by E. Charles Vivian









 A sleety rain drove against the window of Superintendent Wadden’s office as the Superintendent stripped off his dripping waterproof, removed his uniform cap, and hung both articles on the stand in the corner of the room. Then, with a brief commination on the state of the weather, he turned to his desk, and observed the papers laid ready there for his inspection.

“Uh-huh!” he commented. “That all, Jeffries?”

“Except that Mr. Enthwaite of Carden wants you to ring him directly you get in, sir,” the constable answered.

“Oh, does he? What’s his trouble?”

“He wouldn’t say, sir. But he said it was very urgent.”

“Potts again,” Wadden reflected. “That man would poach pheasants in Hades if the devil preserved game. All right, Jeffries— tell Sergeant Wells to get through to him and put the call in here—”

He broke off at sight of the sergeant in his doorway.

“Miss Cummins wants to see you, sir,” Wells announced.

“Eh? All right, and Enthwaite can wait. Fetch her in.”

Respect for his caller induced him to keep on his feet, instead of lowering his eighteen stone into the swivel chair at his desk. Miss Cummins, better known to Westingborough and the surrounding district as Little Nell, entered the room and faced him. He stood just six feet in height, but her eyes were level with his own under her crown of golden curls; somewhere in the late thirties or early forties, she had come as barmaid to the “Duke of York,” the principal hotel in the town, ten years or more before: old Bragg, the then proprietor, had promoted her to the post of manageress within a year, and now, to quote Wadden himself, she was not so much a woman as an institution.

But, for this once, she gave no hint of the quiet efficiency with which she ruled the “Duke of York.” What should have been a neat linen morning frock was crumpled and stained by some fluid that had not yet dried from breast to knees: her hair was less tidy than usual, and there was a look of stark fear in her eyes.

“Oh, Mr. Wadden!” she said shakily. “A man stabbed—in the hotel.”

Long habit prompted Wadden to glance at the clock on the wall, and he registered the time as five minutes past nine.

“Take it easy, Miss Cummins,” he advised gently, “I felt things were too quiet to last so. This man—injured, or dead?”

“Dead—in his room.” She made little more than a whisper of it.

“Dead, eh?” He raised his voice, for both Jeffries and Sergeant Wells had retreated from the room. “Oh, Wells? Tell Inspector Head I want him here, at once. Now—” he reverted to a normal tone—“just sit down, Miss Cummins, and take all the time you want. If the man’s dead—any idea of how it happened, though?”

“I—I think I know,” she said, and dropped down on the chair that he drew forward, just as Inspector Head, a tall, kindly-looking man neatly dressed in ordinary civilian attire, appeared in the doorway.

“Come in, Head,” the Superintendent invited. “Miss Cummins has got a man stabbed to death over at the hotel, she tells me. How long is it since you found out about him, Miss Cummins?”

“About half an hour, I think,” she answered, glancing up at Head.

“Half an hour?” Wadden echoed incredulously.

“Yes. I’ve been attending to Annie Green since then—that’s why—why I’m in such a mess. She took—took up his early tea, and when she saw him lying there she dropped the tray and fell down in a fit. I’d no idea she was an epileptic before. Two fits in succession, and I couldn’t leave her till Doctor Bennett got there. I—Oh, it’s so terrible! I didn’t think to send anyone before.”

“We’ll both go over, Head, at once, I think,” Wadden suggested. “If you don’t mind, Miss Cummins, you’d better come with us. Bennett, I take it, will be there ready for us if we want him.” He glanced at the window again. “Did you bring a coat, Miss Cummins?”

She shook her head. “I just snatched up an umbrella to run across here,” she answered. “It’s—I left it in the sergeant’s room.”

“In the charge-room—yes,” Wadden amended. “Come on, Head—we don’t need coats to go over there, just across the street.”

His glance at Nell invited her to rise, and she preceded the two men out to the passageway of the police station. Wadden looked into the charge-room, picked up the umbrella standing just inside the door, and handed it to Nell, or she would have gone without it.

“Finger-print outfit, Wells, and fetch a man with you,” Wadden bade. “Camera and flash powders, too, just in case. Hurry it.”

Then he went out to Westingborough’s main street, and made a run of it to the hotel entrance. Head, keeping beside Little Nell, followed more slowly, and they entered together to face Wadden.

“Whereabouts, Miss Cummins?” he asked.

