THE CASEBOOK OF RUPERT SWANN : NUMBER FOUR
A Perilous Pact
Rupert Swann had taken his daily walk and just returned to his rooms near the Leeds city centre. He rented the upper floor of a handsome two-storey house in fashionable Park Square, the ground floor being taken up by a medical practitioner who owned the property. Swann liked the location and occasionally when a house came onto the market there, he considered buying it, but he was no great lover of possessions and could never persuade himself to take the step. He was filling one of his fine straight-grain briar pipes and looking out from his front room at the well-kept public gardens and the trees, which were still largely in leaf, though not for long, as it was a crisp, sunny October morning.
With no case on hand and no plans in particular, Swann was looking forward to lunch – beef sandwiches and two pints of bitter at his usual early afternoon watering hole, Whitelock’s tavern, the city’s oldest public house. As always, the place would be crowded and fairly noisy, but that never deterred the regulars, who were addicted to the excellent food and drink.
Swann had just got his pipe drawing nicely when there was a knock at the door. He called the visitor to enter and a tall, slim sallow-faced man of about thirty came in. “I’m very sorry to call on you unannounced,” he said. “I will make an appointment if you so wish.”
Swann smiled. “No need for that, now you’re here. Please hang up your overcoat, take a seat over there,” – he pointed to the fireside chairs – “and tell me what’s on your mind.”
The two were soon seated and the caller accepted a glass of sherry. After fidgeting a little and clearing his throat at some length, he spoke: “I fear that when I have explained what brought me here, you may consider me fanciful, but that is a chance I must take. The fact is that I have no firm ground for thinking as I do, so there is no valid reason for me to contact the police, but I really must speak with someone experienced in your line of work.”
“What seems to be the problem, Mr . . . ?”
“Sorry, here I am plunging into conversation without even introducing myself. My name is Matthew Green and I have called about my father, Daniel, who died two weeks ago.”
“Ah, yes. I remember reading the obituary.”
“I see. Well, you may have noted that the death was not quite a common one. It was supposed that my father – by the way, he was a widower – slipped on the cellar steps when about to go for a bottle of wine, and that he fell the whole way to the basement floor and caught his head a fearful crack.”
“Yes, that was mentioned.”
“Well, I’m not so sure it happened like that. Dad was a most careful man and as sure-footed as they come. Also, he had been entertaining some friends at home that evening. They had left and there was quite a lot of wine still in the dining room.”
“So what do you think happened?”
“I have no idea, but I shall be uneasy until I have an opinion from an independent observer. I would be happy to pay your fee if you could simply look at the situation and see whether you notice anything that eludes me. Perhaps I may trespass upon your time and patience so far as to ask you to come to my home.”
Swann was puzzled but he was a humanitarian fellow and prepared to give what support he could to his visitor. “Well,” he said, “you don’t seem to have given me anything to work on, but if it will make you any happier, I’ll do as you ask. I shall be free later this afternoon, if that suits you.”
“Thank you so much. I live at Oak Lodge, on Weetwood Lane.”
“I know the area. Let us say three-thirty.” With that, Green left and Swann went for his lunch.
It was a journey of only two miles or so from Park Square to Weetwood Lane. Swann took a cab for the trip, arrived punctually and was admitted to the impressive residence by Matthew Green, who seemed almost embarrassed to have involved a detective. “I’m not sure how we proceed from here,” he said, “but perhaps if you look at where the incident took place . . .”
“That is as good an idea as any,” Swann replied. He was shown the cellar steps, but gathered nothing other than the fact that there was a handrail attached to the wall. Green volunteered the information that his father had been carrying an oil lamp for his descent, so long as he had been on his feet. The lamp had broken but had not caused a fire. As there seemed to be nothing else to do, Swann asked about Daniel Green’s habits, and was told that the dead man had spent much of his time in his study, so the two men went there and looked around. Green said that he had been through such papers as he could find, but discovered nothing that had enlightened him.
