At Death’s Door
Carolus was a widower, his young wife having been killed in one of the first great raids on London less than two months after he had married her. He was, moreover, by now a solitary. Mr. and Mrs. Stick who looked after his home and him had been with him since he came to Newminster and understood him. He lived well but entertained rarely because there were few people he wanted to entertain.
He had two friends in Newminster, however, the popular school doctor and his wife, Lance and Phoebe Thomas. Known throughout the town as Dr. Tom this was a kindly, shrewd practitioner, not easily deceived by imaginary illnesses but quick in sympathy and decision. Phoebe was considered locally to be rather too beautiful and chic for the town.
On the day following his fruitful visit to Poplar, Carolus had promised to dine with these friends of his and decided to have a day free entirely from investigation. He ignored Rupert Priggley’s accusation that he was sitting down on the job and kept his class firmly occupied with nineteenth century politics. It would be as well to forget the late Emily Purvice for a while and all the unfortunate people connected with her.
It was, he decided, a case to take slowly, piece by piece. He had scarcely begun his investigations and already he knew a great many facts apparently unknown to the police. He had not yet talked to young Drew or the Vicar of All Saints or the remarkable Prison Officer Bugs Fitchley. He had formed no idea at all of who might be guilty and he was not in a hurry to do so.
As he was leaving the school that evening he came unexpectedly on the headmaster. Mr. Gorringer was a large, pale, earnest man with ears so large that they almost flapped. He took his work very seriously and expected everyone else to be as ready as he was for immersion in detail.
“Ah, Deene,” he greeted Carolus. This avedictory sound was characteristic of the headmaster, suggesting in one prolonged monosyllable that Mr. Gorringer had been seeking his victim and now welcomed the occasion for a chat. “I wanted to see you about the Middle Fifth history. I’m not altogether happy about our syllabus there.”
Trapped and helpless Carolus joined the tiresome discussion while the two walked steadily up and down the small lawn by the gates, hence bent forward and the headmaster’s hands behind his back.
“If we could put in another hour on one of the later days of the week . . .” Mr. Gorringer was saying seriously.
Carolus thought that by the time he had had a bath and changed it would be late for Dr. Tom and Phoebe. Suddenly he realized that Mr. Gorringer’s topic had changed. “As you know, I’ve always an ear to the ground for anything that may affect our morale,” he was saying. It was curious that with those monstrous ears of his he should not avoid mention of them. “Most unfortunate, a murder sensation of this kind. Sets the boys’ minds working in all the wrong directions. Murder is a distressing thing at any time but in a town like this its effects may be incalculably harmful. I hope you do everything you can to check morbid discussion of the subject? The boys should be led to interest in healthier things.”
It was nearly six o’clock before Carolus finally escaped and he found that his friends were drinking their second cocktail. He wanted to forget the murders in Market Street but Tom was interested and before long Carolus found himself describing his efforts so far.
“So you haven’t seen the boy Drew yet,” said Dr. Tom. “That’ll be a treat in store for you. I had his mother in today again.”
“She’s a sick woman, isn’t she?”
“So she says. I can’t find anything wrong with her. Bona lazy, I should say. She’s been moaning about her health for years.”
Fortunately Phoebe Thomas was less interested than her husband in murder and led the talk away. They did not speak of Market Street or its victims or their associates again that night.
But next day Carolus decided that he must continue with the grubby task of learning all he could about the late Emily Purvice. From the very beginning he had felt that this was his surest way towards elucidation and although he now knew a great deal about the dead woman he believed that there was more to come.
Consulting his notes he decided that he must next try to interview Prison Officer Fitchley. This, he realized, might be difficult and it was not very confidently that he telephoned her place of employment.
He was lucky, however. It seemed that she was not far from the telephone for he heard her name shouted.
It sounded quaint, pronounced in the severe tones which he had already heard. But in a moment a yet more martial voice said, “Fitchley speaking.”
“Oh, I’m a friend of Marcia Bailey and Jane Limbrick,” said Carolus. “Who have a pet shop in Market Street, Newminster.”
“I know. Dam’ nice women,” boomed the voice.
