A Bone and a Hank of Hair
As soon as he entered his home, he realized that something was very much amiss. It was not just a reproachful or a baffled look which Mrs. Stick gave him, but one of real anger and despair. He was accustomed to her being put out by visitors connected with his cases, even to her threatening to leave if he became involved in ‘those nasty murders’, but he had never seen the little woman look so ominously fierce as now. She said nothing till he was comfortably settled by the fire then she brought out the ultimatum:
“I’m sorry, sir, but we must give you a month’s notice. And if you could find anyone else in the meantime, we should be glad.”
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Stick?”
“You know very well what’s the matter, sir. We ought never to have stayed on after the last time.”
“But I don’t know,” said Carolus truthfully.
“Scotland Yard this time. It was bad enough when it was the police from round here and everyone knowing they was in and out. This one’s got Criminal Investigation Department on his card.”
“Is that more serious?”
“You’ll excuse me, sir, but you’re very well aware it’s serious. For all me and Stick was to know, he’s come to take you for interfering with things that are no concern of yours. He said he’d be back at five o’clock this afternoon, and I’m sure I don’t know where to put myself for asking what he’s coming for. Then there’s my married sister to think of. She always seems to hear of anything like this and it causes Talk. I told you the last time, sir, we should have to go and now we shall. I’m sure neither Stick nor me would ever have wanted to leave you otherwise, but if there’s one thing I don’t like it’s murder.”
“I do so agree with you,” said Carolus. “And what little I can do to defeat it I do.”
“I’m not saying your intentions aren’t good, sir, but it’s the Talk. I was only saying to Stick, they’ll say we’re murderers next. No, sir, I’m very sorry, but this time we’ve made up our minds.
The bell rang. “There you are!” said Mrs. Stick. “My heart jumps into my mouth every time I hear it. I suppose this is that policeman again.”
Detective Inspector Mullard of New Scotland Yard was an altogether new kind of policeman for Carolus. Tall, grey-haired, businesslike, he had, as Carolus learnt later, risen to be a major in SIB during the war. He had a domineering manner and was evidently accustomed to dealing with people who were in awe of him.
“Mr. Deene? I have been trying to get in touch with you for two days. Mr. Colin Humbell of Coleshill Lodge, Bolderton, gave me your name.”
“Oh, yes. Do sit down.”
“I gathered from him that you had suggested removing the floor of his summer-house and digging there. May I ask why, Mr. Deene?”
“Curiosity,” said Carolus. He had decided to fence a little till Mullard could see that his own position was not impregnable.
“I see. You realize, of course, that what you have been doing comes very near to obstructing the police?”
“I realize nothing of the sort. I have already given you considerable assistance and may be prepared to assist you further. But not if you adopt this somewhat hectoring manner.”
“I believe you consider yourself a private investigator of some kind?”
“I am a schoolmaster interested in criminology.”
“You think that warrants your interference in a very grave case like this? From what I have heard, you may well be charged with complicity.”
“Really, Inspector, you have mistaken your man. Let’s stop talking like two politicians at a summit meeting and come to realities. I am interested in this case and I’ve no wish to keep any information to myself. It has, in fact, reached a stage where there’s nothing much more I can do. Getting convictions is police work.”
Mullard seemed to consider.
“Look at it from my point of view,” he said. “I am handed a case. Woman’s skull unearthed in a garden at Bolderton . . .”
“So it was a woman’s skull.”
Mullard ignored this.
“Previous occupant of the house recently disappeared with his wife, leaving talk in a Kentish village. A nasty-looking case and one on which I should want to concentrate everything I’ve got. Then what do I find? The skull has been unearthed at the suggestion of a private investigator who had kept watch in the house on the previous night and seen a woman enter the garden. Moreover, I find on inquiry that you were in occupation of the country cottage from which Rathbone disappeared at the time when the local CID were searching it. You must own it’s an absurd situation.”
“I don’t see it. If I wanted to hold back relevant information—was in fact one of these honour and glory boys one reads about—I can see it would be tiresome; but I’m not. I’ll tell you anything you like that I know about the people in this case. My position is quite unequivocal. I was asked by a relative to discover what had happened to a woman called Anne Rathbone, formerly Anne Bright. I have discovered. What remains of her is on your desk at the yard, a particularly nasty looking skull. You had no difficulty in identifying it?
“I’ll ask any questions that are going to be asked, Mr. Deene. How did you know it would be buried at Bolderton.”
“Now you’re asking me not about the case but about my own simple methods. That, I’m afraid, won’t do.”
It was clear that Mullard had the greatest difficulty in controlling his temper, but he was intelligent enough to see that it would pay him. After a silence he said rather grudgingly: “Yes. As a matter of fact it was Anne Rathbone’s skull. The dentist was able to tell us that. Expert opinion gives it more than five years underground. Now, perhaps, you can tell me where I can find Rathbone?”
