Death of Cold
“Well, upon my soul,” said Sergeant Cotter. “I’ve never in all my life heard such a fairy story! Evidence! There isn’t a scrap of evidence in the lot of it. You could tell a yarn like that about anyone in this room.”
“You could,” admitted Carolus. “You very likely will.”
“Where’s your facts?” went on Cotter. “How did you know Miss Pepys saw Fyrth and Wirral talking that evening? What have you got to support your fancy notion that Wirral was drowned in a bath? I’d like you to see what would happen to us in a Court of Law if we charged anyone on the strength of such a lot of hot air.”
“I haven’t quite finished,” said Carolus mildly.
“Well, let’s hear the rest of it,” said Cotter grudgingly.
“When I found the body of Miss Pepys, therefore,” continued Carolus imperturbably, “I had no more serious doubts. But I knew that the attitude of the police would be precisely that so succinctly stated by Sergeant Cotter. To a large extent I could sympathize with it. I had no facts to support my theory. One person who had such facts—poor little Miss Pepys who had seen Fyrth drive Wirral away—was dead and had revealed what she knew you to no one. At least, not to Mrs. Kemp, in whom, if in anyone, she would have confided. When she first realized the importance of the information that Wirral had left the pier and talked to an unknown man by the telephone booth, she went to the police, but was snubbed. When later she knew the identity of the unknown man she did not risk a repetition of that. She died with her information unrevealed. So I had no concrete facts at all.
“Last Sunday I had unexpected confirmation of one incident, in the testimony of Mr. Tiplock, who not only spoke to Wirral near the Albion (opposite Miss Pepys’s home) soon after half-past six, but saw him go to the telephone box there. Unfortunately he thought Wirral was going to telephone the police to complain of him and made off quickly before he had time to see Fyrth approaching, but still, his evidence was valuable. It confirmed my belief that Wirral had left the pier and gone to the ’phone booth.”
Sergeant Cotter smiled.
“That’s not to say he was taken out to the Old Coastguards’ Cottage and all the rest of it. You still had no facts.”
“But I believed that I could obtain them. If Fyrth could be told that I intended to go to the beach-hut on the Wednesday night, he would at once assume that I knew him to be the murderer and had guessed where he had concealed the second corpse. So I persuaded Mrs. Wirral to ’phone him and in the course of a long conversation to say something like this: ‘Why have you and Greta set this tiresome Carolus Deene on the case? He’s just asked me if I have a key on the beach-hut and I had to tell him I’ve had one made. He’s coming down on Wednesday after his school hours finish and wants to borrow it. Such a nuisance.’ And so on. Lily Wirral evidently did this very well. Fyrth fell into the trap and using his own key entered the beach-hut before me. He was armed.
“Then something happened which I did not anticipate because it was the result of a piece of carelessness of my own. He found a cigarette lighter in the hut, and knew it was mine. Indeed, it had my initials C. D. engraved on it. This told him at once—for he was no fool—that I had been there before him and had found the body. He saw that the ’phone call from Lily Wirral was part of a trap into which he had walked. In fact, that he was caught. He would be found here, beside the body of the woman he had murdered, or be arrested as he left the place.
“He acted without hesitation, I think. He put the pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger.”
Mr. Gorringer was the first to speak.
“Good gracious me,” he said.
“There!” put in Mrs. Hammock.
“It’s a story, if you like,” said Carolus. “You may even call it a fairy story, as Sergeant Cotter has done. But if it is not true, there are some very awkward questions to be answered. How else did Wirral die? How else did he leave the pier unobserved by Old Hammond? Whose motor-boat came out to the pier that night if it was not Fyrth’s? Why should anyone else have ’phoned a premature message to the Evening Call ? What reason had anyone else to murder Miss Pepys? And if you add to all those to your own satisfaction, then tell me why Fyrth should have gone to the beach-hut last night? And why, above all, he should have committed suicide?
“Perhaps you suggest that he did not commit suicide, that he, too, was murdered? How, then, did his body come to be against a locked door of which one key was found in his pocket and the other was in my hands?
“It depends, of course, on what you mean by conclusive proof and what you consider makes evidence. The police know that a jury will believe their eyes before their common sense, and if they can shew twelve honest men and women the slide of a fingerprint, a burnt match, a couple of human hairs and a spent bullet they are more likely to get a conviction than if they had no object to shew at all. In this case, then, I recommend them to look for such items. For all I know there may be some damning evidence in the Old Coastguards’ Cottage or in the beach-hut. They may find a diary or a witness who saw or heard something which will confirm my story. Or they may not. I’m not concerned with proof of that nature. Unless they arrest anyone else, I have no interest improving Fyrth guilty. Indeed, from this evening I have no interest in the matter at all.
“I myself made one serious blunder, and I reproach myself bitterly for it, since it may have caused the death of Miss Pepys. I did not go to see her before leaving Oldhaven. I can make excuses for this. I had interviewed so many people whose information was all more for less relevant. I was tired of being given voluble details which did not help me at all. I did not see, at the time, how anything Miss Pepys might tell me that the of use. But I should have gone to see her. Afterwards I remembered Fyrth casually asking if I was going to do so, and my saying no. If I had, it might have saved her life.”
