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12: Suspect at Number One

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« on: August 30, 2023, 06:02:54 am »

INSTINCTIVELY Meredith glanced at his watch. Eight-forty-three. He turned on the doctor.

“When you say you’ve just left Buller---what do you mean?”

“Just that,” answered Pratt. “Five minutes ago I was in this room and now----”

“All right,” snapped Meredith. “Stay here and keep an eye on things. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Ignoring Mrs. Gannet who was still hanging about on the landing, Meredith dashed down the stairs and out into the square. Running as hard as he could, regardless of the wet, he slipped through the front gate of the Empty House and took the steps two at a time. He tried the door. Locked. Hastily he glanced over the façade of the building still dimly lit by the fading daylight. All the windows were shut. Without wasting a second he proceeded to the back of the house. The back door, too, was locked. He glanced up again. Not a window was open. Curious. Had the murderer been too quick for him? Or did it mean that, this time, the arrow had been loosed from some other vantage point?

At the sound of footsteps he peered into the darkening murk and recognized Matthews.

“Look here, sir---there’s been more trouble over at Buller’s place. Can’t stop to explain now. I want you to fetch Fitzgerald along and keep watch on this house. As quickly as you can, sir,” he added, noticing the Vicar’s apparent inability to grasp the need for urgency.

“Oh, dear---yes---of course,” burbled the Vicar from under his dripping umbrella. “Of course.”

He disappeared with a dignified trot and returned in a few seconds with the bank-manager.

“One at the front and one at the back if you will,” said Meredith briskly. “And if anybody comes out, nab him.” Then, noticing the Vicar’s look of alarm: “Or failing that get a line on his identity. Back later.”

It did not take the Superintendent a minute to reach the phone in Barnet’s study. Whilst he was getting through to the police-station, he said over his shoulder: “Buller’s copped a packet. Nip in next door and see if you can be of any use to Pratt, will you, sir?” Then into the phone: “Hullo! Hullo! That you, Long? Meredith speaking. No---can’t be bothered with him now. Hold him there for the time being. Buller’s just been shot. Cotton business all over again. Got that? O.K. Now listen---I want a man rushed to George Street. Friend West. Understand? See if he’s out. If so, stop him before entering the house and lug him round to the station. Then, of course, I want you here with the police surgeon. Also Shanks. No time for more now. But for heavens’ sake get a move on!”

Back in Buller’s study he found Pratt making a cursory examination of the body. Barnet was watching him with an air of professional interest.

“Well, doctor---what do you make of it?”

“Cause of death, eh? Well---that’s obvious isn’t it? The only difference between this case and the other is the man sitting in the chair. By God---it’s incredible! Like something out of Edgar Wallace. Shakes you up a bit---this sort of thing when it occurs frequently.”

“What about that arrow, Meredith?” asked Barnet in the true Watsonian manner. “From what direction----?”

“Yes---that’s just what I’m trying to gauge,” cut in Meredith. “Off-hand I should say it was loosed from exactly the same spot. Curious.” He turned on Pratt. “You say you were in this room five minutes before Buller was shot?”

“Yes. He’d asked me in to dinner, but as I had some work to do on a paper I’m writing I couldn’t stay late. I’d only just taken off my outdoor things when you rang.”

“Then Mrs. Gannet must have come up to the study the moment after you left?”

“That’s more than probable. You see Buller asked me to send her up with a glass of water on my way out.”

“Water?” said Meredith in a tone of incredulity.

Pratt smiled faintly: “To take a pill with---those pills you see there. Anti-acid pills, as a matter of fact. Buller was inclined to be dyspeptic.” He pointed to the little smoking-table beside the armchair. “It looks as if Mrs. Gannet did as I asked---there’s the glass of water.”

“---and there’s a car,” broke in Barnet as he strode across to the open window. “Police, I think.”

The next minute Long and Shanks entered, the former in plain clothes. The eyes of the two officials met. Meredith gave a slight shrug.

