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Chapter 23: The Registered Packet

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« on: May 27, 2023, 11:37:00 am »

PREECE dropped into a chair as soon as I had opened the door to him, and he cocked a longing eye at the kettle.

“Making tea, Tom?” he asked. “Give me a cup, my lad! I’m wanting something of that sort. Parkapple and me, we were with the chief and the inspector over yonder last night till I don’t know what time, discussing things---it was past midnight when we got back here. You were enquiring for me, my missis says. And the Captain too?”

“We were both after you, Mr. Preece,” I replied, handing him a cup of tea. “He was down there once, and I called twice. Did Mrs. Preece tell you what it was about?”

“She said---Halkin,” he answered. “Now he’s off, I understand! Nice game the way they sling their hook, some of ’em! First Trawlerson---now Halkin. But what did the Captain want? My missis, she says he had Mrs. Halkin with him.”

Just then Trace himself came downstairs in his dressing-gown and slippers. He told Preece all about Mrs. Halkin’s story of the money which she had seen in her husband’s possession. Preece, sipping his tea, listened and nodded.

“May have something to do with all the rest of it,” he observed. “I don’t know! I’m sure my poor head got fairly thick with listening last night to the discussion between our bosses and Parkapple! It’s like being in one of those mazes you read about---you don’t know which turning to take. Parkapple---he jawed it all over last night at our headquarters from every standpoint you could think of!”

“Any good come of it?” asked Trace.

“None, so far!” replied Preece. “There’s things going to be done, of course.”

“Fewster?” suggested Trace.

“Fewster,” said Preece, “satisfied Parkapple, before he let him go yesterday afternoon, as to his movements on the day of the murder of Chissick---never left his own house that day, and can prove it. All the same, our people at headquarters want to see Fewster, and that reminds me of one of the two things I came in for. One was to ask you, Captain, what you brought Mrs. Halkin to see me for; and the other was to ask Tom there if he’d go an errand for me---I’m hurried this morning, for I’ve got to shave and dress and be off with Parkapple as soon as we’ve had a bit of breakfast.”

“What is it, Mr. Preece?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” he answered. “Just slip along to Fewster’s, and ask him if he’ll meet me and Parkapple at our station at nine o’clock---say, to go with us into town by the 9.7. He’ll know what it means.”

He talked a few minutes longer about his and Parkapple’s doings of the previous evening, and then went off, and soon after seven o’clock, when I thought I should be sure to find him up, I ran round to Fewster’s house. Fewster, like Chissick, was a bachelor---a single man, anyhow---and, also like Chissick, he had a sort of charwoman-housekeeper, a Mrs. Singleton, who came at eight o’clock every morning and left after tea-time in the afternoon. I knew that Fewster was an earlyish riser. I had often seen him in his garden at seven o’clock of a morning. I expected to find him in it on this occasion. But when I got to his gate, the garden was empty, and all the blinds of the house were drawn. Clearly, Fewster was not up.

I knocked two or three times at the front door and got no answer. I went round to the back and knocked again, more loudly. Nobody came to that door either. And then it flashed upon me that now, most likely, there was another disappearance!---Fewster, once free of Preece and Parkapple the previous afternoon, had made his preparations and run away.

However, I began to prowl about the house, to see if I could find any crevice or loophole through which I could see into the interior. I poked up the slot of the letter-box in the front door and peered into the hall. I saw Fewster’s hats and his overcoats, his umbrellas and his walking-sticks, but no sign of him. At the back door I found an old tub, and, mounting it, looked through the glass transom above the door into the kitchen. There was nothing to see there, except that on the table there was a supper laid out---cold beef, bread, butter, cheese, pickles, and a bottle of whisky and a syphon of mineral water by it. There was a knife and fork laid for one; on the plate between them lay a slice or two of beef, untouched. It looked to me as if Fewster had just carved beef for himself, and then, before picking up his knife and fork to eat it, had been interrupted by somebody or something. But---why had he never resumed his interrupted meal?

I was going away---hurriedly, for it occurred to me that I had better let Preece and Parkapple know of this as soon as possible---when, glancing again at the window of the front room as I passed it on my way through the garden, I noticed that one of the laths of the Venetian blind was out of place. At that I turned aside, and, stepping across the flower-bed under the window, looked into the room. And the morning was gloriously light and sunny, and the light flooded that room, in spite of the blind, and I could see everything in it, and the first thing I saw was Fewster himself---or what had been Fewster. He was sitting in a very big easychair, right opposite me. He lay back in it, his hands and arms dangling over the padded sides; his head drooped towards his left shoulder. And I knew that he was not asleep, but dead!—as dead as Chissick, as dead as Kest . . . dead!

The thing gave me a shock---but instead of running headlong away, I stood with my eyes glued to that window for a full minute, staring into the room. I think I was wondering if Fewster had died as the result of some attack on him. But the room was so tidy---as tidy as Chissick’s. These men who lived all alone, I thought, must have a passion for neatness. No---there were no signs of any disorder there. It looked to me as if Fewster had just sat down in that chair and collapsed---suddenly.

