Death by the Lake
Next morning when his housekeeper brought his tea to the low bedroom he had chosen for its view of the lake, Carolus sensed that she was put out about something.
Mrs. Stick had looked after him ever since the death of his young wife during the last war. She was a fierce-looking little woman with steel-rimmed spectacles which she could not be persuaded to change for those of a less antiquated pattern. She was devoted to Carolus whom she regarded as a wilful young man, too interested in ugly things like murder and crime. Of these she expressed her horror freely, warning Carolus that if he became involved in investigations again she would have to leave him, a threat which they both knew would never be carried out. Her husband’s rare speech reached Carolus only occasionally in remarks reported by Mrs. Stick and as these were apparently made chiefly to support arguments of her own, Stick remained a somewhat enigmatic figure.
This morning she set down the tea-tray with the look which told Carolus that she was about to ‘come out with something’.
“It seems we can’t get away from murders and that wherever we move to,” she said.
“Don’t you like Millgrove Water?” Carolus asked innocently.
“I’m not saying it isn’t a pretty little place and the house is quite convenient although the kitchen might be bigger and the scullery’s dark. But when it comes to Stick not being able to go into the Waterman without hearing what happened five years ago and coming home full of it just when I was making a cup of tea, well!”
“What happened five years ago, Mrs. Stick?”
“You know about it, all right, otherwise you’d never have come here. About this poor woman being banged over the head . . .”
“I didn’t know that,” said Carolus. “Banged over the head?”
“That’s what it looked like. Stick says she’s under the main road where no one could ever find her and the villain who done it gone. It looks as though we can’t even move to a quiet place like this without being followed. I thought we’d done with all that.”
“How did Stick hear this?”
“You know what Stick is,” said his wife.
“He hears all these stories and comes home and tells me. As if I hadn’t got enough to think of with the getting settled down. And fancy burying anyone under a road like that!”
“There is no absolute proof of that,” Carolus ruminated.
Mrs. Stick looked alarmed.
“I hope you’re not going to start raking it all up?” she said. “It’s five years ago and I thought you were going to write a book.”
“Perhaps I am. There are lots of ways of getting rid of a corpse . . .”
“I won’t have it, sir! Not now we’ve retired. Getting rid of a corpse, indeed! Anyone would think you was one of these vampires you see in the films. However else could he have got rid of it?” Curiosity, usually controlled in Mrs. Stick, was breaking through.
“There’s the lake, for instance.”
“You give me the creeps. The lake, did you say? But wouldn’t it be washed up? It’s horrible to imagine, but I have heard that nothing stays under water very long.”
“It’s not like the sea, where things come ashore.”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about. And Stick heard the man who did it has been seen in the village at night, haunting the scene of his crime. If that starts we shall have to go.”
“I don’t think there’s much danger of it. That’s an old superstition about murderers.”
“It’s to be hoped that’s all it is. Your tea’s getting cold, sir. Stick did hear that the poor woman who was murdered’s sister still lives here. Married to the doctor, he says.”
“I know. I hope to meet her. I’ll be down to breakfast in a quarter of an hour, Mrs. Stick.”
“Well, it’s a lovely morning. That’s one thing,” Mrs. Stick conceded as she left the room.
In fact Carolus met Julie Nantwich sooner than he expected. They were both in the local newsagent’s that morning when she spoke to him. She was a large, cheerful woman with a deep voice, who was trying to accustom a reproachful copper spaniel to a lead.
“Oh yes,” she said. “You’re the interesting bachelor who has bought Lakeside house. I have heard about you. You go in for detection and all that sort of thing, don’t you?”
Carolus admitted that there was an element of truth in this.
“Bertram, my husband, was quite intrigued. He reads Agatha Christie and . . . Iris Murdoch, is it?”
“Someone like that, anyway. Or was it Muriel Spark? He’s mad about detective novels. You must meet him.”
“I’d like to.”
“You’ve probably heard about our own case.”
“I have, yes. It must have been a frightful thing for you.”
“It was. I thought at the time I’d never get over it. But, somehow or other, one does. I suppose one gets over everything in time. Anyway, you don’t want to hear about that.”
