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16: Pure Deduction

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Author Topic: 16: Pure Deduction  (Read 26 times)
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« on: August 30, 2023, 11:29:34 am »

“AND now,” said Meredith to himself as he settled into an armchair with his pipe, “let’s see if we can find out exactly what this means. One thing’s certain---the Chief will have to postpone his call to the Yard. This clue alters the whole aspect of our investigation. We’re in a position to start moving again.”

He settled deeper into his chair and began to theorize. So the arrow had apparently not come from across the square? His suspicions of West and Miss Boon were, therefore, unfounded. The skylight in the roof of Number One was open for the reason put forward by Miss Boon---it had been open in the warm weather and she had forgotten to shut it. The note had been sent to West because Miss Boon had an idea that West might be suspected of the crime. West had lied about the note for exactly the same reason---he wanted to shield Miss Boon. So much for that line of inquiry. It had petered out into thin air.

And if the arrow had not been loosed from the other side of the square where, precisely, had it come from? One of the balconies on either side of Buller’s place? Impossible surely? For one thing the angle would be too acute, the shot too chancey. For another, neither of the balconies was hooded, and the arrow would in consequence have been wet. Only one possibility remained---the arrow had been loosed in Buller’s study. But how? By whom? And when?

Buller was not dead when Pratt left him just after eight-thirty and yet when Mrs. Gannet entered the room a few minutes later with the glass of water the arrow had been discharged. So whoever had loosed the arrow must have seized the very limited opportunity between the doctor’s departure and the housekeeper’s entry in the study. A matter, Meredith reckoned, of not more than two minutes. This pointed to two further facts---either the murderer was hidden in an adjacent room where he could keep secret watch on the study door or else he was concealed in the room itself. The next point which arose was---how had the murderer made his getaway? Certainly not down the stairs because then he would have met Mrs. Gannet coming up with the water. There was another risk---the doctor might have stayed half a minute or more in the hall putting on his coat and collecting his outdoor things. No, that way, argued Meredith, would have been far too dangerous from the murderer’s point of view. There were two other explanations as far as Meredith could see---the murderer had escaped via the balcony or he had slipped into one of the upper rooms and hidden himself until he judged the coast was clear for his escape. He tackled the possibilities in order.

The balcony? Again the risks seemed to over-weigh the chances. Some fifty windows or more looked out on to the square---Buller’s balcony was visible from the majority of these. There would be traffic and pedestrians passing along the main road which ran across the open end of the square. Moreover Pratt had only just left, a fact which the murderer must have realized, and the chances were he might glance back before he entered his own house and spot the man on the balcony. No---that way of escape seemed out of the question.

The upper rooms then? Well, if that had been the murderer’s move it was certain he wouldn’t have attempted his getaway whilst the police were still buzzing about the place. The last people to leave Number Six on the night of the murder were Mrs. Gannet and Shanks. Shanks had been told to escort the old lady home. He recalled the constable’s report on the following morning.

“I will say that the old thing’s got a highly developed sense of duty, sir. She wouldn’t leave without making a tour of every room to see that the windows were shut. I went round and helped her lock up because it was pretty obvious that she was just about all in. Wonderful old dame though---plenty of pluck.”

Shanks had not noticed anybody. How did this fit in with his theory? Well, the murderer might have hidden in a cupboard, behind a piece of furniture, a curtain, anything. Wouldn’t it be a sensible plan to slip along to Number Six and take a look round for himself? One of the keys had been in his possession since the inquest and, loathe to waste a minute of his time, Meredith scrambled into his coat and went out into the square. A few minutes later, with all the blinds drawn, he was making a thorough investigation of the house. He tried the attic rooms first and to his astonishment found that only Mrs. Gannet’s room was furnished. It was, on second thoughts, quite understandable---Buller wouldn’t use all the rooms in so large a house. He lived by himself and seldom entertained. Moreover the housekeeper’s room was the only one on the top floor boasting a built-in cupboard and Mrs. Gannet must have gone to this cupboard when packing her clothes. The unfurnished rooms were as bare as a bone, offering not the slightest cover for a hiding man. It was obvious that the murderer had not concealed himself in the attic.

