Death on the Black Sands
Next day Carolus went by appointment to see Colonel Gore-Bullar, who had been named executor in Davy Devigne’s Will. We are apt to think all colonels are fire-eaters and Carolus expected something of the sort, but this scarcely prepared him for the man who confronted him across a tiger-skin in his cottage on the hillside above Gibraltar.
Colonel Gore-Bullar was less than five-foot six in height, tense and sinewy. He had that combination of white hair and scarlet skin which is often found in his kind, but both in an extreme form, the skin deepening in colour almost to purple, the hair of his moustache and over his ears looking as though it were electrified. His movements were decisive, almost violent, and he spoke in a loud military voice and called men ‘sir’ with ferocious hauteur.
The room in which they sat held many trophies of the colonel’s but over the mantelpiece, instead of a rhinoceros’s horn, was a portrait of Lord Montgomery, of whom Gore-Bullar spoke as ‘my old chief’.
Carolus started by congratulating him on the pretty cottage with its orderly garden, remote from the haggling Spanish shopkeepers of Main Street.
“Government property,” explained the colonel. “I’m the DISM here.”
Carolus could not remember the combination of letters and looked inquiring.
“Deputy Inspector of Sexual Morality,” said the colonel. “It’s a new post, created since the various Lords debates on the Wolfenden report.
“You may have read them. My old chief, Montgomery, spoke forcibly, you know. Forcibly, about men in the Army. My old chief is clean, sir, clean right through, and he shewed them the kind of man he was. But Lady Gaitskell unfortunately saw fit to reply. ‘I am astounded,’ she said, or words to that effect, ‘that Lord Montgomery after such great success in the field, should know so little of the sexual habits of the men he commanded.’ Can you believe it? Sexual habits!”
“You mean they had no sexual habits?” asked Carolus innocently.
“Sexual habits!” shouted the colonel. “They were soldiers! What did they know of such things? It was a monstrous suggestion to make to a clean man like my old chief. The War House was worried about it. Very worried. So much so that the decided to Act. They appointed me DISM here in Gibraltar.
“In order to study the sexual habits of the troops?” suggested Carolus.
“Not study, man. To see that they have none. We don’t want that foreign sort of thing to start in the British Army. Sexual habits! They’ll be calling them opium-takers next.”
“It must be an interesting post,” said Carolus.
“Disheartening at times. I feel my old chief could have tackled it knowing as he did instinctively what was Clean and Right. It’s a bit much for me though. One comes up against the lax modern attitude.”
“You’ve made some progress?”
“I’ve prevented the shewing of three films, sir. One of them actually depicted Oscar Wilde. On the screen! Appalling! And I’ve put a thorough check on the bookshops here. I found an extraordinary state of things. Lady Chatterly’s Lover being sold openly! Books published in Paris. Degeneracy of every sort. I should not have minded so much if they had just dealt with flagellation. Natural enough—instinctive need for discipline. But these depicted the most horrifying vices. One even suggested that Lord Kitchener . . . but I really cannot go into such things. I cleaned them up, sir. You’ll not find a smutty book on sale in Gibraltar now. I think even my old chief would be pleased at what I’ve done, and he was never easy to satisfy. However, this was not what you came to see me about.”
No. I understand, Colonel Gore-Buller, that you are acting as executor to the late Davy Devigne who was recently murdered in Los Aburridos.
“I am. It is through no wish of mine but a debt I owe to the memory of his father.”
“Devigne’s father? Oh, yes, he was an army man.”
“Brigadier. Very able. We climbed the ladder together from Sandhurst on. He was a year or two older than me, hence his seniority. I was his executor which is why his son made me his, I suppose. I scarcely knew the young man.”
“He wasn’t so young. Prematurely aged, I gather.”
“Exactly. Degenerate. Dissolute. A wastrel surrounded by depraved parasites.”
“You know his friends?”
“Know them, sir? Certainly not. I would never know such people. But since my old friend’s son has . . . since the murder I have been to Los Aburridos and see these mountebanks with whom he surrounded himself. Monstrosities, sir. Debauchees. Profligates. Dregs !”
“I admit it is not a very admirable collection.”
“It is bestial, sir. Such people should be segregated from those who want to lead decent lives. Freaks. Perverts. Delinquents.”
“I understand that Davy Devigne left his entire fortune to them.”
A sudden cackle, mirthless and harsh, came from the colonel.
“Are they counting on that?” he asked.
“I think some of them are, yes.”
“Then they’re in for a shock, I’m delighted to say. Decadent brutes. Reprobates. Libertines. I suppose they’ve been battening on that wretched son of my old friend’s for years? That’s over, I can tell them, the leeches.”
“Have you any idea what Davy Devigne has left?”
