The Body in the Car
When the northbound road leaves Keswick, it skirts the head of Derwentwater, curves into the picturesque village of Por- tinscale and then runs more or less straight up a broad and level valley until it arrives at the little, mountain-shadowed hamlet of Braithwaite. There is a fair amount of traffic up this valley, particularly in the summer; tourists wending their way into the Buttermere valley are bound to take this road, for the very simple reason that there’s no other road to take. It also links up the inland Cumbrian towns with the coastal towns of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport.
About halfway between Portinscale and Braithwaite, on a very bleak and uninhabited stretch of road, stands a newish stone-and-cement garage on the rim of a spacious meadow. There are a few petrol pumps between the road and a broad concrete draw-in, where cars can fill up without checking the main traffic. The garage itself is a plain, rectangular building with a flat roof, on one side of which is a brick lean-to with a corrugated iron roof. About ten paces from the Braithwaite side of the garage there is a small, stone, slate-roofed cottage.
It is not flush with the road, but set back about fifty feet or more, fronted with an unkempt garden which boasts a few wind-stunted crab-apple trees. Altogether this small desolate group of buildings is not exactly prepossessing. One feels that only the necessity of earning a livelihood would drive a man to dwell in such a spot.
One wet and windy night, toward the end of March, a dilapidated T-model Ford was rattling through the deserted street of Portinscale. At the wheel sat a red-faced, bluff-look- ing farmer of about sixty. He was returning from a Farmers’ Union dinner in Keswick. He felt pleased and at peace with the world, for he had that inside him which sufficed to keep out the cold, and the engine of the Ford, for all its years, was running as smooth as silk. Another twenty minutes, he reckoned, would see him in Braithwaite, roasting his toes at a roaring fire, with a “night-cap” at his elbow to round off a very convivial evening.
But it is precisely at those moments when the glass seems to be “set fair” that Fate invariably decides to take a hand.
And Fate had decided that Farmer Perryman was to make a late night of it.
He had, in fact, only just cleared the last outlying cottages of the village when the Ford engine broke into a series of spluttering coughs and finally petered out. Drawing into the side of the road, Luke, cursing under his breath, buttoned up the collar of his coat, pulled an electric-torch out of his pocket and proceeded to investigate the trouble. He didn’t have to look far. His first diagnosis proved correct. He was out of petrol.
Luckily Luke knew every inch of the route and, although he could not actually see it, he knew that the Derwent garage lay just round a slight bend about a quarter of a mile up the road. Realizing that there was nothing else to be done, since he carried no spare can, he shoved his head down into the wind and rain and trudged off surlily in the direction of Braithwaite.
Soon the row of lighted petrol pumps hove in sight and in a few minutes Luke Perryman drew abreast of the garage. Although a light was burning in the main shed, the place seemed curiously deserted. Nor did Luke’s raucous demands for service do anything to disturb this illusion. Noticing a push-bell, obviously connected with the cottage, he pressed it and waited. But again without result. He was just on the point of investigating a light which he had noticed burning in the window of the cottage, when he stopped dead and listened. Faintly above the bluster of the wind he heard the sound of a car engine. At first he thought it must be a car approaching up the road, but suddenly he realized that the sound was coming from the lean-to shed on the Portinscale side of the garage.
Luke was puzzled. There was evidently no light burning in the shed, for although the doors were closed it would have been natural for a glimmer of light to show through the cracks. His first thought was that either young Clayton or his partner, Higgins, had started a car, been called away on another job, and forgotten to return and switch off the engine. He tried the handle of the doors, therefore, and finding them unlocked, opened them and shone his torch into the interior. His first impression was of an acrid and obnoxious odour cooped up in the sealed shed. An odour which made him catch his breath and cough. Then, as the air freshened, the circle of light from his torch travelled slowly over the back of the car and came to rest on a figure, seated, facing away from him, at the driving-wheel. Something about the set of the man’s shoulders convinced him that it was Clayton. He called out, therefore: “Hi, Clayton! I couldn’t make anybody hear. I’ve run short of petrol and have had to leave my car way back up the road.”
But to his profound surprise the man made no answer. A trifle alarmed, Luke thrust his way round to the front of the car and flung the light of his torch full on to the face of the immobile figure. Then he had the shock of his life. The man had no face! Where his face should have been was a sort of inhuman, uniform blank!
