Call Mr. Fortune/The Efficient Assassin
THE EFFICIENT ASSASSIN
THERE was a silence that might be felt. The judge put on the black cap. The prisoner gave a queer cackle of laughter. And Mr. Reginald Fortune, the surgeon whose evidence had convicted him, yawned and stole out of court. The Sunday School murder, one of the most popular crimes of our generation, had bored Mr. Fortune excessively, and now that the Sunday School Superintendent was safely on his way to the hangman Mr. Fortune desired to forget all about it at once.
He stood on the steps of the Shire Hall, lighting a cigar. A large young man, who had been struggling to get in, detached himself from the guardian policeman and ran at him. "Fortune! My God!" he said emotionally. "I thought I'd never get at you. I say, come somewhere where we can talk."
Mr. Fortune looked down through his smoke with sleepy eyes. "One moment. One moment," he murmured. "Oh, ah. You're Charlecote—Beaver Charlecote. Well, and what's the best with you, Beaver?"
"It's murder, old man," Charlecote muttered.
"Everybody's doing it." Mr. Fortune frowned at him. "Who's slain now?"
"It's my father."
"My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!" Mr. Fortune was startled into sympathy.
"I say Fortune—for God's sake——" Charlecote gasped.
"Quite. Quite," said Mr. Fortune, linked arms with him, and marched him off.
When Reggie Fortune ambled through his four years at Oxford, Geoffrey Charlecote was one of the great men of his college, a cricket blue, socially magnificent, and even suspected of brains. The Charlecote family dated from the Victorian age. When the building of railways began, Geoffrey's grandfather was a navvy. He became a contractor, made half a million, and died. Shares of his practical ability, his originality, his driving power, and his disdain for the ten commandments (he was a mean old sinner) were inherited in different proportions by his three descendants. Stephenson Charlecote, his son, had one child, Geoffrey, and was also the guardian of an orphan nephew, Herbert. Stephenson Charlecote was a capable man of business. In his hands the family wealth increased. His only ambition was that the family should get on in the world. So it was Eton and Oxford for Geoffrey, Harrow and Cambridge for his cousin Herbert. Herbert emerged elegant and ordinary. In spite of Eton and Oxford, Geoffrey disturbed his father by showing signs of originality. He was bored by the big house in Mayfair, he would not bother himself with society, he scoffed at going into Parliament. This freakish obstinacy roused the hereditary temper in Stephenson Charlecote, who was the more angry with his son because his nephew Herbert obeyed him in all things, and was successful in the most pompous drawing-rooms. The breaking point came when Geoffrey discovered that he wanted to go abroad and be a sculptor. Stephenson Charlecote raged and decreed that he should not. And Geoffrey went.
All this Reggie Fortune, who never forgot anything when he wanted it, knew at the back of his mind. The rest Geoffrey told him as his car took them back to London.
"My God, Fortune, it's ghastly! I found him lying dead in the street outside my place. I stepped in his blood. The old guv'nor!"
"Quite. Quite," said Reggie Fortune. "Now begin at the beginning."
"What is the beginning? "
"Well, you quarrelled, didn't you?"
"He quarrelled. Oh, that sounds blackguardly. I dare say it was my fault. Yes, we had a big row. Damn it, man, what do you mean? Do you think I—— Oh, I say, this is loathsome. I believe that's what the police think. The old guv'nor!"
"Yes. But this don't help him," said Reggie Fortune placidly. "From the beginning, please."
Geoffrey Charlecote stared at him, gulped, and became more coherent. "Well, after the row I went abroad. Paris, Rome, Munich. I kept up a little place in Chelsea, too. I never saw the old man, and we didn't write. I suppose I've been a brute."
"Hard stuff in the Charlecote family. What?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, Fortune—I swear I'm sorry."
"Cut it out," said Reggie Fortune.
"Well, in Munich I married." He flushed. "You know, she's an angel, Fortune."
"Quite. German angel?"
"No. She's Italian. She came to Munich singing. And I—we met, and in a month we were married. I tell you, Fortune, I've been a different man since. It's as if she'd given me a soul, you know."
"Did you tell your father that?"
"It was she made me write to my father again. Lucia—she can't bear being in a quarrel. She's so gentle, any sort of bad feeling hurts her. So she brought me to try and make it up. I wrote to the old man and he answered—just a short, civil, formal note. But Lucia was sure it would lead to something, and so we came back to England. Then I wrote to him again, and he came to see us in . That was a week ago—just a week ago to-day. He was pretty stiff and standoffish, but he took to Lucia. Everybody does, you know. Fortune, old man, she's wonderful. I thought he seemed a good deal aged, but he was just as brisk and sharp as ever. He had us to dine with him on Monday. And then—well, last night he called on us again, came about four, stayed a long time. And he was so jolly and genial. And afterwards I went out to post some letters, and there he was, lying not a dozen yards from our door. He'd been stabbed. He was in a pool of blood. Good God! It was awful."
