Death by the Lake
Mrs. Stick was right in thinking that Carolus would get over his doubts. After dinner he decided to go down to the pub and see what his acquaintance of the previous evening, whose name he had discovered was Bill Rudge, had to tell him about George Garrison.
The pub was called the Rudyard Arms. It had achieved ‘country hotel’ status in the last few years and what had been its modest private bar was now the Buttery, rich with expensive hangings and easy chairs. The other local inn, the Waterman, was in the village itself and had changed its appearance scarcely at all since Victorian times.
Bill Rudge was alone and welcomed Carolus.
“I hear you’ve been to see Dr. and Mrs. Nantwich,” he said without explaining how he had heard or from whom. “So you’ve got right down with your inquiries. I knew you would.”
“Yes,” said Carolus, who saw no reason to be reticent. “And they told me a very interesting thing.”
“I told you they would! About the night of the murder, was it?”
“Not actually. They said the man who knew most about it all was a farmer named George Garrison.”
“Did they, by George? And did they warn you about him?”
“Warn me? No. They said he was a fat man who had been the most intimate friend of Desmond and Jessie Flitcher.”
Bill Rudge did not smile.
“The last man who tried to question George Garrison was threatened with a twelve-bore. He’s an awkward customer. But I daresay they’re right in saying that he knows more about it than anyone else. He was up at Flitcher’s cottage on the day after the murder, before Flitcher disappeared. I can tell you that.”
“So I had better run out and see him. Where’s his farm?”
“Out on the Borden road. Beyond where Flitcher’s cottage was.”
“He lives alone?”
“Well yes. But he’s got a sort of partner or foreman, I don’t know what you’d call him. Ben Tanner. Married man with two children who lives in a bungalow a quarter of a mile away. They run the farm together and Ben’s wife Elsie looks after George.”
“I see. When would be a good time to go and see Garrison?”
“I’ve told you, there’s no good time. He won’t talk. But if you’re determined to go I should ’phone him first. Try tomorrow evening. He’ll be at the market all day tomorrow but back at his home in the evening.
“Thanks,” said Carolus. “And you believe that if I can get him to talk . . .”
“If . . .”
“He could tell me a great deal?”
“I am sure of it. The police questioned him but he’s not the sort of man to tell his business to the police. I shouldn’t be surprised if he couldn’t put you on to the whole truth. But I’m pretty sure he won’t. He’s never even told Ben Tanner or we should have heard. And Ben’s an open sort of chap who talks too much after he’s had a few beers. Garrison has never let on to him.”
Carolus nodded thoughtfully.
“Mind you, I don’t say he knows where Flitcher is now. I only say that if anyone does it’s him. He was as thick as thieves with the pair of them, Desmond and Jessie.”
“You make it sound very hopeful.”
“Well, you try, that’s all. I wouldn’t fancy the job myself but you try. Only don’t blame me if he sets the dogs on you.”
“I won’t,” promised Carolus. “And I’ll do what you say, ’phone him tomorrow evening and ask if I can see him. I shall have to think some excuse.”
“You do that,” said Bill Rudge. “And come and tell me about it afterwards.”
Carolus had a few more questions to ask about George Garrison.
“Is he a wealthy man?”
“He’s mean. I know that. He came into a bit of money from his father and I suppose he does all right for his farm, as far as you can with a small farm nowadays. Whether he’s got real money or not I couldn’t say. He’s the kind you’d never know about. He doesn’t spend much and certainly gives nothing away.”
“Would you say he and Ben Tanner were friends?”
“There again, it’s hard to say. They work together. I think there’s some kind of partnership. But Ben’s wrapped up with his wife and kids and I can’t see him having much use for George, outside the work, that is.”
“Yet Garrison was friendly with the Flitchers?”
“Yes. I think he’s changed a lot since then, though. He used to laugh at Desmond—you can’t imagine him laughing nowadays. He used to drop in here quite often in the evening. Scarcely ever comes in now. He’s got bad-tempered. Surly. I can’t stand the sight of him.”
