A Louse for the Hangman
‘The gentleman who was staying at the Duke of Suffolk,’ Mrs. Carker had said; ‘big check overcoat and red face.’ The words had remained in Carolus’s mind and he decided to see whether this visitor to the murdered man were still in the village. He admitted to himself that as yet he was floundering, trying out ideas, indulging in guesswork, prospecting, and had no sensible or coherent line of inquiry ahead of him. The fact that the first of the warning letters had been posted in London and the last in Highcastle suggested that a visitor may have come to the district whose connection with the case might well be established.
Carolus parked his Bentley in an empty area beside the Duke of Suffolk, a pub nearly as artfully restored as Highcastle Manor. He went into the saloon bar and ordered himself a whisky from a young woman wearing too much jewellery.
He knew this kind of pub: hidden lighting, miniature bottles, strings of coloured bulbs around the bar, a newly-bricked open fireplace with an artificial electric fire in it, beer-barrels cunningly carpeted and varnished to make tables and think linoleum in a design of old tiles. It was no more forbidding than other forms of pub decoration, the olde worlde, the chromium and neon light, the ship’s cabin or the yellow oak.
The only other customer was almost certainly his man. A check overcoat hung across the chair beside him and he had the red face noticed by Mrs. Carker; an unpleasant face, too, Carolus decided. A moment later any doubt in his identity was removed by the barmaid, who put down the Daily Mirror to say, “Going out today, Mr. Tramper?”
In a thick, ginny voice Tramper said, “Yes. I’ve got business to do.”
“Mmmm,” chanted that barmaid absently on two notes. She had that infuriating habit, not uncommon amongst barmaids, of keeping her eyes fixed on vacancy over the customers’ heads and speaking as though she had been unwittingly recalled from beautiful distances.
“Can’t spend all day here,” went on Tramper.”
“No. We close at two.”
Tramper laughed. He looked very much at home in this setting, his overcoat pulled and straining as he leant his bulk against the bar and his rather piggy eyes on the barmaid’s contours. Carolus knew his type, a small confidence trickster, petty swindler, undischarged bankrupt, probably, ready to steal from anyone who employed him, ready to swindle or blackmail. It was pretty certain that Tramper had done short terms of imprisonment and likely that he would do more.
“What are you on now? Still the advertisement space?”
“That’s it. Keeps me busy.”
“I can’t understand anyone taken in by it.”
“What d’you mean, ‘taken in’? It’s legitimate business. All right and proper.”
“Still, what do they get for their money?” the barmaid asked, apparently of the picture-rail on the opposite wall.
“They do all right. Give me another gin-and-pep, will you?”
Carolus could see several lines of approach which might be highly successful. He could cross to Tramper and say in a low voice, “Remember me? Brixton prison.” Or he could go up, shew his membership card of some club as though it were a C.I.D. carnet, and say, “Your name is Tramper, I think. I should like a word with you.” In the end he decided on one even more startling. He waited till another customer entered, then, while the barmaid was serving, stood directly in front of the man.
“What reason had you for calling Mr. Ratchett?” he asked, then watched the effect. There was an almost physical start, a quick look at Carolus, a look down, one towards the barmaid is though for help, a twitch and eventually the expected reply.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, that routine,” he said wearily. “At five o’clock on Monday March the thirtieth you called at the cottage occupied by Mr. Ratchett, Lord Penge’s secretary, and remained with him half an hour. What did you have to discuss?”
“Who are you?” asked Tramper uneasily.
“Just an inquisitive individual who knows of your visit to a man murdered two days later. What did you go and see him about?”
“I didn’t. I’ve never seen him.”
“Then you just walked into his empty cottage and spent half an hour there. You broke in, in fact. Why?”
“Nothing of the sort. I can’t remember every place I call at.”
“Oh, all right,” he said. “You’re under no obligation to answer me. I should have thought you would’ve seen that it was in your interest to do so.”
“What makes you think I called on Ratchett?”
“Let’s forget it,” said Carolus, turning away. He knew his man was on the hook.
“If I did call on anyone it would have been on business.”
“I’m an advertising salesman. Programmes, local leaflets . . .”
“That old racket? Do you still find mugs for that? But what possible interest could it have had for Mr. Ratchett?”
“His boss . . .”
“You aren’t seriously asking me to believe that you were trying to sell advertisement space for the products of Archer and Buck to Lord Penge here at his private house and through his private secretary?”
“You never know,” said Trapper, a little of his confidence returning.
“So you prefer not to tell me the reason for that call?”
“I’ve told you. Business.”
“Pity,” said Carolus, and paid for his whisky.
“If it was anything else I’d tell you,” said Tramper.
Carolus moved towards the door.
“You’re not supposing I had anything to do with the murder, are you?”
“Good day,” said Carolus.
“Just a minute . . .”
Carolus left the bar.
In the hall was a tall man of rather exaggeratedly military appearance who stopped him.
