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11: Evidence in the Attic

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Author Topic: 11: Evidence in the Attic  (Read 16 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 08:10:34 am »

PARTING from Inspector Gibaud at the steps of the Commissariat, Meredith and Strang set off briskly through the town en route for the Avenue St. Michel. It was still a little short of noon and the Inspector was determined to cross-question Latour without a moment’s delay.

“There’s just one thing, sir,” ventured Freddy as they swung into the Avenue de Verdun. “About this girl I met . . . this . . . er . . . Miss Westmacott.”

“Oh good lord, yes! I was forgetting, Sergeant. She’s Mrs. Hedderwick’s niece, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir,” gulped Freddy. “But Mrs. Hedderwick doesn’t know that I’ve met her. She might be a bit scratchy about it, if you follow. So . . . er . . . if you could sort of----”

Meredith broke in with a laugh.

“I see what you’re hinting at, but you can rely on my discretion. My ignorance, when necessary, can be positively abysmal, m’lad. It’s all a part of our training, eh?”

A saucy-eyed maid, whom Freddy recognized as the girl he’d seen feeding the kitten in the garage-yard, answered their ring. On learning that Meredith wished to have a word with Mrs. Hedderwick she ushered them into a small but exceedingly elegant little lounge on the right of the hall. It was furnished in the Chinese style, with exquisitely lacquered stools and tables, a couple of glass cabinets filled with porcelain figures, embroidered Chinese hangings in the narrow windows and, underfoot, a silky, lime-green Chinese carpet. The clean faint scent of sandalwood hung on the air. Meredith eyed the room appreciatively. There was nothing he would have enjoyed more than an uninterrupted potter around these collector’s pieces, but barely had he set off on a tour of inspection when the door opened and Nesta Hedderwick waddled in like some amiable, bright-plumaged duck. Meredith gave her a little bow.

“Mrs. Hedderwick?”

“That’s right,” nodded Nesta. “And who exactly . . . ?”

“I’m Inspector Meredith of Scotland Yard and this is my assistant, Sergeant Strang.”

Mrs. Hedderwick’s reaction to this simple if dramatic announcement took Meredith by surprise. He was accustomed to people, unexpectedly confronted by a member of the Force, displaying a certain understandable anxiety. After all the police were often the unwilling harbingers of bad news. But this was different. Mrs. Hedderwick’s smile went out like a snuffed candle and an expression of wild alarm took possession of her monumental features. She gasped out:

“Inspector Meredith! Scotland Yard! But why . . . ? What brings you here? I didn’t send for you.” Her big flabby face twitched nervously. “There must be some mistake. Who exactly do you wish to see?”

“We’ll come to that in a moment, Madam,” said Meredith with a reassuring smile. “But before we discuss the reason for my visit perhaps you’d care to see my credentials. You’re probably asking yourself what a member of the C.I.D. is doing down in Menton. But let me assure you, Mrs. Hedderwick, I’m acting in collaboration with the French police. I’m here, in fact, on their behalf.”

After a casual glance at the official document, Nesta burst out impatiently:

“Yes, yes---I don’t question your bona fides. But why should the police want to see me? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

“Not exactly wrong,” said Meredith, more than ever puzzled by the woman’s strange uneasiness and suspicion. “But acting on information that we’ve recently----”

With a spasmodic gesture Nesta stumbled forward, gripped the Inspector by the arm and broke in hoarsely: “It’s Tony, isn’t it? Why can’t you put me out of this damned suspense? It’s Tony Shenton! It is, isn’t it?”

“Tony Shenton?” Meredith shook his head. “I’ve never heard of the gentleman. What made you think we’d come to see Mr. Shenton?”

The transfiguration was little short of miraculous. A flood of relief swept over those raddled but good-natured features. Her grip on the Inspector’s arm relaxed.

“You mean it’s nothing to do with Tony?” gulped Nesta gratefully. “Oh, thank God for that! I thought perhaps it . . . it might have been an accident. He’s such a reckless fool in a car. I’m always twitting the wretch about it.” Nesta, now rapidly regaining control of her feelings, flashed the Inspector a shamefaced smile. “You must excuse my stupidity, officer. So ridiculous of me to fuss over the boy, but I can’t help it. Now do please sit down and tell me how I can help you.”