“Police surgeon’s on the way,” announced the Inspector as he walked across to view the body. “Anything, so far, to give us a pointer, sir?”

Again Meredith shrugged. He turned to Barnet and the doctor.

“I wonder if you’d mind---?”

“Not a bit,” said Barnet instantly. “Come in and have a drink, Pratt? I’m sure we can do with it. We’ll be there if you want us.”

As soon as the door had closed Long said vehemently: “Well, of all the bloomin’ surprises. You could have knocked me down with a feather. Buller, eh? Strikes me my little theory of mistaken identity is going to be proved up to the ’ilt. Cotton was a misfire, as you might say. This is the real thing. Any idea, sir?”

“Flummoxed,” replied Meredith tersely. “What’s your opinion about the arrow?”

“Come from the same spot, hasn’t it?”

“What do you say, Shanks?”

“Undoubtedly, sir. I’ll bet my bottom dollar it was shot from the Empty House.”

“Maybe---but about three minutes after the murder was committed all the doors were locked and all the windows shut. The chap made a quick getaway all right. By the way Shanks---get on to Gregg, the estate-agent, at his private address and tell him I want the key to Number Two sent round here at the double.”

“Very good, sir.”

Whilst Shanks was putting through the call, a second car drew up in the square below and a moment later Newark, the police surgeon, pushed his head round the door.

“Hullo? Same setting, eh? Bit of a coincidence, Meredith. I hope you’re not going to make a habit of this! Just having a nice hand of bridge.” He crossed over to the body. “Umph---might have made a carbon-copy of my findings in the Cotton case and saved time. Hit in precisely the same spot. About the same amount of penetration. The old chap couldn’t have known much about it. Shall we get this arrow out---nasty sight.”

“Hey, steady sir---!” began Long in great agitation. He swung round on the Superintendent. “What about making use of your apparatus again before we remove the arrow?”

“The screen and the sheet of paper? All right. Can you lay your hands on the necessary things, constable?”

“Housekeeper got them from this desk, sir,” said Shanks, crossing over and pulling out a drawer. “Here’s the foolscap and the drawing-pins. The chalk’s in that pen-tray. Shall I fix things as before?”

Whilst the constable was pinning the sheet of paper to the screen, Meredith marked in the exact position of the armchair. The screen was cautiously pushed into place, the line of the arrow scored across the paper and the position of the screen, in turn, chalked on the parquet. The armchair with its tragic occupant was then drawn out toward the centre of the room. Newark, who had been watching these operations with quizzical amusement, again approached the dead man.

“Well, what about the arrow now---shall I----?”

“Whoa! Whoa!” broke in Long again. “Not so fast, sir. We’ve got to----”

Newark smiled. “Oh, I know, Inspector---those precious finger-prints.” He pulled a pair of thin, rubber gloves out of his case.

“Any objection if I use these and only handle the extreme tip? None? Good. Well---here goes!”

His gruesome task completed, Newark handed the arrow to Meredith who stood by ready to receive it in an open sheet of newspaper. The officials stood round in a close group examining it.

“Just like the other, isn’t it?” said Long with the air of a connoisseur. “Same sort of thingummy on the end. Maker’s name carefully erased. And . . . ’ere, Shanks, turn out that light, will you?” added Long, struck by a sudden thought. Then, when the room had been plunged into darkness: “ ’Ullo, different in one respect, any’ow. None of that spooky paint daubed on the shaft this time. Wasn’t intended for night-work, eh, sir?”

“So it seems,” said Meredith. “But if the light wasn’t on in this room when the doctor left then it must have been a darned tricky shot. It was getting darkish when I came out into the square and the rain wouldn’t have helped the visibility. What about testing for prints, Long?”

Whilst Long was drawing on gloves preparatory to making the test with his magnifying-glass and powder preparation, Newark had returned to a further examination of the body.

