Death on the Black Sands
Carolus examined a slip of printed paper only just large enough to carry the titles of the persons concerned and the courteous phraseology of Spanish officialdom. It was a entreaty that he would ‘have the goodness’ to call at five o’clock precisely that day at the office of Fidelio Hacendoso de Bustamente, Comandante del Servicio de Policia Judicial, Region de la Costa del Sol. In other words a police summons. The politeness of the request contrasted quaintly with the ‘precisely’ of the time mentioned, as the verbose courtesy of the official concerned would, Carolus guessed, contrast with a certain menace behind the mask.
He would go, of course. He looked forward to a cross-examination in which he would be determined to learn more than his examiner. But he realized also that there was a certain danger here, at least of inconvenience. If the Spanish police thought he knew more than he was saying they would be perfectly capable of keeping him there all night or longer.
Things had a way of being reported in Spain where the police pay for ‘denunciations’, and if by any evil chance he had been seen coming from the playa last night he could even be suspected of the murder of Roderix. From the police point of view his behaviour, since he had arrived, had been highly suspicious. They might know of Martin’s presence in his house and what had caused it; they might know of his meeting with Roderix. They certainly knew that he had been to see Jack Trotter in prison shortly before his escape.
Besides, the police along this coast over-run by foreigners, felt, he had heard, a sort of general exasperation with the British and Americans who chiefly formed the foreign colony. The visitors’ behaviour was so out of key with Spanish tradition, their drunkenness and excesses, their oddities of dress and undress, the beats among them, the boozers, drug-takers and sexual eccentrics on the one hand, and the mobs of package tourists determined to get full value from their inclusive payments on the other, had driven the respectable Spanish from the coast and left only those who lived like lice on the foreign bodies. It was not a population likely to endear itself to a hard-working police force, accustomed to investigating nothing more vicious then an anarchist cell or an attempt to form a trade union.
Then the two murders which had followed one another and must surely be connected had been a further exasperation. One way or another Carolus did not expect to be welcomed with open arms at the office of the Comandante del Servicio de Policia Judicial, Region de la Costa del Sol.
He found, however, a blank beneficent-looking person in his early fifties who spoke excellent English and extended to Carolus a hand which looked soft and well-kept but had a grip like a vice. Señor Fidelio Hacendoso de Bustamente was in fact a mass of contradictions; his cheeks were plump and good-natured while his eyes were steel-cold, his lips were full and generous while the chin below them jutted out rocklike. His words were gentle and courteous spoken in a voice which could cut like a razor.
With him was a gloomy individual with a high narrow forehead and very small pursed mouth. He was of indeterminable nationality and was introduced to Carolus as Señor Borg, ‘an observer from Interpol’.
“It is to Señor Borg that you owe the consideration I hope we shall be able to shew you,” said Hacendoso somewhat ambiguously and with a cold smile. “He has been able to inform us of your activities during certain investigations in England and considers that they have been on the whole harmless. You describe yourself as a private investigator, I believe?”
“Oh, no. I describe myself as a schoolmaster with over-developed curiosity.”
“So? What is your full name? Father’s name? Mother’s maiden name?”
Carolus shewed no surprise at this sudden meticulous catechism. He knew something of Spanish police methods. He gave his mother’s maiden name, the place and date of his birth, his late father’s profession, his late mother’s father’s profession, and confessed to having a birthmark on his right buttock. Then he expected the Comandante del Servicio de Policia Judicial to come to business. But no.
“What brought you to Los Aburridos,” Señor Deene?
Carolus explained about the villa and Rupert Priggley.
“How was it, then, that on your first afternoon in the town you went straight to the flat of the murdered man and made acquaintance with his following?”
“I was interested in that, too.”
“Oh, you were. As a private investigator perhaps?”
“As a very inquisitive man.”
Hacendoso shook his head.
“A dangerous quality, inquisitiveness,” he said. “How fortunate for you that Mr. Borg knew something of your activities. We should otherwise have found your movements here unaccountable. Your question to the concièrge, for instance. What would one have thought of those? The way you turned the conversation at dinner that night. One would have thought you had something personal interest in the death of Devigne. One couldn’t have escaped that impression.” He paused, then sharply—“Had you, Mr. Deene?”
“Had I what?”
“Any interest in Devigne’s death?”
“I never knew the man.”
“That is not quite an answer, Mr. Deene.”
“I wanted to know who killed him. That was my only interest.”
“And do you know who killed him?” asked the Comandante, very blandly.
“Oh, yes,” said Carolus. “Don’t you?”
The face change to a mask.
