Literary Thoughts edition presents Nine Strings to your Bow by Maurice Walshl ------ "Nine Strings to your Bow" was written in 1945 by Maurice Walsh (1879-1964). The novel tells the case of Peter Falkner, who has been jailed, three times tried, and finally released in the murder of his uncle. The case is investigated by the private detectives Glover and Madden, who disregard none of the suspects, are unable to prevent another killing, and hunt out the killer with blindness for the English Law. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Literary Thoughts Editionpresents
Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)
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THE tall man slouched along the pavement, and, though he moved lazily, his gait gave a sense of controlled power. He was bareheaded under the forenoon sun of early June, and his thick light hair was thrown off his brow in a cow’s lick. He was smoking a cigarette and smoking it too rapidly, and cursing warmly underneath his breath.
“Blast you, Daniel! ‘Make contact. Sell yourself.’ Just like that, my gallant strategist! But how the bloody wars am I going to begin?”
The man he was wanting to contact was strolling leisurely twenty yards ahead. A young man, lathily but wirily built, wearing a plaid jacket over flannels. He did not seem to have a care in the world. But his face was too thin, his cheeks too hollow, and his pallor implied that he had long been hidden away from the sun.
“You’re game, you’re game, Peter lad,” said Con Madden as Peter Falkner swerved to the edge of the pavement, and looked up over the tall city houses into the blue abyss of sky where white cloud islands were drifting.
Con Madden, pausing to light a cigarette, remembered The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
I never saw a man who looked with such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue which prisoners call the sky.
Peter Falkner had stepped down from the dock, a free man, only half an hour ago. The nolle prosequi proceedings had not taken five minutes. Two days ago the court had been packed by spectators avid to see a man in the toils: to-day only half a dozen saw him released. Con Madden was one who saw Peter Falkner walk out of court. And walk out alone. That fact disturbed Con. At least two of his friends should have been there to greet him: Hughes Everitt and Barbara Aitken. That they were not there might be Peter’s own wish, and it might imply that he intended slipping away somewhere—perhaps out of the country.
Con started to curse again, and then cheered up. If Falkner did slip out of the country that finished the case, and Con had never liked the looks of it. There were too many loose strings to be tied.
Con paused on the pavement to relight his cigarette, as Peter turned and entered a tobacconist’s at the corner.
Peter came out of the shop, a new corncob pipe in his teeth and a blue tin of American Cavendish in his hand. He stood at the street corner and slowly ground a brown flake between broad palms, and the eyes that surveyed the press of business men and idlers were cool and challenging. No one took the least notice of him, and that surprised Con, for Peter’s name had been in the mouths of men these many days.
A swinging sign a few doors down the side street caught Peter Falkner’s eye. He walked down towards it, and pushed through a swing door.
“Bydam’,” said Con Madden. “My own favourite caravanserai!”
It was eleven o’clock in the forenoon, the low-water hour in the liquor trade. All the partitioned alcoves along the mahogany counter, except the last one, were empty. Con Madden, coming through the swing door, saw beyond the inner edge of the partition a strong white hand—a hand too white for its bony strength—reach for a silver tankard. Con slip-footed along the terrazzo floor and anchored himself on a high stool in the last alcove but one. The barman leaning against the inside arch leading to the lounge bestirred himself, and grinned a welcome.
“You’re early this morning, Mr. Madden. A minute earlier and you’d be having the first one of the day on the house.”
The barman caressed a lever and a pint of porter frothed creamily. He knew Con Madden and his profession, and was considering a subject for a chat during the slack hour.
“Did you take a look in at Greenal Street last week, Mr. Madden—the big murder trial? They say he was a tough-looking guy, the Falkner man, and a Yank besides.”
“They, whoever they are, are damn bad judges of character, Michael,” said Con. “He is a Canadian of one generation, and he may be tough, but he certainly did not look tough. I saw him at his second trial.” Con’s voice had a considering note. “No! he’s not tough, but he’s the sort of man you’d like to have with you and not against you.”
The barman laughed. “I wonder, now, did he do the old uncle in?”
