life was just about to begin!

It was dark when the inspector left the North Lodge to return to Tappin Mallet. Not pitch dark, for the stars were brilliant in a clear sky. There was, in fact, sufficient light for him to recognise the figure preceding him through the drive-gate on to the road. It was, without question, Penpeti; doubtless returning from some lecture or service to The Leaning Man. Meredith’s rubber-soled shoes made no sound on the macadam surface of the lane and, more from instinct than for any specific reason, he began to tail the newly-elected High Prophet. Little did he realise at the time that this inconsequent action marked for him the “beginning of the end” of an extremely complex and tricky case.

He had not progressed more than a hundred yards down the lane, however, when he was aware of a second person coming quietly down the lane behind him. Still some distance away, but to judge by the footsteps gradually drawing nearer. Again it was no more than professional instinct that forced Meredith to leave the road and crouch back in the deep shadows of the hedge. He had an idea that the approaching figure hadn’t actually spotted him. In this he appeared to be right, for a few seconds later the figure rapidly passed him and went on, quite unconscious of his presence, down the lane. In a flash Meredith was tagging along at the tail of this little procession.

Soon it was evident that the distance between Penpeti and this second figure had considerably decreased, for suddenly the man slackened his pace and began to proceed more cautiously. Meredith also slowed up. Then, unexpectedly, the man ahead stopped dead. From further down the road came the sound of a low whistle. The man ahead moved onto the grass verge and, bending low, began to creep forward. Meredith did likewise. Five, ten, twenty yards---and, suddenly, Meredith realised that Penpeti had been joined by yet another figure and that the two of them were engaged in a murmured conversation. For a brief instant all was immobility. Then, without the slightest warning, everything seemed to happen at once.

There was a flash, a deafening report, a stifled cry. Then, after a moment’s pause, a second ear-splitting report and the sound of running feet receding down the road.

Almost before the echo of the last shot had died away, Meredith had reached the crumpled figure on the verge. He took out his pocket-torch and flashed it onto the man’s upturned face. He gave a start of surprise. It was the camp-commandant, Hansford Boot! That he was dead Meredith had no doubt. There was a blackened and bloody patch on his right temple where he had pressed the muzzle of the weapon, which he still clutched in his right hand. It was all very obvious. Hansford Boot had just committed suicide by blowing out his brains!

Twenty feet away a second figure sprawled like a patch of deep shadow against the starlit grass. This time the man lay face-down and Meredith was forced to roll the body over before he was able to focus the rays of his torch on the man’s features. And what he saw told him nothing. The man was a stranger. And yet, at that moment, he had a strange feeling that the face was not entirely unfamiliar. Peculiar and perplexing. Annoying, too! He straightened up and looked around. Of Penpeti there was no sign. Evidently the moment the shooting had started, he had taken to his heels and dashed helter-skelter towards the village.

The man at his feet was also dead. The bullet had entered his neck. The whole set-up of this totally unheralded and dramatic incident was as clear as crystal. Boot had been trailing Penpeti with the intention of murdering him and then committing suicide. Then the other man had joined Penpeti. Boot had fired and, in the semi-darkness, his aim had been indifferent and he had killed the wrong man.

Well, what now? Somehow he must get the bodies to The Leaning Man where he could ring Chichester and let them know what had transpired. Maxton would have to come over and make his medical examination. He, himself, would do well to go through the pockets of the dead men. After all, he still had to identify Penpeti’s companion and there was a good chance that Penpeti would refuse to talk.

His line of thought was interrupted by the sudden glare of a car’s headlamps fast approaching down the lane. Meredith stepped out into the middle of the road and flashed his pocket-torch. The car came to a standstill.

“Hullo! Hullo! What’s all this?” demanded a gruff voice. “Anything wrong?”

Rapidly Meredith explained the situation and demanded of the burly old gentleman in the car if he were going to Tappin Mallet.

“I am. Farmers Union meeting at The Leaning Man. I’m over-late already. And now it looks as if I’m going to be a darn sight later! However . . .”

He shrugged his massive shoulders and with perfect aplomb, as if he had been lifting no more than a couple of sacks of grain, he helped Meredith to place the bodies in the car. Five minutes later they were drawn up in the inn-yard.


An empty garage had been earmarked as a temporary mortuary and it was there, by the light of a hurricane lamp, that Meredith and O’Hallidan went through the dead men’s effects. First Hansford Boot, from whose inside breast-pocket Meredith withdrew a sealed envelope bearing the terse inscription---For the police.

“Well, now,” observed O’Hallidan with a broad grin, “if he hasn’t sent us a little billit-do, sorr. ’Twill be a confession or the loike maybe?”

“Explanation would be a better word, Sergeant. However, let’s take a dekko.”

He split the envelope, drew out a single sheet of folded paper and spread it out on the garage-bench. O’Hallidan craned over his shoulder.

“For heaven’s sake! Don’t breathe in my ear!” cried Meredith. “Sit down on that oil-drum while I read it to you. It certainly looks interesting.”

In order that there should be no confusion at the Coroner’s inquest, read Meredith, I have prepared here a careful statement giving the reasons for my actions. I am quite sane. My mind, in fact, has never seen more clearly into the realities of the situation in which I am now imprisoned and have been imprisoned for some months. Penpeti (though I am convinced this is not his real name) has been blackmailing me. I have been forced to pay over a considerable amount of money in order to buy his silence. It so happens that I don’t trust Penpeti. There was, of course, no guarantee that he would hold his tongue. The fear and uncertainty of this has driven me to take desperate measures. Some days ago I realised that I should never have any real peace-of-mind as long as this threat of exposure hung over my head. I decided, therefore, to kill Penpeti and then take my own life. By the time you read this my decision will have been translated into action and both of us will be beyond the reach of the law.

