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17: The Truth About Ventry

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Author Topic: 17: The Truth About Ventry  (Read 3 times)
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« on: March 21, 2023, 07:24:36 am »

THE Dixons were proud in the possession of a resident maid---a stiff-jointed, sour-faced creature with unaccommodating manners, but a resident maid none the less. It was she who opened the door to the detectives, admitted that Mrs. Dixon was in, and showed them into what was evidently Dixon’s study, ordering them, rather than asking them, to wait. Within a minute or less the door opened and Dixon himself came into the room.

“You wished to see me, I understand?” he said.

“I am afraid your servant must have made a mistake,” replied Trimble. “Actually, it was Mrs. Dixon we asked for.”

“My wife? I don’t understand. What conceivable interest can you have in my wife?”

“I should prefer to explain that to her personally.”

Dixon and Trimble were much of a size. They faced each other across the little room with wary, appraising eyes, like two lightweight boxers just entering the ring. Dixon was pale, his chin thrust out aggressively, his hands buried in his coat pockets. It was obvious that he was prepared to take offence at the least provocation, and equally obvious from which direction he looked for the offence.

“You will not explain anything to my wife,” he said sharply, “except in my presence.”

It was the third time that Dixon had used the expression “my wife,” Trimble noticed. Each time it had been spoken with an unmistakable emphasis that had grown sharper at every repetition. Obviously a possessive type of husband, he thought. Possessive---and nervous. It was not a very happy combination of qualities, considering the nature of the inquiry on which he was now engaged. He had the disagreeable feeling that what he was about to do that evening might well result in personal disaster to two quite innocent people, without really advancing the investigation an inch. But it had to be done. He had chosen to become a detective, and it was too late in the day to complain that the trade was sometimes incompatible with gentlemanly behaviour.

“Of course, Mr. Dixon,” he said, “you are entitled to be present when Mrs. Dixon is interviewed, if you so desire. It is entirely a matter for you---and for her.”

“My wife’s wishes will be the same as mine in this respect,” said Dixon sharply and rather jerkily. “I repeat, I cannot imagine what possible interest you should have in seeing her---but I suppose that you are still concerned with the death of Mrs. Sefton---as you were on the last occasion that I saw you---when I gave you all the help I could---as I always shall.”

“The matter arises out of that case---yes, sir. We believe that Mrs. Dixon may be in a position to help us.”

Dixon shrugged his shoulders, and was apparently about to make some angry retort. He evidently thought better of it, however, for he spun round on his heel, and muttering, “Very well, I’ll fetch her,” made for the door.

Before he could leave the room the inspector, prompted by Sergeant Tate, spoke again.

“One moment, sir,” he said. “You said just now that you were ready to assist us. Well, there is one small matter on which I should like your help, and as it does not affect Mrs. Dixon in any way perhaps we could deal with it straightaway.”

“By all means. What is it?” It was noteworthy that now the matter concerned himself, and not his wife, Dixon was perfectly at ease.

“We have just been interviewing a man named Zbartorowski. I think you know him.”

“Mrs. Roberts foisted him on to the orchestra and I vetted him on Evans’s behalf. That is the extent of my knowledge of him. Why?”

“He tells us that you procured the loan of a clarinet for him from Mr. Ventry. Is that so?”

“Perfectly correct. He had broken his instrument in a fit of drunkenness and asked me where he could find another. I knew Ventry had one which he did not use, and promised to mention the matter to him. Why not?”

“Were you aware that Mr. Ventry’s clarinet was missing on the night of the concert?”

“Obviously I should not have asked Ventry to lend an instrument if I had thought it was missing. Is that all?”

“That is all, sir, thank you.”

Dixon went out and returned almost immediately with Nicola.

“My wife has had a long and tiring day,” he announced. “I must therefore ask you to be as brief as possible.”

He led her to the one comfortable armchair which the room contained, settled her in it, and remained standing behind its back, as though to protect her from assault.

Whether because she was tired or not, Nicola Dixon was paler than usual. Her head drooped, so that as she sat in the low chair there was little that the detectives could see of her except a mass of auburn hair.

“Mrs. Dixon,” Trimble began, “my colleague and I, as you are aware, are inquiring into the death of Lucy Carless on the occasion of the recent concert at the City Hall. For that purpose we are anxious to check, as far as possible, the movements of various individuals on that evening.”

“My wife,” put in Dixon from behind the chair, “was at home the whole of that evening up to the time of the concert itself.”

