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14: A Flutter at Number Seven

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Author Topic: 14: A Flutter at Number Seven  (Read 23 times)
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« on: August 30, 2023, 08:01:02 am »

SHORTLY after nine o’clock the following morning Long and Meredith found themselves facing once more a very irate and unhelpful Miss Boon. To the Superintendent’s practised eye she appeared to be abnormally keyed-up and suffering from the aftermath of a sleepless night. Hoping to startle her into telling the truth, Meredith sprang his first question at her, the moment they were seated in the drawing-room.

“That note---why did you send it? That’s what we’re after. That’s the reason we’re here again.”

“Note?”

“To West.”

“Did I send him a note?”

“Yes,” snapped Meredith, pulling it quickly out of his pocket. “This one.”

She looked at it, nodded and made as if to tear the note in pieces. With a swift gesture Meredith took it from her and apologized with a smile.

“Sorry---but we can’t have evidence destroyed, you know. Well, Miss Boon---we’re waiting.”

Miss Boon stared at him balefully.

“I should have thought you’d have hit on the explanation at once. Very simple. Perhaps I overrate your intelligence.”

“Easily done,” agreed Meredith genially.

“I sent the note because of Arthur.”

“Arthur?”

“Yes---West. You know where he was last night, I imagine?”

“Here,” answered Meredith promptly.

“Quite. Confidential visit, understand? Well, Arthur left here just before eight-thirty. About nine o’clock your boy came in and said Buller had been shot. I knew, of course, that you already suspected West over the Cotton affair. Perfectly unjustified, let me say at once. I knew you’d be after him again. It struck me that if he walked back to his lodgings and was not recognized by anybody, he’d be in a nasty fix. I felt and still feel very sorry for Arthur. That man’s been through purgatory these last months. I wanted to spare him more trouble. So, in an unthinking moment, I sent him that note. My idea was that if we concealed his visit he could say he had not left his rooms. Foolish of me, I admit. But that, at the time, didn’t occur to me. The moment your boy had left I scribbled that note, slipped out into the square, found a lad and tipped him to take it to George Street. That’s all.”

“You realize that you might easily have prejudiced the police in their attitude towards Mr. West?”

“Quite. But how did I know that the note would be discovered. I suppose you intercepted it?”

“Not exactly. Mr. West read the note all right. It was not until after we had questioned him that the real truth came out. Your attempts to help him only put him into a very awkward situation. You realize that?”

“I’ve already told you that I now consider my action foolish,” barked Miss Boon. “Isn’t that enough?”

“But why should you think that West would want to murder Buller?” cut in Meredith, neatly switching the conversation.

“Good heavens,” cried Miss Boon, “it’s common property that----” she stopped dead, suddenly realizing her mistake, hesitated and ended tamely. “When have I suggested that he wanted to? As far as I know he----”

Meredith suddenly got up and crossed over to the hearth. He was no longer genial. All his powers were concentrated on the vital need to extract from Miss Boon the information which she was so patently concealing. Once grant that West had a good motive for the murder then the case against him would be a strong one. The Common Denominator of the Probables! She must be made to talk.

“Look here, Miss Boon, I’m going to speak frankly. I warn you that it is a criminal offence to withhold evidence from the police. You know that West had a motive for the crime. You’ve as good as told us that already. You say it’s common property---well, it isn’t to us. So you’d better prime us now, eh? If you don’t tell us, somebody else will.”

“But it’s only hearsay,” protested Miss Boon, subdued by her stupid error. “You know how people chatter.”

“There’s often the germ of truth in gossip,” pointed out the Superintendent.

“Very well. But remember I don’t know. I’ve only heard. You knew, of course, that Arthur lost his money in a bad deal on the Stock Exchange? You didn’t? Well he did. Some months back I heard---never mind who from---that Buller had been responsible for his crash.”

“You mean that West’s losses were Buller’s gains---is that it?”

“Yes. I don’t understand how the trick was done. I’ve only heard that it was. I don’t even know how my informant found out. At any rate, West knows about this. He told me so yesterday. Perhaps now you can understand my foolishness better---in sending that note?”

Meredith nodded.

