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16: Select Dance

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Author Topic: 16: Select Dance  (Read 2 times)
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« on: March 21, 2023, 07:14:33 am »

A THICK envelope addressed in spidery handwriting was among Inspector Trimble’s post next day. It was marked “Private and Confidential,” heavily underscored.

Inspt. Trimble [the letter began abruptly]: You asked me if I had seen a certain person on the day of somebody else’s alibi and I told you I hadn’t which was absolutely true, but I did know where he had been. It’s absolutely no business of mine what he was up to, because I’m absolutely through with him and wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole after he let me down like he did. He was always talking about being careful and of course he is a coward like that sort of men always are but actually it wasn’t that at all but just that he’d found another woman. All I can say is I’m sorry for her and hope she doesn’t go through what I have done. I had my suspicions when I saw them at his party the night before but now I know and that’s why I don’t mind telling you. He’d been putting me off and putting me off but I meant to have it out with him so that morning I phoned him and said I’d come round to his place about half-past five. He pretended to be ever so glad and said he’d run me down to M’s before he went to the concert so I shouldn’t be late and look suspicious. Well I got a 5a bus down to the centre and there was a 14 just coming so I was there quite a bit before half-past five and he wasn’t there. I rang and rang and no one answered and then I thought perhaps I was early though he said he would be coming straight home from the rehearsal so I hung about outside until nearly six and then I came away. I waited ages for a bus back to the centre and when I got there I was so scared of being late I couldn’t wait for a 5a and walked up. I took the short cut to Charleville Road through Fairfield Avenue. Well, you know how the houses on the N. side of the Avenue sort of lie back from the road with drives leading up to them. There was a car outside No. 6, not in the drive but close up to the fence in the road. I thought it was sort of peculiar to put a car there without any lights on or anything because of course it was getting dark and then I thought it looked sort of familiar so I went to look and it was his car. So if you want to know where he was that evening you can go and ask the lady at No. 6 and see what sort of answer you get. Only don’t expect me to give any evidence about it because I’m not saying anything or signing anything. This is just an annonimous letter with no names mentioned because I think you ought to know.

P.S. You can see over into Fairfield Avenue from the back of Charleville Road so when I got to M’s I went up to powder my nose in her bathroom and I took a peek out of the bathroom window and the car wasn’t there any more, so I must have only just caught it. I thought you ought to know this.

Trimble passed the letter over to Sergeant Tate with an air of triumph. The latter read it through slowly and in silence.

“Six, Fairfield Avenue!” he said, taking off his ancient spectacles and carefully putting them away. “But that’s Mr. Dixon’s house!”

“Also Mrs. Dixon’s,” observed Trimble.

“This man Ventry,” said the sergeant solemnly, “is no better than a satire, if you ask me.”

Trimble made no comment.

“It’s a pity the lady can’t be a bit more precise about the time,” Tate went on.

“Whatever the time was,” said the inspector, “it seems pretty clear that he left Fairfield Avenue in plenty of time to get to Eastbury Junction to meet the train.”

“That’s what bothers me. I don’t see how he could have, if he was on the bus.”

“If he was on the bus.”

“Well, the conductor seemed pretty sure of him.”

“I told you, I shall want to have a talk to that conductor myself.”

“Yes, sir, you did,” said Sergeant Tate in an absolutely expressionless voice. “Will you be wanting to interview Mr. Schlumberger also?”

“Mr. Who?”

“Mr. Schlumberger---the other clarinetist who was engaged for the concert.”

“Of course, I remember. We got his name and address from the list Mr. Dixon gave us. What about him?”

“There’s a report just come through from the Yard,” the sergeant said. “The Chief asked me to let you have it. I’ve got it here.”

“Let me see it,” said Trimble in the resigned voice of one who expects bad news.

The detective-sergeant who had been given the task of interviewing Mr. Schlumberger at his home at Herne Hill wasted no words.

“I interviewed the above-named man this morning, and showed him the copy photographs supplied,” his report ran. “He studied them carefully and then made the written statement enclosed.”