It took old Perryman some few seconds to right this illu- sion and when he did he was horrified. Although somewhat slow of mind, he realized, at once, that he was face to face with tragedy and, what was more, tragedy in its starkest and most nerve-racking guise!
The man’s head was hooded in an oil-grimed mackintosh, which had been gathered in round the neck with a piece of twine. From the back Luke had mistaken this cowl for an ordinary leather driving-helmet. Frightened, bewildered, wasting no time on speculation, he laid his torch on the front seat and shot out a pair of shaking hands. Clumsily he undid the twine and drew aside the hood. Then, with an exclamation of horror, he started back and stared at the terrible apparition which confronted him. It was Clayton all right! Clayton with a fearfully distorted, blue-lipped, sightless face! He felt his heart. There was no movement! The man’s hand was cold!
In the stress of the moment he had not fully realized what it was which had slipped from under the mackintosh when he had loosened the twine. He had heard something thump on to the upholstery of the other front seat. Now he took a quick look and, in a flash, he knew why Clayton was dead.
Hastily closing the doors, he remained undecided for a moment, unable to make up his mind whether it was worth- while finding out if the cottage was really deserted. Then convinced that his violent rings on the service bell would have brought somebody forward if indeed there was anybody there, he lumbered back into the main garage, found a can of petrol and set off at a smart trot toward his car. In less than five minutes he was speeding as fast as the T-model would allow in the direction of the Keswick police station. It was striking ten as the Ford drew up outside the sta- tion. As luck would have it, Inspector Meredith was still in the building. Arrears of routine work had kept him working late. When the constable showed the farmer into the office,
Meredith looked up and grinned.
“Good heavens, sir,” he said in his pleasingly resonant voice, “you haven’t come here to tell me your car’s been stolen, surely? You won’t get me to believe that!”
Old Luke, who was sadly out of breath and shaken by his discovery, dropped into a chair. His first words took the smile off the Inspector’s face.
“I wish it was that. But it’s something serious, Inspector.
It’s young Clayton out at the Derwent garage.” “Well?”
“Suicide, I reckon.”
“Suicide, eh!” The Inspector was already reaching for his cap.
“Your car’s outside, Mr. Perryman?” Luke nodded.
“Then perhaps you’ll give me details on the way over.”
As they passed through the outer office, Meredith turned to the constable. “Phone Doctor Burney, Railton, and ask him to meet me at the Derwent garage on the Braithwaite road as soon as possible. Then get out the combination and join us there.”
As the old Ford rattled off again through the rain-wet streets, Meredith gathered in the details of Luke Perryman’s discovery. When the old man had finished his recital the Inspector grunted:
“Not a very pleasant wind-up to your evening, Mr. Per- ryman? Looks like a late night for me, too. Do you know anything about this young chap?”
Old Luke considered a moment.
“Well, I do, and then again, I don’t. I’ve heard he’s engaged to Tom Reade’s eldest daughter. He’s the Braithwaite storekeeper, as you may know. But beyond a few words with Clayton in a business sort of way, I can’t rightly say I know him.”
“The girl lives at the shop, I suppose?” “Ay.”
“And what about this partner of Clayton’s? Know anything about him?”
Luke shook his head and then declared: “Though from all accounts it’s Clayton who’s got the business head. I’ve heard—mind you, I don’t know—that Higgins is a bit too fond of lifting his elbow.”
Meredith registered this piece of information. Wasn’t it possible that Higgins was drinking away the profits of the concern? It might turn out to be the reason for Clayton’s suicide.
He had no more time for theorizing, however, for with a wild screeching of brakes the old Ford drew up on the concrete beside the petrol pumps. Immediately Meredith sprang out, whilst Luke shut off the engine of the car. Faintly above the wind the Inspector heard the sound which had previously drawn the farmer to the tragic spot. Striding over to the shed, he opened the double doors and flashed his lamp into the interior.
“No switch in here?” he asked.
Luke confessed that he had been so upset by his discovery that he hadn’t troubled to look. Meredith, however, soon found what he was looking for just inside the door. The next instant the shed was flooded with electric light.
“You didn’t move the body, I take it?”
“No. Just the mackintosh that was over the poor fellow’s head and the bit of string tied round his neck. You see, Inspector, I wasn’t sure at first that he was dead.”
