Case for Three Detectives
I was at this point that the ‘cold buffet’ promised to us by the competent Miss Storey was produced. Stall wheeled in two butler’s trolleys, and supplied us with food as urbanely as if he had never thought of shouting back his indignant denials a few minutes earlier. His manner was once more impeccable—such a word as blackmail might never have assailed his lobeless ears.
The food, too, was excellent. I remember eating three lobster patties with as much gusto as if poor Mary Thurston herself had been there to press me to another. And with them I had a drink of which I am extremely fond, though gourmets tell me that it should not be thought of at a time when one is eating—a stiff whisky in a large tumbler, filled to the brim with soda-water.
I could see Lord Simon shuddering at this. “My dear old boy,” he could not help saying, “that’s death, you know. Absolutely bally death.”
“It’s never done me any harm,” I grinned. I had realized that I was expected to be something of a fool—to catch the last finesse in an investigator’s work one had best be that.
“And I suppose you’ll smoke a cigar on top of it?” he breathed, as though it hurt him.
“I’ve every intention of doing so.”
“Then God help your stomach. What do you think of the case—so far?”
My conclusions, it must be owned, were at this point a trifle confused. And when under Lord Simon’s kindly glance I tried to express them, they really did not sound very helpful. I was sure enough on one point—that Stall knew more than he had admitted. Otherwise, why had he lied about the time at which he received the money? On Thursday, he had said, but a few grams of his snuff were still on the dressing-table when we examined it. The dressing-table had a glass top. In a house as well cleaned as this one, it would have been impossible for it to have escaped Enid’s duster on Friday morning. But why should Stall have lied? Surely he could not have committed the murder, for he had been outside that locked door almost as soon as we were. But then, so had everyone else.
At this point I saw a faint smile stretch the aristocratic lips above the Jack Hulbert chin.
“Everyone?” said Lord Simon.
“Well, everyone except the Vicar and the new suspect, Miles. On the whole, I think it is probably one of those two, though I don’t see how it can have been the Vicar, or where was he when we broke into the room? And however clever a cat-burglar Miles was, how could he have climbed in or out of that window? And if he by any means used one of those ropes to get in at the window above, how had he escaped notice, and got out of the hotel after ten-thirty? Besides, what motive could he have?
“Confusin’, isn’t it?” said Lord Simon.
I plunged on. I wondered about the cook. She was a determined sort of a woman, evidently with strong prejudices. And she had no alibi at the time of the murder. Or Norris. What about Norris? No one had seemed to pay much attention to him. He was on the scene pretty quickly. But then—that might be in his favour. After all, he couldn’t have come through the door, and he hadn’t had time to come round. Or Strickland? He slept next door. That was suspicious, surely. But he had come out of his room within so short a time. And there was no ledge along which he could have climbed. Then there was Fellowes. A violent sort of a chap, and as it appeared now, a bit of a Don Juan. An affair with Enid, and something of the sort with Mary Thurston.
“In fact,” said Lord Simon, “you suspect everyone?”
“Well, that’s what it seems like. Though I don’t see how any of them could have done it, really.”
“What about that stepson?”
“Oh yes,” I returned ingenuously, “I was forgetting that. Well, there again, there are several possibilities. I thought at first it was Strickland. But I’m not so sure now. Why shouldn’t it be Norris? Or Fellowes? Or Miles?”
“Or even you,” said Lord Simon quietly.
“Well, it doesn’t happen to be me,” I returned, not caring much for the remark, “but I see what you mean, of course.”
“At any rate, you find it all pretty puzzlin’, what?”
“Of course I do. Don’t you?”
“I have my moments of lucidity,” said Lord Simon, “but there’s a lot of information I’m hankerin’ after still.” He turned aside. “By the way, Beef!” he called across the room.
The Sergeant’s mouth was full of rabbit-pie, but he made some answering sound.
“Have you looked up the record of our next witness— Fellowes, the chauffeur?”
The Sergeant swallowed so violently that his throat seemed to distend like a chicken’s. “Record?” he said. “What record?”
“The criminal record, of course;” said Lord Simon, who seemed to enjoy discomfiting the Sergeant.
“Didn’t know ’e ’ad one,” said the latter sulkily.
“There! It’s a good thing I have Butterfield with me. He was able to discover that Fellowes did a stretch of eighteen months in prison four years ago, for burglary. Violent sort of business, I gather.”
“Can’t know everything,” mumbled Sergeant Beef. “And it ’asn’t got nothink to do with the case, anyway,” he added.
