Death on the Black Sands, Chapter Nineteen

Death on the Black Sands


“Let me dispose first of what has come to be called the second murder,” begun Carolus.  “Because by comparison it is a straightforward affair which should be fairly obvious to anyone, and has not deceived even the Spanish police.  The motive for it really forms parts of the story of the earlier crime so for the moment I will only say it was an act of revenge.
“In understanding how it happened I had a considerable advantage.  I knew Jock Dribble.  He was a Sergeant in the Airborne Division when I was a humble lieutenant, and his reputation was that of a man of obstinacy and guts who could fight a wild bull with his fists and drink almost any of us under the table.  I needn’t give war-time reminiscences of him but I remember him as a man of outstanding character, not particularly popular but very much in the public eye.  ‘Have you heard the latest about Jock Dribble?’ sort of thing.
“After the war I lost touch with him but I did hear that he came into some money.  When I recognized him here as the local beachcomber and drunk, I wanted to know what had brought about this degeneration.  I got this first from an unlikely source.  Hilary Ling thought he was ‘rather a dangerous person’ who ‘used to own all the land where the Imperatorio building is’ and ‘always said he was done out of it’.  Then in the Esmeralda Bar on the night he attacked Bill Pluggett I heard Dribble himself ask Pepe ‘Do you know who owns the very ground you’re standing on, or would do if I hadn’t been done out of it?’
“It appears that Dribble came to this coast before it became the sort of repugnant holiday camp it is today and shewed considerable foresight in guessing the way it would develop.  He put all his inherited money into land here as an investment, but then sold out too soon when offered a small profit on what he had laid out.  He never forgave the purchaser and at first it almost seemed as though this gave him a motive for murdering Devigne.  But as things developed this theory became untenable.
“Like most people in this place he was putting on an act.  Self-pity and anger had made him an alcoholic but he frequently behaved as more drunk than he was.  He was also a mixture between a whining cadger and a vengeful bully.  He could still pull himself together to fight, as he demonstrated so unexpectedly with Bill Pluggett, but he might as easily beg from someone as hit him.  The motive behind much that he did was a longing for vengeance on those who (he had come to believe) had deprived him of his money.  But faced with someone whom he identified as the one who had exploited him he might as easily ask for money as attack him.
“In the case of the man known as Larner he did both, I should guess.  He killed Larner, but I hesitate to call it murder.  He hit him as he hit Pluggett but this time his victim was standing in front of a pile of concrete blocks and went back on these, cracking his own skull.  I doubt whether in England it would mean more than a charge of manslaughter and a sentence of perhaps three years.  Here, I don’t know what will happen to him.  He was arrested this afternoon.”
Mr. Gorringer raised his hand.
“Halt there a moment, Deene.  You convince me wholly, of course, but I think you should say how you know for certain that the man Dribble did what you describe.”
“He virtually told me so.  He was waiting outside the Esmeralda Bar at evening for Larner (as we will continue to call him for the moment) and when I left the bar Larner must have followed me.  I had given him provocation which a man of his kind cannot ignore.  So Larner followed me and Dribble followed Larner.  Perhaps at first he was merely asking for money, but if Larner brushed him off as he may have in his impatience to catch up with me, Dribble would have been exasperated into action.  The surprise of finding such strength and agility in that rack of a man baffled Larner as it had baffled Pluggett, and he went down.  Then, remembering the other murder, Dribble dragged the body onto the sands and left it there.
“I found him in the Bar del Toro an hour or so later, very drunk indeed.  His knuckles were grazed and this suggested that he had struck Larner, as he had struck Pluggett, in the mouth.  In his drunken stupor he half recognized me and tried to recall our previous acquaintance by the word ‘Airborne’.  Then, in his cloudy mind, remembering what he had done, he spoke the word ‘Concrete’.  It was not difficult to follow his meaning here and I went out to find the block sticky with Larner’s blood.  I was able to report this to the police in my own way, thus probably saving Dribble from a charge of murder.”
Carolus paused a moment then said quietly, “There was one other man who could have done that.  Bill Pluggett saw the whole thing.”
Bill Pluggett said nothing for the moment but his wife did not hesitate to speak.
“Oh, he did, did he?” she asked furiously.  “I’d like to know how you’re going to prove that when he was up in our apartment and I was there the whole time, and if you think you’re going to get us mixed up in another murder you’re mistaken else we shall never get away from this place and spend the rest of our lives having this horrible black sand blown all over us by this everlasting wind.  So now then.”
“It’s all right, Em,” said Bill.  “If it means the chap’s life depends on it I shall have to say what I saw.  You say they’ve arrested him?”
“So I understand.  This afternoon.”
“I’ll go and see them tomorrow, then.  All he did was same as he done to me, let fly at this man’s face.  The other one staggered back and you could see him crack his nut.  If it hadn’t been for the blasted wind I’d have heard it too, I daresay.”
