Death on the Black Sands
Carolus went that evening to the Esmeralda Bar and found Pepe the barman anxious to talk to him. Pepe was from Seville, one of the few Spaniards working on the coast, a very smooth and confident young man. He had been spoiled by the visitors, who in their anxiety to shew their friends that they were recognized by the man behind the bar behaved almost flirtatiously with him. It was Pepe this, and Pepe that, and ‘Have one yourself, Pep?’ and ‘I bet ole Peppy’s got a nice señorita tucked away somewhere!’ and ‘Give me my usual, will you, Pepe boy?’ To all of which Pepe, who was accumulating a comfortable fortune, smiled obligingly. He was quick to learn the names of his customers and to recognize Mr. Smith and Mrs. Brown, yet maintained an impartial distance from them all. He was, in other words, a good barman.
Carolus noticed that he spoke to him by name though he had been in the bar only once before. Presuming on what he had been made to feel was his universal popularity Pepe had a familiar, almost patronising manner which Carolus did not resent since he knew what had brought it into being. He suspected that Pepe had invested his savings in Devinge’s Casino scheme, and was looking for information about it.
“Mr. Deene, you are investigating the murder of Mr. Devigne, are you not?”
“Yes. What time did you come on duty of evening?” asked Carolus sharply.
Pepe looked as though he had been stuck in the face.
“I, Mr. Deene?” he gasped.
“Yes. You were on duty that night, weren’t you?”
Recovering a little Pepe said, “Yes, I was. Of course I was. I came on at eight o’clock.”
“Did you leave the bar between then and the time you heard the screams?”
“Mr. Deene! You are not . . . you cannot be suspecting me of being concerned in that murder?” Carolus remained disconcertingly silent, and Pepe added quietly, “No, I did not leave the bar.”
“You invested some money in Devinge’s scheme for a Casino?”
“Yes, yes. That is what I wanted ask you. Is it safe? Will it be all right? It was all I had.”
“Two hundred thousand pesetas. More than a thousand pounds. Mr. Devigne told me that I should have the bar in that Casino. It was to be called Pepe’s Bar. I should have a percentage of the takings. It was to be a wonderful opportunity for me.”
“So you had no reason to wish him dead?”
“Wish him dead? God, no! On the contrary! How can you suggest such a thing? It is not to be thought of!”
Pepe was called along to the bar to Mr. Pluggett who had just come in.
“Ullo, Peppy, my lad,” he said. “Give me a nice drop of the old Fundador, will you?” Carolus heard him say.
Pepe served him in a somewhat absent way and returned to Carolus.
“Do you know anything about Mr. Devinge’s affairs, sir?” he asked anxiously.
“I know nothing about the Casino,” Carolus said. “Except that the plans have been officially approved.”
“Then it will be built after all?”
“I don’t know about that.”
They were interrupted by the entrance of Jock Dribble who took anything but a straight course from the door to the bar.
This was the first time that Carolus had seen the notorious beachcomber of Los Aburridos at close quarters and he examined the lined and raddled face. As he did so he had a sensation of having seen this face before, then recognition came. He had last seen this man in uniform. It was a little grim to realize what the intervening years had done to a once tough, active and intelligent man.
Pepe was evidently accustomed to dealing with him.
“No, Mr. Dribble,” he said. “Not tonight.”
Jock Dribble swayed.
“What you mean not tonight?” he asked.
“You have had quite enough for this evening.”
Carolus was watching him closely. He appeared to be steadying himself against the bar.
“Are you telling me I have had enough to drink?” he asked Pepe, with an air of ferocity.
“You know I have orders, Mr. Dribble.”
“Yes. From Davy Devigne. But he’s dead. Forchn’tly. He can’t give any orders.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dribble,” said Pepe with finality.
“You’ll be sorry if you don’t serve me,” said Dribble. “I can pay for it.”
“You owe from last time.”
“When was that?”
“The night Mr. Devigne was killed.”
“Oh. Did I come in that night? Must have been drunk.”
There was an interruption from Bill Pluggett.
“Give the man a drink,” he said impatiently. “I’ll pay for it.”
This had not a pacifying effect on either the barman or Dribble. With Pepe it was now a matter of amor proprio not to serve Dribble, and Dribble, instead of feeling gratitude for Bill Pluggett’s intervention, decided to resent it.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Pluggett,” said Pepe. “I cannot serve him.”
“Who asked you to stick your nose in?” Dribble demanded. “You buy your own drinks and I’ll buy mine.”
