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17: Jervis The Rake

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Author Topic: 17: Jervis The Rake  (Read 32 times)
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« on: August 31, 2023, 04:21:46 am »

MEREDITH had not been over optimistic in supposing the Chief ready to shelve his idea of calling in the Yard. As soon as he had learnt the new facts from Long and the Superintendent, he got through to Major Forrest at Lewes and obtained his consent to Meredith prolonging his stay in Cheltenham. As he put it to Forrest: “It’s hardly fair to expect Meredith back, now that the train is just steaming into the station after a beastly uncomfortable journey. If there are going to be any plums let him stay here for the share-out.”

Long was delighted with the result of that nine o’clock interview. He had not looked forward to working with entire strangers from the Yard now that he had got to know Meredith and his methods so well. He kept on thanking his lucky stars that he had hit on such a vital and, in his later opinion, obvious clue. As soon as they had left the Chief’s office Meredith put forward the full details of his overnight theories. Long was impressed. He himself had suspected that Pratt and Wade might be mixed up in the crimes, but he had by no means formed such a plausible theory as his superior.

“And what now?” he asked when Meredith had finished speaking. “Find out about the parked car if possible, I suppose? Shanks and Fletcher can tackle that job for us without tying ’emselves in knots. Take ’em a good time, I reckon, but if they bring ’ome the goods time’s of no account, eh? What about me? Shall I tackle West and leave you to deal with the ’arpy? Be most sensible like that, wouldn’t it?”

Meredith laughed. “You seem to have an immortal terror of that woman, Long. Why?”

“She’s got just the same glint in ’er eye as my ole woman,” said Long with a wink. “And if ever I ’ave a nightmare I dream I’ve got the pleasant little job o’ putting Mrs. Long through the third-degree ’oop. I wake up in a fair sweat.”

“All right---you tackle West and find out if he knows anything about Pratt or Wade. See that those fellows get off at once on the parked car investigation. I’ll deal with your ogre.”

Long sighed with relief and went in search of Shanks and Fletcher. As soon as they had been dispatched Long walked round to George Street to find West. This time he was recognized by Mrs. Emmet, who announced without waste of time: “Yes, he’s in. First door on the left. You know your way.”

West looked up startled from the book he was reading over a late breakfast, when the Inspector entered in response to his: “Come in.”

“Well---what’s the trouble, Inspector? Serious?”

Long grinned amiably.

“Not for you, sir, if that’s what you mean. I’m ’ere for a little private confab---that’s all. D’you mind if I park myself in this chair and put a few questions while you finish your ’addick, sir? No objection? Good. Well, sir, to come to the point without any shilly-shallying---you know Dr. Pratt, that used to be a near neighbour of yours? What sort o’ fellow is ’e? Reserved and efficient---so that’s your opinion? Ever seen ’im and young Wade together? Never. Well that doesn’t surprise me, o’ course. ’Ow was he off for money, d’you think? Not so well off as he seemed. What makes you think that?” Long whistled. “I see. You ’appen to know that he still owes Marks and Redwood a couple o’ hundred or so for ’is new car. Surprised they let ’im have it. Yes, o’ course, it’s all credit, credit, credit these days. Really, sir. Rumour going round that ’e was in debt to a number o’ local people. Mind you, I partly blame the tradespeople for being such mugs, but there it is---they don’t dare offend for fear o’ losing custom. Oh no, quite---confidential, o’ course. Very kind of you, sir, to have given me the time. No---don’t you trouble to get up. I can see myself out---at this hour o’ the day at any rate.”

And with a broad wink Long retired to the door and went out. He felt quite pleased with himself. The Superintendent ought to give him a pat on the back for gleaning this new evidence. So Pratt was in debt all round in the locality? This fact fitted neatly into Meredith’s latest theory.

An hour later Meredith walked into the police station. His step was springy, and it was all he could do to conceal his pleasure and excitement. Long handed over his information and the Superintendent’s grin broadened.