“Excuse me, sir,” said the inspector firmly. “I raised no objection to your being present at this interview, but I must ask you not to interfere. I require Mrs. Dixon’s answers to my questions, and not yours.”

Nicola raised her head for a moment.

“What does it matter?” she said in her rich, languorous tones. “It’s perfectly true. I was in the whole afternoon and evening, right down to the time I left to go to the concert---and I only got there in time by the skin of my teeth. Mr. Pettigrew will tell you about that---he sat next me in the Hall. You can ask the man who helped me park my car, too, if you like. I expect he’ll remember it, because I gave him half a crown. Hadn’t got anything smaller,” she explained.

“Make and number of the car?” Sergeant Tate asked automatically.

“It’s a Collingwood Twelve. I haven’t the least idea of the number---I’ve no head for figures.”

“ZQM 592,” Dixon interposed.

“Thank you.”

“The point on which I particularly require your assistance, Mrs. Dixon,” the inspector pursued, “is this: During the afternoon and evening, when, as you say, you were in, was anybody else with you in the house?”

Dixon drew in his breath with an audible hiss, and his hands gripped the back of the chair until the skin whitened round the knuckles, but Nicola herself showed no sign of emotion.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said in the same lazy, low-pitched voice. “It was the maid’s day out, I know that, because I had to get tea for myself.”

“You are quite sure, Mrs. Dixon?” The inspector’s eyes for a moment strayed towards Dixon’s mask-like face behind the chair, and his heart smote him. But duty was duty, and he steeled himself to go on. “I must ask you to be careful about this, because we have reason to believe otherwise.”

Still Dixon said nothing. He was breathing hard, and staring down at the back of Nicola’s head as though fascinated.

“I don’t quite know what you mean.” Her voice was as deliberate as ever, but not quite so level in tone.

“A car which was not yours was seen outside this house between the hours of six and seven on the evening in question. I have reason to believe that it belonged to one of the persons whose movements I am endeavouring to trace. It was a Hancock car and the number was----”

“Ventry, by God!” The words came from Dixon’s lips with the force of an explosion. At the sound Nicola turned in her chair and looked up into his face. The detectives were unable to see her expression, but his was a study in concentrated fury.

“Mr. Dixon!” Trimble implored him. “I asked you just now----”

“Be quiet, you fool!” was the contemptuous reply. “I can handle this. How long was he here?” he demanded of the woman, crouched in an appealing attitude, her face within a few inches of his own. “He left the rehearsal early---he never turned up to play at the concert. What were you doing here all that time, the pair of you?”

Nicola made no reply. Slowly she drew away from the distorted angry countenance confronting her. Then she stood up and deliberately turned to face the inspector.

“What do you want to know?” she said, with a faint but purposeful stress on the word “you.”

“I want to know particularly what time Mr. Ventry left this house.”

Nicola was looking at the floor, her foot tracing patterns on the carpet. “I don’t know exactly,” she muttered. “My clock was all to hell---about twenty minutes wrong---that was what made me late at the concert----”

“Your bedroom clock, you slut!” came the furious comment from behind her. Nicola made no reply. She did not even turn her head, but remained standing, beautiful and forlorn, in the middle of the room.

Trimble steeled himself to go on.

“If you only left just in time to get to the concert before it began,” he said, “it should be fairly easy to calculate when that was. Did Mr. Ventry leave at the same time?”

“No---he didn’t leave with me---of course not---he had his own car,” she faltered.

“But did you leave the house together?”

“Yes---no---I can’t remember---I---”

“It is important that you should remember, Mrs. Dixon.”

Nicola gulped twice and then said faintly, “He left first, I remember that.”

“How long before you did?”

“Some time before, I don’t know exactly. I----” As she spoke her legs appeared to give way beneath her and she would have fallen if Dixon had not come forward and caught her. By the time that he had helped her back to her chair she was in a state of collapse. Deliberately he turned his back on her and faced the inspector.

“My wife is in a delicate state of health,” he said in the hard voice of a man under intense strain. “I do not propose to allow her to answer any further questions. I may have some of my own to put to her later, but that is my affair. Please be good enough to leave us now.”

It was when the two detectives had nearly reached police headquarters that Sergeant Tate uttered his first comment on the scene which they had just witnessed.

“I never knew there was so many jealous husbands about,” he said. “Do you realize, sir, that makes the third we’ve had to deal with in this case alone? Sefton, Clarkson, and now Mr. Dixon. It’s really surprising, when you come to think of it. Of course,” he added reflectively, “in a way it’s a compliment to the ladies, I suppose.”