I wish to add some personal data to the above statement. Hansford Boot is an alias. My real name is Sam Grew. For many years now I have been wanted by the police for my part in illicit drug traffic. I have tried to reform and build up for myself a new and decent existence. But Penpeti recognised me as Sam Grew and threatened to go to the police. Why he should recognise me I can’t say. He claimed to have seen me in Soho many years back at a place known as Moldoni’s Dive. I can, in the circumstances, only suppose that Penpeti himself had some connection with the crowd that forgathered at Moldoni’s. Be this as it may, I have no compunction in killing him. I do this with a sober and clear-headed deliberation, knowing well enough that I shall have rid the world of a hypocrite, a scoundrel and a rat.

Signed, Sam Grew.

“Well, well, well!” said Meredith softly as he refolded the slip of paper and replaced it in the envelope. “Wheels within wheels, eh? Poor devil. I wonder how he’d feel now if he knew that the ‘scoundrel and rat’ was sitting only a few yards from here doubtless congratulating himself on a darned lucky escape. Penpeti must have known that the bullet was intended for him. A vile customer, O’Hallidan. Not only has he alienated the affections of another man’s wife, but now he takes his bow as a fully-fledged blackmailer. Some time or another, we shall have some pretty staggering information to impart to the bigwigs of these Children of Osiris. Penpeti will be out on his ear. Damned and defrocked, eh?”

“It’s the two-faced brazen bedivilment of him that fills me with the wrath o’ God, sorr. I suppose this statement’s not the outcome o’ mental disorder or the loike? Sure an’ suicides will concoct the quarest explanations for their actions. Would we do better, sorr, to take all this evidence with a pinch o’ salt?”

“Good God, Sergeant!” rapped out Meredith, “where’s your memory? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the Sam Grew case?” He tapped his forehead. “I’ve still got the main details on file. Fellow came under suspicion. His hide-out discovered. Habits and modus operandi ascertained. The net was cast but the big fish wriggled through the mesh. The hue and cry went out even to us County blokes, but Grew was never pulled in. The perfect vanishing act. All this was before I went to the Yard, but I’ll wager the f-p experts have got his dabs on file. We can identify all right. But the point is that the circumstantial details are correct. Moldoni’s Dive was Sam Grew’s hide-out and trafficking in drugs his racket. And there’s another thing.”

“Well, sorr?”

“Moldoni’s was cleaned up about five years ago and Moldoni himself got a six-year stretch as a fence and an accessory both before and after a good many unsavoury facts. Do you realise what this means?”

“Oi’m bewildered, sorr!”

“Moldoni’s available to give evidence.”


“Concerning Penpeti. Suppose Grew is right. If Penpeti first saw him at Moldoni’s it means that Penpeti was probably as bad as the worst of ’em in that rotten joint. Moldoni may be able to identify Penpeti. He may be able to tell us a few plain facts about him that Penpeti would prefer to remain secret. He may be able to tell us if Penpeti’s his real name. In short, O’Hallidan, he may enable us to pull in this pseudo-prophet before he can do any more harm inside this innocent circle of self-deluded mugs!”

But O’Hallidan refused to echo the inspector’s sudden elation. He dragged Meredith down to earth with a bump.

“Well now, an’ Moldoni can tell us a lot maybe. But there’s one thing he won’t tell us.”

“And that?”

“Who murthered Penelope Parker.”

“Dammit! You’re right there,” admitted Meredith. “I mustn’t allow this incident to side-track me from the main issue. Penpeti may be a scoundrel and a rat, but all the evidence to date suggests that we can’t brand him as a murderer. Now let’s take a look at this other chap. Not a particularly prepossessing specimen, eh? Semetic flavour about him. Cheap and rather flashy suit. Not exactly down-and-out but a type that lives by his wits rather than honest toil and sweat. Touch of the kerbside tout. Olive complexion, dark eyes, full lips, high-bridged nose . . . umph, suppose we go through his pockets. Hold the tray, Sergeant, while I set out the exhibits.”

And replacing his rubber-gloves, Meredith gingerly thrust his hand into one of the voluminous side-pockets of the bright blue, pin-stripe suit. His groping fingers encountered something soft and springy which he gradually eased from the pocket. O’Hallidan craned forward.

Then: “By the Holy, sorr!” he exclaimed. “Phwat the divil is it?”

For a few seconds Meredith gazed at the unexpected object with utter bewilderment. Then suddenly, with an inward leap of excitement, he sprang to his feet. A swift procession of thoughts streamed through his brain---thoughts that he analysed and collated as quickly as they were formed until, as if by a miracle, he was faced with an inescapable deduction. As he turned to O’Hallidan, his smile broadened into a grin---a grin of triumph. He said quietly:

“It’s the answer to a problem, Sergeant. Or more precisely, to two problems. I’ve a very shrewd idea now who killed Penelope Parker and how Eustace Mildmann met his death. Give me time. Give me a little time and I’ll get the facts on parade and drill ’em into some semblance of order. After that . . . well, if we can’t write ‘Finis’ to this case, I’ll become a Child of Osiris. Damned if I won’t!”

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