“Our lucky day, Long!” was his triumphant observation as he lifted a cigarette from the Inspector’s box. “Your bit of news fits in perfectly. But listen to this. I’ve just got another statement from Miss Boon, and if her new evidence isn’t of vital importance I’ll eat my hat. I tackled her first about seeing Wade in that car on the night of 13th June. I wanted to get more details out of her. I was particularly interested over the time factor. You see, in her previous mention of this encounter she put the time at just after 9.30. Cotton, as we know from Buller’s evidence, was murdered at exactly half past nine. I’d never really suspected Wade of the murder until last night. We had a fleeting thought that he might be the murderer, remember---but we never took that theory very seriously. Well, this time, I got Miss Boon to define a bit more clearly what she meant by ‘just after 9.30.’ It might have meant five or ten minutes after. The point is, Long, it didn’t. When she said ‘just after’ she meant that the St. Peter’s clock----”

“That’s the church at the corner of Victoria Road and Park Street, isn’t it, sir?” put in Long, anxious to miss no point in Meredith’s story.

Meredith nodded. “And this clock had only just struck the half-hour. You see the significance of that, Long?”

“Well, I can see this,” began Long laboriously. “If young Wade was driving along Victoria Road at 9.30 then ’e couldn’t have been up in a window of the Empty House taking a pot-shot at his uncle.”

“Exactly.”

“But, good ’eavens, sir, that blows a darn big ’ole in your theory, doesn’t it?”

“Yes---but it may bring us nearer to the truth. I’ve always been puzzled about the fact that Wade was not known to be an archer. It was a very tricky shot at the best of times and when one considers the strain and excitement---well it was brilliant shooting to say the least of it.”

“I still don’t quite see what you’re driving at?”

“Pratt. That Pratt loosed both arrows---that Wade was merely a confederate in the background.”

“Pratt was at April House,” objected Long stolidly.

“Yes---we’ve held to that opinion all along, I agree. But are we right about that? If we could only prove that Pratt left April House ten minutes earlier than he did---well----”

“But Mrs. Black seemed certain he didn’t leave until 9.15. She even compared the hall clock with the one in the kitchen when Pratt asked her if it was the right time.”

“I know,” mused Meredith, staring at the smoke of his cigarette, “but doesn’t that fact strike you as a little odd, Long? Why should Pratt ask? He had his own watch---a pocket-watch---I noticed it when I saw him last night. He’s also got a radio and I’ve a strong feeling that he’s the sort of man to set that watch regularly. Doctors have to keep appointments and so on. Then why should he ask Mrs. Black if the hall clock were right?”

“Funny, I admit.”

“I was only wondering, Long, if he asked the time simply to draw Mrs. Black’s attention to the clock. He was relying on her to provide him with his alibi.”

“Yes---but, look ’ere, sir, you made a couple o’ test runs from the Leckhampton Road and proved ’e couldn’t have been in Regency Square in time to commit the murder. ’Ow can you get over that?”

“There’s just one explanation,” said Meredith slowly, as if anxious to give weight to his theory. “Mrs. Black’s clocks were fast. Both of ’em. And they were fast because young Wade had arranged the matter before Pratt’s visit. He had a perfect opportunity to do this when Mrs. Black was out of the house phoning for Pratt. Say he put them on ten minutes. The fact that he had put them both on would allay any suspicion where Mrs. Black was concerned, but that extra ten minutes would have enabled Pratt to reach the square in time to commit the murder.”

Long rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Umph---it all sounds nice and comfortable to me, but I still don’t see why Wade was in Victoria Road at 9.30.”

“No---that’s still puzzling me. I can’t see his reason for leaving April House at all.”

“Yes and, in any case,” went on Long with an air of malicious triumph, “how the deuce did our friend Pratt get into the Empty House when ’e did arrive there? There’s still that little snag to be cleared up.”

“It is,” said Meredith with a grin.

“Eh?”

“Thanks to Miss Boon.”

“How does she come into it?”

“She doesn’t,” answered Meredith neatly, “she walks out and leaves the door ajar---that’s all. The door of Number One.”

“But good Lord, ’ow was Pratt to know that?”