“Manslaughter!” cried Mr. Gorringer as Archimedes must have cried ‘Eureka!’ “Manslaughter is the conclusion here.  The man’s violence will doubtless be punished by a salutary term of imprisonment but we need not fear that he will meet the reprisal demanded by society against a murderer.  So one mystery is disposed of.”
“There was really no mystery.  Even if I had not known Dribble before, or seen him battering Bill Pluggett, I should have had no doubt about the death of Larner.  And as you had seen, the incident was witnessed, something that has never happened in any case I have known.  Even Dribble’s half-intoxicated attempt to establish an alibi between the two bars he visited that night was palpable.  To speak of ‘detection’, ‘investigation’ or ‘deduction’ here would be absurd.  It was as open-and-shut as those everyday murders which get only a small paragraph in newspapers.  Mystery is a word, though, that more fairly might be applied to the death of Davy Devigne.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Gorringer with relish.
“In this the character of the man was an important factor—a circumstance which always adds to the interest of investigation for me.  It was not difficult to gather what that character had been.  Perhaps Mrs. Bindle was most explicit.  When I asked her if Davy Devigne was a kind man she said he would rather write a cheque than waste a lot of time.  I know that kind of generosity so well and despise it.  It is buying oneself a clear conscience, and remaining mean with time, energy, consideration and courtesy.
“Devigne was an exhibitionist as anyone can see from facts and stories about him.  It was his passionate desire to be thought wealthy and attractive to women, to be envied for his absurd and vulgar flat which he thought smart and extravagant, for his cars, his clothes, his girlfriends.  He likes to move about with a following, to hold court, to have a reputation as a host, and so on.  He achieved most of this through a series of embezzlements and confidence tricks which we shall come to in a moment.  But during the weeks before his death his bluff was being called and the sands, as Mr. Gorringer might say, were running out.”
“Since you do me the honour of a hypothetical quotation,” interrupted Mr. Gorringer himself, “let me suggest that you deserve a brief respite, my dear Deene.  You have, after all, succinctly disposed of one of our tragedies and should take a moment’s rest and perhaps some refreshment before elucidating further.”
“Does he always go on like this?” Bill Pluggett asked Priggley in a low voice, nodding towards Mr. Gorringer.
“It’s pathological,” Priggley explained.
Jack and Daphne were together now, and Tommy Watson sat between Hilary and Lolly Mellon.
Colonel Gore-Bullar had discovered Bindle with relief.
“S’traordinary,” he said looking round him incredulously.  He could not wait to make his report.
Carolus continued.
“The first inconsistency which struck me when I arrived was this matter of a Casino.  I was satisfied that Devigne’s plans for building one had received official sanction but I knew also that public gaming is forbidden in Spain.  It was from this that I deduced the desperate state in which Devigne found himself.  For Casinos in Spain are plentiful, but they are cafés or clubs and not gaming-houses.  Every village has its ‘casino’— a small bar like any other except that it is often collectively owned.  In larger towns the Casino is often a club where a staid game of Bridge may be played.  Devigne had actually taking advantage of this ambiguity and had induced many people to part with money, on the supposition that what he would build would be a big Casino such as one finds at Monte Carlo or Estoril.  Even a Spaniard, Pepe the barman, had fallen for this.
“But when I met Vogel I realized that this little swindle, too, was about to be exposed.  ‘I don’t gamble, I win’, he boasted to me and, member of a formidable syndicate of casino-owners, it could not be supposed that he would be long deceived by such a palpable fiddle.  If I am not mistaken he was here to recover an investment which some member of his syndicate, more rash than he, had advised.  But in order to do so he naturally did not reveal to others that Devigne was promoting a fraud.  He hoped, in fact, that enough mugs might be found to enable Devigne, under penalty of a give-away, to repay the syndicate—not a highly ethical standpoint.”
“You are insulting me!” said Vogel thickly.
“Yes, I am, aren’t I?” said Carolus.  “But in all the circumstances with moderation.  I’m happy to add that you are wasting your time.  There’s nothing in the kitty.  Devigne’s executor is present . . .”
“The estate is bankrupt to an extent well over twenty thousand pounds,” put in Gore-Bullar.  “And the amount is rising every day as further peculations come to light.”
Vogel looked at him coldly, but said nothing.
“You can’t really mean it!” cried Hilary Ling.  “What about the Will?”
“The Will was just another piece of effrontery and exhibitionism, typical of the man,” said Carolus.  “He liked to have people round him who thought they were under an obligation to him.  He knew when he gave that ridiculous party that he was bankrupt.”
“You mean to say there’ll be nothing ?” gasped Hilary.
“Less than nothing, sir.  Debts,” said Gore-Bullar.  “And there is at least the consolation of knowing that the bloodsuckers, the vampires, the parasites who surrounded him will get no benefit from their sycophancy.”
