Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Seventeen

Case for Three Detectives

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
   
I was learning something about the effect of a crime on people, which I had never fully realized from merely reading about murder.  It was the quite unexpected effect which suspicion, cross-examination, and the presence of skilled detectives, had on everyone concerned.  These things had already broken down the preposterously theatrical manner of Stall, the butler, had made Fellowes, usually a cheerful young man, growl monosyllables in a threatening sort of way, and shown Enid as a girl of some character who could tell a story, or at least her own story, very well.
But I was still not prepared for the changes in my fellow-guests, least of all those in David Strickland.  He had always seemed to me one of the few Englishmen to whom that expressive Americanism ‘hard-boiled’ might justly be applied.  Even his appearance—bull neck, cheeks tanned and mapped with the red veins that are the bloom of alcohol, eyes hard and humorous—argued that he would be invulnerable to this sort of thing.  I had expected to find him terse and rather gruff, perhaps, but able to answer any questions that were put to him quite satisfactorily.
Yet when he came into the room, I, who knew him well, was certain that he was actually feeling nervous.  He nodded uncomfortably to the investigators and hurriedly lit a cigarette.  Whether or not he had any connection with the crime, he had something to hide.  I was sure of that.
“Sorry to have to ask you a lot of dam’-fool questions,” said Lord Simon, then scarcely paused before beginning to do so.  “Ever changed your name?” he snapped.
“Changed my name?” repeated Strickland.
If only, I thought, I had more insight!  Was he really surprised at the question, or was he gaining time?
“Yes.  Deed poll, and all that sort of thing.”
“No.  I’ve never changed my name.  Why?”
“Oh—just wondered.  Known the Thurstons long?”
“A few years.”
“Come here quite a lot, I suppose?”
“Yes.  What’s the idea of all this, Plimsoll?”
“Curiosity, old boy.  Do you happen to be hard up?”
Very coldly Strickland said, “No thanks.  Why, did you want me to lend you something?”
Lord Simon was quite unperturbed.  “April Boy came in, then?”
Strickland half-rose.  “Is it any business of yours what bets I make?”
“Awfully sorry, old man.  I suppose bets should be considered sacred.  Between a man and his God—or his bookmaker.  But my man Butterfield did happen to hear from a gentleman of similar calling to himself that you were in a tight corner this week.  And if you want to put a hundred pounds on a horse at six to one, without anyone knowing it, I suggest your not using the extension of a telephone which has a man like Butterfield glued to the main.”
“I shall tell Thurston how damnable I think it, that this sort of snooping should go on in a house where one’s a guest.”
“Far more damnable things than that have gone on in the last twenty-four hours.  There has been, for instance, a murder.”
“I can’t see that it justifies your hanging round listening to my conversations on the ’phone.”
“Well, let’s waive the point, shall we?  Then perhaps you will tell me just how matters stand between you and your bookies?”
“I’m damned if I will.”
“Then I must tell you.  That hundred you put on this morning was a last fling—an absolutely desperate shot.  You’re up to the eyes in debt, you had no means of raising the money, and you shoved this on knowing that if the horse did not win you could not find the hundred.  You know only one bookie who would take the bet.  Well, you’ve won.  I congratulate you.”
Strickland was calmer now, but sounded more dangerous.  “Look here, Plimsoll, you’re here—though God knows who asked you here—to find out who murdered Mary Thurston, not to ferret out details of my betting “
“But suppose—mind, I’m only just supposin’—that there was some sort of relationship between them?”
“What the hell do you mean?  How could there be?”
“What were you doing in Mary Thurston’s room before dinner last night?”
Strickland turned furiously to me.  “I’ve never liked you, Townsend.  I’ve always thought you a mean-natured sort of devil.  But I didn’t think you’d join in this sneak’s game.”
I was about to explain that I should have had no right to keep any information like that to myself, when Plimsoll went on.  “Well,” he insisted, “what were you doing there?”
“I had something to talk over with Mary Thurston.”
“And couldn’t she lend you the money?”
I expected Strickland to break out again—I even wondered if there would be a fight.  But perhaps he was a little cowered by the fact that the investigators knew of his visit to the dead woman’s room.  At all events, I was surprised to hear him say, “No,” in a deep voice, but quite clearly.
“So you stole her diamond pendant?”
Again no outward sign of anger.  “No.  She gave it to me.  Or at least told me to pawn it.  It would raise what I needed.” After a silence he went on.  “I had told her on the ’phone the day before that I was in a hole, and she had promised to help me.  Now she said that she was awfully sorry, something unexpected had happened, and she couldn’t.  I’ve no idea what she meant.”
