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9: The Fitzgeralds Talk

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Author Topic: 9: The Fitzgeralds Talk  (Read 28 times)
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« on: August 29, 2023, 08:53:48 am »

“BLIMEY!” breathed Albert, passing a vague hand over his forehead, then drawing out a handkerchief to mop it. “Diddled, eh?”

“Somebody’s been,” observed Meredith with a puzzled look. “Can’t see the point of this trick, can you, Long?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Where did the Captain keep this envelope?”

“In a little desk in ’is bedroom,” explained Albert. “Always kept ’is desk locked an’ after ’e was done in I pinched the key orf the bunch on ’is westkit, took the envelope aht and ’id it in my own room.”

“You don’t think----” began Long in an inspirational voice.

“Half a minute, Long---let’s finish with Albert first. He’s still got something to tell us.” Meredith drew out his note-book. “For instance---what about this? A little more of that unfortunate conversation of yours, Albert. You said something to Mrs. Fitzgerald about knowing that her husband did the murder. Your exact words were: ‘Know he did the murder . . . motive any-old-hows.’ ”

“ ’Ere, ’arf a mo!” cried Albert excitedly. “I never said that! At least not as you’ve took it dahn. You’ve only got part of wot I said. Wot I actually said was: ‘For all I know ’e did the murder. ’E ’ad a good motive, any ole ’ows.’ Meaning on account of ’is business transactions wiv the Captain, see?”

“Then you’ve no other reason to suspect that Mr. Fitzgerald murdered your master? You said something about seeing him out that night---what did you mean by that?”

“That’s right! I did see ’im aht. And when I ’eard abaht the murder it looked fishy to me.”

“Yes---but out where? In the square?”

“Yus---in a manner of speaking. ’E was up on the roof when I saw ’im.”

“The roof!” exclaimed Long and Meredith in unison.

“Ain’t I jus’ said so? On the parson’s roof looking over the edge ’e was. When ’e saw me come aht of Number Five ’e dodged back quick.”

“What time was this?”

“Abaht a quarter-past nine---just afore.”

“How d’you know?”

“Because I was going aht to post a letter and the post goes at nine-fifteen, see? So I knew I ’ad to look nippy.”

“But, good heavens,” broke in Meredith, “when we saw you that night at eleven-thirty you told us you’d just come back from posting a letter. It wasn’t the same letter by any chance, was it?”

“Yes,” cut in Long sharply, “and why were you so out o’ breath when you arrived?”

“Had you been back into Number Five since you went out with that letter?” demanded Meredith.

“If so, where had you been ’iding yourself all that time?” asked Long suspiciously.

“For two hours, Albert. Did it take you two hours to post that letter?”

Bombarded by these penetrating, quick-fire questions Albert grew confused and finally blurted out in a whining voice: “Orlrite, I’ll tell you. I wasn’t up to nothing slippery if that’s wot you’re trying to lay on me. Fact is, I did post that there letter to my bookie same as I told you. After that I went up the road a bit and saw Charlie Hogg wot keeps the ‘Goose and Fevvers.’ Friend o’ mine is Charlie. Well, I nipped in, see, and ’ad a couple. We got talking abaht ’orses and you know wot that is. When I looks at the clock I sees it’s bloomin’ well arpas eleven. The Captain ’ad warned me afore abaht these ’ere evenings along wiv Charlie, so I nips aht and ’ops orf back as quick as I could.”

“Well,” said Meredith, “we can easily check up that statement by a visit to Hogg. In the meantime, Albert, we’ll take your word for it. Anything else you want to ask, Inspector?”

As Long shook his head, after cautioning Albert to notify the police of any change of address, he dismissed the unhappy man and plunged at once into a discussion of that strange certificate.

“What’s your idea about this trick, Long---any suggestions?”

“Well, it did occur to me,” said Long with the ponderous humility of a man who feels he’s right and desires to give the opposite impression, “that Cotton was frightened that the real certificate might be pinched.”

“By Fitzgerald?”

