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23: Meredith on Form

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« on: May 25, 2023, 12:24:16 pm »

I

THE inquest on Mrs. Dudley (née Parker) and Eustace Mildmann was held in the long sitting-room of the Dower House at eleven o’clock on Monday morning. It passed off without any unexpected incident. Mr. Paley, the Coroner, had elected to sit without a jury; and, as soon as all the formal evidence had been given, he brought in an open verdict as Meredith had anticipated.

After the inquest, Rokeby drew Meredith aside into the Dower House dining-room.

“Well, and when can we expect an arrest?” he asked in sarcastic tones. “This side of Christmas?”

Meredith smiled.

“My dear fellow, it’s never safe to prophesy in a major investigation. But if the information I’m after comes in from the Paris Sûrete by to-morrow, I think you can stand by to snap the bracelets on the wanted man by, say, the day after.”

“The Paris Sûrete!” exclaimed Rokeby. “But what the----?”

“Sorry, Rokeby. I’m saying nowt until we go into conference with your Chief. I hate airing my opinions on a case until I’ve been able to prove my contentions up to the hilt. I’ve still one or two further depositions to take here at Old Cowdene, before I can sit down and draw up a really comprehensive report. In the meantime I’d like you and the Chief to glance through this preliminary affair. It incorporates all the evidence and clues I’ve so far been able to rake in. But for my final statement---well, can you curb your impatience, say, until Wednesday morning?”

Rokeby made a wry grimace.

“I seem to have no option. O.K., my dear fellow. Until Wednesday, then.”

“Until Wednesday,” thought Meredith when Rokeby had left. “Precisely. Just forty-eight hours in which to tie up all the loose ends and ring in a convincing summary of my deductions.”

From Rokeby he went to Miss Minnybell. From Miss Minnybell to that unfailing source of information, Sid Arkwright. After an excellent and solitary lunch (for O’Hallidan had already been detailed to report back to Chichester) Meredith went up to his room, opened the dossier of his case, read and re-read every deposition, sorted out his notes and began to rough out the main paragraphs of his final report. But until he received the anticipated data from the files of the Sûrete, there was bound to be an hiatus in the continuity of his story. He felt keyed-up and restless, waiting with impatience for the despatch-rider who was to come down from the Yard, the moment the Paris statement was handed in.

That night he slept badly. More than once he got out of bed, lit a cigarette, prowled about the room or returned to a fitful perusal of the documents of the case. The next day his impatience reached fever-heat. He hung about the precincts of The Leaning Man, not daring to wander far afield in case the expected despatch-rider put in an appearance. And then, shortly after two o’clock, he droned into the yard and handed over the precious papers from his neat black wallet. Meredith signed for the receipt of the package and made an undignified dash for his room. There, he broke open the official seal, spread out the enclosed papers on his bedside table and scanned them with undivided attention.

Within five minutes his expression of grim anxiety resolved itself into a smile; within ten he was chuckling to himself with unrestrained delight; within twenty he knew, without any shadow of doubt, that the last piece of his puzzle had clicked faultlessly into place. The case was in the bag!

He went down to the telephone and rang up the H.Q. of the West Sussex County Police at Chichester. A few minutes later Rokeby came on to the line.

“Well, Meredith, do we call that conference in the Chief’s office or do we not?”

“We do,” said Meredith decisively. “If convenient, at ten o’clock.”

“Ten o’clock? Good! I’ll let the Chief know at once. And I’ll see to it that he damn well makes it convenient! Cheero.”

“Till to-morrow, then,” concluded Meredith.

II

A long, wax-polished table; five people seated around it; two uniformed stenographers stuck away discreetly in a corner; long rays of bright June sunshine slanting through the tall windows; somewhere in the room the drowsy buzzing of a trapped bluebottle.