On the floor below there were four rooms---Buller’s study and bedroom, a guest-room and bathroom. The first two could be ruled out. The body had been laid on the bed in Buller’s own room and the door locked on the outside by the Inspector. There was a sheer drop of twenty feet beyond the two windows which looked over the back garden. The bathroom offered no cover at all. This left the remaining bedroom. Here the lay-out of the room was more satisfactory from the murderer’s point of view. Several hiding-places suggested themselves at once---the vast mahogany wardrobe, the long, thick window curtains, a screen and the bed itself. If the murderer had, therefore, lain low until the coast was clear this was the one room in which he could have done it.

So far so good. Assuming that Mrs. Gannet and Shanks have left---what then? The murderer creeps down the stairs and gets out either through the back door or a ground-floor window. Shanks, in his report, had assured Meredith that the front door had been securely locked. But---confound it! thought Meredith, if the murderer had escaped in this manner then either the back door was unbolted or one of the window catches unfastened. Wasting no time, he made a brisk tour of the basement and ground-floor windows. No result. Every window was still fastened on the inside and the back door bolted. Then how----?

In a puzzled frame of mind Meredith went upstairs to the actual scene of the crime. He tried to reconstruct the events which must have taken place in that room on the fateful night. Buller seated in the armchair---there. The murderer concealed---where? Behind that curtain perhaps or the big armchair set back in a far corner of the room. Very well---Pratt leaves. Buller takes a cigar ready to light it. Stealthily the murderer creeps out from his hiding-place, his arrow already set to the string and, taking up his position directly behind his victim, shoots. But could he have done this without Buller realizing? Taking into consideration the position of Buller’s chair, the angle at which the arrow had entered and the proximity of the wall, Meredith was uneasy about this point. He knew from one of his talks with Bryant that an arrow to be effective and “truly-flighted” must be drawn back to the full extent of the bow. Taking up his stance directly behind the dead man’s chair, arming himself with an imaginary bow and arrow, Meredith aimed and drew. He found, to his surprise, that the tip of the arrow must have been within a few inches of Buller’s head if the murderer were to avoid jamming his elbow into the wall directly behind him. But surely Buller would have had time to notice him before he could have got so close? One senses the close proximity of a presence by a kind of instinct. It was inconceivable that Buller could have sat there, unaware, without glancing back over his shoulder. And if he had had time to do that the arrow would have not entered the back of his head. The only other explanation was obvious. Buller’s head had not been square with the back of his chair but turned slightly to face the far corner of the room---the corner beyond the window in which stood the other large armchair. All the murderer had to do then was to bob up, take aim, loose his arrow and arrange the position of the body in such a way as to suggest that the arrow had come through the open window. The more Meredith thought about it the more certain he was that, however the crime had been committed, the murderer had intended to suggest that the arrow had been discharged outside the room. That could be the only reason why he had chosen such a cumbersome weapon as a six foot bow. An automatic fitted with a silencer would have been a more natural choice. The fact that Buller always sat by the open window may have put the idea into his head. Yes---and the fact that Cotton had been killed in just this peculiar manner. Did it mean that, after all, this was a crime of emulation? That the two murders were not the work of the same man? This theory certainly had a feasible ring about it.

And had the first murder been committed by Wade? The raid that evening had established one fact beyond doubt---Wade and Pratt knew each other socially. On that new piece of evidence he had already reconstructed the first murder with Wade in the rôle of the murderer. But since Wade was in the police station when the second crime was committed, somebody else must have been the murderer. Who? Once again Meredith looked through his list of possibles and probables, but this time viewing the crime from an entirely different angle.