“Yes, or Albert. So he locks this envelope away in his desk and puts the actual certificate away in his safe or deposits it at his bank.”

“That’s possible,” agreed Meredith. “But surely not in his safe? We didn’t find it when we went through it that night. And nobody, except Albert and the Fitzgeralds, would have troubled to have taken it along with the three thousand. If Fitz stole the money then he didn’t find the certificate, otherwise his wife wouldn’t have had that little talk with Albert.”

“Perhaps Albert pinched it. All this may be a blind,” suggested Long. “He may have the actual certificate tucked away safe and sound---just biding his time to make use of it.”

“On the other hand, if Albert’s alibi is a true one,” argued Meredith, “he wouldn’t have had a chance to break into the safe. He left the house at nine-fifteen. Cotton was killed at nine-thirty. He wouldn’t have rifled the safe before the murder, would he? Moreover, as he realizes we can question Hogg or anybody else in the pub, I think he’s telling the truth.”

“Have you any alternative explanation then?” asked Long.

“The only other plausible reason for the trick, as far as I can see at the moment, is that Cotton hadn’t got a marriage certificate at all.”

“But why?”

“Because he wasn’t married to Joyce Fitzgerald.”

“Yes, but Albert’s just told us----”

“I know all about that, Long. Albert obviously thought they were married. So did Joyce herself. See the point?”

“You mean Cotton had faked the marriage ceremony?”

“Well, it’s an idea, isn’t it? He was probably infatuated with the girl---yes, or even just physically attracted---but, you see, that type of chap usually shies away from marriage. He may have suggested that Joyce should live with him and received the cold shoulder. So to satisfy the girl’s morality he goes through a false marriage ceremony and probably flourishes the faked certificate under her nose.”

“That’s just the point, sir,” argued Long. “If Cotton had faked a certificate why wasn’t it in the envelope?”

“Because he wasn’t such a fool as to suggest any motive for blackmail. Suppose we got suspicious and felt pretty certain that he was blackmailing Fitzgerald; suppose we got a search warrant and went through his papers? What then? If we’d found that certificate we’d have wondered about his wife, shouldn’t we? Where was she? Why wasn’t she living with him? Was she dead and so on. Inquiries would have been made and we’d have probably hit on the motive for his blackmail.”

“But why keep the envelope at all?”

“Well, he probably had to show Fitzgerald something when he first started his game. Since the girl thought without any shadow of doubt that she was married to him, Fitzgerald would take it for granted that the envelope contained the certificate. Quite obvious the girl thought it did---that’s what she was trying to wheedle from Albert.”

“And the next move, sir?”

“What about cross-questioning the girl herself? She could tell us all about the ceremony. We could follow up her statements and find out if it was faked.”

Long nodded in agreement.

“Yes, and after we’ve seen her, what about another little chat with Fitzgerald? He didn’t tell us anything about being out on that roof to-day, did he? Fishy, eh? He couldn’t have been up there for any lawful purpose. Unless,” added Long with a twinkle, “ ’e was potting at stray cats with his air-gun!”

As it was then late they decided, therefore, to call on Joyce Fitzgerald as soon as her husband had left for the bank on the following morning.

The tall windows of the Fitzgerald’s sitting-room were open to the morning sun when Meredith and Long were shown in by the maid shortly after ten. Almost at once Joyce Fitzgerald joined them. It was obvious to the men that this visit had both surprised and agitated her and, although she politely asked them to be seated, she was very ill-at-ease. Long had asked Meredith to do the cross-questioning, as he had an inherent dislike of interviewing women. Meredith, seeing that the girl was in a decidedly jumpy condition, decided to go cautiously at the start. He did not want to frighten her into a defensive mood. Quietly and methodically he asked her all sorts of questions regarding her husband’s relationship with the dead man, switched over by degrees to Albert and mentioned, at length, the strange conversation in the garden of Number Four. Immediately the girl’s attitude changed. She began to bristle with suspicion, making careful replies, obviously wondering what Meredith was leading up to.