Lord Simon shrugged. “Beef of the evening, beautiful Beef,” he murmured.
I moved across to M. Picon. The little man was munching happily, and quite elated. I could not remember him enjoying a meal before this, and was delighted to see the colour rising to his bovine cheeks.
“Whatever else that Mademoiselle Storey may be,” he said, “she is an artiste.”
I hesitated to explain that with that term in our mixed language he had accused her of activities on the music-hall stage, and nodded appreciatively.
“Are you beginning to get the hang of this affair?” I asked.
“Get the hang?” He laughed outright. “That is a good phrase! But it is not Papa Picon who will ‘get the hang’. Pas du tout!”
“I mean, do you understand it yet?”
“I will tell you. I see more light. But what is that? A mote. A black spot. All is not unclouded. But allons, mon ami. All in good time. I, Amer Picon, have said so. And, presently, you will say—‘Ah, why have I not seen that?’”
“That’s good. But tell me, Monsieur Picon, what did you mean by asking Stall where the screams came from? I thought that was such an extraordinary question.”
“An idea, no more. Just a little idea. Quite small. Quite little. But, voyons. We shall see. Sometimes even Amer Picon has an idea, no? Very childish, very simple, perhaps. But still an idea.”
And that was all I could get out of him. Mgr. Smith, on the other hand, talked quite readily, though I could not call him informative. Finding myself plunged into this role of enquiring and credulous fool, to whom the great investigators would voice their conundrums, I resolved to make the best of it, and see whether he would add to my bewilderment, or elucidate it.
“It’s simple enough so far as it has gone, but like all mysteries, it has not gone far enough. Don’t you see that that is what is always puzzling—the case half-stated; the character half-formed? The were-wolf was the most terrifying creature in mythology because it was half a man. The centaur was a horror because he was half a beast. The trouble with most modem thought is that it is half-hearted . . .”
“But, Monsignor Smith,” I interrupted, fearing that he might continue in this strain all the evening, “who do you think it was that actually used that weapon?” I thought my question was as direct as it could be, and must succeed in securing as flat an answer.
“Oh, that’s easy enough,” came the calm reply. “But we are trying to discover who killed Mrs. Thurston.”
“Then . . . then you don’t think she was killed with that little Oriental knife?”
“I am sorry, but I’m afraid that she was, yes.”
“What really puzzles me is the two hundred pounds.”
“But surely there’s no mystery about that. It was about the maximum which could be got out of poor Mary Thurston just then.”
“And since that sum was drawn and paid, why did not the front-door bell ring? I would like it to have rung. A bell may sound for a man’s passing, but it may save his soul.”
“How do you know it didn’t ring?” I asked him. “After all, the cook wasn’t sure. She said the girl was having hysterics, and she might not have noticed it. It may have rung, for all you know.”
He blinked at me with solemn interest. “That’s true. Yes. I believe you’re right. The bell might have rung to tell those in the kitchen that someone was outside. On the other hand, it might have rung to tell them that someone was not outside!”
I could not feel that this sort of speculation, brilliant though doubtless it was, could help me much towards deciding on the identity of the murderer, and left Mgr. Smith to his glass of red wine and oatmeal biscuit.
More out of sympathy than anything else I crossed to old Beef. The investigation, so far as it had gone, had evidently given him a splendid appetite and an enviable thirst. He had made the most of them, but although the supply of food and drink had been lavish and varied, I fancied that he would have been more at home in his usual seat in the public bar.
“Shouldn’t be surprised if this didn’t upset me,” he said, referring to a plate of trifle he was finishing. “Bread and cheese and pickles is my supper, generally speaking.”
“And very nice, too,” I admitted. “Well, Sergeant, what do you think of this investigation?”
“Think of it? Blarsted waste of time, that’s what it is. I ’ad a darts match to play to-night,” he added regretfully.
“But we’ve got to find the murderer,” I reminded him.
“’Aven’t I told you I know ’oo it is?” he said, growing quite crimson with impatience. “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he added.
“Then why don’t you arrest the man—or woman, without further delay?”
“Why not? Because these ’ere private detectives can’t mind their own business. Pushing their noses in at Scotland Yard! When I made my report I was told to wait till they’ve had their say. Well, I’m waiting. Only I wish they’d ’urry up about it. With their stepsons, and their bells, and their where-did-the-screams-come-from. Why, they try to make it complicated.”
“I’m bound to say, though, Beef, it doesn’t look very simple to me.”
“No, sir. But then, you see, you’re not a policeman, are you?”
To which piece of stupid self-importance I made no reply.