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3: Death at Number Six

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Author Topic: 3: Death at Number Six  (Read 29 times)
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« on: August 28, 2023, 09:05:17 am »

IT was on Monday, 13th June, three days after Superintendent Meredith’s arrival in Cheltenham, that Captain Cotton decided to call on Edward Buller. Buller was one of the few people in the square with whom he seemed to have something in common. Perhaps it was that they were both inherent gamblers, that they both enjoyed a little flutter. He had an idea, therefore, that Buller wouldn’t refuse to extend to him a little professional help and advise him about the investment of some idle capital. After a solitary dinner, served by his manservant Albert, Cotton lit a cigar and sauntering out in the square looked up at the window of Buller’s study, which was on the second floor. In accordance with his usual practice Buller had left the window wide open and was, at that moment, standing at it smoking his after-dinner pipe.

“Can I have a word with you?” called up Cotton. “Won’t take up much of your valuable time.”

“Certainly. You can find your own way. The door’s not locked.”

“Thanks.”

A few minutes later the two men were standing over a tray of drinks in the roomy, well-lighted room where Buller spent most of his time and transacted his few bits of very profitable business.

“Say when,” said Buller, the siphon poised over the rim of the glass.

“Whoa!” cried Cotton. “That’s just how the doctor ordered it. You probably wondered, old man, what I’ve come to see you about.”

“A bit of business, I hope,” smiled Buller, as he poured out his own drink. “Take a chair and let’s talk in comfort.”

Cotton crossed over to the hearth and dropped into a large, dumpy leather chair, which stood with its back to the open french window. Beyond this window was the little stone balcony where Buller generally “took the sun” and read the Financial Times. Beyond the balcony lay the darkening square with orange patches of light glimmering out, here and there, in the various windows which enclosed it on three sides. As soon as his visitor was seated Buller let himself down, with a ponderous sigh, into a second armchair on the opposite side of the hearth.

“Well?” he grunted. “What is it?”

“You hit the bull’s-eye first time,” answered Cotton with a grin. “Business. I want to find a really profitable investment.”

“Come into money, eh?”

“Struck oil, old man. Three thousand pound legacy from my dear Aunt Alice. Came as a bit of a shock as the old girl never really seemed to like the look of me. Don’t blame her, of course. I never imagined myself an Apollo, you know.” And he fingered the smooth bald patch on the top of his cranium. “But joking apart, Buller, when it came to leaving her money she found I was her sole existing relative, so she swallowed her haughtiness, bless her, and made me her sole heir. Point is---where can I best invest this little nest-egg?”

“Why come to me?” asked Buller abruptly. “I’ve retired from the game.”

“Quite. Quite,” said Cotton soothingly. “But you’ve still got your finger on the pulse of the Stock Exchange and I’m quite ready to recompense you your diagnosis of the patient. Shall we say five per cent?”

“I like the sound of ten per cent better,” said Buller with a broad smile. “Ten per cent on the annual profits accruing, perhaps?”

“Or seven and a half,” corrected Cotton with a lift of his eyebrows.

“Or seven and a half,” echoed Buller, sipping his whisky with the air of a connoisseur.

“With a chance, a good chance of further business to follow, old man.”

“Have another drink?” asked Buller, rising suddenly and holding out his hand for Cotton’s glass.

“Thanks,” said Cotton as Buller turned his back and walked toward the massive side-board on the far side of the room.

There Buller unstoppered the decanter, lifted the glass to the level of his eye, made ready to tilt the decanter and, in that position, remained frozen. There had come to his ears a strange, insidious sound---a faint zip, a loud click, and a long drawn-out sigh from Cotton. He swung round, puzzled, opened his mouth to speak and swayed there with his lips held slackly apart, staring. The glass dropped from his hand and was shattered on the parquet. He put down the decanter, shakily, took a couple of steps forward and again stopped dead.

“My God!” he muttered. Then louder: “Cotton! Cotton!” Then suddenly coming to life again he stumbled towards the window and went out on to the balcony. His eyes swept hastily, excitedly over the gloom of the square, here and there broken by yellow daubs of light from the lamp-posts. He could see nothing, nobody. Everything in the square appeared to be perfectly normal, the lights still winked in the windows and from the adjacent house he heard the thin voices of the Misses Watt uplifted in some religious dirge. With the clumsy gait of an agitated and elderly man he crossed back to Cotton and thrust a trembling hand under his shirt, feeling for his heart.

The next minute he was stumbling down the stairs, along the pavement towards the unlighted house of Doctor Pratt. Just as he reached the wrought-iron gate, a car turned in at the end of the square and drove straight in his direction. As he was about to unlatch the gate a voice hailed him from the saloon which had now drawn up at the kerb.

