Challenge - H.C. McNeile - ebook

Challenge ebook

H. C. Mcneile



This is a well-written book with a fast-changing storyline. One of Drummond’s colleagues dies in a mysterious way. The main character wants to find out the cause of death. There were no traces of wounds on the body of the victim, no traces of weapons. Drummond was amazed that one of the millionaires was traveling in a boat with the victim.

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Liczba stron: 406

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Colonel Henry Talbot, C.M.G., D.S.O., pushed back his chair and rose from the dinner table. His wife had gone to the theatre, so that he was alone. And on that particular evening the fact caused him considerable relief. The lady of his bosom was no believer in the old tag that silence is golden.

He crossed the hall and entered his study. There he lit a cigar, and threw his long, spare form into an easy chair. From the dining-room came the faint tinkle of glass as the butler cleared the table; save for that and the ticking of a clock on the mantelpiece the flat was silent.

For perhaps ten minutes he sat motionless staring into the fire. Then he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and studied the contents thoughtfully, while a frown came on his forehead. And quite suddenly he spoke out loud.

“It can’t be coincidence.”

A coal fell into the grate, and as he bent over to replace it, the flames danced on his thin aquiline features.

“It can’t be,” he muttered.

The clock chimed nine, and as the final echo died Sway a bell shrilled out. Came a murmur of voices from the hall; then the butler opened the door.

“Captain Drummond and Mr. Standish, sir.”

Colonel Talbot rose, as the two men came into the room.

“Bring the coffee and port in here, Mallows,” he said. “I take it you two fellows have had dinner?”

“We have, Colonel,” said Drummond, coming over to the fire. “And we’re very curious to know the reason of the royal command.”

“I hope it wasn’t inconvenient to either of you?” asked the colonel.

“Not a bit,” answered Standish. “Not only are we curious, but we’re hopeful.”

The colonel laughed; then he grew serious again.

“You’ve seen the evening papers, I suppose.”

“As a matter of fact I haven’t,” said Drummond. “Have you, Ronald?”

“I only got back to London at eight,” cried Standish. “What’s in ‘em?”

There was a short pause; then Colonel Talbot spoke deliberately.

“Jimmy Latimer is dead.”

“What!” The word burst simultaneously from both his listeners. “Jimmy–dead! How? When?”

“Put the tray on my desk, Mallows,” said the colonel. “We’ll help ourselves.”

He waited until the butler had left the room; then standing with his back to the fire he studied the faces of the two men who were still staring at him incredulously.

“A month ago,” he began, “Jimmy put in for leave. Well, you two know what our leave frequently covers, but in this case it was the genuine article. He was going to the South of France, and there was no question of work. I got a letter from him about a fortnight ago, saying he was having a damned good time, and that he’d made a spot of cash at Monte. He also implied that there was a pretty helping him to spend it.

“Last night, about ten o’clock, I got a call through here to my flat from Paris. Jimmy was at the other end. He told me he was on the biggest thing he’d ever handled–so big that he could hardly believe it himself. He was catching the eight-fifty-seven from the St. Lazare Station and crossing via Newhaven. It arrives at Victoria at six o’clock in the morning, and he was coming direct to me here. Couldn’t even wait till I got to the office.

“As you can imagine, I wondered a bit. Jimmy was not a man who went in off the deep end without a pretty good cause. So I ordered Mallows to have some breakfast ready, and to call me the instant jimmy arrived. He never did; when the boat reached Newhaven he was dead in his cabin.”

“Murdered?” asked Standish quietly.

“My first thought, naturally, when I heard the news,” said the colonel. “Since then we’ve obtained all the information available. He got on board the boat at midnight, and had a whisky and soda at the bar. Then he turned in. He was, apparently, in perfect health and spirits, though the steward in the bar seems to have noticed that he kept on glancing towards the door while he was drinking. Ordinarily that is a piece of evidence which I should discount very considerably. It is the sort of thing that, with the best will in the world, a man might imagine after the event. But in this case he actually mentioned the fact to his assistant last night. So there must have been something in it. And the next thing that was heard of the poor old boy was when his cabin steward called him this morning. He was partially undressed in his bunk, and quite dead.

“When the boat berthed, the police were of course notified. Inspector Dorman, who is an officer of great ability, was in charge of the investigation, and very luckily he knew Jimmy and Jimmy’s job. So the possibility of foul play at once occurred to him. But nothing that he could discover pointed to it. There was no sign of any wound, no trace of any weapon. His kit was, apparently, untouched; his money and watch were in the cubby-hole beside the bunk. In fact, everything seemed to indicate death from natural causes.

“But Dorman was not satisfied; there still remained poison. But since that would necessitate a post-mortem, and it was clearly impossible to keep the passengers waiting while that was done, he sent one of his men up in the boat-train with instructions to get everybody’s name and address. Meanwhile he had the body taken ashore, and got in touch with a doctor. Then he went on board again, and cross-examined everybody who could possibly throw any light on it.

“He drew blank. Save for the one piece of evidence of the bar steward which I have already told you, no one could tell him anything. One sailor thought he had seen someone leaving Jimmy’s cabin at about one o’clock, but when pressed he was so vague as to be useless. And so finally Dorman gave it up, and taking all the kit out of the cabin, he sat down to await the doctor’s report.”

The colonel pitched the stub of his cigar into the fire.

“Once again, blank. There was no trace of any poison whatsoever. The contents of the stomach were analysed; all the usual tests were done. Result–nothing. The doctor was prepared to swear that death was natural, though he admitted that every organ was in perfect condition.”

“I was just going to say,” remarked Drummond, “that I’ve seldom met anybody who seemed fitter than Jimmy.”

“Precisely,” said the colonel.

“What do you think yourself, sir?” asked Standish quietly.

