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18: Startling Climax

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« on: August 31, 2023, 07:18:51 am »

MEREDITH was worried. Three days had gone by, and progress in the case was at a standstill. He had been out to April House, without Wade’s knowledge, and re-examined Mrs. Black about the night of 13th June. But she had told him nothing new. She still stuck to her previous statement that Pratt had left at 9.15 according to both the hall and kitchen clocks. As far as she remembered it had not struck her the following day that the clocks were wrong; in fact, since she always set them by radio, she felt fairly certain that she would have noticed a fifteen-minute discrepancy. But, as Meredith saw at once, there was nothing to prevent Wade, on his return to the house that night, from altering the clocks back again. If he had advanced them to give Pratt his alibi, then it was pretty well certain that he would have been fly enough to cover up the fact. No---April House had nothing to surrender in the way of an unsuspected clue. The sole information gained from Mrs. Black was of a negative nature---Wade, so far as she knew, had never possessed a car, and she hadn’t noticed a car standing in the lane behind the house on the night of the murder. There may have been, but if so she hadn’t noticed it.

Shanks and Fletcher after two days’ intensive cross-examination had also come back empty-handed. Nobody within the vicinity of Regency Square had noticed a parked car round about the time of the murder. Or, if they had, they had forgotten it. It was not easy to recall events which had taken place at least seven weeks before, and, in any case, there was nothing at all remarkable in a parked car. Most of the people round about had cars, their friends had cars, cars were always being parked in those broad, residential roads. The description of Pratt’s car, hawked round by the constables, was the description, they declared, of half the cars in the neighbourhood. It was a popular make.

“So much for those lines of inquiry,” thought Meredith. “What now?”

He considered the points which still puzzled him. (1) The sheep incident. (2) The manner in which Pratt had managed to shoot Buller, without the latter being aware of his intentions. (3) The reason for Wade’s escape from April House? Again and again he hammered away at these points---points which, if elucidated, would further incriminate Pratt---perhaps definitely. If he could only prove that it was Pratt who had shot that sheep---surely then he would be justified in asking for a warrant of arrest?

But could Pratt have driven up to Cleeve Hill, obviously more than once, without arousing interest? He was well-known in the locality, a member of the golf club, whose premises he would be bound to pass. Surely he would have been recognized by an acquaintance? If the subject had cropped up in conversation, of course, Pratt would have hidden the real reason for his journeys out to Cleeve Hill under the pretext of visiting a patient. Would it be worth a visit to the golf club on the off chance of picking on somebody who recalled seeing Pratt in that direction round about the time when Farmer Bates had lost his ewe? Umph---a long shot and nothing really proved if he did obtain the evidence he was after.

Over lunch that day, however, he casually asked Barnet: “I suppose you’ve never seen Pratt driving in the Winchcombe direction when you’ve been up at the club? Particularly during these last few weeks?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” said Barnet. “But, of course, the clubhouse stands back from the road---so my evidence means next to nothing. I’ve seen him at the club naturally, and once or twice I’ve played against him in foursomes. He gets out pretty frequently for a man with an extensive practice. He’s as keen on golf now as he is on archery.”

Suddenly Meredith sat upright and set down the glass from which he was just about to drink. The germ of an idea had settled in his mind. An idea which seemed to grow and grow the more he considered it. Golf. A keen golfer. The golf club---was that Pratt’s alibi? Had he been able to slip away unnoticed from the golf-course to practise with his barbed arrows? Meredith wished he knew more of the lie of the land.

He asked Barnet: “Suppose, by any chance, a man wanted to reach Bates’ farm from the course, could he do it without being noticed?”

Barnet’s eyebrows went up quizzically. He whistled softly. “So that’s how the wind’s blowing, is it? Pratt! Good heavens, Meredith, you don’t seriously think it’s the doctor?”

“Perhaps. I may feel even more certain about it when you’ve answered my question, Mr. Barnet.”