“But I do,” protested Carolus. “I do very much, if you can be persuaded to talk about it.”
“Oh yes. Too easily, I am afraid. I long ago passed through the stage of not daring to hear it mentioned and now I am probably a bore about it. My husband says so, anyway. ‘Quite an ordinary case of wife-murder,’ he says. Men can be so dammed superior, can’t they? Why don’t you come and see us and hear all the gory details?”
“Were they gory?”
“Well, there was that bloodstain in the road . . . but you had better hear things in their right order. How about tea tomorrow?”
“I should like to come very much.”
“Good. I’ll tell Bertram. About four o’clock then?”
Carolus went next day and found Dr. Nantwich’s house and surgery in the village itself, just near the church, in fact. Julie Nantwich came to the door.
“I hope you didn’t mind my getting off with you at the newsagents yesterday, she said with hearty good-humour. We’re glad to see new faces here and I have heard all about you and your sleuthing. I wasn’t going to let you become a recluse, and I felt sure you played bridge. Do you, by the way?”
Carolus shook his head. “I shan’t be much of a gift to the community,” he said.
“You will if you clear up the mystery of our murder. Or find out where that brute has gone. If you had seen him you’d have known at once what a sinister character he was. I didn’t—I’m hopeless at people. I thought he was quite charmng. A bit sournois, perhaps, and far too good-looking. But I never dreamt of his being a criminal.
“My sister Jessie seemed fond of him, and we thought at first that he adored her. You’d have said it was an ideal marriage. Or perhaps you wouldn’t because you’re trained to know these people, but I did. So did my husband, though he denies it now. We were quite thrilled when she brought him here and my sister Marie . . .”
“Yes?” said Carolus.
Julie looked at him steadily.
“This mustn’t go any further,” warned Julie. “But I thought at the time and I have thought since that Marie was just a little éprise. She was engaged to a another man when Desmond Flitcher appeared and she broke it off. She seemed fascinated and, looking back, I suppose he had a sort of cobra attractiveness. Perhaps that’s why she seems to reproach yourself so much now.”
“Oh yes. She has changed terribly since it happened. She was never such an extrovert—that’s what my husband calls me. But she became positively morose after the murder. She has retired into herself, as the saying is, and has very little to do with anyone. She goes for long walks on her own and whenever I try to get her to meet people or even come here to see Bertram and me, she finds some excuse, though she is coming round this evening, as it happens, for the first time in months. She’s terribly unsociable. I put it down to the fact that the murder was not only a frightful shock and a great sorrow, but a disillusionment, too. I won’t say she was in love with Desmond or anything of the sort, but I’m sure she admired him and found it hard to believe such a hideous thing about him. She told the police all she knew but since then it seems as though something died in her.
“Can you imagine what a ghastly blow it was to all of us? I was with them on the last evening and never suspected a thing. Desmond was in great spirits and Jessie seemed quite herself again though she had been a bit off colour recently. As it turned out afterwards she was trying to persuade him to go to the police and confess.”
“ ‘As it turned out’, but did you know this?” asked Carolus.
“Yes. I did. I overheard a telephone conversation. She was speaking to him from this house while he was in London and apparently had half persuaded him before he left to go up for a couple of nights. But it seemed she couldn’t change his mind. He kept quiet while she talked for all she was worth trying to persuade him. I suppose he didn’t like giving up the money. She was talking on the extension in the bedroom and had no idea I was in at the time. I felt a bit mean listening, but it was a good thing I did. I learnt just how things were between them and I was able to tell the police later.”
“But they still haven’t found Flitcher.”
“They will. He’s bound to turn up. Yet in a way I am not really sure I want them to. All that over again and sending him to prison won’t bring Jessie back to life, will it?”
“People are supposed to have seen him.”
“That’s all poppycock. Do you think he’d take the chance of coming back here?”
“It doesn’t seem probable, but murderers do some improbable things, Mrs. Nantwich. He was seen after your sister had disappeared?”
