Death on the Black Sands, Chapter Seven

Death on the Black Sands


“I have an invitation for you,” said Priggley, “from one of the local inhabitants named Lolly Mellon.  Will you go to a party at seven o’clock this evening?”
“A party?”
“It’s a form of recreation among the native population here.  You provide gin and potato crisps for a number of them one evening and each in turn does the same thing during the following weeks.  It has been said of the people of this coast that they live by taking in one another’s cocktails.”
“What do you know of this Mrs. Mellon?”
“I met her in the Esmeralda Bar this morning.  I thought she cast rather rapacious eyes on me so I quickly began to talk about our topping cricket team, and my holiday task and how we rag the art master, till she felt she was cradle-snatching.  Then I had an inspiration and began dropping remarks about ‘m’tutor’ as those dreary Etonians are always doing, and she seemed to become animated again at the thought of a man over school age.  It was then she asked you to her party.”
“I’ll go,” said Carolus.
He found that that Lolly Mellon conformed rather disappointingly to type, raffish yet expensively dressed, boozy but not without a ghost of good looks, she had the hungry hurt look of women with a certain amount of money who sit at bars around the Mediterranean, waiting for men.
“Hullo, darling,” she greeted Carolus.  “I’m glad you could come.”
She had no idea who Carolus might be or how he came to be here; in fact the situation was the only thing familiar to her.  There had been hundreds, perhaps thousands of ‘little parties’ in her life and of men who turned up at them unexplained.
“Though it’s not a party,” she assured Carolus.  “Just a few people dropping in for a drink.  Come along and I’ll introduce you.  Charles, isn’t it?”
“Near enough,” said Carolus, and found himself being presented to Hilary Ling and Tommy Watson.
“Oh, how do you do?” said Hilary stretching out a thin hand and giving Carolus a trained smile, while the cockney boy greeted him awkwardly.
They passed on to Georgie and Sweetie.  Georgie was upright in a chair and Sweetie sat on a pouffe at her feet.
“I can’t wait to tell you,” said Lolly to them after Carolus had been introduced.  “I met the most marvellous young man this morning.  My dears, he looks exactly like an old-fashioned gangster and talks out of the corner of his mouth.  I’m sure he spits.  His name’s Benny Martin and I saw him first outside the Maryland talking to that rather sinister character who’s staying there.”
Marvellous!” said Georgie and Sweetie.
“I followed him down to the beach,” went on Lolly, “and waited till he came out of his cabin.”
“Good torso?” asked Georgie briskly.
“Rather pale, I thought.  I was soon talking to him, though, and asked him to come along this evening.  Then I thought I’d see what the other one was like so I said, ‘Bring your friend along, too.’  My dear, he gave me a positively murderous look and said what friend?  I told him the one he was talking to outside the Maryland.  So he looked at me as though he was going to strangle me and said, ‘Get this.  I haven’t got any friend.  I’ve never been near the Maryland.  Understand?’  So I nodded like an idiot and he’s coming here.”
Marvellous!” said Georgie and Sweetie.
Carolus found himself addressed by Hilary Ling.
“Good thing she has found someone new, the dreadful bitch,” he said.  “Now perhaps she’ll leave my friend in peace.  She’s like a leech, my dear.  Poor Tommy only wants to be left alone and she never stops trying to lure him.”
Carolus found himself at a loss.  But he did not want to discourage Hilary, for it was from just such malicious patter that he had learned things in the past.
“Really?” he said.
“She’s dreadful.  Of course, Tommy’s very attractive and I suppose I can understand her pursuing him in that undignified way but there are times when I could have killed her.”
Carolus found himself looking into two very cold china-blue eyes and knowing that the words were true.  This thin carefully made-up young man was perfectly capable of killing.
“How did Mrs. Mellon get on with the Devigne?” asked Carolus.
“Oh, all right, I suppose.  She was one of the famous party who are going to get all the money.  Well, so am I.  I wish they’d get on with it and settle it up soon because I need it, really.  I put everything into Davy’s Casino scheme.”
“You too?”
“Yes, I thought, well, I still think it’s a wonderful idea and will make us all fortunes.  The only thing is I was reading about Frank Harris the other day, you know, Oscar Wilde’s friend, and it appears he started one of his dreadful swindles with just the same idea—a big Casino.  And everybody who put their money in lost every penny.  But even if it was like that with Davy, there’s the Will so I suppose I mustn’t grumble.”
