Case for Three Detectives
As the three Rolls-Royces were disappearing down the drive, I became aware of a very curious little man, who was on all fours beside the flower-bed in which I had discovered the knife during the previous evening. His physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg-shaped that I was surprised to find a nose and mouth in it at all, but half expected its white surface to break and release a chick. I recognised him at once and approached.
“M. Amer Picon, I think?”
“Yes, mon ami. The great Amer Picon,” he amplified, glancing up for a moment from his operations.
“My name is Townsend,” I told him. “Can I help you at all?’’
I had had an opportunity of watching one great criminologist at work, and was pleased by the prospect of seeing another.
“But certainly you can help me,” he exclaimed. “I shall be enchanté. I have just this minute arrived.”
“Then you don’t know . . .” I began, eager to tell him what we had already learned.
But he interrupted me. “I know all that you know, mon vieux, and per’aps a leetle more. Oho, tiens, voilà!” he ended not very relevantly.
“But pardon me, monsieur, that is impossible if you have just arrived. I have been with Lord Simon Plimsoll this morning, and he has made some important discoveries.”
“Plimsoll? That amateur des livres? ” he scoffed, with more command of French than I had previously credited him with. “And what has he found? The rope, I suppose?”
“How did you know that?”
“How did I know? But am I not Picon? Amer Picon? Tiens! These are not problems. There are problems enough. But such as you mention are not problems. And where was the rope? In the water-tank, I presume?”
“Well, yes it was. Did someone tell you?”
He stood up indignantly. “Tell me?” he said. “Do I need to be told? Where else could the rope be, I should like to know?”
I was unable to answer that, so I remained silent. Apparently M. Picon was sorry for his brusqueness.
“M’sieur, you must excuse Papa Picon. He is troubled. Yes, even he. Allons. Let us go to the garage.”
“To the garage?” I repeated.
“But naturally. Where else should we go?”
And he set off on his short legs at a great pace. The garage was at the end of the house opposite to that of Mary Thurston’s room, and on the farther side of a yard. Across this the little man stepped resolutely, and did not hesitate till he came to the space in front of the garage door. Here we found Fellowes, his legs in rubber boots, applying a powerful hose to the Thurstons’ Austin car. He turned to say good morning to us, but did not cease his work.
M. Picon watched him for some moments, then said, “Mon ami, why do you clean again and yet again what is already spotless?”
Fellowes seemed somewhat confused. I had never known him to shew any surliness before, and was surprised to notice his attitude to my eccentric companion.
“Is it that you wish to appear busy, eh? You do not like the—what you call?—the cross-examination? Have no fear. The time for questions has not come yet. Now, I look a little, no more.”
Rather unwillingly the chauffeur smiled at that. “Well, it’s quite right I don’t like being questioned,” he said. “Who does?”
But Picon took little notice of his reply. The chauffeur’s sleeves were rolled almost to the shoulder, revealing a pair of very muscular arms. And on one fore-arm were tattooed several devices. These had attracted Picon’s bird-like attention. Presently he walked up to Fellowes and seized his wrist with both his little hands.
“Forgive,” he said, and began to examine the tattoo-marks.
Personally I could see nothing unusual in these, in fact they seemed to be the conventional markings. There were two hearts entwined and pierced by an arrow. There was a Union Jack. And there was an irregular pattern of stars.
“Anything wrong?” asked Fellowes, quite good-humouredly, as he waited patiently for Picon to finish.
“Voyons. Voyons,” said the little man, and we left Fellowes to continue his work.
As we were walking back to the house, a detail reoccurred to me which had hitherto escaped my memory.
“Monsieur Picon,” I said, “you say that you already know everything that I could tell you. You are mistaken. I have just remembered a detail which I have mentioned to nobody.”
“Indeed, mon ami? And what is that so important detail?”
“Well, of course it may have nothing to do with the crime. But I think it ought to be known, now. Yesterday evening, when I had dressed before dinner, someone came out of Mrs. Thurston’s room. A man.”
“Do you think it may be important? Because unless it helps your investigation, I do not wish to mention his name.”
“Anything may help.”
“Very well. I’ll tell you. It was David Strickland. When he saw me he tried to get back into the room, but it was too late.”
“Indeed? Voilà! Strickland, the young man in the room next to Madame Thurston? The young man of the gambling, no?”
“Then we go and make a little visit to the room of Mr. Strickland. Allons.”
“You can, m’sieur. You are an investigator. But I shan’t go and poke about in someone else’s room.”
“As you will,” said M. Picon.
So I found myself once again standing where I had been in those ugly moments on the previous night, while the small detective went into Strickland’s room. I wondered where the occupant was. As we had passed the lounge I had heard voices, and guessed that Williams, Morris and Strickland had gathered there. Dr. Thurston had not appeared to-day, and we understood from Stall that he intended to stay in his room unless he was urgently wanted. I was glad of that. It seemed to me that the bizarre form of treasure-hunt which was going on in the house would bring little enough comfort to a bereaved man.
