THE CASE OF THE AILING ANGLER
AS A senior officer of British Columbia Police, Inspector Morgan Stark maintained a case-hardened scepticism where rumor was concerned, but as a trout fisherman of some distinction and very keen enthusiasm he was no more proof against a tall tale than the least, of his breed. That was why he now stood waist deep in the icy flow of the Tantalus West Branch on a bright July morning, current pushing hard against him and nerves pleasantly taut while he waited for the rise which would translate rumor into fact.
Even in bulky Scotch waders and bobtailed brown fishing jacket bulging with the minor gear of his craft, the inspector lacked the casual slouchiness of the average angler. He wore a khaki tie, precisely knotted. His stiff-brimmed felt hat was tilted forward at the regulation service angle, his lantern-jawed face, with its grim weather lines, was clean-shaven, and the gaze with which he followed the progress of his drifting fly was cold blue and altogether alert.
The anticipated rise didn’t come, not on that first cast of his holiday nor on any of the ensuing
hundred. According to rumor this swirling green pool was the finest on the river, but for all the response to his fan-wing Royal Coachman, it might be troutless.
And probably is, Inspector Stark reflected disgustedly as he reeled in. That fat fellow at the hotel, Conroy or whatever his silly name was, could give pointers to Ananias!
He plowed his way shoreward across the rollicking rush of the stream, probing the slippery limestone underfoot with the butt of his long-handled landing net before each step. Fly rod wagging in his hand, early sunlight throwing his long, lean shadow before him, he trudged across a bone-white freshet bar to the fringe of hardhack scrub that bordered the river flats. Perhaps a cigarette and a dash of coffee from the thermos in his creel might help him solve the mystery of a pool which should hold rainbow trout as long as his arm.
The inspector pushed through the hardhack and halted abruptly, a faint tang of wood smoke in his nostrils. Almost at his feet the embers of a drift fire smoldered within a ring of blackened stones. On the trampled sand lay the spine of a trout which must have been at least 19 inches long.
Looking down at the clean-picked backbone, the inspector read the answer to his mystery. Conroy hadn’t been joking, then, when he said, with his overhearty chuckle, that he would beat all comers to the long pool, even if it meant getting up at dawn! It was plain that he had worked thus water thoroughly, taken an excellent fish and made a glutton’s breakfast of it on the spot. Tracks in the sand indicated that he had then moved on upriver, which meant the pools above wouldn’t be worth a try for at least an hour. For one who by his own admission was not in the best of health, Conroy appeared to be getting around with irritating facility. Blast it, Inspector Stark thought, the fellow's a human otter!
He was pouring coffee into his thermos cup when boots crunched on the shingle below. A rod tip poked through the greenery, and a slight figure emerged from the scrub. Not a boy, as the inspector had first thought , but a girl —the same girl who had been one of the four rather oddly assorted people to whom he had been introduced in the hotel dining room the previous evening. Her name, if he remembered correctly, was Doreen Blake. He did not fully approve of women on trout streams, not even when they were as pretty as this one; but he noted with reluctant appreciation that there was no frilly nonsense about her outfit. She wore a close-knit pull-over. Her waders were many times patched, and her fishing vest, had been bleached almost white by sunshine and numerous tubbings. Blond wavy hair caught the sunlight, and her workmanlike costume failed to detract from a highly commendable shapeliness.
The only item, in fact, that he could reasonably disapprove of was the light target pistol bolstered on her hip. Handgun carrying permits were issued sparingly; he considered speaking to her about it but discarded the notion. After all, he was off duty, and a word to her father later in the day would serve the purjxjse equally well.
Doreen Blake answered the inspector’s nod with a smile. There was fun in her long hazel eyes as she looked up from a study of the stone fireplace.
“You ate a hearty breakfast, I see.’’
“Not 1!” Inspector Stark assured her. “But I suspect your fiance paused here an hour or two ago.”
“Your dinner partner of last night. Conroy, I believe his name is.”
