Death of Cold
He drove straight from Glendower to a new block of flats overlooking the sea. One of these, he knew, was occupied by the late Mayor’s son Paul and his wife Lily. It was about half-past five when he reached the place, so he could scarcely expect to find both of them in.
A hall porter stood between two clipped shrubs in green boxes, and in answer to Carolus’s query said, “Yes. Number 527. On the fifth floor. They came in together about half an hour ago.”
From a lift which had carried him swiftly upward he stepped into an artificially lighted passage and followed it in the direction indicated on the board—“Numbers 501–539”. After a few minutes walk on soft green carpet is stopped at one of a series of cream-painted doors and pressed a bell.
The door was opened by woman in slacks who blew a cloud of cigarette smoke in his face and said cheerfully: “Hullo! Who are you?”
“Oh hell!” said Lily Wirral. “You better come in and have a drink. What a bore! I thought we’d finished with the Mayor.”
They entered a room of which one side consisted of windows looking out to sea. A tall, thin man rose from a chair, and Lily Wirral addressed him with over-acted casualness.
“Darling, here’s a character who says he’s investigating. It appears Greta is put him on to it. Wants to know about your late Papa.”
“Oh God!” said Paul Wirral. “Have a drink, will you?”
Carolus looked about him. What stupendous, what brazen, what unmitigated cheerfulness, he thought. Cushions in pastel shades, flower-prints in red lacquer frames, a white Wilton carpet—everything was monotonously gay. At a little bar flashing with chromium Lily was mixing drinks. From a radio disguised as a brightly painted doll’s house lively dance-music issued, while a television set stood threateningly by. There were budgerigars and two Persian kittens. There were several antiques, but, chosen for their bright grotesquerie, they looked self-consciously quaint in that room, and a pair of old Staffordshire dogs ogled idiotically, while a Venetian negro boy, painted with gold and flashing lacquer hues, grinned vacantly back at them. The room, the flat, the whole building and all it represented seemed nightmarish to Carolus.
“Jack and Greta would do something like this,” said Lily. “I hope this is dry enough for you,” she added as she handed Carolus a large glass of pale amber cocktail.
“They are not quite satisfied,” Carolus explained.
“The police are,” said Paul. “The Chief Constable told me so himself.”
“How do you account for your father’s death, Mr. Wirral?”
“I don’t. I’ve long since ceased to think about it. Darling, this is practically all water.”
“Is it darling? I’ll liven it up a bit. Why should one think any more about the thing?” she asked Carolus. “He’s dead. Voilà. Next, please. This is where we came in. I didn’t dislike the Mayor, though I found him a tiresome old period piece at times. But I can’t see why Paul and I should be depressed about it indefinitely. There are other things to think about. How’s that, darling?”
“Lovely, darling. What about yours? And Mr. . . . What did you say your name was?”
Carolus told him.
“Give Mr. Deene another drink, darling. Perhaps he’ll forget his troubles.”
“You had lunch with your father that day, I think?” said Carolus.
“Oh, I say, you have been busy,” laughed Lily. “Really getting down to it. Perhaps you know what we talked about?”
“Yes,” said Carolus gravely. “I know that, too. But I don’t think it is very important. What I should like to know, if you don’t mind telling me just for the record, is how you both spent the rest of that day.”
“Darling, he wants our alibis!” cried Lily gaily. “Have you got yours ready?”
“Isn’t that rather silly, Deene?” asked Paul.
“It may be. But I’m sure you won’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” said Paul, “but I must say I think it’s rather cheek on your part.”
“I’m sorry you should think that.”
He studied Paul and saw a week, loose face and hair prematurely thinning, pale, irresolute eyes and nervous fingers.
“I went back to the office till it closed, then I came here. Lily wasn’t in, so I had a drink, and then went to the pictures.”
Carolus asked no questions.
“I went for a swim,” said Lily. Her voice sounded flat and metallic.
“Oh. Where did you swim from? I mean, what part of the beach?”
Lily stared at him, and Carolus saw alarm in her look.
“Where from? The usual place, of course. We have a beach-hut at what is called the Far End. It’s well away from the pier, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wirral.”
“Beach-Hut number 17,” said Lily in a harsh voice. “You can check with the man in charge if you like.”
“No, thanks. What time would it have been?”
“Quite late. Six-ish. Then I drove out to Sandy Bay. I was home about ten.”
“Do you happen to remember where you had dinner?”
Lily seemed to give deep but fruitless thought to this.
“Can’t say I do. I may not have had any. I often just scoff a sandwich, then raid the fridge when I come in.”
“Were you alone that evening?”
Carolus thought that was something strange and unnatural in the thin face of silly of Lily under its bright, corn-coloured hair. He judged her to be less than thirty, a slim, attractive, vital woman; but too electric, he thought, too jumpy. At this last question she laughed rather noisily.
“Alone? No, I had my rich lover with me, of course. The Dutch banker. Or was it the Peruvian cattle-man that night?” Her face became suddenly hard. “Yes, Mr. Deene, I was alone. There are people who can bear an hour or two of their own company, you know. ”
“Thank you,” said Carolus. “I take it neither of you went on the pier that day.”
“Darling, did you go to see the Nigger Minstrels?” asked Lily, her harsh humour returning.
Paul was more serious.
“I certainly did not,” he said.
“Nor you, Mrs. Wirral?”