Looking up, he said: “Seems to be rather more stiffening of the limbs than in Cotton’s case. I’m rather wondering now if he went out as quickly as I first thought. Thickness of the skull may have something to do with it. Position of the vulnerable point may be slightly different. Notice that he’s had time to lift his left hand and clutch the lapel of his coat. Involuntary reaction, no doubt, but it argues a fraction of a second between the moment of penetration and actual death.” Newark grinned pleasantly. “But you needn’t worry, Meredith---I shan’t make a ‘nice’ point of that at the inquest. The cause of death is obvious. That’s all our friend the Coroner will want to know. Well---if you can do without me---I’d like to get back and finish that hand of bridge. I was all booked for a Little Slam when your damned call arrived. Good night.”

When the surgeon had left Shanks returned from the phone.

“Key will be here in a few minutes, sir.”

“Good. Any luck, Long?”

“So far,” said Long, looking up from his delicate operations, “the surface seems about as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Did you expect anything else? It’s a routine job, of course, but nowadays nine times out o’ ten it’s a bloomin’ waste of energy!”

“What about a photographer?”

“Well, I haven’t called him,” acknowledged Long, “but if----”

“No. Not necessary. The two cases being so similar, we’ve got half our data ready made.” Meredith turned to Shanks. “You might see if the two gentlemen watching the Empty House have had any luck. Tell them I’ll be across in a minute with the key. Then go on to Number One and take a statement from Miss Boon. Usual thing---where has she been during the last half-hour? Has she noticed anybody in the square? We may have to visit her later.”

When Shanks had left, the Inspector looked up from his finger-print test and turned down a thumb.

“Nothing doing. Our friend’s been just as careful as he was in the Cotton case.” Adding with deep admiration, “You know ’e uses his brain. Got it all taped out to a T. The coolest customer, I reckon, I’ve ever been up against. What now, sir?”

“Let’s get the body out of the room. I want to have a word with Mrs. Gannet and this sort of thing always proves a distraction when you’re cross-questioning a woman of her type. See if she’s outside, borrow a sheet and find out which is his bedroom.”

In a few minutes Long returned with the sheet and the two men carried the body across the passage and laid it out on the bed. Snatching up a towel Meredith went back into the study and carefully cleaned all the bloodstains off the armchair. Then, throwing the towel into the wastepaper basket, he asked the housekeeper to come in. She was obviously on the verge of fainting and it was not until the Inspector had made her sip a little brandy and propped her up with cushions on the settee, that a little colour came back into her cheeks.

“Feeling better, Mrs. Gannet?” asked Meredith paternally patting her on the shoulder. “A terrible shock for you---we realize that---but you’ve got to help us by answering a few questions. I understand the doctor had been dining with your master this evening?”

“That’s right, sir,” replied Mrs. Gannet in a husky whisper. “He came across about seven o’clock. Dinner was at half-past as usual. After dinner he and the master came up here for a smoke, but from something he said at table the doctor couldn’t stay late.”

“What was that?”

“Something about working on a paper---whatever that might mean.”

“What time did they leave the table to come up here?”

“About five-and-twenty past eight. The kitchen clock struck the half-hour just as I started to clear away.”

“And the doctor left the house?”

“About ten minutes later.”

“You saw him before he went?”

“Yes, sir. He called down for me to take up a glass of water to the master.”

“Was this usual?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Three times a day, after meals, the master always took his stomach pills. Suffered unnatural in that way, poor man. No matter what I’d cook, his meals never seemed to agree with him.”

“But surely, Mrs. Gannet, if it was usual for your master to take these pills, you would have placed the glass of water ready in the study?”

“That’s just the funny part about it. I thought I had taken a glass up. Surprised me no end when the doctor called down. I’m not usually forgetful.”

“And you went up with the water the moment after the doctor had left?”

“Immediate, sir.”

“Was the light on in the study when you entered?”

“No, sir, it wasn’t. There was still a bit of daylight left, of course, and thinking the master didn’t want it switched on I walked across and put the water on his smoking-table.”

“And then you noticed?”

