A Bone and a Hank of Hair
Before Carolus could enjoy that delectable meal, he had another caller. Hurrying in from the very cold night, Mr. Gorringer, if not like Nature red in tooth and claw, was scarlet in ears and nose. His protuberant eyes were wide with alarm.
“Have you seen the evening paper?” he asked, overacting his distraction.
“Not yet. Have a drink, Headmaster?”
“Seldom as I indulge, Deene, I feel that on this occasion I need heartening. It was an ill day in which Mrs. Gorringer suggested to her relative by marriage that she could consult you. You will be shocked to know that the police have discovered human remains in the house at Bolderton in which this fiend in human form, Rathbone, once lived.”
“In the garden, not the house. Under the rubbish-heap.
“You knew that the discovery had been made?”
“I made it.”
“Ah, Deene, what ghosts have you raised, far better left undisturbed? What odious things have you brought to light?”
“Just a skull,” said Carolus maddeningly.
“At least I have cause to be thankful that the press so far make no reference to your part in the discovery of this hecatomb. Perhaps you can further reassure me. Have they been able to apprehend the villain responsible?”
“I should think Rathbone is already under arrest. He will be brought up from Cornwall tomorrow.”
“He had taken refuge in Cornwall, had he? But the long arm of the law has sought him out? Then I assume he will be brought to justice and condemned without any further participation by you in the matter?”
“I don’t know whether he will be condemned. It depends on the charge.”
“But no testimony by you will be required, Deene? It is that which most disturbs me.”
“I shouldn’t think so. The tenant of Coleshill Lodge can give evidence of finding the skull.”
“I breathe again. When I read the news this evening I was quite tracassé. I feared that the good name of the school was in jeopardy and this time, though indirectly, through my own fault.”
Without asking Mr. Gorringer, Carolus mixed him another dry martini and the headmaster permitted himself to relax.
“So now,” he observed, “we can prepare ourselves for the following term with no more of these morbid distractions.”
“Morbid? I suppose so. But deeply interesting. A great many questions remain unanswered. We have discovered the remains of Anne Rathbone. What about the others?”
“The others ?”
“The women Rathbone lived with at Hastings and Bluefield respectively. Also Charlotte Bright, the sister of the woman buried at Bolderton? Where are these?” asked Carolus, catching the headmaster’s trick of rhetorical question.
“You do not surely mean to involve yourself farther, my dear Deene? Your task is done. You have rendered a great service to the children of Mrs. Chalk, who will now inherit what was rightfully theirs some years ago. What mystery, then, remains?”
“Everything, almost. I’d like to get at the truth. As a matter of fact, I am pretty near it now. I have to see one other person and I think the whole thing will fit into place.”
“I wash my hands of it,” boomed Mr. Gorringer. “What good purpose do you serve? If this ghoul is guilty of more murders, you cannot bring the unfortunate women back to life. To use a phrase more appropriate to Mrs. Gorringer, you have your skull, why worry with your cross-bones?”
“Sorry to be a bore on the point, Headmaster, but what I want is the truth.”
“You are incorrigible, Deene. You have solved the crux of the problem. Must I suspect you of wishing to adorn your theory till you can give us a dramatic mise-en-scène as on other occasions? Ah, well, I have learned my lesson. If a thousand relatives by marriage of Mrs. Gorringer are deprived of their inheritance, I shall not give my consent to application being made to you. Now I must return to the family fireside.”
“Mrs. Chalk still with you?”
A graver look crossed Mr. Gorringer’s features. “It appears,” he said rather gloomily, “that she will remain so until her return to Brazil. I feel that she has given a somewhat liberal interpretation to our invitation to spend Christmas with us. Her husband has already returned to Rio de Janeiro. Well, then, I mustn’t keep you from your researches.”
On the following morning Carolus left for Bayswater hoping for his long promised interview with Mrs. Myberg, formerly ‘Cara’, who had been the friend of Frenchy. In the London Telephone Directory he had found the address of a Maurice Myberg at 17, Marie Louise Avenue, W.2, and felt safe in supposing that it was what he wanted. The house was one of those ugly stucco monsters build a century ago for prosperous city men and fallen on poorer days. There were three bells beside the door and he pressed the top one, labelled Myberg, glad of the heavy portico which shielded him from observation from an upper window. After ringing three times at intervals of several minutes, he was about to turn away when the door was opened by a hastily dressed woman who looked as though she had just crawled from a bed in which she had spent a sleepless night. Even before either of them spoke, Carolus had the impression that she was desperately anxious. A few moments later he knew that she was afraid.
“Mrs. Cara Myberg, I think?”
The name brought something—guilt, fear, mere nervousness?—to her eyes.
“I should like to speak to you.”
“What . . . about?”
“A private matter. I have your address from a woman known as Maree. Now, don’t try to shut the door. That would be very silly I want no more than a few minutes conversation.”
