Case without a Corpse
Back in Braxham we found that the enthusiastic Galsworthy had been rather too definite in his report. The message from Scotland Yard had been to the effect that a girl called Estelle Smythe, who answered in all respects to the description given, had been found living in Delisle Street, Leicester Square, but that she had not been questioned, pending Stute’s instructions.
“Probably an entirely different woman,” said Stute hopefully. “I don’t know what that young fool Tennyson, or whatever his name is, wanted to come tearing down to the boat for.”
“What will you do?”
“Have to run up, of course. Trouble is how we’re going to identify her. I suppose there’s only one way.”
“Not . . . not that Walker woman?” he said.
“No help for it,” said Stute. “We’ll have to go and get her this afternoon.”
“You won’t ’ardly need me then, will you?” pleaded Beef.
“No, Sergeant,” said Stute, and proceeded to telephone instructions for checking Fairfax’s alibi.
That afternoon I accompanied him to Chopley to call for Mrs. Walker. This time he was undisguisedly glad to have me with him, if only as some protection from the torrents of her words. Once again as we entered the village, young Constable Smith was awaiting. He saluted and in his rather priggishly efficient manner told Stute that he had seen Mrs. Walker, as instructed, and that she was getting ready to accompany us.
Irritated by Stute’s satisfaction with Smith’s efforts, as contrasted with his snubbing attitude towards Galsworthy, I spoke to the constable myself.
“You look an athletic sort of chap,” I said. “You’ve entered for the Boxing Championship, I suppose?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “I’m in the finals. I have to meet your Braxham man, I believe.”
“Galsworthy?” I asked.
“If that can really be his name,” returned Smith, with something like a sneer.
I noticed that Stute was smiling to himself as we drove on to Rose Cottage.
Mrs. Walker was ready for us. Clad in an untidy coat and skirt, with a shapeless mauve felt hat on her head, she hurried down the garden path fingering a moulting squirrel boa.
“Did you send that policeman round to my house?” was her greeting to Stute as she took her place in the car. “I wish you’d be more considerate. People will begin to think that the murder took place in my front-sitting-room instead of out on the Common, as I’ve a hundred times told you. And why you should want me to come trapesing up to London to see some girl who can’t possibly be that poor young woman who was murdered weeks ago, I can’t think. But I suppose the police have got to do something to pretend to earn a living.”
She was obviously enjoying the whole thing including the car-drive, and the licence to grumble and talk to her heart’s content.
“It seems extraordinary to me that you shouldn’t be able to find an ordinary corpse,” she went on. “It isn’t as though it was something anyone might drop out of their pockets. And here we are, weeks afterwards, and nothing done. I’ve told you from the first he did it, the young rotter, and it’s a wonder he didn’t turn on me as well.”
Stute sighed. “It is,” he murmured rudely.
But Mrs. Walker fortunately missed the application of his remark, for adjusting a tremulous hat-pin she continued unmoved.
“It’s my belief,” she said, “though I didn’t intend to say anything about it, that there was more than what we think between her and young Rogers. I shouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t had a baby some time or another, or else she had seen him since those days and was expecting. You can’t tell. But she must have had something up her sleeve, coming all this way after him. And she must have known that there wasn’t much chance of her getting anything out of his having promised to marry her.”
“The possibility had occurred to me,” said Stute dryly.
“Mind you, I’m only saying what I think. She never said anything to me about it, as you can imagine. But where there’s smoke there’s fire. And he was an artful fellow if ever there was one. Why I’ve caught him looking at me in a funny way before now and thought to myself, No you don’t. I wasn’t born yesterday, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t as things turned out, for I’m sure I’ve no fancy for having my throat cut and left out somewhere for weeks without the police finding me to give me a decent burial as that poor girl was. And according to what you said when you came over before, she wasn’t the only one, but four or five more he did for, the same day. Regular Bluebeard as you might say, like that fellow they got hold of just before the War who’d drowned all those poor girls in his bath without anyone ever knowing any different till he’d done for half a dozen. What were the police doing then, I should like to know? And as for that Constable Smith pestering the life out of me every day with his questions, well, I scarcely know where I am.”