“Because our Miss Boon is a woman of routine like hundreds of women who live alone. Remember how she told us about her nightly promenade with her damned dogs? Always left the house at nine o’clock and returned at ten. Always took the same route. And always left her front door ajar so that she wouldn’t have to find the key-hole in the dark. She confessed to-day that she’s a bit short-sighted. Too proud to wear glasses of course----”

“And spoil her manly beauty,” put in Long with a disparaging grunt. “The vanity of some women passes all understanding. You’d think they was all Helens of Troy or Greta Garbos by the trouble they take over making-up their faces. Past ’ope, most of ’em.”

“May I go on?” asked Meredith politely.

“Sorry, sir---carried away. You’re suggesting that Pratt ’ad noticed this fact about the door?”

“Of course he had. He also knew that Miss Boon was always out of the place between nine and ten. So all he had to do was to enter Number One, climb out through the skylight on to the roof, and drop through the skylight of the Empty House. The moment the crime was committed he gets out the same way. Plausible, isn’t it?”

“It’s certainly plausible,” admitted Long, “but it’s a pity we can’t lay our ’ands on a bit more proof.”

“I think we can over this particular point,” went on Meredith with justifiable smugness. “Pratt—always assuming, of course, that we were on the right track---Pratt overlooked one thing when he thought of utilizing Miss Boon’s house. He forgot that dogs have noses. It was strange that Miss Boon should have noticed the peculiar behaviour of her dogs when she returned from her stroll that night. ‘Uneasy’ was the way she put it---sniffing round the house and eventually congregating on the top landing under the skylight.”

“Well of all the—” began Long, grinning from ear to ear. “Strikes me if I stays ’ere long enough listening to your words o’ wisdom, you’ll end by drawing a warrant for arrest out of your pocket with the blanks filled in. Beats me, sir—’ow you do it! It does straight.”

“Luck,” said Meredith. “Luck combined with your observation, Long. And, perhaps, a little reasoning thrown in to make weight.”

“And now what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to slip along to the cells and have a word with Jervis the Rake. I hear he asked for bail when he was charged.” Meredith chuckled. “The cheek of these old lags needs a lot of beating. If he’s dropped on this time it’ll be his fifth conviction.”

Proceeding along a corridor, they turned left, went down a few stone steps and eventually arrived at the detention cells. A constable came forward with a bunch of keys and opened up to them. Rake was seated on a chair in the far corner of the cell, reading a book. He was lounging back as far as the chair allowed, with his legs crossed, and a silk handkerchief sticking up perkily from the breastpocket of his well-cut suit. Rake had always been very much the dandy and he saw no reason, whatever the circumstances, to abandon this pose. As the officials entered he rose elegantly, placed the book, face down, on the chair to mark the place, and fixed a welcoming smile on his pseudo-handsome face.

“Anything I can do for you?”

“I’m Meredith—this is Inspector Long. We want to have a little informal chat with you, Rake.”

“I’m always ready to oblige. I can’t ask you gentlemen to sit down because there isn’t enough seating accommodation to go round—so if you don’t mind standing—?”

“We’re used to it,” said Meredith with a faint smile. “I wouldn’t like to say how many hours, all-told, I’ve stood in the witness-box. A tiring job, Rake.”

“That’s not a very politic remark,” answered Rake. “Witness-boxes are a sore point with me just now, Mr. Meredith. I suppose you don’t know yet who’ll be hearing my case?” (Meredith shook his head.) “No—I thought not. It makes such a difference . . . to one’s near future, I mean. Well, what exactly can I do for you?”

“Be frank, Rake—that’s the most important thing. I’m not going to make you any rash promises about any possible information you may give us helping along your case. You know as well as I do that we can’t bring any influence to bear on the court decision—but you may have some information which we can do with, Rake, and I’ll tell you straight that these inquiries are connected with a major case.”

“A major case, eh?” Rake’s dark brows went up in a note of interrogation. “Not murder by any remote chance?”

“Possibly,” said Meredith. “Possibly not. Now first of all what do you know of a young fellow called Antony Wade?”

“Never heard of him.”

“That’s more than probable. You’ve never heard of him under that name. Perhaps you recognize this?” And Meredith pushed an enlargement of one of Stinn’s excellent snapshots under Rake’s nose.

“Wilfred Black! Gracious! I know him well enough.” Adding slyly: “And you do, too, don’t you? I had an idea that he was among those present the other evening when . . . when . . .”