Next day it rained and heavy clouds hung over the lake. Carolus grew a little depressed by the greyness of it and looked forward to the evening when he would make his attempt to see George Garrison.
At seven o’clock he telephoned. From almost the first few words that Garrison spoke in a surprisingly civil tone, Carolus became aware of two facts. One was that Garrison had been prepared for his call and although he asked Carolus to repeat his name he was perfectly aware of it. The second thing that Carolus realized was that Garrison, even if he did not welcome the call, intended to say nothing which would put Carolus off. This was more than surprising after what Carolus had learned about the man.
“You want to come and see me, Mr. Deene? Could you tell me what it is about?”
As if he didn’t know, thought Carolus, but decided to take the bull by the horns.
“I am making some inquiries about a man named Flitcher,” he said.
“I see. I don’t suppose I can be of much help to you, but come out by all means. . . . Just a minute!” The interruption sounded genuine. “There’s someone at the back door. Hold on a moment . . .”
The receiver was put down, but not on the hook. Carolus sat listening but he could distinguish no sound of movement in the room at the other end of the line and waited patiently for the conversation to be renewed. Five, ten minutes went by, but there was no sound. Garrison had been called to the door and had perhaps forgotten the telephone. Carolus picked up a book and keeping the receiver to his ear continued reading. After about half an hour’s silence he replaced the receiver on the hook.
A trap, of some sort? Was he expected to be moved by curiosity to make his way out to the farm and walk into danger? Perhaps a shot from that same twelve-bore which had threatened an earlier enquirer? The man’s preparedness for his call and polite encouragement to come out had been suspicious, to say the least of it. Yet, unless Garrison was a good actor (and good actors on the telephone are rare) Carolus thought he had in fact been interrupted by someone at the back door and had intended to continue speaking as soon as he had disposed of his caller.
By nine o’clock, when he had tried the ’phone again and received the engaged signal, Carolus decided to drive out.
Calling at the Rudyard Arms for exact directions, he found Bill Rudge seated in his usual corner with a pint before him.
“I saw George Garrison today,” he said. “I told him you might be coming out to see him. I hope that wasn’t wrong?”
“Not at all. I’ve ’phoned him and he sounded quite civil about it.”
“Yes. I was surprised that he didn’t go off the deep end when he heard about you. Perhaps he wants to talk.”
“I’m on my way there now,” said Carolus, and listened to Bill’s precise instructions on how to reach the farm.
He passed a cottage on the Borden road ‘miles from anywhere’ and took it to be that occupied by the Flitchers. A single light could be seen in an upstairs window. The incidents of five years ago, then, had not prevented later inhabitants from occupying it. And why should they? Local faith in the ‘beneath the road surface’ theory was so strong that no one supposed the cottage itself had been the scene of a murder.
He drove into the farmyard. The rain was still falling and there was no light in the house or in any of the out-buildings. There was an oppressive silence about the place. Not a dog barked.
He made his way towards the house and finding the back door, which faced towards the yard, he tried the handle. The door opened and groping for the probable position of the light-switch near the door, he jerked it down. An untidy kitchen became visible about him, but still no sound was heard.
“Anyone in?” called Carolus, but there was no answer.
He ventured further. There was another door, which he guessed opened into the living room, and he passed through. Immediately he saw on a small table the telephone receiver, still not on its hook but lying on the table. He put it to his ear. Silence again; the exchange had cut it off. This struck him as mysterious, even sinister, and after a long look round the room he put the receiver on its hook and went out by the kitchen to the farmyard.
Presuming that Garrison had gone to open the back door and had found someone there who had called him away (not Ben Tanner, probably, because Ben Tanner would be free to enter the house without knocking), Carolus could only think of one thing to do—find Garrison’s car, or the place where he kept it. If the summons were to leave the farm he might have gone in the car of whoever summoned him, but he might also have gone in his own. It must have been something reasonably urgent for him to have left the telephone off the hook and his caller waiting at the other end. At all events Carolus decided to make a tour of the farm buildings.