At the head of the table sat Major Sparks, the Chief Constable---massive, shrewd, grey-haired, good-natured. On his right, Detective-Inspector Meredith; on his left, Superintendent Rokeby; and beyond them, Sergeant O’Hallidan and Chief-Inspector Braintree of the Yard. As strong a team of crime-breakers as had ever been assembled in that austere but airy room at County H.Q. The atmosphere, despite the fact that they were all hard-headed experts in this exhaustive and often thankless game of criminal investigation, was tense and expectant. The Chief Constable mopped his brow, cleared his throat and said in his husky bass:

“Well, gentlemen, I’m not here to-day to do the talking. We’re leaving that to Inspector Meredith. You’ve all seen his preliminary report on the case, so I suggest we now ask him to go ahead with his final report. If there’s any point that you feel needs elucidation, for heaven’s sake, speak up at once. I know the inspector’s as anxious as we are to take this matter to court with a foolproof case for the Crown. O.K., Meredith. Fire ahead!”

And, taking a deep breath, Meredith began talking. Somewhat hesitantly at first; then, gaining confidence, with more fluency and pace. He set out the report in his own words, only referring to his written summary in order to make sure that he had left out none of the salient facts.

“Well, if you’ll excuse the paradox, gentlemen, I’ll begin at the end and end, so to speak, at the beginning. In other words, with the murder of Yacob Fleischer by Hansford Boot on the night of Saturday, June the eighth. More correctly I should say the ‘inadvertent murder’, because the bullet that killed Fleischer was really intended for Penpeti. But first let me give the full motive for Hansford Boot’s actions.” And with masterly precision Meredith detailed the facts concerning the relationship between Boot and the newly-elected High Prophet. He went on: “Now this fellow Fleischer interested me a lot, particularly when he was identified as a man who had already been making secret contact with Penpeti. My witness, Arkwright, who overheard a conversation between them some weeks ago, left no doubt in my mind that this fellow Fleischer had some sort of hold over Penpeti, in the same way that Penpeti had a hold over Hansford Boot. In other words, the blackmailer was, in turn, being blackmailed. But why? Well, gentlemen, you know as well as I do that no man can be successfully blackmailed unless he has done something that he is anxious to conceal. Naturally I asked myself---What was this ‘something’ in the case of Penpeti? Luckily, I didn’t have to seek far for an answer. In fact, no farther than Camberwell---Number Fourteen Salmon Street, Camberwell. There I found a very useful witness in the shape of Hannah Fleischer, Yacob’s wife. After a little verbal pressure, and under the stress of learning that her husband had been killed only the previous night, Mrs. Fleischer’s reserve collapsed. She began to talk and, thank God, talk a lot! Well, I won’t withhold this very interesting and significant piece of information. Peta Penpeti and Yacob Fleischer are---or should I say were---brothers! Her information didn’t startle me quite as much as you might imagine. For this reason. When I first saw Yacob’s features, just after he was shot, I was convinced that I’d never set eyes on the fellow before. And yet, in some odd way, his features were familiar! Later I realised why. There was between him and Penpeti a strong family likeness, only modified by the fact that Penpeti wore a beard.” Meredith paused, looked around the table and asked: “Any questions, gentlemen?” There was dead silence. “Very well, I’ll pass on to the next phase of my investigations. Mrs. Fleischer, once she’d got off the mark, was more than lavish with her evidence. She told me that Yacob and Marcus---that was Peta’s real Christian name---had always been up against each other. She, herself, hated Marcus because, as she expressed it, ‘he put on airs and threw his weight about’ inside the family circle. Well, to cut a long story short, this is the pith of what Mrs. Fleischer told me. Marcus, at one time, had been working the charity racket in the States. He’d just cleaned up a packet when the F.B.I. got on to his tail and Marcus had to make the long-hop across the Atlantic. Eventually he and Yacob landed up in Paris in the early ’thirties. Their new racket appears to have been dope. What exactly happened in Paris, Mrs. Fleischer didn’t know. But suddenly the brothers turned up in Camberwell, where Marcus went to earth. For three months he never shoved his nose outside the door of Number Fourteen. But from then onward, Mrs. Fleischer noticed that Yacob was no longer under his brother’s thumb. The rôles had changed. It was now Yacob who seemed to call the tune. In fact, it wasn’t long before Mrs. Fleischer realised that her husband was blackmailing her brother-in-law. After a time, Marcus began his old game again---the bogus charity ramp. Yacob went in for small-time dope peddling. The favourite rendezvous of their particular gang was Moldoni’s Dive in Soho.” Meredith turned to Chief-Inspector Braintree. “You may recall the place, sir.”

