FICTION

The Murder of Blanche Medloe

June 15 1937
FICTION

The Murder of Blanche Medloe

June 15 1937

The Murder of Blanche Medloe

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clothes. As for the red hair, well, he’d used the brushes in the dressing case. A hairbrush can be a telltale thing when a fellow begins to lose his hair, and that’s usually when he reaches middle life.” He sighed. "But the picture’s out of focus, George. We can’t work from motive, because there’s no motive at present discoverable. What’s wanted is clear thinking. It says in ‘Tristram Shandy’—”

“The day you fail to ram that damnable book dowm my throat, you get a medal !” He chuckled. “It speaks admiringly of (he disciples of Pythagoras who could ‘get out of their body’ in order to think well. The best way I know' of getting out of the body is to go to a movie. I think I’ll go to the pictures.” •

He w'as restless and absent-minded when

I saw him next day. By evening he had had no w'ord from Mand er ton, and the following morning he rang me up, asking me to meet him at Hardmore Mansions at noon. He was stalking impatiently up and down outside the rather grim, red-brick block when I arrived, and carried me straight into the office. He told Mrs. Argvle, the manageress—we knew her name from the newspapers—that we wished to see a flat for a friend arriving from abroad.

She was a determined-looking woman with a square jaw, two chins and bosom to scale, her manner such as to suggest

that her opinion of the human race was based on experience with defaulting lodgers. But Mr. Treadgold believes that the way to disarm suspicion is to get people talking about themselves—“cultivating the human relationships,” he calls it—and by the time we reached the three-room apartment she proposed to show us on the third floor, she was chatting quite amiably about the difficulties of the servant problem.

YYT'E GRAVELY inspected the cheer** less, poky rooms with their cheap furniture and threadbare carpets, talked

terms, even to the price of the breakfasts. Then Mr. Treadgold said in his most engaging tones: “I hope this isn’t the flat where the poor lady was murdered.”

Mrs. Argyle changed countenance. That suite, she proclaimed with trembling lips, had been sealed up by the police.

“Dear me,” my friend remarked compassionately, “what a time you must have had! The police can be so ruthless when they’re faced by the results of their own incompetence. They can’t find Mrs. Medloe’s murderer and so they harass all kinds of innocent people. They’ve actually had the audacity to tackle a friend of mine, simply because he’s red-haired and happened to arrive from Paris the night the woman was killed”

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Mrs. Argyle snorted. “They’re crazy. They were round here yesterday with this story of a red-haired man, though both Harris—that’s the night porter—and I told them from the start he was dark.”

“If I were the police, I believe I’d take you word for it,” Mr. Treadgold put in. “You’re observant, you’ve seen life, you’re intelligent.”

The manageress bristled. “I believe I can tell a gentleman when I see one. I his man, Barkley, now, he didn’t drop his aitches but he wasn’t out of the top drawer, to my way of thinking. Good-looking enough, I grant you, if you fancy a dark man, but nutcrackery, if you know what I mean, and a shifty eye, if ever I saw one—I wouldn’t have trusted him far her than you could toss a biscuit, as the saying goes. Not that it mattered to the pore lady. She was just potty about him, couldn’t hardly take her eyes off him when he was signing the register and he as offhand as anything— w’y if Harris hadn’t s epped forward, he’d have let her lug that big pigskin bag of his to the lift.”

“You mean crocodile, don’t you?”

“I said ‘pigskin’ and I mean pigskin, and nothing the newspapers write will make me say different. If the police want to call pigskin crocodile, it’s none of my business.” “But---” I was beginning when Mr. Treadgold trod hard on my foot.

“Do you think you’d recognize this man again if you saw him?” he asked the manageress.

“Anywhere. And my sight s as good as heirs, as I told thi» Chief Inspector Manderton, who called yesterday. I I can’t tell a dark man from a redhead, and me with three husbands in the ground, it’s time I shut up shop, I told him.”

We took our leave then, Mr. Treadgold promising to let Mr.. Argyle know when our mythical friend arrived. At Victoria Station he quitted me. “Just an enquiry, George,” he said. “Drop in this evening.” I could see he was itching to be rid of me, so I left him there. But he put me off that evening, and it was not until the following evening that I saw him again.

HE WAS BUSY with his stamp collection when I called round at Bury Street before dinner and curiously reluctant to discuss the case, although he told me that he had not heard from Manderton. As he plied his gauge and lens, however, I had the feeling that he was waiting for someone; he seemed to have his ear cocked at the door. At last the front-door buzzer sounded. At the same moment the telephone on the desk rang. “Would you mind, George?” he said, lifting the telephone receiver. “I’m expecting Mrs. Argyle at seven. Or it may be a man called Caro, a Frenchman; he’s due in by the Paris train.”

