Case without a Corpse
The hotel-proprietor, who was as neat and discreet as the exterior of his hotel, was waiting for us in the entrance.
“It is room Number 39 that you want,” he said. “I have just sent cocktails up, so I think you arrive at a good moment. And please, no disturbance.”
His voice had dropped almost to a whisper, and he had nervously pulled a scented handkerchief from the pocket of his black jacket. He eyed Beef somewhat dubiously, but it was Stute who answered him.
“We only want a little talk,” he said flatly.
There was a small slow lift, and we crossed to it, but found that we were only just able to get in, for the proprietor accompanied us. On the second floor we stepped out, and the proprietor led the way down a thickly carpeted passage. At Room 39 he stopped and motioning us near, tapped sharply.
“Yes?” replied a masculine voice, then added impatiently, “Come in.”
“Some gentlemen to see you,” said the proprietor, and before there was time for a move from the inside, he flung open the door. Instantly, we pushed in.
It was a sitting-room, evidently the outer apartment of a suite. In two arm-chairs, both, as it happened, facing or half-facing the door, were a man and woman staring up at us in astonishment. The man was dressed in English tweeds but his heavy-jowled face was pasty and pouchy. At first, looking at that couple, one might have thought them a middle-aged English tourist and his wife, normal, nice, provincial people. But somehow there was something wrong. I could not define it then, I cannot now, but I was aware that something unpleasant distinguished this couple from the type they so nearly resembled. Stute turned quickly to Beef, and whispered “Fairfax?”
The Sergeant nodded, thereby fulfilling his whole purpose in our visit to France.
When the man spoke, his voice had that curious closed ring in it which is noticeable in people who form their speech too far back in their throat.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Freeman. But I would like to ask you a few questions. I’m Detective-Inspector Stute.”
“But. . . .”
“Yes. You’re quite right. This is Sergeant Beef of Braxham. An unfortunate combination from your point of view, Mr. Fairfax. But there you are.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“No, of course you don’t yet, Mr. Ferris. We all have a lot to explain to one another. And as none of us want to waste time perhaps it would dc best if I told you first what we know. Then you won t have to waste time giving us a lot of unnecessary information. In the first place we know that your real name is Ferris, and that you have done time for drug-peddling. In the second place we know that you are identical with that much more respectable Mr. Hugo Freeman who lived for a time in Long Highbury and thus got a passport ready for any emergency. And thirdly we know that you are also that piscatorial Mr. Fairfax who used to stay at the Riverside Hotel, Braxham. We also know that you were receiving drugs from young Rogers. But there is quite a lot which we don’t know and which you are going to tell us.”
I watched the pair of them. The man had sunk back in his chair and turned a little pale, but was not shewing any sign of panic or defiance. He was, I thought, considering, fairly collectedly, just how to treat all this.
The woman deliberately sipped her cocktail. She had a raw hard face, with a large mouth and wide nostrils. She was quite unshaken.
There was a long silence. At last Stute continued.
“To come direct to the point, I will ask you straight away, who was killed by you and Rogers that Wednesday night?”
Fairfax seemed relieved at the question. “Look here,” he said, “what are you really after? Drugs or murder?”
They were almost his first words, and I respected his perception and decision. He did not waste time with a lot of stupid bluff. He did not deny his triple identity. He knew that Stute was not blurring, on that point, anyway.
“Both,” said Stute.
“Then I can’t help you.
Another long silence.
“But I’ll tell you this much,” said Fairfax at last “The first I knew of any murder was when I read it in the papers. When I left Braxham to the best of my knowledge young Rogers had no more idea of murdering anyone than I had.”
That, I felt, was true.
“What time did you leave Braxham?”
“On the 2.50.”
“How far did you go?”
“What d’you mean? Oh, I see. Why, to London, of course.”
“Got an alibi?”
Fairfax didn’t like that word. “It’s got as far as alibis, has it?” he said. “Why should I need an alibi? Who has been murdered, anyway?”
Stute spoke slowly. “I think if you’ve got an alibi, Ferris, you’d better give it to me.”
At this point the woman broke in.
“Do for goodness’ sake sit down, Inspector. You give me the jitters standing up all the time. And your . . . staff,” she added, with an unfriendly glance at Beef and me.
Stute, without hesitation, accepted, and we followed.
’’You’d better have a cocktail,” she went on. “Oh, I can assure you it won’t be drugged.”
“No, thanks. And now, Mr. Ferris.”
“Well, if I had known that it would be necessary, I would have arranged an alibi after your own heart for you. As it is, I’m afraid it may be rather sketchy. I had a hair-cut first in the station saloon.”
Stute never took written notes. Information was stored more securely in his head.
“Then,” said Ferris, “since I had left all our small luggage at Braxham, I went and bought two handbags at a shop called Flexus, in the Strand. I had them sent to our address in Hammersmith, so that the shop will probably have a record of my call. I then had a drink, since it was just opening time, at the Sword on the Cross in Fragrant Street, Covent Garden. I think the bar-maid might remember my call as there was a little altercation with an itinerant vendor of a publication called the War-Cry while I was in the bar.”
“I had a meal in the Brasserie of Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street. I sat, I well remember, at a table near the orchestra, and was attended by a tall young waiter. After that I went to the Flintshire Hotel, just off Russell Square, where I booked a room for the night.”
