Death by the Lake, Chapter One

Death by the Lake


Leo Bruce

“Yes, it’s a quiet little place now,” said the man in the pub.  “But you wouldn’t have said that a few years ago when we had our murder here.  It was lively enough then, I can tell you.  Reporters coming and going, headlines in the newspapers every night. . . .  They never did find the chap who did it, either.”
Carolus Deene made noises to shew that he was interested.  He did not need to do so because his informant went on at once.
“Nasty case.  A woman murdered.  And a lot of money involved . . .”
There was another pause before the man in the pub got down to the real job of story-telling, which he did when he had lit his pipe.
“I never liked this fellow Desmond Flitcher.  There was something unnatural about him.  You couldn’t exactly say he was effeminate because he was an athletic-looking little man, but he had the skin and eyes of a woman.  Dark, he was, a bit foreign in appearance.  It turned out afterwards he’d been one of a gang of big London thieves and not long before he came here they’d held up a post-office van and got away with over a hundred thousand pounds.  It was all in the papers.  How he and the two other chaps had done it—a carefully planned job.  They arrested the other two but they never found this Desmond Flitcher to this day, although he’d killed a security man.  Or at least the other two said he had.  You never know with those bastards.  They’ll say anything if it helps their case.  But one thing I do know, he was quite capable of it.  He had the eyes of a killer and they seemed all the worse in that kind of womanish face.”
“You said it was for the murder of a woman.”
“That was here.  In this place.  After the hold-up.  But of course we didn’t know there had been any sort of a hold-up at the time.  We only knew him because he’d married a local girl and come to live here.  I suppose he thought that as the husband of a girl well know in the place he could settle down without attracting attention and soon be one of us.  Anyway, he’d married this girl, Jessie Morton . . .”
“Before or after the robbery?”
“I can’t tell you that for certain.  Jessie had been away from the place for two or three years and it seemed she’s met this Flitcher in Brighton or somewhere like that.  She was one of three sisters.  Daughters of an old character called Amos Morton.  Proper old bastard, if you’ll excuse the expression.  He came here to retire after his wife had died and brought his three daughters with him as young girls.  There was Julie the oldest—she’s still here, married to our local doctor.  Jessie was the second one, a little slip of a thing, then Marie, who was taller and quieter.
“Julie didn’t suffer so much from the old man.  He didn’t like her and she was sent away most of the time to school or to stay with relatives.  She remained a jolly sort of girl—everyone liked her, and she’s liked still.  She’s a friendly sort.  When she married young Dr.  Nantwich it was good news in this place.
“Jessie and Marie were different.  They couldn’t get away from the old man, who was a bit crazy if the truth were known.  He’d been some kind on minister and gave it up to turn atheist.  But he was a tyrant to those two girls.  He died about four years before the murder and left almost no money, though he was mean enough in all conscience.
“That may have accounted for Jessie marrying this fellow Flitcher.  She’d gone away after her father died to earn her own living and perhaps found it hard.  Otherwise why she should have married him I can’t imagine.  Anyone could see he was no good.  Neither of her sisters liked him.  As I say, there was something unnatural about him.  He used to do tricks like an acrobat.  You know, jumping over tables, walking around on his hands.  Just to shew off, I suppose.  When we learned afterwards what he was and how he’d killed a security man by strangling him, nobody was surprised.  But that was after the murder.  Our murder I mean.”
Carolus ordered drinks but the man in the pub did not wait till they were brought before continuing.  Plainly he had nothing to hide.
“Jessie must have known about him, though.  Her sister Julie heard her begging him to go to the police and give himself up.  I suppose she thought he wouldn’t get so much of a sentence that way.  But he wouldn’t do it.  He’d got all that money put away somewhere and he wasn’t going to part with it.  I suppose she must have loved him in a way, poor girl.  They took a cottage out on the Borden road, a long way from anywhere, and used to drive in to the pub in the evening.  They had a dinghy on the lake, too . . .  But Jessie changed a lot.  She became what was called at that time—five years ago—a weirdie.  Grew her hair long and didn’t take much care of her appearance.  Towards the end she seemed to get sort of anxious and worried.  No wonder, when she realized who she’d married.