I went to the front door. It was Manderton. “H.B. in?” he barked. Mr. Treadgold’s voice speaking on the telephone answered him and I led the way into the fitting room.

Mr. Treadgold, his back to the door, was just hanging up. “That was Caro— he’s on his way over from Victoria,” he informed me, then turned and saw Manderton standing there, and it seemed to me that his face fell.

“Well,” said the inspector, rubbing his hands briskly together, “that was an AÍ hunch of yours, H.B. We’ve traced the bird that bought that dressing case and the evening suit.”

Mr. Treadgold made one bound. “No! In Paris?”

“In Paris. It’s a Jo’burg engineer.”

“A South African, then?”

“That’s right. Name of Ralton.”

In his daily business of making clothes, Mr. Treadgold carries without difficulty the names of hundreds of people in his head. He has a card-index mind. For the moment I had forgotten all about the sleeve link found in the dead woman’s hand. But H.B. hadn’t. “Ralton?” he snapped. “There was an R on that sleeve

link, inspector. An S, too, and a G.” “Right. The initials arc G.S.R.— Godfrey Stamford Ralton.”

“Red-haired, is he?”

“So they tell me, and a six-footer. He arrived at the Grand in Paris, October 15, and left for London by the noon train November 4.”

“The day of the murder!”

He nodded. “He’s our man all right.” “And where is he now?”

“As far as we know, still in this country. He was round at his bank for his mail the afternoon after he arrived. He’s a cool hand, all right. That’s the last trace of him we have to date, but we’ll get him, never fear.”

The front door buzzer whirred. “If it’s Mrs. Argyle or the man, show them into the dining room,” Mr. Treadgold whispered as I moved toward the hall.

I opened the door. A tali figure confronted me. “Monsieur Caro?” I questioned.

His reply took my breath away. “My name’s Ralton,” he said.

He was a big, gangling fellow who peered shortsightedly through horn-rimmed spectacles. The hair protruding from under his wide-brimmed felt was a grizzled red. “I wanted a word with Chief Inspector Manderton, who’s in charge of the Medloe case,” he announced shyly. “I rang up Scotland Yard and they told me, if it were urgent, I chould find him here.”

“Just a minute,” I bade him and ran back to the si ting room.

Manderton was proclaiming in a loud voice, “Murderer? Of course, he’s the murderer. I don’t care what that old witch at the flats says—”

“It’s Ralton!” I interrupted him. He stood there with his mouth open. Treadgold said in a puzzled voice, “Here?”

T CALLED the man in from the hall. He lumbered in, clutching his hat. His coppery hair, showing the scalp on the top, was very noticeable. He looked to be in his fifties. • I indicated Manderton.

“I understand you’ve been enquiring for me at my bank and other places?” Ralton said to him.

“That’s right,” the other agreed imperturbably.

“I suppose it’s about that dressing case of mine. Well, it was stolen from me, right under my nose, at Victoria Station when I landed from Paris last week.” He eyed the inspector nervously through his glasses.

“Is that so?” Manderton’s tone was strongly ironic. “And when did you report the loss?”

“I didn’t. I’d had an awful crossing and I wanted to go to bed.”

“Why didn’t you report it next day? It doesn’t figure on the list of stolen property reported to the Metropolitan Police.” Ralton hesitated. “It was stupid of me, I guess. But next day I read of the murder in the newspapers and recognized my dressing case by that cigar case I bought at Madeira and—well, I just didn’t want to get mixed up with it.”

The inspector’s laugh was short and sarcastic. “I believe you. It’s my duty to warn you that I’m a police officer and that any statement you may make—”

Ralton cut him off. “It’ll have to come out, I suppose.” He paused, sighed. “At one time Blanche Medloe was my wife.” Manderton’s heavy eyebrows came down. “Your wife?”

He nodded resignedly. “It’s more than seventeen years since I last heard of her.” He hesitated. “The point is, I kept my previous marriage from my present wife— you see, she has views about divorce. Blanche was only eighteen when I married her. Out West in Nevada it was, twenty years ago—I was engineer with a mining outfit and she was travelling with a troupe of English dancers. It was a rough life and I didn’t make much money and—well, one day she lit out with an actor and I never heard another word from her until two years later. I was back at the Rand then and she wrote me from New York saying she’d met a man called Medloe, a

rubber planter in the F.M.S.—his name came back to me when I read of her death —and could she go to Reno and divorce me? I didn’t stand in her way—I was always fond of the kid—and the next thing I knew I had a Christmas card from her to say she was married and living at Kuala Lumpur. That was the last time I heard from her. I didn’t see her again until the other night.”