“That’s a nice way to behave when I was trying to do you a good turn.”
“You keep your good turns for someone else. I don’t need any good turns. Do you know who owns the very ground you’re standing on, or would do if I hadn’t been done out of it? Well, then. Don’t talk to me about good turns. You mind your own flaming business another time.”
Carolus continued to watch carefully. He could see that Pluggett was getting really annoyed, and Pluggett looked rather formidable, he thought. Still in his forties he had a solid chest and shoulders and gave the impression of being a man who could look after himself in any sort of fight. Whereas Dribble, thin and dissipated in appearance, was still clinging to the bar.
“That’s enough of that talk,” said Pluggett, “unless you want me to teach you manners.”
“Manners?” said Dribble. “You call it manners to order a drink for someone you don’t know?”
“Now, Mr. Dribble,” said Pepe.
Bill Pluggett moved nearer to Dribble.
“I’ll knock your block off!” he said.
“I shouldn’t advise you to try,” retorted Dribble who seemed to be sobered by his own indignation. “I told you once to mind your own business. So go and take a running jump at yourself.”
For answer Bill Pluggett struck out, but somehow––one can only suppose through some unnaturally swift evading motion of Dribble’s––the blow did not land. Then a surprising scene followed. Jock Dribble, as if all his sinews had suddenly turned to steel wires, moved into a ferocious attack and proceeded to give the unfortunate Pluggett a series of swift and effective blows in the face for which he was totally unprepared. In a few seconds he was bleeding profusely and could scarcely see to defend himself.
Carolus stepped across and put himself between them. Dribble dropped his hands as suddenly as he had raised them and as though recollecting himself clung to the bar again. Pepe, staring at him with a certain awe, gave him the drink the refusal of which had caused all the trouble.
At this moment Mrs. Pluggett came in.
“Bill!” she cried inevitably. “Whatever have you been up to? Get some warm water, you idiot,” she shouted to Pepe. “Don’t stand there gaping!” She turned to Carolus. “Did you do this?” she asked.
“No,” Carolus told her.
When the water was produced she bathed Bill’s face very gently as though looking for its familiar outline.
“Whatever did you want to start fighting for? You’ve got an eye now that’ll take a week to go down and it’ll be all the colours of the rainbow in the morning. That’s your new plate broken too, and goodness knows whether they’ll be able to mend it out here. And look at your nose. I’ve never seen such a size. You’ll be a sight for weeks to come. It only serves you right for wanting to come to this place. To think we could be sitting in the Queen’s Head at Clacton having a drop of real beer in peace and quiet!”
Bill had difficulty in answering this with his broken plate and swollen lips. But he seemed to think the effort necessary for he had a most effective riposte.
“No, we couldn’t,” he said thickly. It’s half-past twelve and they’re closed hours ago.”
Then he let her leave him away.
Soon after, Carolus left. He wouldn’t, he told himself, using a friendly and familiar cliché, have missed that little scene for the world.
At home he found Priggley on the terrace waiting for him.
“I’ve got masses of dirt for you,” said the odious youth. “I can see you’re going to give me that mystery routine about where you’ve been so I may as well tell you all.”
“Go ahead,” said Carolus.
“Really, sir. Need you be so hearty? ‘Go ahead’. I’ve been talking to the character in the spare room with the broken leg. He grew quite human as the day went on and I entertained him with my merry prattle. He struck me as rather a solitary and frustrated soul. He was telling me about quite an interesting wages snatch he did some time ago. Only three security guards in hospital afterwards.”
“Did he tell you what brought him to Los Aburridos?”
“No. He was rather coy about that. But I gather he has been here many times before. Quite recently, I think. He’s got something rather seething against you and keeps talking about ‘next time’.”
“Well, well. What else?”
“Georgie and Sweetie, chiefly. You know the suspense and suspicion and what not seems to be rather telling on the people concerned with Devigne. Tempers are frayed, to say the least of it. There was quite a fracas at the B.E.I. It appears that the young man called Tommy Watson, who is the guest as they say, of Hilary Ling, made a pass at Sweetie. It was a doubly unfortunate move.”
“I imagine so.”
“Miss Ling was furious.”
“Kindly stick to your sexes. You unpleasant little boy.”