They were about to leave the room when Swann stopped and stared for a moment at a plain writing pad on the desk. He pointed out to Green that there was a faint imprint on the top page, evidently caused by some note that had been made and removed. “Your father must have pressed hard to cause that,” he said.
Green smiled. “Yes, I once remarked to him that he used pencils as though they were chisels. However, I don’t see that this helps us. It’s illegible.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Swann, who was already opening the desk drawers. In one of them there was an assortment of writing materials. He found what he wanted, a pencil with a very soft lead. “This is an old technique,” he went on. “More often than not it doesn’t work, but let us see.” He placed the lead flat on the pad and stroked it gently to and fro, then tore of the top page, took it over to the window and held it up to the light. “Hmn,” he said, after a minute or so. “It’s not as clear as it might be, but have a look and see what you make of it.”
Green peered at the paper for a moment. “As far as I can make out, it seems to say ‘Pontine, Tuesday, 7.30’. The only time I ever heard that first word was in connection with the Pontine Marshes, which I believe are in Italy, but I don’t think they would have been among my father’s interests. As for the rest of the note, it must relate to one of his group meetings.”
“It was set up about three years ago. At the beginning there were six men, all in business and all members of the City Mercantile Club. Their arrangement was to hold meetings at one or other of their houses at a time of day convenient for them, but invariably on the first Tuesday of each month. I assume the idea was to discuss their various affairs, but Dad never said much about that. The only thing I recall his mentioning that they had in common was that they all used the City & Suburban Bank’s branch in Wellington Street for some of their financial transactions.”
“You say there were six men. Are there five, now that your father is dead?”
Green shook his head. “No. Three of them have passed on since the group was formed.”
“That is a high mortality rate.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. First there was old Henry Spencer. He’s been gone . . . let me see . . . about eighteen months. He committed suicide. Then there was Oliver Pearson. Poor fellow had an accident a year or so ago. He used to go to the club every evening and it was his custom to take a walk along the canal first. One day he didn’t turn up to meet his cronies. He was found dead early the following morning on the towpath. There was a bush nearby and it seemed he had tripped on a wet root, fallen and struck his head on one of several large stones which were lying around there.”
“Most unfortunate,” said Swann. “As I told you, I always read the obituaries and I have a vague memory of both occurrences. Will the group continue to meet?”
Green shrugged. “I have no idea. The three chaps who are left have called on me to offer their condolences, but they said nothing about the future.”
“I see. Who are these people?”
“Adam Booth, Christopher Lewis and Peter Laycock.”
“Were these group members all about the same age?”
“Well, the three who have left us were in their early fifties to middle sixties, and the same applies to Booth. As for the other two, I would say that Lewis is probably in his late forties and I think Laycock is rather younger than him. You seem to be very interested in these men, Mr Swann.”
“Curiosity is part of my trade, Mr Green. However, I doubt that there is any more to be gained by my staying here any longer.” He picked up the page he had torn from the pad. “With your permission I will take this.”
“By all means, though I fail to see what good it can do you. Have you by any chance formed an early opinion?”
Let us say that I will dwell upon the matter and if I feel that I can help you, I will let you know. I suggest that for the moment you do not entertain any hopes. Goodbye.”
It was a thoughtful Rupert Swann who left Green’s home and boarded the cab that had been waiting for him. Back in the city centre, he called at the offices of the leading local newspaper and spent half an hour rummaging through the business sections of the past editions until he found an item that he felt might be useful if he could manage to piece together several superficially disconnected points. That done, he consigned Matthew Green’s worries to the back of his mind, returned to his rooms, had a session of piano practice, then a pipe of tobacco before walking the short distance to Powolny’s Bond Street restaurant for his evening meal. From there he ambled the few hundred yards to his club and relaxed for two hours before taking another short stroll back to his lodgings.
The following morning, after breakfast and his first pipe of the day, Rupert Swann walked to the register office and looked through the records, noting down the birthdates of the six men in the group of which Matthew Green’s father had been a member. That done, he took his daily walk, pondering on what he had gathered from Green and adding that to the results of his own inquiries. Insubstantial though the matter seemed at that stage, Swann felt he had enough material to take at least one further step. He did so by calling at the telegraph office and sending a wire to a man he had retained on several occasions, asking him to call at the Park Square rooms, late that afternoon if possible. It was then time for lunch.
