Chapter I





It was one of the loveliest days of a lovely summer, and Detective-Constable Bobby Owen, B.A. (Oxon. pass degree only), as he jogged placidly along on a brand-new motor-cycle (Government property) at a quiet forty or fifty m.p.h., with an occasional burst up to seventy or eighty when he was quite sure there were no traffic police about, was almost able to persuade himself that after all there are on this earth, though rare, worse jobs than police jobs.

He was even not indifferent to the fact that he was wearing a new and expensive suit, cut by a first-class tailor and paid for by a generous country, whose head presumably had been a little turned by a recent announcement of a possible Budget surplus. Even the contents of the suit-case strapped on behind—dinner-jacket and so on, all very smart and new—had been provided for him in the same way; and, though he had no doubt his chief, Superintendent Mitchell, would jolly well make him work for them, at any rate he had no tailor’s bill to fear—the happy, happy youth.

There appeared before him by the roadside Ye Olde Englyshe Petrol Pumpe Station for which he had been instructed to look out. He passed, and took the next turning north, a by-road that led to Deneham, the smart little east coast resort that had recently been winning favour by its stern refusal of hospitality to trippers—for whom, besides, its rather remote situation made it lack attractiveness, so there was no risk of hard feeling on either side. A mile or so along this road Bobby came to a small tea garden, a lonely, forlorn-looking little place, though bravely announcing itself as Ye Olde Sunke Tudor Tea Garden, presumably in a fine, frenzy of rivalry with Ye Olde Englyshe Petrol Pumpe Station on the main road. Here Bobby alighted, parked his nice new motor-cycle in a convenient shed provided for the purpose, noted with a slight involuntary shudder that shrimps were fourpence a plate, sixpence shelled, and understood at once what strange subtle odour it was had mingled with the scent of the roses and the honeysuckle growing around. In the garden—why it was called “sunke” did not appear—were half a dozen tables with attendant chairs, all in rickety wicker. He seated himself at one, and ordered tea and toast and eggs to satisfy an appetite his long ride from London had provided with a fine edge. But the toast was a mistake, toast in “ye olde Tudor” days having evidently been chiefly used for roof repairs.

However, the eggs were new laid in the literal, not the commercial, sense—that is, they had come into being that same morning; and, if the tea were stewed, Bobby’s young life, that had progressed from a well-known public school to an Oxford college and thence to London lodgings, had given him no knowledge or experience of tea that was not well and truly stewed.

So he drank it contentedly, enjoyed his new-laid eggs, and, if the toast baffled him who did not easily acknowledge defeat, he made a good exchange of it for plain bread and butter. This simple repast completed, he was about to light a cigarette when he heard a car approaching. Reflecting that Superintendent Mitchell smoked excellent cigars, and, since it was a fine day, since there was no specially case on at the moment, and since, above all, the Assistant Commissioner was away on a holiday, might well prove in a liberal and generous mood, Bobby hurriedly put his own gaspers away and hoped for the best. Then he rose respectfully to his feet as there entered the garden that redoubtable personage, his chief, Superintendent Mitchell, the biggest of the “big four,” as the papers called them, who were at the moment in charge of the destinies of the Scotland Yard C.I.D.

Following him was a tall, thin man with a narrow, lined face, hair that seemed prematurely grey—for he did not look much more than halfway between forty and fifty—and a complexion tanned a dull brick-brown by presumably a sun hotter than that this climate usually provides. Bobby guessed he would be Major Markham, formerly of the Indian cavalry, and now Chief Constable of Deneshire, in accordance with the happy rule that a thorough grounding in drill, especially cavalry drill, is the best possible preparation for police work. They came across to where Bobby was waiting, and Mitchell nodded pleasantly.

“Constable Owen,” he explained to his companion. “He was with me in the sun-bathing case, and he was with me, too—or I was with him, I never quite knew which—in the Christopher Clarke case—‘Hamlet in Modern Dress,’ as some of the newspaper wits called it.”

“Some smart work in those cases,” remarked Major Markham, with an approving glance at Bobby.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say Owen was quite the thickest-headed of my men,” confessed Mitchell. “Of course, we’ve got to wait and see what a few more years’ red tape and officialdom will do to him. Ruin him, probably. Why, I used to be thought quite smart myself, and now you ought to hear what the junior ranks say about me when I’m not there. ‘Premature senile decay,’ when they’re in their more kindly moods. Well, what about toast and an egg, Major? The young and greedy,” he added, with a glance at the remnants of Bobby’s meal, “probably have two and expect the British taxpayer to stand for their gluttony.”

Bobby hesitated for a moment between the dictates of a naturally kind heart and that profound instinct which leads us all to wish that others should fall into the trap wherein we ourselves have been taken. But his good heart won and he told them about that toast, compared with which cold steel and toughened iron were but as melting butter.

So they thanked him, and Bobby unostentatiously allowed his bill to drift away towards the Superintendent’s plate, just in case Mitchell felt inclined to pay it and include it in that expense sheet which, when submitted by superintendents, suffers so little from the red ink that fairly floods those of lesser men.