“Then one night they came in the pub here, same as they might have done any night.  No one noticed anything special about them though he did say they were going away for a time.  They left here at closing time, I saw them go myself, and she was never seen again from that day.  He was seen once or twice out at the cottage during the next day or two.  The postman saw him for one and afterwards had to tell the police about it.  But no one saw her.  They couldn’t, could they?  She’d been murdered.”
“The body wasn’t found?”
“No it wasn’t,” said the man rather sharply.  “And I can tell you why it wasn’t.  They were making the big through road at the time, the M 16 as they call it.  Laying it down a good many feet deep with concrete.  That’s where Jessie is.  Somewhere out under the M 16, poor girl.  He killed her on the way home, put her under enough concrete not to show when they came to work in the morning, and drove to the cottage.  He stayed there a couple of days not to rouse suspicion and then went off in the night to wherever he’d got the money stashed away.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Obvious isn’t it?  Besides, the police knew when they came to look for him.  They say it cost I don’t know how many thousand pounds to take the road up where they thought he’d hidden her, but I will say this for the police they’ll stop at nothing when it comes to murder.  They broke the surface up and went right down but they couldn’t find her, though they found traces of her blood just by the roadside where the car had stopped.”
“Her blood?”
“Yes.  The right blood group and everything.  Oh yes, he murdered her all right and what about that for a way to get rid of the body? You can’t say it wasn’t ingenious.  Right down in the concrete where it could never be found.  What was the good of their breaking it up?  They couldn’t tell the exact place and they’d have to take up half the road which the Council wouldn’t let them do.  It would have cost bloody millions before they could have found the remains and then there wouldn’t have been enough to recognize her.  Besides it would have held up a whole road-building programme.  But what does surprise me is that they’ve never arrested him.  Two murders and all that money and he’s got clean away.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” admitted Carolus.  “Quite a lot.  How do you account for it?”
The man in the pub had been so knowledgeable that Carolus wanted to test him further.
“I know,” he said.  “Or at least I’ve got a pretty good idea.  I told you he had a woman’s face, didn’t I?  Well, it wouldn’t take much to turn into a woman altogether, in spite of of his being like an acrobat.  With that skin and those eyes he could pass for a woman anywhere.  He was a little chap and small-made.  So that’s what he’s done, I’ll bet you a fiver.  The police are looking for a man where they ought to be looking for a woman—on the outside, anyway.  That accounts for their never laying hands on him.  Clever, isn’t it?”
“Not so clever as all that.  It would be a very difficult pretence to keep up, here or abroad.”
“You think he may have gone abroad?”
“Why not?  But with that kind of impersonation there’s always a considerable risk, and once anyone notices anything in the least bit suspicious the game’s up.  It has been done mind you, after an operation.  But it’s not easy.”
“Who’s going to notice with all these beats around?  One more or less who you can’t tell whether it’s a woman or a man doesn’t make all that difference.  And if as you say he’s gone abroad it’s all the more certain.  The wife and I went to Torremolinos last year and you should have seen how people behaved.  We stayed at a hotel called the Manchego and there was dozens of them around.  Some of them been there for years.  That fellow Flitcher would never be noticed among that lot.  Cunning bastard.  He’d got it all planned out beforehand.  How he’d put it about that he was going away, then murder his wife and bury her under several feet of concrete where the traffic’s overhead twenty-four hours a day.  There’d be nothing left of her in a week even if there had been at first.  So then he gets his money out from wherever he had it hidden and off he goes to spend it without having her nagging him to give himself up.  He must be laughing now.  But it’s not right, you know.  There’s her sisters, for one thing.  How do you think they feel?”
“I don’t know.  How do they?”