Mrs. Gannet shuddered and buried her face in her hands as if to shut away the scene that she was, once more, visualizing.

“Then I noticed that awful thing sticking out of his head. I called out sharp, but he didn’t answer. I was terrified. I remembered what had happened to the Captain.”

“Did you touch the body?”

“Oh, no, sir---I daren’t. I couldn’t have brought myself to do it. But I knew he was dead right enough.”

“And then, of course, you rushed off for the doctor?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“This window was open when you came in?”

“That window’s always open,” said Mrs. Gannet with emphasis. “Wet or fine. It’s only kept shut in the very cold weather. One of the master’s fads it was---supposed to be good for his health.”

“Tell me, Mrs. Gannet, did your master ever smoke before he took his medicine?”

“No, I don’t think so, sir. Most times he’d come up here, swallow his pill directly after his meal and then light his cigar.”

“You noticed he had an unlighted cigar in his hand this evening?”

“No, sir---I didn’t notice that.”

“All right, Mrs. Gannet---that’s all for the present, thanks. If you take my advice you’ll go and lie down for a bit. Is there anywhere you could stay for the night?”

“I’ve a married sister in Mont Road. She’d have me all right.”

“Very well. You’ll have to stay for a bit in case we want anything. Later the constable can take you and your luggage round to Mont Road.”

“Thank you, sir. If you don’t mind then, I think I’ll go and pack a few things. It will take my mind off the master, if you see how I mean?”

As soon as Mrs. Gannet had gone out Meredith pushed away his note-book and turned to Long: “I think it would be a good idea to get your friend Bryant, the archery expert, round here. Tell him to bring his bow and arrow. We’ve got to make dead sure that the arrow was loosed from the Empty House. Now that we’ve got the direction taped I’ve an idea that there’s a deviation in the horizontal angle---compared with the shot that killed Cotton, I mean.”

“O.K. He’s in the book. I’ll ring at once.”

“Then come and join me over at the Empty House. I expect that’s Gregg’s messenger at the door now.”

Hurrying across the square through the teeming rain Meredith found his two helpers still anxiously on guard but drenched to the skin. In his excitement the Vicar had closed his umbrella and forgotten to open it again. They had nothing to report. There had been no sign of life in the house. They had heard no suspicious noises. Thanking them for their co-operation and warning them that they would be called upon to make a statement later, Meredith dismissed them. Just as he was turning the key in the Yale lock, Shanks joined him on the steps.

“Was she in?”

“I’ll say she was! I’ve managed to extract a statement, sir, but only with the greatest difficulty. Nothing much to report, I’m afraid. Has seen or heard nothing out of the ordinary. She’s been in all the evening doing a crossword.”

“All right, Shanks---we’ll leave Miss Boon for the time being. I want to have a look round in here. Got a torch?”

Shanks switched on a pocket-lamp and the two of them made a meticulous examination of the whole house. The wind was striking gustily against the window-panes and making them rattle in their sashes. It was practically impossible to see out into the square through the streaming wet glass. Meredith naturally paid most attention to the front-room on the second storey, on the look out for footprints which should have been discernible on account of the rain. But he found nothing suspicious. A further inexplicable point suddenly occurred to him. If the arrow had been loosed from the house, then one of the windows must have been opened. The wind was driving the rain directly against the front of the house. Then why, in heavens name, wasn’t there a wet patch on the floor? Every floor in every room was as dry as a bone. Meredith tried the effect of an open window and in an instant the boards were soaked. No footprints. No window opened. Then surely the arrow had not been discharged from the Empty House?

Back in Buller’s study he found that Bryant had turned up with his bow, obviously thrilled to be called in on such a sensational occasion. As Meredith entered the room he was down on one knee sighting up an arrow parallel with the pencil line which had been drawn on the foolscap.

“Well, Mr. Bryant---what’s the verdict? Sorry to drag you out on a night like this but we need your expert judgment.” Without turning his head, his eye still fixed on his aiming-point, Bryant said decisively: “One thing’s certain. Buller wasn’t shot from the Empty House.”

