At Death’s Door
A FATAL WOMAN
“I went on reconstructing events,” said Carolus. “The next ones to concern us happened at the depths of the Town Hall. And we come here talk possibility so ugly that I prefer not to dwell on it. Sympson suggested to Drew that he should break into Purvice’s that night because he knew that she would have a hundred pounds on the premises. He was able to tell him where it would be hidden because Dick Purvice and he had once been friends and probably planned to raid old woman’s hiding-place together. Now it may be that he told Drew all this in order to get a half share of the money. I hope so. But it could go much deeper. It could be that Geoffrey Baker had told him that afternoon to encourage Drew to rob the house. We have reason to suppose that Sympson and Baker were together that day and that Sympson told Baker about Mr. Colbeck’s collection of funds. Suppose, therefore, that Baker had already decided on his actions that night. He might have thought of young Drew and told Sympson to make the suggestion to him. Drew would be the perfect suspect. If he could be induced to break into Purvice’s after the murders he would almost certainly be accused of them. With a Borstal record and Baker’s own description of him as a very bad young man he might even hang.
“If this was what happened, if Baker really went to this length in planning to implicate Drew, he was fairly safe so far as timing was concerned. He believed that Drew would take his girl home as usual and therefore would not reach the shop till half-past one or two, when he, Baker, would have finished and gone. He did not anticipate Drew’s decision to break in while Mrs. Purvice was still as he supposed at her séance. But as I say, all this is supposition. The suggestion for Drew’s robbery may have been Sympson’s own.”
“The lousy swine,” put in Jimmy Drew.
“I am inclined to agree with you,” said Carolus, “whichever way it was. There seems no doubt that Sympson and Purvice worked together for years. If, however, Baker did plan for Drew to be a suspect it was his one miscalculation. Drew threw the foreseen time-table out by not taking his girl home, but going straight to the shop after the dance. He also upset prediction in another way. He was able to persuade Mrs. Polling, when he called on her during the dance, to let him break into the house from her backyard, instead of making a difficult entry across several walls at the back.”
“There!” said Mrs. Polling, “and I thought you weren’t going to mention that unless you had to! It’s not very nice for Mr. Polling and me. The first time in my life I ever thought of such a thing . . .”
“I have the assurance from the police that no charge will come of it,” said Carolus. “I hope you will agree that it helps us to get all this clear. Drew came over to you soon after eleven and arranged to return at about half-past twelve. In the meantime, shortly before twelve, Mr. Colbeck went into the shop and paid over his hundred pounds. Marcia and Jane, you may remember, saw him leave. They told me about this during my second visit to them. ‘First someone came out. That was just before twelve when we had only been at the window for a few minutes. All black. Hat, coat, everything. I remember whispering to Jane that it must be an undertaker and we thought it was a pity he had not gone to measure her.’ Mr. Colbeck, like most ministers of religion, wears black.”
Mr. Limbrick interrupted.
“As a purely technical point,” he said, “which I know Mr. Colbeck will excuse in the interests of detection, is there anything to prove that he had not then murdered Mrs. Purvice. Could it not be that Baker found her there dead and took advantage of this in the way you suggest to kill Slapper?”
“Nothing absolute or final,” he admitted. “Except common sense and one little scrap of evidence. Sympson told me that he saw Mr. Colbeck that night sometime after half-past one rushing along as though hell was loose behind him. This he said with relish, pleased to involve someone else. Actually it almost freed Mr. Colbeck from suspicion. Would a man who had committed a brutal murder at twelve o’clock have still been rushing about the streets looking guilty an hour and a half later? Besides there is the doctor’s evidence, which is fairly reliable in this case, since he examined the corpse before four o’clock that morning.”
The Vicar of All Saints nodded sadly.
“He went away and did not enter the shop again that night. I see no reason to doubt his word about this.”
“You mean, I am cleared?” said Mr. Colbeck.
“That is, of course, for the police to say. I am merely an amateur putting forward my theory. But so far as I’m concerned I know that you had no part in these murders.”
“There! Isn’t that nice?” said Mrs. Polling, beaming. “That’s one less under suspicion anyway. I wish you’d hurry up and tell us who else is in trouble and I’m sure we’d all feel better.”
Carolus continued unperturbed.
“There was only one coincidence connected with this affair,” he said. “And that was the fact that Marcia and Jane decided to get their dog back on this night of all nights. They didn’t even know it was the one night in the month when Purvice went out. Am I right?”
“Dead right,” said Marcia. “We hadn’t a clue. We simply waited till we saw a character let into the shop and so thought the old girl was busy downstairs.”
