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Authors: Margery Allingham

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BOOK: Death of a Ghost
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‘My friend, my friend, why so importunate? Very well then; I don't know when I shall come back. I say my return is problematic. Yes. You see, I'm just going down to a lugubrious policeman in Lafcadio's dining-room.'

He looked up and spoke half to the room, half to the phone:

‘I'm going to confess to a murder. That's all.'

CHAPTER 7
Confession

–

‘S
O YOU
killed the deceased deliberately, Mr Fustian? Well now, perhaps you wouldn't mind sitting down and telling us clearly and concisely in your own words just exactly how you did it and why.'

The Inspector's slow voice sounded startlingly matter-of-fact in the room which still tingled and vibrated with the dramatic eloquence of Max Fustian's announcement. Oddly enough the drama became more intense, more serious, the difference between the real thing and a play, and the constable sitting at one end of the long mahogany table, his helmet placed carefully in front of him, breathed heavily as he waited, pencil poised, to take down from dictation.

Apart from the Inspector and the self-accused man the room also contained Mr Campion, lounging carelessly against the bookcase, his fair head bent and his hands thrust deep in his pockets.

The light seemed irritatingly bad and the atmosphere of the room cold and unventilated.

Max was excited, not to say exalted. There were feverish spots of colour in his sallow cheeks and his eyes were unusually bright.

‘You wish me to make a formal confession, I take it, Inspector? Well, that's perfectly in order. My name is Max Nagelblatt Fustian. I am forty years of age –'

‘That's all right, Mr Fustian.'

Once again the Inspector's patient, unemotional voice supplied a genuine note in Max's histrionics.

‘We know all that. I shan't cast this into statement form until after we've got the facts. It's very important to take a thing like this quietly. We don't want any mistakes at the beginning. If you start off right it's easier for everybody in the end. Don't go too fast, because Bainbridge here will be taking it down. Think before you speak. What happens afterwards is nearly always based on what you said at the beginning and a word spoken now will carry more weight than a dozen tomorrow morning. Now then, just start from where you made up your mind to kill the other gentleman.'

Max regarded the grave-faced, slow-speaking policeman with contempt and exasperation. As an appreciative audience the Inspector was a failure.

‘I resent this official attitude,' he burst out. ‘Can't you see I'm trying to help you? If I hadn't chosen to come forward you'd still be floundering. I made up my mind to kill young Dacre last night. I was not sure when or how, but last night when I heard that insufferable young idiot had married the girl Rosa-Rosa and had insulted Miss Lafcadio I decided that the man should be done away with. My motive was purely altruistic. I am one of those people who are blessed, or cursed, with a nature which has to interfere. If I see a thing that needs doing I do it.'

He was striding up and down the room as he spoke, throwing off the short, explosive sentences with the transparent conceit of a child.

The Inspector watched him gravely and the constable scribbled without once lifting his head. Mr Campion appeared to be lost in thought.

‘I had no time to lay my plans carefully. The opportunity came and I took it. From the beginning the scissors fascinated me. When the lights went out I saw my opportunity. The rest was simple. I went quietly across the room, picked up the scissors, struck the blow. The boy grunted and went down like a pig. The dagger was still in my hand. I wiped the handle, dropped it on the body and moved away. It was really very simple. I think that's all I can tell you. Would you like me to come with you at once? There's a cab-rank on the corner. Perhaps Mr Campion would be so kind as to tell Rennie to fetch one.'

The Inspector grunted.

‘All in good time, Mr Fustian,' he said mildly. ‘You must let us have our own way a little, you know. There's just one or two things we shall have to ask. Just read what the gentleman said about the actual stabbing, Bainbridge.'

The constable, looking undignified and very young without his helmet, cleared his throat and read the sentences without punctuation or expression.

‘I went quietly across the room picked up the scissors struck the blow the boy grunted and went down like a pig the dagger was still in my hand I wiped the handle and dropped it on the body.'

‘Ah,' said the Inspector. ‘The word's “grunted”, Bainbridge, in the second line. “Grunted like a pig”.'

