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In The Teeth Of The Evidence
A LORD PETER WIMSEY STORY
'Well, old son,' said Mr Lamplough, 'and what can we do for you today?'
'Oh, some of your whizz-bang business, I suppose,' said Lord Peter Wimsey, seating himself resentfully in the green velvet torture-chair and making a face in the direction of the drill. 'Jolly old left-hand upper grinder come to bits on me. I was only eating an omelette, too. Can't understand why they always pick these moments. If I'd been cracking nuts or chewing peppermint jumbles I could understand it.'
'Yes?' said Mr Lamplough, soothingly. He drew an electric bulb, complete with mirror, as though by magic out of a kind of Maskelyne-and-Devant contraption on Lord Peter's left; a trail of flex followed it, issuing apparently from the bowels of the earth. 'Any pain?'
'No pain,' said Wimsey irritably, 'unless you count a sharp edge fit to saw your tongue off. Point is, why should it go pop like that? I wasn't doing anything to it.'
'No?' said Mr Lamplough, his manner hovering between the professional and the friendly, for he was an old Winchester man and a member of one of Wimsey's clubs, and had frequently met him on the cricket-field in the days of their youth. 'Well, if you'll stop talking half a moment, we'll have a look at it. Ah!'
'Don't say "Ah!" like that, as if you'd found pyorrhoea and necrosis of the jaw and were gloating over it, you damned old ghoul. Just carve it out and stop it up and be hanged to you. And, by the way, what have you been up to? Why should I meet an inspector of police on your doorstep? You needn't pretend he came to have his bridge-work attended to, because I saw his sergeant waiting for him outside.'
'Well, it was rather curious,' said Mr Lamplough, dexterously gagging his friend with one hand and dabbing cotton-wool into the offending cavity with the other. 'I suppose I oughtn't to tell you, but if I don't, you'll get it all out of your friends at Scotland Yard. They wanted to see my predecessor's books. Possibly you noticed that bit in the papers about a dental man being found dead in a blazing garage on Wimbledon Common?'
'Yonk – ugh?' said Lord Peter Wimsey.
'Last night,' said Mr Lamplough. 'Pooped off about nine pip emma, and it took them three hours to put it out. One of those wooden garages – and the big job was to keep the blaze away from the house. Fortunately it's at the end of the row, with nobody at home. Apparently this man Prendergast was all alone there – just going off for a holiday or something – and he contrived to set himself and his car and his garage alight last night and was burnt to death. In fact, when they found him, he was so badly charred that they couldn't be sure it was he. So, being sticklers for routine, they had a look at his teeth.'
'Oh, yes?' said Wimsey, watching Mr Lamplough fitting a new drill into its socket. 'Didn't anybody have a go at putting the fire out?'
'Oh, yes – but as it was a wooden shed, full of petrol, it simply went up like a bonfire. Just a little bit over this way, please. That's splendid.' Gr-r-r, whizz, gr-r-r. 'As a matter of fact, they seem to think it might just possibly be suicide. The man's married, with three children, and immured and all that sort of thing.' Whizz, gr-r-r, buzz, gr-r-r, whizz. 'His family's down at Worthing, staying with his mother-in-law or something. Tell me if I hurt you.' Gr-r-r. 'And I don't suppose he was doing any too well. Still, of course, he may easily have had an accident when filling up. I gather he was starting off that night to join them.'
'A – ow – oo – oo – uh – ihi – ih?' inquired Wimsey naturally enough.
'How do I come into it?' said Mr Lamplough, who, from long experience was expert in the interpretation of mumblings. 'Well, only because the chap whose practice I took over here did this fellow Prendergast's dental work for him.' Whizz. 'He died, but left his books behind him for my guidance, in case any of his old patients should feel inclined to trust me.' Gr-r-r, whizz. 'I'm sorry. Did you feel that? As a matter of fact, some of them actually do. I suppose it's an instinct to trundle round to the same old place when you're in pain, like the dying elephants. Will you rinse, please?'
'I see,' said Wimsey, when he had finished washing out chips of himself and exploring his ravaged molar with his tongue. 'How odd it is that these cavities always seem so large. I feel as if I could put my head into this one. Still, I suppose you know what you're about. And are Prendergast's teeth all right?'
'Haven't had time to hunt through the ledger, yet, but I've said I'll go down and have a look at them as soon as I've finished with you. It's my lunchtime anyway, and my two o'clock patient isn't coming, thank goodness. She usually brings five spoilt children, and they all want to sit round and watch, and play with the apparatus. One of them got loose last time and tried to electrocute itself on the X-ray plant next door. And she thinks that children should be done at half-price. A little wider if you can manage it.' Gr-r-r. 'Yes, that's very nice. Now we can dress that and put in a temporary. Rinse please.'
'Yes,' said Wimsey, 'and for goodness' sake make it firm and not too much of your foul oil of cloves. I don't want bits to come out in the middle of dinner. You can't imagine the nastiness of caviar flavoured with cloves.'
