Chapter XI. Christopher Pett
 

The two men sat staring silently at the paper-strewn desk for several moments; each occupied with his own thoughts. At last the superintendent began to put the several exhibits together, and he turned to Brereton with a gesture which suggested a certain amount of mental impatience.

"There's one thing in all this that I can't understand, sir," he said. "And it's this--it's very evident that whoever killed Kitely wanted the papers that Kitely carried in that pocket-book. Why did he take 'em out of the pocket-book and throw the pocket-book away? I don't know how that strikes you--but it licks me, altogether!"

"Yes," agreed Brereton, "it's puzzling--certainly. You'd think that the murderer would have carried off the pocket-book, there and then. That he took the papers from it, threw the pocket-book itself away, and then placed the papers--or some of them--where your people have just found them--in Harborough's shed--seems to me to argue something which is even more puzzling. I daresay you see what I mean?"

"Can't say that I do, sir," answered the superintendent. "I haven't had much experience in this sort of work, you know, Mr. Brereton--it's a good bit off our usual line. What do you mean, then?"

"Why," replied Brereton, laughing a little, "I mean this--it looks as if the murderer had taken his time about his proceedings!--after Kitely was killed. The pocket-book, as you know, was picked up close to the body. It was empty--as we all saw. Now what can we infer from that but that the murderer actually stopped by his victim to examine the papers? And in that case he must have had a light. He may have carried an electric torch. Let's try and reconstruct the affair. We'll suppose that the murderer, whoever he was, was so anxious to find some paper that he wanted, and that he believed Kitely to have on him, that he immediately examined the contents of the pocket-book. He turned on his electric torch and took all the papers out of the pocket-book, laying the pocket-book aside. He was looking through the papers when he heard a sound in the neighbouring coppices or bushes. He immediately turned off his light, made off with the papers, and left the empty case--possibly completely forgetting its existence for the moment. How does that strike you--as a theory?"

"Very good, sir," replied the superintendent. "Very good--but it is only a theory, you know, Mr. Brereton."

Brereton rose, with another laugh.

"Just so," he said. "But suppose you try to reduce it to practice? In this way--you no doubt have tradesmen in this town who deal in such things as electric torches. Find out--in absolute secrecy--if any of them have sold electric torches of late to any one in the town, and if so, to whom. For I'm certain of this--that pocket-book and its contents was examined on the spot, and that examination could only have been made with a light, and an electric torch would be the handiest means of providing that light. And so--so you see how even a little clue like that might help, eh?"

"I'll see to it," assented the superintendent. "Well, it's all very queer, sir, and I'm getting more than ever convinced that we've laid hands on the wrong man. And yet--what could, and what can we do?"

"Oh, nothing, at present," replied Brereton. "Let matters develop. They're only beginning."

He went away then, not to think about the last subject of conversation, but to take out his own pocket-book as soon as he was clear of the police-station, and to write down that entry which he had seen in Kitely's memoranda:--M. & C. v. S. B. cir. 81. And again he was struck by the fact that the initials were those of Mallalieu and Cotherstone, and again he wondered what they meant. They might have no reference whatever to the Mayor and his partner--but under the circumstances it was at any rate a curious coincidence, and he had an overwhelming intuition that something lay behind that entry. But--what?

That evening, as Bent and his guest were lighting their cigars after dinner, Bent's parlour-maid came into the smoking-room with a card. Bent glanced from it to Brereton with a look of surprise.

"Mr. Christopher Pett!" he exclaimed. "What on earth does he want me for? Bring Mr. Pett in here, anyway," he continued, turning to the parlour-maid. "Is he alone?--or is Miss Pett with him?"

"The police-superintendent's with him, sir," answered the girl. "They said--could they see you and Mr. Brereton for half an hour, on business?"

"Bring them both in, then," said Bent. He looked at Brereton again, with more interrogation. "Fresh stuff, eh?" he went on. "Mr. Christopher Pett's the old dragon's nephew, I suppose. But what can he want with--oh, well, I guess he wants you--I'm the audience."

