THE CASEBOOK OF RUPERT SWANN : NUMBER SIX
A Detective’s Dilemma
In Rupert Swann’s career as a private investigator there were rare occasions when he bargained with wrongdoers to bring cases to successful conclusions, and even rarer ones in which clients, or prospective ones, indicated, usually inadvertently, answers to their problems. In one case both factors were involved. It is related below:
October was coming to a turbulent end. Like much of England, Leeds was experiencing an exceptionally severe gale. Throughout the city, streets were littered with slates and tiles torn from roofs and shards of glass from broken windows. Wherever trees grew, fallen branches added to the obstacles faced by travellers.
It was shortly after eight in the evening and Rupert Swann had just returned to his upstairs rooms in Park Square, having ventured out to Powolny’s Bond Street restaurant, where he usually dined. He was sitting by the fire and filling a pipe when he heard the clatter of hoofs and wheels as a carriage came to a halt below his living room window. His immediate thought was that someone must have braved the weather in order to call on the doctor who owned the building and lived and worked on the ground floor, but a minute later there was a knock at his own door.
In response to Swann’s shouted invitation a man entered the room. He was muffled in a heavy overcoat and thick scarf and as he came in he doffed a black Homburg hat. “Please accept my apologies for this unannounced call,” he said. “I take it you are Rupert Swann.”
Swann nodded. “Yes. I imagine that only a serious matter could bring you out in these conditions. Please take off your coat and join me over here. I think a little stimulant might be in order.”
“You are very kind. A drop of something bracing would be welcome.” The man sat in the fireside chair to which he had been waved. Swann produced a bottle of brandy, poured generous measures into two glasses and handed one to his visitor, who immediately took a nip. “Your health, sir,” he said, “and my thanks to you for such a cordial reception to a fellow who intrudes on you in this fashion. My name is Christopher Wood.”
“The introduction is hardly necessary,” Swann replied.
The man smiled. “Ah, my notoriety has preceded me, has it?”
“Hardly that, Mr Wood. Fame, sir, fame.” Swann was right. There was no name better known in Leeds than that of his caller. The man was equally prominent in business and social circles and was a philanthropist of local renown. His picture appeared frequently in newspapers and in the windows of photographers’ studios, usually marking his officiation at one or other of the ceremonies he attended. Swann had also seen him several times at plays and operatic performances in the Grand Theatre.
“You are too kind,” Wood answered. “I must say that until recently I never expected to request the services of a man in your line of work, but I am certainly in need of advice and possibly help now.”
“What is the problem?”
“Attempted blackmail, Mr Swann.”
“Dear me, a nasty practice. The details, please.”
“They are easily given. I have devoted much of my life to building up commercial and industrial concerns, beginning many years ago when I bought a shop in the Headrow, a few hundred yards from here. I acquired adjoining premises one after another until I had space and scope to turn the whole lot into the department store which I suppose you must know.”
Wood had described the largest retailing business in Leeds. It had done as much as anything to make his name a household word in the city. “Indeed I am,” said Swann, ‘and I know nobody who does not think of that as anything but a boon to Leeds and a credit to you.”
“It’s the coming thing, Mr Swann. Soon there will be more establishments like mine. Anyway, over the years I have started or bought other companies. I recently took over an ailing foundry in Whitehall Road and have managed to reverse its decline. In short, my interests are extensive. Some time ago, one of my firms was involved in a battle with a rival. The products concerned are not relevant to this conversation, but I will enlarge on that point later if you wish. I prevailed and shortly afterwards the other fellow went out of business. That happened early this summer. Now he is claiming that I destroyed him by unfair practices and that unless I pay him five thousand pounds in compensation, he will take legal action against me.”
Swann nodded. “Well, did you do anything improper?”
“Certainly not. It was a simple matter of fair competition. My methods and my merchandise were far superior to his, so the result was inevitable. The truth is that the man inherited a thriving company and ruined it by his incompetence and, though I take no pleasure in saying this, his somewhat dissolute way of life. It could only have been a matter of time before his firm failed anyway, irrespective of his tussle with me.
“Then I don’t really understand the problem, Mr Wood. It would seem that if this fellow institutes court proceedings, you are likely to win.”