“Oh yes. I saw him myself. I drove out to their cottage to ask Jessie when she was leaving. It was the day after they were seen together at the Rudyard Arms. I found Desmond had a bad case of the jitters. ‘Jessie’s not well,’ he said. ‘She stayed in bed this morning and doesn’t want to be disturbed.’ I said I would just slip up to her room quietly and see if she wanted anything but he stood in front of the staircase as though if I took another step he would forcibly prevent me. Unfortunately I didn’t realize what he was doing at the time. I just thought Jessie was asleep, and I intended to come back next day. But I did not and the following night he disappeared.
“Even then we didn’t think of it. Jessie had felt better and they had been able to follow their plans for a holiday, we thought. It was only when the police told us who Desmond Flitcher really was and how he was wanted for the murder of a security guard and I don’t know how many more crimes that we realized what had happened to poor Jessie and everything else. You don’t know how often I’ve cursed myself for not getting Bertram to go and and to see her that evening, after Desmond had kept me away.”
Carolus surprised Julie by saying quietly—“What would he have found, I wonder?”
“Nothing, of course. Desmond had killed her by then.”
“You know, there is no absolute proof of that,” said Carolus.
“Oh, absolute proof! That’s all you detectives think of. It’s plain as a pikestaff to me. I admit the road-making part of it may be myth though the police found enough evidence to have the surface taken up, remember. But even if he did not get rid of her body like that, even if she came back here with him when they left the pub, he found some other away. She’s not still alive, that’s certain.”
“But is it?” persisted Carolus. He was not so much doubting as instigating her to say more.
“How can there possibly be any doubt about it? Do you think if my sister had somehow managed to get away from him she wouldn’t have told us at once? Or are you supposing that she is helping him spend money he had obtained by robbery and murder? Do you seriously suggest that about my sister?”
“No. Of course I don’t. I wanted to hear what you would say.”
“It was a ridiculous suggestion, but of course I know you have to look at all sides of a question and you never knew Jessie. She would die before she agreed to anything like that, and of course that’s what she did do. Die, I mean. Jessie was one of those very small slight women who seem to be made of will-power. You could see it in her chin and in her eyes. Sorry if I went off the deep end of bit. I knew her, you see.”
“I often wonder,” said Carolus, “whether we ever know anyone is intimately as that. Even sisters, or brothers, or husbands and wives. Your sister must have thought she knew Desmond Flitcher. But I agree that in this case there’s very little room for doubt. Sometimes when you have spent a lot of your life investigating crime you can get to clever and see things that aren’t there. I accept the basis of the story, only wondering a little about the actual time, place and manner of the murder and the disposal of the corpse. That road-making theory is almost too convenient.”
They were interrupted by the entrance of Dr. Nantwich, a beetle-browed man who greeted Carolus affably.
“You’re going to have a go at our murder, I hear,” he said. “I wish you luck but it’s a tough assignment. I don’t say the police have given it up, because they’re reputed never to give up. But it’s beaten them for five years, anyway.”
“Mr. Deene has just suggested that Jessie may be still alive.”
“Forgive me but I suggested nothing of the sort. I said there was no absolute proof that she was dead, which is a very different thing. And certainly no proof that she has been buried under the M 16.”
“As to that, I believe the police have a lot of evidence we don’t know about. They cross-examined the men working on the road pretty thoroughly before they got permission to break the surface. It was a costly business, that. I understand a man named Morrow, some kind of foreman, was able to tell them something which made them work on it.”
“Have you time for some tea, dear?” Julie asked her husband.
“Yes, please. No surgery till six o’clock today.”
Julie hurried out leaving the two men together.
“It must have been a good deal more than a hunch about the road,” reflected Dr. Nantwich.
“I’m sure it was. But they found nothing.”
“That’s easy to explain. A few tons of concrete would obliterate any traces.”
“Most. But not quite all,” argued Carolus.
“Not a pleasant subject,” said the doctor. “You can understand my wife being a bit touchy about it, even today. If you had known the father of these three girls you would have understood them better. An old monster, full of the most appalling selfishness. He gave them the hell of a life, especially Jessie and Marie. Julie managed to escape the worst of it. Their mother died when they were quite young and he brought them here to tyrannize over them. No wonder poor Jessie accepted the first man she could—this brute Flitcher.”