“How long has West known about this?”

“Some weeks, at least---possibly longer.”

“And you refuse to tell us who told you this?”

“Absolutely.”

“Very well, Miss Boon. We can’t make you.”

The interview terminated at this and the two men crossed over to discuss matters in Aldous Barnet’s study. The crime-writer had gone out directly after breakfast to have a round of golf on Cleeve Hill.

“You know,” began Long, dropping with a grunt into a deep armchair, “I can’t ’elp feeling that that woman’s up to some sort o’ hanky-panky. I mean, all these notes an’ things and desire to be ’elpful. Seems fishy to me. Looking at it square, it strikes me she really wanted to get the fellow in an awkward corner. She sent that note so as we’d be suspicious of ’is doings---see? An’ that slip of ’er tongue was deliberate to my mind. She wanted us to know that ’e had a motive for the murder.”

“In other words, Long---you think she did it?”

“I do,” said Long with profound emphasis.

“After all, how could West have done it? There was his bow for one thing. How did he get it through the streets? How did ’e get back into Miss Boon’s after he’d left at 8.30? Why didn’t he shoot from the Empty House? ’E had the key. See how I mean? Nothing really seems to fit in against him.”

“On the other hand Miss Boon took the trouble to conceal the fact of his visit. That seems genuine enough.”

“Artistic ornament,” explained Long with a slow wink. “Dressing up her lie pretty so as we’d swallow it more ready.”

“For all that,” contested Meredith, “I can put up just as many objections to Miss Boon being the murderer. First and foremost, she had no real motive. Personally the death of that dog strikes me as being insufficient. Cotton was shot at from the Empty House. Why the devil did Miss Boon take the trouble to break into West’s place when she could have done the job from one of her own windows?”

“That’s easy,” said Long. “She did it, as I said before, to put the suspicion on West. Shouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that she’s got something red-hot against that poor devil.”

“Then why the deuce didn’t she shoot from the Empty House this time?”

“I’ve an idea about that too, sir. We reckon that if she did loose the arrow in the first murder she must have got into the Empty House through the skylight. Well, last night it was raining. She couldn’t very well go up on the roof without getting her feet wet and leaving footprints all over the Empty House.”

“Might have worn over-shoes,” argued Meredith. “And taken them off before getting through the skylight. No, frankly, Long, I think there is less reason for us to suspect Miss Boon than West. And in either case we’re up against one very strange and inexplicable fact which you appear to have overlooked.”

“What, me!” exclaimed Long on a note of incredulity.

“Even you,” smiled Meredith. “What about the wet patch left by the open window when the arrow was loosed?”

“There wasn’t any wet patch. We looked for it.”

“Exactly. Why not?”

“Why not? Why because . . . because . . .” Long broke off, stared at Meredith, scratched his head and wheezed. “Crikey! That’s funny. Slipped my mind. Do you know why there wasn’t a wet patch, sir?”

“I don’t, Long. There can be only one feasible explanation.”

“And that?”

“That the arrow was not fired from Miss Boon’s or the Empty House. In other words, due to some movement of the body, our calculations are wrong. This leaves us with one other possibility---and as far as I can see only one---that the arrow was shot from one of Matthews’ windows.”

“Or from the square itself,” corrected Long.

Meredith shook his head.

“Impossible. No movement of the body could counteract the obvious upward angle of an arrow shot from the ground-level. For another thing, Buller’s head would have barely been visible at all above the back of the chair.”

“But good Lord, old Matthews couldn’t ’ave done it. A bloomin’ parson! Besides, ’e’s got nothing against Buller, has ’e?”

“Nothing as far as we know. But neither Miss Boon nor West appear to have motive either, so that’s no basis for argument. Wish we could find out a bit more about West’s slip-up on the Stock Exchange.”

“ ’Ere,” suggested Long suddenly blessed with inspiration, “what about those old biddies next door? They look the tittly-tattly sort---you know, seed-cake and scandal. What about dropping in and putting them through a spot of questioning? Cause a flutter in the ’en-roost, I dare say, but we’re more likely to get the truth out o’ them than anybody else.”