“Quite right he was. So he was calling himself Black was he? After his landlady no doubt. That shows a lack of invention, eh, Long?”

“Bloomin’ cheek if you ask me, but just about what I’d expect from ’is nibs. Lively lad, Wade!”

“Been one of your clients long, Rake?”

“About three or four months.”

“A lucky client would you say?”

Rake beamed: “Do you mean from my point of view? If so, the answer’s in the affirmative. A godsend, Mr. Meredith.”

“Does he owe you anything?”

Rake coughed and replied in a deprecatory voice: “Come. Come, Mr. Meredith. That’s a little too confidential.”

“Not a bit of it,” said Meredith breezily. “It’s bound to come out in court. You know how the most confidential matters do under cross-examination. The point is I can’t wait until quarter-sessions—well, Rake, going to be nice to us?”

“Oh, very well. Very unprofessional, of course, but since you insist. Yes—he owed me quite a tidy sum.”

“Meaning?”

“About a couple of thousand. Foolish of me, perhaps, to have allowed him to run up a debt of this magnitude, Mr. Meredith, but in my particular line one can’t afford to refuse credit. The financial side of my . . . er . . . type of establishment is naturally a very . . .” His fingers twiddled in the air. “—a very delicate matter. To offend a good client is usually very unprofitable in the long run, I assure you.”

“Quite. And you naturally expected to see your money, if not at once, in the near future?”

“Oh, naturally, naturally. All my clients are invariably on the verge of inheriting or pulling off a good deal on the exchange. Its a recognized thing.” Rake smiled wryly and fastidiously detached a piece of fluff from his lapel. “This young gentleman, for instance, assured me that it was only a matter of days before he would be able to make good his losses. He was a trifle upset when I suggested that I should go to a certain relation of his, whose opinion he seemed to covet rather highly. One hears things of course, and I happened to know that this uncle of his was a very wealthy man. I felt sure, though Mr. Black didn’t endorse my opinion, that his uncle would be only too ready to settle his debts for him out of hand. I mean, if, by any remote chance, things got into the paper, it would have been extremely unpleasant for such a respectable old gentleman. I mean, his nephew. People will talk so.”

“But you didn’t take the risk?” asked Meredith.

“The risk? Oh, I see what you mean. Of course, it was possible that the old gentleman might look upon me as the greater criminal. A hateful word, but I can’t think of another. But you see, Mr. Meredith, in my line one has to take risks . . . of a kind. But a knowledge of psychology does help considerably to minimize these risks. I’d gleaned quite a lot of information about this old gentleman. I think I should have been safe in going to him.”

“And you didn’t?”

“It was hardly necessary, was it, when I learnt that he had been murdered? I knew then that Mr. Black would have no difficulty in settling his debt with me. You follow my line of argument?”

“Only too well,” grinned Meredith. “It’s flawless. What about Pratt? Oh all right—you’ve never heard of him.” Meredith produced a second enlargement and showed it to the imperturbable Rake. “I’m interested to know what this gentleman called himself. Smith, Jones or what?”

“Watt,” said Rake promptly.

“Watt!” Long chuckled. “Brother of the dear old biddies at Number Seven, I’ll bet. That’s ripe.”

“Look here, Rake,” said Meredith brusquely. “You’re wasting our time with all these subtleties. You knew Black was Wade, otherwise you wouldn’t have known Buller was the lad’s uncle. You know quite well that Pratt happens to be a doctor and you know where he lives. Now then, I want straight answers to three questions. How long had Pratt been coming out to your place? Was he friendly with Wade? Was he, like Wade, in debt to you?”

“He came out for the first time with Wade three months ago or a little over. That answers two of your questions. And he owed me about five hundred pounds. Does that satisfy you, Mr. Meredith?”

“You’d be prepared to swear in a court of law that Wade and Pratt were intimate friends?”

“Since Wade introduced him to my establishment—yes.”

“Right—that’s all I want to know. The Inspector here has made notes of our conversation. You probably noticed that?”

“I did. That’s why I was so particular about the wording of my sentences. I detest a badly constructed statement, don’t you? Shall I read through now and sign?”

“If you will,” said Meredith politely. “Fountain-pen?”

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