Death by the Lake
It was fairly late on the evening of Radlett’s call and Marie had been sent to bed by her brother-in-law and doctor when Carolus faced Bertram Nantwich and Julie, who refused to be put off any longer and demanded the full story.
“First,” he said to Julie, “I want to know whether you’re ready to hear the truth as I see it about your late sister. The truth, that is, with no attempt to wrap it up or make it palatable?”
“After the last day or two I am prepared for anything,” Julie said.
“It won’t be pleasant, but I can’t deal in half-truths, and I can’t lay much of the blame anywhere else. Your father, perhaps, because he seems to have been a remarkably selfish . . .”
“Understatement!” said Julie. “He was unspeakable. Anything that went wrong with Jessie after the upbringing he gave us must be partly his fault.”
“Anything? But we’ll see. Jessie had rare, almost unique qualities in a woman. She was a cold-blooded calculating murderess who loved money and power and was prepared to do anything for them. She left home some years before what we can conveniently called the M 16 murder, didn’t she? Do you know what she was doing at that time?”
“She was in London. She had very little money. We heard almost nothing of her till she arrived with Desmond Flitcher.”
“Exactly. I can’t fill in those years either, though I have no doubt that if it is worth while the police will be able to. But I know she teamed up with a very successful criminal. The man known as Desmond Flitcher, who had just pulled off a job worth over a hundred thousand pounds and left his two mates to face the music while he had the money.
“She promised Desmond a way out and brought him up here as her husband. It was a good way for him to hide—she was known in Millgrove and as her husband he could lie low indefinitely. But it was not much use to her. Desmond still had possession of the money and Jessie had no intention of wasting the rest of her life in Millgrove. So she decided to kill him. The only way in which she could do this and have the money was to make it appear that he had killed her.
“One of the secrets that will follow her into her grave when she is buried, is where the money in fact was hidden. It is possible that Dobell and Werner, if they reappear, may have some theory about it. It may be that Flitcher had a safe deposit box and Jessie discovered where it was. Or it may be that the money, in small denominations, was in his possession. At all events she must’ve known before she killed him. If he’d had the sense to prevent her finding out, he might be still alive.
“She suggested a move. Perhaps she scared Flitcher by making him think that his hiding place was unsafe. Then she commenced an intricate perception. To Flitcher she was the loyal wife who would accompany him. To her sister Julie she was the loyal but deluded wife of a criminal, begging Flitcher to give himself up. (She had a only to make a fake call from your telephone extension to convince you of that.) To Marie she was the loyal wife of a charming Raffles assisting Flitcher to escape. And to everyone else she prepared to be the loyal, deluded wife who had been murdered by Flitcher and buried under the M 16.
“But like most of the authors of elaborate criminal schemes, she overdid it. To call attention to the place in which she intended to be ‘buried’ she went with Flitcher to the point they had reached in building the M 16 and without letting him see what she was doing, left her own bloodstains on a wayside stone. Not difficult if you have the courage and know how to give yourself a jab. But as it happened this only confused the issue.
“Back at the cottage she had chosen in a remote spot beyond the village, she became ‘ill’ and let Flitcher be seen for two days by the postman and you, Julie. You regretted that you did not persuade your husband to insist on seeing her. Had you done so you might have saved Flitcher’s life, not Jessie’s as you thought. Then at the end of the second day she killed Fletcher.”
“How?” asked Dr. Nantwich.
“Probably poison. She was not a physically powerful woman and there were no signs of violence or bloodstains in the cottage when it was searched. But a murderess suffers some incapacities the murderer does not feel. She has not the physical strength to make away with the corpse, for one thing. So in this case Jessie had to call in George Garrison, who had a sort of stupid devotion to her, and tell him that Flitcher had committed suicide. She probably added that Flitcher was a criminal on the run in possession of a sum of stolen money which she would lose if she revealed his identity by reporting his suicide, and offered George a portion of the spoils. George was greedy and without suspecting murder agreed that Flitcher’s body must be disposed of in the ingenious way that Jessie suggested—under the M 16. So it was that Raggety May witnessed the ‘fat man’ and what appeared to be another man—Jessie in one of Desmond’s suits which about fitted her—dropping Desmond’s small slight body, which she took to be Jessie’s, in the back of the car. And so it was that the investigation at the M 16 produced nothing, for Flitcher’s resting place was at a point reached by the road-builders two days after the disappearance of Jessie.
