Death of Cold, Chapter Twenty-Seven

Death of Cold

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

“There has only been one mystery in this affair,” began Carolus.  “An elementary mystery, if I may use so strong a word, which underlay everything.  I knew very early in my investigations that if I could solve it all other questions, including the identity of the persons concerned, would be clear.  It was not a mystery of time or place.  It was not a question of ‘who done it’.  It was a question of how.  How did the late Mayor of Oldhaven meet his death?  Hs disappearance was dramatic.  He left his fishing-rod in the water with its little bell signalling that some unfortunate dabs had taken the hooks and were struggling for life and freedom in the water below.  A keen angler who came every day to the pier, he had done an inexplicable thing—walked away leaving his rod.  Later he was found drowned.  He was a good swimmer, a man highly unlikely to commit suicide and no marks of any violence suffered before he reached the water were found on him.  How in the name of heaven had he died?  That was what I had to answer, and in a sense all I had to answer.
“The police seem to have found it too difficult.  The coroner gave a noncommital verdict and the matter was dropped.  I decided that I would discover the answer, however far it took me and whomsoever it might involve.  I began by following the last movements and remarks of the dead man.  Mr. Grool left the pier at six, and when he packed his rod Wirral was still fishing.  Times after that are not very accurate, but we know that between six and half-past Wirral bought a copy of the Evening Call from the youth known as Clocker Starkie . . .”
“What’s wrong with my name?” put in Clocker belligerently.
“Beyond its inelegance, nothing.  Wirral grabbed the paper, found something he was looking eagerly for and at once made a dive for the bar, where he told Gladys Rowlands that he was a grandfather.  It is safe to assume that he gained his information of this from the announcement printed in the five o’clock edition.  But there was something odd about that announcement.  It was telephoned to the newspaper office by someone calling himself a hospital receptionist (an office that does not exist).  The call was made before the child was born and gave the sex incorrectly.
“Now, if this was some sort of bad joke, it was a startling coincidence.  I decided it that it was not only deliberate, but directly concerned with Wirral’s death.  And from that I concluded—provisionally, of course—that the call to the newspaper had been made by someone who knew that the Evening Call would print the news that its proprietor was a grandfather, by someone who knew when Wirral would first see his evening paper that night, by someone who wanted him to read that announcement at that time.
“So Wirral told Gladys to put some champagne on the ice and hurry to find out details.  Where?  That was very much the question.  It remained the question till Mrs. Thump later obliged me with the information that between quarter-past six and a quarter to seven she met Wirral hurrying towards the pier gates.  His only information then was from the Evening Call, for when he spoke to Mrs. Thump he still bought he was grandfather to a girl.  It is not jumping to conclusions to suppose that he was on his way to telephone the nursing-home.  There was no telephone available on the pier, and he must have intended to phone from outside.
“But how did you get off the pier?  Old Hammond was told by Dr. Fyrth at half-past six to watch for him and give him a message.  He says that in any case he would have seen Wirral going off even before that, and I believe him.”
Old Hammond, in his most twinkling, ancient mariner manner, said, “I’ve always got my weather eye out for the Mayor going ashore, and he always hailed me.  I should have seen him.”
“So there, it seemed, Wirral vanished into thin air.  After Gladys Rowlands no one, that I knew of at this time, saw him again.  I could get no nearer to knowing how he died.  The basic mystery remained.”
There was tension in the Elizabethan Bar.  When Carolus had been silent for a moment, Paul Wirral broke in.
“I think it’s time we had a drink,” he said.  “This is getting on my nerves.”
“I never touch it,” pointed out Mr. Swipely.  “It’s death to me.  Death.”
“Still, there’s others,” Mrs. Thump told him.  “I could do with something, I’m sure.”
This was a popular sentiment, and Gladys was kept busy for some minutes.  Carolus drank absently and seemed scarcely aware of his ill-assorted audience.  He began speaking again clearly but quietly.
“So, having reached a dead end, I retraced my steps and began to consider the information I had about Wirral’s life, and particularly the earlier hours of the last day.  But all thinking was balked and pointless because it ended in the same question mark.  It was no good thinking of this or that person as a ‘suspect’ when I did not know what to suspect him of.
“However, I reconsidered all I had as evidence.  I knew from my own observation that Wirral was gallant in an old-fashioned across-the-bar sort of way with Gladys Rowlands and that her father disapproved of this.  I knew that Mr. Grool bitterly resented Wirral’s success as an angler and the fact that he had taken the annual cup from him.”
Mr. Grool made a noise which the literal-minded writers of the past used to set down as “Grrrr!”
“A comprehensive list of suspects might have included both Mr. Grool and Rowlands, for the jealousy of the one and the parental concern of the other could easily be supposed to be motives.  Mr. Grool claimed to have left the pier at six, and Old Hammond confirmed that.  Rowlands was off duty during the afternoon, but came on for the night.  Both of them seemed anxious to shew themselves contrary in mind and spirit to be late Mayor, Mr. Grool by an affectation of ill-humour and surliness which I felt was deliberately exaggerated, and Rowlands by his aggressive atheism.”
