At Death’s Door
JIMMY OWNS UP
Next afternoon when Carolus went to his garage to get his car out he was astonished to find Jimmy Drew in overalls working a petrol pump. On seeing Carolus he looked surly and suspicious.
“Come to snoop on me here?” he asked when the car he had been filling had driven away. “Can’t do a bit of graft without you hanging round.”
“I keep my car here,” said Carolus mildly.
“Is that your Bentley?” asked Jimmy Drew, and there was a suggestion of awe in his voice.
“Yes. You really mean to do a job of work, do you?”
“What else can I do? With you and the ruddy Law on me all the time. Mr. Evers took me on. I don’t mind so much if it’s cars.”
“How long will it be before you start fiddling the petrol?”
“Have a heart, tosh. I said I meant to graft, for a bit anyway.”
“I want to talk to you, Drew.”
“Here it comes.”
“I’ll ask Evers if he can spare you for half an hour”
“I told you I got nothing to say.”
“I know that. But I’ve got quite a lot.”
Carolus went across to the office and saw the garage proprietor, then climbed into his car.
“Come on,” he said to Jimmy Drew.
It seems that the big sweet sound of the powerful engine was too much for the young man and he climbed in beside Carolus.
“Ruddy lovely, isn’t it?” he said as they left the town behind them.
“Now listen, Drew,” said Carolus. “I told you I was going to find out about you. I have, and it isn’t pretty. I don’t know whether or not you killed Emily Purvice and Constable Slapper but I do know that you might have done. You planned to break into Purvice’s shop that night.”
“I done nothing I shouldn’t.”
At the very least you conspired. But I admit I don’t know how far you were influenced by others. Purvice, for instance. She didn’t look after your mother all that time for nothing.”
“Course she didn’t, the wicked old hag. She was the first to get on to me to do another job to get the lolly to pay her back. That was her idea, see? You could open out a bit along this stretch of road. There’s nothing in sight.”
“Then Sympson. He tells me that it was you who decided to break into Purvice’s that night and that he tried to dissuade you I’m but I have my suspicions. Did the suggestion come from him?”
“He told you that? The lying ——. He’d grass anyone, that —— would. Course it was his idea. Why don’t you do the old bitch herself? he asked me. She’s trying to put the blacks on you, isn’t she? he said. He knew she had some lolly in the shop. How I don’t know. He worked with her, see? They was one firm. Never done any jobs himself but worked with old Purvice putting the lads onto things and buying the gear off of them for next to nothing. Lousy grass.”
“But if that is so, why did he suggest your breaking into Purvice’s shop?”
“I don’t know. With a grassing bastard like that you can’t tell. He may have fallen out with her. Or he may have known about this lolly she had and thought some of it ought to have gone to him. At any rate, he wanted me to split with him anything I got for the inf he’d given me. That may be why he told me to do it. Then he tells you it was my idea!”
“And wasn’t it?”
Course it —— wasn’t. Look, tosh, you may be a nark or you may not. I don’t know what your lark may be. I like your car, I know that. If I tell you about this how do I know you won’t tell the Law?”
“You don’t. I can’t make you any promises, either. But if you did no more than plan to break into Purvic’es I think you’d be wise to tell me about it. There are far more serious charges possible than any that could be made against you on that.”
“I know what you mean. Only I don’t want to go back and do another lot of porridge, see? I done enough with two years. I got this job now and I don’t want trouble.”
“You blame Sympson, do you?”
“Course I do. He was the one grassed us before, I believe now.”
“Yet you listened to him?”
“He kept telling me it was an easy place to screw.”
“And you decided to do it?”
“After he talked me into it I did. Just the job, I thought, after what that old cow done. Sympson said he knew there would be a hundred nicker in there if not more. He wouldn’t tell me how he knew. He told me where she kept any odd bits of money she was too late to bank. Would I have started on it, if he hadn’t told me that? Of course I wouldn’t. No one ought never to go screwing unless he’s got the inf. I’ve always said that. You must have the inf.”
“I suppose it never occurred to you that no one, in your words, ought never to go screwing at all, inf or no inf?”
“I’m grafting now, aren’t I?”
“You started this morning.”
“Then don’t keep on. I might go six and eight now, for all you know. If I can earn enough to look after mum, I might.”
“Surely your mother can earn something for herself?”
“She’s poorly, most of the time. She does what she can, but I’ve got to look after her.”
“I see. Go on with the story.”
“This Sympson told me the old woman would be out that night. Some lark she had with spiritualism. Calling up the dead. She would be at a Mrs. Grove’s this till I didn’t know till I don’t know what time. So I decided to have a go.”
“What time did you mean to do it?”
“After the dance. Half-past twelve. I didn’t take my girl home but sent her back with her sister. I got in at the back . . .”
“Over the wall that runs down between the houses.”
“That would be impossible.”
“That’s how I done it, anyway. I got into the yard . . .”
“You got into the yard because Mrs. Polling let you in. I suppose its to your credit that you’re trying not to involve her.”
“Well, she’s a silly old woman, see? She didn’t mean anything by it. I pitched her a yarn. She’d never have done anything like that herself. It was only because Purvice was going to throw them out. If you get her into trouble over this you’ll be —— sorry, that’s all.”
“It’s rather late to think of that. However. She let you into her yard. And then?”
