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Conspiracy

Conspiracy

By Scriptorius

THE CASEBOOK OF RUPERT SWANN : NUMBER FIVE

Conspiracy

Spring was in the air and Rupert Swann was enjoying a walk in bright sunshine. After strolling around the central area of Leeds for an hour or so he arrived at Victoria Bridge. There he paused, forearms on the parapet, eyes on the Canal Basin. The place was like a beehive. Barges were being emptied and filled as iron ore, cement, coal, cloth, groceries and other wares arrived and left.

Swann had watched the bustle hundreds of times and never tired of it, nor did he cease to admire the engineers and labourers who had designed and built the Leeds-Liverpool canal and similar waterways. On this occasion he spent nearly half an hour viewing the scene before deciding that it was time for food. He turned left, ambled along to Turk’s Head Yard and into his favourite lunchtime venue, Whitelock’s Tavern, where he had two beef sandwiches and a pint of bitter.

By two-thirty in the afternoon, Swann was back in his rooms. Though he had for some years rented and lived in the upper floor of a two-storey house in Park Square, one of the city’s most fashionable locations, he never thought of the accommodation as home – that word he still applied to his parents’ residence in the city’s northern outskirts. He had no case on hand, but that didn’t trouble him. Thanks to a comfortable background, he had an investment income on which he could have lived, had he so chosen.

Having decided to spend the rest of the afternoon pursuing his studies in the field of mathematics, Swann got started and made good progress. He put aside his work at six o’clock and was lighting a pipe when he was interrupted by a knock at the door. In answer to his shouted invitation, the visitor entered and Swann found himself looking at a roly-poly middle-aged man a little above five and a half feet in height and well over forty inches around the waist. The caller was wearing a three-piece black suit, white shirt, plain dark-blue tie, gleaming black boots and a black bowler hat. “Good evening,” he said. “I hope my intrusion does not disturb you too greatly. Are you Mr Swann?”

Swann waved dismissively in response to the man’s first remark. “Yes. What can I do for you?”

“I have a problem, sir, and I have heard that you are an expert in the kind of thing that has befallen me.”

“That depends upon what it is, but you are welcome to hang your hat on the rack behind you, join me here by the hearth and tell me about it. Would you care for a glass of sherry?”

“No thank you,” the man replied. “I do not take alcohol.” He removed the hat, revealing a pale, bald pate, surrounded by a fringe of grey hair, then crossed the room and took a seat facing Swann. “It is very kind of you to make time for me without an appointment,” he said. “My name is Percy Cox. I am the company secretary of Hardwick Engineering Limited. Perhaps you have heard of us.”

Swann certainly knew of the company, which was one of the largest firms in Leeds. “Indeed I have,” he answered. “I suppose there can be few people in the city who have not.”

“No doubt you are right. Well, I have not called on you with respect to my business affairs, but about the fact that the lady I am to marry has disappeared.”

“Oh dear,” said Swann. “When did that happen?”

“On Saturday. I’m sure you are a busy man, so perhaps the best thing is for me to give you some information and you can then tell me what else you need.”

“Please proceed, Mr Cox.”

“I will try to be concise. The lady and I met only about four months ago. Our relationship has advanced at a rapid pace and early this month we agreed to wed. I should mention that I am fifty-six years of age and a bachelor, with little experience of associating with ladies.”

Swann nodded. “How did the two of you become acquainted?”

“That happened at our office Christmas party, which we held on the eighteenth of December. The lady is not a company employee. She received a special invitation because she is a friend of the managing director’s family and had expressed a wish to attend. She proved to be very witty and an excellent conversationalist. I was flattered that she paid a good deal of attention to me, though there were several other unattached men present, all much younger than I am. Two or three of them could be described as highly eligible, but Laura concentrated on me. The upshot was that I asked her to call on me at my home. I live alone and in what seemed like no time, she became a frequent visitor to my house and we soon decided that it would soon become hers too.”

“You certainly didn’t waste much time,” said Swann. “Did you ever visit her home?”

“No. She is a little sensitive about that, mainly because she lives with her parents, who are not very amenable to the idea of having visitors. Also, her domestic circumstances are rather humble and I think that even if I were to be welcome in other respects, she might be hesitant to invite me on that ground, though there is no need for her to have any such inhibition.”

