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7: The Empty House

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Author Topic: 7: The Empty House  (Read 66 times)
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« on: August 29, 2023, 05:10:24 am »

A PERFECT June morning. A cloudless, china-blue sky, a soft breeze which carried the scent of early roses from the gardens, a gay chorus of birds in the silver birches---Regency Square seemed fifty miles from anywhere. Seated on a newly painted, slatted bench, under a May tree, Meredith and Aldous Barnet gazed into the spacious enclosure, finding it hard work to associate this rural quiet with the murder of Captain Cotton. Twice Meredith had attempted to put his mind to thinking about the case and twice some irrelevant happening had lured him up a side-track. It was an onerous job worrying about crime on so perfect a morning. It was Barnet who eventually set the ball rolling.

“If West did it,” he said abruptly, “why didn’t he clear off at once? It seems so emphatically stupid for the man to hang around and commit a burglary two hours after the murder. You didn’t remove the body to Number Five until eleven-thirty, did you?”

“No---but what about Albert? West couldn’t rifle the safe until he was off the premises.”

“And in the meantime---where was West?”

“Hiding in some bushes---anywhere in the shadow where he could keep an eye on Number Five, I imagine.”

“But the risk---think of it!” insisted Barnet. “The chap must have had an iron nerve to have hung about a hundred yards from Buller’s with the police coming and going and the whole square in a state of upheaval.”

Meredith said quietly. “You’re trying to tell me that West didn’t steal the three thousand. I agree---that’s very possible. On the other hand he needed the money. If he didn’t pinch it---who did?”

“Albert. The curtains weren’t drawn to at once in Buller’s study. He might easily have been out in the square, noticed what had happened, realized that if he acted quickly he could get away with the cash before the police started to poke around Number Five.”

“A good theory,” acknowledged Meredith, “except for one very strong objection. Long drew the curtains when Stinns, the photographer, arrived. That was just before ten-thirty. Albert, therefore, must have seen what had taken place before that time. In other words, he had a whole hour in which to open the safe before we turned up with the body.”

“A difficulty with the combination of the safe, perhaps?”

Meredith disagreed.

“With a combination it’s either all or nothing. You either know it or you don’t. No half-measures with these modern designs.”

“So that cinematic idea,” laughed Barnet, “of light-fingered gentlemen in cotton gloves twiddling dials with their heads on one side is all bunkum?”

“Pure bunkum. Oxy-acetylene, if you like. Otherwise you’ve got to know the combination. Our man did in this case---must have done.”

“How does that fit in with West?”

“It doesn’t. That’s one of the manifold snags. He wasn’t even friendly with Cotton, but we know somebody who was, Fitzgerald, the bank-manager. I’ve been thinking a bit about him since last night. The objection you put up with regard to West can’t be sniffed at. It would have been a devil of a risk to stay in the square once the murder had been committed. This fellow, Fitzgerald, on the other hand seemed on good terms with Cotton. Often in the house and so on. On top of that as a bank-manager he’d know a bit about safes. Suppose, by any chance, Cotton had opened the safe in his presence---it’s quite possible that Fitzgerald might have noticed the combination. I grant you we cross-questioned him before ten-thirty, but the idea of breaking into the safe may not have occurred to him at once. Even if it had it was essential for him to return to Mrs. Fitzgerald and get her to fix him up with an alibi while he was doing the job. Again he probably knew something about Albert’s habits, and knew that Albert would go along to the post at his usual time. He simply waited his opportunity, watching from an unlighted window of his own house, then slipped in next door and did the job.”

“Well, it all sounds very plausible,” admitted Barnet. “But a trifle up in the air perhaps. You’re not going to fix him up as the murderer as well, eh?”

“I don’t think so---I still have my suspicions about West. Strong suspicions. He had motive, the ability to shoot, a key to the Empty House. His alibi is uncorroborated. The points against him stick out a mile!” Meredith sighed profoundly. “But how the devil I’m going to ram those facts home by good, honest proof . . . well, well, well.”

For a time the two men puffed at their pipes, silently appreciating the delights of the summer’s morning and the narcotic influence of tobacco. The Misses Watt, two dark little figures like black-beetles, crawled across the square, which was bisected with a diagonal gravel path, and bowed their recognition from a distance. Dr. Pratt’s car swished off on some errand of mercy---by the excessive speed at which he drove, a life-and-death case. Miss Boon came down her front steps, baying deep commands at her pack and made off in the direction of the town. Mr. Buller appeared with a newspaper on his stone balcony.

