Death on the Black Sands
In the comfort of his small Georgian house in the cathedral city of Newminster, Carolus Deene re-read a long telegram sent off in Los Aburridos: Suggest you come this hellhole immediately Stop Pleasant murder out of your usual rather dreary run Stop Dipsos nymphos and police making usual bee-up Stop Have villa here vacated by mother gone Beirut with Greek dried fruit millionaire Stop Why not bring Sticks and spend week or two sleuthing Stop Have written further details Stop Wire whether expect you Priggley.
It was Carolus Deene’s favourite time of day and year, half-past six on an August evening, and he sipped his first whisky-and-soda of the day in contentment. In his early forties, he had lost his young wife in the last war and seemed disinclined to change his comfortable bachelor existence. Blessed with a vulgarly large private income he yet abhorred amateurism and dilettantism and no sooner had he been released, after some violent years of war with the commandos, than he obtained a post as Senior History Master at the Queen’s School, Newminister, a minor public School. It was not so much that he hankered after teaching history—it was his fear of an idle and meaningless life such as he had seen followed by others who had inherited money.
He was not popular with the staff who resented his Bentley Continental car, and the fact that he annually spent on clothes (an admitted weakness of his) rather more than a year’s salary of one of his confrères. But the boys of the school found him easy and eccentric and he was discussed more charitably in the quadrangle than in the common room.
He had amused himself by applying modern forensic principles to some of the crimes of the distant past and had published an entertaining book called Who Killed William Rufus? And Other Mysteries of History. This has led him to an inquisitive interest in contemporary crime and he had discovered that he had an extraordinary flair for putting himself in the place of murderers and perceiving their motives, using his lively instincts rather than anything learnt in textbook psychology or criminology. By this means he had on several occasions given valuable assistance to the police investigating murders.
He did not call this a hobby, disliking the word with its suggestion of amateurism, but he did not care to admit that his interest in crime was a passion, as in fact it was. An unsolved mystery drew him inevitably and his idea of a perfect school holiday was one in which became involved in some sordid mystery which baffled its investigators.
This weakness (or was it a strength?) of his was a cause for alarm to two people closely associated with him, the headmaster of the Queen’s School, Mr. Hugh Gorringer, and his own impeccable housekeeper Mrs. Stick. Mr. Gorringer, a large and solemn man whose speech was riddled with the clichés of an out-of-date phraseology, feared, as he said, the good name of the school he directed. “It would ill become us,” he asseverated, “to find the name of our Senior History Master blazoned on the front pages of the popular press,” and he enjoined Carolus with ‘all the emphasis at his command’ to see that ‘no unwelcome publicity attached to his holiday activities’.
Mrs. Stick was another and to Carolus a more serious matter. A little woman in her fifties, with steel-rimmed spectacles and thin lips, she was a superb cook and housekeeper and made Carolus’s domestic life comfortable to the point of self-indulgence. Her husband, a quiet man whom Carolus rarely saw, was quoted by Mrs. Stick in her denunciations of Carolus’s ‘getting mixed up with murder and that’, but what his real opinion might be no one, but his wife perhaps, could say.
The telegram which Carolus was re-reading came from his least favourite pupil, Rupert Priggley, a painfully precocious youth, the son of frequently divorced parents. Priggley affected a patronising attitude to Carolus’s investigations in which he secretly delighted to join. His telegram was a characteristic one and Carolus considered it with unwilling interest.
Presently he rang for Mrs. Stick.
She had brought him the telegram half an hour ago and it had evidently roused her apprehensions. In her experience of Carolus, which was considerable, a telegram too often are was a prelude to calls from the police and other undesirables, late night conferences, Carolus’s absence from home and ‘bits in the newspapers’ which might come to the attention of her sister in Battersea respectably married to an undertaker.
“I hope that’s not bad news, sir,” she said suspiciously now, nodding towards the telegram.
“Oh no, thank you, Mrs. Stick. Not at all. Quite the contrary.”
This was evidently not what the little woman wanted to hear either, and she peered at Carolus more suspiciously than ever.
“I thought it might be bad news,” she said.
“No, no. It’s from young Priggley, as a matter of fact.”
Now quite unaccountably Mrs. Stick had a weak spot for Carolus’s least favourite pupil. But this did not relieve her suspicions for she knew that only too often Priggley had led Carolus into what she regarded as temptation.
“I hope he’s enjoying his holidays,” she said.
“Oh, very much, I gather. Very much. Mrs. Stick, how would you and Stick like to come to Spain for a month?”
“To Spain, sir?” gasped Mrs. Stick. “Me and Stick to Spain! It’s not to be thought of!”
