Colonel Melchett was facing a much annoyed hotel manager. With him was Superintendent Harper, of the denshire police, and the inevitable Inspector Slack - the latter rather disgruntled at the chief constable's wilful usurpation of the case. Superintendent Harper was inclined to be soothing with the almost tearful Mr Prestcott; Colonel Melchett tended toward a blunt brutality. "No good crying over spilt milk," he said sharply. "The girl's dead, strangled. You're lucky that she wasn't strangled in your hotel. This puts the inquiry in a different county and lets your establishment down extremely lightly. But certain inquiries have got to be made, and the sooner we get on with it the better. You can trust us to be discreet and tactful. So I suggest you cut the cackle and come to the horses. Just what, exactly, do you know about the girl?"
"I know nothing of her nothing at all. Josie brought her here."
"Josie's been here some time?" "Two years, no, three." "And you like her?"
"Yes, Josie's a good girl, a nice girl. Competent. She gets on with people and smoothes over differences. Bridge, you know, is a touchy sort of game." Colonel Melchett nodded feelingly. His wife was a keen but an extremely bad bridge player. Mr Prestcott went on, "Josie was very good at calming down unpleasantness. She could handle people well, sort of bright and firm, if you know what I mean."
Again Melchett nodded. He knew now what it was that Miss Josephine Turner had reminded him of. In spite of the make-up and the smart turnout, there was a distinct touch of the nursery governess about her.
"I depend upon her," went on Mr Prestcott. His manner became aggrieved. "What does she want to go playing about on slippery rocks in that damn-fool way for? We've got a nice beach here. Why couldn't she bathe from that? Slipping and falling and breaking her ankle! It wasn't fair to me! I pay her to dance and play bridge and keep people happy and amused, not to
go bathing off rocks and breaking her ankle. Dancers ought to be careful of their ankles, not take risks. I was very annoyed about it. It wasn't fair to the hotel."
Melchett cut the recital short. "And then she suggested that this girl, her cousin come down?"
Prestcott assented grudgingly. "That's right. It sounded quite a good idea. Mind you, I wasn't going to pay anything extra. The girl could have her keep, but as for salary, that would have to be fixed up between her and Josie. That's the way it was arranged. I didn't know anything about the girl."
"But she turned out all right?"
"Oh, yes, there wasn't anything wrong with her, not to look at, anyway. She was very young, of course; rather cheap in style, perhaps, for a place of this kind, but nice manners, quiet and well-behaved. Danced well. People liked her."
It had been a question hard to answer from a view of the blue, swollen face. Mr Prestcott considered. "Fair to middling. Bit weaselly - if you know what I mean. Wouldn't have been much without make-up. As it was, she managed to look quite attractive."
"Many young men hanging about after her?"
"I know what you're trying to get at, sir," Mr Prestcott became excited. "I never saw anything! Nothing special. One or two of the boys hung around a bit, but all in the day's work, so to speak. Nothing in the strangling line, I'd say. She got on well with the older people, too; had a kind of prattling way with her. Seemed quite a kid, if you know what I mean. It amused them."
Superintendent Harper said in a deep, melancholy voice, "Mr Jefferson, for instance?" The manager agreed. "Yes, Mr Jefferson was the one I had in mind. She used to sit with him and his family a lot. He used to take her out for drives sometimes. Mr Jefferson's very fond of young people and very good to them. I don't want to have any misunderstandings. Mr Jefferson's a cripple. He can't get about much only where his wheelchair will take him. But he's always keen on seeing young people enjoy themselves; watches the tennis and the bathing, and all that, and gives parties for young people here. He likes youth, and there's nothing bitter about him, as there well might be. A very popular gentleman and, I'd say, a very fine character."
Melchett asked, "And he took an interest in Ruby Keene?"
"Her talk amused him, I think."
"Did his family share his liking for her?"
"They were always very pleasant to her."
Harper said, "And it was he who reported the fact of her being missing to the police?"
He contrived to put into the words a significance and a reproach to which the manager instantly responded, "Put yourself in my place, Mr Harper. I didn't dream for a minute anything was wrong. Mr Jefferson came along to my office, storming and all worked up. The girl hadn't slept in her room. She hadn't appeared in her dance last night. She must have gone for a drive and had an accident, perhaps. The police must be informed at once. Inquiries made. In a state, he was, and quite high-handed. He rang up the police station then and there."
"Without consulting Miss Turner?"
"Josie didn't like it much. I could see that. She was very annoyed about the whole thing, annoyed with Ruby, I mean. But what could she say?"
"I think," said Melchett, "we'd better see Mr Jefferson, eh Harper?"
Superintendent Harper agreed. Mr Prestcott went up with them to Conway Jefferson's suite. It was on the first floor, overlooking the sea. Melchett said carelessly, "Does himself pretty well, eh? Rich man?"
"Very well off indeed, I believe. Nothing's ever stinted when he comes here. Best rooms reserved, food usually a la carte, expensive wines, best of everything."
Melchett nodded. Mr Prestcott tapped on the outer door and a woman's voice said, "Come in."
The manager entered, the others behind him. Mr Prestcott's manner was apologetic as he spoke to the woman who turned her head, at their entrance, from her seat by the window. "I am so sorry to disturb you, Mrs Jefferson, but these gentlemen are from the police. They are very anxious to have a word with Mr Jefferson. Er... Colonel Melchett, Superintendent Harper, Inspector er... Slack, Mrs Jefferson!" Mrs Jefferson acknowledged the introduction by bending her head.