“How would I know? But if Falkner did not, the man that did fell over himself in trying to frame someone.”
“By making his clues too palpable—too easy. A pig-headed policeman fell for them, but three juries did not. Falkner’s clean off but with a string tied to him, a marked man all his days.”
“I wouldn’t like to be the swine that framed him.”
“How is Falkner to lay hands on him, Michael?”
“I’d search for him under the bloody mountains.”
“Would you now, Michael?” Con pointed a finger at him. “Just put yourself in his place. What would you do?”
“What would I do?” Michael scratched the back of his head. “That’s another question altogether. What would I do?” Then he grinned. “There was a bit of money going?”
“Oodles of it.”
“All I’d ask for is one month to gather me resources, and then I’d be like a needle in a bundle o’ hay.”
“You’d clear out of the country?”
“Fast an’ far an’ with a new handle—an’ that’s what I’d whisper in the Falkner lad’s ear if I got the chance.”
“And you might be whispering in a deaf ear, Michael. I had a good look at him, and he struck me as a man who would not back down or run for shelter.”
“What’ll he do then?”
“One of two things, and I’ll put half a dollar on it. If he’s not guilty he’ll do his damndest to put one over on the police by hounding out the man—or woman—that framed him.”
“And if he is guilty?”
“Then, he will lie low and say nuffin. And yet, you were right, Michael. The thing for him to do, guilty or innocent, is get away and change his identity. The year he has been in prison has wiped out every trail. No man can live under a cloud all his days—more especially if he is guiltless. He must either get out, or get inside a hard shell and die in a corner of it after eating his heart out. Anyone in the lounge?”
“Nary the one.”
“Is that the Sporting Times you have over there? Thanks. Bring me in another pint, and I’ll give you a winner later on.”
Peter Falkner at the other side of the partition had sat very quietly, and Con wondered if the seed he was scattering was falling on barren ground.
He picked up the sporting paper and went through into the lounge to the far corner and opened his paper, without a glance at the man in the last alcove.
Presently the barman came in with a fresh tankard and slipped it across the table. Con murmured, “Thank you, Mike!” and Mike moved back into the bar.
Con looked at the paper with unseeing eyes, but his ears and his mind were intent. The lounge door opened and closed again; slow footsteps moved across amongst the small tables and halted before Con’s; Con lifted casual eyes and looked into the eyes of Peter Falkner; and Peter Falkner’s eyes were amused and mocking and hard. He took the corncob pipe from between his teeth and pointed it at Con.
“You know who I am?” It was hardly a question. “I saw you in court this morning.”
“You are observant, Mr. Falkner,” Con said calmly. “I never caught your eye. Won’t you sit down and have a drink with me?”
Mr. Falkner did not sit down, and ignored the invitation to drink. He leaned one large, too-white hand on the table edge.
“You followed me in here?”
“I saw you come in.” Con was as calm as a post.
“You were talking at me out there with that Irish Michael?”
Con liked Peter Falkner for his insistency and directness. And he liked his voice, too, a resonant voice rather deep and with a quality of its own. His father had been Lowland, his mother half-Irish, he had grown to manhood in the West, and so his speech had a pleasantly flavoured drawl.
“The talk was about you out there,” Con said, “but I did not start it.”
“You kept it going, brother.”
“I did, and I’ll stand by anything I said as well.”
“I know who you are too,” said Peter. “You are one of those press-hounds snuffing around the law courts on the trail of more copy for your dirty rags.” He was plainly contemptuous.
“God forbid!” said Mr. Madden.
“What is your game then?” His eyes narrowed.
“I’m on the look-out for a job. I can be as direct as yourself, Mr. Falkner. That’s who I am.” He tendered a card to Peter who glanced at it, and opened his eyes mockingly.
“I apologize to the press-hound,” he said. “This must be the lowest thing there is this side of hell.” He glanced at the card again. “Cornelius J. Madden—”
“Con to his friends,” Con said.
“Cornelius suits me,” Peter said.
“Not on your life, young fellow,” said Con with some warmth. “I’m plain Mister to you for a little while yet.”
