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Chapter 28 - Should a Doctor Tell?

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« on: December 20, 2022, 11:15:48 pm »

Still holding the handkerchief well in front of him, Whitby came a pace or two nearer, and presently his weak, half-apologetic voice came to them down the wind.

‘Since we’ve both got guns, perhaps we’d better talk,’ he shouted thinly. ‘What do you want?’

Martin glanced at Abbershaw. ‘Keep him covered,’ he murmured. ‘Prenderby, old boy, you’d better walk behind us. We don’t know what their little game is yet.’

They advanced slowly—absurdly, Abbershaw could not help thinking—on that vast open salting, miles from anywhere. Whitby was still the harassed, scared-looking little man who had come to ask Abbershaw for his assistance on that fateful night at Black Dudley. He was, if anything, a little more composed now than then, and he greeted them affably.

‘Well, here we are, aren’t we?’ he said, and paused. ‘What do you want?’

Martin Watt opened his mouth to speak; he had a very clear notion of what he wanted and was anxious to explain it.

Abbershaw cut him short, however. ‘A word or two of conversation, Doctor,’ he said.

The little man blinked at him dubiously. ‘Why, yes, of course,’ he said, ‘of course. I should hate to disappoint you. You’ve come a long way for it, haven’t you?’

He was so patently nervous that in spite of themselves they could not get away from the thought that they were very unfairly matched.

‘Where shall we talk?’ continued the little doctor, still timidly. ‘I suppose there must be quite a lot of things you want to ask me?’

Martin pocketed his gun. ‘Look here, Whitby,’ he said, ‘That is the point—there are lots of things. That’s why we’ve come. If you’re sensible you’ll give us straight answers. You know what happened at Black Dudley after you left, of course?’

‘I—I read in the papers,’ faltered the little figure in front of them. ‘Most regrettable. Who would have thought that such a clever, intelligent man would turn out to be such a dreadful criminal?’

Martin shook his head. ‘That’s no good, Doc,’ he said. ‘You see, not everything came out in the papers.’

Whitby sighed. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Perhaps if you told me exactly how much you know I should see precisely what to tell you.’

Martin grinned at this somewhat ambiguous remark. ‘Suppose we don’t make things quite so simple as that,’ he said. ‘Suppose we both put our cards on the table—all of them.’

He had moved a step nearer as he spoke and the little doctor put up his hand warningly.

‘Forgive me, Mr. Watt,’ he said. ‘But my friend behind me is very clever with his pistol, as you may have noticed, and we’re right in his range now, aren’t we? If I were you I really think I’d take my gun out again.’

Martin stared at him and slowly drew his weapon out of his pocket.

‘That’s right,’ said Whitby. ‘Now we’ll go a little farther away from him, shall we? You were saying—?’

Martin was bewildered. This was the last attitude he had expected a fugitive to take up in the middle of a saltmarsh at four o’clock in the morning.

Abbershaw spoke quietly behind him. ‘It’s Colonel Coombe’s death we are interested in, Doctor,’ he said. ‘Your position at Black Dudley has been explained to us.’

He watched the man narrowly as he spoke but there was no trace of surprise or fear on the little man’s face. He seemed relieved. ‘Oh! I see,’ he said. ‘You, Doctor Abbershaw, would naturally be interested in the fate of my patient’s body. As a matter of fact, he was cremated at Eastchester, thirty-six hours after I left Black Dudley. But, of course,’ he went on cheerfully, ‘you will want to know the entire history. After we left the house we went straight over to the registrar’s. He was very sympathetic. Like everybody else in the vicinity he knew of the Colonel’s weak health and was not surprised at my news. In fact, he was most obliging. Your signature and mine were quite enough for him. He signed immediately and we continued our journey. I was on my way back to the house when I received—by the merest chance—the news of the unfortunate incidents which had taken place in my absence. And so,’ he added with charming frankness, ‘we altered our number plates and changed our destination. Are you satisfied?’

‘Not quite,’ said Martin grimly.

The nervous little doctor hurried on before they could stop him. ‘Why, of course,’ he said, ‘I was forgetting. There must be a great many things that still confuse you. The exact import of the papers that you, Doctor Abbershaw, were so foolhardy as to destroy? Never revealed, was it?’

‘We know it was the detailed plan of a big robbery,’ said Abbershaw stiffly.

‘Indeed it was,’ said Whitby warmly. ‘Quite the largest thing our people had ever thought of undertaking. Have you—er—any idea what place it was? Everything was all taped out so that nothing remained to chance, no detail left unconsidered. It was a complete plan of campaign ready to be put into immediate action. The work of a master, I assure you. Do you know the place?’

