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15: The Raid at Charlton Kings

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Author Topic: 15: The Raid at Charlton Kings  (Read 24 times)
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« on: August 30, 2023, 10:42:24 am »

LONG’S pessimistic prophecy was fulfilled early the next morning. Meredith had scarcely finished his breakfast when a call came through from borough headquarters asking him to go round at once. He and Long found the Chief Constable waiting for them in the latter’s rather dark, old-fashioned office. His first words showed well enough which way the wind was blowing.

“Stayed up late last night to read through your latest report on the Cotton and Buller investigations, Long. And quite frankly I didn’t find it very pretty reading. I suppose you realize that over a month has gone by since Cotton was killed? Mind you---I’m not exactly blaming you. I realize well enough that the case has been overloaded with all manner of tricky complications. The theft, for instance, of that three thousand and the blackmailing of Fitzgerald. But the point is this. We can’t afford to enter up two unsolved murders on our books. Already a certain amount of pressure has been exerted on me from higher up to hand over the whole thing to the Yard. It’s only your reputation, Meredith, which has enabled me to have my own way. This morning, moreover, I had a letter from Major Forrest, hinting very broadly that he’d like you back at Lewes as soon as possible. You realize, of course, that your ticket-of-leave can’t be extended indefinitely?”

“Quite, sir.”

“Now I’m going to put you both a straight question---what hope is there of either of the two cases being cleared up in the near future?”

Both the men hesitated a moment before speaking and looked at each other as if trying to ascertain what line they ought to take. Finally Meredith announced with a slight lift of his shoulders: “Candidly, sir, very little hope at all as things stand at present. We’re at a deadlock. Agreed, Long?”

The Inspector nodded dolefully.

“It ’urts but I’ve got to agree. Now that the West supposition has fizzled out we’re really in the soup, sir. Look at the list o’ suspects, possible suspects that is, and see for yourself. West, Fitzgerald, Miss Boon, Pratt, young Wade, that parson chap and the couple of old dears at Number Seven. We’ve checked up and it looks as if none of ’em could have done the job. Mind you, we ’aven’t exactly had time to readjust ourselves to the noo situation brought about by the clearing o’ West. Out o’ fairness, sir, I reckon the Superintendent and me ought to be given another twenty-four hours to lay our heads together. We may hit on a flaw in our line o’ argument, see?”

“You take the same attitude, Meredith?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right. We’ll call it a deal. If, at this time to-morrow morning, you’ve nothing further to report then you’ll have to resign yourselves to working with the Yard. At least in your case, Long. Where you’re concerned, Meredith, I’m afraid Major Forrest has got the prior claim. So unless anything new does turn up you’d better be prepared to leave for Lewes to-morrow. Sorry and all that---but there it is. It’s results that count!”

“O’ course,” said Long, back in his own office after the interview, “the Old Man’s very fair. ’E’s given us a decent run for our money and it’s our own bloomin’ fault that we ’aven’t pulled any plums out o’ the fire. Now, sir, if you’ve got an idea for ’eavens sake let’s have it. For my own part I’m flummoxed. Properly flummoxed!”

But Meredith, despite the need for urgency, was as barren of ideas as the Inspector. Try as he would he could not see where they had tripped up. Some tiny, vital clue was missing---a minute pointer which would show them the exact direction to take in their investigations. But what had they overlooked? For two hours without a break they pored over statements and reports, argued over possible new theories, tested and retested alibis, entertained the most unlikely suppositions in the hope of hitting on some illuminating point. But of no avail. At eleven o’clock they left Clarence Street to attend the inquest on Buller. The proceedings had already opened when they arrived, but, much as they had anticipated, the affair was brief and in no way controversial. Cotton’s death and the findings at his inquest acted as a perfect pointer to the present verdict. Buller had been murdered by person or persons unknown.

The Coroner added no further comment. It was all very cut-and-dried.

When Meredith left for lunch at one o’clock the situation remained unaltered. Their afternoon session produced no further result and at six o’clock they agreed that any further discussion of the two cases was a sheer waste of time. They would have to acknowledge that they were beaten and let in the Yard!