"Yes. Yes. Seems to be a quiet street where you live."
"Vinton Place—it's a little cul-de-sac."
"It was dark when he left? And you heard nothing? Yes. I wonder who his money goes to?"
"What the devil do you mean?" Geoffrey cried.
"Well, that's quite a fair question," said Reggie Fortune placidly. "If I'm actin' for you, and if you like, I will, I look only to your interests. If I'm acting for Scotland Yard—and if it's a hard case, they'll call me in—I'm only concerned to get the truth out, whoever suffers."
"And do you think I don't want the truth?" Geoffrey cried. "What are you hinting at? Do you mean I murdered him?"
"Preserve absolute calm," said Reggie Fortune.
"I'm not calm. What a beast I should be if I was calm. I want the thing cleared up, man. I want my father to have justice. Whether you act for me or act for the police it's the same thing."
"If you take it that way, I'll act for the police, Beaver," said Reggie placidly.
Geoffrey Charlecote stared at him. "That's enough, thanks," he said. "Stop the car. I won't worry you any more, Mr. Fortune."
"Mr. be blowed. Don't be an ass. Beaver. It's a bad business. Let's make the best of it."
"Will you stop the car?" Geoffrey said loudly, and stood up.
"Five miles from nowhere? Oh, go easy." But Geoffrey turned and opened the door. So the car was stopped, and Geoffrey Charlecote left forlorn in his rage on the road.
Reggie Fortune lay back and sighed. "Poor beggar, I wonder. Poor beggar," he said. And when he came back to Wimpole Street the first thing he did was to ring up the Hon. Stanley Lomas, the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department. As a consequence you behold him sitting under the French prints in the study of Mr. Lomas.
"I thought you'd be on to this, don't you know?" Lomas said. "It's a pretty case. Wealthy old gentleman, impecunious heirs, sudden death. That's natural enough. But impecunious heirs don't stab much—not in England."
"Yes. You're intelligent, Lomas. But you're prejudiced. You always believe in the obvious."
"The obvious is what happens."
"Oh, Peter! If it did, we wouldn't want a Criminal Investigation Department. Well, now, this is what I've got. Check it, please. Geoffrey quarrelled with the old man—went away, commenced artist, and married an Italian girl—at her wish tried to make it up with the old man—old man was willing, called on Geoffrey twice, and after the second visit Geoffrey found him stabbed and dead just outside."
"That's all right," Lomas nodded. "An odd thing is, just before the murder the old man remade his will in favour of Geoffrey. When they quarrelled, he had a will drawn up which left everything to the nephew Herbert. Under this last will Herbert gets twenty thousand, and all the rest goes to Geoffrey. It was onlyon the morning of the murder."
"There's a deuce of a lot of unknown quantities in this equation," Reggie said. "Silly, futile things facts are. This set will do for anything you please. As soon as he knew the will was in his favour, Geoffrey does the old man in. Or when he heard there was a new will cutting him out, Herbert sees red and knifes the old man. By the way, Lomas, I suppose the old boy was stabbed?"
"What? Oh, damme, don't be clever. He was stabbed all right. The divisional surgeon and his own doctor, Newton, they both went over the body. Stabbed in the throat. We've got the weapon, too. Sort of stiletto or dagger."
Reggie cocked an eye at the head of the Criminal Investigation Department. "Sounds Italian," he murmured.
"It is Italian."
"And Geoffrey married an Italian wife."
"An Italian singer—a singer at cafés. That's the kind she was. Yes, that's the proposition."
"Lomas, old thing, you ought to write melodramas. The diabolical Italian singer, she leapt out of the dark, she pulled a d—dagger from her stocking, and she fell upon the dear, kind old gentleman and left him weltering in his gore. Then she put the dagger down, so the gifted detective could find it, and went back to dinner."
"It is silly, isn't it?" Lomas grinned. "But there it is, don't you know?"
"I don't know," said Reggie Fortune. "I don't know anything. I was born of poor common-sensible parents, and this is all crazy. I suppose he really was stabbed?"
"You will harp on that. Go and look at him in the morning. Hang it, man, the family doctor and the divisional surgeon they ought to know if there's a hole in him or not."
"But why—why? Geoffrey—the Italian wife—they were on velvet anyway. The disappointed nephew—well, I suppose he still had his allowance while the old man lived. Do you know anything about Nephew Herbert?"
"Man about town—Society tame cat—usual vices, what? Plays a bit high. He's nothing in particular."
"Don't sound like a lurking stabber," Reggie admitted.
