Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
Finishing his port, Fen lit a cigarette and leaned back more comfortably in his chair.
“As for myself,” he went on after a moment’s consideration, “I had no personal contact with the affair until after the trial was over. I read about it more or less attentively in the papers. and that was all. But about a week after Angela’s acquittal I was dining with the Chief Constable of Buckinghamshire, and he, knowing I had a lay interest in criminology, showed me the dossier of the case. Most of it was just a repetition and expansion of what I already knew. There was also, however, a complete typewritten copy of Pasmore’s letter to Brice. And something in the last paragraph of that letter struck me as being ever so slightly odd…
“The bulk of the thing, as I’ve told you, was simply a point-by-point reply, impersonal and businesslike in tone, to Brice’s queries. The final paragraph, though, ran like this:
“‘Forgive me if I don’t write more. I’m in the middle of scoring
(with a concert on my next-door neighbour’s wireless—
to help me along) and am anxious, as you know, to get it done as quickly as possible. Good luck to the performance—I am sorry I can’t be there. Yours—’
and so forth.
“Well, the police had checked this business of the concert at the time Pasmore’s letter was produced in Court: and Pasmore’s neighbour’s radio had, in fact, been on between three-thirty and four-forty-five. So far, so good. But
—somehow that particular tag was wrong in that particular context. One’s neighbour’s radio is often tiresome, no doubt. But one doesn’t use, as a comment on it, a phrase intended to express the profound, essential melancholy of all human activities—and more, of existence itself; the nuisance is too trivial and localised. And it occurred to me, as a consequence of this disparity; that
might carry some specialised meaning for Brice and Pasmore—might in effect be a sort of private joke. Luckily, Brice was conducting at Oxford three or four days later, and I was able to make contact with him and to ask him about it. And my notion turned out to be right. Brice and Pasmore had been at school together, and had been close friends there, united in a passionately earnest devotion to music—a devotion whose naïvety occasionally bordered on the ludicrous. And on one occasion, when they had been listening together to Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony, Pasmore had remarked, in solemn, awestruck tones:
Paul; it sums up the whole tragedy of humankind.’ Brice had been much amused by this pretentious gloss on the music, and thereafter
had been often used between them as a means of referring to that particular work.
“So naturally I went away and hunted through back numbers of the
until I found the programme of the concert which had been broadcast on the afternoon of Pasmore’s murder. It consisted of two works, the Walton Symphony followed by the Tchaikowsky Sixth; and there was no difficulty in calculating that the Tchaikowsky must have begun at about a quarter past four and gone on until the end of the concert at a quarter to five. All quite straightforward, you see; no discrepancy with the suggestion that Pasmore’s reply to Brice had been written more or less immediately after i receiving Brice’s letter at four-fifteen.
“There I might have left it, but for the chance that I was I lecturing in Amersham a week or so later, and having an hour or so to spare, decided to go and interview Pasmore’s neighbour—he of the radio. He turned out to be a pleasant little man—something to do with the Home Office, I fancy—and naturally enough he still remembered the events of the crucial afternoon quite clearly. He’d had that concert on all right, from beginning to end, but beyond that there didn’t seem to be anything of value he could tell me. And I was on the point of leaving, in a welter of civilities, before he quite unexpectedly let the cat out of the bag.
“‘Of course, the police questioned me about it,’ he said, ‘and even though that wasn’t till several weeks afterwards, I had no difficulty in recalling the concert—partly, no doubt, because of the change in the advertised programme.’
“I must have looked as though I’d seen a ghost. ‘Change?’ I echoed.
“‘Why, yes. For some mysterious reason of their own, they played the Tchaikowsky first and the Walton second.’
“And they had. I checked with the B.B.C., and it was true. Owing to some kind of mismanagement, the orchestral parts of the Walton hadn’t been in the studio at the start of the concert, and the Tchaikowsky had had to be played while they were searched for. Therefore, the Tchaikowsky—
at four o’clock; and therefore, if the reference in the final paragraph meant anything at all, Pasmore’s letter to Brice had been completed by four o’clock.”