His Probables in the Buller murder were West and Miss Boon. They had been marked down as Probables because at the time the police suspected that the arrow had been shot from either Number One or Number Two. How did their alibis stand up to the recently discovered facts? Take West. He left Miss Boon’s house at 8.30 or thereabouts according to his own statement and Miss Boon’s evidence. He was by the Neptune fountain in Promenade at 8.40---that was undeniable. And as Buller must have been shot at about that time, West could be ruled out. Miss Boon too, since she would have had no opportunity to conceal herself in Buller’s study on account of West’s visit. So much for the old Probables.

His Possibles were Matthews and Fitzgerald. But now, as Meredith saw it, they could no longer be suspected. He had seen them both about five minutes after Buller had been killed and set them to watching the exits of the Empty House. And he had already satisfied himself that the murderer could not have made his getaway from Number Six directly after the crime.

His Impossibles included Wade and Pratt. Wade’s alibi for this murder still held good. This left Pratt.

Was Pratt the murderer? Dropping into one of the study armchairs, Meredith refilled his pipe and ceremoniously lit it. A faint glimmer of light was glowing in the far recesses of his mind. Pratt. Why not Pratt? Pratt could have done it---there was no doubt about that. And if Pratt had done it then Buller was dead before he left the house. He was dead when Pratt called down to Mrs. Gannet for that glass of water. And wasn’t it possible that Pratt had used one of those steel bows which Bryant had mentioned---the American patent which folded in two. He could have slipped it inside his overcoat on leaving and easily smuggled it unnoticed back to his own house. But how then had he smuggled the bow into Buller’s? That would be far more tricky. He would be expected to remove his overcoat in the hall when he arrived. Had he planted it previously in the stockbroker’s study? He often visited Buller professionally. He might have managed it. Mrs. Gannet would know, of course, if he had visited Number Six just before the night of the murder. But good heavens! How had he actually committed the crime? Buller, as his host, would have been on the alert, probably insisted on him having a drink or taking an armchair. Surely Pratt would have had no opportunity to take the socketed bow from its hiding-place, fit it together, set the arrow to the string, aim and fire without Buller’s knowledge. The supposition was fantastic! And yet Pratt, of all the possible suspects, had a reasonable chance of killing Buller.

“Damn it!” thought Meredith, “if it isn’t one snag, it’s another. If I hit on a theory to explain away how the murder was done, I find I can’t get my murderer out of the house. If I find an easy way for him to walk out then I can’t fathom how he engineered the crime.”

Pratt. Pratt? Pratt! Surely he was thinking on the right lines at last? All right---accept Pratt as the murderer. What motive? None. Suddenly Meredith sat upright and whistled softly to himself. Half a minute---that was not quite true. Pratt might have had a very good motive if he were working hand in glove with Buller’s young nephew, Wade. Wade knew he was going to inherit and he had probably let Pratt know this, unless the doctor knew it already. Well and good---they were both gamblers. Suppose Wade and Pratt were both in debt, heavily in debt to Jervis the Rake? That was more than possible and, in any case, these facts could be wheedled out of Rake himself in the near future. They needed money. Only Buller stood between Wade and a very tidy fortune. Had they talked matters over and decided to do away with the stockbroker? Cold-bloodedly planned to murder him?

If this were the case then Cotton’s murder had been accidental. Long’s theory of “mistaken identity” was right. Either Wade or Pratt had been misled by that bald patch and scored a---now what was the technical term?---a “gold” on the wrong target. This, as Meredith was quick to realize, fitted the known facts better than any other theory. Wade and Pratt in collaboration. Wade’s inheritance as the prize-money. Pratt’s interest in the crime ensured by Wade’s promise to clear up his debts when Buller was dead. That morphia injection had not been given. Wade had probably done the first job, and when he discovered that he had made the terrible mistake of killing the wrong man, had got cold feet and jibbed at doing the second. Besides it was unfair that he should take all the risks. Pratt, realizing that Wade had got cold feet, must have taken on the entire job by himself. This, at any rate, would account for the two arrows being identical. If the murders had been committed by two entirely different people, not even in collaboration, then it was absurd to suppose that the arrows would have borne such a family likeness.

