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16: A Double Recall

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Author Topic: 16: A Double Recall  (Read 26 times)
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« on: September 02, 2023, 02:26:40 am »

WHEN French settled down to consider how the search for Roper could best be carried out he saw that he was up against a very much steeper proposition than had appeared at first sight.

There were two ways in which he could attack the problem. He could attempt to trace the man’s movements from the night of the fire and go on step by step until he found him, or he could try to discover his present whereabouts, irrespective of how he had arrived there.

The first method was not very hopeful. Not only was there little to go on, but such trail as the man must have left was cold. It was now over two months since the tragedy, and while the passage of a wanted man during the week previous to an inquiry might be remembered by porters, taxi-men or others who come in contact with the public, few would recall having seen a stranger two months earlier.

Direct search, French thought, was much more promising. For this he had behind him the whole of the amazingly complete and far-reaching organisation of the police. If Roper had not left the country he would find it hard to evade recognition by some one of the thousands of constables and detectives who would be looking out for him.

French remembered that the Kintilloch sergeant had mentioned that Roper had applied for a passport to Brazil, and he began operations by writing to the Yard to send a man to the Passport Office to obtain a copy of the photograph lodged. Then he set to work to compile a description of Roper. He saw Oxley, Whymper, Ruth and one or two others and got down from them details of the man’s appearance. From these he synthesised the following:---

“Wanted for murder. John Roper. Age 34; height about 5 ft. 9 inches; slight build; thick, dark hair; dark eyes with a decided squint; heavy dark eyebrows; clean shaven; sallow complexion; small nose and mouth; pointed chin; small hands and feet; walks with a slight stoop and a quick step; speaks in a rather high-pitched voice with a slight Lowland Scotch accent.”

On the whole French was pleased with the description. It was more complete than was usually obtainable from unofficial sources. It had not, of course, been volunteered by any of his informants, but had been gradually reached by persistent questions on each feature in turn. He sent it to the Yard, asking that it be published in the next issue of the Police Gazette along with a copy of the photograph obtained from the Passport Office. This meant that within three or four days every police officer in the land would be applying it to newcomers of less than ten weeks’ standing. If Roper had not escaped abroad or was not lying hidden in the most populous district of some great town there was a very good chance that he might be found.

In his letter to the Yard French had also asked that systematic inquiries should be made at the various seaports and from steamship lines to try to find out if the man had left the country. He suggested concentrating on lines running to Brazil or calling at places from which other lines ran to Brazil. Air lines to the Continent he included as well as the ordinary cross-channel services, though from these he scarcely expected a result.

Next he determined to make, so far as he could, lists of the attendant’s friends, places where he had spent his holidays, and any other details of his life that could be ascertained. Frequently he had found that such vague inquiries produced valuable results. It was a speculative move, of course, but he thought it would be worth a couple of days’ work.

As Kintilloch was the most likely place to pick up such information, he travelled for the second time to the little Fifeshire town. There he interviewed every one who, he thought, might help him, but entirely without result. Even when he visited the home of the late Flora Roper and discussed the affair with the unfortunate woman’s mother he learned nothing valuable.

As he was leaving Kintilloch it occurred to him as a last forlorn hope that possibly Dr. Philpot might be able to assist. The address the doctor had given him was in Glasgow, and to return via Glasgow was but little out of his way. He decided he would pay the call on chance.

About five o’clock that afternoon, therefore, he turned from Dumbarton Road into Kilgore Street and looked up No. 47. It was a rather decayed looking apartment house of a shabby-genteel type, and the landlady who answered his ring gave him the same impression of having fallen on evil days. Rather a comedown, French thought, for a man who had occupied a comfortable villa standing in its own grounds, to be reduced to this semi-slum lodging house. With a momentary feeling of pity he inquired if Dr. Philpot was at home.

“There’s no Dr. Philpot lives here,” the woman answered in complaining tones. “There’s a Mr. Philpot, if that’s who you mean.”

“He may not be a doctor; I’m not sure,” French returned. “The man I mean is fair-haired with a thin face, and could only have come to you within the last week.”

“Yes, that’s him all right. But he isn’t in.”

“When do you expect him?”

“He generally comes in about six or half-past.”

“Then I’ll call back.”

French strolled about the parks around Kelvinside until his watch warned him to return to Kilgore Street. Philpot had just arrived. He seemed glad to see French and told of his new life with an eagerness that the latter thought rather pathetic.

“I hated that place, Inspector,” he went on. “I didn’t realise it while I was there, but now that I have left I am surprised how much I hated it. But I believe I’m going to like my new work. I’ve got a job, you know.”