"People don't do these things. That's the trouble. Queer case."
"I suppose the old man hadn't a lurid past?"
Lomas shook his head. "Most respectable old bird."
Reggie stood up and gave himself a full glass of soda water. "The extraordinary efficiency of the assassin," he said carefully. "Lomas, old dear, observe the extraordinary efficiency of the assassin. Mr. S. Charlecote comes out of his son's house. A few yards from the door somebody kills him so quickly, so neatly, that he don't make one sound. And then this extraordinarily efficient assassin leaves his dagger for you to find."
"Who says he didn't make a sound?"
"Yes. Geoffrey and his angel wife. Yes. Only them and no one else. That's a flaw. Little essays in the obvious by S. Lomas. Well, it's me for the corpse, then."
And so in the morning he called at the mortuary. He was slightly surprised to find the divisional surgeon and Dr. Newton waiting for him. He returned thanks. "Is there anything to which you'd like to draw my attention, gentlemen?"
"It's a plain case, to my mind," said the divisional surgeon.
"I am always glad to have a specialist's opinion," said Dr. Newton. "Of course, this sort of thing is rather out of my line. I confess I can hardly approach it calmly."
"Quite. Quite. Most distressing I suppose you knew him well, doctor?"
"An old patient, Mr. Fortune. I may say an old friend."
"Ah, yes. You know the family, of course."
"They were once such an affectionate family," said Dr. Newton. "It's really terrible." He sighed. He was a florid, bearded man with a sentimental expression and manner. "Poor Charlecote! He never seemed to bear up after Geoffrey broke with him. But who would have thought that strange escapade would have ended like this?"
"So you think Geoffrey did the trick?"
"I beg your pardon!" Dr. Newton was horrified. "You put words into my mouth, Mr. Fortune. No, no. A most invidious suggestion."
"Murder's rather an invidious business," said Reggie placidly. "Come, doctor, what do you think of Geoffrey?"
"I have never been able to conceal from myself, Mr. Fortune, that there is an odd strain in Geoffrey, as it were something abnormal or thrawn—a certain violence of temperament."
"In the blood, perhaps."
"Perhaps. And yet there was nothing of it in his father. Or in his cousin Herbert."
"Cousin Herbert. Yes. What about Cousin Herbert?"
Dr. Newton laughed. "Frankly, Mr. Fortune, you baffle me. Because there is nothing about Herbert. A very worthy young man, no doubt, but colourless, quite colourless." Reggie nodded. "No." Dr. Newton pursued his own train of thought. "In my own speculations on the affair—this most deplorable affair—I find myself continually confronted by an unknown quantity, a mysterious entity, Geoffrey's Italian wife."
"Ah, there you have it," said the divisional surgeon heartily.
Reggie looked at them, nodded, and without more talk led the way to the body. It did not occupy him long. Two wounds had sufficed to make an end of Stephenson Charlecote. One in the throat, which had pierced the carotid artery; one in the chest, which had reached the heart.
Superintendent Bell, in attendance from Scotland Yard, produced the weapon found by the body—a long, thin dagger or stiletto, obviously capable of causing the wounds, obviously Italian in origin.
Reggie finished his examination and turned to the two doctors, who were waiting on him reverently. "Anything in particular occur to you, gentlemen?"
"Quite straightforward, I think." The divisional surgeon shrugged. "Technically speaking, a very neat bit of work."
"I would go even further," said Dr. Newton. "The crime seems to have been committed with remarkable skill and determination."
"The extraordinary efficiency of the assassin," Reggie murmured. "Yes. Touched the spot every time."
"It would almost seem to suggest some experience in the use of this weapon," said Dr. Newton.
"That is indicated." Reggie nodded at him. "Yes. Deceased been in good health lately?"
"I have been treating him for some time for gastric trouble—a persistent gastric catarrh. It was troublesome, but hardly serious."
And upon that Reggie got rid of them and was left alone with Superintendent Bell. Superintendent Bell cocked an oldish but still bright eye. "And the next thing, sir?" said he.
"I am feeling depressed, Bell. Do you ever have feelings? I feel this is all wrong."
"Well, sir, the evidence is thin, very thin."
"Evidence? Oh, my aunt, we haven't come to evidence yet. I'm uncomfortable. Everything seems wrong way up. Why did anybody kill the old man? "He was making friends with Geoffrey again and anyway he had enough to live on. Herbert had an allowance and something of his own, too. Nobody to gain by his death."
"If you leave out the Italian girl, sir."
"It keeps coming back to her," Reggie said mournfully. "But why? Suppose he was nasty to her when he called. Would she run out and stab him in the street? I wonder. Did he know some horrid secret about her past? What is her past, Bell?"
