Death by the Lake
Carolus stayed the night in Dunstoun and arrived back in Millgrove Water at lunchtime. Mrs. Stick greeted him with reserve.
“Mrs. Nantwich has been on the ’phone for you,” she said. Two or three times this morning. I couldn’t tell her when you’d be back because you hadn’t told me.”
“I didn’t know, Mrs. Stick,” said Carolus good-humouredly.
As he was enjoying what his housekeeper called ‘treat oh blue’ the ’phone rang. Julie Mantwich sounded anxious. “Has Marie been with you?” she asked.
“She hasn’t? Well, she hasn’t been home all night. I’ve never known her to go away without telling me.”
“Go away? D’you mean she’s packed anything?”
“Not that I can see. That’s what worries me. No one has seen her. When I heard you were away for the night I hoped she was with you. Can you explain it at all?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. You’ve been to the cottage, of course?”
“Yes. I noticed the light over the front door was burning at ten o’clock this morning and went to tell her. So unlike Marie to leave a light on. But there was no one there and the bed had not been slept in. I looked about to see what she had taken and found the suitcase she usually takes with her if she goes away still in the cupboard. She had eaten something last night, cold ham I think, and the plates were not washed up. Another very unusual thing for her. It looks as though she had just gone out for a minute . . .”
“What time does she usually eat in the evening?”
“About eight, I suppose. She’s not very exact about times.”
“So it must have been after that?”
“Yes. It looks like it. What had I better do? Bertram says we should report it to the police.”
“I agree with him. But beyond making a note of it, I don’t think they can do much yet. It’s rather soon to feel alarmed, isn’t it? And they get so many reports of people who are missing and turn up an hour or two later.”
“You don’t think there’s any cause for worry, then?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say that. Of course I shall do everything I can. You can’t suggest anything that might explain it? However far-fetched it may be.”
“Nothing. Bertram and I have gone all over this. We can think of nothing.”
“You don’t know whether anyone has called on her recently? Anyone from away from here? Or anyone unexpected?”
“No. If there was, Marie probably would not have told us. You know how secretive she is.”
“I do, unfortunately. I’m working in the dark. But I’ll try to think of anything that may help.”
“Bless you. And you’ll let me know if anything turns up?”
He put the receiver down thoughtfully.
“Your trout’s getting cold,” said Mrs. Stick who had come in and heard the last part of his conversation. “It’s about the young lady, isn’t it? I heard she’d gone off.”
“Don’t talk as though she was something rancid,” said Carolus irritably. “What did you hear?”
“Well, Stick happened to meet the postman this morning. He’d had a parcel for her and couldn’t make anyone hear when he called. She oughtn’t to live alone and I’ve said so more than once.”
“Don’t look at me as though I’m to blame for that,” said Carolus.
“I am not saying you’re to blame, sir. Not what anyone would call to blame. Though I have thought . . .”
“Oh don’t talk nonsense, Mrs. Stick.”
“So I suppose you’ll be going off to find her, sir?”
“Yes. Where do I start?” asked Carolus sharply, not expecting an answer to his question.
But one came.
“You best find out if anyone called for her last night. Someone’s bound to know in a place like this.”
As it happened Carolus did not need to do a lot of vague questioning in the village because information came from an unexpected source; and although he admitted that information of any kind was welcome, this was disturbing.
Quite openly the car which he had seen being driven from the Rudyard Arms by the man with pebble lenses after their uncomfortable interview, drew up at his house and the same burly and unpleasant-looking character came to the door. Carolus opened it himself.
“Come in,” he said as if he were expecting the other.
“I haven’t got much time . . .”
“Nor have I. Come in.”
The man followed him.
“My name is Dobell,” he said.
“Is it? How long has it been?” Carolus had done his homework on the past history of Desmond Flitcher.
“Now don’t start being funny otherwise I shan’t tell you what I’ve come to tell you.”
“Oh yes you will. Or I’ll tell you. You’re kidnapped Marie Morton.”
“Not kidnapped. Just want to ask her couple of questions.”
“The Law will tell you it’s kidnapping, anyway, and send you down for several years. Where is she?”
“You know a lot don’t you? I said when you started talking to me the other night, you know an effing sight too much. Do you want to see her alive and well?”
“I’ll be sorry for you if I don’t. And quickly.”
It was all very well for Carolus to take this confident tone, he thought. In fact he was faced by the problems that faced all victims of a kidnapping and those who cared about the person kidnapped. He was pretty sure of Dobell’s identity and motive. He wanted money, but not Marie’s money or his own, which he would judge to be peanuts. And in order to get money he wanted information which he believed Marie could give him. His reason for coming to Carolus was not immediately clear. He was taking a certain risk in doing so. He must suppose that Carolus had information for him, too, or would induce Marie to tell him what he knew.
“Well, you can see her,” said Dobell. “On certain conditions. First you come with me, straight away, without speaking to anyone before you go. Then you won’t try any funny business with a shooter or anything like that. If you’ve got one you’ll leave it here. You’ll leave your car here too, of course.”
“All agreed,” said Carolus. “But I make no promises about the future, Dobell. You’re running up a pretty nasty account for yourself, but I suppose you know that.”
