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18: The Case Twists

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Author Topic: 18: The Case Twists  (Read 26 times)
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« on: August 09, 2023, 09:32:30 am »

IT did not take French long to settle on his first line of investigation. This dreadful discovery of the three bodies had been brought about in a very simple way: by his observation of the clay in Slade’s car. Obviously the first question to be gone into was, How had the clay got there?

He wondered if Slade could account for it. If he could, there was no case against him, but if not, the inference was damning.

After a deal of thought French came to the conclusion that he must ask Slade the question. This would have the unfortunate result of putting Slade on his guard, were he guilty, but French did not see how he could help that. He could not risk wasting a lot of time on what Slade might be able to clear up in a sentence.

He looked at his watch. It was still early in the afternoon. No time like the present. In half an hour he was knocking at the door of Altadore.

Once again he was lucky in finding Slade at home and once again the young man’s manner was obsequious.

“It’s just one more question, Mr. Slade,” French began. “You will understand that points keep arising in a case like this, and it is not always possible at a single interview to cover all you want to know.”

“That’s all right, inspector. What is it?”

“I’ll tell you, sir. I understand you did not take your car out on Saturday week at all. Is that correct?”

“Saturday week? Day before---er---Miss Stone was killed?” He paused, apparently in thought and evidently anxious. “That’s right enough. I stayed in both the morning and the evening and had a round of golf in the afternoon. Walked to the club, you know.”

“Quite so, sir. On the Sunday you had it out from about midday till about eleven at night?”

“Yes.”

“That was the only time on the Sunday you had it out?”

“Yes, the only time.”

“Now on the Sunday did you happen to give anyone a lift?”

“No, I did not,” Slade declared.

“This is rather important, Mr. Slade, important to you as well as to me: excuse me therefore for stressing it. You’re quite sure you had no one in the car, either when it was in motion or stationary at any time on Saturday or Sunday?”

Slade was obviously growing more and more uneasy.

“Absolutely. Perfectly certain. No one entered the car but myself.”

French nodded. “All I wanted, sir, was to be sure you understood what I was asking,” he explained. “Now another question, please. On that Sunday did you walk in any dirty clay soil?”

Slade stared while the expression of his eyes changed. “No,” he said, shaking his head.

“You’re quite sure?” French persisted.

Slade moved uneasily in his chair. “Absolutely,” he repeated earnestly. “Wasn’t off the road anywhere.”

“Then,” said French quietly, though watching the other keenly, “how do you account for the fact that on that Sunday yellow clay was deposited in your car on the carpet in front of the driver’s seat?”

Slade did not reply. He sat staring vacantly at French while the blood slowly drained from his face, leaving it a horrible mottled grey. French remained motionless with his eyes fixed on that unwholesome countenance. “Well, Mr. Slade?” he said at last.

Slade roused himself. “My God, I don’t know,” he stammered in a low troubled tone, and then: “I can’t believe it! It isn’t true! There couldn’t have been clay in the car. You don’t really mean it, inspector?”

“There was certainly clay there, Mr. Slade.”

Slade gave a sort of inarticulate moan. Then the words came quickly. “I don’t know anything about it,” he exclaimed eagerly. “Never saw any clay. Didn’t know it was there. Don’t know how it could have got there. You believe me, inspector? I tell you it’s the truth.”

More than this French could not obtain. For a moment he wondered had he enough evidence to risk an arrest. Then he saw he had not. He therefore expressed himself as satisfied with Slade’s statement, reassuring him as best he could. “I may have to question the servants,” he added. “I take it you have no objection?”

Slade had no objection and French, wishing him good afternoon, turned his attention to the parlourmaid. Who cleaned Slade’s shoes? Who had cleaned them on the dates in question? Had there been any trace of yellow clay on any of the shoes?

He made as complete enquiries as he could, but with only a negative result. No one had seen yellow clay on either Slade’s or anyone else’s shoes. Then he examined for himself all Slade’s shoes, believing that even if cleaned, minute traces of clay might remain. But he could find none.

French was puzzled as he rode back to Farnham. If he were to judge by Slade’s words and manner alone, he would have assumed him guilty. Slade certainly was frightened, and he unquestionably realised the significance of the clay. On the other hand the matter of the shoes undoubtedly supported Slade’s statement.

But, French saw with exasperation, even if Slade were lying, the matter was far from clear. There were two additional reasons why it was hard to visualise the man’s guilt.