“Señor Deene, I suggest that for your own good you do not treat this matter with levity. That evening, on your way home, you met the man who was killed last night. Was that by appointment?”
“You have very well informed of my movements. No. I made no appointment.”
“You knew the man’s name?”
“I knew what he called himself.”
“Did you think it might not be his name?”
“When I knew he had a forged passports, yes.”
As if unwillingly Hacendoso and ‘Mr. Borg’ exchanged glances.
“A forged passports, Señor Deene?” said Hacendoso, apparently amazed. “What made you think that?”
“Exactly what makes you think it, Señor Comandante. It was one of the Amsterdam forgeries.”
Hacendoso cleared his throat.
“So you believed that Larner was not this man’s name. Did you take any steps to discover the truth?”
Here, Carolus was nearly sure, a tension came into the manner of both of them. He realized with some amazement that they were approaching the only question they really wanted to ask him, that they were in fact unaware of Larner’s real name. That they would learn it in time could not be doubted but in the meantime they were frustrated by having an anonymous corpse on their hands. He wondered whether to bargain with this piece of information. But there was something about Hacendoso which told him this would be unwise. If Carolus gave him what he wanted frankly and easily he would not, Carolus thought, mistake this for stupidity. He would know he owed Carolus something and might, in his own way, probably through Borg, repay it.
“Oh, yes,” said Carolus. “I wanted to know who he was.”
“Perhaps you have been unable to discover?” asked Hacendoso with the smile of a dentist about to extract a tooth.
“I know, as of course you do, Señor Comandante.”
“I am waiting, Señor Deene.”
How cleverly this man could suggest the force behind his geniality, Carolus thought.
“His name was Albert Roderix, known as ‘Snatch’ Roderix. He was a highly successful English criminal.”
Not the slightest sign of interest appeared in Hacendoso’s manner. On the contrary, he went off humorously at a tangent.
“In Spain we have no highly successful criminals, Mr. Deene.”
“No? Then I think your policeman are wonderful. That’s really all you want to know from me, isn’t it?” smiled Carolus.
Oh, no. Please remain seated. May offer you a cup of coffee? Yes? You were telling me about this man known as Albert ‘Snatch’ Roderix. He was checking the name. It was he who employed the young man now in your house, I believe?”
“Also a highly successful criminal?”
“Only in Spain, I believe. England was too hot for him.”
“As it was for the man who escaped from prison here soon after you had visited him—the man Trotter.”
“Was it? Yes. I don’t know a lot about Trotter. I find him less interesting than Martin.”
“You don’t think Trotter murdered Devigne?”
“Devigne?” said Carolus in surprise as though caught unawares. “Certainly not!”
“We are not, I need scarcely state, interested in the opinions of gentlemen who call themselves private investigators. In Spain we do not suffer from any such aficionados. But you seem to have some very definite ideas about this case.”
“These cases. Yes, I’m glad to see things are working out nicely.”
“You have some personal experience to aid you, perhaps. On the night of the second murder you went to the balneario of the Imperatorio building to interview the night watchman, I believe.”
“You were long with him?”
“Half an hour I daresay.”
“You saw a fire on the beach?”
“Do you know who was responsible for that fire?”
“I could make a guess. But it would be no more than the opinion of one of those ‘gentlemen who call themselves private investigators’, wouldn’t it?”
Again, Hacendoso cleared his throat to express displeasure.
“After you had been to examine this fire you returned with the guardián to the balneario?
“And left him there to return to the Esmeralda Bar?”
“That is so.”
“On your way across the sands did you notice anything unusual?”
“No,” said Carolus. It was not such a lie as all that. Corpses were becoming less unusual in the place.
“You did not see the body of the man you say is named Roderix?”
Carolus shook his head.
“You did not stoop over it?” asked Hacendoso with concentrated emphasis.
For a second Carolus nearly fell for this. Then he saw the nature of the bluff. If he had come on the body of Roderix he would obviously have stooped over it. Hacendoso was trying to make him think he had been watched.
“I came straight from the BEI to the Esmeralda Bar. I stooped over nothing,” he said.
“I will not press the point,” said the Comandante. “You have, I believe, some information about the financial affairs of the late David Devigne.”
“Yes. Rocky,” said Carolus. “Distinctly rocky.”
“You mean his estate is bankrupt?”
“According to his executor, yes. He leaves nothing but debt.”
“Yet he went to the trouble of making a Will, only a week before his death.”
“He was an exhibitionist, bluffing it out to the last. He had to be thought a wealthy man by those around him.”
Hacendoso nodded. This was a phenomenon he could understand.
“You are aware that the Imperatorio was owned by a limited company?”
