Death by the Lake, Chapter Four

Death by the Lake


When he reached the police station next morning Carolus found a CID officer whom he had not seen before, apparently in charge of the case.  His name was Radlett, a big man with a poker face and a manner of cultivated inscrutability.  He spoke politely, even attempting a smile as he invited Carolus to sit down, but he was quite evidently not the type for chattiness or an exchange of information.  If he knew that Carolus had been involved in other enquiries in which he had assisted the police he certainly did not say so that made it clear that he regarded Carolus with circumspection, not perhaps as a suspect but as someone who would have to account for himself and his movements. 
“You say you decided to call on Mr. Garrison yesterday.  What was your reason for that?”
“I had reason to think he could give me some useful information.”
“On what subject?”
“An unsolved murder mystery.  I am writing a book about it.”
The word ‘unsolved’ was perhaps tactless.  If superintendent Radlett thought so he made no comment.
“I see.  You have told us that you telephoned to Mr. Garrison.  Could you be precise about the time?”
“To within two or three minutes, yes.  It was seven o’clock in the evening.”
“And you spoke to him?”
“Yes.  He was quite civil and made no objection to my coming out to see him.”
“The call was interrupted?  Perhaps you would tell me just how that happened?”
Carolus did so with Garrison’s exact words:  “ ‘Just a minute.  There someone at the back door.  Hold on a minute.’ 
“Did you receive the impression that it was a genuine interruption?”
“At the time, yes.  I waited, expecting him to return and pick up the telephone.”
“Meanwhile you heard nothing?  No movement, no voice.”
“Not a sound.”
“How long did you hold on to the receiver?”
“At least half an hour.  I had a book and continued reading.  Eventually I replaced the receiver.”
“Please go on, Mr. Deene.”
“At about nine o’clock—I cannot be quite so accurate about the time—I decided to drive out to the farm and see why Garrison had left me hanging on to the telephone.  I tried to ’phone again but received the engaged signal from which I concluded that the receiver was still probably off the hook.  Forgotten, perhaps.  I went to enquire the way at the Rudyard Arms and found a Mr. Bill Rudge whom I knew.  He told me how to reach the farm and also that he had seen Garrison that day and told him that I might call on him.”
Radlett nodded and Carolus continued to describe his movements at the farm, how he had entered and seen the ’phone still off the hook. 
“You replaced it.”
“I wasn’t aware that I was about to discover the dead body of Garrison.  I replaced the receiver because—well one does replace a receiver that has apparently been forgotten.  It was a good thing that I did or I should not have been able to call the police.  It takes some time to reconnect a line when the receiver has been left off the hook”
“Quite.  And then?”
“I decided to look round the farm buildings.  I found Garrison, as you know, at the entrance to his garage.  He was dead.”
“How did you know that?”
“I know I dead man when I see one.  He was very dead.”
“Did you move the dead body?”
“Certainly not.”  Carolus did not mention his examination of the petrol can.  “I touched the flesh to make sure that it was cold.  Then I telephoned to the police.”
Questions followed about the arrival of Ben Tanner.  Then for the first time Radlett gave away a little, a very little, by asking Carolus another question. 
“Did you make any examination of the road between the farm buildings?”
“You did not look for the tracks of a car?”
“No.  It was raining.”
“It did not occur to you that when Garrison was called to the back door it might have been by someone who had arrived in a car?”
“Until I found Garrison’s body I was not thinking of anything of the sort.  After that I had only time to telephone and follow Ben Tanner into the house before the police arrived.  In any case it would have been useless.  Rain was coming down hard.”
The Superintendent’s face remained inscrutable.  Carolus had the feeling that he would have liked to ask whether Carolus had any idea about the identity of the caller at the back door but considered this contrary to etiquette.  It was not the business of a suspect to make guesses or of a policeman to enquire about them.
“You have to nothing more to tell me, Mr. Deene?”
“Nothing at all factual.  I am interested, as you are.  But I won’t inflict any theorizing on you.”
Radlett said nothing to indicate that he appreciated Carolus’s forbearance or would like to encourage him to break it.  He simply nodded curtly and said, “Then I don’t think I need trouble you any further, Mr. Deene.  For the present, at any rate.  You will be available if we have to take more of your time?”
“I have no plans for leaving Millgrove Water.”
He came out of the police station feeling a certain admiration for Radlett’s phlegm and polite reserve.
The Superintendent’s question about looking for car tracks suggested that the police had in mind at least the possibility that Garrison’s murderer had arrived at the farm in a car and this seemed a logical supposition.  The remoteness of the farm, the wet weather and the fact that Garrison had been called to the back rather than to the front door, all contributed to it.  (There was no drive up to the front door, Rudge had told Carolus when giving his instructions of the way to reach the farm.  People drove to the farmyard and went through the garden to the front door or more commonly to the back door of the house.