“I understand, Mrs. Hedderwick,” said Meredith as he dropped into a nearby armchair, “that you’ve a gentleman living here by the name of Latour.”

“That’s quite right,” nodded Nesta. “Paul Latour. I’ve allowed him to use one of the upper rooms as a studio. He’s an artist.”

“So I believe,” said Meredith drily. “How long has he been staying here?”

“Oh, about six months. I can’t say for certain.”

“And you met him---how?”

“Through Colonel Malloy, an old friend of mine. He brought Paul over to dinner one evening.”

Meredith glanced up from the notebook which he’d already flipped open on his knee and demanded in surprised tones:

“You mean Colonel Malloy at Beaulieu?”

“Yes---such a darling old bore. He and his wife drive over here for bridge every Friday. Don’t tell me you know him!”

Meredith said glibly:

“Oh, just a nodding acquaintance---nothing more. If I remember rightly he owns a Rolls Royce, with a Russian chauffeur to drive it, eh, Mrs. Hedderwick?”

“Yes---an odd creature by the name of Nikolai Bourmin.”

“Now you may consider this question irrelevant, but I want you to think carefully before you answer it. Has it ever struck you that this Mr. Latour was . . . well, how shall I put it? . . . on intimate terms with Bourmin?”

“Well, if he was,” retorted Nesta, “I’ve certainly never noticed it. Bourmin always sits with the servants on our bridge evenings. Naturally, if Paul made contact with him then I shouldn’t know anything about it. You must see that. But why should he want to? What on earth could they have in common?”

Nodding his appreciation of this point, Meredith shut his notebook with a snap, stowed it away in his pocket and got to his feet. Looking Nesta squarely in the face he rapped out:

“Mrs. Hedderwick, would it surprise you to know that for the last six months this protégé of yours has been living here under false pretences?”

“False pretences!” cried Nesta bewildered. “What exactly do you mean?”

In a few terse sentences Meredith set out the information they’d gleaned that morning from Jacques Dufil, omitting only that part of the hunchback’s evidence that dealt with the counterfeit notes. During his explanation his eyes never left the woman’s face, but what he read there reassured him of the sincerity of her reactions---an expression of blank incredulity that slowly gave way to a mounting tide of anger. Whatever the reason for Latour’s long-standing deception, it was certain that Mrs. Hedderwick had no inkling of the underhand trick he’d played on her. With a congested look, she heaved herself up from her chair and stood there, gasping and quivering, like a trout out of water, speechless with indignation. The instant Meredith concluded his explanation, however, she burst out:

“Oh, the vile ungrateful hypocrite! How dare he! To trade on my generosity, my good-nature. It’s unforgivable! But why did he do it? Can you tell me that, Inspector? What was the point of it?”

“We suspect there may be some criminal reason for his actions. I don’t say it is so. But that’s what I’ve come here to find out.”

“You want to question the wretch---is that it?” Meredith nodded. “Very well,” went on Nesta with a vindictive gleam in her eye. “I’ll get somebody to show you up to his studio at once. I’d come myself, but all those stairs on top of this upset . . . I just couldn’t face it.” With a series of elephantine thuds she stumped to the door. “Excuse me, Inspector. My niece is out on the terrace. I’ll ask her to escort you.”

---

To Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang that brief hiatus in the unfolding drama of their visit was little short of purgatory. From the instant he’d set foot inside the Villa Paloma he’d been half-dreading and half-hoping that, during the course of their investigation, he’d come face to face with Dilys Westmacott.

And now, thanks to Mrs. Hedderwick’s reluctance to negotiate the stairs up to the attic, such an encounter was about to take place. In the light of what had transpired at their last meeting, Freddy had already decided on the attitude he’d adopt towards Miss Westmacott---a certain professional reticence subtly combined with a suggestion of injured innocence.