Braintree smiled grimly.

“A hot-spot of dope peddling, an exchange mart for stolen goods, an underworld gossip-shop! Oh, I recall the place all right! We cleaned it up about four years ago and Moldoni, if I’m not too wide of the mark, is still serving his stretch.”

Meredith nodded.

“I’m coming to Moldoni directly, sir. But the point is that it was at Moldoni’s where Marcus Fleischer alias Peta Penpeti first got a line on Sam Grew alias Hansford Boot. Marcus had a good memory for faces. Sam was not so gifted. The result was that Marcus was in a position to blackmail the poor devil without fear of retaliation. I imagine in his Soho days our Mr. Penpeti didn’t wear either a beard, a fez or a caftan! Those charity racket boys usually favour a clerical rig-out. It inspires confidence in their victims.”

“And Moldoni?” put in the Chief Constable eagerly.

“I’ll come to him now, sir. I interviewed him last Sunday in Maidstone jail. A most satisfactory little pow-wow. I asked him if he remembered the Fleischer brothers. Oh yes---he remembered them all right. Yacob and Marcus. Well, gentlemen, I fired a shot in the dark then and, Sunday being my lucky day, I plugged the bull! I pumped Moldoni about their relationship, suggesting to him that Yacob was blackmailing his brother. Well, where Mrs. Fleischer couldn’t talk because she didn’t know, Moldoni talked a lot because he did. He knew what had happened in Paris. An ordinary, sordid affair with a woman in the case. A woman called Minette Desfaux. I’ll just give the bald facts. Minette was Marcus Fleischer’s mistress until she fell in love with a fellow called Pierre Gaussin. Then she left Marcus high and dry, and later, in a fit of jealous rage, Marcus shot her. Yacob knew this. And he knew that Gaussin was hopping mad and one of the slickest knife-throwers in Montmârtre. So the brothers cleared out and returned to Camberwell. Of course the Sûrete started to investigate the murder. Got hold of a lot of facts, too, including a photo of the wanted man. But the man they never got. He’d acted first. Well, when I interviewed Mrs. Fleischer in Camberwell last Sunday, I wheedled a photo out of her---a photo of Marcus Fleischer before he cultivated a beard and called himself Peta Penpeti. I sent this by special courier to the Sûrete. Yesterday I received their report. There’s no mistake about it. Peta Penpeti’s the murderer of Minette Desfaux right enough!” Meredith paused, glanced round the table with an apologetic air and added: “No need to tell me what you’re thinking, gentlemen. What the hell has all this got to do with the death of Penelope Parker and Eustace Mildmann at the Dower House on Old Cowdene estate?” Meredith suddenly unclasped his battered attaché-case and drew out an object which he placed in the middle of the table. “There’s the answer.”

“A beard!” exclaimed the Chief Constable. “A false beard! But what the deuce----?”

“I’ll explain, sir. When I first saw the photo of the beardless Penpeti I was startled by his astonishing resemblance to his brother Yacob. Naturally, I argued like this. If Penpeti minus a beard looks very like Yacob, surely Yacob plus a beard would look very like Penpeti. I found that false beard in Yacob’s pocket after he’d been accidentally shot by Sam Grew. You see daylight, gentlemen?”

“You mean there’s been some sort of impersonation?” asked Rokeby.

