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7: Slade

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Author Topic: 7: Slade  (Read 22 times)
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« on: August 08, 2023, 08:15:15 am »

SLADE was in no hurry to make his appearance. For twenty minutes French sat in the little room, growing momentarily more impatient. Then the door opened and Slade lounged in.

“Sorry to keep you and all that,” he murmured. “You wanted to see me?”

“I did, sir, but before I state my business I should tell you who I am.” He handed over an official card.

“I know who you are,” Slade returned, scarcely glancing at the card. “You’re the Scotland Yard man. I heard about you next door.”

“Then,” said French, “you know my business. I’m investigating the disappearance of Dr. Earle, and I called to ask you to kindly give me any information you may have which might help me.”

“Not easy when I haven’t any.”

“You may unwittingly have some, sir, and it is that I want to get hold of.”

“Well, you better ask what you want to know.” This being good advice, French took it, systematically working through the points on which he desired enlightenment.

The house, Slade said, was owned by Slade’s brother-in-law, Colonel Dagger, a retired officer who was a figure-head director on a number of small companies. There were no children and Slade lived with them. Slade did not exactly say it, but French gathered that the Daggers were not too well off, and were glad of the addition Slade’s residence made to their income. Slade had “some money” of his own, and was not engaged in any business, but he was interested in horses and attended the principal races, as well as belonging to some hunts. He had known the Earles since the Daggers moved into the house, some two years previously. Yes, he liked Mrs. Earle, who was always very decent to him, though of course there was nothing in the slightest degree serious or improper in their relations. He did not care much for Earle, not because he had anything against him, but simply because he was not in his line.

He had seen Julia Earle on the Thursday and the Saturday before the disappearance. On the Thursday she had gone for a little run in his overhauled Bentley; just down to Arundel and Bognor. On the Saturday he had simply called to ask if she was all right after the run.

Yes, he had seen Earle on the Saturday’s call. No, there was certainly no unpleasantness. He did not care for Earle nor Earle for him, but they were always polite to each other.

“Did Mr. Earle ask you why you had come?” As the interrogation proceeded, Slade was obviously getting more and more nervous. “Yes,” he answered after a pause, “and what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” said French. “Did he invite you to go?”

Slade was evidently most unwilling to reply. “I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he complained. “Are you accusing me of kidnapping the man?”

“Don’t be silly, Mr. Slade,” French returned. “You might know I’m accusing you of nothing. If I were doing so I should have cautioned you. But you’ve got to tell me what you can or else come round to the station and see the superintendent.”

“You can’t make me answer you if I don’t want to.”

“Not if you’re under suspicion, I agree. But if in a possible murder case you hold back information, you’ll find out we’re not so helpless as you seem to think. Now please don’t let us waste any more time. Did Mr. Earle invite you to go?”

Though loath to admit it, Slade was evidently impressed. He sulkily admitted Earle had told him to get out, and that he had replied that he would do so when Julia asked him. Julia had then come into the room, had wanted to know what the trouble was, and had asked Earle if he was aware that this was her visitor. Earle had said in a nasty tone, “Your visitor, is he? Well, I hope you’re proud of him,” and had gone out of the room. Julia had then told Slade not to mind what Earle had said, that he got fits of bad temper, but would be all right presently.

French turned then to the Sunday evening. Where was Slade from 8.45 that evening until the next morning?

For the first time it seemed to dawn on Slade that these questions might be more significant than he had realised. His sulkiness disappeared suddenly and was replaced by an evident anxiety to please.

“Where was I?” he repeated. “I was in bed, the whole time.”

“In bed at 8.40 in the evening?”

“I was in bed at half-past eight. I wasn’t well. I had a chill or something.”

“Did you have dinner that evening?”

“Yes, I did. At least I turned up at dinner, but didn’t eat anything.”

“Were you all right next day?”

“No, I didn’t get up next day till lunch-time.”

“Did anyone go up to see you after you had gone to bed?”

“Not that night. When I didn’t go down for breakfast next morning Elmina---that’s my sister, Mrs. Dagger---came up to see how I was.”

“Then,” said French, “from half-past eight on Sunday evening till breakfast on Monday morning you were alone. You tell me that you were in your room, but can you prove it?”

