Case without a Corpse
The return was less cheerful than the voyage out. It seemed that we had got what evidence Fairfax could supply, and that so far from being helpful it set us back. That was the maddening thing about the case—the more of it that was cleared up, the further receded the solution. Stute had begged for facts, and had promised to form a full explanation from them, But the more he learnt the less he knew.
“Do you believe Fairfax’s story?” I asked, when we were on board our home-bound channel steamer.
“Yes. I’m afraid I do. We shall check his details, of course, and see if we can follow a few more of his movements as a drug-vendor. But I’m pretty certain that they will be incidental to the main issue. I don’t think he was directly concerned in the murder. I shouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if he’s speaking the truth when he says that his first knowledge of it came from reading the newspaper.”
“Yes. Not at all usual. It is so rarely that a criminal looks ahead. I should think he owes that much to the wife. But I should like to get evidence against him. He was clever enough and imaginative enough all the time he was selling cocaine to know at whose expense he was getting rich. Wretched little addicts who were throwing away their lives. Whatever is right or wrong it is pretty certain that giving people narcotics is a moral crime as well as a legal one.”
I was anxious to return to the problem, and to know what Stute would make of it now. One of the possibilities had been, provisionally, removed. To which of the others would he turn?
“What line are you going on now?” I asked, taking advantage of the fact that he liked thinking aloud to me.
“I suppose,” he said, “I shall come back to the girl. There is not yet the remotest evidence that Rogers even met the foreigner. Whereas we have actually got a motive when it comes to Smythe. And in this hotch-potch, a motive alone is worth worrying over.”
“But I thought you ruled the girl out. You explained to me why it could not very well have been her.”
“I know, I know,” snapped Stute irritably, “but what the devil is one to go on in this preposterous case. Where’s Beef?”
“He said he was going to lie down. He doesn’t feel his best as sea.”
Stute continued to talk peevishly.
“I’ve had enough of this investigation,” he said And they’ll be getting impatient at the Yard soon.”
“You can always report that there was no murder,” I suggested.
“I wish I could. But then—why did the fellow commit suicide? A man of Rogers’s stamp doesn’t swallow cyanide of potassium for nothing. And if there wasn’t a murder there was violence, and I can’t even find that. No there’s no way out. I’ve got three chances. Fairfax’s alibi may be a dud, so that I can prove that he was involved. I may be able to see a way out of the impasse I reached in the possibility of its being the girl. Or something may come to light about the foreigner.”
“You don’t think there can be anything in Beef’s story of Sawyer’s brother?”
Stute shrugged. “There might be,” he said, “but if we’ve got to trace every husband who is escaping an insufferable wife just now, we might as well call in every policeman in Great Britain. However, I can keep it as a last resource. And now,” he turned to me quite politely, but with some of that terseness I had noticed him show to others, “would you mind leaving me to think this out?”
I obediently went in search of Beef, and found him moaning at the bar, with a whisky and soda in his hand.
“I do feel bad,” he said. “I ’ope I never ’ave a case wot takes me abroad again. Don’t you feel at all queer?”
“Not at all,” I assured him. “It’s quite smooth.”
“Smoove you call it? I call it ’orrible.”
“Stute doesn’t seem too cheerful,” I said to reassure him, “but it’s not seasickness with him. He’s worried about this case.”
“Wonderful man,” said Beef. “’E doesn’t miss nothink. Look at the way ’e notices every detail. Thorough, that’s wot ’e is. I shouldn’t ’ave seen ’arf of wot ’e ’as. Still, that’s training.”
“Bit different from the amateurs? I suggested, glad that Beef was realizing his own limitations.
“Different thing altogether. ’E ’asn’t got a lot of these ’ere theories like wot they went on. He ’as facts, and works from that.”
“Have you got any solution, Beef? I asked narrowly.
Beef turned to the barman. “I’ll ’ave another whisky,” he said.
“Have you?” I repeated sternly, watching his crimson face.
“Well,” he admitted, “I ’ave got wot might be the beginnings of an idea. Only it wouldn’t do for me to say nothink yet. Besides, I think ’e’s on to it now, or part of it anyway. So don’t you go an’ open your mouth.”
“I won’t. But I think you might tell me.”
“It ’asn’t gone far enough to say a word at present,” returned Beef.
But we were interrupted. Stute hurried down and stood between us. There was more vivacity in his passionless face than I had ever seen.
“Come on deck,” he said, presumably to both of us, but more to me than to Beef, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
We followed him on to the deck, but no sooner had we started to pace it than Beef excused himself hurriedly again, and went below.
’I believe I’ve got it,” Stute said. “I’m not sure, but you may as well hear what I think.”
I nodded, and reflected that Stute had become a much more human person recently.