Suddenly Meredith stood up and said with a disarming air of frankness: “Look here, Mrs. Fitzgerald, there’s no point in beating about the bush any longer. We’ve learnt quite a lot about Captain Cotton and his servant during these last few days. We know, for example, that you and your husband were acquainted with these two men before you came to live here in Cheltenham. We know---or at least we have very strong reasons to believe---that Cotton had been blackmailing your husband. We even suspect that the motive for this unpleasant game had something to do with you. Now, Mrs. Fitzgerald, are you prepared to be honest with me? To tell me everything about your previous relations with Captain Cotton? I assure you that in the long run complete frankness on your part will considerably help us to clear up the mystery surrounding the Captain’s death. I think, too, that in return we shall be able to do something for you. Well?”

“What exactly do you want me to tell you?” asked Joyce, in a tremulous voice. “I feel all this would have been easier and fairer to me if my husband had been present.”

“Yes---I appreciate that---but we specially wanted to see you alone before we interviewed Mr. Fitzgerald. To begin with,” added Meredith, slipping a hand into his pocket, “have you ever seen that before?”

Taking it from the Superintendent’s outstretched hand, Joyce glanced at it and looked up in astonishment.

“The certificate! Where did you find this? How did you get hold of it? I suppose now you must know . . . You must have learnt that . . .”

Meredith broke in on her confusion: “That you were at one time Captain Cotton’s wife? Is that what you were going to say?” She nodded mutely, turning over the envelope listlessly in her hand. “Open it,” suggested Meredith.

With fumbling fingers Joyce felt in the envelope and drew out the blank sheet. Again she was overcome with amazement and perplexity.

“But what does it mean? Where is the certificate? I saw Mark seal it up in that envelope. My husband and I felt certain that----” She tailed off with a puzzled shake of her head, unable to credit the trick which had been played upon her.

Omitting no detail, Meredith carefully explained how the certificate had come into the possession of the police and put forward his overnight theory as to why this mysterious trick had been played.

“But it’s impossible! Surely?” cried Joyce. “Never really married? But what about the ceremony---how could Mark have faked that?”

“Suppose you help us to answer that question by telling us exactly what happened. You first met Cotton---when?”

“About six years ago,” began Joyce, suppressing her feelings only by an effort. “I was in my first job then up West in a dressmakers’ shop. One evening Mark sat next to me in a cinema and we got talking. I thought he seemed quite a decent sort of man and, as I was very lonely, I went out with him quite a lot. After a few weeks he put a proposal to me which upset me considerably and for a time I would have nothing to do with him. He constantly wrote and phoned to me, until in the end I gave in and we began to meet again. By this time I was really beginning to grow fond of him and when, a little later, he suggested we should get married, I seriously began to consider the advantages. You see, Mr. Meredith, my prospects were pretty grey. I wasn’t earning much and it’s not much fun living on your own in a bed-sitting-room. For all that I refused to decide at once. Things drifted for a month or two, but finally Mark began to press me for a definite answer. Well, to cut that part of my affairs short---we were married that spring at a Registrar’s Office. Mark was very much against a church marriage and as I had no strong ideas myself I agreed with him.”

“The proposal for a civil marriage came from him first, Mrs. Fitzgerald?”

Joyce nodded and went on: “Yes, and Mark made all the subsequent arrangements---fixed the day, the place and the time, everything. On the actual morning he called for me in Belsize Road where I had my room, tucked me into a taxi and we drove off to the Registrar’s Office.”

“Alone?”

“No---Albert was with us as he was to act as one of the witnesses. Mark explained that the Registrar himself was arranging to supply the other.”

“I see. And where exactly was this office?”

“Well that’s a difficult question to answer. We seemed to turn off Baker Street somewhere and wander about through a lot of side streets. I didn’t know my way about Town very well and I was naturally so excited that I never troubled to ask Mark the name of the street. I don’t know why but I had an idea it was somewhere near Euston Station. I may have actually seen the station---but I really can’t remember much. All I know is, that when we got there we went into a very dingy room on the ground-floor of a big building, like a block of offices. There was very little furniture in the room---just a desk, one or two upright chairs and a strip of carpet. The Registrar himself was an elderly, ordinary-looking sort of man. He seemed to mumble through the ceremony as if he were bored with the whole thing. The witness must have been even more nondescript because the only thing I remember about him was that he had reddish hair.”

