At Death’s Door, Chapter Nineteen

At Death’s Door 


Next morning Carolus ’phoned Dr. Tom to ask what lame men he had on his panel but when he described the dragging limp as Marcia and Jane had seen it, his friend had no suggestions to offer.
Nor had the police.  John Moore and Geoffrey Baker came to see him that evening and before giving him the two startling pieces of news they had brought, they heard about the lame man from him.  But both were sceptical.
“The trouble with people nowadays is that they read too much crime fiction,” said Moore.  “This lame man is always turning up in the more lurid cases.”
“I know,” agreed Carolus, “it does sound a bit flimsy.  What interests me about it is its effect on the story told by the two girls.  I mean, either they’re speaking the truth, in which case we surely ought to be looking for a murderer with a limp, or they are lying, in which case they have something pretty considerable to cover.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” put in Geoffrey Baker.  “Couldn’t it be just a silly piece of elaboration.”
“It could, I suppose.  But they don’t seem the women for that.  It’s an attractive idea.  Just find a man with a dragging leg. . . .  What about Dick Purvice?”
“That’s one of the things I came to tell you about.  We’ve got him.”
“How did you manage that?”
It was lucky, really.  We should have found him sooner or later but this time it was through old Critchley’s passion for treasury note numbers.  He’s like a small boy with trains or cars.  There were only five of his in the bundle of a hundred which Colbeck handed over, but that was enough.  Dick Purvice passed one of them in Southend last week and within three days of it the police there had him.”
“What sort of character is this Dick Purvice?” asked Carolus.
“Very ordinary London screwsman.  Wouldn’t think of working alone—probably has not got either the brains or the guts—but takes a hand in any job when there are three or four in it.  That’s common enough.  The man who works alone or leads others is rare.  What the criminal world lacks, fortunately, is leaders.  Dick Purvice was and oaf who had done two short sentences and was due for another.”
“A dedicated life, in fact.  Dedicated to crime, I mean.”
“Entirely.  But there was probably a nice mixture of criminal heredity and environment, too.  All that we’ve found out about Mrs. Purvice since her death points to the fact that she was quite a Fagin in her way.  There seems no reason why her own son should have escaped her training.  There was apparently a very unpleasant case in this town when the Purvices first came here.  Dick Purvice was only eleven at the time which is probably why he was only bound over.  A gang of boys, some of them as old as fifteen, set on a lad they didn’t like and very nearly battered him to death.  He was in hospital for two months afterwards and will carry a scar for the rest of his life.  Purvice was one of the ringleaders but because he was the youngest boy in the gang a lenient view was taken.  Still, you can see that he has always been a bit of a bully.”
“I’m glad we’ve raked him in, even if he did not commit the murder.  The Metropolitan Police will be pleased, too.  Save them a bit of trouble, though they would have had him in time.”
“Has he talked?”
“He was very slow at first but in the end he told the same sort of story as everyone else in this case has told.  For a long time he denied having been in Newminster at all at that time.  ‘Haven’t seen my mother for six or seven months,’ he kept repeating.  He’s a big fellow, rather stupid.  Still a bit of a bully, according to the police in his manor.  ‘What would I want to go to Newminster for?’ he asked us and when we said money from his mother he laughed.  ‘Did you ever tried to get money from the old woman?  Don’t be silly.  I would not have wasted my time.’
“It took a long time to make him understand about the treasury notes.  They were paid to his mother that same day, we said, and he had passed one with a number we knew.  He couldn’t see that until we gave him another number or two of notes he had on him in the remains of the bundle, then it dawned on him that he was for it.
“It appears that he had a key of the shop door.  He had it made a couple of years ago when he was staying with the old woman.  She never knew, of course; he was cunning enough for that.  He had kept this all that time, waiting for just such an emergency as this.  It was found among his possessions when he was arrested.
