At Death’s Door, Chapter Six

At Death’s Door 


“Phew,” said Rupert when they were outside.  “I told you the shopkeepers would be a waste of time.”
“On the contrary, Mrs. Polling gave me two facts that may be of the highest important and are certainly of great interest.”
“Oh don’t be such a drear, sir.  I’m not going to start guessing which facts, if that’s what you expect.  I know that drill inside out.  It’ll turn out to be something about her sciatica or one of the things she said to Mr. Polling, she said.”
Carolus smiled.
“You needn’t guess,” he said.
“I don’t want to know.  I prefer a little mystery.  I’m your right hand and I’m not supposed to know what your left hand’s doing.  You’re expected to be working out something that’ll send me for a Burton when I hear it.”
“I’m working out nothing yet.  But I have got two facts.  Now for the pet store.”
“And I can just imagine what that’ll be like.  Couple of Lizzies in overalls and the smell of cats.  You know perfectly well you’ll get nothing out of them.  They’re only on the suspect list as a matter of form.”
“Perhaps,” admitted Carolus.  “But don’t be too sure.  One of these days one of them purely ornamental suspects in a case will turn out to have done it, and that’ll upset that apple-cart.  Anyway, here we are.”
A bell over the door announced their entry as they walked into the pungent smell of the shop—grain and dog biscuits, rabbits and horsemeat, dogs and dried peas in a stuffy amalgam.  A husky woman’s voice called “All right, Jane, I’ll go!” and there was a clatter of heavy boots on uncarpeted stairs.  In a few moments Marcia Bailey was with them.
“Hullo!” she said breezily.  “Sorry if I kept you waiting.”
“My name is Deene,” said Carolus.
“Oh, no !” shouted Marcia.  “Not Carolus Deene!”  Carolus nodded.  “Jane!” yelled Marcia Bailey.  “Well, I’m damned, I knew you were somewhere in the town.  Jane’s a terrific fan of your history book.  Just heard tea.  I’ve never read a word of it––I’m practically illiterate anyhow, but I’ve heard your name till I’m sick of it.  Jane!  She’ll be thrilled.  What have you come in for?”
“Goldfish,” put in Rupert.  “We thought if you had some nice fat slow-swimming goldfish . . .”
“Shut up, Rupert.  I didn’t come in for anything precisely . . . I thought . . .”
“He was wondering if you had a spare dromedary or a brace of ostriches––he just wasn’t certain what he wanted till he’d seen a sample.”
Marcia who, like most of her kind, had no nonsense about, looked rather doubtfully from one to the other.
“I must apologise for this,” said Carolus, nodding towards Rupert.
Just then Jane, a pale and pretty girl, came more quietly down the wooden stairs and smiled on them.
“Jane, this is your favourite author!” yelled Marcia.  Mr. Deene, this is your keenest fan.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Jane Limbrick cautiously.  “I certainly enjoyed Who Killed William Rufus?
She had an oddly penetrating voice and enunciation, though she spoke quietly.  “An elocution lesson in every sentence,” said Rupert afterwards, not very kindly.
“Good,” was the short reply of Carolus.  “Perhaps you can help me then.  I’m looking into the murders next door.”
“Be quiet, Rebeccah!” said Marcia to a noisy parakeet in a cage behind her.  Her face was hidden for a moment but Carolus saw that Jane’s expression became set and resolute.  “She always starts making a noise when she hears human voices.  I’m so sorry.  You were saying?”
“I hoped you would help me with a little information,” repeated Carolus gently.
“Glad to, if we knew anything.  We had to tell the police this morning we haven’t heard a thing.  Sleep like tops, both of us.”
Already there was an uncomfortable tensity under the metallically sharp chatter of Marcia.  It had been perceptible from the first and had increased in the last few moments.  It differed from the atmosphere at the Pollings’.  That was the discomfort of two bewildered people who did not know what to say.  Here the tension had been, as it were, forseen.  These two had decided, perhaps even rehearsed, then behaviour when questioned.  They would not, like the Pollings, lying badly.  They were acting and lying well.
Carolus seemed to know that this defence would not be easy to break down.  He remained very cool in the somewhat flustered scene which followed.
“I wanted to ask you, he said steadily, watching them both, “about a dog which Mrs. Purvice had.”
“A dog ?” said Marcia.
“Yes.  A fox-terrier puppy.  I understand she bought it from you.”
Oh, that,” said Marcia, and stopped.
“Perhaps you would rather not say anything?”