“It’s funny,” mused Lord Simon, “that when you happen to be speakin’ the truth, you’re so much more convincin’.”
“That was the truth.”
“Indeed?  Then your troubles were over?”
“It seemed so.”
“Until this morning—when you found that the police had charge of the pendant.  Quite.  Nothing that could be called ‘trouble’ had happened in the meanwhile, I suppose?”
“In the meanwhile Mary Thurston had been murdered.”
“Ah yes.  We must get back to that.  You were the first, I think, to go to bed?”
“I believe I was.”
“Bit unusual for you?”
“Perhaps.  But I’d been up early that morning.  I was dog-tired.”
“Are you always dog-tired after getting up early?”
“No.  I was last night.”
“You had no other reason for going to bed so soon?”
“I was a bit bored.  Townsend and the Vicar were rather much, in one room.”
I took no notice, of course, inwardly deciding that I would not allow myself to be drawn into suspecting Strickland merely because he was attempting to be rude to me.
“And yet although you were so tired, you did not go to bed?”
“I had several letters to write.”
“They must have been urgent.”
“They were.”
“When did you leave your room next?”
Without a, moment’s hesitation Strickland said—“When I heard the screams.”
“Not before?”
“No.”
“Did you hear Mary Thurston come to bed?”
“Not consciously.”
“You heard no voices from her room?”
“No.  The wireless was playing right underneath me.”
“You did not guess that anyone was in her room that evening?”
“Certainly not.”
“Was your window open?”
“I don’t think so.”
Lord Simon stared straight at Strickland for a moment, and then with a gesture indicated that he had no more questions to ask.
M. Picon said, “Monsieur Strickland, I have only one question to put to you.  It is about those so horrifying screams.  Perhaps you will be so good as to think carefully before you tell me what I want to know.  It is a little matter, but so much depends on it.  Where did those screams come from?”
I was less surprised at this ridiculous question than I would have been if I had not already heard it asked of Stall.  Although I realized that I was unoriginal in doing so, and though I knew that my predecessors in the thought had always been proved ignominiously wrong, I could not help feeling that the little man had gone off the rails at last.
“Where did they come from?” repeated Strickland.  “Why, from Mary Thurston’s room, of course.”
“You are sure of that?”
“But it never occurred to me to doubt it.”
Précisement.  Is that why you are sure?”
“No.  No, even when I first heard the screams, I knew they were from Mary Thurston’s room.”
M.  Picon stared at him, as though he wanted even more confirmation, but apparently decided to let it go at that.  Strickland walked over to the decanter and helped himself to a drink.
“I call this third degree,” he said with a rather sheepish grin.  “I need a good stiff drink.”
“That is a sign of the cross-examination,” said Sam Williams.
“But not a sign of the Cross,” said Mgr. Smith, waking up for the first tune in the last three-quarters of an hour.
Alec Norris, who followed, could tell us very little.  His room was on the other side of the corridor, and he had heard nothing, he said, until he had heard the screams.  He had seen no one after he had gone up to bed, except Enid, who had been going into Williams’s room as he had come back from the bathroom.
“You had a bath?”
“Yes, I always bath at night.  I work afterwards, and I find that it clears the brain.”
“Then you returned to your room?”
“I did.  And settled down to write.”
“Do you usually dress after having a bath at night?’’
“Invariably, if I’m going to work.” He spoke precisely and calmly.  All traces of the hysteria he had shown at first had vanished.  His skull-like head was high, his cold eyes met his questioner’s.
“You were the first to reach Mrs.  Thurston’s door.  Can you remember in what order the others came?”
“I think so.  Thurston first, bounding upstairs like a madman, followed by Williams and Townsend.  Then Strickland out of his room, then I think Fellowes from upstairs, and, perhaps half a minute later, Stall, also from upstairs.”
“Did you notice the girl Enid?”
“Yes.  But not for some minutes.  I think it was after they had broken down the door.  She came out of Thurston’s room as white as a sheet.  Fellowes spoke to her, and she ran straight downstairs.”
“You have a very accurate memory, Mr.  Norris.”
“I have a trained memory.  I have taken a course in Pelmanism.”
Rather unexpectedly Mgr. Smith turned to him.  “I understand, Mr.  Norris, that yesterday evening you expressed an interest in crime from what you called the psychological point of view?”
“Something of the sort.”
“Presuming that the phrase means anything at all, do you find this particular crime interesting from the psychological point of view?”
Alec Norris looked at him, and for a moment I thought a shadow crossed his face.
“I do not understand this crime,” he said at last.
“Nor I,” said Sam Williams sadly.