Slade was obviously growing more alarmed, but now, either because he thought it a wise attitude or because his self-respect demanded it, he simulated indignation.

“Why should I try to prove it?” he asked truculently. “I resent your tone extremely. If you’re accusing me of some crime you’ve already said yourself I needn’t answer your questions. If you’re not, I object to the questions.”

“Now, Mr. Slade,” French answered quietly, “there’s not the slightest use in your taking up that line. This may be a case of murder, and in a murder case everyone in any way concerned is asked to account for his or her movements at the time of the crime. You have told me you were in bed. Very good; I’m not disputing it. But I want proof. If you think for a moment you’ll see that for yourself.”

“Well, I can’t give it to you.”

In his painstaking way French went into the matter, seeing Slade’s bedroom and the lie of the house, and interviewing the servants and Mrs. Dagger. The servants could tell him nothing, but Mrs. Dagger substantiated a good deal of Slade’s story. She said that on the Sunday her brother Reggie was seedy all day. He ate scarcely any lunch and spent the afternoon in a chair before the fire. At dinner he had nothing whatever, and immediately after dinner he went to bed. Next morning, when he did not come down to breakfast, Mrs. Dagger went up to his room and found him rather feverish. He got up for lunch, however, and gradually got all right, though for three or four days he was not up to the mark.

This was all very well, but it missed the point at issue. As a result of his enquiries French felt satisfied that Slade could have secretly left and re-entered the house at any time after half-past eight. At the same time, there was not the slightest evidence that he had done so.

Suppose, French thought, he had left the house. Suppose he had committed the murder, either alone or in co-operation with Julia. What, in either of these cases, would have been his particular and most important part?

The hiding of the body, undoubtedly. How could this have been done?

French saw that the answer to this question hinged largely on whether Slade could or could not have taken out his car. If he had been able to do so, the body might have been disposed of anywhere within a radius of a hundred miles. On the other hand, if the car were not available, the body must have been hidden close by. French wondered if he could get any light along these lines.

Leaving the house, he walked round to the yard. It evidently dated from the days of horses, and there were ranges of stables, coach-houses and hay-lofts. The coach-houses had, however, been turned into garages, and the lofts over them into a dwelling-house for the chauffeur and his wife.

There were three cars in the garage, a large Daimler, a Morris Minor, and Slade’s sports Bentley. Bates, the chauffeur, was engaged in polishing up the last, a well-preserved but very old car. French bade him good morning.

“I’ve been admiring the condition you’ve got those cars in,” he went on. “I wonder if you’d tell me what stuff you use for them?”

This was one of French’s favourite gambits. Long experience had taught him that with certain types a word of judicious flattery was invaluable in the extraction of information. The ice thus tactfully broken, they discussed car polishes till French really began to know something about the subject. Then he turned to business. Explaining who he was, he went on to say that he was asking everyone in the neighbourhood if they could give him any help. He didn’t suppose Mr. Bates could tell him anything, but he was asking just on spec.

Mr. Bates could tell him nothing.

“No,” said French, “I didn’t expect you could. At the same time you may be able to do more for me than you think. I am trying to find out if Dr. Earle was seen on Sunday evening. Now while you may not have seen him yourself, you may have seen someone else who saw him. You follow me?”

Bates cautiously agreed.

“Good,” said French; “then you won’t mind telling me how you spent Sunday evening, say from 8.30 on?”

Bates didn’t in the least mind. He had spent it in his home, above the garage, with his wife and little son.

French expressed disappointment, though he was inwardly delighted.

“I suppose,” he went on, “you don’t usually have much to do on a Sunday evening? Cars are not often wanted out at that time?”

The man agreed again.

“Were any of the cars out last Sunday evening?”

No cars had been taken out on Sunday evening.

“But how can you be so sure of that?” French persisted. “I don’t doubt what you say, but I’d like to understand how you know.”

“Why, because I didn’t hear them,” Bates returned a trifle impatiently. “You couldn’t as much as open the garage door without me hearing it in the sitting-room, or for the matter of that, anywhere in the ’ouse. And as for starting them up, why, it would kinda wake the dead. If there was anyone about the garage I tell you I’d be down pretty quick.”