“I was going to get through that little window into old Purvice’s back room. But as soon as I got out I saw there was a bit of light on there. I thought that’s funny because it was a quarter to one by now. I thought she must have got back earlier than usual from her spook hunt. I slipped off my shoes and went across very silent to take a butcher’s in at that window. You know what I saw?”
“It was the most —— horrible sight ever you could think of. I was looking through where the curtains didn’t meet properly. There was blood everywhere. The light wasn’t much be cold because old Purvice was so mean she’d only have low-powered bulbs and there was only one of them on. But even with that you can see it was like a —— slaughter-house.”
“Was there anyone there?”
“There was Purvice, of course. Or all that was left of her. And there was a man. I never seen his face because he had his back to me. He’d got the old woman’s body by the legs and was dragging it back across the room towards me. Stooping down over it, he was.”
“What did he wear?”
“I didn’t stop to study that. Something dark, I think.”
“You couldn’t see how he was built?”
“Not really. Might have been any size for all I know.”
“So it could have been a woman?”
“I suppose it could. I’m pretty sure it was a man, though. I didn’t hang about, I can tell you. I hopped it back to the Pollings’s.”
“You didn’t notice anything in the room that could have been used as a weapon?”
“I didn’t stop to look. What I can remember is where the old woman’s face ought to have been. It was —— horrible.”
“It should be a lesson to you not to enter other people’s houses at night.”
Jimmy Drew seemed not to hear.
“I suppose you wouldn’t let me drive her up here a little way?” he pleaded.
“If I find your story’s true you shall drive this car down to the coast and back.”
Jimmy Drew said nothing. Carolus returned him to the garage and went back to his home.
Now, he thought his inquiries were complete. Unless the police succeeded in finding and questioning Dick Purvice, or unless they discovered the weapon used, there was little more information likely to be obtained. And he knew nothing. He had not even a theory. He had a large collection of impressions, confessions, and bits of evidence, but there was no co-ordinating design. There was not even a specific line of inquiry for him to follow.
The trouble, he reflected, was not that it had been difficult to collect his facts—rather that it had been too easy. Everyone had talked too readily, often making compromising admissions. There had been a good deal for his suspects to hide, yet in the end, as he had secured more and more information, they had given stories which seemed to cover every point, to reveal all the new, all they had been trying to conceal.
That was the repeating patters. Each had a secret. It was not according to each one, the terrible secret of murder, but something connected with Purvice which had to be concealed. Each, in time, had been persuaded to reveal his secret which turned out to be almost innocent compared with the crimes Carolus was investigating. Yet one of them, he believed, must have created this very confession as a shield.
It was quite feasible, in theory. You want to be at a certain place at a certain time to kill a certain person. So you give yourself another reason for being there which is not one to be proud of but not one for which you can hang, either. You make a great show of hushing up this as though it was all you were ashamed of. Then when it comes out you are cleared. You had only gone there for such a reason, those investigating say, and you’re safe.
Very ingenious if that was the truth, thought Carolus. It could explain the behaviour of several people. Mrs. Polling who had wanted to cover up her association with Jimmy. Jimmy himself who had not wanted to admit that he had been to the shop. Mr. Colbeck who had given no hint to the police that he was being blackmailed. Marcia and Jane who had denied so vehemently that they knew more than they had told Carolus during his first interview with them. All had eventually confessed with an ingenuous air of having been found out in a minor piece of wickedness. Could this be merely cover for a major one? If so, in which case?
There was nothing, nothing that he could think of which told him more. No convenient piece of stuff torn from the murderer’s dress, no cigarette end of an unusual make dropped on the floor of the room, no sound heard in the night. All there was, in this melodramatic tradition, was the man with the limp. He could be the merest myth, just the sort of thing that the two girls would make up if they were trying to divert suspicion from themselves. But he could also exist; he could also be the murderer.
If that were so, the only hope was Dick Purvice. Carolus knew as a result of inquiries that Purvice did not normally limp but on that occasion there might be reason for it. He might have injured himself during the violent scenes in the back room. He might have been temporarily lame when he came down to Newminster.
Who else could it be? Surely no one would affect a limp as a mere piece of distracting evidence? Yet the whole case was surrounded with such distractions. Little points, of time. Marcia’s ‘five minutes’ or ‘an age’ to rejoin Jane. Jimmy’s ‘about ten minutes’ in the yard. Colbeck’s walk about the town that night, including a near approach to Market Street. All circumstantial. All depending on the words of somebody who might be interested in distortion. All more for less unreliable.
That was it—there was nothing to get hold of. A case full of people without a clue in the whole bag of tricks. People who were on or near the scene of the crime, with excellent or not so excellent reasons, at the time of the murders. People talking, eagerly, shame-facedly, or resignedly about themselves, their tragic relationship with the dead woman, their ugly lives. How could you solve a problem when all you had was stories, true or untrue, or perhaps half true, to go on?
There was only one thing to do—seek the unaccountable. If only in all this chaos he could find one thing that was unaccountable, he might be on his way home. One thing that was not explained by that or any other story, or by any of the facts known in the case. One thing seen, or heard, or even smelt or sensed, which did not fit with any theory or accord with the evidence of anyone.
Suddenly Carolus stood up.
“Of course!” he said to himself. “There is such a thing. Of course there is! This may be the beginning of the end.”