None of them appeared to be locked and he examined a large barn without discovering anything to help him. Then, by the light of the torch he had fetched from his own car, he approached a smaller building which seemed likely to serve as a garage. Almost immediately he saw what half-consciously he had feared ever since he entered the farmyard.
The bulky figure of a man was lying face downward on the ground behind the car. Under him, as though clutched in his arms, was a petrol can. He had been shot in the back.
Carolus knew what his duty was in such a case, but before telephoning to the police he made his own swift examination. Garrison had fallen forward and the petrol tin under him was empty, its cap screwed into place. Two bullets, so far as he could judge, had been fired, one penetrating the back, the other the head. There was no sign of a weapon. Closer examination by the police would shew whether there had been other shots, perhaps unsuccessful ones. Ballistics experts would be able to decide on the range from which they had been fired and the type of weapon used. One thing was certain—Garrison was dead, murdered presumably while Carolus had sat listening for him to return to the telephone.
Carolus went to the telephone in the house and was lucky to be connected with an intelligent and businesslike desk sergeant in the local police station. He explained exactly what he had found and the circumstances in which he had found it, gave his own particulars and agreed to wait at the farm until the police would arrive.
Then he went back to the body. It was an unpleasant sight. That gross hulk sprawled on the wet ground just in front of the space protected from the rain by the garage roof, so that the head and shoulders were comparatively dry and the rest of the body was soaked by rain. Carolus had the macabre thought that it was the shot in the head which had killed Garrison—that which had entered the heap of flesh might be lost in it.
As he stood there he became aware of footsteps approaching and saw a swinging lantern on its way towards him. Whoever was carrying it was making straight for the garage, either because he knew what he would see there, or more likely because he had seen Carolus’s light moving about in the garage and was coming to investigate. Carolus swiftly hid himself behind the car and waited.
He felt a curious calm and peaceful certainty, based on instinct again, that whoever approached was not the murderer, and was not even conscious of the murder. His tramping step was firm and deliberate as though he was unconscious of what he would find it as he came closer he said—“Are you there, George?” without any emotion in his voice
Then he saw the body. “Christ!” he exclaimed aloud in a low voice of cold horror. He bent down as Carolus had done but did not wait to do more than satisfy himself that Garrison was dead. Then he made for the house. Exactly the same thought had occurred to him as to Carolus and Carolus knew that he would find him telephoning the police.
But he followed him across.
“It’s all right,” he said when he had caught up with the man in the front room of the farmhouse and saw him looking through the telephone directory in a wild sort of way. “I have already ’phoned the police. They are on their way out here. You’re Ben Tanner, aren’t you?”
The man said “Yes,” and then almost as an afterthought, “Who are you?”
It was an odd thing but neither of these two men seemed to suspect the other though the circumstances in which they met might have led them to. From the first they talked freely to one another. It was as though both believed that someone else, someone whose identity they guessed, was the murderer of George Garrison.
“I was just walking over from my house,” said Ben, “when I saw a light—looked as though it came from the garage. I thought, that’s funny, what’s old George doing up there at this time? He’s usually in bed by ten o’clock.”
“It must have been my torch, said Carolus. I had just discovered him.”
“Come out here to see him, had you? I know he was expecting someone.”
“How do you know?”
“He told me. He didn’t tell me who it was though. He went into Millgrove today and heard that someone was probably coming to see him. Who d’you think killed him?”
“No idea. Have you?”
Ben Tanner denied any suspicion as quickly as Carolus had done.
“George wasn’t liked in this place but I can’t think who would have done a thing like this.”
“What makes you suppose it was someone from around here? We don’t know what car may have come to the farm.”
“Someone from a long way away?” suggested Ben. “That puts a different complexion on it.”
“Someone from the past, perhaps,” suggested Carolus.
“I know what you mean. We shall see what the police have to say about it.”