A plain woman, was Melchett's first impression. Then, as a slight smile came to her lips and she spoke, he changed his opinion. She had a singularly charming and sympathetic voice,
and her eyes, clear hazel eyes, were beautiful. She was quietly but not unbecomingly dressed and was, he judged, about thirtyfive years of age. She said, "My father-in-law is asleep. He is not strong at all, and this affair has been a terrible shock to him. We had to have the doctor, and the doctor gave him a sedative. As soon as he wakes he will, I know, want to see you. In the meantime, perhaps I can help you? Won't you sit down?"
Mr Prestcott, anxious to escape, said to Colonel Melchett, "Well... er... if that's all I can do for you -" and thankfully received permission to depart.
With his closing of the door behind him, the atmosphere took on a mellow and more social quality. Adelaide Jefferson had the power of creating a restful atmosphere. She was a woman who never seemed to say anything remarkable, but who succeeded in stimulating other people to talk and in setting them at their ease. She struck, now, the right note when she said, "This business has shocked us all very much. We saw quite a lot of the poor girl, you know. It seems quite unbelievable. My father-in-law is terribly upset. He was very fond of Ruby."
Colonel Melchett said, "It was Mr Jefferson, I understand, who reported her disappearance to the police."
He wanted to see exactly how she would react to that. There was a flicker, just a flicker of- annoyance? Concern? He could not say what exactly, but there was something, and it seemed
to him that she had definitely to brace herself, as though to an unpleasant task, before going on. She said, "Yes, that is so. Being an invalid, he gets easily upset and worried. We tried to persuade him that it was all right, that there was some natural explanation, and that the girl herself would not like the police being notified. He insisted. Well -" she made a slight gesture - "he was right and we were wrong!"
Melchett asked, "Exactly how well did you know Ruby Keene, Mrs Jefferson?"
She considered. "It's difficult to say. My father-in-law is very fond of young people and likes to have them round him. Ruby was a new type to him; he was amused and interested by her
chatter. She sat with us a good deal in the hotel and my father-in-law took her out for drives in the car."
Her voice was quite noncommittal. Melchett thought: She could say more if she chose. He said, "Will you tell me what you can of the course of events last night?"
"Certainly, but there is very little that will be useful, I'm afraid. After dinner Ruby came and sat with us in the lounge. She remained even after the dancing had started. We had arranged
to play bridge later, but we were waiting for Mark, that is Mark Gaskell, my brother-in-law, he married Mr Jefferson's daughter, you know, who had some important letters to write, and also for
Josie. She was going to make a fourth with us."
"Did that often happen?"
"Quite frequently. She's a first-class player, of course, and very nice. My father-in-law is a keen bridge player and, whenever possible, liked to get hold of Josie to make the fourth, instead of an outsider. Naturally, as she has to arrange the fours, she can't always play with us, but she does whenever she can, and as -" her eyes smiled a little - "my father-in-law spends a lot of money in the hotel, the management is quite pleased for Josie to favour us."
Melchett asked, "You like Josie?"
"Yes, I do. She's always good-humoured and cheerful, works hard and seems to enjoy her job. She's shrewd without being at all intellectual and well, never pretends about anything. She's
natural and unaffected."
"Please go on, Mrs Jefferson."
"As I say, Josie had to get her bridge fours arranged and Mark was writing, so Ruby sat and talked with us a little longer than usual. Then Josie came along, and Ruby went off to do her first solo dance with Raymond, he's the dance and tennis professional. She came back to us afterward, just as Mark joined us. Then she went off to dance with a young man and we four started our bridge." She stopped and made a slight, significant gesture of helplessness. "And that's all I know! I just caught a glimpse of her once, dancing, but bridge is an absorbing game and I hardly glanced through the glass partition at the ballroom. Then, at midnight, Raymond came along to Josie very upset and asked where Ruby was. Josie, naturally, tried to shut him up, but -"
Superintendent Harper interrupted. He said in his quiet voice, "Why 'naturally,' Mrs Jefferson?"
"Well -" She hesitated; looked, Melchett thought, a little put out. "Josie didn't want the girl's absence made too much of. She considered herself responsible for her in a way. She said
Ruby was probably up in her room, she telephoned up to Ruby's room, but apparently there was no answer, and he came back in rather a state temperamental, you know. Josie went off with him and tried to soothe him down, and in the end she danced with him instead of Ruby. Rather plucky of her, because you could see afterward it had hurt her ankle. She came back to us when the dance was over and tried to calm down Mr Jefferson. He had got worked up by then. We persuaded him, in the end, to go to bed; told him Ruby had probably gone for a spin in a car and that they'd had a puncture. He went to bed worried and this morning he began to agitate at once." She paused. "The rest you know."
"Thank you, Mrs Jefferson. Now I'm going to ask you if you've any idea who could have done this thing?"
She said immediately, "No idea whatever. I'm afraid I can't help you in the slightest."
He pressed her. "The girl never said anything? Nothing about jealousy? About some man she was afraid of? Or intimate with?"
Adelaide Jefferson shook her head to each query. There seemed nothing more that she could tell them. The superintendent suggested that they should interview young George Bartlett and return to see Mr Jefferson later. Colonel Melchett agreed and the three men went out, Mrs Jefferson promising to send word as soon as Mr Jefferson was awake. "Nice woman," said the colonel, as they closed the door behind them.
"A very nice lady indeed," said Superintendent Harper.