Death on the Black Sands, Chapter One

Death on the Black Sands


Leo Bruce

The first scream was heard a few minutes after eleven o'clock.  It cut the woolly night air and penetrated open windows facing the sea.  It was succeeded by a series of three or four louder screams, hysterical and shrill, and after these there was silence.
It was a Thursday night in August in the new city of Los Aburridos, midway between Torremolinos and Marbella on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain.  The wind had dropped only that day so the sound of screaming hung in the still air.  It came from the playa, the famous black sands of that coast which has the dirtiest sea-shore in Europe and one of the most crowded.
A vast apartment block, “380 flats of supreme luxury and comfort” as the advertisements said, overlooked the beach from which those eerie sounds came, but between it and the sands was a large building of its balneario or beach house which cut the line of sight from the windows of the Imperatorio, as the block was called.  Moreover, only a thin moon was overhead so that no one could see anything of the playa from the balconies.
Mr. Plugget was on the balcony of his apartment on the second floor, stretched in a basket-work chair.  He peered anxiously into the night.
“Did you hear that screaming, mother?” he called to his wife who was in the room behind him.
“Yes,” she said placidly.  “Sounded like someone being murdered, didn’t it?”
“That’s just what it did sound like.  D’you think I ought to go and have a look?”
“Whatever for?  We’re here on holiday, aren’t we?  You don’t want to get yourself mixed up in anything.”
“That was a woman screaming,” said Bill Pluggett reflectively.
“I daresay it was, but that’s no reason for you to have anything to do with it.  You never know what lark they’re up to in this place and it may have been one of these señoritas, as they call them, making a noise on purpose just to start something.”
“Still, I think I ought to have a look.”
“You’ve done quite enough for this year.  It was ‘looking about’, as you call it, that made you put all that money into that . . .”
“Now don’t keep on about that, Em.  I told you we’d get it back and we will.”
“I don’t know how.  Unless this Davy Devigne was to drop dead.”
Mr. Pluggett looked suddenly serious.
“Don’t talk like that, Em,” he said severely.  But he did not mention the screams again, and though he continued to sit on his balcony he heard no more of them. 

Lolly Mellon heard them from another flat in the same building just as she was drinking a large Spanish brandy.  She put it down and picked up the telephone.  “Is that you Tommy?” she asked plaintively in her hoarse ageing voice.
“No, it’s not !” came in very snappish and hissing tones, masculine but high-pitched.  “It’s Hilary.  Who wants Tommy?”
“Oh, Hilary, darling.  It’s Lolly.  I’ve just heard these frightful screams.”
“I know, Lolly, darling.  Weren’t they terrifying ?”
“Absolutely blood-curdling, darling.  I just thought that Tommy . . .”
A change came in the other voice.
“Tommy’s not here.”
“I thought if he could just come over for a drink, darling.  I’m all on my own and those screams.
“I told you he wasn’t here, didn’t I?”
“Yes, darling, but I thought if he could pop across for a minute . . .”
“Lolly, darling, let me get this straight.  Tommy’s not here.  And if he were I don’t see why you should want him just because someone screams.”
“He’s got that dependable sort of thing, darling.”
“Well, darling, don’t try and depend on it, that’s all.  Tommy’s my friend you know.”
“I know he is darling.  I just thought . . .”
“Have another think then, Lolly, because he’s not here anyway.”
Hilary, thirty-five years old with corn-coloured hair and a pained expression, put the receiver down firmly.
“Who was that?” asked Tommy, a heavily built young cockney who entered from the bathroom.
“That disgusting nympho, Lolly Mellon again.”
“What’s she want?”
“She heard those screams.”
Tommy, easily diverted, said— “Yes, I heard them too.  Sounded like someone being murdered, didn’t they?”
“I wish they were if it was that ghastly Lolly Mellon,” said Hilary somewhat incoherently.

Paddy Killain, sitting at the Esmeralda Bar on the ground floor of the Imperatorio heard the screams too and gave his charming white gleam of a smile to Pepe, the barman.
“There’s a pretty noise for you,” he said.  “Someone’s been stung by a jelly-fish, I suppose.”
Pepe who had been serving drinks for five seasons to the holiday makers and expatriate Englishmen and Americans of the Costa del Sol, and had made himself into a ‘character’, realized that this was a moment in which to shew Anglo-saxon sang froid. 
“Probably,” he said indifferently, “or found a corpse.”
Paddy Killain looked up quickly.
“What makes you say that?” he asked.
Pepe shrugged his well-padded shoulders.