“I wanted if possible to meet you, Miss Fitchley. There is a little matter I hoped we might discuss.”
“Don’t know who you are.”
“My name’s Deene. I live in Newminster but I shall be in town this evening.”
“Very well. If you’re a friend of those two. Come to the Badminton Ladies Club. Nine sharp. I’ll be there. Can’t stop now. Just going on duty. Right?”
The Badminton Ladies Club was a busy place. Carolus sat in the entrance hall and thought he was the only male in this teaming regiment of women until he noticed one other scared-looking man upright on a chair waiting as he was.
It was some minutes before he was confronted by a fine figure of a woman who trust out a warrior’s hand and said: “Deene? I’m Fitchley.
Carolus looked at Miss Fitchley and was lost in admiration. Marcia had exaggerated in saying that she was six foot tall, but five foot nine or ten she must have been. In the first moment Carolus had the impression that she was in uniform of some kind but realized that this was a coat and skirt fitted to her soldierly figure. The face which ought to have been under a Roman helmet was crowned by an ornamental tricorne hat and her hands were in her pockets.
“Sit down,” she ordered. “What’s the trouble?”
“Oh none,” said Carolus nervously. “It’s just that Marcia and Jane . . .”
“Good types,” interrupted Miss Fitchley.
“Marcia and Jane thought you might be able to help me.”
“Can’t think how.”
“You know we had a double murder in Newminster?”
“Yes. Read it in the papers.”
“I’m trying to sort it out.”
“You’re not a policeman.”
“No. I’m a schoolmaster as a matter of fact.”
“Then what the hell?”
“I wrote a book in which I tried to investigate some of the crimes of history by research. I wanted to see how this would work with a contemporary crime.”
“Where do I come in?”
“I believe you knew the murdered woman.”
Miss Fitchley became thoughtful.
“Don’t see it,” she said, “I’ve nothing to gain by talking and everything to lose.”
“But surely, I mean, I don’t see what you can lose by talking to me.”
“My job,” reflected Miss Fitchley loudly.
“I can’t think how.”
“What’s the set-up, anyway? Who’s suspected?”
“The police have several suspects.”
“Two gals on the list?”
“Well, yes. You see, there was a dog . . .” He told Miss Fitchley about the fox terrier.
There was another long silence.
“This is damned awkward. I have got some information for you. Involves someone else. Would probably clear those two. But if it is used it would put paid to my job.”
“I think you can rely on me to keep you out of it, so far as anything you tell me is concerned. I can’t answer for the police, of course, if they come on your name somehow.”
“No. See that. Don’t know what the hell to do. Don’t like to hear those two are suspected.”
There was another pause. Miss Fitchley seemed to be considering not so much the problem as Carolus himself. Suddenly she thrust out her hand and crushed the smaller one of Carolus.
“Going to trust you,” she said. “Call me Bugs.”
“Thank you,” whispered Carolus.
“Got to keep this under your hat. My job depends on it. Can’t lose that. Suits me down to the ground. Recently promoted.”
“I think you can trust me in that respect.”
“Think so, too. Glass of beer?”
Carolus had been relieved to find that it had not been necessary for him to keep up with Bugs as it had been with Mrs. Millen two nights ago but accepted the suggestion now.
“Yes. I knew Purvice,” said Miss Fitchley at last. “Shocking old hag. Only met her twice. That was enough. Three years ago and three weeks back.”
Carolus did not interrupt.
“Three years ago I had a prisoner on my landing called Clare Something-or-Other. Silly woman. In for theft. I like to do what I can for the girls. Prison’s dam’ rough on a woman. Bring them in bit and pieces. Things they need. Make their lives easier.”
She seemed to want to know how Carolus was taking this.
“Of course,” he said vaguely.
“Can’t do it for nothing. That’s understood. They have to have friends outside willing to pay. Cigarettes are gold to a girl in the nick. Face powder. Chocolates. See what I mean? Can’t live on my pay. If rich friends co-operate I can fix it. This woman Clare Whatever-Her-Name-Was told me to see Purvice. She didn’t say so, but I gathered that Purvice was a fence with whom this Clare had dealt for years. Clare had no one else in the world. A dam’ lonely woman. So she sent me to Purvice and Purvice paid. Part of her racket, I imagine––the old witch. Don’t know what this Clare had to do to repay it but she wasn’t out of the nick six months. Came back for three years.”