For a moment Meredith remained silent, then: “Well, frankly, Mrs. Fitzgerald, what you’ve told me only strengthens my suspicions that the ceremony was faked. We can find out for certain, of course, through Somerset House. If you’ll just give me the necessary details---date, year, Christian names, your maiden name and so on, I’ll get in touch at once with the Metropolitan Police.”

“And all this terrible trouble we’ve been through---the worry, the constant fear that Mark would go to the police, the incessant need for secrecy---it’s all been in a sense unnecessary?”

“Quite. You see how your frankness may help to clear the air, Mrs. Fitzgerald?”

Joyce nodded and then, after a moment’s hesitation, blurted out: “But the murder! Who could have murdered Mark? My husband and I have been asking ourselves this question ever since that ghastly evening. Have you any idea, Mr. Meredith?”

“None,” said Meredith emphatically. “But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to find out.”

“Worried, eh?” asked Long, as the two men walked in step across the square and made for Clarence Street. “Still a bit tickled up over the murder. And not without cause. Noticed you didn’t say anything about the rest of Albert’s information---I mean about her hubby being out on the tiles that night. Dare say she wondered how much of that conversation was overheard. Dare say she wondered if you knew about Albert’s unhappy remarks. She knew, since you told her, that the police had information about the blackmail section of that chat. Uneasy, eh? Anxious to know if we suspect anybody? Betcher a box o’ cigars to a burnt match, sir, that ole Fitz did it.”

“Suppose we have him round, Long, when we get back to the station? He’s got to be pumped about his actions that night. The sooner the better to my mind.”

After Long had put through a long-distance call to the Yard with regard to the tracing of the marriage licence, he dialled Poulson’s Bank and asked Fitzgerald if he could slip round to Clarence Street for a few moments. The manager promised to do so without delay and, in less than five minutes, he was seated in the Inspector’s office. This time it was Long who set the ball rolling. In the background Shanks sat, unobtrusively, with his note-book and pencil at the “ready.”

“Now, sir, I’m not going to bother you with a lot of unnecessary facts---but we’ve had some definite information which we’re bound to investigate. It concerns you. Quite briefly, sir, we want to know what you were doing on the roof of Mr. Matthews’ house somewhere about nine-fifteen on the night of 13th June.”

“13th June?”

“Captain Cotton’s unlucky day, sir---the day of the murder.”

“On the roof? But what on earth gave you the idea that----”

“From information received---witness swears to ’is identification. Well, sir?”

“But it’s ridiculous, Inspector! What on earth should I be on the roof for?”

“That’s just what we wondered. I might add that we have obtained corroborative evidence of the facts stated by witness.”

“What d’you mean by that?” asked the manager on a note of anxiety. “How could you have such evidence if I wasn’t there?”

Long lifted his broad shoulders and, staring at the ceiling, began to rub his triplicate chins.

“I’m waiting, sir---so’s the Superintendent here.”

“But good heavens---what for? What do you want me to do?”

“Tell the truth---that’s all,” said Long bluntly. “I warn you from the start, sir, that the dice are loaded, ’eavily loaded against you. Now, if you didn’t wear rubbers like that on your shoes, for instance----” Long pointed to the manager’s outstretched feet and smiled when he quickly placed them flat on the floor. Suddenly Fitzgerald rose and took a turn or two up and down the room. He seemed to be struggling inwardly to come to some vital decision. How much did the police know? Was this all bluff? Should he speak? These were the queries which Meredith imagined he was posing himself. What would be the result of this obvious conflict with his conscience? The truth? Or a pack of clever lies? Anxiously, without moving, the two officials waited. Then without warning, Fitzgerald, from whose face the last vestige of colour had drained, began to speak. At first in a jerky mutter, barely audible, then as he progressed, stimulated by his own words, his voice gaining strength and clarity. Long nodded and Shanks, taking the tip, began to write swiftly.