“Oh . . . him. No, he’s not my fiance.” The mirth was gone from her delicately tanned face, and she added, in a cool little voice, “I’m engaged to Jim Cairns, the Army lieutenant who sat at your table.”
She refused a cigarette, and with the same coolness declined the inspector’s offer of coffee. “If Mr. Conroy is on ahead, there’s not much use my going upstream,” she said. “Will you tell Lieut. Cairns, or my father if you see him, that I’m fishing down to the hotel?”
NOT WAITING an answer, she turned and brushed through the hardhack to the river beach. The inspector took another cigarette from his case. He was beginning to feel that his holiday was off to a limping start; he had jumped to what seemed an obvious conclusion, and in so doing had offended this girl. Still, the affair continued to puzzle him. Her lieutenant, the brown-faced young paratrooper, was a likable and ruggedly handsome lad. It was entirely illogical that the Blake girl should pass him up to»dine with Conroy—the more so if they were engaged.
Impatiently he prodded his cigarette butt into the sand. They’d had a spat, of course—and anyway, it was none of his business. He had, he reminded himself, left his job with his uniform at district headquarters, and he was not going to let a policeman’s curiosity intrude on his fishing trip.
There were trout here after all, as Conroy had demonstrated, and with the rest he’d given it, the long pool might be worth another try. He was scooping sand over the embers of the fire when his felt-soled brogan uncovered a round black rubber knob an inch or so in diameter.
The inspector, who had the pack rat tendencies of most anglers, studied the knob casually for a moment, then dropped it into his pocket and went down to the river.
But his mind was only half on his work as he sent the Royal Coachman upstream in a long, looping cast. The swashing rise caught him unprepared. He struck awkwardly—glimpsed a broad, crimson-slashed flank and a speckled tail of heart-stopping proportions— then his line went slack.
From behind him a pleasant voice called, “Tough luck!”
He half-turned, shipping water over the top of his waders. Lieut. Cairns was watching from the beach. The young officer wore battle dress wet to the knees from wading; also, he carried a rod, and a battered willow creel sagged on his haunch.
Inspector Stark splashed ashore. “Brute caught me off balance,” he said dourly. “I should have had him.” “It’s a cockeyed game,” Cairns said. “This is my first whirl at it, and I’ve learned that much already. But you’re one up on me. So far I haven’t stirred a fin.”
“At the moment,” the inspector told him, “I’m very seriously considering a switch to golf . . . Your young lady came this way a few minutes ago. She left word she’s following the river back to the hotel.”
“Not going upstream, eh?” Cairns’ voice was casual, too much so, the inspector thought. “Well, the day’s
Inspector Stark meets a blonde, misses a trout, foils a confessor and nets a mystery
young. I think I’ll wander on a mile or two farther. Say, perhaps you can give me a steer on what flies to use—I still don’t know one from another. Doreen w-as going to give me a lesson this morning, but she left before I was even up.”
He opened a flat aluminum fly box. One lure, long, slim and silver-bodied, challenged Inspector Stark’s expert eye. Unless he missed his guess that barred wing with its lemony hue came from the side feat her of a wood duck, and as such was dangerous contraband for a fisherman to be carrying in his pockets. Wood duck, he knew, were strictly protected both in Canada and the United States.
“Whatever else you use,” he told Cairns curtly, “I’d suggest you leave that top one alone. Better still, get rid of it.”
He settled his creel and tramped off along the bar, leaving Cairns staring after him in puzzled fashion.
The inspector struck across the freshet-gouged valley to the river trail. He was halfway back to the hotel when he met Blake, cramped into chest-high waders and sweating along under twice as much gear as any practical angler required. Blake was a beefy, red-faced man with a look of prosperity about him that his loud checked shirt and disreputable hat quite failed to diminish. Today, however, he looked not only prosperous but distinctly worried.
“Happen to see Conroy on ahead?” he asked.
“I did not,” Inspector Stark informed him a trifle wearily. “But I saw evidence of his passing.”
