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19: Post Mortem

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Author Topic: 19: Post Mortem  (Read 205 times)
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« on: August 31, 2023, 07:53:41 am »

“WELL,” beamed Long as the police-car hummed merrily along the Stroud road, “this looks like the end, eh? A red-handed catch! Providence serves something up on a plate! Though the devil only knows what kind o’ monkey-tricks ’is nibs was up to in Cranham Woods. Well, we’ll know that soon enough, I suppose.”

Presently the car slewed into the verge and drew up with a screech. Meredith sprang out and walked over to the stationary saloon.

“Well, Wilson?”

Tersely the constable made his report, lowering his voice so that Pratt should not hear. Meredith came to a rapid decision and drew out the warrant, which had been hastily drawn up before leaving Clarence Street.

“Well, Pratt---anything to say? Usual caution, you know. Anything you say will be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence.”

“Nothing,” said Pratt in a husky voice.

“O.K.,” said Meredith briskly as Long joined him. “Get him over to the other car. He’s to be detained of course. Understand that Pratt? You’ll be charged to-morrow with the murder of Captain Cotton and Edward Buller. Still nothing to say?”

Pratt dumbly shook his head.

Then, “I reserve the right----” he began.

“Of course,” broke in Meredith. “You’ll be at liberty to arrange your own defence, but we can’t discuss that now.” He turned to Wilson. “Now then, constable, let’s see about it.”

The two men made off into the wood until they came to the little clearing where the spade was lying. In silence Meredith picked up the spade and began, with extreme caution, to dig. In a few minutes he reached down and drew the paper parcel out of the hole. With even greater caution he unwrapped it and examined its contents in the light of the constable’s torch.

Then, “Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “What the devil’s this? Here, Long! Long! Take a look here.”

The Inspector loomed up out of the darkness, tripping and swearing as he blundered through the undergrowth.

“Hullo. Hullo. What’s the trouble now?”

Meredith extended his hands and held the open parcel in the rays of light.

“What d’you make of this packet, eh, Long?”

“A pistol, isn’t it? Sort of old-fashioned blunderbuss. You’re not trying to kid me that anybody was looney enough to fire that thing? I wouldn’t fire it electrically from half a mile off in a concrete dug-out---not if I was paid to, I bloomin’ well wouldn’t.” He looked closer, a puzzled frown on his usually cheerful countenance. “Glass too---bits o’ broken glass. Wot’s it all mean, eh, sir?”

“I’ve got a vague idea, Long, but I don’t want to start airing my opinions until I’ve had time to examine this little lot properly. One thing I feel sure about---there’s enough evidence wrapped up in this bit of brown paper to hang our friend Pratt twice over. Anything else, Wilson?”

“Yes, sir---this,” said Wilson, fiddling in his breast-pocket and fishing out the little white object which had dropped from the hand of the arrested man. Meredith took it on his open palm.

“Umph---sort o’ tablet,” observed Long. “Like an aspirin.”

“Not a sort of tablet,” corrected Meredith with a grin. “It is a tablet. Though I reckon it’s not an aspirin. How d’you get hold of this, Wilson?” Wilson explained. Meredith let out a low whistle. “Suicide, eh? Poor devil must have realized his number was up when you walked in on his digging party. Wonder what poison he fancied? We’ll have to have this analysed at once, Long. Let’s have a scrap of that brown paper.”

Back in Clarence Street, despite the lateness of the hour, things began to move. The police surgeon hustled over to make an immediate analysis, not only of the little white tablet but of the minute white specks still clinging to the broken scraps of glass. The Chief Constable was already waiting for the return of Long and Meredith. They stood in conference round the former’s desk on which reposed the curious looking pistol.

“There’s no doubt that this is what he used in the second murder,” Meredith was saying. “The idea couldn’t have occurred to him at once because we know that after the Cotton murder he practised with his steel bow up on the wolds. You can see for yourself, sir. There’s a powerful spring inside the barrel and a catch just in front of the trigger to hold it in place before the release. All he had to do was to fix the spring, ram the arrow down the barrel and pull the trigger. Simple, eh?”

The Chief agreed.

“Simple to hide, too,” was his comment. “It could easily be concealed in the lining of his coat.” He smiled sardonically. “Our friend wasn’t going to make any mistake the second time. One case of mistaken identity was enough for his nerves, I imagine. A sitting-shot, too! Couldn’t have missed!”

“On the other hand,” said Meredith quietly, “I don’t think he killed Buller with this contraption.”

