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5: Burglary at Number Five

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Author Topic: 5: Burglary at Number Five  (Read 21 times)
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« on: August 28, 2023, 11:22:39 am »

A FEW minutes later, when the gruesome task of withdrawing the arrow had been accomplished, Meredith felt more than ever dubious about a verdict of “accidental death.” Hadn’t both the police surgeon and Dr. Pratt, himself an expert in such matters, declared that a barbed arrow was never used for target purposes? Then, why, he asked himself as he gently twisted the blood-stained shaft in his gloved hands (a pair borrowed from the constable)---why was this particular arrow barbed? On the face of it, there seemed only one feasible explanation. It was barbed because whoever had shot the arrow had shot to kill! So many factors were already assembled to lend colour to this assumption. Firstly---none of the recognized members of the Archery Club had handled a bow that evening. Secondly---who, in any case, would be such a fool as to loose even a target-arrow in the direction of a lighted window? Thirdly---if anybody in the square had loosed the arrow accidentally they would almost certainly have followed its flight and seen the result of their foolhardiness. Yet nobody had come forward. Fourthly---it appeared that the arrow had been discharged from a second-storey window from one of the three houses in the right wing of the square. Yet the owners of two of the houses, Miss Boon and Matthews, had denied all knowledge of the affair. So if the arrow had been loosed from either Number One or Number Three, it had been loosed without the owners realizing it. This left Number Two---the Empty House.

“Strikes me, Long,” observed Meredith as he carefully wrapped up the arrow in a sheet of tissue paper, “that the source of this packet of trouble must be the middle house. I think it would be as well for us to slip across now and have a look round. I don’t expect to find any red-hot clue---if the arrow was shot from there, the fellow that shot it has had plenty of opportunity to make himself scarce.”

The Inspector was of the same mind.

“And to-morrow,” Long added, “we ought to get in touch with this chap West. We already know he’s a member of the Archery Club. Maybe he didn’t like this chap Cotton.”

“He didn’t,” said Meredith quietly. “Although I’ve only been staying here three days, that bit of gossip has come my way already, Long. As far as I can make out, Cotton had turned his domestic life into a bit of merry hell. Alienation of Mrs. West’s affections and so on. West would certainly seem to have darn good motive for the----”

Meredith left his sentence hanging in mid-air and smiled meaningly at Long.

“Oh, go on!” urged the Inspector vigorously. “You needn’t be frightened of shocking the lad. He’s heard the word before and he’ll hear it again and again. Eh, Shanks? Know what a murder is, m’lad, doncher? If not, this little tableau will put you wise. Don’t you fret, sir, the Coroner’s not going to get ’itched up on this job. Facts are too plain for argument. Cotton was murdered all right---yes, an’ what’s more---with malice, aforethought. We’ll need a word with this Mr. West.”

There was a rap on the door. Shanks opened. Mr. Buller, still pale and agitated, stood inquiringly in the passage.

“Yes, sir---” asked Meredith.

“Er . . . about the body, Superintendent. I don’t know if it’s against the law for it to be moved. But my housekeeper,” he smiled wanly, “or for that matter, I myself, feel that---well, it’s awkward . . . you understand?”

“Perfectly. Don’t worry, Mr. Buller. There’s no official reason why Mr. Cotton’s body shouldn’t be moved to his own house. Let me see, it’s the house----?”

“Next door---on the right,” said Buller. “If you’d like a sheet, I’ll----”

“Thanks.”

When the stockbroker had returned with the sheet, Long and Shanks shrouded the body, fetched a stretcher from the police-car and, followed by Meredith, carried the body down the stairs and out into the square. Just before Meredith negotiated the front steps he turned back and inquired of Buller: “Will there be anybody in next door? I had an idea that Captain Cotton lived alone.”

“He does---except for his man, Albert.”

“Thanks. We’ll be round again in the morning, Mr. Buller. I hope you don’t object but I’ve taken the precaution of locking your study door and taking the key. Part of our routine, I’m afraid.”