“A pity about that tree,” said Barnet, breaking in on Meredith’s ruminations. “I miss it. It leaves a gap over in that corner.”

“Tree?”

“Yes---used to be an elm over there. A real veteran. Some of the people here got scared and had the thing cut down. I believe West was the main agitator.”

Meredith grunted and retired again behind a secure wall of silence. He wanted to apply his mind to this case, solidly, exhaustively, before taking further action. Why on earth had Barnet wanted to break in with that chatter about the tree? West was probably right anyway---elms were notoriously unsafe. Too shallow rooted. Over in that corner. An elm tree. Oh, damn the tree. If West had left George Street at---funny that a murderer should worry about the safety of a tree. Seemed illogical. Oh, damn the tree! If West had left George----

Suddenly Meredith sat upright, knocked out his pipe and demanded.

“When was this tree cut down?”

“What tree?”

“That elm you were talking about just now.”

“Oh, that. Some time in the middle of April I think. My sister wrote about it. Why?”

“Just an idea. Shall we stroll over and take a look?”

Puzzled, but intrigued, Barnet accompanied Meredith across the grass to the stump of the elm, which the authorities had decided not to uproot.

“Well, I’ll be----” began Meredith. “There may not be anything in it---this idea of mine, I mean---but do you notice anything significant about the position of this stump?”

“Not at the moment,” acknowledged Barnet, “though I’m quite prepared to believe that you’re going to tell me something that ought to be obvious to the meanest intelligence.”

Meredith laughed. “I am, Mr. Barnet. This tree, before it was cut down, must have stood in a direct line between the windows of West’s house and Buller’s study. West was the man who agitated to have it removed. If that isn’t a suspicious fact----”

Barnet contested: “Why not a simple coincidence? The point I’m getting at is this---if West planned this murder two months ago, how did he know that Cotton would visit Buller? It was an extraordinary rather than a usual event for Cotton to visit Number Six. How the deuce could West be sure of this. And further,” added Barnet with greater emphasis, “how did West happen to be in the Empty House at the exact hour?”

“Cotton may have seen him in the town that day and mentioned the fact,” argued Meredith. “I grant you there are plenty of holes in my theory. At this stage there are bound to be. But since everything at the moment points to the fact that West might be the murderer, the cutting down of this elm simply helps to underline the fact.”

For all his glib arguments, however, Meredith was keenly worried by Aldous Barnet’s objections. He felt the need to get away on his own and wrestle with all the various conflicting details of the case.

“Look here,” he said to Barnet, “do you mind if I take my pipe for a stroll in Pitville Gardens. I always think better when I’m walking around.”

Crossing, therefore, into Evesham Road, Meredith ambled toward the entrance lodge, paid his twopence and entered the gardens. There were not many people about---a few nursemaids with their charges, a few elderly ladies airing their toy dogs, one or two gardeners potting out plants for the summer borders. He wandered down to the little ornamental lake, with its weeping willows and arched stone bridge, like the conventional background of a Japanese print. Children were throwing pieces of bread to a gay flotilla of ducks. In the distance, beyond a fine, rising sweep of lawn, he saw the massive portico of the old Pump Room, crowned with its three outsize statues and enormous green dome.

He thought: “Now let’s see if I can reconstruct West’s movements on the night of 13th June. He left George Street sometime after a quarter to nine. We know that because Mrs. Emmet cleared his supper away about this time. He walks round to Regency Square, taking care not to be seen, enters Number Two, takes up his position at a second-storey window and waits till Cotton is seated in the armchair. He opens his own window, of course, sights up his arrow and looses it. He then either creeps out into the square and hides in the bushes, or possibly stays at the window, until he sees the coast is clear for his entry into Number Five. He dashes up the stairs, opens the safe, takes out the money---wearing gloves, of course---meets us as we’re bringing in the body and makes his getaway via the basement and the back gate.” Meredith paused in his stride for a minute, resting his elbows on the parapet of the bridge and watched a couple of black swans paddling drowsily in the sparkling water. A new thread of thought began to unwind from his brain. “The bow and arrow! Now how on earth could he have walked through the streets with a six-foot bow under his arm without attracting undesirable notice? And what did he do with the bow after he had committed the murder? He certainly wouldn’t have taken it with him on that burglary expedition to Cotton’s place. Hidden it in the house somewhere? That’s the most plausible explanation. And the bow and arrow had been planted in the Empty House ready for use when required? That again seems likely. And the chances are that the bow still remains hidden somewhere in the house. West would not find it easy to smuggle the thing through the town to George Street. I think a thorough search of the house is indicated. Key from the agents. The sooner the better.”

