Death of Cold
And now, he thought, there was only Old Hammond to question and Violette Bonner to trace before he could feel that his investigations on the spot were complete. But in that he was mistaken. There was a wholly unexpected interview thrust on him next morning when he arrived at the pier gates.
A little skinny woman was standing with a pimply boy of thirteen. Her face was yellowish and thin, but set in lines of determination: a fierce and resolute person, Carolus judged. The boy was sulky.
“Excuse me,” said the woman when Carolus approached. “Are you the one who’s trying to find out about Mr. Wirral?”
“He’s got something to tell you, then,” said the woman, grabbing at her son’s arm. “Haven’t you, Len? I took him to the police, and they wouldn’t hardly listen to him. But it ought to be known what he seen, so when I heard there was someone trying to find out about it, I told him he’d got to tell you.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus.
“He came home and told me straight away, before ever we knew what had happened to Mr. Wirral, but of course I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Well, you don’t, do you? When I heard about him disappearing and then his body being washed up, I thought to myself, I wonder whether what young Len seen was something to do with it. I mean, there’s so much crime in the papers, you never know.”
“Indeed you don’t.”
“It was Mrs. Rowlands told me about you trying to find out about it. Oh, keep still, Len, and wait a minute. I go to the same church as what she does and see her at the meetings. She told me what you were doing, so I said to myself, I’d better take young Len down and tell him.”
“In case it’s got anything to do with it, I mean. Of course, we’re not to know, are we? Only he came straight home and told me, so I know he’s not making it up or anything. Oh, don’t keep fidgeting, Len; can’t you hold still a minute while I’m speaking? He doesn’t often tell me a lie, though the way the children run about now you’d never be surprised what they’d tell you.”
“Er . . . that afternoon?”
“He’d gone off without saying a word. Well, you know what they are. I thought he was up to something when I see him running off down the street. Will you put that down and keep your hands to yourself? He’s always on his own—I’ve never seen such a boy; you don’t see him playing the other children. Oh well, I said to myself, he’ll come back when he’s hungry, like they always do, and I got on with my washing. Where he got the tuppence I don’t know but he was on the pier before you could save knife, sky-larking round with the machines. Then where did you go? ” she suddenly addressed the small boy.
There was no reply.
“There! Now he’s lost his voice! You tell the man where you went, else I’ll give you what for when I get you home. He knows well enough; he’s told me a dozen times. It’s just he’s got a fit of the sillies. You won’t look at the television tonight if you don’t do what you’re told! He won’t like that. He’s a one for the television. Doesn’t matter where it is. He sits there with his eyes glued. His father’s just as bad. Now are you going to tell the man where you went? ”
“Down the stairs,” mumbled Len, succumbing to this threat.
“That’s the steps under the pier down to where they go on board the ships from. He went down there larking about, I suppose, where he’d got no business to be, and might have fallen into the sea and drowned. Goodness knows how long he was down there for all what he was up to. I don’t know what his father would have said if he had known, because he’s very particular where they get to. Then what? ”
Len seemed not to hear.
“Did you ever see such a silly?” the woman asked Carolus. “It’s always the same with him. He was just as bad with his auntie yesterday. Couldn’t get a word out of him. I shall send the television back to the shop; that’s what I shall do, if you can’t speak when you’re spoken to. Come on. We haven’t got all day. Then what did you see? ”
“The lady,” said Len, looking at his boots.
“He saw a lady coming down the steps,” said his mother. “I asked him what kind of a lady, and he said she had a light-coloured dress on like my green, which is a coat and skirt, so I suppose he meant a coat and skirt. As far as I can make out, she was a biggish person with gingery hair, or so he says. I asked him if he’d ever seen her before, and he says no, so I don’t suppose she came from here because he’s very quick at knowing anyone. Take your fingers out of your mouth and stop waggling yourself about. Anybody would think you was a tadpole. Now go and tell the man what else you seen.”
This time Len answered almost at once, though not at any great length.
“Mr. Wirral,” he said.
“There you are! What did I tell you? He saw Mr. Wirral coming down the steps too. He knew who it was because he used to read the lessons at St. Winifred’s and we always go to the Eleven O’Clock. He’s very quick at knowing anyone. As soon as he told me, I thought to myself, it can’t have been Mr. Wirral meeting anyone down under the pier, and I asked him half a dozen times to make sure, but he wouldn’t change. Are you sure it was Mr. Wirral? I asked him, because you don’t want to say anything like that about anyone if you’re not sure. But nothing would alter him. Well, go on. Tell the man the rest of it.”