Blake grunted, nodded, and plodded on up the trail. The inspector continued on his way. He did not relish his role as dispenser of information to the Blake party, but at least, with its three male members all tagging each other upriver, he might now expect to finish his unprofitable morning in peace. His irritation was not lightened when it occurred to him that he had forgotten to take up the matter of Doreen Blake’s pistol-packing with her father.
He did not turn aside for even the most alluring
river reaches. Back at the hotel he mounted directly t o his room with a short, “No luck !” for t he proprietor. This day, anticipated since earliest summer, had let him down very badly indeed; and his mood, as he disposed himself for a preluncheon nap, was definitely sour.
But even sleep was denied him. His mind persisted in straying to the four other guests, and he realized now that his questionings had begun not that morning but the night before—almost from the moment, he entered the dining room, in fact. Many years of police work had quickened his sensitivity to tension of any sort, and the air in that room had been unmistakably electric.
HE WAS still mulling the whole business in drowsy annoyance when a sharp double tap came at his door. Without invitation, Lieut. Cairns stepped into the room. He looked as if he had been travelling hard and fast, and he spoke breathlessly.
“Excuse me bunging in on you this way, but the hotelman told me you were a police officer, and I t hink this is your department. That fellow Conroy—I found him in the old logging burn a mile past where I left you. He’s dead!”
“Dead?” Inspector Stark swung his feet to the floor and reached for his boots. “I understood he was in questionable health, but this seems a trifle sudden. How’d you come to discover him, lieutenant?”
“I was just starting into the burn, cutting across that wide loop the river makes, w’hen I heard a shot . . .”
“Then it wasn’t a natural death, a seizure of some sort?”
Cairns met the inspector's gaze with a troubled frown. “1 don't think so,” he said. “1 heard the shot, sounded like a small-calibre weapon, not far ahead. 1 cut across the burn, making the best time I could through the tangles, and almost stumbled over Conroy. He was off to the side of the logging grade, just clear of the alder swamp, lying face down in the firewood.”
“Then?” Inspector Stark asked, shrugging into his jacket. '
“l hunkered down beside him and felt his pulse. He was still warm, but there was no heartbeat. Soon as I knew he was dead, I made tracks for the hotel.” “Marks of violence?”
“You understand 1 only made a hurried inspection,” Cairns said. “There was a discolored patch about the size of a two-bit piece on the back of his neck, high up, right at the base of the skull, with a small perforation in the middle of it. He hadn’t bled much.”
“Was it; a bullet wound?”
“I’m not familiar with the wound a small-calibre bullet makes, but from the quick look I took at it, I’d say yes.”
“Did you see anyone else,” the inspector asked, “either while you were with the body, or on your way out?”
“Not a soul. You know how it is up there—the burn narrows, and there’s thick alder second growth on one side and t he river on the other. If anyone had ... if there’d been anyone else about, he could have ducked into cover in a matter of seconds.”
Hand on the doorknob, Inspector Stark asked a final blunt question; “Do you think that Conroy was murdered?” Continued on page 30
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 9
Cairns said, reluctantly but with equal directness, “I think somebody did for him, inspector. One thing I might as well tell you now, because you’ll see it when we get there. He’d fallen forward as if he were running away from someone or something. I raised him by the shoulders enough to let me get a look at his face, and it was twisted into the damnedest grimace of fear 1 ever saw.”
Downstairs they found the elderly little hotelkeeper fairly popping with anxious curiosity—a curiosity which the inspector did nothing to relieve. He left a note for the driver of the highway patrol car, who would call at the hotel in the early afternoon on the south leg of his run, then set out with Cairns on the two-mile hike to the logging burn.
Neither Doreen Blake nor her father had returned to the hotel, and they did not meet them along the trail. When they came out of the gloomy alder tunnel across the river from the burn it was high noon. The tall, firescarred stumps reared ugly and shadowless out of the tangles.
“Reminds me of a battlefield,” Cairns muttered as they waded a shallow riffle. “Proper kind of layout for a show like this. Bear off to your left, inspector, across that sand bar, then up to the burn.”
He took the lead. They worked their way through the burn, the wild blackberry vines tugging and plucking at their boots like myriad hostile fingers. Cairns jolted to a stop, and said gruffly, “Here he is!”