“Well actually we’re a little sick of the subject.  I mean, the police went on and on about it and I’ve told them all we know.  We sold her the wretched puppy a month back.  That’s the last we know of it.”
“Oh I see.  I understood that you had to complain of the way she treated it?”
“Complain?  Gracias no.  No business of ours.  We sold the dog and there the transaction ended.  We can’t keep track of every animal we sell.”
“No.  But this one was next door.  If it had been ill-treated you couldn’t help hearing it.  You wouldn’t like that, surely?”
“We should not like to know of any animal being ill-treated anywhere,” put in Jane in her thin precise voice.
“But this one was a favourite of yours, I understand.”
You’ve done quite a bit of understanding, Mr. Deene.  If the dog had been a favourite of ours then we shouldn’t have sold it and that’s that.”
“But if you had thought that it would be well looked after and then found it wasn’t, you’d have been very upset, wouldn’t you?  You might have tried to buy it back.”
“Damn it, the police had some idea like that too.  All baloney, I’m afraid.  We sold Mrs. Purvice a puppy some time ago.  I can give you the exact date if you like.  But that’s all.  There aint no more.”
“Perhaps you can tell me where the dog is now?”
“Oh keep quiet, Ponsonby.”  She addressed a Siamese cat whose steady rather hoarse mewing had gone on since they entered.  “No.  Haven’t a clue, I’m afraid.”
“When did you hear it last?”
“When did we, Jane?  Must be a week ago at least.”
“Yes it was in the house on the morning before Mrs. Purvice was murdered.”
“Was it?  I’m surprised.  We never heard it.”
“Don’t you want to know what’s happened to it?”
“Not particularly.  It wasn’t ours any more, you see.”
“I’m awfully sorry, Miss Bailey, but I’m afraid I don’t see.  Are you so completely indifferent to an animal which you have bred that when its new owner is battered to death you don’t even want to know whether it survived?”
“I’m sure she sent it away a week ago.”
“And I tell you it was there on the eve of the murder.”
“We seemed to have reached rather an impasse, don’t we?” said Marcia whose face was noticeably flushed.
“I haven’t,” said Carolus quietly.  “I’m only just beginning.  I’m going to find out what has happened to that dog, however long it takes me.”
“Good luck to you.  But it’s no good asking us.  We’re a couple of working girls with a job to do.”
“I’m awfully sorry we can’t help you, Mr. Deene,” put in Jane less belligerently.  “We really know nothing more.”
“Would you mind telling me, at least, when you last saw Mrs. Purvice?” persisted Carolus.
“Not counting her removal feet first, when she was of course decently covered, I should say it was about five days back.  She never put her nose outside the door, you know, and we had no reason to enter the shop.”
“Are you quite sure of that?”
“I’m always sure of my facts,” said Marcia tartly.
“Then someone’s lying.”
There was another interruption at this point, but now a fortuitous one.  A heavy scratching was heard on the door.
“It’s Margarita,” explained Marcia, admitting a Great Dane.  “She hates being alone.”
“I was saying that someone must be lying because I was told quite definitely that you went into her shop, Miss Bailey, on the morning before she was murdered.”
“Are you sure you didn’t run in for some notepaper or something, Marty?” put in Jane quickly.
Marcia took her cue.
“Oh my gosh.  Yes, of course I did!  I’d completely forgotten.  Some of that awful notepaper we use for writing home.  So I did!”
“Did you mention the dog then?” asked Carolus.
“Not that I can remember.  No.  I was only there for a minute.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus.
The tension eased a little then.  Marcia and Jane looked at one another steadily and without smiling as though in silent mutual congratuation.
“Is there anything else about Mrs. Purvice you can tell me?” asked Carolus.
“I don’t think there is,” said Marcia.  Suddenly she smiled as she recalled something.  “Unless . . .” she began.
Jane smiled too.
“Bugs!” said Jane.  They both began to laugh.
“Bugs Fitchley!” said Marcia.  It was clearly an excellent joke.  Carolus waited.
“I don’t know whether this will be any use to you,” said Marcia, trying to be serious.  “It gave us a laugh.  About a month ago it was.  The most incredible female.”
“We asked her her name and she said—‘Bugs Fitchley’ without turning a hair,” observed Jane, quite as amused as Marcia.
“She must have stood six foot in her stockinged feet!” yelled Marcia.
“Which were enormous!” added Jane.
