Death on the Black Sands
Carolus was a member of the Garville Club and usually made his more discreet appointments there.
When he reached London Airport next morning he ’phoned his old friend John Moore (now Detective Superintendent) at Scotland Yard.
“I thought you were in Los Aburridos,” said John Moore.
“I’ve just come from there and want to go back tonight. That’s if you can have lunch with me.”
“It’ll have to be a quick lunch. I’m up to the eyes in work.”
“The caravan murder, I suppose. Rather your tea. The Garville at one, then?”
“All right. I’ll have less than an hour, though. See you.”
Carolus went to Garfield immediately. It was a less gloomy club than most, and while sharing some of the qualities of its three fellows, the Saville, the Savage and the Garrick, it managed to avoid the self-conscious traditionalism of the Saville, the hearty good-fellowship of the Savage, and the unpleasant legal element in the membership of the Garrick.
He had an hour to pass and in the reading room looked in Who Was Who for some accounts of Devigne’s father. He had been, Carolus discovered, like a distinguished figure in his way, with a D.S.O. and M.C. from the First World War and a senior staff job in the Second. His address was given as Collaleigh Hall, Somerset, which suggested, but did not prove, that he had a private fortune of some kind. He had married in 1928 Beryl the only daughter of Sigmund Garstein of Pittsburgh, U.S.A., who had died in 1942. There was one son of the marriage. Brigadier Devigne had died in 1950, when his son would’ve been twenty-one years old, Carolus calculated, so if Gore-Bullar were correct in assessing David Devigne’s estate as bankrupt he had had plenty of time to run through any money his father had left him. Out of curiosity he looked up Gore-Bullar in the current Who’s Who but found he was not included.”
When Moore arrived they went straight in to lunch and had a fairly isolated table to themselves. Carolus outlined the casee, and answered Moore’s questions on details. Then he produced the two photographs of Larner.
“These are what I have really come to shew you, John. I should be most grateful if you can identify the man.”
Moore examined them closely.
“I can’t,” he said last, “though he looks vaguely familiar. Let me take these back to the office with me and I’ll ring you this afternoon. I can get him tabbed all right if we’ve ever had anything to do with him. If, as you say, he has a forged passport it’s pretty certain he’s on the books. The fact that I don’t know him means nothing.”
“Thanks. You’ll ’phone me what details you can? I think you’ll find he’s a very bad man.”
“You seem to have a nice collection down there.”
“The dregs of Europe, John. And not even a dash of gaiety about them. Just tired vice and crime surrounded by sweating tourists. Do you know anything about Jack Trotter?”
“Yes. He’s been in a lot of trouble. Did three years for GBH* some years ago but we’ve heard nothing of him lately.”
“Could he have worked a protection racket?”
“That’s it. He worked with Ernie Board. That lots were broken up last year. Ernie’s doing five years but Trotter must have got out in time. He’s a razor boy.”
“The Spanish police have got him for Devigne’s murder. He looks like getting about twenty years.”
“But you don’t think he did it?”
“I’m floundering still, John. Then there’s another young man you or your colleagues must know––Benny Martin.”
Moore looked serious.
“That’s a nasty bit of work,” he said. “Really nasty. If you told me he was accused of murder I wouldn’t doubt it for a moment.”
“He was—nearly,” said Carolus.
“Listen, Carolus. That man’s a killer. We haven’t nailed a a murder on him yet and I don’t say he has ever done one. But I know his record. Don’t get up against him. It’s all very well for you to wander about in your nonchalant way of working out theories but this time you’re up against professionals—not wretched little wife-murderers and first-time hysterical killers. If the boys you’re talking about want you out of the way they’ll put you out of the way and no messing about.”
John Moore looked about him at the solid furniture, the quietly busy waiters, the elderly members of the Garville Club and went on.
“It’s about time you were a bit realistic, Carolus. You’ve plenty of flair, we know that, but you haven’t much experience of villains. Looking back on the various cases you’ve interested yourself in I can’t remember a single murderer who, if he was given a life sentence, would not have gone to a Star nick.† The kind of murders you’ve known were all the work of first offenders. Admittedly, most murders are. Thieves very rarely carry arms, even. But this time it’s different.”
“Why? There are couple of villains down there. But one of them’s in a Spanish prison and the other, Benny Martin, is lying in bed in my house with a broken leg.”
“What about the man whose pictures you’ve given me?”
“He’s at large. But he’s not a young man. I’m not much worried about him.”
