by S. Fowler Wright
"There has been a new development while you were out," Superintendent Dixon said."Munro has made a full confession."
"I always thought his alibi was too good to be true. Where is he now?"
"We've got him here. He's just signed it."
"It will be interesting to read."
"Well, here it is."
Inspector Talbot read it. He read it twice. He became thoughtful. He heard the superintendent give instructions that Mr Riddell should be brought in. He noticed the significance of the prefix (which a man normally loses if he be accused of a crime), opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again as his thought changed.
"Mr Riddell," the superintendent said, as a young man with disordered hair, and a badly bruised chin, was led into the room, "I am sorry that you have been detained. I am glad to be able to tell you that you are no longer under suspicion. We have a full confession from the guilty man. . . . But if you got rather roughly handled, you must admit that you brought it upon yourself."
"I admit nothing," the young man replied with real or affected indignation. "I think you're a lot of damned fools - or perhaps a bit worse than that."
The superintendent took the retort in silence, feeling that it had some excuse.
Mr Riddell went; and Inspector Talbot, whose eyes were still on the confession, looked up to say: "I suppose you know this is phoney?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because the man who killed Niblo knows how it was done, and it couldn't have been the way that it's put here. . . . For one thing, the wound would have been on the left,"
"It's a pity you didn't say that before I let Riddell go. If it's a dud, he's still in it up to the neck."
"Oh, I Shouldn't worry much about that. I don't suppose he'll have gone far. Why not have Munro in, and ask him one or two questions?"
"Yes. He's charged now but, after all, it's on his own voluntary confession, If we're not satisfied - "He gave instructions for the man to be fetched up.
Munro was brought in, and Inspector Talbot, looking keenly at him, saw a mean, furtive, small-featured face, and a meagre body. It was not impossible that he had committed the crime, for which little strength would have been required. Beyond that, he looked the part, as few murderers do.
The superintendent regarded him with distaste. He said: "Munro, about this confession. You're not obliged to answer, and anything you say may be used in evidence, but Inspector Talbot here would like to ask you a few questions."
The man looked round the bare-walled room, and at the shorthand writer seated unobtrusively at the back. He had something of the aspect of a cornered rat, but with less courage to bite. His hands moved as though he twisted an invisible hat. But he did not seem reluctant to talk. "Yes, Inspector," he said. "I'll tell you anything as you wants to know."
"Then tell me this," the inspector replied, with amused eyes upon the shifting glance that met his own for a moment, and then fell to the floor. "You say that when you entered Mr Niblo's office he had been peeling a pear, and a knife lay on his desk, which you picked up, and stabbed him in the neck as he rose to try to take it from you?"
"Yes. That's just how it was."
"Did you stab him in the throat, or the side of the neck?"
"In the - I don't - It may have been a bit at the side. . . . Yes, of course it was."
The man answered more readily now. "The left side, of course. Yes, the left."
"If I tell you it was the right, how should you explain that?"
"I - I shouldn't. I should say you were having me on."
"Very well. We'll say no more about that. What did you do with the knife?"
"I threw it down a drain."
"What sort of knife was it?"
"Just an ordinary one."
"No. Just ordinary. Just a white-handled knife."
"Was there a struggle?"
"He reached out, and I stuck him quick. He shouldn't a'been there."
"What about the alibi you gave us before?"
"I'd rather say nothing about that."
"Very well. That will do,"
The superintendent looked interrogatively at his companion, and then gave instructions for Munro to be taken away, The man looked strangely disconcerted at that: frighten as he had not done when he made the statement which accused himself of a capital crime.
When he had gone, Superintendent Dixon asked: "Do you mean that the fact of the wound having been on the right side of the neck shows that it couldn't have happened the way he says, and it's all a fake?"
"It's not only that. Miss Lister says that Niblo always ate fruit at that time of night, and used a large clasp-knife to peel it, The knife's missing, and there's no doubt that it was used by the murderer very much as he says, but he, doesn't describe it properly. And it's not that alone.
There are other points where his account of what happened can't be accurate, and couldn't be errors of memory. It's the sort of tale a man might make up who only knew what had been let out in the press."
"So you think we should let him go?"
"Not at all. That's what he's hoping you'll do. Did you notice that he didn't wish to admit that the alibi was a fake?"
"That might be because he didn't want to get his friends into trouble."
"Yes. But did you notice how sick he looked when I stopped pulling his confession to pieces, and you sent him back?"
"Yes. I saw that. But what's your theory? There's no point in confessing, if he doesn't want to be accused of the crime."
"No? Are we quite certain of that? Suppose he did it, and hoped you'd decide that the confession couldn't be genuine, and had been made up from what he'd read of the case, and turn him loose, as one of the pests that we often have to get rid of in these cases? If we prosecute him, we shall find that his counsel will argue that his confession was evident make-up, and he'll go into the box with a tale of how he was bullied and starved and questioned - if nothing worse - till he made up the best tale he could from what he'd read in the press, as the only way of getting some food and sleep."
The superintendent looked thoughtful, If that were how the truth lay, it was his duty to press the charge, and secure, if it were possible, the conviction of a guilty man. But he knew that the credit of his department was at stake, and he was not indifferent to his own career. And there was the alibi. There were four who said that Munro had been playing cards with them at the time of the murder, three miles away. Not very savoury witnesses. But still - four. And there was the alternative suspect, Riddell. It might be essential to put him into the box, and what might he say about his treatment by the police? All the fault of his sudden violence, of course. But he might put it a different way!
He said irritably: "I expect you're right. But - where do we go from here?"
"We go on, of course. You see, he made one mistake. He shouldn't have mentioned the pear."
"There's a point in that?"
"There's just this. Miss Lister said that Niblo usually had an apple. So no doubt he did. And that was all that was said in the press. But that night it was a pear. Keep that back till the right minute, and it ought to tip the scale the way we want it to be."