"Pretty short, sir, anyway. She's not more than eighteen. She was a café singer, all right. But we have nothing against her. In my experience they're no worse than others."
"And that's that. Have you seen his papers?"
"Better come up to the house, sir. His solicitor will be there. But I understand there's nothing in them. Very few private papers at all."
"Well, well. I suppose he was murdered."
Superintendent Bell stared. "Mr. Lomas said you were harping on that. Pretty clear, sir, isn't it?"
"I suppose so," said Reggie drearily. "But it's all wrong, Bell, it's all wrong."
At the dead man's house, his solicitor, old Sir Thomas Long, was busy in the library, and helping him, to Reggie's surprise, was Herbert Charlecote. Herbert revealed himself as a pallid, dandyish man, punctiliously polite. Colourless—Dr. Newton hit him off to the life.
Herbert was very gratified to make Mr. Fortune's acquaintance.
"I don't know whether to hope you can throw any light on this miserable affair, sir?"
Reggie shook his head. "Your uncle was stabbed, and died immediately of the wounds. That is the whole case, Mr. Charlecote. I suppose you can't help us?"
"I am bewildered. Quite dazed, Mr. Fortune."
Reggie nodded and lingered, and Herbert discreetly left him with the solicitor.
"Well, Mr. Fortune?" Sir Thomas took off his glasses and pursed his lips
"Nothing. Well, Sir Thomas?"
"Ah. That was a little odd, wasn't it?" Reggie nodded at the door by which Herbert had gone out.
"Mr. Herbert Charlecote offered to help me. He used to act as his uncle's secretary. It was hardly for me to point out that there might be objections, if he was afraid of none."
"Does he know of the new will?"
"Neither he nor his cousin Geoffrey. Mr. Herbert, I infer, believes himself sole heir, and Mr. Geoffrey believes himself disinherited."
"And yet, just after the new will is made the old man is murdered! Oh, it's all wrong," Reggie said peevishly.
"An odd case. A very odd case, Mr. Fortune." Sir Thomas put on his eye-glasses again. "But I'm afraid I can't help you."
Superintendent Bell opened the door. But Reggie seemed reluctant to go, and on the stairs he loitered so much that the Superintendent turned—"Anything doing, sir?"
"That gastric catarrh," Reggie murmured. "Let's see the valet."
The valet, an oldish man, was found. He testified that Mr. Charlecote had been much upset by the quarrel with Geoffrey. Mr. Charlecote had complained a good deal about his health. But there were no particular symptoms. Dr. Newton had been attending him for a long while. But the valet did not think that he had done Mr. Charlecote any good. For one thing, Mr. Charlecote did not take his medicine. There had been a good deal of medicine. Mr. Charlecote's instructions were always to pour it down the sink.
"And that's that," said Reggie as they went out.
"We don't get anywhere, sir, do we?" the Superintendent sympathized. "Anything you suggest?"
"How does it strike Superintendent Bell?"
"Looks like a bad case, sir. One of those where the criminal has all the luck. Verdict, persons unknown."
"So Scotland Yard leaves it at that?"
"Unless Mr. Fortune has something up his sleeve."
"Nary card. But you know we've missed something, Bell."
"Have we, indeed, sir? And where shall we look for it?"
"Oh, watch out. Watch everybody."
"Life is short, sir," said Superintendent Bell gloomily, and with that they parted.
The Superintendent was a true prophet. The sensational inquest upon Stephenson Charlecote ended in an unsatisfactory verdict of murder by some person or persons unknown. It was obvious that public opinion, and the coroner, as the voice thereof, directed suspicion against Geoffrey. He made a bad witness. He was agitated, nervous, and under the coroner's hostile examination lost his temper.
When he was asked if he knew that his father had on the morning of the murder made a will leaving everything to him, he displayed a violent agitation, swore (not merely as a witness but with profane oaths) that he knew nothing about it, insulted the coroner, and roared out a declaration that he would not touch the money, which disgusted everybody as a bit of false melodrama. If distrust and dislike were grounds for hanging a man, the jury would have made an end of Geoffrey, but the evidence, as Lomas complained, could not hang a yellow dog.
And the next day, Reggie Fortune, bland as ever, called on Geoffrey. It was a very humble house in a Chelsea cul-de-sac. The aged servant who took in Reggie's name left him on the doorstep, from which he had the glimpse of a narrow bare hall and uncarpeted stairs. He was kept waiting some time, and heard confused noises. When at last he was shown into the studio he met signs of storm. Geoffrey was flushed and visibly in the sulkiest of tempers, his wife pale and tired.
"Well, what is it now?" Geoffrey growled.
His wife smiled. "Mr. Fortune? That is so kind. If you would please sit down. Some tea, yes?"
