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17: And Carries it out

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Author Topic: 17: And Carries it out  (Read 29 times)
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« on: August 09, 2023, 08:54:44 am »

THAT night three cars left the police station at Farnham and took the road leading to the Hog’s Back. In the leading one sat French with beside him Sergeant Sheepshanks. The remaining seats were filled with constables. Short intervals separated the cars.

French was more nervous than he would have cared to admit. He had taken a biggish risk, staking a good deal of his reputation on this throw. What they were about to do would cost money, and if it led to no result he would have to stand the racket, a racket admittedly not of censure, but of ridicule and loss of prestige.

He ran over again in his mind the steps which had led him to his conclusion, and as he did so he took comfort. He believed, whether his conclusion should turn out right or wrong, that his present action was justified. The chance of success was sufficient to make the effort worth while.

First, he had suspected Slade of the murders, or one of them, either acting alone or with Julia Earle. Slade had the necessary motive and, so far as French could form an opinion, the necessary character for the crime. French was inclined to gloss over the question of whether he had the opportunity: assume he had. Now it was practically certain that Ursula Stone had been murdered on Sunday afternoon and her body removed in a car. The great difficulty, however, was, Where could it have been removed to? Where could it have been hidden? An exhaustive search had failed to find it. Then suddenly French had thought of the most perfect hiding-place conceivable. If the body could be buried in the freshly tipped earth on this by-pass road, it would be hidden for good. In the first place the surface of the tip was so rough and uneven that the disturbance of making the grave would never be seen. Then on the very next day the grave would be covered by fresh deposits of clay, and by the time the by-pass was finished, the body would be buried under some fifteen or twenty feet of clay. This perfect hiding-place was not only the only one known in the entire district, but it was close---within five miles of Earle’s house---and was secret: away from the track of people and screened from the sight of houses.

So much was theory---and, French felt, good theory at that---but the case was not confined to theory. On the floor of Slade’s car were traces of clay, this same yellow clay which was tipped at the perfect hiding-place. It was, so far as was known, the only yellow clay in the entire district. Moreover, Slade was not known to have been at the by-pass on any legitimate business.

All this seemed entirely convincing, but French could not forget Slade’s alibi. He had undoubtedly tested it pretty thoroughly, and had found it watertight. Alibis, however, were notoriously unreliable. While French did not think that the existence of the alibi should prevent the experiment being tried, he was a good deal worried by it.

It was a perfect night for their work, at least from one point of view. Pitch darkness and a fine rain driven by a bitter wind from the south-east would keep every self-respecting person indoors. No one was likely to discover what they were doing. On the other hand it wouldn’t be very pleasant. Everything would be wet and the clay specially sticky and hard to work.

Having discharged their passengers at the nearest point, the cars were driven a mile or so along the road, so that their appearance should not lead the curious to inopportune explorations. Not wishing to show lights on the Compton side of the embankment, French led his little band out in the darkness on to the uncharted wastes of the field. They reached the bank, with many a slip and stumble managed to climb it, splashed across the top, and slid down the other side. In the field at its base was Bradbury, and with him a dozen hurricane lamps.

French found that a perceptible portion of the bank had been trimmed back, the clay removed being thrown forward into the field. On the ground was a little pile of shovels and picks.

“You’re ready for us, Mr. Bradbury?” he greeted his friend of the morning. “Fine!” He turned to Sheepshanks. “Now, sergeant, get the men to work, will you? The sooner we begin, the sooner we’ll be through.”

“I could have got you a couple of acetylene flares,” Bradbury explained when the men had started, “but they’re very bright. They would have lit up the whole country and I thought you’d rather be private even if it meant going a bit slower.”

“That’s right,” French agreed, going on to point out that he considered the young man’s arrangements perfect.

Bradbury took out a pipe and pouch, and bending forward with his back to the rain, began to fill the bowl.

“I suppose this is a bit out of your line, inspector?” he went on. “About as much as if I set to work to find the taximan who had picked up a certain fare?”

French also began to make preparations for smoking.

“Not so much as you might think. Curiously enough my last big job was on works like this; bigger than this.”

Bradbury looked as if he was slightly doubtful as to whether any works could have been bigger than his. “Where was that?” he grunted.

