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4: Meredith Gets to Work

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Author Topic: 4: Meredith Gets to Work  (Read 21 times)
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« on: August 28, 2023, 10:37:11 am »

AS soon as Dr. Newark had left, Inspector Long got through on the phone to headquarters and gave a concise, though colloquial summary of what had taken place. In a short time the Chief himself, who happened to be working late in his office, came to the phone. The unusual and, so far, inexplicable aspects of the case had obviously intrigued him and he informed the Inspector that he was getting into his car, at once, and driving round to Regency Square.

“You’ll like the Ole Man,” said Long in husky confidence. “Quiet sort o’ stick but got a first-class headpiece on him. First-class. No side either. Treats you as if you was a human being---not a machine.”

Ten minutes later Meredith had endorsed this opinion for himself. Alert, efficient, quiet both in manner and speech, he found the head of the borough police not only ready to condone his presence on the scene but to thank him for his co-operation.

“I understood you to say that you’re on holiday here?” Meredith nodded. “Suppose by any remote chance the Coroner’s verdict is not accidental death---what about it, Meredith? Would you care to work in with Long? Without precedent, I dare say, but I think in my own division,” and an amused twinkle came into his eye, “I think I should be allowed to create precedents. What do you say, Superintendent?”

“I’m on, sir, if I can be of any practical help.”

“Well, Long?”

“Two heads are better than one, sir, and his better than most,” was the Inspector’s immediate reply.

“Very well,” said Mr. Hanson. “Provided you make it all right with Lewes, Meredith, we’ll consider the matter settled. Let’s see, Major Forrest is your Chief, isn’t he? Mention my name---we were at school together. Curious what wonders that will work even twenty or thirty years later. Now then---let’s get down to business. What steps have you taken so far?”

Whilst Long was priming the Chief with all the facts which had so far come to light, Meredith stood by the open window staring out into the square. Curious business this, he thought. If accident---how the devil had anybody come to be fooling about with a bow and arrow in the dark? And from a second-storey window, too. If murder, planned and deliberate murder, what a curious choice of weapon the murderer had made! Not an easy shot, he imagined, to penetrate the skull of a man at a distance of not less than forty yards. Granted the window was big and wide open, the room brilliantly lit, but only the head of the dead man projected above the top of the leather armchair. According to Pratt all the owners of the houses in the right wing of the square were members of the Archery Club. No---wait a bit---that was not quite accurate. West was no longer in residence at Number Two. The probability was, then, that West could be ruled out. Then either this Miss Boon or the Rev. Matthews must have discharged the arrow by accident or design. Well, the moment Shanks----

He turned into the room and addressed Hanson.

“Constable just turning up with those witnesses we wanted, sir. Will you see them straight away?”

“No, I’ll leave that to you and Long. If you’ll take my advice, get Mr. Buller to lend you a third room and then have them in one by one. Report to me early in the morning, Inspector, and mind you get all the possible information out of these people to-night.”

When the Chief had left, the Inspector saw Buller and arranged that the witnesses should be sent in one by one to the dining-room. On the polite principle of ladies first, Miss Boon was their primary concern. She entered the dining-room defiant, angry, in a manner as belligerent as it was direct.

Glancing from one to the other of the officials, she rapped out: “What’s all this tomfool nonsense? I hear Cotton’s been shot. But why drag me in? I know absolutely nothing about it.”

“Don’t you worry, ma’am,” said Long, with a private wink at Meredith, “that’s about the one thing we’re certain about. You know nothing, personally, see? But you may have noticed some odd little detail which, at the time, you naturally didn’t associate with this . . . er . . . unfortunate accident.”

“Shouldn’t think that man could die accidentally,” snorted Miss Boon. “He was doomed from birth to die a violent and premeditated death. A congenital murderee, if you ask me!”

“Oh, go easy now, ma’am. Go easy,” soothed the Inspector with a doleful, rather censorious look. “De mortuis nil nisi bonum, you know. Learnt that off my dad, and in case you aren’t familiar with Latin, it means, in a broad sense, ‘give the dead a square deal.’ ” Adding with official cunning: “No need to ask you if you happened to fire---er . . . that is, release, an arrow across the square to-night?” Miss Boon glared at him wolfishly. She looked ready to eat him, peaked cap and all. Long went on hastily: “No---I thought not. Point is---did you see anybody else playing around with a bow and arrow?”

“I can’t stomach your loose phraseology---and in any case I must disappoint you---I didn’t.”

Meredith broke in quietly.

