Case without a Corpse
I accepted Beef’s invitation, and after a cold meal, set out for the Dragon. As I passed the alley running down beside it to the river, I paused to wonder why this had so much interested Stute. His orders that the Common should be searched argued that he imagined that the murder had been committed there. Why, then, his close scrutiny of this place, and his exclamation when he had seen the landing-stage? Had this been the fruit of an earlier theory, since exploded? Or had this place seen some other aspect of the tragedy? Or was it possible that the garrulous Mrs. Walker was right when she said that there might have been more than one murder?
Certainly the alley looked sinister enough, with the high walls of the warehouse looming over it. And I supposed that a body could have been dropped from that landing-stage into the river. But . . . well, I knew too much about investigation to start speculating.
Beef arrived a few minutes after I did, and we leaned over the bar. When Mr. Sawyer had satisfied his more insistent customers, he came up to us.
“There was something else I could have told you to-day,” he said, and eyed us blearily.
“Wot’s that?” asked Beef.
“Well, I didn’t see why I should tell that other fellow. I didn’t like him at all.”
“’E’s all right,” said Beef. “Clever, too. You orter see ’ow ’e’s worked out all wot young Rogers was up to on Wednesday. Got it all out with the times he was there and everythink. Course, ’e’s used to it. A case like this isn’t nothink to those chaps. ’E’ll ’ave it all taped in next to no time.”
“I daresay. But I didn’t like him,” repeated Mr. Sawyer obstinately. “He didn’t seem to want to hear what anyone had got to tell him. And as I say, there was something else.”
Beef sucked his moustache and tried to look interested.
“It was about young Rogers when he came here that evening. Swearing about you something dreadful, Sergeant.”
“About me? ”
“Yes. It appeared he hadn’t got a rear-light on his motor-bike. That was why he took it down the alley instead of leaving it out the front. Only I wasn’t going to tell that other fellow that. And he was saying that he wasn’t going to give you a chance of. making him pay a fine. Said you’d got a down on him. But he’d like to get his own back.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes. That’s all. Only I thought you ought to know.”
Mr. Sawyer was called away to serve, but when he returned he asked how the case was going.
“If you don’t mind,” said Beef, with that absurd pomposity of his, “we won’t discuss nothink about it. I ’ave enough of these things in the day-time without being ’arassed with them at night. A man must have some life of his own.”
But when a few minutes later the obese Mr. Sawyer said he’d just thought of something else, the Sergeant showed interest again.
“It was when he was going off,” said Mr. Sawyer. “He was all dressed up in his motor-biking things and they were wet. He looked up at the clock and said he’d have to hurry. He was meeting his girl at seven o’clock he said.”
“He did, did he?” said Beef.
“Yes. It must have been about half an hour after he had come in, I should think.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sawyer,” said Beef.
An hour or two later, when I was in bed at the Mitre, I thought of the grotesque Sawyer wheezing out his trivial secret. That, I thought, was one reason why I liked following an investigation. It lifted the lid from a little town like Braxham, as nothing else could. With licence to ask the most personal and pertinent questions, the investigator could peep into a number of very divergent lives.
There was that fat publican for instance, waddling through day after day, rotting his in’ards with alcohol taken without fresh air or exercise to balance its effect, rising daily to open his dirty premises, sleeping stertorously, moving as little as possible, his brain stupefied by fumes, his eyes glazed. Lord knows what sort of a young man he had been—he was unimaginable in a form other than his present. And so he would stump on, until they had to carry his huge bloated carcass to burial.
How many other characters and stories had already been revealed by our two days’ questioning! The old Rogers couple, who had adopted a ne’er-do-well tramp, because in their own words they had “taken to him" when he had come to their shop to beg. They were, the postman had said, “crazy” about the young man, and I could well believe it when I remembered Mrs. Rogers’s tear-stained face, and the little bootmaker’s worried look. Up to a point the fellow seemed to have responded—for at least he had preferred work to imposing on the kindness they would have been only too ready to show him.
