As The Inspector Said
by Cyril Hare
It would be impossible to say precisely when Charles Darrell and Sonia French made up their minds to murder Sonia's husband, Robert. Engagements to commit a crime, like engagements to marry, are sometimes agreed upon by the parties concerned long before anything is put into words. In the situation in which they found themselves, for persons of their character, murder was the obvious solution, and now it was merely a question of finding a suitable opportunity to carry it out.
Sonia had been married to Robert for ten years. He was nearly twice her age, and for at least eight years out of the ten she had treated the weak little man with a bored contempt to which he - absorbed in his books and his collections of silver and porcelain - seemed completely impervious. She had known Charles for six months. They had been lovers for four. Things were fast moving towards a crisis. People were beginning to talk. It could only be a matter of time before Robert became aware of the position. She knew well enough that beneath his mild detachment lurked a rock-like obstinacy on certain matters, and that divorce was of them. More important, neither she nor Charles had a penny of their own. Robert was rich. The proceeds of his collections alone would provide enough for his widow and his successor.
Ironically enough, it was a policeman who presented them with the ideal method of attaining their object. The local inspector called one evening at the Frenches' house, when Charles, as usual, had dropped in for a chat on his way home from work. The officer had come with a warning. There had been a number of burglaries in the district recently, he told them, and the perpetrator was still at large.
"We know who the man is," he said, "and it can't be long now before we catch up with him. But meanwhile, short-handed as we are, we're very worried. He carries a gun, and although we shall never prove it against him, we know he has a murder to his credit just over the border in the next county. Now this house, Mr. French, is in rather an isolated position. Except for Mr. Darrell here, you have no near neighbour. You have a quantity of valuables which make this place very attractive from our man's point of view, and you have no indoor staff. I suggest that it would be as well to take precautions."
Robert cleared his throat in the way that never failed to grate on Sonia's nerves.
"Er - what sort of precautions had you in mind?" he asked.
"Well - in your place, sir, I should certainly begin by buying a reliable house dog."
"I don't like dogs," said Robert flatly.
"Then I suggest that for the time being, while this man is at large, you should send your best things to the bank for safe custody. All this silver, for example - - "
Robert looked round the room, crammed with the fruits of years of ardent collecting. His faded eyes seemed to brighten as they lit on one choice piece after another.
"Send them away! I shouldn't care to do that," he said.
"Well, sir," said the inspector rather tartly, "don't say I didn't warn you, that's all." And he took his departure.
After he had gone, Charles said in the deep, vibrant voice that contrasted so strongly with Robert's thin pipe, "Well, the inspector didn't bother to warn me, I noticed. He knows I've got nothing worth stealing. But if this gunman did visit me by mistake I fancy I should make him regret it. I've still got my revolver from the last war and I shouldn't think twice before I used it."
He rose and stretched himself, six feet two inches of magnificent masculinity. Sonia did not trouble to conceal the admiration in her face.
"I should be sorry for the burglar who tried conclusions with you, Charles," she said. "Robert, what would you do if I woke you up in the night and told you someone was making off with your precious silver? Put your head under the bedclothes and pretend you hadn't heard?"
"On the contrary, I should come straight downstairs."
"You'd be much too frightened to do anything of the sort."
"I should be frightened, certainly, but there is always a reasonable chance that the intruder would be equally frightened. House-breaking must be a nerve-racking business. Besides, he might be amenable to reason. If I could make him understand how small the value of this silver would be when melted down compared to - - "
"Robert, you are ridiculous!"
"Perhaps I am, Sonia, but you asked me what I should do, and I gave you the best answer in my power. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some sale catalogues I want to look after before dinner. Give Charles a drink before he goes."
He shuffled off to his study, leaving the two together. Before the first cocktail had slipped down their throats the plan for his extinction had been perfected.
