At Death’s Door, Chapter Four

At Death’s Door 


“You certainly start from scratch,” said Priggley that evening as he stretched himself comfortably into one of Deane’s two armchairs.  “No previous experience.  No special knowledge of the case.  No authority to investigate.  If you solve this one you’ll be a genius all right.”
He helped himself to a cigarette from the box on the table and blew out its smoke luxuriously.
“What a particularly odious child you are,” said Carolus.  “I hadn’t noticed that I had in my class anyone so steeped in the bad taste and perversities of the age in which we live.  Why I’ve allowed you to cross the threshold of my study I can’t think.”
“I’m a Provocation, probably.  I’ve started you on this and you may as well let me see it through.  You haven’t offered me a drink yet, by the way.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen.  Why?”
“You can have some lemonade.”
“I’ll settle for that.  I should have preferred a Bourbon straight, as they tell us in the films.  I say, do you really think you can solve this thing?”
“It will be rather terrific you can.  I mean, you’d become one of these enormously publicized private detectives, wouldn’t you?”
“Not if I could help it.”
“What makes you think you can do it?”
“Between you and me, Priggley, I think anyone can.  I just don’t believe in all this mysterious power and vision in certain people who discover the identities of murderers.  Conan Doyle had to make the police half-witted blunderers in order to convince anyone of the existence of Holmes.  In nine crimes out of ten the identity of the murderer is never in doubt for a moment.  In the tenth there may be some delay, but only because the motive isn’t immediately clear.”
“Then why don’t the police get their man every time?”
“I think they do—almost.  But knowing who is guilty and being able to prove it are two different things.”
“So you think it’s easy.  Have you ever tried?”
“Only at a distance, as it were.  I usually do my daily newspaper crimes with the crossword in the morning.”
“But this will be the first time you’ve ever got down to it on the spot?”
“Yes.  Only I may not do too much of that, you know.  I’m not a great believer in tearing about, if it’s just for the sake of it.  Study the masters, my boy.  You never saw Holmes waste time on red herrings.  He jabbed his arm, lit a pipe and thought out the answer.  As easy as that.”
“But he had these superhuman powers you don’t believe in.”
Carolus grinned.
“We’ll see.  I may have to disguise myself and travel to Newcastle.  I may have to follow a mysterious stranger across London.”
Priggley’s eyes were shining as he affected boredom.
“Corn,” he said, “but quite tolerable as corn goes.  Actually detection itself’s a bit corny, don’t you think?  However, let’s get down to the murders in Market Street.  Where do we start?”
“With Emily Purvice,” said Carolus.  “With all we can find out about Emily Purvice.  I’d like her life story if I could get it.”
“So would the News of the World, I imagine.  Unfortunately not even Fleet Street can pay a large enough the to get an autobiography written by a corpse.”
“I said nothing about autobiography.  We’ll have to reconstruct the woman’s story as best we can.”
“Pretty squalid, I should think.”
“But interesting, Priggley.”
“Yes, very likely, in a low sort of way.  How will you begin?”
“The neighbours, I imagine.  I don’t know whether she had any family but tomorrow I shall call on the shops on either side of hers.”
“All right.  I’ll come with you,” promised Rupert Priggley as though he were conferring a large favour.  “After lunch it will have to be, won’t it?  I’ll call for you here at two o’clock.”
“So you can take an interest in things when you like?”
“Oh, I’m not always bored, even with your history class.  But I don’t think that could be anything much more loathsome than what is called ‘a keen youngster’.  I like to choose the things that interest me, not go chasing about indiscriminately, applauding like a mad thing when someone lout hits a boundary or scores a try.  One must keep a sense of proportion.”
“Insufferable little beast.  Take yourself off.  Your parents ought to be waiting for you with a slipper.”
“They’ve gone over to Deauville for the week.  See you in the morning.”
When he was alone Carolus lit a cigarette, poured himself a whisky-and-soda and picked up the newspaper giving the fullest account of the Market Street murders.  He had always known that sooner or later he would have to turn from an examination of the dusty half-forgotten crimes of history to the vivid and horrible murders of today.  He was perfectly aware of the foolhardiness of this for the police were experts with great resources and considerable experience.  But, he argued, he had two things which they had not, the habit of scholarship and freedom of movement.  The first might enable him to sift evidence with more detachment than a hard-working C.I.D. man, anxious to finish with his case and get on to the next.  He had learnt to reject the relevant; not to be seduced by attractive lines of conjecture.  As for freedom, the police were bound by certain laws and had to be prepared for the conduct to be criticized when they were in the witness box.  He was accountable to no one.
If the headmaster, for instance, heard of his activities and disapproved he had an easy remedy which would in no way trouble Carolus.  And provided he kept within the law no one else could have a word to say.
This, too, was an interesting case to start on.  It had already acquired disproportionate public interest because of the violent murder of a policeman.  Carolus had noted the extraordinary fact that the outcry of the public at the death of one of these officials, who were after all paid and trained to take certain risks in the suppression of crime, was far greater than when a law-abiding citizen was murdered at his till.  Already in the town Constable Slapper was mourned while the woman’s death seemed to arouse little indignation or pity.
She had been, he already gathered, a somewhat sinister old party in popular estimation, but was there any real evidence of this?  It would be interesting to see what foundation there was for rumours of her blackmailing and receiving.  As a matter of fact, he thought as he sipped his whisky, it would be interesting, period.
It was almost an hour before a caller whom he was expecting hurried into the room.
“Hullo, John,” Carolus said.  “Nice of you to call.”
