Death of Cold
“So, having nipped round to see Mrs. Thump,” said Rupert Priggley, “you must pop down to interview Rowlands, slip in to see Mrs. Hammock and hop over to have tea with the Tiplocks. Quite an athletic afternoon.”
“I think we can manage it. Mrs. Thump, by the way, carried our knowledge of Wirral’s movements a stage farther. The last we knew of him before was that he had left Gladys’s bar somewhere round about six-thirty, promising to return shortly to celebrate. Now we know that he went in the direction of the pier gates.”
“And may have gone through them?”
“There we’re up against the evidence of Old Hammond, who is positive he would have seen him. However, we’ll see what Rowlands has to say.”
Rowlands at first had nothing to say.
“I’ve already told you, Mr. Deene, that I do not approve of private detectives. I hear you were engaged in all that wish-wash and flapdoodle up at the church this morning and that my daughter gave you to understand that I have some further information. She had no business to say anything of the kind.”
“Your daughter, like all decent people, is concerned by the disappearance of Miss Pepys, whom you have often seen on the pier.”
“Another psalm-singer and Pharisee,” commented Rowlands.
“Did she ever do you any harm?”
“No. But . . .”
“Then for goodness’ sake don’t talk like a penny tract. You atheists are more narrow and intolerant and bigoted than any sect of Christians ever formed. What is it you have to tell me, now?”
Rowlands stared at Carolus, then a slow smile spread over his face.
“I always say, I like a man who speaks his mind,” he observed. “I will tell you what I heard that night. Or rather in the small hours of the morning. I had been having a nap, as I am perfectly entitled to do. In the stalls of the theatre, as a matter of fact. I do not know whether any sound woke me, but I suddenly found myself listening.
“My duty was plain. I stood up and made my way out of the theatre, then went on deck. There was almost no wind now and the sea was calm, but it was very dark. As I stood there I wondered at the stillness of the night. You see my God is the moonlight over the sea, the clouds in the night sky . . .”
“The dog in the manger?”
“The dawn on the downs,” assented Mr. Rowlands. “Everything, everywhere. I felt the presence that night, though there was little I could see in the blackness. Then, as I stood there, I heard in the distance the thud of an engine. A motor-boat was moving in the darkness and carried no light. At first the sound was muffled and distant, but I waited as it came nearer. It was hard to tell from what direction it came. It seemed to be approaching from the open sea. I stood quite still, listening.”
Carolus did the same now. He seemed entranced by this narrative.
“It was soon clear to me that the boat was making for the pier. Then quite suddenly it seemed to be almost underneath. Sounds in the darkness have that trick—you can’t tell where they come from until they’re suddenly quite near you. I wondered whether the people in the boat knew the pier was there. They must be able to see it outlined, I thought. I shouted down.”
“What?” asked Carolus.
“Ahoy!” said Rowlands. “I do not claim to be a nautical man. I do not dress up as an old sea-dog. But I believe that to be correct word to use to the occupants of a boat. ‘Ahoy!’ I shouted. There was no reply. Then suddenly the engine of the boat was switched off. I shouted again: ‘Ahoy there!’ Still no answer. So I began going towards the landing-stage. I could not hurry, for I had left my torch in the theatre and had only my knowledge of the pier to guide me. I went as fast as I could. But before I had reached the landing-stage the engine of the boat had restarted and already she was moving away. I shouted again, but to no avail. The boat was travelling fast, I think.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes. I went up on to the deck of the pier and heard the sound of the engine growing less and less until I could hear it no more.”
“Had you been down to the landing-stage earlier that evening?”
“No, Mr. Deene. That was no part of my duties. You are in inferring, perhaps, that someone, possibly Mr. Wirral, could have been waiting there and have been taken off by the boat? Yes, that is possible.”
When Carolus and Rupert were alone it was Rupert who voiced their irritation with this late piece of information.
“Just as it began to look as though Wirral walked off the pier that evening when he passed Mrs. Thump, it now begins to look as though he was still on in the small hours. The thing gets harder instead of easier. Who’s next? ”
“The Original Gypsy Lee,” said Carolus.
They found Mrs. Hammock wearing her regalia in a slightly shamefaced manner.
