Death by the Lake
In cynical moments Carolus considered that the Merseyside Supermarket had been built to compete in grandeur with the known architectural features of Liverpool, the town hall, the Walker Art Gallery, the Royal Liver building, the St. George’s Hall, and so on. It was more pretentious than some of them and since the site it occupied had been added to from time to time, and was still under construction, it covered almost as much ground. Faced with this Corinthian monster on the following day when he had bade goodbye to Mr. Gorringer, Carolus left his car in its underground parking place and entered somewhat differently. For a time he wandered through its spacious avenues, lined with food stalls and redolent of frozen dairy produce, then asked a large supervisory-looking person where he might find Mrs. Denver.
“Mrs. Denver?” the person said, as though she could scarcely believe her ears. “You want to see her?”
“You had better go to the fourth floor and ask in the administrative offices. I take it you had an appointment?”
“Press,” said Carolus as though he were inspired.
“Someone will probably see you,” said the person doubtfully. “They are very busy, but you can try.”
“Mrs. Denver never sees anyone, of course. You realize she’s the general manager?”
“That’s what I understand.”
“I should advise you to ask for Lady Knighton. She’s the P.R.O.”
“It’s Mrs. Denver whom I want to see.”
The person looked as though she washed her hands of such a full initially importunate man.
“It’s the fourth floor,” she said in dismissal.
He reached the fourth floor by escalator and opened a door inscribed Administrative Offices. A Cerberus in the shape of a Peke-faced young woman with glasses asked him, without any obvious intention to oblige, what she could do for him.
“I want to see Mrs. Denver. I don’t want to see Lady Knighton or anyone else. I have no appointment and I’m in rather a hurry,” he said with some exasperation.
The Pekingese who wore a miniskirt now looked hostile.
“Name?” she said
Carolus had intended to use another name and mention a newspaper, but he was irritated into giving his own.
“Take a seat,” said the Pekingese with such decision that Carolus felt he was ordered into a dentist’s chair and expected to remain there for a couple of hours. The Pekingese disappeared.
But after a few moments she returned, her eyes wide with amazement.
“Mrs. Denver will see you,” she explained. “Please come this way.”
They passed through another office and stood before a door marked General Manager.
“Don’t knock. She doesn’t like it.”
“I had no intention of knocking,” Carolus couldn’t resist saying.
He opened the door, and entered a large area office furnished like that of an American executive.
From behind a huge desk a dumpy business-like woman rose to greet him.
“I was expecting you, Mr. Deene,” she said. “You’re a friend of Marie Morton’s. She has just been on the ’phone to tell me you were coming. Do sit down.”
Several preconceived notions were thus knocked out. Margot Denver had nothing in the least mysterious about her and made no secret of her friendship with Marie or communication with her. Carolus smiled as he recollected the trouble he had taken to purloin Marie’s telephone bill in order to discover that whom she had so often telephoned from Millgrove. Margot seemed a commonplace, down-to-earth though presumably highly successful business woman.
“How is Marie?” she asked inevitably.
“She’s very well,” said Carolus, even more conventionally.
“Poor girl, she has had a time, hasn’t she?”
It was no good Carolus pretending that he did not understand this.
“I’m afraid she has.”
“She will insist on living alone. I’ve begged her to come and stay with me. We were school-friends, you know.”
“Yes. She told me.”
“What a dreadful thing it was, about her sister, went on Margot chattily. “It seemed for a time that Marie would never get over it. It was just about the time I came here, you know, and had so much on my hands but I couldn’t do much for Marie. “Though as a matter of fact I don’t think anyone could have. She seems to want to go her own way in a crisis like that.”
“You have only been here five years, Mrs. Denver?
“Yes. And building all the time. I mean quite literally building. When I took over this place it was an old-fashioned grocery shop with a lot of bad debts. We had to work, I can tell you.”
Carolus wondered who ‘we’ were and a moment later learned.
“It’s a private company,” said Mrs. Denver. “I am only the general manager. But I have been chiefly responsible for building it up.”
“And I see from the advertisements that is the largest business of its kind in the North of England.”
“It is. But I don’t suppose you’re interested in the growth of a supermarket. Marie tells me that you dabble in detection.”
“That’s just about it,” said Carolus. “I dabble. Sometimes not very successfully.”
“It’s a pity you can’t find Desmond Flitcher,” said Margot Denver unemotionally. That case can never be really cleared up till he’s been discovered and brought to trial. I’m sure Marie feels that, too.”