“Where were you, Miss Boon----?” He made a quick, mental calculation, allowing some ten minutes or so between Cotton’s death and Pratt’s call at Barnet’s house. “Say, between nine-twenty and nine-forty?”

“Airing my ménage.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Dogs,” said Miss Boon briefly.

“In the square?”

“Most certainly not. I’m not such a fool as to ask for neighbourly complaints. They come without asking. I went for my usual stump---along Priory Avenue, down Queen Anne’s Crescent into Victoria Road, up Albion----”

“Which would take you?”

“On my own,” said Miss Boon haughtily, “twenty minutes. With dogs---at least an hour.” Adding curtly: “They have reasons.”

“Quite,” smiled Meredith. “So you couldn’t possibly have been in the square when the accident happened?”

“So it appears,” barked Miss Boon making for the door. “I presume that is all?”

“Thank you,” said Meredith.

“O.K.,” beamed the Inspector with a vague wave of his fat hand. “Would you ask the Vicar to come in, ma’am?”

The Rev. Matthews’ attitude toward the tragedy was in direct opposition to that of Miss Boon. He entered the dining-room with a shocked, solemn and helpful air as he might have entered the parlour of a bereaved parishioner. But for all his desire to help, his information was of a negative kind. He had been sitting at that particular time in his drawing-room with his sister Annie. He had been perusing (his own word) the pages of the Church Times whilst his sister had been absorbed in working out a particularly ticklish hand of patience. He had not stirred from Number Three since tea-time, and as for being such an imbecile as to practise archery at that time of the evening---well, well, well. He gave the police to understand that no Christian word was forcible enough to express the absurdity of such an idea.

“The room faces the square, I take it?” asked Meredith. Matthews nodded. “And the curtains were drawn to?” Again he inclined his head. “And you didn’t by any chance look out into the square between nine-twenty and nine-forty---I mean by drawing aside the curtain to see what sort of a night it was or anything like that, sir?”

“Most emphatically not. The events about that time are fixed in my mind because, according to her usual custom, Prudence, our maid, brought in our nightly Ovaltine at exactly half-past nine.”

“Well---that leaves Fitzgerald,” said Long with a wry face as soon as the Vicar had withdrawn. “And his house faces in the wrong blooming direction.”

“Hullo,” thought Meredith when the bank manager came in, “this chap looks ill. Booked for a nervous breakdown if he isn’t careful. Over-work, I suppose.”

To the Inspector’s questions, however, Fitzgerald gave perfectly unemotional, sensible answers. His reaction to the news of Cotton’s death was mid-way between Miss Boon’s egotistic indifference and the Vicar’s professional helpfulness. He said neither too much, nor too little. He and his wife had been listening in to a Symphony concert, since eight o’clock, in his study, which was at the back of the house. He had most certainly not been so foolish as to loose an arrow at random across the square.

When these three diverse witnesses had been dealt with the Inspector took written depositions from both Buller, concerning the actual incident of Cotton’s death, and Pratt, in conjunction with his professional opinions after viewing the body. Meredith further questioned Pratt about West, eliciting from him when he had left his house, where he was staying now and so on. He then went on to make a few technical inquiries.

“In your opinion, Dr. Pratt---what would be the line taken by an arrow loosed at forty yards at an object on the level?”

“Practically straight. Not quite, I imagine. The arrow would probably describe a very flattened parabola.”

“So that at forty yards you wouldn’t sight your arrow dead on the target?”

“No. I don’t think so. You’d have to allow for a very slight gravitational drop.”

“Would it be difficult, in this case, to sight your arrow in the dark?”

“Extremely so. You see, one has to set the tip of the arrow dead on one’s sighting-point. And in the dark it would be impossible to see the barb.”

“Barb?” asked Meredith quickly. “When you say barb, do you mean that the arrow is actually barbed?”

“Good heavens---no,” smiled Pratt. “When we’re at the butts we’d never dream of using a lethal affair of that sort. Target arrows are simply fitted with a tapering metal point. In fact, although I’ve been keen on archery for a number of years, I’ve never even seen a barbed arrow. Except in museums. Much less have I shot with one.”

Meredith switched over to another line of inquiry.

“What sort of a shot would a man have to be to hit a nine-inch circle at forty yards, Dr. Pratt?”

“Definitely a good shot. A very sound shot indeed to do it five times out of six.”

“Could you do it?”

“Yes. But I should need an allowance of six shots to obtain, at a maximum, a couple of golds.”

“Golds?”