Inspector Stark stood perfectly still for a moment, letting his first impression register. The body lay as the lieutenant had described it, face down amid the blossoming purple fireweed. Both arms were thrown forward and one leg was drawn up, as if Conroy, in violent flight, had plunged on his face in the slashing. His fishing rod lay broken under him, and his pants leg showed through a large triangular rip in his left hip boot.
The discolored patch which Cairns had mentioned stood out dark and distinct on Conroy’s fleshy neck, just below his close-clipped grey hair. In its centre was a trivial seeming perforation. There was very little blood.
The inspector straightened, disregarding the cigarette which Cairns offered.
“What do you make of it?” the lieutenant asked.
Inspector Stark leaned his shoulders against a stump, and gave Cairns his cold regard. “I’ll be entirely frank with you. You admit you were comparatively close by at the time this happened. You heard a shot and at once rushed across the burn. Didn’t it occur to you that Conroy might have fired the shot himself, at a crow or some other vermin?”
Cairns smiled bleakly. “Where I’ve been most of the last two years,” he said, “a shot means only one thing. Call it my combat reflexes going into action if you like.”
“Did you know Conroy before you came to the hotel with the Blakes?” “Just by name, as Blake’s partner. I’ll admit I did take something of a dislike to him, but that was because . . . well, Doreen’s been wearing my ring for the past three weeks, and when she went to his table last night . . .”
He laughed, the sound strange in the hush of the lonely burn. “Don’t get me wrong! There was nothing murderous about my feelings. I just had a mild yearning to hang one on his jaw, that’s all.”
“What were his relations with Blake?”
“Altogether friendly, as far as I know. They came here together every year.”
“And with Miss Blake?”
Cairns’ flat cheeks reddened under their brown. “He’d been making a play for her, although he was closer to her father’s age than hers. When she turned him down he told her she might have cause to regret her decision.” “Was that last night?” the inspector asked.
“No. About four weeks ago.”
“Do you know what they talked about last night at dinner?”
“I’ve no idea,” Cairns said. “Look here—surely you don’t suspect Doreen? That’s ridiculous!”
“For the present,” Inspector Stark told him, “I’ll keep any suspicions I may have to myself. But both you and MLss Blake may have some explaining to do. By your own admission you were with Conroy minutes after he
“Was here, too. You’ll remember that sand bar we crossed on this side of the river, below the burn. She left her signature there, in the shape of a very well-defined set of tracks. The third set, I believe, was made by Blake.”
“Even if you’re right, why shouldn’t we all three be up here?”
“No reason whatever, Cairns. But Miss Blake informed me she was not going upstream—that she intended to fish down to the hotel. She made a point of telling me, in fact.”
“All right. Granted she was here, changed her mind and headed back upstream. What earthly reason would she have for killing Conroy?”
“That,” Inspector Stark said, “is what I intend to find out.” He pushed his shoulders away from the stump. “There’s no need for you to stay here, so you may as well go back to the hotel. If you meet the highway patrol constable coming up, ask him to hurry along.”
FOR several minutes after Cairns had gone, Inspector Stark stood, tall and spare, frowning down at Conroy’s body. Presently he knelt, and very carefully turned the dead man over. There were two things which at once impressed him, and both required explanation. One was a trout fly snicked into Conroy’s lapel—a long, slim, silver-bodied lure with lemony wing which had its mate in Cairns’ own
kit. He was certain that both flies had ; come from the same stock box, and equally sure, if Cairns’ account of his relations with Conroy were to be believed, that an exchange of rare lures between the two was highly unlikely.
His minor mystery of the forenoon had reached major proportions; he was no nearer a solution when the constable, tramping in from the highway with a stretcher on his shoulder, hailed him from down the burn.
The afternoon was far spent when they brought their load out of the upriver wilderness. Inspector Stark sent the constable on his way—the body would be taken to Grenville, 50 miles south, and with luck he would have the autopsy findings early the next day.
