A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Four

A Bone and a Hank of Hair

CHAPTER FOUR

Carolus did not find Mr. Lofting, the landlord of the Stag, ‘funny’ in any sense that could have been intended by the proprietress of the tea-shop.  He was a heavily moustached man in his thirties who wore a dark-blue double-breasted blazer with silver buttons and a silver-threaded crest on the pocket which looked as though it meant something.  He spoke in a loud and plummy voice and greeted Carolus with man-to-man heartiness.  Carolus ordered whisky.
“Isn’t that an ‘I’ Corps tie you’re wearing?” he asked when he had passed Carolus his glass.
“Is it?  I wouldn’t know.  I bought it in France,” said Carolus truthfully.
Mr. Lofting glanced down at his own polychromatic neckwear.
“I am an Old Babbacombean myself,” he admitted.
“Very becoming,” said Carolus.  “Can you let me have a room for the night?”
“I shall have to ask the wife about that.  What did you want?  A single room?  Just for one night?  She’ll be down in a minute and I’ll ask her.  What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“Curiosity chiefly.”
“Seeing how the other half live?  Studying us rustic types?”
“No.  I am curious about one particular matter—the disappearance of the Rathbones.”
“Press?”
“No.”
“Police?”
“No.  Just a nosy parker.  Have a drink?”
“Thanks.  I will.  I could have sworn that was an ‘I’ Corps tie.  You weren’t at Rugby, were you?”
“No,” said Carolus.  “Did you know the Rathbones?”
“The man came in here occasionally.  You know, I feel sure I’ve met you somewhere.  Was it in the RHF?”
“The . . .”
Royal Huntingdonshire Fusiliers.  My old mob.  Very decent crowd on the whole.  I remember just after the war broke out . . .”
Not that, resolved Carolus, and interrupted with such firmness that even Mr. Lofting was halted.
“You say Rathbone came in.  Did he ever bring his wife?”
“Good Lord, no!  She was supposed to be a strict T.T.  Yes, just after war broke out we were stationed outside Hastings . . .”
“That’s the town from which the Rathbones moved here.  Did he ever mention it?”
Mr. Lofting seemed a little shaken as though he recognised that the opposition was tough, but he was not giving in yet.
“Was it?  No.  Scarcely spoke when he came in.  Secretive type.  As I was telling you, we were in this place outside Hastings and there was a fellow in our mess called Glossop, an Old Attleborovian, very good scout . . .”
Desperate remedies, decided Carolus.  “I’ve taken the Rathbone’s cottage furnished,” he announced.
This pulled up Mr. Lofting, mess, good scouts and all.
“Taking it?” he gasped.  “Going to live there?  You must be raving, old man.  It’s a pest-house.”
“Think so?  It suits me.  I shan’t move in till after Christmas, though.  That’s why I want to put up here tonight, if you can manage it.”
“The wife will be down in a minute,” said Mr. Lofting shakily.
“Good,” replied Carolus, and was about to turn away when Mr. Lofting made one last rather feeble fling.
“This chap I was telling you about,” he said.
“Who?  Rathbone?  What were you going to say?”
“No.  No.  Old Glossop.  We were . . .”
But just then two customers walked in and, more accustomed to Mr. Lofting than was Carolus, they took no chances.
“Pint of bitter,” said one, almost threateningly.  “What you having, Ted?  And a light ale.”  He turned squarely to Carolus.  “Mild weather for Christmas, isn’t it?” he asked.
Carolus, moving away from the bar, agreed that it was.
Mrs. Lofting joined her husband.  Admirably matched, Carolus thought.  She was a sleek and soignée chain-smoker.
“Yes, we can manage a room,” she told Carolus.  “We’ve only been here a few months.  Quite an experience, I can tell you.  My husband’s an aircraft designer really, but we thought we’d try running a country pub.  Quite fun, in a way.”  She touched her back hair.  “Bit of a tie, of course.  No holidays for us.  Still, we keep going.”
When Fred Spender the postman came in, and had been identified in an undertone by Mr. Lofting, Carolus managed to chat with him over a drink.  He was the only person of whom Carolus yet knew—except the woman in that the shop—who had seen Mrs. Rathbone from close at hand.  He talked willingly enough.
“Yes, I’ve seen her.  Not to say often, but more than anyone else I dare say.  She was a big woman . . .”
“That’s what I want to know.  There are such conflicting reports.  You’re sure she was tall?”
“Certainly I am.  Tall and big-made.  Funny looking old crow.  Didn’t talk much.  Just ‘thank you’ when I handed her the letters.  But always had a smile.  I sometimes wondered whether she drank, she was that cheery-looking.  She used a lot of powder on her face.”
“Really?”
“Thick, it looked.  Grey-haired.  Always wore glasses.  Big ear-rings.  Drove the car very well.  What else can I tell you?”
“When did you see her last?”
