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11: Death Flies Again

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Author Topic: 11: Death Flies Again  (Read 31 times)
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« on: August 29, 2023, 12:00:13 pm »

MISS Boon’s evidence opened up for Meredith an entirely new line of investigation. From the various statements he had received he felt fairly safe in assuming that Wade, for all his seemingly unshakable alibi, must have played some part in the murder. Miss Boon had seen him just after 9.30 in the Victoria Road. On consulting his street map, however, Meredith found himself up against another curious fact. Victoria Road lay to the north-east of the square---Leckhampton Road to the south-east. In other words, if Wade had just committed the murder and was then on the run, he certainly wasn’t making for his lodgings. Did it mean, perhaps, that he was garaging his car, in secret, at some other part of the town? He might have realized that a car was going to be essential to his scheme for putting Cotton out of the way and, in order to deceive the police, kept up the pretence of not being able to afford one. A search of the garages in the north-east district of the town might, therefore, prove profitable.

Next, motive? Why had Wade wanted Cotton out of the way? As Miss Boon had aptly said, if it were Buffer who had been murdered---then the motive would have been only too obvious. Wade was to inherit from his uncle; he was not particularly affluent, to judge from the amenities of April House; possibly in debt. Yes---if that arrow had entered Buller’s head---then Wade might easily have been the murderer. But so far nothing had come to light to suggest that he had anything against Cotton. If anything, they were the sort that would get on together. Wade had said as much. And even if the motive were forthcoming, the problem still remained as to how he had fooled Pratt and Mrs. Black, left his sick-bed and reached Victoria Road by 9.30.

Had Miss Boon been mistaken in her identity? From his judgment of the woman’s character, Meredith felt inclined to dismiss this possibility. Was she in some way incriminated? Had she made some arrangement with Wade to provide her with an alibi on the night of 13th June and, unaware of his sudden illness, stuck to her story with rather unfortunate consequences? But, damn it, she wasn’t the sort of woman to kill a man with malice aforethought! In a temper, perhaps---but not in cold-blood. Very well---accept her evidence as the truth. How the devil had Wade managed to slip out of April House after an injection of morphia? He’d be incapable of driving a car---let alone in a suitable state to make a difficult shot with a bow and arrow. So far there had been no suggestion that he was an archer. No---even if there were a case to be made out against him, at present it was a very thin one.

Was Pratt implicated, after all? Had he lied about that morphia injection? If so he had covered up his tracks with devilish cunning. His alibi had now been tested and proved valid. There seemed no reason to doubt the fact that he and Wade did not know each other socially. But a morphia injection was a morphia injection, and, unless Pratt had been lying, Wade couldn’t have been seen by Miss Boon.

“I think,” said Meredith to Barnet after dinner that evening, “that I’ll slip in and have another word with Pratt.”

But the doctor could not be shaken from his former statement. He was quite certain that morphia had been injected and that the drug had taken effect before he left his patient’s bedside. So far as he knew, Wade had no car. His uncle, so he believed, had made him an allowance of three pounds ten a week, with the idea that if his nephew wanted any luxuries then he’d have to buckle to and earn them. Of course, it was well known that the boy was to inherit, but in the meantime his uncle refused to give him a penny more than his allowance. No---so far as he knew, Wade was not an archer. He certainly wasn’t a member of the Wellington Club. Not that he, Pratt, knew very much about the boy’s private life. He was not attracted to that type.

After running Long to earth at his home, much to his wife’s disapproval, they discussed every point of the case into the small hours. Tired out, Meredith went back to the square, more depressed than he had been at any moment since the case opened.

In the morning he decided to run out to Winchcombe and investigate the strange death of Mr. Bates’s ewe. He was still hoping it might give him a pointer. Barnet, ever ready to help and to add to his knowledge of police procedure, offered to drive the Superintendent in the Alvis.

It was a dull morning. Dark clouds were massing over the ridge of the distant Malverns, and the silvery curves of the Severn were only visible when an occasional shaft of sunlight penetrated the murk and glittered on the water. From the crest of Cleeve Hill the town, embowered in its wealth of fine trees, looked sombre and unattractive. The uplands themselves, with their bare, cropped pasturage and grey-stoned walls, seemed strangely bleak for July. For all that, Meredith could not stifle a note of appreciation when the car sidled into the long and winding street of the village. There was not a modern touch to disturb the ancient charm of the place with its cluster of crusty, lichenous roofs, its gargoyled church and its more than satisfying example of the art of Inigo Jones. He had often heard of these Cotswold villages and in Winchcombe he was not disappointed.