“Hullo---who’s that? Somebody want me?”

“Is that you, Pratt? Oh, thank God! It’s Buller.”

“Buller?” The doctor peered forward closely into the half-gloom.

“Yes. You must come at once. Something terrible has happened.”

Pratt stepped out of the car, carrying a light overcoat and his inevitable bag of instruments.

“Well?”

“Cotton.”

“Ill?”

“No---dead. At least I think so.”

“Dead!” exclaimed Pratt in an incredulous voice. “How? Where? Are you sure?”

Buller gripped him fiercely by the arm and began to drag him towards Number Six.

“He’s upstairs in my study. There may be a chance---but----”

Pratt, the more agile of the two, raced ahead of him up the stairs and burst into the study. Without a word he strode across to the still and silent figure sitting upright in the armchair and slid a finger to the pulse. As Buller came panting into the room, he looked up.

“Tell me, quickly, Pratt---any hope?” asked Buller huskily.

Pratt shook his head.

“None. He’s dead.” Then on a more strident note. “Good God, Buller, how did this happen? What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. I can’t say. I was just pouring the poor fellow out a drink when I heard a noise and . . . there he was---like that!”

“You saw nothing?” Pratt jerked his head toward the open window. “Out there.”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. We must ring the police, of course.”

“Of course,” said Pratt, suddenly collapsing on the arm of the dead man’s chair. “At once.”

Buller glanced across at him anxiously.

“You look ill, Pratt. Have a drink? Upset you, eh?”

“A trifle,” said Pratt. “It seems impossible that the poor devil could be sitting there one minute chatting and the next...” He took the proffered drink and gulped it down in one draught. “Thanks. Now what about ringing the police? We daren’t touch anything until they come.”

Just as Buller was about to take up the phone, he looked up and said: “By the way, Barnet’s got that fellow Meredith staying with him. He’s a Superintendent in the County Police. Wouldn’t it be as well to see if he’s in and let him know what has happened? He could take a look round before the local police arrive. If there’s anything to be done you may be sure he’ll do it, and a minute makes all the difference in cases of this sort, Pratt.”

“All right,” agreed Pratt. “You ring the borough police while I slip along to Number Eight and see if the fellow’s there.”

Pratt’s imperious ring brought Barnet himself to the door and in a few brief words the doctor explained what had transpired.

“Yes---he’s here,” said Barnet. “I’ll get him to come along at once. It’s irregular, of course, but if it’s a major case . . . well----”

A few moments later Meredith had been introduced to Buller and the four men were standing in a close group about the body of Captain Cotton. The stockbroker had got through to the local police and an Inspector was on his way. Meredith’s presence in the room, however, had already introduced a calming, more official note into the tragic atmosphere. He moved quietly and deftly about the study, examining with a practised eye the general lay-out of the mise-en-scene. Of course, he had no official status. When the borough crowd arrived he would naturally have to take a back seat, unless they wanted his advice which, with the cynicism of an old hand, he considered doubtful. A pity, too, since this case looked promising from a purely professional point of view. It was not often that a police official was confronted, these days, by the dead body of a man with an arrow embedded in the back of his head. A clean shot, by the look of it. The poor devil must have died instantaneously.

He turned to Pratt.

“You’re a doctor, sir?” Pratt nodded. “Think the arrow has penetrated the brain?”

“Certain of it. Note the point where the arrow has entered---just half-way between the crown of the head and the nape of the neck. Deadly vulnerable, Superintendent. He must have gone out . . . click! . . . like that.”

“You think the body hasn’t moved from the position in which it was sitting when the arrow struck?”

“Not a fraction, in my opinion.”

“Yes,” mused Meredith. “I’m inclined to agree there. You’ll notice that only the head projects above the back of the armchair and that the arrow has entered a bare inch above the top of the chair. That in itself proves there can’t have been much movement.”

“A possible stiffening,” put in Pratt. “A sudden rigidity, perhaps---but no perceptible change in the attitude, I imagine.”

Meredith made a mental note of the fact that the doctor agreed with him over this matter because, as he saw, it was bound to have an important bearing on the case.

He turned to Edward Buller.

“What time did this happen?”

“The clock had just struck the half-hour.”

“Do you usually leave your windows wide open at night, sir?

“Invariably in the warm weather,” replied Buller with a glance in Pratt’s direction. “I’m not very strong constitutionally and my doctor here insists on plenty of fresh air.”

“Quite. I understand. And when you saw Captain Cotton had been shot I presume you looked out into the square in the hope of discovering where the arrow had come from?”

“Almost at once. But I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly no sign of anybody walking about below the window. But you can see for yourself that the lamps only light the place up here and there. Anybody could have hidden in the shrubs, for instance, without my being able to spot them.”