“I see. Now let us come to the disappearance. What can you tell me about that?”

“Well, Mr Swann, I think you might need to know that Laura told me early in our acquaintanceship that she had experienced a most unhappy event in her past. She was reluctant to discuss it and I have never pressed the point. She asked me to bear with her until she feels able to tell me more about the occurrence. She also requested me to understand that for the time being, the only person with whom she can speak about it is her sister, who lives in Manchester. In order to make travelling as convenient as possible for both of them, they meet in Halifax and share a room in a small hotel there. They do this on the first weekend of every month. Laura leaves on Saturday morning and returns on Sunday evening.

“You are sure she goes to Halifax?”

“Yes. I accompany her to the railway station and buy her a return ticket.”

“But you have not met the sister?”

“No, but I see no reason to doubt what Laura says.”

Swann was never happy about looking for missing persons, especially very soon after their disappearance, but he was not yet ready to reject Cox’s plea for help. “If I am to look for the lady,” he said, “you need to describe her and give me her surname.”

Cox’s eyes misted. “Her family name is Harding and she is very beautiful,” he replied.

“I don’t doubt that she is pretty,” was Swann’s peremptory retort, “but if I am to look for her, I need to have an accurate picture of her.”

“I can help you there,” Cox answered. “I have a photograph of her. Here it is. You may keep it for the time being if you accept the case.” He took the picture from his inside pocket and handed it over.

Swann was looking at a head and shoulders portrait of a young woman who did indeed appear to be strikingly attractive. “Thank you,” he said. “Now, this is in black and white. Please tell me about her complexion, hair colour, how she dresses, also her age, height and build.”

“She is twenty-seven years of age, about five feet seven inches in height, and slim. Her hair is shorter than average and is black, straight and lustrous. Her complexion is pale. As for clothing, she does not vary it much. She has two overcoats, one black, the other navy blue. She always wears dresses of average length and in dark shades of blue, grey or green. Her shoes are all low-heeled and invariably match the dresses as to colour. She never wears a hat. Oh, and she has a small beauty spot on her left cheek, slightly above the level of her mouth. I cannot think of anything else that might help you to recognise her.”

“Thank you. Now, with regard to the meetings held by the two sisters, the coming weekend is the first one of the month, so if the lady had not vanished, you would have expected her to travel to Halifax on Saturday as usual, would you?”

“Yes.”

“And you say you first missed her last Saturday?”

“That is correct. She was to come to my house at about ten o’clock in the morning but did not appear and I have neither seen her nor heard from her since she visited me on Friday afternoon.”

“And in view of what you said about her home, I suppose you have not considered trying to contact her there?”

“No. I am not sure I could find the place. That is probably very remiss of me, but I have been so enchanted by Laura that I never thought to establish her exact residence, or even the street. I know only that she told me that it was close to the side of Holbeck Moor, a mile or so from here.”

Swann was far from enthusiastic about dealing with Cox’s trouble, but he decided to temporise, largely in the hope that some innocent explanation would emerge. After a brief silence, he stood, showing that the discussion was about to end. “I will give some thought to this matter, Mr Cox,” he said, “but I advise you avoid entertaining high hopes. Please let me have your home address.”

Cox handed over a visiting card and a moment later he was gone. Swann sprawled back in his chair, becoming increasingly reflective. In particular he wondered why the seemingly vivacious and alluring Laura Harding had attached herself to the unprepossessing Percy Cox. While accepting that there is no accounting for taste, perhaps especially in matters of the heart, Swann was puzzled. As to whether he would take the case or not, he was keeping an open mind, but he saw no harm in taking a simple initial step, so on the way to Powolny’s Bond Street restaurant for his evening meal he sent a wire to a man he used at times to do humdrum work, asking him to call at Park Square the following morning.

Shortly before noon on Wednesday, Swann’s associate called and was given his instructions and payment, including a sum for the group of young boys he employed to act as eyes and ears. They would do any amount of running around for a shilling a head, much as the Baker Street Irregulars did for Swann’s famous London counterpart, Sherlock Holmes. The man promised to report his findings by six the following evening. For his own part, Swann made a provisional decision to travel to Halifax on Friday and if necessary again on Saturday. In the meantime he would disregard Cox’s trouble. He was not to know that events would render it impossible for him to ignore the harassed man for more than a day.

