The Casebook of Rupert Swann
Chapter 5: 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 one of his fine straight-grain briar pipes 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?”
“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.”
“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.