“Redchurch-Whitness; a railway widening.”

“Oh gee, yes, I know about that. Do you mean to say you were on that case? Ever come across a chap named Pole?”

“Dozens of times. I knew Mr. Pole quite well.”

“We were at college together. Good chap, Pole.”

“They were a very good crowd of men altogether,” French declared.

“Well, perhaps, except----?”

“Well, perhaps, except. There are exceptions to every rule, Mr. Bradbury.”

“I suppose there are. I’d like to see the work down there. Tell me something about it.”

French did his best. His descriptions of things did not seem quite right to himself, but this keen young man seemed to understand them all right. “It’s really a very interesting job,” he went on. “You should go down and get Mr. Pole to take you over it. You’d enjoy it.”

They chatted on till presently Bradbury made a move. “I’m cold,” he declared. “I’m going to have a whack at this job.” He seized a pick and began thrusting it vigorously into the soft clay.

French somewhat gingerly took a shovel and began shifting stuff. It was harder work than he had bargained for. The clay was just in its most unpleasant and obstructive state. To get the shovel into it wasn’t easy to start with, and then it wouldn’t cast. It stuck to the shovel and had to be carried to where it was to be placed, and scraped off. And all the time it was slippery and abominable to walk on. The men were doing their best, but progress was slow, and once or twice French found himself regretting that he had not used the by-pass labourers instead of police. Very little work was enough for French. He soon resigned his place to a burly constable and stood back to regain his breath.

The scene was slightly weird. The faintly illuminated strip of earthy bank showing up out of the black darkness surrounding, the moving figures of the men taking up all sorts of distorted and unnatural positions in the dim radiance, the grotesque shadows dancing drunkenly, the driving rain, the melancholy sough of the wind. It recalled an episode in French’s life, when several years earlier in Thirsby, in Yorkshire, he had stood by a reopened grave and watched the coffin of Markham Giles being uncovered and raised to the surface. That was in that horrible case at Starvel Hollow. Then his deduction had been justified. Would it be justified on this occasion?

French paced up and down, lost in thought. A cut of more than two feet had now been made along the whole hundred-foot stretch, and no signs of anything unusual had been come on. However, a couple of feet wasn’t a great deal. It was indeed too soon to hope for anything.

He looked at his watch. It was just half-past two. The men had been working for three hours. It was time for a rest and a snack.

Half an hour later work was resumed. French made an alteration in his dispositions, concentrating the men at the centre of the stretch. It had occurred to him that the middle or place of greatest concealment was most likely to have been selected, if indeed any place had been selected at all.

Towards four o’clock the wind died down and the rain turned from a driving mist into a steady downpour. Everyone was tired and wet and in a slightly uncertain temper. French was beginning to feel very depressed. His chances of success seemed to grow less and less with every moment that passed. He forgot that they were approaching that period of the night when health and energy are at their lowest ebb, the time when the outlook on life seems most hopeless, the time when the end comes to the sinking, the hour at which suicide is most common. He forgot in fact that the darkest period comes before the dawn.

So it happened at all events on this occasion. It was just a little past five when one of the men gave a shout. French hurried up.

“Something ’ere, sir. See.” The constable held up the end of some dark object like the large leaf of a rooted plant. French turned his electric torch on it and gasped.

It was a piece of cloth, the end, French imagined, of a lady’s skirt.

“Clear away here,” he said in a low tone. “Carefully does it now, men.”

The atmosphere grew tense as the men worked. Slowly the clay was removed, and as the object was cleared, the last lingering element of doubt disappeared. The outlines of a body became revealed: a woman’s body, buried there in the clay without shroud or coffin. The only faintest sign of reverence or decency shown was that the jumper---of light green wool---had been torn off and laid over the face. When it was removed French found himself gazing with some emotion into what had been the features of Ursula Stone.

But what features! Dreadful, swollen, distorted. And the cause was not far to seek. Round the neck there was a crease, and when French examined it he found it was caused by a string. Ursula had been strangled! Poor, kindly, harmless Ursula!

French was accustomed to murder and its awful results, but when he looked down on that face and thought of how it had been brought into that state, his anger grew hot against the criminal. There would now, he told himself, be something personal in his efforts to track down the author of so fiendish a deed. It was as if this outrage had destroyed one of his own friends. If the murderer were not caught and if the murderer were not hanged, it would not be French’s fault.