And Reggie was saying to himself. "Oh, my aunt! She isn't a woman, she's a child." For Lucia Charlecote was so frail, of such a simplicity, that she looked rather like an angel in one of the primitive Italian pictures than a woman.
"Shut up, Lucia," Geoffrey growled. "What do you want here, Mr. Fortune? Trying a bit of your detective work?"
"You're rather difficult, aren't you?" Reggie said mildly. "You know, you told me you wanted to have the truth brought out, justice for your father, all that sort of thing. Well, I'm still on it."
"Much good you've done, haven't you?"
"I don't mind confessin' we've missed something."
"Missed! Yes, you haven't quite hanged me, thanks. You've only made everybody think I murdered my father. And so that don't satisfy you! Thanks very much!"
"Well, are you satisfied?" said Reggie. "You know, you're not fair. I'm makin' every allowance. But you're not fair. If you want the thing cleared up, you've got to give us something more. And that's why I'm here. Now, is there anything new?"
"Oh, go to the devil!"
"Geoffrey!" Lucia, standing behind him, touched his shoulder. "Mr. Fortune is very kind. He desires to help us," and she smiled and nodded at Reggie.
"Oh, hold your tongue, baby. Mr. Fortune's a damned tricky policeman, and he can take his tricks to another market."
"But you are impossible!" Lucia cried. "Mr. Fortune, you see what I have to live with. This great bear!" She rumpled Geoffrey's hair, and he made an exclamation of disgust and dashed her hand away. "But yes, Mr. Fortune, there is something new. This great animal, he desires not to take his father's money. He writes to the lawyer to say he will not have it. But I forbid him. I say it is mad. Say if I am right, Mr. Fortune. What is the father's it is the son's. And Geoffrey, he has done nothing. But if he says he will not take it"—she made a fine theatrical gesture—"people will think it is because he is guilty. Is it not, Mr. Fortune?"
"Why can't you hold your tongue?" Geoffrey snarled at her, and turned to glare at Reggie. "There's a pretty story for you. And what's your beastly detective trade make of that?"
"You know, Mrs. Charlecote, he's always in such a hurry," Reggie said confidentially. "Very disturbin', isn't it? You are difficult, Charlecote, old thing. Is your mind capable of receivin' a thought? Yes. Well just suppose that I may have refused to act for you, because it would be better for the son and heir I shouldn't be actin' to his order."
"What the deuce do you mean?"
"Well, I don't quite know, you know. Do you? Is there anything you really want to tell me?"
"I never want to see you again."
"Geoffrey!" his wife protested.
"Oh, he's not chatty this afternoon, Mrs. Charlecote. So sorry." Reggie extricated himself from her offers of tea, and slid away.
But he was annoyed. Against his will, the opinion of Dr. Newton forced itself into his mind. "An odd strain in Geoffrey, as it were something abnormal or thrawn, a certain violence of temperament." It was so. Confound the oily old family doctor. Why did Geoffrey want to give up the money? Mere quixotry? A passionate desire to clear himself from the ill-fame of profiting by the old man's death? Probably, oh, probably. But there was a feeling called remorse found in human nature. And why did the angel wife tell Geoffrey to keep the money? She ought to want her husband clear of ill-fame. You would expect a woman to care more about that than the man himself. And you would expect a woman to share her husband's rage with the horrid man who had not stuck up for him. Instead of which the angel wife was very anxious to keep on good terms with that horrid man. Because he represented the police? Or why else? She had a dubious way with her, the angel wife.
Reggie was worried—a rare state for him—and he took himself to his least sociable club. He was sitting there, glowering at a scientific American paper, when the voice of Lomas addressed him.
"Care killed a cat, Reginald. Why so blue?"
Reggie sat up. "Life is real, life is earnest, Lomas. 'And the grave is not the goal.' That's because of our filthy profession, which is always bothering the corpses. Come away. I am worried. I am going to worry you."
As they walked in St. James's Park, Reggie told him of the queer talk in the studio. "I want comfort, Lomas, old thing," he concluded. "Comfort me."
"My dear Fortune! It's quite clear, what? Unsatisfactory case, profoundly unsatisfactory. But it's quite clear. I always thought those two were in it. Probably the sweet young wife did it, or put Geoffrey up to it. Now he funks and she doesn't. Women carry off these things better than men, don't you know?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything. Lomas, old dear, you are grateful and comfortin', you really are. I knew you'd say that. And I know it's all wrong."
"My poor dear fellow! You never will reconcile yourself to an unsatisfactory case. It's so common too—a case you can't act on while you know it's sound."
"Oh, Peter! You can always act on a sound case."
"You're so young," Lomas smiled indulgently.
"We've missed something, don't you see?"
"And what have we missed, Reginald?"