She pointed to the main staircase at the back of the big entrance hall. Dating from the old coaching days and still described as a “posting house” on the big signboard along its frontage, the “Duke of York” was spaciously planned, and, in these days, scarcely half its rooms were ever needed at one time. Still preceding the two men, Nell led them up the staircase, past a door just ajar that yielded a sound of sobbing, and on to another door on which the numeral “7” showed in faded yellow against the dark, glistening paint of the panels.

“In there, Mr. Wadden,” she said. “Don’t—don’t ask me to come in.”

“No,” Wadden promised. “I’ll see you again later—or Mr. Head will, perhaps. And the doctor—don’t let him go. We want him.”

For a few seconds, as she retreated toward the top of the stairway without replying, Head stood gazing along the corridor. It ran parallel with the frontage of the hotel, with rooms on either side, and number seven, evidently, gave on to the street. While Head stood thus, one of the doors farther along the corridor opened and a man looked out, but almost instantly drew back and closed his door again. Somebody spoke soothingly in the room from which the sobbing had sounded: then Head followed the Superintendent into number seven.

He had to step over a mess of smashed crockery and an overturned tray, left as the girl Annie Green had let them fall at sight of what lay on the bed. For there with the clothes thrown back as if he had begun getting out, lay the figure of a man with widely staring eyes and dropped lower jaw, with a bloodstain on the left breast of his grey silk pyjamas, and, in the middle of the stain, the handle of some dagger-like implement. The pillow under his head had been pulled to a diagonal position, Head noted, and that dark stain on the breast of the pyjama jacket was no more than three inches in diameter: apparently the man had bled little, since with the one thrust his heart had ceased to beat. And the handle standing up over the wound was of turned white wood, unpolished: whatever blade was fixed in it had been driven in with such force that no metal was visible.

“Look there!” Wadden said abruptly, and pointed.

Bending over, Head saw the faint marks that told how someone had gripped this victim by the throat to drive the blade into his heart.

“Yes,” he said. “A strong man did it. This—this one probably tried to get up, and flung the clothes back for that purpose. There was a light in the room—that blow was well and truly aimed.”

“Hellishly so,” Wadden agreed. “Where’s Bennett? You want that thing pulled out without disturbing any possible finger prints.”

But Head turned away and went to the electric light switch by the door—the only one in the room. It was cased in ribbed brass which might yield a finger print, but he thought it unlikely. He turned back to the bed, and pulled the clothes down all the way to reveal the figure of the dead man fully, at which Wadden shook his head silently.

“In the forties, about five feet ten, and in bad condition—running to fat, in fact,” Head catalogued aloud. “Quite a good-looking type, though I don’t like the face, and that beautiful brown hair is dyed. A bit of a fop, probably. Quite well-to-do—he paid more for those pyjamas than I would for mine, and that grey suit looks West-End cut, to me. Yes—” he turned out an inner breast pocket to show a Burlington Street tailor’s label—“they don’t make other than to measure, there. And—eh, no papers?” He searched pocket after pocket, rapidly.

“In that case, maybe,” Wadden suggested. “I’ll go and find Bennett while you give the place the once-over, also make sure nobody who was here last night gets away without our seeing ’em.”

He went out, and Head pursued his search. But neither in the clothing—inspection of the big wardrobe revealed that the dead man had come here with only the one suit and a grey overcoat still hanging behind the door—nor in the attaché case which appeared to constitute all his baggage was there any paper that might reveal his identity or purpose here. Then, gazing at the fire-place as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, Head espied a wisp of paper under the empty grate and, retrieving it, smoothed it out and saw that it was an ordinary shop bill. The firm issuing it was declared as “Posies, 272, Knightsbridge, London, S.W.” The “Paid” stamp of the firm, initialled “G.B.” appeared under the pencilled legend—“Orchids, £2 5 0.” It was evidently a record of a cash transaction, for there was no customer’s name under that of the firm. The date in the stamp was that of two days before.

Head slipped the paper in his leather note-case and put it away as the doctor entered the room and frowned at the mess of early tea.

“Morning, doctor,” Head greeted him. “I’d like that dagger, or whatever it is, drawn out of the wound will so that any finger prints on the handle will be available. You might hand it to Sergeant Wells, if you don’t mind. Could you tell me if that girl with the fits is capable of answering questions now—Annie Green, I think is her name.”

“For heaven’s sake leave her alone as long as you can,” Bennett answered with a hint of irritation. “I’m not happy about her—the hydrocephalous idiot! I’ll save your prints for you.”