“Hidden?” demanded Meredith. “Aren’t you rather assuming, sir, that the person who fired that arrow had criminal intentions? Why shouldn’t it have been an accident?”

“Of course,” muttered Buller. “That point hadn’t struck me.”

“Personally,” went on Meredith, “I think accident is the probable explanation. I’ve an idea that several of you gentlemen here in the square are keen archers.”

“That’s quite right, Superintendent,” broke in Pratt. “Five of us are members of the Wellington Archery Club.”

Meredith pulled out the note-book which he invariably carried on his person.

“Can I have the names and addresses?”

“Well at Number One there’s Miss Boon.”

Meredith smiled. “So ladies aren’t debarred from your club, sir?”

“Miss Boon! My dear chap, you don’t know her. It would be impossible to debar her from anything. Quite apart from that she happens to draw a very pretty bow. Better than Matthews at Number Three as a matter of fact.”

Meredith looked up inquiringly.

“He’s a vicar, isn’t he? I seem to remember Mr. Barnet here mentioning the fact.”

“That’s right---the Reverend Cyril Matthews. Then at Number Four there’s Fitzgerald, the manager of Poulson’s Bank on the Promenade, and myself at Number Nine.”

Meredith ran his eye down the list with a puzzled expression.

“I thought you said there were five of you?”

Pratt gave a slight, apologetic laugh.

“Quite right. I was forgetting. Our fifth member and one of our best shots has left the square. You may have heard----?”

Barnet put in: “You remember, Meredith---I was telling you about that fellow West who lived at Number Two.”

“Oh, West. That’s the chap whose wife has just left him. Another man in the case, wasn’t there?”

Barnet inclined his head toward the immobile figure propped up in the armchair.

“This man,” he said quietly.

Meredith whistled.

“So that’s it---eh? Umph. I hadn’t quite realized that----” He broke off suddenly, went to the balcony and leaned out.

“This looks like the police-car. You’d better stay, gentlemen, until the Inspector has decided on his line of action. He’ll probably want to ask you a few routine questions.”

Hardly had Meredith stepped back into the room, when the door opened and Inspector Long, followed by a uniformed policeman, entered. He was a rotund, grizzled man, with very bright blue eyes twinkling beneath a pair of almost theatrical eyebrows. Buller, for one, thought he looked far too merry to be a police official.

“Well---what’s all this?” he asked with a beaming smile. “Would you gentlemen have the goodness to sort yourselves out.”

Barnet stepped into the breach and quickly introduced Buller and Dr. Pratt. The Inspector ran a wary eye over Meredith’s wiry, upright figure.

“And this?”

“Superintendent Meredith of the Sussex County Police,” said Meredith with a faint smile. “I happened to be staying with Mr. Barnet two doors away and, hearing of the trouble, I stepped in to take a look round. No objection I hope, Inspector?”

Long’s grin expanded to alarming proportions.

“I’ve heard of you, sir. You cleared up that Cumberland ramp and the Rother murder. Pleased to meet you.” He pushed out a chubby hand and added: “Two heads are better than one anyway. Shanks here hasn’t got a head---at least not as you’d notice.” He beamed again. “Now, Mr. Buller, if you’d kindly accommodate these other gentlemen in another room for the time being, perhaps we can have a nose round. If the police surgeon calls, show him up, will you? He should be here any minute now.”

As soon as the others had withdrawn, Long let out a wheezy sigh of relief, poured himself out a stiff whisky, telling Shanks that it was dead against the regulations and dropped into the armchair facing the dead man.

“Well---what is it, Mr. Meredith? Accident?”

“Maybe. It’s certainly not suicide.”

“Oh, that’s good! That’s good!” chuckled the Inspector. “No, I’ve certainly never heard yet of a chap who committed suicide with a bow and arrow. He’d have to be a bit of a contortionist, eh?”

“So you noticed the arrow?”

“What, me?” Again that shaking, husky chuckle. “There’s precious little I don’t notice, sir. I don’t seem to, perhaps, but that’s just my way. I notice, for instance, from the position of the arrow that the body hasn’t moved more than a fraction of an inch since the arrow went home. Useful, eh, Mr. Meredith?”

“I thought so,” agreed Meredith. “It suggests to you?”

“That the arrow was shot from the right side of the square---the right that is as you look out of this particular window.”

“Anything more?” asked Meredith.

Long shook his head slowly and said that he couldn’t rightly see what the Superintendent was driving at.

“This,” explained Meredith. “Not only has the arrow entered the skull at a considerable angle horizontally, but there’s a slight vertical deviation as well. If you’ll come closer, Long, you’ll notice that the arrow has struck very slightly downward. You see the point? It couldn’t have been loosed from the level of the square itself, because if one was shooting at a target in a second-floor window the arrow would enter at an upward angle.”