He found the local police station, explained who he was to the sergeant and the reason for his visit. The sergeant was impressed.

“Yes, sir---we’ve got the arrow all right. Can’t for the life of me see how it happened. We suspect that it was one o’ the village lads up to mischief.” He rummaged in a cupboard and handed Meredith the weapon in question. “That’s it, sir. A bit amatoorish by the look of it. Looks as if the ’ead was hand-made, eh?”

Hand-made, thought Meredith experiencing a sudden thrill. By God!---he was right in coming out to investigate! The arrow was barbed. It might have been the same arrow that had been drawn from the dead man’s head. Identical. Same length. Same sort of barb. Yes---and level with the nock was the same veneering of plastic wood where the maker’s imprint had been carefully pared away with a knife. Whoever had killed that sheep had killed Cotton. But why the sheep? Was it the work of a maniac?

“The spot where this animal was supposed to have been shot,” asked Meredith, “was it off the beaten track?”

The sergeant nodded: “As lonely a spot as any in the district. Lies over beyond Cleeve Hill in a deep valley.”

“And no stranger was noticed about that day?”

“None as far as we can gather, sir. We questioned the gentlemen up on the golf-course in case the chap had come over Cleeve Hill way. Nobody here in the village saw anybody suspicious like. He must have made off over the wolds towards Naunton or Stow. After all, if ’e was carrying a bow----”

“When he saw what had happened,” cut in Meredith, “he may have cached it somewhere. D’you mind if I hang on to this arrow? Refer to borough headquarters if you make an arrest and the case comes into court. It may be rather useful to us. Thanks.”

From Winchcombe Meredith got Barnet to drive direct to April House. Wade was luckily out so the Superintendent was able to interview Mrs. Black without putting the boy on his guard. Once more he found himself sitting in that prim, camphorated parlour---more dingy than ever on account of the brewing rain-storm.

“It’s about that night of 13th June again,” he explained to the landlady. “Did you see or speak with Mr. Wade after the doctor had left that evening?”

“I never saw him,” said Mrs. Black, “though when I went up to bed myself at ten o’clock I called out through the door to ask if he was comfortable and if there was anything he’d be wanting. As I didn’t get any answer I guessed he was still asleep.”

“To be expected after a dose of morphia. What time did he wake in the morning?”

“Not until well past eleven, as far as I can remember.”

“And you heard no unusual sounds during the night?”

“No, sir.”

“How do you lock your front door?”

“With a Yale lock, sir.”

“Mr. Wade has his own key?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It never occurred to you that Mr. Wade might have been out that night after the doctor left?”

“Oh dear no---after what the doctor had told me about his being fast asleep I don’t see how he could have gone out without me knowing. Besides he’d had that sleeping draught, hadn’t he?”

“Quite.” Meredith rose and moved meaningly toward the door, followed by the landlady. “I’d rather you made no mention of this interview to Mr. Wade. Understand, Mrs. Black?”

The woman gave her solemn promise and Meredith went out to the waiting Alvis. As it was then lunch-time they returned to the square, where the Superintendent took a hasty meal and hurried off to Clarence Street to see Long.

“Well, sir---any forrader?” asked the Inspector.

“Nothing new except this.” And he unwrapped the arrow and placed it on the desk. “Borrowed it from Winchcombe. It’s identical with the one which killed Cotton.”

Long grunted. “Can’t understand this twist at all. Unless the chap’s got a screw loose there seems no point in murdering a bloomin’ sheep. Went a long way to do it, too. Funny. ’Ow about this lively lad, Wade? Something fishy there as I said the other night.”

“Yes---but what motive?”

“I’ve been thinking about ’m in conjunction with the crime. No—don’t look surprised, sir. I do a spot o’ thinking in my leisure hours. You don’t think it was a case of mistaken identity?”

“What, on Miss Boon’s part?”

“No---on Wade’s. You don’t think that when he shot that arrow ’e thought he was drawing the bead on ’is uncle? See what I mean—just a head sticking up above the back of that armchair. And ’oo’s chair was it? Not Cotton’s. His uncle’s. ’Oo did he expect to be sitting in that chair? Not Cotton, did ’e? Nine times out of ten his uncle would have been sitting in that particular chair. When I’ve been into the square since I’ve seen him sitting in it myself.”

Meredith jumped up as, stimulated by the Inspector’s suggestion, another fact flashed into his mind.

“Good heavens, Long!---I believe there’s something in that idea. D’you remember when I was investigating those footprints up on Matthews’ roof I took a look at Buller’s window? He was sitting in the same chair, and I noticed that his bald patch showed above the back of it. Cotton had a bald patch!”