“She had successfully deceived the police and the rest of you into thinking that she had been murdered by Desmond and buried under the M 16 by Desmond for whom a search was begun. She now had a harder task, firstly to deceive Marie into supposing that she had enabled Desmond to escape and so had to conceal herself, and secondly to create a new person and personality for herself with which she intended to live in enjoyment of the money which Desmond had robbed.
“Marie was the only person (except perforce George Garrison) whom Jessie took into her confidence to some extent. You will remember that Marie was absent at the time of the M 16 murder and we shall have the details of this which is well enough to face up to the whole thing and realize, and she half-realizes now, exactly what Jessie was. We shall hear how she waited for Jessie at some prepared place, probably in Liverpool, where Jessie’s change of personality would be effected. Physically it was not a very difficult, although an expensive process. Actors in films can change their appearances not for an hour or two but for long periods and some of these changes can be made permanent. The teeth, for instance. The first thing I noticed about Jessie, or Mrs. Denver as she was then called, was the tight mouth and proximity of nose and chin, denoting the change to a set of very small dentures from a set of normal ones. The whole profile of a face, which had been described to me as oval, had been modified by this. The dentures could be made ‘for a part in a film’ with very wide gums which would swell the cheeks. The shape of the nose could be changed by plastic surgery. The face, in other words, could be a new one and by skilful padding the figure could be made dumpy as I saw it. But it is notable that although no ordinary person could recognize Mrs. Denver as Jessie Flitcher she never took the risk of meeting her sister Julie. I doubt if any change in appearance could have been relied on to deceive a sister, but with the rest of the world she was safe.
“Marie, who had always been devoted to Jessie, returned here with her secret which she has kept until now. While Jessie, clever enough not to display her sudden wealth—a form of display which has alerted the police to so many crimes—began not to spend but to invest the money in a grocer’s shop which she bought and in five years, with the injection of her capital, built into the Merseyside Supermarket.
“This might have continued indefinitely until the respected Mrs. Denver had become an alderman, or even a Member of Parliament, and Marie had maintained her admiration of the resourceful and successful sister. But fortunately or unfortunately, according to the way you look at it, I came to live in Millgrove Water and heard a story in the Rudyard Arms which aroused my curiosity. There was something—I did not quite know what—which did not ring true about the murder of Jessie and her burial under the M 16 which everyone seemed to accept as a historical fact. There was something far more incredible about the complete disappearance of Desmond Flitcher who was suspected of two murders. There was also something curious about the reticence of Marie. I began to become inquisitive and in due course this was reported by Marie to Jessie in Liverpool.
“This was unfortunate for George Garrison. I suspect that he had become restive lately under the weight of his knowledge; restive and anxious for a larger share of the fortune that Jesse was so obviously accumulating. Jessie, knowing that I was nosing about, realized that it was only a question of time before I should go to Garrison for information and decided not to risk trusting his discretion. Jessie did not, of course, endanger everything by committing another and this time a violent murder. She sent Racking, a character she had picked up in the underworld and bribed or blackmailed to work for her, to accomplish the comparatively easy and straightforward murder of Garrison at his farm. A murder out of the blue, as it were, with no known motive and no discovery will suspect, was easy meat for Racking though he made one idiotic blunder, as murderers do, by running out of petrol on the way. It was only by chance that Garrison had a little in his spare can, and knowing that Racking came from Jessie, agreed to give it to him. If he had possessed no petrol at all he would’ve been safe, for that night at least, since Racking would not have dared to shoot him without a means of retreat. As it was, Racking had to fill up shortly after and, through the identification of Gerald Farleigh, who noticed his smooth face when he came to the petrol station, he will probably be charged with Garrison’s murder, if he had not got enough charges against him already. Yet I shall be surprised if he used Jessie’s Jaguar, at any rate with the usual number-plates. It’s the sort of detail that the police will surely, if they have not already, sort out, but in the meantime there is not much mystery about the murder of George Garrison.
“Meanwhile Dobell and Werner turned up to try to find out from Marie the whereabouts of Flitcher. This shewed, to my mind, that not only the police and public had accepted the story of Flitcher’s murder of his wife and escape but that his fellow criminals believed in it, too. As for Marie, the worst she would believe of Jessie was that she had helped the escape of a ne’er-do-well husband who had brought off some sort of mildly dishonest coup and had to be kept out of the country. Which is why she was distressed when she thought I knew, and had given the two men Flitcher’s address. Actually all I wanted to do was get rid of them and simply repeated something Bill Rudge had told me about a hotel he knew in Torremolinos.