“Excuse me, I understand that you’re staying up at the Manor. Could you spare me a moment?”
They went into a comfortable office.
“I noticed you talking to that fellow. May I enquire if he is an acquaintance of yours?”
“I know something of him.”
“Very awkward. I don’t wish to presume on you, but I’d be most grateful if you could tell me anything you know about him.”
“He’s a liar,” said Carolus. “He’s working a sort of confidence trick which is just within the law.”
The landlord or manager looked worried.
“I am Major Stour,” he said. I own this place. Just taken it over, as a matter of fact. I don’t want any trouble here. This man Tramper came ten days ago and said he intended to stay for a couple of months. He hasn’t paid anything yet. The usual story—money arriving this week, and so on. I’m not so much worried about what he owes, but I don’t want all the business of seizing his bags and informing the police, and he shews no signs no sign of leaving.”
“I think he’s afraid to leave,” said Carolus. “He called on Ratchett, Lord Penge’s secretary, two days before he was murdered. Whether Tramper had anything to do with the murder or not, to move away so suddenly might involve him.”
“Good heavens! I didn’t know that.”
“Tell me, has he a typewriter?”
“Yes. But it’s not of much value. And out-of-date Hemington portable.”
“I see. He has a car?”
“No. Gracious no. I say, you don’t think the fellow is mixed up in that murder, do you?”
“I am very much at sea at present. I may be able to tell you more later.”
“Thanks. I don’t know what to do. It’s not pleasant having the fellow in the house.”
Carolus left him looking gloomy and hurried back to Highcastle Manor. He felt he would not be popular if he were late for lunch.
When he had survived the four or five courses of this he contrived to get Lord Penge to himself for some moments.
“Directed say anything to you about a man named Tramper?”
“Tramper? No. I don’t recall the name at all.”
“He has been staying at the Duke of Suffolk for about ten days.”
“No. I’ve heard nothing of him.”
“Did Ratchett mention receiving an unexpected visit?”
“He said something one day about a man coming to see him with a new line in obtaining money. I get a great many beggars, Deene, and not all through the post either. I often think it is one of the hypocrisies of the English that they feel superiority when they go abroad and see street-beggars. Is it worse to ask a man to his face for the price of a loaf of bread than to pester him by post, telephone and appointments made under false pretences? And not for the price of a loaf by any means. I have been asked for the expenses of a holiday in Bermuda, a pension for life, several repurchases of mortgages and the cost of educating countless children at expensive schools. I allot so much a year for charity and my firm’s accountant deals with appeals in consultation with my wife.”
“So this was a new form of begging?”
“No. Not begging by any means. A man came to Michael and informed him that his wife had died of ptomaine poisoning after eating one of our products. He could, he said, produce medical evidence in support of this. He had come to Michael because he thought I might like to settle the matter privately rather than through solicitors. It would cost me less this way, he said. Michael assured me that the fellow seriously thought we should pay him several thousand pounds.”
“He didn’t tell you his name or anything about him? ”
“Nothing at all. It was just the incident he recounted. He didn’t even say where he had seen the man.”
“It sounds very like this Tramper. On the other hand, Tramper arrived here on the day before the threatening letter was posted in Highcastle. Moreover, though this may be the most commonplace coincidence, he owns an old Hemington portable typewriter.”
“Indeed? And he is staying at the Duke of Suffolk. Ought we to inform the police of that?”
“Perhaps it would be as well. They’ll become aware of him soon in any case, because he looks like bilking the hotel.”
“Do you think it possible that he murdered Ratchett?”
“Possible, yes. I wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. He doesn’t look like a killer, but then killers rarely do.”
“I can’t see what object he could have in trying to kill me.”
Carolus could not resist this.
“Perhaps his wife really did die of ptomaine poisoning after eating an Archer and Buck product.”
Lord Penge smiled, not altogether agreeably. Then, after saying that he would get give police what information he could about Tramper, he left Carolus and made for his library.
Almost immediately Carolus found himself button-holed by Eustace.
“Look here, Mr. Deene. I can’t help being frank. I’m not at all satisfied that we’re doing all we can to protect my father.”
“You told me.”
“I don’t mean just the security arrangements. I mean in every way. Are you making any progress?”
“You mustn’t expect anything immediate from me. I know it is worrying for you to be unable to do anything and I know it must seem that I’m just dilatory. But the fact is, there’s only one way I can go about this, and that is by investigating the murder of Ratchett. That simply can’t be speeded up. It needs patience more than anything. Do you imagine, for instance, that if I had hurried into Mrs. Carker’s cottage, fired a few questions at her and rushed on to do something else I should have got any results this morning? Not for a moment. I learned a lot from Mrs. Carker, but only by letting her talk.”
“Yes. I see that. But . . .”