“Sorry,” apologized Pratt. “That’s our particular jargon for the common-or-garden bull’s-eye.”

“I see. Was this Mr. West a good shot?”

“Very sound I should say. Patchy perhaps---but when he had an ‘on’ day there was nobody in the square to touch him.”

“Thank you,” concluded Meredith, pushing away his note-book. “I don’t think we need keep you any longer, sir.” Adding as Inspector Long lumbered into the room: “That is, unless the Inspector wants to ask you anything.”

“Nothing, thanks. Your statement covers the ground for my official report. Good night, sir.”

As soon as the doctor had left the dining-room, Meredith asked:

“Where did you slip off to, Long? Having a quick one?”

“Not me. I was ringing through to our official photographer. Thought we ought to have a few pictorial records of that bit of still life upstairs.”

“Good idea,” agreed Meredith. “In the meantime, what about asking Buller for a screen and a sheet of drawing-paper?

“What the ’ell for? Pardon my ignorance but I don’t somehow seem to make things tally up,” said Long, pushing back his peaked cap and mopping his forehead.

“We’ll collect what we want first,” answered Meredith, “then if you’ll come upstairs I’ll show you.”

Five minutes later the necessary paraphernalia had been collected and the three officials got down to work behind the closed doors of the stockbroker’s study.

“Now then, Shanks, I want you to drawing-pin this sheet of paper about half-way up one of the outside folds of this screen.”

Whilst the constable was engaged in this task Buller’s elderly housekeeper announced the arrival of the photographer.

“Ah, hullo, Stinns---got your picture-box? We want half a dozen exposures of this little lot. May I introduce you?---Superintendent Meredith. The criminal’s nightmare!”

Stinns laughed, shook hands warmly and said that he was “pleased to meet” him. Long, in the meantime, had drawn the thick curtains across the open french windows.

The body was then photographed from several angles under the expert direction of the Inspector, who acted as assistant by working the flashlight apparatus. Stinns promised to let Long have the prints early the next morning and, after a drink (to which Buller had unnecessarily drawn the Inspector’s attention), the photographer found his way downstairs and drove off.

“Now then, Shanks,” said Meredith when the door had been shut. “Ready? Good. Let’s have the screen over here. Careful! For heavens’ sake don’t knock against the arrow.”

Very gingerly Meredith manoeuvred the screen into the required position, so arranging it that the sheet of drawing-paper was pushed flat against the shaft of the arrow without in any way disturbing it. Then, even more cautiously, he took out a pencil and drew a thick line across the paper exactly parallel with the shaft. As an extra precaution, in case anything should be moved subsequently, he removed a mat and marked in with chalk the position of both the screen and the legs of the leather armchair on the parquet. Then, satisfied, he stepped back to view his handiwork.

“What the deuce----?” began Long with an expression of puzzled amusement. “Parlour games?”

Meredith laughed.

“Just a simple idea of mine, Long---but I think it may prove helpful. I’ll explain. What we really want to know at the moment is the point from which the arrow was shot, don’t we?” Long grunted. “Very well. We can’t take a proper sight down the embedded arrow because Cotton’s head is in the way. But now we’ve marked in the exact position of the arrow on that sheet of paper we’ve got both the horizontal and vertical angle taped. All we’ve got to do now is to get hold of an expert bowman, pull the chair away, and get him to sight up an arrow parallel to that pencil line. He ought to be able to tell us, within a yard or so, the precise point from which the arrow was loosed.”

Long nodded approvingly. “And it reads as pretty as a bedtime story. Smart, sir. That’s a really smart idea. Take a note of it, Shanks.” Then with a sudden change of expression. “Now what about withdrawing the arrow?”

“Steady!” cried Meredith. “Don’t touch it yet.”

Long winked. “Finger-prints, eh? Is that what’s worrying you, sir? I thought so. Well, you needn’t. When I was up here just now ringing Stinns I tested the shaft myself.”

“With what result?”

“There wasn’t any result.”

“What the devil do you mean---there must have been. A chap couldn’t pull an arrow without handling it, could he?”

“Just as I thought. Nice smooth, polished surface, too---the sort of surface made for finger-prints. Point is---there ain’t any. Not a whorl. Not a fragment of a print. Strikes me the chap who fired---darn it, there I go again---the chap who loosed this particular arrow must have been a bit of a dandy. He wore gloves. Curious, eh, sir?”

Meredith nodded.

“It’s more than curious, Long. It’s suggestive, even illuminating. It strikes me that the Coroner may not bring in a verdict of accident, after all.”

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