“They wouldn’t listen if I didn’t,” she explained. “They’d think I wasn’t genuine. You can’t believe how mean some of them have been lately. Poking and prying and asking questions. One tried to catch me up yesterday—a thin party dressed in mourning. Wanted to know when her father had died. I could see there was a catch it, and said that if she didn’t know, who did? She said surely I could tell, but I was too quick for her. I looked at the crystal a minute and said, ‘Your father isn’t dead.’ That made her jump because she’d been trying to have me. ‘Suppose I was to say I’d been to his funeral?’ she asked. ‘If so,’ I told her as quick as a flash, ‘it was only your father in name. Your real father’s alive.’ She began to turn nasty. ‘What are you trying to say?’ she asked. ‘It’s not what I say,’ I told her. ‘It’s what the stars say.’ She couldn’t find anything to answer. What is it you want to ask me about this time?”
“I don’t quite know,” admitted Carolus. “I just had the feeling that there was something more you could tell me.”
Mrs. Hammock chuckled.
“Had the feeling, did you? That’s supposed to be my line, not yours. What sort of thing?”
“Something you overlooked, perhaps. Or that didn’t seem important to you. Almost everyone I talked to about the case has remembered something since.”
“I’ve got a good memory,” said Mrs. Hammock. “You have to have in this job. You wouldn’t believe they were so artful and dirty but they come back again and pay another half-crown to see if they can make you contradict yourself. Well, they do. But I never forget a face. There’s nothing I forgot to tell you, either.”
“Something you held back on purpose, perhaps?” ventured Carolus.
Mrs. Hammock was amused.
“So you know about that, do you? I thought perhaps you might. Been talking to the party with the ginger wig, then?”
“I have. Yes.”
“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t know, I suppose. I held it back because I didn’t want to be mixed up in it. Yes, she did come here to have a consultation that afternoon. And I told her what Mr. Wirral told me to.”
“About her life being in danger?”
“Yes. Well, it only seemed a sort of joke, then. How was I to know it was to be murders and that? I was only trying to oblige Mr. Wirral, I’m sure.”
“How did you put it?” asked Carolus.
“I may have said it rather too strong,” said Mrs. Hammock. “And coming from an Original Gypsy Lee it seemed to upset her properly. ‘In danger?’ she said. ‘What kind of danger?’ ‘The stars don’t say that,’ I told her. ‘You can’t expect them to be able to tell you details,’ I said, ‘but danger’s there, red and horrible, waiting to strike.’ ‘Is it from a man?’ she said, as though she was half hoping it might be. ‘A man or men,’ I told her. ‘An old friend?’ she wanted to know, and I saw what this was leading up to. ‘No,’ I said, ‘not from an old friend. But there are those who feel jealousy and hatred for you because of an old friend,’ I said. ‘If I was in your shoes I should flee!’ I told her.”
“Did you really? Flee? ” put in Rupert Priggley. “Such a splendid word, I always think.”
“She seemed ever so upset. ‘I can’t, not till tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Then off you go first thing in the morning out of harm’s way,’ I said. ‘And don’t walk alone today or you never know.’ What do you think she asked me then? ‘Is it all right for me to go and have my hair done?’ she asked because she’d got an appointment with Esmée’s at half-past five. ‘Yes, but don’t linger,’ I told her.”
“Linger!” said Rupert appreciatively.
“She went out looking ever so white. I was half sorry I’d gone so far because I don’t like upsetting anyone. But I was only doing what Mr. Wirral asked me.”
“Of course you were. But I’m very glad you told me now. Do you remember what time it was when she left you.”
“Not much after five, it couldn’t have been.”
“Did she say anything to make you suppose she had spoken to Mr. Wirral when she came to you?”
“Yes. When she talked about her old friend she said something about having been talking with him that afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Hammock. I won’t keep you any more. I see you have some clients waiting.”
“Oh, they can wait,” said Mrs. Hammock unkindly. “Ten to one they’ve only come to try and catch me out.”
When Carolus and Rupert were alone and pacing the resounding planks of the pier, little was said for some minutes. Then Carolus looked at his watch and remarked that it was time to go round to the Tiplocks.
“If these are up to standard it will have been a pleasant Sunday afternoon,” said Rupert.
Tiplock himself opened the door beside the shop.