“I think you’re horrid!” said Hilary who seemed on the verge of tears.
Carolus hurried on.
“But Devigne was facing a far more serious threat than that—no mere gambling syndicate hoping to recover their miserable losses but a powerful criminal who had, so far as Devigne was concerned, power of life or death.  The man Roderix, who had a false passport in the name of Larner, had come to examine the books.
“Ten years ago with a vast sum of money, estimated to approach a quarter of a million, he had done a daring, or at least a risky thing.  Knowing that the baggage of those entering Gibraltar is not examined he had brought a large portion of the fruits of various robberies, in paper money, in a suitcase to the Rock.  From there the amount that he wanted could be smuggled into Spain or across to Tangier.  But he did not want to keep it in money.  He had formed the Edificio Imperatorio S.A. (a Spanish limited company) and built that highly profitable block of flats.
“He needed a front for this and picked on Devigne, whom he knew then as a gambler in debt and disrepute.  Devigne was to pose as the owner of the block and to do this he was encouraged to put on all the show he liked, taking a triple flat, running a showy car, surrounding himself with women and hangers-on and generally behaving like a millionaire playboy.  He was well fitted for this line and for some years kept it up with gusto.
“But he went too far.  All the details of his idiocy and deceit in handling money will doubtless be disentangled in time, but it can at least be taken that he had over-run his allowance by a good many thousands and that Roderix meant to know by how much, and why.
“Roderix never let his left hand know what is right hand was doing.  In order to intimidate Devigne he sent for Benny Martin, who was known as totally unscrupulous and, if necessary, a killer.  Telling Martin that it was Devigne who wanted some job done, he introduced the two to demonstrate Martin’s capabilities.  Martin was quite unconscious of the part was playing.
“So one way or another things were closing in on Devigne.  With Vogel threatening to expose him, and Roderix quite prepared to bump him off if necessary, with bankruptcy and the prospect of a return to his former life of shady gambling and petty con tricks overhanging him, he probably knew that the girl he was keeping was unfaithful to him.  In fact he had reached the end of his tether.  He had not inherited much of this father’s courage . . .”
“None, sir!” shouted Colonel Gore-Bullar indignantly.  “None at all.  Or any other of the qualities of my old friend.  Why, if Donkey Devigne could have seen a gathering like this as the associates of his son he would have shot himself.  I feel sure of it.  He was a clean man, sir.  Clean right through.”
“Is he advertising a soap powder?” Priggley asked Bill Pluggett.
Pluggett laughed too loudly.  “Sounds like it,” he agreed.
“When a man like Devigne, an exhibitionist by nature and practice, an empty shew-off and a fraud reaches that point of no return,” went on Carolus, “his next step is easily predictable.  He will talk of committing suicide, think of committing suicide, try to commit suicide, plan to do so or actually commit suicide.  Devigne planned to do so.”
“That’s right,” said Daphne.  “He often talked about it to me.  But you never said it was anything to do with money or gave me the least hint that he was going broke.  If I’d known that I should have known what to do.  I think it’s awful to take anyone in like that and pretend you’re rich when it’s really someone else’s money you’re spending.  I mean, how is anyone to know?”
“Now, little lady,” said Colonel Gore-Bullar affectionately, “you mustn’t talk like that—trying to make us think there is something mercenary about you when we all know there’s nothing of the sort.”
“Well, a girl has to look after herself and I don’t know how she’s going to do it if men are going to tell lies about what they have or haven’t.”
Mr. Gorringer waved aside this chit-chat.
“Are you seriously postulating, my dear Deene,” he asked, “that the man Devigne committed suicide?”
“I said he planned to commit suicide.  I didn’t say he cut his own throat.”
“That is a considerable relief to me,” said Mr. Gorringer.  “Greatly though I admire the fertility of your arguments, and easily though I fall victim to your persuasions, I should be hard put to it to believe that the gash in the throat of Devigne, running I am told from ear to ear, which I have heard described as the cause of his death, was produced by his own agency.”
He was interrupted by the sudden, the dramatic entry of Mrs. Stick.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said with a quiver in the voice.  “There’s someone in the cellar.”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Stick.  So there is.  I was forgetting.”
“I heard a noise like a whole swarm of bees coming from there,” she went on, “so I called Stick.  It’s like someone trying to speak with something over their mouth.”
“That’s exactly what it is, Mrs. Stick.”
“It is to be hoped,” said Mrs. Stick fiercely, “that it’s nothing to do with murder.”
“Your hopes are vain, I fear.  It has everything to do with murder.  In fact . . .”
Mr. Gorringer interrupted with a mighty rumble in his throat.
“I think you would do better to proceed with your exposition, Deene,” he said.  “I am sure that by so doing you all set Mrs. Stick’s apprehensions at rest.”
“Oh, very well,” said Carolus.