At Death’s Door
THE SHOP DOOR WAS NOT LOCKED
Between midnight and half-past one it was Police Constable Slapper’s duty to patrol the Market Street area. During the night which followed Emily Purvice’s reception of her five peculiar visitors he duly entered Market Street at about ten minutes to one and began conscientiously trying every shop door handle as he passed, using his torch to the best advantage. An efficient policeman, he carried out this simple duty with religious care every night, as keenly as if Inspector Bassett’s eye were on him all the time.
And who was to be sure, he reflected as he passed Number Eight, who was to be sure that it wasn’t? The inspector’s eye had been known to peer from some extraordinary backgrounds before now. How could Constable Slapper tell that it weren’t there, fierce and red rimmed, behind the lace curtains on the first floor windows opposite?
But it was not only Constable Slapper’s respect for the inspector which made him the conscientious policeman he was. He was naturally a meticulous man. ‘You can set your watch by Slapper’ it was said at the police station. His scrupulous performance of every duty was embarrassing to his fellow constables.
He would soon be home now, he reflected as he tried the door of Number Twelve. He came off duty at two o’clock. Connie his wife would not have been home long for she had been to the dance in the Town Hall tonight. Grand Gala Flannel Dance, the posters said, Syd Sympson and his Swingoliers. Connie loved a dance and had gone with Geoffrey and Lena Baker. He didn’t mind that, though it seemed a bit hard that Geoffrey Baker, who had joined the police force when he had, should have become a Detective Constable and wear plain clothes and be able to go to a dance whenever he liked while he, Jack slapper, was still on his beat. Still, Geoff had been a good friend to him and Connie, one way and another, and Geoff’s wife Lena was a sport.
If he were riled with anyone it was with Connie.
“Pity you’re on duty,” she had said rather petulantly. “You always seem to be when there is a dance.”
“Can’t be helped. Anyway, you know it doesn’t do for me to go to local ones. Anything might happen.”
“I suppose so. But I must have a break sometimes. I shall go with Geoff and Lena. Be back before you ask, I expect.”
“Constable Slapper had heard her say rather often that she must have a break and sometimes wondered what it was a break from. Him? The routine of their life? The difficult circumstances of a policeman’s wife who was never quite trusted by other women? However, he had tried not to doubt her and said he hoped she would have a good time.”
“I expect I shall,” she said. “I wish we lived in London, though.”
Making his way up Market Street now he rather fiercely pulled at the door handles of Numbers Fourteen and Sixteen, then, as he reached Number Eighteen, ‘E. Purvice. Fancy Goods’, he stopped short.
The door was unlocked.
This had happened before in other places but it seemed to Constable Slapper extraordinary that this particular door should have been left open. He knew Emily Purvice and she was surely the last person in the world to omit such an elementary precaution.
He pushed the door and threw the light of his torch on the space within. He could see the ‘fancy goods’, he was aware of the stuffy atmosphere of the place, but no more.
“Mrs. Purvice!” he called.
The silence which answered him was heavy and bleak.
“Anybody at home?” he shouted, trying to sound cheerful and reassuring. Still there was no reply.
If the old woman had gone up to bed and left the door open it would be a miracle, he thought. Perhaps she had gone out. But where? And why? Surely in that case she would have left a light on in the room behind the shop?
Everything around him seemed as it always was. The ‘fancy goods’ were undisturbed. The atmosphere was stale. There was complete and oppressive silence.
“I thought she had a dog,” said Constable Slapper to himself, though he had not read Conan Doyle. “Funny that it should be so quiet.”
He began to move slowly across the shop towards the door at the back. This had glass panels across which a soiled lace curtain hung. There was no light behind it and he could see by his torch that the door was shut.
He wished he knew where the light switch was. He began to look round the walls for one and eventually found it near the place where Mrs. Purvice commonly stood in shop hours. He pushed it down but no light came. He found another by the door and did the same but still remained in darkness except for the beam of his torch.
Now he was really puzzled and a little alarmed. Something, he sensed, was very wrong indeed about Number Eighteen, Market Street. He wondered whether he should get assistance before investigating further but the inspector, he knew, would have no sympathy with such lack of resource and he decided to go on.
Striding across to the door leading into the back room, he thrust this open.
“Mrs. Purvice!” he called loudly. “Are you there, Mrs. Purvice?”
Then he saw any need shout no more. Mrs. Purvice was indeed there, but she would not answer him. However long he bellowed. She lay on the floor in a curiously restful posture on her back. Her face was covered by piece of cloth which later was found to be one of the two soiled curtains from the one small window in the room. The carpet near her head was stained with dark liquid which could not be anything but blood. “Her head lay in a pool of blood” the local newspaper said afterwards. There was a gruesome smell in the room and Constable Slapper was afraid he might vomit.
“Don’t lose your head in an emergency,” the inspector had adjured him more than once. “Whatever you do, Slapper, keep steady when you face something you’ve never dreamed would happen.”
Certainly he knew in theory a great deal about murder, indeed he had sometimes almost hoped that he might be concerned in the investigation of one with its rewarding publicity. But he had never dreamed that he would come on an elderly shopkeeper with a head ‘in a pool of blood’ in the room behind her own place of business. It was clearly one of those unprecedented situations in which he must keep steady and remember his training.
The first thing to do was the hardest, to make a brief examination of the corpse—the cadaver as it was called. To remove the cloth from its face, in fact. So stepping forward unwillingly, Constable Slapper bent down and gently pulled the piece of curtain aside, and shone his torch full on that gruesome mass of splintered bone and exposed tissue in which the brain of Emily Purvice must be mixed.