“Yes, I can do that. He is masquerading as an artist or writer or something under the name of Osbert Auden. He has taken Penzanvoze Cottage at Pentragon Bay in Cornwall. He was certainly there yesterday. But I don’t know what he is using for money.”
“He drew his lot at Folkestone. Quite a considerable sum. I won’t ask you how you know he’s in Cornwall, but what’s this about masquerading?”
“Just taking the colour of his surroundings. If you want to look like a member of a Cornish art colony, you don’t wear a pinstripe suit. His last impersonation was of Colonel Hood, a very spruce military gentleman. He has a mobile sort of face and by simply shaving his moustache and pulling his hair down under his beret and putting on corduroys in the train lavatory he became a new man. He was fond of amateur theatricals once, you know.”
“I didn’t know. I have only just been given this case,” said Mullard aggrievedly. “So you think we can arrest him there?”
“If you want to arrest him, yes.”
“Of course I want to arrest him. He’ll be convicted for sure.”
“That depends on the charge,” said Carolus mildly.
But Mullard paid no attention to this.
“Do you mind if I use your telephone?” he asked.
Carolus shewed him where it was and carefully closed the door on him. He could guess what call Mullard wished to make and he did not think it would do much to pacify Mrs. Stick if she heard instructions to arrest a man for murder.
“Anne Rathbone is only the beginning of this,” he observed coolly when Mullard returned. “What do you intend to do about the other women?”
“I hope you’re not being funny, Mr. Deene, because I find this case far from funny. The other women?”
“For the sake of convenience I have thought of them as the first, second and third Mrs. Rathbone. I’ll have to be traced, won’t they?”
“If you mean the woman who was with him at Bluefield, our people have known for some time that she wasn’t the one he originally married. But you said ‘women’.”
“Yes. I was thinking of the second Mrs. Rathbone. The Hastings one.”
“You’d better tell me about that,” said Mullard ungraciously.
“This is pretty dreadful,” said Mullard. “Another of these Christie cases.” Then he asked as though he feared the answer: “Any more?”
“I think we had better have a drink,” said Carolus. “Scotch?”
“I don’t know whether there are any more. Anne Rathbone had a sister who seems to have died rather suddenly. She was on the streets.”
He told Mullard about Frenchy. Mullard made a sound which could fairly be described as a groan.
“The father, Herbert Bright, tried to prevent Rathbone marrying Anne. He also died suddenly. Ptomaine poisoning was given as the cause, I believe.”
While Mullard was taking notes of these details, Carolus added, “You know that Rathbone was once employed by Tonkins Sons and Company. They are wholesale chemists.”
“Yes, I knew that,” said Mullard, writing busily. “I should be glad to hear anything else you may have to tell me.”
Carolus told him about Mrs. Chalk, the villagers’ recollections at Bluefield, Mumford the solicitor and his clerk, Miss Ramble’s curious reminiscences, ‘Old Maree’ and Elizabeth, Villiers, the Lascelles Private Hotel and Mrs. Richards. He talked slowly enough for Mullard to make his notes.
“I suppose I ought to say I’m grateful to you,” said the Inspector. “I should have come to all this in time, but it will save me some work.”
Carolus did not, however, mention Sloane Gillick. For one thing, the police would have investigated the question of fingerprints; for another he did not want to cause trouble for Gillick, whose position as a private consultant now that he had retired might not be approved by Mullard and others in office. Nor did he mention Mrs. Myberg because, not having talked to her yet, he did not know whether her information would be useful. Moreover, Carolus gave no opinion of his own nor hint of how he saw the case. He had undertaken to tell Mullard such facts as he knew and he did so. He then thought it was time to venture on a few questions of his own.
“You say that Rathbone withdrew the money he had in the Folkestone bank. This would include, presumably, the sum he received for his wife’s life interest in the capital left by her father?”
“Yes. We have only just got the handwriting-boys on to the signature of ‘Anne Rathbone’ which has been used for the last six years, but there can be no possible doubt (in view of the identification of the skull) that it is a forgery.”
“It was an easy signature to forge, I understand, Anne had almost childish handwriting.”
“Would you get your people to compare it with the signature used at Mumford’s office? I should be interested to know whether they were forged by the same hand.”
Mullard made another note.
“Was anything else found under the summer-house at Coleshill Lodge?”
“Nothing. It isn’t a pleasant thought, but we think the remainder of the body was burnt. There have been cases of that, you know, in which the skull has not been included. There were no houses near the lodge when the Rathbones lived there and the destruction of most of a body by fire would prevent no great difficulty.”
“Not, as you say, a pleasant thought.”
“Mind you our people haven’t been idle, Mr. Deene. We have a fairly complete record of Rathbone’s life up to the time of his marriage.”
“That must be interesting.”