Dobell seemed strangely confident.
“I can take care of myself,” he said. “Coming?”
Carolus stood up and followed Dobell to his car. He saw Mrs. Stick was watching him leave but made no sign to her.
“How far are we going?” Carolus asked.
“You’ll see. I’ll have to put blinkers on you presently,” he added.
“It’s the accepted practice, I believe. Particularly in the film world. Of course in the English countryside it might attract the attention of passers-by, but I have no objection.”
He was interested to see that Dobell had taken the Borden Road which would lead past the cottage that had once been the Flitchers’ and the farm which until lately had been George Garrison’s.
A mile or two on, Dobell stopped the car and got out a box of Elastoplast squares.
“I’ll put a couple of those on,” said Carolus. He felt a strong distaste for being touched by the other. “You can see they are well-placed.”
Dobell watched suspiciously as Carolus peeled off the tape exteriors. Carolus felt as he plastered the lids of desires that the man was still watching closely. But apparently he was satisfied as he started the engine and drove on.
“You’ll have to keep your hands away from your eyes,” he said. Better put them in your pockets in case you try getting the plaster off.”
Carolus knew that he would not have time to do this before the other could intervene and obligingly thrust both hands in the pockets of his trousers.
He calculated that they had passed the cottage and was surprised when they did not turn into Garrison’s farm. They drove on, however, and Carolus lost count of their twists and cornerings after that. They seemed to continue for about five miles after the farm and he was surprised when the car drew up.
“Come along,” said Dobell.
As Carolus got out of the car he became conscious of a farmyard smell and in a few moments, without being able to see at all, he guessed the truth, Dobell had circled a bit and brought him back to the farm. The car was in an out-building but not the one used by Garrison since his car was probably still there. He passed through the little gate which led the way to the garden and back door of the house. Pleased to have recognized his surroundings he made no attempt to remove the plaster and pretended to grope blindly as though utterly unaware of anything about him. Dobell guided him roughly towards the back door.
“All right. We’ll have them off in a moment. Soon as you’re inside,” said Dobell.
But before they crossed the threshold Carolus felt a thundering blow across the back of his skull. He had just time to think what a dirty and treacherous blow it was, before he passed out altogether.
• • • • •
He became dimly conscious of a candle burning somewhere near his eyes. Or was it near? It had seemed to flicker and recede and come close again. More acutely he was aware of a blinding headache. Then slowly and painfully he knew other things—that he was lying on a settee, that his hands and feet were tightly bound, that it was night time and that the candle which had awakened him was the only light in the room.
Clear impressions came slowly and painfully. He saw that he was alone in the room. And the room itself was in some way familiar. The pain in his head seemed, if anything, to increase with returning awareness of the world about him but he could distinguish voices—men’s voices he thought—probably in the next room. At last he became fully conscious of the fact that he was lying, painfully cramped and tightly bound on the settee in the sitting-room of what had been George Garrison’s farmhouse. He remembered that he had been knocked out by a blow delivered when he had been blindfolded. He remembered the man Dobell and what had made him, Carolus, consent to accompany him. He decided to give no sign of having awakened but to lie, apparently still unconscious, when someone came into the room. He might learn something in that way and in any case he was not in a condition to answer questions or even decide what you should do.
Voices came nearer.
“Still out?” asked one.
“Out like a light, was the reply from, he was almost sure, Dobell.
“You might have killed the bastard. There was no need for it, either. We could have kept him quiet easy enough.”
“He’ll come round presently. There’s plenty of time.”
“Who says there is?” The first voice was querulous as the two moved away. “Can’t stay here for ever, you know . . .” They returned to the kitchen.
Carolus considered his bonds. Tying him up had been a quick and amateurish job intended only to provide temporarily safe keeping. He could probably, with time, release his feet. But whoever had tied up must be aware of that and would be keeping an eye on him.
Where, he wondered was Marie? Perhaps not here at all. Perhaps the promise that he should see her were itself a lie and he had walked into an obvious trap for no good reason. Or was she somewhere else in the house, as helpless as himself? Or could it be—an uglier doubt—that she was here of her own will and had consented to his own kidnapping?
When next the door from the kitchen opened, he decided, he would reveal his own returned consciousness. Nothing further was to be gained by trying to conceal it.
So you have come round?” said Dobell when the two men returned to look at him. “Feeling uppish, are you? You shouldn’t know so much. That’s your trouble. It isn’t good for you. This is Mr. Werner come to see you. He’ll tell you the same.”
“There’s a time for everything,” said Mr. Werner in a queer high-pitched sanctimonious voice. “A time to every purpose under the heavens. A time to keep silence and a time to speak. It was the time for you to keep silence before, when you were needling Fred here. It will soon be time to speak and I hope you realize it.”
“I congratulate you on your knowledge of the Bible,” said Carolus. “I suppose there wasn’t much else to read where you were for three years and four months.”
“Clever, aren’t you?” said Dobell. “So clever. And knowing all that, you can guess what we’re going to ask you, I suppose.”
“Of course I can. You want to know where Desmond Flitcher has gone with all the lolly.”
