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Inspector West Alone
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from back cover
It never occurred to Roger West that anything faked about the message. He just assumed that his wife had run into trouble and needed help. So he went along, and got a knock on his head. And when he came to, he found himself being charged with the murder of a woman he though was his wife.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER XX III
EVEN now, it didn’t occur to Roger West that there had been anything faked about the message. He was just afraid in case Janet had run into trouble.
You could spend your life walking into trouble with your eyes wide open and feel hardly a tremor. When you began to wonder whether your wife was in danger, you had a sick feeling of dread; assuming that you were in love with your wife, of course.
Roger stood outside the back door.
It was locked, like the front door and like all the windows. It was a small, lonely house, and he hadn’t heard of the place until two hours ago. There was a rotting hurdle fence round the large garden, and the light was just good enough to show the distorted shapes of trees. Grass grew knee high on what had once been lawns. The gravel drive was covered with weeds.
There wasn’t a light anywhere.
A chilly wind blew on to his back, coming across the open moorland and hilly country of Surrey. Low clouds threatened rain.
Except for the wind, there was no sound.
The message had been clear enough, but he hadn’t taken it himself. Janet had telephoned Scotland Yard. Roger hadn’t been in his office, so Eddie Day had spoken to her. Eddie wasn’t a shining light, but a man who had been thirty years in the force and become a Chief Inspector; he didn’t get messages wrong.
“Bit of trouble for you, Handsome—Janet ‘phoned. All right, all right, you needn’t get worried, there’s nothing the matter with the kids! Janet’s gone to see a cousin of hers, Phyllis—the one that lives in Surrey. She says can you go straight there to-night? Copse Cottage, Helsham— not far from Guildford. Difficult place to find, she says. I’ve written the directions down.”
The note was in Roger’s pocket.
He’d followed the directions with ease; this was Copse Cottage. The big white stone at the corner, near the signpost, had been unmistakable. There’d been one odd thing about the old, rotting signpost; the pointing finger and the words Copse Cottage had been freshly painted, but the name-board, on the narrow wooden gate, hadn’t been painted for .years.
The house was as dark as the night.
He’d been startled on discovering that there was no light back or front; worried when there had been no response to his knocking.
Janet had a cousin named Phyllis, who lived somewhere in Surrey. Roger had never met her, and didn’t think Janet had heard from her more than twice in the past five years.
Be reasonable. Cousin Phyllis had probably been taken ill, Janet had hurried out here, taken things into her capable hands, decided to move Phyllis to a hospital, possibly even taken her to Chelsea. There was no reason to feel scared. He turned towards the front of the house. From here he could see the sidelights of his car, facing the main road and parked in the narrow, unmade lane. He would try once more at the front door, then go into the village—two miles away—and telephone home.
The lights of his car disappeared.
He stopped moving, and stared. Only one thing could blot those lights out—someone standing in front of them. They were still on; he could see a faint glow, and the vague silhouette of a—man ? Or Janet ?
No, it was a man. The lights appeared again. Yet he’d heard no footsteps, and any ordinary sound would have been clear. The vague figure was lost against the black outline of the car.
Then he heard a sound; of the car door, opening.
He shouted: “Here!” and broke into a run. The car door slammed and the engine hummed. He was ten yards from the open gate when the car began to move, and it was twenty yards along the road when he reached the gate.
The only answer was the snorting of the car.
Alarm sawed at Roger’s nerves. He ran, in desperate hope; the road was rough, the car couldn’t make much speed, and would have to slow down at the sharp corner. But the pot-holes and loose stones made running difficult. He turned his ankle, grabbed at a tree to save himself and lost precious seconds and still more precious yards. The red light glowed, then turned out of sight as the driver swung the wheels towards Helsham.
What was all this? How could it be explained rationally? There was a touch of fantasy about it, as well— let’s face it—as a touch of the sinister. Had Janet come here?
The sound of the engine faded into silence, and the wind was hushed, but his forehead felt icy cold. It was pitch dark now. He turned and stared towards the house, and could only just make out the outline against the lowering sky. Suddenly, gusty wind swept down upon him.
He could walk to the village and back to reason; or return and force his way into the house. He didn’t like to contemplate the possibilities of what he might find. He couldn’t give a name to his fears. The sensible thing was to go for assistance; he could get a car from the village and come here with the local policeman. It wasn’t easy to be sensible when fears for Janet crowded upon him.
Then a light went on in the house.
* * * *
It wasn’t bright; just the dim yellow glow. It was on the first floor, above the front door; and it moved. Suddenly a shadow, large and shapeless, was thrown against a window. Someone was carrying the lamp from one room to another. It passed the window, and only a faint yellow glow remained; then it shone more brightly from another window, and became steady.
She would have heard him call out, would have-shouted after him by now.
Roger walked quickly towards the house, staring at the lighted window, but he could no longer see a shadow. As he turned into the open gate, another gust of wind swept down on him—and as the howling died, he heard the scream. Wild, shrill, eerie, it played on his taut nerves like a saw on an iron bar; and he knew that it d woman’s scream.
* * * *
He smashed a stone against the glass of the window, and the crash was like an explosion. A splinter of glass cut the back of his hand, but he hardly noticed it. He bent his elbow and broke off the jagged splinters which stuck out from the side, then groped for the window-catch. It sprang back sharply, and he pushed the window up.
It was pitch dark inside the room.