His mind made up Meredith hurried off to the offices of Gregg and Foster, whose board he had noticed in the garden of Number Two, and after revealing his official status obtained the keys. Ten minutes later he was hard at work combing through every room in the Empty House. He left nothing to chance. He examined every possible hiding-place---chimneys, cupboards, floor-boards, out-houses, cellars, everything. He even climbed up into the roof and dabbled in the water cistern. Noticing a skylight let into the ceiling of the attic landing, he erected a tower of crates, opened the skylight and climbed through on to the flat crenellated roof. With his customary care he investigated, not only the roof area above the Empty House, but that of Numbers One and Three, divided only by a low stone coping. But there was no sign of the bow. Disheartened he returned to Clarence Street to see if Long were in his office.

Long was very much there---“up to his eyes in work,” as he expressed it, but perfectly ready to shelve everything in order to chat with Meredith.

“Since seeing you yesterday I’ve had a row with my missus,” he began with a doleful grimace. “I tell you---this murder case has darn near wrecked my conoobial bliss---not that you’d notice it anyway. All on account o’ that bloomin’ arrow that you handed me to take care of. Exhibit Number One, as you might say.”

“I don’t quite see the connection,” said Meredith, puzzled.

“Well it was like this. Yesterday evening when I went off dooty I took the arrow along home with me, see? Thought it might be safer there than ’anging around the office with all these prying youngsters on their toes to get the low-down on this case. I tell you it’s been merry hell here these last few days. Nothing but damfool questions. ‘When are you going to make an arrest, Inspector?’ ‘Can we see the photographs o’ the dead man with the arrow in his ’ead,’ and so on. Sickening. At any rate, just afore joining my wife in bed I unwrapped the arrow down in our parlour and had another look-see. ’Course, I didn’t find anything new, so I took it up to the bedroom and planked it down on the dressing-table. Then I undressed, turned out the light and ’opped into bed. I was just about getting down to a comfortable eight hours when my wife catches ’old of my arm and lets out a couple of squeaks. ‘ ’Erbert,’ she ses, ‘there’s somebody in the room. I can see a light shining over there.’ Naturally I cursed like the devil thinking that it was only a bit o’ woman nonsense. But jigger me! When I did sit up in bed there was a light in the room. Just a glimmer. Not more. I called out sharply---in my best official voice, as it were---‘ ’Oo’s there? Better not move. Get me?’ Then leaning over I switched on the light.”

“Well?” asked Meredith.

“There wasn’t anybody there,” said Long with comic anti-climax. “Not a sign of anything out of order, moreover. I turned out the light and, believe it or not, that glimmer was still visible over by the dressing-table. In a second I had ’opped out of bed to investigate, telling my missus not to worry, and that it wasn’t anything in the spook line whatever she suspected. I was right about that. It wasn’t. The light was coming from the arrow.”

“The arrow?” said Meredith incredulously.

“Yes---two dabs o’ luminous paint at each end. Makes you think, eh? You know well enough why they were there.”

“I can make a pretty shrewd guess after my various chats with the archery experts,” agreed Meredith. “Those spots of light were necessary, I take it, to sight the arrow in the dark.”

“Exactly. ’Course they didn’t show in daylight, and we hadn’t thought to look at the exhibit in the dark. Fairly scared my missus I can tell you. I’m on my best behaviour up at home to-day.” Long groped under the knee-hole of his desk and waved a large bunch of flowers under Meredith’s nose. “ ’Ere, what do you think o’ those?”

“Lovely.”

“Yes---and I hope my old woman agrees. Otherwise I’m booked for a lively week.”

“Tried to trace the purchase of the paint?” asked Meredith.

“Yes---Shanks has been at it all the morning trying all the likely places in the town. But we can’t expect much, can we? The paint may have been bought anywhere---Gloucester, Stroud, Cirencester, any-damn-where for that matter. He’s had no luck so far. Perhaps your news is a bit more encouraging, sir?”

“Mostly negative,” acknowledged Meredith, and proceeded to hand on what little data he had gathered. After a full discussion of all the new facts Long said: “I did find out something this morning. Nothing much---but curious. I was round at Johnson’s Car Mart where Cotton was employed. Raking around for information re ’is past life, habits, friends and so on. What d’you think his screw was round there?”

Meredith calculated quickly, after a mental picture of Number Five and Albert, the manservant: “Oh, about five hundred a year, I suppose.”

“Four quid a week! Four bloomin’ quid a week and no extras. Johnson’s don’t believe in working their chaps on the commission basis. Now I ask you---how the ’ell did our friend manage to run his house, a motor-bike and general teetotum on four quid a week?”