“I’ve got a lot of people to question yet. Of course I may not have to go right through the list. But the principle of the thing is there. I’ve got to find out who killed Ratchett. When I’ve done that the threats and problems will fall into place. I’ll move as fast as possible, but I can’t say more. It’s like asking a gardener to hurry his flowers. Whatever is at stake, I can only go one way about it. ”
“I do see your point. But if this man, whoever he is . . .”
“Yes. I suppose so. If this person strikes again before you’ve succeeded in identifying him . . .”
“I’m not a bodyguard. I came to solve a problem. You and the police must concern yourselves with protection. Let that be clear between us.”
“You mean you think there may be another attempt before you have finished investigating?”
“I think you should be prepared for it.”
“You take it very calmly.”
“Not at all. I am really concerned. In fact, as your Mrs. Carker says, this won’t do and I mustn’t stop here talking. Would you, I wonder, being so good as to walk with me to where Ratchett was shot? I haven’t yet seen the place.”
“Perhaps we could start from the french windows of the library, as Ratchett did.”
Their way took them first through the formal garden at the side of the house with its beautiful box edgings geometrically clipped and its fine urns and water-gardens. But soon they were out in the park itself following a footpath which, if it could not be described as well-worn, was certainly distinguishable. They made towards the nearest group of trees, and Carolus, counting his paces, found that these were five hundred and ten from the house. Before they reached the trees, however, they passed two ponds quite close together.
“It was in the nearer one that the rifle was found,” said Eustace. “And by the way, Scudd told my father this morning that they had checked, and it was Michael’s. They can’t tell exactly how long it had been in the water, but they think not more than a day or two, so it all fits in. It had been fired recently.”
They walked on for twenty yards to the first of the trees, a great chestnut with a wide fork about four feet from the ground.
“This is where the murderer stood, according to the theory of the police. Apparently they have found some scratches or marks in the bark which suggest that he rested the rifle here when he fired. It would be easy for him to have concealed himself.”
“Yes,” agreed Carolus, “but it means that Ratchett must have passed within six yards of him. Wouldn’t he have seen it was Ratchett and not your father?”
Carolus was interested to notice how firmly Eustace clung to the police theory.
“I don’t think so. It was a dark night.”
“Was it? At seven o’clock? I find that lighting-up time on that night was only six fifty-five. Surely there must have been enough light to recognize someone at this distance?”
“Possibly, but I think not. I remember how dark it was. And Michael may have been shot later than we think. No one is sure of the time—seven or half past is all we know. ”
“You were out at that time?”
“I . . . went down to the stables for a moment at about seven. I was worried about one of the horses. We had just ’phoned for a vet.”
“And you noticed the time?”
“But you did not hear the shops?”
“No. Everyone has been trying to work out what time that were fired. My father thinks about seven, but Piggott and Gribbley, who were in Gribbley’s rooms over the garage when they were fired, are convinced that it was nearly half an hour later when my father ’phoned for them.”
“Even so, I find it hard to believe that there was not enough light to recognize a man at this distance. If there wasn’t, how was it there was enough to enable the murderer to shoot him so accurately? I presume those pegs mark the spot where the body was found. It seems to have been fifteen yards away.”
“Ratchett seen from here would have been silhouetted, if you notice.”
“Yes. There is that. I see it’s possible. But I should like you to consider a few other contingencies. The murderer, whoever he was, might have been waiting, perhaps for several evenings, for your father to come out of the house. Your father occasionally walked over to Ratchett’s cottage by this route to have a drink before dinner, a chat with Ratchett and a walk back to the house for dinner. It seems unlikely that a murderer who had come, say from London, could have known this. It is more probable that such a man would have simply waited every evening after dark till your father should one day emerge, and when on Wednesday he at last appeared to do so, the murderer followed him from a safe distance. Mrs. Carker tells me that your father had not been across since Sunday last, so if I am right it would have had two nights at most of unsuccessful waiting. In that case he would not have used this tree. He would have been hurrying to come close enough and would have fired from where he stood.”
“I can only tell you what Scudd has told me. The angle of entry of the bullets, the distance from which the rifle is judged to have been fired, all suggest it.”
“Of course,” said Carolus, eyeing the young man rather closely, if the murderer knew your father’s habits really well—better than anyone outside the household could possibly know them—he might have waited on this spot to shoot him, knowing that he sometimes went across to Ratchett’s at this time for a drink. But as this is an innovation for your father, only someone who has observed an extremely closely and recently could possibly have taken the chance of waiting out here.”
“Yes. I see what you mean.”
“It is quite certain that he was shot in the back as he was going in this direction—that is, from the house to the cottage?”
“Oh, quite certain, I understand.”
“Tell me, when Ratchett came up to the house by car, where did his car usually stand while he was inside?”
“Before the front door.”
“So that since it wasn’t there that day, an observer might suppose that he hadn’t come up for his afternoons work?”
“It’s very puzzling.”
“You’re no farther on?”
“A little, perhaps,” said Carolus. “I’m still only theorizing, but at least I begin to see a possible theory.”