“All right. I won’t keep up the pretence any more. I know exactly what you’re referring to. You’ve got to accept my explanation as the truth. Yes, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I was on the roof that night! But I swear to you, gentlemen, that it had absolutely nothing to do with Cotton’s murder. With Cotton---yes---but not his death. There’s a lot to tell. You may have guessed part of what has been happening already. Blackmail! That’s the whole ugly situation in a nutshell. One word. Blackmail! A hellish crime, believe me. It saps you---your strength, your self-respect, your financial resources, any attempt to enjoy a little happiness. I’ll tell you how I first met Cotton and my wife. The whole business really began then . . .”

And little by little, some of it fresh, some of it stale, Fitzgerald announced the bald facts which had led up to Cotton’s hold over him. Hampstead---Joyce’s unbearable marriage---Cotton’s unceasing neglect and mental cruelty---their own intimacy---the offer of the Cheltenham job---the chance to forget the past and start again, together, as man and wife---Cotton’s arrival at Number Five---his threat to divulge their secret---an initial payment of “silence” money---further demands---further payments---worry---incessant fear and the dreadful feeling of insecurity.

“At last I could stick it no longer. I’d already paid out something in the region of two thousand pounds. I saw myself being forced to sell up my house to meet Cotton’s demands. I didn’t know which way to turn. Could I borrow the money? Mortgage the house? What? In the end, driven nearly crazy by the situation, I did something that I’ve regretted ever since. I began to misappropriate money from the bank. Once I had started that game I seemed unable to turn aside. I only plunged deeper. Two months ago I found, to my horror, that I had borrowed from the bank to the tune of three thousand pounds. Three thousand! And no immediate prospect of putting the money back where it belonged. Then an idea occurred to me. From my visits to Cotton I knew where he kept his safe and I was certain that a large proportion of the cash I had paid over to him was being hoarded in that safe. In short---I decided to steal my own money back---or rather the bank’s. A mad idea, perhaps, but it seemed the only solution to my problem. Cotton might suspect me but if I did the job properly I reckoned that he’d never be able to prove that I was the thief. At the same time I was struck by another possibility. What if the certificate of marriage were also kept in the safe? Couldn’t I get hold of that as well? I knew exactly what sort of an envelope it was in. Cotton had often flourished the damned thing under my nose. You see he knew that he was, physically, the stronger man and he rather enjoyed riling me in this manner. Of course he might have a duplicate of the certificate. He could get another document from Somerset House---but all I thought of then was breathing-space. Time in which to sit down and think things straight again. The point was how to break into the safe? It was a combination safe and, although my profession has taught me a good deal about safes, I naturally didn’t know the cipher which would open Cotton’s. At length I hit on a plan. I noticed that when Cotton pulled down the blinds of his study he only pulled down the big blind in the centre. The window, as you may know, is a bay. This meant that it was possible to see into the room at night through either of the smaller windows---provided one could look into them from the right angle. Well, after a cautious review, I discovered that I could get an absolutely uninterrupted, front-view of the safe from the roof of Matthews’ house. I began to creep up there after it was dark, via my landing window, and keep watch. I’d already bought a specially powerful pair of binoculars, with which I hoped to read the combination of the safe when Cotton next opened it. You can imagine how often my watches proved futile. How often I waited up there for Cotton to go to his safe. Eventually, however, my luck changed and I was able to note down the first part of the cipher. If Cotton hadn’t moved on that occasion I should have had the complete combination in my hand. Then, on 13th June, Cotton walked with me to the bank and announced, in a sneering sort of way, that as his capital had now reached substantial proportions he intended to invest it. He told me that he was going to see Buller after dinner that evening and ask his advice. This put me on the qui vive. I thought to myself that it was very possible Cotton would go through the contents of his safe that evening. My only fear was that he might do this before it was dark. My luck still held, however, and shortly after nine o’clock, when I had been up on Matthews’ roof for about twenty minutes, the light went on in Cotton’s study and I saw him go to the safe. This time I was able to read the rest of the cipher. But before I had time to make myself scarce, Albert came out of the front door of Number Five. I dodged back as quickly as I could behind a chimney-stack, but from what you were telling me just now I rather suspect that Albert was your witness. Well, that---in short---is the situation in which I have been existing these past two years. You can imagine that it’s not been all honey. It’s up to you now to take what proceedings you think fit. I shall, of course, make a clean breast of the affair to my directors.”