“Some weeks ago now.  I don’t very often have to go out there, and the last time I went in it was Rathbone opened the door.  He was just the opposite.  Gloomy-looking.  Seemed half-scared of something; but he would now and again exchange a few words.  He told me that morning Mrs. Rathbone had gone away.  I said I supposed she’d be back for Christmas and he gave me a queer old look.  ‘I suppose so,’ he said and went inside.  Personally, I don’t believe he’s done for her.  He didn’t seem the type somehow.”
Fred was interrupted by the entrance of a very portly woman who bought herself a bottle of stout and sat wheezing heavily on the bench beside them.
“Evening, Mrs. Luggett,” said Fred.
“Evening, Fred.”  It was a deep and stertorous greeting.
“Been mild, hasn’t it?”  She had a fine collection of chins and little dark eyes she looked as though, once seated, she would scarcely be able to rise.
“Come on your bicycle?” asked Fred.
“Of course I did.  I can get about.”
“She can get about,” said Fred proudly to Carolus.  “You should see her on her old bike.”
“Well, why not?” asked Mrs. Luggett.  “Weight’s not everything, my boy.  There’s some of the skinny ones can’t do what I can.”  She swallowed her stout.  “There.  That’s better,” she gasped.
“This gentleman’s been inquiring about Rathbones’,” said Fred by way of introduction.
“Oh, them!” said Mrs. Luggett without interest.
“I’ve taken their house,” explained Carolus.  To his delight she was the first person to hear this news who shewed no surprise or alarm.
“Oh, you have,” she said, and gazed at her empty glass.  Carolus refilled all three.  He decided to go straight to the point.
“I’m hoping to find someone to clean the place out,” he said.  Mrs. Luggett said ‘Cheerio’, but made no reply to his remark.  Her eyes were towards the bar.
“After Christmas, of course,” Carolus added.
There was still no response for nearly a minute, then Mrs. Luggett wheezed thoughtfully:  “How much were you thinking of paying?”
“A pound a day,” said Carolus promptly.
“What do you call a day?  I’ve got my own place to do.”  Still her eyes never left the bottles above the landlord’s head.
“Oh, whatever time you can give.  I want to move in the day after Boxing Day.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” agreed Mrs. Luggett.  “I suppose they’d got everything?”
“I’m buying new bedding,” said Carolus.  “I’m going up there tomorrow morning to see what’s wanted.  Then the next day’s Christmas Eve.  I’ll be here on Tuesday evening.”
“Leave me the keys when you go, then.  Better leave them here.  I’ll go out there and do what I can.  They say he did for her, but I don’t take any notice of that.  More likely she did for him by the look of them.  Still, I’ll see what I can manage.  You want fires lit, and that?”
“Yes, please.”
“Well, I dare say I can do that much.  I’m surprised the police haven’t been round after all the talk there’s been; but they may know more than we think.  Yes, I don’t mind giving the place a dust-over.  I should think it wants it after them.  Not that I mind what they say . . .”
Anticipating that he might be invited to join the Loftings in a chatty evening meal after closing time, Carolus asked for some bread and cheese in the bar.
“Wish I could remember where I’ve met you, old man,” said Mr. Lofting when he was up at the counter.  You’re not a member of the RAC, are you?”
“No.  You?”
“Not actually.  But I thought I’d seen you there.  Used to go in with a very good type who belong to it—Old Radcliff-on-Trentian.  Must be somewhere else I’ve seen you.  You weren’t in Cairo during the war?  No?  Ah, here’s your bread and cheese.  I shall think of it in a minute.  ”
Carolus went up to bed before closing time and, rising at eight, was able to pay his bill to Mrs. Lofting and escape before further reminiscences were revived.  He drove out to Glose Cottage.  Even in the gusty daylight it looked as cheerless and bleak as yesterday.  Carolus wasted no time and, opening the double gates, turned the big car into the garage and shut the doors.  There was no reason to advertise his presence in the house.
Before beginning the minute search he intended to make, he passed slowly through the rooms.  The cause of the smell he had noticed—or at least a part of it—was revealed when he opened a door in the kitchen to find a larder with decaying food in it.  It seemed that whoever had last eaten a meal in the house had not waited to wash up but had shoved its remains, dirty plates and all, on the larder shelves.  Mildew had formed on something that might once have been stew, and a piece of cheese was covered with a substance that resembled lichen.  Drawing on gloves, Carolus made a careful inspection of this, and saw that stacked on the shelves behind it were a good many tins of various foodstuffs.  Yet, what surprised him was that, although all this had been left as though in panic, the bedroom was stripped to the last rag of clothing.  One would have thought that something useless would have remained, old worn-out shoes, perhaps, or a battered hat.  There was nothing.  Not one item of masculine or feminine at tire, not a broken suitcase; only the two beds with their bedding neatly arranged and the rest of the furniture.
Carolus examined these beds and, beyond the fact that both mattresses seemed equally dented and worn, he found nothing noteworthy about them.  The sheets and pillow cases of one bed with clean; on the other they seemed to have been changed recently, but slept in once or twice, perhaps.
The top of the dressing table was dusty and a crack in it held a residuum of dust.  He’s scraped this out with a knife and carefully put it into an envelope.  He was smiling slightly as he did so.  How is more lenient critic would enjoy calling these methods corny!  But in these rather odd circumstances they were the only methods.
