Death of Cold
In all its beastliness, its treachery and its cruelty, the case was becoming hideously clear. His visit to the home of Miss Pepys had crystallised and confirmed the idea that had been forming in the mind of Carolus.
For as long as possible he had tried to find some way of escape from his growing certainty. It was of something so shocking, so macabre, that he wanted with all his heart to find that he was wrong. He still tried to hope that his theory was a nightmare and that the truth would reveal a crime more brutal perhaps but not so intricate and cold-blooded. He did not want to think that such fiendish and deliberate evil could exist in human nature, and human nature of an apparently normal kind. But there was no longer much room for doubt. He was up against a clever and ruthless criminal who would stop at nothing.
Carolus had said that there was one place in which he would look tonight, but he realized that there was no more than an odd chance of it yielding the truth. In any case he decided to go to his hotel first, have a bath, a change and a drink before doing what he had to do. He wanted to think and he wanted, frankly, to screw up his courage little. Not his physical courage, because he do not believe that he was in danger, but his moral courage, because what he would look for and feared to find would be in itself appalling.
There it was—you started to make a few enquiries, to probe and theorize, and you found yourself deep in the murky hell which lies under the crust of nature. You realize that men and women who had seemed droll and amiable were capable of striking one another down, for the basest of motives of profit or greed. And you began to wonder whether it were worthwhile. “Alas! what boots it with incessant care To tend the homely, slighted, shepherd’s trade?” Or the no less slighted investigator’s?
In this case it might even have been harmful. If, like the police, he had let well alone, Miss Pepys would not be missing now. If she were dead, was he justified? The murderer of Wirral would have gone unhanged, but Miss Pepys would still be enjoying her harmless existence. Who was he to mess about with life—and death? A summer holiday investigation, an inquiry which at first he had enjoyed, and brought in its train this new crime—for crime, it seemed certain, there had been.
Yet he must go on. He alone could trace the murderer of Wirral, on him alone rested the responsibility of bringing him to justice. It was a plain duty to society. Not priggishly or pompously but very grimly Carolus knew that he must continue. Already he had been remiss in run in one respect. He must not falter again.
He had his bath and raining for a whisky-and-soda to drink while he was dressing. He went down to dinner and managed to answer civilly the hotel staff who remembered his stay here in the summer. He had dinner and smoked a cigar.
Then Carolus began his evening’s task. He went up to his room and put on his overcoat and a pair of gloves, slipped an electric torch in his pocket and went out to his car. In a few moments he was driving along to that part of the sea-front known as the Far End.
Here the road and promenade divided, the road swerving inland to leave an area of grassland beside which the promenade ran. In summer this grassland was thick with holiday-makers and the Town Council kept a man employed in collecting litter. But tonight it was bleak and desolate. The street-lamps followed the road, on the sea side of the grass there was no lighting.
Carolus left his car and stood for a moment examining the scene. A damp breeze was blowing and he could hear the sea breaking in darkness, but no living being was in sight in the radius of the lamps and no one, so far as he could tell, moved in the darkness between them and the sea. The whole promenade was windswept and dreary on this November evening, but at the Far End it was doubly so. Here, he decided, a woman might scream on such a night as this and not be heard by anyone. Or an inanimate body might be carried from road to water’s edge and no one be any the wiser. While even in the summer, with Oldhaven full of visitors, if the night were moonless and the time after midnight, almost anything could take place unseen and unheard.
Slowly he began to cross the promenade. He had left his hat in the car and felt the damp wind on his head. He did not use his torch, but tried to see as far as he could around him and occasionally looked over his shoulder. Reason told him that he would not be followed tonight and that in the darkness ahead of him no one, or no one living, could be waiting. But reason was not reliable in this case and he remained alert.
He reached the promenade and found what he was looking for: the row of bathing-huts built under the lee of the bank which rose from the promenade to the level of the grass. There were about twenty of them, sound permanent little structures, large enough to serve as changing-rooms and picnic pavilions in summer, but tonight gloomy shapes just discernible. He threw his torch on them and walked along till he found Number 17. At this, again, he paused, standing motionless before it with his torch extinguished, as though he were listening. He might have been imagining the scenes of summer here or hearing in imagination the laughter of holiday-makers and their calls across the beach.
Then very deliberately Carolus stooped down and methodically began to pick the lock. It took him five minutes.
He did not immediately open the door. He straightened himself then with a jerk, threw it open and let his torch play over the interior. Almost at once he saw what he expected. Half hidden by a carelessly placed deckchair was the prone body of a small, elderly woman, dressed in black.
Carolus stooped over the body and in a moment stood up again without disarranging anything. Miss Pepys, he judged, had been dead for several days. He extinguished his torch again and, moving without hurry, made for the door. This he closed carefully. Then he stood breathing deeply the fresh salt air.
