Death on the Black Sands
Carolus decided to leave his car in the park and walk back to the Villa Las Palomas in which his household was already installed. Leaving a region where radio and television sets at full blast were in over-illuminated cafés, or dance-bands competed across the streets from half a dozen cabarets, he passed into a dark street of white-plastered housefronts, a relic of the time when Los Aburridos had been inhabited by Spaniards.
It was quiet here after the feverish din of a holiday night he had left behind, and there were long black shadows across the way, for a bright moon was in a clear sky overhead. Just for a moment it seemed to Carolus that there was something of the Spain of legend in the atmosphere, with its night scenes and intrigue, and it did not surprise him to see ahead of him the absolutely motionless dark figure of a man.
He could not see the man’s face though he was facing in the direction of Carolus, but the figure was of someone tall and burly. There was something a little sinister about his stillness and his head bent forward, as though he were some extraordinary misplaced scarecrow. He was also in Carolus’s path and Carolus realized that he would have to swerve considerably to right or left to avoid passing too close to him.
Carolus was not frightened but very much alert. A little more became visible as he advanced—a large white face, wide shoulders, a humped but sturdy person with his hands not in his pockets but at his sides.
Just as Carolus was coming level with him, the man jerked his head up.
“Deene?” he said.
It was obvious that the whole thing had been staged to give him a somewhat melodramatic advantage in a meeting with Carolus.
“Yes, but tired,” he said, and made to walk on.
A large hand grabbed his sleeve.
Just a moment. I want to talk to you. The voice sounded frustrated and angry.
Carolus stopped, indicated the man’s hand, and said—“Just remove this will you?”
The grip relaxed and the hand disappeared.
“Now what do you want?” Carolus asked.
“I don’t want anything. I’m going to give you a warning. I know all about you. You’ve been the cause of more than one being topped before now. Well, keep out of this. This isn’t what you think it is Deene.”
“No? Good night,” said Carolus.
The big man was reduced to following Carolus in order to complete what he had to say. The interview was not going at all as he had intended and this made him talk more savagely.
“I tell you this is something you and your sort want to stay a mile from. Unless you want to look the same as Devigne did when they found him. This isn’t a nice lark for a summer holiday, I tell you.”
Carolus stopped and faced the man.
“You’re staying at the Maryland, I think?”
“It’s not far from here. Why don’t you go home? I’m too tired for any more chatter.”
“You’ll listen . . .”
“Gladly, some other time, Mr. Larner. But not tonight.”
This time the man, perhaps momentarily set back by hearing his name, or assumed name, used so confidently, did not try to detain Carolus who was able to walk away.
As he approached the Villa Las Palomas he saw that the light on the terrace was still burning. The house had been built on a rocky headland directly overlooking the sea on the site of one of the fortresses built along this coast as the Martello towers were built along the coast of England. Its foundation remained and what may once have been a dungeon beneath it had been turned into a wine-cellar by the builders of the present villa. Priggley’s description, ‘all coloured tiles and tricksy wrought-iron’, was no exaggeration. It was the kind of villa found on that coast and in the South of France, a lamentable thing, smart and white with elaborate ironwork and glass, a geometrical garden, loungy furniture, brightly painted sunblinds, up-to-the-minute appliances and an air of waiting for the guests asked to a talkative cocktail party.
Priggley was stretched in a basketwork chaise longue on the terrace, sipping crème-de-menthe on the rocks.
“I know what you want,” he greeted Carolus. “A whisky-and-soda. The Sticks have gone to bed dumbfounded by it all, so I’ll get it for you.”
It was what Carolus wanted as the young fiend very well knew, and he drank it gratefully.
“You know,” said Priggley. “I believe you’re on to something at last, sir. Not some sordid little mystery of a strangled wife or one of your dodgy cases with clues and times and footprints, but something quite sizeable. I smell blood.”
“You ought to be in bed.”
“Be serious, sir. This isn’t the time for fatuity. Do you know anything about a character who calls himself Larner?”
“Yes. He called here this evening, asking for you. He gave me a most unpleasant impression. Could he be Interpol or something like that?”
Shouldn’t think so.
“Mrs. Stick was full of disapproval and suspicion. She doesn’t know anything about Devigne’s murder yet but she thought this character looked ‘as though he was to do with something’.”
“Did you talk to anyone else, today?”
“Yes. I went to the BEI. That’s what they call the bathing place attached to the Devigne’s block of flats, the Balneario del Edificio Imperatorio. It’s supposed to be for the residents only, but with a touch of effrontery . . . Anyway, I got in. That’s where you ought to have started.”
“The character in charge there must be full of information. He’s a white Russian known locally as Pedro and I should say he misses nothing. The police have questioned him four times already about the comings and goings on the day of Devigne’s death. He was there till about nine o’clock that evening.”