One could see so well—now—what life had been like to the old couple in their neat home behind the shop. It was dominated by the calendar, and the date on which “Alan” was due for his few days’ leave. I was almost inclined to agree with Molly Cutler when she said that young Rogers must have killed in self-defence. How else could he have faced the old people?
And the Cutlers, mother and daughter. What a curious conflict had been there. The older woman studying appearances, respectable, uncharitable—the girl lovely and free. One could see how she treated her mother—not with argument or aggression, but with a kind of secret indifference. She had never troubled to answer any of Mrs. Cutler’s ill-natured references, yet she had her own point of view. One felt that up to a point the two had agreed to differ, and, when possible, had met on what common ground they had. It wasn’t so much that Molly had concealed her love-affair from her mother. She had not discussed it, any more than she had discussed other intimate aspects of her life.
Yet she had been in love with young Rogers. There was no doubt about that. A deep and steadfast love, I thought, which had forgiven him much, and would have done much for him. What a fool the fellow had been not to have married her long ago. Unless there was some barrier of which we knew nothing.
I thought of Mrs. Murdoch, too, with her grim pretentiousness, her insistence on the use of words like “client,” “lunch,” “waiter,” in speaking of her business, and yet the rather cheerless look of her hotel. She was the sort of woman who, if she knew more than she had already admitted, would cheerfully have lied rather than involve her hotel’s name in unwelcome publicity.
Then Mrs. Walker. I thought with a smile how much of her tawdry self she had revealed. How she had been so ready to give young Rogers’s address to the enquiring Miss Smythe, and how she had gloated over the situation when the girl had come down to “get her due.” From all her garrulity nothing had emerged so clearly as the gusto with which she had watched the affair, and the chagrin she had felt at not being instantly made the chief witness. I could see her now, with her untidy red hair and not over-clean face as she poured out her precious information.
There were others who had shewn unexpected side to their natures. Mrs. Simmons, of this hotel, with her tip-toe respect for the presence of a dead body, even if it was a murderer’s body; Mr. Simmons with his instantly selfish concern for its effect on his house; Charlie Meadows, delighted to have his little part in the investigation, and the waiter at Riverside yielding to Beef’s “come off of it.”
None of these people would ever have been more to me than passers-by, but the sudden earthquake in their town which a murder had caused had scattered their conventional covering wide.
It was, of course, too early to form a theory about the actual crime, and there were too many questions unanswered. If, for instance, young Rogers had indeed killed the girl, as it would seem reasonable to suppose, when had he done it? Not, as we had half-imagined, on the Common that afternoon, for she had been seen sitting on the back of his motor-bike at ten to six near the station. And how or where could he have done it after that? If she had not gone on the six o’clock train, where had she been during the twenty minutes or more that he spent in the Dragon, from 6.10 onwards? Or again, supposing that he had killed the girl, why had the Fairfaxes disappeared? And the foreigner?
Imagining the girl out of it, and picking Fairfax as the person murdered, when could Rogers have done that? Had he taken the man out on the back of his motor-bike, and during that short time between starting up his motorbike at Riverside and arriving at Rose Cottage, murdered him and disposed of the corpse? Almost impossible. Had Fairfax remained away from Riverside all the afternoon and been murdered by Rogers after the latter had seen Smythe on her train at six o’clock? If so, where? How? And, above all, why?
As for the foreigner, it was too obscure. We had no hint even of his nationality, certainly not of his reason for being in Braxham. But suppose young Rogers had killed him, afternoon or evening, who was it that I saw standing across the road when Beef and Simmons were carrying the corpse? Who had visited the corpse that night, and why?
It was all very well for Stute to talk about his system and his time-table, let him answer a few of these questions. Why, good heavens, we were as much in the dark as ever. We didn’t even know young Rogers’s real name.