“He gave us a statement.  He thought he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police.  He had to get away.  He came down on the Tuesday afternoon and saw his mother in her shop at about five o’clock.  He asked her for help and she refused.  He decided to help himself.  He knew it was the night on that she went to her séance. . . .”
“So you knew about that?” smiled Carolus.
“Of course.  We’ve been watching this Mrs. Grove for sometime.  Dick Purvice had seen his mother set off for this on a number of occasions and had timed his visit accordingly.  He also knew where she kept any odd sums of money she had in the shop, or at least where she had done so when he was staying there.  ‘She never changed, though,’ he said rather bitterly.  ‘Mum was always the same.  Unless anything had happened it would be in the same place.’ 
“That seems very much in character,” observed Carolus.
“Dick Purvice is of low mentality,” went on Moore, “but he has some criminal cunning.  He did not put up anywhere for that night and went to see no one he knew in the town.  He had something to eat at the coffee-stall by the bridge then sat in the gardens as long as he could.  He does not know what time it was when he went to Market Street, that says it was after one and before two.
“There was no light on.  He tried to put his key in the lock, he says, but to his surprise it was not necessary.  The door was not locked.
“He did not use a torch or light of any kind in the shop.  He knew where everything was and groped along the counter to the corner where Emily Purvice usually stood.  Here was her hiding place.  Behind certain stacks of stationery which had not been moved for years was a pile of wooden pencil boxes.  In the third of these Mrs. Purvice used to put any sums of cash she might have in hand.  It must have taken Dick Purvice weeks to make this discovery when he stayed here, watching her when she thought he was out, playing a guessing game of his own in which he got warmer and warmer till he reached the point.  At any rate he knew and that night thought he was lucky.  The packet of notes felt quite bulky.
“He does not know what made him look in the back room.”
“He says he had a queer feeling about it,” grinned Geoffrey Baker.
“He opened the door.  The first thing he noticed was the smell.  He says it was overpowering.”
 ‘Knocked you back’, was his expression.”
“He switched on the light and saw the two dead bodies.  As far as we can make out they were exactly as Waymark found them later.  Purvice says he ‘came over queer’ and if he is telling the truth there can be little doubt about that.  He stood there for a minute, thinking he was going to be sick.  Then he made a bolt for it, out of the shop and up Market street.  He can’t remember passing anyone but he was in such a panic that he might not have noticed.  He walked out to Little Foxcott and took the early train from there.  He’s been in a blue funk ever since.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Carolus.
“On the whole he’s a disappointment to us.  His story could so easily be true.  Nothing in it conflicts with what we know of him or of the circumstances.  like almost everyone else connected with Emily Purvice he could have been the murderer but there seems no particular reason to think that he was.”
“I never had many hopes of that one,” said Carolus.  “What’s your other piece of news?”
“That is a bit more satisfactory.  Something definite at last.  We’ve found the weapon.”
“And it was the old man’s crowbar,” said Geoff Baker.  “So I am looking rather small at home just now.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It seemed to me,” said Moore, “that whoever murdered Purvice and Slapper was on foot.  There was no car parked near the shop that we knew of and none standing about the town—at least so far as the men on duty noticed.  I think we should have heard if a car had been parked anywhere handy that night.  If the murderer came on foot he must have carried the weapon away with him since it wasn’t in the shop.  Continuing this argument by elimination, there were two things he could have done with it, kept it at his home or got rid of it that evening.  After we have searched the premises of the various suspects and their associates pretty thoroughly we decided to go on the assumption that he had dumped it somewhere in the town that night.”
“That’s one of the advantages of having the Yard in on an investigation of this kind, they can order all sorts of work to be done for which we couldn’t take the responsibility,” put in Geoff Baker.
“A complete examination under the gratings of street drains and so on was carried out,” went on John Moore.  “The rubbish from dustbins collected that morning was sifted at the dump, Roadside Gardens were searched and finally it was decided to drain the only pond thought likely to have been used.  (Gaymore Gardens are locked at ten o’clock at night.  The pond there could not easily have been approached, therefore.)  This was Meldon Pond, that little bit of ornamental water at the junction of Whitty Road, Meldon Road and Nares Toad.  The crowbar was in it, well in the mud in the centre, but as the pond has a concrete bottom it didn’t take much finding.  It had about a yard of strong cord tied on it.”
