At Death’s Door
Limbrick was the first to arrive. He seemed in jovial mood as he came in and greeted Carolus.
“This is the part I enjoy most,” he said. “The explanation at the end, from which one learns what everything meant. All the little actions of the investigator become logical, all the loose ends are tied up. I hope you’re not going to get disappoint us, Deene?”
“I hope not.”
“I was sorry to hear about this further attack on you. Nearly got you, didn’t he?”
“I’ve been round to your house and taken the liberty of leaving a few farm products for you. I understand will be home there tomorrow. Some of our own butter. A little cream. Oddments, merely. I wish I had the means of shewing my gratitude for the interest this case has given me”
“You should thank your daughter and her friend for that. After all, it was through them that you became involved.”
He looked rather irritable.
“Perhaps. Did you say involved, though? Involved, Deene?”
He was interrupted by the entrance of Mr. and Mrs. Polling and to the great pleasure of Carolus, Mrs. Millen.
“Mrs. Millen would come when she Heard,” said Mrs. Polling at once. “Well, it’s interesting to her, isn’t it, being her sister-in-law that was done for. I said I was sure you wouldn’t mind. I sent to Mr. Polling, I said, I’m sure Mr. Deene won’t mind, I said, and he agreed with me, so here we are. What a good thing he missed you, though! It must have been a narrow squeak. Fancy shooting anyone. It only shews you, doesn’t it? I’m ever so glad you’ve got him, though, really I am, because it was beginning to worry me and Mr. Polling, not knowing where we were an answering questions half the time. I sent to Mr. Polling, there’s one thing, I said, I never want to live next door to a murder again, I said. Well, you can have enough of it, can’t you? Asking you this and that half the time. I feel better now.”
“You forget Mr. Deene’s still got another suspect to name,” said Mr. Polling gloomily.
“Now don’t you start!” put in Mrs. Millen. “Don’t let him begin his larks or we shall all be waltzing through the hospital before you can say knife.”
“I only said, there’s one more to be named, yet,” said Mr. Polling obstinately.
“Yes, but I know what you are,” retorted Mrs. Millen, shaking her head.
John Moore came in next with Detective Inspector Wicks whom he introduced to Carolus. Weeks was a large smooth-faced man, a brown pate shewing between patches of clipped hair and very quick dark eyes set close together. He was evidently making an effort to treat the occasion lightly.
“I’ve no objection to listening, Mr. Deene,” he said to Carolus. “I’ll listen to anything if I think it will help with the job in hand. My colleague here assures me that what you have to say will be interesting, if nothing else.”
There was an unexpected interruption from Mrs. Millen.
“Oh go on,” she said. “Why don’t you own up to it? He’s found out what you couldn’t with all your microscopes and fingerprints and that.”
Inspector Wicks smiled indulgently
“I hope he has,” he said
“Of course he has. Came to see me, didn’t he? You never thought of that. I never did like coppers and I never will.”
“You’re not alone in that,” admitted Wicks.
“Not by a mile, I’m not.”
The argument was momentarily abandoned because Matron came in.
“I hope my consenting to this gathering will not be taken as a precedent,” she told Carolus. “I can’t have the hospital used for social purposes, even if it is in the cause of detection. Are you expecting anyone else?”
“Quite a number,” admitted Carolus.
Then Matron voiced the greatest concession of her reign in Newminster Hospital.
“I have arranged for tea,” she said.
“That’ll be nice,” said the irrepressible Mrs. Millen. “I’d rather have a glass of stut myself,” she added aside to Mrs. Polling.
“Still, it’s something,” said Mrs. Polling. “I always say, there’s nothing like a cup of tea when you’re feeling done for. Poor Mr. Deene will need something, too, before he’s finished telling us all about it.”
There was an unexpected element in the next arrival, for Marcia and Jane brought Bugs Fitchley with them.
“Wouldn’t miss this!” she bloomed.
“Bugs refused to go home till she heard the story. You don’t mind, do you?” Marcia asked Deene.
“I’m delighted. Do sit down, Miss Finchley. Yes, next to Matron,” Carolus said.
With an artist’s appreciation of his own skill and sketching in the figures of a crowd, he smiled on this piece of juxtaposition. He would have liked to overhear any small talk which might pass between them, if even talk between two such Titans could be small. Jane Limbrick obeyed a sign from her father to sit beside him, at which Marcia seemed inclined to sulk.
Mr. Colbeck came in with some hesitation.
“You . . . er . . . I understand you had been good enough to suggest . . .” His voice was almost subdued.
“Yes, do sit down, Padre.”
“He’s going to pull all the rabbits out of his hat,” said Marcia bitterly. “We’re going to hear just which of us is guilty of what, and why.”
“It’s ever so exciting, really,” said Mrs. Polling. “I’ve often said I’d like to hear about anything like this. Mr. Polling’s read Mr. Deene’s book and says he ought to be able to put two and two together if anyone can.”
Finally Rupert Priggley appeared.
“Got the lot?” he queried.
“All but the headmaster,” said Carolus.
Rupert smiled provokingly.
“Won’t touch it with a barge pole. I told him you would like to come along but he made a noise like a horse with a couple of husks of corn up his nostril. I gathered you will be hearing what he thinks of your invitation.”
“Bit of trouble with the boss?” said Bugs Fitchley. “Shouldn’t be surprised if I have the same. I know what to do with our Guv, though.”
“Juju?” suggested Marcia with a sneer. “Throw her over your shoulder?”
Bugs gave a bass laugh.
“Something like that,” she said.
“What about Mrs. Slapper?” asked Carolus of Rupert.
“Not a hope. She seems very much put out because you ignored her Revelation.”
“Yes. And we decided against Sympson, I think.”
