At Death’s Door
“This new idea of mine answered one of my questions about unexplained evidence anyway. I knew now why Mrs. Purvice’s body was moved. If the murderer’s intention was to kill Slapper and the murder of Mrs. Purvice was incidental to this aim, the movement of her body was a logical outcome.”
“I don’t see why?” growled Marcia.
“ ‘You will, Oscar you will’,” said Rupert Priggley. “Go on, sir. This is getting good.”
“I put myself in the position of a man who wanted to murder Slapper. How and when could it be safely done? Obviously in some way which would appear to be incidental. If Slapper could be killed while he was looking into a crime the man suspected of his murder would be the man who had committed the crime which Slapper was investigating. A man would not be sought, therefore, who had a motive for killing Slapper, but one who had a motive for committing the first crime.”
“Oh, dammed ingenious,” said Rupert Priggley. “Quite absurd, of course, but dammed ingenious.”
“Murder is absurd,” said Carolus. “It is many other things. It is cruel, sordid, horrible. But it is also, very often, absurd. Grant me my man for a moment. He knows Slapper. He knows his habits. He has studied the beat he is on just now and the times he reaches which points. He knows he is conscientious to the point of being a paragon. He knows, for instance, that he would never miss trying all the shop doors on his route and investigating one which was left open. It would not be difficult he realizes to be sure of Slapper being on the right spot at the right time. Slapper, above all, is a reliable man. He can be relied on to walk into a trap if to do so is his duty.
“Then he thinks of Mrs. Purvice and her mean little crimes. Blackmail. Receiving. He realizes that there must be a score of people with good strong motives for killing Mrs. Purvice, and that he is not among them. He has no motive for killing her. He would never be suspected of killing her. Here is a magnificent opportunity.
“What he has to do is to enter Mrs. Purvice’s shop shortly before Slapper is due to reach it, murder the old woman and leave the shop door open so that Slapper will walk in. Unable to get a reply, Slapper will look in the back room. The lights having been turned off at the main switch Slapper will start peering round with his porch. He will see the body of Mrs. Purvice on the floor. The face will be covered and he will step down to remove the piece of curtain. As he does so the murderer, concealed behind the curtain just inside the door, will strike one blow with a heavy weapon and Slapper will fall, killed obviously in the course of his duty by the murderer of Mrs. Purvice trapped in the room.
“By putting the body where it was found the murderer could be sure that Slapper would be in exactly the right position to receive his fatal blow. That was why he was moving it when Drew saw him. It was a beautiful little plan and it nearly worked. It deceived me for several days and might have continued to deceive me if Drew had not happened to see the body being moved. That was the action I could not account for, the action which led me to postulate the whole plan.”
Carolus paused there. He looked pale and exhausted. Although his wound was not as serious as he had pretended, it was real enough and he had lost a good deal of blood. He wanted to rest for a moment.
Mrs. Polling could be counted on to fill the breach.
“There!” she said. “It’s enough to give you the shudders, isn’t it? Working it all out like that and not minding about the old woman so long as he got what he wanted and would never arouse any suspicion himself. You wouldn’t believe that could be such wickedness, would you? And to think that I was sitting next door all the time. I don’t know what to say, I’m sure.”
Mr. Limbrick, on the other hand, remained curiously silent. His ecstasy as he listened at last to the unravelling of a murderer’s plot may have been so great that it carried him beyond words. Or he may have been shocked into silence, as Mr. Colbeck certainly was.
“The man was a stinker!” announced Bugs Fitchley in her soldierly voice.
“Yes,” said Carolus, “but who was this man? I had no more than this idea to go on, this rather fantastic theory. I had as yet no suspicion as to who the murderer might be. I knew certain things about him. I knew that he’d been admitted by Mrs. Purvice at half-past twelve at night and so clearly was known to her. I knew that he was aware that she would not be going to her séance that night, or, it might be, that he knew nothing of her séances, the only occasions on which you left the premises after dark. I knew that, according to my new theory, he wanted to murder Slapper. I knew that he left the shop with a dragging limp.