Brereton made no reply. He was watching the door. And through it presently came a figure and face which he at once recognized as those of an undersized, common-looking, sly-faced little man whom he had often seen about the Law Courts in London, and had taken for a solicitor's clerk. He looked just as common and sly as ever as he sidled into the smoking-room, removing his silk hat with one hand and depositing a brief bag on the table with the other, and he favoured Brereton with a sickly grin of recognition after he had made a bow to the master of the house. That done he rubbed together two long and very thin white hands and smiled at Brereton once more.

"Good-evening, Mr. Brereton," he said in a thin, wheedling voice. "I've no doubt you've seen me before, sir?--I've seen you often--round about the Courts, Mr. Brereton--though I've never had the pleasure of putting business in your way--as yet, Mr. Brereton, as yet, sir! But----"

Brereton, to whom Bent had transferred Mr. Christopher Pett's card, glanced again at it, and from it to its owner.

"I see your address is that of Messrs. Popham & Pilboody in Cursitor Street, Mr. Pett," he observed frigidly. "Any connection with that well-known firm?"

Mr. Pett rubbed his hands, and taking the chair which Bent silently indicated, sat down and pulled his trousers up about a pair of bony knees. He smiled widely, showing a set of curiously shaped teeth.

"Mr. Popham, sir," he answered softly, "has always been my very good friend. I entered Mr. Popham's service, sir, at an early age. Mr. Popham, sir, acted very handsomely by me. He gave me my articles, sir. And when I was admitted--two years ago, Mr. Brereton--Messrs. Popham & Pilboody gave me--very generously--an office in their suite, so that I could have my name up, and do a bit on my own, sir. Oh yes!--I'm connected--intimately--with that famous firm, Mr. Brereton!"

There was an assurance about Mr. Pett, a cocksureness of demeanour, a cheerful confidence in himself, which made Brereton long to kick him; but he restrained his feelings and said coldly that he supposed Mr. Pett wished to speak to Mr. Bent and himself on business.

"Not on my own business, sir," replied Pett, laying his queer-looking white fingers on his brief bag. "On the business of my esteemed feminine relative, Miss Pett. I am informed, Mr. Brereton--no offence, sir, oh, none whatever!--that you put some--no doubt necessary--questions to Miss Pett at the court this morning which had the effect of prejudicing her in the eyes--or shall we say ears?--of those who were present. Miss Pett accordingly desires that I, as her legal representative, should lose no time in putting before you the true state of the case as regards her relations with Kitely, deceased, and I accordingly, sir, in the presence of our friend, the superintendent, whom I have already spoken to outside, desire to tell you what the truth is. Informally, you understand, Mr. Brereton, informally!"

"Just as you please," answered Brereton. "All this is, as you say, informal."

"Quite informal, sir," agreed Pett, who gained in cheerfulness with every word. "Oh, absolutely so. Between ourselves, of course. But it'll be all the pleasanter if you know. My aunt, Miss Pett, naturally does not wish, Mr. Brereton, that any person--hereabouts or elsewhere--should entertain such suspicions of her as you seemed--I speak, sir, from information furnished--to suggest, in your examination of her today. And so, sir, I wish to tell you this. I acted as legal adviser to the late Mr. Kitely. I made his will. I have that will in this bag. And--to put matters in a nutshell, Mr. Brereton--there is not a living soul in this world who knows the contents of that will but--your humble and obedient!"

"Do you propose to communicate the contents of the late Mr. Kitely's will to us?" asked Brereton, drily.

"I do, sir," replied Mr. Pett. "And for this reason. My relative--Miss Pett--does not know what Mr. Kitely's profession had been, nor what Mr. Kitely died possessed of. She does not know--anything! And she will not know until I read this will to her after I have communicated the gist of it to you. And I will do that in a few words. The late Mr. Kitely, sir, was an ex-member of the detective police force. By dint of economy and thrift he had got together a nice little property--house-property, in London--Brixton, to be exact. It is worth about one hundred and fifty pounds per annum. And--to cut matters short--he has left it absolutely to Miss Pett. I myself, Mr. Brereton, am sole executor. If you desire to see the will, sir, you, or Mr. Bent, or the superintendent, are at liberty to inspect it."

Brereton waved the proffered document aside and got up from his chair.