“I don’t. I think just the contrary. She doesn’t seem to want the man found.”
“You’re mistaken, Mr. Deene. She was devoted to her sister Jessie. She give anything, even now, can know that Flitcher was no longer at large.”
“She doesn’t give me that impression. She knows I have been working on this case and she won’t tell me anything that helps.”
“Could it be that she doesn’t trust you?”
“It could, of course. I’ve only known her for a couple of months. There’s no reason why she should trust me. But I think it’s more than that. Does she tell you everything about it?
“Gracious no. I never asked her. And she never asks me about this business. We are, neither of us, interested in one another’s affairs. In any case she’s always been a rather secretive girl. You’ll stay to lunch, won’t you? I usually have something in the office.”
“I should be delighted. I’m afraid I’m rather an intruder.”
“Of course not. You’re a friend of Marie’s. I’m delighted that you’ve come here. I so rarely see anyone interesting.”
“Did Marie tell you that she was kidnapped?” asked Carolus suddenly.
“She mentioned something about it. A couple of thugs, wasn’t it?”
“Desmond Flitcher’s former associates. They want to find him.”
“I bet they do. He’s got the money, hasn’t he?”
“So far as is known. They couldn’t get anything out of Marie. I sent them to Spain.”
“To Spain? That was risky, wasn’t it? So obvious, I mean. Surely they must have guessed that?”
“Apparently not. They went off, anyway. I’ve no doubt they’ll return, though. Mrs. Denver, do you know where Desmond Flitcher is?”
It was so direct that Carolus thought she might be angry with him for the cheek of his demand. But not at all. She gave him a knowing, friendly smile.
“Of course not. I’ve told you that Marie never discusses the thing with me. As a matter of fact I doubt whether Marie herself knows any more than you or I.”
“But she knows other things. A great many other things. And sooner or later she will have to tell me.”
“I dropped into this thing casually at first. I had come to Millgrove Water to retire and I heard the story in the pub. I became intrigued when I met Marie and her sister Julie. Now I’m in up to the neck. If I don’t find out the truth it will be the first real failure I have had. I’ve reached the age when I daren’t have a failure. It would mean that I was no more good. So I am going to clear it up, come heaven or high water.”
“I like your spirit,” said Margot. Marie’s lucky to have you, whether she knows it or not.”
“Perhaps it’s just selfishness,” said Carolus. “I must clear it up. Even if it means spying on Marie. Do you know where she stays in London, by the way?”
“In London?” Margot seemed genuinely puzzled. “No. I never remember her going to stay in London.”
“She goes fairly often. She has told me so herself and her sister has told me, too. But she doesn’t tell Julie where she stays.”
“Nor me. Shall we go through and have some lunch?”
Margot led him into a pleasant dining-room in which two places had been laid at a fairly large table. A rather lugubrious-looking man, with a noticeably smooth complexion, was waiting to serve the meal. He was in his late thirties and did not look at home as a waiter.
“I’m terribly sorry—I forgot to ask you what you would drink. I don’t drink gin and stuff myself but we’ll have some champagne with lunch.”
Carolus settled for that in preference to ‘gin and stuff’. He reflected that Margot might be, as she said, ‘only the general manager’ but she had made herself very comfortable in the Merseyside Supermarket. Sitting beside her he had a better opportunity to study her face than in the office, where she had sat with her back to the window. There was something curiously artificial about it, he decided, not the artificiality of preserved youthfulness; if anything she looked mature. Perhaps as a business executive she just wanted to stress her experience rather than appear merely a promoted girl. She was not a good-looking woman—there was a crunched up decisive look about her face, an almost witch-like proximity of nose and chin, but she carried it off with a liveliness of expression which made her interesting. Since she had been at school with Marie, Carolus thought partially, she must have been a senior girl when Marie was a junior
The man who waited did so ungraciously and, from some instructions which Margot gave him, Carolus gathered that he was more usually employed as chauffeur.
As if by agreement neither Margot nor he discussed matters previously referred to, and Margot now seemed quite ready to tell him about the business of which she was obviously very proud.
“I was fortunate in finding people who had confidence in me,” she said. “But I’m not ashamed to claim most of the credit for making the business what it is now. I could not have done it without capital, but capital alone would not have got me far.”
“No. It needs imagination. And daring, I suppose.”
“I don’t know about daring. Investing other people’s money needs caution rather than daring.”
“But gambling with your own?”