“Glad to hear it,” French returned cheerily. “I hope it’s a good one.”

“It’s too soon to say that. I’m now a commission agent. It is by the kindness of an old friend. He has let me have one of his side lines to see how I get on. It doesn’t sound a promising proposition, but I confess I’ve been surprised at its possibilities since I started. It concerns the marketing of inventions. My friend keeps in touch with the patent agents and approaches all the smaller patentees, then if the thing looks good I try to find a manufacturer or a market. I am to pay him a percentage of all my takings and already I’ve been in touch with five inventions, all of which are doing very well. If my luck holds I hope some day to be able to square all those people I now owe money to in Thirsby. Then my idea is to get across to the States and start afresh.”

French offered his congratulations and as soon as he reasonably could switched the conversation over to Roper. Philpot seemed considerably surprised, but he willingly discussed the attendant and obviously did his best to satisfy his visitor. He gave a good deal of information, but only one piece seemed to French at all useful.

Roper had occasionally visited Peebles. What he had gone for Philpot did not know, but he believed his family lived there. Roper had once referred to his widowed mother and had spoken of going to Peebles to see her.

“I’m sorry not to be able to give you more help,” Philpot apologised when French at last showed signs of coming to an end. “I suppose it would be indiscreet to inquire what you’re after?”

French hesitated. He had avoided mentioning his theory to any one except Chief Inspector Mitchell and Major Valentine, and his working principle in such cases was reticence. For a moment he was tempted to confide in Philpot, then habit triumphed and he prevaricated.

“My dossier of the case is not complete without all the information I can put into it. It is academic, of course, but I like to do things thoroughly. Gets you a reputation for efficiency, you know. One can’t afford to sneeze at it. Well, doctor, I’m glad to have seen you and I hope your good luck will continue.”

It was evident that Philpot realised that he had been put off, but he made no further reference to the subject, and his good-bye was cordial enough. French in his kindly way was pleased to see that the man had a chance of making good, and his congratulations and good wishes were really sincere.

After some thought he determined to follow up the doctor’s clue and next morning he went to Peebles. There he had little difficulty in finding Roper’s mother. She kept a huckster’s shop in the poorer part of the town, but it was evident that she was getting too old for the work, and that business was not flourishing. She was suspicious at first, but under the genial influence of French’s manner she thawed and presently became garrulous. French was soon satisfied that she had no idea that her son might be alive. He pumped her with his usual skill, pretending he was a former acquaintance of Roper’s, but in the end also he was unable to learn anything helpful.

He returned to Thirsby and began a series of inquiries at the nearby railway stations, posting establishments, inns and villages, in the hope of coming on some trace of the quarry. But the trail was too old. For three days he worked early and late, but nowhere did he learn of any mysterious stranger who might prove to be the missing man. He was indeed about to give up in despair, when his labours were brought to an unexpected conclusion. Chief Inspector Mitchell wired an urgent recall to the Yard.

It was by no means the first of such recalls that French had received, though it was not usual to interrupt an officer who was actually engaged in investigating a case. The incident always bred a slight uneasiness. The possibility of having made some serious blunder was ever present. And French was aware that his most unhappy experiences had almost invariably followed periods of exaltation and self-satisfaction. Chief Inspector Mitchell was an exceedingly shrewd man and he had a perfectly uncanny way of delving to the bottom of problems and of seeing clues that other people missed. French earnestly hoped that it was not so in the present instance.

He travelled up by the night train and early next morning reported at the Yard. There he found his fears were groundless. The Chief Inspector, so far from grumbling, was in a very good mood and almost complimented him on what he had done.

“Well, French, you’re up against it again, are you? What were you busy at when you got my wire?”

French explained.

“You can do something better. Read that.”

It was the typewritten note of a telephone conversation. It appeared that at four o’clock on the previous evening the manager of the Northern Shires Bank in Throgmorton Avenue had rung up to say that two twenty-pound notes bearing numbers on the list supplied in connection with the Starvel Hollow crime had been passed into the bank that afternoon. The cashier had just at that moment made the discovery, but unfortunately he was unable to remember from whom he had received them.

“By Jove, sir!” French exclaimed. “Then Roper is in town!”

“It looks like it if your theory is right,” the Chief Inspector admitted. “I sent Willis across at once and he saw the cashier. But the man couldn’t say where the notes had come from. Willis got him to prepare a list of all the lodgments he had received that day, intending, if you didn’t turn up, to go round the people to-day with Roper’s description. You had better see him and find out what he has done. I want you to take over from him at once as he is really on that Colchester burglary.”