“Good—and many thanks. And—time of death, and all the rest.”

“Leave it to me,” Bennett said curtly. “I know the routine.”

Without further words, Head gazed round the room to get the picture of it in his mind. The furniture was of highly-polished mahogany, big and old-fashioned; there was a valanced dressing table with big swing mirror, a marble-topped washstand, a double-floored wardrobe, and two easy chairs, one on each side of the fire-place. Heavy tapestry curtains were drawn back from the window, their folds pendant to the floor—an assassin might have hidden behind them, Head reflected. In addition to the door leading to the corridor was one which communicated with the next room along the corridor—number eight, it would be—but, on trying the handle, it proved to be locked, and there was no key on this side. Head had no compunction over grasping the handle, since it had an ornamental, serrated surface, like that of the door leading to the corridor, which would not reveal any finger prints. A subsequent inspection showed him that all the doors along the corridor were fitted with these exasperatingly useless handles—useless, that is, from the finger-printer’s viewpoint. The key of the door leading to the corridor, he noted, was in the lock on the inside. Inserting a pencil in the loop of the key, he turned it and found that it squeaked rustily, as if long disused or, more probably, in sore need of a few drops of oil.

Emerging to the corridor, Head closed the door, leaving the doctor to complete his examination, and found himself facing the man who had looked out from another room when he and Wadden had come to this. It was a stoutly-built, middle-aged being whom Head saw, with a huge suit-case in his hand and curiosity written large in his face.

“What is it, mister?” he asked. “Is it murder?”

“I can’t tell you,” Head answered. “But you can tell me—did you hear anything unusual during the night?”

“Not what you’d call unusual,” the man said, slowly. “He came in late, very late, and I heard him shut his door and lock it. And that was all. I went to sleep soon after. Then, while I was shaving, somebody crashed some crockery and screamed, and I saw the manageress carry a girl out of that room. But I wasn’t dressed, then.”

“You heard him shut his door, and lock it, you say?” Head asked.

“It must have been that. There was the click when he shut it, and then that squeaky noise I heard just now. That’s the lock, surely?”

“Do you mind waiting here a minute?” Head asked.

Entering the room again, he closed the, door, and heard the single click of the bolt as it latched itself. Then he came out again.

“That was the sound you heard, wasn’t it?” he asked the man.

“That first, and then a squeaky noise,” the other answered. “The sort of noise you or somebody made just now, before you came out of the room the first time. That was when he locked it, wasn’t it?”

“Just another minute,” Head asked. “This is getting interesting.”

Again he went within the room, and this time closed the door and locked it. Then, unlocking it, he once more faced his man.

“Was that what you heard?” he asked.

“Half of it,” the man answered. “If that was the lock, he locked the door, but didn’t unlock it again as you did just now.”

“You have only heard that squeaky sound once, till you heard me make it in trying the lock just now?” Head inquired.

“Aye, I’d take oath on that. But—” he looked at his watch—“I’m late, and’ll have to hurry. You’ll excuse me, now—”

“Wait,” Head interrupted. “Your name and address, please, in case I need you for evidence on this or any other point?”

“Name’s Smith—Hobson and Tanner are my people—” he produced a card from his vest pocket and handed it over. “But for the Lord’s sake don’t drag me back here if you’re police, for I’ve got a family to keep and it’s hard enough to get orders these days without losing time.”

“All right, Mr. Smith. You’re sure the occupant of that room locked his door, you say. At what time did he lock it, do you know?”

“It’d be about half-past eleven—I can’t say any nearer than that, because I was asleep not much more than ten minutes later.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Smith. I won’t detain you any longer.”

He watched the man hurry off down the stairs, and followed more slowly himself. One man’s uncorroborated certainty over the locking of the door was of little use: the occupant might have unlocked the door later, supposing that he had left it locked until Smith had gone to sleep. In any case, it was not worth while detaining the commercial traveller over such a point, while he could easily be found and recalled if wanted for any other reason.

Thus reflecting, Head went downstairs, and in the entrance hall found Sergeant Wells and a constable, equipped as ordered.

“Ah, Wells! Room number seven, on the left—first floor. Doctor Bennett is in there now. The handle of the thing that stabbed the man, his attaché case, and anything else you think might yield a print. I think you’ve done enough of this work for me to leave it to you.”

“Yes, Mr. Head, I’ll do my best. But Mr. Enthwaite has rung up again and asked for either you or Mr. Wadden. Sounded pretty desperate, too.”