'No?' said Mr Lamplough. 'You may find this a little cold.' Squirt, swish. 'Rinse, please. You may notice it when the dressing goes in. Oh, you did notice it? Good. That shows that the nerve's all right. Only a little longer now. There! Yes, you may get down now. Another rinse? Certainly. When would you like to come in again?'
'Don't be silly, old horse,' said Wimsey. 'I am coming out to Wimbledon with you straight away. You'll get there twice as fast if I drive you. I've never had a corpse-in-blazing-garage before, and I want to learn.'
There is nothing really attractive about corpses in blazing garages. Even Wimsey's war experience did not quite reconcile him to the object that lay on the mortuary slab in the police station. Charred out of all resemblance to humanity, it turned even the police surgeon pale, while Mr Lamplough was so overcome that he had to lay down the books he had brought with him and retire into the open to recover himself. Meanwhile Wimsey, having put himself on terms of mutual confidence and esteem with the police officials, thoughtfully turned over the little pile of blackened odds and ends that represented the contents of Mr Prendergast's pockets. There was nothing remarkable about them. The leather note-case still held the remains of a thickish wad of notes – doubtless cash in hand for the holiday at Worthing. The handsome gold watch (obviously a presentation) had stopped at seven minutes past nine. Wimsey remarked on its good state of preservation. Sheltered between the left arm and the body – that seemed to be the explanation.
'Looks as though the first sudden blaze had regularly overcome him,' said the police inspector. 'He evidently made no attempt to get out. He'd simply fallen forward over the wheel, with his head on the dashboard. That's why the face is so disfigured. I'll show you the remains of the car presently if you're interested, my lord. If the other gentleman's feeling better we may as well take the body first.'
Taking the body was a long and unpleasant job. Mr Lamplough, nerving himself with an effort and producing a pair of forceps and a probe, went gingerly over the jaws – reduced almost to their bony structure by the furnace heat to which they had been exposed – while the police surgeon checked entries in the ledger. Mr Prendergast had a dental history extending back over ten years in the ledger and had already had two or three fillings done before that time. These had been noted at the time when he first came to Mr Lamplough's predecessor.
At the end of a long examination, the surgeon looked up from the notes he had been making.
'Well, now,' he said, 'let's check that again. Allowing for renewal of old work, I think we've got a pretty accurate picture of the present state of his mouth. There ought to be nine fillings in all. Small amalgam filling in right lower back wisdom tooth; big amalgam ditto in right lower back molar; amalgam fillings in right upper first and second bicuspids at point of contact; right upper incisor crowned – that all right?'
'I expect so,' said Mr Lamplough, 'except that the right upper incisor seems to be missing altogether, but possibly the crown came loose and fell out.' He probed delicately. 'The jaw is very brittle – I can't make anything of the canal – but there's nothing against it.'
'We may find the crown in the garage,' suggested the Inspector.
'Fused porcelain filling in left upper canine,' went on the surgeon; 'amalgam fillings in left upper first bicuspid and lower second bicuspid and left lower thirteen-year-old molar. That seems to be all. No teeth missing and no artificials. How old was this man, Inspector?'
'About forty-five, Doc.'
'My age. I only wish I had as good a set of teeth,' said the surgeon. Mr Lamplough agreed with him.
'Then I take it, this is Mr Prendergast all right,' said the Inspector.
'Not a doubt of it, I should say,' replied Mr Lamplough; 'though I should like to find that missing crown.'
'We'd better go round to the house, then,' said the Inspector. 'Well, yes, thank you, my lord, I shouldn't mind a lift in that. Some car. Well, the only point now is, whether it was accident or suicide. Round to the right my lord, and then second on the left – I'll tell you as we go.'
'A bit out of the way for a dental man,' observed Mr Lamplough, as they emerged upon some scattered houses near the Common.
The Inspector made a grimace.
'I thought the same, sir, but it appears Mrs Prendergast persuaded him to come here. So good for the children. Not so good for the practice, though. If you ask me, I should say Mrs P. was the biggest argument we have for suicide. Here we are.'
The last sentence was scarcely necessary. There was a little crowd about the gate of a small detached villa at the end of a row of similar houses. From a pile of dismal debris in the garden a smell of burning still rose, disgustingly. The Inspector pushed through the gate with his companions, pursued by the comments of the bystanders.
'That's the Inspector ... that's Dr Maggs ... that'll be another doctor, him with the little bag ... who's the bloke in the eye-glass? ... Looks a proper nobleman, don't he, Florrie? ... Why he'll be the insurance bloke ... Coo! look at his grand car ... that's where the money goes ... That's a Rolls, that is ... no, silly, it's a Daimler ... Ow, well, it's all advertisement these days.' Wimsey giggled indecorously all the way up the garden path. The sight of the skeleton car amid the sodden and fire-blackened remains of the garage sobered him. Two police constables, crouched over the ruin with a sieve, stood up and saluted.
'How are you getting on, Jenkins?'
'Haven't got anything very much yet, sir, bar an ivory cigarette-holder. This gentleman' – indicating a stout, bald man in spectacles, who was squatting among the damaged coach-work – 'is Mr Tolley, from the motor-works, come with a note from the Superintendent, sir.'
