Case without a Corpse
The inquest had taken place some days ago, and had revealed nothing new. The investigation, in fact, had become almost hum-drum, for there had been no discovery which could be described as startling since that priggish young Constable Smith of Chopley had found a fragment of young Rogers’s letter.
But Stute stayed on in Braxham, and since he was putting up at the Mitre, where I always stayed, we saw a good deal of one another, and had become quite close acquaintances. I liked the man. He was thoroughly efficient, and behind his brisk manner there was a kind of humanity which one could respect. I had complete confidence in his capabilities, and knew that it was only a question of time before he solved this peculiar problem.
I no longer went round with him and Beef, nor followed all their researches in person, but Stute and I usually dined together in the evening, and he was glad of someone to talk to about the case. “Poor old Beef’s all very well,” he used to say, “but there are some points of psychology which one could scarcely expect him to follow.” So over our meal, Stute would give me a curt outline of their progress, and I was duly appreciative.
One evening he more or less summed matters up in a long statement of the case as he saw it. I could see that he was expounding it largely in order to get his own ideas clear, for there is nothing like a verbal exposition of facts to make them coherent to the speaker. But I did not mind in the least being used as an audience. I, too, wanted to get the thing less jumbled in my mind.
“There are,” said Stute, “so far as we have reason to know at present, four main possibilities. One, that Rogers murdered Smythe. Two, that Rogers murdered Fairfax. Three, that Rogers murdered the foreigner. And four, that Rogers only believed that he had murdered someone, and had actually done nothing of the sort. I don’t think we need seriously consider the possibility of his having murdered more than one person. But since it is not mathematically certain that he did not do so, you can call that number five if you like.
“Now against every one of those possibilities, there is something which seems almost to preclude it. Take the girl first. We know that he took her away from Chopley. We know that he stopped on the Common and walked away with her. But then we know that no corpse was found on the Common, for I’ve now had the whole area thoroughly searched. And we know that he was seen not far from Braxham station with her, at ten to six.
“I’ve cross-examined the station staff, but they can’t tell me whether the girl travelled on the six o’clock or not. Quite natural. It’s a fast train and fairly crowded. They can’t remember seeing young Rogers at the station, but they agree that he might easily have been there without their noticing him. There was no taxi waiting outside to see him arrive on his motor-bike. In fact no evidence one way or the other.
“Suppose, then, that she did not travel, but was murdered. The only time, it seems, that he had in which to murder her was between ten to six and ten past, for at ten past he entered the Dragon alone. And the only possible place would be in the alley beside the Dragon, or on the landing-stage of the factory. But both those seem fantastic to me. It would be virtually out of the question for him to persuade her to follow him down that alley, and stab her there. For one thing, there would have been the risk, if not the certainty, of her screaming, and raising the alarm, for it was within a few yards of the back windows of the Dragon. For another thing, how could he have persuaded her to accompany him there? And for another there could scarcely have been time, for Sawyer the publican heard him come up on his motor-bike and enter the bar without enough delay to attract his notice.
“There are two other ways in which he might have murdered Smythe. He might have done it after 6.40. But then what did he do with her while he was in the Dragon? She was not at all the sort of girl to share our good Beef’s views on a woman’s attitude towards a public house. She would never have waited patiently for, him while he went in for a drink. And although I’ve had the most exhaustive enquiry made in the town I can find no one who saw a girl in a white mackintosh on Wednesday evening at all. And anyway, why should she have stayed in Braxham at that time? I admit that this is not wholly off the cards. She might have waited for him somewhere while he was in the Dragon. He might have killed her later. But somehow the chance of it seems too small to be considered.
“The other chance of Smythe having been the victim at first looked better to me. It was that the girl seen by Meadows on the back of the motor-bike at 5.50 was not Smythe at all, but another girl wearing her white mackintosh and impersonating her. That would mean that Rogers had already murdered Smythe somewhere between Chopley and Braxham, or within a short distance of the route, and was deliberately working an alibi—by trying to prove that she was alive at 5.50. But that doesn’t hold water. For one reason, I am convinced that his only other woman friend was Molly Cutler, and at 5.50 she was sitting at high tea with her mother. And again, what could he have done with the corpse? He had had only forty-five minutes to cover the ten miles from Chopley, do his murder, conceal the body, and meet his accomplice. Again, impossible, especially since that walk across the Common had to be taken into account, and there was certainly no body near the part in which it took place. Besides, it would mean that the whole thing had been most intricately timed and planned, if he was to have someone ready to wear the disguising mackintosh and sit on his pillion at that point and time, to establish an alibi. So altogether, I don’t see how the victim can have been Smythe.