“Well, that’s all right.”
Meredith leaned over the dash-board and switched off the engine.
“Now, then—let’s see exactly how he did it.”
A brief examination soon made this clear. The fish-tail end of the silencer had been removed from the exhaust-pipe at the rear of the car. Over the end of this pipe had been fitted a length of ordinary, flexible garden-hose. This in turn led over the back-seat of the car, an old open tourer, and thus up under the mackintosh which Clayton had tied over his head. It was the end of this hose which had fallen on to the front seat when the farmer had removed the mackintosh.
“Neat!” was Meredith’s blunt comment when he had com- pleted his examination. Then: “Hullo! Who’s this?” he added, as a car swung off the road and drew up behind the Ford.
A brisk, well-set-up young man in a belted overcoat crossed into the radius of the light.
“Evening, Inspector. I was just putting away the car when I got your call. What’s the trouble here?”
Meredith in a few words outlined Luke’s discovery to Dr. Burney, who without delay made a thorough external exami- nation of the body. At the end of a few minutes he reported: “No doubt as to the cause of death, Meredith. Asphyxiation due to the inhalation of exhaust fumes. One of the chief products of petrol combustion, as you probably know, is carbon monoxide. Looks as if he’s taken a pretty big dose
of the stuff.”
“How long do you think he’s been dead?”
“Difficult to say exactly. Probably two to three hours. It depends, of course, on individual reaction.”
As they were discussing the matter further, Railton arrived on the motor-cycle combination and Meredith sent him over to the cottage to investigate. He returned in a short time to say that although there was a light burning in the parlour, the place was deserted.
“Looks as if Higgins is away,” commented the Inspector. “We shall have to get in touch with him as soon as possible. Now, suppose we move the body into the cottage—less public there, eh, Doctor?”
The doctor agreed and Meredith and Railton between them carried their burden down the garden path and laid it out on a horsehair sofa in the little sitting-room. There Doctor Burney made a second examination, which did nothing to modify his first opinion. In the meantime Meredith was gazing round the room with a great deal of interest and surprise.
The table was covered with a white cloth on which a meal had been laid, evidently a sort of high tea. The teapot itself had the lid off and a spoonful or so of tea had already been measured into it. There was also, Meredith was quick to note, a peculiar, metallic, burning smell in the room. Almost instinctively his eye wandered to the fireplace where, on an old-fashioned kitchen-range above a fire which had now died down to a handful of glowing embers, was a large black kettle. On picking it up he was not surprised to find that it had boiled dry and that the base of it had already begun to melt away.
Meredith was puzzled. It was curious that Clayton should have laid the meal, put tea into the teapot, the kettle on the range and then abruptly left the cottage with the idea of taking his own life. The method he had employed argued premeditation—the mackintosh, the string, the hose-pipe—these objects suggested a carefully planned and cleverly executed suicide. That being the case, why had he made all these preparations for a meal? Was it that a suitable opportunity suddenly presented itself and Clayton had seized the chance? But surely the early hours of the morning would have been better for his purpose than a time when there would almost certainly be cars on the road.
He turned to Railton.
“Do you know if Clayton and Higgins have a woman to look after them?”
Railton shook his head.
“No, sir. That is, not after two o’clock. I happen to know Mrs. Swinley who comes out from Portinscale to do for them. But they don’t have anybody living in.”
Meredith wondered if one of Mrs. Swinley’s duties was to lay the evening meal before she went home. If so, that would account for a great deal. But not everything. The kettle, for example. She certainly wouldn’t put the kettle on to boil at two o’clock for a meal that was to be eaten, say, at six. He drew the doctor’s attention to the facts.
“It’s strange, I admit,” was Doctor Burney’s comment. “But people who are contemplating suicide often do strange things.”
“You’ve nothing further to report, Doctor?”
“Nothing. Except that it looks as if Clayton had taken a good stiff peg of whisky before attempting the job. I noticed a faint smell of spirits round the lips. But beyond the usual symptoms of asphyxia the young fellow appears to be in a normally healthy condition. I’ll put in my official report, of course. You might give me a ring when the day of the inquest is fixed.”
The Inspector crossed over to the door with Doctor Burney, shook hands and watched him drive off in his car. Then, still thinking hard, he turned back into the room to take an official statement from Luke Perryman.