Neither Superintendent nor Chief Constable seemed hungry, however, and, their brief meal dispatched, Major Markham produced his cigar-case, and offered it to Mitchell, who, however, begged to be allowed this time to be excused, as his doctor had recently confined him to an allowance already exceeded. But he hinted benevolently that his young assistant, Owen, always enjoyed a good cigar. A little surprised at such thoughtfulness on the part of his senior officer, Bobby accepted one from the case the Major thereupon offered, and Mitchell smiled more benevolently still and offered a light.

“Import ’em myself,” said the Major proudly, and only then did Bobby realise that what he had accepted was a cheroot of almost unimaginable strength, a strength before which Jack Dempsey or Carnera would have seemed mere babes and weaklings. “Nothing like ’em in the country,” added the Major, even more proudly.

“I tried to get some of the same sort,” confessed Mitchell. “I was told they were hard to get, being chiefly stored for use to wake any of the dead who mayn’t notice the last trump.”

Major Markham perpended.

“I don’t see why,” he announced finally.

“I think Owen does,” observed Mitchell. “Will you give him his instructions while he’s enjoying his smoke? Do you know, I think I’ll defy the doctor and have a cigarette. One little cigarette can’t hurt me, and I can’t stand seeing you two enjoying a smoke the way you are and me not.”

“I’ll remember this cigar,” Bobby confessed, “till my dying day.”

“I’ll give you another before you go,” promised the Major, much gratified.

“About his instructions,” suggested Mitchell again.

“Well, it’s this way,” began the Major, and hesitated. “You see,” he said and stopped. “The fact is—” he commenced again, and subsided once more into silence.

“Yes, sir,” said Bobby, laying down his cheroot with an air of intense interest.

“Now, now, Owen,” Mitchell warned him, “don’t get carried away and forget your cigar. A good cigar is spoilt by re-lighting.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bobby, with a malignant look at his superior that the superior returned with a sweet and gentle smile.

“What we actually want you to do,” Major Markham continued slowly, “as Mr. Mitchell has been good enough to lend you to us, is to go and stay for a month or six weeks or so with a Mr. George Winterton. He’s a retired businessman; former stockbroker, I believe; quite well off, interested in crosswords and economics—he’s writing a book on economics, he says, and crossword puzzles are his great hobby. He has a house overlooking Suffby Cove. Fairview, it’s called.”

“As much bathing, fishing, boating as you like,” said Mitchell enthusiastically. “Jobs like that never came my way when I was a youngster.”

“No, sir,” said Bobby, waiting patiently to know where the snag was.

“Mr. Winterton’s a bachelor,” the Major went on. “There’s a butler and housekeeper—man and wife they are—and there’s a gardener whose wife helps in the house. A girl comes in every day from the village, and there’s a secretary, a Miss Raby, who lives in the house and helps with the book. There are three nephews—Colin Ross, Miles Winterton, and James Matthews. Miles Winterton is an engineer, a P.W. man, but out of a job at present. He is staying with his uncle till something turns up, I suppose. Colin Ross is a racing man, and seems to use his uncle’s house as headquarters, staying there when he’s not attending race-meetings. I gather he pays for his keep by putting his uncle on a good thing occasionally. James Matthews seems the black sheep of the family, as he’s an artist and lives in Paris.”

Major Markham evidently felt that, having said this, he had said all. But Bobby felt there must be more to come, for so far there seemed no reason why the assistance of Scotland Yard should have been invoked.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Well, you see,” continued the Major, “it sounds rather absurd, but he’s applied for police protection . . .”

“And as he has a pal who’s an M.P., sits for a London constituency,” observed Mitchell darkly—for, though he was a kindly man, and could run in a burglar or a pickpocket as though he loved him, yet he did draw the line at M.P.’s, concerning whom his cherished theory was that as soon as elected they should be sent to serve their term, not at Westminster, but at Dartmoor. “Then they couldn’t do any harm or ask any questions either,” he used to say. He added now, still more darkly: “You know what M.P.s are, getting up in the House and wanting to know, and then there’s an urgent memo from the Home Office.”

“I don’t think,” observed Major Markham, a little coldly—for he had visions of being an M.P. himself some day—“that that affects the case. Every citizen has a right to ask for protection. As it happened, however, there wasn’t one of my own men I could send very well. There would have been a risk of his being recognised; and then there is another reason as well. So I asked Mr. Mitchell to arrange to lend me one of his best men—”

“I had to explain,” interposed Mitchell quickly, “I hadn’t one available; so he said, well, practically anyone would do, and so then I thought of you, Owen.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Bobby meekly.

“You’re to be,” explained Major Markham, “the son of an old business friend of Mr. Winterton’s. He hasn’t met you before, but for your father’s sake he is anxious to make your acquaintance.”

“I see, sir,” said Owen, “but I don’t quite understand what he wants protection against.”

“Against murder,” Major Markham answered; and the word had a strange, grim sound in the peace of that quiet garden, where the roses and the honeysuckle grew in such profusion, where it seemed the still and scented air should be troubled by nothing worse than the buzz of a passing wasp or the hum of a hungry gnat. “Against murder,” Major Markham repeated; “it seems he thinks that last month, when he lost his brother, that was murder.”