“You’re sure?” snapped Meredith.

“Dead sure as far as this particular test is concerned. If I loosed this arrow it would disappear, as far as I can see, through a second-storey window of Number One.”

“Miss Boon’s,” exclaimed Meredith, surprised.

“What, ’er!” added Long. “She couldn’t have done it, surely? What motive had she got?”

“Well, unless Buller moved in his chair after he was shot the arrow was certainly loosed from her house,” contested Bryant, rising. “I naturally haven’t the faintest idea why she wanted to kill him.”

“Perhaps Buller did move,” suggested Long. “Remember what Newark said about the stiffening of ’is limbs? He seemed to think that death might not have been instantaneous, didn’t he?”

“On the other hand,” put in Meredith, “from my investigation in the Empty House I should say that the arrow couldn’t possibly have come from there. Strikes me Miss Boon will have to answer a few questions. It’s certainly curious.”

As soon as Bryant had left, Meredith and Long set out to take statements from Fitzgerald and Matthews. The former’s alibi differed little from the one he had put up on 13th June. He and his wife had been in all the evening, he reading a book, she sewing. As their maid did not live in he was, he confessed, in no position to put forward an independent witness. Matthews had been along to the Public Library in search of a reference book. He admitted that the library closed at eight and that he had not arrived at the square until after twenty to nine but, as he hastened to point out, there was a simple explanation for this. He had whiled away a good twenty minutes in the Newspaper Room, which did not close until nine o’clock. No---he had not encountered anybody suspicious on turning into the end of the square.

“So much for those two,” said Meredith as they left the Vicar’s house. “Now for Miss Boon. After that we can re-examine Pratt.”

As they were walking towards Number One, Long observed: “There’s one gentleman sitting pretty where Buller’s death is concerned. If anybody’s got a cast-iron alibi---he has.”

“Who?”

“Young Wade. We suspected ’im of the other job. We know ’e’s got a darn good motive for this one. But he couldn’t have done it, could ’e? Shanks fetched him over from Leckhampton Road and dumped ’im at the station somewhere round about eight-thirty. He’s been there ever since. Waterproof, that is!”

They went up the steps of Number One, Long hanging back a little as if anticipating the wrath to come. Miss Boon and three dogs answered the door and it was difficult to distinguish her bark from the others. The gist of her remarks seemed to suggest that they were to come in quickly since they had to come in, shut the door after them and make the interview as brief as possible. Once seated in her untidy drawing-room, she ignored Long entirely and made it obvious that if she had to deal with officialdom then she preferred the Superintendent.

“The constable here has told you what the trouble is,” began Meredith. “The question remains, Miss Boon, can you tell us anything that might put us on to a clue?”

“Nothing,” snapped Miss Boon. “I told this boy here. He took down all I had to say. I’ve nothing to add.”

“I understand you were doing a crossword puzzle?”

“I was---this puzzle in the Dog Lover’s Weekly.”

“May I see?” Meredith stretched out a hand and glanced at the paper. “What time did you start this puzzle?”

“What an absurd question. I’ve really no concise idea!”

“About eight?”

“Before that.”

“And you’ve been working on the puzzle all the time?”

“Until your boy called---yes.”

Shanks winced and reddened a little behind the ears. Dash it!---this was a bit thick.

“I only ask,” went on Meredith quietly, “because in the three-quarters of an hour at your disposal, you’ve only managed to fill in two words. I notice every clue is a breed of dog. If anybody could polish off a puzzle like this it should be you, Miss Boon. It seems funny you should have found it so difficult.”

“I . . . I . . . don’t do these things often,” faltered Miss Boon, obviously put out by Meredith’s perspicacity.

“For example,” continued Meredith in an even voice. “ ‘Suggests an island off Canada.’ Surely that must have occurred to you at once. I don’t consider myself very advanced in geography, Miss Boon, but that certainly seems obvious to me.”

“Really?”