“Yes. I should imagine that the shares were mostly in the name of Larner.”
“Larner or Roderix?”
“Larner, of course,” said Carolus.
It was here that he in turn might gain some information.
“Why, Señor Deene? Why are they in the name of Larner rather than in the man’s true name?”
“That you will know better than I, Señor Comandante, when Señor Borg receives his reports on Roderix from London. I am not in the confidence of Scotland yard—as you will be.”
Hacendoso nodded. Was he aware that he lost a trick? Coffee was brought in and the atmosphere grew relaxed.
“You have been very frank with us,” said Hacendoso. “Perhaps there is some little thing you would like to ask?”
But Carolus was not deceived by the amiability of that. He knew, better than anyone, that it was possible to learn more from another’s question than from many answers.
“It is very kind of you,” he said. “There’s nothing at this moment. No leading information matters. I would like to clear up one minor point.”
Hacendoso gave his wily smile.
“I cannot promise to answer your question.”
It is scarcely a question because I know something of your efficiency. It is this: have the men investigating the second death noticed a bloodstain on a block of concrete?”
Hacendoso laughed out right. “Very good, Señor Deene!” he said. “Very good indeed! You are up to scratch as they say. Do you plan to stay long in Los Aburridos?”
“It is difficult to say. I am greatly enjoying my holiday.”
“That’s good. It is always good to have a rest. A complete rest is best of all. I think you should contemplate that, Señor Deene.”
“I will, when I can,” said Carolus with a friendly smile.
They all rose.
“Should you wish to communicate anything to me, I shall be at your disposition,” said Hacendoso.
“I won’t forget that.”
The protracted leave talking of Spain was interrupted by the entrance of a policeman in uniform who handed a slip of paper to Hacendoso. He studied this for a moment, then turned to Carolus.
“It is someone who wishes to see you,” he said. The name is Gorringer.
“Señor Comandante,” he said. “Could you accommodate me for half an hour? Have you a cell attached to this office?”
“A cell? Certainly. You wish?”
“Put me in it to receive this visitor. This is the headmaster of the school in which I teach.”
Hacendoso fought for a moment then smiled grimly.
“I see. The English sense of humour. Very well, I will arrange it. In the meantime, good-bye, Mr. Deene. We shall doubtless meet again.”
The cell was of the American open-barred kind so that from it Carolus could see the headmaster being led towards him down the passage.
“So it has happened at last!” cried Mr. Gorringer. “After all my warnings! The number of times I have begged you not to play with fire! I have always feared that sooner or later a day of reckoning would come, and now the hour has struck! This is a lamentable situation, Deene.”
“Sit down, headmaster. Perhaps things are not as bad as they seem.”
“Ah, no, Deene. Even your effrontery is of no avail now. To think that I should live to find my senior English master behind the bars of a Spanish gaol! What is the charge against you? Not m . . . mur . . .”
“No. Not m . . . mur. I don’t think I shall be here very long.”
“Perhaps if I were to intervene on your behalf? Surely the good opinion of the headmaster of the Queen’s School, Newminister would carry some weight? I have with me, quite by chance, a copy of my book The Wayward Mortarboard or Thirty Years on the Slopes of Parnassus. Perhaps if I were judiciously to present this to one of the officials responsible for your arrest it might lighten your load?”
“I don’t think it will be necessary, headmaster.”
“But you don’t seem to realize the extreme seriousness of the situation, Deene. Suppose some of the parents were to see you here!”
“It’s not very likely, is it? No one is admitted. I don’t know how you managed it.”
“My name, perhaps; the office I hold. I cannot say. I am not, I believe, without a certain air of authority.”
“I wonder if it will be sufficient to get me out of here,” said Carolus. “Perhaps if you were to ask to see the Comandante he might listen to you.”
“We can but try,” said Mr. Gorringer. “Anything would be preferable to this. If but a whisper was to reach England that you were suffering incarceration, and that I, no less, had visited you in these gloomy surroundings, what horrific headlines would meet our eyes? I will certainly see this official and plead with him, if it is only for your temporary release. It is fortunate that I speak the language.”
Mr. Gorringer was gone for ten minutes and returned with the policemen bearing keys. He looked, however, anything but triumphant, seeming quiet and puzzled.
“A very strange race, the Spaniards,” he reflected. “The official, Señor Hacendoso de Bustamente I gather was his name, seems to treat the matter with extraordinary levity. He actually laughed in my face. And when I asked him in good Castilian whether he would grant you at least a temporary respite from imprisonment he said that you could go when you liked. His very words! Somewhat undignified I considered. However, the main purpose is served. You may consider yourself a free man!”