He saw by their faces that they were ignorant, and a satisfied smile spread over the little man’s face.

‘It wasn’t my secret,’ he said. ‘But naturally I couldn’t help hearing a thing or two. As far as I could gather von Faber’s objective was the Repository of the Bullion for the Repayment of the American Debt.’

The three were silent, the stupendousness of the scheme suddenly brought home to them.

‘Then,’ continued Whitby rapidly, ‘there was Colonel Coombe’s own part in von Faber’s affairs. Perhaps you don’t know that for the greater part of his life Colonel Coombe had been under von Faber’s influence to an enormous extent, in fact I think I might almost say that he was dominated absolutely by von—’

‘It’s not Colonel Coombe’s life, Doctor Whitby, which interests us so particularly,’ cut in Martin suddenly. ‘It’s his death. You know as well as we do that he was murdered.’

For an instant the nervous garrulousness of the little doctor vanished and he stared at them blankly.
‘There are a lot of people interested in that point,’ he said at last. ‘I am myself, for one.’

‘So we gathered,’ murmured Martin, under his breath, while Abbershaw spoke hastily.

‘Doctor Whitby,’ he said, ‘you and I committed a very grave offence by signing those certificates.’

‘Yes,’ said Whitby, and paused for a moment or so, after which he brightened up visibly and hurried on. ‘But really, my dear sir, in the circumstances I don’t see that we could have done anything else, do you? We were the victims of a stronger force.’

Abbershaw disregarded the other’s smile and spoke steadily. ‘Doctor Whitby,’ he said, ‘do you know who murdered Colonel Coombe?’

The little doctor’s benign expression did not alter. ‘Why, of course,’ he said. ‘I should have thought that, at least, was obvious to everybody—everybody who knew anything at all about the case, that is.’

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘I’m afraid we must plead either great stupidity or peculiarly untrusting dispositions,’ he said. ‘That is the point on which we are not at all satisfied.’

‘But my dear young people—’ for the first time during that interview the little man showed signs of impatience. ‘That is most obvious. Amongst your party—let us say, Mr. Petrie’s party, as opposed to von Faber’s—there was a member of the famous Simister gang of America. Perhaps you have heard of it, Doctor Abbershaw. Colonel Coombe had been attempting to establish relations with them for some time. In fact, that was the reason why I and my pugnacious friend behind us were placed at Black Dudley—to keep an eye upon him. During the progress of the Dagger Ritual, Simister’s man eluded our vigilance and chose that moment not only to get hold of the papers, but also to murder the unfortunate Colonel. That, by the way, was only a title he adopted, you know.’

The three younger men remained unimpressed.

Martin shook his head. ‘Not a bad story, but it won’t wash,’ he said. ‘If one of our party stabbed the old boy, why do you all go to such lengths to keep it so quiet for us?’

‘Because, my boy,’ said Whitby testily, ‘we didn’t want a fuss. In fact, the police on the scene was the last thing we desired. Besides, you seem to forget the extraordinary importance of the papers.’

Again Martin shook his head. ‘We’ve heard all this before,’ he said; ‘and it didn’t sound any better then. To be perfectly frank, we are convinced that one of your people was responsible. We want to know who, and we want to know why.’

The little doctor’s face grew slowly crimson, but it was the flush of a man annoyed rather than a guilty person accused of his crime. ‘You tire me with your stupidity,’ he said suddenly. ‘Good God, sir, consider it. Have you any idea how valuable the man was to us? Do you know what he was paid for his services? Twenty thousand pounds for this coup alone. Simister would probably have offered him more. You don’t hear about these things. Government losses rarely get into the papers—certainly not with figures attached. Not the smallest member of our organization stood to gain anything at all by his death. I confess I was surprised at Simister’s man, unless he was double-crossing his own people.’

For a moment even Martin’s faith in his own theory was shaken.

‘In that case,’ said Abbershaw unexpectedly, ‘it will doubtless surprise you to learn that the man employed by Simister to obtain the package had a complete alibi. In fact, it was impossible for him ever to have laid hands upon the dagger.’

‘Impossible?’ The word broke from Whitby’s lips like a cry, but although they were listening to him critically, to not one of them did it sound like a cry of fear. He stared at them, amazement in his eyes.
‘Have you proof of that?’ he said at last.

‘Complete proof,’ said Abbershaw quietly. ‘I think you must reconsider your theory, Doctor Whitby. Consider how you yourself stand, in the light of what I have just said.’