“If I were to say what I think of Mrs. Dixon it would be anything but a compliment,” said Trimble austerely.


When the inspector entered his office next morning he was greeted by an unexpected piece of news.

“Mr. Ventry has just been on the telephone asking for you,” the sergeant on duty told him.

“What did he say?”

“He just wanted to know if it would be convenient for him to call and see you at half-past ten about the Carless case, sir. I told him that it would.”

“You were quite right,” said Trimble, and sat down to digest this new development. It was the first time, he reflected, since the case began, that anybody had offered to come forward and assist the police. It was somewhat ironical that the person to do so should be the very man who was next on his list for questioning, and some very awkward questioning, too. It was all to the good, inasmuch as it would save him a journey out to the other end of the town and he felt that he would be in a better position to extract the truth from this elusive customer on his own ground, in the clean air of police headquarters, than in the cigar-laden atmosphere of Ventry’s music room.

But Ventry had a way of bringing his own atmosphere with him, and the scent of a rich Havana preceded him up the narrow stairs that led to Trimble’s office. The inspector sniffed in disgust and Sergeant Tate, who did not share his superior’s dislike of tobacco, in envy, as the patrician aroma reached their nostrils.

“Morning, Inspector,” said Ventry, when he appeared, panting slightly. “Your stairs are bloody steep for a man in my condition. I know---don’t tell me---smoking’s bad for the wind, but you can’t have everything. Look, I won’t keep you long, but I thought you ought to see this. I should have given it you sooner, but I had to go to London yesterday, and I thought it would keep.”

“This” proved to be a cardboard box, about eighteen inches long, six inches wide and as many deep, empty save for paper packing; a sheet of brown paper addressed to Ventry and bearing ten pennyworth of canceled stamps; and a length of stout string.

“It came by the afternoon post the day before yesterday,” Ventry explained. “No letter or anything with it. And inside was----”

“Your B flat clarinet,” Trimble could not resist interrupting.

“That was a jolly good guess,” said Ventry in naďve admiration. “Anyhow, I thought this might be a help to you if you wanted to trace the chap who took it, so I----”

“It might have been even more help if you had brought us the clarinet as well as the packing, Mr. Ventry, instead of getting rid of it again immediately.”

“Getting rid of it? I haven’t. You can have the thing today if you really want to see it.”

Trimble began to lose patience.

“I have already seen your instrument,” he said. “It was then in the hands of another person to whom you had chosen to lend it, and for that reason was quite useless to me.”

“Lord! You fellows know everything! How the devil did you get on to that? I only gave it to the man yesterday.”

“That is neither here nor there, Mr. Ventry. Please let us stick to the point. A man of your intelligence must have understood that as soon as you realized what the parcel contained the proper thing to do was to take it to the police in exactly the condition in which it reached you.”

Ventry nodded his head sagely, took his cigar from his mouth and knocked a generous supply of ash on to the floor.

“I know,” he said, with the air of a proud schoolboy giving the correct answer. “Fingerprints.”

“Well? And what is your explanation?”

“I’m afraid I made a bit of an ass of myself over that,” said Ventry with unabashed geniality. “You see, it was just the fingerprint question that worried me. I knew if I brought you the thing down you’d find it simply stuck all over with fingerprints and all of them mine. And as one way and another I seem to be in a bit of a spot over this business, I just couldn’t face it. You see, what happened was this---I opened the parcel, just as you might open any other parcel, thinking of nothing in particular, and as soon as I got down among the paper stuff inside there was the old B flat. Well, you may think me a fool, but I’m a collector. I collect musical instruments and I like musical instruments, just as some people do watches or clocks or china dogs, so naturally the first thing I did was to fish it out and stick it together and go over it thoroughly, to make sure it wasn’t damaged in any way. Of course, I know as well as you do that the proper thing to do was to pick it up with a pair of tongs and bring it down here to be tested or dusted or whatever the chaps do in books, but my mind simply wasn’t working that way. I wasn’t thinking of it as Exhibit A at somebody’s trial, but as a damned good piece of craftsmanship which might have got knocked about after travelling through the post in a flimsy box like that.”

He looked regretfully at the diminished stub of his cigar and threw it into the empty fireplace.

