Inspector French's Greatest Case

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Inspector French's Greatest Case
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Freeman Wills Crofts

Inspector French's Greatest Case

e-artnow, 2021


EAN 4066338118929

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Table of Contents

The back streets surrounding Hatton Garden, in the City of London, do not form at the best of times a cheerful or inspiring prospect. Narrow and mean, and flanked with ugly, sordid-looking buildings grimy from exposure to the smoke and fogs of the town and drab from the want of fresh paint, they can hardly fail to strike discouragement into the heart of any one eager for the uplift of our twentieth century civilisation.

But if on a day of cheerful sunshine the outlook is thus melancholy, it was vastly more so at ten o’clock on a certain dreary evening in mid-November. A watery moon, only partially visible through a damp mist, lit up pallidly the squalid, shuttered fronts of the houses. The air was cold and raw, and the pavements showed dark from a fine rain which had fallen some time earlier, but which had now ceased. Few were abroad, and no one whose business permitted it remained out of doors.

Huckley Street, one of the narrowest and least inviting in the district, was, indeed, deserted save for a single figure. Though the higher and more ethical side of civilisation was not obtrusive, it was by no means absent. The figure represented Law and Order, in short, it was that of a policeman on his beat.

Constable James Alcorn moved slowly forward, glancing mechanically but with practised eye over the shuttered windows of the shops and the closed doors of the offices and warehouses in his purview. He was not imaginative, the constable, or he would have rebelled even more strongly than he did against the weariness and monotony of his job. A dog’s life, this of night patrol in the City, he thought, as he stopped at a cross roads, and looked down each one in turn of the four dingy and deserted lanes which radiated from the intersection. How deadly depressing it all was! Nothing ever doing! Nothing to give a man a chance! In the daytime it was not so bad, when the streets were alive and fellow creatures were to be seen, if not spoken to, but at night when there was no one to watch, and nothing to be done but wait endlessly for the opportunity which never came, it was a thankless task. He was fed up!

But though he didn’t know it, his chance was at hand. He had passed through Charles Street and had turned into Hatton Garden itself, when suddenly a door swung open a little way down the street, and a young man ran wildly out into the night.

The door was directly under a street lamp, and Alcorn could see that the youth’s features were frozen into an expression of horror and alarm. He hovered for a moment irresolute, then, seeing the constable, made for him at a run.

“Officer!” he shouted. “Come here quickly. There’s something wrong!”

Alcorn, his depression gone, hurried to meet him.

“What is it?” he queried. “What’s the matter?”

“Murder, I’m afraid,” the other cried. “Up in the office. Come and see.”

The door from which the young man had emerged stood open, and they hastened thither. It gave on a staircase upon which the electric light was turned on. The young man raced up and passed through a door on the first landing. Alcorn, following, found himself in an office containing three or four desks. A further door leading to an inner room stood open, and to this the young man pointed.

“In there,” he directed; “in the Chief’s room.”

Here also the light was on, and as Alcorn passed in, he saw that he was indeed in the presence of tragedy, and he stood for a moment motionless, taking in his surroundings.

The room was small, but well proportioned. Near the window stood a roll-top desk of old-fashioned design. A leather-lined clients’ arm-chair was close by, with behind it a well-filled bookcase. In the fireplace the remains of a fire still glowed red. A table littered with books and papers and a large Milner safe completed the furniture. The doors of this safe were open.

Alcorn mechanically noted these details, but it was not on them that his attention was first concentrated. Before the safe lay the body of a man, hunched forward in a heap, as if he had collapsed when stooping to take something out. Though the face was hidden, there was that in the attitude which left no doubt that he was dead. And the cause of death was equally obvious. On the back of the bald head, just above the fringe of white hair, was an ugly wound, as if from a blow of some blunt but heavy weapon.

With an oath, Alcorn stepped forward and touched the cheek.

“Cold,” he exclaimed. “He must have been dead some time. When did you find him?”

“Just now,” the young man answered. “I came in for a book, and found him lying there. I ran for help at once.”