The inspector’s eyes snapped into action. “You admit you saw her then?”

“It was at Victoria Station, the evening I arrived from Paris. There was a tremendous crush and I couldn’t get a porter. I was pushing along with the crowd, lugging that dressing case of mine, when I suddenly saw her on the other side of the gates—you know, where they take the tickets. She was staring past me into the crowd, as though she was looking for someone. I knew her at once. I was so astonished at seeing her there I stopped dead, and at the same time someone behind barged into me and knocked my glasses to the ground. I can’t see a yard without my specs, so I dropped my dressing case and made a dive into the crowd to recover them. By the time I’d rescued them Blanche had disappeared, and, what’s more, my dressing case was gone.” There was a long pause. The front-door buzzer chirped. But nobody stirred. “And where were you that evening?” Manderton’s strident voice broke the hush.

Ralton laughed. “In bed and asleep at my hotel. I was all in after that crossing; I almost slept the clock round.”

The buzzer trilled again. “I’ll go,” Treadgold told me and hastened out.

When he returned he was accompanied by a large woman in black. It was Mrs. Argyle, from Hardmore Mansions. Manderton glared at her. Mr. Treadgold said, pointing at Ralton, “Is this the man who brought Mrs. Medloe to Hardmore Mansions that night?”

“Indeed, it is not,” replied the lady loftily. “I’ve never set eyes on him before.”

G^\NCE MORE the buzzer sounded from the hall. Mr. Treadgold, moving to answer it, stopped on the threshold. “By the way, inspector,” he remarked diffidently, “you might get this gentleman to tell us whether the dressing case stolen from him was pigskin or crocodile.”

“Why waste time?” the detective growled. “It’s crocodile, as well you know.”

“It’s crocodile,” said Ralton.

“It’s pigskin,” said Mrs. Argyle. “And it wasn’t a dressing case; it was a kit-bag.” “The piece he left behind was a dressing case and of crocodile,” pronounced Manderton. “It was standing in the room with the dead woman; I saw it myself. I know nothing about any pigskin kit-bag and, if there was one, I’d like to know why I didn’t hear of it before.”

The buzzer whirred again. “Wait!” said Mr. Treadgold. “Maybe here’s someone now who can clear up the mystery.” He went out.

I made them all sit down; there was a strained wait during the three or four minutes he was away. He returned, ushering in a small, foreign-looking man in a raincoat who carried a shabby attaché case. “This is Monsieur Caro, of the railway police—the plain-clothes branch— at the Gare du Nord in Paris,” Mr. Treadgold informed Manderton.

Without speaking, the newcomer opened his case and produced an album of photographs, which he laid on the desk. Mr. Treadgold signed to Mrs. Argyle. “Would you take a look at those pictures and see if you can pick out anyone resembling the man who brought Mrs. Medloe to your flats that night?” he said.

Slowly she moved to the desk, and for a minute or two the rustle of turning leaves was the only sound in the room. Then she looked up, one finger planted dramatically on the open page. “That’s him ! I’d know him anywhere.”

We crowded round. The photograph, apparently enlarged from a snapshot

taken on a racecourse, showed a nattily dressed young man with a laughing face and nose drooping to rather full lips. He held his hat in his hand and his curly, dark hair was displayed.

Caro laughed softly. “It is as I thought,” he said in excellent English. “Eh, bien, messieurs, if he is the assassin you have not far to look, for I saw the gentleman on the platform at Victoria when the Paris train came in just now. I took the liberty of asking my good confreres of the railway police at Victoria to keep an eye on him.”

A stern eye on the speaker, Manderton snatched up the telephone. “Who is this man?” he demanded, dialling swiftly.

“The smartest luggage thief in France. We have yet to catch him in the act, but we know all about him. Some of the biggest coups are credited to him and his gang. His name is Larry Peters—English Larry, as they call him.”

The inspector was speaking to Victoria Station. He broke off to exclaim to Caro: “English, is he?”

“That’s right,” the Frenchman agreed. “But he operates only on the Continent-Paris, the Côte d’Azur, Biarritz. Ycur international branch should know of him.”

“If he attempts to leave, detain him,” Manderton said into the telephone. “I’ll be right along.” He hung up, gazing at us sombrely. “He’s drinking in the buffet on the Continental side,” he announced and proceeded to dial another number.

“A luggage thief?” I exclaimed to Mr. Treadgold.