“What!” exclaimed Long and the Chief in unison.

“As soon as Dr. Newark has made his analysis I shall know for certain, sir---until then it must still be pure guess work.”

“And your theory?” asked the Chief.

“Buller was poisoned,” said Meredith bluntly. “He was dead before the arrow entered his head. As you said just now Pratt didn’t want to take any chances the second time. I reckon the Cotton slip-up must have scared him stiff. Remember that the first person he saw after taking that shot from the Empty House was the very man he thought he had killed---Buller! Chap must have had an iron nerve. The point was that if he relied solely on this spring-gun affair he could never be certain that he’d have the opportunity to use it. Buller might have waved him into a chair, being his host, and sat facing him all the time. Awkward, eh, sir? You couldn’t have pulled a damn big thing like that out of your pocket, levelled it and fired without attracting notice.”

“True enough,” murmured Long. “About as ’andy as a ’owitzer when you come to think of it.”

“But there was one way,” went on Meredith, “in which Pratt, without arousing the slightest suspicion, could have murdered Buller. Buller suffered from dyspepsia. Pratt had prescribed anti-acid tablets to be taken directly after meals. Mrs. Gannet always left a tumbler of water ready in the study on Buller’s smoking-table, together with the box of tablets. According to the evidence on the night of Buller’s murder this tumbler was not placed ready. Mrs. Gannet thought it was---but, apparently, she was wrong. I say apparently, sir, because I’m very much inclined to think that the housekeeper was right. The tumbler of water was there on the table when Pratt and Buller entered the study after dinner. What more natural for Pratt to----”

“Hand poor old Buller ’is number nine or whatever it was,” cried Long, suddenly realizing the trend of his superior’s argument. “Only instead o’ one of them indigestion pills ’e slips ’im a dose of rat poison and stands back to watch the results.”

“More or less,” grinned Meredith. “Though I’m inclined to think the poison---whatever it was---was slipped into the glass of water first and that Pratt did actually hand Buller one of his usual tablets.”

“The point being, Meredith?”

“This, sir. Pratt wanted an instantaneous result---a compressed tablet wouldn’t work quickly enough, but a shot of this stuff dropped, even dissolved in the water, would send the old chap out in a flash. He might even have had a liquid phial of the stuff already made up. Buller tosses the stuff down and Pratt, who seems to have been a canny sort of bird over the details, shoves the used tumbler into his pocket. He waits for the poison to work, then fires the arrow into the dead man’s head.”

“To confuse the issue,” put in the Chief with an understanding nod. “To suggest that Buller had been shot from across the square as Cotton had been shot.”

“Precisely, sir. He even tried to suggest by the angle of the shaft that the arrow had been loosed from the Empty House. And there,” concluded Meredith, “was his alibi. He was in the house---ergo---he couldn’t have been anywhere in the square.”

Ergo,” said Long. “ ’E bloomin’ well wasn’t the murderer.” Then in a tone of infinite disbelief, coupled with an enormous and knowing wink: “Sez you!”

There was a rap on the door. Dr. Newark entered. The three heads swung round questioningly toward him.

“Well?” said the Chief.

“Veronal,” replied Newark shortly. “About twenty grains in the tablet. Deposit on the broken glass the same. Impossible, of course, to say how many grains had been added to the fluid.”

“Not a convulsive or a corrosive is it?” asked Meredith anxiously.

Newark shook his head.

“Produces very little external effect, if that’s what you’re after.”

“I am,” smiled Meredith. He turned to the Chief. “Do you think my theory holds water now, sir?”

The Chief nodded slowly.

“Everything seems to point to it, Meredith. I can apply for an exhumation order if you can bring forward enough corroborative evidence. Then the mystery will be cleared up once for all. Pratt hasn’t got an earthly anyway---as I see it.”

Three further pieces of evidence were diligently collected by Meredith and Long before the necessary permit was obtained. The broken pieces of tumbler corresponded in thickness, size and shape with those in use at Number Six. Mrs. Gannet declared that since the set was new, there should have been a full dozen glasses. There were only eleven. Finally, in the left-hand pocket lining of Pratt’s dinner-jacket there were found undeniable traces of veronal.

The body was exhumed. An autopsy was performed. Veronal was discovered.

“Which only goes to show,” said Long in his slow, lugubrious voice, “that things more often than not are not what they appear to be, and what they appear to be, more often than not, they’re not!”

Meredith felt inclined to agree.

THE END
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