“Just that. But no rough-and-ready disguise such as Mildmann adopted. That wouldn’t have fooled a really observant person for a brace of shakes. The only reason why it might have been effective was that he only had to fool the maid at the Dower House. And even then only for a second, when she opened the door to him. It was dark, too. Above all, the maid was used to letting Penpeti into the house at all odd hours of the day. She probably wouldn’t have given him a second glance.”

“But in Yacob’s case it was different, eh?” demanded Braintree.

“Yes, sir. Yacob could have stood up to a pretty close scrutiny and fooled the best of us. Complexion, colour of eyes, build, even the timbre of the voice---all would help to build up the deception. Add the characteristic fez and caftan, and Bob’s your uncle!”

“But why did Yacob want to impersonate his brother?” asked Rokeby sharply. “What did he get out of it?”

“A rake-off, I imagine. A handsome rake-off, no doubt, of the five thousand a year stipend payed by that addle-pated old martinet, Mrs. Hagge-Smith, to the High Prophet of her pet cult. You see the implication?”

“You mean,” cried Rokeby with a sudden flash of understanding, “that Penpeti----?”

Meredith nodded.

“Just that, my dear Rokeby. Penpeti no longer has one murder on his conscience. He has three! Minette Desfaux, Penelope Parker and Eustace Mildmann!”

“Did ye hear that now!” boomed O’Hallidan. “Well Oi niver---did ye iver! Eustace Mildmann murthered!”

Meredith chuckled.

“Knocked you edgeways, eh Sergeant? And yet it was you who first put me on the right track.”

“Me, sorr?”

“Yes. When you picked up that water-pistol near the Dower House drive-gate.”

“But Oi don’t----”

“All in good time, O’Hallidan. First things first, eh gentlemen? Well, this is only an assumption, but when I’ve concluded my report I think you’ll agree that it’s a safe one. Penpeti overheard Mildmann and Arkwright discussing their plan for the recovery of those letters. You’ll recall all about the letters from the preliminary report I put in after the inquest. So I won’t go further into the matter now. Now again it’s a mere matter of assumption. To my mind Penpeti had persuaded Penelope Parker to show those letters to the bigwigs of the Movement in order to vilify Mildmann’s character. At the same time, the child she was carrying was to be fobbed off as his. Well, I think, at the last minute, the girl ratted. Her conscience just wouldn’t let her do it. You can imagine how Penpeti felt after that?”

“Scared stiff, eh?” said Rokeby. “Frightened that the girl might blurt out the truth about her baby and ruin his own career in the Movement.”

“Exactly. Not only would he fail to get Mildmann degraded from the position of High Prophet, but he, himself, would be kicked out of his position as Prophet-in-Waiting. On the other hand, with the girl out of the way, he was safe. The letters would come into the right hands. Everybody would suspect that Mildmann was the father of the unborn child.” Meredith paused and added with slow emphasis: “And even more would they suspect this, gentlemen, if Penpeti so arranged things to suggest that Mildmann had killed the girl and then taken his own life!

“Which is precisely what he did, eh?” put in the Chief Constable quickly.

Meredith nodded.

“And the modus operandi?”

“Neat but not gaudy, sir. It was, of course, all based on a devilish clever alibi.”

“Provided by Yacob Fleischer, is that it?” asked Rokeby.