“Has Smith been troubling you?” Stute asked.
“It seems,” I put in quickly, “that Galsworthy isn’t the only over-enthusiastic policeman in the neighbourhood.”
That seemed to reverse Mrs. Walker’s attitude. “Not exactly troubling me, I can’t say,” she returned, “for I suppose he was only doing his duty. And he’s as decent a young chap as you could find in the Force, take him all round.” A curious giggling sound came from her. “If they was all like him I shouldn’t mind so much, and him training so hard for his Boxing Match which didn’t ought to be allowed, spoiling their features and that, all for nothing. But what I don’t like is the uniform forever popping in and out of my cottage. People talk so, and if they don’t think the murder was there they’ll start saying worse of me, and then where’s my business gone?”
Stute seemed to think it time to draw her gently towards the matter in hand.
“You realize, don’t you, Mrs. Walker, that Scotland Yard believes that the young woman we are going to see is the one who stayed in your house, and met Rogers?”
“They can think what they like, but I know different. That poor girl’s been murdered and very likely chopped up and buried weeks ago. Still, I suppose you were right to come to me, since I’m the only one to tell you for certain that this one’s different. Only I hope my time’s taken into consideration, for I can’t go careering all over the country in motor-cars with people very likely thinking I’ve been arrested, for nothing, as you well know. I’d be only too glad to think it was poor Stella Smythe, alive and well again, but what’s the good when I know it isn’t and so do you, if you think about it for two minutes.”
We were already on the outskirts of London, but even the noise of traffic did not deter Mrs. Walker from her monologue.
“I suppose it will mean now that every time you get hold of a girl you think may be this Smythe you’ll be pestering me to come and tell it isn’t I wish to goodness you’d get the business settled up. I mean it seems so ridiculous when you know who’s done it not to be able to make up your minds what he s Hone If I had your job for a couple of days I’m sure I shouldn’t be philandering about coming to see heaven knows who, when there’s a corpse to be cleared up somewhere. Besides, it will probably give this girl a nasty turn to have detectives bobbing up just when she’s going to have a cup of tea. Well, this looks like Delisle Street, so I suppose we’re there at last, and have got to face it out. Is this the house? I can’t say I much care for the whole business. You must do the talking, of course.”
“I’ll try,” sighed Stute, as we got out of the car.
The number given him proved to be that on a narrow doorway between two shops. A piece of paper was stuck on the woodwork beside the ’bells on which was written, “Please Walk Up,” so that we obeyed.
On the first floor the doors seemed fairly well painted, and on several of them were visiting cards in little brass slots. But as we went higher the place grew dingier, and less cared-for.
“Nice sort of a house to bring anyone to,” said Mrs. Walker bitterly. “You never know who might walk out of one of those doors. It’s like a film I saw, only worse.”
We reached a door on which there was a soiled piece of pink writing paper with the name “Miss Estelle Smythe” scribbled over it. Stute tapped.
Mrs. Walker beside me was breathing heavily either from excitement or the effort of climbing the stairs. But at first no sound came front within, and Stute tapped harder.
“Wait a minute, can’t you?” It was a shrill feminine voice, loud and irritable.
“Is it?” I whispered to Mrs. Walker.
“Shshsh!” she returned, her ear pressed forward, and her eyes blinking.
At last the door was opened, and I caught a glimpse of a girl with tousled hair, dressed in a kimono.
“What on earth . . .” she began, then, seeing Mrs. Walker, she gave a cry of indignation and horror, and tried to shut the door.
But Stute had pushed his foot forward. The girl shouted something. “Go away!” I think it was.
Then Mrs. Walker, nodding excitedly, exclaimed, “That’s her!” with more emphasis than grammatical precision, and we all surged forward into the room.