At Death’s Door, Chapter Eight

At Death’s Door 


When Carolus reached his home that evening Mrs. Stick, his housekeeper, told him with the stern disapproval she always shewed for his dealings with the police that Detective Sergeant Moore was waiting for him in his study.  He found Moore with a drink on the table beside him and his eyes closed as he lay back in an arm-chair.
Carolus let him sleep for a while.  He sat down at his writing-table and made notes of the points which had occurred to him during the day’s researches, just as he had made notes in the reading room of the British Museum when he was studying his periods for Who Killed William Rufus?  He completed these, read them through and looked across at his friend whose head was now lolling on one side and whose mouth was open.
“Wake up, John,” he called cheerfully.
The detective became conscious of the room about him and of Carolus.
“Awfully sorry.  Must have dozed off.  We’ve had a really hard day.”
“Like a fresh drink?”
“No.  This is all right.  I’d like a wash though.  I want to talk to you so I’d better wake myself up.”
Back in his chair he began at once.
“This is going to be a hell of a case,” he said.  “One of those with about a dozen possibilities, none of which can be eliminated at once.”
“Yes.  It is getting interesting, isn’t it?”
“Interesting?  It’s a bind.  So you have been playing round today, have you?  I thought perhaps you had when I saw your car parked behind Market Street.
“Is that why you came in this evening?”
“I like to hear your views, Carolus.  I’ve never denied that, have I?”
“I haven’t got any yet.  I’m only beginning to fumble my way in.  I can’t yet eliminate a single one of your suspects.”
“Not the Pollings?
“Certainly not.  Or the two girls on the other side.  Have you found the weapon, John?”
“No.  We don’t even know what it is.  Something smoothish and heavy.”
“I might be able to help you there if I can see the room.”
“That’s not up to us.  We have finished with it.  You’d better see old Titterley, the solicitor who handled Purvice’s legal affairs.  He can give you permission to root round if you want to.  Do you really know anything about the weapon?”
“Would a short, light crowbar do?”
“Couldn’t be better.  Why?”
“There was one in Purvice’s back room a few days before she was murdered.  Perhaps it was still there on the same night.”
Moore looked disappointed.
“Oh, you’ve been talking to Geoff’s father.  We’ve heard about this famous crowbar.  The trouble is, Carolus, you’re not used to dealing with people in these cases.  I tell you they’ll go to any lengths to get themselves called as witnesses.  We usually have half a dozen confessing to the crime.  Old Baker may have such a crowbar, may even have used it at Purvice’s, though I can’t think what for.  It is conceivable that he left it there.  But it’s all too vague.  Geoff knows his father.  Heart of gold and all that but so self-important you can’t believe it.  He thinks his father could easily have made up or be imagining the whole thing.  We shall have to take a statement from him some time, I suppose, but just now each of us is trying to push the job on to the other.”
“I don’t blame you for steering clear of the old man.  He certainly is heavy going.  He only told me about the crowbar by chance.”
“Even if you consider it a possibility—thatt crowbar, I mean––it doesn’t help much.  I mean, anyone can smash a skull in with a crowbar.”
“Or two skulls.”
“Or two.”
“I imagine you have been giving most of your attention to Purvice’s son.”
“A certain amount to his movements.  Though I personally don’t feel very strongly about the possibility of his being guilty.”
“Plenty of motive, surely?”
“That’s the trouble, Carolus; he had to much.  Emily Purvice never made a Will and her son gets all she had.  He came down specially to see her that day and doubtless to ask for money.  He’s in trouble with the Metropolitan Police over a stolen car and no doubt thinks, as most of them do, that it would be easy with money to get away, to go to Glasgow or Manchester and start afresh.  My opposite number who’s dealing with the case in London says he had Dick Purvice in for two hours the other day and took a statement from him.  He thinks it highly probable that he would come to the old woman for money, then go.  Now can you imagine the man in that position murdering his mother?”
“I can imagine anything,” said Carolus sweepingly.  “But I admit it doesn’t sound very probable.  Too obvious, isn’t it?”
“That’s what we think, though of course we shall pull him in for questioning.”
“You haven’t already done so?”