At shortly after four o’clock, Swann was back in his lodgings, enjoying a pipe and again admiring the public gardens, when a knock at the door announced the arrival of the man he had invited. A minute later the two were sitting by the fire and within a quarter of an hour, Swann had agreed to pay his guest a generous sum to perform a very unconventional task. The amount involved was large because the visitor was a rare bird. He made inquiries on behalf of his clients, his speciality being to obtain information regarding the financial states of individuals and businesses.
The man’s services were known by word of mouth only, and apart from confiding in Swann, whom he liked and trusted, he did not divulge details of how he went about his work, though most of his customers had no doubt that his methods were often highly unorthodox. He had a network of connections, some with contacts inside organisations, others with criminals. When the latter were involved, he kept them at arm’s length, so there was no obvious way for anyone to connect them with him. If supposedly confidential facts were wanted, he was the man to get them, and whether he did so by hook or by crook was a matter of indifference to him. Not surprisingly, his charges were high. That did not trouble Swann, whose own fees were not modest.
At five-thirty, the caller left, having said that within forty-eight hours at the latest, he would do all that could be done and would give his verbal report – he never put anything in writing. Swann devoted himself to a spell at the piano, smoked another pipe, then went for his evening meal, once more at Powolny’s of Bond Street. From there he walked along to his club, where he spent two hours in the reading room, picked out his favourite book there and played over some of the most famous chess games of the nineteenth century.
Swann’s agent returned to Park Square at shortly after eleven o’clock on the second morning after his initial visit. He had been very busy on the commission handed to him and had succeeded admirably. His account went as far as it was possible to go at that stage to confirm what Swann had surmised from the sketchy particulars he had been given by Matthew Green, plus his own assessment.
After his visitor left, Swann sat smoking and thinking deeply for nearly two hours. His conclusion was, as he had expected it to be, that this was one of those cases he would not be able to bring to an end without involving the official forces of law and order. He knew the habits of his closest contact in the police force, Inspector Crabtree, who worked from a station in the town hall, across the road from Swann’s lodgings. Unless he was out on a case, the inspector would still be in his office, so Swann walked over and found him staring intently at a single sheet of paper on his desk. Crabtree greeted his visitor and invited him to take a seat.
Swann was by no means sure that what he intended to tell the inspector would lead to action being taken, but felt compelled to say what was on his mind. He unburdened himself and Crabtree listened with only a few minor interruptions. Having heard the tale, he agreed to look into the matter without delay. That meant temporarily setting aside other work, but in view of the help Swann had given him several times, the inspector was happy to reciprocate whenever possible. He promised to do all he could, and to call at Park Square at six-thirty the following evening, with a report of his findings. There was then nothing more for Swann to do but wait.
Inspector Crabtree visited Swann as arranged. He was beaming as he accepted an invitation to sit in one of the fireside chairs and take a glass of sherry. “A remarkable piece of deduction on your part, Mr Swann,” he began. “Thanks to you, I got my man and have solved three murders which I had no idea had been committed.”
Swann gave a big sigh of relief and satisfaction. “I’m delighted to hear it, Inspector. I suggest that you give me a brief summary now and perhaps you could come again tomorrow at about midday. That would give me time to summon Mr Green to join us for a full discussion of the matter.” The inspector agreed, gave Swann a brief account of a red-letter day in the careers of both men, and left.
Matthew Green arrived at Park Square five minutes before noon the following day and had been welcomed, seated and supplied with the inevitable sherry when Inspector Crabtree appeared, punctual as ever. Swann dragged a third easy chair over to the hearth and the three men sat in a semicircle, Green agog for news.