“I know exactly,” said the colonel triumphantly. “I can tell you to a farthing what he left. He left seventeen thousand pounds but . . . of debts !”
“Hs life had been a sham for years, it appears. It has taken a great deal of sorting out. Lawyers, accountants, London solicitors. He liked to make a show. These vermin round him egged him on.”
“Had he no share in the ownership of the Imperatorio building?”
“None whatever. It belonged to a company. I am having that investigated now. Young Devigne put his name to certain things but owned no shares at all. He has been used, no doubt.”
“He certainly posed as the owner,” Carolus pointed out.
“Posed, yes. His whole life became a pose among those degraded monsters. They were posing and posturing like so many puppets. I saw them at it, my dear sir. I went over there. Painted effeminates. Masculine women. Corrupt undesirables from every walk of life. Hermaphrodites and gigolos.”
“I think you’re rather hard on some of the inhabitants of the Imperatorio, colonel. You can scarcely call Mr. Pluggett, for example, an hermaphrodite.”
“Speaking figuratively, of course. I have never in my life seen such a dissipated crowd of impostors. I was sorry to see the few decent people among them forced to remain in the society of these hangers on and pandars.”
“Who for instance?”
The colonel looked a little less fierce.
“Miss Losch, for one,” he said.
It took Carolus a moment to realize that he was speaking of Daphne.
“I can see that she was hard put to it to endure these viscious brutes. Clean, sir, clean. A young English girl from a decent home finding herself among bawds and dipsomaniacs. I felt thoroughly indignant. I asked the little lady if I could be of any assistance to her but the police have taken her passport.”
“Anyone else you would describe as ‘decent’?”
A very good fellow named Killain. In the very best Irish tradition—an Ulsterman I need scarcely say. A Harrovian, he told me. Very sound on wines. Splendid chap. But when I’ve mentioned those two it’s all. The rest are sharpers, confidence tricksters, spongers, lechers. I was outraged by the sight of them. How my old friend’s son can have become associated with such people I don’t know. There must have been a streak of rottenness in him but I can’t guess where it came from. Old Donkey Devigne, as we used to call him—affectionately of course—was one of the best. One of the very best. Straight as a die and clean . . .”
“As a whistle?” suggested Carolus.
“A white man,” summarised Colonel Gore-Bullar. My old chief thought the world of him. There were no sexual habits about him.”
Carolus was longing for a drink and the colonel seemed to perceive this for he said suddenly: “I can give you a glass of Sherry. Never touch alcohol myself. Lime juice, I take. What was good enough for my old chief is good enough for me. I’m hoping to close several of the bars in town where there is far too much alcoholism. Undermines morale. Weakens the willpower. Bad for discipline. Leads to Other Things. But there is Sherry in the house if you are a victim of these habits.”
He rang the bell and an old soldier servant brought a bottle of lime, some ice, water and decanter with an inch of thick-looking Sherry in it, and Carolus, ‘a victim of these habits’, drank gingerly.
“So you’re trying to decide who killed young Devigne,” said Colonel Gore-Bullar. “Might be any of that crowd. Look at Heath. You can’t tell with neurotics like that.”
“No,” admitted Carolus. “I can’t—yet. But if you could tell me a little more about Devigne’s financial affairs it might make it easier for me to find out.”
“It’s all too confused at the moment. Being thoroughly investigated. I insisted on that for my old friend’s sake. We shall know in due course who held the shares in the Imperatorio building. We are also enquiring into this Casino business. If you care to get in touch with me again I’ll give you what information I have been able to obtain.”
“That’s very kind of you. You must be a busy man.”
“Busy? I’ve scarcely a moment to myself. The duties of a DISM are most exacting. I leave nothing to staff which I am not prepared to do myself, even spending a most uncomfortable evening at a so-called night club where Spanish dancers disported themselves in what I considered a most improper way. I have made my reports and expect every day to hear that it has been closed. I am determined that the Forces on this island shall not be exposed to immoral influences.”
“Won’t life be rather dull for them?”
“It will be clean. Things had been allowed to go down hill before I took over. I even heard, I scarcely like to mention this, of certain nightmarish activities of a small minority in . . .” The colonel’s voice dropped to a horrified whisper. “In one of the public urinals. You, as a sane and properly conducted human being will think I am inventing something so macabre. I can only say I received a report which gave me sleepless nights. I profoundly thank God that I did not have to make my report on it to my old chief. Then there were clandestine assignations in the Alameda Gardens.”
“Were there?” asked Carolus politely.
“So I have been given to understand. And you ask if I’m busy. My dear sir, I haven’t a moment’s peace. Some of the men were even obtaining leave to visit Tangier. I soon put a stop to that.”
“Need you ask? Tangier! A DISM has to be on the alert the whole time.”
