Authors: Margery Allingham
It was a little after four o'clock in the evening when Jerry Challoner swung his sports car smartly round the bend in the Kentish road and slid quietly through the village street.
At the moment he was well contented with life. He was making good time and there was no need to hurry, since London was but thirty miles ahead. The autumn evening was sunny, and he felt as he glanced in front of him that there could be no other place in the world more peaceful.
Even the red bus which passed at the crossroads seemed to be a gentler, more domesticated creature than its wilder brethren of the London streets.
A girl alighted from the bus. As he approached, the conductor handed her out a large basket, ringing his bell immediately afterwards, so that by the time Jerry arrived she was standing there alone struggling with it.
The next moment found the car drawn up beside her and Jerry leaning over the side.
âI say,' he said. âCan't I give you a lift?'
The girl turned round upon him.
âGod bless you! It's about half a mile down this road, and I've such a blister on my heel!'
âThat's fine,' he said, as a moment or two later she settled herself beside him. âWhere's the house?'
âDown here on the right â it's called White Cottage. I'll point it out to you; it's just the other side of that big grey building.'
âThat's a queer place. What is it? An institution?'
âOh no; that's a private house.'
Jerry looked at the great barrack of a place they were approaching with a certain amount of surprise.
âA private house?' he said. âGood lord! Who lives there? â it looks like a hospital.'
âDoesn't it!' said the girl, and laughed; but she did not answer his question, and he had a fleeting impression that it had embarrassed her. They had passed the hideous building by this time, and the girl touched his arm.
âLook!' she said. âHere we are.' She pointed towards a white house set far back from the road, surrounded by shrubbery.
Jerry drew up before the gate and helped the girl out.
âI'll bring the basket along for you, shall I?'
âWell â no, thanks awfully, if you don't mind,' she said, and she seemed curiously disconcerted.
âOh, all right!' he said cheerfully. âI'll leave it here, shall I? You can send someone down for it afterwards; don't carry it yourself with that heel.'
He turned to go back to the car as he spoke, conscious that she did not want him to stay a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.
âGood-bye,' she repeated, âand thanks.'
A storm was blowing up fast, and already a few heavy drops had begun to fall. A little way down the road therefore he pulled up again to put the hood up, and as he did so took the opportunity to have a cigarette. He found that he had no matches, however, and was about to push on again when a policeman turned the corner and came down the path towards him.
Jerry borrowed the necessary match and the two fell into conversation.
âStorm coming up,' said Jerry.
âThere is, indeed,' said the policeman, who was red-headed. âWe get some wonderful weather down in these parts on account of the hills.'
The sound of footsteps on the road ahead disturbed him, and with the instinctive curiosity of the countryside he glanced up as a man strode past them. He was considerably over the general height, pale with a lank unshaven chin. He was bare-headed and
his dry black hair was swept back from his face by the driving wind.
He walked fast and vanished round the corner without once glancing to the right or left.
Jerry looked after him, struck by the same vague expression of apprehension in the man's face that he fancied he had noticed in the girl's. From round the bend behind them came the click of a latch, and he was reminded of the gate leading down to the White Cottage where he had left the girl. The stranger must have entered it.
He turned to the constable.
âI think I'll push on,' he said.
The policeman opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by the sudden report of a shot-gun somewhere to the right of where they stood. He paused and frowned.
âIt's getting dark for shooting,' he said. âSpecially so near the road. These fellers round here don't realize that this road ain't the lonely lane it used to be. I've had several complaints lately of folk being scared to come along here in the evening, afraid they should be took for a rabbit or summat. If you'll excuse me, sir, I'll go and see if I can set eyes on that chap.'
Jerry climbed back into the car, and was just about to press the starter when a cry behind made him turn and peer through the window.
A girl was flying down the road towards him, her face white and terrified. She was screaming hysterically at the top of her voice:
âPolice! Police! Police! Murder!'
The red-headed policeman ran towards her, and Jerry climbed out of his car once more and hurried after him.
As he came up the girl pointed behind her.
âIt's the White Cottage,' she said breathlessly. â'E's in there all covered a blood.' On the last word she reeled forward, and Jerry was just in time to catch her as she collapsed.
He was the first to speak.
âDo you know her?'
The policeman nodded.
âShe's the parlourmaid at the White Cottage,' he said. âWe'd best go along there. Can you manage her feet, sir, if I take her shoulders?'
The storm was coming nearer at every moment, and the heavy clouds overhead shed an unnatural darkness over the scene. The laurel bushes round the White Cottage were rustling together in the fidgety wind that precedes a downpou r.
