At Death’s Door
LATE NIGHT FINAL
“One remaining piece of unexplained evidence,” continued Carolus, “was given to me by Detective Sergeant Moore when he told me what Mrs. Slapper had said to the desk sergeant at the police station on the night of the murder. To a superstitious man, or one who supposed that coming events cast their shadows before, or even to one who believed in telepathy, there was nothing here difficult to explain. For him it would appear that Mrs. Slapper had had some premonition of what took place. But I am not superstitious, I scout the whole idea of telepathic communication and I wanted some very practical and cogent explanation of the things which Mrs. Slapper said at half-past three in the morning, after the two murders had been committed.
“Let me remind you, or tell some of you, what these things were. ‘Something must have happened to him,’ she said and when the sergeant asked her what could have happened to Slapper she grew excited. ‘It has. I know it has. I . . . I’ve got instincts in these things. I never make a mistake.’ Later the Sergeant said that Slapper would be in in a minute. ‘He won’t!’ cried Mrs. Slapper. ‘Never again. You’ll see. I knew it would happen. But I never thought . . . I oughtn’t to have let him go.’ The Sergeant pointed out that Slapper had to come on duty. ‘But not tonight,’ said Mrs. Slapper. Finally she repeated hysterically a number of times ‘I’m to blame.’ When Constable Waymark returned and told her what had happened, she said ‘I knew it’.
“Now some of you may be able to dismiss all that as the raving of a frantic woman who believed that she had second sight. I would point out that there is no reason for us to think that until that evening Mrs. Slapper believed anything of the sort. The first claims to ‘second sight’ which she is known to have made were voiced to the sergeant after she had shewn an unnatural anxiety over Slapper’s lateness. She was not, for instance, a member of Mrs. Grove’s circle.”
Here Mr. Polling made his one contribution to the conference.
“She was a sceptic,” he said.
Mrs. Millen could not let this pass.
“Oh go on with you!” she said. “What do you know about it?”
“Mr. Polling attended the meeting at Mrs. Grove’s house,” Carolus pointed out. “At any rate it can be said that though we have heard other things about this Mrs. Slapper, reliable or not, we know nothing of any interest of hers in the occult. Why, then, the sudden knowledge of something terrible which had happened to her husband? The suggestion that she already believed him dead?
“When I asked Geoffrey Baker, in view of Mrs. Slapper’s behaviour at the police station, whether he had noticed anything unusual about her at the dance the evening. He said that he personally had noticed nothing. But presumably because he thought I might question his wife he said that she, Lena Baker, had thought that Mrs. Slapper had been ‘funny’ all the evening. I do not need to point out that she wasn’t attributing to Mrs. Slapper conduct in any way comic. Mrs. Slapper had been odd, strange, not herself, and Lena Baker had noticed it.
“Then there was another point which those of you who know the facts may or may not have noticed. When Baker was describing his drive home after the dance he said ‘When the dance was over I passed Iris Blake and her sister walking home alone. They live in Meldon Road road where I live. I drove past them. I wasn’t going slowly because I had to take Connie Slapper to her home afterwards and she was in a bit of a hurry.’ He had to take her home afterwards. Why afterwards? Wouldn’t it have been more reasonable to drive first to Slapper’s home in Lower Bridge Street, not far from the Town Hall, and dropped Mrs. Slapper, then go home with his wife, particularly as Mrs. Slapper was in a hurry? What reason could he have for this extraordinary procedure—driving home, then to Slapper’s home, then to his home again?
“I was puzzling over these very facts when Mrs. Slapper came to see me. She came only an hour or two after I had told Detective Sergeant Moore that I had a completely new view of the case, strongly suggesting that I had perceived the cardinal fact which would eventually implicate Baker, and Baker was the only man to whom Moore would mention this. Baker had known for some time that I was becoming dangerous. He was present when I told Detective Sergeant Moore what were the unaccountable pieces of evidence I was puzzling over, and he knew that they pointed straight to him. If on top of these I had, as he now heard, formed a new idea of the case, it was time he acted. Mrs. Slapper came, I am convinced, after she had spoken with Baker, and her object wasn’t dual. She wanted to find out find out how much I knew and, if it was not too late, to throw me off the scent.”
