Death of Cold
“Ah, Deene!” boomed the headmaster across the quadrangle. “A good holiday, I trust.”
Carolus viewed the tall man with his great twin flaps of red ears and protuberant eyes.
“Yes, thanks, headmaster. Have you?”
“Splendid!” shouted Mr. Gorringer. “Splendid!”
“Where did you go?”
“Ostend. And Bruges,” said the headmaster. “Do it every year. Same hotel. They know me.” I bet they do, thought Carolus. “And where have you been exploring? Farther afield, I make no doubt?”
“No,” said Carolus. “I’ve been down to Oldhaven.”
This brought a serious expression to Mr. Gorringer’s face.
“Really? Oldhaven? I shouldn’t have thought that was your sort of place, Deene. We expect the fashionable from you, you know. You’re our arbiter of elegance. Oldhaven? All the time?”
“Most of it. Yes.”
Mr. Gorringer eyed him searchingly. It was clear that he suspected Carolus of some dark activity in connection with crime. He knew only too well the secret passion of his Senior History Master and had not get forgiven him for identifying the murderer of a local shopkeeper as the elder brother of one of his pupils.
“Anything special happening at Oldhaven?” he asked now, with a ponderous attempt to sound airy.
“Shaw season at the pavilion,” said Carolus quickly.
“Ah!” replied Mr. Gorringer. “Well, I expect we’ve all worked out our schedules for the term? I want you to take a special interest in the Senior Fifth, if you will. A difficult class, that.” He saw the music master approaching. “Ah, Tubley!” he bellowed, and with a quick nod to Carolus moved away.
A difficult class? Carolus supposed it was. Certainly Rupert Priggley, its bell-wether, might be called a difficult boy with his detestable precocity and man-to-man way of addressing the staff. But Carolus found the Senior Fifth intelligent and easily interested and was willing to forgive them their diabolic skill in diverting him from history to contemporary crime. This had been particularly noticeable when he was investigating a local murder—it would scarcely apply to the death by drowning of the Mayor of Oldhaven. As the headmaster had said, it was not the summer resort to which he might be expected to go. So Carolus prepared to discuss Bismarck and Wilhelm II that first day of term without much fear of interruption.
There were of course, the usual greetings.
“Have a good holiday, sir?” asked Simmons, a bespectacled boy often deputed by the rest of the class to introduce distractions.
“Yes, thanks. Now I want to give you some idea of the state of Europe in the 1870s. If you will look at the map. . . .”
“ ‘Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years’ or at least for this period,” said Rupert Priggley. “Come on, sir. Don’t be coy. Who killed the Mayor of Oldhaven?”
“What on earth are you talking about?” asked Carolus feebly.
“Must we go through all this? Perhaps you didn’t know that a boarder called Thompson is Slicker’s brother-in-law? It’s no good, sir. We’ve got the whole gen. Who done it?”
“I don’t know why you should jump to the conclusion that Mr. Wirral was murdered. There are several other possibilities.”
“In theory, yes. But you wouldn’t have wasted your time down there if you hadn’t been jolly sure someone had bumped the old boy off.”
“Just at present, Priggley, I am more interested in Bismarck than in the late Mayor of Oldhaven. . . .”
“You can’t do that on us, sir. First day of term. We’ll read up on Bismarck before next period. That’s a promise. Give us the line-up.”
“It’s quite an interesting case,” admitted Carolus. “And I think that—yes, it may be roughly assumed that a murder was committed. But the police don’t think so.”
“Who are your suspects?”
“I haven’t got any, in the ordinary sense of the word. How can I have, when I don’t even know how or where or when Wirral died? Ht disappeared.”
“But that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it, sir?”
“Well, in a way, yes. I’ve always had a fancy for one of these disappearances. They’ve been done often enough. A man kisses his wife good-bye on the doorstep, and between there and the bus-stop at the corner vanishes into thin air. A man leaves his office for an appointment ten minutes later and never reaches it. A woman is in the foyer of a theatre at one moment and is never seen again. There is some pleasant speculation suggested by these. In this case Wirral, who had been fishing from the pier and had left his line in the water, told the barmaid in the pier’s bar to put a bottle of champagne on the ice while he went to find out about his daughter and newly-born grandchild, then did not return. From the time he walked through the swing door of the bar no one—at least no one I can discover—saw him alive again.”
“Corny,” commented Rupert Priggley. “Corny, but provocative. Go on, sir.”
“Somehow or other, without suffering any violence which left a mark on him, without getting any traceable dope into his innards, he entered, or was persuaded to enter, or was pushed or dropped or lured into the sea and was drowned. His death was by drowning—that seems certain.”
“Quite a teaser, isn’t it? If you won’t admit to suspects, who is connected with the case? Who had a motive? Who was on the pier at the time?”
“There’s quite a bunch of those,” said Carolus, smiling. “You can take your pick. But for heaven’s sake don’t start a sweepstake, as you did last time.”
“It would come to the headmaster’s ears,” said Priggley. “All right, sir. But tell us who they are.”
“There was an old character called Grool, but he had left the pier, so my information goes, half an hour earlier. His motive would seem quite incredible—he was jealous of the Mayor’s angling. But if you can imagine an angler murderously jealous, here you had one. There was a pier-attendant called John Rowlands, a militant atheist, whose only quarrel with Wirral was that he read the lessons in a local church and was weightily gallant with Rowlands’s daughter. This daughter, Gladys, was the barmaid who was the last known person to see Wirral alive. There was Alec Slicker, the pier manager, in whose books were some defalcations. Apparently at that time Wirral was the only person to know of these.”