“O.K. Inspector. Get your hat and we’ll drop in now.”

The sight of the two men coming up the front-path roused in the maidenly breasts of the Misses Watt something more than a flutter and only just less than sheer panic. For days they had anticipated this visit. They had visualized it over and over again. The unexpected arrival of the police, the dramatic confrontation, their own inadequate replies to cunning questions and the final, awful moment when they would be arrested on suspicion. They were innocent, of course. But could they make the police realize that in time? How dreadful if they were seen by the square, handcuffed, being escorted to the police-station. And then---oh, terrifying thought---a night in the cells before the dreadful error was rectified. There might be mice, even rats in the cell, and the shame of it afterwards! They would never be able to live down such a slight on their previous iron-sided respectability.

“You’re sure it’s the police, Nance,” fluttered Miss Emmeline, peering over her sister’s shoulder from the upper window. “You’re quite sure?”

“Certain,” answered Miss Nancy, releasing the curtain from her trembling fingers. “The tall one is the Superintendent from next door and the little, fat one is the Inspector.”

Miss Emmeline cast a furtive eye round the room, even in the midst of her alarm anxious that everything should be in its accustomed place.

“Now listen,” she went on hastily. “We must be quite calm and unhurried. And we mustn’t say too much. I read somewhere that the police always suspect a witness who talks too much. So remember, Nance.”

“Do we sit?”

“Of course we sit.”

“Do you think we ought to offer them some coffee and a slice of cake? It’s nearly half-past ten.”

“Most decidedly not!” snapped Miss Emmeline. “They might consider that bribery, Nance.” Adding as a portentous afterthought, “or even corruption. Now go down at once and let them in. We mustn’t keep them waiting too long. Show them up here and ask them to wipe their feet, won’t you?”

With a few deft twitches Miss Emmeline rearranged one or two flowers in a vase, took a dent out of a cushion and straightened a lace antimacassar. When she looked up from these little duties her sister was back in the room with the two men standing hatless, respectfully behind her. To her distorted vision the room seemed full of men.

Meredith stepped forward and looked from one to the other of the prim, rather defiant figures confronting him.

“May I introduce myself? Superintendent Meredith. I think we’ve seen each other in the square. Miss Watt, isn’t it?”

“I’m Miss Emmeline Watt—this is my sister Nancy.”

“And this is Inspector Long of the Borough Police.”

Long bowed like a stage duke, whilst the Misses Watt seated themselves side by side on the sofa.

“We want to ask you a few questions,” went on Meredith as Long drew out his note-book with a flourish.

The sisters glanced quickly at each other, registered this statement with an infinitesimal nod and stiffened as if in anticipation of some long-awaited ordeal.

“It concerns the death, indirectly, of Mr. Buller.”

Almost imperceptibly, they shuddered.

“But we know absolutely nothing about that,” affirmed Miss Emmeline in a dignified voice. “I fear we shall only be wasting your time.”

“No time is wasted in a murder investigation when we want information,” Meredith assured her with a smile.

Was that smile a little malicious? A little sinister? wondered Miss Nancy. He looks kindly enough and he has had the good manners to remove his hat. But we mustn’t be led astray by that. The little fat man seems to be looking at us queerly.

Oh, golly---what a couple of old ’ens, Long was thinking. Like those old aunts o’ mine on my mother’s side. Fossilized---that’s the word! Poor old dears look as if they’re sitting on eggs. Couldn’t look more guilty if they’d done Buller in themselves.

His hand went up to conceal an ill-mannered grin which had been born of the thought. He could just see them up in a window drawing a bow on old Buller! Crikey!

“Now you’ve lived in the square for a good many years,” Meredith was saying, “and I expect you know a good deal about your neighbours. Mr. West for instance. Have you any idea if he was on good terms with Mr. Buller?”

Miss Emmeline looked puzzled. She felt sure this was some very subtle trick. After all there was no other reason for dragging in poor Mr. West. She must be careful---on guard.

“I really can’t say. I’m afraid Mr. Buller was not understood by most of the people in the square.”

“And Mr. West among them?”

“Mr. West again! Possibly,” said Miss Emmeline.