On the veranda the hotel proprietor was waiting for him. “Before you go in, inspector,” he said, “I’ve been wondering about this business ever since the lieutenant told me Conroy was dead. There were a couple of things happened you ought to hear of.”
“The walls of those second-story rooms are pretty flimsy. I’ve been meaning to insulate ’em for years, but never got around to it. Well, Conroy’s room was right next to mine, and yesterday afternoon, while 1 was stealing a nap before dinner, I heard ! voices. His and Mister Blake’s. They weren’t talking loud, mind, but Blake sounded pretty angry. That surprised me, because most times he’s as easygoing as you could want.”
“Do you recall what was said?”
“I couldn’t make it out. Like I told you, they were keeping their voices low. After maybe 10 minutes, Blake slammed the door and went down the hall to his daughter’s room. Later, at dinner, you’ll remember Miss Blake took the small window table with Conroy. I couldn’t help but hear a little of the conversation. Miss Blake was really lighting into him. 1 heard her say, ‘You aren’t going to get away with it! If my father won’t take care of you,
“Where are the Blakes and Lieut. Cairns now?” the inspector asked.
“Blake talked with Cairns on the veranda here for a spell, then went for a walk along the highway by himself. He didn’t eat any dinner, and he sure looked worried. The young ones are in the living room. She’s making trout flies for her father. Well, that’s what I wanted to tell you, inspector I’ll have the cook rustle you up a bite.”
Inspector Stark was still on the veranda, sunk deep in a rustic chair with his long legs outstretched, when Blake trudged in from the highway. The big man walked slowly, as if he carried a heavy load on his shoulders. | He stopped at the foot of the steps.
“I’d like a word with you, Blake,” the inspector said. He motioned to the chair beside his, and with a sigh Blake relaxed into it.
“You heard about Conroy, of course?”
Blake nodded. “I knew about it before you did,” he said heavily. “I’ve j been tramping the road, trying to bring myself to tell you. It was me that killed him.”
Inspector Stark leaned his head against the back of his chair, gazing into the soft early twilight, while silence thickened between them. Blake spoke again, as if anxious to break that silence.
“It was an accident, pure and simple.
I was taking a pot shot at a fungus about five feet from the ground on the side of a stump when he stepped out of the alder swamp right into my line of fire. He went plunging through the swamp and dropped at the edge of the burn.” Continued on page 32
Continued on page 32
Counitnued from page 31
“What did you shoot him with, Blake?”
“An old Reining .22 automatic. I've had the thing in my fishing outfit for
“Where is it now?”
“In my room.”
“Bring it down, will you?”
He waited, savoring the scented coolness of the evening, until Blake clumped down the stairs and out to the veranda.
“Here you are,” Blake said.
Inspector Stark asked, as he slipped the long-barrelled target pistol into I his side pocket, “Did you see Cairns j this morning?”
“Yes. About 10 minutes after the1 accident. I was fording the river above ; the burn. He was crossing the valley! half a mile or so downstream. I’m sure ! he didn’t see me.”
The hotelkeeper coughed from the ! doorway. “Dinner’s ready whenever you are,” he called.
Blake said, awkwardly, as the inspector got up, “Why don’t you arrest me and get it over with?”
“I’m more concerned with my dinner at the moment,” Inspector Stark told him calmly. “This has been an extremely bothersome day. Tomorrow you and I are going back to the burn . . . By the way, Blake, did I tell you I met your daughter along the river this morning?”
While Blake stared at him, he continued casually, “It might interest you to know that she was carrying a pistol exactly like the one you’ve turned over to me. Meant to speak to you about it j on the trail, but it slipped my mind.”
nOREEN BLAKE, he saw as he entered the large living room with its riverstone fireplace and mounted ; trout upon the pine-panelled walls, was still making flies, the lamplight soft on ! her wavy hair as she bent over her I work. The inspector stood beside her for a moment, watching her nimble fingers busy with the silks and feathers. The finished lures, their heads touched daintily with lacquer, were ranged in a neat row, points jabbed into a blotter. For the third time that day Inspector Stark found himself looking at the rarest of angling contraband—the delicately tinted feathers of the wood duck.