“Nothing left on it, of course.”
“Nothing.  The only reason to suppose it was the weapon is that George Baker left it in Purvice’s back room and someone had thrown it away that night or later.  But that seems fairly conclusive.”
“I agree.  Still it doesn’t get us much farther, does it?”
“It’s a satisfaction to me to have something as concrete as a crowbar to get hold of.  This case has been all talk so far.”
“I know.  I can understand how you feel.”
“I don’t know if you want to see Dick Purvice.  We’ve charged him with larceny and he has been remanded in custody.  He’s in Brixton prison.  If you want you could go up there and visit him, though you’d have to think of some pretty good reason.  He needn’t see you if you doesn’t want to.”
“Thanks, John, but I don’t think I’ll bother.  I’m sure you’ve got from him all there is to be got at the moment.”
“Then what are you going to do, Carolus?”
Geoff Baker politely suppressed a laugh.
“There’s not much else I can do.  We’ve got all the facts we’re likely to get.  I have a feeling that somewhere amongst them is the key.  I keep nearly catching a solution by the tail, as it were.  It eludes me every time but if I can only be away from my classroom for a bit and concentrate on all this, I believe I can pull something out of the bag.”
“What do you mean by ‘nearly catching a solution by the tail’?” asked John Moore quite seriously.
“It must sound very amateurish, I know.  But that’s what I mean.  Somewhere in this collection there are facts which would point to one person.  There must be.  I decided last night to look for the things which had not been explained by anyone.  There are several, you know.”
“Such as?”
“Such as that piece of cord on the crowbar.  How do you explain that?”
“I don’t.”
“Such as the lame man.”
Both John Moore and Geoff Baker smiled at that.
“Such as the fact that the body of Mrs. Purvice was moved across the room.  What is your explanation of that?”
“There was a lot of blood on the cupboard in the corner.  She might have fallen against that when she was killed and the murderer might have wanted something from there.  There were a number of documents in the cupboard.  No Will has been found, remember.”
“Yes.  That’s possible.  But you see what I mean.  I believe that if I could work at something which accounts for all those things and one or two more I have in mind I could point to the murderer.”
“We have to follow rather more prosaic methods,” said Moore.
“But we sometimes get there in the end,” suggested Baker.
“I know.  I’ve felt all through this that the police will probably know the answer before I do.  I understand that my pupils are betting on that.”
“When does your school term end?” asked Moore.  “You’ll be able to concentrate all you want after that.”
“Next Tuesday.”
“We shall have to try to get somewhere before then.”
“There’s one other little point which bothers me,” reflected Carolus.  “It concerns Emily Purvice herself.  Her attendance at séances at Mrs. Grove’s house seems to have been so regular that both Drew and Dick Purvice could count on her being out of the house that night.  Why wasn’t she.  Why did she stay there?”
“She had quite a bit in hand, haven’t she?  Colbeck bringing his hundred nicker for one thing.”
“She could have told him to bring it on the following day.  That leads me to another point.  If the murder of Purvice was unpremeditated, done by someone who was disturbed by her, for instance, when he was in her home, then the murderer presumably thought she was at Mrs. Grove’s.  But if the murder was planned, done by someone whose aim was not to rob Purvice but to do away with her, then the murderer knew she was not going to Mrs. Grove’s that night.  Does that suggest anything to you?”
Moore looked serious.
“Yes.  It suggests a line of thought.  A very interesting line of thought, Carolus.  We may be looking for someone who knew Colbeck would be delivering his hundred pounds that evening.”
“Sympson knew that,” said Geoff Baker.
The other two looked at him as though he had spoken out of turn.  Perhaps he had.