They had not long to wait. Two police cars drove into the yard and there began for both Carolus and Ben a long persistent questioning by a competent CID man which kept them for an hour at least and ended with a caution to each that it would be continued in the morning. They had, after all, been found on the scene of the crime and though Ben’s explanation for his presence was a fairly satisfactory one, since he came over to the farm every night before going to bed, the visit of Carolus was not so easy to explain. Later, when the corpse had been examined and the time at which Garrison had died was more accurately known, and Bill Rudge had given evidence, Carolus would doubtless be able to provide an alibi, but at the moment he was a suspect.
He offered to drive Ben to his cottage and went in to meet his anxious wife Elsie and hear Ben’s account to her of what had taken place. They were all fairly calm about it though for a moment, when Elsie first heard of the murder, after the long worrying wait for Ben, Carolus feared that she might break down or become hysterical. But no; she was a sensible young woman and only said, “Poor old George! You can’t seem to believe it, can you?”
“It looks to me,” said Ben, “that someone did it to keep his mouth shut.”
“You think he knew too much?” Carolus asked.
“That’s what it looks like. George was a silent sort of chap over some things.”
Elsie looked a little startled.
“You think that it goes back to the murder, then?”
“I am not saying so, but that’s what it looks like. Everyone has always said George knew more than he would say about that.”
“You mean that Desmond Flitcher’s come back and done for him in case he talked?”
“Now, Elsie, I’m not saying anything of the sort . . .”
“In that case no one’s safe!” said Elsie.
The same thought that occurred to Carolus, and it was not a pleasant thought. However hypothetical it might be it had a certain real and indisputable backing—the solid dead body of George Garrison stretched out on the ground behind his own car.
“What do you think Garrison was doing with an empty petrol can?” Carolus asked Ben.
“Was it empty? There was a little in it this morning because I tried it. He always kept a spare can in the garage.”
“Let us suppose,” Carolus said, “that whoever came to the back door asked him for some petrol.”
“He’d have said ‘no’,” Ben told him at once. “George always said ‘no’ if he was asked for anything.”
“But suppose he knew the person? Suppose it was worth his while? Or suppose he was afraid to refuse?”
“He might have given it then, I suppose.”
“And afterwards,” Elsie joined in imaginatively, “he was just putting that can back when whoever it was pulled out a gun and shot him in the back!”
“The police will find out all about that,” said Ben. “And they’ll find out who it was and why it was done. So there’s no need for you to worry and we can all go back to bed.”
Carolus left them and drove back to his home. He wanted to go straight to bed, but Mrs. Stick was waiting up for him.
“Is it right there’s been a murder tonight?” she said.
“Now how could you possibly have heard that?” asked Carolus, half in admiration.
“I’m afraid Stick’s to blame,” said the little woman. She so rarely blamed her husband for anything that Carolus listened attentively. “If he’d of come home straight away when the Waterman closed I should never have known anything about it. But he stayed and had a game of nap in the room at the back and that’s what did it. If there’s one thing Stick enjoys it’s a game of nap and they went on playing till all hours. As he was coming home he met this chap . . .”
Carolus knew better than to interrupt the narrative by asking “which chap?” It was a recognized way of referring to a person whose identity was unknown to the narrator.
“. . . who told him there’d been a murder out on the Borden road. A big fat farmer called Garrison. Shot in the back he was and whoever did it got clean away.
“I congratulate you on your accuracy, Mrs. Stick.”
“What I want to know, sir, is what you were doing to let it happen? If we’ve got to have murders why don’t you find out about them before they are done? Then we could all have a bit of peace.
“It’s not so easy, Mrs. Stick. But if it’s any comfort to you I have every hope of finding out about this murder after it had been done. And perhaps sooner than you think. Good night. Pleasant dreams.”
“It’s all very well for you to say that,” began Mrs. Stick, but before she could say more Carolus gave the little woman an affectionate pat on the back and went up up to bed.