The constable nodded.

“We’d best have a doctor anyway,” he decided. A telephone stood on the top of the desk, and he called up his headquarters, asking that an officer and a doctor be sent at once. Then he turned to his companion.

“Now, sir, what’s all this about? Who are you, and how do you come to be here?”

The young man, though obviously agitated and ill at ease, answered collectedly enough.

“My name is Orchard, William Orchard, and I am a clerk in this office—Duke & Peabody’s, diamond merchants. As I have just said, I called in for a book I had forgotten, and I found—what you see.”

“And what did you do?”

“Do? I did what any one else would have done in the same circumstances. I looked to see if Mr. Gething was dead, and when I saw he was I didn’t touch the body, but ran for help. You were the first person I saw.”

“Mr. Gething?” the constable repeated sharply. “Then you know the dead man?”

“Yes. It is Mr. Gething, our head clerk.”

“What about the safe? Is there anything missing from that?”

“I don’t know,” the young man answered. “I believe there were a lot of diamonds in it, but I don’t know what amount, and I’ve not looked what’s there now.”

“Who would know about it?”

“I don’t suppose any one but Mr. Duke, now Mr. Gething’s dead. He’s the chief, the only partner I’ve ever seen.”

Constable Alcorn paused, evidently at a loss as to his next move. Finally, following precedent, he took a somewhat dog’s-eared notebook from his pocket, and with a stumpy pencil began to note the particulars he had gleaned.

“Gething, you say the dead man’s name was? What was his first name?”


“Charles Gething, deceased,” the constable repeated presently, evidently reading his entry. “Yes. And his address?”

“12 Monkton Street, Fulham.”

“Twelve—Monkton—Street—Fulham. Yes. And your name is William Orchard?”

Slowly the tedious catechism proceeded. The two men formed a contrast. Alcorn calm and matter of fact, though breathing heavily from the effort of writing, was concerned only with making a satisfactory statement for his superior. His informant, on the other hand, was quivering with suppressed excitement, and acutely conscious of the silent and motionless form on the floor. Poor old Gething! A kindly old fellow, if ever there was one! It seemed a shame to let his body lie there in that shapeless heap, without showing even the respect of covering the injured head with a handkerchief. But the matter was out of his hands. The police would follow their own methods, and he, Orchard, could not interfere.


Some ten minutes passed of question, answer, and laborious caligraphy, then voices and steps were heard on the stairs, and four men entered the room.

“What’s all this, Alcorn?” cried the first, a stout, clean-shaven man with the obvious stamp of authority, in the same phrase that his subordinate had used to the clerk, Orchard. He had stepped just inside the door, and stood looking sharply round the room, his glance passing from the constable to the body, to the open safe, with inimical interest to the young clerk, and back again to Alcorn.

The constable stiffened to attention, and replied in a stolid, unemotional tone, as if reciting formal evidence in court.

“I was on my beat, sir, and at about ten-fifteen was just turning the corner from Charles Street into Hatton Garden, when I observed this young man,” he indicated Orchard with a gesture, “run out of the door of this house. He called me that there was something wrong up here, and I came up to see, and found that body lying as you see it. Nothing has been touched, but I have got some information here for you.” He held up the notebook.

The newcomer nodded and turned to one of his companions, a tall man with the unmistakable stamp of the medical practitioner.

“If you can satisfy yourself the man’s dead, Doctor, I don’t think we shall disturb the body in the meantime. It’ll probably be a case for the Yard, and if so we’ll leave everything for whoever they send.”

The doctor crossed the room and knelt by the remains.

“He’s dead all right,” he announced, “and not so long ago either. If I could turn the body over I could tell you more about that. But I’ll leave it if you like.”

“Yes, leave it for the moment, if you please. Now, Alcorn, what else do you know?”

A few seconds sufficed to put the constable’s information at his superior’s disposal. The latter turned to the doctor.