He shook his head at me. “I told you, George, that that dressing case never fitted into the picture. But it was Mrs. Argyle here who first gave me the clue to the mystery by her positive assertion that the fellow brought with him, not the crocodile dressing case which was found in the flat but a pigskin bag. If this was a lie, I could discover no reason for it. But I was already leaning toward the conclusion that the owner of the dressing case and the murderer were two different persons, in which case it was very possible that the murderer had come by the dressing case dishonestly. This view was strengthened by Mrs. Argyle’s instinctive distrust of the man Barkley—it occurred to me that in her position she was probably an excellent judge of a crook.”

Mrs. Argyle, who had approached us and was listening, sniffed. “In my job you have to be,” she remarked feelingly.

“Thinking matters out,” Mr. Treadgold proceeded, “I suddenly realized that the discrepancy in the matter of the dressing case had a perfectly logical explanation in the device commonly employed by luggage thieves. This is a false bag, collapsible so that it may be concealed under the coat, with spring grapples instead of a bottom so that it may be dropped over and lift the piece of luggage it is intended to steal. The remainder was simple. There was no photograph agreeing with Mrs. Argyle’s description of the murderer in the Rogues Gallery which a friend of mine in the railway police at Victoria keeps of the known luggage thieves working the London termini. On the chance that our man might have crossed from Paris I had a word on the Paris telephone with Caro, who has helped me out before. Lie said at once that the description tallied with that of this Larry Peters, who’d been missing from his usual haunts for some days.”

“And how!” declared the Frenchman phlegmatically. “An unsuccessful attempt was made to snatch a jewel case at the Quai d’Orsay on November 2. One would say this old Larry felt a breath of his native air would do him good.”

The inspector, who had been barking orders on the telephone to a subordinate at Scotland Yard, now sprang up and seized his hat. “I’ll want you to identify this guy,” he told the manageress. “You, too, Caro—I’ll take you two in my car. You bring Mr. Ralton in a taxi, if you care to tag along, H.B.—he’ll have to come to the Yard later to make a statement.”

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Y\7E LEFT in a body. A police car YV swept Manderton and his companions away in the trahie while we found a cab. None of us spoke. Ralton was palpably on edge, fiddling with his glasses, while as for me, my skin was tingling with excitement. Only Mr. Treadgold remained inalterably placid, gazing out of the taxi window with those blue eyes of his which seem so innocent, yet miss so little.

There was no sign of the Manderton party when we reached Victoria. We headed for the buffet. It was the dinner hour and the place was full of smoke and clatter, with a long line of people drinking at the bar and others seated at the tables. The room was so crowded that it was a minute or two before we perceived the inspector and Mrs. Argyle taking their places at a table on the far side. There was no sign of Caro; Manderton was clearly resolved that his companion should not be influenced in her attempted identification.

There was a vacant table behind them and the three of us sat down. Mrs. Argyle had put on her pince-nez and was staring about her with a challenging air. Presently I heard her say in a low voice: “Over

there on the right.”

We followed the direction of her gaze. At a table near the bar a youngish man sat alone. His hat was pushed back on his head and his legs were cocked up on a chair. He was unshaven, and the striped collar he wore was crumpled and soiled. He had a glass in his hand, and I had the idea that he was not entirely sober. Manderton’s whisper rustled in my ear. “You’re sure?” he said to Mrs. Argyle.

“That’s the man!” she declared firmly.

On that the inspector stood up and blew his nose, and out of the corner of my eye I saw two individuals who were drinking beer at the bar, detach themselves from the long line of customers and edge toward the young man’s table.

“Come on!” Manderton told the manageress and advanced across the room, the three of us in his wake. “I want you, Peters !” he told the young man.

The other made no move, but gazed up at him stolidly. Then he caught sight of Mrs. Argyle’s face of doom behind the speaker and he took his legs down. “All right,” he said in a nonchalant tone. “I had it coming to me, I guess.” Pie spoke thickly. He drained the glass he still grasped and stood up, the two men from the bar, who had joined Manderton, closed in on him and the whole party filed out. It was so quickly and quietly done that the noise and the bustle went on about us undisturbed.

At the office to which they took him, Caro was waiting. At the sight of him the prisoner grinned impudently. “Old home week at Victoria,” he remarked sotto voce. Manderton administered the usual warning, but Peters disregarded it—it was obvious that he meant to talk. “I’m not sorry it’s over,” he said. “I was fond of the little woman and I didn’t mean to kill her. But she provoked me and I lost my temper.”