Shortly after breakfast on Thursday morning, Swann had just started his first pipe of the day when he heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, followed by three sharp raps at the door, which was then flung open to admit Percy Cox. He was in a pitiable state, breathing with some difficulty and perspiring freely. His face was paler and far more haggard than it had been on his first visit. He was dressed as he had been then, though this time his apparel was in some disarray. The waistcoat was only partly buttoned, the tie was askew and one bootlace was undone. “I’m so sorry to burst in upon you this way, Mr Swann,” he gasped, “but I hope you will not refuse to speak with me.”

For the second time in two days, Swann gestured at the empty fireside chair. “Please take a seat,” he said. “I can see you are distressed.”

“Ah, it’s so obvious, is it?”

“My dear sir, even if I were so unobservant as to overlook the state of your attire, I could hardly fail to notice your right hand.”

Cox looked amazed. “My hand,” he answered. “What is amiss with it?”

“Your knuckles, Mr Cox.” They are bone-white. You are gripping that hat as if your life depended on it. Please try to calm yourself. And this time, perhaps I can prevail upon you to take a drink. Brandy is the thing for this kind of situation.”

Cox flopped into the proffered chair. “For once in my life I will try it,” he said. “I have never before experienced the like of what has happened to me in the last few days. I was already very upset about Laura’s disappearance, but that is a minor matter compared to what has now occurred.”

Swann handed his visitor a glass containing a generous quantity of Cognac. Cox gulped half of the contents and was seized by a fit of coughing and spluttering. When he recovered his composure, it seemed that the drink had calmed him considerably. Swann asked him to recount his latest misfortune. Cox settled back in his chair. “This situation is terrible, Mr Swann,” he said. “At any time now I may be in the hands of the police.”

“Why?”

“As company secretary I am in effect second-in-command of the firm, after the managing director. My duties include a degree of control of financial matters. That entails handling all significant amounts of money. Unlike most companies, we pay our workers monthly, and several days ago I drew the necessary cash from our bank and placed it in the safe. This morning I arrived to find the money missing. We have hundreds of employees and pay them well, so the sum involved is in excess of two thousand pounds.”

“That’s a lot of money in this day and age. Was the safe door open?”

“Yes, and it had not been forced. I told the managing director and he took the news very badly, virtually accusing me of theft.”

“That seems a little precipitate.”

“Well, sir, I believe there are wheels within wheels here. The position is that the previous chief retired last year and his son, Geoffrey Mortimer, took over the headship. There has never been any love lost between the two of us. His father was a gentleman and I worked under him for many years without the slightest disharmony.”

Swann nodded. “So why is there bad feeling between you and the younger Mortimer?”

“It is entirely one-sided. I have never given him any cause to doubt my loyalty. The truth is that he has resented me from the moment he took over.”

“Does he have any sound reason?”

“No. My feeling is that that he wishes to be regarded in the same way as his predecessor, which is to say as a kind of father figure in the company. However, he is only thirty-seven years of age, and I believe he has concluded that he cannot have that role as long as I am there. He has several times made snide remarks to the effect that I should retire and get out of his way, though he knows very well that I am not in a position to do that at present. Now he appears to be intent on using this calamity to get rid of me.”

“But surely you cannot be the only suspect, Mr Cox. Who else has keys to the safe?”

“That is what makes this such a nightmare for me. I am sole custodian of the safe and its contents and am the only person in the firm with a key.”

“You mean Mortimer himself has no access?”

“Correct, and it was his idea.”

Swann shook his head. “That seems very odd.”

Cox shrugged. “Be that as it may, the only other key is kept in a locked box at the premises of the company which installed the safe. If Mortimer wishes to obtain that key, he must do so by calling on the firm and asking the chief locksmith to open the box, and the incident must be recorded in the company’s journal.”

“What a cumbersome arrangement. Did Mortimer’s father have a different system?”

“The question never arose in his time. He left stewardship of money to me and simply asked me to open the safe when he wanted anything, and as far as I can remember, there were only two such occasions.”

Swan rubbed his jaw. “I am getting the impression that this Geoffrey Mortimer is an unusual man. Please tell me more about him.”