“But when we come to the others, there are just as many objections. Take Fairfax. He was last seen leaving the Mitre with Rogers at 2.20. At four o’clock Rogers arrives at Rose Cottage, quite cheerful and ready to discuss with Smythe the return of his letters. Now could the man who later felt so guilty about his crime that he confessed to it and committed suicide, have gone through that hour with Smythe, appeared normal to Mrs. Walker, greeted Meadows and later drank with Sawyer, having just committed a murder? It is ridiculous. If he murdered Fairfax it must have been in the evening, after he had made all those arrangements with Smythe unconscious of any possibility that he would be a murderer before the night. And if he murdered Fairfax in the evening, where had Fairfax been from 2.20 onwards? No one in the town remembers seeing him, though he was a well-known figure. And he never returned to his hotel.
“Again, if it was Fairfax he murdered, where is Mrs. Fairfax? And why hasn’t she raised an outcry about her husband’s absence? We know that she had no hand in the murder, even supposing that she was party to it, for she spent Wednesday afternoon and evening in town with Mrs. Rogers. Why haven’t we heard from her?
“Then the foreigner. I grant you that this might seem to be the best chance, but even so it leaves too much to be explained to be convincing. Who was this foreigner, and what was his interest in young Rogers? Was he the person who had been following him? Those points may be cleared up by our report from Buenos Aires, when it comes. But even so, if it was the foreigner who was murdered by Rogers, who was the man you saw watching the removal of the corpse? You described him as looking ‘foreign.’ And Mrs. Watt, who took Molly Cutler home that evening, has been to us to report that a ‘foreign looking man’ who spoke very bad English was hanging about outside. She says he asked her what had taken place and that she didn’t reply. That would mean, then, that there were two foreigners in the district which seems scarcely likely when we cannot find any trace of even one’s having stayed a night in Braxham.
“To raise another more fanciful supposition— suppose Rogers and Fairfax had actually shared some motive for wanting to rid themselves of this ‘foreigner’ and had murdered him together, and that Fairfax had impersonated the foreigner to Mrs. Watt, and to you—what object could he have had? Was he hoping that we should assume him to have been the murdered man? It’s out of the question, for he could not have known that young Rogers wouldn’t tell us whom he had murdered before taking poison.
“Then, lastly, there’s the possibility I mentioned that young Rogers only believed he had killed someone, and that the person whom he believed dead is even now recovering secretly from his attack. Well, I suppose this might be the explanation. But most of my objections to the other theories apply to this—except the ones that refer to the concealment of the corpse, of course. And that person, whoever he or she is, must be pretty badly wounded. A fellow like Rogers would have good reason before he committed suicide. He was certain in his mind, at any rate, that his victim was dead, when he swallowed that poison. How, then, could a seriously wounded person have been got out of Braxham, or have been kept in Braxham for that matter, and treated for wounds, without our hearing of it? No, I don’t much like that theory either. Not at present, anyway.
“So you see, Townsend, we are still in a fog. But little by little the facts are coming in. And one only needs enough relevant facts to form a theory, and enough confirmation of a theory to make a case. So we keep at it.”
“You do,” I said with some admiration, “and you certainly put what you have got very lucidly. It will straighten out in time—it must do. For one thing, one or another of the three people will turn up, which will narrow down your search.”
“Yes,” said Stute, “it seems that our best chance is a system of elimination, and then concentration on the remaining suspect. Suspect of being murdered, of course,” he added with a smile.
“What does old Beef say about it?”
Stute chuckled. “The Sergeant has got very reserved lately,” he said, “and from hints dropped here and there I have an idea that he has a theory of his own. You’ve got a lot to answer for, Townsend. But I rather like the old chap. He’s conscientious, anyway.”