He could imagine her surprise and confusion when she learnt the true nature of his calling. Sergeant Strang of the C.I.D., eh? That was the sort of title to go over big with a charming girl like Miss Westmacott. She was going to feel pretty foolish when she thought of her previous unworthy suspicions; her high-handed rejection of his perfectly innocent advances. But now he’d got the poor kid at a disadvantage he was quite prepared to be magnanimous. Oh yes, he’d let her see at once that he wasn’t the sort of chap to harbour vindictiveness. If she cared to apologize . . . well, that was O.K. by him. Bad show to rake up the past and throw it, so to speak, in her teeth.

But the moment Dilys Westmacott, sponsored by an agitated Aunt Nesta, appeared in the Chinese room, the whole fabric of Freddy’s strategy went up in smoke. A proper professional reticence be damned! How could a fellow gaze into Dilys’ wide blue eyes and retain that air of detachment and solid common-sense appropriate to a member of the Force? And this was the girl he thought to have at a disadvantage---this lovely creature whose very presence turned him into something akin to a goggling, tongue-tied moron! With a valiant effort Freddy tried to get a grip on his emotions; to arrest the slow, unspeakable blush that so shamefully suffused his features.

He registered her start of surprise, her momentary recoil, as Mrs. Hedderwick boomed forth a hasty introduction.

“This is my niece---Miss Westmacott. Inspector Meredith and Sergeant Strang, darling, of the C.I.D. Now don’t keep them waiting, dear. Off you go! And don’t fail to let me know, officer, just what that despicable wretch has to say for himself. Provided,” added Nesta with an indignant snort, “he has anything to say! You’ll find me on the terrace.”

Ignoring Freddy entirely, Dilys led the way up the wide curving staircase, along a spacious landing, and up a narrower, gloomier set of stairs that mounted to an equally narrow and gloomy passageway. About half-way down the passage was a bright yellow door before which Dilys came to a halt.

“This is the studio, Inspector, but I expect Mr. Latour’s still asleep.”

“Asleep!” exclaimed Meredith. “At this hour of the morning?”

“Oh, he hardly ever gets up before lunch. But then he never goes to bed until the small hours.” Dilys laughed. “Heaven alone knows where he sneaks off to at night. I mean you don’t usually paint pictures in the dark, do you? It’s always puzzled me.”

Meredith thought to himself:

“Out all night, eh? A pretty suggestive factor in the circumstances.” Aloud he said: “O.K., Miss Westmacott. We’ll give him a knock-up. He won’t relish being yanked out of his beauty sleep, but time’s a commodity I’m not prepared to waste.”

Dilys asked tactfully:

“Would you rather I faded out? I mean, perhaps, you’d----?”

“No. I’d like you to hang on a minute, if you don’t mind, young lady.”

Lifting his hand Meredith rapped sharply on the door, paused for a moment, listened, then rapped again. No answer. He called impatiently: “M’sieur Latour, open up, will you? It’s the police.” All remained dead quiet inside the room---not even the rustle of bedclothes or a creaking of springs. Meredith glanced meaningly at Strang, then, turning the handle and finding the door unlocked, he entered the studio.

The place was in chaos. Drawers and cupboards gaped open, papers lay scattered about the floor, the bed was unmade. On the dressing-table stood an empty brandy bottle, a broken glass, a half-filled packet of Gauloises cigarettes. A single comprehensive glance told Meredith all he wanted to know. There was no dodging the evidence. For some reason, Paul Latour had snatched up his personal impedimenta, rammed it in a suitcase and cleared out of the Villa Paloma!

With a sour expression the Inspector turned to the bewildered couple peering over his shoulder.

“Too late, confound it! The bird’s flown. And, if I’m not very much mistaken, Miss Westmacott, neither you nor your aunt are likely to set eyes on the fellow again.”

“But . . . but why?” stammered Dilys. “Why should he leave in such a hurry?”

“I’ve my own ideas about that, young lady, but at the moment I’d rather not discuss ’em. Tell me, when did you last see Latour?”

“Last night at dinner,” said Dilys, adding after a moment’s swift reflection: “No, wait! He didn’t come in to dinner. I remember my aunt was rather riled about it. When I come to think of it I don’t believe I’ve seen him since Saturday evening.”