“That is true, but I must now tell you, in the strictest confidence, something of which very few people are aware. I have no idea how the man I’ve just spoken of got to hear of it, but I don’t think that is of any consequence now. The fact is that I recently had my fiftieth birthday and while celebrating it I decided that it was time for my life to take a fresh turn. I intend to stand for Parliament at the next election.”
“I see. And do you propose to discontinue your business interests?”
Wood shook his head. “Definitely not. If I were to do that, some of my companies might get into hands less responsible than mine. I am a humanitarian. I regard my employees as friends and partners rather than tools to be used for my benefit.”
“I have heard reports to that effect.”
“I wish to turn the Headrow store into a form of cooperative, in order to increase the workers’ stake in it. As for my desire to take public office, the idea is for me to get into a position which would enable me to do good things for this city on a wider front than the one that circumscribes me at present.”
Wood paused to take a sip of brandy, then continued: “I think it is fair to say that I have so far kept an unblemished reputation for upright behaviour. If this troublesome fellow pursues the course he threatens to take, my good name may be tarnished and people who would otherwise support my political aims may lose their enthusiasm. I am most reluctant to risk that, but I am equally loath to be the victim of extortion. I really don’t know what to do and am wondering whether you can help me to get rid of this persecution, although I admit that I do not see how.”
Swann rubbed his chin. “I understand. Now, what can you tell me about the man?”
“His name is Ronald Sykes. Apart from the dispute I have described, all I can say is that we were both members of the Commercial Club, though he resigned following his change of fortune. Since then I have seen him only once. That was when he issued his verbal demand for five thousand pounds, to compensate him for my alleged transgression. He gave me an ultimatum, which expires at the end of next week. The devil of it is that I find it difficult to grasp how a man normally so feeble and ineffectual could come out of his shell in this way. It appears to be completely out of character.”
Swann held up a finger to request a pause for reflection. He thought for almost a minute before a vague idea came to him. “If Sykes is such a broken reed, are you sure he is acting alone? I mean, do you know of any confederate he may have?”
Wood shrugged, apparently stumped. “I know virtually nothing of his contacts.” Suddenly he was struck by a thought, and went on: “There’s one thing. It’s probably meaningless, but I go to the club most evenings and I noticed that for the last week or two he was there, he spent a lot of time with a chap I never saw him converse with before.”
“Who was that?”
“His name is Jasper Montague.”
“Do you know anything about him?”
“Only that he comes from somewhere in the South. I think that surname is more common down there than up here. Beyond that I would say only that I don’t like the look of him, though that is a superficial impression and I may be doing the man an injustice. Now, I realise that I have given you very little information but I don’t think there is anything more to tell you. However, I have heard that you are capable of working wonders, so I hope you will consider my problem and see whether you can think of a solution.”
“I will ponder on it, Mr Wood. It is possible that if I were to confront Sykes on your behalf, he might take fright, but I regard that as doubtful. Perhaps something else will occur to me. Please give me your address and I will see what I can do.”
Wood handed over his visiting card, and with Swann’s wishes for a safe trip home in the inclement weather, he left. For a long time afterwards, Swann sat staring at the fire. Finally he consigned Wood’s trouble to his subconscious mind and opted for what was by his standards an early night, retiring at eleven o’clock.
The morning after Christopher Wood’s visit, the gale had blown itself out. Swann decided over breakfast that he would make an initial inquiry in an effort to establish whether there was a case to be taken. He would consult the man he had several times employed to give him advice and, on rare occasions, take unusual action. The fellow was a mine of information concerning industrial and financial affairs in Leeds, and was none too fussy about he acquired it. His charges for parting with it were high.
Knowing that the man worked mainly at his home in Beeston, about two miles from Park Square, Swann chose to make his daily walk there and back. He had no doubt that an unannounced visit by him would not be resented. It was not. Shortly before midday, the two were sitting together, drinking excellent amontillado, Swann having been assured that his call was welcome. “Now, Rupert,” said his host, “what brings you from the Olympian heights to my hovel?”
Swann chuckled as he looked around the spacious living room and at the extensive front garden. “Everyone should have such a shanty,” he replied. “I would like to hear what you can tell me about two men of this city. The first is Ronald Sykes, who I believe ran a company until recently.”