Julie returned with a tray. After she had poured out for them and passed round some home-made biscuits, she returned to the subject they had been considering and burst out suddenly—“What I know is, that Jessie was not lying upstairs in that cottage on the day I went to see her. Or if she was, she was dead.”
“Mr. Deene will want to know how you know,” said the doctor.
“I just know. I remember every moment of that scene, how jumpy Desmond was and how he prevented me from going towards the staircase. When I look back on it I’m absolutely sure Jessie wasn’t there. You know how you feel things? You can feel a person’s presence but you can feel an absence, too. I have never been sure in that sort of way about the M 16, but I’m sure of this.”
“I am the last person to undervalue the strength of instinct and intuition,” said Carolus. “I often rely on them myself.” Then he added, “Who else saw Desmond Flitcher during those two days when he remained at the cottage?”
“George Garrison, of course,” said Dr. Nantwich.
“Who is George Garrison? And why ‘of course’?”
“Haven’t you heard about George Garrison? He’s a local farmer, the closest friend Desmond and Jessie had in the place. He was always there or with them in the pub.”
“But was he there during those vital two days?”
“Oh yes. He told the police about it. But he didn’t see Jessie, apparently. You can ask him if you want. He’s still here in Millgrove Water, still farming and as fat as ever.”
“Yes, he’s a fat man. Unhealthily so, though he works quite hard on his farm. He’s not a patient of mine or I’d try to get him to reduce a bit. Beer and plenty to eat. He always looks as if he’s in a sweat, even in winter. He could tell you more about Desmond Flitcher than either of us can. Whether he will or not it’s hard to say.”
“I can only try.”
“Fat men are supposed to be good-natured, generous, genial, happy. I can’t tell you how often I found that not to be true. I know men, the Falstaff type to look at, who are malicious, mean and disgruntled. I don’t know George Garrison well, but he has never struck me as being very amiable. However, he knew Desmond and Jessie and may be able to tell you something you don’t know.”
“Thanks,” said Carolus.
“The other person who can help you,” said Julie, “is my sister Marie.”
It seemed to be assumed that Carolus needed help; that he was already engaged in an inquiry, though he was less sure about that.
“But if you want her co-operation you’ll have to go about it very skilfully. She won’t tell me anything, though we’ve shared plenty of secrets in the past. I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but I suppose you have your methods. She’d probably be happy to get it off her chest, if you can somehow win her confidence. I don’t know how much she can tell you. She was away at the time of the murder.”
“Does she live quite alone?”
“Yes. It worries us. But what can you do? We’re all rather obstinate, I suppose. Aren’t we, dear?”
“Oh you’re pig-headed as a mule,” said her husband genially. “But I shouldn’t say Marie was. She had been hurt, that’s all.”
“Tell me,” said Carolus. “Have you a photograph of Jessie? As she was at the time of her marriage, I mean.”
“Several,” said Julie and went to fetch them.
Carolus looked at a rather long oval face, the face of a tragic young woman, who looked at him with a mournful appeal. He examined the pictures carefully before he put his leave.
Back at Lakeside house Carolus stood overlooking the placid water and wondered whether he would not abandon this rather pleasant enquiry. There was something he disliked about the whole teasing problem, something that upset his enjoyment of the landscape and the quiet June evening. He had never before thought less eager to become involved in a case, in spite of the points of appeal he had noticed in the story as he had heard it in the pub. He had spoken to Julie Nantwich of instinct and intuition and he was by no means proof against these things. Something he could not define troubled him, made him feel as though he were . . . threatened. Absurd, of course. Yet even when Mrs. Stick called him to dinner in her flat normal-sounding voice and the blessed routine of his bachelor life closed round him, he was aware of an ugly sense of disturbance, as though there were unseen menace and danger behind the calm of the evening.
“I suppose you’ve started,” said Mrs. Stick. “And now we shall have murderers popping up again, like we’ve had before.”
“I’m not at all sure that I shall start, as you call it,” said Carolus.
But the housekeeper knew better.
“It’s to be hoped they don’t come here,” she said.