But with a curious waywardness for which Fate is notorious, certain events took place that evening which not only proved stimulating to their jaded brains but sent them racing off on an entirely fresh line of inquiry. The deus ex machina of this dramatic, last-minute twist was Constable Shanks.

Shanks had been keyed-up since waking that morning. He had been detailed by Inspector Swallow to form one of a party who were to carry out a raid that evening. Now a police raid in a respectable, well-behaved spa like Cheltenham was an unexpected and unanticipated treat for a young constable. Moreover this was Shanks’s first raid. He felt ready to distinguish himself.

The house which had come under police notice stood just off the London Road in a quiet part of Charlton Kings. It was not a large house but it stood isolated and almost concealed in its own well-wooded garden. It belonged to a retired London lawyer whose arrival in the Cheltenham district had been discreet and unostentatious. But it was not many months before the long arm of the Metropolitan Police reached out and pointed an accusing finger at Harold Kenton, Esq. Not directly, of course---that was not the way of the police. A dossier of considerable thickness found its way into the pigeon-holes of the borough police office. The dossier contained two photos of Mr. Harold Kenton, alias Jervis Rake---one full-face, one profile. It also contained a set of his finger-prints---eighteen prints in all (for the police are very thorough)---five individual prints of the left hand, five of the right and two sets of the fingers of the right and left hand taken simultaneously. It also contained a very, very detailed description of Mr. Jervis Rake, not only of his appearance but of his past activities and last, but by no means least, his convictions. He was referred to more than once in this dossier as “The Rake” or “Jervis the Rake.” His particular line was the running of good-class gambling houses. He had a penchant for roulette.

The little group, all in plain clothes, huddled in the shadows of some overhanging laburnum trees.

“Now you lads know exactly where you’ve got to go,” Inspector Swallow was saying in a low voice. “One to each window on the ground floor, not bothering about the small windows at the back. Fletcher at one door, Green round the back, Hartley, Goddard, Hammond with me. And for God’s sake don’t make a noise. This has got to be done quickly and slickly. Get that? Right---let’s go.”

Nearing the house the little group seemed to melt away magically in the dark. The house in Shanks’s opinion seemed deserted, for no light showed in any of the windows. He had an idea that he was going to be diddled of the fun after all. For all that he crept silently up to the house in the best Boy-Scout-cum-Red-Indian fashion and took up his arranged position before one of the french windows which gave out on to the shrubbery. On nearing the window he realized with a thrill why there were no lights to be seen---the windows were blanked out on the insides with stout wooden shutters. Flattening himself against the wall of the house he waited there keyed up with suspense, listening.

For five minutes nothing at all happened. He thought he could detect the faint murmur of voices behind the shutters, a confused buzz as if many people were all talking at once. Then suddenly, drawing his muscles up taut, he heard this buzz swell into an uproar, an uproar punctuated with individual cries and shouts and the strident shrilling of police-whistles. So old Swallow was in! Good for the old boy! Sound chap, Swallow. Pity he hadn’t been picked as one of the Inspector’s bodyguard. Those lucky devils inside would naturally have all the fun. Might tumble into a decent scrap if there was any proper resistance. Out here there was nothing to do but----

Shanks held his breath. Somebody was rattling the shutters. He held himself ready to spring.

The shutters swung open and for a brief instant the constable saw the outlines of a man silhouetted against the blaze of electrics hanging from the ceiling of the room. Good heavens---the chap was trying to make a getaway! In another minute he’d have those windows open and then it would be up to him to leap forward in a sensational tackle and snap the bracelets over the chap’s wrists. Ye gods! This was something like.