“Just that, my dear fellow. Again, all very simple and damn near foolproof. I’ll deal with the alibi first. Yacob hid in the rhododendron bushes outside the Manor and waited until Penpeti left the place after dinner on Thursday night. Well, Penpeti turned aside into the bushes and Yacob walked out. In my preliminary report I mentioned that crazy old biddie, Miss Minnybell. You know how she was always trailing Penpeti. Well, when Yacob moved off down the drive towards the Chinese summer-house, Miss Minnybell tailed him. You see, the very fact that Mildmann had planned to enter the Dower House at a time when Penpeti was due to make an official appearance in the temple, simply played into the brothers’ hands. Penpeti was expected to be in the temple from nine until ten. It was dark outside, remember, and the temple itself, as I was quick to note, is lighted by a single blue lamp let into the ceiling. Above all, it’s an unwritten law that nobody should utter a word once they’ve crossed the threshold of the temple. It’s a place of meditation only, and members are expected to treat it as such. But you see the significance of this? During his hour in that temple Yacob knew he wouldn’t be called on to speak a word. I tell you, gentlemen, the provision of this alibi was a stroke of genius.”

“And Penpeti?” demanded Braintree. “What did he do on parting from Yacob?”

“Made straight tracks to the North Lodge, presumably, by some unfrequented route across the park.”

“And once there?”

“He waited his chance and hid himself, probably under a rug, in the back of Mildmann’s Daimler. Either before Arkwright drove it out of the barn, or when it was drawn up in front of the North Lodge waiting for Mildmann to get in. Don’t forget, gentlemen, that when Mildmann set out for the Dower House it was practically dark. It was a dirty night, with low rain clouds. I tell you, everything conspired to make things easy for our Mr. Penpeti.”

“And once in the car?” asked Rokeby.

For the second time Meredith opened his attaché-case. This time his exhibit was the water-pistol.

“We now come to O’Hallidan’s exhibit,” smiled Meredith. “An ordinary kid’s water-pistol, fitted with a rubber bulb at the point of grip.”

“And with this, I presume, Penpeti suddenly emerged from under the rug and threatened Mildmann,” said Rokeby sarcastically. “With the result that Mildmann died of heart failure. The perfect murder, eh?”

Meredith said with a tolerant smile:

“Oh, it’s not quite as simple as all that. I think Penpeti did threaten Mildmann with the pistol once the car had started. Doubtless, Mildmann would have seen it silhouetted against the faint wash of light still left in the sky. But that’s only half the story. Perhaps you’ll find it easier to follow if I tell you, gentlemen, that the rubber bulb of that water-pistol was charged with a highly concentrated solution of prussic acid!

“Good God!” cried Rokeby. “You mean to tell us----?”

“As much as I possibly can,” broke in Meredith. “The precise details, I hope, will in due course be filled in by Penpeti. But I’ve good reasons for my assumption. You see, Maxton noticed that there was a slight chip out of one of the teeth in Mildmann’s upper denture. We can only presume that the chip occurred when Penpeti forcibly thrust the muzzle of that lethal weapon into Mildmann’s mouth. I suggest he pinched Mildmann’s nose, thus forcing him to open his mouth, then jabbed the muzzle between his teeth and pressed the bulb. With such a concentrated dose of the poison, it would need only a few drops to produce a fatal effect. I imagine Mildmann collapsed at once and that in a few minutes he was dead.”

“And then, sorr?” asked O’Hallidan breathlessly.

“Well, Penpeti opened the car window, tossed the pistol into the bushes, while Arkwright was opening the gate of the Dower House drive.”

“And the man, confound it, who entered and left the Dower House,” broke in the Chief, “was not Mildmann disguised as Penpeti. It actually was Penpeti!”

“You’ve said it, sir! It was. And when he came out to the car again there was nothing wrong with him. You recall Arkwright’s evidence which I incorporated in my preliminary report? Ill, staggering, gasping for breath. All fake, of course. But this play-acting served two useful purposes. Firstly, it enabled Penpeti to disguise his voice by gasping out only a few words in a husky, choking sort of way. This completely foxed young Arkwright. Secondly, it was a nice lead-in to the subsequent discovery of Mildmann’s dead body in the car. His apparent condition on leaving the house meant that Arkwright wasn’t all that surprised when he arrived at North Lodge and found his employer kaput!

“But look here, Meredith,” broke in Braintree, “if Penpeti entered that car, how was it that Arkwright didn’t discover him when they reached the North Lodge?”