“Well---yes---I’m inclined to think it would be possible. At the twelfth, for example---there’s a sudden dip on the left of the fairway. The slope at this point is pretty thickly dotted with gorse bushes and once a man was down in the hollow he could walk for a mile without being spotted from the course itself.” Then “good heavens,” exclaimed Barnet, “Pratt, of all people, could have managed it without the fact being noticed! We’ve been pulling his leg about going out of bounds on the twelfth. You see, you’ve only got to hook slightly to drop your ball bang in the middle of those gorse bushes. When Pratt had a limited time, say between two appointments, he used to go out on his own. He never engaged a caddy except when playing an opponent. And now I come to think of it---more than once people have exchanged a few withering remarks with him when he was in the gorse bushes looking for his ball. Quite a clubhouse joke---Pratt and the twelfth.”

“And your idea is that he could have slipped away, once the coast was clear, under pretence of looking for his ball?”

“Easily. Nobody would have noticed how long he was absent. They might think, if they thought at all, that he’d packed up in disgust and gone home without even coming in for the nineteenth. He often went direct to his car. I’ve seen him myself.”

“And this has been happening recently?”

“Well, the joke’s been going round the club for the last month.”

“Any idea when Pratt first joined?”

“Yes---about the middle of May. So he’s a comparative newcomer out there. Apparently he had never played golf before then---rather despised the game so I understand. He’s always been so enthusiastic about archery that his appearance out at Cleeve Hill rather surprised the people that knew him.”

“Umph,” mused Meredith. “I wonder if anybody has ever actually seen him sneaking off from the course. It might be worth an inquiry.”

“It might,” agreed Barnet, “but most of us are so keen on keeping our eye on the ball that we’re liable to miss anything extraneous to the game. I think you’re more likely to strike lucky with the caddies than the members. At any rate they always seem to be looking in the wrong direction when you get a snorter up the fairway. Their principle seems to be to keep their eye on anything except the ball! And damned annoying too.”

Struck by the common sense of Barnet’s suggestion, Meredith, finding that his host was at a loose end after lunch, got him to drive out to the clubhouse. Barnet, who naturally knew his way about, piloted Meredith round the back of the main building, to the professional’s shed. Outside the adjacent cleaning-room, a number of nondescript individuals in flannel trousers and moth-eaten pullovers were hanging about in a desultory fashion, smoking and talking. It was barely two o’clock and the afternoon rush had not yet begun, so, as the professional explained, Meredith would have at least half an hour in which to make his inquiries.

“What’s more,” he added. “You’ve got pretty well the whole bunch collected on the spot. There may be one or two still out but not more.”

In the circumstances Meredith decided to hold a sort of mass cross-examination and, at the professional’s bidding, the seedy, rag-and-bobtail group of idlers clustered round, their faces reflecting both their interest and curiosity. Meredith stepped up on to a providential beer-crate and began to address his little meeting.

“Now then, lads, I want you to think carefully. Don’t answer unless you’re quite sure of your facts. I don’t want any second-hand rumours, see? The point is this---the police have an idea that a member of the club may have slipped off the course during a round of golf and used that as his alibi. Know what an alibi is, eh?”

“O’ course,” said a lean, hatchet-faced man. “It’s when a bloke swears ’e’s in a place when ’e isn’t.”

Meredith grinned.

“Yes, that’s about right. In this case we have an idea that the gentleman in question may have gone out of bounds on the twelfth.”

A general laugh greeted this statement. The twelfth seemed to be quite as much a joke with the caddies as the members.

“ ’Ooked his drive maybe.”

“Yus---into them ruddy gorse-bushes.”

“Ah, you’ve said it---we’re always getting ’ang-ups on the twelfth.”

“You seem to know the spot all right,” commented Meredith. “Lot of gorse-bushes there, eh? Chap could easily lose his ball there and spend a lot of time looking for it.”

“And never finding it,” said a voice.

“Exactly---but what I want to know is this---have any of you lads seen any member of the club cutting off back over the wolds from that particular spot? Think it out. I won’t hurry you. And remember I want first-hand information.”

