Case without a Corpse
Between Braxham and Chopley was a heath. You may call it a common, if you like, in fact you would be correct in doing so. But viewed on that February afternoon from the police car, it seemed so barren and forbidding that I was reminded of Macbeth and his three witches. It was, after all, the possible, the very possible, scene of a murder. Under one of the scrubby gorse-bushes which we could see might even now be lying the body of young Rogers’s victim.
It was not an enjoyable ride. Stute and Beef remained for the most part silent, and I watched the bleak miles go by, wondering why I spent my time in this odd way, and wishing, I’m afraid, that I was back in my comfortable London flat.
The distance was about ten miles, but we passed through no intermediate village. There were a few houses built near the road, and a disused windmill away to our right, but for the most part we kept away from humanity.
“’E could’ve done it out ’ere somewheres,” observed Beef suddenly.
“Undoubtedly, Sergeant. But there are a good many places in which he could have done it. It is our job to be definite. Now very soon we shall be able to follow most of his movements on that day. It seems, in fact, that we have only to visit sufficient licensed premises to complete it. We already know that he was in the Mitre at 2.15 and the Dragon at 6.10. I hope to-night we can draw up a time-table of his day. That will be a step forward. You see? Order. Method. You can’t beat it.”
The steeple of Chopley Church was before us now, and we all looked ahead. At the entrance to the village a constable stood beside his bicycle, and Stute drew the car up to him. The constable saluted.
“I was expecting you, sir. Mrs. Walker’s who you want. Go right through the village, and bear to the left at the fork. You’ll find her cottage about a hundred yards down on the right. Rose Cottage, it’s called.”
“Thank you. What’s your name?”
Stute nodded, and drove on. “I was afraid it might be Kipling or Stevenson,” he said aside to Beef.
“’Ow did ’e know wot we was after?” Beef asked.
“There is such a thing as a telephone. And while you were taking your hour and five minutes for lunch, Sergeant, I made use of it. It has saved us time, you see, and time’s everything. Here we are.”
We had stopped at the gate of a small square cottage standing back from the road. There was a sign-board hanging in front of us on which the words “Teas. Refreshments. Accommodation for Cyclists,” appeared, while on the gate was the name Rose Cottage.
I was growing a little tired of these interviews with publicans and landladies, carried out in the hope of completing what Stute called “a time-table” of young Rogers’s movements. I had not the same passion for time-tables, lists, method and order, as Stute had. And when I saw Mrs. Walker, the woman we were about to question, I felt even less anxious for another of these contacts.
She was red-headed, middle-aged, and aggressive. Indeed she had come out of her cottage before we had reached the gate, and began to talk before even Stute could address her.
“So you’ve come at last,” she said as she hurried down the path towards us, looking rather ,, untidy and unkempt, “I’ve been waiting in for you all day, though I might have known that the police would leave this till last when they ought to have come here first. And when I think of that poor murdered girl. . . .”
“We should like to ask you several questions,” said Stute frigidly.
“Yes. And there are some questions I should like to ask you! ” said Mrs. Walker as she led the way into Rose Cottage. “Letting a girl get murdered and then not even knowing why or where, and not troubling to come here and find out. I call it nothing short of wicked. Why, anyone might have her throat cut in her bed, and you wouldn’t trouble to lift a finger for two or three days, let alone find out who had done it. I could have told you from the start all about this if you had just come to see me, but there you are, everywhere but where you’re wanted, it’s always the way.”
“I’m sure your evidence will be very valuable, Mrs. Walker. Now. . . .”
“Of course it will. Don’t I know the whole circumstances from the time he brought her down here first, and told me they were married? I could see what he was then, the young blackguard, and that poor girl. . . .”
“How long ago would that have been?” asked Stute.
It seemed that both he and Beef had given up all hope of asking her formal questions, and were resigned now to allowing her talk to flow on, hoping to deflect it now and again into the channels which interested them.
“How long ago? I’m sure I couldn’t say. Wait a minute, though. It was just after Christmas. It must have been two years ago. There was that heavy fall of snow if you remember, and they was fooling about with snow-balls in the front here. That gave them away if nothing else did. Who ever heard of a married couple snowballing one another. So I knew very well what it was, and what he was, too, the young scoundrel. But I held my tongue and waited, though I often heard of his goings-on from a lady friend of mine from Braxham who comes over now and again, and told me how he was took up by the Sergeant over there a couple of months ago for being drunk and disorderly and I don’t know what else.”
“But . . .”