'Ah, yes. Can you give an opinion about this, Mr Tolley? Dr Maggs you know. Mr Lamplough, Lord Peter Wimsey. By the way, Jenkins, Mr Lamplough has been going into the corpse's dentistry, and he's looking for a lost tooth. You might see if you can find it. Now, Mr Tolley?'
'Can't see much doubt about how it happened,' said Mr Tolley, picking his teeth thoughtfully. 'Regular death-traps, these little saloons, when anything goes wrong unexpectedly. There's a front tank, you see, and it looks as though there might have been a bit of a leak behind the dash, somewhere. Possibly the seam of the tank had got strained a bit, or the union had come loose. It's loose now, as a matter of fact, but that's not unusual after a fire, Rouse case or no Rouse case. You can get quite a lot of slow dripping from a damaged tank or pipe, and there seems to have been a coconut mat round the controls, which would prevent you from noticing. There'd be a smell, of course, but these little garages do often get to smell of petrol, and he kept several cans of the stuff here. More than the legal amount – but that's not unusual either. Looks to me as though he'd filled up his tank – there are two empty tins near the bonnet, with the caps loose – got in, shut the door, started up the car, perhaps, and then lit a cigarette. Then, if there were any petrol fumes about from a leak, the whole show would go up in his face – whoosh!'
'How was the ignition?'
'Off. He may never have switched it on, but it's quite likely he switched it off again when the flames went up. Silly thing to do, but lots of people do do it. The proper thing, of course, is to switch off the petrol and leave the engine running so as to empty the carburettor, but you don't always think straight when you're being burnt alive. Or he may have meant to turn off the petrol and been overcome before he could manage it. The tank's over here to the left, you see.'
'On the other hand,' said Wimsey, 'he may have committed suicide and faked the accident.'
'Nasty way of committing suicide.'
'Suppose he'd taken poison first.'
'He'd have had to stay alive long enough to fire the car.'
'That's true. Suppose he'd shot himself – would the flash from the – no, that's silly – you'd have found the weapon in the case. Or a hypodermic? Same objection. Prussic acid might have done it – I mean, he might just have had time to take a tablet and then fire the car. Prussic acid's pretty quick, but it isn't absolutely instantaneous.'
'I'll have a look for it anyway,' said Dr Maggs.
They were interrupted by the constable.
'Excuse me, sir; but I think we've found the tooth. Mr Lamplough says this is it.'
Between his pudgy finger and thumb he held up a small, bony object, from which a small stalk of metal still protruded.
'That's a right upper incisor crown all right by the look of it,' said Mr Lamplough. 'I suppose the cement gave way with the heat. Some cements are sensitive to heat, some, on the other hand, to damp. Well, that settles it, doesn't it?'
'Yes – well, we shall have to break it to the widow. Not that she can be in very much doubt, I imagine.'
Mrs Prendergast – a very much made-up lady with a face set in lines of habitual peevishness – received the news with a burst of loud sobs. She informed them, when she was sufficiently recovered, that Arthur had always been careless about petrol, that he smoked too much, that she had often warned him about the danger of small saloons, that she had told him he ought to get a bigger car, that the one he had was not really large enough for her and the whole family, that he would drive at night, though she had always said it was dangerous, and that if he'd listened to her, it would never have happened.
'Poor Arthur was not a good driver. Only last week, when he was taking us down to Worthing, he drove the car right up on a bank in trying to pass a lorry, and frightened us all dreadfully.'
'Ah!' said the Inspector. 'No doubt that's how the tank got strained.' Very cautiously he inquired whether Mr Prendergast could have had any reason for taking his own life. The widow was indignant. It was true that the practice had been declining of late, but Arthur would never have been so wicked as to do such a thing. Why, only three months ago, he had taken out a life-insurance for £500 and he'd never have invalidated it by committing suicide within the term stipulated by the policy. Inconsiderate of her as Arthur was, and whatever injuries he had done her as a wife, he wouldn't rob his innocent children.
The Inspector pricked up his ears at the word 'injuries'. What injuries?
Oh, well, of course, she'd known all the time that Arthur was carrying on with that Mrs Fielding. You couldn't deceive her with all this stuff about teeth needing continual attention. And it was all very well to say that Mrs Fielding's house was better run than her own. That wasn't surprising – a rich widow with no children and no responsibilities, of course she could afford to have everything nice. You couldn't expect a busy wife to do miracles on such a small housekeeping allowance. If Arthur had wanted things different, he should have been more generous, and it was easy enough for Mrs Fielding to attract men, dressed up like a fashion plate and no better than she should be. She'd told Arthur that if it didn't stop she'd divorce him. And since then he'd taken to spending all his evenings in Town, and what was he doing there –
The Inspector stemmed the torrent by asking for Mrs Fielding's address.
'I'm sure I don't know,' said Mrs Prendergast. 'She did live at Number 57, but she went abroad after I made it clear I wasn't going to stand any more of it. It's very nice to be some people, with plenty of money to spend. I've never been abroad since our honeymoon, and that was only to Boulogne.'
Excerpted from In The Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L. Sayers. Copyright © 1968 Anthony Fleming. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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