The Milliner's Hat Mystery (4 page)

BOOK: The Milliner's Hat Mystery
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Having finished his enquiries at the quay, Vincent returned to the garage. He found that the foreman had been as good as his word. He was obviously pleased with himself at having been able to exhibit his skill to a senior officer from the Yard.

‘‘It was a job I can tell you, sir. I had to wait until the mechanics had knocked off work and gone home before I started on the key, but I managed it all right.” He slid back the catches and raised the lid of the box. “There you are, sir, nothing in it but an old overcoat.”

“Let me have a look at the coat.”

It was a stout cold-resisting overcoat, evidently made by a good tailor. Vincent went rapidly through the pockets, but found nothing in them but crumbs of tobacco. He breathed more easily when he found an outfitter's label sewn under the tab of the collar.

“I'm going to take this car away with me, foreman, because it will be required as evidence in a murder case.”

“But suppose the owner comes back and asks for it, what am I to tell him?”

“I don't think he will come back, but if he does you must ring up the Newquay police. I'm going on to leave the car with them.”

“Very good, sir. You'll find her in good running order. The young lady at the desk will tell you what there is to pay.”

Vincent made for the window where the lady sat enthroned behind her spectacles, with a ledger before her. The bill was quite moderate, but when Vincent made known his intention to carry off the car, she demurred.

“You see,” she explained, “I gave the gentleman who left her here a receipt and if he comes back and finds his car gone, well…”

“You think he might make himself unpleasant.”

“I won't say that. He seemed a nice well-mannered gentleman, but he might threaten an action at law, if you know what I mean.”

“You mean that if you let her go out after giving a receipt for her, you might lose your situation?”

‘‘Well, Mr Lutyens is a funny sort of gentleman: he might think that I was right, but he's just as likely to find fault and tell me that I ought to have rung him up before I let the car go. If you'll stop a minute I'll get on to him.”

Vincent stopped a minute; the minute multiplied itself by five before the operator assured the speaker that there was no answer to her call. Hearing this Vincent declared his intention of driving the car to the police station and invited the lady to ring up the Newquay police to prepare them. On this she removed her ban and the car was driven out.

In consequence of this telephone message Vincent found the station sergeant waiting for him on the steps of the police station. To him Vincent explained the position. An inspector was called out and the car was formally handed over to be kept by the police until the chief constable received a communication from New Scotland Yard.

“Have you no clue at all to the identity of the murdered man?” asked the inspector.

“Five minutes ago I should have answered your question in the negative, but I have now one clue— a London tailor's name in the collar of an overcoat —Mendel in Sackville Street. Luckily the manager of that firm is a personal friend of mine.”

“I suppose you'll be going back to London tomorrow?”

“Yes, and I shall be starting at a godless hour in the morning. I have another car on my hands, a car lent to me by the Berkshire police, and as I've never learned to drive two cars at the same time I've got to leave this one with you.”

Vincent returned to his hotel on foot. He spent the evening after dinner in marshalling his knowledge of shot wounds from cases in which he had helped police surgeons in their examinations of bodies that had met their deaths from revolver shots. He knew that there must have been at least two men in the car besides the murdered man, since the body had been lifted and not dragged into the barn. It was the body of a heavy man.

How had they been sitting? That was easy to determine. He had examined the body. There were two orifices in the head—one on the right side which was obviously the orifice of entrance, because its edges were torn and lacerated and blackened as if they had been burned by the heat and flame of the explosion. The orifice of exit on the left side was larger with its skin edges turned outward, and it was from this side of the car that the broken window had been taken, so the murdered man must have been sitting on the back seat of the car and his assailant must have been sitting beside him. The seat beside the driver might have been vacant. There was nothing to show this one way or the other. According to gangster phraseology, therefore, the victim must have been “taken for a ride.”

But was suicide to be ruled out? A suicide practically always directs his weapon at what he knows to be a vital spot—the head or the heart—because he wishes to die swiftly and with the least possible suffering after the wound is inflicted. The pistol is either dropped or, in one case that he remembered when he was a junior patrol in Soho, still grasped in the hand. But even if the pistol had been fired by the victim himself holding it in his right hand and pulling the trigger with his forefinger, the bullet would have had an upward tendency and the glass window would not have been shattered at the same horizontal level as the victim's head. All these facts went to show it was a case of murder and not suicide.

Chapter Three

V
INCENT
was on the road by five minutes to six the next morning, free to plan his next move. Clearly the first thing to do was to take Lindsay, the manager of Mendel's outfitting shop, down to Oldbury to identify the body of the murdered man if he could. There ought to be little difficulty about that, but there was another question. What would his superiors and his colleagues say about the escape from justice of two men who might have been detained on suspicion if he had arrived at Newquay in time. At the Yard there were always critics of chief inspectors who had climbed over the heads of older men and these would, of course, be busy. They would be saying that a more energetic and experienced officer would have done something towards getting the boat followed. That kind of critic doesn't bother himself about dates or timetables; all he looks to is success or failure. The boat had had two days' start when he took over the case; never mind, the critics would say, he ought to have found out more about her; he ought not to have left Newquay without discovering to what port she was going. But Vincent was not the kind of man to become a prey to misgivings. His own mind was clear about the course he should follow. The first thing to do was to get the identity of the murdered man established by some witness who knew him and Lindsay might turn out to be that witness.

As he had hoped, Vincent reached London in time to catch Lindsay on his return from lunch, having sent a message to Sergeant Walker to meet him near the outfitter's shop. His sergeant was pacing up and down, stopping at intervals to gaze at works of art displayed in a shop window, but he was quickly aware of the arrival of his superior. Vincent also seemed to be attracted by the statuary and the engravings. He pulled up opposite the shop window and jumped out to look at them.