“On it, no. I may have been somewhere near it. I can’t remember now. My beach-hut is nearly a mile away, but I might have gone in that direction. You can’t expect me to be able to say now which way I went.”
“You mean, you may have been swimming quite near the pier that evening?”
“May have been. Don’t remember exactly where I went.”
Carolus grew very thoughtful. After a few minutes he changed the subject.
“Does either of you happen to know where Mr. Wirral intended to dine that evening? He had given instructions at home any would not be in.”
“He didn’t say anything about it at lunch-time,” said Lily; “but, then, he wouldn’t. He was never very open about his movements.”
“He didn’t tell me,” said Paul.
“He was all het up that day about the prospect of a grandchild,” remembered Lily. “Wasn’t he, darling?”
“Het up? He was like a dog with two tales. He was going to change his Will if it was a boy.”
“How do you know that?”
“Old Donahaigh told me. That’s his lawyer. We should have been out in the cold.”
“Darling, I don’t see how you can say that. It might have come out of Greta’s share.”
“Not bloody likely,” said Paul. “Little Greta would have had all she wanted, as she has always done. Would you like to know the terms of my fathers Will, Mr. Deene. I’ve seen a copy, and I can give you a good idea.”
“Thank you. Yes.”
“There were a lot of legacies. Some rather fishy ones. The old man was a bit of a sly fox in his way. Those of a thousand pounds or more, free of legacy duty, where for Mrs. Thump, a girl called Gladys Rowlands who was a barmaid on the pier and someone none of us have ever heard of, called Violette Bonner. There were smaller ones, too, but nothing for any public charity. The residue is to be divided between my sister and me in equal shares. Quite simple and more or less what we expected, except the odd legacies.”
“What happens to Glendower?”
Lily laughed shrilly.
“Isn’t it incredible? We used to call it the mausoleum, didn’t we, darling? A series of chambers of horrors. Yes, what does happen to it?”
“Sold, I suppose. It’s not mentioned in the Will. Unless you want to live there, darling?”
“Live there?” shrieked Lily. “My God!”
She looked about her at her pastels shades and chromium with evident satisfaction.
“The old man loved it,” said Paul, who evidently had not the courage to oppose further what he considered his wife’s good taste.
“Your father seems to have loved a good many things and people. What about Violette Bonner, whoever she may be? Wouldn’t she like to live there?” asked Lily.
“We don’t know what she’s like, darling.”
“I see her as a sort of snaky vamp of the First World War who has grown a bit fleshy now but still manages to look like a film star of the silent days in sequins.”
“Oh, do you?” said Paul. “I see her as blonde and what used to be petite and now is just dumpy.”
“I see her . . .” began Carolus.
“But this isn’t fair!” said Lily, laughing. “Because I suppose you really have seen her?”
“Not actually. But I think I may know what she’s like. She has auburn hair and two gold teeth. She has been described to me as ‘one of those big women with a lot of shape, if you know what I mean’.”
“Indeed I do!” said Lily. “I’m sure you’re right, too. A little dog on a lead, do you think? Pomeranian, probably.”
“I don’t think so. Not on the only occasion I have heard of.”
“Darling, all our glasses are empty. You do it this time.”
“All right, darling. Is there any more ice?”
How happy, how friendly, what a jolly couple this was, Carolus told himself. Yet there was a false brilliance in their smiles, they are home, their whole lives which he found rather sickening. Lily was not happy. She was a nervous, shrill, hard-drinking woman who was trying to be ‘wild’ and ‘young’ and succeeding, probably, in being nothing but rather drearily adulterous, and screening it behind her comradely attitude to Paul. Paul himself was very far from happy, a mildly dissolute, feeble man who could not make up his mind. Carolus felt certain, for instance, that other men, more determined or unscrupulous than he was, had conceived the notion of the new hotel which his father had promptly snubbed. And this light, metallic home was not happy, nor for that matter was this light, hygienic, centrally-heated, brilliantly planned building with its roof-garden and its ballroom, its swimming-baths and restaurant. There was no peace in it, Carolus summarized finally, no peace in it, or in the lives of these two people, or in their natures.
“Only one more question, now,” said Carolus, trying to sound reassuring. “What about Mrs. Thump?”
“You know most about her, don’t you, darling?” said Lily. “Poor old Paul suffered for years from her.”
“I never liked her,” admitted Paul.
“Your father kept her twelve years.”
“I know. And they had some fearful rows. About money, chiefly. Old Thump always seemed to need money.”
“I used to think it was secret drinking. Paul maintained it was a man who was keeping who got through it for her. Even when we were staying up at Glendower before we had found this, it was the same. She’d be short of money, then there would be trouble over the accounts.”
“One thing I will say,” observed Paul. “I think she’s genuinely fond of Greta. After all, Greta was only a kid when she came, and old Thump helped to bring her up.”
“You know she was on the pier that afternoon?”
“Who? Thump? On the pier ?”
“Yes. She went to see if Mr. Wirral had any news from the nursing-home.”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” admitted Lily. “Somehow I can’t picture her on the pier, though. Can you, darling?”
“I can’t, darling. It’s your turn to mix the drinks. You’ll have another, Mr. Deene, now you’ve pumped us dry of information. Or do you think we put prussic acid in it?”
“No. I don’t think that,” said Carolus, and managed, without a suggestion of offence, to throw just enough emphasis on the word to leave them guessing.