At Death’s Door
SOME FACTS EXCHANGED
Detective Constable Geoffrey Baker was a young-looking man of thirty with candid grey eyes and a cheerful laugh.
“I brought him along,” said Moore, “because I hear you have been asked that been after the Drew boy tonight and Geoff knows something about him. Also because we’d like to hear what you think about the case now.”
“I almost wish I’d left it alone,” said Carolus. “Half an hour with young Drew is enough to put anyone off. And I’m not getting anywhere.”
They both laughed at that.
“I hear you went to see my old man, too,” said Geoff Baker. “At last he was able to tell to tell someone about his crowbar.”
“Yes. We got on very well together.”
“You must have let him talk. He loves a natter.”
“What line are you following, Carolus?”
“Frankly I’m a bit scattered. I’ve learnt a good deal about Emily Purvice in the last few days. Enough to wonder why you left her at large. Now I’m going to check up on Drew.”
“I’ll tell you what I know about him,” Geoff said. “I worked on his last case—larceny. He’d been at an approved school before that. He’s a very bad boy, Mr. Deene. A really bad boy. I don’t see any reason to think that he murdered Emily Purvice but if a motive should appear I would certainly be prepared to believe it.”
“Any redeeming features?”
“One, yes. But it’s a common one among young criminals and doesn’t seem to keep them out of trouble. He loves his mother. It may sound contradictory but I sometimes think this has been the cause of half his trouble. She’s a lazy woman who plays up imaginary illnesses. She looks an unhealthy creature and for years she has complained of mysterious maladies which the doctors can’t be fine. From his childhood onwards she has moaned to the boy whenever she has been forced by necessity to do a few days’ work, and he has believed her.
“When we got him last time he was with two other lads breaking into Mayhews’, the wholesale tobacconists. They’d got a car loaded up. They must have known just where to take the stuff though Jimmy Drew was barely seventeen at the time and the ringleader of the three. He’d done it for his mum, he said. She know nothing about it, he told us, but he wanted to send her to a place by the sea for a month or two. It’s the sort of story they all tell but in Jimmy’s case I have a feeling there was truth in it.”
“Quite likely,” said Carolus. “But it fails to endear that young man to me.”
“Or to me,” said Geoff Baker. “But I’m telling you the facts. Then, while he was inside, Emily Purvice has been helping Mrs. Drew. Drew admits that. It means one of two things. Either Jimmy Drew has paid her over money before he got into trouble, or he promised it her when he would come out. If it’s the first it was, I suppose, a form of insurance. If it was the second he probably intended to go screwing (that’s thieving, Mr. Deene), almost immediately to repay Purvice what he owed. She’d see to it that he did. Whichever it was I don’t see it gives him a motive for murder.”
“But he was about that night?”
Yes. He came to the Flannel Dance at the Town Hall. We always go, the wife and I, and when he was off duty poor Jack Slapper and his wife usually came with us, though Bassett, that’s the inspector, was not keen on the uniform branch going to dances. That night Connie Slapper came with us.
“It was the usual sort of dance. Syd Sympson’s is the most popular local dance band. Pretty good, it is, though I don’t like Sympson. We’ve had him under observation for some time, as a matter of fact.”
“Marihuana cigarettes. Reefers. Probably mixed up with a few other dodgy dealings. But his band is good. We always enjoy our evenings when they’re playing. Both Lena, my wife, and Connie Slapper are good dancers and I’ve done a bit myself, though the old man never liked my going to dances as a boy. It was a pleasant evening, though I don’t like remembering that now.”
“You saw young Drew?”
“Yes. He came with his girl and her sister. The girl, Iris Blake, is a showy little piece whom the boys of the town run after quite a bit, but who seems to be going with Drew pretty steady now. Her sister’s locally known as a sourpuss and doesn’t approve of anything or anyone much.
“Jimmy danced with Iris nearly all the time, so far as I noticed. I wasn’t watching him, you understand; I had no reason to, but when I’m at one of those dances I try to see as much as possible of what goes on. It’s often useful afterwards.”