Peter glanced at the card again. “Private Investigator—”
“A term insisted on by the founder of the firm,” Con said.
“And are you his jackal, Mr. Cornelius J. Madden?”
“You might be a good judge of jackals, Mr. Falkner.”
Peter Falkner restrained himself finely. He had had a long and bitter year in which to learn restraint.
“You’ll explain that, Mr. Private Dick?”
“Sure, Mr. Peter Falkner! You enquired if I were a jackal? I’ll answer you. I pull down my own meat at the tiger’s side. And I’ll ask you a question in turn. Are you a king tiger who employed a jackal that turned and bit you?”
“My Lord! One hour out of jail and a rough house on my hands already.” He gazed down at the big man whose grey, wide-open, steadfast eyes had a gleam that he recognized. Whatever this man was he was no pan-handler. The rough house might come later.
“I asked for that,” Peter said quietly. “I withdraw the jackal.”
“Fair enough!” said Con. “I withdraw too. You have every reason to be bitter and suspicious.”
“I am not bitter,” Peter said, “but leave me my suspicions for this session.” He pulled a chair round and sat down. “You play your hand well, Mr. Cornelius J. Madden, Private Investigator. You’ve got me interested. I’m a free man, and like to be amused, but be careful of the cracks you pull.”
“Your mouth is too grim for freedom, Mr. Falkner.”
“I’ll be a free man till hell freezes over.” There was a harsh note in his voice.
“Freedom’s fight when once begun, though often lost is ever won,” quoted Con. “Will you have a drink?”
“I am not drinking with you just yet,” said Peter.
“I get you. Your very good health all the same.”
Con laid down his tankard, lit a cigarette and reached the lighting match to Peter who accepted it and got his corncob going. He picked up Con’s business card.
“Cornelius J. Madden, Private Investigator, looking for a job! How do you begin to pull it down, Mr. Madden?”
“Dam’d if I know!” Con said. “You heard what that Irish barman advised? For you to get out. He was dead right, you know.”
“I’ll take time off to prove him wrong.”
Con looked at him through half shut eyes and nodded. “You’ll face the music. You have decided to play with life.”
“What’s my game?” Peter Falkner asked. This big, seemingly quiet man had touched on the thing that Peter had been doing with all his might through many terrible months.
“To gather your resolution close about you, build up a philosophy to last all your days, deciding, while you had time, the course you would take if you won a doubtful freedom. You decided to go back to Eglintoun and live a free man till hell froze over.”
“I like your style, Mr. Madden. You say that I cannot?”
“Not unless you clear your name. You cannot live a free man under a cloud.”
“And you propose to get me out from under that cloud? There would be a fee of course? Quite a reasonable fee, but the expenses would mount up—isn’t that the usual technique?”
“To hell with you and your fee!” said Con warmly. “You can clear out of here when you want to, and go to hell your own road.”
Peter Falkner lifted a broad palm.
“Sorry if I touched you on the raw, but how sure are you that my road leads to hell?”
“I’ll tell you, Mr. Peter Falkner.” Con sat up. “You’ll go back where you belong, and you’ll meet people who will congratulate you, and shake you by the hand, and all the time there will be speculation in their eyes; and some of them will wipe the hand that shook yours on the back of their britches; and some will slide inside shop doors when they see you coming; and others, fair enough to your face, will snigger behind your back and whisper that the big stake you played for was worth a few months in jail; and a few who believe in you will be terribly sorry for you, and grieve for you, and go on pouring their sympathy on you. And you’ll know that a killer is not far away, and you will go on living your free life till hell freezes over. Will you, Mr. Peter Falkner?”
“Blast your eyes!” said Peter Falkner savagely.
“And another thing, Mr. Falkner! All the time, while you are living this free life of yours, you might be going round with two little fears gnawing at you.”
“Two little fears?” Peter repeated.
“Yes, two! First, you might be afraid that if any more mud were stirred up someone might get soiled—someone you like—maybe a woman.”
Peter stiffened. “Be careful, you mud-stirrer,” he warned. “What is my second little fear?”