“You’ve never heard, for example, that Mr. Buller was responsible for Mr. West losing all his money?”

Miss Emmeline started. How had the police managed to learn this piece of news? Surely dear Mr. Matthews? . . . She recalled with startling clearness the night of Mr. Buller’s delirium and another night, not so long ago, when she and Nance had unwillingly overheard another conversation. Should she speak of these things? After all they could not possibly have any bearing on the dreadful crime which had been committed. That unfortunate Mr. West, whose wife had run away from him, could not possibly have been the murderer. Not possibly. Then, as she heard Meredith’s insistent voice repeating the question, she suddenly saw like a revelation that Mr. West had a good reason, a very good reason for doing such a terrible thing. And if a man had a very good reason for murder wouldn’t the police, perhaps, decide to let him off? Now what was the phrase they used in the newspapers? Justifiable something---ah yes, justifiable homicide. Perhaps if she told this man, who really seemed very quiet and polite, all that she knew about poor Mr. Buller and poor Mr. West, he might not do anything more about the matter. She felt certain, now, that the police did not suspect that she or Nance had anything to do with the crime.

“I have heard something about that---yes,” she acknowledged. “I feel sure that Mr. West had a very good reason for not liking Mr. Buller.”

Long and Meredith pricked up their ears and exchanged a quick glance of triumph. Nancy peered sideways at her sister, obviously puzzled. Surely Emmeline was falling into some verbal trap by talking too much? She nudged her sister, who nudged her back violently and shook her head.

“In fact,” went on Miss Emmeline in slighter louder tones, as if to show her sister that she knew very well what she was up to, “in fact, I was the first person in the square to learn of Mr. Buller’s deception.”

“Could you explain?” asked Meredith politely.

“Oh, but you couldn’t do that!” exclaimed Miss Nancy quickly. “It would be a breach of confidence.”

“Nonsense,” snapped Miss Emmeline. “And kindly allow me to conduct my affairs as I wish. One naturally doesn’t want to speak ill of the dead but I’m sure it’s my duty to speak up and save poor Mr. West from any wrongful persecution. It all happened some months back when Mr. Buller had an attack of influenza. You remember there was quite an epidemic shortly after Christmas? Dr. Pratt, who attended Mr. Buller, asked me to sit with the patient one evening as he was finding it impossible to obtain a professional nurse. Of course, I was only too pleased to help, particularly as Mr. Buller appeared to be very feverish. Later that evening he grew delirious. I didn’t understand. I think at first he thought he was being chased by bulls. He kept on talking about bulls. Then it was bears. Bears and bulls. It was really quite frightening to sit in that darkened room listening to him. Then suddenly I heard him mention Mr. West’s name. Then he began to laugh. Really it was not a nice laugh. He seemed to be sneering at poor Mr. West in a most unchristian manner. He said something about ‘an easy pigeon to pluck’ and mentioned some cement shares. Gradually I began to see what he was talking about---that by some sort of trick he had managed to swindle Mr. West of a great deal of money. I remember some other phrases he used because they were so unusual---unusual to me that is. He talked of ‘forcing the shares down’---then something about ‘make him unload at a rock-bottom price and wait for the rise.’ He seemed to know for certain that the price of the shares would go up. He kept on saying ‘they’ll treble their value in a few weeks.’ Naturally I was very worried over this matter and, not knowing what I ought to do, I went to Mr. Matthews for advice. He seemed to know exactly what Mr. Buller had done on the Stock Exchange and felt sure that Mr. West had been very seriously swindled. It appeared that Mr. Buller had also advised Mr. West to invest the money he got from selling the cement shares in something that proved quite worthless. Mr. Matthews said something about ‘a bucket-shop’ but I really didn’t understand what he meant.”

“And what did he advise you to do about it?” asked Meredith, profoundly impressed by Miss Emmeline’s evidence.

“Oh, not to say a word to anybody. From that day to this neither my sister nor I have breathed a word to a soul. We have been puzzled, very puzzled indeed as to how Mr. West got to hear about the matter.”

“How did you find out that he knew? Did he tell you?”