“Well one of them, the oldest of the three, Julie, will tell you about it if you ask her.  I told you, she’s married to the doctor here.  She was terribly upset at the time—well, who wouldn’t be?—but she seems to got over it pretty well.  After all it’s getting on for five years ago and she’s got her own children to think of.  But Marie, that’s the youngest never has got over it and I daresay never will.  She’s different.  She seems to feel things inside more.  She broke it off with the man she was going to marry and lives on her own.  Doesn’t have much to do with anyone.  It wasn’t only losing her sister she felt, all the talk in the newspapers and about.  She and Jessie were the quiet ones, where Julie was more sociable, even when they were all kids.
“When anything like that happens it changes people you were saying this was a quiet place and so it is, I suppose.  But when someone you know’s being murdered, right on your doorsteps as you might say, and buried where she can’t be found, and the man who did it gets away with it, people are never quite the same.  They blame the Government for doing away with the death penalty . . .”
“But since as you say the man was never charged with murder, even of the security guard, I can’t see what difference the death penalty would have made.”
“At least we’d have known he would be hanged when he was caught.  See what I mean?”
Carolus smiled.
“Anyway, I was saying about her two sisters,” the man went on when he’d been refreshed.  “One of them, Julie, we’ll talk to anyone about it.  She says straight out what a horrible thing it was and how she never trusted this Flitcher.  But the other never says word, and when anyone tries to talk to her about it she shuts up and makes them shut up, too.  That’s the way it’s taken her, you see.  Well, we’re all different, aren’t we.
“As for this wicked bastard Flitcher, I hope he enjoys it, that’s all.  He must have some sort of conscience; everyone has.  I hope it never gives him a minute’s piece, wherever he is, and torments him night and day for doing what he did.  What’s more, I hope that sooner or later the police get on to his trail he’s brought up in Court and charged with murder and has what’s left of the money taken of him before it can spend it.  It’s only what he deserves, to go to prison for the rest of his life.  Can you imagine it?  Murdering his own wife and burying her body under the M 16?”
“Yes.  Unfortunately I can.  Though not perhaps altogether his motive.”
“That was the money!” said the man in the pub.  The police think he must have kept nearly all the hundred thousand.  They never found any of it on the others they arrested.  A man will do a lot for that amount of money and she must have said too much and scared him that she’d give him away.  You seem to be interested in it all,” said the man in the pub suddenly.  “Are you in the newspaper line?”
“No.  But you’re quite right—I am interested.  Particularly in why this Desmond Flitcher has never been found.”
“There’s the usual stories.  He’s supposed to have bribed the police with half the money and got away with the other half.  Then there are those who say they have seen him.  You always get that when anyone is missing.”
“Where is he supposed to have been seen?”
“Right here, believe it or not, in this very village.  Changed a bit, they say, and grown a moustache and that, but they swear he’s been around here.  Going back to the scene of his crime, I suppose.  But I don’t believe any of that.  I’ve told you what I believe and you’ll see if it doesn’t turn out to be what has happened.  You can take my word for it, he’s as snug as a bug in a rug, dressed up as a woman and very likely winning more money at Monte Carlo.  What’s more I wouldn’t be surprised if he was to do it again.”
“What?  Murder?”
“Why not?  He’s done it at least once.  Who’s to say he won’t kill some other poor girl who has found out about him?  I told you he was the Type.  Let’s have another drink.  It doesn’t bear thinking about really.  Yours a Scotch?”
Carolus assented.
“I tell you what,” said the man in the pub.  “Why don’t you go after him?  You’ve got nothing to do with your time.  You seem to be interested.  Why don’t you find that bleeder and bring him to justice?  You’d be doing a public benefit.”
“Where would I start?” asked Carolus, amused by the thought. 
“You could start by finding out all she knows from Julie Morton—Julie Nantwich she is now.  Perhaps she’d put you on to something.  Then you could try Marie, though she might not want to talk about it.  Then you could see the place where it happened, and talk to people here who remember them.”
“The police have done all that.”