A silence settled over the group. Meredith anxiously waited. Was he going to pull another blank out of the hat? A long shot, of course, but he had known similar cases when----He looked up suddenly. There was a slight commotion in the crowd as a tall, shambling figure in a patched fair-isle and a pair of old army breeches pushed his way importantly to the fore.

“Well---have you got something to say?”

“Aye.”

“All right. Let’s go inside and have a talk there.”

“Well?” said Meredith, once they were behind the closed door of the professional’s shop.

“I ’aave seen summerbody cuttin’ off like you say. Sometimes t’waard the end o’ June t’would be, if my reck-nings ’bout right. I waas in them prickly gaarse pokin’ around for lost balls an’ I seed summerbody lower down the slope a-doing of the same thing. ’Aad his bag with him so I knew aas ’ee was a member.”

“I see. Yes?”

“Well, after sumtimes this summerbody---I’m not takin’ no liberty to mention names---this summerbody takes a look round, like a startled hare might do, and not thinkin’ to be noticed makes off at a raare pace a-down the paath that leads to Bates---Farmer Bates that is in case you’re not famillyer with these paarts.”

“Still carrying his bag?”

“Oh, aye---’ee haad his sticks with him right enough. T’was that aas struck me as quare.”

“Did you see him return?”

“No. Though t’was half-hour or more afore I come back to the sheds I never seed the gentleman again.”

“But you recognized him?”

“I’m not saying it wasn’t summerbody I thought aas I knew and I’m not saying aas it waas.”

Meredith went on reassuringly.

“There’s no need for you to worry your head over that point, Mr.----?”

“Aadams. Nick Aadams.”

“Naturally, Mr. Adams, you don’t think it’s quite your place to give us information about a club-member. Dr. Pratt has probably tipped you handsomely when you’ve caddied for him. You feel it wouldn’t be playing the game to give him away. That’s about it, eh?”

“Aye, thaat’s just how I looks aat it. More’n once I’ve carried for the doctor and ’ee’s always been free with his tips. I’m not saying ’e ’aasn’t. So it’s natural like for me to play fair by him, isn’t it?”

“Well, you have,” remarked Meredith, struggling to keep a straight face. “I think you can congratulate yourself on your loyalty, Mr. Adams.”

“Why, I don’t know about thaat, but my motter ’aas always been ‘Do aas you would be done by.’ I seed summerbody---thaat’s as much as I know. You’ll just ’aav’e to content yourself with the fac’ thaat I seed summerbody an’ not go pressin’ me for any names.”

Hastily thanking Nick Adams, Meredith made for the spot where Barnet was waiting with the car. As he dropped down beside the driving-seat he began to roar with laughter. Barnet looked at him bewildered.

“What’s the joke, Meredith? Did you have any luck?”

“Luck,” exclaimed Meredith through his laughter. “I should say! And a model witness. If this doesn’t mark the beginning of the end then I’m a bigger fool than I thought I was!”

As Meredith turned over the new evidence in his mind he realized more and more clearly how significant it was. Later, of course, he’d get a signed statement from Nick Adams but he didn’t want, at the moment, to frighten his witness into stubbornness. Those simple sort of fellows could be amazingly stubborn if one tried to force their hands. That it was Pratt he had seen, Meredith did not doubt. The manner in which he had obtained that part of his evidence made it pretty well certain. Moreover, his question about the golf-bag had not been asked without a definite reason. Pratt had walked off with his bag still slung over his shoulder. Why? Because he wanted to practise his shots in private, away from the withering observations of his fellow members? Well, that might be the doctor’s line of defence over this point. But the prosecution had a good point to make there---a sound, incriminating point. A steel-socketed bow, when in two parts, would fit neatly and unobtrusively into a golf-bag. There was no doubt that Pratt had been devilish clever in providing himself with an alibi which in itself was water-tight. If only he hadn’t slipped up in other directions---been recognized during that raid on Rake’s establishment, for instance---the police would have had no reason to connect the mysterious shooting of Farmer Bates’s ewe with Dr. Pratt.