Then there was that petrol can which Garrison had been holding when he was shot.  It had contained ‘a little’ petrol that morning according to Tanner and was empty when Carolus found Garrison’s body.  Might it not be reasonable to suppose that the caller at the back door had asked for petrol and that Garrison had supplied him?  That after it had been poured in through a funnel, Garrison had replaced the cap and was in the act of returning the can to the garage when he was shot in the back, the lights of the intruder’s car conveniently illuminating him?  To carry the supposition further, and since as Tanner had said Garrison would not have obliged a stranger with petrol in this way, might it not be reasonable to suppose that the caller at the back door had asked for petrol and that Garrison had supplied him?  That after it had been poured in through a funnel, Garrison had replaced the and was in the act of returning the can to the garage when he was shot in the back, the lights of the intruders car conveniently eliminating him?  To carry the supposition further, and since as Tanner had said Garrison would not have obliged a stranger with petrol in this way, might not—and here was an interesting point—might not the caller at the back door be someone known to him?  Someone he had reason to oblige?
All this was hypothetical but not without logic.  Carolus had frequently ‘supposed’ things of the sort in previous cases and sometimes with success.  He continued to do so now.  Why had the question of petrol arisen at all?  The intruder could have shot Garrison anywhere—at the back door, in his own house—there was no need to lead him to the garage.  Perhaps he really needed some petrol and knew that Garrison habitually kept a spare can.  This gave rise to the most promising possibility of all.  If his tank were nearly empty the ‘little’ in the can would not have got him far.  If he had any considerable distance to go last night he would have stopped to fill his tank almost immediately.
It was no more than a chance, a guess, a possibility but Carolus recognized it at once as worth investigating.  The possible rewards were great—nothing less than the discovery of who had shot Garrison.  The potential disappointment was also there, but Carolus by nature was optimistic.  He looked for his friendly informant Bill Rudge and found him in the Buttery of the Rudyard Arms enjoying a mid-day beer.
“Can you tell me what filling stations would have been open last night within a radius of say ten miles from here?  At about 7.30?”
Bill smoked his pipe.
“It’s a tall order,” he said.  “Any idea of which direction?”
“The most likely would be somewhere beyond Garrison’s farm somewhere to which a driver could go without coming through the village.”
A road map was produced and after a long discussion Bill decided on the two likeliest.  One was a busy station on the Liverpool Road which was open all night, the other a small privately-owned one on a by-road about eight miles away
“There are others,” said Bill, “but if I needed petrol in a hurry and I was going in that direction those are the ones I should choose.  Try them, anyway.”
Carolus drove out to the big busy station on the main road, but did not drive in.  What chance would there be of anyone remembering a particular car, whose make he could not even specify and whose occupant or occupants he could not describe?  But at the other, Farleigh’s Service Station, he felt there might be a chance.
The man who filled his tank was young and a Bentley enthusiast.  Not for the first time the extravagance of Carolus in driving a Bentley Continental paid off and, since no other car was waiting, he fell into a leisurely conversation with Gerald Farleigh, who turned out to be the sole proprietor.  Carolus led the conversation to the events of the previous evening. 
“Yes, I was here,” said Farleigh.  “I’ve only got one assistant on the pumps and it was his day off.”
On the principle that you had to give information in order to get it, Carolus said, “You know there was a murder last night.  At a farm between here and Millgrove Water.”
“So I heard.  Farmer, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.  I have an idea that the man who did it was in a car which was nearly out of petrol.  He could have stopped here to fill up.”
“What time did you say?”
“Anything from 7.15 to 7.45, probably.  I can’t be absolutely sure.”
“You the law?” said Farleigh.  “Not with that barrow, I suppose.  Journalist, perhaps?”
“Sort of,” said Carolus.  I just wondered if you’d noticed anyone in particular about that time.  Coming from the direction of Millgrove.
“There was several.  I wasn’t extra busy, but I seem to remember quite a few.  Two big fellows, would it have been with an Alsatian in the back of the car?  No?  There was a bloke with his girl couldn’t hardly wait to fill up before they were off to drive up some side road or other.  You could see it to look at them.  Don’t remember anyone else much, unless it was one of my regulars.”
Farleigh looked disappointed.  All the world loves murder.
“Tell you what, there was a fellow in a Jag.  Never got out of his car.  Filled right up.  I couldn’t see him properly but he gave me a bit of a turn because when he first opened the window I thought it was a woman.”
“Really?  What made you think of that?” said Carolus with rising but concealed excitement.
“I don’t know.  His face, I suppose.  Soon as he came to speak I knew it was a man.  But just at first I took him for a woman.  You know how you do, sometimes?  Not that he had particularly long hair or anything of that.  I didn’t get a really good look at him.”
“What time would that have been?”
“Same as you say, about half past seven.”
“Did he seem in a hurry?”