“The night before last, eh?” Meredith whistled and turned to his assistant. “I want you to interrogate everybody in the house about this particular point, Sergeant. Understand? I’m going to make a thorough search of this room. I’ve no doubt Miss Westmacott will show you around the place and put you in touch with the various members of the household---also be kind enough to act as interpreter where the domestics are concerned.”

“Yes, of course, Inspector.”

“Oh, and Sergeant,” added Meredith as the couple made to move off along the passage, “find out from the staff if Latour was in the habit of making contact with our friend Bourmin on Friday nights. That’s the night when the Colonel and his wife come over here for bridge.”

“Very good,” gulped Freddy. “Is that all, sir?”

Meredith shot him a swift, sly glance and winked.

“As far as I’m concerned---yes, Sergeant. But if anything else occurs to you . . . well, use your own initiative. Private enterprise, eh?” Meredith winked again. “See how I mean?”

“Yes, sir,” said Freddy, for the second time that morning flushing to the roots of his hair. “I think I get the . . . er . . . general idea.”

---

“Well,” murmured Dilys, coming to an ominous stop on the first-floor landing, “I must say this is a bit of a shock. You might have warned me that you were coming.”

“But I didn’t know myself until about an hour ago,” protested Freddy. “Honestly, Miss Westmacott, I didn’t mean to kid you about all this. Just couldn’t help myself. I mean to say, I’d had strict orders to preserve my incognito. So of course...”

“But Mr. John Smith!” exclaimed Dilys with a censorious shake of her head. “You might have thought up a better one than that.”

“Yes, it was a trifle unenterprising,” admitted Freddy ruefully. “But now you know who I really am and why I couldn’t come clean about it when we first met . . . ”

“Well, it naturally makes a difference.”

“Good!” said Freddy. “I hoped perhaps it would.”

“I suppose I ought to apologize for being so absurdly suspicious?”

“Apologize!” cried Freddy in shocked tones. “What on earth for? It wasn’t your fault. Good heavens---no! I’m the one who ought to apologize.”

“But why? I quite see now that you couldn’t help acting as you did.”

“Yes---but to lead a girl up the garden path, just when we seemed to be . . . be . . .”

“When we seemed to be . . . what?” asked Dilys with a mocking, utterly demoralizing glance.

“Well, you know,” floundered Freddy. “Sort of getting together and . . . well, making a pass at each---- No, dammit! I don’t mean that exactly. I mean . . .” He gazed at her appealingly. “Oh lord! Can’t you give me a bit of a leg up, Miss Westmacott?”

“I might,” she smiled. “If you could possibly bring yourself to call me Dilys.”

With an impetuous whoop, utterly forgetful of his surroundings and that professional reticence proper to a policeman in the execution of his duty, Freddy fumbled for her hand and squeezed it warmly.

“Heck! That would come easy, if you really meant it, Miss Westmacott. It’s ‘Dilys’ from now on. And in case you didn’t know, I’m Freddy. Ridiculous sort of moniker, I admit, but----”

“One better than John Smith,” said Dilys with a teasing look; adding on a more practical note as she gently freed her hand: “Now we really must be sensible. The Inspector will be absolutely furious if you----”

“Back on the beat, eh?” growled Freddy. “O.K. But before we break up the party there’s just one suggestion that occurs to me.”

“And that?”

“Why shouldn’t we have another stab at getting together on the Casino terrace---say, twelve o’clock tomorrow, eh?”

“Twelve o’clock tomorrow!” echoed Dilys.

Freddy nodded emphatically.

“Is it a bet?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“The lord be praised!” said Freddy, ostentatiously mopping his brow with an invisible handkerchief. “And now, having cleared up this little misunderstanding, what about showing me round the domestic quarters? Quite an experience to see a pukka C.I.D. wallah in action!” Freddy cleared his throat and with a passable imitation of his superior’s finest official manner, rapped out: “Now tell me, young lady, when did you last see that blighter, Dillon? I want you to think carefully, because if he’s been getting fresh with you----!”

But Dilys, fearful that her aunt might suddenly appear from the terrace, was already half-way down the stairs.

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