“There’s more than murder here, Dr. Jordan, I’ll be bound. That safe is the key to the affair. Thank the Lord, it’ll be a job for the Yard. I shall ’phone them now, and there should be a man here in half an hour. Sorry, Doctor, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.” He turned to Orchard. “You’ll have to wait, too, young man, but the Yard inspector probably won’t keep you long. Now, what about this old man’s family? Was he married?”

“Yes, but his wife is an invalid, bedridden. He has two daughters. One lives at home and keeps house, the other is married and lives somewhere in town.”

“We shall have to send round word. You go, Carson.” He turned to one of the two other members of his quartet, constables in uniform. “Don’t tell the old lady. If the daughter’s not there, wait until she comes in. And put yourself at her disposal. If she wants her sister sent for, you go. You, Jackson, go down to the front door and let the Yard man up. Alcorn, remain here.” These dispositions made, he rang up the Yard and delivered his message, then turned once more to the young clerk.

“You say, Mr. Orchard, that no one could tell what, if anything, is missing from the safe, except Mr. Duke, the sole active partner. We ought to have Mr. Duke here at once. Is he on the ’phone?”

“Gerard, 1417b,” Orchard answered promptly. The young man’s agitation had somewhat subsided, and he was following with interest the actions of the police, and admiring the confident, competent way in which they had taken charge.

The official once again took down the receiver from the top of the desk, and put through the call. “Is Mr. Duke there? . . . Yes, say a superintendent of police.” There was a short silence, and then the man went on. “Is that Mr. Duke? . . . I’m speaking from your office in Hatton Garden. I’m sorry, sir, to tell you that a tragedy has taken place here. Your chief clerk, Mr. Gething, is dead. . . . Yes, sir. He’s lying in your private office here, and the circumstances point to murder. The safe is standing open, and—Yes, sir, I’m afraid so—I don’t know, of course, about the contents. . . . No, but you couldn’t tell from that. . . . I was going to suggest that you come down at once. I’ve ’phoned Scotland Yard for a man. . . . Very good, sir, we shall be here when you come.” He replaced the receiver and turned to the others.

“Mr. Duke is coming down at once. There is no use in our standing here. Come to the outer office and we’ll find ourselves chairs.”

It was cold in the general office, the fire evidently having been out for some time, but they sat down there to wait, the Superintendent pointing out that the furniture in the other room must not be touched. Of the four, only the Superintendent seemed at ease and self-satisfied. Orchard was visibly nervous and apprehensive and fidgeted restlessly, Constable Alcorn, slightly embarrassed by the society in which he found himself, sat rigidly on the edge of his chair staring straight in front of him, while the doctor was frankly bored and anxious to get home. Conversation languished, though spasmodic attempts were made by the Superintendent to keep it going, and none of the quartet was sorry when the sound of footsteps on the stairs created a diversion.

Of the three men who entered the room, two, carrying black leather cases, were obviously police constables in plain clothes. The third was a stout man in tweeds, rather under middle height, with a cleanshaven, good-humoured face and dark blue eyes which, though keen, twinkled as if at some perennially fresh private joke. His air was easy-going and leisurely, and he looked the type of man who could enjoy a good dinner and a good smoke-room story to follow.

“Ah, Superintendent, how are you?” he exclaimed, holding out his hand cordially. “It’s some time since we met. Not since that little episode in the Limehouse hairdresser’s. That was a nasty business. And now you’ve some other scheme for keeping a poor man from his hard-earned rest, eh?”

The Superintendent seemed to find the other’s easy familiarity out of place.

“Good-evening, Inspector,” he answered with official abruptness. “You know Dr. Jordan?—Inspector French of the C.I.D. And this is Mr. Orchard, a clerk in this office, who discovered the crime.”

Inspector French greeted them genially. Behind his back at the Yard they called him “Soapy Joe” because of the reliance he placed on the suavity of his manners. “I know your name, of course, Doctor, but I don’t think we have ever met. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Orchard.” He subsided into a chair and went on: “Perhaps, Superintendent, you would just give me a hint of what this is all about before we go any further.”