Back once more at Number Eight, in the privacy of his own room, Meredith reconsidered the points which still baffled him. There had been three---three major points. Now there were only two. Why had Wade left April House on the night of Cotton’s murder, to be seen at nine-thirty by Miss Boon driving that car down Victoria Road? How had Pratt managed to shoot Buller at such absurdly close range without the latter realizing his murderous intentions? He’d take the Wade problem first.

Wade’s reason for sneaking out of April House must have been connected in some way with the murder. In some way he was essential to Pratt’s scheme. It was more than likely that he had tampered with the clocks. So far so good---but why this elaborate hoax to get him out of the house without Mrs. Black realizing? His faked illness, the pretended morphia injection, Pratt’s strict injunctions that he was not to be disturbed. And the car? Why the car? Whose car? Stolen? The police had not been informed. Borrowed? From whom? Who, among Wade’s circle of friends possessed a car? Somebody he had met, perhaps, out at “The Lilacs.” Or Pratt perhaps? No---Pratt needed his own car to hustle him full speed from Leckhampton Road to Regency Square. Funny that nobody had noticed his car parked that evening. Surely somebody from some window or other would have seen----

Meredith sat up with a jerk! Pratt’s car! Was that the explanation? Good Lord---yes! Why the devil hadn’t it occurred to him before? He had already learnt something of the doctor’s amazing thoroughness, his brilliant eye for detail in the planning of his cold-blooded plot to do away with Buller. The fact that his car might have been recognized in the vicinity of the square must have occurred to him. So what then did he do? Avoided the parking of his car by keeping it on the run whilst he was entering the Empty House via Miss Boon’s front door and skylight. Wade had chauffeured him! That must be the explanation. Yes, whilst the doctor was engaging Mrs. Black in conversation in the hall, Wade slips out of his bedroom window, cuts out through the garden gate behind the house and thus round into Leckhampton Road. There he nips into the doctor’s waiting saloon, probably hiding himself under a rug on the floor of the rear seat. Pratt comes out. Mrs. Black sees his empty car waiting. Pratt drives off. Clear of April House they change over and Wade takes the wheel, Pratt sitting beside him, his socketed bow and the barbed arrow carefully arranged inside a raincoat, perhaps, ready to spring out and slip in through Miss Boon’s open door. Arriving at the corner of the square Wade slows up. Pratt takes a quick look round to see if the coast is clear and covers the few yards which will take him up the steps of Number One. Wade drives off and keeps on driving until the prearranged time shall have elapsed. Then he drives back to the square, Pratt watching for his return from the safety of Miss Boon’s house. Pratt slips out, takes the wheel and leaves Wade to return either by bus or on foot to April House. Where was the flaw in that? Surely this theory held water?

“At any rate,” thought Meredith elated, “it gives me something further to work on. It’s not a question of a parked car now. We’ve got to find out if anybody saw a car slow up and a passenger alight, very possibly with a coat over his arm.”

There and then he decided to take a look round in the vicinity of Number One. At once a significant fact emerged. Almost directly opposite Miss Boon’s a narrow road entered the main road, which crossed the end of the square. This road entered at right-angles and was bordered on each side by the high, brick walls of the gardens of the two corner houses which faced on to the main road. Brick walls! No windows from which to be overlooked. Surely this was the point from which Pratt had left the car? But had anybody in the near neighbourhood noticed the fact? Well, that was a job for Shanks and Fletcher---another house-to-house investigation, examining witnesses on the new point which had arisen.

He walked round to Clarence Street and found Long in a bad temper writing up a report on a petty larceny case.

“And bloomin’ waste o’ the golden hours which ought to be devoted to the major case. No forrader, eh, sir?”

Meredith explained what he had been up to in the interim. Long was obligingly impressed. There and then he sent for Shanks and Fletcher, who were luckily in the building, and sent them off on their chase for corroborative evidence. He turned to Meredith.