Then with disconcerting rapidity a series of unexpected events upset all Shanks’s careful calculations. To begin with, the man didn’t open the window. He simply lifted a foot and with a couple of violent kicks shattered the glass of one of the lower panes. Some of the splinters whizzed outward and the constable was suddenly aware of an acute pain in his right wrist. Then, inside the room, the lights went out and plunged the whole scene in darkness. But before this happened Shanks received another shock. As the man crouched to crawl through the hole made by his boot in the large pane of glass, the constable recognized him. His identity was impressed on his eye in a flash but he was certain that he had made no mistake. Lunging forward he grappled with the unseen figure as it swiftly straightened up. For a moment they swayed in a violent struggle, then, without warning, the man jerked up his knee and caught the constable a thudding blow in the diaphragm. He doubled up gasping for breath, staggering with the pain. His hand groped for his torch which had been struck out of his grasp but before he could direct its rays among the ink-black shadows under the shrubbery the man was gone. With a badly lacerated wrist, still gasping for breath, Shanks crawled through the broken window and, with murder in his heart, went to seek out his superior and put in his unheroic report. In more than one sense he felt deflated!

“Let him go!” exclaimed Swallow when one of the constables had located the switches and turned up the lights. “But heavens alive, you knew he was coming!”

Shanks explained what had happened and, as if in alleviation of his failure, added: “But I recognized the chap. I’m prepared to swear to his identity in court.”

“You recognized him? Who was it?”

“Dr. Pratt.”

“Pratt? Good Lord, that’s the chap that lives in Regency Square. Buller’s doctor, wasn’t he? Respectable sort of chap I should have thought. Fat lot of good you putting forward evidence of identity unless we can prove he was out here. Your word against his if he denies it. We must get corroborative evidence and there’s no chance of his pals out here squealing. They’ll hang together right enough.”

“I’ve an idea, sir,” said Shanks hastily. “Why not put a call through to Superintendent Meredith. He may be in and he’s staying next door to the doctor in the square. He’ll let us know at any rate, sir, what time Pratt gets back.”

Swallow considered the idea for a moment, then nodded.

“Righto, Shanks. Find out if there’s a phone here and get through. Explain what has happened and ask the Sooper if he’d be good enough to find out what he can. I’ve got too much to occupy me here.” And he nodded towards the sheepish group huddled in one corner of the room. “Otherwise I’d speak to him myself.”

In five minutes Shanks was through to Meredith and the latter had been primed with the details of the raid. He promised to do what he could.

Meredith did not have to wait long in the doorway of Number Eight. A car swished into the square and drew up before the doctor’s gate. Meredith sauntered down the path, smoking a cigarette and hailed Pratt as he stepped out.

“Evening, doctor. Just the man I want to see. Can you spare me a minute?”

“What is it?” asked Pratt shortly. “Important? I’ve a lot of writing to do.”

“It is rather.”

“All right. I’ll give you ten minutes.”

As soon as the door of the doctor’s study was closed Meredith dropped his casual air and said officially: “See here, Dr. Pratt, I’ve just had a phone message. Do you deny that you have been out to Charlton Kings this evening?”

“Charlton Kings! What the devil are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a house known as----” Meredith consulted his note-book. “---as ‘The Lilacs,’ London Road. Owned by a retired solicitor, Harold Kenton, alias Jervis Rake. You visited him this evening, I understand.”

“Kenton? Never heard of him. Haven’t the faintest idea what you’re getting at.”

“Very well,” said Meredith quietly. “Let me put my question in a different form. You haven’t been out to ‘The Lilacs’---in that case where have you been?”

“Running around in the car.”

“Any special reason?”

“I really don’t see---” began Pratt in an angry voice, dropping into a chair.

“It’s essential I should have an answer, sir.”

Pratt hesitated and then said curtly: “I’ve had trouble with my car so I was taking it for a test run.”

“And you went----?”

“Confound it! This is preposterous! What the devil are you after? Am I supposed to have done something criminal? If so, let me know what, so that I can at least have the satisfaction of clearing myself.”

“I merely want to know what route you took in the car,” went on Meredith, unperturbed by the other’s outburst. “That shouldn’t cause you any worry, sir, if you’re telling me the truth.”

“The truth! Of course I’m telling the truth. I took a run out to Bishop’s Cleeve and back along the main road. Does that satisfy you?”

“So that the man who tried to escape from Rake’s house to-night when it was raided was not you?”