“I got your message,” said Detective Sergeant Moore.  “I didn’t think I could get away but we finished earlier than I thought.  What do you want to see me about, Carolus?”
“You’re on the Market Street job?”
“Yes.  I’ve got young Geoff Baker working with me and Detective Inspector Wilks from Portstone’s been sent over to take charge.  Tomorrow we shall probably have to call in the Yard.  It’s a nasty case.”
“I know.  A policeman killed.”
“Yes, poor chap.  Leaves a widow.”
“Does he?  I didn’t know Slapper, but he was quite a young man, wasn’t he?”
“Twenty-eight.  Not very happily married, I always suspected.  Connie Slapper must have been a difficult woman to live with.  You should hear old Sergeant Smith who was on the desk that night describing her.  She rushed into the police station in the small hours screaming that she knew something would happen to Jack.  Looked pretty wild, he said, still wearing her dance frock.  She has calmed down now, though.  She’ll get a pension, I suppose.  It’s not her so much.  But poor old Jack Slapper wasn’t too bright and it’s a dirty business when a policeman in a quiet little town like this gets done to death on duty.”
“In this quiet little town, John, the woman Purvice seems to have carried on some pretty nasty occupations undetected.”
“That’s hitting low.  We knew a good deal about Emily Purvice.  We would have had her in time.”
“For receiving?”
“Among other things.  Why are you so interested?  Dabbling again?”
“My dabbling in the past hasn’t been altogether useless to you, has it?”
“You’ve had a few ideas.  But I don’t think you could help much here.  This is no job for a scholar.  It’s a crude and sordid piece of crime by someone who was not a novice in violence.”
“That’s your view, is it?”
“It’s Wilks’s view.”
“You think it takes practice to commit to murders within an hour of one another?”
“It takes a pretty desperate being.”
“Perhaps.  Or are pretty cold-blooded one.  However, I didn’t ask you round to give you my views because I haven’t got any yet.  I wanted to tell you that this time I’m not going to dabble, as you put it, but wade right in and do a bit of practical investigation on my own.”
“Oh good heavens.  Another private investigator?”
“Whatever you like to call it.  I’m interested, John.  I believe I can follow a line of my own.”
“I was afraid of this.”
The detective was a burly fellow in his late thirties, keen and efficient as Carolus new, no fool and a hard worker.  The two had met a year or two previously, when Moore was investigating some thefts from the school, and had become quite good friends, though Moore was inclined to resent the other’s imaginative gift for letting in light in dark places, a gift which, so far as modern crime was concerned, power and used until now only in conversation with Moore.
“Yes.  I was afraid of this.  You think because you can produce a theory about the Princes in the Tower you can do something about a woman battered to death in a back shop.  It won’t work, Carolus.  Keep out of our way and stick to your speculations about the past.”
“You may be right.  I may have illusions in this.  There’s only one way to find out and that’s to try.  I shan’t get in your way.  You won’t know I’m there.”
“Thanks for that much, anyway.”
“On the other hand, they can be no harm in your telling me the odd facts that only police methods bring to light.”
“I make no promises.  I’ve talked about cases before to you and always been able to trust you.  But if you’re going to butt in this time, it’s different.”
“I’m not.  I shouldn’t need to go over your ground at all because you can tell me things that will save me the trouble.  Have you, for instance, a suspect?”
“Seven,” said Moore bitterly.
“Well, not suspects yet.  Possibilities.  Emily Purvice had a son, a useless oaf who has done a couple of short sentences for taking a minor part in small robberies.  He came down from London on the day before the murder to see the old woman.”
“Mm.  Well in the tradition.  The ne’er-do-well son.  Usually a favourite who falls out of the running towards the end.  The reason why he shouldn’t have done it this time, I suppose.  Who else?”
“These aren’t suspects, Carolus.  Let me emphasize that again.  But they’re in the picture.  There’s the couple who keep the greengrocer’s shop next-door.  Mr. and Mrs. Polling.  Quite decent people.  Owed Purvice rent.  She’d got an Order against them and was quite liable to throw them out.”
“Feeble,” commented Carolus.  “Too often turns up.  Standard characters with artificially inflated motive.  However, I agree that they must go on the list.  Who else?”
“Girls from the pet shop on the other side.  Sold the dog which she ill treated.  They demanded it back and were being held to ransom.”
“That’s a little better.  Murders have been committed for less than that.  Yes?”
“The Vicar of All Saints.  Rev. Stephen Colbeck.  All we know is that he went to the shop rather often and stayed talking to Mrs Purvice.”
“Suitably mysterious.  Any more?”
“A youth called Drew.  Just out of Borstal.  Called on Purvice a few hours before she was murdered, and not to buy stationery.  That’s the lot.”
“And a very nice little lot, too,” said Carolus appreciatively.  “Varied.  Full of possibilities.”
“Not much else to tell you.  No weapon yet.  Fingerprints in the shop but none in the back room except the old woman’s.  Nothing found new the corpses except Slapper’s torch which had fallen out of his hand and a bit of curtain pulled from the window which was badly blood-stained.  Not very helpful.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“The only other thing worth mentioning the dog.  We know she had the fox-terrier puppy which she had bought from the girls next door.  It has disappeared.  It seems to have been kept in the bathroom until quite lately.  Possibly till the night of the murder.  It has gone.  The girls say they know nothing about it.”
“Thanks for all this, John.”
“All I ask is that you keep out of our way.  We’re busy.”
Carolus smiled.
“I’ll do my best,” he said as he shewed Moore out.  “I expect to be quite busy too.”