Fen chuckled suddenly. “And given that, it didn’t really require much thinking to deduce how Angela’s alibi had been contrived. The police, as I discovered, had worked it all out for themselves—but not, unfortunately, until after the acquittal.”
Fen paused, and Haldane shook his head. “I’m afraid that for my own part—”
“Oh, come… Brice’s letter had been posted in Edinburgh on the previous afternoon. It arrived at Amersham, of course, by the
post on the day of the murder. Angela opened it—I’ve mentioned, I think, that she acted as Pasmore’s secretary—and saw in it her opportunity. She destroyed the envelope in which it arrived, made a note of Brice’s queries, typed a fresh envelope, inserted the letter, stamped it, and
posted it again
. She could thus be fairly sure of its arriving a second time, in the presence of the invited and infatuated Sir Charles, by the afternoon post. And in the meantime she went to her husband and said something like this:
“‘Brice rang up from Edinburgh while you were out. He’s written you a letter about
, but it struck him that it might possibly not arrive soon enough for your reply to reach him in time for the final rehearsal. I’ve made a note of his queries, and if you write off to him some time this afternoon, that should be all right.’
“Pasmore would believe this—why shouldn’t he?—and the reply to Brice would be written. And all that Angela had to do after that was to destroy the notes she’d made of Brice’s queries and the envelope, typed by herself and with a local postmark on it, in which Brice’s letter arrived at the house for the second time. Between four-twenty and four-thirty, of course, she entered Pasmore’s study and killed him.”
There was a brief, astonished silence; then: “Brilliant!” Haldane exclaimed. “Really brilliant… Only”—his enthusiasm waned slightly—“there are a lot of things which
have gone wrong. Pasmore might just have omitted to write the reply; or it might not have been long enough—though I suppose that in view of the number of queries he had to answer it was bound to be fairly long; or it might have contained some very definite reference to the hour of day at which it was being written. Or Sir Charles mightn’t have turned up; or the letter —life being what it is—mightn’t have arrived by the afternoon post; or—”
“Yes, yes, I know all that,” said Fen. “But you must realise that all those possible accidents and possible flaws in the scheme have one thing in common: if they were going to happen at all, they would happen
before the murder
. So if anything had gone wrong, Pasmore would quite simply not have been killed—not on that day, and in that particular way. Angela, I can assure you, is a cautious woman as well as a clever one.”
said someone sombrely; and again there. was silence.
“I suppose she missed the point of
said Haldane at last. “Interpreted it, that’s to say, as just a general comment on neighbours’ radios… She’d read the letter, of course, before killing Pasmore.”
Fen nodded. “Certainly she would. It’s to be presumed that Pasmore put it in her bedroom about four o’clock, and that she read it there, at twenty past four, before going to the study and killing him… I don’t know why I say ‘presumed.’ By Angela’s own admission, that’s what in fact happened. I wrote to her, you see, and by return of post she sent me congratulations on my perspicuity and a circumstantial account of the crime. It’s a queer document—unique, of course: no trace of vanity or megalomania, and yet it makes me shiver every time I look at it.”
‘“She got Pasmore’s money, then?”
“Oh, yes. And has lived very comfortably on it ever since.”
“But look here,” said Wakefield with sudden energy, “you can’t possibly maintain that she arranged for Pasmore”s letter to be her alibi and then
“Of course she didn’t forget. She only pretended to—that was the whole point of her scheme. We’re back where we started, you see; this is where the business of the ‘perfect crime’ comes in. Your murder which looks like natural death—well, it’s satisfactory up to a point; but the murderer can never be
sure that one day, perhaps years after, some accident may not reveal the truth and send him to the gallows. His only road to absolute immunity from punishment is to be tried and acquitted, for it’s a basic principle of English Common Law that
nemo debet bis vexari
—that no one may be tried a second time for the same offence. Angela wanted to be tried, in order that she might be acquitted and live afterwards in perpetual immunity. Hence Pasmore’s letter was ‘forgotten’ until the right moment for its use arrived. Angela took a great deal of risk, of course. But it worked out very nicely for her in the end.”