He used his torch for the first time. The beam shone upon oddments of furniture, the mirror of a huge sideboard, and a door. He climbed through, but heard no more screaming. Whoever had carried that lamp must have heard the window crash, but there was only silence. He reached the door, pulled it open and stepped into the passage. A faint glow of light came from upstairs, enough to show him the narrow stairs themselves, the gloomy hall, the glass in the picture-frames hanging on the walls. He put out his torch and stood quite still.
There was no sound, no movement.
Had he heard that scream ?
His teeth were set so hard that his cheeks hurt. He went slowly towards the foot of the stairs. Now that he was more accustomed to the light he could pick out the banisters, the shiny handrail, the dark, blotchy wallpaper.
He must go upstairs; he wasn’t a victim of nerves.
He started up the stairs, keeping close to the wall to avoid creaking boards. The light still glowed, dimly yellow. He reached a small landing and stood quite still, from the first attack of nerves, warning himself to be careful. There were three doors, one of them wide open, and the light came from this room. He stepped softly towards it, and peered inside. It was an empty bedroom; empty, that was, as far as he could see. A huge double bed, with big brass knobs on the posts, stood against one wall. Backing on to the window was a huge Victorian dressing-table with a big centre and narrow wing mirrors. The oil-lamp, without a shade, stood on this, and the light was brighter here because it was reflected from the mirrors.
He went to the foot of the bed and peered to the other side—and saw nothing.
Had that scream been a freakish trick of wind ?
He knew it hadn’t; he also knew that it might have been uttered to bring him here. Whoever had lit that lamp must still be near——
While he had been rushing towards the window and breaking in there had been time for man or woman to run down the stairs and leave the house by the back door. He couldn’t take anything for granted. He went into the room, picked up the lamp, which gave off a grey smoke and an oily smell, and placed it on a chest on the landing so that it gave more general light. Then he approached the first of the two closed doors. He took out his handkerchief and wrapped it round the handle before turning it. The door opened without difficulty, on to another, smaller bedroom, as empty as the first.
It was broken suddenly, eerily, by a sound he placed at once, but didn’t want to hear; by moaning.
The, crying wasn’t loud, but sounded clearly because of the general quiet. Undoubtedly it came from behind that closed door. It wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a man moaning and a woman; but he thought this was a woman, and saw a picture of Janet in his mind’s eye.
Roger moved slowly to the door, repeated the trick with the handkerchief, and pushed—but the door was locked. The moaning was continual now, low, frightening, working on his nerves. It was a stout door, and there was no key in the lock. He put his shoulder against it and pushed, a practised trick which would open a flimsy door in a modern house, but it had no effect on this one. He drew back and flung himself at the unyielding wood; all he did was to hurt himself.
The moaning went on and on.
He turned and hurried down the stairs, using his torch. He found the kitchen at the first attempt, and opened the door cautiously; there was no one there. Another door led to a scullery; there was always a scullery and wash-house in an old cottage of this kind. The scullery was drab, and cobwebs hung across the window. He opened a cupboard and found what he wanted: an axe, lying rusted and dull on the cement floor, near a few logs and a heap of kindling wood, thick with dust. He wrapped his handkerchief round the grimy axe handle and went back upstairs.
He approached the door determinedly.
He swung the blade of the axe powerfully against the panel just above the lock; the wood caught the blade and held it, he had to wrench it out. That eerie sound didn’t stop. He smashed again, and splintered the wood; smashed on with fierce urgency until a strip of the panelling lay on the floor. He thrust his hand through the gap, hoping for the unlikely—a key on the inside.
There wasn’t one.
He smashed again and again, until the lock gave way and the door sagged open. By then, he was dripping with sweat; and the moaning sounded louder. He shouldered the door wide open, flashed on his torch, and stepped inside the room.
A man was pressed tightly against the wall, and Roger didn’t see him until he came leaping forward.
Sharp nails clawed at Roger’s face, a knee came up and caught him agonizingly in the groin. As he reeled back against the swinging door, hands clutched at his throat and squeezed; powerful, claw-like hands. He tried to use the axe as a weapon, but couldn’t get it into position. He felt the air locked in his lungs, his chest heaved as he tried to breathe, as blackness descended upon him. He struggled, kicked, but he couldn’t free himself.
He slumped to the floor.
THE DARK ROOM
IT was dark.
That was all Roger realized at first;—darkness and pain that was little more than discomfort at his chest, and a smarting soreness at his face. He didn’t know what had happened until he heard a sound—a moan. Then everything flashed back.
He was lying on the floor.
He couldn’t see where, but the moan was so near that he knew he was in the room.
There was a dull pain in his groin, and when he tried to get up, the pain became sharp and he collapsed, grunting. The moaning went on—a steady trickle of sound. He turned gently on to his right side, and began to get up. His head swam, but he managed to stand. He put out his right hand and touched the wall, swayed towards it and then leaned against it; his lungs still felt tight and locked.
Outside, the wind was howling.
He heard a different sound, neither the wind nor the woman—rather that of a car on the road. It faded. He bent down, and the blood rushed to his ears as he groped for his torch, found it, and switched it on. The light was so bright that it hurt his eyes. He didn’t switch off, but swivelled the light round slowly until at last it fell upon the woman.
She lay on a single bed, two yards away from him, one arm hanging over the side—a slim white hand. Her body was flat, and she lay on her back. Her clothes were dishevelled, her long legs, sheathed in nylon, were nice legs. As the light travelled up, he saw enough to judge that she was young and comely; not her face, the light didn’t touch her face yet—just her body. Her white blouse was open at the neck. The light fell upon the point of her chin, and it might be Janet’s. Then it travelled to her face and her head——