“No.  We haven’t found him yet.  He doesn’t appear to be in the town.  He probably came down that day and went back to London without sleeping any part of the night anywhere in Newminster.  Though he may have friends here.  We shall get him in a day or two.”
“I’ve no doubt you will.  There are a few questions I’d like to ask you, John.  First about the room in which the bodies were found.  I shall see it tomorrow but of course it will all have been cleaned up now.  What sort of state was it in?”
“I don’t want to make your flesh creep but if you want to know it was the most frightful sight I have ever come across.  Blood literally everywhere.  A slaughterer’s yard.”
“The two did not die instantaneously, then?  I mean, there was more than one blow?”
Jack Slapper did.  He fell right across the other body.  But the old woman seems to have been struck several times.  Possibly the first blow hadn’t the full weight of the weapon behind it because it seems she was standing over in the far corner of the room at the time.  The bloodstains there are evidence of that.  She may have staggered round to the point where she eventually fell.”
“I see.  That’s admirably clear.  Now about Colbeck.  I know the man slightly.  He’s a solemn fellow who likes the sound of his own voice and looks like an Ancient Briton, but do you seriously suspect him?”
“I tell you we don’t seriously suspect anyone yet.  It’s an open field.  But we do know that on the eve of the murder he called on Emily Purvice at about eleven o’clock in the morning and after that he spent his day cashing cheques for small sums.  He could quite easily have gone to the bank and drawn a lot but went to shop-keepers and others and under different pretexts cashed fivers and tenners.  We know of about eighty-five pounds he collected in this way.  His own money, of course.”
“How did you find out about that?”
“My young assistant, Geoff Baker.  He’s mustard on local events.  He was able to tell us at once not only these facts about Colbeck but where he had cashed most of the cheques.  Remarkable.”
“Yes,” said Carolus.  “So you were able to check up with the various shop-keepers?”
“Yes.  We did that.”
“Any evidence about Colbeck on the night of the crime?”
“Not yet.”
“What about young Drew?”
“He’s a dodgy youth.  Been through a Borstal institution, and you know what that means––every trick in the bag.  We’ve seen him, of course, but he knows all the answers.  All he can tell us of Emily Purvice is that she owns the house in which he lives and that she was kind to his mother what he was inside––and he only told us that because he knew we’d heard something of it.  Wet straight home from the dance, he said.  Why didn’t he walk home with his girlfriend?  Because she was with her sister who doesn’t like him.  He can’t be ruled out of reckoning by any means.  That type of young blackguard can be so hardened at nineteen or twenty that he could know a great deal more and not turn a hair under questioning.  I honestly believe that even if he had done it he would be just as cool now.  You’ve got to know these young delinquents, Carolus.  They’re something new in England.  You’ve seen cases in the papers.  They would stop at nothing.  I find it easy to believe that Jimmy Drew, for instance, finding himself trapped in that room room with the woman he had killed, would have murdered Jack Slapper in order to escape.  I don’t say he did, of course.  There’s no evidence that he went near the place.  But that he is capable of the two crimes I haven’t a doubt.”
“I accept your opinion, John.  Even some of my pupils would murder me cheerfully to save themselves an impot if they thought they could get away with it.  Youth will have its fling––with a poisoned spear nowadays.  But as you say, you have to nothing on young Drew yet.”
“We’ve nothing on anybody, as you put it.”
“But on which of your suspects, or possibilities as you rightly prefer to call them, are you concentrating?”
“We’re not.  We’re working with them all in mind.  And you?”
“I, John?  I am of the opinion, the quite provisional opinion, of course . . .”
“Don’t be so guarded.  What opinion?”
“The opinion that the answer will probably be found through some nice old-fashioned bit of evidence.  Meanwhile I’m going to find out all I can, not so much about your suspects as about Emily Purvice herself.  By far the most interesting character in this galère.”
“I wish you luck.  I should think you’ll find it a pretty sickening story.  All you’re likely to discover is another half dozen people with motives for murdering her.”
“I’m not frightened by numbers.”
“I’ve got something for you here,” remembered Moore after he had stood up to leave.  “A set of photographs and a plan of the room in which the bodies were found.”