The enclosure was to this effect: “I am bad at remembering faces and I am not at all interested in strangers. I do not think I could recognize again the performer who sat next to me at this concert. The photographs produced do not seem to me to resemble the person in question. One of them reminds me rather of an old acquaintance of mine named Ventry, but it is not a very good likeness. Henrich Schlumberger.”

“No,” said Trimble. “No. I do not think I shall want to see Mr. Schlumberger.” He laid the report down. “Of course,” he said hopefully, “he may have been disguised. He must have been disguised---whoever he was. The man is bad at remembering faces, too, and not interested in strangers.”

“An old acquaintance of mine named Ventry,” the sergeant murmured.

“Clarkson could have pinched that car easily enough,” Trimble went on, frowning at the interruption. “That won’t do, though. He was at Charleville Road when his wife arrived, and it had gone by then. All right! Let’s suppose this Schlumberger person is correct and Ventry didn’t take the clarinet’s part. That doesn’t mean he didn’t drive to Didford and ditch the other fellow. It was too much of a risk for him to go on to the platform, so he got someone else . . . someone else . . .”

His voice trailed away. His fingers drummed nervously on the table before him. For the first time he looked completely at a loss---and entirely human. Sergeant Tate, who was a good-natured man, to his astonishment found himself actually feeling sorry for the fellow. He coughed in an embarrassed fashion, cleared his throat and, seeking for words of comfort, finally said: “I dare say that bus conductor was mistaken. We’ll see him again.”

The gesture was not lost on the inspector. A grateful smile flitted for a moment across his face, but his despondency remained.

“Yes, we’ll do that,” he said. “But even if he is wrong, that won’t take us much farther.”

“And then we’ll put it across Ventry good and proper,” Tate went on. (It was strange how easily the “we” of the old City Police days came to his lips again, and how naturally the inspector seemed to take it.) “He’s told too many lies. We could break him down easily now.”

“No,” said Trimble. “We don’t want to go back to Ventry yet. Not until we’re sure of our ground and can nail his lies to the counter. Before we tackle him I think a chat with Mrs. Dixon is indicated.” He rose to his feet. “The bus conductor first,” he said. “What’s his name?”


“Get on to the bus depot and find out when Barry will be available. Then we’ll tackle Mrs. Dixon. Then Ventry. Damn it, Tate, between the three of them we ought to be able to clear this case up somehow!”

There followed a day of maddening frustration. The omnibus company, after prolonged research, discovered that Barry was taking a week’s holiday. They supplied his home address where he lived with his parents. Tate went to the address in a back street behind the cathedral and found an empty house. After patiently waiting for half an hour he encountered Mrs. Barry returning from shopping, and learned from her that her son was “off for the day,” and that she did not expect to see him home till midnight. When pressed for his whereabouts she finally recollected that among his engagements was a Select Dance at the Masonic Hall that evening, where he was to act as Master of the Ceremonies. The sergeant had no better luck with Mrs. Dixon. She had gone to London for the day and would not be home before dinner.

Further work on the case was perforce postponed until the evening, and the rest of the day was occupied in clearing off accumulated arrears of routine work. At a little before nine the two detectives left the police headquarters together.

An extremely elegant young man with a superb handle-bar moustache was just announcing a Paul Jones as they pushed through the doors of the Masonic Hall. They advanced up the room through an inferno of noise, avoiding with difficulty the whirling circle which filled the dancing floor. The Master of the Ceremonies bore down upon them at once.

“This is a select dance, you know, chaps!” he said in a voice that somehow made itself heard above the din of the band and the stamping of feet. “Admission by ticket only.”

“We haven’t come here to dance!” Trimble shouted back.

At that moment the music mercifully switched to the comparatively soothing strains of a slow fox trot, and the two revolving circles of men and women split into couples. The young man looked blankly at Trimble and then at Tate.

“Good Lord, it’s the detective-type again!” he said. “What have I been up to now?”

“The inspector would like a word with you, Mr. Barry,” the sergeant explained.

Mr. Barry nodded briefly, and strode up to the platform at the end of the hall.