“Yes? What did you tell him?” Head asked interestedly.

“Said you were both out on what looked like a very urgent case indeed—he asked where, but I wouldn’t tell him. And he cursed most horribly, though I’ve never heard he’s the sort to curse.”

“He certainly is not,” Head agreed. “Well, you get on with your outfit, and I’ll have a word with Mr. Enthwaite as soon as I can spare the time—or the Superintendent will. We’ll see to him.”

Looking back up the staircase, he saw Wadden at the top, and ascended again, following Wells and the constable.

“Well,” he asked. “Where is she, do you know?”

Wadden nodded along the corridor. “In with that fool girl who has fits,” he answered, “trying to get her to compose herself enough for us to question her—though I doubt if we’ll get anything useful out of her when she’s steadied enough to talk.”

“There’s one thing I most particularly want out of her,” Head remarked. “Also, we’ve not heard Nell’s story yet. I heard her say something about thinking she knew as I came into your room.”

“Well, she’s quite rational again now,” Wadden said, “though this is one hell of a damaging thing for her—the hotel, I mean. If people get stabbed in their beds, they don’t sleep easy in said beds.”

“And it’s her property,” Head observed thoughtfully.

“That’s so. Old Bragg left it to her when he died, being a childless man. But that’s nothing to do with—”

“Mr. Wadden?” A maid at the foot of the staircase called up softly. “You’re wanted on the telephone by Mr. Enthwaite—urgent, he says.”

“I’ll rake Jeffries’ liver for telling Enthwaite where to find me!” Wadden promised, and blew a heavy gust, as was his habit when irritated. “All right—coming along. You’d better get Nell out of there and hear her tale, Head—there’s another servant in with the girl.”

He went down the stairs to the closed telephone booth at the side of the big entrance hall, where the receiver lay on the shelf. Closing the door of the booth, he took up the receiver with a “Hullo!”

“Superintendent Wadden?” a voice asked. “Mr. Ralph Enthwaite of Enthwaite House speaking. I’ve been trying to get you for the best part of an hour—it is Superintendent Wadden, though, isn’t it?”

“I am,” Wadden answered, rather sharply. He did not like the tone of the man at the other end: it was far too peremptory.

“Yes. Well, I want to see you at once—want you to turn out a car and come over here instantly, Superintendent.”

“Yes?” Wadden responded coolly. “For what reason, Mr. Enthwaite?”

“I cannot possibly tell you that over the telephone.”

“Well, I’m afraid I cannot possibly come over for some time,” Wadden said. “We’re busy here on a case that’s likely to take some time—”

“But, hang it all, man!” Enthwaite interrupted, shouting. “I tell you you’ve got to come over at once! I must see you!”

“As soon as I’m free, I’ll come,” Wadden promised calmly.

“Oh, but—look here, is there no way of making you understand?” Enthwaite demanded in exasperation. “I tell you it’s vitally urgent—”

“What is?” Wadden interrupted.

“I tell you it’s utterly impossible to give any details over the telephone, and every minute is of importance—national importance! Nothing you can possibly be doing ranks in comparison with this. I want both you and Inspector Head to set to work on it—”

“We are already busy on what looks like a case of murder,” Wadden interrupted again, “and unless you’ve got another one of equal importance, Mr. Enthwaite, you’ll have to wait till one of us is free.”

A long silence followed. Then Enthwaite spoke in an altered tone.

“I’m sorry if I sounded dictatorial, Superintendent. I dare not indicate my reason for asking you to come over until I see you and know there is no possibility of being overheard, but I will say it is something more important, more urgent, than any murder case. Vital.”

“Very well, Mr. Enthwaite. Why not come over here and see me?”

“Because— Oh, can’t I make you understand, Superintendent?” He sounded almost humble with the query. “I want you here!”

“All right. I’ll turn the car out and start the minute I’m free,” Wadden said. “I can’t give you a definite time—”

“This morning!” Enthwaite interrupted. “Some time this morning?”

“Some time to-day,” Wadden amended. “I’ll promise that much.”

“But hours have been lost already!” Enthwaite pleaded desperately.

“And we shall lose more if you keep me talking here instead of getting on with all we have to do at this end,” Wadden interposed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Enthwaite, and I’ll do my best—good-bye.”

Heedless of a further attempt at persuasion, he replaced the receiver and went out from the booth to ascend the stairs again.