"No, thank you, Mr. Pett," he said. "I've no desire to see Mr. Kitely's will. I quite accept all that you say about it. You, as a lawyer, know very well that whatever I asked Miss Pett this morning was asked in the interests of my client. No--you can put the will away as far as I'm concerned. You've assured me that Miss Pett is as yet in ignorance of its contents, and--I take your word. I think, however, that Miss Pett won't be exactly surprised."

"Oh, I daresay my aunt has a pretty good idea, Mr. Brereton," agreed Pett, who having offered the will to both Bent and the superintendent, only to meet with a polite refusal from each, now put it back in his bag. "We all of us have some little idea which quarter the wind's in, you know, sir, in these cases. Of course, Kitely, deceased, had no relatives, Mr. Brereton: in fact, so far as Miss Pett and self are aware, beyond ourselves, he'd no friends."

"I was going to ask you a somewhat pertinent question, Mr. Pett," said Brereton. "Quite an informal one, you know. Do you think he had any enemies?"

Pett put his long white fingers together and inclined his head to one side. His slit of a mouth opened slightly, and his queer teeth showed themselves in a sly grin.

"Just so!" he said. "Of course, I take your meaning, Mr. Brereton. Naturally, you'd think that a man of his profession would make enemies. No doubt there must be a good many persons who'd have been glad--had he still been alive--to have had their knives into him. Oh, yes! But--unfortunately, I don't know of 'em, sir."

"Never heard him speak of anybody who was likely to cherish revenge, eh?" asked Brereton.

"Never, sir! Kitely, deceased," remarked Pett, meditatively, "was not given to talking of his professional achievements. I happen to know that he was concerned in some important cases in his time--but he rarely, if ever, mentioned them to me. In fact, I may say, gentlemen," he continued in a palpable burst of confidence, "I may say, between ourselves, that I'd had the honour of Mr. K.'s acquaintance for some time before ever I knew what his line of business had been! Fact!"

"A close man, eh?" asked Brereton.

"One of the very closest," replied Pett. "Yes, you may say that, sir."

"Not likely to let things out, I suppose?" continued Brereton.

"Not he! He was a regular old steel trap, Kitely was--shut tight!" said Pett.

"And--I suppose you've no theory, no idea of your own about his murder?" asked Brereton, who was watching the little man closely. "Have you formed any ideas or theories?"

Pett half-closed his eyes as he turned them on his questioner.

"Too early!" he replied, with a shake of his head. "Much too early. I shall--in due course. Meantime, there's another little commission I have to discharge, and I may as well do it at once. There are two or three trifling bequests in this will, gentlemen--one of 'em's to you, Mr. Bent. It wasn't in the original will--that was made before Kitely came to these parts. It's in a codicil--made when I came down here a few weeks ago, on the only visit I ever paid to the old gentleman. He desired, in case of his death, to leave you something--said you'd been very friendly to him."

"Very good of him, I'm sure," said Bent with a glance of surprise. "I'm rather astonished to hear of it, though."

"Oh, it's nothing much," remarked Pett, with a laugh as he drew from the brief bag what looked like an old quarto account book, fastened by a brass clasp. "It's a scrap-book that the old man kept--a sort of album in which he pasted up all sorts of odds and ends. He thought you'd find 'em interesting. And knowing of this bequest, sir, I thought I'd bring the book down. You might just give me a formal receipt for its delivery, Mr. Bent."

Bent took his curious legacy and led Mr. Pett away to a writing-desk to dictate a former of receipt. And as they turned away, the superintendent signed to Brereton to step into a corner of the room with him.

"You know what you said about that electric torch notion this afternoon, sir?" he whispered. "Well, after you left me, I just made an inquiry--absolutely secret, you know--myself. I went to Rellit, the ironmonger--I knew that if such things had ever come into the town, it 'ud be through him, for he's the only man that's at all up-to-date. And--I heard more than I expected to hear!"

"What?" asked Brereton.

"I think there may be something in what you said," answered the superintendent. "But, listen here--Rellit says he'd swear a solemn oath that nobody but himself ever sold an electric torch in Highmarket. And he's only sold to three persons--to the Vicar's son; to Mr. Mallalieu; and to Jack Harborough!"