At Death’s Door
DISASTER IN THE SUN
Next day was cloudy and there was that stillness of air and leaves which threatens a storm. Mr. Limbrick seemed somewhat preoccupied at breakfast but wished his guest better luck than yesterday as Carolus set off with his rod.
It was not until Carolus had eaten his picnic lunch that his peace was destroyed. When the sound of an engine first came from the direction of the house instead of from the land, he sleepily supposed that it was a tractor up at the farm. But it grew more insistent and angrier. It had not the steady hum of a tractor or aeroplane but was full of explosions and raced up or fell irregularly. A motor-bike being ridden towards him, he realized, and looking out across the field he saw a gate being opened then the motor-cycle ridden again. He recognized Rupert Priggley. Calmly the boy switched off his engine, pulled the cycle on to its stand and came across to Carolus.
“Well, well,” said Rupert. “You are a traditionalist, sir. The contemplative sport.”
“I don’t fish,” said Carolus.
“No. I can see you don’t. Now if you want trout, I’ll just shew you. . . .”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. I have no doubt the poor creatures would be attracted by you. I am not. How did you know I was here?”
“It wasn’t difficult. I went to your home. A woman who looked as though she liked to hear about hell-fire and the punishment of sin told me you were away but that you had taken a rod and line. I remember the old man here inviting you for a few days’ fishing and thought you might have what you would call ‘your reasons’ for coming here. So I rode out.”
“But how did you find this place?”
I went up to the farm house. Fortunately the purple-faced character who kept calling you ‘sir’ in a military sort of way wasn’t there and I saw Ann. She looked as though she was preserved in acid. But she told me where to find you.”
“What made you think I wanted to see you?”
“Oh, I guessed that. You’ve worked it all out by now and you’re longing to tell someone the story.”
Carolus was silent.
“You do know who killed Emily Purvice, don’t you?”
“Yes, Rupert. I know that.”
“It was the same person?”
“Yes. It was the same person.”
“Oh, come on, sir. Tell us.”
“You work it out for yourself. I’ve got no information that you haven’t got. Not a scrap. The thing is obvious if you . . . if you put it together the right way.”
Carolus stopped speaking and signed to Rupert to keep quiet. A car was being driven slowly down the lane.
“This is what we’re waiting for, I think,” said Carolus. “It was about this time yesterday when that car stopped just where it’s stopping now. It’s fairly plain that someone knows I am here. Yesterday he was satisfied with a spot of observation from that copse over there. Today I don’t know.”
“Did you see him yesterday?”
“No. I heard the car stop. I know he was in that copse.”
“Aren’t you being a mite on the self-important side, sir? What on earth makes you think that someone walking about Limbrick’s ground is interested in you?”
“I never knew you believed in it.”
“Only in my own. Whoever was watching me from the copse yesterday, means trouble.”
“You mean, this may be the murder?” gasped Rupert, forgetting to be blasé.
“It may be. Keep down and watch and listen.”
The door of the car must have been shut very quietly for they did not hear it. Nor did they see anything for several minutes. Carolus watched the hedge along which the intruder must have passed on the previous day, but no movement was perceptible there. Then, once again, the sounds and movements of birds told him that the unknown observer had reached the copse.
Conscious that he was being watched, Carolus cast his line into the water. From the distance of the copse he must appear to be a man absorbed in fishing for trout.
“Do you think you could make your way downstream to that little bridge without being seen?” Carolus asked Rupert. “Keep right down by the water all the way. When our friend goes back to his car you can see who it is. If he hasn’t shewn himself in the meantime.”
“All right. But what about you? This blighter may be out to kill you.”
“I don’t think so. I think I know what he wants. And even if he is, he’s got to break cover first. I can look after myself.”
But one thing Carolus had not foreseen. It had not occurred to him that anyone would walk about the fields of an English farm on a summer afternoon armed with a rifle. A shotgun yes; there were plenty of arguments for that and a death from it could always be accidental. But anyone with a rifle could have only one purpose and must be a very desperate man.
Just as Rupert began to crawl away the still silence was torn by a shot and Carolus dropped, his right hand going across to his shoulder as though he were covering his heart.
He could still speak.
“Keep quiet. Wait,” he whispered to Rupert. “Don’t be seen, for God’s sake. Try to watch.”
Rupert came to the side of Carolus who whispered urgently: “I’m all right. Only my arm. Watch that copse.”
“Nothing’s stirring,” reported Rupert.
They remained still for a long time. Then they heard, very faintly, the sound of a self-starter and an engine firing. Its sound increased as the car came down the lane, then all sound faded into the stillness of the afternoon.
Rupert saw that Carolus was very white and there was blood on the fingers of his hand as it still clutched his shoulder.
“Don’t faint,” said Rupert. “Tell me what to do.”
“Do exactly this. Take your motor-bike, don’t go back to Pear Tree Farm but get out into that lane somehow. Through the hedge if you like. Ride in and get Dr. Tom. No one else. Get Dr. Tom to come out with an ambulance. If he’s out, find him. Try to get him here within the hour.”
“But what about you?”
“Do just that, will you? I’m all right. They won’t come here again. When you get back stay in the lane with the ambulance and tell Dr. Tom to come across alone. That’s important, Rupert. Got all that?
“Yes. Shan’t be long.”
