Death of Cold
No one in the room seemed anxious for Carolus to pause at this point, but he laid down his notes firmly to indicate that he needed a break.
Mr. Gorringer addressed him.
“Lucid,” he said, “so far as it goes, my dear Deene. But it does not seem to go very far. I suggest, meanwhile, a trifle of refreshment.”
“I’ll have a large whisky,” said Carolus firmly, and the headmaster had no remedy but to ask Gladys Rowlands for it.
“Mine’s an orangeade,” put in Rupert Priggley tentatively, but it seems that this did not reach Mr. Gorringer’s large but selective ears.
Conversation hummed round them. A group had been formed of those attended St. Winifred’s Church—Mrs. Thump, Mrs. Kemp, Mr. and Mrs. Hammock, Mrs. Rowlands, the Tiplocks and Len’s mother. John Rowlands stood ostentatiously apart, and Paul and Lily Wirral remained at another isolated table, drinking rather heavily it was noticed. Old Hammond sat with Mr. Swipely. It was not a festive occasion. There was a certain awed anxiety in many of the faces. Mr. Gorringer was the only person present who seemed to be enjoying himself. There was hushed expectancy as Carolus resumed.
“Miss Pepys disappeared,” he said, “and I refused to consider it a coincidence. I knew that she was one of the several people who believed that she was the last to see Wirral alive, a claim that had not so far been taken very seriously, because she was known to finish her afternoon walk on the pier before half-past four. But when she disappeared I thought over that claim again and realized that it could very well be a good one. She was, as her landlady Mrs. Kemp admitted, a somewhat inquisitive little woman given to spending long hours behind her lace curtains. That day she had been in her room for the rest of the evening after coming in at half-past four. What, I asked myself, could she have seen from her window? And the first thing I noticed when I looked out of it, as she had so often done, was the telephone booth opposite. I knew that when Wirral left Gladys Rowlands on the pier he had been going to find out about his new-born grandchild. I knew that no telephone was available on the pier itself. I realized that this booth was the nearest convenient public telephone to the pier itself. I began to think that Miss Pepys’s claim might be a true one. But for the murderer, she could easily have been the last person to see Mr. Wirral alive.
“This revolutionized all the half-formed theories about his death. He had left his rod on the pier and been found drowned, so that inevitably I had roughly supposed that he had entered or been forced or enticed into the water from the pier itself. Why? I began to wonder. Suppose he left it in search of a telephone. It seemed likely in that case that he had never returned to it. All theory which centred on the pier might be nonsense.
“But one difficulty remained here. If my new supposition held water, how had he managed to leave the pier unnoticed by Old Hammond? Then I remembered what Old Hammond himself had told me about Jack Fyrth’s visit to him at six-thirty that evening. ‘Shook hands with me—well, nearly pulled my arm off. You know what a man’s like when he’s just had that news.’ I could picture the scene. And Old Hammond, who likes to shew his kindly spirit, would have turned right round from his pay-window to congratulate the excited father who had looked in at the door at the back of the booth. During this little scene Wirral could have walked right through the turnstile unnoticed.
“Then I had my first very sickening suspicions. You see, I don’t much care for a theory based on coincidence. I began to wonder whether it was by chance that Jack Fyrth was almost pulling Old Hammond’s arm off at the very minute that Wirral was leaving the pier. Suppose his heartiness was deliberate and carefully planned? Suppose he had waited until he saw his father-in-law coming down the pier, bound as he knew he would be for the telephone and having just read a premature announcement in the paper? Suppose that just before Wirral came into the limited range of sight from the pay-box, Fyrth had opened the door behind Old Hammond and made his announcement? In that case Wirral had been got from the pier neatly and invisibly. If afterwards he was found drowned, no one would look anywhere but on the pier for evidence, no one would suppose that—however Wirral died—it had been in any place unconnected with the pier.
“Thereafter things began to fall into place. I decided to assume that Fyrth had murdered Wirral and see how the whole thing would look. I had almost nothing to go on, but I was desperate for some theory which would fit the facts, so I decided to try this one. I did not like it. I liked Greta Fyrth and found her husband affable and pleasant. I did not want to think him a murderer. I started only to see how it fitted.
“He had as much motive as anyone else connected with the case. No more, but certainly as much. His wife would inherit a very large sum of money—a fortune one might say—and Wirral, he knew, was in excellent health. He planned a very clever way of disposing of Wirral. He would get him off the pier. Wirral would die by drowning, and his body would be found in a place which was consistent with his having been drowned from the pier that evening.
“He ’phoned the Evening Call and made sure that an announcement would appear in the five-thirty edition of that paper. Then he waited, as we have seen, till he saw Wirral leaving the pier, and held Old Hammond’s attention while he passed. He doubled back to the telephone box, and before Wirral had obtained his number burst in and said something like, ‘Don’t wait to ’phone. I’ve got the car here. We’ll go straight there.’ Wirral then got into Fyrth’s car.
“This, then, was what Miss Pepys watched and what made her say that she was the last person to see Wirral alive. She was merely excited about that. But sometime later she went out one morning and came back (as Mrs. Kemp tells us) as white as a sheet and said that something dreadful had happened. What was this dreadful thing? The only people we know she had met that day were the Fyrths. A short time before Fyrth had told me that he did not know Miss Pepys, and I knew from Mrs. Kemp that she was not at the Fyrth’s wedding. Suppose that on her walk that morning she had seen Jack Fyrth for the first time and recognized him as the man she had last seen persuading Wirral into his car? Small wonder that she described the event as ‘dreadful’ and did not know what she should do about it.