“Not extra.”
“You had never seen him before?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Have you had this place long?”
“No.  I come from Birmingham.  Bought it two years ago.”
“Nothing else you noticed about this man?”
“Can’t say there was.  Didn’t wear a safety belt.  Paid in new pound notes.  Said good night and went off.”
It was not much to go on, but it was more than Carolus had any right to expect.
“Think I shall get the Law along?” asked Farleigh. 
“Shouldn’t think so.  I was working on a hunch and a pretty far-fetched one.  The police don’t like that kind of hunch.”
Back in Millgrove Water Carolus decided to have another talk with Ben Tanner.  He liked to follow up things like this immediately.
“Gosh, they gave me a grilling,” said Ben, referring to the police.  “I thought they were going to have me inside at one time.  I suppose you and I were the two chaps you read about who are ‘helping the police with their enquiries.’ But the penny seemed to drop towards the end, and here I am.  How did you get on?”
“Much the same,” said Carolus.  “I have an idea they are looking for someone who came in a car.”
“Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?  How else is anyone going to get out there?  They asked me, as a matter of fact, if I’d seen any cars go up to the house that day.  I told them I hadn’t.  I was looking at the telly all the evening till I went over to the farm and there could have been fifty cars for all I should have noticed.  The wife and I like the telly.”
“Tell me, though.  Have you ever seen a Jag up at the farm?”
“No.  Can’t say I have.  Not many cars of any sort come up there.  I should have noticed a Jag.  Why?”
“I just wondered,” said Carolus feebly.
“Phil Ritchie’s got a Jag he goes to the races in.  Don’t know of any others in the immediate district.  Phil’s a nice fellow.  I’m surprised you haven’t met him in the Rudyard Arms.
After a moment Ben said, “By the way, I asked the wife whether she noticed anything unusual about George Garrison yesterday.  She goes over to the house and cleans up for him in the morning.  She said that after he came back from the market he was on the ’phone once or twice but she doesn’t know what it was about.  She’s not nosey, the wife, which may be a pity as it turns out.  He always shuts the door into the kitchen when he’s ’phoning.  Not that she couldn’t have heard if she wanted but she’s not that kind.  She said no one came up to the house while she was there.  Looks as though whoever came to the back door was a surprise to George.”
“There’s something I want to ask while your wife’s not here,” said Carolus.  “I'm sure she’s not easily scared but there’s no need to recall to her what happened five years ago.  But do you know for certain whether George Garrison went to the Flitchers’ cottage during the two days when Flitcher was seen there, before he moved out for good?”
“I know when you mean.  I am sure George went there.  It would have been surprising if he didn’t because he went there pretty well every day.  But George was funny those last two days.”
“Yes.  Seemed worried about something.  Up to the time he went to the pub on Jessie’s last night there was nothing to notice, but next day I could scarcely get a word out of him.  I put it down to his having had a bit of a row with the Flitchers or something like that.  He was full of them at that time.  Some people even said—you know how they talk—that he was gone on Jessie Flitcher, but I don’t think that.  George wasn’t a man you could imagine being gone on a married woman and he seemed just as thick with Desmond as with Jessie.  Then on the last night . . .”
“You mean on Flitcher’s last night in Millgrove Water?”
“That’s it.  That night he was out late.”
“Wasn’t that unusual?”
“No.  It wasn’t.  He used to go to the Rudyard Arms with the Flitchers but as soon as they closed he came home.  I never knew him stay out after closing time, except that particular night.  I wouldn’t have known about it only I happened to wake up in the night—a thing I never do in the ordinary way.  It was about this time of year and a lovely night.  I went to the window and looked out.  You can’t see the farm from our sitting room but from the bedroom window you can because it looks that way.  While I stood there I saw the lights of George’s car coming into the yard.
“How did you know it was George’s?”
“Couldn’t mistake it.  It was an old car.  Besides next morning it was in the garage where I'd seen him put it.  I made a remark about it, too.  ‘You were late last night,’ I said, just pulling his leg a bit.  But he turned on me.  ‘You mind your own bloody business,’ he said and walked away.  Of course I don’t know where he went.”
“That’s very interesting,” said Carolus.  “It was never referred to again?”
“Not to me.  Whether he told the police anything about it or not I don’t know.  They asked him a lot of questions at the time.  I do know that, but not from George.  He never said anything to me about the Flitchers or anything else like that.  We worked on the farm together but we were never very close.  I can’t say I really liked the man even after all those years, and Elsie couldn’t bear the sight of him.  She wouldn’t have wished him any harm, mind you, but she distrusted him.”
“Over money?”
“Well, not over money so much.  Elsie kept the farm’s books.  She worked in an office before I married her.  But she didn’t like George and tried to keep the kids away from him.” 
“Oh well, he’s gone now, poor bastard, so I suppose we shouldn’t think bad of him.”