“Did he tell you all this?”
“Pedro? Good Lord no. He scarcely utters. But one of his assistants, a German known as Alfredo, is a nice chatty soul who never stopped. You should go down there tomorrow.”
“You may have some difficulty with the Russian. He gave me the impression of being scared. He was certainly watchful. Have you met the blonde?”
“So dumb it isn’t true. And I’m not using a figure of speech.”
You mean it’s an act?
“It’s all an act. Everyone I’ve met is acting.”
“I know what you mean. Including that charming character from Ealing or somewhere with the faint brogue and the smile.”
“Yes. Including Killain. Now, to bed, you young monster. I’ll see you at breakfast with none of your bright morning patter, please.”
“Bed? It’s early, sir. I’m enjoying the peace of the night. You don’t know what the wind’s been like. It’s rarely out of action on this coast, I gather. It’s been blowing like a blast from a furnace ever since the day after the murder. Today is the first bit of rest I’ve had from it and you want me to go to bed!”
“We shall get some more days without wind.”
“I doubt it. However, I’ll indulge you. Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Priggley. Oh, and I want to take what I’m going to say as an order. I’ve already told the Sticks. The windows of this house have wrought-iron gratings. Just take the precaution of locking your bedroom door each night.”
For once Priggley resisted making a facetious retort and nodded.
But the night was calm, the levante, the fierce dusty wind which sweeps that Coast the most of the summer like a small but spiteful tornado, having, as Priggley said, dropped off for a brief rest. Carolus looked out over the garden to the sea and heard nothing but a remote hum of traffic from the town. He slept easily and woke to another day of hot sunshine.
On the terrace plates and cups were laid for breakfast and Mrs. Stick, looking small and severe in these unlikely surroundings, awaited him.
“I must apologize for breakfast, sir,” she said. “The girl who’s been left in the house not being able to speak.”
“What girl, Mrs. Stick?”
“Carmelita, she calls herself. Mrs. Priggley engaged her before she left, it seems, and she’s been alone here with the young gentleman, which I don’t think’s right. I can’t get any sense out of her. I asked her what people had for breakfast in this place and all she could say was chewer roes.”
“Churros, Mrs. Stick,” gasped Carolus.
“That’s what I said, sir. Chewer roes. I asked whatever she meant and she kept on about chewer roes, so I sent her out to get some and she’s just got back with some lengths of fried batter.”
“Excellent, Mrs. Stick. You dunk them.”
“Dunk them, sir?”
“In your coffee. It’s the national breakfast in Spain.”
Mrs. Stick stared indignantly for a moment, said, “Well I suppose it’s all part of it,” and left the terrace.
Carolus found the BEI, the lavishly appointed balneario for the occupants of Devigne’s flats, a fairly busy place already when he arrived at ten o’clock. The British holiday markers, recognizable (in spite of the cotton suits the men bought for the occasion and the sunglasses of the women) as the good-natured crowd to be seen on the beach at Southend or among the amusements of a holiday camp, seethed about in sun-peeling groups, yelled at their children, played their transistor radios or grumbled together at the lack of English amenities. Many of the flats of the Imperatorio had been leased en bloc by a speculator who advertised them in the British popular press with this dissatisfied result.
Carolus made his way to the bar and had no difficulty in recognising the Russian. He was a smooth-faced grey-headed man and Carolus could understand what Priggley had meant when he said he was watchful.
Carolus chatted rather meaninglessly for a few moments out of hearing of anyone else then said in an even voice, “What are you afraid of?”
Pedro looked about as though he were in a trap.
“What d’you mean?” he asked.
“You’re scared stiff. What’s the matter?”
There must have been something about Carolus with his slim figure and quiet personality which Pedro could not quite dismiss with a ‘mind-your-own-business’.
“Are you English?” he asked Carolus.
“I can’t talk to you.”
Carolus came straight to the point.
“You’ve talked to the Spanish police,” he said.
“Listen, Pedro. I know why you’re scared and who has told you to keep your mouth shut.”
“That’s more than I do,” said Pedro. “It was a telephone call.”
“I also know that I’m not putting you in any danger. I think I can help you.”
“CID?” asked Pedro, Then rather desperately––“Or MI5?”
“Neither,” said Carolus. “Private individual. A very private individual. How can I see you alone?”
The man known as Pedro made a quick decision.
“I’ll chance it,” he said. “ I must talk to someone. I don’t usually come on duty till eleven o’clock in the morning so I shan’t be missed for half an hour. I’ve got the room. Listen. Go down the passage as though you were going to the Gents and you’ll see a door on your left marked Staff Only. It’s usually locked but I’ll go and unlock it from the other side in a few minutes. It leads into a disused cloakroom and beyond that is my room. Come in about ten minutes. Make sure you’re not seen.”