Georgie Day heard the screams.  She was a leathery woman in her fifties who made one not exactly think of horses, but of stables and ostlers and such.  She was an inelegant chain-smoker.  When the first scream was heard she stared at her friend Sweetie Duncannon as though daring her to join in the noise.  Sweetie, who had a round-eyed air of innocence, looked as though she would like to.
“Ooo,” she said tentatively.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Georgie.
“Listen to those screams, Georgie.”
“I am listening to them.  I can’t help it.  Some silly woman frightened by a man probably.”
“Oh, Georgie, do you think so?” asked Sweetie with awe and wonder in her voice and eyes.
“Probably.  Stupid bitch.”
“Oh, Georgie.”
“I’ve no time for that sort of thing.”
“But suppose it was . . . murder!”
“Murder, my foot,” said Georgie.
“You don’t know.  People are murdered sometimes.”
“There’s no need for them to make so much noise about it then,” said Georgie implacably, and lit a cigarette from the butt of the one she just finished.

Jock Dribble heard the screams as he made his hurried but uncertain way towards the Bar del Toro.  He might have been taken for one who hoped his credit would stretch to another aguardiente, or perhaps to two.  The screaming made him pause a moment.
“Gracious me,” he said aloud.  “S’traordinary noise.  Sounds like murder.”
Then he swerved forward towards the entrance to the Bar del Toro.