The facts already learned were soon recited. French listened carefully, and annexing the constable’s notebook, complimented that worthy on his industry. “Well,” he beamed on them, “I suppose we’d better have a look round inside before Mr. Duke turns up.”

The party moved to the inner room, where French, his hands in his pockets, stood motionless for some minutes, surveying the scene.

“Nothing has been touched, of course?” he asked.

“Nothing. From what they tell me, both Mr. Orchard and Constable Alcorn have been most circumspect.”

“Excellent; then we may go ahead. Get your camera rigged, Giles, and take the usual photos. I think, gentlemen, we may wait in the other room until the photographs are taken. It won’t be long.”

Though French had tactfully bowed his companions out, he did not himself follow them, but kept prowling about the inner office, closely inspecting its contents, though touching nothing. In a few minutes the camera was ready, and a number of flashlight photographs were taken of the body, the safe, every part of both offices, and even the stairs and hall. In the amazing way in which tales of disaster travel, news of the crime had already leaked out, and a small crowd of the curious hung, open-mouthed, about the door.

Scarcely had the camera been put away, when the proceedings were interrupted by a fresh arrival. Hurried steps were heard ascending the stairs, and a tall, thin, extremely well-dressed old gentleman entered the room. Though evidently on the wrong side of sixty, he was still a handsome man, with strong, well-formed features, white hair, and a good carriage. Under normal circumstances he would have presented a dignified and kindly appearance, but now his face was drawn into an expression of horror and distress, and his hasty movements also betokened his anxiety. On seeing so many strangers, he hesitated. The Inspector stepped forward.

“Mr. Duke, sir? I am Inspector French of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard. I very much regret to confirm the news which you have already heard, that your head clerk, Mr. Gething, has been murdered, and I fear also that your safe may have been burgled.”

It was evident that the old gentleman was experiencing strong emotion, but he controlled it and spoke quietly enough.

“This is terrible news, Inspector. I can hardly believe that poor old Gething is gone. I came at once when I heard. Tell me the details. Where did it happen?”

French pointed to the open door.

“In here, sir, in your private office. Everything is still exactly as it was found.”

Mr. Duke moved forward, then on seeing the body, stopped and gave a low cry of horror.

“Oh, poor old fellow!” he exclaimed. “It’s awful to see him lying there. Awful! I tell you, Inspector, I’ve lost a real friend, loyal and true and dependable. Can’t he be lifted up? I can’t bear to see him like that.” His gaze passed on to the safe. “And the safe! Merciful heavens, Inspector! Is anything gone? Tell me at once, I must know! It seems heartless to think of such a thing with that good old fellow lying there, but after all I’m only human.”

“I haven’t touched the safe, but we’ll do so directly,” the Inspector answered. “Was there much in it?”

“About three-and-thirty thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds were in that lower drawer, as well as a thousand in notes,” groaned the other. “Get the body moved, will you, and let us look.”

French whistled, then he turned to his men.

“Get that table cleared outside there, and lift the body on to it,” he ordered; then to the doctor he added, “Perhaps, Doctor, you could make your examination now?”

The remains were lifted reverently and carried from the room. Mr. Duke turned impatiently to the safe, but the Inspector stopped him.

“A moment, sir, if you please. I am sorry to ask you to stretch your patience a little longer, but before you touch the safe I must test it for finger prints. You see the obvious necessity?”

“I would wait all night if it would help you to get on the track of the scoundrels who have done this,” the old gentleman answered grimly. “Go on in your own way. I can restrain myself.”

With a word of approval, Inspector French fetched one of the cases brought by his assistants, and producing little boxes of French chalk and of lampblack, he proceeded to dust over the smooth portions of the safe, using white powder on a dark background and vice versa. On blowing off the surplus powder, he pointed triumphantly to a number of finger prints, explaining that the moisture deposited from the skin held the powder, which otherwise dropped off. Most of the marks were blurred and useless, but a few showed clearly the little loops and whorls and ridges of thumbs and fingers.