“I am not saying that you have it, but if you have you’ll do nothing. You’ll give me no job. I was once a policeman.”
“Is that not a recommendation?”
“Once a policeman always a policeman. I would not condone murder. If I investigated your case and found fresh evidence against you, I would do my damndest to get you hanged.”
“Is that a dare, sir?”
“A statement of principle. Don’t employ me or anyone if you have that second small fear.”
Peter spoke as if to himself.
“You have one hell of a kick, Mr. Cornelius J. Madden.”
“I am one thorough-going brute,” Con said, strangely touched. He put his hands on the arms of his chair. “The session is over, Mr. Falkner. I’ll not trouble you again.”
“Don’t let me chase you off, Mr. Madden. The day is young,” said Peter. “I set out to be amused, but you are not an amusing man. I am just beginning to wonder if your qualifications as an investigator are on a par with your come-back.”
“You have a hefty kick of your own, young man,” Con said. “To hell with your qualifications. I am not keen on this job any more.”
“Haven’t you a record that could be checked up on?”
“Do you know Inspector Myles of Eglintoun?” Con asked.
“Dick Myles? A sound man. He’ll do to take along.”
“You ask Dick about Con Madden. You ask him!”
“I am not weakening, big man.” Peter leaned forward. “After the things you said to me you’ve got to prove that you were not baiting me to pass the time.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then, by God! I’ll try and take it out of your hide.”
Con leaned back in his chair and looked Peter up and down. A lean and wiry fellow with limber shoulders, but the poor young devil was only just out of jail, and Con could give him forty pounds. But Con did not smile. He nodded seriously.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I’m told you can be real tough in a free-for-all. Where do I begin saving my hide?”
Peter leaned back too, and turned his head towards the bar door. “Another beer, Mister,” Peter called.
“A tankard of plain, Mike,” Con gave his order.
“Suppose you begin by telling me some of the things Dick Myles would say about you?” invited Peter.
Con lit a cigarette and inhaled a few times before he began.
“God instruct me!” he said. “Dick Myles would tell you something like this. We entered the Force together, and he was my best friend—”
“Not any more?”
“We are still friendly, but our lines moved apart. He is an Inspector, and I got thrown out on my ear, and barely escaped a spell in jail—”
“That one of your qualifications?”
“You might think so when I tell you that the man that got me dismissed was your friend Superintendent Mullen. That same one who has been so set upon seeing you hanged.”
“To be sure. I became the youngest detective-inspector in the C.I.D. and the most promising, and no one knew that better than myself. Unfortunately I didn’t take my honours or my liquor with equanimity, and this Mullen as my superintendent rode me hard. I was desperate, young and proud, and I didn’t take the riding in good part. One day, having one over the eight to encourage me, I bucked the rider off, rolled on him, kicked him in the slats, knocked some of his teeth down his throat, mixed his kidneys with his liver, and a few little things like that. No qualification yet?”
“A useful man in a rough house, I’d say.”
“Make a note of it for immediate reference,” Con chuckled. “The powers asked for my resignation. A man higher up saved me from a spell in durance vile, and ten of my colleagues conveyed to me a vote of thanks. Some of them are now superintendents themselves and my very good friends. But I was out of a job, and at a particularly loose end, for I was a policeman and nothing else.
“Then one Saturday evening I encountered a solid chunk of humanity in a public bar. After due libations, my personal grievances came home to me mountain high, and, my tongue being loosed, I detailed and enlarged on them to this new-found soul-mate of mine. He listened but did not hesitate to tell me that I jolly well deserved all I had got and more, or words to that effect in classical languages.
“My new friend and I cultivated acquaintance and discussion. I found myself spending long week-ends at his place in the far-out suburbs. He ran a bachelor establishment and cultivated fruit and vegetables in an expert manner. Who he was or what he had been I didn’t know, and am not sure even now, but sometimes I suspect that he is a helper of lame dogs, and sometimes I have an idea that he once considered me lame on three feet and unsound on the other.