The click of the garden gate made me start. Glancing round, I saw Mrs. Singleton entering. She carried a basket and a sweeping-brush; the difference between the evidence of her peaceful mission and my knowledge of what there was in that house struck me with strange force. At sight of me she opened her mouth and stared, speechlessly. I went towards her.

“Mrs. Singleton!” I whispered, as though we were already in the presence of the still figure in the parlour. “Don’t be frightened, but---there’s something wrong! I came here to see Mr. Fewster, and I couldn’t get any answer at the door, so I looked through the window. He’s sitting there in a chair, in the parlour---and I’m sure he’s dead!”

Her mouth opened wider than ever, and it seemed quite a long time before her lips relaxed and let out something like a sigh.

“You don’t say!” she exclaimed. “Well---he’s been that bad with his heart this some time past that I can’t say as I’m surprised, though, of course, coming so sudden, like . . . but we’ll go in and make sure.”

She fumbled in her pocket, found a latchkey, and made for the front door. But I drew her attention to the lath in the Venetian blind.

“Look through that first,” I said. “See what I saw!”

She stepped up to the window, peered through, stepped back swiftly.

“I’m afraid it’s what you say, Mr. Crowe,” she said. “That peaceful and still, too! Yes, I’m afraid he’s gone, poor thing!”

She opened the door and we went in, on tiptoe, and into the parlour. I laid a hand on Fewster’s forehead---stone-cold!

The woman at my side was whispering; she too had laid her fingers on one of the dead man’s hands.

“Mr. Crowe,” she said, “we must get somebody here! He’s been dead some time. And---there’s the laying-out, you know. They---they get stiff, you see! If you’ll run to fetch somebody----”

I left her there with all the stillness of the place about her and ran as fast as legs could carry me, first to Preece, then to our own house. Preece and Parkapple were at breakfast already, but as soon as they heard the news they threw down their knives and forks and hurried off; so, a few minutes later, did Trace and Macpherson, neither fully dressed. When we reached Fewster’s house, the two policemen were already there, and Mrs. Singleton was telling them something.

“Anyway, that’s how it is, gentlemen,” she was saying. “The key of the back door isn’t there, neither inside nor outside. It looks to me as if somebody had been in this house since---since that happened,” she said, nodding towards the parlour, “and had gone out by the back door, locking it from outside, and had taken the key away. I’ve never known it to be missing before. Perhaps---perhaps somebody’s done something to the poor man!---his heart, I know, was that bad that the least shock would give him the palpitations.”

They all went into the parlour and looked at Fewster. Macpherson said something about a doctor.

“Sent for him as we came along,” muttered Preece. “He’ll not be long. No signs of any struggle here, I think---everything’s in order.”

He glanced at Parkapple, who, after a searching look at the dead man, had begun to inspect the room.

“No,” said Parkapple, “I see no signs of anything. Judging from what we saw in the kitchen just now, I should say he was going to have his supper, came in here for something, had a seizure, sat down and died straight off. Well---I think he’s probably taken secrets with him!” He paused a moment, and then glanced at Trace and Macpherson. “You saw that he and I recognised each other yesterday?” he continued. “Well---I’ll tell you who he was---used to be, anyway. I told Preece last night. Last time I saw him was in the dock at the Central Criminal Court, a good many years ago now. He got five years.”

“For what?” asked Macpherson.

“Receiving stolen goods,” answered Parkapple. “I arrested him---I and another of our men. It was a second conviction. Of course, Fewster isn’t his real name. Real name is Foester—came from Germany when he was a young man. I’ve often wondered where he’d got to. He was a cute, clever chap in those days. Well---that’s over! And---just when we were wanting to get more news out of him! Unfortunate, this!”

The doctor came hurrying in. But we saw at once that Fewster’s sudden death was in no way surprising to him. He said so, at once.

“His heart has been in such an absolutely rotten condition for some time that I’ve warned him over and over again against sudden exertion, excitement, anything of that kind,” he said. “He was liable to go at any minute. And that’s how he did go!”

“Quite suddenly?” asked Trace.

“With absolute suddenness!” asserted the doctor. “He probably felt himself turn faint, sat down where you see him, and died straight off. I suppose this’ll have to be reported to the coroner. But there’s really no necessity for an inquest. As I’ve attended him for months, I can give a certificate.”

They carried Fewster away into another room, and left him to Mrs. Singleton and some women that she had fetched.

And then Parkapple began to look about the parlour, and suddenly drew our attention to certain matters which lay on an old blotting-pad on a side-table. There was some cotton-wool; some sealing-wax; some small sheets of brown paper; a length of string; a bedroom candlestick, on which wax, red wax, had been dropped.

“Making up a parcel, eh?” he muttered. “And---recently. Well----”

He hesitated a moment, then saying that he would be back presently, left the room; next minute we saw him walking quickly down the garden. The rest of us remained there, talking in low voices. Half an hour went by; then Parkapple came hurrying back. I saw by his expression that he had learned something.

“I’ve found out a bit of really important news,” he said as he came into the parlour and carefully closed the door. “Early yesterday evening Fewster took a small, sealed parcel---evidently a cardboard box---to the post office here, and registered it. I’ve got the address it was sent to: ‘Mr. J. Foster, Post Office, Brighton.’ And now I want to find the receipt they gave him at this office when he handed it in!”
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