“It would be more accurate to say that he ran it into the ground. As a businessman, he was totally inept. The only surprise was that the firm lasted as long as it did after he took it over. He extracted a great deal more from it than he put into it. The fellow is a weakling.”
“Would you consider him capable of blackmail?”
Swann’s interlocutor chuckled. “So that’s how the land lies, is it? Well, I would not be so indelicate as to pry into your business, but if you have Sykes in mind for that kind of work, I think you might have to reconsider.”
“Thank you. What you say accords with what I have already gathered. Now, the second chap I would like to know more about is Jasper Montague.”
“Ah, that might be a different matter. I can’t say that I know anything definite about him, but I have twice been in mixed company when he was present, and although I’ve never spoken with him, I have observed him interacting with others. There’s something slimy and slithery about the man with regard to both speech and movements. Reptilian is the word that comes to mind.”
“How did you come across him?”
“As you know, my speciality is to keep abreast of matters concerning business and finance in the city. There are times when I have to dig deep for information and occasionally I need to be rather less than perfectly scrupulous as to how I get it.”
Swann grinned. “Yes, I’m clear about that, and it has worked to my advantage more than once, as for example in that tontine case I handled a while ago.”
“I recall it. Now, in order to do what I do, I must have many contacts, and some of them are not entirely admirable characters. Also, I am a member of various clubs, including the Mercantile and the Commercial. I encountered Montague at dinner parties given by both of them. From what little I heard, I would think him capable of underhanded behaviour.”
“Would you include blackmail in your mental list?”
“That’s a very serious matter, but let us say I would not be surprised to hear of his being involved in such an activity. Am I to assume that you think he may be colluding with Sykes?”
Swann nodded. “The thought had occurred to me. I begin to suspect that a call on Mr Montague might be fruitful.”
“Be careful, Rupert. My feeling is that he is probably a difficult man to deal with. In any event, if he is behind Sykes’s effort to wring money from a client of yours, there will surely not be anything in writing to prove that, and an oral clash with Montague would hardly get you far.”
That brought a thin smile from Swann. “Perhaps you are right, but then he may be vulnerable in some other way. Now, I think I have taken up enough of your time, so I thank you for the information and the sherry.” After the exchange of a few parting pleasantries, he left.
By the time Swann arrived back in the city centre, he had decided on his course of action. He lunched on beef sandwiches and a pint of bitter at Whitelock’s Tavern before returning to his rooms and taking his mind off Christopher Wood’s problem by having a long spell of piano practice, following which he walked around to Powolny’s restaurant and dined.
Half an hour before midnight, Swann left Park Square and twenty minutes later he was in a cab, heading for Jasper Montague’s home, the address of which his informant had given him earlier in the day. In an effort to be inconspicuous, he had walked to the railway station and hovered close to the platforms until a late-evening train arrived. As the passengers left it, he hurried ahead of them to the cab-rank, in the manner of a man just arriving in the city and anxious to be the first to secure his transport.
The target for Swann’s nocturnal activity was in a well-regarded area three miles from the city centre. He instructed the cab driver to proceed to a point half a mile beyond the spot, and on reaching that bogus destination he disembarked and walked back to his real one.
The Montague residence was a large detached Georgian house. No light was showing and Swann got to work at once. He had with him a black bag containing a dark-lantern and a set of implements suited to his purpose. This was not his first break-in. He was as skilled as any professional burglar. The door did not resist him for more than a minute. Once inside he donned a face mask and went in search of the study he expected to find. It was on the ground floor at the rear of the house, and was furnished with only a desk, a side table by the door, two chairs for visitors and a safe.
Swann activated his dark-lantern and rummaged through the desk drawers, none of which was locked. They did not yield anything of interest. He turned to the safe, looked at it for a moment and grinned. Unless he was much mistaken, it would not hold him up much longer than the door had done. He was right. In well under five minutes he had it open, finding inside a large bundle of banknotes, a tray containing a dozen small gold ingots and a locked black metal box, about a foot square and three inches deep.
There was no sign of a key to the box. Swann hummed quietly as he carried it over to the desk and opened it in even less time than it had taken him to deal with the front door. He found inside a sheaf of documents relating to Montague’s purchase of the house. They were of no interest to Swann, but what was underneath them turned out to be quite another matter. There were two letters, both written in Leeds, one by a woman, the other by a man.