“You’ve got something else to face when you get out of here,” warned Rupert. “And frankly I’d sooner it was you than me. That housekeeper of yours.”
“What’s the matter with Mrs. Stick?”
“I’d like you to hear her. ‘I told him what it would come to.’ ‘Getting himself shot at like that.’ ‘I never thought when Stick and me came to work here we should find ourselves in the middle of a murder mystery.’ ‘What people will say now I can’t think.’ You have got some explaining to do when you get home, sir.”
Detective Inspector Wicks looked at his watch.
“You’ll forgive me if I remind you that you have some explaining to do here and now, Mr. Deene. I am holding one of my most promising detectives because apparently he made a lethal assault on you. But I need to know a great deal more than that.”
“You shall, inspector, you shall. I’m just gathering my little audience. I’m entitled to that, I think.”
A further delay was not, in any case, his fault. A policeman in uniform came in and whispered to Wicks himself.
“We’ve picked up Drew,” he said. “He’s downstairs. Do you want him to be present?”
“Yes,” said Carolus. “What about my car?”
“No news of that, I’m afraid.”
Jimmy Drew looked sulky and very sorry for himself.
“You told me I could,” he opened accusingly to Carolus.
“Drive your car down to the coast and back. That’s all I done. Well, not back, because they picked me up down there.”
“Where’s the car?”
“In a garrige down at Brightpool. All I wanted was to try it out.”
“I told you I’d let you drive it if you had told me the truth.”
“Well, didn’t I? All what I said was gospel.”
“If it was the truth,” said Carolus, “was it the whole truth?”
“Can’t remember what I said now. You do the talking, tosh. I’ll stop you if you’re wrong.”
“Very well,” said Carolus, and looked down at his notes.
“I don’t know about the police,” he began at last. “But I found this a difficult case for the very reason intended by the murderers. I fell into the trap.”
“You did say ‘murderers’?” put in Wicks.
“I did. But I don’t yet know how far I’m justified in using the plural. Technically, yes. Ethically is another matter.”
“I wish you wouldn’t keep using all them words,” grumbled Mrs. Millen, her temper tried by a evening without a glass of stout. “Whatever do you mean? How many murderers were there, for God’s sake?”
“There were two,” said Carolus. He looked rather distressed. “There were technically, as I say, two murderers and one performed the physical act of killing. And I fell right into the trap. I saw this case as they wanted me to see it, as they were quite sure I would see it. When I began to see it in another way they knew they had to kill me before the whole thing became clear.
“I was led to the truth because I kept puzzling myself about several bits of evidence which I could not account for. In research, it’s the same—the unexplained things matter most. Who, for instance, was the man with the limp seen by Marcia and Jane? They were positive about him. They had no reason to lie—on this matter at any rate . . .”
“Oh, thanks,” said Marcia sarcastically.
“Steady, Marty old girl,” called Jane musically across the room. Marcia frowned.
“A man with a limp, leaving the scene of the murder at the time when the murderer would be doing so. You just can’t have something like that in a case and not account for it. Such a peculiar and vividly described link to. ‘He seemed to drag one leg as though it were artificial or stiff,’ said Marcia. That was one of the pieces of evidence that wouldn’t fit.
“Then there was Drew’s account of the body being moved across the room. No theory advanced for that satisfied me. Why, I asked myself again and again, why should the murderer, or anyone else for that matter, move Mrs. Purvice’s body? I could understand his covering her face with a piece of curtain since it was in a very horrid state. But why move her corpse across the room?
These were two of the unaccountable things. There were others—perhaps not quite so important. What I wanted was a theory of the crime which would include an explanation of them. I kept nearly getting it. I remember saying to you, John, that I had almost caught a solution by the tail. Then suddenly I had what Mrs. Slapper would call a revelation. It came one evening while I was alone in my study.
“It was this. We had here two murders, one committed with forethought for motives of profit, of hatred, of fear or of envy, the other an incidental murder committed in order to effect the escape of the murderer. On that hypothesis we had done all our investigation. But suppose, I thought suddenly, suppose it was the other way about ? Suppose that the planned and intentional murder was that of Slapper and the incidental one the murder of Mrs. Purvice? Obviously in that case we had been looking for all the wrong motives. We had been searching for people who had reasons for killing Mrs. Purvice. Now we should have to look for someone who wanted to kill Slapper—a very different matter.”
“I don’t quite follow,” said Limbrick from across the room. “How could the murder of Purvice be incidental? It took place first, didn’t it?”
“Yes. You’re interested in fishing, Mr. Limbrick. You won’t be shocked or disgusted as I was to realize that Mrs. Purvice’s corpse was used as bait, while her death was almost perfect cover under which to plan and effect the murder required.”
“Oh, God!” said Marcia.
“But what gave you this idea?” queried Limbrick. “What first suggested that Slapper was the real, the chosen victim?”
“It’s awfully hard to say. There was something I didn’t like in the idea of Slapper’s death being almost casual, the result of a blow struck by man merely wishing to escape. It was not natural, particularly since the murderer had apparently waited for the supremely right moment. What would actually have happened if Slapper had come by chance on a recently committed murder would probably have been a rough-and-tumble of some sort. This hiding behind curtains and striking at the right moment was too calculated and clever to be the act of some robber who merely wanted to escape. All this was suggestive. I don’t know how I thought of it, though.”
“Inspiration,” sneered Marcia.
Carolus ignored this. “It was at this point that the case became most interesting,” he said. “The point at which, to Detective Sergeant Moore’s amusement, I decided as I said to start afresh. I had an entirely new field, and I had it to myself. All I needed was a chance to think. As soon as I could get away from school, I believed, I could identify my man.”