“Yes,” went on Long, flattered by the reception his theory had received. “And when Cotton got it in the neck, Buller was over in the corner of the room pouring out the drinks. Remember ’is evidence? So Wade wouldn’t have seen the second person in the room unless ’e’d been watching from the Empty House for some time. Naturally he wouldn’t risk that. I reckon ’is idea would be to nip in, take aim, watch for the result and then ’op it quick.”

“But that damned morphia!” exclaimed Meredith irritably. “How the devil are we going to get over that? If it had been an ordinary sleeping-draught it could have been counteracted with an emetic. I’ve known that trick to be played before. But an injection, you can’t get that out of your system.”

“Then Pratt must be in it,” contested Long. “After all we’ve only got ’is word that the boy was asleep when he left the room. Mrs. Black didn’t see ’im again that night.”

“I know all that, Long---but even then how did he get out of the house? Pratt didn’t leave until 9.15. If Wade was to get over to Regency Square in time to commit the murder at 9.30 then he must have left before Pratt.”

“Is there a back stairs to the ’ouse?”

Meredith shook his head.

“I should have noticed if there had been when I went up to Wade’s room. Why d’you ask?”

“Well---from what you’ve told me---Pratt came down from the lad’s room and ’ung about in the front-hall for a time talking to Mrs. Black. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Pratt was a party to the crime---couldn’t this chat ’ave been prearranged so as to give Wade the chance to nip out the back way?”

Meredith nodded slowly.

“That’s more than possible, Long. He may have shinned down a water-pipe into the garden and had his car waiting in a road behind the house. There may be footprints, indications of some sort---what d’you say to taking a Leckhampton bus and settling our minds on this point? A vital clue if we hit on anything.”

“I’m all for that, sir.”

Mrs. Black was plainly agitated on receiving a second police visit so shortly after the first.

“Oh dear, sir---it’s all so upsetting. Gives me the creeps to feel that something might have gone wrong in my house. If only I knew what the trouble was! It can’t be nothing to do with Mr. Wade. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Setting her fears at rest with some non-committal answer, Meredith, ascertaining that Wade was still out, asked to be shown up into his room. Once there he dismissed the landlady and beckoned Long to the window.

“Well if we are going to find anything we’re only just in time. You realize, of course, that it hasn’t rained since the 13th? But in a minute or two it’s going to rain cats-and-dogs.” Between them they slid up the sash and craned out. “Good Lord!” was Meredith’s immediate exclamation, “crime made easy, eh, Long?”

“A shed! Darn it, even I could make a getaway over that roof. Shall we climb out and run the tape over it?”

Meredith threw a leg over the sill and dropped lightly on to the rubberoid roof of the lean-to, followed more cautiously by the Inspector. Going down on their hands and knees they examined the grimy surface. Several long, clearly-defined scratches suggested that something or somebody had recently been up on the roof. But it was impossible to say if the scratches had been made by boots. It was not until they peered over the guttering of the shed and examined the loamy soil of the border directly below, that Meredith let out a cry of satisfaction.

“Footprints, Long! Here---directly behind that laurel bush. Deep impressions, too---just as we might expect.”

“By jingo!---that’s where ’e jumped down right enough,” observed Long, with a low whistle, “and there’s the gate at the end of the garden through which ’e got into the road at the back.”

They dropped down, one by one, to the ground and investigated the narrow, deserted road on the far side of the garden-gate. It offered a perfect parking-place for somebody who was anxious not to draw attention to their car. Back in the house Meredith put a final question to Mrs. Black.

“That gate at the end of the garden---do you lock it at night?”

“No, sir---never.”

“Thanks. I suppose you’ve no idea where we’re likely to find Mr. Wade at this hour?”

“Well, it’s possible he may be in Parker’s billiards-saloon in Grange Street. He’s very partial to a game of billiards is Mr. Wade.”

“Right---we’ll have a look for him there. And remember, Mrs. Black, not a word about these visits.”

“Know where this place is?” asked Meredith of Long when they were clear of April House.

“Somewhere round the back o’ Montpellier Gardens. It’s your idea that we should tackle the lad straightaway, is it?”

Meredith nodded and pointed out that, with the circumstantial evidence now incriminating Wade, the sooner he was questioned the better. But their luck was out. The proprietor of the billiards-saloon said that he had been there for an hour after lunch, but had left some twenty minutes earlier. He had an idea that he had gone to the cinema show at the Gaumont Palace in Winchcombe Street.

“Damn!” said Meredith as they left the building and turned towards the gardens. “We can’t comb through a cinema audience. We’d better send a man out to keep watch at April House, with a request for Wade to show up at the station as soon as he returns home.”