‘Thank you, sir,' said the constable and made the correction.

‘Yes, well,' said the Inspector, ‘that's all right as far as it goes. Now, Mr Fustian, supposing this was the scissors. Would you hold it, please?'

He picked up a long round ruler from the inkstand and handed it gravely to the man.

‘Now you, Mr Campion, would you come and be the deceased, please? The man Dacre was sitting on the edge of the table where the jewellery was exhibited; leaning on it, I take it, supported partly by his hands. Now would you take up that position, please, Mr Campion?'

Mr Campion came forward obligingly and took up the position the Inspector indicated. It was some moments before the Inspector was satisfied, but at length he stepped back and returned to Max.

‘Now, Mr Fustian, would you demonstrate with the ruler, please, exactly how you struck the blow?'

‘But this is ridiculous – insufferable.' Max's voice was high-pitched with exasperation. ‘I've confessed. I stand before you self-accused. What more do you want?'

‘Just a matter of routine, sir. We want to do everything right. It saves a lot of trouble in the end. Now, just go over it exactly as you did it in the studio in the dark. You walked over to him. We'll assume you've picked up the scissors.'

Max was staring at the man, his eyes glittering. He was trembling with excitement and uncontrolled temper, and for a moment it seemed as if he would forget himself entirely and resort to physical violence. However, he pulled himself together and with a superb shrug of his shoulders permitted himself his famous crooked smile.

‘Oh, well,' he said, ‘if you want to play games, why not? Look very closely and I'll show you just how the horrid murder was done.'

He gripped the ruler, raised his arm above his head and brought it down within an inch of Campion's waistcoat.

‘There you are,' he said. ‘Perfectly simple. Straight through the ribs and into the heart. Very pretty blow, really. I think I'm rather pleased with it.'

The Inspector's nod was non-committal.

‘Just once again, please,' he said.

Max complied, all his old contemptuous amusement returning.

‘I raised my hand, thus, and brought it down with all my strength.'

‘Did you feel any resistance?' said Oates unexpectedly.

Max raised his eyebrows. ‘Well, I – I felt the slight resistance of the waistcoat cloth, and I think I touched a bone, but really it happened so quickly. I'm afraid I haven't your prosaic mind, Inspector.'

‘Very likely not, Mr Fustian.'

There was no underlying tartness in Oates's tone.

‘What did you do then, after you felt the resistance of the bone, I mean?'

‘Then I felt the man fall. Then – oh, let me see – then I wiped the handle of the scissors on my handkerchief and dropped them on the body. Then I moved away. Anything else I can tell you?'

Oates considered. ‘No,' he said at last. ‘No, I think that's all, Mr Fustian. Perhaps you will sit down.'

‘Really, is all this hanging about necessary?' Max's drawl was becoming plaintive. ‘After all, this is a nerve-racking business for me, Inspector, and I should like to get it over.'

‘So would we all, Mr Fustian.' Oates was gently reproving. ‘But then it's a serious business. Murder's a capital charge, remember, and, as I say, we don't want to make any mistakes at the beginning. Hand me that note, will you, Bainbridge? Thank you. Now, you went across the room in the dark and picked up the scissors. The failure of the lights was a complete accident. It came as a surprise to everyone. There's no question on that point. We have evidence to show that you were standing talking to Miss Harriet Pickering when the lights failed, at approximately a distance of fifteen feet from the table where the deceased was leaning. We have three separate statements to show that. According to your story you went over and picked up the scissors.

‘Well, we won't question that. Wait a minute, sir,' he continued, waving aside Max's excited outburst. ‘You then tell us – and we've been very careful over this point; you've shown us and you've described it – that you raised your hand above your head and brought the weapon down, noticing the resistance of the tough cloth of the deceased's waistcoat and a slight resistance which you thought must be caused by the blades glancing off a bone.

‘Now that brings us to another point. The blow which killed Thomas Dacre was an upward trust delivered very scientifically. As the deceased was wearing a woollen pullover and not a waistcoat there was very little resistance offered to the blow by the clothing. The weapon entered the body just below the lower rib and went straight up into the heart, causing almost instantaneous death.'