Reggie pulled him up and looked at the ducks. For a long time he looked at the ducks. Then, "Cousin Herbert," he said. "The evasive, elusive Cousin Herbert. Why do we never come up against Cousin Herbert? "
"Because he had nothing to do with it, what?"
"Because we haven't looked for him."
Lomas gave an impatient laugh. "This is absurd, my dear fellow. That pallid, tame cat of a man!"
"You let some of your fellows sniff round him."
"My dear Fortune! Of course they have. He's quite a blameless sort of fellow. Plays a bit, spends a bit—nothing more."
"Oh, he wanted money—did he?"
"My dear Fortune, you're right off the wicket. He had an alibi. He was with some people at Maidenhead at the time of the murder."
"Oh, my aunt, anybody can have an alibi," Reggie grumbled.
Lomas laughed and shook his head. "It won't do, Reginald. Don't try to be subtle."
"Well, that isn't your complaint," Reggie snarled, and for once they parted in nasty tempers.
Three days afterwards a telephone message called him to Scotland Yard, and he found Lomas in conference with Superintendent Bell.
"Ah, here's the prophet," Lomas smiled. "Do you remember—in the Charlecote murder—you backed Herbert both ways? Well, the latest from the course is that Herbert has vanished."
"Then it's damned careless of you. I told you to watch him. You're not intelligent in the Force, but, hang it, you might be active."
"His valet reports him disappeared. He had a dinner engagement last night. Didn't come home to dress for it. Didn't come home at all. He went out after lunch yesterday, and hasn't been seen since."
Reggie sat down. "One of your larger cigars would do me, good, Lomas," he said, and helped himself. "Oh, Mr. Lomas, sir, this is so sudden. Cousin Herbert was feeling nervous, no doubt. But why this dramatic exit? What gave Cousin Herbert cold feet yesterday? "
Superintendent Bell coughed. "I was wondering, sir, if Mr. Fortune had taken any steps on his own with regard to Herbert. To alarm him, so to speak."
"Nary step. Why the blazes didn't you watch him?"
"After all, sir, we've not a thing against him."
"Well, sir, it's not criminal to disappear. But I don't mind saying it's odd, quite odd."
"Oh, I expect Geoffrey and the angel wife murdered him too. Just to round it off, Lomas, old thing."
"You're very merry and bright," Lomas grumbled. "I wish you'd tell me how this helps us. Why should he bolt now?"
"There is another unknown quantity somewhere," Reggie admitted.
The telephone claimed Lomas. He took it up, and his face was eloquent as he listened. He put it down again very gently. "Afraid you're right out of it, Fortune. Herbert Charlecote didn't bolt. Herbert Charlecote has been found drowned in the Basingstoke Canal."
"Good Lord, sir!" the Superintendent exclaimed.
"Pretty conclusive, what?" Lomas shrugged.
"And why the Basingstoke Canal?" said Reggie placidly. "Lots of nice places to drown in nearer home. I ask you, why the Basingstoke Canal?"
Lomas and his Superintendent looked at each other. "It really is a crazy case," Lomas said slowly, "I don't quite——"
Reggie jumped up. "Oh, come on. Let's go and look at him. My car's outside. Where is he?"
"Woking. Half a minute." Lomas rang his bell and turned to his papers.
So Reggie went down first. He dismissed his chauffeur with some long instructions, and himself took the chauffeur's seat. Superintendent Bell joined him. "Darker and darker, sir, isn't it?"
"Changeable weather," Reggie said. "Come on, Lomas, all aboard! Are we downhearted? No!" The car shot forward. And when it stopped in Woking:
"Is my hair white, Fortune?" Lomas said.
The two stood humbly aside while the expert was busy with the corpse. "As often as I've seen this game, sir, I'll never like it," Bell said, and Lomas nodded. But Reggie Fortune whistled as he worked.
When he turned from the body and put a scrap of something in his pocket-book—"Well, what is it?" Lomas said. "He was drowned, I suppose?"
"He was drowned all right—about teatime last night. Say at dusk. Now for the scene of death. Where is it? "
"Just by a bridge on a by-road somewhere between here and Byfleet Station."
"I ask you, why does a gentleman of fashion about to commit suicide come and look for a bridge on a by-road somewhere between here and Byfleet Station?"
"Somebody's took some pains in this Charlecote business," the Superintendent said.
Reggie laughed. "The Superintendent touches the spot—as ever. Come on!"
He stopped his car some distance from the bridge, and they went forward on foot.
"There's a big car been over here," Bell said. "Yet you wouldn't think it was much of a motor road." It was a narrow gravel road and very loose. Just below the steep pitch of the bridge a car had been stopped, and in stopping or starting again had torn up the loose gravel. Thence to the canal was only half a dozen yards. The path was much trampled and the grass and bushes by the bank beaten down. "All that may have been done fishing him out," Bell said. "But that don't explain the car. They took him off in a wood cart. I suppose since motors were invented there never was one came down this road and stopped just here."