Swann was in his element. He loved to recount in detail how he went about solving his cases. Assuming the pose he used for imparting edification – fingers steepled, eyes raised ceilingwards – he began, addressing his first remarks to Matthew Green, for Crabtree already knew the story. “I must thank you, Mr Green, for drawing to my attention such an interesting matter. Let me say at the outset that your doubts about how your father met his death were well justified. He was murdered, as were the other two deceased members of his group.
“I left your home with two things running through my mind. One was the curious fact that three of the six friends, partners, or whatever they called themselves, had died in such quick succession. Now, if one takes at random half a dozen members of the general public, one would hardly expect three of them to die of natural causes in so short a space of time, unless they were all in the sere and yellow of their earthly spans, which was not quite the case here. The fact that this happened to the group in question set me thinking hard.
“The other point, admittedly much more nebulous, was the imprint of that note on your father’s pad. That was why I took it with me. I was not entirely clear what to make of it, except that it might have been susceptible of a different interpretation from the one we first accepted. You will recall that the first word seemed to be ‘Pontine’ and you commented that the only time you had ever heard it was in connection with the Pontine Marshes in Italy, and you could not see how that had anything to do with your father.
“When I got back here, I examined the note with a magnifying glass, concluding that it was possible that what seemed to be a ‘P’ in the first letter might be viewed another way. The top part was not complete and the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to me that it was perhaps a ‘T’, with an unintended downward flourish on the top stroke. If I was right, the word must have been Tontine, which would put quite another complexion on the note.”
Green broke in. “Why? What does that word mean?”
“Tontines are financial arrangements. They have been illegal in this country for over a century and for some decades in the United States. However, they are still allowed in some countries. The idea is that people get together, every member putting a sum of money into a common pool, from which each is entitled, after whatever time is agreed, to take an annuity, or perhaps make some other withdrawal. There are variations on the theme, but that is the basic idea.”
Green shook his head in puzzlement. “But why do they do that? I mean, they could all look after their own affairs separately.”
“No doubt they have their reasons. I can think of a simple one. It might be that the large fund created by the group would qualify for a much higher interest rate than any of the members could get for his or her own investment. Be that as it may, in the course of time some members die and the others get the benefit of the shares of the deceased. Not surprisingly, this led to dark deeds in the past.”
“But Mr Swann, you said that these things are forbidden here.”
“Yes, but when I connected the possibility of such a scheme with the surprising death rate in your father’s group, it occurred to me that the members may well have conceived an agreement along the lines of a tontine, but not referred to in that way. I reasoned that if they had presented a bank with their combined resources, their fund would have attracted a relatively high level of interest, as I indicated a moment ago. That would make the pooling of their money quite attractive to them, and of course the bank manager would most likely be very happy to receive large deposit he might otherwise not have acquired.”
“I see. So how did you proceed?”
“I employed a man to make inquiries on my behalf.”
“That must have been difficult for him. May I ask how he went about it?”
Swann had been asked the same question by Inspector Crabtree and had given him the same answer he now gave Green: “He did not say and I did not ask.” The tone in which that was uttered clearly discouraged any further queries on the point.
In fact Swann knew very well that his agent had employed a man to enter the premises of the City & Suburban Bank’s Wellington Street branch. The burglar was no clumsy hit or miss operator, but a highly skilled professional. He had been offered a sizeable payment to do exactly what was required and not go beyond his remit. He was to stay clear of the strong room and keep his hands off any valuables he might see.
The burglar’s task was to locate the customers’ files, search through them for what Swann needed and write out a copy of it, leaving the original in place. He had visited the bank, posing as a prospective investor with a large sum at his disposal. Naturally he wanted assurance that the institution was safe. The manager asserted that the vault was impregnable, adding that the doors windows were well protected, though he refused to disclose the exact nature of the precautions, saying only that he was not allowed to divulge them.
That night the burglar returned to the bank, a three-storey building, climbed a drainpipe at the rear and got into the premises through a skylight in the roof. In his experience there was always a weakness somewhere, and when visiting that morning he had guessed correctly that this spot had been overlooked when security measures were taken. Had that means of ingress been unavailable to him, he would not have been delayed for long, as he had his tools and could have removed a few slates and sawn through a rafter and a batten. He made his way down to the second storey, where the customers’ files were kept. It took him three quarters of an hour to find what Swann wanted, and a further hour to copy it by candlelight. That done, he replaced the document where he had found it and left the way he had entered.