John Moore spoke slowly.
“You’re right in thinking I told Baker,” he said. “I met him just after I left you and we were rather amused, I remember, to think of you starting all over again.”
“If I am right in thinking that he and Mrs. Slapper were in constant touch he would have passed that on and suggested that she should see me at once.
“Now Connie Slapper was not in any sense an intellectual woman. Nor was Edith Thompson. But Baker was not such a fool as Bywaters. There is, I believe, a good deal of similarity in the two cases. This Connie Slapper, a sensual, crude, sentimental creature, was wildly in love with Geoffrey Baker, and he with her. I admit that I can as yet produce no direct or concrete evidence on this point. I should not be surprised if there are letters somewhere. It was her letters to Bywaters which hanged Edith Thompson and it may well be that Connie Slapper’s letters will implicate her securely, if any can be found.* But though I had nothing in black and white on the relationship between these two, my instincts told me to presume it and for the rest of my investigations I did so. Rightly, as I am now convinced.
“In any case, After Mrs. Slapper had left me that evening I had a piece of unconscious confirmation from my housekeeper, Mrs. Stick. She is one of the few really reliable people I know and when she said that Mrs. Slapper was ‘no better than she ought to be’ I knew it was no mere a scandal-mongering. She herself had seen her at night ‘with a married man’. I put out an audacious feeler by saying that she had been with Baker on the night of the murder and from the look Mrs. Stick gave me in reply to this I concluded that it was with Baker that she had seen Mrs. Slapper.
“There was one more thing about her visit to me that led me to direct suspicions. I felt sure that her occultism was entirely bogus. It was out of character. It had been recently adopted, and with a special object in view. And now it was being used too deliberately, both as cover and as a means of suggesting things which the pair wanted suggested. In fact by it she gave herself away and when she asked if I found what she had told me about the voice of Slapper ‘interesting’ I said it was very, very interesting.
“It was. It had given me the one thing I then lacked: a motive. Looking at Mrs. Slapper, hearing her talk, I could understand at last why Baker had wanted to kill her husband—or how she had made him believe that he did.
“To draw one more parallel with the Bywaters-Thompson case, it may be remembered that the man and woman in that resolved to kill Thompson not so much because he was jealous or made their illicit relationship difficult as because he was naturally possessive and insisted on his marital rights. I think these murders will prove to have a similar cause. Slapper was a tedious, meticulous man and Connie Slapper was a lustful, emotional woman. Once young Baker was in love with her she could work on his sentiments with ease, she could fill him with jealousy and horror by merely giving him the details of her married life. I see her as a fatal woman. A provincial, pretty, vulgar one, but in Rupert’s phrase a femme fatale. Married to that conscientious, punctual, scrupulous policeman she became an imprisoned tigress.
“We shall probably never know how much of the scheme was hers, how much his. They were both wholly without scruples. Baker’s part was that of a willing Macbeth. He could not have carried out his murders so effectively if he had been a mere pawn in a scheme made by Connie Slapper. He was a murderer, all right, and never flinched from his terrible work from the time he decided how it was to be done till he returned in the small hours to his home. Since she knew what was to be done that night she was certainly an accessory and probably as guilty as he.
“It is true that she lost her head for a time later. Alone in the house to which her husband would never, as she knew, return, she must have paced and perhaps drunk and smoked. If Baker had returned to her, if she had had something to wait for, it might have been better. But accustomed as she was to waiting for Slapper, she now knew that no one would come to relieve the solitude. We know that she never went to bed for she was still wearing her dance frock when she arrived at the police station. Her nerves must have been in a bad state by three o’clock as she wondered what had happened and how successful her lover had been. At last she could stand it no longer and went down to the police station.
“Much of what I have said of Baker and Connie Slapper is, of course, speculative at this stage, though I feel sure that further evidence will not be hard to obtain. There are, however, several irrefutable pieces of condemnatory evidence against each of them. Against Baker there are his attempts on my life when he realized that I had perceived the basic truth of this matter and against Connie Slapper there is her knowledge of what had happened to her husband that night. There is no blinking either of these.