The girl gave him a swift, unsmiling glance. “You can disregard anything my father may have said to you out there. You see, Lieut. Cairns told him I’m your number one suspect.”
Inspector Stark said, rather grimly,! “In the morning, Miss Blake, 1 want you to accompany your father and me to the logging burn. Lieutenant, you’re to come too.”
He went on to his dinner, and as soon as he had eaten, climbed the stairs to j his room. Deliberately, smoking a last ¡ cigarette by the open window, he j re-created the scene in the slashing. ! Inspector Stark had never laid claim to a photographic memory, and was inclined to take a dubious view of any | such boasts when made by his junior officers. At the same time, he knew that something was missing from the picture in his brain. It lurked just out of reach. He examined the target pistol carefully, dismounting the barrel and squinting through it at the light. By the slight fouling, it had been fired recently, and it was short one cartridge of its full load.
Still that missing piece eluded him. He went to bed, still baffled, but too weary to puzzle further, and slept | soundly until the roosters were crowing ! their second alarm in the back yard.
Yawning, he peered out of the winj dow. The hotelkeeper was across the river, knee-deep in the bridge pool. He was a fly fisherman of parts, as the
inspector knew from past expeditions, and it was his custom these summer mornings to get in an hour of fishing before the work of the hotel began.
Moreover, he was into a fish, a good one! It leaped three times, glistening in the young light, then the strain of the arching rod began to tell, and its runs grew shorter. The hotelman reached for the short-handled landing net that dangled by an elastic loop from his shoulder, dipped once, and the trout sagged silver in the meshes.
It was a dexterous performance. A short-handled net took expert managing, with a large trout in fast water, and Inspector Stark was quick to appreciate it. Not since his earliest days as an angler had he used such a net himself . . .
He was not given to laughter, but he laughed aloud now. somewhat rustilv. The missing piece had clicked into place; he was whistling to himself as he thrust his feet into the beaded Fort St. James moccasins made for him by the wife of one of his Indian trackers. He shaved with a straight edge razor from his set, dressed, and went down to breakfast with an excellent appetite.
Cairns and Blake were at the table before him but Doreen’s place was empty.
“I can’t tell you where she’s gone,” Blake said, answering his glance of enquiry. “She must have slipped away real early.”
“1 don’t anticipate any difficulty in finding her,” the inspector said. “1 see you’re not eating—better have a cup of coffee at least.” His smile was frosty. “This, I’m afraid, is going to be a hard morning. It may be much harder, Blake, if you persist in the story you gave me last night. 1 m satisfied you can tell me much more than you have about this whole affair, and I mean to get to the truth of it.”
To the hotelman, who shuffled in with his bacon and eggs, lie said, “There may he a call for me from Crenville. If it arrives while I’m gone, take it for me, will you?”
THE SUN was well up when they forded the river below the burn. It had been a silent journey. Inspector Stark, leading, had not once turned his head except to study some particularly alluring trout pool, and neither of his companions had spoken to him during the hike up the trail.
The inspector paused briefly at the sand bar. “Your daughter’s tracks were here yesterday afternoon,” he said over his shoulder to Blake. “Yours, too.” “You still think she did it?” Cairns demanded.
“I think,” Inspector Stark replied, brushing through the dew-wet fireweed of the burn’s edge, “that it’s time for a session of truthfelling.”
For a moment he quite failed to see f he girl. She was perched on a stump, knees under her chin, so motionless that ' even his keen gaze slid over her. Doreen waited till they were close, then dropped from her vantage point and walked to meet them. Her face told the inspector nothing.
“I had some investigating of my own to do,” she said.
“We’ll come to that later,” said inspector Stark. “First, now that we’re gathered together, I have certain questions, to which I wish straight answers. There's to be no more of this silly covering up. Blake, we both know who fired that shot. I know, too, that you had trouble with Conroy. What was it?”
Blake looked at his daughter, and back to the inspector. Although the sun had gained scant warmth as yet, his bricky face was moist.