“I’m not satisfied, Ronald. I know that the idea of poisons that leave no trace is novelist’s gup; I admit that on the face of it the doctor must be right. And still I’m not satisfied. If what that barman said is the truth Jimmy was afraid of being followed. We know that he was on to something big; we know that his health was perfect. And yet he dies. It can’t be coincidence, you fellows.”

“If it is it’s a very strange one,” agreed Standish.

“And if it isn’t it must be murder. And if it was murder, the murderer was on board. Have you a copy of the list of the passengers?”

Colonel Talbot walked over to his desk and handed Standish a paper.

“As you will see,” he remarked, “the boat was very empty. Most of the passengers were third class.”

“It’s not a particularly popular boat, I should imagine,” said Drummond. “I mean I can’t see anybody who hadn’t got to, for economy or some other reason, crossing by that route.”

“Precisely,” remarked the colonel gravely, and the two men looked at him.

“Something bitten you, Colonel?” cried Drummond. “Something so fantastic, Hugh, that I almost hesitate to mention it. But it was because what you have just said had struck me also that this wild idea occurred to me. Run your eye down the list of first class passengers–there are only eight–and see if one name doesn’t strike you.”

“Alexander; Purvis; Reid; Burton...Charles Burton. The millionaire bloke who throws parties in Park Lane...Is that what you mean?”

Colonel Talbot nodded.

“That is what I mean.”

“But, damn it, Colonel, what on earth should he want to murder Jimmy for?”

“Not quite so fast, Hugh,” said the other. “As I said, the idea may be fantastically wrong. But we’ve all heard of Charles Burton. We all know that even if he isn’t a millionaire he’s extremely well off. But who is Charles Burton?”

“I’ll buy it,” said Drummond.

“So would most people. Where does Charles Burton get his money from?”

“I gathered he was something in the City.”

“Which covers a multitude of sins. But to cut the cackle, his name jumped at me out of that list. Why on earth should a man of his position and wealth choose one of the most uncomfortable Channel crossings to come over by?”

“It’s a goodish step from that to murder,” said Standish.

“Agreed, my dear fellow. But sitting in my office this afternoon, the question went on biting me. And at length I could stand it no longer. So I rang up the Sûreté in Paris, and asked them if they could find out in what hotel he was staying. Of course I knew he’d left, but that didn’t matter. A short while after they got back to me to say that he had been staying at the Crillon, but had left for England last night. So I got through to the Crillon, where I discovered that Mr. Charles Burton had intended to fly over to-day, but that he had suddenly changed his mind yesterday evening, and decided to go via Newhaven and Dieppe.”

“Strange,” said Standish thoughtfully. “But it’s still a goodly step, Colonel.”

“Again agreed. But having started I went on. And by dint of discreet enquiries one or two small but interesting facts came to light. For instance, I gathered that on his frequent journeys to the Continent, he always flies. He loathes trains. I further gathered, or rather failed to gather, from various men I rang up, what his business was. He has an office, and the nearest I could get to it was that he was something in the nature of a financial adviser, whatever that may be. No one seemed to know who he was or where he came from. It seems he just blossomed suddenly about two years ago. One day he was not; the next day he was. But the most interesting point of all was a casual remark I heard in the club this evening. His name cropped up and somebody said: ‘I sometimes wonder if that man is English.’ I docketed that for future reference.”

“Look here, Colonel,” cried Drummond. “Let’s get this straight. You started off by saying your idea was fantastic, but unless I’m suffering from senile decay, you’re playing with the theory that Jimmy was murdered by Charles Burton.”

“You could not have expressed it better. Playing with the theory.”

“And you want us to play too?”

“If you’ve got nothing better to do. I haven’t a leg to stand on; I know that. But Jimmy, who was in possession of very important information, died. Travelling in the same boat was a man whose origin is, to say the least, not an open book. Further, a man who, if he did change his habitual method of transport, would surely choose the Golden Arrow. I remember what you two did,” he continued, “when that Kalinsky affair was on, over Waldron’s gas and Graham Caldwell’s aeroplane. You were invaluable, and this may be a case of the same type. You both of you go everywhere in London; all I’m asking you to do is to–”

“Cultivate Mr. Charles Burton,” said Drummond with a grin.

“Exactly, Hugh. For if there is anything in my suspicions, I think you two, acting unofficially, are far more likely to get to the bottom of the matter–or at any rate to get on the trail–than I am through official channels.”

“It’s a date, Colonel,” cried Standish. “But before we push off there are one or two points I want to get clear. In the letter you got from Jimmy a fortnight ago was there any hint he was on to something?”

“None at all.”

“Have you heard from him since?”

“Not until he telephoned yesterday.”

“So you don’t know when he left the Riviera?”

“Not got the ghost of an idea. But we could find that out by wiring the hotel.”

“Which was?”

“The Metropole at Cannes.”

“I wish you would find out, Colonel. In your position you can do so more easily than we can, and it’s information that may prove important.”

“I’ll wire or ‘phone to-morrow, Ronald.”

“Just one thing more. I assume some reliable person has gone through his kit and papers with a fine-tooth comb?”

“Dorman himself. There was nothing; nothing at all. But if our wild surmise is correct that is what one would have expected, isn’t it? The murderer had plenty of time to examine all the kit himself.”

“True,” agreed Standish. “And yet a wary bird like poor old Jimmy has half a dozen tricks up his sleeve. Shaving soap; tooth paste...”

“I know Dorman. He’s up to every trick himself. And if he says there’s nothing there–then there is nothing.”

“By the way,” put in Drummond, “was Jimmy engaged?”

“Not that I’ve ever heard of.”

“Who is his next of kin?”

“His father–Major John Latimer. Lives at his club–the Senior Army and Navy.”

“A widower?”

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