“He was interested in life, and especially in its vagaries on the abnormal and subnormal sides. At any rate he said he was, and his knowledge of criminology and aberrancy was full and fanciful. My own inclination was that way, and he put it to practical uses. Almost before I knew it I found myself a partner with him in a nice little organization. We are still partners, and the organization is nicer than ever—and profitable. And the organization is nice, too, in what it touches. You can ask the police about that. Most of its activities are hum-drum enough and concerned with search for documents and verification of facts and so on—”
“Divorce court proceedings?” suggested Peter.
“Why not? We turn down most of them, but where we think a man or woman is getting a raw deal we take a hand. We take a hand in other things too. My partner is always on the look-out for a busman’s holiday. A case interests us; we may have no professional connection with it; but we take a look at it round and about; and if it has possibilities we try and make contact with the interested party. In short, Mr. Falkner, like most business organizations we canvass for business, but unlike most of them we are particular where we canvass.”
“Ah! I am beginning to see,” Peter said. “My case interested you?”
“And you had a look round and about.”
“And found possibilities.”
“And you tried to contact me as the interested party? Would you care to go on talking?”
“About what you propose to do for me. You would clear my name?”
“I cannot promise that. I propose to bring the murderer into the open, and if that clears your name, well and good.”
Peter looked long at Con, his eyes frowning and intent.
“I like your style, Mr. Madden,” he said at last. “You have made contact, and I will talk with you.” He sat up and grinned pleasantly. “Have a drink with me?”
Con flicked his tankard. “I asked you first.”
“Two is my usual limit of this, but I’ll be glad to join you.” Peter leaned forward again. “Could you conceive the notion that I would like to take a look at the man who killed Marcus Aitken? He was my uncle, you know, and I liked the old tyrant.”
When Con Madden told Peter Falkner that he and his partner had had a look round and about at the murder of Marcus Aitken, it was in the nature of an understatement. For the look had been thorough, and Con Madden, after three weeks in the town of Eglintoun, had the facts on his mind as clear as a photograph. And the main fact was that Mark Aitken had been brutally murdered a year ago, shot through the spine from close up and his brains blown out as he lay on his face. That was the medical evidence.
There were other facts. The facts Con Madden had learned about Mark Aitken himself. That Mark had managed to survive to the age of sixty was only explained by the theory that the devil takes care of his own. On the surface Mark had been a big business man and sportsman, mill owner, company director, landed proprietor, justice of the peace, patron of racing, horse and cattle breeder, everything that makes a man the backbone of the country—for his own good! Actually Mark Aitken was a full-blooded blend of libertine, regency buck, racketeer and spendthrift, with enough Scots in him to make him a patient gatherer, enough Irish to make him a bold gambler, and enough English to make him think he was by the Lord appointed. A big sanguine-hued, blond, tempered man, afraid of nothing on two feet or four, in this world or the next. A hard drinker, a hard fighter, a hard lover, and a hard bargainer all his life, and at the age of sixty he possessed all the lustful virility of Augustus the Strong of Poland. He’d married and buried two women, had no direct heir, but by all accounts did not lack natural progeny.
But Mark Aitken had acquired three heirs. Two of them were a twin brother and sister, a nephew and niece. . . . Toby and Barbara Aitken. They were about twenty-five, or thereabouts. Toby was a big ash-haired, ash-eyed hulk of a lad, whose main pursuits were the drinking of double whiskies and the playing of first-class golf. He was a plus two man, and it was said he would cheat to win side bets. An unmoral young hound was Toby.
Barbara, as Con Madden could attest, was a looker, of the slender but not angular type. Five foot six with nice eager lines, and the curves circumspect but in the right places. Brown haired and on the dark side, she was, and there were red lights in her hair of which she had plenty. The huntress type—Diana of the Uplands with the greyhounds, like the famous painting.
These two lived with Mark in the manor, Danesford House, where Barbara acted as chatelaine.