“It was the Dower House drive gate, sir. Arkwright had to get out, drive the car through and shut it again behind him. This gave Penpeti the perfect opportunity to sneak out and vanish into the darkness.”

“But surely Penpeti took a chance,” said the Chief, “in leaving Mildmann’s body in the car, while he was inside the house? Suppose the chauffeur had looked in and discovered the body? Pretty tight corner for Penpeti, eh?”

“Well,” admitted Meredith, “it was a risk, sir. But not a big risk. Arkwright would have no real cause to look into the back of the car, because he naturally thought it was empty. I daresay the body was actually lying on the floor and that Penpeti had thrown the rug over it. Before he got out he probably hauled the body into a sitting posture on the seat. During the drive, of course, Arkwright would have overheard nothing, because of the sound-proof glass panels between the front and back of the car. No---take it all round, gentlemen, I think we’ve got to hand it to Mr. Peta Marcus Penpeti Fleischer!”

“And the girl?” asked Rokeby. “How do you think she actually died? We know she was poisoned, of course, but what were Penpeti’s actions once he was in the room with her?”

Meredith smiled.

“In the circumstances, I imagine Penpeti was naturalness itself. And why not? He often visited her there. Seeing the sherry decanter, he merely proposed that they had a drink together and the girl merely accepted. Nothing odd in that. Penpeti had probably often had a drink with her. He knew from previous visits that the sherry decanter and glasses would be set out on the table. All he had to do was to pour out the sherry, stand between the girl and the table and empty the phial of prussic acid into the glass.”

“And into his own glass, too?” asked Rokeby, puzzled.

“Good God, no!”

“But hang it all----!” began Rokeby, cantankerously.

“I know what you’re thinking, my dear chap. The second glass contained a residue of concentrated prussic acid and the decanter a diluted dose. But it’s all very simple. Penpeti didn’t doctor the sherry that he drank with the girl. He waited until she’d collapsed, poured out a second portion into his own glass, added a second phial of prussic acid and poured the whole lot back into the decanter.”

“ ’Tis as Oi suggested, sorr,” said O’Hallidan with a smirk of satisfaction.

“But what the devil did he do it for?” asked the Chief Constable.

“A red-herring, sir. It was all part of his build-up to suggest that Mildmann poisoned the girl and then took his own life. The rifling of the desk and the removal of the letter-case was all part of the same trick. After all, Arkwright knew that his employer had gone there to recover the letters. Penpeti knew it, too, since he must have overheard them making their plans. And when Arkwright actually found the letter-case beside the dead body of his master, it was no more than he expected. It all helped to preserve the illusion that the man who stepped out of the Daimler and, later, staggered back to it, was Mildmann in disguise and not the genuine article. If,” added Meredith with a twinkle, “there is anything genuine about this particular article!” He ticked off the items on his fingers. “Charity racketeer, dope pedlar, blackmailer, false prophet, treble murderer! And add to this imposing list the fact that he’s intelligent and devoid of all moral restraint and you have the almost perfect criminal. As far as I can see he made only one mistake.”

“The gloves?” shot out Rokeby.

Meredith nodded.

“He remembered to put them on when he entered the house, but he forgot to remove them before he returned to the car. It’s been a puzzling factor in the case from the start.” Meredith leaned back in his chair, stretched his legs and concluded: “Well, gentlemen, I think that more or less foots the bill.” He turned to the Chief Constable. “Do I get that warrant of arrest, sir?”

Major Sparks chuckled.

“You do, my dear fellow. And something more!”

“And that, sir?”

“A pat on the back, a feather in your cap, a headline in the Press and a well-deserved drink. And when I say ‘well-deserved’, I damn well mean it. A good show, Meredith. A very good show.”

Only Major Sparks did not actually use the word “very”. He employed a less polite but far more emphatic adjective that more correctly expressed his professional approval and admiration!

THE END

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