At Death’s Door
When Carolus entered ‘Marcia’s Pet Stores’ for the third time, the two proprietors were in the front shop. It was evident that they were expecting him and he guessed that Ann had ’phoned to warn her sister. It seemed that Marcia and Jane had decided to adopt a good-humoured attitude of great candour.
“So you’ve seen Barry, have you?” said Marcia, smiling. “How is he?”
Carolus did not know if they were referring to Mr. Limbrick or the dog.
“He seemed very well,” he replied, non-committally.
“I hope Ann remembers to give him his vitamin tablets. He needs feeding up after being half-starved here.”
“He certainly did not look half-starved.”
“You should have seen him when we took him out. I suppose you want to hear the whole story now?”
Carolus had an uncomfortable feeling that what was coming had been carefully prepared and rehearsed. The bland smiles on the faces of the young women suggested that they were rather proud of their actions or were going to act as though they were.
“Since you’ve seen Barry,” said Marcia, “you should be able to understand how we felt. That terrible old hag came in one day and asked if we had a young dog suitable to be trained as a house-dog. ‘I’ve got the little shop next-door,’ she said, ‘and my friends think I ought not to be on my own there at night without a dog. Nothing too expensive,’ she added, ‘because my little business won’t allow me any extravagances.’ Sybil, Barry’s mother, had had her litter about a month earlier and we offered Barry for ten guineas. She beat us down to pounds but said she would like him when he was big enough. She seemed to take to him as far as we could see and promised that he would have a good home.
“Barry was the best of the litter. First-rate dog,” Marcia went on.
“He’s a pet !” put in Jane.
“We wouldn’t have thought of parting with him if we had known. We thought an old woman wanting a dog was the very thing. He’d have a wonderful home. He might get a bit fat, we thought, that was all. We delivered him up to her all innocence.
“Then the complaints began. First it was the peacocks. We had to admit that they did make rather a squawk in the morning. But the Purvice woman behaved impossibly about it. Said they made her think of death, I don’t know why. Fortunately just then we sold them to Commander Lockyer-Gray out at Mocketts Hill. Then she moaned about the dogs. Said there was a smell. There may have been a tiny bit. You can’t have a pet shop without. But she exaggerated most maliciously. It wasn’t for some time that we realized where all this was leading. She meant to hold us up to ransom.”
“You’ll find it hard to believe,” put in Jane, the voice trembling, “but that woman deliberately starved and tortured Barry to make us buy him from her.”
“We used to hear him howling. . . .”
“He was shut in a room and never given any exercise . . .”
“It was the most fiendish thing . . .”
“Fifty pounds, she demanded . . .”
“Nothing but blackmail . . .”
Marcia and Jane were becoming a little incoherent. Carolus tried to bring them back to facts.
“So you decided to get the dog back?”
“Wouldn’t you? We tried complaining to one of the societies but she heard their inspector was coming. We tried everything else we could think of. It meant either being blackmailed or taking the law in our own hands. Oh do be quiet, Rebeccah!” she said rather excitedly aside to the parakeet.
“It was Marty’s idea, really. I’d never have dared. She went up on the roof one day and saw that skylight.”
“We worked it out very carefully, mind you. It wasn’t only getting into Purvice’s house, it was getting out again. We made a rope ladder. Tied all the knots ourselves. Sorry you can’t have it as Exhibit A but we burnt it afterwards. It was awfully professional-looking.”
“We felt justified,” enunciated Jane. “Barry’s cries grew worse and worse. We couldn’t sleep at night for thinking of the poor mite. I’ve never hated anyone as much as I hated that old woman.”
“You couldn’t have loathed her more than I did,” said Marcia.
It occurred to Carolus as he listened to this duologue of odium that until now almost everyone had seemed anxious to exhibit his motives for killing Emily Purvice, rather than to conceal them. Even Jimmy Drew. Even Mr. Colbeck. Each in his own way expressed abhorrence for her and implied that he would gladly have murdered her if he had had the chance. These girls made no secret of it. Was this, perhaps, a trifle over-naïve? A sort of double bluff?
“I don’t know what made us choose the very night on which she was going to be murdered,” went on Marcia. “Just bad luck, I suppose. We waited the night before but no one went in.”
“You ought to explain that, Marty.”
“Yes. I mean, we decided that it must be done while the old woman was down in the shop, talking to one of her late-night callers. She often had these. We’d noticed all sorts of people going into the shop at all hours, especially at night. So we decided to watch from our sitting-room which has a lovely old bow window from which you can see the entrance of Purvice’s shop. When the right sort of call went in, we’d get busy. We waited till two o’clock on the previous night. Not a soul came. But on the night it happened there was plenty of activity.
“First someone came out. That was just before twelve when we had only been at the window for a few minutes. All black. Hat, coat, everything. I remember whispering to Jane that it must be an undertaker and we thought it was a pity he had not gone to measure her.
“Then about a quarter of an hour later we saw a young spiv coming down the road. This silly fancy dress they call Edwardian. We thought he was bound to be calling on Purvice, but no, he went to the fruit shop next door.”
“Did you see him clearly?” asked Carolus.
He described Drew.
“Yes, that sounds like it. But anyway, does it matter? He didn’t go in. We had to wait till about half-past twelve or a quarter to one for our man. He popped up suddenly from the other direction. The first we saw of him was his back as he stood in Purvice’s doorway. He must have knocked or something because after awhile the door opened and he went in. ‘Now for it,’ I said to Jane, and we nipped upstairs. We had everything ready.”