“He is extremely formidable, both physically and in disposition. Five feet ten inches tall and built like a bull. I would say he weighs over fifteen stone. He played rugby at a high level, and carries the ambience of that field into business affairs. His hair is black and receding somewhat, which gives him what I believe is called a widow’s peak. He has a small black moustache. His appearance and attitude are equally intimidating and his approach to everything is aggressive. Also, he does not have anything like his father’s commercial acumen. I think that is all I can say without indulging in slander.”

“Thank you,” replied Swann. “I think it is quite enough. Now, you are here during normal office hours, so am I to assume that you are to return to your work?”

“Yes, but how I am to do it is more than I can say. I asked for a little time to go home and attend to a few private affairs, but came to you instead. It is possible that I shall get back to the office to find the police waiting for me, although Mortimer did say that he might not take action before this weekend. Mr Swann, I am desperate. Is there any way you can help me?”

Swann sighed. “I’m not sure, but I will devote some time and energy to your predicament. For what it is worth, I have already instituted a preliminary inquiry which may or may not be of use to us. I can suggest only that you try to stay as calm as you can and know that I am taking steps on your behalf. If you do become involved with the police, let me know. I have some small influence there. And when you are not at the office, please stay at home as much as possible. I may need to contact you at short notice.”

Cox rose. “Thank you so much for your time and interest,” he said. “I feel rather better for having spoken with you.”

After Cox’s departure, Swann took his walk, this time around the city’s inner northern districts. With his appetite sharpened, he went for lunch. He was in a mood for something quieter and more sedate than the lively Whitelock’s Tavern, so he opted for the King Charles Hotel, where the proprietor maintained a very small and soothingly quiet restaurant above the ground-floor public house. The food, both hot and cold, was above reproach and Swann often found the place conducive to thought. He lingered over a dish of fried haddock, boiled potatoes, salad, a piece of Blue Stilton from the cheese board and two glasses of white wine.

Back in his rooms, Swann settled down to an hour at the piano, followed by a session of wrestling with his studies of calculus. He occupied himself that way until six o’clock, when the man he had hired called to report what he and his street urchins had discovered. It confirmed what Swann had half-expected to hear and satisfied him that he would have to travel westwards the following day.

On Friday morning, Swann caught a train to Halifax, arriving at twenty minutes past ten and beginning immediately to tour the town’s hotels, starting with the larger ones. He drew blanks with his first seven calls, but the eighth bore fruit. It was a small establishment in a narrow side street. The receptionist was not immediately forthcoming, but when Swann produced a half-sovereign and pinned it to the desk with a forefinger, the man became much more accommodating. He furnished part of what Swann wanted but was reluctant to offer the rest without a further tangible inducement, which took the form of a second coin of the same denomination as the first.

By late afternoon, Swann was back in Leeds, now certain that he would need to visit the centre of the woollen trade again the following morning. On the way to his lodgings he sent a wire to Percy Cox. It read: ‘I have some hope. More news tomorrow.’

With a good day’s work behind him, Swann washed, changed his clothing and went out again. He crossed the street to the public gardens and spent an hour sitting on a bench, smoking a pipe. It was then time for him to wander off to Powolny’s restaurant for his evening meal. The next day would be another busy one.

At eleven o’clock on Saturday morning, Rupert Swann arrived once more in Halifax and made his way to the hotel where his inquiries had brought him success. While speaking with the receptionist during his first visit, he had produced Cox’s photograph of Laura. The man had instantly recognised her, saying that she was ‘quite a beauty’ and that she had for some time spent the first weekend of each month at the hotel. However, she did not do so with another woman, but with a man, whom the clerk described. The arrangement had always been that the lady arrived at midday and the man two hours later. They left separately on the Sunday evenings.

Swann lit a pipe and stood idling close to the hotel, awaiting the arrival of the object of Percy’s Cox’s affections. She appeared promptly at noon and he allowed her five minutes to settle down then strode briskly into the lobby. The same clerk was on duty. He was fiddling with keys in a rack behind the desk, so his back was turned away from anyone coming or going, though that was of no concern to Swann, who would have swept past him anyway.