“Well, hardly Spain. Between Torremolinos and Marbella on the so-called Costa del Sol. You can’t say Spain, really.”
“What can you say then, sir? If it’s in Spain it’s in Spain, I suppose, whatever they may be like who live there. I don’t see what else it could be.”
“It’s more like Southend, Mrs. Stick.”
“Whatever it is it’s out of the question for me and Stick and I’m surprised you’re even suggesting it, sir. Spain! At our time of life.”
“Young Priggley is alone in the villa out there. He hoped I might bring you to out to run it for us.”
“He should have known better. It isn’t as though we could speak a word of Spanish.”
“I doubt if you’d be understood on that coast even if you could, Mrs. Stick. It’s an Anglo-American colony, I gather, with a few Germans and Scandinavians but not much sign of the Spanish.”
“Still, Spain . . .” objected Mrs. Stick. “Whatever would we do? If we do have a week at the sea Stick likes a bit of shrimping. You know what he is. I don’t suppose they know what shrimping is in Spain. Then what about buying anything? I couldn’t make them understand, I’m sure. I suppose their food wouldn’t be the same. And aren’t they all Roman Catholics? Yes, I know you are, sir, but that’s different; you’re English.”
“Perhaps you don’t think your sister would approve, Mrs. Stick?”
“I’ll see she never hears so much as a whisper of it. She’d think I must be Going Wrong. Though she and her husband did go over to Boulogne on a day-trip last year, and never stopped talking about it after.”
“They did? This would rather put you one up on them, wouldn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t dare tell her. What with bull-fights, and stamping out in tight trousers like I’ve seen them on the telly, and women no better than they should be throwing flowers at you, she’d think I’d gone out of my mind.”
“I don’t think it would be quite like that, Mrs. Stick. Anyway you had a talk with stick about it and see what he thinks.”
“He’ll think what I think,” predicted Mrs. Stick confidently, turning to leave the room “Your dinner will be ready in half an hour, sir. Ober gins far see, pull it on jelly, and a chocolate mouse.”
“Yes, I see,” said Carolus who was a growing accustomed to Mrs. Stick’s insistence on the mot juste pronounced as read. “Aubergines farcies, poulet en gêlée and chocolate mousse. Excellent. What a time you’d have in Spain learning to make gazpacho.”
“I thought they cooked over charcoal there,” said Mrs. Stick enigmatically as she left the room.
Next morning arrived Priggley’s promised letter. Carolus scanned the early paragraphs—“quite a doll . . . got in at eight o’clock next morning . . . not your tea at all . . .” and came towards the part of the letter which interested him.
“Probably the corniest place in Europe . . . old-fashioned beats, dull drunks leering at one another, package tourists who wish they’d gone to Blackpool and a hard core of remittance women trying to drag something home for the night. You’d loathe it but there’s this murder. A rich exhibitionist called Davy Devigne who liked to go round with a following, if you know what I mean, found on the beach with his head nearly sliced off. The police have arrested a London razor man, Jack Trotter, who was part of Devigne’s entourage, and probably didn’t actually do it but has done plenty else, I’d say. Bags of good suspects living in Devigne’s huge apartment block, the Imperatorio, near which he was found. One of those Blondes, all Bristols and cream, who walks about as though she was competing in a beauty contest, a hanger-on called Paddy Killain about whom I need only say he’s no more Irish than I am and has got himself a reputation as a wine connoisseur. Then there’s a brace of dykes Georgie and Sweetie of the classic type—Georgie like a ringmaster and Sweetie open-eyed and winsome but as hard as nails, their male counterparts Hilary Ling, thinning fair hair touched up and a suntan, with Tommy Wilson discovered in Camberwell, dressed up and transplanted, and so on. Oh, there’s one of those middle-aged women, boozy and amorous, called Lolly Mellon, and a decent prole family named Pluggett, braces and peeling skins, not to mention a hopeless old beachcomber called ‘Jock’ Dribble who’s been drinking himself to death here for years. You’ll probably find plenty more. I think it’s a case for you and I can’t wait to taste Mrs. Stick’s paella. Mama won’t be back this year; even she thought it too much when she woke up in the small hours to find two all-in wrestlers in her room. It’s a good thing she went because she knew this Devigne slightly and might have been involved. She’s left me in this ghastly villa—all coloured tiles and tricksy wrought iron—but there’s plenty of room and I think the Sticks, when they’ve got over the shock, will quite enjoy themselves. You could bring the car. Three days over land if you step on it. I should probably want to borrow it a night sometimes to go into Malaga where I’ve found something mildly appetizing. Send me a wire and I’ll make preparations.”
