Authors: Basil Thomson
“What becomes of the clothing of deceased persons after the funeral?”
“Well, generally speaking they're handed over to the relatives, and if they don't want them, why they just stay in these racks until we're full up and have to make a clearance.”
Richardson strongly suspected that “making a clearance” was a euphemism for a little private transaction with a dealer in old clothes, but he held his peace, merely remarking that this woollen dress would very probably be required to be produced in court and that it must be carefully preserved until the police applied for it.
“Very good,” said the man. “You couldn't have it in a safer place than this.”
Richardson returned to the flat and packed up his various parcelsâthe typewriter, the typed manuscript and his attachÃ©-case. He left the flat to walk to the Sloane Square Underground Station quite heavily laden. Before settling down to write his report he had one pressing duty to perform. Instead of entering the main building he ran rapidly up the stairs in Scotland House, which is joined to the main building by what has been termed the “Bridge of Sighs.” His destination was the room of Superintendent Willis of the fingerprint department. Being now an inspector he was able to converse with his old patron Willis on more equal terms.
“I've something rather interesting to show you, Mr. Willis,” he said, laying the typewriter on the table and removing the cover.
Willis was approaching the date for his retirement, but his interest in the science to which he had devoted so many years of his life was unabated, nor was his keen eyesight beginning to fail.
“What have you got there? When you bring me anything fresh I know that I'm in for trouble, a murder case at least, cross-examination by counsel for the defence, jurymen with eyes dropping out of their heads and possibly a heckling by the judge. You're a bird of ill omen, Richardson.”
“I'm sorry for that because I'm feeling rather pleased with myself.”
He opened his attachÃ©-case and took out the set of prints taken from the dead woman's finger-tips. “These prints I took from the fingers of a woman who was gassed, or gassed herself, somewhere about midnight last night.”
“Nicely taken,” said Willis, examining the prints under the light; instinctively he jotted down the formula of classification under each print with a pencil.
“The woman had left this farewell letter on her typewriter.”
“H'm,” said Willis, “that seems to settle the question of suicide.”
“Yes, if she wrote itâbut I want you to look at the prints on the spacing-bar.”
“Oh, I see, you've been doing a little developing on your own account. They're a bit confused, aren't they, but fortunately the fingers that made these prints were untrained and so they don't all strike at the same point in the bar. It's been a two-finger exercise.” (Willis had the bar under his glass.) “Here's one quite detached. It's either the index or the second finger of the right hand, an ulnar loop.” He took up the prints of the dead woman and examined those two fingers. He shook his head.” Her right index and second finger are both whorls, so the fellow who planted his finger here and wrote that letter was play-acting.”
“You say âfellow.' Couldn't it have been a woman?”
“With claws that size? Never. This print was made by a manâa fairly big man. He's a man of sedentary habits, and the print was made not many hours ago. Look how it has lapped up the powder. The moisture hasn't had time to dry.”
“I must get these prints photographed and enlarged to the same scale, unless you'll get it done for me.”
“You can leave that to me. You'll have your hands full with the inquest coming on. I suppose that you've some other evidence?”
“Fortunately I have, but not nearly enough yet to outweigh the police surgeon, who is going to swear that it's an ordinary case of suicide by gas-poisoning.”
“Then why not call in the great Panjandrum himself? Even the crustiest of coroners bows down before
“I'll have to see what Mr. Morden thinks about it. I must hurry off if I'm to catch him.”
Charles Morden was in his room and alone. “Come in, Mr. Richardson. I suppose that you've not had time yet to find out anything more about that woman in Seymour Street.”
“Yes, sir, and before writing my report I want to put you in possession of some new facts. I've reason for believing that it wasn't a suicide at all, but a murder.”
Like every officer in the C.I.D., Charles Morden had long ceased to show surprise at the unexpected. “But the police surgeon seems to be satisfied.”
“He does, sir, but he made no examination of the woman's organs, and this should, I think, be done by Sir Gerald Whitcombe himself.”
“Tell me shortly what you have found.”
“In the first place I found this cigarette in the border of the carpet against the bed. The charwoman states that Miss Clynes never smoked and yet I found cigarette ash on the carpet.” He took from his pocket an official envelope containing the cigarette and ash. “Secondly, I found, caught in a nail at the entrance to the kitchen, this little piece of wool. I've been to the mortuary to examine the deceased's clothing and I have found that she was wearing a green woollen dress of exactly this shade.”
“That doesn't seem conclusive. She might have caught her skirt in the nail days ago.”
“Yes, sir, but I've found the place where this shred came from. It was from the back of the skirt and quite high up.”
“Could she have fallen in a sitting posture as she went into the kitchen?”
“Certainly, that is possible, sir, but in that case would not she have darned the little rent? There was every evidence that she was careful about her clothes.”
“What are you suggesting? That some man was with her in the flat last night and that he dragged her across the floor into the kitchen and pushed her head into the oven? Why, she would have screamed the house down while he was doing it.”
“She would, sir, if she was conscious.”
“But there were no head injuries.”
“No, sir, there were not, but I suppose there are narcotic poisons that might produce unconsciousness. I found a coffee-cup with some dregs in it. This could be analysed.”
“Yes, but it might be argued that she swallowed the contents of the cup, turned on the gas, and put her head into the oven.”
“Yes, sir, but I found one thing moreâa finger-print on the spacing-bar of her typewriter. I've taken her fingerprints and Superintendent Willis has compared them with that print on the bar. He is prepared to swear that the print on the spacing-bar is that of a man. On the machine was this farewell letter.”
Morden pursed up his lips as he read it. “Isn't it the kind of letter one would expect that type of woman to write?”
“Possibly, sir, but if you will look at the letter you will see that it is not the work of an expert typist as she was.”