“You remember when we were considering the girl Smythe,” he said, “we were up against what seemed an insuperable barrier. He had no time to murder her after being seen with her by Meadows, and before being seen without her in the pub by Sawyer. Or if he had time he had no place. We dismissed the chance of the person in the white mackintosh being someone else impersonating Smythe, and we thought it most unlikely that she had been obliging enough to wait in Braxham to be murdered later in the evening. That was, more or less, our case against its having been the girl.”
“Suppose, Townsend, suppose he had killed her before being seen by Meadows. . . .”
“But. . . .”
“Yes, Meadows saw her all right—behind the headlight of the motor-bike. But did he hear her? Did he, in fact, have any reason to suppose that she was alive at that time?”
“My God!” The possibilities which this opened up were positively gruesome.
“Look here, I’ll state the case, and you point out the flaws. Young Rogers was a wastrel from the start—we know that. He had this affair with Smythe, wrote the usual breach-of-promise letters, and shook her off. Two years ago he met Fairfax at a local pub and started bringing in cocaine for him from Buenos Aires. During this last leave by a coincidence the two things came to a head—not even a coincidence, really, for troubles never come singly. The Buenos Aires police had followed him over in the hope of finding out who were his associates here, and so tracing them at their end as well. There’s nothing improbable in that, they’re amazingly thorough, and wouldn’t consider the expense. Fairfax realizes that it is all up, tells young Rogers he’s finished with it, and advises him not to go back to Buenos Aires. Fairfax leaves young Rogers with this advice, and takes the 2.50 as he claims, while Rogers goes off to see Smythe at Chopley. Either he fails to come to terms with her, or else he pretends to have done so, only stipulating that they must go to Braxham together and get the money from his uncle’s house. Perhaps he had already decided to murder her—in which case his purchase of a whole skein of rope was deliberate. Perhaps the rope itself provided the idea. At all events he stopped his motor-bike on the common, and they left it to walk across the grass—as we know from the Vicar of Chopley. It would not have been hard to persuade Smythe into that. He may have pretended a reconciliation. Once hidden from the road he stabs her, takes the letters from her, and burns them then and there, very thoroughly, since he missed only one small segment. Then he sets the dead girl on the pillion of his motor-bike and ties her legs, under her skirt, firmly into place. A piece of rope on to each of her wrists tied in a bow in front of him serves to keep the corpse in place, or perhaps her wrists were tied to his belt, drives towards Braxham, but waits on a piece of road for someone to come by through whom he can, if necessary, prove afterwards that Smythe was sitting on the carrier of his motor-bike at ten to six. It must have been an anxious time for him, as he daren’t wait later than five to six, because the train, on which she is supposed to be leaving for London, goes at six. But along comes Meadows. Perhaps Rogers knew that he was due to pass. If not it must have seemed lucky to him. He deliberately asked what time the fast train left, though he must have known perfectly well. Then followed his only risky movement. He had to drive past the railway station, and up that alley. But the streets were dimly lit in that part. And really who is to tell whether a girl on the back of a motor-bike is alive or dead, when she is fixed firmly in place? He shot by the Dragon and down the almost pitch dark alley-way in a moment. It needed only seconds to lift her off his carrier, take her to the platform, and drop her in the river. The corpse would sink for a time, at any rate. And when it was found—what evidence would there be against him? He had been seen with her just before six. He was in the pub just after—alone. And for the rest of the evening he meant to have an alibi. He would be clear. But—well, the unexpected happened, and his conscience hit harder than he had foreseen, and he blurted out what he had done to his adopted uncle. The rest we know.”
“It’s flawless!” I exclaimed, “you’ve got it. Every fact fits perfectly into place—even what we know of Fairfax.”
Stute lit a cigarette.
“I expect by now they’ll have recovered the corpse,” he said. “Thank heaven we’re just coming in and this case is over.”
When Beef was collected and the three of us had gone down the gangway, I felt delighted. But all of us, I think, were surprised to see Galsworthy, rather too smartly dressed for a policeman, awaiting us in the Customs sheds.
“Constable!” snapped Stute, what are you doing here?”
With his accustomed calm, Galsworthy faced the detective.
“It was my free day, sir,” he said, “So I thought I would come down on my motor-bike, and tell you the news. I thought it might save you an unnecessary journey to Braxham, sir.”
“They’ve found Smythe,” said Galsworthy.
For the first time I saw a smile of satisfaction on Stute’s face, and he turned to me as much as to say, ‘I told you so.’ Then he looked back to Galsworthy.
“Dead, of course,” he presumed.
“Oh no, sir. Alive, in London. I can give you her address.”
Stute brushed past him with a sound like a growl, and Galsworthy was left there alone while we made for the garage in which the detective had left his car.
He allowed himself one word, and it was scarcely kind to Miss Smythe.
“Damn!” was what he said angrily, as he stamped on the self-starter.