“As for more proof—I am pretty sure that a careful search of Baker’s home will produce something. When he left Purvice’s shop that night he must have borne some marks of what he had done and we may come down to a matter as simple and common as that of bloodstained clothes. All very well to remember that he was a policeman and therefore versed in these things—what can a murderer do with bloodstained clothes? His wife was in the house and, it can safely be presumed, knew nothing of the affair. It is not so easy as it first it may seem to dispose of these tell-tale garments. You may say that a man who had planned so well would not fall down on this. But it is just the sort of obvious thing that incriminates so many murderers. Put yourselves in his position. He comes in at half-past two in the morning, knowing that his wife will be in bed and probably asleep. He realizes that he carries the stains of his crimes. Can he burn the clothes? The kitchen fire is out and in any case it would be several hours’ work to destroy these things completely. Better conceal them for tonight and tomorrow take them somewhere for destruction.
“Yes, but how take them from the house unobserved? How destroy them, once taken? How account to his wife for their absence? I don’t say these things could not be got over, but I feel sure some trail is left.† that will be up to the police if they are sufficiently interested in my suggestion.
“As for the shot at me while I was pretending to fish—that ought not be too difficult to bring home to Baker. The obvious questions, as I need not tell the police, are: where was he at the time? Where was his car? Where did the rifle and ammunition come from? Where is it now? Who knew of my being at that reach of water? Of evidence there is already quite a good deal. He was the only person except John Moore to know that I was learning the truth about the murders and had not get reported my discoveries to the police. He knew exactly where I was likely to be found because Connie Slapper had been to the place with her husband on many occasions and could indicate where it was. He was in a fortunate position because if he was seen making for the place he could always say that he was coming to chat to me about the case. He had lost some of this caution by this time, or at least was acting without sufficient preparation, so he should have left plenty of evidence behind.
“Then there was his last desperate act, when he tried to suffocate what he believed to be a man whose life was already in the balance. A trap was laid for him here and if he had not lost all caution he would have seen it. It was an easy trap to prepare because I knew that Baker would be one of the police ‘watching at my bedside’ and had only to be ready to defend myself.
“I had some difficulty in persuading Detective Sergeant Moore not to tell Baker that I was pretending to be unconscious. He felt that his colleague should know as much as he did. I could not give him my reason for pleading for silence but managed to persuade him about that.
“For his first time watching Baker did nothing and I began to despair. It seems that he was so sure of himself as a rifle shot that he never doubted I should die. It was only when Moore told him that I was likely to recover that he acted. You know what happened then.
“It may be harder to get a verdict against Connie Slapper.‡ This will depend on what is found when the houses are searched and other data collected. But I feel sure that she is at least as guilty as was Edith Thompson.
“There you have it. There are gaps to fill and t’s to cross, but that is the outline. It’s a rather beastly story, cruel and sordid and full of selfishness. But it has been for me deeply interesting. The moment in which I realized the basic truth, that Slapper and not Purvice was the intended victim, was, to say the least of it, exciting, for it gave me a large open field to enjoy alone.
“Thank you all for listening so patiently. And thank you, Matron, for allowing my little party to be held.”
Matron slowly inclined her head in acknowledgement of this. As Bugs Fitchley said when she had left the room, she made you think of cathedrals.
Mrs. Polling was ecstatic.
“Well, I never did,” she said, beaming round on them all. “And I half thought you was going to try to make out it was me or Mr. Polling helped him. I said to Mr. Polling, this evening, I said, I shouldn’t be surprised if he was to try and make out it was you or me who helped that baker, I said. It’s not as though we knew anything about such things because I’m sure I for one would never have thought of murdering anyone, not even if she was going to put us out on the street the next day. As for Mr. Polling he wouldn’t hurt a fly; he’s that quiet I sometimes say to him, you ought to have been an undertaker, I say.”
Mrs. Millen gave a rather noisy laugh.
“Undertaker?” she said. “Nice sort of funerals he’d have, I must say. He’d be dancing round the churchyard if they wasn’t careful. Wouldn’t you?” she asked the mournful Mr. Polling.
Mr. Polling shook his head wistfully, whether in denial or in regretful reminiscence of the incidents which had given rise to Mrs. Millen’s opinion of him it was impossible to say.
“I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Mr. Deene,” he said.
