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Death in the Stocks
By GEORGETTE HEYER
Sourcebooks Inc. Copyright © 1935 Georgette Rougier
All right reserved.
Chapter One It was past midnight, and the people who lived in the cottages that clustered round the triangular green had long since gone to bed and to sleep. No lamp shone in any window, but a full moon sailed in a sky the colour of sapphires, and lit the village with a pale light, as cold as the sheen on steel. Trees and houses cast grotesque shadows, black as soot; every object in the moonlight stood out sharply defined, but without colour, so that even a prosaic line of petrol pumps looked a little ghostly.
There was a car drawn up at one end of the green, its headlights throwing two golden beams ahead, and its engine throbbing softly. One of its doors stood open. Something moved in the shadow of the great elm tree beside the car; a man stepped into the moonlight, glanced this way and that, as though fearful of seeing someone, and after a moment's hesitation got quickly into the car and began to turn it, jarring his gears a little. He looked once towards the elm tree, at some object dimly discernible in the shadow, and then, having swung the car right round, drove away up the London road. The noise of his engine died slowly in the distance; somewhere at hand a watch-dog barked once, and then was silent.
The shadow of the elm tree was shortening as the moon travelled across the sky: the eerielight seemed to steal under the branches, and presently shone on two feet in patent leather shoes, stuck through the holes in a pair of stocks. The feet remained motionless, and as the moonlight crept nearer the glimmer of a white shirt-front showed.
An hour later a cyclist rounded the bend in the road by the King's Head. Police-Constable Dickenson was returning home from a night patrol. The moonlight now fully illuminated the stocks. A gentleman in evening-dress was sitting in them, apparently asleep, for his body had sagged forward, his head lolling on his chest. Police-Constable Dickenson was whistling softly as he rode, but the whistle stopped suddenly, and the front wheel of the bicycle swerved. The stocks were a feature of Ashleigh Green, but the Constable could not remember having seen anyone imprisoned in them before. It gave him quite a turn. Tight as an owl, he thought. Looks like somebody's been having a game with you, my lad.
He got off his bicycle, and pushed it on to the grass and carefully propped it against the elm tree. The figure on the bench did not move. 'Now then, sir, wake up!' said the Constable, kind but reproving. 'Can't spend the night here, you know!' He laid his hand on the sagging shoulder, and gave it a slight shake. 'Come along, sir, you'll be better off at home, you will.' There was no response, and he shook the shoulder rather harder, and put one arm round the man to hoist him. There was still no response, but an arm which had lain across its owner's knees was dislodged, and hung dangling, the hand brushing limply against the Constable's trousers. The Constable bent, peering into the downcast face, and sought in his pocket for his torch. The light flashed on, and the Constable stepped back rather quickly. The figure on the bench, disturbed by his shaking, toppled over sideways, its feet still held in the stocks. 'Gawd!' whispered Police-Constable Dickenson, feeling his mouth to be very dry all at once, 'Oh, Gawd!' He did not want to touch the figure again, or even to go nearer, because there was something sticky on his hands, and he had never seen a dead man before.
He stooped, and rubbed his hand on the grass, telling himself he was a proper softy. But he hadn't been expecting it, and his stomach had kind of turned over. Made a chap feel sick for a minute; it was like as if one's innards took a jump into one's chest. Breathing a little jerkily he went up to the figure again, and ran his torch over it, and rather gingerly touched one of the slack hands. It wasn't exactly cold, not clammy, like you read about in books, but just cool. He didn't know but that he wouldn't rather it had been icy. That faint warmth was nasty, somehow.
He pulled himself up. It wasn't his job to get fanciful, but to make up his mind what was the right thing for him to do first. The man was dead, sure enough; it was no use standing over the body: he'd better get on to the Police Station at Hanborough as soon as possible. He pushed his bicycle back on to the road, mounted it again, and rode swiftly along to the other end of the green to the cottage with the prim muslin curtains and the tidy flowerbeds which had County Police painted on a narrow board over the front door.
He let himself in and made his way to the telephone, taking care to tread softly so that his wife, who was asleep upstairs, should not wake and call to him to go up. He'd have to tell her what had happened if she did, and she was expecting her first, and none too well.
He lifted the receiver, wondering whether he'd done the right thing after all, leaving a corpse stuck down in the middle of the village. Didn't seem decent, somehow.
The Station-Sergeant's voice spoke. He was surprised to hear his own voice so steady, because he really felt a bit shaken, and no wonder. He told his story as matter-of-factly as he could, and the Sergeant, not nearly so phlegmatic, said first: 'What?' and then: 'In the stocks?' and lastly: 'Look here, are you sure he's dead?'
Police-Constable Dickenson was quite sure, and when the Sergeant heard about the blood, and the wound in the back, he stopped making incredulous exclamations and said briefly: 'All right. You cut along and see no one touches the body. The Inspector will be down with the ambulance in a couple of shakes.'