“Private income perhaps.”

Long nodded with approval. “Just what I said to myself. To clear up the point I went round to Williamson, the manager of the Provincial where Cotton banked. Nice chap---friend of mine. Always obliging and very confidential. Cotton had a current account there with a credit balance of twenty odd pounds. That’s all. Not a hint of any income save what he was drawing from the Car Mart.”

“Umph,” commented Meredith.

“And that’s not all, sir,” went on Long. “Directly after breakfast I ’opped round to see Albert and pump him about that legacy. Appears this aunt o’ Cotton’s lived in Cirencester. Alice Bateman was her name---a maternal aunt, see? So I got in touch with our chaps over at Cirencester and asked if they knew anything about the ole gal. Oh, yes---they knew her right enough. Well-known character in the locality. Loopy. Not dangerous but queer in her manner. Died a month back.”

“That fits in with Cotton’s statement anyway.”

“Quite. Quite. But listen to the rest of it. The ole gal, who lived alone, didn’t die natural. She was found gassed. ’Course, there was an inquest, and it came out in the proceedings that she hadn’t got a bean. Not a brass farthing. They reckoned that was why the poor ole dear slipped out of her mortal coil, as Shakespeare says. What about Cotton’s statement now? Legacy be----”

“Exactly. So that three thousand has got to be accounted for in some other way. And I reckon that wherever that three thousand came from it wasn’t from any legitimate source. Otherwise Cotton wouldn’t have troubled to invent that story. Strikes me he ran the house on a similar sort of income.”

Long, who was of a like mind, went on to point out that for all his inquiries the “Captain” didn’t appear to have a solicitor or to have left a will. In his opinion, an opinion which seemed to coincide with that of most of the people who knew Cotton, “the chap was a regular dirty dog.” Previous to his arrival in Cheltenham he had---at least according to Albert’s statement---been living in a flat at 23a, Broadhurst Gardens, Hampstead, a turning off the Finchley Road. Money had not been quite so plentiful at that period, complained Albert, and he often had to wait a couple of months for his wages. His master had then been mixed up with a firm of antique dealers. The moment they arrived in Cheltenham, however, his master’s finances seemed to take a decided turn for the better. Albert had no idea as to the origin of this sudden affluence. All he bothered about was his wages.

“Which suggests,” said Meredith judicially, “that, whatever his underhand game, he didn’t put it in operation until he arrived here. The question is---what was his ramp? What about blackmail? From what I’ve gathered about his character that seems the most feasible explanation.”

“With West as the plucked pigeon?” suggested Long. “He’s lost all his money of late. Another motive for the murder, too. Although he told me he’d lost it on the Stock Exchange.”

Meredith pondered a moment. “I think the most likely victim is Fitzgerald. Remember he was the only man who appeared to be friendly with Cotton. A queer friendship when you come to think of it. I can’t somehow see Fitzgerald ‘mixing’ well with a bounder like Cotton. Only a theory, of course, but worth thinking about.”

There was a brief silence before Meredith broke out with: “Good heavens! It hadn’t occurred to me in that light before. I was putting forward a theory to Mr. Barnet this morning that Fitzgerald could easily have been our burglar. You don’t think it possible that the money taken from the safe was his own ‘hush’ money? The fact that it was all in notes suggests it. Fitzgerald would know, I reckon, where Cotton dumped the cash. He was probably in the room when Cotton locked away the various instalments of his silence money in the safe. Do you know, Long, I believe were on the right track here. It’s even possible that Fitzgerald committed the murder!”

“What about his alibi?”

“We’ve only got his wife’s word for it that he was listening in to that concert. No independent witness. If Fitzgerald could have got into the Empty House, loosed the arrow and sneaked back to Number Four---he’d have only been away for about fifteen minutes at the most. I grant you he’s not supposed to be a crack shot but what’s to have prevented him from practising in secret? Again, living next door to Cotton, he was in a good position to see him leave for Buller’s place. Cotton may have even taunted him with the news that he was going to ask Buller’s advice about the investment of that three thousand.”

“But if he committed the murder why didn’t he nip in and pinch the dough at once?”

“Because he was intelligent enough to guess that the police would probably want to interview him. So he naturally waited until after our cross-examination.”

“I wonder if you’re right,” said Long with a husky sigh. “First West, now Fitzgerald. Strikes me, sir, we might just as soon draw up a list of everybody living in the square, shut our peepers and ’ave a jab at it with a pin.”

Meredith laughed.

“There’s something in that, Long. We’re still groping, I admit.”

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