She hesitated but, after a glance about her, indicated that Carolus should enter. She led the way upstairs to the door of a flat which she had left open. “What is it?” she said suspiciously.
Carolus examined her carefully. She was a woman of perhaps fifty years with dyed hair and a somewhat raddled face. There was no doubt about it: she was very much afraid. He decided to go straight into the attack.
“Do you know a man called Rathbone?” he asked sharply.
“Yes. Well, just by name, that is. I’ve heard him mentioned. Why? Who are you?”
“I’m not a policeman.”
“You don’t need to tell me that. I can smell coppers a mile off. Who are you then?”
“My name is Deene. I’m looking for a woman called Bright.”
“She’s dead. Haven’t you seen the papers? They’ve just found the remains at Bolderton”
“That was Anne Bright who became Anne Rathbone. I’m looking for Charlotte Bright.”
“She’s dead, too.”
“How do you know?”
“ . . . I knew her in the old days.”
“But you’d left her before she moved to Montgolfier Street and died there—or hadn’t you?
“Of course I had. Years before.”
“Where were you at the time?”
“I don’t know what it’s to do with you or who you may be to come asking me questions.”
“Just a friend of the family. I am authorized by Mrs. Chalk, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, that bitch! What’s she got to do with with it? She scarcely knew Anne.”
“Charlotte told you that?”
“Yes. Charlotte told me all about her family.”
“How long did you know her?”
“I don’t know to a day. Some years, anyway. Till I went off.”
“With your present husband?”
“No. It wasn’t. If you want to know. It was before I’d met him.”
“Where did you meet him?”
Mrs. Myberg thought for a moment.
“Oh, some time ago. After I’d left this other chap.”
“Whose name was?”
“What’s that got to do it? I thought it was Charlotte Bright you wanted to know about?”
“It was. It is. When did you hear of her death?”
“Must have been soon after it happened.”
“How did you hear?”
“I forget now. Someone must have told me. These things get passed around.”
“Was it after you’d married Myberg?”
“No. Before. I was still at . . . Birmingham.”
“You nearly made a mistake about the name of the place, didn’t you, Mrs. Myberg?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Her defiance was defensive, the defiance of a cornered animal.
“What are you holding back?”
“Nothing. I knew Charlotte. ‘Frenchy’ we used to call her.”
“What did she look like?”
There was another pause.
“Tall and slender. Long neck. Lovely eyes.”
“What caused her death?”
“It was a mystery at the time. The doctor gave a certificate, of course, but they nearly always do with girls like that. Don’t want to be bothered, I suppose. I always thought there was something funny about her going so suddenly, but you can’t tell.”
“How was she identified?”
“Why . . .” Carolus thought for a moment he had broken down the witness. But she rallied. “Why, her sister came and identified her, I believe. I wasn’t there. That’s what I heard.”
“Anne, of course. Must have been Anne. I never heard of any other sister.”
“But Anne had been dead for years, if the skull just found was hers.”
Mrs. Myberg blinked. “So she had. I never thought of that. Well, whoever it was identified her as Charlotte Bright, and she was allowed to be cremated.”
“You seem to know a lot about it, considering that at the time you were living in . . . Birmingham, wasn’t it? With someone whose name you don’t want to mention.”
“She was my friend. Naturally I wanted to find out all about it afterwards. I wish I knew what all this is about. I should like to know what you’re driving at.”
“When did you see Rathbone last?” said Carolus returning to his original line of attack.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him.”
“You started by telling me you knew him.”
“Only by name, I said. Charlotte used to talk about him.”
“Oh, she knew him then?”
“Yes. She went down there once when Anne was ill.”
“Hastings?” said Mrs. Myberg, obviously startled by the name. “No. Bolderton it was.”
“She never went to see them at Hastings?”
“Not that I know of. I never knew they lived at Hastings. I thought Charlotte said Bolderton.”
“So if it wasn’t her sister who lived with Rathbone at Hastings, Charlotte would never have known of it.”
“I suppose not. I don’t really know. I didn’t hear all that much from Charlotte about her family. She wasn’t crazy about any of them. Anne got all her father’s money.”
“Not quite all, surely.”
“That thousand pounds, you mean? Well, that came from her mother, really. Her mother had about that when she died, and asked for it to go to Charlotte one day.
“That must have been before you knew Charlotte surely? Her father died in the last year of the war.”
“Must have been, then.”
“She must have told you about it?”
“You had a good memory, Mrs. Myberg.”
“Yes. I’ve always been told I have.”
“Yet you don’t remember meeting Rathbone.”
“I’ve told you, I never knew him.” She watched him with an open-eyed, mesmerized stare of sheer panic.
“But you know Colonel Hood, I think?”
Carolus could see that this was ‘a hit, a very palpable hit’. It took Mrs. Myberg several seconds to pull herself together sufficiently to say: “No. Who’s he?”