'Hold on a minute, Sergeant,' said the Constable, anxious to give all the information he could. 'It isn't a stranger. I was able to identify him - it's Mr Vereker.'
'Mr Who?' demanded the Sergeant.
'Vereker. The gentleman from London, as bought Riverside Cottage. You know, Sergeant: comes down week-ends.'
'Oh!' said the Sergeant, rather vaguely. 'Not a local man.'
'Not properly speaking,' agreed the Constable. 'But what beats me is how he came to be sitting in them stocks at this hour of night. He's in evening-dress, what's more.'
'Well, you get back, and keep your eye on things till the Inspector comes along,' said the Sergeant, and hung up the receiver.
Constable Dickenson heard the click of it, and was rather sorry, because now that he had had time to recover from his first amazement he could see several queer things about the murder, and would have liked to have talked them over with the Sergeant. But there was nothing for it but to do as he was told, so he put his receiver back on the hook, and tiptoed out of the house again to where he had left his bicycle propped against the iron railings.
When he got back to the stocks the dead man was lying in the same position. There was no sign that anyone had been there since the Constable left, and after looking over the ground for a bit with the aid of his torch, in the hope of discovering some clue, or footprint, the Constable leaned his back against the tree, and tried, while waiting for the Inspector to arrive, to puzzle out the problem for himself.
It was not very long before he heard the sound of a car in the distance, and in a few minutes it drew up beside the green, and Inspector Jerrold hopped out nimbly, and turned to give a hand to a stout man in whom the Constable recognised Dr Hawke, the Police-Surgeon.
'Well,' said the Inspector briskly. 'Where is this body, Dickenson? Oh! - ah!' He stepped up to the bench, and ran his torch over the still figure there. 'H'm! Not much for you here, Doctor, from the looks of it. Turn those headlights this way, Hill. That's better. Like this when you found him, was he?'
'No sir, not properly. He was sitting up - well, when I say sitting, he was kind of slouching forward, if you know what I mean. I thought he was asleep. Him being in evening-dress, and his feet in the stocks like that, I never thought but what he's had a glass too many - so I went up to him and put my hand on his shoulder to give him a bit of a shake and wake him up. Twice I shook him, and then it struck me there was something queer about him, and I felt the palm of my hand kind of wet and sticky, and I switched my torch on him - and then of course I saw he was dead. Me shaking him like that made him fall sideways, like you see.'
The Inspector nodded, his eyes on the Doctor, who was kneeling behind the body. 'Sergeant Hamlyn says you identified him. Who is he? Don't seem to know his face.'
'Well, I daresay you might not, sir. It's Mr Vereker, of Riverside Cottage.'
'Oh!' said the Inspector with a little sniff. 'One of those week-end people. Anything out of the way, Doctor?'
'I shall have to do a PM, of course,' grumbled the Doctor, getting up rather ponderously from his knees. 'But it looks quite a straight case. Knife wound a little below the left shoulder-blade. Death probably occurred instantaneously.'
The Inspector watched him at work on the body for a moment or two, and presently asked: 'Formed any opinion of the time it was done, sir?'
'Say two to four hours,' replied the Doctor, and straightened his back. 'That's all for the present, thanks.'
The Inspector turned to Constable Dickenson. 'Know how the body was sitting when you found it?'
'All right. Put it back as near as you can. Ready with that flashlight, Thompson?'
Constable Dickenson did not care much for the task allotted him, but he went up at once to the body and raised it to the original position, and carefully laid one arm across the stiffening legs. The Inspector watched him in silence, and, when he stepped back at last, made a sign to the photographer.
By the time the photographer had finished his work the police ambulance had arrived, and a light was turned on in one of the windows of an adjacent cottage. The Inspector cast a shrewd glance up at the window and said curtly: 'Right. You can take him out now. Careful how you touch that bar! We may get a finger-print.'
The bar of the stocks was raised, the body lifted out and carried to the ambulance, just as the lighted window was thrown up and a tousled head poked out. A ghoulishly expectant voice called out: 'What's the matter? Has there been an accident? Anybody hurt?'
'Just a bit of an accident, Mrs Duke,' replied Constable Dickenson. 'Nothing for you to worry about.'
The head was withdrawn, but the voice could be heard adjuring one Horace to get up quick, because the police were outside with an ambulance and all.
'What I know of this village, we'll have a whole pack of busybodies here inside of ten minutes,' said the Inspector, with a grim little smile. 'All right, you men: mortuary. Now then, Dickenson, let's hear what you can tell us. When did you discover the body?'
'By my reckoning, sir, it would be about ten minutes to two. It was just on two when I rung up the Station, me having been out on patrol.'
'You didn't see anyone here? No car? Didn't hear anything?'
'No, sir. Nothing.'