“Keep the Paul Jones going till I get back, Sammy,” he said to the band leader. “Shan’t be a minute.” Then he beckoned the detectives to follow him and led the way out of the hall. A corridor ran parallel with the side of the dance floor and here the three men established themselves in wickerwork armchairs. “We’re lucky,” Barry went on. “We’ve got the place to ourselves. A little later and it would be full of canoodling couples. By the way, you heard what I said to the band just now? Well, seven minutes is the extreme limit for a Paul Jones. Don’t ask me why, but it is. If it goes beyond that, there’ll be a riot. So make it snappy, won’t you?”

Trimble took the hint and wasted no time on preliminaries. “You made a statement to the sergeant here yesterday,” he said. “Just look through this copy to refresh your memory.”

Barry took the sheet of paper given him and glanced over it rapidly. “That seems right enough,” he said.

“Now look at this photograph again and tell me if you are sure---sure, mind, that it’s the same man.”

Barry studied the photograph and then turned a gaze of innocent inquiry on the inspector.

“Look, chaps,” he said. “Which is it you want me to say---he is or he isn’t? I’ve had to give evidence at a court martial in my R.A.F. days, and I know the way these lawyers can jigger you about. But if you tell me what’s wanted I can stick to it, either way. Only I must have the dope first. What’s it to be?”

“I want your honest opinion,” said the inspector.

“That’s a bit tough,” said Barry with a frown. “If I ever find myself giving my honest opinion in the witness box I shall be made to look an ass as sure as fate. I tell you, I’ve seen it done. Well, here goes!” He closed his eyes, as if plunging on some desperate gamble. “I’m pretty certain that was the blighter,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t mind having a friendly bet on it. But as to being dead sure---well, that’s another matter.”

Trimble persisted a little longer, but could get no more definite opinion from him, and presently the young man, glancing at his wrist watch, announced that the seven minutes allotted for the Paul Jones was nearly up.

“The fellows will be wanting to get back to their regular girls,” he explained. “A Paul Jones is all very well for livening things up at the start, but they didn’t pay for their tickets to see their girls dancing with other fellows. It’s time I called it off and announced a rumba.”

He moved off towards the dance hall. “You can get out that way,” he said, pointing down the corridor in which they had been sitting.

Sergeant Tate was about to move off in that direction, but the inspector restrained him. “I think we’ll come back to the hall for a moment,” he said.

“Just as you like, chaps,” the M.C. replied. “You won’t have much chance of partners, now the Paul Jones is over, but I’ll see if I can fix you up, if you like.”

Trimble declined the offer with thanks on his own behalf and Tate’s. The two officers followed Barry back into the hall. Just inside the door the inspector drew Tate into a corner, and looking towards the platform said, “Sergeant, do you see what I see up there?”

Tate looked in the same direction, and scrutinized each of the players in turn.

“Good Lord!” he said. “Isn’t that Whatsisname playing the thingmebob?”

“Zbartorowski playing the clarinet,” Trimble corrected him. “I spotted him as we came in.”

“Funny, that,” the sergeant said ruminatively. “He must have got hold of another one. He’d never have had time to get the old one mended. Would it be worth while having a word with him, do you think, sir?”

Trimble nodded in agreement.

With a look of resignation in his sorrowful brown eyes, Zbartorowski came from his place in the band at the inspector’s summons.

“So you’re playing again, I see,” said Trimble.

“If you can call this playing---yes,” the Pole replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Did you have your instrument repaired, then?”

“No.” Zbartorowski shuddered at what was obviously a painful memory. “No. I have now another.”

“Where did you get it from?”

“Mister---the fat man who plays the organ----”

“Ventry, do you mean?” the inspector put in sharply.

“That is the name---Ventry. He lend it to me till I can buy a new one.”

Trimble drew a deep breath. “The devil he did!” he murmured.

Zbartorowski looked more troubled than ever. “I was wrong to take it?” he said anxiously. “It is stolen, perhaps? I promise you, sir, I did not know----”

“No, no,” Trimble hastened to comfort him. “You’ve done nothing wrong---so far as I know. Only it happens that this particular instrument----”

“Just a minute, sir,” Tate put in. “It occurs to me, Ventry told us he had three of these things, all different. They had letters, I remember. The missing one was a B something or other.”