“In the circumstances, my dear Deene, a handsome admission.” Mr. Gorringer was speaking. “I see no blame attaching to you at all. Your investigation in the first place was a voluntary matter. How far you carried it was for you to decide. The unfortunate death of this retired governess was caused by her own inquisitiveness, and cannot be laid at your door.”
“If only she’d of said a word to me, who was the only friend except for Mrs. Firth, that you could really lay claim to, if you see what I mean,” exclaimed Mrs. Kemp breathlessly, “none of this might never have been thought of and she might have been walking about to this day, and not of being done away with. Only you can’t tell with people what they get into their heads about anything, really, can you? Any more than you never know whatever they might do next. I’m sure I gave her every encouragement to take advantage of having a friend under the same roof, as you might say, but there you are. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
“She spied and peeped once too often,” said Mrs. Thump uncharitably. “And it wasn’t the first time, as I’ve good reason to know.”
“Still, I think it was very clever the way you worked it out,” said Mrs. Hammock to Carolus.
“So do I!” cried Gladys Rowlands. “I’m ever so pleased no one can say now that poor Mr. Wirral did for himself. It was a horrid thing to think, and he was ever so nice to everyone. You’d think they’d be ashamed of saying anything like that.”
“People will say anything,” reflected Mr. Tiplock, “especially if they can get you into trouble by it.” He stared ferociously at Sergeant Cotter.
“Never you mind what people will say,” put in his wife. “You’ve got something better to think about, and the past’s past.”
“I’ve thought all along Wirral was murdered,” remarked John Rowlands. “I didn’t see how it could be anything else. I always say . . .”
“What a bore you must be,” retorted Rupert Priggley, “if you always say anything at all.”
“Ah,” smiled Mr. Gorringer indulgently. “You score a point there. We are all given to repetition at times, I fear. Though Mr. Deene has spoken to us with admirable clarity and precision this evening, I must concede.”
“Oh admirable,” said Paul Wirral bitterly. “He’s accused my brother-in-law of two murders and a suicide with nothing more than a few bits of circumstantial theorizing to support him.”
“Never mind, darling,” said his wife. “You might have been Suspect Number One yourself if Deene hadn’t come along. Have another drinky and don’t moan.”
“So might you, for that matter, darling,” said Paul. “You were swimming round the pier at the time, remember, as the hut attendant has told us.”
“I never said anything about where she was swimming,” said Mr. Swipely. “And I don’t suppose the costume she wore was worse than hundreds of others who come down here shewing themselves. If you’d seen half what I do in the summer, you’d blush to think of it.
“And do you blush, Mr. Swipely?” asked Rupert Priggley, eyeing the crimson of the other’s nose.
“Blush? I shudder,” said Swipely.
“You should have been round the world couple of times,” said Old Hammond. “Foreign ports, and that.”
“Oh, go on with you!” called Violette Bonner. “That has nothing to do with what we’ve been hearing about. I for one want to tell Mr. Deene how grateful I am for clearing up the mystery round my poor old Poopy’s passing. We all might have been involved, if he hadn’t.”
“Yes, jolly sporting show, old boy,” said Mr. Slicker heartily. “Cleared the family name, I mean.”
Mr. Grool, however, was not pleased.
“Far more likely Wirral did for himself than her,” he said.
“You’ve certainly told them, tosh,” said Clocker Starkie. “But you wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t told you about the paper, would you?”
“What about my boy’s evidence, then?” shouted Len’s mother, who had been waiting to speak for some time. “Where would he have been if my boy hadn’t been on the spot to see what went on? Even if he couldn’t manage to tell anyone but his mum. Could you?” she shouted at Len. “What a silly! Haven’t you got a tongue in your head?”
“However,” summarized Mr. Gorringer, “it has been a most enlightening evening. I notice that the two police officials have taken their departure, perhaps in some discomfiture. I trust they will take full advantage of the analysis given to us by Mr. Deene.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus. “It was a beastly case. Greed, treachery, cruelty and complete ruthlessness. It will be a long time before I allow a casual interest in the circumstances surrounding a death to drag me into this sort of thing again.”
“Indeed, Deene? You feel as strongly as that? I thought that such mysteries were meat and drink to you.”
“This one, at least, has sickened me.”
“Oh, don’t give us that, sir,” said Rupert Priggley. “You know you’ve loved every minute of it.”
“Hush, Priggley!” said Mr. Gorringer grandly. “We must all pay tribute to genius, however sadly misdirected. I could wish that Mr. Deene concentrated his talents on mysteries of the past, but I shall be the last tonight to repeat that wish.”
“Still, he can’t pretend he doesn’t enjoy it,” said Rupert.
“I have hated most of this,” Carolus asserted.
“But if I were to tell you, my dear Deene, of another murder—say in our own little community? If Hollingbourne, for instance, had been obliterated by some cunning fiend whose identity was a mystery, would you not gird at your loins again? I deem you would. You would find it irresistible.
“Hollingbourne?” said Carolus rather stupidly. He was very tired.
“Or Tubley. I quote but examples.”
“Oh. . . .”
“You see? Already you are crestfallen to know that your colleagues are yet in excellent health. A ghoulish hobby yours, my dear Deene.”
“Yes,” said Carolus. “A ghoulish hobby.”
He rose to drive them home.
— THE END —