Next he proceeded to another piece of routine work.  He searched the outhouse for a receptacle and found an old sack.  (He was relieved as he did so to see a useful stock of coal there.)  Bringing the sack in, he began very carefully to fill it with all the ashes left in the dining-room fireplace and the kitchen range.  It was a long and dirty job, for no cinder was missed, and when he had finished he carried the sack across to the garage and stowed it in the boot of the car.
Then, still wearing gloves, he began a more detailed search, turning out ornamental pots to examine the contents, opening every cupboard and drawer.  He found nothing in the dining-room which he preserved, but in the so-called drawing-room was a knee-hole writing desk with eight drawers in it.  He started with the top left one, and running down the side found nothing, not so much as a drawing pin.  It was probable that, if they had been in use, they had been pulled right out and the contents get into some receptacle; but, when he reached the bottom drawer on the right, he found it nearly full of papers.  They could be only one reasonable explanation.  Whoever had emptied the desk had done so thoroughly but, at the last, some destraction or sheer forgetfulness and caused him to omit a drawer.
Carolus did not examine these papers.  He would have plenty of time to do so later.  But he noticed a cheque-book on the top with “Joint A/c” written on it.  The checks were printed “Westlays and Metropolitan bank, Folkestone”.  He made a mental note of that.
But he went farther.  ‘Might almost be wearing a deerstalker,’ he thought, as it pulled from his pocket a magnifying-glass.  In none of his investigations had he used such a thing, for it was entirely foreign to his usual methods.  He had never believed greatly in forensic chemistry or the use of the microscope or even, except in red cases, finger-prints; but this was a rare case.
Slowly, methodically, patiently, he began to go over the cloth surfaces of the room, the backs of chairs and the shelves in the bathroom.  It took in nearly two hours to satisfy himself, and at the end of that time all he had to shew for his work was a few long hairs, which he carefully sealed in another envelope.
He went out to the small garden at the back of the house and found it completely overgrown.  Inspection of the area shewed no place where the earth had been recently disturbed so far as he could see, though there was a rubbish heap not far from the back door.  This, like the papers in the drawer of the desk, could be turned over at leisure later.  He was today chiefly concerned with examining all that might be disturbed by Mrs. Luggett if she kept her promise to ‘give the place and dust’ on Boxing Day or the day after.
Finally, he looked in at the garage where he had removed his car, but nothing had been left here, not even an oily rag or an old plug.  Carolus locked up the house and returned to the Stag for a drink.  He wished to make a telephone call.  Mr. Lofting was behind the bar, almost in wait for him, it seemed to Carolus.
“Well, old man, been out to your domain?  Pretty grim, I should think.  You know, I’ve been trying to remember where on earth we met.”
“I shouldn’t bother,” said Carolus.
“It puzzles me.  I have a feeling . . . You a member of the Old Crock’s Club, but any chance?  May have been on the London to Brighton run.”
“No,” said Carolus firmly.  Those noisy bores in goggles who were allowed to monopolize a busy road once a year had always seemed tiresome to him.
“I could have sworn you had a De Dion,” said Mr. Lofting; “but it will come to me in a moment.”
“I wonder if I might use the telephone?” asked Carolus.
“Yes, certainly.  In our sitting room.  That’s the door, on your right.”
Shutting the door behind him, Carolus found himself surrounded by group photographs in uniform, in flannels, in shorts, in school caps, in all of which Mr. Lofting at different ages figured.  Carolus asked for a London number and was answered by a man’s voice.
“Gillick?  Look here, I’ve got something urgent for you.  ”
Sloane Gillick, who had recently retired from the finger-print section of Scotland Yard, was anxious that Carolus should ghost his life-story, Men I have helped to hang, for which a Sunday newspaper was offering a fairly large sun.  But, though he wanted to conciliate Carolus, he was not pleased to be called on at Christmas-time.
“I’m afraid it has got to be tomorrow,” said Carolus.  “After Christmas will be too late.  Already the only prints we can hope for are in the kitchen, where they may have been left by someone with greasy or oily fingers.  All the normal ones on the furniture will have faded days ago.”
There was a protesting raffle in the earpiece.
“Come on,” said Carolus.  “It’ll only take you an hour or two.  I’ll come and pick you up tomorrow morning and you’ll be back in town in the afternoon.  It’s worth twenty quid to me and all expenses.”
The raffle grew more indignant.
“Be a good chap,” pleaded Carolus.  “I’m really interested in this case.  The house is going to be cleaned out on Boxing Day and I must have your information before that.”
There was something like resignation in the rattle now.
“All right.  I’ll pick you up before ten tomorrow,” promised Carolus, taking advantage of this.  “We can talk about your articles on the way down.”
Back in the bar, Carolus found Mr. Lofting looking triumphant.  “I know where it was!” he said.  “On television.  You were in Guess My Gag, weren’t you?”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to try again,” said Carolus.  “Now I must run.  Got a murderer to catch.  See you after Christmas.”
He hurried out and drove home to face Mrs. Stick.