“The real row was between Georgie and Hilary. ‘What do you mean by bringing that oaf out here?’ Georgie asked Hilary in her most Guards officer manner. ‘Are you talking about Tommy?’ asked Hilary. ‘Because if so you’d better be careful what you’re saying.’ ‘Careful?’ said Georgie, ‘you ridiculous little cretin. I’ll turn you over my knee in a moment.’ Then suddenly Hilary got grand and spiteful at the same time. ‘I think you’re forgetting one or two things,’ he said. ‘I might happen to talk in my sleep, you know. I don’t want to have to say what I know, but if you ever speak to me like that again, or dare to make another remark about Tommy, you’ll see.’ Georgie bristled, or is it bridled? and walked away without another word, with Sweetie trailing after like a guilty thing surprised.”
“How did you hear all this?”
“I haven’t been on the other cases with you for nothing. I was ensconced, as they say, behind a week-old copy of the Daily Express two tables away. It was all spat out in vicious little tones not much above a whisper. But it came to my ears, as the headmaster would say. By the way, have you seen Gorringer?”
“Mister Gorringer, you impudent monstrosity. Yes, I saw him as I came through Marbella. He looked as though he was enjoying himself. What else happened today?”
That little shindig was of course followed by one between Hilary and Watson. ‘Tommy, I simply don’t know how you could ogle and leer at that frightful little marionette of a girl when you’re supposed to be staying with me! If you knew how perfectly ridiculous it makes you look. You know that horrible Georgie never lets her out of her sight. She was going to attack me just now and would have if she dared––only fortunately I know too much about her. You might have a little consideration. After all, you’d still be on your milk round if it wasn’t for me.’ ‘I shouldn’t mind that,’ said Tommy, uttering for the first time. ‘This place gives me the —.’ ‘Tommy! How dare you speak to me like that? I would never have believed you would be so ungrateful! You don’t try to understand all I’m going through. You know how sensitive I am. All right, go for a swim. I don’t care if you drown yourself and me too.’ It was all rather hysterical. I enjoyed myself enormously.”
“After that nothing very startling. The Blonde came down with some people called Vogel. At least, the Russian told me that was their name. He looked like something in a spy story and she ’s so jelly-like I thought she was going to melt. The Blonde didn’t look particularly happy with them. But she’s rather a petulant type at the best of times.
“I suppose you went and listened to their conversation?”
“There wasn’t much. He seemed to be doing calculations, writing away in a notebook, while the girls had a heart-to-hearter. Once he looked up and said rather gutturally, ‘Rosa, I haf got to get out of here.’ ‘Albert, I know you haf. We all haf.’ ‘But quick,’ said the man and snapped his jaws shut like an alligator. ‘I am losing too much money.’ ‘But what about the new Casino?’ ”
“What did Vogel say to that?”
Rupert Priggley leered.
“Used a rude word,” he said kittenishly.
Someone was coming up the drive.
“Your friend the photographer,” said Priggley. “He has been here twice this evening and clearly means to go on calling till he finds you. Apparently he has got your photographs but he wouldn’t shew them to me. As for leaving them here, he expressed a sort of gloomy horror at the idea.”
The photographer joined them and dropped wearily into a chair.
“Tired?” ask Carolus.
“I am very tired,” said the photographer.
“Have to run much?”
“Several kilometres, señor. For my life. That is a most dangerous subject. At great cost I have preserved my camera.”
“With the photographs?”
“With the photographs. But they have meant serious expenses for me.”
“For restoratives and medical attention. The first picture was difficult, but not so dangerous as the second. I have never seen such anger in a human being. It is necessary for me to leave Los Aburridos instantly. My life is in danger here. At the very height of the season I must abandon my business and go.”
“Too bad,” said Carolus.
“I feel I must ask for compensation. You suggested that I might sell the picture and negatives to that person afterwards. Such a thing is not to be thought of. Even as I sit here I am in trembling lest he appear. You did not warn me that this was a matter of life and death. I am a broken man.”
“Let’s see the pictures.”
“You may see them. But will I be compensated for my terrible loss of health? The strain to the nerves? The peril of death? The loss of my business? I must leave my wife and children here. Doctor’s fees alone . . .”
“If the pictures are good I will give you double we’ll see I promised, which was already too much.”
The photographer, clearly astounded at this prodigality when he had expected no more than a small douceur, at once produced the pictures. One was a full-length of Mr. Larner advancing down the street. The second was an excellent head and shoulders in profile.
Carolus paid up.
“Now go and sell him the negatives.”
“Señor!” said the photographer, profoundly shocked.
He ambled mournfully away.