Case for Three Detectives
After lunch I met M. Picon in the garden of the Thurstons’ house. He was stooping to pull a weed from an almost flawless border. Knowing that one of the investigators had solved the whole problem, I felt that I could afford to speak to him quite light-heartedly, and did so.
“Well, Monsieur Picon, have you completed your theory?”
He looked up at me and said, “Ah, mon ami, it is you. No doubt you know everything, is it not?”
“Well, not exactly,” I admitted.
“Nor, to speak the truth, do I. Last night we exhausted the enquiries here. Now we must look somewhere else.”
I was amused, thinking to myself that after all Lord Simon had beaten him to the solution. But I only said, “Where will you look now?”
“In the heart, my friend. When the brains shew no more one must look in the heart, and there, voilà! the truth.”
“I should not have suspected you of such sentimentality,” I said.
“That is not sentiment—it is logic. The heart may guide as truly as the head. And now, would you like a little promenade?”
“Is it far?”
“A few miles. Not too far.”
“Where on earth are you going to?” I asked.
“To the village of Morton Scone.”
I laughed outright “Look here, Monsieur Picon,” I said, “1 don’t know what you want to go there for, nor what your theory is, but I can tell you this much. You don’t need to bother. I’ve been with Lord Simon this morning, and he’s found out about Sidney Sewell. It isn’t a person, as we all thought, but a place. In fact I went there with him this morning. And while we got there Fellowes and Strickland and Norris had arrived. So Lord Simon knows everything now.”
“Your reasoning, mon ami, is a little confused. What information did Lord Simon glean from the arrival of this so indicative trio and the village of Sidney Sewell?”
“I don’t know that, of course. But he told me he knew the murderer.”
“And do you think that I, Amer Picon, do not know also the murderer? And what is that, to know the murderer?”
“I thought that is what we were all trying to do,” I returned innocently.
“Then you are mistaken. What we have to do is not to know ourselves, but to prove to others. If we cannot, what have we accomplished? The good Bœuf would arrest his man, and the murderer would go free.”
“But surely Lord Simon must realize that. After all, he’s had nearly as much experience as you have.”
“Maybe. But everyone his method of proof. And a part of mine is a promenade to Morton Scone. Do you accompany me?”
“I shall be delighted. Only if after this Monsignor Smith wants me to go with him to Jericho, I shan’t be surprised.”
“You might do worse,” said M. Picon seriously. “He would know much of the ancient city. But come along. We have not too much time.”
I was surprised at the brisk pace that he set. His legs were short, but his remarkable agility made it hard” for me to keep up with him. However, I had set myself to see as much of the methods of all three of these great men as I could, and was willing enough to make the effort. Now that they were nearing the end of the chase, every move they made should be interesting.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been able to help you much, Monsieur Picon,” I said after a long silence.
“Au contraire, my friend, your evidence has been of the greatest service to me. You remembered something of the utmost importance, which you might well have forgotten.”
“What was that?”
“You do not know? But naturally, your own part in this affair.”
“My part?” I almost shouted.
“But yes. You, too, had a hand in it. Oh, but quite unconscious, I assure you. Still, a part.”
“Good Lord. What on earth was that?”
“Did you not rise and open the door?”
“Which door? When?”
“But naturally. The door of the lounge. Just before the screams were heard.”
“Well, yes. I did. But I fail to see what that could have to do with it. Unless . . .” A new and horrible idea flashed into my brain. “Unless there was some devilish mechanism in that room which I set in motion.”
“Fortunately,” said M. Picon, “the machine is not yet invented which will cut a lady’s throat while she lies waiting for it, and throw the knife from the window, then disappear from the face of the earth.”
“I suppose not,” I admitted.
We marched on in the sunlight, which had begun to pale a little. I was glad of the fresh air and exercise, and glad, too, of some activity which filled in the afternoon, for my impatience to know the murderer’s identity would otherwise have become feverish. To think that at last, after all this guesswork, I was to know the truth. I resolved to think no more about the murder, for otherwise I should start once again to suspect each in turn of the people at the Thurstons’.
We must have been within half a mile of Morton Scone when M. Picon suddenly took my arm, arid said, “Vite! This way!”
I was so much taken by surprise that for a moment I hesitated. He pulled me quite fiercely, however, to the side of the road, and almost bundled me through a hole in the hedge. He had scarcely time to follow, when a car approached. I had been aware of it a moment before, when it had been in the distance and beyond a dip which had taken it out of sight, but I had paid no attention to it. The little detective, however, seemed to be in a state of tremendous excitement.