“In a sense she was. She was being murdered. The character, as you put it, was Geoffrey Baker. He had run his wife home, dropped Connie Slapper at her house, and come hell-for-leather down here. I do not know where he left his car but I’m pretty sure he was on foot and had not his car anywhere near. She let him in, of course. Was he not the detective to whom she was accustomed to giving information? One of the useful things that Mrs. Millen told me about Emily Purvice was this: ‘She was In With the police down there. I can tell you that. How do I know? Well, you can believe your own eyes. I’ve seen her talking to them. Thick with them, she was. It paid her to be, I suppose, only you can see what it’s done for her now. She was what they call round here a nark when it paid her to be. Give anyone away, she would. Has done, scores of times.’ Detective Sergeant Moore knew nothing of this so almost certainly the contact was with the only other C.I.D. man in Newminster, Geoffrey Baker. When he arrived at her shop door soon after half-past twelve she do not hesitate to admit him. He murdered her about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour later. So it will be interesting to you, Marcia, and you, Jane, to know that while you were breaking into the house from the roof to rescue your dog its owner was being battered to death in the back shop.”
“Gosh!” said Marcia.
“Oh dear!” said Jane.
“Teach the pair of you,” said Bugs Fitchley. “It’ll be sometime before you go house-breaking again, my girls. Did you really suspect ’em, Deene?”
“Not very seriously,” he admitted, “though when I saw Marcia hacking away at the horse meat it might easily have given me ideas.”
“What rot!” said Marcia.
“I know. But I would still like to know what delayed you in Purvice’s house that night after you had handed the dog up to Jane.”
“If you want to know,” said Marcia sulkily, “I was sick. That house and the effort. You needn’t laugh,” she said, turning on Bugs Fitchley. “We can’t all be as tough as old boots.”
“Oh, Marty, and you never told me!” said Jane reproachfully.
Carolus thought it best to return to his reconstruction.
“We know, too, about Drew,” he said. “And that he looked through the window from the Polling’s yard just after Mrs. Purvice was murdered. If he had waited till Baker turned his face it would not, as might appear, have helped investigation because no one would have believed him. And if he had managed to convince anyone it might have made a premature charge against Baker which would have failed. I was convinced, as soon as I knew the murderer’s identity, that there would not be a successful prosecution unless he could be induced to try his hand at murder again, as he was this morning. So it may be just as well that Drew fled in panic from that very frightening scene without identifying Baker. Drew’s actions have been under pretty thorough scrutiny. I’m inclined to think that he had been used by Purvice and Sympson and was a fool not to realize it. Purvice used her usual device of hinting at mysterious powers behind her, ‘They’, who were unspecified and all-powerful people, and Sympson had informed against Drew when he was sent to Borstal. Yet Drew allowed Purvice to drag him back to crime and accepted Sympson’s suggestion to rob Purvice herself.
“His scheme for this robbery was a particularly silly one. He might have realized that Mrs. Polling could not help revealing it when she was questioned. He might also have foreseen that the small window from Purvice’s back room to the Polling’s yard would be screwed in pretty firmly. Finally he gave himself away during his first interview with me. I retarded the time of Purvice’s death a little in order to try a small bluff and it worked at once. When I said that Purvice was not killed till half-past one, ‘Yes, she was,’ he exclaimed. You’re not a very good criminal, Drew, and I suggest that you try some more appropriate calling.
“However, let us return to the movements of Baker. Having murdered Purvice and arranged the body as he wished, he settled down to wait for Slapper. A minor but interesting point occurs here. Did Mrs. Purvice neglect to re-lock the shop door after admitting Baker, or did he go across to it now and unlock it in readiness? I don’t suppose we shall ever know, and perhaps it does not matter. He wore gloves all the time, of course. He had seen too many criminals caught through leaving fingerprints to neglect to do so.
“Slapper behaved precisely as anticipated. There was very little chance that he would do otherwise. The only risk was that someone else might call on Mrs. Purvice after the shop door was unlocked and before Slapper reached it. Baker minimised this risk as far as he could by leaving the smallest possible margin of time. The risk was justified; no one came. At a few minutes to one Slapper was killed as he stooped over the dead woman’s body. Baker was now free to take his weapon and leave. He did so, observed from above but unidentified by Marcia and Jane. He left the door of the shop unlocked, deliberately I think. He did not want to cumber himself with the key. He knew that some search would be made for Slapper later and he did not mind how quickly, after his return to his home, the bodies were found. If anyone else entered that night, so much the better, another suspect. He may even have had Drew in mind. At all events he did not lock the door.
“Then, I think, he went straight home, ridding himself of his father’s crowbar on the way.
Bugs Fitchley re-crossed the mighty calves of her legs.
“Quite a character, this copper,” she observed.
“Cold-blooded brute,” said Jane.