Three nights later Sonia lay awake in the room which, to her disgust, Robert still insisted on sharing with her. The illuminated hands of her watch pointed to ten minutes to two. Ten minutes, that was, to wait before the time agreed upon for Charles to make his entry. She strained her ears in the darkness, none the less, every nerve in her body tense with excitement. Above the deep breathing of her husband in the twin bed beside her own she fancied that she could hear stealthy sounds - the creak of a door in a room downstairs, a light footfall on a loose board in the hall. But even as she heard them she knew that her imagination was playing her false. A bat flew past the window, echoing the noise of an unoiled hinge with its high-pitched squeak, and the antique tallboy at the end of the room cracked its joints in the dark as she had so often before heard it do in the long hours of sleepless nights. She set her teeth and composed herself to watch and wait while the hands of the watch crept slowly on.
Punctual to the minute, the sound she was awaiting reached her. This time there could be no mistake. There was the tinkle of breaking glass, followed by the groan of a window being pushed up. In the silence of the sleeping house it was as startling as a clap of thunder in her ears, but Robert slept on as peacefully as ever. She waited a little longer, listened for the thud of Charles's feet as he landed inside the window, and then leaped out of bed to play her part.
"Robert!" She shook him violently by the shoulder. "Robert! Wake up! There's somebody downstairs!"
Robert struggled reluctantly into wakefulness.
"What's that?" he murmured. "Someone downstairs? Nonsense, Sonia! You're imagining things! Just because that inspector fellow - - By Jove!" He sat up in bed. "There is someone, though! I'd better go down, I suppose."
Reluctantly, but without hesitation, he swung his thin legs to the floor, groped for his slippers, put on his shabby grey dressing-gown and went out of the room. Alone in the dark, Sonia waited breathlessly for what she knew must follow. She waited for what seemed to her an unendurably long time, but was actually less than half a minute. Then, everything seemed to happen at once. There was the snap of a switch and a faint glow of electric light showed beneath the bedroom door. Almost at the same instant she heard a startled exclamation in her husband's voice, cut short by an explosion that echoed through the house. Then, so hard upon one another that one sound seemed to blend into the next, a heavy fall, a door being flung violently open and the patter of flying feet on the gravel path outside.
She let the footsteps die into the distance before she made the next move. Charles must have time to make his getaway before she called the police, but it would be unsafe to wait too long, in case any stray passer-by had heard the shot. Then she switched on her bedside lamp and got out of bed. Now that it was all over, she felt strangely calm, exhilarated even. As she crossed the room her thoughts raced ahead of her. She knew in advance just what she would say to the police, what her demeanour at the inquest would be. How soon could she marry Charles without exciting comment? Would six months be long enough? They would go to Venice for their honeymoon. She had always wanted to see Venice . . .
As she reached the door it opened in her face and Robert shuffled in.
"Robert!" For a long moment she could say nothing else. She could only stare at him in sickened apprehension. He looked back at her in silence - pale, dishevelled, but indubitably alive.
"What - what has happened?" she faltered.
Robert cleared his throat.
"Er - he got away," he said. "I'm afraid he's taken a lot of stuff with him - an awful lot of stuff. Some of my best pieces. I ought to have taken advice and sent it to the bank. It was foolish of me - very."
"But I heard a shot. I thought you - you're not hurt, Robert?"
"No, Sonia, I'm not hurt. But I'm afraid I must prepare you for some bad news. It is Charles. The dear, brave fellow must have been watching and followed the man in, to protect us. He - he's at the foot of the stairs. I fear there is nothing we can do for him. He - - "
Sonia pitched forward in a dead faint.
With some difficulty Robert contrived to lift his wife from the floor and lay her on the bed. Then he made his way downstairs. As he reached the bottom step he had to walk over the body which lay huddled close against it on the floor. He did so without a tremor, glancing down only to avoid treading in the pool of blood which was spreading slowly over the hall carpet. But when he passed into the dining-room, and looked once more at the sideboard, swept bare of its treasures of silver plate, there were tears of emotion in his eyes.
He closed the door softly and went into his study. The telephone was there and he had to communicate with the police. But before doing so, he was careful to clean and oil the little pistol in his dressing-gown pocket and lock it away in his desk. Having eliminated one disturbance from his well-ordered life, he was naturally anxious to avoid further trouble for himself. As the inspector said, it was as well to take precautions.
End of As The Inspector Said by Cyril Hare