Rupert Swann’s agent had been busy finding out what he could about the three remaining members of the late Daniel Green’s group. What he reported had been enough to motivate Swann to liaise with Inspector Crabtree, who had acted with speed and vigour.
Swann completed his report to Matthew Green. “I must say that in this affair we have been guided as much by intuition as by logic. First, you had your doubts about your father’s death, but could not take the matter further yourself. Second, you gave me information which was inconclusive but suggestive.
“My agent supplied me with two reports. First, he had been able to get sight of an agreement made by the members of your father’s group, and it is most interesting. It was set up three years ago, at about the time you said that the group began its regular meetings. Each member put five thousand pounds into a common fund, the pact being that in due course, when considerable interest had accrued – and the rate was most attractive – each man would get an annuity. In the meantime, no money could be withdrawn by any of them without the written consent of the other surviving parties. In fact this was a tontine in all but name, though the bank manager accepted it, presumably because he either knew nothing of tontines, or did know about them and turned a blind eye.
“The second point was my informant’s report on the group’s three remaining members. There was nothing of consequence with regard Booth and Lewis, but Laycock was another matter. I recalled reading some time ago that the company he owns was in some difficulty, so I refreshed my memory by looking at newspaper archives. I reasoned that Laycock was by some years the youngest of the six men, so it could be argued that he had the most to gain by getting his hands on the group’s money, as he might have expected to have use of it for longer than any of the others. My agent told me that in addition to having business troubles, Laycock has a severe gambling problem and is deeply in debt. That persuaded me to lay the matter before Inspector Crabtree, and I now ask him to tell you what he did. Inspector?”
“Thank you. Well, Mr Green, when this affair was brought to me, I took action quickly. First I went to the bank, where the manager was inclined to be recalcitrant on account of confidentiality. He changed his tune when I asked him if he would care to be implicated in obstructing the police in a possible multiple murder inquiry. He showed me the paper concerning the six men, describing it merely as an agreement, and he professed to know nothing about tontines. I was not disposed to tackle him about that at the time, though I may do so later.
“With regard to the three living members of the group, I wasted no time on Messrs Booth and Lewis, but went to see Laycock. At first he was all bluster. His reaction was disproportionate to my fairly mild questioning. That caused me to increase the pressure, which made him even more vehement in his denial of having done anything improper. That in turn convinced me that he was our man. I have interrogated many people in my time and I can tell you that anyone with nothing to hide might well be upset and flustered, but no innocent person behaves the way he did. I insisted on his coming to the station with me. There I continued the examination. Finally he ran out of protestations and broke down, admitting everything. He killed the three men and intended to do away with the others, so that as the sole surviving member of the group, he would be able to get his hands on all the money and put an end to his financial worries.”
Here Crabtree turned to his host. “I am much obliged to you, Mr Swann. Without your intervention, a triple murder would have gone undetected. You have been of great service to the community. As for how you came to see the group’s formal agreement, I will not press you. It will be sufficient for me to tell the court that I acted on information received. Laycock will undoubtedly be hanged and it is a pity that we cannot execute him three times.”
Swann chuckled. “I’m glad that I was able to help, Inspector.” Then he turned to Matthew Green. “I fear I have involved you in some expense, Mr Green, and I must further tell you that I cannot give you a full account of every penny. You will appreciate that I had to pay well for the information I needed to refer the matter to Inspector Crabtree, and that I can hardly give you all the details.”
Green nodded. “I don’t doubt that you did what you had to do, Mr Swann,” he replied, “and notwithstanding the suspicions I had, I am amazed by your methods and results. Please don’t worry about the bill. I’m sure I shall be able to settle it.” At that, the meeting broke up.
Peter Laycock was duly tried and executed.
* * *