“As far as the shooting goes, I’ll stand by what I told you yesterday,”
he said. “But I won’t deny I did have a serious run-in with Conroy. You’d find out anyway, so you may as well have it from me. We’d been partners for several years, manufacturing specialized dyes. I’d known for some time that Conroy wanted Doreen to marry him, but I never took him very seriously heavens, he's almost as old as me. and anyway, there was a a sharpness about his personal dealings that I never approved. When Doreen turned him down he moved to dissolve our partnership. I persuaded him into this trip, j thinking I could jolly him out of it. j Two days ago, the same day you came here, inspector, I learned just how wrong I’d been about him. That sharpness—the way he loaded his ; basement shelves with black market! rationed goods—even the picayune cheating he did at bridge should have j warned me. He revealed, quite coolly, that our basic patents were registered in his name alone. He’d had every chance to get away with that, because !
I trusted him, concerned myself with our plant operations and left almost j all the front office routine to him. Well, he told me that if I didn’t persuade Doreen to break her engagement, he’d sell me out to our toughest competitors. I’d been a sucker, and I was hooked.”
“I won’t disagree with you,” Inspector Stark said. “But even with my inadequate knowledge of patent law. it seems to me you had legitimate avenues of defense. I can see no j difficulty that a civil action couldn’t clear up for you.”
“Sure,” Blake said, “if that was all there was to it! I’d have fought him even if it busted me, and I’d have won. I told Conroy so. What he said next cut the ground out from under ¡ me. For two years after the war began ‘ he’d been placing our newest processes | in enemy hands, through neutral channels.”
“Using your name, I suppose,” Inspector Stark observed.
“Just that. He threatened to expose the whole mess in court if l took any action. C >nroy was damnably clever.
I mightn’t have been able to clear myself and I’ve got a son overseas, inspector!”
“You told your daughter about these j threats?”
“And 1 was every bit as angry as Dad about it.,” Doreen said. “I told him we’d find some way of tripping Conroy, but the thought of killing him never even entered my mind. You must believe that!”
“Whether I believe it. or not is beside the point.” I nspector Stark told her. “If i you’ll glance down the river you’ll see ! our host from the hotel coming this way. He appears to be in a hurry, and I’m reasonably sure I know the message he’s bringing me . . . Well, Miss Blake?”
“Yes, I fired the shot,” Doreen said.
“I simply came up here to think things out alone. It all happened just as my father told you. only I had the gun, not ho. There was a queer-colored ; fungus on the base of a stump at the -edge of the swamp. 1 shot at it. and a j moment later 1 heard a threshing in the alders. It.scared me. I thought I’d j disturbed a bear, and I ran back ; toward the river.”
“I heard the shot and came up from j the bar,” Blake said. “ I’d been looking j for Conroy with some vague idea of ; persuading him to change his mind. ; Doreen ran toward me with the gun in her hand. We went back to the burn, j and found Conroy, dead, with a hole in his neck. I knew Doreen couldn’t have j killed him except by accident, even before she told me how it happened. ¡ But the law would be pretty hard to convince.”
Continued on page 34
Continued from page 33
Blake tugged a bandanna from his hip pocket and mopped at his streaming forehead. “It was an awful fix,” he muttered, “for both of us! I took the gun away from her told lier not to say anything to anyone.”
HPHE hotelkeeper was hurrying toi ward them through the fireweed and wild blackberry as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him. “The coroner phoned from Grenville, inspec¡ tor,” he puffed. “‘What he said amounted to this: Conroy was stabbed in the back of the neck. He had a heart j condition, and seems like that jab he j got brought on a heart attack.”
“Then he wasn’t shot!” Cairns j breathed. “I don’t get this at all.”
“1 came here early,” Doreen said, “to find that fungus I fired at. I hit it, inspector I was sure I had! I can show you the bullet hole, and I’m sure the bullet can be recovered.”
Abruptly she put her face in her I hands, and began to sob. Cairns’ arm j went around her shoulders.
“You might lend her your handkerchief,” Inspector Stark told him in mild reproof. “There’s nothing to weep about, Miss Blake. I’ve known for some time that neither you nor your father killed the fellow.”