“Geoff’s contacts are famous with us,” put in Moore. “He can tell us all about everyone.”
Geoff Baker grinned, clearly pleased.
“I keep my eyes open. That night, for instance, I noticed two things about Jimmy Drew. Well, three things, really. One was a long talk he had in the interval with Syd Sympson. That may have meant nothing but it was away in a quiet corner of the hall and looked a bit furtive. Another was that he was out of the hall altogether for a long time round about eleven. I can’t say how long. I didn’t time, of course. But more than half an hour.”
“And the third thing?”
“You already know that. When the dance was over I passed Iris Blake and her sister walking home alone. They live in Meldon Road where I live. I drove past them. I wasn’t going slowly because I had to take Connie Slapper to her home afterwards and she was in a bit of a hurry. It was late before we got away, cloakroom and everything, and Jack came off duty at two. She liked him to think she had his supper ready for him and that, even if she had been out for the evening. So I was driving pretty fast. But not so fast that I could not be sure. Jimmy Drew was certainly not with them.”
“There is no more information about his movements that night?”
“His mother says she heard him come in before one o’clock but that doesn’t mean a thing. She would say whatever he told her to say.
“Emily Purvice was killed at about 12.45, wasn’t she was? That, I understand, is the nearest we can get to it?”
“So far, yes. The doctor as usual does not want to commit itself to anything too accurate. But that’s the general idea. Slapper was killed soon afterwards. It may even have been a matter of minutes. Drue lives in Birdlime Gardens which are down by the old market place so that even if his mother did hearing coming and one he could have been the murderer, so far as time is concerned.”
“You’ve searched his house, of course?”
“Oh yes. Nothing. And considering the state that anyone must have been in when he left that room, that’s in his favour. The murderer must have had bloodstains on him—that’s been one of our chief preoccupations. There was no sign of them at Jimmy Drew’s home.”
“You didn’t see anyone else about that night, I take it? You would have been driving from Meldon Road to Slapper’s home. Let’s see, where is that?”
“It’s Lower Bridge Street. Then I went back home. No. I saw no one else.”
“One other thing. Connie Slapper was with you and your wife that evening. Did either of you notice anything unusual about her? I ask because of her outbreak at the police station.”
“Oh, that. That was rather like Connie, I’m afraid. Excitable, you know, but a real good sort really. She thought the world of poor old Jack. Been badly cut up since it happened. But that night . . . no, I noticed nothing. The wife said afterwards that she thought Connie had been ‘funny’, but that’s a woman’s word for almost anything. She seemed all right to me.”
“Now then,” interrupted Moore, “you have asked Geoff enough questions, Carolus. Let’s hear something from you. What have you got to tell us.”
“Oddments, oddments,” said Carolus. “Nothing conclusive. Nothing very indicative, really. But for what it’s worth you shall have it. First, its pretty obvious that at some time or another the girls next door hopped in and pinched their dog.” He told them about the skylight. “Then there are some unsavoury details of the late Emily Purvice which her sister-in-law gave me.” He saw the two exchange glances and was amused to know that they had never heard of a sister-in-law. He told them of his visit to Poplar, tactfully omitting Mrs. Millen’s statement that Emily Purvice had been In With the police. “Next, a few rather unfortunate facts about Mr. Colbeck. I can’t give you the source of my information here and I must ask you not to press for it. But I can tell you that Purvice was blackmailing him. I can also tell you why. His wife is in prison for shoplifting.”
“That is valuable,” said Moore. “We thought the old woman was blackmailing him but we couldn’t think how. It could be none of the usual things they have on parsons––Colbeck’s dead straight himself.”
“I haven’t got round to him yet,” said Carolus, “so if you can let that information be unofficial for a day or two I’d be grateful. I’d like to be the first to face him with it. I know it’s cruel, but so are a good many things in crime and war. I think his first reactions will tell quite a lot.”