“Agnosticism,” corrected Rowlands contentiously.  “Atheism is believing that there is no God.  I don’t believe that.  My God is the rainbow in the sky, the breeze in the treetops . . .”
“The bee in the bonnet?” suggested Carolus.  “At all events, I kept the two of them on my list.  Then I interviewed Mrs. Hammock, the Original Gypsy Lee.  I found that one that his last afternoon Wirral had gone to her booth to have his fortune told. . . .”
“You mean, for a consultation,” put in Mrs. Hammock.  “I don’t tell fortunes.  I sell lucky charms at two-and-six and five shillings.  You didn’t ought to take anyone’s character away in front of police by talking about fortune-telling.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Carolus mildly.
“So you ought,” said Mrs. Hammock.
“I meant he had gone to her for a consultation.  And it appeared that he had been expecting a visit from a certain lady that afternoon, for he gave Mrs. Hammock a description of her and asked her if possible to predict disaster if she remained in Oldhaven.”
“Not little me?” said Violette Bonner, smiling roguishly from the place where she sat attended by her diminutive maid.
“It seems certain.  Miss Bonner figured prominently in the various accounts I had of Wirral’s last day.  Mr. Grool described her as ‘the new one’.  Then there was the evidence of Len . . .”
There was a rush of speech from the boy’s mother.
“That’s my son,” she said.  “This is him, only he won’t speak for himself.  Lost his voice, he has, whenever it’s wanted.  He seen the lady that afternoon with Mr. Wirral. . . .”
“Do you recognise the lady now?” asked Carolus sharply to Len.
Len looked at his boots and was silent.
“Just look round the room,” invited Carolus in vain.
“Do you recognise me, dear?” asked Mr. Bonner graciously.
Yes,” said Len as though the word hurt his tongue.
“There we are, then!”
“Wirral had an interview with Miss Bonner on the landing-stage below the pier that afternoon and was to dine with her at the Queen’s Hotel that evening.  But all her movements were quite easy to trace.  She had recently by letter resumed an old acquaintance with Wirral and come down to see him.  He knew she was staying at the Queen’s and had been up the evening before to catch a glimpse of her.”
“The sly old thing!” beamed Violette Bonner.
They met on the pier and talked discreetly out of sight.  But of course Wirral never kept his appointment to dine with Miss Bonner that evening.  Later it was found that she benefited by his Will.
“So I was a suspect?” asked Miss Bonner archly.
“I certainly remembered these circumstances as I reconsidered matters,” admitted Carolus.  “Then there was the Mr. Tiplock, a man with a clear motive—revenge.  He suspected Wirral of causing trouble for him.”
“Why don’t you say straight out that the old blighter grassed me?” asked Mr. Tiplock.
“You mind what you’re saying,” snapped his wife.  “We don’t want any more of that.  Why can’t you forget about it for five minutes?”
“Mr. Tiplock came on the pier that afternoon and quarrelled violently with Wirral, and at one point actually threatened to throw him into the sea.  And he remained on or near the pier till after the evening performance of the pier concert party.”
“There!  You see?  Now perhaps you’re satisfied!” said Mrs. Tiplock to her husband. 
“Then there was Mrs. Thump,” went on Carolus calmly.  “She came and spoke to Mr. Wirral during the afternoon and—though I did not know this till later—after a visit to her bookmaker returned some time after six to find him hurrying towards the gates.”
“You didn’t think I’d done for him, did you?” asked Mrs. Thump, with a little smile.
“I am recalling all the people connected with Wirral’s last day.  And I mustn’t forget Old Hammond, who remained at the pier gates.  But there were three other people who are here this evening, two of them most closely connected with the dead man—his son Paul Wirral, his daughter-in-law Lily Wirral and a chauffeur he had dismissed named Bridger.  At a little before six o’clock Mrs. Wirral hired one hut and Bridger another, both from Mr. Swipely the attendant.  Both were good swimmers who went out as far as the end of the pier.  Paul Wirral, meanwhile, was on the pier observing them.  He denied this to me later, but there is a fairly clear evidence on the point.  I noted these facts and kept them in mind.  I also knew that Mr. and Mrs. Paul Wirral had lunched with the Mayor that day and proposed an investment which he had rejected.
“Finally there was the pier manager, Mr. Slicker.  He had had a stormy interview with Wirral that morning before lunch, and it will be sufficient if I say here that they did not see eye to eye about certain items of expenditure.  Wirral threatened to take a certain course which would have been unwelcome to Slicker.  Slicker had a nap that afternoon and went to the Elizabethan Bar at six for a reviver, returning to his office, he said, immediately afterwards.  He too remained on my list.”
“Very friendly of you, old boy,” said Slicker sarcastically.
“But with all these facts assembled, all these people interviewed, all these times established, I found myself back to where I began, with no solution in sight of the original mystery.  Nothing I have learnt gave me the least indication of how Wirral had died.  Without that all my information was meaningless.  How could I suspect anyone when I had nothing to suspect him of?  How could I establish the time and place of a murder when I did not know that there had been a murder?  I had a plethora of facts, but they lead nowhere.  I had a fine gallery of potential suspects, but nothing to suspect them of.  It was at this point that the school term recommenced and I went back to Newminster.  Then the first really indicative thing happened—Miss Pepys disappeared.”