“That’s just it,” said Dobell. “You’ve got it in one. Where has Des Flitcher gone with the lolly? Aren’t you a clever boy to guess that? Well. Where has he gone.
“Don’t rush me,” said Carolus. “Some mean-natured cowardly bastard has given me a crack over the head and I shan’t be able to think clearly for a long time. And where is Marie?”
“So it’s you who wants to ask the questions is it?”
“I tell you what,” said Carolus. “Let’s both ask. Now where is Marie?”
“Are you going to tell me where Desmond is?”
“Not yet. Not for a long time yet. And only with a lot of conditions.”
“But you do know?”
Carolus knew that a great deal depended on his finding exactly the right tone in which to answer that question.
“Oh yes. I know, all right. I could have told you without all this melodramatic nonsense. And the inconvenience you must have caused Marie.”
“So you know, said Mr. Werner.” He was a thin bald man with shifty eyes. “Just like that. How do you know?”
“That,” said Carolus, “would be telling. But I may say I have been following this case for years.”
“Perhaps you’re after the lolly, too?” suggested Dobell.
“It never comes amiss,” said Carolus.
“So that’s it. You found where Des went after he’d finished here . . .”
“A delicate way of putting it,” said Carolus.
“And now you want your corner. You’ve got a bloody nerve.”
“Only twenty-five percent,” said Carolus. Your three lots and my little piece. For telling you where Desmond is. I doubt if you’ll ever find out otherwise. I assure you that rough stuff would not be of the slightest use. And this as a hideout is laughable.”
“What as a hideout? You don’t know where we are.”
“We’re in the sitting room of the late George Garrison’s farmhouse. But we shan’t be here much longer. I had enquired about it with a view to purchase. The agent will be up here in the morning, if Ben Tanner doesn’t walk in before. No, I’m afraid everything is against you, Fred.”
The man named Werner gave a cunning smile.
“All right. All right,” he said. “Keep your cool. I’m not saying that we might not be able to come to terms. That’s if you can prove you know where Desmond is.”
“Don’t be bloody silly. Prove. How can I prove it, or anything else about this case? I can give you the address and you can take it or leave it.”
How do we know it is the address?
“How do I know I shall ever see you again when you’ve got the money? There’s got to be a certain amount of—for the want of a better word—trust in a case like this. Though you might not find I’d be an easy sort of person to give a soldier’s farewell to.”
“No,” admitted Dobell. “I daresay not.”
“I don’t like it,” said Mr. Werner cautiously. “ I don’t see why we want to bother with this mug. Never have seen it. It was you wanted to bring him here. We could have found out from Marie.”
“Marie doesn’t know,” said Carolus scornfully. “Haven’t you realized that yet? If Marie knew she’d have grassed Flitcher straight away for the murder of her sister.”
They both seemed a little impressed by this argument.
Then Carolus, with some difficulty, looked at his watch.
“I’ve no wish to hurry you,” he said. “But I think you should make up your minds. You won’t find out where Desmond Flitcher is except from me, and you won’t find out at all unless you produce Marie pretty quickly and I find she’s alive and well. On the other hand I think I can promise you that you will hear no more of this silly bit of kidnapping. Unless, of course, the police are already on to it, or Ben Tanner discovers you’re here or any other of the . . .”
“Changes and chances of this mortal life,” put in Werner. “Well, I am willing to risk it, if you are, Fred. I think we’re both crackers. But there you are.”
“All right. It’s a deal,” said Dobell. “We leave you here and go to wherever Desmond is.”
“First you produce Marie,” said Carolus.
He watched their faces and was relieved to see that this caused them no embarrassment.
“We produce Marie. You give us the address. We leave quietly and at once in our car. You and she keep your mouths shut. We do the rest.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” said Carolus sweetly. Twenty-five per cent.”
“That’s it,” said Dobell, who was already occupied in thinking how any unwelcome complication of this kind could best be avoided in the future.
At that moment Marie walked into the room.
“Had a nice sleep, have you?” said Dobell.
“Carolus!” exclaimed Marie.
She looked anxious and pale and had to find a seat at once.
“All right, my dear. I have just been having a chat with these gentlemen.”
“We shan’t have to ask you any more questions,” said Dobell to Marie.
“I’ve told you I don’t know.”
Carolus spoke impatiently.
“And I’ve told you she doesn’t know where Desmond Flitcher is.”
“But he does,” grinned Werner to Marie. “He’s agreed to tell us.”
“Oh no!” said Marie. It was involuntary and Carolus saw the danger of it.
Werner looked at Marie suspiciously.
“Perhaps you’d better write it down on a piece of paper,” he suggested to Carolus.
Carolus nodded and indicated the rope round his wrists. “If I can,” he said.
Dobell brought a knife from the kitchen and cut away the rope. Carolus stretched his fingers and was able to use them, though he wrote with difficulty in large letters. Hotel Manchego, Torremolinos, Southern Spain.
“Been there for years,” he added.
Dobell frowned as he read the words then put the paper in his pocket.
Carolus and Marie sat listening to the sound of the two men’s car as it left the farmyard. Then Marie began to cry.