“You never visited the Lascelles Private Hotel?”
“Never heard of it. I don’t really know what you’re getting at. All I’ve got to do with this is that I knew Charlotte Bright before her death.”
“You think she is dead, then?”
“Dead? Of course she’s dead. You can see the record of it if you doubt that.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that the woman who called herself Lucille French, who lived in Montgolfier Street, is dead. I was remembering that there was no proof that she was in reality Charlotte Bright.”
“But they found her papers and her sister identified her.”
“Someone calling herself Mrs. Rathbone identified her. Charlotte’s sister was dead.”
“I see what you mean. But it must’ve been Charlotte Bright. Frenchy always told me that was her real name. And she couldn’t have made up all that about her father and sister and everything.”
“No, she couldn’t; but I should like to find someone who knew her as a girl, all the same. Just to make sure she was tall and slim and long-necked.”
“You seem very interested in all this. I wish you tell me what you’re after and why you want to know.”
“I will. I’m after the truth. I want to know because I started to investigate and shan’t rest until I have the whole thing clear.”
“But you’re not the Law.”
“No. That’s perhaps why I’m keener on these details. The police will be able to get them from Rathbone now they’ve arrested him.”
Watching carefully, Carolus saw that this had gone home, but the woman had been prepared for something of the sort and kept her head. “You mean, because they’ve found Anne’s body?”
“I don’t know yet what he will be charged with. I imagine it depends on what comes up during his interrogation.”
Mrs. Myberg had an ashen-grey look. She looked as though she might be sick. There was a heavy silence in the room, then she asked: “Where was Rathbone when they arrested him?”
“I wonder why you want to know that. You’ve never met the man, you say.”
“I just wondered. Anyone would wonder after reading in the paper about what they’ve found at Bolderton.”
He was in Cornwall, pretending to be an artist called Osbert Auden.”
“Oh, is that where he was? I went down to Cornwall once, years ago. I didn’t like it.”
“No, I didn’t. So you think the police will get a lot of information out of Rathbone?
“Yes. They’re expert at that.
“About his wife, you mean?”
“Anne? Yes. Partly that. But he has lived with two other women who are missing. They’ll want to trace those.”
Mrs. Myberg lit a cigarette. “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“Tell me, do you think there was anything between him and Charlotte Bright?”
“Frenchy? Oh, I should shouldn’t think so. So far as I know she only saw him that once when she went down there.”
“You don’t think he ever went to Montgolfier Street?”
I wouldn’t know. Frenchy and I never wrote to one another. Well, you don’t, do you? But she certainly never said anything to me about him when I knew her, except just that she couldn’t understand why his sister had married him. It seemed he lived on her money altogether. Never would work.”
“She told you that?”
“Yes. I remember her telling me that.”
“What I was hoping you would be able to tell me, Mrs. Myberg, was whether she had any notion of what happened at Bolderton. After all, she only had to go down to Hastings for a day to see that the woman whom Rathbone was calling his wife was not her sister Anne.”
“She may have, for all I know. I’d gone off by then.”
“Well, soon after she went down to visit them at Bolderton. I never knew about Hastings and I never saw Frenchy again. My life changed altogether, you see.”
“You think I shall have the Law asking me all this?”
“I don’t know what the police will ask you.”
“I don’t see how they’ll ever know about me. After all, it’s six years since I left Frenchy. I’ve been married for three.”
“They’re sure to pick up ‘Old Maree’.”
“She’ll tell them, the lousy old grass! Same as she told you.”
“Yes, I think she will. But you surely won’t mind giving them the little information you have?”
“It’s not me. It’s my husband. Morrie hates anything like that. Still, so long as they come when he’s out . . .”
“I shouldn’t count on that. They may want to ask him something.”
Mrs. Myberg looked sick again. Carolus could see the fear in her eyes. It could, of course, be fear of losing security, but he thought it was something else.
“Whatever could they want to know from him ?” she asked in a strangled voice.
“I don’t know how their minds work. I just thought it possible.”
“It’s nothing to do with him! I won’t have them asking him questions. Or you either. Perhaps you want to ask him something?”
“I do, as a matter of fact.”
“What? You’ve asked me enough. What do you want to get on to him for? He never even set eyes on Frenchy or Montgolfier Street, or anything. He’s straight, is Morrie. Straight as a die. I can’t think why you should want to worry him.”
Carolus stood up. “It’s not really important,” he said.
“What the hell is it?”
“Don’t bother yourself. I don’t suppose I shall need to ask him at all.”
“But what is it? You can tell me that before you go. I’ve answered your questions enough. What do you want to know from Morrie?”
“Where he met you,” said Carolus, and left her with her large mouth agape and her eyes quite frantic. He was glad to reach the open air, heavy with a damp chill as it was. He found a light fog in the southern suburbs but, as he neared Newminster stuff, it was clear and bright. His interrogations were over.