The third heir was Peter Falkner himself. Peter was the son of Mark’s own sister and a Scotsman of the name of Robbie Falkner. It was Robbie who married Mark’s sister over violent protest and whisked her off to Canada where Peter was born. It was five years ago, when Robbie and Mark’s sister both died, that Peter wrote his uncle informing him of their deaths, and had received an offer from his uncle to come back to Eglintoun. Uncle and nephew had an interview, and as a result of that interview Peter had been appointed estate manager, under a written contract for five years. And beginning then and for the next five years these two had rowed until it brought down rain. At the trial Peter had claimed that underneath the quarreling was a mutual fondness and respect, but those who had heard the rowing wondered—especially when Mark’s body was found on the path between Danesford House, and the Home Farm where Peter, as manager, lived. He was found there by Peter himself. The finder of the corpus delicti is usually the first object of suspicion, and a few of them have been hanged.
More particularly there was the final row Peter had with his Uncle Mark. The five years of his contract as estate manager were up and Mark wanted to renew, but Peter had refused. He had said he was going back to Canada. Old Mark had been extraordinarily mild about it and had offered to double his salary, so that he could settle down and find himself a wife. Peter had said, irritatingly, that he didn’t want the salary or a wife and that he was leaving for Canada on the Monday. After that Uncle Marcus ran true to form. He bellowed and most of his bellowing was abusive. He threatened to cut Peter out of his will. It was all heard by the servants and members of the family. Peter left the big house and stormed off to the Home Farm by himself.
The terms of the will which Mark Aitken had threatened to change did not help Peter’s case. There was every reason why Peter shouldn’t have wanted it changed. In Superintendent Mullen’s mind it clinched matters. Mark had made two wills, the first about ten years ago. In that one he left his estate between Peter, Barbara and Toby. But six months before his death he made a new will, the one which was valid now. Under its terms Toby was left three hundred pounds a year, to be paid out of the estate at the rate of twenty-five pounds a month as long as he lived, and the testator expressed the opinion that he would not live long. Barbara Aitken was left six hundred pounds a year until her marriage, at which time the annuity was to cease. The residue of the estate was left to Peter Falkner, and there were no strings attached to it. That residue was reasonably estimated as worth two hundred thousand pounds.
Con looked across the tops of the fresh tankards which Michael had brought to Peter Falkner. “I would like for once,” he said, “to hear your own account of what happened after that last quarrel with your Uncle Mark. I’d like to hear it without the objections and interruptions of the Crown Prosecutor.”
Peter sucked on the stem of his pipe, which had gone dead. “After that row with my uncle,” he said, “I needed a bit of calming down. I had in mind a discussion I’d had with Barbara. She and Hughes Everitt, to whom she’s engaged, were going fishing for salmon early the next morning. I told her the salmon would not be biting. She stubbornly insisted they would. It gave me the thought of fishing, which is as good a way as I know to cool off from a row. While I knew the salmon could not be had, I also knew that the sea trout could.
“About five-thirty I set out. It was grand fishing, and the trout were tricky and game and tender in the mouth. I kept at it until the light went about ten-thirty. By that time I had a bag full of eighteen beauties, averaging about a pound and a half. I found that I was at a bend of the river only a couple of fields away from the golf club. I decided to cross over and get one of the stewards to cook me a dish of bacon and eggs. In order to lighten my burden and to save my catch from some of the sharks at the club, I hid my fishing bag under the overhang of a sally-bush and laid my rod among its branches.”
“You weren’t afraid someone would find them and take them?” Con asked.
“It was all posted land,” Peter explained. “The only danger of that was from Charley Wells, the local poacher, and I wasn’t much worried about him. I’d run him off the place with a good beating a while back and I didn’t think he’d be in a hurry to catch another.”
“Go on,” Con said.
“I went to the club and had my supper. As a matter of fact I talked to several friends about my catch of fish. Among them was Hughes Everitt. He’s my best friend, you know. I swore him to secrecy, knowing he was going fishing with Barbara in the morning. She’s so blasted stubborn. After she’d failed to get any salmon I intended to produce my catch of trout to rub her nose in the dust. I meant to stop on my way home to pick them up. But that didn’t happen.”
“And why not?” Con asked.
“I got into a poker game in the club manager’s back room. It lasted until six in the morning. After that I shaved and bathed and got into some clean things I kept in my club locker. Then I started for Danesford House. You understand, it was a custom for us all to have Sunday breakfast at the big house.”