"Not till last night," Lomas nodded.
"So somebody," said Reggie, "somebody put Herbert in a car, brought him down here, and chucked him in. Who was somebody? Geoffrey and the angel wife, eh, Lomas, old thing?"
"Somebody put in some fine work, what? He wouldn't have been found for weeks or for ever, but a barge came along and stirred him up. And they don't have a barge along here once a month."
"Yes, there's plenty brains about somewhere. Well, let's get busy. Herbert's happy home comes next."
The car again broke the law on the way back.
Herbert Charlecote had lived in a big block of flats several stories up.
"Did himself pretty expensively, don't you know," Lomas said, looking round the elaborate room.
"He's paid for all now, sir," said Superintendent Bell.
"Do you know, I don't feel sentimental about dear Herbert's doom," Reggie smiled. "You'd better get on to his papers. I want a man on the 'phone," and he went out and was gone some time.
When he came back he sat himself down in the window-seat and opened the big casements. There was a low stone sill which held a box of flowers. The smell of oak-leaf geranium and verbenas came into the room. "Rather oily scents, aren't they?" Reggie said. "I'm afraid he was rather oily, the late Herbert. How are you getting on?"
"He was certainly pressed for money," Lomas said. "Here's his pass-book and a letter from his bank manager complaining that he's overdrawn again. The £20,000 he came in for under his uncle's will—he wanted it badly."
"And yet as soon as he knows of that will he goes and gets drowned. Suggestive, isn't it?" Reggie smiled.
"I'm hanged if I know what it suggests." Lomas stared at him.
"Oh, my dear Lomas! Somebody expected Herbert was going to get more than £20,000 by his uncle's death: going to scoop the whole estate. Only he didn't. So he's found dead. Can you make out from that passbook when Herbert got into difficulties?"
"About nine months ago. He's been living with nothing in the bank ever since."
"About nine months ago. Then for nine months his uncle did nothing to help him. The murdered uncle wouldn't help the impecunious nephew. Well, Lomas, old thing?"
"I suppose you're playing some hand of your own," Lomas frowned.
Superintendent Bell came forward. "Here's a sort of betting-book, sir. He put his luck at cards in it too. He was some gambler."
"Any names?" Lomas said quickly.
"All sorts of names, sir. Nothing instructive, so to speak. You might say that's curious." He pointed to a page on which, in a large, blank space, appeared the one letter, "N".
Reggie leapt from the window-seat and rang the bell. "As ever the Superintendent touches the spot," he laughed. Herbert Charlecote's man-servant, pallid and frightened, answered the bell. "Now, my man, in one minute Dr. Newton will be at the door; you will let him in; he will ask for Mr. Herbert Charlecote; you will say nothing to him, nothing at all, and Superintendent Bell will be out in the hall to see that you do say nothing; you will show Dr. Newton in here. Go on, Bell. Look after him." He bustled them out.
"So 'N' stands for Newton, does it?" Lomas said. "How do you know he'll come?"
"Because he's just driven up in his car. Because I 'phoned to say Mr. Herbert Charlecote was asking for Dr. Newton. Now you get in there." He thrust Lomas into an inner room.
Dr. Newton, more florid than ever, hurried in, and pulled up short at the sight of Reggie. "Mr. Fortune? Oh, delighted to meet you." He was out of breath. "But I thought I was to see Mr. Charlecote."
"Did you though? That was very sanguine of you."
"I don't understand you, Mr. Fortune. Are you here professionally?"
"For the Criminal Investigation Department."
"Really, though, really?" Dr. Newton was still short of breath. "And it was you wanted to see me? Anything I can do, of course?"
"You can tell me what was your little bet with Herbert Charlecote."
Dr. Newton lost some of his colour. "You bewilder me, Mr. Fortune. I am not a betting man. Pray explain yourself. And I must request you to take a different tone."
"Where is Herbert Charlecote?"
"Well, where is he?" Dr. Newton echoed. "I confess I don't understand the situation. I am told over the telephone that Mr. Charlecote wishes to see me, and——"
"That gave you a bad quarter of an hour, didn't it? There's worse coming, Newton. Yesterday afternoon"—Reggie strolled round the table and put himself between Dr. Newton and the door—"yesterday afternoon you took Herbert Charlecote for a drive in your car. When you came to the Basingstoke Canal, a nice lonely place by the Basingstoke Canal, you clapped a chloroformed wad on his mouth, and when he was senseless you dropped him into the water and left him there to finish by drowning. It was a neat thing, Newton. But he was fished out, Newton, and I've been all the morning with him, Newton."