“Well, it’s a blessing to know that no one’s going to pull out a pair of handcuffs and march you off any minute, I must say that,” said Mrs. Polling.
After rather effusive good-byes she and Mr. Polling and Mrs. Millen left the room.
This acted as a signal to Detective Inspector Wicks and John Moore to stand up and take their leave. Moore promised to call on Carolus tomorrow and Wicks went so far as to say that the whole case would have to be very carefully reviewed in the light of what Carolus had said.
Bugs Fitchley stood up like a heavyweight rising from his corner of the ring.
“Come on, you too, she rumbled to Marcia and Jane. “Train to catch. On duty at seven in the morning. Thanks, Deene. Dammed good job of work. Should think you’d hang the pair of them. Be sending us Slapper in a few days? Good-o, Bye.”
Marcia and Jane exchanged smiles.
“Isn’t she incredible?” whispered Marcia behind the broad retreating shoulders of Bugs Fitchley.
“Superb,” said Jane. “Thank you, Mr. Deene. You’re as good as your book. Isn’t he, Marty?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t read it. But thanks for putting us in the clear.”
We wondered,” said Jane at the door, “whether you’d like to have Barry. As a present, I mean. He’d be rather a good souvenir.”
Carolus said he would be delighted and the three women left.
Mr. Colbeck shook Carolus by the hand.
“I feel a new man,” he said. “I’m most grateful to you.” His hair bristled conspicuously, whiskers, nosekers and earskers. “It is a great relief to feel free of the whole unpleasant thing.” His voice sounded as though he were trying to reach the psychopathic ward on the next floor. “Those who have never been involved in a murder should be humbly thankful for it. I indicated that to Mr. Gorringer when he came to see me. I told him how splendid I considered the work you were doing.”
“I bet he pricked up his ears at that,” suggested Rupert Priggley.
“You keep out of this,” said Carolus. “Little pitchers . . . Mr. Colbeck.”
“Was he head over ears in excitement about it?” asked Rupert irrepressibly.
The first time in many days Mr. Colbeck managed to smile before he left the room.
To Jimmy Drew Carolus said wearily: “I suppose I shall have to tell the police that I don’t want to charge you in connection with the car. But what about Mr. Evers?”
“You could tell him that you told me to do it,” returned Drew.
“Do you mean to keep your job there, then?”
“Told you, didn’t I?”
“All right. If you’ll stop wearing that absurd get-up I’ll lie for you to Evers.”
Jimmy Drew didn’t haggle.
“The Teddy Boys have had it, anyway,” he said. “Thanks, Tosh. Decent bit of car you’ve got. If you want it cleaned or anything, any time . . . Anyway, thanks.”
Only Mr. Limbrick remained now with Carolus and Rupert. It was clear that he had something rather portentous to say.
“My only criticism is that part of your theory was not sufficiently supported by evidence. I refer, of course, to the relationship between Baker and Mrs. Slapper. I don’t think any of the masters would have put that forward without more plausible proof.”
“I agree,” said Carolus. “But instinct must surely have its place in detection. I am more sure of that part of the business that anything else. I think the police will find all the proof they need in time.”
“Good. Good. If that is so, I congratulate you without reserve. As one who has made no small study of such things I find you most logical and convincing. I wish you good night.”
“You’ve done it,” said Rupert when the door was closed. “A good deal of bluff and some woolly bits here and there but you’ve done it. I shall pick up a fiver on this.”
“Insufferable little monster,” said Carolus, and motioned him from the room. He was very tired now and Matron, looking in a moment later, found him blissfully unconscious, this time not acting, but fast asleep.
— FINIS —
* Carolus Dean’s prediction was true. In the trial of Geoffrey Baker and Constance Slapper for the murder of John Slapper Mrs. Slapper’s letters to her lover were of great value to the prosecution. His letters to her were never found.
† One of the chief exhibits at the trial of Geoffrey Baker was a shirt with a small stain of human blood on the cuff apparently unnoticed by him or his wife. It was recovered from the laundry before it had been washed. The remainder of his clothes were never found. It is believed that he buried them.
‡ Carolus Dean was wrong here. The jury after an absence of only twenty minutes found her guilty. She was sentenced to death with Baker but later reprieved and given life imprisonment. Baker was hanged.