“She came in here about a kitten she had seen in the window.  She wanted to take it back to the digs with her!  She stayed and had a cup of tea with us.”
“We were fascinated,” admitted Jane.  “You’ve never seen such a war-horse of a woman.  While she was here it came out—she’d come down by train to see Emily Purvice.”
“They had business together, she said.  We knew that Purvice had business with some pretty odd types but we never expected to meet one like Bugs Fitchley.  Can you guess what she did for a living?”
Not a policewoman?” pleaded Rupert.  “I’m so tired of comic policewomen.”
“You’re getting warm,” said Marcia.  “It was better than that in a way.  We didn’t know what she meant at first.  ‘I’m a screw at a women’s prison,’ she said.  ‘That’s what they always call us.  A prison officer, I mean.’ 
Jane laughed reminiscently but with refinement.
“Exactly the right job, wasn’t it?  A square peg in a square hole.  She loved it,” she said. 
“That’s very interesting,” said Carolus.  “Thank you so much for remembering it.  I suppose I could get in touch with this lady if I wanted?”
“Officer B. Fitchley.  Her name was Bertha, I believe.  No one called her anything but Bugs, she said.  The Staff Quarters of her prison would do.”
“Thanks again.  I only wish you felt like telling me so much about . . . well, about the dog.”
This brought the tension back.
“That dog again,” said Marcia.  “You’ve got an obsession with it.”
“Think so?  I’m afraid the police will probably come back for more of it, too.”
“Surely no one’s trying to tie us up with this wretched murder, are they?”
“You see, you are tied up with it in a way.  Living next door, I mean.  Unfortunate, but there you are.”
“Perhaps you think one of us banged those two on the head?” asked Marcia, unable to control herself.
“Or both of us?” put in Jane more sweetly.
“I think it would be better if I did not say what I think.”
Oh, go on!” said Marcia, loudly and bitterly.  “Don’t be coy.  Come right out with it.”
“I certainly don’t think you have been very frank with me.  Or with the police, for that matter.  You may have your reasons and I’m not going to ask any more.  I’d only say that in a place like this it doesn’t pay to be too evasive.”
“What exactly do you want to know?” flashed Marcia.
“A number of things.  Where you both were on the night of the murder is the stock question and frankly I’d like to put it.  When you last saw Mrs. Purvice and when you last heard or saw the dog you sold.  Where that dog is now.  What you heard or saw that night which has scared you both . . .”
“Scared?  Did you say scared? I’ve never been less scared in my life.  But don’t let’s go on with this.  It’s silly.  We’ve told you all we know.  You run along and detect.  I’ve got the pigeons to feed.”
“One last thing, then,” said Carolus.  “Are there any left of the litter from which Emily Purvice’s dog came?  If so, may I see them?”
The girls exchanged the swiftest of glances.
“Yes.  You can see them.  We’ve got two left.  There were five in the litter.  We sold one to Purvice and two others.  Bring them in, Jane.”
Carolus examined the half-grown fox terriers with care.
“They have the most distinctive markings, haven’t they?” he asked. 
“Most distinctive.  Anything else?”
“Nothing, thanks.”
“Outside, Rupert Priggley breathed in the fresh air of the street.
“Another five minutes of that,” he said, “and I should have had it.  What a pong.  Just what I told you.  What do you think of them?”
“They lied.  They lied with some talent, though,” said Carolus.
“You think they did the job?  You’d never convince anyone else of it, I’m sure.  Nice young ladies, the jury would say.  Personally, I think that women capable of living in that smell are capable of anything.  I should have thought you would want a cup of tea and perhaps some strawberries and cream if they’ve got any, at a café like this one?  To get over it I mean.  There’s three quarters of an hour before afternoon school.”
“Revolting thought,” said Carolus entering the cafe.  “Feed it,” he told the waitress, pointing to Rupert. 
Do you think they did it?”
“No.  Not yet.  But I think you’re wrong about a jury.  It would be just like life for those girls to be hiding not only some silly business over the dog, but the crime itself.  Marcia’s quite capable of it––physically, I mean.”
“If I had to choose,” said Rupert, shovelling in strawberries, “I’d say the little feminine one, Jane.  But you should know.”
“I know nothing.”
“No facts from that interview, then?”
“No facts, perhaps.  But some very interesting inferences.”
“You do talk like a detective.”
“Quite frankly, I feel rather like one today.”
“And the best is yet to be.  You’ve got to see my boy Baker’s papa.  He’ll tell you a few things about Mrs. Purvice.”