But moralising over the remains, however natural, would not produce this result. French pulled himself together and became official once more.

“Some kind of a stretcher?” he asked Bradbury.

“Over here,” the young man pointed. “There are planks and rope. We’ll tie a couple of planks to a couple of fence posts: they’ll make a hurdle. Rough, but good enough. Here, officer,” he explained.

“I suppose there’s not a disused hut that we could leave the body in?” went on French.

It seemed that there was. A hut had been used as a powder store during the blasting through the chalk ridge of the Hog’s Back. This work was now finished and the hut was empty. It was close by, within a few hundred yards.

“That’ll do,” French agreed. “Come on, men, as soon as you’re ready with that hurdle.”

The remains, cleared now of clay, were with rough reverence lifted on to the improvised stretcher, and borne along the bypass formation to the hut. There they were laid, a policeman being left in charge. Another policeman was stationed at the place where they had been found, with orders to let no one approach. French wanted in daylight to turn the clay over again, in the hope of finding some trace of the criminal.

“You’ll stop work at this particular point for a day or two, won’t you, Mr. Bradbury?” French asked. “I fancy I’m not through yet with all I want.”

The young man raised his eyes and nodded significantly. “Of course, inspector. And if you want to dig farther in, we can do it for you at any time.”

“That’s what I shall want,” French agreed. “Well, sir, much obliged for your invaluable help. I’ll push off now, but I’ll be back later. We needn’t hope to keep this matter secret now, but the less of it gets out, the better.”

“That’s all right, inspector. Trust me.”

French had sent the drivers for their cars, and soon the party of tired but excited men were on their way back to Farnham.

“I’m going for a wash-up and a bit of breakfast,” French declared, “and all of you men do the same. If you’re a bit late turning up I’ll stand for it with the super.”

French, clothed and in his right mind, was at the police station when Superintendent Sheaf arrived.

“Well, I hear you’ve pulled it off,” Sheaf greeted him, with slightly less pessimism than usual. “Sheepshanks looked in on his way home. That should be a help.”

“I hope so, super. It was that trace of clay in Slade’s car that put me on to it. But it was a bit of luck finding the body so soon. Sheepshanks told you that she’d been strangled?”

Sheaf grunted assent. “Well, now you’ve got it, what do you propose to do next. Want to pull Slade in?”

French glanced at his companion. Was Sheaf just a little bit jealous? For a moment French thought so, then he felt sure he was mistaken. It was just Sheaf’s manner. Sheaf had been very decent and considerate to him. In fact he had done everything he possibly could to help him, and French meant himself personally and not merely the case. However, he thought it no harm to be diplomatic.

“That’s one of the things I came in to consult you about, super,” he said. “Slade has a rather awkward alibi. It may be faked: probably is. But so long as it stands I’m not sure that we shouldn’t hold our hand. Personally I’d rather be a bit surer of my ground before I burned my boats, so to speak,” French added, feeling his metaphor was slightly strained. “I’d stand for keeping him under observation, but I don’t think I’d favour an arrest.”

Sheaf nodded. “I agree. Do you want me to do the shadowing?”

“If you will, super.”

“I’ll put a couple of men on to it. What about the body?”

“I would suggest that we have it brought in to the mortuary here,” French answered. “We can’t leave it in that hut.”

“I agree. You want the ambulance?”

“Yes, please. Then I’ll have that clay turned over again. Might find something useful.”

Sheaf nodded again.

“Also I want to go back farther into the bank,” continued French.

Sheaf looked at him keenly. “Yes,” he rejoined slowly, “I should have thought you probably would.” He paused. “Well,” he went on presently, “that should be easy. But now that the thing’s going to be known, I don’t see why those by-pass men shouldn’t do the work. What’s the point of our doing it ourselves?”

“None, super. That, I’m afraid, was a mistake on my part. I wanted to keep private anything we might find. I think we need scarcely worry about that now.”

“That’s all right. You were justified. Will these engineer people do what you want?”

“Oh, yes, they’ve got quite a good young man in charge there and he’s keen to help.”

“Something amusing for him,” Sheaf grunted. “Very good, inspector, that seems all right. When will you have the body in?”