His return to the car also was unhurried. He did not hesitate again, but there was no suggestion of panic in his movements. Within three minutes of his finding the body he had driven away from the Far End. He did not stop till he reached a ’phone box on the outskirts of the town.
But he did not ’phone the police. He acted as though all he did have been planned in advance. He dialled a local number which he seemed to carry in his head.
“Mrs. Wirral?” he said to the answering voice. “This is Carolus Deene. I’m so sorry to telephone at this time.”
“That’s all right. What do you want now? Found some bloodstains?”
“Are you alone?” asked Carolus unexpectedly.
“I’ve got to persuade you to co-operate with me. Please don’t refuse until I’ve had a chance to give you certain information.”
“I’m not refusing. I’m rather amused by the idea. Does it mean I’m no longer a suspect?”
“I never suspected you of murdering your father-in-law, Mrs. Wirral. I must beg you to treat this seriously. Could you possibly come out and meet me somewhere, so that I could explain?”
“You sound all het up. Yes, I don’t mind. Where?”
“Some place to which no one connected with . . .”
“You mean Paul. All right. The Stag. It’s a little pub on the London road.”
“I will find it. And, Mrs. Wirral, may I ask that you tell no one you will meeting me? No one at all?”
“It all sounds madly sinister. But I’ll promise.”
“One more thing. You did say you had a new key made for your beach-hut, didn’t you?”
There came a very puzzled “Yes.”
“Would you mind bringing it with you?”
“Mysteriouser and mysteriouser. All right. Anything more?”
“No. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I must tell you that if anyone came to know about this conversation before we have met. You might be in danger.”
“That’s all right. I will be there in ten minutes.”
Carolus returned to his car. He found the Stag a little modernized pub standing back from the road on the outskirts of the town. No other car was near it, so he concluded that he had arrived first, and went in. The next few minutes were very anxious ones.
The landlord, a little jockey of a man, gave his head a quick backward jerk of inquiry.
“A large Scotch,” said Carolus.
“Dirty old night,” said the landlord.
“Nice weather for ducks.”
“I suppose so.”
If she did not come there could be at least six very unpleasant explanations. Their conversation might have been overheard. She might have ignored his warning and told someone. She might—his stomach turned at the thought—have been made inquisitive by his request for the beach-hut key and have gone there to investigate.
“What do you think of Arsenal?” asked the landlord.
“Splendid,” gambled Carolus.
“You’re right there,” said the landlord.
She might even have gone to the police. She might have ’phoned Jack and Greta. She might have got in touch with Bridger or Paul.
“Well, we shall see next Saturday,” concluded the landlord, who had been talking hard.
“We shall,” said Carolus, with more feeling than was necessary.
At last there were headlights in the car park outside, a car door slammed and in a moment Lily Wirral was with him.
Before he even asked her whether she had brought the key he got a drink for her, but as soon as she had sipped it he enquired.
She pulled it out.
“What on earth do you want it for?” she asked as she handed it across.
Carolus put it in his pocket, but did not explain.
“May I leave you for about ten minutes?” he asked. “I know I must appear to be acting like Valentina Vox, but this thing really is getting pretty beastly. I’m going to tell you everything later. But may I go now?”
“I think I’ll come with you,” said Lily Wirral in her blasé voice.
Carolus considered this. Why not? Having gone so far in trusting her . . .
“All right. But only one car.”
“Mine then,” said Lily Wirral, and they swallowed their drinks.
“I’m leaving my car in your park for ten minutes,” Carolus told the landlord.
“All right. I close at ten-thirty.”
Lily Wirral drove well, and they were soon into the town again and heading for the sea-front.
“To the beach-hut, I suppose?” asked Lily calmly.
“All right. I won’t ask why.”
She pulled up almost in the spot where Carolus’s car had stood earlier. Still no one was in sight as they climbed out of the car and began to cross the grass.
“May I point out,” said Lily Wirral facetiously, “that I ought to be rather afraid? Going to a deserted beach-hut with a man I don’t know on a winter night should terrify a girl.”
“Not a girl who can swim round the pier, surely?”
“You don’t forget that, do you?”
Once again he flashed his talk on number 17.
“Wait a minute,” he said and stepping forward put the key in the lock. While Lily Wirral watched he turned it.
“It was unlocked?” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“No. But I’m going to explain. And I’m going to ask for your help.”
“Do you know who murdered Pop Wirral?”
“Then how am I to help? Why do you need me?”
“Because you are the only person who can do what the writers call bring the murderer to book.”
“What have I got to do?”
“Make a ’phone call,” said Carolus. “Not tonight. Next Wednesday, I think.”
“I should think I could do that. But I want to know what it’s all about.”
“You shall. Let’s go back to the pub.”