As the little cortčge climbed the steps which led up to the portico of Number Five, the house appeared to be deserted. Meredith, however, imagining that the manservant probably occupied a room at the back, rang the bell and told the others to wait. After a period of silence he rang again. Still no reply. Trying the handle of the front-door and finding it unlocked, he preceded the stretcher-bearers into the pitch-black hall, groping along the wall for an electric switch. Suddenly, with a muttered command for the others to do the same, he stopped dead and listened. At first he was uncertain, then in the dead silence which had fallen, he felt sure that he could hear the stealthy creak of footsteps coming down the invisible stairs. He called out sharply: “Anybody there? Who’s there?” No reply. “Quick!” he hissed back over his shoulders. “Dump that stretcher, Long, and flash your torch. There’s somebody at the end of the passage or I’m a Dutchman. I wish the devil I could find this switch!”

But even in the short time which elapsed before Long and the constable could set down their burden, there came the quick and noisy clatter of running footsteps proceeding, as Meredith guessed, down the basement stairs, a muffled oath, more footsteps and the loud slam of a door. Coincident with this slam, too late to be effective, the rays of the Inspector’s torch penetrated the gloom of the hall-way. Quick as a flash Meredith jammed down the light-switch, found another at the head of the basement stairs, plunged down, crossed through a kind of kitchen-parlour to where a door, fitted with panes of coloured glass, gave out on to an unkempt garden. Long, at his elbow, sent the rays of his lamp into every corner of the walled rectangle but, as Meredith anticipated, there was nobody in sight. At the end of the garden an open gate pointed the way which the mysterious intruder had gone, but although Shanks raced down the path and looked up and down the little lane which backed the line of houses he saw no signs of the fugitive.

“Now, ’oo the devil was that, I’d like to know?” asked Long in a petulant voice, as the trio went back into the house and climbed the stairs to the hall. “Up to mischief of some sort---that’s certain anyway. Couldn’t have been his man, could it?---he doesn’t seem to have showed up yet.”

“If so---why should he make a bunk for it like that?” demanded Meredith. “If it was Albert then I don’t see how his curious behaviour can be put down to the affair next door. He doesn’t know about it. Unless, of course, somebody’s tipped him the wink.”

“That’s possible,” agreed Long. “Now what about dumping the remains? I always think the bedroom’s best---more homely.”

After they had tried one or two doors on the second floor, Meredith discovered which was Cotton’s room and the body was lifted from the stretcher and placed on the bed. Shanks then returned the stretcher to the car whilst the others explored the remaining rooms in the upper part of the house. Opening a door which faced them at the end of the wide landing, the Inspector let out a prolonged whistle.

“Well, well, well---if this isn’t a significant fact, sir, I’ll resign from the Force. See that safe? See those scattered papers? Like a stage set for the second act of an Edgar Wallace, eh? Reckon this was Mr. Cotton’s ’oly of ’olies---where he wrote his cheques and love-letters. Wonder if our customer has got away with anything?”

Quickly Meredith crossed to the safe, swung back the door, which was half-open, and peered in. A few scattered notes, mostly five pound Bank of England notes, lay on the floor of the safe.

“Money here right enough but whether he---Hullo---listen---who’s this? Somebody coming up the stairs?”

“Shanks,” said Long.

“I know, but who’s he talking to?”

Much to Meredith’s astonishment the constable’s companion proved to be a thin, weedy, bright-eyed little man dressed in an ill-fitting black coat and striped trousers---without a doubt the missing manservant, Albert.

“My Gawd, sir,” he exclaimed, breathlessly, the moment he entered the room, “what’s this I ’ear about the master? Dead? It ain’t true! ’Swelp me---it can’t be true. I was a-talkin’ to ’im not a couple of hours since---just afore ’ee went in to see Mr. Buller.”

“You Albert?” snapped Long, adopting his most official tone as was his wont with persons of a lower social standing than his own. “Captain Cotton’s teetotum, eh?”