After reading the letters, Swann felt that his risky and speculative outing might succeed beyond any hopes he had entertained. The woman had written from a property in Roundhay, about five miles from the city centre. From the text it was clear that she was married and communicating with a single man in Middleton, at the opposite side of the city. The two were having an affair of the heart and what the woman had to say was far from discreet. She indicated that if only her husband were ‘not in the way’, life would be happy for herself and the object of her affections. Below her closing remarks and her name, Margaret, someone had used a pencil to add the comment ‘Maturing, £500’.
It was obvious that in the wrong hands, the woman’s letter would be highly compromising. The man’s was also potentially very damaging. It bore an address in Headingley, about two miles northwest of Swann’s lodgings. The sender’s address was given and the wording took the form of a love letter, more passionate than the woman’s – and it was to a man! Here again a pencilled note had been added at the end, this one reading ‘10 November, £1,000’.
Swann sat thinking for a few minutes. The first thing that came to his mind when he finished reading the man’s outpouring was the severe treatment recently meted out to the playwright Oscar Wilde. Swann had been brought up in a privileged, liberal environment, in which he had been strongly encouraged to think for himself and to question prevailing social mores. He had thought about homosexuality from time to time, but beyond failing to understand it, he had no views on the subject. The question of approbation or opprobrium with respect to it did not arise for him. He was simply not interested. Nevertheless, he had been shocked by what had happened to Wilde.
Swann suspected that Montague had probably obtained the letters by bribing household retainers, and there seemed to be little doubt about how he intended to use them. Within two minutes Swann had thought of a plan to achieve his own ends. He would take the letters, leave a note on the desk, informing Montague that he could recover them by reading the personal column of that day’s Yorkshire Evening News. Swann’s idea was to use a box number, indicating that the letters had been ‘found’, then to call at the newspaper’s office and check whether he received the response he hoped for. If that worked, he could avoid revealing his identity and, over the course of a few days, possibly negotiate with Montague by correspondence.
As the Scottish bard put it, ‘the best-laid schemes ’o mice an’ men gang aft agley.’ Swann’s did that with remarkable promptness. He had barely conceived it when the study door opened and a short, stout man took a step into the room. He held a large oil lamp in one hand and a small revolver in the other. “Well, well,” he said, “what have we here? An intruder, I believe. A proficient one, too. I see you have managed to open my safe and my box. If you would kindly remove that mask, I think we could communicate better. You must know that I am Jasper Montague, but who are you?” His low, sibilant voice indicated no great emotion.
“I shall have to disappoint you,” Swann replied. I would prefer to retain my anonymity.”
The man chuckled. “No doubt you would, but I cannot allow that. I have you at a disadvantage and I think a little more illumination would be helpful.” He averted his eyes for a moment to a gas fitting on the wall beside him.
The instant’s diversion was enough for Swann, who had taken the precaution of bringing his own handgun, which he pulled from an inside pocket. “I think this position is more agreeable to me,” he answered. “Let us by all means have gaslight. You will then see that my weapon is rather larger than yours. I should perhaps add that I am an excellent marksman and that while your little gun could not inflict much damage, even if you were to hit me, my large one would undoubtedly be lethal to you, assuming I chose to make it so. However, I am prepared to regard this situation as a temporary impasse, so I suggest we discuss matters without the use of firearms.”
“Very well,” said the man. “I must say you are a cool one, and well-spoken for a common burglar.”
Swann smiled. “I cannot deny that I am a burglar, but hardly a common one. You will perceive that I have not taken either your money or your gold, nor do I intend to do so.”
Montague seemed remarkably unruffled. “I see. Perhaps you would tell me what your game is. There was nothing else of value to you in the safe.”
“I do not agree. These two letters in my hand seem to be useful bargaining implements.”
“I will explain. You are acquainted with Ronald Sykes.”
“What of it?”
“Mr Sykes is threatening to blackmail Christopher Wood, who is a friend of mine. I am aware that Sykes is a feckless fellow, incapable of this menacing behaviour on his own account. My conclusion is that he has been incited to it by someone else and I believe you are the one concerned.”
“Utter nonsense,” snapped Montague. “What would I have to gain from that?”