Of these, the first was his alibi. Unless French could find a flaw in his alibi, Slade could not be taken into court. His defence would be overwhelming. And French couldn’t find any flaw, at least he had not been able to do so up to the present. But this matter of the alibi was fundamental to his progress. He must establish it beyond doubt or break it down.

He went up to his room and settled down to work on it. Item by item he went over the thing again in his mind, with the sole result of becoming more puzzled than ever. Slade and his car were definitely at Petersfield at 4.0 p.m. Of that there could be no doubt; it was checked by the people he had visited. From St. Kilda to Petersfield was something like 21 miles, part of it over narrow and twisting roads. It would be impossible to run the distance in half an hour. But at 3.30 Ursula was alive. The servant, Lucy, had seen her just before going out. And Lucy had unquestionably caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35. There was her own evidence, and that of the friends to whom she was going, as also of the bus company as to their service, all of which points French had checked. It was certain, therefore, that Slade could not have committed the murder before reaching Petersfield.

That Slade stayed there till five was also proven beyond possibility of doubt. It was at least as certain as human testimony permitted. Two of the friends he had met had particularly noted the hour of his departure, as they had considered what they would do between then and dinner.

Again there was definitely no time for Slade to have made the interment between five o’clock, when he left Petersfield, and six, when he reached the golf club. Every minute of that hour was satisfactorily accounted for. Besides, it was not as if the thing were a matter of minutes. To have conveyed Ursula’s body from Thicket No. 2 to the by-pass bank, and there buried it, would have been a matter of an hour or more. Slade simply could not have done it before six. Nor could he have done it between six and eleven. The evidence that he was at the club during the whole of that period was too convincing to be doubted.

There was then left only the time after eleven. Here came in the evidence of the Dagger chauffeur and his wife. They were positive, firstly, that Slade’s car was returned to the garage at about eleven, and secondly, that neither it nor any other was taken out till the next day. And all French’s instinct and experience told him that they were speaking the truth. Besides, after eleven St. Kilda and its surroundings were in the hands of the police. It did not of course follow that Slade would have been seen had he then attempted to dispose of the body, but French did not believe he would have attempted it. He would have known that both the paths in the wood and the roads were being searched, and the chances of his being seen would be considerable. This admittedly was not convincing, but the evidence of the chauffeur and his wife was.

But if the alibi made a difficulty in the theory of Slade’s guilt, French’s second consideration involved an even greater difficulty. He believed that if Slade had murdered Ursula, whether assisted by Julia or not, it could only be because Ursula had got hold of evidence that one or other was guilty of the first murder. Now Slade---and Julia---might have had a motive for murdering Earle, but what possible motive could either have had for killing Helen Nankivel? French couldn’t imagine any.

Did it mean, then, that Slade was out of the affair? It would seem so. But then there was the clay! French swore.

Presently he put Slade out of his mind and turned to reconsider the whole problem from a broader standpoint.

He had so often fruitlessly wondered who could be guilty, that he felt there was no use in spending more time over the problem. Rather he thought he should concentrate on motive. What could have been the motive for these three crimes?

Taking Ursula’s case first, he went over the theory which had already occurred to him. Had she been murdered because she had discovered someone burgling Earle’s secret safe, and was the burglar removing evidence that he had murdered Earle?

At once French thought of an important point which up to now he had overlooked. It was practically certain that the burglar had murdered Earle, for the simple reason that there was no other way in which he could have obtained Earle’s keys to open the safe. That he had opened the safe was proved by the indications that someone wearing gloves had been fingering the inside. And it had certainly been opened with a key.

The assumption then was that the burglar had murdered Earle and that French’s theory of Ursula’s death was correct. Admittedly it did not prove that incriminating information about the first murder had been hidden in the safe, but proof of this point was not immediately material to the investigation.

But what was material, and what had so far been left entirely out of the picture, was the murder of the nurse. Obviously the three crimes were intimately connected. Where did unhappy Helen Nankivel come in?

In the light of his subsequent discoveries, French’s original theory of an intrigue between Earle and the nurse seemed scarcely tenable. Was there any other possible reason for their association?

At once an idea which he had already frequently considered recurred to him. Could their association have been professional? They were both, as it were, in the same line of business. Could some medical question, something possibly about Earle’s book, have arisen, which had led to their dreadful end?

Then French remembered that there had been another point of contact between them connected with their professions. Had they not recently been consultant and nurse on the same case? Could anything in connection with the Frazer case account for what had happened?

