Death of Cold
Carolus woke next morning to a clear, cold Sunday, but he felt anything but sparkling. It was not that he was worried by being now on the wrong side of the law, though he knew perfectly well that in not reporting his discovery of the previous evening he was guilty of a serious offence. It was not that he felt any threat to himself, though this must exist. He felt a deep bitterness and horror over this crime, and these were new to him. His academic investigations of the crimes of history had never reduced him to such sour disillusionment.
But for some days he could not report the presence of the body of poor little Miss Pepys in the bathing-hut. To do so would be to abandon all chance of bringing the murderer to justice. Every scrap of evidence he had so far was entirely circumstantial. He was up against a distorted intelligence brilliant enough in crime to save the murderer from all consequences. Unless the plan he had evolved should work—as with Lily Wirral’s promised aid it should—there would be no conviction. It was a dangerous plan which could easily go wrong, but it was the only possible one.
So the body must remain unexamined, unburied and unmourned until it had played its part. Only his fixed determination, more resolutely held than ever, that the murderer should hang, justified Carolus. He knew all too plainly how he would be criticized for what he was doing, but he believed that it was right. He had his own code and needed its support.
It was impossible to put his plan into execution for some days, and he had chosen Wednesday because it was a school half-holiday. But that left him all today, Sunday, in Oldhaven, a valuable time in which to collect the new information which he needed in the light of the second murder.
He was nearly dressed when there was a knock at his door and Rupert Priggley came in.
“Can’t I escape from you for a single day?” moaned Carolus.
“Oh come, sir. Don’t be like that. You know I’m a likely lad when it comes to investigation.”
“I know you’re an odious little wretch far too old for your years. Who won the match?”
“Match? Oh, that. I’d almost forgotten. We did, I think.”
“Did you distinguish yourself?”
“I believe so. The headmaster congratulated me. You were rather a notable absentee. Well, how’s the sleuthing?”
“All right, I suppose, if you mean have I formed an idea of the truth. But this is a truly abominable business, Priggley, and I don’t feel cheerful about it at all.”
“What are our plans for today?”
“You’re going back to Newminster. I’m going to have another talk with one or two people I’ve seen already.”
“Ha! ha!” said Rupert Priggley mirthlessly. “Where do we start?”
Carolus looked at him, and for the first time a small smile was on his lips.
“At St. Winifred’s church,” he said. “We’re going to what is called, I understand, the Eleven O’Clock.”
“Hell!” said Rupert. “Must we?”
“Lots of nice suspects in the congregation?”
“Several people I want to see.”
“All right.” He began to enter into the spirit of the occasion. “But you can’t wear that tie. Not for Church, sir. Your whole get-up is in the worst possible taste. Dark, sober clothes are demanded.”
“Let’s have some breakfast,” said Carolus.
An automatic chime was sounding from the miniature steeple of St. Winifred’s as they approached. Carolus was watching the gathering congregation, and when he and Rupert had entered the newish building, he took a seat at the back. Three women came in.
“Involved?” asked Rupert, seeing his interest.
“Yes. The short one . . .”
“With the moustache?”
“Is Mrs. Thump, the late Mayor’s housekeeper. The girl is Glad, the barmaid on the pier, and the other woman, I imagine, is her mother. Her father also works on the pier but doesn’t believe in ‘running round churches’.”
“Anyone else in sight?”
“The nice ordinary woman who has just come in with her husband is the Original Gypsy Lee.”
“Really? You surprise me. She looks as though she had just been putting the joint in a low oven.”
“She probably has. She is a splendid housewife, I believe. Ah, and these are Mr. and Mrs. Tiplock. I didn’t know they were church-goers. I also see Mrs. Kemp, the landlady and friend of Miss Pepys who has recently disappeared. I notice she’s wearing black. And that stringy little woman with the fat, pimply son also gave me information. I don’t know her name, but the boy’s is Len.”
“Who have we got to speak to after it’s over?”
“Mrs. Thump, chiefly,” said Carolus, and gave his attention to the Service as Mr. Pickthorne, the Vicar, entered in a clean and flowing surplice and a severe black stole.
The psalms, the hymns were sun, the responses chanted, the traditional Eleven O’Clock going forward to its climax—Mr. Pickthorne’s climb to the pulpit. He preached so dully and deliberately and with such succulent enunciation that Carolus wondered why the B.B.C. had not discovered him. But it was over at last, and Carolus hurried out to await Mrs. Thump and her friends.
“Well, you haven’t found out much, have you?” Mrs. Thump said, while Gladys Rowlands looked reproachfully at Carolus.
Carolus said something about it taking a long time to discover the truth.
“And where’s Miss Pepys? That’s what I want to know,” went on Mrs. Thump. “We were never what you might call friends, but I don’t like to think of her disappearing like that.”
“No. I rather wanted to see you for a few moments, Mrs. Thump. I think you may be able to help me.”
“Well, I’m not saying I’m not willing, if there’s anything I can do. I’m going back to Glendower now, if you want to nip round after you’ve had your lunch.”