Miss Emmeline seemed flustered by the question. She realized, but too late, that she was now faced with another explanation. Her sister looked at her with a glance of withering pity. Emmeline was making a nice fool of herself!

“No---he didn’t actually tell me. I . . . I heard indirectly.”

“How?”

Miss Emmeline coloured a little.

“It was something we overheard, wasn’t it, Nance?”

“Was it?” asked Miss Nancy, flatly unhelpful.

“Really, I don’t know what you must think of me,” went on Miss Emmeline. “I don’t make a practice of eavesdropping. It’s all most unfortunate. But it happened a few days before Mr. Buller’s untimely end. Let me see now---it was Thursday of last week---a very sunny day if you remember. My sister and I were sitting out on the balcony---yes, that’s right, the one you see through that window. I was doing a little sewing for the Church bazaar and Nancy was reading. As you realize Mr. Buller’s house adjoins ours and, as he always sits in his study---or I should say as he always sat in his study with the window wide open, we really couldn’t help hearing something of what was being said in the room. That evening, Mr. West called at Number Six shortly after tea. We saw him come across the square and, much to our astonishment, enter Mr. Buller’s gate. Later we heard voices coming from Mr. Buller’s study, just ordinary polite voices at first, then presently, much to our alarm, we heard the sound of a violent quarrel. We tried not to listen but the voices were so overbearing that we couldn’t help hearing something of the conversation---could we, Nance?”

“As I was reading I only heard a very little,” said Miss Nancy, thus insinuating that her sister had heard a great deal.

Miss Emmeline went on: “I heard Mr. West say in a very angry voice: ‘I’ve heard all about that trick of yours---never mind from whom---the point is what are you going to do about it?’ Mr. Buller laughed---it was the same sort of laugh I had heard when he was delirious. A very unpleasant laugh indeed. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I’m going to do exactly nothing about it and I’ll leave it to you to make out a case against me.’ He said this in the coarsest voice---rather crowing we thought, as if he were actually gloating over poor Mr. West’s predicament. ‘I warn you,’ shouted Mr. West---yes, I mean shouted---‘I warn you, Buller, that you’ve not heard the last of this. You’ve ruined me completely! After that, Mr. Buller---whom I had always considered a gentleman---used the most improper language. I couldn’t possibly repeat the words he used. They were so unsettling that I sent Nancy indoors to find my spectacles. Then after a few more high words, which I was unable to catch even from the far end of the balcony---not that I wanted to overhear, of course---I heard the slam of the door and presently Mr. West appeared down below and walked off quickly across the square. And that,” concluded Miss Emmeline, with a sigh of exhaustion, “is all.”

“And very kind of you too,” commented Meredith with a pleasant smile. “How do you think Mr. West got to hear of the swindle?”

“Incredible as it must sound, I think Mr. Matthews must have told him. Very tactless for a man in holy orders. I feel he should have respected my confidence. However . . .”

“Well, I must compliment you, Miss Watt, on the clarity of your evidence. You certainly have a very remarkable memory.” Meredith laughed. “Luckily for us!”

“Shall I tell you the secret?” asked Miss Emmeline, as the Inspector rose and made toward the door. “Pelmanism. A really wonderful system. I think I can claim, without boasting, that I know the whole of the Prayer Book by heart.”

“Remarkable!” exclaimed Meredith politely as he edged towards the door. “Thank you so much for your information. Good morning.”

“Good morning,” echoed the sisters in unison.

