Death of Cold
Arrived at Oldhaven on Wednesday, Carolus drove first to the offices of The Evening Call, the local paper which Mr. Wirral had owned. He asked to see the editor, and when he explained that he was investigating matters connected with the late proprietor at the request of Mr. Wirral’s daughter and son-in-law, he was shewn into a dingy office where he faced a little man called Nutter. They shook hands, but Mr. Nutter said nothing, so that Carolus had to explain himself.
“There is a small point I want to clear up,” he said. “You remember, of course, that Wirral disappeared on the day on which his daughter gave birth to her first child.”
Mr. Nutter looked dubious. He seemed to be wondering whether he could be committing himself too far if he admitted that he remembered that. After a moment he gave an unwilling nod.
“You published the news of the birth?”
He did not answer, but pressed a bell and told the young woman who appeared to bring a copy of the relevant issue of The Evening Call. Then he stared defensively back at Carolus.
When the newspaper was brought, Carolus found the paragraph he wanted.
“Here it is. But you announced the birth of a daughter. Mrs. Fyrth had a son.”
Mr. Nutter rang again.
“Tickle,” he said enigmatically to the young woman.
A few moments later a stout young man bustled in.
“You want me?” he asked Nutter.
The editor pointed silently at Carolus, who exchanged nods with Mr. Tickle.
“Perhaps you can tell me about this announcement which appeared on the day the late Mayor disappeared.”
Tickle glanced quickly at the paragraph Carolus indicated.
“Yes,” he said. “I wrote that.”
“The sex is wrongly stated.”
“I know. They made a mistake at the hospital.”
“Oh, come now! One hears occasionally of babies being attributed to the wrong mothers, never to the wrong sex.”
“I don’t mean that. I suppose they can tell. Though I’m dammed if I can with pigeons. I keep fantails, and no one knows . . . However. The thing is that whoever ’phoned me made a blunder. Said a baby girl had been born to Mrs. Firth.”
“Who ’phoned you?”
“He said he was the receptionist.”
“At what time?”
“Must have been about half-past three or four. Just in time for our Final Very Late Night Super and Last Edition, which comes out about half-past five in the afternoon.”
“Have you ever checked up with the hospital? Found out who mislead you?”
“Yes. I ’phoned them next day. They disclaimed all responsibility. They have no receptionist, they said, and asked me how they could have ’phoned the news at four, when the baby wasn’t born till nearly six. But I got the message clearly enough.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tickle,” said Carolus. He turned to the editor. “Thank you, Mr. Nutter,” he said.
In silence Mr. Nutter raised a deprecatory hand.
“Good-bye,” said Carolus brightly and firmly.
It seemed that Mr. Nutter had not heard.
From the newspaper office Carolus walked to the police station, leaving his car in the car-park. Here he asked for Detective Sergeant Cotter, adding that he had an appointment with him. He was taken upstairs and given a chair in a bare room. Presently the plain-clothes man came in with his lanky assistant.
“I got your message, Mr. Deene,” said Sergeant Cotter. “You say you have something of vital importance to tell us in the matter of the disappearance of Miss Pepys.”
“Well, I hope it is of vital importance, that’s all,” said Cotter. “The last time we met you with tinkering round asking questions about the late Mayor. I had to warn you about that, I remember. You amateur detectives never seem to remember that we’re busy men. Detective Constable Hawkins and I scarcely have a minute to ourselves.”
“Been a good season in public morality?” asked Carolus mischievously.
“Very good,” replied Cotter. “Sixteen convictions, two on remand and one arrest pending. I shouldn’t be surprised if we got Chummy tonight, would you, Detective Constable Hawkins?”
“I shouldn’t, Detective Sergeant Cotter.”
“Yes, a very good season. Nine of them got prison sentences.”
“You must feel pleased with yourselves.”
“Well,” admitted Cotter, “it’s nice to get a few convictions, isn’t it?”
“Meanwhile two people in the town have been murdered.”
“Who are they?” asked Cotter affably.
“Wirral and Miss Pepys.”
“Aren’t you being rather silly, Mr. Deene, making statements like that? You know the case of the Mayor is closed and won’t be re-opened. As for Miss Pepys, she’s probably gone away for a few days without telling her landlady. We get scores of these so-called disappearances, but they always turn up. Except some of the married ones, poor devils. If you had just a little bit of police experience you wouldn’t say she had been murdered.”
“I think perhaps I should, even then. You see, I have seen the dead body.”
There was a long pause.
“This is a very serious matter, Mr. Deene. If you have information like that and have not given it to the proper quarters you will find yourself in serious trouble.”
“I’ll risk that,” said Carolus.
“Where is this body?”
“I’m going to take you to it presently, provided you agree to certain conditions.”
“I’m afraid you’re not in a position to make conditions, Mr. Deene. We shall require to know where the cadaver is. It sounds to me as though there might be a charge against you of accessory after the fact. What do you think?” he asked his assistant.
“Sounds very much like it,” said the tall man.