“Observe!” he snapped, as he stared at the roadway we had left.
It was once again Dr. Thurston’s dark-blue car, and since it was not travelling fast I had ample time to recognize its occupants. Fellowes was driving, and beside him sat the girl Enid, while in the rear seat, smoking a cigar, was Miles.
“You see?” said M. Picon, as soon as the car had gone past. “What I have said! Look in the heart, my friend. When the mind no longer tells tales, look in the heart!”
“But Monsieur Picon,” I exclaimed, “this is too much! This morning I went to Sidney Sewell, and saw Fellowes with two of the suspects; this afternoon I come to Morton Scone, and here he is with another two!”
M. Picon laughed. “And perhaps, when you go to Jericho with the excellent Monsignor Smith you will find him there with some more!”
“But what does it mean?” I asked.
“Patience, my friend.”
“But how did you know, while it was still a long way off, that that was the Thurstons’ car?”
“I did not. But I thought it might be. I was expecting it.”
“You were? What made you expect it?”
“Oh, but you must understand I was not expecting it with any great confidence. But I knew it had gone this way, and I thought that possibly, possibly, mind you, it would return.”
“You knew that they were going to Morton Scone, then?”
“I had an idea, no more. A small idea. But the ideas of Amer Picon at times come true, you see.”
“Well, that one certainly did, though I’m hanged if I know what to make of it.”
“And I wonder what the good Bœuf would make of it. His partner in the brave game of darts, is it not?”
I smiled at that.
“Yes, I wonder. Who do you think he suspects, Monsieur Picon? He seems pretty sure of himself, whoever it is.”
“Probably the so skilled and expert cook, I should think,” said M. Picon. “But then your English police are not of the most intelligent when it is a matter of crime.”
“Not in this case,” I admitted.
Suddenly I stopped short. “Monsieur Picon!” I exclaimed.
“What have you, mon ami?”
I burst out laughing. “What a couple of fools we are!” I said.
“For that, in your so English proverb, you must speak for yourself,” he returned huffily.
“No. But don’t you see? We’ve walked about a quarter of a mile since we saw that car. And all for nothing. You have seen what you set out to see. We could have turned back at once.”
“And who knows what I set out to see?”
“Well, it was obviously the car, coming back from Morton Scone, with Fellowes and the rest of them in it.”
“That was almost an accident.”
“Then you still must go on to the village?”
“But whatever for?”
“You have surely forgotten one all-important detail. The flag on the tower of Morton Scone church was at half-mast, is it not so?”
“Yes. But . . .”
I obeyed. But inwardly I revolted. I began to think that M. Picon was deliberately mystifying me, or that, having absent-mindedly continued walking to Morton Scone as I suggested, he now pretended that it was necessary, in order to save his face. But as we were approaching the village I had another idea.
“I know!” I said, “you think it was a double murder. The doctor in this village died the same day. You connect the two?”
“The doctor was very old, and had a weak heart. He knew himself that he might die at any tune. His death was perfectly natural.”
“Then what has Morton Scone got to do with it?”
We had reached a point on a gentle hill-side from which most of the village was clearly visible. It was a pleasant Sussex village, whose predominant colour was that quiet red to which bricks and tiles are toned in the process of time. There were houses with plaster fronts and houses with timbered fronts, and an inn sign hung across the footpath.
“Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps a great deal,” said M. Picon very thoughtfully.
He did not move for at least a whole minute, and then only to turn and look up at me with a frankly puzzled face.
“Tell me, Monsieur Townsend,” he said, “do you notice anything strange about this place?”
Strange? It seemed to be the embodiment of all things homely and familiar, all things I loved most dearly. One might have chosen it to settle in, after a vagrant life. ‘Laughter and inn fires’, I thought of, and kindly little sweet-shops kept by the sort of elderly stout women who may be called a ‘body’. Even as we looked a farm-cart started on its way through the street, and the man who walked at its horse’s head shouted a cheerful greeting to someone in a window. Here was friendliness and a quiet sequence of days for a number of calm and normal people, here were gardens, no doubt, and a little school muddling its children through their reading, writing and arithmetic. Here were honest folk and very English houses. Certainly nothing that I could call ‘strange’.
“It may seem strange to you, Monsieur Picon,” I said, “but to an Englishman I assure you this village . . .”
He interrupted me most rudely, and said, “No, no. I do not mean that. It is strange for lack of something. For see, school, inn, police station, and post office no doubt, but where do you see, my good friend, the church?”
And I found myself gaping back at the village, realizing the implications of its absence.