As they walked briskly toward the station the two men fell into a prolonged discussion. More and more Meredith felt inclined to the theory that West was the wanted man. He pointed out the known facts, once more, to Long. West had a motive now for both murders---in each case a powerful motive. Cotton---because of his wife’s affair. Buller---because of the swindle. He could not put up a successful alibi for either of the murders. In the first he swore he had not left his rooms in George Street after returning there at tea-time. His landlady, Mrs. Emmet, had last seen him on the night of Cotton’s murder at 8.45 when she cleared away his supper things. The murder was committed round about 9.30. This would allow West plenty of time to slip away from George Street to Regency Square, enter the Empty House and commit the murder. In the second case he had left Miss Boon’s shortly before 8.30 and reached George Street (on the constable’s evidence) at 8.55. Meredith reckoned, and Long agreed, that if West had gone direct from the square to George Street he should have taken some fifteen minutes, perhaps less. Instead he had taken at least twenty-five. West accounted for this by explaining that he had made a détour via Promenade, the Rotunda and Montpellier Gardens. He had not hurried but browsed in the shop-windows on his way. Unfortunately he had not stopped to speak to anybody or been recognized en route. To say the least of it---both his alibis seemed weak. On top of this he was a good and often brilliant shot with a bow and arrow. The two outstanding points which remained unaccounted for were (a) How had he managed to smuggle his bow through the streets in the first murder? (b) Why hadn’t the rain driven in through the open window when the Buller crime had been committed. Both Number One and Number Two had been searched and in each case the expected clue was missing. On the other hand it was possible that the arrow had been loosed from the roof. In which case, after leaving Miss Boon’s, West must have sneaked into the Empty House, got out on to the roof via the skylight and shot Buller from there. Granted there had been no sign of wet footprints in the house, but as Meredith calculated, West could have worked the business in this manner: On entering the front door he could have discarded his boots and walked up to the top landing in his stockinged feet. Before climbing out through the skylight on to the wet roof he could have taken off his socks. On returning through the skylight he could have put on his socks, walked dry-shod down the stairs and put on his boots again before going out into the square. He would have to chance being seen when he entered the Empty House, because it was still light, but as the rain was keeping most people indoors this would be fairly safe. He might even have approached the house from the back lane and left the same way. He couldn’t, however, have entered by the back door because that was bolted on the inside. Matthews had come into the square almost directly after Buller had been shot, but as he hadn’t encountered West it seemed pretty certain that he must have left via the lane at the back. So far so good, argued Meredith, but in his opinion, endorsed by the Inspector, they were still not justified in making an arrest. For example, the truth of West’s second alibi ought to be meticulously tested. It was a bad business if the police made a blunder and arrested the wrong man when there were loose ends lying around which ought to have been followed up.

“Let’s see,” pondered Meredith as the pair swung into the High Street. “West would have reached Promenade, if his story were true, about 8.40, wouldn’t he, Long?” Long agreed. “Right. Have you got that photo on you---that snap which Stinns managed to get of West? You have? Good. Now I want you to comb down both sides of Promenade and find out if anybody saw West round about 8.40 on the night of Buller’s death. Most of the shops would have been closed, of course, but not all of ’em. Besides a lot of people live over the premises. It’s a long shot but it may come off, Inspector.”

“O.K., sir---and what about you?”

“I’m off to see that expert of yours---let’s see, Bryant, isn’t it? I’ve got an idea about the concealment of that bow.”

As luck would have it Bryant had just returned for lunch when Meredith arrived at his house. As at his previous interview Bryant led him out to the summer-house where there was no chance of them being overheard.

“Well, Superintendent, still at it? Whats the trouble this time? Don’t say there’s been a third murder!”

Meredith shook his head.

“No---I want confirmation of an idea. Tell me, Mr. Bryant, would it be possible to shoot with a hinged bow?”

“A hinged bow! Good Lord! I’ve never heard of such an atrocity. Whatever put that idea into your head?”

Meredith explained how puzzled he was by the way in which the murderer had smuggled his bow through the streets.

“After all, a six-foot bow would be sure to arouse some comment. It isn’t often you see a man carrying a bow through the street anyway. We inserted a paragraph in the local papers asking anybody to come forward who had seen a man with a bow on the night of 13th June. We haven’t had a single reply. It made me wonder if a bow could be folded up in any way---say in two. It wouldn’t be at all conspicuous like that wrapped in paper, would it?”

“But a hinge!” exclaimed Bryant with a dubious shake of his head. “That would weaken the very section of the bow which takes all the strain. But wait a minute, Mr. Meredith---now you come to talk of it, there’s an American patent on the market now. A beastly affair in my opinion. It’s made of steel and the two halves are joined by a socket. Perhaps your man fancied something of that sort.”

“Perhaps!” exclaimed Meredith delightedly. “There’s no perhaps about it. I reckon you’ve hit on it. A steel bow fitted with a socket. Can they be bought in England?”