'Was the man - what's his name - Vereker, staying at Riverside Cottage?'
'Not to my knowledge he wasn't sir, but then he didn't, not during the week as a general rule. It being Saturday, I figured it out he must have been on his way down to the Cottage. Mrs Beaton would know whether he was there. She'd have had her orders to go in and make things ready for him.'
'Does she live out?'
'Yes, sir. Pennyfarthing Row, a couple of minutes from the cottage. She keeps the place clean, and gets in milk and eggs and such, when he's coming down. He often gets down late on Saturdays, so she was telling me. I have known him to bring his valet down to do for him, but just as often he comes alone.' He paused, and corrected himself. 'When I say alone, I mean he often don't bring a servant with him.'
'What do you mean?' inquired the Doctor.
'Well, sir, he sometimes bring friends down with him.' He gave a little cough. 'Most often females, so I've heard.'
'Wife? Sister?' interrupted the Inspector.
'Oh no, sir! Nothing like that,' replied the Constable, rather shocked.
'Oh, that kind of female!' said the Inspector. 'We'd better go round first thing in the morning to Riverside Cottage, and see if there's anything to be got there. There's nothing here. Ground's too dry for footprints. We'll get along, Doctor, if you're ready. You'll hand in your report to-morrow, Dickenson, see? You can go off to bed now.' He moved away towards the car with the Doctor. Constable Dickenson heard him say in his dry way: 'Looks to me like a case for the Yard. London man. Nothing to do with us. Nice easy case too - if they can lay their hands on the woman.'
'Quite,' agreed the Doctor, smothering a yawn. 'If he had a woman with him.'
Chapter Two Inspector Jerrold made a very early call on the Chief Constable next morning, and found him eating his breakfast. He apologised for disturbing him, but the Colonel merely waved him to a chair, and said: 'Not at all. What's your trouble? Anything serious?'
'Pretty serious, sir. Man found stabbed to death at Ashleigh Green at 1.50 this morning.'
'Good God! You don't say so! Who is it?'
'Gentleman of the name of Arnold Vereker, sir, of Riverside Cottage.'
'God bless my soul!' ejaculated the Colonel, putting down his coffee-cup. 'Who did it? Any idea?'
'No, sir, none. No clues at all so far. The body was found by Constable Dickenson - in the stocks.'
'In the what?'
'Does sound odd, doesn't it, sir? But that's how it was.'
'Do you mean he was put in the stocks and then stabbed, or what?'
'It's hard to say, sir. Not much bleeding, you see: nothing on the ground. Might have been stabbed first, though why anyone should take the trouble to put the body in the stocks I can't make out. He was in evening-dress, no hat or overcoat, and the only thing we've got so far that looks like helping us at all is his hands, which were dirty. Smear of motor-oil on one, inference being he'd had to change a tyre, or do some repair on a car. But his car's not there, and not at the garage either. Of course, he may have walked into the village from Riverside Cottage - it's under a mile away - but it seems a funny thing to do at that hour of night. The Doctor doesn't put the hour of the murder earlier than twelve o'clock, or thereabouts. No, it looks like he was motoring down with someone or other for the week-end. What I thought, sir, was that I should go off to Riverside Cottage first thing after seeing you to find out if he was staying there, or expected down last night. Seems to have been a gentleman with irregular sort of habits.'
'Yes, I believe so,' said the Colonel. 'Didn't know him myself, but one hears things. A city man - mining interests, so I was informed. I don't fancy it's much of a case for us, Inspector. What do you feel about it?'
'Well, sir, pretty much what you do. Of course, we don't know that it wasn't a local affair, but on the face of it, it doesn't look like it. I've got a man out at Ashleigh Green making inquiries, but I don't expect to get much. You know what it is out in the country, sir. Folks go to bed early, and if there wasn't any noise made, barring the car - assuming there was a car - no one would be likely to wake up - or take any notice if they were awake. The Doctor's of the opinion death must have been pretty well instantaneous. There's no sign of any struggle. Dickenson tells me this Mr Vereker was in the habit of bringing friends down from town over the week-end. What we want is his car. That might tell us something. How I look at it sir, is we'll have to get on to the Yard for information, whatever happens.'
'Quite right. Not our case at all. Still, you should certainly go to this cottage you speak of and see what you can pick up. Does he keep any servants there?'
'No, sir. There's a woman by the name of Beaton who keeps the place tidy, by what I understand, but she lives out. I'll see her of course, but I don't expect to find anyone at the Cottage. 'Tisn't likely. But I might get a line on it.'
The Inspector was wrong. Half an hour later, when he and Constable Dickenson got out of the police car at Riverside Cottage, there were unmistakable signs that the cottage was occupied.
Excerpted from Death in the Stocks by GEORGETTE HEYER Copyright © 1935 by Georgette Rougier. Excerpted by permission.
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