“Possibly a proportion of the proceeds. However, your motive is not important. Whether you are behind Sykes’s conduct or not, I think that you could persuade him to desist, and that is all I ask in return for my handing back these two letters to you.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“In that case you will be deprived of the epistles. Please try to see this my way. I am not accusing you of practising extortion with respect to my friend, Mr Wood. I am merely requesting that you use your good offices with Ronald Sykes, to dissuade him from pursuing the course on which he has embarked.”
Montague rubbed his jaw. “I see. And if I oblige you in that regard, how do I know that I shall get back those two letters?”
Swann shrugged. “They appear to be of some importance to you and they mean little to me, so there is no reason for me to keep them or have copies made. I have no doubt that you intend to use them for some nefarious purpose, so in returning them to you I would very likely be compounding a felony. I am prepared to accept that. Still, if you are not willing to trust me, I can suggest only that we find some way of lodging the letters with a reliable third party, for example a lawyer, along with instructions that they be passed to you immediately I inform that person that you have fulfilled your part of the bargain.”
“How do you propose I do that?”
“I suggest that you contact Mr Sykes immediately and prevail upon him to write at once to my friend Wood. The letter must be unmistakably written and signed by Sykes – remember that the authenticity can be proved or disproved by any handwriting expert. The wording should comprise an apology for Sykes’s threat to denounce Mr Wood’s supposed business misconduct, and an assurance that he, Sykes, will say no more of the matter in public or in private. If he complies, Mr Wood will inform me and this unfortunate episode will end.”
Montague pursed his lips. “Allow me a moment to think about this,” he said. At Swann’s nodded agreement, he was silent for a short while, then nodded. “Very well, sir, I will speak with Sykes. I reject your allegation that I am in league with him regarding what you say he is doing to this Wood fellow you mention. I offer no assurances in advance, but I may be able to persuade Sykes to do as you wish. As for your suggestion concerning lodging those two letters with a lawyer, I am disposed to decline it and rely on you. Some instinct tells me to trust you. I do not know why. Possibly the reason is that I have never before met a gentleman desperado.”
“Your confidence is appreciated,” Swann replied. “I confess that the prospect of returning these letters to you does not give me any pleasure, considering what I assume you are likely to do with them, but I have given you my word and I will keep it. Now, I am about to leave here. Whether you will be vertical or horizontal when I do so is for you to decide, but I do think you might put down that peashooter you have there.” As though in a trance, Montague placed his gun on the side table and Swann departed.
The strange talk between Swann and Montague had taken place in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. Late on the Wednesday afternoon, Swann received a wire from Christopher Wood, stating that he had good news and hoped Swann would not mind receiving him at six that evening.
Punctual to the minute, Wood called. He could hardly wait to take the proffered chair before saying that he had received a letter from Ronald Sykes, apologising for any distress caused by the threat of ‘exposure’ and stating clearly that Sykes would never again mention the subject to anyone. Wood apologised in turn to Swann for having made the ‘unnecessary’ request for help.
Much as Swann liked to explain to his clients how he had solved their problems, on this occasion he simply expressed his pleasure at hearing of the happy conclusion, adding that there would be no fee involved because he had not done any work. Wood stayed for a few minutes before leaving to attend a business meeting in a nearby hotel.
As his visitor departed, Swann heaved a huge sigh of relief. Entering Jasper Montague’s house had been the wildest gamble of his life, and the fact that his escapade had succeeded was reward enough for him. He then turned to a less happy thought. What was he to do with the letters he had acquired by his burglary?
Swann had always had high standards in the matter of honour. His motto might have been ‘dictum meum pactum’, for he did indeed consider his word as his bond, but how could he be true to it on this occasion? He tried briefly to resolve his dilemma by resorting to grammatical semantics. When speaking with Montague about return of the letters, he had used the term ‘I will’, rather than ‘I shall’, the former implying merely volition or intent, the latter indicating certainty of action. He dismissed that line of thought as casuistry. The issue was simple. He would have to either keep or break his promise. Keeping it amounted to allowing two blackmail attempts to proceed, while breaking it would foil them.
Swann sat in deep contemplation. The clock ticked on well past his usual dinner time and the fire went out. Finally he rose, walked to the sideboard, took out a basin, held the letters over it and burned them.
* * *