“Well, I consider it’s abominable,” said Haldane with disgust. “When one thinks that nothing—
—can be done to punish the woman…”
“There are those”—Fen spoke very mildly—“who would maintain that such injustices are invariably rectified at a higher court.”
“Ah.” Wakefield sat up abruptly. “And why do they maintain that? They maintain it because they believe the Universe to be subject to Laws, and they believe that because the phenomenal flux, without the concept of Order, is psychologically intolerable. Aldous Huxley—”
“Have some more port,” said Haldane.
It was immediately outside the entrance to an office building, within a stone’s throw, almost, of New Scotland Yard, that the thing happened.
The Whitehall area is sacred—if that is the right word—to Government. Trade leads a hole-and-corner existence there, and a house given over to non-ministerial purposes is enough of a rarity in the district to attract fleeting attention from the idle passer-by. Thus it was that Gervase Fen, ambling with rather less than his usual vigour from St. Thomas’s Hospital, where he had been visiting a friend, towards St. James’s Park, through which he proposed strolling prior to dinner at the Athenaeum, paused to examine the brass plates and sign-boards flanking this particular doorway; and in so doing found himself shoulder to shoulder with a man who had just half a minute to live.
At this time—eight o’clock in the evening—the street was almost empty, a near-vacuum shut away from the Embankment traffic on one side and the Whitehall traffic on the other. A street-lamp gleamed on the brass and the white-lettered wood: trade journals mostly, Fen noted—Copper Mining, Vegetation, the Bulb Growers’ Quarterly, Hedging and Ditching. A little beyond the doorway, an elderly woman had halted to rummage in her shopping-bag; and immediately outside it, a neatly dressed man with a military bearing, who had been preceding Fen along the pavement, glanced up at the streetlamp, drew from a pocket three sheets of typewritten foolscap clipped together with a brass fastener, came to a stop, and began reading. Fen was beside him for no more than a moment, and had no cause to notice him particularly; leaving him still scanning his typescript, he walked on past the woman with the shopping-bag and so up to the end of the street. Behind him, he heard a car moving away from the pavement—presumably it was the black sedan which he had seen parked at the entrance to the street. But there was no way in which he could have anticipated the tragedy that followed.
The note of the car’s engine altered; one of its doors clicked open and there were rapid footsteps on the pavement. Then, horribly, the woman with the shopping-bag screamed-and Fen, swinging round, saw the soldierly-looking man grapple with the stranger who had emerged from the waiting sedan. It was all over long before Fen could reach them. The assailant struck viciously at his victim’s unprotected head, snatched the typescript from his hand as he fell, and scrambled back into the car, which slewed away from the curb with a squeal of tyres, and in another instant was gone. Pausing only to note its number and direction, Fen ran on and bent over the huddled body at which the woman was staring in dazed, helpless incomprehension. But the skull was crushed; there was nothing, Fen saw, that he or anyone else could do. He stood over the body, allowing no one to touch it, until the police arrived.
And at eleven o’clock next morning: “Very satisfactory,” said Detective-Inspector Humbleby of the Metropolitan C.I.D. “Very satisfactory indeed. Between you, you and that Ayres woman are going to hang Mr. Leonard Mocatelli higher than Haman. And a good riddance, too.”
“The man must be quite mad.” As was allowable in an old and trusted friend of the Inspector’s, Fen spoke somewhat petulantly. “Mad, I mean, to commit murder under the noses of two witnesses. What
“Ah, but he hadn’t got a record, you see.” Humbleby lit a cheroot with a new-fangled pocket-lighter which smelled of ether.
didn’t think Scotland Yard had ever heard of him, and it must have given him a nasty turn when we hauled him out of bed in the middle of the night, and brought him along here. He was the only member of the group whose viciousness was likely to extend to murder, and that being so—”
“Wait, wait,” Fen interposed fretfully. “I don’t understand any of this. Who
Mocatelli? Whom did he kill, and why? And what is the ‘group’ you mentioned?”
At this, Humbleby’s satisfaction diminished visibly; he sighed. “It’s not,” he said, “that I’m personally unwilling to give you the facts. But there’s a certain rather delicate matter involved, and…” His voice trailed away. “Well, there you are.”