“In that case you’d better make the charge now,” said Carolus. Because I’ve no intention of giving you any information at all unless my conditions are fulfilled.”
There was another pause.
“Let’s hear what you have to say,” conceded Cotter.
“Wirrall was murdered,” said Carolus flatly. “I know roughly when and where and certainly by whom, but one very important detail is lacking. I cannot see quite how.”
“He was drowned,” Cotter pointed out.
“I know. It’s not as simple as that. But we’ll go into that later. Wirral, as I say, was murdered. Only one person knew the murderer’s identity, and she didn’t know it as the murderer’s identity. I mean only one person had a piece of information which, rightly interpreted, would shew who killed Wirral. That person was Miss Pepys.”
“All this seems like wild guesswork to me, Mr. Deene. But go on.”
“But a nice substantial corpse concealed in a safe place would not seem like guesswork, even to you, would it? That’s what I can produce. Wirral was murdered and the crime was a great success. The police publicly ceased to be interested in the case and the murderer had got away with it. Then up comes Miss Pepys with a little piece of knowledge which endangers the whole thing. There is only one remedy for it. She has to be killed, too.
“But the point is this. I can tell you who was the murderer. I can tell you how it was planned and to some extent how it was carried out. I can give you every detail of time and place. But I cannot support it with a scrap of evidence that is not wholly circumstantial. You wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance of a conviction on what I have. You might find something concrete to support it when you came to search in various places, but that can’t be risked. The murderer of these two people must be identified by surer means than that.”
“This is all in the air,” said Cotter. “I don’t see what there is to suggest that Wirral was murdered and I have only your word for it that Miss Pepys was. We like facts, not theories, Mr. Deene.”
“So do I,” said Carolus. “That’s why I intend to provide you with some. There is only one way to do so. The murderer has eliminated one person who knew too much. Another such person must be provided.”
“I mean that the murderer now knows that I know. If that murderer tries to kill me just as I am about to discover (as he thinks) the corpse of Miss Pepys, would that be sufficient evidence for you? ”
“Evidence of what? Come down to earth, Mr. Deene. If someone was to try to kill you, it would be evidence that he was trying to kill you. What more? It might be because you knew something about it, but we should have no proof of that.”
“No proof, no. But if he knows that I have guessed where the corpse is and am on my way to find it, and he tries to kill me to prevent my doing so, surely there would be enough evidence against him to make you investigate with the fact in mind?”
“Possibly, yes. Only I wish I could make you see that this is not a boy’s adventure story or a radio serial, Mr. Deene. The police can’t work with all this supposition and theorizing. Nor can I provide you with a lot of publicity by standing by to see if you’re attacked.”
“I want no publicity,” said Carolus rather sadly. “I want this murderer hanged.”
“We all do, if there is a murderer.”
“But there is. Surely you’ll let me prove it to you.”
“What exactly do you want?”
“A very simple thing. I want to go alone to the place where the corpse of Miss Pepys is hidden. It can be surrounded at a distance, if you like.”
“What good will that do? You don’t think the murderer will be sitting beside the woman he is killed, do you?”
“Yes, Sergeant Cotter. Oddly enough, I do. Or waiting near. The murderer is expecting me there this evening. The murderer knows that I’m coming to that place tonight.”
Once again Cotter turned to his assistant.
“What do you think of all this?” he asked.
“It sounds a lot like a lot of skylarking to me.”
“That, Mr. Deene, is what it does sound like.”
Carolus was tired and exasperated.
“You talk of convictions in your cases,” he said wearily. “Don’t you want a conviction for murder? I can promise you all the details you need, and they will be substantiated by the murderer’s attempt to silence me. I want no part in the case as it eventually unrolls. I’m just a chance visitor who came on the corpse and was attacked by the murderer.”
“Yes. I see that. But you haven’t told us who the murderer is.”
“You’ll see that tonight.”
“At least you undertake to lead us to the body of Miss Pepys?”
“If I have your word that I approach it first alone.”
“I should be taking a grave responsibility.”
“You would be arresting a murderer.”
“I don’t like it, Mr. Deene. I don’t like amateurs and muddlers. I am a police officer with cut-and-dried duties, and a lark of this kind is right outside our procedure. On the other hand, I don’t deny that if you really do know where the body of Miss Pepys is concealed, you will be saving us a great deal of time and trouble by taking us to it.” He appealed to his assistant for support.
“Do you agree?” he asked rather sharply.
“I think it’s a bit of a pantomime, but it’s worth a try.”
“That settles it, then, Mr. Deene. What time do you suggest?”
“About nine,” said Carolus. “But clearly I shall have to tell you in advance where it is so that you can make arrangements. Have I your word that when you have the information you will play fair?”
“Yes, Mr. Deene, you had the word of a police officer.”
“I should prefer the word of an ex-Gunner, as I understand you are.”
Detective Sergeant Cotter hesitated.
“You can have that, too,” he said. “Now where shall we be making for?”
They went into conference.