Bugs drank thoughtfully.
“Couple of months ago a woman prisoner was put on my landing. She’d got nine months for shoplifting. Sad case. Respectable woman. Klepto, I suppose. She’d given her maiden name in court and got away with it. But she came from Newminster. A Mrs. Colbeck. Name mean anything to you?”
“Parson’s wife. Rotten case––she’d been bound over before. These kleptos can’t help themselves. She told me her story. When I suggested that she might like some bits and bobs from outside she was all for it, but didn’t want me to ask her husband. He knew she was inside but she thought he’d done enough. I told her about Purvice and she said she could repay Purvice herself when she came out. So I trotted down to Newminster again.”
Bugs lit a cigarette and vigorously blew out smoke.
“I didn’t realise what a wicked old cow this Purvice was or I wouldn’t have done it. I went into the little shop––not a soul in the place except Purvice herself. Looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned for years. Grubby odds and ends. She recognized me at once. Began to talk before I could. Said she couldn’t help Clare Thingummy-Bob. Too dangerous, she said. Been in too often now. I told her it was nothing to do with that and explained about this Colbeck. ‘That’s different,’ she said with a sort of leer. ‘But I don’t quite see how I’m going to get the money back.’ I said surely she could trust the woman. Parson’s wife, and that. She nearly went through the roof. ‘Trust her?’ she said. Anyone would have thought I’d suggested murder.
“Then suddenly she seemed to stop and think. ‘How much do you need?’ she said. I told her twenty. That was usual. Ten for me, which included my expenses, and ten for the stuff. She seemed to have changed altogether. She pulled out her bag and handed me the money without a word. ‘Sure it will be all right?’ I asked. As if I needed to worry. She gave a sort of smile. ‘It will be quite all right,’ she said. ‘You just get the lady what she wants.’ I had a horrible feeling in my stomach when she said that.
“I ought never to have done it, of course. I see that now. She got the money all right, but from the woman’s husband, the parson. What’s more, I’ve a feeling she meant to blackmail the poor devil. Don’t know, of course. Wouldn’t have suggested her if I guessed. No use for blackmailers. But I have my suspicions.”
“I think you may well be right.”
“Dam’ sorry if its true. Well, there you are. I’ve trusted you with the whole story. The two girls next door aren’t too deeply involved, are they?”
“I don’t know. They’ve been questioned, of course.”
“Poor little creatures. In a flap?”
“It’s rather hard to say.”
“Think I’ll run down there again.”
Bugs became slightly, but very slightly, confused.
“I went down there three weeks ago, as I told you, to see Purvice.”
“But not since?”
“Hell, no. Why?”
“I just wondered. There’s nothing else you can tell me about Mrs. Purvice.”
“Not a thing. Only seen her twice.”
“You say Purvice got this money back from Mrs. Colbeck’s husband. How do you know that?”
“My prisoner had a visit from her husband. About a week ago it was––since the murders anyway. Afterwards she told me. He did not let her know he had been blackmailed, I think, but said he’d paid Purvice what she paid me. Hoped it would make things easier for his wife. Pathetic, wasn’t it.”
“Yes,” said Carolus.
“She also said her old man looked a bit peaked. Terribly worried, he seemed to be.”
“That would be so, whatever the truth.”
“Yes. That’s the lot. No more for you. Make what you can of that.”
Bugs stood up and seemed to look down on Carolus even though he too was on his feet.
“Remember me to those two. Dam’ nice women. Keep them out of it if you can. And me. Think the police will want to see me?”
“Not if your two friends don’t mention your name.”
“I’d better run down,” concluded Bugs. “I don’t want the ruddy police asking me questions. I’ve seen too much of it.”
It fitted, thought Carolus again, as he drove back to Newminster, it all fitted far too well. It was like a jigsaw that wasn’t hard enough. If the pieces went on falling into place it would turn out to be the wrong puzzle. There was something deceptive about the case with which his facts were being co-ordinated.