“Wait a minute, can’t you? I must have time to tell you what I know. You’ve waited long enough before coming to hear it, it won’t hurt you to wait a few seconds longer while I get my breath. What was my surprise when a month ago I got a letter from that poor girl whose body’s lying out on the common at this minute getting frozen while you’re sitting here, asking me if I could tell her anything about that Rogers. She said I should remember who she was because she was the girl who’d come down with him before, which of course I did. The letter gave me a nasty turn, as you can imagine, to think it had happened here, and I wrote back telling her what I knew about him and that as I’d found out from my friend in Braxham he’d been home on leave again before long, and that he was nephew to the old Rogerses. So she wrote back and said she’d like to tackle him in person, and could I let her a room for a few days while he was home so that she could be on the spot which like a fool I said I could, little thinking I should be bringing the poor girl down to her death.”
“Have you kept those letters of hers, Mrs. Walker?”
“No. Of course I haven’t. Whatever should I want to keep letters for? There’s enough litter in a place like this without letters. But what I was going to say was she came down and having written to young Rogers, she was waiting for him to come over. She said she’d got letters from him written when they was carrying on, saying he wanted to marry her, and she meant to make him behave decently by her, particularly when I told her what I’d heard from my friend in Braxham that he was carrying on with that Cutler girl. Well, on the Tuesday night she went to a dance at the village hall here with a commercial gentleman who was staying in the house and didn’t get back till late. She’d told me earlier she was going and didn’t want to be disturbed next day till twelve o’clock at the earliest, and if young Rogers came over I was to tell him so. And on the Wednesday sure enough he did come over in the morning. . . .”
“What time?” put in Stute, courageously.
“Time? I can’t really say. It must have been round about eleven because the butcher’s van was just about leaving as he came up on his motor-bike, and the butcher’s very regular in his time. Well, this young Rogers speaks as though he’s never seen me before, though of course he knew me from the time he’d brought the girl here before, and asks if she’s in. So I told him she couldn’t be disturbed before midday, and he got quite nasty about it, and said he hadn’t got time to hang about here all the morning for her. So I told him to please himself and he didn’t like that either, but he saw it was no good, so he said he’d got to lunch with someone but he’d come back that afternoon, and if she wanted to see him she’d better be in, and off he goes on his motor-bike at a terrible speed, and I went up to tell Miss Smythe what he’d said.”
“What impression had you of Miss Smythe?”
“Well, she was a bit stagey of course and all that, but you can’t blame a girl for doing the best she can for herself nowadays, especially when it’s a young fellow like this Rogers who’d treat anyone like dirt if he got the chance. He was back here at four o’clock and I gave them tea and left them to it. What was my surprise an hour later. . . .”
“In the meantime you had heard nothing of what had passed between them?”
“Certainly not. I never listen to other people’s conversation, besides the wall between the tearoom and the kitchen is too thick to hear anything and whenever I went into the room they shut up like deckchairs and waited till I’d shut the door before they went on with what they were saying. But after an hour or so, Miss Smythe comes out to me and says everything’s settled and she’s going back to London. It wasn’t my business and I hoped she’d arranged matters satisfactory, but I only said very well, and that I’d get her bill out for her, which I did and she paid it at once when she’d come down from packing her bag.”
“What sort of bag?”
“Oh, she only had a sort of attach case with her, which didn’t take her long to put together, and there she was ready to go. I asked her what train she was going to catch, and she said that young Rogers was going to take her into Braxham to get the six o’clock that being the fast. I said she seemed in a hurry to get back to London, and she said she was. She wasn’t used to the country, she said, and didn’t care much for it, which is small wonder when you come to think of it because it couldn’t be much quieter than what it is down here. . . .”
“So they went off together? What was she wearing?”
“She had on a sort of white mackintosh affair, rather smart. She was sitting behind him holding on round his waist. He was all dressed up in a black oilskin such as they use for motor-cycling. She was sitting on her attach case which she said didn’t matter because it was an old one, and as it’s turned out of course it didn’t, poor girl, nor did anything else once that fellow had got her out on the Common and gone for her. . . .”
“But what makes you so certain, Mrs. Walker, that he killed her?”
“Certain? Well, what else can anyone think? I read in the papers how he confessed to killing someone, and she’s never been seen again, has she? Besides, he had his reasons, when the girl was trying to get her due. Of course he killed her, and if you’d only take the trouble you’d find her body out there somewhere at this minute.”
“Perhaps you’d be surprised to hear, Mrs. Walker, that there are at least two other persons unaccounted for, either of whom may be the one murdered?”
For a moment I thought that Mrs. Walker at last was flummoxed. But she was equal to it.
“Oh no,” she said, “I shouldn’t be surprised. Not if there were a dozen, I shouldn’t. That fellow was capable of murdering all three of them you mention, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if he hadn’t done it!”
That was certainly a new and startling point of view.