“Yes---there is a dog called a Newfoundland, isn’t there? And this, too ‘Suggests a large Scandinavian’---two words. I’m surprised you didn’t get that, Miss Boon. Why, even the Inspector here----”

“Great Dane,” announced Long promptly. “Simple! Any more?”

Miss Boon glared at him.

“But I don’t see what----?”

“This,” rapped out Meredith, his voice suddenly hardening. “From our investigations we find that the arrow which killed Buller was loosed from the direction of your house.”

“From here? Balderdash!”

“Furthermore you don’t seem to be able to supply us with a very satisfactory alibi. Two words in three-quarters of an hour---with your intelligence? Do you expect us to believe that?”

“It’s the truth,” barked Miss Boon furiously.

“Again,” went on the Superintendent, “I happen to remember that when I called on you a short time back that you referred to Mr. Buller as ‘that inhuman monster.’ Why? What have you against Buller? Why don’t you like him?”

“Is that anything to do with you?”

“It may be.”

“And if I refuse to answer?”

Meredith smiled. “Well, in that case, we can only draw our own conclusions, can’t we?”

“All right---if you must know. A year ago Buller deliberately killed a spaniel of mine. He swore it had snapped at him. It hadn’t. Not unless he provoked it to attack him. He broke its back with a stick. I’ve never spoken to him or acknowledged him since.”

“I see. Can we have a look over the house? You realize, since Buller appears to have been shot from here, that the murderer might have crept in without your knowledge?”

“That is the only possible explanation, isn’t it?” said Miss Boon icily. “All right. Kindly wipe your boots before going into the bedrooms. I consider this all most unwarranted. Your insinuations have been little short of insulting.”

Methodically, beginning with the basement and working upward, they examined every room in the house. Again Meredith looked for a tell-tale wet patch on the floor. Again he drew a blank. No footprints on the carpets. Nothing suggestive. They climbed up to the attic and on the top landing, Meredith suddenly stopped dead. At his feet was a spreading pool of wet. He glanced up. Rain spattered on to his face.

“Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “the skylight! It’s open. Why?”

“You don’t think Buller was shot from the roof? By Miss Boon?”

“Yes---or by anybody else. Here, give me a shove up. I’m going to investigate.”

Out on the rain-swept roof Meredith went over the ground with a pocket-torch. He worked along as far as the skylight of the Empty House and found it shut. Then on to a similar skylight in Matthews’ house---again shut. Beyond was the peaked end of Fitzgerald’s place and the little window from which he had kept watch on Cotton. A new idea flashed into his mind. The first murder. Suppose Miss Boon had had a hand in that? Wasn’t it possible that she had got out on to the roof of her own house and entered West’s place through the skylight? No key was necessary for that. She would have had no trouble in concealing her bow---a point which had considerably worried Meredith. She said she had been out with her dogs on the night of Cotton’s murder. In proof of this statement she claimed to have seen Wade driving a car in Victoria Road. Was this really the truth? Or was Wade asleep, as he claimed, after that dose of morphia in April House? Those scratches on the roof of the shed, the footprints in the flower-border might have quite another significance. So far they had not had time to cross-question Wade on this matter. Suppose he offered a perfectly feasible explanation---wouldn’t the case against Miss Boon be, ipso facto, strengthened? Of course she had not meant to kill Cotton that night. She thought it was Buller. They had already accepted the possibility of mistaken identity. But the motive for the murder---the malicious killing of that spaniel---did that sound likely? Perhaps in an eccentric woman with an overwhelming, single-minded passion for dogs, this incident might have provoked her to such a terrible expedient. But it was a big “might.” There must be something more to it than that---some other, more convincing motive, which Miss Boon was concealing. And again---could she do it? She was reputed to be an indifferent shot. If she had done it then she must have practised in secret. But where? It needed a lot of space and, in her case, inviolable privacy.

Then: “My God!” thought Meredith. “The sheep!”

Had she been practising up on a lonely stretch of the wolds and hit that sheep by accident?

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