The room Swann wanted was upstairs in the two-storey building. He rapped on the door, walked in and closed it. The startled woman clapped a hand to her mouth then had a second thought and seemed to be on the verge of screaming. Swann spoke quickly, assuring her that she was in no physical danger but that he needed to speak with her. He offered to open the door again if she so wished, but something in his manner seemed to calm her. She said nothing about the door, asked him to take a chair and keep well clear of her, adding that she knew how to attract attention from elsewhere if he tried to do anything improper.

The woman proved to be stubborn and was for some time disinclined to answer Swann’s questions. It took him well over an hour to get the truth from her. According to the information he had got from the desk clerk, it was then close to time for the man who shared the room with the now frightened woman to arrive. He did so at two o’clock, flinging open the door and stepping in. On seeing a stranger present, he gave a sharp intake of breath and was about to speak when Swann forestalled him, snapping: “Please close the door and sit down, sir. We have matters to discuss.”

Rupert Swann enjoyed the return journey to Leeds. He had entertained high hopes of his trip to Halifax and the outcome had justified his optimism. Back in his home city, he sent a wire to Percy Cox. It read: ‘Your troubles are over. Please call on me at noon tomorrow.’ There was then still time before the evening meal for Swann to savour a pipeful of the strong dark flake tobacco he smoked. Having done justice to both the noxious weed and a fine repast of grilled halibut, potatoes and salad, again at Powolny’s restaurant, he strolled off to his club and treated himself to an hour of solo billiard practice before going back to his rooms, where he rounded off an eventful day by reading the first few chapters of an adventure novel set in Africa.

Percy Cox appeared punctually at midday on the Sunday. He looked baffled and anxious until Swann put him at ease with a few uplifting words. They took their seats by the fireside and Cox flopped back in his chair, once more accepting a tot of brandy. After gasping as the spirit hit him, he opened his arms in a gesture that invited an explanation, saying: “I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you have achieved your result, whatever it is, but I can say that last night was the first one for some time during which I have had any sleep worthy of the name. How did you perform this miracle?”

Swann always took pleasure in disclosing as much of his methods as he thought appropriate. Assuming his informative pose – chin on steepled fingers, eyes switching between his audience and the ceiling, he began his revelation: “Mr Cox, you have almost been the victim of as nasty and petty a scheme as I have ever encountered. Let me tell you at the outset that your judgement of character was accurate in one case and faulty in another. You correctly portrayed Geoffrey Mortimer. He is a most unpleasant fellow. As to the lady, you allowed yourself to be carried away by your affection for her. She deceived you.”

Cox passed a hand across his face. “Oh dear,” he moaned. “I suppose I have been very foolish. I should have wondered why a woman of such vivacity attached herself to me in the way she did.”

“She is an actress, currently out of work. Her real name is Susan Roberts. She lives alone in a small house in Hunslet, about two miles from here, and was recruited for this scheme by Mortimer, who had seen her on the stage and become attracted to her. They became lovers, neither of them inhibited by the fact that he is married and she single. He invited her to the Christmas party in order to give her the opportunity to ingratiate herself with you.”

“Why, Mr Swann?”

“I’m coming to that. When you first called on me, I doubted whether an investigation was warranted or not, but I decided to take two preliminary steps. One was to engage a man to arrange a thorough scouring of the fringes of Holbeck Moor. That was done and I established beyond reasonable doubt that nobody by the name of Harding lives there. Incidentally, I should interject here that my interest was somewhat sharpened when during your second visit you spoke of that ridiculously complicated arrangement concerning the safe key. You may recall that I remarked on that.

“My second move following our initial talk was to travel to Halifax on Friday and check the story concerning a supposed sister. What I found was that your young lady was in the habit of meeting a man answering your description of Geoffrey Mortimer. I learned that she had always arrived at the hotel in question some time before the man, so I journeyed west again yesterday, watched the place until she arrived, gave her a little time to make herself comfortable, then walked in and confronted her.”

Cox passed a hand across his brow. “How did she react?”

“At first she threatened to call the manager and make a fuss. I deterred her from that by hinting that I knew more than I really did, and telling her that my next move might well be to involve the police. At that she became so scared that she failed to ask why I would do so. Had she inquired, I might have been somewhat embarrassed, but I was quite prepared to brazen it out, had that been necessary. Anyway, I soon had her greatly alarmed and singing like a canary.”