“O.K. I’ll prime Shanks up with ’is description. As it’s just come on to rain he’ll enjoy a couple of hours cooling ’is heels in the Leckhampton Road. Pity we haven’t got a photo of the lad.”

“We have,” grinned Meredith, pulling a post-card out of his pocket. “I borrowed this off Mrs. Black’s kitchen mantelpiece when she wasn’t looking. But we need this ourselves. In any case Shanks has only got to make an inquiry the moment he sees a young man enter the house.”

“Yes---but what do we want the photo for?”

“You and I are going to fill in our time walking round to the garages to see if we can trace that car.”

“Walking!” gasped Long. “What, in this rain?”

“Better than cooling your heels in the Leckhampton Road,” retorted Meredith with a malicious smile.

But although for two solid hours they cross-questioned the proprietors of some dozen garages in the vicinity of the Leckhampton Road, they learnt nothing about the car. Long, in the meantime, had phoned up Clarence Street and sent Shanks out to April House. At half-past five the two men decided to abandon their quest until the next day and separated to get some tea. After they had eaten Long was to go back to the station to wait for Wade’s appearance, when he was to phone Meredith in Regency Square.

It was a terrible evening---gusty and rainy, unusually chilly for the time of the year. After tea Barnet and Meredith settled down to a long discussion of the book in which they were collaborating. Cotton’s murder had prevented them from really getting down to it, and although Meredith had arrived over three weeks before, only the barest outline of its scope and contents had been decided on. As luck would have it, however, Major Forrest, the Chief Constable at Lewes, had raised no objection to Meredith prolonging his stay until the police either made an arrest or decided to abandon the case. But all the time he was talking to the crime-writer Meredith was listening for Long’s call. He felt more and more certain that Wade knew something about the murder. There were one or two leading questions which that young fellow was going to find mighty difficult to answer. At half-past eight, however, he was still listening. Outside it was still pouring with rain and an early dusk was settling over the square. And then, just when Meredith had given up hope of seeing Wade that night, the phone-bell rang.

Excusing himself to Barnet, Meredith picked up the receiver.

“Hullo? That you, Long? He’s there? Good. I’ll come right round. Keep him chatting about the weather until I arrive.”

Hurrying into his mackintosh, the Superintendent opened the front door, put down his head and went down the path. Just outside the gate, however, he collided with a hatless, coatless female, who was running along the wet pavement. The woman looked up and Meredith recognized Mrs. Gannet, Buller’s housekeeper.

“Hullo. Hullo. What’s the hurry?”

The housekeeper, recognizing him in turn, clutched wildly at his sleeve.

“Oh, my Gawd, sir! You must come quick! Something terrible has happened. The master’s been---Oh, my Gawd, ’e looked awful. I can’t bring myself to say it.”

“Here---pull yourself together,” snapped Meredith. “Hysterics won’t help. Where were you off to?”

“To fetch the doctor, sir.”

“Mr. Buller ill? Come on---what is it? Had a fit or something?”

“I wish to Gawd it were only that. ’E’s dead.

“Dead!” exclaimed Meredith, thunderstruck. “Here, you run back indoors. I’ll fetch Pratt. Quick now!”

Rushing up to the door of Number Nine, Meredith pressed the bell, tapping his toes with impatience as he waited for an answer.

“The doctor in?” he asked the maid the moment the door opened. “He must come at once. Urgent.”

Hearing his raised voice, Pratt, himself in a dinner-jacket, came out into the hall.

“Hullo---what’s up?”

“Buller. Serious as far as I can gather.”

“Buller? But I’ve only just left him.”

“Got it from Mrs. Gannet. She was coming here.”

Pratt snatched his hat from a peg and took up his professional bag.

Once out of the maid’s hearing, Pratt demanded: “What is it?”

“Dead---I think.”

Pratt let out a whistle.

Together they raced up the stairs to Buller’s study, in the window of which they had noticed a light burning. Mrs. Gannet was waiting for them outside the door. Pratt flashed her a look of inquiry. She nodded.

“In there, sir.”

They went in.

Buller was sitting in the leather armchair nearest the wide-open window. One hand gripped the lapel of his velvet smoking-jacket. The other was closed over an unlighted cigar. His mouth was slightly agape. In three strides Meredith was across the room with the doctor close at his heels. Simultaneously their eyes met.

“Good God!” breathed Pratt in a shaken voice. “It’s impossible!”

But the slender, vicious-looking arrow which projected from the back of the stockbroker’s head offered a flat contradiction to the doctor’s involuntary statement.

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