“I had none. Or almost none, when I started. I had to find backers, and somehow inspire them with an idea. It wasn’t easy. But here we are. Racking, will you fill Mr. Deene’s glass?”
So the gloomy chauffeur-waiter was called Racking. Carolus watched him while he splashed some Veuve Clicquot into the glass.
“But you found them and they supported you. Did any of them shew the vision you wanted? Surely there must be someone who shares the credit for the Merseyside Supermarket?”
Whether Margot thought Carolus was pulling her leg, or whether she resented the suggestion that you should share the pride of achievement, was impossible to judge but she said, almost huffily, “No one in particular. Just dull capitalists.”
“You didn’t let any of your friends in on it?”
“I had no friends of that kind.” Then abruptly, because Racking was out of the room, “What does Marie think of it?”
“She doesn’t talk about it much, though she does talk about you.”
“Nicely, I hope?”
“Good. I tell you what, Carolus—I may call you Carolus, mayn’t I?—let’s surprise Marie. Tomorrow is Saturday and I can free myself from my chains. We’ll run down to Millgrove Water and see her.”
“I only heard she was coming back. From her sister,” said Carolus dubiously.
“Oh, but she is back. I told you she telephoned me of your coming. Do let’s. It will be great fun. I long to go out on that lovely lake again and Marie needs someone to wake her up. I’ll send Racking down with my car, to bring me back, and come with you in yours.”
Margot seemed genuinely enthusiastic over the idea and Carolus, though he did not for reasons of his own shew a like enthusiasm, did not try to dampen her.
“I love Millgrove Water,” went on Margot. “I’ve only been there once, with Marie, but I thought it a most romantic place. Those blue hills and the grey water. Full of legends, too. I shall love seeing it again. I suppose, living there, you get blasé, but it’s heaven to me. Do you swim every day?”
“I have a terrible confession to make. I can’t swim,” said Carolus. “I was partially paralysed as a small boy and terrified of the water because I couldn’t master it. Since then—I suppose it’s a psychological thing—I have never been able to manage it, even a breast stroke.”
“But you won’t mind if I do? I’m really thrilled with the idea of packing up here, even if it’s only for forty-eight hours or so. I do work awfully hard, you see, and to visit that divine place again and give Marie a surprise will make me enormously happy. Has she still got the old dinghy?”
“I expect so. If not there are plenty of boats of all kinds there.”
“Of course. So let’s go, eh?”
“Certainly. We’ll go down tomorrow. As you say, you can send your car ahead. I hope you will stay in my house—there’s not much room in Marie’s and my housekeeper will make you comfortable.”
“Whatever you and Marie decide,” said Margot gaily.
“Shall I pick you up at your home tomorrow morning?” suggested Carolus. “You have not told me where you live.”
For the first time Margot spoke hurriedly and emphatically.
“No, no. Don’t trouble to do that. You’d never find it. Would you pick me up here? I shall have to come in tomorrow morning, anyhow. We can drive straight away from here.” She grew enthusiastic again. “What heaven it will be!”
Carolus could not help feeling that she was overdoing it somewhat and thought that if a week-end in a lakeside village meant so much to her she should indulge in it more often. But he said nothing.
It was nearing noon next day when they set off in the Bentley, for Margot had been delayed at the Supermarket till then.
“Does Racking know the way?” asked Carolus.
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Margot.
Carolus glanced aside at her.
“He was with you when you went to call on Marie before, then?”
“Must have been. Because I have a confession, too. You can’t swim and I can’t drive. Absurd, isn’t it?”
“It is, rather, for a tycoon like you,” said Carolus good-humouredly. “Is he a good chauffeur?”
“I suppose so. I find him a bit sissy, but I suppose he knows his job.”
“Been with you long?”
“Oh yes. Some years. I like Liverpool, don’t you? But you can’t say the suburbs are very beautiful.”
“No. We’ll soon be clear of them. This must be one of the hottest days of the year.”
“Hooray,” said Margot. “I shall swim.”
“I telephoned my housekeeper,” said Carolus. “We’ll have lunch on the way and arrive about tea-time. After that we’ll do whatever you and Marie like. What car is Racking driving?”
“A Jag,” said Margot. “But you won’t see him on the road. He left last night. I told him to stay at the Waterman.”
“I wonder why you did that? I thought our coming was to be a surprise to Marie.”
“It will be. She won’t recognize Racking. He likes to go ahead like that. It makes him feel important perhaps. He takes my bags and so on.”
This made Carolus think deeply.