Jerry and the constable carried the fainting girl through the wicket-gate and stumbled down the path with her.
As they came up to the front door it was thrown open and a grey-faced, horror-stricken girl came running out into the porch.
Jerry hardly recognized her as the same one he had set down at the gate less than ten minutes before. All the light and youth seemed to have been drawn from her face and her blue eyes were wide.
âOh, I'm glad you've come!' she said breathlessly. âSomething horrible has happened. Come in at once.'
Jerry and the policeman set the maid down in a chair in the porch and followed the girl into the house.
They found themselves in a square hall, neat and white-painted, with four doors leading off from it. Three of these were open, showing glimpses of bright rooms within. The fourth was closed, and a group of silent horror-stricken people stood staring at it.
Jerry followed the direction of their eyes and saw a slow dark stain oozing out from beneath the door. It showed up very clearly on the pale-grey lino although it was almost twilight in the hall.
The red-headed policeman strode forward and, stepping carefully to avoid the mark, laid a hand on the door-knob.
âDon't go in!'
The words were uttered in an hysterical scream, and a woman in the group started forward impulsively. Jerry, glancing at her for the first time, saw how much she resembled his acquaintance of early in the afternoon. She was older, perhaps, and a little more frail, but the likeness was unmistakable.
The policeman removed his hand from the knob and regarded her doubtfully.
âWhat's up in there?' he demanded suspiciously.
âDon't go in â it's too horrible.'
The woman began to sob on the last words, and there was a general movement in the group about her as with a sudden squeaking of wheels a man in a hand-propelled invalid-chair shot forward, and Jerry and the policeman found themselves looking down into the pale, harassed face of a man aged about five-and-thirty. His head and shoulders were those of a giant; but the rest of him was attenuated and terribly crippled. He spoke hurriedly in a quiet voice that was in direct contrast to the woman's hysteria.
âYou know me, constable,' he said. âThank God you've come. A most appalling thing has happened. Mr Crowther of the “Dene” has been shot. He is lying in there just inside the door. My wife came in through the french windows and found him â¦ be careful how you go in.'
The policeman grasped the door-handle once more.
Jerry followed him into the room.
The dead man was lying on his back in a pool of blood just inside, his face uplifted and the upper part of his shirt and coat torn aside.
From his waist to his neck he had been almost blown to pieces.
Jerry turned away, his gorge rising. As he did so he saw a single-barrel shot-gun lying on the square dining-table in the centre of the room; the barrel was pointing towards the door, and he noticed that a great part of the velour tablecloth had been blown away by the shot.
The policeman hesitated no longer, but drew out his notebook; his hand trembled as he held the pencil.
Jerry turned to him and produced his card.
âConstable,' he said. âI'm Jerry Challoner, the son of Detective Chief Inspector W. T. Challoner of the Yard.'
Many people seeing W. T. Challoner for the first time made the mistake of thinking that his nickname, the âGreyhound', was a joke. He was a fresh-faced, inoffensive-looking man with white hair, bright eyes and an engagingly fatherly manner. No one had ever inquired and the unobservant might have placed his age at sixty had they not noticed the peculiar alertness of his step and the faint indication of enormous back muscles beneath his grey jacket.
The detective stood in the morning-room at the back of the house that had been placed at his disposal and faced his colleagues in the case â the red-headed constable and the heavy-faced inspector from New Campington. Jerry, silent and attentive, stood behind his father.
âWell,' W.T. said genially, âI think we may as well begin our preliminary inquiry now, don't you?'
âBy all means.'
The inspector seemed to welcome the authority of the older man.
The detective turned to the police constable.
âLet me see,' he said. âYou have the names of everyone in the house at the time of the crime, and as many particulars as you could collect about them?'
The red-headed policeman nodded and produced his notebook.
The detective sat down at the table and spread the book out before him.
âNow,' he said with the air of one talking aloud to himself, âwhom have we? Roger William Christensen, the owner of the house. Is that the chap in the invalid-chair I saw as I came in?
Eva Grace Christensen, his wife â she found the murdered man, I understand â¦ Norah Phyliss Bayliss, her sister.'
Jerry pricked up his ears â so her name was Norah.
The detective went on reading.
âJoan Alice Christensen, the Christensens' baby; Estah Phillips, nurse to the child; Kathreen Goody, 17, parlourmaid; Doris James, 40, cook â¦ Ah! Is that everyone, constable?'
âI think so, sir.'
âGood. Now how about the murdered man â who was he?'
The policeman stepped forward and turned over the page of the notebook.
âIt's all there, sir,' he said.
The detective beamed.
âSplendid! I see â Eric Crowther, of the “Dene”. Where's that?'