There were others who heard the noise, residents in the Imperatorio, passers-by, a tourist or two who felt that sort of thing was to be expected in Spain, but no members of the local police force who were busy taking down ‘denunciations’ from two servant girls who had tried unsuccessfully to blackmail their employers.
The only man in whom the screams seemed to inspire any action was an Englishman named Jack Trotter who had been sitting at a table outside the Esmeralda Bar and might have been waiting for these very sounds so swiftly and decisively did he move when they came.  He stood up, laid some money under the glass on his table and crossed the road to the seashore.  He seemed to know exactly where he was going.
He was a tough-looking man, lean, dark and self-confident.  He wore expensive but not showy clothes and there was something of a large feline about him.
He reached the edge of the sand, dark grey in the uncertain moonlight, and walked delicately as though fearing the damage that dirty silt might do to his shoes.
Presently something became visible ahead of him.  The curious fancy struck him that some Muslim worshipper was bowing low in his orisons, for a bent figure appeared white against the dark ground.  But there was also another figure, prone, a little beyond this.  Jack Trotter hurried towards them.
He looked about him as he went, and glanced behind.  No one was in the limited field of vision.  The only sound he heard was mechanical music from radio sets left at full blast by inattentive listeners, in the Spanish manner.
But as he approached the kneeling figure he heard loud dry sobs.  A girl, the kind of girl that the editors of salacious American magazines use as models for suggestive pictures, was doubled up and crying into her hands.  In this light it was impossible to see her rich bronze skin and tousled fair hair, but Jack Trotter did not need to do so because he knew them too well already.
“Daphne,” he said.
The hysterics which had set her screaming ten minutes ago seemed about to return.  She blubbered incoherently and pointed.  Jack Trotter realized what she meant, the prone figure beside her was a corpse.
In a business-like way he put his arms round her, hushed the sobbing and calmed her to the point where she could tell her story.  She spoke at once of ‘him’, without a name, for Jack knew that she could only mean Davy Devigne who was the host to both of them and whose body, lying face downwards, was beside them.
“He didn’t come up from the beach with the others.  I thought he’d driven off somewhere.  To Malaga perhaps.  But when he didn’t come to dinner . . .  Nor did you, Jack.  Where were you?”
“Never mind that now.  Go on.”
“Nobody seemed worried about him.  But I had the most extraordinary feeling that something was wrong.  He’s been so strange lately.  So when it was nearly eleven and he hadn’t come I decided to come down here.  The last I’d seen of him he was lying here, sunbathing.  You were here too, weren’t you Jack?”
“Was I?  Let’s hear the rest.”
“There wasn’t much light but I soon saw him..  I thought he’d just fallen asleep and gone on sleeping.  You know, one doesn’t realize things at first.  I started calling ‘Davy’, and ran forward, but when he didn’t move or answer I got frightened.  Well, anyone would have done, wouldn’t they, Jack?”
“I suppose you touched him and found he was dead?”
There was a sudden new burst of semi-hysterical crying from Daphne.
“Touched him?  No!  Look at him, Jack!”
Jack Trotter rose and crossed to the dead man.  At first he stood calmly enough looking down.  Then he bent and flashed his lighter.  “Good God!” he said in a forced harsh voice.
“Isn’t it awful ?” said Daphne.
“Pretty bloody,” said Jack and for once the word was well used.
Davy Devigne, a heavily-built man in his late thirties, at first seemed peacefully stretched on his stomach.  But the sand under his head and neck were wet and a closer look shewed that his throat had been cut from ear to ear, his head almost severed, it seemed, from his body.
When Jack Trotter looked back at Daphne she had straightened her back and was kneeling with her hands on her thighs staring at him rather wildly.
“Did you do it, Jack?” she asked as though scarcely aware of what she said.
Jack Trotter remained cool.
“What makes you say that?”
“You could have.  Who else would?”
“You’re crazy, Daphne.”
“I’m not!  I believe you did!”
Jack Trotter stooped a little to smack her face with his open hand.
“That’s enough of that,” he said.  “What d’you take me for?”
She stared at him in silence.
“Want to get me topped or something?”
She still stared.
“No,” she said, slowly shaking her head.
“Don’t talk like a moron, then.  Get up.”
She obeyed.
“What . . .” she began.
“We must report this to the Law.”
“What shall I say?”
“Just what you told me.  The truth—if that was the truth.”
“Of course it was.”
“Let’s go across the road, then, and get this filthy black sand off us.  You’ve got some blood on your dress.”
“It must have been when I first found him.  I didn’t know.  I knelt down.  Oh, Jack . . .”
“What will happen? To me—and everything?  I’ve been with him three years . . .”
“I know you have.  You’ve done all right, though, haven’t you?”
“Only the things he gave me.  Bits and pieces.”
“No money?”
“Not really.  I never thought . . .”
“Looks as though you’ll have to find someone else, doesn’t it?”
“Jack . . .”
“Shut up.  I’m thinking.”
They started to walk away.  Still no one was in sight.
“Ought we to leave him there?” asked Daphne.
“What d’you want to do?  Take him with us?”
“Don’t be beastly, Jack.  But it seems awful to leave him without . . .”
“The Law will be here quick enough.  They’ll get him in the morgue before the morning, and make an arrest within twenty-four hours.  It’ll probably be me.”
“Oh, Jack.”
“What?  They can’t hang something on me I haven’t done, can they?”
“No,” said Daphne dubiously.
Someone was coming towards them, a tall heavy middle-aged man whom neither of them knew.  He looked at them narrowly.
“Shouldn’t go across there,” said Jack Trotter.
“No.  There’s a dead man out there and it’s not a pleasant sight.”
The big man shewed no surprise. 
“Dead?  I see.  Was it a man named Devigne?”
“Who are you?” asked Jack Trotter sharply without answering the other’s question.
“I only arrived a few days ago, so you wouldn’t know me,” said the big man.  “I knew Devigne slightly.”
“Your name?”
“My name is Larner,” the man replied.  “I’m staying at the Hotel Maryland.  This was suicide, I suppose?”
“Better go and take a look,” said Jack Trotter grimly.  “A good look.  We’re just going to report it to the Law.”
“Oh, he has not been found officially yet?”
“No.  See you again.”
They came towards the yellow lights of the street lamps, hurrying now.  But they were stopped again, this time by Paddy Killain who seemed to be waiting for them.
“Was that you screaming, you mad child?” he asked Daphne switching on the full force of his charm of manner.
“Yes, Paddy, it must have been . . .”
“You’d scream if you came across Davy lying there with his head nearly sliced off,” said Jack Trotter.
“D’you mean it?”
“Of course I do.  Think that’s a joke?”
Paddy Killain, like others with light and whimsical manners, was easily knocked off his balance.
“Oh, God!  You mean murdered, Jack?”
“I don’t mean he’s taking a quiet nap.  I tell you someone has damn near beheaded him.”
“But who ?”
“Don’t expect me to know.”
“I meant, who could it be?”
“Anyone, almost.  He’s been out there since this afternoon I suppose.  The playa’s dark where he is.  It doesn’t take much strength to take a swipe like that at a sleeping man.”
“Oh, God.  What will happen to . . . everyone?”
“Personally I shall move out.  I wasn’t all that dependent on Devigne.”
Killain seemed to think this over.
“Are you going to report it?”
“What do you think we’re going to do?  We’re going to the Law now.”
Trotter and Daphne moved off.  Killain hesitated for a moment then started walking back to the Esmeralda Bar.  Even a wine connoisseur needs a stiff whisky sometimes.  A few minutes later he was seated at the bar alone with Pepe the barman.
“You were right,” he said rather unsteadily.  “Someone did find a corpse.”
Pepe’s best intentions to be cool and Anglo-Saxon collapsed.
“No!” he said staring rather blankly.  “You don’t mean it.  Someone dead ?”
“Very dead, I gather from Mr. Trotter and Miss Losch who have seen him.”
“Mr. Devigne, Pepe.  He has been murdered.”
Pepe seemed to be gripping the bar for support.
“No!” he said.  “No!  No!”