Cairns glanced at him sharply, a frown grooved between his grey eyes. “Something could have fallen on him,” he suggested, without conviction. “Dead limb with a sharp stub on it, maybe.”
“Improbable,” the inspector said. “No, he was stabbed from behind. Miss Blake, you’re to take me to the I spot where you heard him threshing in the bush.”
Doreen led him north out of the open burn to the narrow trail that continued on upriver through the swamp. “I fired from here,” she said. “There’s the stump with the fungus on it. He must have been resting in the shade a few feet to the left.”
The inspector pushed into the tangles, Cairns close behind him.
“There’s his hat,” Cairns said, “hung up in that thicket. He was in a hurry, right enough!”
Ten feet farther on Inspector Stark bent to retrieve a short-handled landing net. He said briskly, “Here we are! This is what I’ve been looking for.” He made his way out to the sunlit burn, emerging close to where Conroy’s body had lain. They stared at the net. Projecting from the end of the metal handle was a three-quarter-inch spike, dulled by a rusty-red stain.
From his side pocket the Inspector produced the round rubber knob he had picked from the sand beside Conroy’s fire the previous morning. He pressed the spike into the hole in its centre.
“In some respects,” he said, “Conroy was careless. He lost this on his way upriver. You’ll notice, too, that the net has a heavy rubber cord looped from the handle. Lieutenant, just put your head inside the loop . . . Let the net hang down your back.”
While the Blakes and the hotelkeeper watched,’ bewilderment on their faces, the inspector took the net by the rim. He stretched the cord a foot, and released his hold.
“Ouch!” Cairns’ head jerked forward as the rubber knob smacked him just below the hairline. He lifted a hand to scrub vigorously at his neck. “Say, that thing’s as bad as a sandbag!” “Whatwould have happened,” the inspector asked, “if I’d stretched the cord to its extreme limit—and if the knob hadn’t been in place?”
“I think I’d need a doctor,” Cairns replied slowly, “or perhaps an undertaker.”
“I think so too,” the inspector agreed. “The more so if you had a weak heart. The mesh of the net must have snagged on a limb as Conroy went plunging through the swamp, convinced in his guilty mind that he was being fired upon. He may even have seen Miss Blake with the gun in her hand. The rubber loop tightened under his chin, stretched to its maximum, and when the netting tore, as you’ll notice it did, the handle struck him like a
spear. I surmised what had happened when I watched our host here land a trout this morning—fine one, too — directly under my window. Conroy lived just long enough to free himself of the net and stagger into the burn. The wicked fled when no man pursued . . . You might even say that he frightened himself to death.”
“Gosh,” Blake said, with profound relief in his voice, “it’s lucky for us you’re a good guesser!”
“It was not entirely guesswork,” Inspector Stark told him. “The first landing net I owned was of this type. After it had bruised me several times I threw it away.” He continued severely, “Blake, you and your daughter were well started toward a great deal of unpleasantness. In fact you’ve been extraordinarily silly about this affair. As you say, you’re lucky. Offhand, I’d hazard a guess that your patent troubles can be straightened away easily enough. As for the other—I think it can be forgotten.”
Doreen was smiling at him, and Cairns was struggling with a grin.
“Now,” the inspector told them with considerable sternness, “since I’m on vacation, and determined to enjoy the rest of my stay, you might do one thing for me. Two, rather. Explain how you came by those confounded wood duck flies, then get rid of the reprehensible things. As an angler, Blake, you must know those feathers are contraband.”
Blake chuckled. “You slipped up on that one, inspector. I guess it was too simple for you. I loaned Cairns his outfit, flies and all. Conroy got his flies by lifting ’em off my bureau while he was putting the screws on me the other day. That stuff isn’t wood duck! It’s plain pintail feather, tinted with one of my dyes.”
“In that case,” Inspector Stark said, while his thin mouth quirked in one of his rare smiles, “I’d be obliged for a few of them. It occurs to me that I have unfinished business with a very superior trout in the long pool. And this time I’m going to land him!”