“Oh, yes---at any of the recognized sports people in town. Ayres, Gamages, Harrods. But I don’t think there are many in use in this country. We’re pretty conservative as a whole.”

“Then I might be able to trace the sale?”

“You might---unless it was a cash transaction. Then you’ll have to rely on the salesman’s memory for faces, eh?”

“And believe me,” said Meredith, rising and holding out his hand, “people remember faces far more clearly than one might imagine. You may have put us on to a red-hot clue---thanks.”

Directly after Meredith had lunched with Barnet at Number Eight, he put through a call to Long at headquarters.

“Well---what luck?”

Long’s excited wheeze drifted over the wire.

“The most unbelievable bloomin’ slice o’ fortune you ever come across! Thank God you had the common sense to follow up that alibi before you made an arrest. We’re ditched, sir. Ditched proper---at least, where that chap West is concerned. ’E didn’t do it! Don’t see ’ow he could ’ave---not after what I’ve found out. What’s that? Did anybody see ’im? No, sir---nobody saw ’im exactly. But ’e’s got his alibi fixed up as snug as a bug in a rug now. And ’oo do you think fixed it for him? I did. Quite by chance, o’ course, but that makes no difference to ’im, does it? If you can come round straightaway I’ll show you something---then you can draw your own conclusions.”

Puzzled and intrigued by the Inspector’s cryptic insinuations, Meredith strode off down the Winchcombe Road utterly flattened out by this latest set-back. If Long were right in his supposition and West wasn’t the murderer, then they were right back at the beginning again. Flummoxed! Confound these dead-end investigations---these inviting by-ways along which one unsuspectingly wandered to fall into a deep pit. Confound the whole case! He was sick of it!

He found Long seated at his desk, grinning from ear to ear, triumph written all over his big, round face.

“Damn you!” snapped Meredith. “You’ve properly put the kibosh on our investigations this time. Why the devil did you have to be so conscientious?”

Long winked. “We couldn’t have ’ung the wrong man, could we, sir?”

“He wouldn’t have been hung anyway,” answered Meredith with polite sarcasm. “He would have been hanged. Well, what’s it all about?”

“This,” answered Long, taking up a large photograph from his desk and handing it over. “Nice, artistic bit o’ work, eh?”

“Where did you get this from?”

“Borrowed it this morning from the Courier offices. Saw it in their windows and took a sudden fancy to it. Recognize the subject? The Neptune fountain by night. One of their photographers was out with one o’ those new-fangled cameras which take photos in the dark. Doing a series for the paper called Cheltenham After Dark. And since they’ve flood-lit the fountain ’e reckoned it would make a first-class subject. ’E’s right there---it has!”

“But what the devil has this got to do with West?” demanded Meredith angrily.

“If you look closer you’ll see.”

For a moment Meredith stared at the photo, then: “Good heavens,” he cried. “West! That’s him right enough. Over here in the right-hand corner.”

Long nodded.

“That’s just what I thought when I saw the photo in the window. And when I saw the title and the date typewritten underneath I didn’t stand upon the order of my going. I nipped in quick, saw the manager and in two shakes I was putting the photographer chap through a spot of third-degree. Not that ’e wasn’t ready to talk. Vulnerable wasn’t the word . . .”

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” said Meredith with a twinkle. “Well---go on.”

“That photograph was taken last Monday night at exactly eight-forty. Chap was certain about the time because ’e had to look at his watch to time the photograph, see? Always sets it, moreover, by the Post Office. So our friend West was standing by the Neptune fountain in the Promenade at eight-forty on the night Buller was murdered. And if ’e was standing by the fountain at that particular time ’e couldn’t possibly have been in Regency Square drawing a bead on ole Buller. And if ’e didn’t do the second murder, then I reckon ’e didn’t do the first. And if ’e didn’t do either of the murders, then we’ve been barking up the wrong tree. And if we’ve been barking up the wrong tree we’re now properly in the soup and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the Old Man doesn’t ’av something pretty snappy to say to us. And that, sir, is about all there is to be said.”

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