“I am all at sea here, Mr Swann. What did she tell you?”

“That Mortimer had induced her to worm her way into your confidence, the idea being that she would get her hands on your safe key as soon as possible. She did that during a visit to your house. It took a little time but you will remember that on one occasion she persuaded you that you were not well and that you should humour her by at least taking a nap. While you were doing that, she got the key from your pocket and took a wax impression of it. Mortimer had a copy made and it was he who stole the money, which he gave to his partner in crime as a reward for her part in the proceedings. She would have been able to live on it for some years, or perhaps buy a business and set herself up for life.”

“Where is the money now?”

Swann pointed at a bag under his dining table. “There. Until I spoke with the woman, she had not let it out of her sight since getting her hands on it, very shortly after it was taken from the safe.”

“And you simply induced her to give it to you?”

“Yes. I already had her reeling by telling her that my inquiries had revealed that she was masquerading. I applied more pressure and she told me the whole story. She was a broken woman when Mortimer joined us.”

“I imagine you found him a more difficult proposition. He is a fierce man and as I intimated earlier, given to violence. I hope you did not have to try conclusions with him in a physical way.”

Swann chuckled. “You underestimate me, Mr Cox. I would not last long in my trade if I were easily cowed. As you see, I am far from frail. Also I have had considerable experience in unarmed combat. Mr Mortimer certainly is a vile-tempered man and was at first inclined to rant and rave. He was in a quite different frame of mind when I left the couple. I seldom saw two people more scared of what might happen to them. I should mention that you were right about Mortimer’s attitude with regard to your position in the company. This whole enterprise was designed to get you out of his way.”

Cox was immensely relieved. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am, Mr Swann. As to what happens to the pair, how did you leave the position?”

“I told them to come here tomorrow morning and said that you might or might not be present. I also told them that I would advise you to take legal action against them, but that the decision rests with you. I also informed them that they need not try to run away, as I had associates watching their every move. That is not true, but I’m sure they believe it.”

“I am still puzzled about one thing,” said Cox. “Why did she vanish before the theft?”

“Oh, that was an adornment to their evil little plot. The idea was to get you disconcerted, so that when the main event took place, you would more easily be totally befuddled.”

“But wasn’t that a great risk for them? I might have reported her disappearance to the police and perhaps ruined their plan.”

Swann smiled. “I don’t wish to be gratuitously unkind to you, Mr Cox, but our police officers are very busy. If you had consulted them, they would have noted your concern and probably done nothing more, having concluded that they were being asked to deal with a case of a very attractive young woman appearing in the life of an ageing and possibly somewhat gullible man, then walking out of it on having second thoughts. Remember the adage that it is a lady’s privilege to change her mind. Now, what do wish to do? Please help yourself to more brandy and take your time.”

Cox refilled his glass and was silent for two minutes before reaching a decision. “Well, Mr Swann,” he said, “no doubt I could take these two to court and destroy their lives as they have tried to wreck mine. That would be no more than they deserve, but in the first place I do not regard myself as a vindictive man and in the second place I really do not have the stomach for litigation. I shall allow the woman to go free, so long as she stays well clear of me.

“As for Mortimer, I think something a little harsher is appropriate. Apart from the way he has treated me, he is temperamentally quite unsuited to occupy his position with the firm. I will tell him to resign and give whatever excuse he can think of to his father and anyone else who may wish to hear it. We are a prestigious limited company and shall not have any difficulty in finding a new leader.”

“Would you be interested in taking the position yourself?”

“No. I am the best possible right-hand man for any good chief, but I do not have the necessary entrepreneurial spirit for the top post.”

Swann smiled. “Well, it’s a wise man who knows his own limitations. As to the money, I assume you wish to take it immediately.”

“Yes. I shall replace it in the office safe this afternoon. What do I owe you for this astonishing service?”

“I’ll let you know during a day or two. In my view, you are being very lenient with this pair of miscreants, but that is your right. Now, I have something else to deal with, so please excuse me.”

Cox stood and gave a huge sigh. “Certainly, Mr Swann, and let me repeat that I can hardly say how grateful I am to you. Goodbye, sir.”

“Goodbye, Mr Cox.”

* * *

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Scriptorius
Scriptorius
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