“They was talking,” said Len.
“He didn’t hear what they said, though. Well, I should hope he knew better than to listen. But he says they was standing there talking for a long time. Stop scratching. People will think you’ve caught something. Of course, they didn’t know Len was there. I suppose he was climbing up somewhere like a monkey, instead of behaving how he’s been brought up. What happened next? ”
“He saw me,” mumbled Len sulkily.
“Mr. Wirral caught sight of him, I suppose, and told him to get down. Well, you can’t wonder, can you? He was cross with Len because he thought he’d been listening. Soon as ever he told me I said to myself, They didn’t want anyone overhearing what they had to say. Haven’t you got a handkerchief? Whatever it was they’d gone down there to talk about was private, I thought. Then what did he say? ”
“Told me I ought to be upstairs.”
“So he ought to have been. He’d no business poking round down there under the pier. He came up and ran home to tell me about it, only I was out at the time, and it wasn’t till late but I heard. I thought to myself . . .”
“What time did all this happen?” asked Carolus desperately.
“What time was it? ” echoed the boy’s mother.
“Don’t know,” said Len.
“He never knows what time it is from one minute to another. Comes home any time and says he didn’t know.”
“But about what time?”
“Well, it was past half-past three when he ran out of the house, and I didn’t get home till eight, and he’d been waiting. Don’t you know what time it was? ”
“Was it beginning to get dark?” asked Carolus.
“I don’t know.”
“Were They open? You must have seen that! ”
“This is really rather important,” Carolus pointed out. “If he could just give me some idea.”
Len scratched his ankle with the toe of his boot.
“I told you he never knew the time. His father is just as bad, except he knows when they open. Did you see anyone? ”
“Did you go straight home?” asked Carolus.
“Were the shops still open?”
“Don’t know was made to know. It’s a pity I wasn’t at home, otherwise I could have told you, only I had some shopping to do, then I was round at Mrs Wilkinson’s. Oh well. There you are. We can’t know everything. But I thought he ought to tell you what he saw.”
“Yes. I’m most grateful.”
“It may have nothing to do with it, but we can’t help that, can we? He’s not a boy to make anything up.” Perceiving that they were entering the attractive realms of repetition, Carolus began to page towards the tollgate. “I thought to myself, If the police don’t want to hear, there must be those that do. So I told him he’d got to tell you what he’d seen . . .”
“Yes, yes. Thank you. I must . . .”
“It’s not as though he’d say what he hadn’t seen. He might not notice what time it was, but . . .”
“Thank you. Good morning.”
Carolus was through the turnstile and smiled back. The woman and her son stepped forward for last reassurances.
“I thought to myself . . .”
With a friendly wave of the hand, Carolus began to march boldly on. From a safe distance he turned and saw the mother dragging her son regretfully away.
He had been forced to leave the kiosk in which Old Hammond was standing, so he decided now to clear up the small point about Wirral’s telephone call.
At the Pier Theatre box-office a rather surly elderly man said yes, he had been on duty on the afternoon in question, but no, he had not been asked by Mr. Wirral for permission to telephone. Doubtless Mr. Wirral would have known that such a request would be useless, as he did not allow anyone to use his telephone at any time. Mr. Wirral might be Mayor, he added, but it would not have entitled him to use a telephone which was installed for purposes connected with the theatre. Mr. Wirral had known better than to ask him any time for such a permission. Mr. Slicker could do as he pleased with the telephone in his office—that was Mr. Slicker’s own business—but he, the box-office manager, had his rules, and would not depart from them for anyone.
Mr. Slicker was less emphatic, but also sure that Mr. Wirral had not approached him that evening.
“I remember it perfectly well, old boy, because I had the father of all hangovers. I never left my office till after the evening show began. I popped into the bar when it opened and had a snifter, then signed some letters that had been waiting on my desk. While I was out of here if office was locked, and I should certainly know if old Wirral had come here and asked to ’phone. I don’t think he would have, anyway. Relations were not cordial, as you know.”
So now, thought Carolus, he had carried the mystery as far as at present it would go. The last known of the late Mayor was his leaving Glad in the bar at about half-past six with the promise that he would be back for his champagne in a few minutes, after he had found out details about Greta and her baby. That was the end; beyond that only speculation until the finding of the body. Unless—there was still the faint hope—unless Old Hammond could tell him any more.