“Don’t take chances, Carolus. Now I must get back to the office. I’ll ’phone you within the hour about these pictures. You realise, by the way, that your friends will know by now that we’ve met?”
“You’re going too far, John.”
“Who knew you were coming to London?”
“I made no secret of it.”
“Exactly. That’s why one of the boys was looking in a bookshop window opposite the club entrance as I arrived. You were tailed from the airport. You can’t be so naïve as to suppose they wouldn’t ’phone through to their firm in London?”
“But people are passing in and out of the club all day.”
“Not people who interest them. Everyone of them knows me. They’ll probably think you’re working for us. Who are you working for, Carolus?”
“No one. I’m on holiday. Just entertaining myself.”
“Then throw it up. Why should you care who killed Davy Devigne? Pack up that villa and get back to Newminister. If you want something to do I’ll tell you about this caravan murder which is a nice complicated job in which your theorising would be valuable.”
“I can’t do that. I’m interested.”
John Moore shrugged his shoulders and said no more. But there was seriousness in his—“Good-bye. Take care of yourself.”
Nearly an hour later his call came through.
“Carolus, this is serious. The man in the picture is Snatch Roderix. We wanted to know where he was. Interpol had lost him.”
“Who is he?”
“He was the biggest man the business. He hasn’t worked for a few years now. Last job he actually did himself was a mail-van robbery which is believed to have given him, personally, a quarter of a million. That was about five years ago and there was no evidence against him. Since then he has set up various jobs for younger men but the only way we might have tied them on him would have been to recover some of the actual treasury notes. We never have been able to.”
“I think I see why.”
“Of course you do and by now Roderix will know that you do, and I don’t frankly think your life will be worth a light.”
“Thank you, John.”
“If you think that Roderix or any of his friends would hesitate from moment between his liberty and your life you must be crazy. And that’s what it may have come to.”
“Will you be doing anything about him?”
“It depends. We’re glad to know where he is and possibly where the money has gone. After that we must wait for Interpol reports. But if I guess right Roderix is busy selling any interests he has in Spain now. All this has brought him into the light.”
“No one knows his identity down there, I should guess. Except the young man working for him.”
“But we do, now. And he knows we do. What’s more he knows we do, and your hand in the thing. So . . .”
“Oh, not again, John. I’m very grateful to you for all you’ve told me. But, annoyingly, it does not tell me who killed Davy Devigne, which is the question I started with.”
“That little problem I safely leave you. That is––if you live to solve it.”
“At just after midnight Carolus was back in Malaga. At the airport was Rupert Priggley at the wheel of Carolus’s Bentley Continental with a big smirk.”
“You know perfectly well you’re not allowed to drive this car,” said Carolus.
“Exceptional circumstances, Sir. Information to be got to you at the earliest possible moment. ‘Drive like fury,’ said Holmes, flinging the cabbie a sovereign. All that corny stuff. I knew you’d love it all.”
“What, you monster?”
“Hop in and I’ll tell you,” said Priggley.
Carolus threw his bag in the back of the car and took Priggley by the scruff of his neck.
“All right. I’ll move over. But I have got something quite startling to tell you. Jack Trotter escaped from prison today.”
“Escape is a euphemism. It cost him over a thousand nicker, I understand.”
“From whom do you understand?”
“ ‘The gentleman in the spare room’ as Mrs. Stick calls him. He told me it couldn’t be done for less and then there’s no guarantee against recapture if you stay in the country. I suppose Trotter’s in North Africa by now.”
Carolus said nothing to that but had the gravest doubts of its probability. If he read Trotter right the man was still in Los Aburridos.
Back at the villa Carolus felt restless and disinclined for bed. Mrs. Stick had left out the whisky and a pleasant variety of sandwiches and had gone to bed. Carolus sent Priggley up, then went to the door of Martin’s room to hear him snoring with regularity. He quietly opened the front door and walked out, taking the direction of the town and beach.
It had occurred to Carolus that one man whose evidence might be interesting could only be found after midnight––the guardián of the BEI, and he decided that he would work off his restlessness by going to see him.
It was difficult, as he passed through the unlit Spanish streets in which ‘Mr. Larner’ had waited for him that night, not to remember John Moore’s warnings. There was something a little melodramatic and sinister about these darkened lanes to left and right with their shadowy doorways, but he saw no one till he reached the lighted streets of the town.
