The Casebook of Rupert Swann
Chapter 6: 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 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.