“It was Mr. Baker’s crowbar which gave me the first hint of who the murderer might be. On the Sunday after he had finished working at Purvice’s he had announced that he had left his crowbar there. In his own words: ‘Poor Jack snapper was forewarned in a way. My elder son brought him to tea on the Sunday before he was killed with his wife and Geoffery’s wife. . . . That afternoon it was I who joked at my own expense. You would smile, I said, if you knew what I have forgotten this time, and I told them I had left my favourite little crowbar in Mrs. Purvice’s back room.’ So Mr. Baker’s elder son Geoffrey knew that a weapon was lying handy and ready for use in the very place necessary.
“Now that may seem very trivial as a pointer to Geoffrey Baker, but it was not quite as trivial as it may appear. Whatever else this murder was, it was carefully planned. A man willing to kill an old woman with whom he had no quarrel merely in order to effect the safe murder of another man, was not one to forget to bring his tools with him. Whoever went to that room that night in order to kill would either have taken a weapon or known that there was one waiting there. The only men who knew of the crowbar were old Baker, his son Geoffrey and Slapper. Inconclusive, of course, but interesting.
“The crowbar was later found in Meldon Pond which, as Detective Sergeant Moore told me, is at the corner of Meldon Road. Already I had heard from Geoffrey Baker: ‘When the dance was over I passed Iris Blake and her sister walking home alone. They live in Meldon Road where I live.’ Since we supposed that the murderer threw the weapon away at night, this was an additional indication, though no more.
“Then there was the cord on the crowbar and there was the man with the limp. I saw how these two could be connected. Suppose that Geoffrey Baker was the murderer. He knew that the crowbar was in the shop. He was closely aware of the customary movements of both Slapper and Mrs. Purvice. ‘Geoff’s contacts are famous with us,’ the Detective Sergeant Morton me. ‘He can tell us about everything.’ He, more than anyone, knew how many suspects there would be for the murder of Mrs. Purvice. He had in fact prepared some notes for the inspector on this woman. He fitted the bill in many respects. Suppose he committed the crimes with his father’s crowbar he could not possibly, as any other murderer might have done, leave it on the premises afterwards, a pointer, however improbable, to himself. He had to get rid of it and Meldon Pond was a reasonably good solution. As a policeman he knew how improbable it was that it would be found. In his own words: ‘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.’ All sorts of work that came as a complete surprise to him and a very unpleasant surprise, too. He never dreamt that the crowbar would be found. He dismissed the whole idea of the crowbar when his father tried to report it. He cannot have been very pleased when I was inclined to take his father seriously in this.
“But how was he to get to Meldon Pond at all? As Detectice Constable Baker he was perfectly safe in walking about the streets on the night of the murder—but not with a crowbar in his hand. He acted promptly, or more probably be acted in accordance with a carefully prepared design. Having committed his murders he quickly tied a cord round the crowbar, and dropping it down the leg of his trousers, tied the cord around his waist—and easy way to carry this weapon unseen.
“But it had one effect. He could not bend his right leg. He walked with a dragging limp. Marcia and Jane were perfectly right in thinking that they saw the murderer leave the premises. The murder was, in fact, the man with a limp.”
“Oh, pretty!” said Rupert Priggley.
At this point there was a dramatic interruption in that Matron rose to her feet. The mere statement of this fact, sufficient with lesser beings, gives little idea of its impressive significance now. Some great sacred bird might have ruffled her feathers as Matron made audible her starch. z “That is sufficient for the moment, Mr. Deene. You must not overtime yourself. We will pause for tea.”
“I could do with a wallop of char, said Bugs, and the idea received general approbation, even from the two detectives.
Conversation, however, was restricted and difficult, perhaps because it was remembered that Carolus had yet to pick another suspect and nobody was anxious to be too closely associated with the guilty one.