“Thanks. I will.”
Gladys Rowlands drew him aside.
“Are you really any nearer to knowing how it happened?” she asked. “I’ve been ever so upset about it.”
“Yes. I think I am.”
“You don’t think he did for himself, do you?” she pleaded. “I mean, I shouldn’t like to think that.”
“No, Gladys, I don’t. I’m afraid Mr. Wirral was murdered.”
There were tears in her eyes.
“I’ve thought it all along,” she said, “though I’ve not like to say so. What a wicked shame! Will you be able to find out who did it?”
“There’s still a lot I want to know.”
She became thoughtful.
“Dad knows something,” she said at last.
“Something he hasn’t told me?”
“Yes. But you mustn’t blame Dad. He’s funny about a lot of things. He doesn’t approve of private detectives.”
“I am not altogether surprised. Do you think I might persuade him to tell me what he knows?”
“Well, he’s on duty this afternoon if you would like to pop down. You can only try.”
Carolus left her and hurried to Mr. and Mrs. Tiplock. The former greeted him amiably enough, but Mrs. Tiplock was very reserved, not to say hostile.
“Found out who did for the old man?” asked Tiplock cheerfully.
“I’m getting on,” said Carolus. “I should like to see you again for a few minutes.”
“He doesn’t know anything about it,” put in Mrs. Tiplock snappily.
“I know I’d like to shake his hand, whoever it was,” said the bookseller. “Tell you what, though, if you think I can help you pop round this afternoon and have a cup of tea.”
“You’ve got to go out,” said his wife.
“Not till later, though. I don’t see what I can tell you, mind, but since you’re not the Law, I’m willing to try. ’Bout five?”
“Thank you,” said Carolus.
Mr. and Mrs. Hammock were just leaving when Carolus caught up with them.
“This is the gentleman I told you about trying to find out about poor Mr. Wirral,” explained Mrs. Hammock, who looked as unoriginal as she was ungypsy-like this morning. “Lovely service, wasn’t it? I like a bit of singing, I must say.”
“Yes. You don’t open your . . . you’re not at your place of business on Sunday, I expect?”
Mrs. Hammock became conspiratorial.
“Well, yes, I am,” she whispered. “Just for an hour or so in the afternoon. It’s such a good time I don’t like to miss it.”
Her husband grinned.
“Can’t keep her way from that lark,” he said.
“It’s not all beer and skittles, being an Original Gypsy Lee, said Mrs. Hammock. Why? Did you want a consultation?”
“You might call it that,” he said.
“You slip in, then. About four would be the best time.”
At last Carolus and Rupert were free to leave the precincts of St. Winifred’s.
“A nice little programme,” gloated Rupert. “Almost worth sitting through that sermon. I counted seventy-three clichés in eighteen minutes.”
“Let’s go and have some lunch,” said Carolus.
He was feeling a little less gloomy now, but still very conscious of the diminutive corpse lying in the bathing-hut.
“I shall have to see Mrs. Thump alone,” he told Rupert Priggley when they were approaching Glendower, “because I’ve got to persuade her to tell me something she wants to keep to herself. You can sit in the car or study the truly remarkable architecture of the house.”
“A beauty, I suppose?” They drove into the short carriage-way. “A turret, too! 1880, I should think. Probably John Betjeman and I are the only people in England to appreciate it.”
Mrs. Thump was still masticating when she answered the bell.
“But you can come in,” she conceded. “I’ve just finished.”
The heavy smell of food suited that house. The rooms seemed even more portentous in style and decoration than when Carolus had seen them last.
“We’ve got the sale next week,” said Mrs. Thump, “then I’m going to my sister’s place for a bit till I make up my mind. It’s difficult to know what to do for the best. Now, what did you want to ask me about?”
“Mrs. Thump, I have reason to think that both Mr. Wirral and Miss Pepys were murdered,” said Carolus, trying to sound impressive.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” returned Mrs. pumped calmly. “I always thought Miss Pepys was a bit too nosy for her own good.”
“That may be. But surely you don’t want to hear of two people being murdered without doing all you can to bring the murderer to justice? After all, it might be you next.”
Mrs. Thump, who had seemed a little phlegmatic, perhaps after a heavy lunch, now started.
“Whatever do you mean, me next?” she asked.
“Miss Pepys, I believe, was murdered because she knew too much.”
“Well, I don’t, do I?”
“I can’t say. You’ve never told me how much you do know.”
“I’ve told you everything.”
“Not quite, Mrs. Thump. You haven’t told me when you left the pier or when you last saw Mr. Wirral. Surely whatever reason you had for holding this back is gone now? For your own sake as well as for others’, I do ask you to tell me. I assure you it’s really important.”
Mrs. Thump sat deliberating for more than half a minute.
“I suppose there isn’t quite all that reason for not telling you now, though mind you I shall always deny having said anything of the sort if you try to repeat it. I’ll tell you what little there is to tell, but you must keep the part that’s only my business to yourself. You’ll soon see what I mean.”
“All right,” said Carolus.