“In your own name?”
“Er, not actually. I can’t think why not. Habit I suppose. Fortescue was the name I chose.”
“Well, go on.”
“I did. I went out and had two drinks at a strange pub whose name I don’t remember, and returned soon after ten, to bed. I had occasion, not long afterwards, to tap on the wall and admonish a lady and gentleman involved in a somewhat stormy argument.”
“I see If that all checks up, you seem to be fairly well accounted for. Why didn’t you go home that night?”
“Really, Inspector, what a question. Surely you can use your powers of deduction better than that.”
“Oh, tell him, Sam, said his wife suddenly. “You’re not admitting anything now. We don’t want this murder business pestering us.”
Fairfax considered. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Well, let’s put it this way, Inspector. Suppose—mind you I only suppose—that there had been certain dealing as between young Rogers and me, which I wasn’t anxious to have scrutinized. And suppose that that afternoon, while I was with young Rogers in the Dragon, we had observed a gentleman whom we thought anxious to scrutinize them. . . .”
“The foreigner!” I couldn’t help putting in.
“And suppose that therefore I decided to . . . go away for a holiday, as it were, as promptly as practicable. Well, you see? I might not think my home address the healthiest of all places in London. I might not have wished either to return to the pretentious precincts of Riverside Private Hotel, or to my flat in Hammersmith just then.”
“You mean, you thought the foreigner was a policeman? That he had followed young Rogers from Buenos Aires?”
“Well, he had been on the boat.”
“I see. So you telephoned your wife, and the two of you used the passport you had ready. Very opportune.”
Stute was thoughtful.
“Why didn’t you want Rogers to go back to Buenos Aires?” he asked.
“That didn’t sound healthy either. With a gentleman following him from there. He might have been asked awkward questions in Buenos Aires. And not in the gentle and courteous way you have here.”
“Mm. How long had you known Rogers?”
“About two years.”
“And your bi-monthly visits to Braxham, ‘for the fishing,’ coincided with his leave every time, and were made solely with the object of collecting the dope he brought over.”
“Now you’re becoming personal, Inspector.”
“I’m not going to ask you where he got it, how much he brought, or for whom you were working. I know such questions would be useless. But I think you have the sense to see that if you had nothing to do with the murder young Rogers did, you had best tell me anything you know. We could very soon extradite you on the other charge if we thought you were keeping anything back.”
“I have seen your point since we began talking,” said Fairfax. “What do you want to know?”
“Have you any reason to suppose that Rogers might later have attacked that foreigner?”
“Well, you never know what a man’s nerves will make him do when he’s being followed. But he had absolutely no thought of it when I left him. He was full of a girl he was to meet that evening.”
“And that afternoon?”
“He had an appointment in Chopley. He didn’t tell me what it was.”
“When did you see him last?”
“After we came out of the Mitre we walked towards the station and Riverside. At the entrance to the station I left him, and he was going on to pick up his motor-bike which he had left in the Riverside drive.”
Every point in the man’s story seemed to me to accord perfectly with our information. He had evidently been engaged in drug-smuggling, but was hoping that he might escape extradition on this charge while the graver affair overshadowed it.
“Incidentally, Inspector, I have retired.”
“Exactly. We needn’t explain from what. I am not a criminal. I am a human being who wanted money, a lot of money, very badly. And I’ve got it. Quite securely, thank you. And now my wife and I are going to turn our energies to quite other matters. I have always been a keen antiquarian. Research is to be our future.”
“Now won’t you have a cocktail?” said Mrs. Fairfax.
“No, thanks. Well, before you do any research, you re going to do another stretch, Ferris. Here, in France, my friend. The French police have been following you, and know your relations with that beauty parlour.”
Ferris smiled. “Not a bit of it,” he said “My call was purely cautionary. I have never done anything in this country for which I could be blamed by even the mildest curé”. No, such days are over. We always meant to retire to France when the time came. And the appearance of that foreign gentleman in Braxham meant that the time had come. There is no charge whatever that can be brought against me in France, and I don’t quite see how you’re going to formulate one in England.”
“Wot about your passport?” asked Beef suddenly. “It’s a wrong ’un. The French’ll send you back over that, and then you’ll be for it in England.”
“I think not,” said Ferris. “I have my own legitimate passport of course, though I didn’t think it wise to use it yet, imagining in the innocence of my heart that if anyone was pursued here it would be Ferris; not Freeman. However, now that we’ve had this little chat, I must use my own.”
I will own that we stared at him, even Stute stared at him, with something like wonder. He was no ordinary blackguard.
Then Stute stood up smartly. “Your ‘retirement’ as you call it, depends on a number of things. In the first place on the truth of your statements about Braxham, and your alibi. In the second, on whether or not we extradite you for drug-peddling in England. In the third, on whether you’re speaking the truth about your innocence in France.”
“Quite,” said Fairfax in his cool and even voice, “But I don’t think that you and I are going to meet again Inspector.”
“In any case, you’ll be watched while I’m finishing my investigations in England.”
“Then I do hope you’ll be quick. My wife has never been to see the winter sports, and I’ve promised her a stay this year.”