He spoke like a gentleman, with a pleasantly modulated voice, but a loose mouth and a certain flash air, if they did not proclaim the habitual criminal, at least explained the manageress’ first reactions toward him. “I met her at Cannes last winter,” he continued. “She was crazy about me, wanted me to marry her—I guess she thought I was rolling; I had a good season down South this year, what with one or two jobs I pulled and a spot of luck at the tables. She came out to Paris once or twice, and I saw her in London a couple of times. But then things began to go wrong; the splits were right on my tail and I was flat broke. I wrote her for a loan. But she was wild to see me and only sent me the ticket to London. I was glad of it when a job I’d planned at the Quai d’Orsay went sour and I had to skip.”

HE BROKE OFF and asked for a cigarette. The inspector borrowed one from me and the prisoner resumed: “I

wrote her I’d be taking the noon train on the 4th and told her to meet me—I had to have some cash. There was no sign of her when I got off the train; there was a terrific crowd on the platform and I thought maybe I’d missed her, which was devilish awkward for me as I didn’t know where she lived—she always made me write to her at her bank. Well, I was tagging along with the rest of the passengers toward the exit when I suddenly saw people stepping round a devilish good-looking dressing case, sitting there all by itself on the platform, simply begging to be hooked. It seemed almost like an answer to prayer.” He laughed. “Well, I had the old grab under my coat. It was as simple as pie.” He blew a cloud of smoke. “Blanche was at the barrier. I wasn’t too pleased to see her then, for that case was hot and all I wanted was to be rid of it as quickly as possible. But I couldn’t shake her. She was all for booking me a room near where she lived. As she insisted on tagging along, I had to take her with me to these flats, handy to the station, I’d heard of from a pal of mine. My plan was to ring up a fence I knew right away, but first I had to go through the case. I sent her into the bedroom to tidy herself, but she came back as I was still busy on the locks with the old skeleton keys and then the fat was in the fire.”

“You mean she didn’t know you were a railway dip?” Manderton suggested.

Peters shrugged his shoulders. “You know what women are. She asked no questions as long as I was flush, but directly I tried her for a touch, she got nosy. Now she came out baldheaded and accused me of having stolen the case. ‘And what do you think I do for a living?’ I asked her. But she’d gone very serious. ‘A common thief!’ she said. The guy who owned this case had left some studs in one of the fittings. I had the sleeve links in my hand. Blanche snatched up one of them. ‘Where did you get this case?’ she screamed at me. ‘Where did you get it?’ ” Ralton spoke up. “She saw those links, did she?”

“You bet. She seemed to recognize them, too.”

The big man nodded. “It isn’t surprising. They were her first present to me.” The thief stared. “So you’re the guy that owns the case? And she knew you?” He began to laugh. “Oh, my gracious, what poisonous luck !”

“Cut out the funny business and get on with the story!” the inspector ordered.

Peters shrugged his shoulders. “She said, ‘It’s someone who was very kind to me a long time ago. You’ll have to return it, Larry.’ And with that she tugged the label off the case. ‘It is Godfrey’s!’ she cried at the sight of the name. I had a bit of a tussle with her to get the label away— I shoved it in my pocket and burned it afterward. She was like a wild woman, crying and sobbing like anything. ‘You’ll give him back his case, Larry!’ she said. ‘You’ll give it back or I go to the police!’ “‘Not much, you won’t,’ I told her, and with that she flew at me like a tiger cat. ‘Thief!’ she screeched. ‘Thief!’ and she slapped me across the face. Then I saw red and I caught her by the throat—it was in self-defense, inspector, for she was out to injure me, I swear it! I guess I squeezed too hard for when I took my hands away, she was dead. After that, I lost my head, I’m afraid; I just ran off and left her there. It was not till I was out of the house that I discovered I had only one of the sleeve links, and then I was too scared to go back. Was that how you traced me?”

Manderton’s brick - red countenance flushed a darker red. “That, and some other things,” he retorted loftily, avoiding Mr. Treadgold’s watchful and gently amused glance. He fumbled in his pocket. “Hold out your hands, Peters!” he gruffly bade the prisoner.

AS LARRY said,” observed Mr. Treadgold as we sat over our port at dinner that night, “it was poisonous luck—for Larry, and A4anderton, too. Coincidence is the snag on which the most ingenious deductions may be wrecked. A mathematician would have to work out the chances against our young friend lifting that particular suitcase, although they are heavily discounted by the fact that ATaster Larry’s a pro who has doubtless stolen hundreds of pieces of luggage in his time. When coincidence takes a hand,

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your criminologist is all at sea for, without motive to guide him, he has to endeavor to pierce the fog with reason as his only light.”

He held up his glass to the candle. “Still, though, as ‘Tristram Shandy’ says, ‘Every man will speak of the fair as his own market has gone at it,’ I don’t think I did too badly. It’s clear thinking does it, George; clear thinking, every time.”