Suddenly a fearsomely ogling expression spread over her hispid face.
“I’d like a little flutter,” she admitted.
“We all do.”
“Sometimes it gets the better of me,” said Mrs. Thump. “I don’t seem able to help myself. I just fancy something and willy-nilly I must back it. There’s no holding me. Come what may, I have to have my fling. I say to myself, ‘You know you oughtn’t.’ But it’s no good. What’s bred in the bone, I suppose. My father was brought up with horses, and drove the last fly in this town. If somebody tells me something it’s as good as betted on . . .”
“I quite understand,” said Carolus, who saw this vivid piece of description of the gambling fever extending itself through the afternoon.
“It’s all right while it’s all right,” went on Mrs. Thump explicitly. “I’ve had some nice little flutters from time to time. Only yesterday a horse called Atom Bomb . . .”
“But of course, it doesn’t always go how you want it,” said Mrs. Thump, recalled. “Do you what you may, it doesn’t seem as though it will make any difference. When luck’s against you, you can’t win. I was having a turn like that just at the time when Mr. Wirral disappeared. Two weeks, and not a sausage. Not a smell of a winner. Well, I had to pay my bookie, didn’t I?”
“That’s what I told Mr. Wirral when we went on about the housekeeping money. ‘Bookies have to be paid,’ I said. ‘But not out of the money I give you for housekeeping,’ he shouted. This was on the morning of the very day he vanished. ‘I can put it back,’ I told him. But he went on about dishonesty and that. Anyone would think I’d stolen the money.”
“And what had you done?” asked Carolus curiously.
“Only just borrowed it until the next Monday. But do you think he’d see it? He boiled up like a steam pudding. ‘You wretched woman,’ he said. ‘You take a week’s notice. I knew what that meant. I’d be out of his Will, besides losing my job. But he wasn’t in a mood to be spoken to them, so I let him go off fishing while I thought what best to do.”
Mrs. Thump was breathing heavily now, but rather enjoying herself.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” she reflected.
“Nor do I quite. What I want to know . . .”
“I’m coming to that. There was only one thing to be done. There was a horse running that afternoon called Apple Charlotte that I had a great fancy four. Four to one, it was. So I rang up Mr. Bunting—who’s the bookie I do most with—and I told him I wanted a fiver on it. That would give me an enough to put the housekeeping right and pay the one or two little bills that Mr. Wirral had been all on about. It was in the three o’clock and at twenty past I telephoned Mr. Bunting from opposite the pier to hear the result. My heart was in my mouth as you might say because I don’t usually do more than ten shillings. But it was all right. Apple Charlotte had won buy a length. So I went on the pier to tell Mr. Wirral.”
“What do you think he said? ‘It’s no use, Mrs. Thump,’ he said. ‘It’s not just the money, it’s the principle of the thing. Besides, how do I know you won’t lose it all before next Monday?’ Try as I would I wouldn’t couldn’t change him. So I saw what I had to do then. I went all the way along the front to wear Mr. Bunting’s office is. I had to wait a long time to see him—till after the last race. Then I asked him if he could let me have the money. ‘It’s not etiquette,’ he said, but when I’d explained all about Mr. Wirral, he agreed. It was very good of him, because they don’t like paying out before the time. Then I went back to the pier to give Mr. Wirral the money.”
“What time was this?”
“I can tell you about. I’d had one in the bar of the Grand, and they open at six. I daresay I was a quarter to half an hour over that. So it was somewhere between quarter past six and quarter to seven when I went through the turnstile. And I met Mr. Wirral walking towards the gates. ‘I can’t stop now,’ he said. I tried to tell him what I’d come for, but he just had the news of Miss Greta’s baby. Only he got it wrong. ‘It’s a girl,’ he said. As you know, it turned out afterwards it was a boy. He wouldn’t listen to me. And to tell you the truth I felt quite overcome, what with rushing along to Mr. Bunting’s and hearing about the baby, and I had to sit down a minute.”
“How far down the pier would you say you met him.”
“Not more than twenty yards from the gates at the most.”
“And he was making for the exit?”
“He was when I met him. Where he went afterwards I don’t know. I was so upset.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
Mrs. Thumped looked a trifle mysterious and severe.
“There are those,” she said, “who would have liked to have proved that I was Under Notice when Mr. Wirral went. It might have upset the Will. That’s the part I’m trusting you to keep to yourself.”
“I’ll promise you that. I’m very grateful for all you have told me. It is more helpful than you can guess.”
“I am glad of that,” said Mrs. Thump. “I never wanted to keep anything back. But there was the Will to think of.”
Carolus sensed the inevitable beginning of repetition and rose to go.
“When did you leave the pier?” he asked hurriedly at the door.
“Not ten minutes later. I went back to the bar of the Grand. I was so upset.”
“You didn’t see Mr. Wirral again?”
“Or anyone else you knew?”
“No, I didn’t. Well, I’m glad to have got it off my chest. I can trust you, I know.”
“You can,” Carolus repeated and escaped at last to his car.