“Follow me discreetly into the shop I'm going to,” he said in a low voice as if he were addressing a bust of William Shakespeare.

He had previously telephoned to Lindsay to announce himself. He ran up the stairs to a little glazed office, from which his friend passed all his customers in review, and tapped on the window. Lindsay threw open the door and shook hands with his friend warmly.

“I'm always seeing your name in the papers, Vincent, and it's a pleasure to meet you again in the flesh.”

“I'm afraid that when you hear the nature of my errand you will wish that you'd never seen or heard of me. I've come to ask you to run down with me to Oldbury.”

“What for?”

“To identify, if possible, a murdered man. It may prove to be a wild goose chase, but here's an overcoat found in a car in which a murder was committed and it bears your firm's label.”

Lindsay took the coat and became alert. “I sold this coat myself to a man whom we know quite well—a Mr Bernard Pitt, one of our regular customers. Do you mean to say that he's been murdered?”

“Well, either that or he has murdered someone else.”

Lindsay was shocked. “Bernard Pitt couldn't have been a murderer: he could only have been the victim.”

“Can you describe him?”

“He was a biggish man, taller and broader than I am—between forty and fifty and growing bald; at any rate his hair was thin.”

“That description fits the body exactly,” said Vincent, “but so it would many other people. Can you tell me what was Mr Pitt's profession?”

“As it happens, I can. He was the Chief Accountant of the Asiatic Bank at its head office in Lombard Street. He let it out inadvertently one day.”

“Have you his private address?”

“Yes, I have it noted somewhere. Here it is—7, Leicester Avenue, Hampstead. I've dined with him there more than once. It's a large house standing in its own garden, with a staff of manservants mostly foreign.”

“That strikes me as peculiar—a bank cashier living in a style like that.”

“I think he must have private means. Shall I ring up and ask whether he's at home now?”

“I wish you would.”

Lindsay went to a telephone in another room and returned a few minutes later, saying: “The answer is that he left home on Saturday and hasn't yet returned. The servants don't know where he has gone.”

“Saturday was the day of the murder. I fear that you'll have to come down with me to Oldbury to identify, or otherwise, this murdered man I've told you about. His body was discovered in a barn at Oldbury.”

“When do you want me to come?”

“Immediately if you can arrange it.”

“Very well, in a case like this I must arrange it, if you'll wait five minutes while I put the baby to bed. You'll find newspapers on that table.”

Vincent scorned the newspapers and moved restlessly about the tiny room during the five minutes, while Sergeant Walker wrote stolidly in his notebook. Lindsay reappeared attired for a motor journey.

“This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me since I left the Service. Lead on.”

Lindsay had looked forward to a brilliant career in the Navy, little suspecting that the Fates in the persons of certain hard-boiled naval officers at the Admiralty were poising an axe over his head. It had been a shock to him to find himself one of the many promising officers thrown out into a cold world with an inadequate gratuity, but he had made the best of it and had been glad to take over the management of an outfitter's shop.

Vincent's driving, careful though it was at crossroads, occasionally exceeded the speed limit for built-up areas. On reaching Oldbury they drove straight to Hatch, the village in which the barn was situated. The body had been removed to the village hall for identification.

“You'd better jump down, Walker, and get the key to the hall from that cottage opposite.”

The sergeant returned two minutes later with the village constable, who carried the key in his hand. He stopped only to shoo off a bevy of small boys who were collecting to enjoy whatever spectacle there might be to boast about to their less fortunate schoolfellows.

The body was lying on a trestle table covered with a sheet borrowed from the local joiner and undertaker. The sheet was turned back and Lindsay recognized with a shock his former customer, Bernard Pitt, Chief Accountant in the Asiatic Bank.

They drove on to Oldbury to see Inspector Miller, to whom Vincent reported the identification.

“This is going to save us all a lot of work, Mr Vincent. Let me congratulate you,” said the inspector.

“Thank you, but I can't help thinking that the work is only just beginning. We have to lose no time in trying to head off these rascals when they land in France or whatever country they may have been making for.”

“The reporters have been worrying my life out. I suppose that now that the body has been identified we can give it out to the press. It would be very kind of you, Mr Vincent, if you would draft out something that I can get run off on a Roneo and give to the reporters.”

“Certainly, Mr Miller. I should make the announcement quite short, yet sufficiently informative to justify you in saying that you have nothing to add to it—something like this.” He tore a page out of his notebook and pencilled on it: “The police have now succeeded in identifying the body of the man which was found in a barn at Hatch during the thunderstorm last Saturday. It was the body of Mr Bernard Pitt, of 7, Leicester Avenue, Hampstead.” “There! How will that do?”

“Excellent from my point of view, but not, I fear, from that of the reporters.”

“Well, that's all they'll get for the present.”

“I suppose that you yourself will lose no time in going there.”

“My sergeant and I will go to the manager's private address this evening, so I shall be obliged if you will hold over your information to journalists until after the late editions are out and on sale.”

“Certainly. The announcement shall not appear in the press until tomorrow morning.”

“Good! If you are not in need of your car tomorrow it may be very useful to me.”

“Certainly, you must keep it. It is a great relief to me that you have taken over the case and I have my chief constable's authority to lend you the official car for as long as you need it. For my part I shall give you every assistance that lies in my power.”

The two officers shook hands warmly and Vincent resumed his seat at the wheel.

“Where shall I drop you?” asked Vincent. “At that shop of yours?”

“No; I've put the baby to bed. Why shouldn't we dine together and make a night of it?”

“Nothing doing. I've my hands full this evening.”

“What a man! I tell you, I wouldn't take on your job for four times my present screw. No, give me the quiet, regular life of a shopkeeper with no watches to keep…”

BOOK: The Milliner's Hat Mystery
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