Morden scrutinized the letter. “You mean that the force used in striking the keys was uneven?”
“Yes, sir, but not only that: on the fifth line you will notice that one letter is struck over anotherâa mistake very rarely made by expert typistsâand then the fingerprints are not hers.”
“H'm! It won't do to spring this on a coroner's jury all at once. Reporters will be round with their tongues hanging out if we do, and that will prejudice your inquiries. At the same time I am against too much bottling-up. I'll have a straight talk to the coroner this evening and try to get him to open the inquest and adjourn it for a week. That will give you breathing space. In the meantime please go on with your inquiry as if nothing had happened.”
It is the invariable practice of the Criminal Investigation Department in London, when a complicated criminal case is entrusted to a senior officer, to let him take with him a junior, partly to relieve him of subsidiary inquiries, and partly to serve in corroborating his evidence when given in court.
“You will want to take a sergeant with you,” said Morden, with a twinkle, knowing perfectly well on whom Richardson's choice would fall. “I believe that Sergeant Bennett is free at the moment.”
“In a case like this, sir, I should like to take Sergeant Williams. I believe that he is free.”
“You must settle that with the Chief Constable. Let me know how the case goes on. Your first task ought to be to find the relatives of the dead woman.”
following morning Richardson, accompanied by Sergeant Williams, unlocked the door of 37
Seymour Street and went upstairs to the flat. They were fitting the key into the door when the head of a fair-haired young woman appeared on the landing above and smiled down at them.
“The people downstairs left a message last night that some gentleman from Scotland Yard wanted to see me, so I came down early on purpose. Are you the gentlemen?”
“Yes; I sent the message to you. Can I come up to your office?”
“Please do, or I'll come down if you like it better.”
Richardson was half-way up the stairs before she had finished speaking, and the girl retreated into the bare little office. She was busy with a duster.
“Excuse me, sir. I'm afraid that everything's covered with dust, but you see it's only me that uses the room, and I don't come every day. Now I think that this chair is all right if you'll sit down.” She was still unembarrassed and smiling. She turned to dust a second chair for Williams.
Richardson pulled out his notebook. “May I have your name, please?”
“Ellen McDougall, but people generally call me Nellie.'”
“Mine is Inspector Richardson. If you want to see me at any time you've only got to ask for me on the ground floor at New Scotland Yard. I suppose that you've heard the sad news about the lady on the floor below?”
“Yes, and I can tell you that it was an awful shock to me. Whatever could she have done it for?”
“Did you know her well?”
“Not what you'd call well, but we passed the time of day when we met on the stairs, and she used to use the telephone outside on the landing.”
“And placed as it is, you could hardly help hearing what she said.”
“That's right, but I didn't take any particular notice of what she said.”
“Can you remember her asking for any particular name?”
“No, but she always called the same numberâ Gerrard 6720.”
“What did the conversation seem to be about?”
“Perhaps I ought to tell you that one day I overheard her say a funny thing. Of course she didn't know I was listening. Her tone was grave and anxious that morning. She said, âOh, you wouldn't stop at murder? I had thought of suicide.' I've been thinking a lot about that conversation since I heard the dreadful news yesterday morning.”
Richardson was writing in his notebook. “You are quite sure of the words she used: âYou wouldn't stop at murder. I had thought of suicide'?”
“That's right. Those were her exact words.” Richardson looked up at the little face, framed in fair, tousled hair, and saw that it was transfigured with the emotions of the drama. He put a question that brought her back to the dull routine of a workaday life with a bump.
“Who are your employers, Miss McDougall?”
“The Jewish Benevolent Society for the Fulham area.”
“Are you the secretary? You'll excuse me saying so, but you don't look a bit like a Jewess.”
She laughed. “People are always saying that. I'm no Jewess. I'm from Scotland. You see it's hard for a typist to get a job nowadays, and I just answered an advertisement. I was sent for to be interviewed and the terms were good for what they wanted me to doâmake the round of their offices in Fulham and Chelsea, open the letters, lock up any that contained cheques until the next weekly committee meeting, after sending the printed form of receipt and thanks. Most of the letters were applications for help, but members of the committee deal with them personally.”
“You have not to do any visiting?”
“No. My only other duty is to attend committee meetings on Thursday evenings and take down the minutes.”
“So you haven't very much to do?”
“No, most days there is only half an hour's work. Then I am free. But I have another job to go to in the afternoons. Mr. Aaronson, a member of the committee, has a furniture shop in King's Road, and he employs me to write up his books in the afternoons.”
“Can I see a list of your committee?”
She fumbled in one of the drawers and produced a typed list of names and addresses. Richardson made a copy of it in his notebook.
Ernest Hartmann, 8 Jubilee Road, Fulham (Chairman).
Samuel Weingartner, 27 Queen's Road, Bayswater.
Albert Greener, 31 Lambeth Road.
Amos Harris, 14 Green Street, Fulham.
Henry Aaronson, 103 King's Road, Chelsea.
Peter Stammer, 4 Lower Panton Street, S.W.3.
“What sort of men are they? Are they kind to you?”
“They are all tradespeople, I believeâvery respectable men and very polite and kind. If I've any complaint against them it is that I wish they would not all smoke big cigars in this tiny room at committee meetings. I can scarcely get the smell out of the room before the next meeting, and it makes me cough.”
“How do they get in?”
“They ring and knock at the door in Seymour Street and I run down and let them in. You see I have the only latchkey.”
“And you never let it out of your care?”
“Neverâat leastâ¦” She hesitated and the colour began to mount in her cheeks, a symptom of embarrassment which was not lost upon Richardson.
“You were sayingâ¦?”
“It's Mr. Hartmann's orders that I should never part with the key, butâ”
“But you haven't always kept the rule?”