“One thing more. I don’t quite know how bad this is but in any case when you eventually get back to Newminster, make it worse. Talk as much as you like. Say I’m dying. And take a look at our suspects when you tell them that. I’d like to know where they were this afternoon and how they react to the news. All that later, of course. Now get Dr. Tom to me quick.”
Forty minutes later an ambulance from Newminster Hospital pulled up in the lane and in a few minutes Dr. Tom was with Carolus. He said nothing till he had looked at the wound.
“You’re damned lucky,” he remarked quietly, as he put on a dressing.
“I know. He was only just too far away, or too poor a shot. Listen, you’ve got to help me here, Lance. I want to be dying, you understand. Can you dress this as though it had just missed the heart?”
“I mean, nearer than that. So that it’s touch and go for me.”
“What’s the idea?”
“I want this murderer. Two dead, and a try to kill a third. I can see only one sure way—to give out that I’ve had it. I lose consciousness in the ambulance. You arrange the whole works. Police at my bedside waiting to take a statement. Believed that I can identify my assailant. And so on.”
“I can say the shot narrowly missed your heart, because it did. I can dress it to look like that if you want. I can inform the police—I must do, anyway. The rest is up to you.”
Carolus smiled faintly.
“The rest will work itself out, I think. I doubt if we should ever have got a conviction otherwise.”
“Fiendishly clever, as you will see. But I think this little spring gin will work. I think we can lie back and wait now.”
“You’re a fool to get yourself mixed up in this, Carolus. Let the police take their own risks.”
“They do, Lance. Remember Slapper. But I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot and a whole pile of evidence tumbled out. Now, how am I to get to the ambulance?”
“Walk, of course. You can, can’t you?”
“Of course I can. But as I’m going to lose consciousness on the way back I don’t want to be too sprightly now. Couldn’t they bring a stretcher across?”
“We’ll see. I really don’t see why I should take liberties with public . . .”
“Shut up, Lance. You know you want to hear who the murder is, just as everyone else does. Go and get them, there’s a good boy.”
The ambulance was driven a few hundred yards down the road and brought round by a difficult cart-track. Dr. Tom played up and Carolus was carried across on a stretcher. Before the ambulance reached hospital he had lost consciousness and within half an hour of his arrival rumours began to run through the town.
Rupert Priggley was ahead of them. It would have been hard to better the tired way in which he gave the news to schoolfriends he met in the street.
“Pity about Carolus,” he yawned. “Not expected to live. Shot by the Market Street murderer. I saw the whole thing. Very disturbing, too.”
Or else, “Such a bore. Carolus Deene has had it, I’m afraid. Someone shot him with a rifle. That’s what comes of knowing who was the Market Street murderer.
He called on Marcia and Jane.
“Will you be going out to Pear Tree Farm today?” he asked
“You didn’t happen to run out this afternoon, did you?”
“No. We had lunch in the café today and then an hour with our best customer, Commander Lockyer-Gray. Why do you ask?”
“Because someone tried to murder Carolus Deene out there this afternoon.”
“Oh God—more murder, said Marcia. Does Limbo know?”
“If you mean Limbrick pére I can’t really tell you. You’d better ’phone and find out.”
From the pet shop he walked two doors to the Pollings’. Buying a couple of peaches he said: “I suppose you’ve heard about Carolus Deene.”
“You mean about him being shot at with a rifle when he was trout fishing out at Mr. Limbrick’s farm in about half-past two this afternoon?” asked Mrs Polling in a breath. “Yes, I had heard something about it,” she added unnecessarily. “Well, you know how people talk. Dead, is he? Shame, isn’t it? And no age really, as you might say. Plums, dear? Yes. Nice and ripe this afternoon. Yes, I was ever so sorry to hear about Mr. Deene. They say it’s just near his heart. Well, we’ve all got to die sometime, I suppose. Still. Feels like thunder today, doesn’t it?”
“How do you know? Have you been out?”
“Out? No. I can’t get out during the week. Mr. Polling’s just nicked down the road a minute. Won’t be long. I’ve been busy all day with the shop. Business has quite looked up.”
It was too early to find young Drew so Rupert decided to call at All Saints’ Vicarage, ostensibly to see Colbeck junior, who was a day-boy at the Queen’s School. Luckily this youth, an angular, narrow-headed youngster of fifteen, was in the garden with his father when Rupert arrived. He looked sheepishly pleased to see the senior boy and introduced into the Vicar. Rupert came to the point at once.
“Somebody took a shot at Carolus Deene this afternoon,” he said.
“Oh dear,” said Mr. Colbeck, his voice ringing healthily through the garden. “Where was this?”
“Out at Limbrick’s farm. It was a rifle shot.”
“Terrible. Terrible. I suppose it’s all part of this murder mystery? Our little town is becoming an inferno.”
“Carolus may die.”
“And that will be another murder. At what time did this happen?”
Rupert told him.
“At least no suspicion can fall on me this time,” said the Vicar. I had a funeral this afternoon.”
Finally Rupert tackled Drew.
“—— good job, too,” said this young man. “Teach him to mind his own business.”
“I thought you were rather keen about his car.”
“So I am—his car. That’s not him, is it? He’s too —— nosy for me. Asking questions about my mum.”
“It seems he may die.”
“Well, I can’t help it, can I? I didn’t ask him to start nosing around.”
“You still working at Evers’s garage?”
“I should think I was. Been under a lorry all the afternoon. It’s taken me an hour to get myself clean.”
“Physically,” reflected Rupert.