“As soon as you can let me have the ambulance.”

“Right; I’ll arrange it now. And I’ll have the doctor at the mortuary in an hour.”

French nodded. “One other thing, super. I’d like a relief to put on the bank. I don’t want anyone messing round till I’ve had a further search.”

“One man?”

“One man, super.”

Sheaf pressed a bell. “Tell Black to go out with Inspector French and to act under his directions all day.”

Twenty minutes later Constable Black had relieved the man who had been left on the scene of the excavation and the latter was helping the ambulance driver to lift all that remained of unhappy Ursula Stone into the vehicle. French returned with it into Farnham. As they reached the mortuary the police doctor appeared. French introduced himself.

“I’ll hand you over the clothes presently, inspector,” said Dr. Peters. “Then I’ll make my examination.”

French went carefully through the clothes, but beyond satisfying himself that the strand of wool found in No. 2 Thicket was the same as that of the deceased’s jumper, he learned nothing. Then while waiting for the doctor’s report, he took a car and drove out to St. Kilda to inform Julia Earle of the discovery.

Both she and Marjorie were terribly upset by the news. French could hardly doubt that their distress was real. Moreover, he felt sure they were genuinely surprised. The discovery had of course revived his suspicions, of them as well as others, but he had to admit there was no suggestion of guilt in their deportment.

By the time he reached Farnham Dr. Peters had finished his preliminary examination. Ursula, he reported, had received a severe blow on the point of her chin which had probably rendered her unconscious. Some slight bleeding had taken place from her mouth and nose. This doubtless accounted for the drops French had found. But the real cause of death was strangulation. A cord had been tied tightly round her neck, and she had probably never recovered consciousness. There was the cord. As the inspector would see, it was a perfectly ordinary piece of cord, which anyone might have in his or her pocket.

“Then you don’t think it was premeditated?” French asked.

“I didn’t say that,” returned Peters. “I don’t know whether it was premeditated or whether it wasn’t. I say it needn’t have been. A man can use his fists at any time without premeditation, and given an unconscious woman and a piece of string---which anyone might have in his pockets---murder could be carried out without any further preparation.”

French nodded. This worked in with his theory that Ursula had disturbed the thief as he was working at Earle’s safe.

“You’ll make a post-mortem, doctor, won’t you?”

Given time to look round him, Dr. Peters would do so. The inquest could, if the police authorities so desired, be held on the following day. He would be ready.

French went in to talk to Sheaf about the inquest. While the coroner would have to be advised immediately, he suggested that the actual inquest should be postponed for a day or two.

Sheaf raised his eyebrows. “More evidence?”

“It’s possible, super.”

“Right; well, I’ll see the coroner, and you get ahead out at Compton.”

French’s luck in minor matters was less in evidence than usual when he reached the by-pass. Bradbury was down near Milford, and nearly an hour passed before he was run to earth. French’s immediate difficulties, however, were then over. Bradbury agreed to put a dozen men and a ganger at his disposal, who would do whatever he wanted. If he would come back to Compton, Bradbury would arrange it at once.

French first had the whole of the clay surrounding the spot at which the body had been found turned slowly over in the hope of finding some object dropped during the interment. This was a tedious job, but important. Unfortunately it yielded nothing.

While this search was in progress Bradbury was obtaining further necessary information, namely the precise line to which the toe of the slope had stood a fortnight earlier than that he had already given: on the date, in fact, not of Ursula’s, but of Earle’s disappearance.

This was some four feet farther into the bank, and French set his gang to open back to it.

“We’ll not get it done to-day,” the foreman told him.

“I don’t suppose you will,” French agreed. “You can go on again to-morrow, and I’ll have a man to watch it to-night.”

Next morning the work was resumed. By lunchtime the line of the previous bank was reached, and the men, who were fully alive to what was going on, worked with more eagerness. French stood beside them, watching with an eagle eye each shovelful as it was cast aside.

Keenly occupied though he was with his inspection, French’s philosophical mind could not but be struck by the overwhelming effect of an idea. Here he was, watching one of the most commonplace and prosaic operations imaginable, the shovelling of clay; and yet he found the process exciting to an almost painful degree. He was thrilled to the marrow every time a workman had difficulty in driving in his shovel or paused to examine the ground he had uncovered. And why? Simply because of the idea he had in his mind.