Carolus was too accustomed to Priggley and what Mr. Gorringer called his unfortunate upbringing and home environment, to be shocked at this impudent letter and read it through twice. As he put it down he heard a familiar voice in the hall and in a moment Mr. Gorringer himself was with him.
“Ah, Deene!” he greeted him inevitably. “You will forgive this early intrusion, I trust. I come to seek your advice.”
“Sit down, headmaster. A cup of coffee?”
“Let me just lace it with a spoonful of brandy.”
“Ah, a continental habit, I opine. We’ll, since we are in August and bound our several ways abroad, I make no doubt, I will indulge in this exoticism. It is precisely that which I wanted to discuss.”
“No, no. Abroad, Deene. The wide world about us. I am thinking of spending the summer on the Southern Coast of the Iberian Peninsula.”
Carolus scared incredulously.
“But you always go to Ostende, headmaster?”
“It is true that for several summers now Mrs. Gorringer and I have been satisfied to remain in that pleasant watering place, spending days in Bruges, of course. But there comes to each of us, Deene, as the years pass, a whisper of adventure, and it drives us forth in new directions. Do you know anything of that happily named Costa del Dol, the Coast of the Sun, which runs from Malaga to Gibraltar?”
“Only from hearsay, I’m afraid.”
“Then you are not acquainted with a charming old-world fishing village called Marbella?”
“The only thing I have ever heard in favour of Marbella,” said Carolus, “is that it’s not quite such hell as Torremolinos.”
“You joke, Deene. I was wondering whether we should find it too quiet?”
“That I can assure you you won’t, headmaster. You may find it too expensive, too over-populated with people in paper hats, too English, too American, too windy, to tawdry, too much a clip-joint, too unlike the civilised portions of Spain, too brash or too blatant, but you will not find it too quiet.”
“You alarm me, Deene. I am given to understand by a reliable travel-agent that it is a little paradise by the sea, with a carefree insouciant population of simple fisherfolk and one or two extremely good hotels at the most moderate prices.”
“Well, I don’t know the place, headmaster, except from reputation. But I would be surprised if you find any insouciant fisherfolk there. Petty con-men do most of the fishing, I gather, though not with nets.”
“I’m sure I have caught you in facetious mood, Deene. There is an additional advantage for us in venturing to Marbella. The language. You know that I am a Modern Languages man. I have a fair knowledge of Castilian.”
“I’m afraid that if there are any Spaniards left in Marbella they will talk the most barbarous Andalusian. But as I say, I’ve never been there. This is a really very strange coincidence, Headmaster. I am thinking of going that way myself.”
“You, Deene? To Marbella?”
“A little farther up the coast.”
“You astound me. Unless . . . do I sense some deep mystery here? Is it possible that along those quiet shores with their almost mediæval way of life there has been some untoward event? Something that arouses your criminology curiosity? Not, surely, a murder?”
It was unfortunate that Mrs. Stick entered at this moment. She gave Carolus a sour and searching look as she picked up the tray.
“There has been something of the sort I believe,” said Carolus airily. “The boy Priggley has been left there alone by his parents, he tells me.”
Mr. Gorringer shock his Head.
“Unfortunate. Most unfortunate. At his tender age.”
“Whatever Priggley’s age,” said Carolus, “I should scarcely describe it as tender. However . . .”
“He is certainly in need of parental care. I am glad to know that you are accepting the responsibility, Deene.”
“Of Priggley? Not on your life, headmaster. I doubt if Dr. Arnold himself would have ventured to do that. But he says there has been what he calls a ‘pleasant’ murder in Los Aburridos.”
“Deene, you are incorrigible. But it is, after all, our holiday time and it is not for me to criticize your activities. So long as the fair name of the Queen’s School remains unsmirched I must be content to stand aside. So we are to be neighbours, then?”
“It seems like it.”
“Mrs. Gorringer and I will of course be delighted to see you, if you can spare time from your investigations. And now, hasta la vista, Deene. We meet in sunny Spain!”
Soon after the headmaster had gone Mrs. Stick returned, clearly determined to speak.
“It’s about . . . Spain, sir,” she said as though the word burnt her mouth. “I told Stick what you said and he gave me the surprise of my life. He wants to go.”
“Splendid, Mrs. Stick.”
“I can’t think what’s come over him. It seems he’s read about it somewhere. Quite a Notion with him it seems to be, and I don’t feel I can stand in his way. I asked him what he thought my sister would say and he answered me quite sharp—a thing he’s never done. ‘I've had about enough of your sister’, he said. Imagine it. But there you are, if he wants us to go we must go, though what will come of it I don’t dare think.”
“When can you be ready to start, Mrs. Stick? We shall drive down.”
“Well, if it is to be we may as well get it over the sooner the better. I’ll start packing your things.”