“What about a warrant of arrest? Think we’ve got enough to go on? What about sounding the Old Man?”

They went along to the Chief’s office, where Meredith brought him up-to-date with the progress of the case. He, too, was impressed, but, conscious of his responsibility, proved cautious.

“I’m not saying the application wouldn’t be granted. The case against Pratt is, in my opinion, conclusive, but let’s make dead certain, Meredith. You’ll gain nothing by being too hasty. You’d better detail a couple of men to keep a watch on Pratt in case he gets wind of our suspicion. One mobile unit, say, to keep on the track of his car. Another posted at your friend’s place, if he’s no objection. In the meantime Shanks may bring back something definite. If so let me know at once and I think we’ll take a risk and have that warrant drawn up.”

“Right, sir. Thanks.”

But Shanks and Fletcher after two days’ exhaustive cross-questioning again turned up empty-handed. Three, four days went by---no development. Pratt seemed to be going about his customary routine, worried no doubt by the impending trial in connection with the activities of Jervis the Rake, but otherwise carrying on with his usual efficiency.

Then, with startling unexpectedness, came the climax. The Chief’s foresight in providing that “mobile unit” proved to be the doctor’s undoing. How was he to suspect, as he set out in his car late on Saturday night, that he was being deliberately followed by the helmeted and goggled young man on his powerful motor-bike? He drove out through the town, over the railway, along the main road in the direction of Stroud. Behind him, at some distance, purred the innocent-looking young man in goggles. Through Shurdington, past the A.A. box at the cross-roads, leaving Brockworth on the right, up the winding, beech-covered hill to where the sign-post pointed to Cranham. Here Pratt turned and swung down the tree-arched lane between the celebrated woods. At a deserted spot, about a mile from the little village, he drew up, running his car off the road under the trees. There he switched off his lights and waited. A motor-cycle droned by, its headlight sliding over the car. Pratt shrank back and listened to the sound of the engine receding. Then hastily he took a spade from the back seat and a small brown-paper parcel. He moved as quietly as possible deeper into the wood and, in a little clearing, began to dig a hole. He threw up the loose soil and piled it at the side of the hole, then placing the parcel in the hole he began to replace the earth, stamping it down firmly with his feet.

“Well. Well. What’s all this?”

The blaze of a pocket-torch struck directly into the doctor’s eyes, blinding him. With a sudden cry of alarm he dropped the spade and stood there, for a moment, as if paralysed. He seemed to crumple up queerly inside his clothes. Then with an oath he sprang aside and began to run through the wood. A low-lying cluster of brambles tripped him and brought him crashing to the ground with the young man in the leather helmet on top of him.

“It’s no cop. Better keep quiet.”

“Who the devil----?”

“Police---get that?” The constable was twisting the doctor’s arm with one hand, groping in his pocket with the other. He drew out a pair of handcuffs which glistened in the rays of the torch which shone up from the ground where it had dropped.

“By God---you don’t,” cried Pratt, with a superhuman effort, breaking free and struggling to his feet. His fingers were fumbling in his waistcoat pocket, but the constable was too quick for him. The handcuffs snapped over one wrist, then, after further resistance, over the other. A small white object slipped from the doctor’s nerveless fingers and fell directly in front of the pocket-torch. The constable snatched it up and with a muttered, “So that’s your little game is it?” pushed it carefully into his breast-pocket.

Twenty minutes later Colonel Ridgeway was talking to the sergeant-on-duty at Clarence Street.

“Yes---about two or three hundred yards from the main Stroud Road. The Cranham turning. He flagged me as I went by. Wants some of your fellows out there as soon as possible. He’s got him all snug and tidy in the car, but wants help in getting him back. Wilson he said. Get that? Said you’d know all about it. Suggested you got in touch with---here wait a minute---took it down. Yes---Long and Meredith. Right. Got that? I’ll nip back and keep him company until you turn up.”

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