At Death’s Door
CAROLUS TRIES A PIN-TABLE
The Senior Fifth had had enough of nineteenth century politics. There was a swift discussion of the situation before Carolus walked into the classroom next day and it was decided that the bespectacled boy, Simmons, should again lead the way to more gory and interesting matters. Carolus was allowed to begin but an unwary reference to Peel’s foundation of the force first called Peace Preservation Police gave Simmons his chance.
“Was that really the beginning of the police force of today?” he asked. He was supported by eager questioners. How had it developed? When was Scotland Yard founded? Finally, and more generally, was the C.I.D. really efficient?
“They don’t seem able to do much about the murders in Market Street, today, sir?” said Simmons boldly.
“They are up against a very difficult problem,” replied Carolus, falling headlong into the trap.
A delightful quarter of an hour followed.
“One feature which is particularly puzzling to me,” Carolus said as he warmed to the subject, “is the position of the body of Mrs. Purvice.”
With rapid strokes he drew a plan of the room behind the shop complete with a reproduction of the corpse in the place where it was found.
“If, as we believe, the first blow was struck here, he pointed to the far corner, and was powerful and enough to cause the bloodshed noted on the walls and floor, how do the courts come to be here? I cannot see—and Dr Tom agrees with me—I cannot see how woman of that age and physique receiving a blow like that could have stated for paces before being . . .”
It was at this moment, while Carolus was considering his diagram, pointer in hand, that the headmaster into the classroom.
The situation was saved by Rupert Priggley.
“But didn’t General Gordon put up a fight when they broke in?” he said.
Carolus blinked, but accepted the lead.
“Certainly. His body was found here,” he indicated.
“Ah, Mr. Deene,” said the headmaster. “I’m sorry to interrupt you. I wanted Wilkinson for a moment.”
Carolus smiled. As the door closed the class remained loyally silent. At the end of the period Rupert approached him.
“If you want to see the youth Drew,” he observed, “you’ll find him in the Fun Fair near the station every evening, trying to fiddle the machines, probably.”
Carolus, as a matter of fact, did want to see Drew. His name was next on the diminishing list of those to be interviewed. He thanked Rupert who would have walked away without saying more, huffed, perhaps, at having been dropped from the recent activities of Carolus.
“Do you know Drew by sight?” Carolus asked him.
“Then perhaps you’ll come with me to this Amusement Arcade?”
“Going to try your wiles, are you? Casual conversation and so on. Well, it might work. I’ll come and point Drew out.”
It was as well that this arrangement was made, for when Carolus entered the place he saw a score of Teddy-Boys, any one of them might be the ex-Borstal youth he sought. He and Rupert began to be interested in a pin-table, causing the most extraordinary things to happen among the lights and numbers on the screen. Bells rang, coloured bulbs became illuminated and darkened again, balls were returned or suddenly shot into play again by hidden springs, vast numbers were illuminated and changed from thousand to thousand like a financier’s tape machine; there were clicks and jerks and changes and all for a penny.
“You’re not frightfully good at this,” said with that Priggley disdainfully. “This is how it’s done.”
The whole process seemed to become accelerated under his touch; hundreds of thousands were lit up on the score-board.
“That’s the one, with what looks like a bootlace round his neck. Talking to the girl in grey.”
“I’ll see what I can do in a minute.”
Drew was a dark, good-looking youngster with sleepy eyes. There was something precarious about the placidity in his face as though it could be changed in a moment to ferocity and cunning. He looked like an over-fed feline.
He shewed no sign of noticing Carolus, or anyone else in the place. He left the girl and stood alone at one of the machines, idly flicking the balls into play.
“Study the masters, you said,” Rupert pointed out mischievously. “What would Holmes have done? He would have dominated this as he did every other situation. He would have stalked up to Drew and whispered some curious phrase like ‘The harvest is late’, which would have turned the other pale as death and anxious to oblige with all the information he had. You’re far too modest.”
Carolus grinned and went across to Drew. That young man did not look up from his pin-table but before Carolus could address him began to speak in a quiet, rather pleasant voice.
“I know all about you without you starting on me. You’re a teacher from the Queen’s School and you’re nosing round trying to find out who done Emily Purvice. I should have recognised you a mile off so I don’t know what you want to come to me for. If you think I’m going to confess to it you’ve had it, chum, though I wouldn’t have minded doing her, the old bitch. I suppose you thought, coming down here on your jack, I shouldn’t know you was making inquiries.”
To this rather involved but disconcerting speech, Carolus had a useful line of retort.
“You’ve been seeing the Pollings again,” he said.
It was as effective as he hoped.
“What do you mean, the Pollings?” said Jimmy Drew loudly. For the first time he looked Carolus in the eyes, a sure sign, Carolus felt, that he was about to lie. “Who said anything about the Pollings?”
“I did. I said you must have seen them again.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“But you do. That’s the awkward thing. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Which was more than Carolus did, he reflected. But something he had said or implied had obviously disturbed Drew. Carolus waited.