Jane felt that she must pay a tribute to her friend’s courage and resourcefulness.
“Marty was wonderful,” she said. “Never turned a hair. She crept along that parapet with her rope ladder and I managed to follow somehow. We lifted the trapdoor and peeped in. Absolute darkness of course, and the only sound our poor little Barry howling just below us.”
“The old woman and her visitor must have been shut up in a room downstairs,” Marcia said. “We never heard a sound of them. This was just what we hoped. We put the skylight right back and dropped the rope ladder, hitching it on to the metal catch. Then I went down with my torch.”
“She scarcely made a sound,” said Jane admiringly. “I was in a state of panic. It seemed like someone going down a coal-mine when there has been an accident.”
“What I was chiefly afraid of,” said Marcia, “was finding the door locked. Of the room where Barry was, I mean. I don’t think I could have broken it open. However, all was well. The Purvice had obviously never thought of this. The poor mite was in the bathroom, which was filthy. I don’t suppose she’d bothered to clean it out since she’d put him in there. Even with the torch on him I could see that he was thin as a rake. He knew me at once, though. I grabbed the poor pet and handed him to Jane. She didn’t wait for me but brought him straight back here, as we had arranged. She was only to come back to me when she had put him with some milk and biscuits we had set ready.
“I was up quicker than that, pulled the rope after me and closed the skylight. That’s that, I thought, never dreaming that we had chosen the very night on which the old girl was to be murdered.”
“How long was it before you joined Miss Limbrick?” asked Carolus.
“Not long, I can assure you. I didn’t hang about.”
“Yes, but how long?” persisted Carolus.
Ponsonby, the Siamese cat, claimed her attention for a moment.
“You old rascal,” she said gruffly. The cat continued rasping. “It may have been five minutes altogether.”
“It seemed an age, I know that,” said Jane.
“Anyhow, there we were with Barry and everything safe and sound. As soon as he was eating we rushed down to the bow window to see if there was any effect on the house next door. I suppose we half expected to see the Purvice rush into the street screaming blue murder. It was then that we saw The Thing.”
“No one knows about this,” said Jane. Not even the police. I think it’s terribly important.”
“I can tell you the exact time,” said Marcia, “because I’d just looked at my wristwatch. I was thinking about our taking Barry out to the farm. It was ten past one.”
“The Thing. The evidence. What you’re looking for. A man came out of Purvice’s. We couldn’t see his face because he had his hat pulled right down over his eyes and his jacket collar turned up. He seemed to look about him for a moment then turned and walked up the street past Pollings’. As he walked we saw that he had a limp.”
“What kind of limp?”
“He seemed to drag one leg as though it were artificial or stiff. He went fairly fast, though.”
“You didn’t notice anything else about him? His clothes? His height?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid.”
“You can’t even be quite sure that it was a man?”
The girls exchanged smiles.
“I suppose you can never be sure nowadays. But he wore man’s clothes. Unless it was someone like Bugs Fitchley I don’t see that it could have been anything but a man. Surely you’ve got enough information there, though? All you have to do is find a man with a limp.”
“No one so far connected with this case has a limp,” said Carolus, then went on—“Do you think this limping man was the one you saw go in earlier?”
“We’ve discussed that,” admitted Jane. “In all honesty we must say that we simply don’t know. We only caught a glimpse of the back of the first one and the one going away we saw foreshortened, if you know what I mean. It may have been, or it may not. Why? Is that important?”
“It might be.”
“I say, do you think it was the murderer?”
“Mrs. Purvice was killed at about that time.”
“Rather a thrill in a way if we actually saw the murderer approaching the scene of the crime. Don’t you think so, Jane?”
“Or coming away from it,” amended Jane.
“What did you do after he had gone?”
“Rushed over to the Market Garage with Barry to get Fidgety Phil. That’s our old car.”
“We never dreamt that it would start,” said Jane. “But we seemed to be in luck. Marty wound it up and it began to wheeze and rattle straight away. We were off like lightning.”
“Well, hardly lightning, Jane dear,” said Marcia. “Not in Fidgety Phil. But I drove all out. A dashing twenty miles an hour. We reached the farm about half an hour later. We had it fixed with Ann who came down and let us in.”
“You’ve met my father,” said Jane. “So you will understand that we didn’t terribly want him disturbed that night. He slept through it all, bless him. Ann warmed up some coffee for us and made sandwiches. They were jolly welcome, I can tell you. We started away again and got home with the first streak of daylight.”
“What a night!” cried Marcia.
Carolus looked inscrutable.
“Indeed, yes,” he said. “Well, at least you’ve told me about it.”
“The lot,” said Marcia in the most downright way. “The whole, and nothing but.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus. “There’s only one more question I would like to put to Miss Bailey. What exactly delayed you in Purvice’s house or on the roof that night?”
“You say it was about five minutes before you joined Miss Limbrick. She says it seemed an age. What can have kept you back?”
For a moment it seemed that Marcia was going to lose her temper again. Then she said sweetly: “You’re imagining things, you know. I came as soon as I could. I don’t know how precisely how long it was.”
“I see. You do sell horsemeat, don’t you? For dogs and cats, I mean.”
“Yes. Do you want some?”
“Just a little. A treat for my housekeeper’s cat. Thank you so much, Miss Bailey. I could never cut it up as cleverly as that. How you must hate doing it.”
Marcia looked at her bloodstained hands.
“Oh I don’t know. You get used to it,” she said.