Pratt laughed sarcastically.

“You must be crazy, Mr. Meredith. I’ve already told you----”

“And it couldn’t have been you who broke a pane of glass in one of the french windows and had a tussle with one of the constables?”

“That’s obvious, isn’t it? I couldn’t have been at Charlton Kings when I was at Bishop’s Cleeve, could I?”

Meredith crossed over slowly to where the doctor was seated by the hearth.

“On the surface of things I’m inclined to agree there, Dr. Pratt. On the other hand,” added Meredith suddenly pointing down at one of the doctor’s ankles, “how do you account for that?”

The doctor started slightly and looked down at his feet.

“Account for what?” he stammered, obviously puzzled by the Superintendent’s action.

“This,” said Meredith quietly as he stooped down and slipped something from the turn-up of the doctor’s right trouser-leg. He held it up to the light and slowly twisted it, watching the doctor’s face closely.

“Glass!” exclaimed Pratt.

“Exactly. A long splinter of glass from the window which you smashed out at The Lilacs’ this evening. Come along, sir---it’s no use trying to fob me off with that story about a run to Bishop’s Cleeve. I may as well point out that you were recognized by the constable who tried to stop you. His evidence, combined with this.” And Meredith again held up the long, triangular piece of glass, “is all that’s needed for us to get a conviction. Lucky piece of observation on my part, I admit, but it’s told me all I want to know. Care to make a statement now, sir? I must warn you, of course, that anything you may say will be taken down in writing and may be used as evidence. Well, Dr. Pratt?”

There was a long silence. With shaking fingers the doctor drew out his cigarette-case and lit a cigarette. With a neat gesture he flicked the match into the fireplace. With a faint smile on his face he got to his feet and faced the Superintendent.

“All right. You win, Meredith. I suppose the game really is up. You realize that if this business comes into the courts it will mean the ruin of my practice? You would choose to raid the place the one night I was there. Still, if you’ve got your note-book handy I may as well make a statement. I suppose it will be better for me in the long run if I do. Ready?”

In a flat, precise voice the doctor gave out the bald facts of his visit to Jervis Rake’s establishment, the details of his attempted escape and his struggle with the constable. Meredith then read through the deposition and the doctor signed it with a flourish. Now that he knew what he was up against, he seemed quite resigned. After refusing a drink, Meredith returned well satisfied to Number Eight.

He found Shanks waiting for him. Inspector Swallow had sent him round to learn the result of Meredith’s cross-examination.

“It’s O.K., Shanks. We’ve got him by the short hairs.”

“Thank heavens for that, sir. Things would have looked bad if he’d got clean away. Lucky I spotted him.”

“Had a lively time, eh?”

“Yes, while it lasted. By the way, the Inspector nabbed another one of your friends, sir.”

“Oh?”

“Wade, sir.”

“Wade!” Meredith stared fixedly at the constable. “Good Lord! Are you certain about this?”

“Dead sure, sir.”

“All right, Shanks. Here’s Pratt’s signed statement. I’ll be along at the station first thing to-morrow morning if the Inspector wants to see me.”

Wade! So Wade was mixed up with this gambling establishment was he? Wade and Pratt---both of ’em. But hadn’t Pratt denied that he knew Wade socially and hadn’t Wade sworn that he only knew Pratt professionally. So they had both lied. They must have done. Rake’s gambling coterie would be too exclusive for two members to attend the tables without getting to know each other. (And there was no reason to suppose that this was the doctor’s only visit.) And they had lied for a reason. What reason? Was it illogical to suppose that the two men were in some way connected, after all, with the murders of Cotton and Buller? If they were in conspiracy then it was pretty certain that Pratt had not given Wade that morphia injection and that Miss Boon’s evidence was true. Wade had been driving a car in Victoria Road round about the time Cotton had been murdered on 13th June. But whose car and why had he been there? Pratt could not possibly have reached the square in time to commit the murder. This had already been proved by their test runs to and from April House. He had stayed to chat with Mrs. Black. Did it mean that Wade had murdered Cotton?