“How did it happen,” Con asked, “that your Uncle and cousins Barbara and Toby live at Danesford House, and you a mile away at the Home Farm? Not very clubby, was it?”
Peter took a deep drink from his tankard. “When I came back from Canada my Uncle and I were stepping round each other like two fighting cocks. I wasn’t forgetting he’d disapproved of my father, and suspected he disapproved of me. When he offered me the job of estate manager I took it, but it was a business contract. He expected me to live as a member of the family at Danesford House, but I chose to live at the Home Farm, which was built for the estate manager. I wanted no favours. I lived at the farm with Denis Buckley, the foreman. My one concession to the family tie with Uncle Mark, was those Sunday breakfasts.”
“I see. So you headed for Danesford House instead of the Home Farm when you left the club.”
“Right,” Peter Falkner said. “On the road Barbara and Hughes Everitt caught up with me in Barbara’s car. They’d been after their salmon and as I’d predicted, they’d got none. That reminded me of my own catch, and that I must get it after breakfast. Hughes winked at me when Barbara cursed out the salmon. He’d been a good fellow and kept my secret.”
“As I recall,” Con Madden said, “Marcus Aitken was not, after all, on hand for that Sunday’s breakfast.”
Peter nodded, frowning. “I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t unusual for him to be off on a tramp with his two wolfhounds. After breakfast I left Barbara and Hughes and started back along the mile of path to the Home Farm. I decided to send one of the farm boys to the bend in the stream to retrieve my fish and tackle.
“I was walking along the path at a good clip when I saw my uncle’s two wolfhounds lying down on the edge of a copse. I wasn’t surprised to see them, but I was surprised not to see my uncle about. Not that I wanted to, mind you. We’d probably only have renewed the quarrel of the day before. Then I noticed something. There was grass fringing the path, and I noticed the hounds were lying unusually high, as if they were resting on something. I walked through the grass to see what it might be. As I approached, the dogs showed their teeth and hackled and growled, fiercely. I was puzzled. Ordinarily they were friendly to me. As I drew closer they grew more savage. Then I saw they were lying on the body of a man.” Peter’s mouth drew together in a hard line.
“You didn’t recognize who it was at first?” Con asked.
“No. My first thought was that the dogs had turned man-killer and done in Charley Wells, the poacher. Then I saw the brown heather-mixture of the tweed jacket on the body, and I knew it was Uncle Mark.
“I couldn’t approach closer, with those two red-eyed angry dogs standing guard. I had to get help, and a gun with which to deal with the dogs if necessary. I was still thinking it was the dogs who had done him in. I ran to the Home Farm. My double barreled shotgun, which usually rested on hooks behind the door, was gone. I thought only at the time that some one of the farm hands had borrowed it for rabbit shooting. I phoned the police at Eglintoun. I told them where the body was and to bring a gun with which to deal with the dogs, as mine was missing. I started back for the scene of what I still thought was an accident, and was overtaken before I got there by the police, in the persons of Superintendent Mullen and Inspector Myles.
“They had to kill the dogs, finally, to get to the body. It was then they found that Uncle Mark had been shot through the spine and the back of the head, and that it had been no accident. It was murder.” Peter hesitated.
Con knew the next stages of the story well.
The police surgeon arrived. It was 8:30 Sunday morning. The body was warm. The first thing the surgeon did was to take the internal temperature of the body. It was 90°, or eight degrees less than normal. In ordinary circumstances cooling of a body after death takes place at the rate of about two degrees per hour, and that seemed to fix the time of death at about four o’clock that Sunday morning. But the circumstances were not ordinary, not by any means.
The police surgeon pointed at the carcasses of the dead dogs and asked a question: “How long were these lying on the body?” No one could tell him. The surgeon shook his head. “Then I can’t tell you when Mark Aitken died. If these dogs discovered the body shortly after death and lay on it at once, the warmth of their bodies, somewhat above the normal human temperature, would slow down cooling and rigor mortis to an extent I’m not aware of. It might be anything from four to twelve hours.”
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