Stall told us that his master had thought of everyone, and sent down instructions that we were to ask for everything we wanted, and apologies that we should be kept here against our wishes. It was typical of him that he did not forget his manners as host even in the stress of those days.
I soon grew impatient. I did not like standing where the broken panels of that door faced me. I wanted to get downstairs to the others. But it seemed a long time before the diminutive detective reappeared, and when he did so, he did not emerge wholly from the door, but holding it ajar with his foot, called me over to him.
I was startled to see that in his hand was a diamond pendant.
“Vite! ” he whispered inevitably. “Look! You know this, is it not?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was Mrs. Thurston’s.”
“Bien. Wait.” he whispered, and again disappeared into the room.
When he came out he was calmer.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“It means that a diamond pendant which belonged to the dead lady is in the suitcase of Mr. David Strickland.”
“That proves he is the murderer, then?” I asked quickly.
“Not such hurry, mon ami,” he returned, brushing a speck of dust from the lapel of my jacket. “It may prove just the contrary. I say it may. And now for the chauffeur’s bedroom.”
The places chosen for visits by these remarkable investigators had ceased to produce in me any emotion of surprise. So that once again—though I was tired and hungry—I climbed the upper staircase, and indicated to Picon the door of Fellowes’s room.
I had always admired this little man, and it was exciting to watch his jumpy enthusiasm. But I was astonished at the interest he had already shewn in Fellowes. I could not believe that the frank-looking chauffeur had anything to conceal beyond a local love-affair or two. But I respected Picon and his genius too much to put in any remarks to this effect.
He had left the door of the room open, and I could see him hopping from place to place among the simple and well-ordered furniture. Everything in the room was scrupulously tidy, and the man’s clothes had been folded and put away. Picon seemed to find nothing to hold his attention for some time, until, on a small table by the bedside, he saw a copy of the Daily Telegraph. At first he glanced casually at this, but then something on the front page seemed to catch his eye, and he began to look through the paper very carefully.
At last, when he had reached the back pages, he began to cry “Tiens! ” and “Voilà! ” and make other un-English sounds.
“What is it?” I asked.
He came across to me. “You see?” he said excitedly, and indicated some pencil markings in one of the advertisement columns.
I bent down to examine these, and found that they came under the heading of ‘Licensed Premises, Hotels and Restaurants for Sale.’ I knew better than to express any surprise, but I could gather nothing from this.
“There!” cried Picon, “the little link. En avant! Piece by piece. Oh, it is not an ordinary matter, this.”
“I’m glad you think that,” I said, for I had been disappointed at Lord Simon’s bored description of it as ‘another of these locked-room cases.’
“No, no. By no means. What is your so English expression? The plot thickens, eh? This paper is three weeks old!”
And he danced back to replace it. As we went downstairs I ventured to ask if he had a theory.
“Not as you might say a theory,” he replied. “All is dark. But see, what is that? A little light! Slowly it grows stronger. And soon Papa Picon sees all. All!” he added, and I hoped he was right.
At last we came to Mary Thurston’s bedroom, and found Sergeant Beef deep in an arm-chair by the window.
“Ah, the good Bœuf!” cried Picon, with a Gallic flippancy which I did not altogether like in the presence of the dead. “On guard, eh? Is it permitted to look about?”
“You can ’ave a look round,” said the Sergeant. “But nothink’s to be touched, sir.”
“Bien. And what for do you wait so patiently, Sergeant?”
“Me? Oh, I’m just waiting for the warrant to come through. I’ve made my report.”
Picon could not help smiling. “Waiting for the warrant, eh? That is good. You know, then, who is guilty?”
“Course I know. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.”
Picon turned to me. “What is your English expression? He is out for blood, eh?”
It was the Sergeant’s turn to smile. “That’s just about it,” he said.
Picon took some time to examine the contents of that room. And as he did so I thought that his examination was made not because he expected to find evidence there, but because the man was by nature thorough, and would not attach himself to a theory until he had made sure that there was nothing to contradict it.
“And now, Mr. Townsend, will you oblige me a moment? Will you go down to the lounge, turn on the wireless, and return here?”
I began to obey rather unwillingly, wondering what Thurston and the rest of them would think of the sound of music in this house. I made a hasty explanation to Williams, Norris and Strickland, who were in the lounge, and did as Picon had asked.
“Thank you,” he said when I returned. “And now the light grows stronger.”
Thinking that I understood what he meant, I said, “You need have no doubt about our hearing Mrs. Thurston’s scream, Monsieur Picon.”
“You heard that?” he asked slowly.
“Of course I did.”
Then he said an extraordinary thing. “Do not be too sure, M’sieur. The human ear is a curious organ. Sometimes it hears what is not there to hear. And sometimes it fails to hear what is.”
After that, which I interpreted as a piece of deliberate mystification, he too hurried down to the village, probably in search of lunch.