“Clever, though,” her father replied. “You must admit that, my dear. Fiendishly clever.”
“The movements of only one other person on that night need concern us now,” went on Carolus. I mean Dick Purvice. And about these I am prepared to accept his original statement word for word. He came to the shop soon after the murderer left, was astonished and delighted to find so much cash in his mother’s place of concealment, looked in the back shop, was appalled and scared by what I will describe as ‘the mess’, and left the building before Constable Waymark reached. He kept on the move until the time of the workmen’s train in the morning when he took itself off. He is, in fact, a very lucky man. He will inherit quite a fortune, chiefly of the most scandalously ill-gotten kind, and I hope he will make what reparation is in his power. I never seriously suspected him. I did not believe that his mother would admit him to the shop and she had certainly admitted her murderer. I did not think from what I knew of him that he had the makings of a matricide. I was convinced that the planning of this murder needed more brains and he had. At any rate, I am sure of his innocence now.”
“I suppose you know,” said Mrs. Millen in tones of disappointment. “But if anyone was to have asked me who done for Emily Purvice I should have said straight away it was that son of hers. He never was any good. Too much of his mother in him.”
“I don’t know who to suspect, confessed Mrs. Polling. “Some days I thought it was one, some another, till I scarcely knew whether I was standing on my head or my heels. Well, it seemed so funny.”
“Screamingly,” said Marcia, who was still taciturn. “Especially when we were suspects ourselves.”
“And may be still for all we know,” retorted Mrs. Polling. “There’s a lot we’ve got to hear yet.”
Matron looked severe.
“I cannot allow the patient to talk much more,” she warned them all.
“All right, Matron,” smiled Carolus. “The end is in sight. That was how I reconstructed the events of the evening, anyway, and it all fitted like a glove. But still there was something missing. I knew the Man. I knew the Method. What was lacking was the Motive.”
“That’s very important, isn’t it?” said the matron, as One Who Knows.
“Very important,” agreed Carolus. Without it, in fact, there can be no case. Only a collection of circumstantial evidence and interesting possibilities.”
“Only,” said Detective Inspector Wicks, speaking for the first time, “only a lot of high falutin’, rather literary sort of theorizing without any substance to it.”
“Only,” chorussed John Moore with a twinkle, “only some very persuasive, neatly rounded off hypotheses of your own.”
“I accept the challenge,” said Carolus. I am the first to agree that the case as I saw it then was airy and unfinished, to say the least of it. I will go further and admit that if Baker had not tried to kill me this morning I might never have convinced you of his guilt, even after I had expanded expounded his motive. Further still, and say that without more evidence, which, I have every hope, you will be able to obtain, we could not be sure of a conviction even now. After all, a police officer might be stung to the attempted murder of a private detective, even if he had nothing to hide.
“But now I proposed to shew you both his motives and his accessory and suggest how final and conclusive evidence may be obtained.”
“Good for you, sir,” said Rupert Priggley. “Don’t you be put upon. After all, it was you who were potted at, wasn’t it? You’ve a right to your theory.”
“Police?” said Mrs. Millen, apparently waking up from a reverie. “I’d shoot ’em. All the lot of ’em. They’re no good. Never have been and never will.”
Bugs Fitchley trust out her horny hand and seized Mrs. Millen’s.
“With you there,” she said. “We girls in the prison service can’t stick ’em.”
Inspector Wicks smiled frostily.
“I wonder whether either of you has some particular cause for this bitterness?”
“I have,” asserted Mrs. Millen. “A —— good cause, too. My old man is a copper, the lousy rat. What you think he done? Shopped his own wife. It was like this . . .”
“Aren’t we rather wandering from the subject?” suggested Mr. Colbeck, his ringing tones at once hushing the rest of them. “I for one am anxious to hear the rest of Mr. Deene’s very lucid exposition.”
“There’s not much more,” said Carolus. “I had to find a motive if my theory was to hold water. And just as I was giving up hope one was thrust under my nose. I received a visit from Connie Slapper.”
Whatever has she got to do with it?” asked Mrs. Polling. “I know the party well. Comes into the shop regularly and pays cash for everything. I always found her a very nice person and never would believe what people said about her.”
“All I said about her so far,” pointed out Carolus mildly, “is that I received a visit from her. It was my housekeeper who disapproved. A woman of keen perceptions, Mrs. Stick. No scandalmonger either. But when Mrs. Slapper called me she threatened to give notice. It made me think.”
Mr. Limbrick could restrain himself no longer.
“I knew it,” he said. “It had to come. Cherchez la femme. On you go, Deene. Let’s hear it.”
“A femme fatale ?” suggested Rupert.
“There’s no need for all this French,” said Carolus severely. “A fatal woman. A very fatal woman, as I think you will agree.”