He had concentrated operations on a stretch of a few feet on either side of where Ursula Stone’s body had been found, and the men were placed as close together as they could work. Progress was consequently as rapid as was possible with such sticky clay. Fortunately the rain had ceased on the previous day and there had since been over twenty-four hours of dry weather. The clay was therefore in a slightly more workable condition than when the Farnham police had tried navvying. The bank had now, half an hour before quitting time, been cut some two feet in beyond the line of the slope on that eventful Sunday when Earle had so mysteriously vanished.

French was much too excited to stand still. He kept impatiently walking up and down, dancing on one foot at a time, jerkily lighting and throwing away cigarettes. It must be, he thought, now or never. He wondered if the men would work a little late and if the necessary lights could be obtained. There were the lamps they had had on the previous night, if these had been filled. He decided to send a man to ask Bradbury.

But before he could do so, history suddenly repeated itself. One of the men gave a cry, and when French hurried over, it was to find that the shovel had struck some cloth-covered object. French stooped and scraped away the clay. The cloth was stained and muddy, but as he lifted a fold he saw the other side. It was grey!

Even his nerves, case-hardened by the discovery of many a similar record of crime, were not proof against this one. A shock of physical horror ran through him. Earle’s body he had expected to find, yes. But this body was not Earle’s! Earle had been dressed in brown on that fatal Sunday. Surely this body must be, could only be, the nurse’s!

“Clear away the clay,” he said in a low voice. “Carefully does it now!”

The men did not need to be told. With the utmost care, even reverence, they dug away the surrounding material. Very little work was needed to confirm French’s suspicion. Here indeed lay the body, not of Earle, but of Nurse Helen Nankivel.

It was with a furious anger against the diabolic author of the crime, that French saw the manner of her death. Here were the same dreadful, swollen, distorted features and the same terrible line round the throat that had appeared in Ursula Stone’s case. The chin also was bruised. French did not need the doctor’s report to know what had been done.

Once again French registered a vow that he would not rest till the devil who was guilty of this ghastly crime had paid for it on the scaffold. That this light-hearted, cheerful, kindly young woman, who had spent her short life trying to ease human suffering, and who had the reputation of having never willingly injured anyone, that she should have been done to death in this revolting way, demanded the heaviest penalty that the law allowed. French swore to himself that that penalty should be paid to the uttermost.

In a subdued voice he gave orders. This time he had brought a stretcher, and the remains were lifted upon it and borne to the same hut where those of the other unhappy victim had rested. French, hastening to the nearest telephone, rang up Sheaf, asking for the ambulance.

But unless he was greatly mistaken, the ghastly affair was not over. He hurried back to the men, who had stopped work and were conversing in eager knots. “Carry on,” he said grimly. “I’m afraid we’re not done yet.”

They had scarcely set to work again when the expected happened. Another workman cried out and French hastened over. ...

Once again the same dreadful scene was enacted. Just beside where the body of the nurse had lain cloth was again found, brown cloth this time. The clay was removed. A human form was uncovered: Earle’s. There, murdered in the same awful way as the two women, was all that remained of the missing doctor.

French found his horror grow as he contemplated the magnitude of the crime. Three murders! Three persons done to death to gratify someone’s greed or lust or hate or fear! And no clue to the perpetrator---except a little patch of clay on the floor of a car. Well, that could wait.

For the third time the ghastly ritual was gone through. Earle’s body was taken to the hut, and when the ambulance arrived, the remains of both victims were carried off together. French went with the vehicle into Farnham and saw Sheaf. Dr. Peters was advised. Then French rode out once more to St. Kilda and carried out the terribly distressing duty of telling the news to Julia and Marjorie.

Next day the inquests on the three bodies were opened. Formal evidence of identification was taken and in each case the proceedings were adjourned to enable the police to make further enquiries. Till this had been done French was too busy to sit down and think over the position with the necessary detachment. But as soon as the immediate requirements were over he set himself to consider what still remained to be done.

He almost smiled as he remembered his suggestion that he should drop the case. Drop it! No matter what time and labour were involved, he must not now rest till he had found the criminal and till justice had been satisfied.

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