Pedro moved away with admirable casualness to attend to someone else and Carolus, with disgust, drank the Seven-Coca he had ordered. Fifteen minutes later he was in a comfortable chair in the Russian’s room.
“It’s not that I know much, anyway,” said Pedro, “and what I do know I’ve told to the police. But whoever rang me up meant business, I feel sure about that.”
“What did he say?”
“Started by saying that I should have a lot of enquiries. Well, of course I have. I was here that day, wasn’t I? People like talking about that sort of thing. Half the tourists get a kick out of it and want to mark the exact spot where it happened. I told this man on the ’phone, and he said, no, not that sort of enquiry, but I’d know when I heard it. Someone seriously interested. I was to say nothing. That’s all.”
“That’s what scares you?”
“No. It was what came after. He asked me if I had seen Devigne. After the murder, he meant. I said no. Then he said, ‘You’ll keep your trap shut, Pedro. Unless you want to look like Devigne did when they found him’. Somehow, I knew he meant it.”
“Then I shouldn’t lie out on the sand late at night as Devigne apparently did. ”
“He wasn’t on the sand when I left him,” said Pedro. “He was in a deck-chair.”
“What time was that?”
“I packed up at about eight. Devigne told me to. He said he’d had too much to drink and wanted to sleep it off. One of the boys who work here had been taking him out large Martells all the evening but he didn’t look drunk to me. Still, that wasn’t my business. He told me to lock the place up and go, so I did that.”
“Does anyone sleep here?”
“There’s a guardian. But he doesn’t come on till midnight.”
“So you went home soon after eight. It was getting dark then?”
“Was anyone about when you left him?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“You didn’t come back here that night?”
“No. I spent the evening with some friends of mine––the Rubikoffs.”
“Now the really interesting time as I see it is between five, when Devigne’s party went home, and eight, when you left him. Where there many people about?”
“No. They thinned out very quickly as usual. By about six the beach was deserted.”
“Where were you?”
“In the bar. There were still one or two there for a time.”
“Who, for instance?”
“Young Pluggett, for one. He’s the son of a family that lives in one of the flats. He’s supposed to be very intelligent, I believe.”
“The one they call Lolly Mellon. She was talking to a young London fellow who’s staying with Hillary Ling. Well, staying with . . .”
“I understand you perfectly. How long were they here?”
“Till about seven, I should say, in and out. Then Ling came down and started raising hell. They argued the toss for a time then this Tommy Watson had to go off with Ling.”
“Mrs. Mellon remained alone?”
“Yes. For a little while. Then she went off.”
“Did Devigne come over to the bar?”
“No. His drinks were taken out.”
“Did anyone go and speak to him?”
“Not till after the rest of them had gone home. Then as young Pluggett was leaving Devigne called him across.”
“Didn’t that rather surprise you?”
“Nothing surprises me in this place. But I did think it was rather unusual. Devigne was a man who liked shewing off. Taking that blonde about with him. Spending money. He was a snob, I should say. I’ve never seen him speak to any of the Pluggetts.”
“Could you see them from where you were standing?”
“No. But I happened to be outside at the time. I just saw young Pluggett go to him and stand talking for a minutes, then I came in. I don’t know how long they were together. ”
“Did you tell the police about that? Devigne talking to young Pluggett, I mean?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“They didn’t ask me. I’ve no reason to want to help the Spanish police.”
“So I may be the first person beyond young Pluggett to know about this.”
“You probably are.”
“And so far as you know Devigne spoke to no one else?”
“So far as I know, to know one. But as I say I left here at eight.”
“You say he remained in a deck-chair. Yet his body was found lying on the sand.”
“So I understand.”
“What about the deck-chair?”
“There isn’t one missing. The police examined them all the following day but they can’t have found anything because they didn’t take any away. They asked me about one which was broken but it had been like that for a long time.”
“There’s one thing you can do, Pedro, for your own sake and mine. Try to recognise that voice you heard on the ’phone. You’ll probably hear it again sometime here in the bar.”
“I have been listening for it, but it’s not easy. Voices sound different on the ’phone.”
“Don’t be to put off by familiarity. I mean don’t think because you know someone quite well it can’t be the man who ’phoned you.”
“No. But so far I’ve heard nothing to resemble it.”
“You’ll let me know if you do?”
“I’d been glad to hear of anything else you notice. I mean to find out who killed Davy Devigne. I’m pretty sure I know who is so anxious that you shouldn’t give your information to anyone but the Spanish police, but I’d like to hear it from you.”