“It’s not quite what you would expect. He was born in 1908 at Lewisham, the only son of a fairly prosperous chemist who was also a Deacon at the local chapel called the Tabernacle of Mount Sion Reformed. His mother was a woman of strong character who dominated his early life. When Brigham Rathbone was fourteen, she died and left him without the support, guidance and discipline to which he was accustomed. His father was remote and far too old for you, and there seems to have been no other relatives or close friends of the family. Most of this information, by the way, comes from a very intelligent woman, now the welfare officer of an immense concern, who was brought up in the same street as Rathbone. Their parents were either next-door neighbours or very near it.
“So Rathbone, left without the strong hand on his mother, drifted into a sort of inertia. He was at a large Secondary School then, but was expelled for cheating in a public examination. Rather harsh, you may think, but he had been in trouble several times before. He became a weak and rather timid kind of loafer. His father made several attempts to get into work for himself or others, but they were not successful. This seems to have continued for some years till his father decided to retire. He sold the shop for a very modest sum in 1927 and lived only five years more. He left almost everything to theTabernacle of Mount Sion Reformed, and Rathbone found himself, for the first time in his life, under the necessity of working.
“One thing that seems to emerge from all this is that, when the fellow needed for his own comfort to get something done, he could do it. He was bone-lazy but not altogether incompetent. He went to the firm which had been his father’s chief suppliers, Tonkins Sons and Company, and secured a job for himself. It was a comfortable rather old-fashioned business, and Rathbone, who managed to avoid war service on medical grounds, remained there, just keeping his job with the minimum effort, for fourteen years till he married Anne Bright.”
“It’s not a very inspiring record, is it?” commented Carolus. “I should like to hold it up to some of my pupils as ‘an awful example of laziness in boyhood’, ending as it has.
Mullard accepted another drink. He was considerably mellowed not by the whisky but by Carolus’s readiness to give him information and particularly, Carolus thought, for enabling him to arrest Rathbone.
“What I want to ask you about,” he said confidentially, is the woman in the garden at Bolderton. Who was she, Deene?”
“I could not see her face,” said Carolus. “I just saw her disappearing into the shrubbery.”
“Tall or short?”
“Impossible to say. I had only the moonlight to see by and that was not the sparkling clear moonlight of a frosty night. But there is something which may help you in this. The proprietress of the Lascelles Private Hotel told me that ‘Colonel Hood’ had been visited on several occasions lately by a woman.”
I see,” said Mullard making another note. “And you think it is the same one who entered the garden?”
“Surely what I think can’t be of much help to you, Inspector?”
“No, I suppose not. But you must have some opinion about the identity of the woman in the garden?”
“Oh, yes, I have. But I want to give you facts, not opinions. The facts here are that I just saw female attire and could not see more; but there is something that may help you. A car was waiting round the corner; I heard it driven away.”
“A taxi, you think?”
“Can’t say. But it would be an odd sort of taxi that would go all the way out to Bolderton in the small hours and wait in a residential street while its fare disappeared round the corner for a while.”
“When I said a taxi, Mullard argued, “I meant a hired car of some kind. Rathbone’s car, as you know, was left abandoned in London when he first disappeared. If he was driving that night, he must have hired one.”
“Then you don’t need me to tell you that it can easily be traced.”
“Not easily, Mr. Deene. All these things take time and trouble. Our men are overworked as it is. But it probably can be traced.”
“Just as with your resources and authority you could get further details of the death of Lucille French at 16b Montgolfier Street, five years ago.”
“I suppose we could, if we had any reason to do so.”
“You see, Inspector, our points of view are fundamentally different. You want to convict Rathbone of the murder of Anne and hang him for it. You may be quite right in the usual view that a man can only hang once, so one murder’s enough to convict him of. But I am a congenitally inquisitive person. I want to know all about the second and third Mrs. Rathbone, if you’ll forgive the loose terminology. I want to know about Frenchy. I don’t want there to be a factual question about the case I can’t answer.”
That’s all right,” said Mullard, rising. “Only keep out of my hair. I’ve got a tough job, as you know. I don’t say I’m not grateful to you, but I’ve got to get down to realities.”
“Quite. By the way, before you go you can do me a small favour. I’ll get my housekeeper to shew you out. You might tell her you came to consult me about sending your son to the Queen’s School or wanted to discuss a point of history or a chess problem, or that we were in the army together. Whatever seems most probable to you. She gave me notice when she saw your card.”
Mullard smiled. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. When Mrs. Stick appeared. Carolus realized that in this at least the detective was not without ingenuity.
“I wasn’t to know that was one of the boys fathers, was I, sir? It’s what happened before makes me think things. And fancy him wanting you to give his son special coaching! Mr. Hollingbourne won’t like that, will he? I’m sorry if I spoke Hasty, but it’s the Talk we’re so afraid of. I suppose the man can’t help being in the police, but it does give us a bad name, their calling here. Still, this time there’s no bones broken, is there? Now I’ve got a nice omelette oak sham pig nons for you with a rag out de buff to follow.”