Death on Romney Marsh
But was he? Carolus wondered as he looked across the bar of the Laughing Cavalier at Little Goble next day. The man he saw might be Withers himself, for all he knew, but did not seem able to tell him anything at all.
“Withers?” he repeated indifferently. “Can’t say I know the name.”
“It may have been some years ago.”
The landlord was polite enough to reconsider in the light of this fresh detail.
“No,” he said at last. “Don’t remember ever hearing the name. Used to come in, did he?”
“I really don’t know. He may have been the landlord.”
“Shouldn’t think so. I’d know the name if he was. I’ll ask the wife.” He opened a sliding door in a serving hatch and shouted—“Rose!”
A shrill voice answered from regions out of sight.
“What you want?”
“What was the name of the people who were here before we were?”
“What about before them?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got my work to do. Ask old Fred!”
The landlord glanced towards the only other occupant of the bar, an ancient who had shewn the most complete indifference to his surroundings so far.
“Trouble is to make him hear,” said the landlord, coming round to the customer’s side of the bar.
“Fred!” he shouted lustily.
Fred nodded, acknowledging that contact had been made.
“Know anyone called Withers?”
“What was he?”
Fred thought for a long time.
“He was the landlord,” he said.
“Before the MacGregors?”
“Yes. Used to buy me a pint very often.”
“Never mind your pint,” said the landlord quietly, winking to Carolus. “What became of him?”
“Can’t say,” said Fred emptying his glass.
Carolus asked for its replenishment.
“Move away, did he?” shouted the landlord.
“Couldn’t say,” replied Fred, drinking.
“I’m afraid that’s all he knows. He’d say if there was anything else.”
But suddenly the voice from the back regions was heard again raised in a high-pitched shout. It was a morning for shouting.
“It was some people called Withers. I’ve just thought of it.”
“Yes. Fred’s told us that. What happened to them?”
“How should I know? It was before we came.”
“There you are,” said the landlord to Carolus. “No one seems to know.”
Carolus waited. The landlord was roused now to the pursuit and would only have to wait till the next customer appeared.
As a matter of fact he did not have to wait so long. The voice rang out again.
“They took over a pub just outside Dover,” it yelled. The Blue Boys at High Latham.”
“Dover?” said Carolus involuntarily.
“That’s what the wife says, and she’s very seldom wrong about anything like that.”
Carolus expressed his gratitude, bought everyone another drink and departed in search of yet another pub. He could think of less pleasant ways of spending a day of the Christmas holidays.
The Blue Boys was a very different sort of house. Though it may once have been no larger or more pretentious than the Laughing Cavalier its position on a main road had meant reconstruction, enlargement, modernisation, and the car park was as large as a football ground. There was soft lighting in the bar, a formidable display of snacks and a titty barmaid waiting to take his order.
As he entered he looked up at the licensee’s name over the door and was relieved to find it was Leslie Withers. His search, presumably, was ended.
He ordered a large scotch.
“Is Mr. Withers about?” he asked the pink-and-gold young woman behind the bar.
“He’ll be down in a minute,” she said.
“He was. A large man in his fifties who had been handsome and had a certain easy-going confident air about him greeted Carolus.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Yes. My name’s Deene. I’m trying to find a man named Edwin Mowlett.”
“All the ease and self-confidence left Withers. He paused for a moment, then said—“I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“Did you know he was missing from Shirley Cross?”
“I have heard something. I didn’t take much notice. I’ve got too much to do.”
“You see, Mr. Withers, your own departure from Shirley Cross—about ten years ago, wasn’t it?—caused a good deal of talk. When Mowlett disappeared, too, people remembered it.”
“Well, here I am,” said Withers, a little of his easy matter returning.
“But you did leave rather suddenly.”
“I don’t know. I just left. How do you come into this, Mr. Deene?”
“I’ve been asked by Mowlett’s nephew . . .”
It was Carolus’s turned to be surprised.
“Yes. That’s it. He asked me to try to find his uncle.”
“Oh, he did?” Was there something sceptical in that question?
“I thought you might be able to help me.”
“Sorry, old man. I don’t know anything about it.”
“On the contrary you know quite a good deal about it. You knew he had a nephew called Gaston, for instance.”
“Oh, he told me about him when I was there.”
“But you’ve heard nothing since?”
“Not a word.”
“Or of Mowlett himself?”
“Nope. I’m afraid I’ve got a lot to do now.”
“My aunt remembers you,” said Carolus in a more friendly tone. “Victoria Morrow.”
“I remember Miss Morrow. I thought a lot of her when I was a young man.”
“Do you mind if I recall one or two things to you? Ten years ago, in 1958 in fact, you’re still living up at Shirley Cross. You had lost your wife during the war and remained alone. I believe you had a cottage.”
“Cuchran was living it up quite a bit. Entertaining what are still remembered in the district as horsey types. Or at least race-going. Then suddenly everything changed. You left. Cuchran produced his second wife. The entertaining ceased. The house settled down to gloom and desolation. Why?”
“As you say, I left before all that happened.”
“I wish you would tell me why you left.”
“That’s easy. I’d had another of it. I went there first before the war you know, and went back. I was fed up with gardening.”
Carolus looked at the expensive suit which Withers wore, his carnation and his well-kept hands.
“Yes. I understand that. Had your going anything to do with the other events?”
“Don’t know. I’d left before they happened.”
“There had been a lot of talk at the time of the first Mrs. Cuchran’s death. My aunt still believes she was murdered.”