“Very good, sir. Do you know if the notes were together: if they seemed to have come in from the same party?”

“Willis asked that. They were not near each other in the pile. Of course, the argument is not conclusive, but the suggestion is that they came in separately.”

“If that is so it looks as if Roper was changing them systematically.”

“Possibly. In that case we may expect more notes to come in. That’ll do, French. Go and see Willis and start right in.”

Inspector Willis was seated at the desk in his room, apparently trying to reduce to some sort of order the chaotic heap of papers which covered it.

“Hullo, French! Come in and take a pew,” he greeted his visitor. “I don’t know any one I’d be better pleased to see. If you hadn’t turned up within another ten minutes I was going out about those blessed notes, but now I shall be able to get down to Colchester on the next train. I’m on that burglary at Brodrick’s, the jewellers. You heard about it?”

“The Chief mentioned it, but I have heard no details. Interesting case?”

“Nothing out of the way. The place was broken into from a lane at the back and the safe cut with a oxyacetylene jet. They got about six thousand pounds’ worth. It happened that Brodrick had just sent a lot of stuff to town, else they’d have cleared twice that.”

“Any line on the men?”

“It was Hot Alf and the Mummer, I believe. It was their style, and Alf was seen in the town two days before. But I’ve not got anything definite yet. There’s a fearful muck of stuff about it: look at all this.” He indicated the litter on the table.

“No fingerprints?”

“Nope. But I’ll get them through the fences. I’ve only to sit tight and they’ll give themselves away. But what about your do? I’ve got it finished, thank the Lord! There it is.” He pointed to a little heap of papers apart from the others. “There’s more in it, the Chief hinted, than stolen notes, but he didn’t say what it was.”

“There’s pretty well everything in it so far as I can see,” French rejoined. “Murder---quadruple murder---theft, arson and body-snatching.”

Willis whistled.

“Body-snatching? Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “You don’t often hear of that nowadays.”

“You don’t,” French admitted, “but this was not ordinary body-snatching. You remember the case: a fire at Starvel in which the three occupants of the house were supposed to be burned? Well, one wasn’t. He burgled the place and escaped with the swag: those notes that you were on to to-day. But he had to have a body to represent himself, so he murdered a neighbour and burned his in the house.”

“Lord, French! That’s quite a tale. It would make a novel, that would. How did you get on to it?”

French gave a somewhat sketchy résumé of his activities and so led the conversation back to the notes. “The Chief said you would give me the details so that I could get ahead with it to-day.”

“Right-o. The Chief called me in about four yesterday afternoon and said he’d just had a ’phone from the Northern Shires Bank that two of the Starvel notes had been paid in, and as you weren’t there, I’d better take over. So I went and saw the teller. He couldn’t say who had given him the notes, as it was only when he was balancing his cash after the bank closed that he recognised the numbers. I got him to make me a list of the lodgments during the day. That took a bit of time, but he had it at last. Then I went through it with him and we eliminated all the entries at which he was sure that no twenty-pound note was handled. That left just under two hundred possibles. Then I brought the list home and went over it again, ticking off people or firms who do not usually take in cash from the public, like shipowners, manufacturers and wholesale dealers. Of course, these are possibles, but not so likely as the others. It was rough and ready, but I wanted to tackle the most probable first. You follow me?”

“Of course. I should have done the same.”

“I waited up until I had put the probables in location order, and here is the list ready for you.”

“Jolly good, Willis. I’m sorry you had so much trouble. I’ll carry on and hope for the best.”

“You’ll get it all right,” Willis opined as he settled down again to his work.

All that day and the next French, armed with the list and with Roper’s photograph and description, went from place to place interviewing managers and assistants in shops and business firms. But all to no purpose. Nowhere could he obtain any trace of the elusive twenty-pound notes, nor had any man answering to the description been seen. And then to his amazement he was taken off the inquiry.

Like other officers of the C.I.D., it was his habit to keep in as close touch with headquarters as possible while pursuing his investigations. At intervals therefore during these two days he called up the Yard and reported his whereabouts. It was during one of these communications that for the second time in two days he received an urgent recall.

In this case it was a summons which he could obey promptly, and twenty minutes after receiving the message he was knocking at the door of Chief Inspector Mitchell’s room.

One glance at the Chief’s face showed him that at least there was no trouble brewing, Mitchell greeting him with a half smile.

“Sit down, French,” he said, “and listen to me. I want to tell you a story.”

After glancing at a few papers which he took from a drawer, he began to speak.
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