“Don’t the majority of them have their wives out here?”
“My dear sir, I’m not talking of the majority. The majority are decent, clean-living Englishman who would be as horrified as I have been to learn what I have since I became DISM. It’s the minority, the very small minority we have to watch. There was one so-called cabaret where—unless the report I have received was a fantastic invention coming from a diseased mind—sailors were known to dance one with another in the small hours of the morning. You will find it difficult to believe, I daresay. But my information was reliable.”
“So what steps did you take?” asked Carolus, fascinated.
“I reported it immediately to a senior member of the naval staff. But it will shew you to what deplorable depths morality had sunk on the Rock when I tell you that he actually laughed. I told him I could understand his finding the situation grotesque but it had the most serious implications. ‘Implications be damned,’ he said. ‘Boys will be boys.’ What can you do against an attitude like that?”
“Nothing,” agreed Carolus.
“But perhaps the most hair-raising experience I had came last week when one of my staff produced for me a collection of pornographic photos of a most lonesome and repugnant nature.”
“Dirty?” asked Carolus.
“Scabrous. Obscene. Abominable,” said the colonel. “I have no words to describe such ordure.”
“You’re not doing badly,” Carolus couldn’t resist saying.
“When I tell you that in them was no firm line of demarkation between the sexes you will get some notion of the horror of what I saw. They were found in the possession of an Air Force man, a Sergeant-Pilot, I believe, with a decoration for gallantry and a previous record of good conduct.”
“What happened to him?”
“If I’d had my way he’d have been put against a wall and shot. But the Air Force authorities failed to see it like that, indeed one of their senior officers, with a levity which I found disgusting in the circumstances, insisted on going through the pictures, making a salacious commentary as he did so. You see the lengths to which things have gone?”
“Startling,” said Carolus non-commitally.
“There are other and more subtle influences to contend with. There is a certain kind of publication devoted to body-building and such with illustrations of a kind which would be repulsive to a decent man. Then there is always sun-bathing . . .”
“But . . .”
“It leads to a form of nudism and untold foulness of that kind. I feel also that there are unhealthy friendships among the men. I don’t mean anything unmentionable—I have no fear of that since these are, after all, British troops. But intense friendships—well, you remember your school, don’t you? I have to be vigilant in this job. Do you know, I recently discovered that some of the men were studying Greek literature?”
“Surely that was to be encouraged?”
“Encouraged? My dear fellow! Greek literature? I published a Part II order at once. ‘Greek literature will not be studied by Other Ranks.’ So you see one way and another I’m a very busy man. But I am perfectly willing to give you details in the matter of poor old ‘Donkey’ Devigne’s son as soon as I know them. I hope you will ’phone me in a few days’ time.”
Carolus took a wondering leave of Colonel Gore-Bullar and came down to Main Street. Lunching at a table in the Sombrero was an army man in mutfi, and when they fell into conversation Carolus asked him about Colonel Gore-Bullar.
“He’s DISM here,” said the army man. “It’s a new appointment. Known to the troops as Dismal, of course.”
“But is he taken seriously?”
“Not really, but just enough for him to be a bit of a nuisance.”
After lunch Carolus went to book an air passage to London but found that he could not get one for three days. This irritated him as it threw his schedule into confusion. There was certain information which he could only get in London and he needed it before he could go further.
What Gore-Bullar had told him about Devigne’s affairs interested him more than he had shewn. The whole case was beginning to take a certain hazy shape, which shifted its outlines like a cloud but nevertheless had a certain fixed entity. Besides, with instincts cultivated by much experience, he had a sense of impending events which would bring him new enlightenment—not necessarily a second murder, but some break from cover by someone.
Carolus, having booked his flights for the following Thursday, took a taxi to the frontier where he had left his car.
He reached Marbella on his way back and had stopped to observe the perspiring holiday crowds from England when he suddenly saw . . . but it couldn’t be. Coming towards him, though not fortunately recognizing him or his car, was a tall man wearing a grey Cordobese hat, that romantic headgear in which Spaniards in advertisements for wine or summer cruises are always depicted but which is excessively rare on the streets of Spain. The hat had been pulled well down on the head so that the ears were crushed and flattened by its rim, and it was these ears which he recognized. They were the cavernous and hairy orifices of Mr. Gorringer.
Carolus, still unnoticed, watched his headmaster saunter up. He was smoking a Faria cheroot and seemed to be humming to himself––was it a tune from Carmen ? He appeared quite unperturbed by the fact that there was not a Spaniard in sight and that his fellow-strollers might have come straight off Margate Beach. He approached, passed and went on, and Carolus drove away with relief. It was evident that Mr. Gorringer’s Spanish holiday was a success. He would doubtless hear about it later.