“Look here,”, began Jimmy. “I don’t see what you want to start playing around for. I suppose it’s a hobby for you. Well, so it may be, but I’ve just done two years’ Borstal and that’s no hobby, I can tell you. If I thought you were trying to get me into trouble again I’d do you.”
“The only person I want to get into trouble is the one who murdered Mrs. Purvice and Slapper.”
“What do you come to me for, then?”
“I think you know a great deal about it. To say the least of it.”
“You can think what you like. I didn’t do either of them in, though I reckon whoever did done a good job. I never did like coppers. As for her . . .”
“Why, I wonder, do you feel so strongly about Mrs. Purvice? I understand she was very good to your mother when you were inside.”
“You leave my mom out of this!”
“Of course. If she is out of it. She is a friend of Mrs. Polling’s, isn’t she?”
“She’s not a friend of anybody’s. She is sick, my mum is. The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with her. What d’you want to ask about her for? She’s nothing to do with this lot.”
“She goes to see Mrs. Polling sometimes?”
“She goes to the shop same as anyone else. Can’t my mum do a bit of shopping without you nosing around?”
“But you don’t go to the shop?”
“What do I want to go to the shop for? I’m not a —— vegetarian.”
“Yet you knew from the Pollings that I was interested in the case.”
“Don’t need to go to the shop for that, do I? I’m entitled to a drink same as anyone else. So is old Polling, I suppose. You’re too —— clever, you are. You think you know every —— thing.”
“I think you could tell me a lot.”
“Yeah? Well, I’ll tell you one thing. Old Purvice was a bitch.”
“I seem to have heard that before.”
“So she was. She’d have got anyone into trouble.”
“Where were you when she was murdered, Drew?”
“At the dance. Dancing with my girl. Plenty of witnesses.”
“But Mrs. Purvice was not killed till half-past one.”
“Yes, she was!”
It was involuntary and painfully telling. Carolus followed it like a bloodhound.
“How do you know?”
“Must have been.”
“It said in the papers.”
“It said almost nothing in the papers about time.”
“What are you trying to make out?”
“I want to know where you went that night when you didn’t walk home with your girl.”
“She was with her sister.”
“Who doesn’t like you. I know. I’ve heard all this. But where were you?”
“I went home.”
“Did your mother hear you come in?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t asked her.”
“You’re either a murderer or a fool, Drew. If you didn’t kill Emily Purvice why should you lie about that evening?”
“Who’s lying? I’m not answering any more of your ruddy questions. You’re worse than the cops.”
“You flatter me. Now listen. I’m going to warn you. Whatever the police think about this I know what line I’m going to take. I’m going to check on every movement of yours since you came out of Borstal. I shan’t rest until I know the whole truth about you. The police can suspect whom they like—I’m putting my money on you. A halfwit could see that you’re hiding something and I’m going to find out what it is.”
“Good luck to you.”
Drew deliberately pulled a penny from his pocket and slipped it into the machine in front of him, then began with a show of concentration to play. Carolus left him there.
“Not a roaring success, I gather,” observed Rupert irritatingly when Carolus joined him.
“Beginning to fancy him as the murderer?”
“He is perfectly capable of murder,” said Carolus. “So am I, at the moment.”
“Temper. Temper. Did you get no facts at all?”
At home that evening Carolus realized what his promise to Drew meant. He was now committed to a course of action which might in the end be quite fruitless. The youth was certainly concealing something but would it turn out to be of vital importance? Drew was afraid. It could be that he was afraid of being proved a murderer or it could be that he was afraid of further imprisonment. Whatever it was, Carolus decided, he would find out what Drew knew, or had seen, or had done, which brought fear into his slothful eyes when the Pollings were mentioned.
The first person he must see to establish this was Geoffrey Baker, the detective constable working with Moore who, so old Baker said, had seen Drew at the dance that night and knew something of his movements. If necessary he must again tackle the voluble Mrs. Polling and her husband. The police, he felt, took Drew less seriously than their other suspects. He would develop his own line in this.
When Mrs. Stick brought in the late cold supper he had ordered she looked, he thought, even more severe than usual. She was a small grey-haired woman, as straight as a poker, mercilessly efficient in the management of the house and her husband, an elderly ex-soldier.
“The police have been here again,” she said rather snappily.
“Do you mean my friend Detective Sergeant Moore?”
“And another one. They’re coming back at ten.”
“All right, Mrs. Stick. They’re not going to arrest me.”
“I don’t like policeman, sir. Nor does Stick.”
“I’m not keen on them myself in the ordinary way. These are good fellows and I’m interested in what they have to tell me.”
“We never thought you’d get mixed up in a murder, sir.”
“Two murders, Mrs. Stick.”
“That only makes it worse. I suppose you know what you’re doing. I’ll leave your coffee here. Was there anything else?”
Carolus lit a cigar and took his favourite chair by the french windows which overlooked his walled garden. It was peaceful and pleasant on that July night and again he wondered whether he would not have done better to leave the squalors of contemporary detection to the police and be satisfied with his own more fragrant historical field. But before John Moore and Geoff Baker joined him he had recovered his interest in Market Street.