An expression of mild astonishment spread over the insignificant little face. Then, to everybody’s surprise, he laughed. ‘Amateur detectives?’ he said. ‘I’m afraid you’ve had a long ride for nothing, gentlemen. I confess that my position as accessory after the fact is a dangerous one, but then, so is Doctor Abbershaw’s. Consider the likelihood of your suggestion. Have you provided me with a motive?’

‘I suggest,’ said Martin calmly, ‘that your position when von Faber discovered that your prisoner had “eluded your vigilance”, as you call it, would not have been too good.’

Whitby paused thoughtfully. ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Not bad at all. Very pretty. But’—he shook his head—‘unfortunately not true. My position with Coombe dead was “not good” as you call it. But had Coombe been alive he would have had to face the music, wouldn’t he? It was von Faber’s own fault that I ever left his side at all.’

This was certainly a point which they had not considered. It silenced them for a moment, and in the lull a sound which had been gradually forcing itself upon their attention for the last few moments became suddenly very apparent—the steady droning of an aeroplane engine.

Whitby looked up, mild interest on his face.

It was now quite light, and the others, following his gaze, saw a huge Fokker monoplane flying low against the grey sky.

‘He’s out early,’ remarked Prenderby.

‘Yes,’ said Whitby. ‘There’s an aerodrome a couple of miles across here, you know. Quite near my house, in fact.’

Martin pricked up his ears. ‘Your house?’ he echoed.

The little doctor nodded. ‘Yes. I have a small place down here by the sea. Very lonely, you know, but I thought it suited my purpose very well just now. Frankly, I didn’t like the idea of your following me and it made my friend quite angry.’

‘Hullo! He’s in difficulties or something.’

It was Prenderby who spoke. He had been watching the aeroplane, which was now almost directly above their heads. His excited cry made them all look up again, to see the great plane circling into the wind.

There was now no drone of the engine but they could hear the sough of the air through the wires, and for a moment it seemed as if it were dropping directly on top of them. The next instant it passed so near that they almost felt its draught upon their faces. Then it taxied along the ground, coming to a halt in the glow of the still burning head-lights of the big car.

Instinctively, they hurried towards it, and until they were within twenty yards they did not realize that Whitby’s confederate had got there first and was talking excitedly to the pilot.

‘Good God!’ said Martin suddenly stopping dead in his tracks. The same thought struck the others at precisely the same instant.

Through the waves of mingled anger and amazement which overwhelmed them, Whitby’s precise little voice came clearly. ‘I observe that he carries a machine-gun,’ he remarked. ‘That’s what I like about these Germans—so efficient. In view of what my excitable colleague has probably said to the pilot, I really don’t think I should come any nearer. Perhaps you would turn off your head-lights when you go back, they have served their purpose. Take the car too if you like.’

He paused and beamed on them. ‘Good-bye,’ he said. ‘I suppose it would annoy you if I thanked you for coming to see me off? Don’t do that,’ he added sharply, as Martin’s hand shot to his side pocket. ‘Please don’t do that,’ he repeated more earnestly. ‘For my friends would most certainly kill you without the least compunction, and I don’t want that. Believe me, my dear young people, whatever your theories may be, I am no murderer. I am leaving the country in this melodramatic fashion because it obviates the inconveniences which might arise if I showed my passport here just at present. Don’t come any nearer. Good-bye, gentlemen.’

As they watched him go, Martin’s hand again stole to his pocket.

Abbershaw touched his arm. ‘Don’t be a fool, old man,’ he said. ‘If he’s done one murder, don’t encourage him to do another, and if he hasn’t, why help him to?’

Martin nodded and made a remark which did nobody any credit.

They stood there watching the machine with the gun trained upon them from its cockpit until it began to move again; then they turned back towards the Riley.

‘Right up the garden,’ said Martin bitterly. ‘Fooled, done brown, put it how you like. There goes Coombe’s murderer and here are we poor mutts who listened trustingly while he told us fairy stories to pass the time away, until his pals turned up for him. I wish we’d risked that machine-gun.’

Prenderby nodded gloomily. ‘I feel sick,’ he said. ‘We spotted him and then he got away with it.’

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘He got away certainly,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think we’ve got much cause to regret it.’

‘What do you mean? Think he didn’t kill him?’

They looked at him incredulously.

Abbershaw nodded. ‘I know he didn’t kill him,’ he said quietly.

Martin grunted. ‘I’m afraid I can’t agree with you there,’ he said. ‘Gosh! I’ll never forgive myself for being such a fool!’

Prenderby was inclined to agree with him, but Abbershaw stuck to his own opinion, and the expression on his face as they drove silently back to Town was very serious and, somehow, afraid.

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