But what about that sheep? How did that incident fit into this new theory? Was Pratt up on the wolds for practice? Why not? That new steel bow---surely he would have to accustom himself to its peculiarities since he normally used a 6 ft wooden bow when target-shooting. Wade might have used it in the first murder, after extensive practice, and handed it on to Pratt when he refused the second job.

On the other hand, thought Meredith, it seemed a trifle unnecessary to practise when the victim was to be shot from such close quarters. Did it mean that Pratt had changed his plans, perhaps thinking his second scheme of shooting Buller in the room itself far less risky? Had his original intention been to discharge the arrow, as in the Cotton murder, from the Empty House?

Meredith’s mind jerked back once more to the facts of the first crime. He was beginning to feel now that the Empty House had been chosen, not simply because it was empty, but because the house belonged to West. Pratt and Wade must have heard something about the low-down trick which the stockbroker had played on West. They realized that here was a good motive for West wanting to murder Buller. The fact that Cotton had been killed by mistake, luckily for them, by no means upset their scheme to foist suspicion on the owner of the Empty House. If anything West had a stronger reason for wanting to kill Cotton. Of course they could not be sure their plan would work out in detail, because it was on the stocks that West would be able to serve up a perfectly good alibi. And that elm tree which had been cut down---had Pratt cunningly egged on West to go to the authorities about it? The fact that West had been the prime mover in having it felled had certainly earned him another black mark. West ought to be questioned about this.

But how the devil had Wade (assuming the fellow had killed Cotton) managed to get into the Empty House that night? A skeleton key was one possibility, but a risky one since it would mean engaging an expert to make it. Besides how had the impression been taken and when? Only two keys existed, one in possession of the house agents, the other with West himself. But if Wade hadn’t entered through the front door then how on earth had he got in? The skylight? But to do that he would have to get up on to the roof. How? He couldn’t have scaled any of the buildings to the left of the square---too difficult, too dangerous. On the other hand there was an easier method of attaining the roof. What about the skylights of Number One and Number Three or the landing window of Fitzgerald’s house? Could Wade have entered any of these three houses, sneaked up the stairs and scrambled out through one of the skylights or that window? The Matthews ménage was at home, so were the Fitzgeralds—but what about Miss Boon? Meredith snapped his fingers. Good Lord---yes! Miss Boon’s house had been deserted for a whole hour---from approximately nine till ten on the night of the murder. Hadn’t she been taking her dogs for a walk and, later, noticed Wade driving down Victoria Road? It was a warm evening. She might have left a window open. Miss Boon would have to be questioned about this.

Another point occurred to him---if Wade had worked with a car, which now seemed certain, he must have parked it somewhere whilst he was entering the Empty House and committing the murder. Somewhere close and handy since speed was essential if he were to get away from the scene of the crime without being noticed. Somewhere in the main road, perhaps, or just round the corner in Willingdon Square, which abutted Regency Square. To-morrow he would put a couple of men on to cross-questioning all the people overlooking the roads in the near vicinity. There was just the chance that somebody would have remembered seeing a parked car or a man (carrying a bow, thought Meredith) answering to Wade’s description.

With a sigh of satisfaction he rose, went down the stairs, switching out the lights on his way, and let himself out into the square. It was a perfect starlit night, cool and fresh, after the stuffy atmosphere of the sealed house. Meredith filled his lungs with the clean air, knocked out his pipe on a lamp-post and, stuffing it into his pocket, returned in an optimistic frame of mind to Number Eight. The case, like the sky, he thought, had cleared considerably during these last hours. A lot of the murk had been blown away and small points of illumination were beginning to twinkle from the darkness of unsolved problems. The Chief ought to be pretty pleased with Long. After all he had been responsible for this sudden clearing away of the clouds. He’d boost him for all he was worth in the right quarters. A sound and amusing chap!

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