“B flat---yes,” Zbartorowski said. “That is the one I have here. These dance band parts, they are scored for the B flat. But it is not missing. Mr. Ventry lend it me and I did not think it was wrong to take it.”

“What I want to know,” said the inspector, “is how he came to let you have it. You don’t know him well, do you? You couldn’t even remember his name just now.”

“It is quite simple,” Zbartorowski explained. “Mr. and Mrs. Dixon came to dinner with Mrs. Roberts and I am in the kitchen to wash up. You know, Mrs. Roberts is always very kind to me and so she ask Mr. Dixon to come and speak to me because he can talk my language, and Mr. Dixon ask me what I am doing now and if I will play at the next concert, and I told him I can no more play because of---of what you know, and Mr. Dixon he say, ‘In that case I will find you a good clarinet because I know a man who has one he do not require,’ and so this morning he telephone me and say Mr. Ventry will give it me if I go to his house and I go there and he give it me. But it is a loan only, until the next orchestre concert---if Mr. Evans will let me play,” he concluded.


“And that appears to be that,” remarked Trimble as they left the dance hall. “We will get Dixon to verify that Polish fellow’s story, but it seems genuine enough. If it is, here’s one more poser for Master Ventry to answer. If his clarinet was missing on the night of the concert, how did he come to have it this morning?”

“He seemed surprised enough to find it gone when we were at his house,” Tate remarked.

“Then, at the least, it can only mean that he has since recovered it somehow and not said a word to us about it, which is suspicious in itself. First cars, and then clarinets,” said Trimble, with an unwonted touch of humour. “He’s a master at losing things and finding them again. Has it occurred to you,” he added, “that if anybody wanted to make it quite impossible to prove who played that instrument on the night of the concert he could hardly do better than do just what Ventry has done?”

Tate was not yet accustomed to the new relationship of confidence that had sprung up between himself and his superior. Surprise at being asked for his opinion made him a little slow in the uptake.

“Oh, ah, I see! Fingerprints!” he said at last.

“Exactly, fingerprints. Obviously, if that was the clarinet played at the concert it would be smothered with the prints of the player. If anyone wants to get rid of them, he can do one of two things---either wipe it clean, which will look suspicious when it comes to be examined, or, better still from his point of view, give it to somebody else to play on. One Paul Jones, and every print is obliterated by Zbartorowski’s. The instrument’s quite useless for our purposes now---that’s why I didn’t bother to take it away from him this evening.

“Let’s see how it works out,” he went on, as the pair trudged away from the Masonic Hall through the quiet streets of Markhampton. “Ventry ‘misses’ his clarinet on the night of the concert; in other words, he lends it to---X, let’s call him, to take Jenkinson’s place at the concert. Ventry himself, of course, does the job of meeting Jenkinson at the station and dumping him. Whether Ventry or X actually commits the murder I can’t make out at the moment. After it is done X returns the clarinet to Ventry, and he takes this means of making it useless for purposes of identification. Oh, I know,” he went on hurriedly as the sergeant drew breath to speak. “We haven’t a ghost of an idea who X is, and we don’t yet know of any motive Ventry could have for killing Miss Carless, and that damned man Barry would make a superb witness for the defence. Don’t tell me, sergeant, I know, I know!”

“I was only going to say, sir,” said Tate soberly, “that it seems to have been Mr. Dixon who was responsible for the idea of lending the clarinet to Zbartorowski.”

“Therefore, I suppose you would go on to say, Dixon must be X! When the one certain thing about this whole damned case is that he can’t play a note on any instrument!”

“I quite realize that, sir. I only mentioned it because it seemed a little odd. I had been turning over in my mind whether it might possibly be a case of Dixon and X, or Dixon and Ventry and X, or . . .”

The possibilities of the case stretched before them indefinitely, as endless and uninviting as the steep slope of Fairfield Avenue, which they were just then ascending.

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