“Deeply interesting,” Mr. Colbert was heard to say, his voice inevitably audible above the restrained babble.
“Madly,” agreed Marcia sourly. “Only when is he coming to the point?”
“He’s not to be hurried,” said Mr. Limbrick with some asperity. “I won’t have him hurried. I wouldn’t miss a word of this.”
“It’s ever so thrilling, isn’t it?” agreed Mrs. Polling. “I’ve often wondered what it would be like to hear all about a murder and now we know. I mean, it’s not everyone who gets asked, is it? Mr. Polling was only saying this morning, there is one thing, he said, we are in on the ground floor of this. I never would have thought of it being that young detective though, would you? He seemed such a nice quiet chap and his father was ever so strict with him when he was small, I do know that. Oh, thank you; what a welcome sight. Just one spoonful, dear. Thanks ever so much.”
“Aren’t you having a cup of tea, Matron?” asked Mr. Colbeck boldly.
Matron sadly shook her head.
“It would Never Do,” she said.
Mrs. Millen heard that.
“Oh come on,” she said, “have a cup and done with it, ducks. If you came from where I do you wouldn’t worry what they said. You go on and enjoy it.”
It seemed that the whole company held its breath at this astonishing audacity. But to everyone’s relief a faint smile appeared at the lowered corners of Matron’s mouth.
“Perhaps I will,” she said. “Just one.”
Carolus was again lost in his notes.
“It is not easy to remember in what order my pieces of deduction came,” he said at last when the empty cups have been removed. “I had at this point a theory which fitted with the two crimes as we know them, and a suspect—for you could not call Geoffrey Baker more than that just then. There was quite a lot of evidence but it was wholly circumstantial. There was certainly no proof.
“Nor did I believe that if he was guilty he could have acted alone.”
Carolus paused to let this sink in. It seemed to disconcert almost all of them. There was a stir of movement through the room and Mr. Colbeck cleared his throat.
“He was probably capable of carrying out the operative part of the plan, but I did not believe that he could have worked it out entirely himself. I decided that someone, in whose interest it may have been to eliminate either of the two victims, helped him here, so that any one of the original suspects might still be guilty. I was not really much farther on than I had been when I first started collecting facts about Emily Purvice. I almost despaired of progressing any farther.
“Then I decided to reconstruct the events of the afternoon and evening as I believed they happened, in the hope that they would lead me to what I wanted. The first fact of any direct significance seemed to me that Syd Sympson knew that Mr. Colbeck was collecting a hundred pounds in small sums to pay to Mrs. Purvice in cash that night. He knew this because Mr. Colbeck told him. Sympson probably tried to gain what advantage he could from the knowledge. I imagine that he went to Mrs. Purvice and asked for a share of the proceeds, since they had so often worked in partnership before, and that she told him that there would be nothing for him, even if the money was paid before midnight, as stipulated.
“Next, I think, he did what he had done on many occasions in the past and acted as copper’s nark. He got in touch, as often before, with Geoffrey Baker. I knew that Sympson gave other information to Baker. I had heard from Sergeant Moore that when Purvice appeared in town on the day before the murder, Baker had heard about it from Sympson. Besides, when Detective Sergeant Moore told me about Mr. Colbeck changing the cheques, I asked him how he knew this. His reply was: ‘My young assistant, Geoff Baker. He’s mustard on local events. He was able to tell us at once but only these facts about Colbert but where he had cashed most of the cheques. Remarkable.’ I do not see how else Baker could have this information unless Mr. Colbeck gave it to him?”
The Vicar of All Saints appeared embarrassed at this sudden reference to himself.
“I? Certainly not. It was several days after the murders before I was asked about this, and then it was by Detective Sergeant Moore, who already had an almost complete and accurate list of the cheques and where they were changed. I never spoke to Baker at all.”
“Then he must have heard from Sympson,” said Carolus, “that Mr. Colbeck was paying over the money that night. This would account for his knowing that Mrs. Purvice would be in her shop waiting and not at her monthly séance.