French turned to his notes of that case, taken incidentally and without much detail. He was no doctor, but he had picked up a few isolated medical facts. As he re-read his notes a new and startling thought leaped into his mind and he began to whistle soundlessly beneath his breath.

He got up and began to pace the room as he turned the idea over. Was it a possibility? Was he at last on to the root of the whole affair? He could not tell. His knowledge did not enable him to say. He must have advice.

For a few moments he hesitated. Then he went to the telephone and rang up the London police doctor to whom he had already sent Earle’s manuscript.

“A hypothetical case, doctor, if you please,” he said. “A man of nearly seventy gets----” and he passed on all the information he had about Frazer and his illness and death.

At once his own idea was confirmed. Arsenic!

“If you’re suspicious and if those are the symptoms,” said the doctor, “then try arsenic. I don’t say it was arsenic. Those symptoms are the symptoms of arsenical poisoning, but they are also the symptoms of the disease the man was supposed to be suffering from. All I’m giving you is a hint as to what you may look for.”

French rang off, his brain whirling. Could it be that he had not yet reached the end of the horror of this ghastly case? His nerves were pretty well hardened, but a case with four murders was a bit too much even for him. Could this wild idea of his really be the truth?

If so, what could possibly have happened? Why, that Earle and the nurse had tumbled to the thing, that the murderer learned that they were preparing to act and in self-defence murdered them both. That the proof they had procured---why, yes, of course!---was in Earle’s safe. That the murderer was trying to recover this when Ursula interrupted him and that he therefore had to kill Ursula too!

Here at last, French was convinced, was the truth! For the first time all these dreadful isolated events fell into line and became unified. Here at last was a satisfying theory of what might have happened.

Once again he began to pace the room, too much excited to remain still. If this idea were correct it opened up a complete new field of investigation. Who could have murdered not only Earle, the nurse and Ursula, but also old Frazer? Surely not more than one person could have had the necessary opportunities!

If so, French’s task became instantly easier. He had only to find this one person and his work would be done. And elimination should lead to him directly. All he had to do was to make a complete list of the apparently possible, and detailed investigation should unquestionably rule out all but one.

He determined that not even to Sheaf would he breathe a hint of what he suspected, until he had looked into the matter further. And then and there he began to do so.

Once again he looked over his notes. Frazer had evidently been a trying old man. Sheaf had said his wife had had a hell of a time with him and suggested that she could only have married him for his money. The information French had picked up at the house and from Campion and Nurse Henderson tended generally to confirm this view. And it seemed indubitable that Mrs. Frazer stood to gain a very large sum of money, put by the butler at £60,000, by her husband’s death.

Here at once was motive, and strong motive at that. To change a life of bondage and worry and fear of being disinherited, for freedom, a charming place and £60,000, was something for which it would be worth running a risk.

He had of course met Mrs. Frazer only once, but in that short interview he had obtained a very definite impression of her character. She was, he guessed, selfish, efficient and probably cruel. He did not think that qualms of conscience would hold her back from anything she might undertake. Undoubtedly Mrs. Frazer was a suspect.

This seemed progress, though when he began to consider how Mrs. Frazer could have murdered Ursula Stone, he didn’t think he had progressed so far. However, let him take his fences when he came to them. On a fresh page of his notebook, under the heading “Possible Suspects”, he wrote, “1. Mrs. Hermione Frazer.”

Equally obvious as a suspect was the nephew, Gates. Gates so far seemed to him somewhat of a dark horse. He had evidently led a rough life among a rough crowd in Australia. Why when he was heir to much money he should have done so, was not clear, but it looked as if there had been some early trouble in his life. Hearsay told French moreover, first, that Gates was hard up, and secondly, that he was due a large sum on his uncle’s death. Under Mrs. Hermione Frazer’s name French wrote, “2. Arthur Gates.”

But when he came to consider a third suspect, French’s facility deserted him. So far as he could tell from the information in his possession, no one else had any motive at all.

He decided to get hold of the Frazer will and see for himself just how the money had been left. For the moment, then, he might leave this point.

But money was not the only motive for murder. Could anyone have been in love with Mrs. Frazer? Could she have been in love with anyone? Here was something to be looked into at once. And also another point: Who could have got at the medicine and the food? If these questions were answered, and the results tabulated and compared with lists of those who could have murdered Ursula, Earle and the nurse, the main problem should be solved.