“But to return to Fyrth. He persuaded Wirral to enter his car and then, on some pretext, called at the Old Coastguards’ Cottage before going to the nursing home. Something Greta wanted from there, I expect he said. I already knew from Greta that the woman who worked for them did not come to the cottage during her absence in the nursing home. So there, at about seven-o’clock that evening, he murdered his father-in-law.”
Carolus did not mean to pause for effect, but someone—was it Paul?—said “How?” very loudly, and this only seemed to increase the tension in the room.
“I must remind you that I am putting forward a theory. I must narrate it as fact, but it was until last night without any adequate backing of evidence. I will tell you how Fyrth killed Wirral, but it will be for the police, if they can, to prove it. I am, if you like, doing no more than telling a story.
“I could not myself understand how Fyrth had killed Wirral till Fyrth’s body was found, and in the pocket of his overcoat was a bottle of chloroform. Then I saw this very brutal murder as it must have been. Wirral was chloroformed, then put into the bath. This, as I noticed when I visited the Fyrths, is a combination of bath and table such as one finds in flats in which bathroom and kitchen are combined. The bath has a large hinged lid which lets down to form a table-top, with gaps cut for the taps. The unconscious body of Wirral was put in the bath, the lid lowered and sufficiently weighted, Fyrth perhaps adding his own weight, then the taps were turned on. In half an hour Wirral had died by drowning and, so far as any indication would shew it, by drowning only. He had been drowned as much as if he had been lost at sea. By half-past seven Fyrth called at my hotel to dine with me as he had carefully arranged on the previous day. It was a diabolically well-arranged murder.
“When later I obtained evidence from John Rowlands for what took place during the night while he was on duty of the pier, it seemed to fit admirably with the theory I had already formed. He heard a motor-boat approach the pier, and when it was almost underneath its engine was switched off for a few moments, then started again when the boat moved away. It had at first seemed as though the boat had come to take someone off, but I now realized that, on the contrary, it had come to bring someone to the pier—a dead man who would be supposed to have died there, whose body must be found where it would be found if he had died there and at that time. Fyrth brought Wirral’s corpse and dropped it near the pier. A number of days in the sea would clear all traces of chloroform from its lungs and, of course, sea-water would almost instantly replace the fresh water in which the man had been drowned. So far as any possible investigator of the affair was concerned, Wirral had never left the pier. Neat, don’t you think? If poor little Miss Pepys had not been looking out from behind her lace curtains that evening, that would have been the end of it. The police were not interested, having more important things to do, and I should never have discovered how Wirral died.
“But fortunately or not, as you view the matter, Miss Pepys was looking out, and saw Wirral drive away with a strange man. When some weeks later she met Greta with her husband and recognized Jack Fyrth as the man she had seen with Wirral, she must have betrayed herself. Fyrth already knew that she claimed to be the last person to see Wirral alive, and when he noticed her behaviour on meeting and recognizing him, he realized the danger of what she knew. He came down to Oldhaven on the following Monday and met her during her afternoon walk. Quite how he persuaded her to come out and meet him in the evening we shall never know, but he did that. He may have undertaken to take her to Greta. He may have had some plausible story to account for his presence with Wirral at the telephone booth. He may even have suggested that they go together to the police. At all events he persuaded her to enter his car, and after, perhaps, using chloroform again, on the dark night which, as Mrs. Kemp remembers, that particular Monday was, he could carry that frail little body across to the bathing-hut unseen. Or, if he was ingenious enough, he may have found some way of enticing her across while still in possession of her senses.*
“But his use of the bathing-hut as a place in which to dump the body was his undoing and led to my knowing he was the murderer by more than speculation. It is odd that in this affair it was almost a guess which brought me the only direct evidence against the murderer. I knew from Lily Wirral that two nights before Wirral disappeared she had lost the key of her private beach-hut, number seventeen. In her own words, ‘I used our hut two nights before and I could have sworn I brought the key back to the flat. But although I hunted for hours I could not find it.’ I also knew that on the night she lost the key Jack Fyrth had been in her flat. He told me: ‘She certainly had not lost it two nights before the Mayor disappeared. I went to their flat for cocktails, and while I was with Paul she came in from the beach. She was twirling the thing—a rather large heavy key—in her hand.’
“Now, this is even more a matter of speculation than the things I have already told you. But suppose that Fyrth had already decided to kill Wirral but had not seen how best he could dispose of the body—what better place could he have thought of than Lily Wirral’s beach-hut? He may have pocketed the key with this in mind and later evolved be far more ingenious method we know. Then, when he was driven on to the murder of Miss Pepys, he remembered the key and used it. It was now far more useful than before because the hut would not be opened probably until the spring.
“I suspected him of having taken the key from the Wirral’s flat. I suspected him of being responsible for the disappearance of Miss Pepys. It did not take much deduction, or putting two and two together, to guess that the body of Miss Pepys might be in the hut. And, as you know, it was. When I found it I knew that Fyrth was the murderer.”
* Later examination of the body of Miss Pepys revealed chloroform. Fyrth had used his already tried method.