“Well,” he continued, “it looked all right. There were one or two scratches on the polish of the wood, but none of the keys were damaged so far as I could see. But after all, there’s only one way to tell if an instrument is in good order, and that is to see if it sounds right. There was a clean reed fitted to the mouthpiece---there’s a clue for you, if you like---a perfectly good, clean reed---so I tried it over. It must be years since I played a clarinet, and I made some horrid squeaks at first, but it’s astonishing how quickly a thing like that comes back, and in next to no time I was playing a silly little Vivaldi Gigue my father used to make me do every day by way of fingering practice. Sheer force of habit, I give you my word! As soon as I’d finished I realized what an ass I’d been, and I went all hot and cold when I thought of those damned fingerprints. I decided to put it away and sleep on it. When next day Dixon rang me up and asked me if I had an instrument to lend to that Polish blighter it seemed to me an easy way out. He could put his prints on top of mine, I thought. Sorry if I’ve destroyed a valuable clue and all that, but at least I had the sense to keep the paper and string.”

Whatever Trimble’s opinion of the story, he kept it to himself. Instead, he picked up the sheet of brown paper and examined it closely.

“This doesn’t look as if it would be particularly helpful,” he remarked.

“No, it doesn’t,” Ventry agreed. “Block letters for the address, very thick writing. Looks to me as if it had been done with a matchstick dipped in ink instead of a pen. Postmark, Markhampton Central. The box is homemade, I should say. It might have been cut down from----”

“All these things will be examined in due course,” said the inspector curtly, putting the bundle of paper and cardboard to one side.

“Sorry I butted in. Not my business, I know. Well, there it is.” He rose. “Anything I can do to help you fellows----”

“Yes, there is. Please sit down again, Mr. Ventry. I have another question altogether to ask you. How did you go to the City Hall on the night of the concert?”

“Oh, but I’ve told you that one already. By bus.”

“Which bus?”

Ventry stared at the inspector for a moment without speaking, and then a slow grin spread across his face.

“Oh, Lord!” he said. “Has somebody been talking?”

“I asked you, sir, which bus?”

“This is where my reputation goes below zero,” said Ventry in a resigned voice. “It was a 5a.”

Sergeant Tate, sitting in his corner, could not suppress a gasp of satisfaction.

“A 5a,” Ventry repeated, turning towards him. “And more by token, the conductor had one of those wild Battle of Britain moustaches. I’d know him again anywhere. I only hope he’d know me. I’m afraid you’ll want to have anything I say checked up, after all the trouble I’ve given you,” he explained.

“Then you did not go to the concert direct from your house?”

“I did not. I never went near my house from the time I left the rehearsal till the concert came to its sticky end.”

“Your car was stolen----”

“Oh, my car was stolen all right. That was the trouble.”

“Your car was stolen,” the inspector repeated, “not from your house but from outside No. 6 Fairfield Avenue.”

“It was. You’ve got the whole thing taped, Inspector, and I’ve been lying like a trooper about it---all for the love of a lady. Who says the age of chivalry is dead?”

“I think, Mr. Ventry,” said Trimble coldly, “that it is about time we heard the truth from you.”

“Right-oh!” said Ventry cheerfully. “Though I think you’ve found out pretty nearly all of it off your own bat. You see, I’ve been making passes at Nicola Dixon for quite a time now, and just lately she’s been responding more than a little. From something I overheard at the rehearsal I knew that the coast would be clear the rest of the evening so far as that codfish of a husband of hers was concerned, so I decided to try my luck. I rang her up, and she was in. I drove up to her house, and everything went according to plan. We had a few drinks, we had a bite of supper, we had some fun and games, and then, a bit late in the day, we found out that her clock was twenty minutes slow.”

“Her bedroom clock?”

“Saving your presence, it was her bedroom clock. That was a bit of a shock, knowing what a stickler Evans is for starting his shows on the dot, but there was just time still, and I was pretty sure I could make it comfortably in the car. The real shock came later. Nicola’s car was in the drive and she got in first. Mine was in the road, tucked away against the hedge so as not to be too conspicuous. At least, that’s where it had been. When I got there, it wasn’t. I shouted to stop Nicola---she was only just out of the drive---but she was in low gear and couldn’t have heard me. So there I was, planted. And the rest of my story,” he concluded with simple pride, “is perfectly true.”

“Thank you,” said Trimble. He sat silent for a moment and then went on, “I won’t ask you, sir, why you have chosen to conceal the truth until now, because the reason is as obvious as it is disreputable.”

“I am a damned disreputable fellow,” Ventry agreed cheerfully. “By the way, does Dixon know about this?”

“He does, sir. You will have to face the consequences of that.”

“Oh, consequences! One thing I can be sure of. He’ll never divorce Nicola on my account!”

With this enigmatic observation the interview terminated.

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