“Dunno about that,” replied Albert nonplussed, “but I’m ’is man, if that’s wot you’re drivin’ at. Albert Crimp’s my moniker. Been with the Captain ever since he was demobbed in ’19.”

“Why weren’t you in when we rang just now?” went on Long suspiciously.

“Posting a letter---box in Wellington Road at the other end o’ the square.”

“Is that so?” observed Long with a wink at Meredith. “Posting a letter. Well, well. Might I ask who the letter was addressed to?”

“You may. Chap by the name o’ Freddy Flint---bookmaker if you wanter know.” Adding meaningly: “Registered.”

“Address?”

“14, King Street, Gloucester.” Then, as the Inspector was making a note: “Crikey!---wot’s all this? The safe’s bin broken into---Captain ’ad three thasand pounds o’ notes locked up in that there peter. You don’t meanter tell me it’s gorn?”

“Three thousand pounds,” cut in Meredith. “Are you sure of this?”

“ ’Course I’m sure. ’Ee come into a bit o’ money from his aunt. I warned ’im it weren’t safe to ’av the dough paid over in notes, but ’e always was pig-’eaded.”

“Ever heard your master speak of any other relations?”

“Never. Don’t think ’e ’ad any.”

“Had he any employment?”

“Yes, sir---Johnson’s Car Mart in Station Road. ’Ee was ’ead salesman for the firm.”

Meredith and Long made a few notes and elicited the following information from the agitated manservant. (a) That his master was not particularly popular in the square. (b) That he was really on speaking terms with only Mr. Buller and Mr. Fitzgerald, his immediate neighbours. (c) That he never entertained. (d) That there had been a lot of unkind talk about his master and Mrs. West.

“Now look here, Albert,” said Meredith, when the cross-examination had concluded, “I’m going to lock this room and take the key. The body of your master has been laid out on the bed in his own room, where it will remain, of course, until after the inquest. In the meantime it would be better for you to hold your tongue about this burglary. You’ll probably have to give evidence of identification at the inquest if we can’t get in touch with any of Captain Cotton’s relations.”

The moment they were out in the square Long turned on Meredith and observed sagaciously: “Funny thing that Albert should have been so out of breath when he came in. Must have run back ’ell for leather from that post-box, eh, sir?”

“Quite. I thought the same thing myself. Another thing, Long---did you notice that he called the safe a peter on one occasion.”

“Criminal’s slang, eh?”

“Exactly---might be worth while seeing if our friend Albert Crimp has a police record. He’d probably be too fly to leave his finger-prints on the inside of the safe---on the other hand he might not.” Adding as they drew abreast of the Empty House: “Now for this little lot. If you’ll take a look round the back I’ll deal with the front of the house. I’ll get Shanks to lend me a hand with his torch when he’s driven the car round from Buller’s place.”

As soon as the car had drawn up opposite Number Two, the three men got down to work, methodically examining every door and window on the ground floor. But at the end of five minutes they had discovered nothing in the nature of a clue. All the doors were locked and all the windows shut and fastened. Meredith then turned his attention, by means of a short ladder found in an outhouse, to the windows of the second-storey, but again without result. Although he paid particular attention to the three windows overlooking the square and ipso facto Buller’s balcony-room, none of them gave the slightest sign of having been tampered with. These, too, were shut and fastened with metal catches on the inside. From the top of the ladder he looked across at the unlighted façade of the stockbroker’s house and, although the study was unlit, it was obvious at a glance that the armchair in which Cotton had been sitting would be plainly visible from any of the three windows.

At the conclusion of this part of their investigation, after a further review of the case, both Long and Meredith felt that nothing was to be gained by prolonging their activities. They agreed to meet at Buller’s at ten o’clock the following morning, after Meredith had rung through to Lewes to sound Major Forrest on the proposed scheme that he should help with the case. Long and Shanks then got into the police-car and drove off, whilst Meredith returned in a meditative mood to Number Eight, where his host was waiting up for him with a very welcome night-cap.

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