As he approached the Esmeralda Bar he saw Jock Dribble outside and peering in. The door was open a few inches and Dribble, swaying slightly, was watching so intently what went on in the bar that he did not notice Carolus’s approach. Carolus passed him and entered.
He was surprised to find only two customers, standing at opposite ends of the bar, Lolly Mellon and ‘Mr. Larner’ himself.
“How’s my boy?” asked Lolly Mellon alcoholically when Carolus had greeted her.
“Benny Martin, do you mean?” asked Carolus clearly. “He’s quite cheerful. He won’t be able to walk for weeks, of course. Tiresome for him. And for his employers too, if he has any.”
He did not look towards Roderix but felt that his words were going home.
“How did it happen?” asked Lolly. “He won’t tell me.”
“Over-enthusiasm,” explained Carolus. “Anxiety to do his job. He was to have been well paid for it, you see.”
“What is his job? asked Lolly.
“Jobbing cutthroat,” said Carolus calmly. “Assassinations quickly and discreetly executed. Intimidations undertaken. Estimates given.”
Lolly Mellon giggled.
“You’re joking,” she said.
“Could be,” said Carolus and after paying for his drink and tipping Pepe walked out of the bar. Jock Dribble was still outside.
He walked briskly towards the beach but when he had gone some distance looked back to see whether he were being followed. Satisfied, he went on, but once again, before he reached the darkness of the playa took a careful look behind him.
He found the guardián a hawk-faced old man who leaned on a long pole, like a shepherd with a crock. He began the long slow approach to conversation which Spanish courtesy demands. It was a fine night. There would be wind tomorrow. Yes, certainly the levante would be blowing tomorrow. No, the guardián scarcely ever saw anyone here during his hours of guardianship. Now and again some of the young people came and wanted to bathe by moonlight. Sometimes he let them—sometimes he didn’t. That depended on his rheumatism. He suffered much from rheumatism.
He had been a fisherman all his life. He had only taken to this life since the Coming of the Foreigners, he said. He remembered the town when it was Spanish. Well, it was an easy job that he had. He could sleep in the daytime.
Had anyone been around tonight? He scrutinised Carolus in the dim light of the one electric bulb by which they were talking. Why should he ask? Certainly no one had been round tonight. Not a certain man whom the guardián had known previously? No. No. No one. Not offering money to sleep the night here? Certainly not. The guardián knew the young men to whom Carolus was referring. He used to come here often and sometimes at night with a blonde young woman. He would let then enter. After all, you are only young once. But tonight—Oh, no. He hadn’t seen the young man since . . . the murder of Señor Devigne. If he did so he would be bound to tell the police.
As they talked a sudden and dramatic thing happened. Carolus had this back to the sea, but the old man’s piercing eyes remained fixed on the water. He touched Carolus’s arm and pointed. Some five hundred yards away, not far from the low water mark to which the sea had been receding, was a little runlet of flame then a sudden fierce blaze. The fire did not start slowly, it was in one flash at its height, illuminating the sea and sands. From near it a dark figure in trousers (but whether man or woman it would be difficult to say) dashed up the beach and disappeared. The fire itself had burnt out in less than a minute.
“Petrol,” said Carolus, and started to walk across. The guardián followed.
“Why do you say petrol?” he asked.
“Nothing else would burn so quickly.”
“Do you know who did this thing?”
“I think so.”
“Did you see him?”
“No. Not to recognize. But I think I know.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that a man with a guilty conscience is both frightened and drunk.”
“No one would’ve done this if he was not a little bit drunk. Or crazy. Or pretending to be drunk or crazy.”
They reached a blacker spot of the dark section where the fire had burnt. Nothing but ashes, it seemed, remained, and they would soon be scattered by the wind.
“Everything must have been soaked in petrol,” said the guardián.
“Almost everything,” Carolus replied and stooped down to recover a small piece of charred cloth. “You may soak something,” he reflected aloud, “but there will always be some little piece that escapes the soaking.”
“Let me see,” said the guardián. “Ah, black cloth. You know what this is, Señor? It is an old custom in these parts. Someone is burning mourning clothes. That means that whoever has done it believes that he himself is about to die. Anyone will tell you the truth of this. It was a custom before the Coming of the Foreigners.”
Carolus looked at the old man.
“You mean that?” he said. “Then according to your custom we may expect another death. How soon?”
“Soon. Soon. Within two or three days. You will see.”
They returned to the BEI.
* Grievous Bodily Harm.
† Prison for first offenders.