This time Carolus could find nothing to say, not even ‘really?’, but he was soon relieved.
“Look, my dear,” said Hilary.  “That awful Lolly’s talking to poor Tommy again and positively leering at him.  I must go across.  She can’t give him a moment’s peace.”
Hilary curved his way across the room but before he reached his objective the situation had been changed by the entrance of Benny Martin.
This, Carolus decided when he had observed him closely from across the room, was a dangerous young man, if not what Lolly had ecstatically called a gangster at least the English counterparts, a villain.  And not one to under-rate, either.  There was a kind of chilly inhuman resoluteness about him which gave the impression that he would stop at nothing.
Carolus waited where he was till Lolly brought the young man round and introduced Carolus as Charles.  There was a curious look in Martin’s face as he held out his hand.
“Hullo . . . Charles,” he said.
Lolly left them together.
“You’re a friend of the man who calls himself Larner,” observed Carolus.
Martin smiled but it was not a friendly smile.
“News to me,” he said.  Who calls himself Larner?”
“I’ll be able to tell you in a day or two.  If you don’t all know already.  On the run, aren’t you?”
“You’re taking chances, little man,” said Martin.  “I been wanting to talk to you, anyway.”
“I thought so.  But don’t give me the old routine about danger and getting out before it’s too late.  Your friend tried that and it wasn’t very impressive.  All right, so you’re a tough boy and you’ve got form and you’re not particular about one life more or less.  I give you credit for that.  But it’s not going to be my life.”
They were speaking quietly but not in whispers, the people around them remaining unaware that this was anything but cocktail party chatter.
“That’s where you make your mistake,” said Martin.  “It is going to be your life.  And very soon now.  You’re not in England, you know.  I’ve been along this coast for years and I know it and I know what can be done here.  You’ve interfered in something where you had no business, and I’m going to see to it that you don’t interfere again.  A flicking schoolmaster!”
Carolus smiled.
“Let’s see if we can get another drink, shall we?” he said.
Martin took his meaning, gave a slow unwilling grin and held his glass out to Lolly who was passing with a jug of Dry Martini.
Carolus moved over to talk to Georgie who was separated for a time from her friend, since Sweetie was gazing as if spellbound into the face of an old gentleman who talked interminably about gardening.  Georgie rapped out questions as though she were behind the commanding officer’s desk in an orderly room.
“Staying long?”
“I don’t really know.  A week or two I expect.
“You’re interested in this murder, I hear.  Know who did it?”
“Good job, whoever it was.  Man was a bastard.”
“Brutal.  Somebody should have done it years ago.”
“You think so?”
“Know it.  If you don’t know now you’ll be told sooner or later that Sweetie was with him for years.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“S’fact.  I had to rescue the poor kid.  Life was hell.”
“I thought Daphne was living with him.”
“That was after I’d taken Sweetie away.”
“I see.”
Georgie looked very ferocious.
“If I’d realized then what Sweetie has been through!  Poor child—that bastard found her in London.”
Georgie eyed him with hostility.
“What’s it’s matter where?  I believe it was Frith Street.”
“She was working?”
“Yes, poor darling.  In a club.”
Carolus glanced across at Sweetie.  Yes, she had the figure.
“She had no idea what kind of man he was.”
“But she stayed with him some years?”
“Couldn’t do anything else.  Thank God I found her.”
“You knew all the circumstances?”
“Not at the time.  I saw she was in trouble.  Needed help.  I told that swine I’d thrash him within an inch of his life.  If I’d known everything then I’d have done it.”
“When did you know everything, Miss Day?”
This seemed to pull her up.
“I don’t know.  Somewhere along the line.”
“Quite recently?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.  Sweetie never told me before.  She was afraid of what I might do to Devigne.  I should, too.  Or to anyone else who tried to treat Sweetie like that.”
“But no one else did?”
“Since she’s been with me?  Do you think it’s likely?  Let someone try, that’s all.”
“And Devigne never made any attempt to get your friend back?”
Again Georgie looked indignant.
“Of course not.  What makes you suggest that?”
“One hears things,” smiled Carolus.
Georgie seemed to debate whether she should hit him or find out what he knew.
“Place is full of gossip,” she snapped non-commitally.  “You can believe nothing.”