“Yes, I grasp that all right. That’s a sound bit o’ reasoning, sir---except for one objection.”

“And that?”

“What if the arrow was fired---I don’t know properly if a chap can fire an arrow when you come to think of it---but suppose the arrow was shot from some point on the far side of the square, say from the other side of the main road---what about the trajectory? Seems to me, sir, from my ’umble knowledge o’ things that the arrow would enter the target on the downward curve then. It would sort o’ rise from the bow and then curve down. Maybe that would explain the point you brought forward.”

“You’re forgetting something, Inspector. You yourself pointed out that the arrow was shot from the right of the square. Well, now, suppose you roughly project a line from the arrow out into the square---what then? That line is brought up short by the houses of the right wing, as it were. Here---take a squint for yourself and prove it.”

Bringing his round, childlike face within a few inches of that of the dead man, the Inspector closed one eye, as if winking, and took as true a line as he could along the shaft of the embedded arrow. It was impossible to gauge this with any accuracy because of the projection of Cotton’s head, but a glance was sufficient to show that Meredith was right.

“Darn it, sir, but you’re absolutely right,” exclaimed Long in the tones of one who had expected him to be wrong. “But I still don’t----”

Meredith grinned.

“I thought you noticed everything. It’s obvious, Inspector. The inference is obvious.”

“Inference?”

“Yes. The farthest of those houses---Number One---is not more than forty yards away from this window, and I have an idea that at forty yards the trajectory of an arrow would be almost flat. That’s a technical point we must find out. But if that is the case then the arrow couldn’t have been loosed from ground level. Without being certain on this opinion I should say it had been shot from a point level with this window---in other words from some second-storey window in the right wing of the square.”

“Now that’s clever, now,” wheezed Long with an unconcealed look of admiration. “That’s really clever. You see, Shanks---from some other window? You follow the Superintendent’s argument?”

“Perfectly, sir,” said Shanks in cultured tones. “And I think it’s a perfectly logical assumption.”

“ ’E’s been to the University,” explained Long, not without a touch of pride at being able to edit such an erudite inferior. “ ’E’s good at talking but inclined to trip up on the practical side. Be a good thing for him if the Chief lets you work in with me over this case, sir. An eddication.”

“Case? What---a simple accident?”

This time the Inspector actually did wink.

“Accident? Don’t you kid me, sir. ’Oo the devil practises on his bow and arrow from his bedroom window on a dark night. Nobody but a looney.”

“Well, that,” said Meredith, “you’ve got to find out. I suggest you send Shanks to make inquiries at all the houses on the right wing.” Meredith glanced at his list. “There’s a Miss Boon at Number One. She’s a member of the Archery Club. Number Two’s empty, of course. Then there’s the Rev. Matthews at Number Three and Mr. Fitzgerald at Four. I don’t see how Fitzgerald can be responsible anyway for what’s happened, as his house faces out into the square in line with this. But he ought to be questioned.”

“Suppose we get ’em to meet here, Mr. Meredith? No---I don’t mean in this room, of course. Lot o’ people are a bit queasy where a corpse is concerned. Say downstairs with the other little lot. O.K., eh?”

Meredith agreed and as Shanks left on his errand, the police surgeon, Dr. Newark, crossed him on the stairs. He had been met and directed at the door by Mr. Buller. Alone with the police officials he got down to work quietly and methodically and his verdict differed but little from the opinion of his confrère, Dr. Pratt. Death was instantaneous. There had probably been little or no movement on the part of the deceased since the arrow struck. The arrow was probably barbed, a fact which he could easily verify by----

“Here, half a minute, sir,” cried Meredith. “If it’s all the same to you I’d rather that arrow were not removed just yet. You agree, Inspector?”

The Inspector did and Dr. Newark desisted from his intention with a shrug.

“The reason I suggest it’s barbed, is that in the case of an ordinary target arrow it might easily have been deflected by the bone. The chances are that it would have glanced aside or even failed to penetrate the skull. I don’t know much about archery but I do happen to know that in ordinary target shooting the arrow’s not barbed. Stands to reason when they want to pull the arrow out and use it again.”

“That’s rather significant,” said Meredith. “When we do withdraw the arrow and if we find it barbed then it weakens the case against the theory of accident.”

“That all?” asked Newark. “Thanks. Let me know the time and so on of the inquest, Long. Not Wednesday if you can avoid it. My hospital day. Hope you clear the matter up quickly. Rather a nasty business in a square like this. Know the chap by sight but never spoken to him. Not quite in my line, perhaps. Well, good night.”

“Good night, sir,” chorused Meredith and Long in unison.

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