Withers surprised Carolus. He looked at him squarely and said with angry emphasis—“Well, she wasn’t.”
“I’m glad you say that.”
“You can put it right out of your head.”
“You seem very sure.”
“I am very sure. But I can’t stop here talking now. But there’s something I want to tell you—for your own sake. Are you lunching here?”
“Then we could talk after I close and have a rest. Say five o’clock?”
“Very well,” said Carolus.
He waited until Withers had left the room then quickly followed him through the door. He was in time to see him leave the hall by a door marked Private.”
The pink blonde had not observed him go, he thought.
“Where does the door in the hall marked Private lead to?” he asked her.
“Only to Mr. Wither’s office. Where he does his accounts and that.”
“Is that where he’d go to telephone?” Carolus asked with shameless curiosity.
“That’s right,” said the blonde.
But when Withers was waiting for him later in the hall, Carolus found a very different man from the genial landlord of the morning. They went into an empty room called The Lounge.
“I know all about you,” said Withers without much friendliness.
“Quick, weren’t you? It’s this new dialling system.”
Withers seemed to be considering Carolus.
“Look here, Deene,” he said at last. “I’m going to advise you seriously to keep out of this affair.”
“Don’t let’s play question and answer. I’m in earnest. You think Cuchran is a drunk with a crazy wife, quite alone and unprotected. You’ve never been more wrong in your life. He was a powerful man once and can be again at any time he wants.”
“Powerful? In what milieu?”
“A damned dangerous one. He could have your corpse washed ashore any morning he wanted and it wouldn’t cost him much, either.”
“Has he given proof of that sort of power already? Is that what you’re worried about? Anyone can hire thugs.”
“Can they? You try, without the connections. The very least that can happen to you if you go on meddling is to get beaten up beyond recognition. I’m telling you this in time. Can’t you see this isn’t the sort of thing you go in for? This is no chess problem for an amateur sleuth. There are dangerous people involved in this.”
“You keep talking about ‘this’. So far as I’m concerned an old butler has disappeared and his nephew and heir wants to find him.”
“Does he? I shouldn’t be too sure of that.”
“When did you last see your . . . Mowlett?” Carolus asked.
“When? About ten years ago. You’re a difficult man to help. I’ve told you Cuchran did not kill his wife. Isn’t that enough?”
“You haven’t told me what I’m trying to discover—What happened to Mowlett?”
“I told you I left there ten years ago and have never been back. How should I know anything about Mowlett?”
“You will own that there are a lot of interesting questions here. That sudden departure of yours, so discreet that no one in the district knew for certain you had gone. Then Mowlett. Why does Cuchran behave as though he’d seen a ghost every time I mention you? It’s all most intriguing.”
“It’s all far better left alone.”
“But there’s so much else to make it irresistible. For instance, Mowlett left a Will.”
Watching the somewhat puffy and mottled face of the once handsome gardener, Carolus knew that this had scored.
“Left a Will? You mean he has made his Will, like everyone else.”
“If you like. But with it he left a sealed envelope, addressed to his executors, only to be opened after his death.”
“Well? Not unusual, is it?”
“Tell me, Withers, what was the secret that you shared with Mowlett?”
“So now there’s a secret between me and Mowlett? You’re really going to far, Deene. You’ll be looking for a corpse in my cellar next.”
“Why not? I found Cuchran’s cellar immensely revealing. I’m not playing around with this case, Withers. It’s silly to try to scare me off as you had tried. You had far better tell me what you know. I shall discover it eventually.”
Again Withers seemed to be considering.
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten. It’s a long time ago.”
“No. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I’ve got certain ideas about this case,” said Carolus. “They’re pretty vague up to now. But if I am right it is you who are in danger, Not I. You know that, don’t you?”
“In danger of what?”
“Prison. A lot of it. I think you should consider your position. It is not the same as it was yesterday. Because since yesterday I’ve learned a great deal. It will never be the same again for you.”
“I can tell you nothing,” said Withers. “Nothing at all.”
“You can’t? Oh well. Your bar has just opened so let’s drink to that.”
As they entered the saloon bar, in which they had met that morning, Carolus was immediately aware of two individuals sitting side-by-side on a settee. Expensively dressed, with highly polished shoes and too much jewellery, they belonged to a type he knew. He did not minimise their danger to himself. It would not be too melodramatic to say that these were killers.
Withers did not speak to them but there was a secretive exchange of glances between the three of them.
Carolus felt very much alone. In a way Withers was right—there were dangerous people involved in this. Under the hooded scrutiy of the two thugs on the settee he drank his whisky and felt the menace about him. Three men, one of them perhaps desperate, who would stop at nothing to remove him, were watching him from different angles. He did not suppose that they intended to kill him, but as Withers said, the very least he could expect was to be beaten up beyond recognition.
His brain worked quickly. The two had presumably been summoned by Withers after their conversation that morning. He guessed they had put his car out of order and were waiting for him to go out to it when they would either beat him up in the car park or hustle him into their own car and take him somewhere less open to view.
The saloon was filling up now and they were unlikely to take any action in this room.
There was a single hope.
“May I use your telephone?” he asked the blonde.
“Over there. That box in the corner.”
Withers said—“You can go to my office if you like.” He spoke loudly enough for the two men on the settee to hear.
“No thanks. This’ll do. It’s nothing important,” said Carolus and entered the box.
It was as important, he knew, as his wholeness of limb for a long time to come, perhaps for life. And the chances even then were against him.