“You’ll have to see him tomorrow then,” said Moore. “We daren’t keep information like that back from Wicks, who’s in charge of the case. Wherever we may have got it,” he added.
That’s a bore,” said Carolus. “It throws out my whole plan of approach. I wanted to go ahead on Drew before I tackled Colbeck at all. Still, as you say, you can’t very well hold back information. I’ll see him tomorrow. There’s only one other small point that may be worth.” He described Jimmy’s spontaneous outburst when Carolus had mentioned an imaginary time for the death of Purvice.
“And that’s all I’ve got for you today. I don’t guarantee in the future to pass on everything, mind you, and I’m sure there’s plenty you don’t tell me. But up to date I have kept nothing back.”
“Except the conclusions you draw from all this.”
“None yet, as I’ve told you. I never could leap. I want to know a great deal more before I begin to think in those terms.”
It was past eleven when the two C.I.D. men left him but still Carolus did not go to bed. He sat with his own particular kind of stillness for some minutes and suddenly stood up and made for the front door. Fifteen minutes later he was entering the Town Hall. He had just realised that this would be the last opportunity this week of hearing Syd Sympson and his Swingoliers, and of making the acquaintance of Mr. Sympson himself.
He saw him over at the bar between numbers. He went and stood beside him.
“I want a word with you,” he said.
“Who are you?”
“Detective. Name’s Deene. Want to know any more?”
Carolus secretly defend himself. He had not said he was from the C.I.D. branch. ‘A detective’ could mean any of the gentleman who advertised the names newspapers, whose chief task was to make divorce easier for one party or another. Or it could mean (and Carolus was relieved to see that to Syd Sympson it did mean) Scotland Yard.
“We’re going to pick up young Drew tonight,” he went on. “You’re pretty deeply in, Sympson.”
“What am I supposed to have done?”
“Think back to that night. Little chat you had with Jimmy in this hall.”
Syd Sympson was a heavy young man with a face that was white and shining and so much like candle-grease that one was almost afraid of his melting near a fire. He was sweating now.
“But he didn’t do it,” he said.
“Didn’t he? If he didn’t it wasn’t your fault.”
“I never said anything. He told me he was going to screw Purvice’s place that night. I told him not to, as a matter of fact.”
Knowing that ‘screw’ meant ‘rob’ Carolus became secretly delighted with what Rupert had called his wiles.
“That’s not the account of it we have.”
“Lying little bastard. I never said anything to him. He told me what he was going to do, that’s all.”
“Why did he tell you?”
“How should I know? He talked too much anyway. It was no business of mine.”
“Wasn’t it, Sympson?”
No. You can’t do anything to me. Just because he came and opened his trap.”
“Did you know Mrs. Purvice, Sympson?”
“Been in her shop a couple of times.”
“Did you want her that Jimmy Drew was going to rob her shop that night?”
“How could I? I didn’t leave here till half-past twelve.”
“You didn’t ’phone the police either. You were in on it some way. What were you going to get out of it?”
Sympson tried to smile.
“You can’t get anything on me that way. I tell you, I told Drew to lay off. Didn’t have to do more than that, did I?
Carolus wondered how long he could keep up his attitude of official severity mixed with endless inside knowledge.
“You’ll see what we can do. Conspiring to commit. Accessory before. Easy charges to bring.”
“But he didn’t do it, I tell you.” His face became sly. “I know who did it. It wasn’t Jimmy Drew.”
“You know, do you?”
“As good as know. I saw him that night. On my way home I was. I live in Silverdale Street just near his church. Reverend Colbeck. True as I stand here. Rushing along as though hell was loose behind him.”
“What time was that?”
“Past one, it must have been.”
Carolus found it hard to speak without shewing his satisfaction.
“We shall want you again,” he said.
Before he put out his light that night Carolus looked at his watch. A quarter to one. Just the time at which, it was believed, Emily Purvice was killed.