“Keep them to yourself, of course.  I’ve let you see such things before now but this is a bad case, Carolus, and I haven’t much to say in the investigation.  If you’re going to look round the room you’ll need these, though.”
When Moore had gone Carolus remained in his chair with the concentrated stillness of a Yogi in contemplation.  There was, in fact, something faintly reminiscent of the oriental about him, his slim body and quite thoughtful eyes, his personal fastidiousness and elegance, his almost feline gentleness behind which were the steel claws of a man who could be as remorseless as those he pursued.
He admitted to himself frankly that he is not a notion of the murderer’s identity in this case.  He had not, in fact, any original ideas about it at all.  Robbery in some form, he supposed, but whether successful or not and by whom it could have been committed he did not begin to know.
He wondered whether after all he had been wise to leave his pleasantly remote speculations about the crimes of history to involve himself in this squalid, contemporary piece of violence which the police would investigate adequately in all probability.  It satisfied his longing for action which had remained under the surface ever since his years in the army.  He admitted that in teaching he had no scope for this part of his nature.  He did not very much like his pupils and had none of the sentimental schoolmaster’s almost lachrymose pride in his calling.  He was interested in his subject, not his pupils’ reaction to it.  Provided there were enough of them listening to give him a small audience he was quite content to discourse about the past and only became exasperated when his colleagues took an extremely personal view of their work.
Since his father had died leaving Carolus, his only son, an embarrassingly rich man, he had become a schoolmaster ‘for something to do’.  After his years in the army and the death of his young wife he had not the courage to become a mere playboy.  He did not regret having chosen this profession.  It amused him to know that he remained a lay figure, a creature wholly unpedagogic in a world of hidebound traditions.  The headmaster had hinted more than once that he found Carolus with this powerful motorcar and ridiculously large wardrobe a person altogether anomalous in his school.  “The other masters are inclined to resent it, Deene”, he had complained.  Carolus regretted this and scrupulously fulfilled his duties, frequently accepting small burdens from others.  He did not want to be an amateur in this or in anything else––he detested amateurism in all things.
Though now he admitted, he had entered a field in which his status must always be that of an amateur, however skilled he might become.  At times he wondered whether there were in him the traditional qualities to counterbalance this.  Up to the present he had done nothing to give proof of them.  No brilliant piece of perception had given him the insight of a genius into the puzzle.  He was as baffled as the police.  A woman had been killed and while there were a dozen who may have wished her dead there was no reason yet to suspect anyone.
All he could do was to plod on till light appeared.  He would see the two women who had known Emily Purvice, her sister-in-law and the prison officer.  He would try to discover the truth about Mr. Colbeck, about Jimmy Drew and about the fox-terrier puppy which had disappeared.  He could only go on in the hope that while he made these inquiries something would transpire which was really revealing.
Tomorrow, the house.  He was not satisfied that the only way in was by the shop door.  If this were true it narrowed the field of possibility but made the case less interesting.  He would examine the place very carefully, not in search of clues of the footmark, bloodstain, cigarette ash variety, but in the hope that he might see the crime filmically, imagine––with a dummy figure for the murderer––just how it could have been committed. 
Tomorrow the inquest was to be held and he would not trouble to attend it.  The verdict was a foregone conclusion, wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.  It was most unlikely that the coroner, a local solicitor, would elicit any fact which the police did not already know.
But he would be glad when it was over and the national press could forget for a time the ‘murders in Market Street’ and find more urgent matters in Geneva or Westminster or Pekin.  He was tired of reading about Slapper’s virtues—this very ordinary policeman had become almost a national hero.  Connie as a widow had made an impression; her picture had appeared in many newspapers and one had published her story as that of a brave woman whose husband had been killed in the course of his duties.  It was all rather tiresome to Carolus whose interest in the matter was a more impersonal one.  He did not know Connie Slapper by sight and saw no reason to make her acquaintance.
If, though, some newspaper had shewn an interest in Emily Purvice and her past, that might have been more useful.  What a wealth of lurid press material there might be there.  Sixty years of blackmail––the headlines formed themselves.  But obsessed with the tragic figure of the widowed Connie, the press had forgotten Emily Purvice.