Max was sitting very stiff and white in his chair, his bright eyes fixed upon the Inspector's face. Oates remained slightly preoccupied and perfectly grave.

‘Now, to return to your statement, sir. You then removed the weapon, wiped the handle, and dropped it on the body. I query this because the weapon remained in Dacre's body until the police surgeon took it out. Also the handle was not wiped.

‘I think that's all, except for the matter of the motive. We have a great many murders every year, most of them committed for obvious reasons, some of them very sound reasons. The altruistic murderer is rare, and of course I couldn't say what the chances of your being one are until we have the evidence of the police doctor as to the state of your mind. But I'm prepared to forgo the trouble of instituting an enquiry of that sort in the present instance. I don't think it's necessary in view of the discrepancies I've already mentioned.'

Max regarded him narrowly.

‘Do I understand that you are refusing to accept my confession?' he said icily.

Oates folded the constable's notes and fitted them into his pocket-book before he replied. Then he glanced up. His rather tired eyes were as mild as ever.

‘Yes, Mr Fustian,' he said. ‘That's about it.'

Max said nothing, and after an interval the Inspector went on speaking. He was very quiet, very friendly, and unexpectedly authoritative.

‘Now look here, Mr Fustian,' he said, ‘you may as well understand our position. We've got to get at the truth. No doubt you did what you did for the best reasons in the world. You thought a young lady was about to be arrested and you thought you'd do her a good turn. Very likely you thought we were making a silly mistake and didn't care what you did to stop us giving unnecessary pain. I appreciate your motives and I think you've done a very nice thing, in a way, but you must see that you're only wasting our time and your own and not really helping things forward at all.

‘Oh, I may as well mention too, before you go, that in Miss Harriet Pickering's evidence she states that she was talking to you throughout the entire time that the lights were out, so you see your gesture was doomed to failure from the beginning. Good evening. I'm sorry this should have happened like this, but you see how it is.'

There was a moment or two of silence after the Inspector had finished speaking, and then Max rose slowly to his feet and went out of the room without uttering a word. They heard his brisk pattering footsteps disappearing down the corridor.

The Inspector nodded to the constable, who picked up his helmet and went out.

Mr Campion and his friend exchanged glances.

‘A bad show,' ventured the younger man.

The Inspector grunted.

‘There's one born every minute,' he said. ‘I don't like that type, though. Exhibitionists, they're called, aren't they? It leaves us with our original problem. There isn't anything to be gained from it at all. I shall give the girl twenty-four hours yet, in case something turns up. Now I think I'd better get back and make my report. A nice thing to happen in the middle of a Sunday afternoon!'

Mr Campion lit a cigarette.

‘It's an incomprehensible business,' he said. ‘As you say, the only person in the world who could have had any conceivable reason for killing so insignificant a person as young Dacre was the girl, and I assure you she's innocent. I'd stake my last bob on it.

‘Of course,' he added hopefully, ‘the whole thing might have been an accident. I mean there's always the possibility that Dacre was not the man the murderer intended to kill. After all, there's an element of chance about the whole affair; the blow being struck in the dark and going straight home and that sort of thing.'

‘Oh, it's a stunner,' said the Inspector gloomily. ‘I knew that as soon as I heard the telephone bell going this afternoon.' He spoke savagely and as one who believed in premonitions. He tapped the papers in his hand.

‘From the statements here you'd think we'd come to a lunatic asylum. There's only two or three concise stories among the lot. That woman Potter was as good as anyone. She seemed to have her wits about her. But her husband was the vaguest thing on earth. D'you know, Campion, I sometimes wonder how some of these fellows manage to keep alive. God knows it's hard enough to earn a living when you've got all your wits about you. But these blokes don't die. Someone looks after 'em.'

Campion accompanied the Inspector to the front door, and as they passed through the hall the object of Oates's gloomy conjectures hurried out of the dining-room to meet them.

BOOK: Death of a Ghost
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