“Yes, but the police don’t know what I’ve told you, that he could change into a woman as easy as that.  That’s how you’ll get onto him.”  The man in the pub became quite enthusiastic over his idea.  “All you’ve got to do is to find someone going about like a woman when he’s really a man and spending a lot of money and then you are!  It shouldn’t be difficult.”
“Except that there’s the whole world to him to do it in.”
“You just keep your mind on that night and something will come to you.  The two of them pulling up here in their car, coming in and having a drink or two as they did, quite cheerful, not quarrelling or anything, then his saying that they’re going away in a few days without saying where to, and her saying something like ‘a little holiday’.  The landlord will tell you.  Then at closing time, calling good night and going off by the M 16 where a piece of the old road was left while they were building the new one.  It was a dark night, everyone remembers that, and nothing much about.  He must have driven her out there and got out of the car for a minute, perhaps to urinate, then before she dreamed of anything of the sort, strangled her . . .”
“You say there were bloodstains.”
“Killed her, anyway.  No one living within half a mile of the place.  The night watchman almost as far away.  No one disturbed.  No witnesses.  A nice quiet murder, and the poor woman never given a chance to defend herself.  Then what does he do?  Puts her body where it would be buried under the road next day and goes back to the cottage.  He tells the postman next morning that Mrs Flitcher’s not well.  After a couple of days he takes the car . . .”
“Yes.  What about the car?  Was it found?”
“Certainly it was.  Left in a car park in London.  It wasn’t found for quite a time at the police got on to it in the end.  He had left it there and gone off to wherever he had the money.  He could afford to buy a new car by then, couldn’t he?  Horrible business and what I can’t get over is he’s free to this day.  It needs someone like you to discover his whereabouts.  Anyway, that was our murder.  You can make what that you like of it.  I don’t blame the police—they’ve got enough to do—but I would like to see someone like you have a go at it.”
Carolus smoked in silence.
He’d come to Millgrove Water for a rest and what he had a hypocritically called retirement.  He had finished with teaching and given up his house in the town in which he had lived since the war and bought himself a lakeside house in which, he said, he hoped to do some writing.  If he had really for a moment visualised himself as a country-dweller without any of his old interest in crime detection it had been a vain dream, and his housekeeper who had come with him from Newminster was aware of it.
It could be said that Carolus Deene found murder wherever he went; it could also be said that murder seemed to follow him.  Here he was barely settled in his house, barely feeling his way to acquaintance with the not over-friendly inhabitants of the place, when he was assailed by the man in the pub with a story of what had taken place five years ago and found himself intrigued by certain details he had heard.  The man in the pub told his story crudely, with too many interpolations of his own, but there were nevertheless touches which Carolus appreciated.  The killer with the womanish face, for one.  Carolus had met that particular kind of homicidal monster with a slightly feminine make up and the powerful hands which seemed to itch to strangle.  The burial under a main road was an old story, popular at the time when a particularly dangerous gang was being rounded up by the police who were unable to find the corpse of one of their victims.  Yes, there were attractive points in the story, attractive to Carolus, an inveterately inquisitive man.  But the sheer hopelessness of picking his wits against professional investigators in a matter of this kind struck him as absurd.  In some parochial kinds of mystery he might have his uses, but to set up to find a practised criminal where the police, presumably with the aid of Interpol, had failed, would be asking for trouble. 
He might, he conceded to himself, get to know the doctor’s wife, the sister of the unfortunate Jessie, and hear what she had to say.  He might even tackle Marie, who was supposed to be so difficult to approach, but further than that he would not commit himself.  It was all too vague and hypothetical.  He went out to his car but the man in the pub followed him
“Their car was there,” he said.  “Just about where yours is now.  I saw them myself get into it and drive away.  I never thought he was driving her to her death, Poor girl.  It wasn’t for weeks after that we knew for certain what had happened.  Then it all came to us.  Well, I hope you take it up.  They say you go into that sort of thing.  It ought to be child’s play for you.”
“No,” said Carolus.  “It won’t be child’s play.  Or anything like it, I’m afraid.  Good night.”