And then, as in warfare an attack is followed by a counter-attack, French saw the inevitable snag. Earle and Helen Nankivel could scarcely have suspected that Frazer had been poisoned, as if they had, they would never have acquiesced in the burial. They would never have kept silence about their doubts for so long a time as seventeen days after the old man’s death.

At the same time the mere fact that a rich man had died with symptoms similar to those of arsenical poisoning, was in itself suspicious. French decided that there was sufficient doubt on the point to demand an enquiry. For some time longer he considered whether he could proceed with this unknown to Sheaf. Finally he decided that he could not.

Next morning therefore he had a talk with the superintendent. Sheaf at first was sceptical, but on thinking over French’s arguments, he also agreed that the matter could not be left as it then stood.

“What will you do?” he asked.

“I thought of trying to get some more details about conditions in the Frazer household, and the possibilities of tampering with food or medicine. If I come on anything suspicious I thought then of going to Campion and getting his views.”

“He’ll not admit much,” Sheaf grunted. “Didn’t he give the certificate.”

“He mayn’t be able to help himself. However, I’m afraid that’s going a bit too fast.”

Then began one of those nebulous enquiries which French loathed; the search for motives and possibilities rather than facts. He wanted to find out if anyone besides Mrs. Frazer and Gates had an interest in Frazer’s death, and also who could have administered the poison. And this when the possibility of poison could not be hinted at.

French found the job tedious and disappointing. His veiled enquiries at Polperro roused antagonisms and the assurances that his questionees knew nothing. And indeed he was forced to the belief that at least in most cases, that reply was true.

He began by seeing Mr. Hunter, the senior partner of Hunter, Newnes & Hunter, the late gentleman’s solicitors. He made an impressive start by producing his Yard credentials, but Mr. Hunter was not impressed. The only information the solicitor would give was that he was now acting for Mrs. Frazer. As to Mr. Frazer’s will, that would be made known in due course, but was now confidential. If the inspector wished to see it and produced the necessary authority, it would at once be handed over. In the meantime if that was all the inspector wanted, he wished him a very good day.

At Polperro practically the only thing he learned was that both Mrs. Frazer and Gates had had ample opportunity of tampering with the deceased gentleman’s medicine, as one or other sat with him while Nurse Nankivel was out in the afternoon. Apparently, however, any other member of the household could have done the same, as in the course of their business both nurses occasionally left the sick-room during their periods of duty and towards the end old Frazer was too exhausted to observe who might enter.

The same pretty well applied to the question of food. The cook and the nurses could of course have doped it, and French believed so could anyone else. There was, moreover, in the toolsheds any amount of weedkiller containing arsenic, and any member of the household could have secretly helped him or herself.

But French learned nothing to indicate that any of these things had been done.

He thereupon widened the mouth of his net. Since coming down to Farnham he had made a number of acquaintances; local people at the hotel, shopkeepers, postmen, occupants of houses near Hampton Common. Now he made it his business to meet these people accidentally. When he did so he was expansive, ready to give information---information due in any case for the newspapers. In the hope of getting further details these people willingly prolonged the conversations, which somehow always turned on the Frazers. French was extraordinarily skilful at what might be called the painless extraction of information, but here his most persistent efforts brought him little result.

One thing which seemed certain was that there had been no illicit love affair in the case of Mrs. Frazer. At least if there had, she had been extraordinarily discreet.

About Gates French found it easier to obtain information. Gates was a well-known member of the sporting community and plenty of comment had passed on his doings. Judicious enquiries revealed the fact that he had had pretty expensive dealings with moneylenders. One of these gentlemen, anxious to remain on good terms with the police, produced documentary evidence that a part of Frazer’s money was entailed and that Gates was expecting its reversion. In fact his testimony bore witness to the accuracy of Constable Black’s incidental statements, when he was asked about Slade.

French was much dissatisfied with the result of his enquiries, though he did not see how he could have done better. He had obtained nothing positive. Suspicion against Mrs. Frazer, and still more against Gates, was possible, but there was no positive evidence against either.

Moreover, he had to remind himself sharply that the same doubt applied to the fundamental question of Frazer’s murder itself. To suspect poison was possible, but the suspicion was not backed up by the slightest scintilla of real evidence.

Yet French could not leave the matter in its present state. He decided that he must approach Campion. The interview would, he was afraid, prove embarrassing, for it practically meant accusing Campion of giving a false certificate. However, there was nothing else to be done, and once again he rode out to the Red Cottage.

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