“Marie, however, was concerned about the murder of George Garrison. It could not, of course, be connected in her mind with any action or wish of Jessie’s. Rather than that, if she had to suspect anyone, it would have been Desmond, whom she still believed alive. Remember that Marie had no idea of the part that Garrison had played in the M 16 murder, did not in fact believe there had been an M 16 murder, and you get some idea of the confusion of mind. Her only determination was to be loyal to Jessie. She unguardedly mentioned to me—and to you, Julie—has supposed school-friend in Liverpool but did not suppose I would root her out. She was astonished to hear from Julie that I gone to Liverpool to see her and immediately ’phoned Jessie to expect me at the Supermarket.
“‘Don’t worry,’ Jessie probably said. ‘I don’t suppose he suspects anything.’
“And by this time her second personality was so well established in the minds of so many people that Marie, who probably had no very great opinion of my powers of deduction, felt all the old confidence in Jessie and her power to pull wool over anyone’s eyes.
“But when ‘Mrs. Denver’ made the suggestion that she and I should come here and surprise Marie there was no doubt lifted my mind of exactly who she was and what she intended to do. I knew that she meant to eliminate both me and her sister; the only dangers to her which any longer existed. (Racking she must have held by some pretty firm bonds of blackmail, quite apart from his having killed George Garrison.) I knew that the way she meant to accomplish this would be anything but clumsy and I knew moreover that, having been brought up in Millgrove, she had heard the story of the mysterious disappearance of a boating party on the lake at some time in the last century. So I gave her a pretty convincing story of why I could not swim and waited for developments.
“What revealed the means she intended to use was Racking’s being sent ahead on the previous evening with her car. What could possibly be the reason for this unless it was to prepare the dinghy for an evening outing on which she apparently set her heart? I became quite certain of her intentions when she insisted on dawdling about until the light had gone enough to make a boat on the lake invisible from the shore. It was all too obvious that a way of opening a leak in the boat had been improvised and that at the right moment she (or Racking, since she meant him to accompany us) would remove the plug and the two people unable to swim, as she believed, would be drowned while the boat sank in ninety feet of water. She had always been a good swimmer of whose prowess, when she used to swim the lake with Desmond, I had already heard.
“I tried to do nothing which would let her think my suspicions were roused, but I had to put off before Recking could come aboard, explaining quite credibly I hoped, that there was no need for him. She accepted that but when I noticed that there was a small pistol in her bag (only for an emergency since she trusted her ingenuity too well to think that she would need it) I clumsily dropped it overboard. But by that time her plan was too far advanced for any turning back and she managed to convince herself that it was an accident. Even if I did suspect, she must have thought, what could I do at this point? Neither I nor Marie could swim and she had no doubt of the outcome.”
Carolus stopped and emptied his glass which Nantwich, too absorbed to interrupt, quietly re-filled.
“I imagine you, Doctor, will know how difficult it is to gauge the force of a blow which will be sufficient to put someone out without any real injury. This I had to achieve to get Marie ashore. I did it, but I was terrified that I had struck her too hard.
“But one thing I had not, of course, anticipated—Jessie’s sudden attack of cramp. I believe cramp maybe the result of nerves as much as anything else, and that Jessie’s nerves, which must have been of steel, failed her at that moment. I heard her scream, but there was nothing whatever to be done about it. The boat was already filled and sunk and I had as much as I could do to bring Marie safely ashore.”
There was silence. Julie said nothing—expressed no incredulity, asked for no details—but sat as though slowly realizing things long past, perhaps, or horrors which might yet have come.
But Nantwich turned to Carolus.
“Tell me,” he said. “What first put you on to the truth? I say the truth because however brief and outline you have given us, however much your story has to be backed up with details and further evidence, I know that you have revealed broadly what has happened in this quite terrible affair. What really awakened you to it?”
“It is impossible to say. I cannot tell you when I first realized that it was Flitcher who was murdered, not Jessie, and it was Jessie who was still alive and not Flitcher. But I think I owe some kind of revelation to the man who was for many years the headmaster of the school in which I talked, a bumbling character, full of pomposity, but like many bumbling people a lover of quotations. When he heard all of the story that was yet known, he quoted Macbeth. I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.”
“Meaning?” said the doctor.
“Meaning, obviously, a woman. I have never doubted that a woman has a kind of courage we have not, and when she turns to crime, a kind of ruthlessness which we have not. Certainly Jessie had that.
— THE END —