“Where was this Slicker at the time?” asked Simmons.
“So far as I know, in his office. Next there was the man’s son, Paul Wirral, was on the pier apparently for the purpose of watching his wife, who was taking a swim with a young man named Bridger. He had been Wirral’s chauffeur and was sacked for being too friendly with Lily Wirral. Paul denied to me having been on the pier, but he was seen clearly by one witness and indistinctly by another. He inherits half the residue of the estate.”
“You said he was watching his wife and the chauffeur swimming. Do you mean near the pier?”
“But surely . . .”
“Make them your chief suspects if you like. Both had motives. But at present it looks little too easy to me. The girl pretends to be drowning, the Mayor goes to save her, the chauffeur appears from under the pier and they drag the old boy down. But would he have jumped into the sea in a raincoat? Hs raincoat has never been found. And it was still quite light, remember. The little scene would have had some witnesses, however bad the season at Oldhaven. If that’s the way it happened, it was not then or in those circumstances.”
“No. I see that. This is getting tantalizing. Who else?”
“Well, Wirral’s housekeeper, a Mrs. Thump, came on the pier that afternoon for news on the addition to the family, since she was very fond of the Mayor’s daughter, Greta Fyrth. She cannot remember what time she left or even if she had had the news when she did so. She’s a horse-racing addict who is frequently in debt and inherits quite a large sum under the Mayor‘s Will. Then on the pier at the time was a bookseller called Tiplock, who had lately done six months in Brixton Gaol for dealing in pornography and blamed Wirral for his conviction. Finally there was a woman called Violet Boner, whom I haven’t yet met, who talked with Wirral on the landing-stage below the pier that afternoon. No one noticed her leave the pier, which is not significant, perhaps, but she did not reach her hotel till seven o’clock, and then in a taxi. Also round about that afternoon or evening were a few more. Dr. Fyrth, Greta’s husband, came and told the gateman to catch the Mayor as he went off and give him the news. The gateman himself, Old Hammond, did not as far as I know leave his kiosk. A fortune-teller—Mrs. Hammock, the local Original Gypsy Lee—told the Mayor’s fortune that afternoon. A small boy saw him talking with Violette Bonner on the landing stage. And his daughter’s ex-governess, who took the daily walk on the pier between three and four, leaving it punctually that day as usual, claims to be the last person to have seen Wirral alive. That’s the lot.”
“And a very nice little lot, too, if I may say so, sir. The only thing is, which one of them could possibly have committed a murder? None of them sounds in the least bloodthirsty.”
“I don’t think murderers are, usually. Driven to despair, in terrible need of money, passionately in love, victims rather than deliberate assassins, most of them. But I agree with you. I find it hard to connect murder with any of the people I have named. Of course it can can be argued that since we don’t even know when he died, the possibilities are endless. It could have been one of the concert party, The Comusicals, who performed that evening, or any of their audience, for that matter. It could have been the box-office manager, a stickler for rules, who says he would have refused the Mayor permission to use the telephone.”
“Why confine it to the pier, even?” asked Rupert Priggley. “Couldn’t the Mayor have left it?”
“He could have, I suppose. But Old Hammond, the gateman, was waiting to catch him as he came off with his message from Jack Fyrth. He’s the sort of old character who would like to deliver that message, and swears he watched carefully for the Mayor. Besides, there is the fact that Wirral’s fishing line was never drawn in. It was found, with two dabs on it, next morning. Those two dabs are the nearest thing is to clues, in the traditional sense of the word, that we have.”
“I like this,” said Rupert Priggley. “It’s all over the place. It’s full of possibilities. You’ll have to solve this one, sir.”
For the first time Carolus looked angry.
“Don’t use that silly word,” he snapped. “Definitely. What do you mean by it? Yes or no? It’s utterly ambiguous and vapid. It’s the most pretentious and idiotic piece of modern jargon I know. If you mean yes, use the affirmative; if no, the negative. This insufferable ‘definitely’ is neither one nor the other.”
For once Rupert Priggley seemed a little taken aback.
“Sorry, sir,” he said. “I meant yes, you must solve it. Far more a feather in your cap than the Purvice affair. This is a real puzzle. Have you even got a lead?”
“I wouldn’t say a lead. I’ve got the beginnings of a suspicion.”
“You smella de rat?”
“Yes. A large rat. A particularly nasty one.”
“It seems to me,” announced Rupert Priggley, “like one of those cases where you only find a murderer after he has ‘struck again’. A second murder, in fact.”
“Oh. And who is to be murdered this time?” asked Carolus, with some amusement.
“It’s usually someone who Knows Too Much,” Simmons pointed out.
“For instance, you,” said Rupert Priggley calmly.
This raised a laugh from the class. It was unfortunate perhaps that just then the headmaster entered with a paper in his hand, bent on ‘having a word with Deene’. He noticed the amusement of the Upper Fifth evidently without pleasure.
Rupert Priggley showed his usual resource in such crises.
“But hadn’t Bismarck any sense of humour, sir?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t think so,” said Carolus. “Do you want me, headmaster?”
They went into a conference which was interrupted by the end-of-period bell.