“Don’t take any notice of her,” he whispered confidentially to Carolus. “She can’t get it out of her head you’ve got something to sell me. She’s been a bit funny about anything like that ever since they pinched me. Come on up.”
They climbed the linoleum to the first floor and entered a sitting-room. Mrs. Tiplock was evidently a woman who believed in furniture and floor polish, for everything shone and smelt of it. There was an uncompromising neatness and symmetry about the arrangement of the room which made one feel an intruder in a furniture shop window.
“Sit down,” said Mr. Tiplock. “She’ll bring us in a cup of tea in a minute. You can imagine how upset she was when the Law came and turned out all these drawers and cupboards, can’t you? The dirty, nosy creepers. All for a few little photographs you could almost have had on your walls. Now what is it you want to know about? I thought I told you all there is to tell about that afternoon.”
“You may have,” said Carolus. “But on your own admission you remained on or near the pier until much later that day, and I can’t help feeling you must have seen Wirral again.”
Tiplock made no direct answer.
“I can’t see why I should go out of my way to tell you anything about that old bastard,” he said. “I don’t care how he died after what he did to me. ”
“You’ve no proof that he did anything. Besides, that’s not really the point. If you know any more it may help other people. I’m only asking as a favour, but, since Miss Pepys has disappeared, the police may have to take up the whole case and they will want to know a good deal more about your movements. After all, you did talk of throwing Wirral into the sea.”
“Suppose I had something else to tell you which might involve me further?”
“I should still advise you to tell me.”
They were interrupted by the entrance for Mrs. Tiplock with a tray. She gave a curt nod to Carolus and Rupert.
“You know what I told you,” she said to Tiplock.
“It’s all right, ducks. He only wants to know about old Wirral.”
“Well, you don’t know anything.”
She avoided speaking to Carolus.
“I don’t see any harm . . .” began Tiplock.
“You know what happened before.”
“That was nothing to do with it.”
“You please yourself. If you go inside again I shan’t stay here, I tell you that. I shall sell the shop and go back to London.”
“That’s all right, ducks. No one’s going inside again.”
“You far better keep your mouth shut.”
“Oh, leave off, ducks. It’s nothing much I’ve got to tell the man.”
“You don’t know what they’ll make of it.”
Tiplock turned to Carolus.
“I did see Wirral again that night,” he said defiantly.
“I am warning you!” said Mrs. Tiplock.
“What time would it have been?”
“I shan’t keep the shop on this time,” said Mrs. Tiplock. “Working my fingers to the bone for you to come out to.”
“Soon after half-past six it must have been.”
“Where?” asked Carolus. He could scarcely keep the interest out of his voice.
“If you say any more I shall get up and go,” said Mrs. Tiplock fiercely. “You’ll only get yourself into trouble.”
“In Albert Place. Not twenty yards from the pier.”
“Had he come from the pier, then?”
“I should have thought once was enough, without your asking for it again. You must like being in prison and all the customers asking me where you are, though they know quite well.”
“Don’t keep on, ducks. I’ve got to tell the man, haven’t I? Yes, he’d just come off the pier, and was in a hurry. I’d been having a few quick ones in the Albion and felt just like telling him what I thought of him.”
“Perhaps you don’t mind making your wife a laughing stock. It’s all very well for you with nothing to do but stitch a few mailbags. What do you think people say?”
“And did you tell him?”
“Did I not? I went straight up to him and let him have it. ‘You mean hypocritical old so-and-so,’ I told him. ‘I have a good mind to punch your face,’ I said. He was he was walking on. Then he said, ‘I’m going to ’phone for the police and give you in charge,’ he said.”
“There you are” said Mrs. Tiplock. “That’s what comes of it. What you want to put your head in a noose for I don’t know.”
“I left him at the corner. I just saw him going across to the telephone box and I went off.”
“You are sure you did not go across with him?”
“Dead sure. I cleared off.”
“Did you see anyone else about?”
“No. Not to notice.”
“You’ve done for yourself now,” said Mrs. Tiplock. “Don’t come to me for sympathy, that’s all. I shall tell you it’s your own fault, talking your head off like that.”
Even as she spoke she was refilling Carolus’s cup without asking him, a hostess in spite of herself.