Dr. Newton began to laugh. "Do you really wish me to take this tale seriously, Mr. Fortune? Then I must refer you to my legal advisers. I am sure that you will see that I must." He made for the door.
"Not much," Reggie said, and stood in his way.
Dr. Newton's bland expression changed. He tried to push past and, failing, sprang on Reggie. The two locked together and swayed across the room. Reggie freed himself a moment and stooped. Dr. Newton went out of the open window. As Lomas broke into the room they heard the thud of his fall on the stones.
"Good God, did he throw himself out?" Lomas cried.
"No, I pitched him out," Reggie said, smoothing his hair.
Lomas rushed out of the room. Reggie, lounging after him, went to the telephone.
In the forecourt of the flats the body of Dr. Newton lay. Lomas and Bell and the hall porter were fidgeting with it, a little crowd on the pavement gaping at them, when Reggie arrived. "You don't really want me," he said, but he bent by the body. "It's all over. His neck's broken. Fractured skull also. But that doesn't matter."
Bell stood up and blew a police whistle.
"Don't do that. Don't do it," said Reggie irritably, his first sign of troubled nerves. "I have telephoned for the ambulance and all that. Why don't you think of things beforehand?"
Superintendent Bell was startled out of his wonted composure. "God bless my soul!" he exclaimed, and stared at Reggie.
And Lomas took Reggie's arm. "Come upstairs, Fortune, please," he said gravely.
Reggie let himself be taken up to Herbert Charlecote's room, and when he was there again flung himself down on the couch. "Thirdly and lastly," said he. "And that's the end of the Charlecote case, Lomas, old dear."
"Oh, don't take that tone," Lomas cried. "We're in a very difficult position, Fortune."
"My dear Lomas! Oh, my dear Lomas! We have emerged with credit from a most difficult case. We have tracked and caught a very cunning criminal, who, when taxed with the murders of which he was guilty, became desperate, and committed suicide by flinging himself from a fourth-story window."
"You said you threw him out."
"Lomas, dear, my little jokes aren't evidence."
"You'll have to give evidence at the inquest, you know." Reggie nodded. "You'll tell this suicide story?"
"Sure," said Reggie.
Lomas wiped his forehead. "Damn it, man, I can't leave it like this," he cried.
"Oh, don't be so pedantic. The scoundrel had two murders at least on his soul. We hadn't evidence enough to hang him. He was much too dangerous to live, and he gets his neck broke quietly and without scandal. What's worrying you?"
"And what evidence have you got?"
"Ah, now reason resumes her sway. Let's begin at the beginning. Herbert Charlecote, rather less than a year ago, was at his wits' end for money. His uncle wouldn't give him any. Remember the betting-book and pass-book. But at that time he was his uncle's heir. He arranged with the family doctor, Newton, to have the old man killed. Newton would want to be paid. Probably the arrangement was a bet. Suppose Herbert bet Newton ten thousand to one his uncle wouldn't die within the year. Remember the 'N' in the betting-book. Newton began treating the old man for gastric catarrh. Sent him gallons of medicine. Probably that was poison. But nothing happened because the old man didn't take it. Remember the valet said he had it all put down the sink. I suspect old Charlecote didn't much care for his family doctor. The time began to run out. And then came the reconciliation with Geoffrey. There was no time to lose. If the will was altered in Geoffrey's favour, no use in killing the old man. So Newton had to hustle. He was pretty neat. He chose an Italian knife, and did the killing close to the house where the Italian Mrs. Geoffrey lived. But he did it. Remember the extraordinary efficiency of the assassin. Neat piece of surgery, that murder. And then the bottom fell out of the bucket. The will had been altered. Herbert only got twenty thousand. Hardly enough to pay his debts. And so he wouldn't stump up Newton's price. Newton would cut up rough, of course. He threatened, I suppose, and Herbert threatened back. You know, I don't fancy the late Newton was a man to take kindly to being bilked. It may have been revenge. It may have been that he thought Herbert would give him away. Anyway, he took Herbert out in his car yesterday afternoon. Now we're coming to evidence which is evidence, Lomas. Newton was out in his car yesterday afternoon. I sent my chauffeur to make inquiries. And Newton drove himself. And his car fits the marks on that road—24 Dunois Orleans, two steel-studded Blake tyres. When they got to that bridge, I suppose Newton stopped the car, pretended there was something wrong, got down, and prepared a chloroformed wad of cotton wool. He clapped that on Herbert, anæsthetized him, and dropped him in the canal. I found scraps of the wool in Herbert's mouth and nostrils. That's the case, Lomas, old thing. Come and have tea. There's rather decent muffins at the Academies'."
"Good God!" said Lomas. "Muffins!"