“Yes, but half a minute, sir,” put in Meredith, aware of the conclusive tone in the manager’s voice. “You’ve not told us the whole story---surely? You say you were able to complete your reading of the cipher that night. Did you by any chance put this knowledge to good account, Mr. Fitzgerald?”

“You mean did I open Cotton’s safe? Well, that’s rather an extraneous question, isn’t it, Mr. Meredith? You know the safe was burgled. The whole square have been talking about the theft. And since I’ve confessed to having the combination . . . well . . .”

Meredith nodded.

“We suspected, of course. Not at first but as our investigations went on. But I’d rather like to hear your account so that I can check up on details. Purely official routine.”

“Very well---here’s exactly what happened. Understand, I had no intention of breaking into the safe on that particular night. The idea came to me only after I had received your summons to answer some questions at Buller’s place. When I realized that Cotton was dead and that Albert was out of the house, I saw what a god-sent opportunity I had to put my plans into operation. I want you to understand that my wife knew absolutely nothing about these plans. When I had kept watch up on the roof I had to invent excuses for my absence and creep up to the top landing without her knowledge. It was the same that night. When I reached home after your cross-examination, I turned things over in my mind, came to a decision to act without delay and told my wife that I was going for a stroll round. I often did this before going to bed as I’ve not been sleeping too well. She naturally didn’t suspect anything. I put on a pair of wash-leather gloves, took a good look at Cotton’s house from both the front and back, saw there were no lights burning, found the front door unlocked and crept up to the study. I knew my way about the house, of course, because of my frequent visits to satisfy Cotton’s demands. I got down to work with the help of a small pocket-torch, referred to the notes I had jotted down and soon had the safe open. It was at that moment that you and the other officials turned up and rang the bell. I grabbed up the packets of bank-notes as quickly as I could, switched out the torch and began to grope my way down the stairs. Unfortunately my arrival in the hall coincided, as you probably remember, with your entry. However, I managed to slip down the basement stairs, run down the garden, out through the gate and into my own garden. I actually heard your man calling out that he could see no signs of anybody in the lane. He was only a couple of yards away from the spot where I was standing, holding my breath. After the excitement had died down I crept into my own house through the kitchen, along the hall, slammed the front door and walked in to my wife. That, I think, explains everything you want to know.”

At the conclusion of this lengthy statement Fitzgerald dropped, exhausted and shaken, into a chair and mechanically took the cigarette which Meredith tactfully offered him.

“You were up on the roof until what time?” asked the Superintendent.

“About twenty-past nine, I think.”

“And you noticed nobody else prowling about up there? No sounds or anything out of the ordinary?”

“It’s queer you should mention that about sounds, because I did hear something. A sort of hollow bump---rather like a sash-window being shut.”

“From which direction did this come?”

“From One or Two, I thought. It sounded as if it came from West’s place. But, of course, it couldn’t have come from there, could it?”

“Hardly,” agreed Meredith, thinking to himself: “The skylight---somebody may have just sneaked into the Empty House and shut it.” Aloud he went on: “Well, sir, I can’t say exactly how you stand with regard to the law. I imagine it rests with your directors whether proceedings are taken or not. But I’m sure, from our point of view, that you’ve done the right thing in telling us the whole truth. I’ve an idea, too, that we can hold out a strong hope that the whole matter of your wife’s marriage may be cleared up to your advantage. She’ll doubtless have something to tell you about this when you get home. In the meantime, would you kindly read through and sign this statement? Thanks. I don’t think we need take up more of your time after that, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

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