“Of course,” French went on, “these may all be quite useless. They may be those of persons who had a perfect right to open the safe—your own, for instance. But if they belong to the thief, if there was one, their importance may be incalculable. See here now, I can open this drawer without touching any of them.”

Mr. Duke was clearly at the end of his patience, and he kept fidgeting about, clasping and unclasping his hands, and showing every sign of extreme impatience and uneasiness. As the drawer opened, he stepped forward and plunged in his hand.

“Gone!” he cried hoarsely. “They’re all gone! Thirty-three thousand pounds’ worth! Oh, my God! It means ruin.” He covered his face with his hands, then went on unsteadily. “I feared it, of course. I thought it must be the diamonds when the officer rang me up. I have been trying to face it ever since. I shouldn’t care for myself. It’s my daughter. To think of her exposed to want! But there. It is wicked of me to speak so who have only lost money, while poor old Gething has lost his life. Don’t mind me, Inspector. Carry on. What I want most now is to hear of the arrest of the murderer and thief. If there is anything I can do to help in that, command me.”


He stood, a little stooped and with haggard face, but dignified even in his grief. French in his pleasant, kindly way tried to reassure him.

“Now, you don’t need to give up heart, sir,” he advised. “Diamonds are not the easiest things to dispose of, and we’re right on to the loss at once. Before the thief can pass them on we shall have all the channels under observation. With any ordinary luck, you’ll get them back. They were not insured?”

“Part of them only. About nineteen thousand pounds’ worth were insured. It was my cursed folly that the rest were not. Gething advised it, but I had never lost anything, and I wanted to save the money. You understand our trade has been difficult since the war, and our profits were not the same as formerly. Every little has counted, and we have had to economise.”

“At worst, then, that is £14,000 gone?”

“If the insurance companies pay in full, that is all, besides the thousand in notes. But, Inspector, it is too much. To meet my share of the loss will beggar me.” He shook his head despondently. “But never mind my affairs in the meantime. Don’t, I beg of you, lose any time in getting after the criminal.”

“You are right, sir. If, then, you will sit down there for a few minutes I’ll get rid of the others, and then I shall ask you for some information.”

The old gentleman dropped wearily into a chair while French went to the outer office. The policeman who had been sent to inform Gething’s family of the tragedy had just returned. French looked at him inquiringly.

“I called, sir, at the address you gave me,” he reported. “Miss Gething was there, and I told her what had occurred. She was considerably upset, and asked me if I could get a message to her sister and brother-in-law at 12 Deeley Terrace, Hawkins Street, in Battersea. I said I would fetch them for her. The brother-in-law, name of Gamage, was from home in Leeds, being a traveller for a firm of fur dealers, but Mrs. Gamage was there and I took her across. It seemed the old lady had wanted to know what was up, and Miss Gething had told her, and she had got some kind of stroke. They asked me to call a doctor, which I did. The two daughters say they can’t get across here on account of being occupied with the mother.”

“So much the better,” French commented, and having added the names and addresses of Mr. and Mrs. Gamage to his list, he turned to the doctor.

“Well, Doctor,” he said pleasantly, “how do you get on?”

The doctor straightened himself up from his position over the corpse.

“I’ve done all I can here,” he answered. “I don’t think there’s any doubt the man was killed instantaneously by the blow on the head. The skull is fractured, apparently by some heavy, blunt weapon. I should think it was done from behind while the old fellow was stooping, possibly working at the safe, though that, perhaps, is your province.”

“I’m glad of the hint anyway. Now, gentlemen, I think that’s all we can do to-night. Can your men remove the body, Superintendent? I want to stay for a moment to take a few measurements. You’ll let me know to-morrow about the inquest? Mr. Orchard, you might stay a moment also; there is a question or two I want to ask you.”

The Superintendent had sent one of his men for a stretcher, and the remains were lifted on and carried slowly down to the waiting taxi. With an exchange of good-nights, the local men withdrew, leaving Inspector French, Mr. Duke, Orchard, and the two plain-clothes men from the Yard in charge of the premises.