“That’s why I asked you.”
“You’ve heard they were seen together?”
“It’s probably just gossip, as you say.”
“What did you hear?”
She could no longer conceal her concern.
“I hate repeating tittle-tattle.  Let’s have a drink.”
When were they supposed to have met?”
“Let me get you something.  Your glass is empty.”
With a sour and hostile expression she handed him her glass and when he returned with it full she asked no more but went across to Sweetie.
Carolus found himself once more beside Hilary Ling who had grown a little glassy-eyed and flushed.
“I can’t think why Lolly gives these ghastly parties, can you?  I suppose it was to shew off this terrible person she’s picked up on the beach.  Well, all I can say is, thank God she has found someone.  Perhaps now she’ll give poor Tommy a little peace.  But isn’t it a dreadful collection?  Look at that woman with all those phoney pearls!  Isn’t she incredible?”
“That’s Mrs. Pluggett,” said Carolus.  “And the pearls are anything but phoney.”
“Where do they get the money?” asked Hilary.  “But you must admit it’s the weirdest collection of people.  The only one she’s missed is Jock Dribble.
“He’s the local drunk, isn’t he?”
The local drunk?  My dear, there are thousands!  Look at Lolly, for instance.  As a matter of fact . . .”  Hilary grew confidential.  “I often wonder whether Jock Dribble is such a drunk.  I think he puts it on.”
“Mm.  I think he’s rather a dangerous person.  You know, he used to own all the land where this building is and he always said he was done out of it.  That would make him rather bitter, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“My dear, look at Lolly with her new piece of trade!  They’re positively ogling one another.  Thank God it’s not Tommy!  Have you ever seen anything like that one she’s found?  I’m sure he’s some awful murderer.  I should hate to meet him on a dark night.  Wouldn’t you?”
“On the contrary,” said Carolus, “I’m hoping to do just that.”
“You are?  Well, tastes differ, I suppose.  Isn’t it mad about that party Davy gave, and leaving all his money to us?  I must say I’m thrilled because he was madly rich.”
“Was he?”
Must have been.  This building and everything.  I promised Tommy I’ll buy him a Jag when we get it, then we can drive off positively anywhere.  I’ve never been to Naples, for instance, and I believe it’s wunn-derful.  Tommy’s a very good driver.  He’s the sort who means to get his own way, if you know what I mean.  Who do you think murdered Davy Devigne?”
Carolus saw that the ugly pale eyes were watching him, in spite of their glaze, pretty shrewdly.
“I don’t know,” said Carolus frankly.  “It could be almost anyone, couldn’t it?  You all had a motive of sorts.”
“Me?” asked Hilary rather shrilly.
“You had as much reason as the rest of the party.”
“You don’t think Jack Trotter did it then?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“What about Daphne?  I mean, the way he treated her.  Unless she liked it.  And Lolly?  She’d stop at nothing to get a man.  I know that.  Davy probably turned her down and she was furious.  Or Paddy Killlain.  He knew Davy better than anyone.  Then there’s that dreadful person in the braces.  Do you know where they all were that evening?”
“No.  I don’t even know where you were.  Where were you?”
“At home, my dear.  Having the most terrifying row with Tommy.”
The din of the party about them had increased so much that Carolus found it hard to hear Hilary’s words in spite of all the high-pitched emphasis.
“Yes, the most terrifying row about Lolly.  I said to him, if you want that nasty bitch you better have her, only don’t come near me again.  He was awfully sweet about it in the end and promised he’d never speak to her again.  Then just as we made it up we heard those piercing screams, and in a flash Lolly was on the ’phone trying to lure poor Tommy to her flat, saying she was frightened.  It would take more than a few screams to frighten her, I can tell you.”
“You’re very hard on Mrs. Mellon.”.
“Not now, so much, that she’s got this new young man.  But there are lots more people it could be.  What about Georgie?  She hated Davy.”
“Or Sweetie?”
“Oh, no!  I mean can you see Sweetie doing it?”  Carolus did not answer.  “But there’s that fearful man Jock Dribble.  I told you I thought he’s dangerous.  Or that woman they call Bindle.  Or one of the barmen or waiters or someone like that.  Or a mysterious person I’ve never heard of.”
“Yes, it’s a wide field,” said Carolus, and went to take his leave of Lolly Mellon.