It was at this moment that Constable Slapper became aware that there was someone else in the room, someone living. He had not time to think how he knew, whether by sound or site or smell or instinct. Stooping there he was suddenly aware of it.
But it was the last thing of which he was aware, the last thing that ever entered his consciousness. Before he had time to turn or rise, a blow of irresistible weight struck the back of his head and he fell forward.
“Death,” said the medical report, “must have been almost instantaneous.”
Constable Slapper lay across Emily Purvice and neither moved again.
But he, at least, was missed. At twenty past three in the morning a nearly hysterical Connie Slapper hurried into the police station and asked the sleepy sergeant on night duty where her husband was.
“He hasn’t come in from his rounds yet,” said the sergeant sulkily. He did not like being disturbed.
“But he must have! It’s past three.”
This seemed to make the sergeant think in a slow, unwilling way.
“Yes. He is late,” he admitted. “Funny for him. Always on the dot.”
“Something must have happened to him.”
“Now, Mrs. Slapper, I’m surprised at you. A policeman’s wife getting so upset for nothing. What do you think could’ve happened to Jack in Newminster?”
“It has. I know it has. I . . . I’ve got instincts in these things. I never make a mistake.”
The sergeant chuckled.
“The gypsy has been warning you, Mrs. Slapper? We shall probably find he’s got a nice little case of shop-breaking to his credit. These young boys nowadays start thieving when they’re no more than twelve. Still, I’ll send Constable Waymark round your husband’s beat to see if he can see anything of him. You’d better sit down for a bit.”
Connie did as she was told. Silly woman, thought the sergeant. He had heard rumours about her which wee not always to her credit. Her reputation had not been too good when Jack Slapper married her. Excitable sort, he supposed. Fancy thinking that something happened to Slapper because he was an hour later in coming off his beat!
However, the sergeant could not very well have refused to send young Waymark down. They would probably come back together.
Then just as he was going to settle down to his Evening News, Connie Slapper began to cry and if there were one thing the sergeant couldn’t stand it was the sight of a woman crying.
“Come along now, Mrs. Slapper,” he said awkwardly. “There’s no need for that. Jack’ll be in in a moment.”
“He won’t!” cried Connie.
She was a handsome full-blooded woman, heavy and rather thick-featured. The sergeant had always thought her attractive but tonight he wondered whether she hadn’t been having a drink or two. She was still wearing her dance frock, he noticed. “He won’t!” she repeated. “Never again. You’ll see. I knew it would happen. But I never thought . . . I oughtn’t to have let him go.”
“Whatever do you mean? He had to come on duty, hadn’t he?” asked the sergeant.
“Yes. Yes. But not tonight. I see things, I tell you. Why doesn’t Mr. Waymark come back?”
“He’s got to go right down to the bottom of Market Street. It’ll take him some time. Very likely Jack will be back before he is.”
“I’m to blame,” said Connie Slapper hysterically and then repeated it. “I’m to blame. I’m to blame.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the sergeant and thought to himself that no wonder poor Jack Slapper looked a bit off colour sometimes. He knew now what he had to put up with.
Then Constable Wayark returned both looked at his face. Connie gave a cry and began sobbing again and the sergeant for the first time felt alarm. For Waymark, a cool young fellow, looked very shaken indeed.
“Can I speak to you a minute, Sergeant?” he said.
The two men went into another room.
“What the hell’s the matter?” whispered the sergeant.
“Bloody terrible thing. Old Mrs. Purvice, you know, fancy goods shop in Market Street, has been murdered. Battered to death. Horrible sight. Jack must have gone in while the murderer was still there. He’s done him, too.”
“Stone dead. Both of them. I made sure of that. Then I locked the place up and came back here.”
“Good God in heaven,” moaned the sergeant. He seemed unable to say any more.
“Someone’s got to tell her,” said Constable Waymark.
“Oh my God,” said the sergeant.
“What about the C.I.D.?”
“Yes. You can tell her. I’ll ’phone Detective Sergeant Moore.”
“Me tell her?”
“Yes. You found him,” said the sergeant illogically. “I must get the C.I.D. onto this at once. Old Mrs. Purvice. I’ve heard some funny things about her.”
“There’s nothing very funny about this,” said Constable Waymark sharply. “You should have seen her. All right. I’ll tell Jack Slapper’s wife.”
He returned to Connie Slapper but was relieved to find that the worst of his task was done for him. She was staring at him with wide, horror-struck eyes.
“Is he dead?” she said in a harsh whisper.
“I knew it.”
She sounded desolate rather than surprised.
“I see things, you know. I always have done. When he didn’t come home tonight I knew it.”
“He was killed investigating a murder,” said Waymark, trying to sound comforting.”
“I don’t care how he was killed. He’s dead. I should never have let him go tonight. He said he had a cold. I could have . . .”
“Now, Mrs. Slapper, don’t make things worse for yourself. The squad car will be here in a minute and will run you home.”
“No,” she said. “Not alone. It must take me somewhere else. My sister’s home.”
“All right, said Waymark. “Now try to take it easy. There’s a drop of brandy here.”
The sergeant returned to the room. He had pulled himself together now and spoke to Waymark with authority and importance.
“I’ve spoken to the inspector,” he said, “and he’s coming straight down. Very upset he sounded. Told me to get on to Detective Sergeant Moore at once. He’s coming down, too. You say you locked the premises?”
“Yes. The key was in the lock.”
“Funny,” said the sergeant inappropriately. “You’d thought anyone would’ve locked them up, wouldn’t you? Here’s the squad car.”
“Mrs. Slapper wants to go to her sister’s,” said Waymark.
“Very well. I’ll tell them. Come along, Mrs. Slapper.”
Looking dazed and tearful Connie Slapper followed him to the entrance of the police station.