Meredith reviewed the facts. Whilst Pratt was engaging the landlady in conversation downstairs Wade could have slipped out of the house via his bedroom window. Hence those footprints in the flower-border. Somewhere, somehow he had a car waiting. He jumps in and drives all out to Regency Square, parks his car round the corner, enters the Empty House by means of---Meredith’s thoughts stopped dead. Snag Number One. How had Wade managed to enter the Empty House? Well, that could be tackled later. His thought-stream went on. Wade then shoots Cotton, gets back into his car and drives off and is seen by Miss Boon in Victoria Road. Possibly Wade had chosen this route to avoid driving directly through the town where he might be recognized. Then: “Snag Number Two,” thought Meredith. Was Wade an archer? So far this fact had not been elicited. Assuming that he wasn’t---what about the sheep which had been killed out at Winchcombe? Wasn’t it possible that Wade had been responsible for this when having a private practice with his bow and arrow? Had he meant to kill Cotton? No---that was a case of mistaken identity. He thought the man, with the bald patch, sitting in his uncle’s favourite chair was his uncle. A very natural mistake. And why had he wanted to do away with his uncle? Here Meredith smiled. He’d got a red-hot motive now right enough. Thank the Lord! that Jervis Rake’s activities had been unearthed by the police! Wade was probably in debt to Rake. He knew his uncle’s peculiar and inflexible views about money and dared not ask him for a loan. Moreover he realized that if Rake went to Buller with the tale of his gambling, his uncle would almost certainly cut him out of his will. Rake himself was playing a dangerous game but he knew well enough that none of his clients would dare face a scandal if his activities were given away. Even Buller would not give evidence to the police if it meant his nephew’s appearance in a local court.

Meredith sighed. But, in heaven’s name, how could Wade have committed the second murder? His alibi was absolutely unassailable. He was sitting in the police station at the exact time Buller had been shot. Did it mean then that Pratt had been responsible? But Pratt couldn’t have done it either because he couldn’t have taken up his position on the other side of the square in time to loose the arrow! Then, who, who, who?

Meredith listened. Across the hall he heard the phone-bell ringing. Barnet was out dining with friends. Should he answer it himself and save the maid the trouble? He crossed the hall into the study and picked up the receiver. To his astonishment it was Long on the other end of the wire.

“Hullo---what the devil’s the matter with you?”

“Have you ever felt like throwing yourself into a river with your feet in a weighted sack and your hands in a pair o’ bracelets? You haven’t? Well I have! Of all the thundering, bloomin’, one-eyed bits o’ loonacy.”

“Meaning you?”

“Meaning me,” agreed Long with disarming cheerfulness. “In a minute you can call me what you like and I’ll take it sitting, sir. I’ve never slipped up like this afore and I ’ope, for the sake o’ my future in the force, that I’ll never do so again. Of all the thundering, bloomin’, one-eyed----”

“Could you possibly come to the point, Long? I can’t hang on all night.”

“Sorry, sir. I will. Now listen to this. Remember the arrow what was sticking into Buller’s head? ’Course you do. I tested it for finger-prints, didn’t I? ’Course I did. And did I find any prints on it? No---I didn’t. All well an’ good. But that arrow, sir, held the most important clue in the murder. And we missed it!”

“Missed it---what the deuce are you driving at?”

“Listen again,” went on Long, growing more and more excited and triumphant. “Do you ’appen to remember what sort o’ weather we were having on the night Buller copped it? Remember, sir?”

“Yes, of course I do,” snapped Meredith, impatiently. “It was raining cats and dogs.”

“You’ve said it, sir! It was. It was fair pelting. And that arrow was shot from the far side of the square through the rain. Then, why the ’ell, wasn’t the shaft speckled with raindrops when I made that finger-print test? It wasn’t. I remember now. And there wouldn’t ’av been time for the water to evaporate. It was dry as a bone. I’ll swear to that! Well, sir, why wasn’t it wet? Why, eh? Any ideas? I’m flummoxed. Properly flummoxed!”

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