“I suppose you would. And your wife, she didn’t hear anything either?”

Bates regarded his interrogator with a sort of mild pity. “Well,” he said, “you can ask her. ’Ere,” he called up the stairs, “ ’ere, Maria, ’ere’s a gentleman wants to ask you a question. Will you come up?”

“Thanks,” said French.

Mrs. Bates proved to be a pleasant reliable-looking woman, whom French instinctively felt he might trust. She corroborated her husband’s statement. She was quite positive no car had been out on Sunday.

“Good,” said French. “I’m much obliged.”

This seemed conclusive enough. All the same, French examined the cars, on the chance that if any of them had been used, some trace might remain. But he found nothing.

If, then, Slade were guilty, and if he had not used a car, the body must be somewhere close by. Where did murderers hide bodies?

In graves, under cairns of stones, under brushwood, in the sea and in deep pools of rivers, in disused mine shafts, quarry pits, caves, dene-holes, wells. . . . But usually in graves.

Here on this Surrey common there were practically no stones; no water except the Tarn, a small lake in private grounds about a mile from St. Kilda; no mine shafts, quarry pits, caves or dene-holes, and very few wells. There were, however, plenty of dogs, which would quickly find a body concealed beneath brushwood. French felt sure that if the body were anywhere in the neighbourhood, it must have been buried.

For grave-digging a spade would have been required. Did this suggest a line of investigation?

French turned into the garden and strolled round to where the gardener was turning over the soil in a recently cleared bed.

“I’ve been admiring your roses,” he began, repeating his tactics with the chauffeur. “A splendid show you’ve got for this time of year.”

The gardener rose to the bait and began to talk readily. French presently stated his business.

“Dr. Earle may have been murdered that night,” he went on, “and if so the murderer may have buried the body. I’m therefore wondering where he might have got a spade. Can you help me there?”

The gardener didn’t think so.

“Where do you keep your tools at night?” French went on.

“In the tool-’ouse; that little ’ouse over there behind the laurels.”

“I’d like to see it.”

It was a substantial little brick-and-tile building. It had been locked during the entire week-end of the disappearance, but the lock was an ordinary stock lock, and French was satisfied that it would be a simple matter to get a key to open it.

“You didn’t happen to notice on Monday morning whether any of the tools had been disarranged?”

No, so far as the gardener was aware, nothing had been touched.

“Very well,” said French, “I’ll try these spades for fingerprints. And I’ll want to take yours also, because it’s only prints other than yours which will interest me.”

But nothing came of the experiment. No prints other than the gardener’s were revealed. Nor did an examination of the blades show any foreign substance which might have formed a clue.

French walked back to St. Kilda and rang up Superintendent Sheaf. Could the super spare a few men to assist in making a more extended search of the wood?

Sheaf agreed and in a short time a car arrived with Sergeant Sheepshanks and three constables. They got immediately to work, and placing themselves in a line, each some twenty feet from his neighbour, they walked backwards and forwards through the wood, examining a fresh tract each time. When as it was growing dusk they had finished, French felt utterly convinced that the body of James Earle had not been disposed of anywhere near his home.

Nor apparently had it been removed by car. None of the only four cars available to his suspects had been used, and had a car been borrowed, Sheaf’s enquiries would almost certainly have revealed the fact. It looked indeed as if the body could not have been disposed of at all; in other words, that Earle had not been murdered.

Kidnapping French thought exceedingly unlikely, and his thoughts turned back to a voluntary disappearance. These discoveries had made it increasingly necessary to trace the lady Earle had met in London. If she could be identified, the chances were that the whole affair would be cleared up. It might not be necessary to find either herself or Earle. Proof that they had gone off together would probably end the case so far as French was concerned.

It was because he had reached this conclusion that French was so greatly pleased at the message which he found waiting for him at the police station in Farnham. It was from the Yard and read: “Parking-ticket issued to car PE 2157 from Halloway’s Park, Staines, on Thursday, 6th inst.”

In a happier frame of mind than he had experienced for some time, French took a late train to Town. Tomorrow would be Sunday, but on Monday morning he would follow up this clue.

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