Death of Cold
How the smell of Oldhaven had changed since his boyhood, thought Carolus next morning as he made his way to the pier. There was no more of the tar and fish he remembered, but scent and disinfectant everywhere. It was a clean, spruce, well-regulated town which had taken the place of the shabbier but more picturesque place.
Outwardly the pier was much the same. The booths and turnstiles guarding the entrance were painted in the same ugly green. Blackboards on which details of motor-coach excursions were chalked still surrounded them. The slot machines he remembered, however, had been swept away and replaced by pin tables. No longer, framed in the glass of a penny-in-the-slot machine, the fearsome gypsy offered to spin herself in a wheel and point out his fortune on the on a dial for a penny, no longer could even a thin bar of chocolate be obtained for the same sum. Now there were elaborate games with vast numbers electrically illuminated as metal balls dodged among the possibilities. Now Tombola was noisily and publicly played in one booth. Now he could visit the Elizabethan Lounge, the Tudor Café and the Shakespeare Milk Bar.
The anglers had not changed; they might have been the very men he remembered preserved unaged by the salt air. The framework of the pier had not changed, the seats which surrounded its deck still faced inward from the sea and down below the damp, rusty region of dripping iron, where the lower landing-stage was, still seemed a rather awesome place as it had seemed to Carolus in boyhood.
Clearly the first person from whom Carolus should seek information was Mr. Grool, the snappy little ex-publican who was fishing beside the Mayor on the day of his disappearance. He knew the difficulty of conciliating this bad-tempered and monosyllabic individual, yet he had a feeling that Mr. Grool might not be so uninformative as he seemed if he could be correctly approached.
Remembering the little man’s malicious references to Wirral on that last morning, Carolus knew it would not be much good appealing to him to help him clear the late Mayor’s name. His best hope was to adopt the garrulous ass attitude he had used before and hope that this might provoke Mr. Grool into confidence.
“Good morning,” he said heartily when he was near the ex-publican. “Lovely morning.”
Mr. Grool looked at him with frank disgust.
“How was your luck?” asked Carolus cheerfully. “Landing some big ones?”
“No,” said Mr. Grool.
“I remember we had a nice little chat on the day old Wirral first disappeared. Now, he seemed to know how to catch fish, didn’t he? Won the Angling Competition, I believe.”
A gnomish leer spread over the thin little face of Mr. Grool.
“Catch fish? He little thought he’d be thrown to them, did he?”
“Oh, very good! Thrown to them! Sort of revenge, eh? You didn’t like old Wirral, then?”
“Not your type?” suggested Carolus.
“Conceited fellow. Self-important. I couldn’t stand him.”
“He seemed very successful.”
“Scandalous,” snapped Mr. Grool
“Women,” explained Mr. Grool expansively.
“I didn’t know that,” said Carolus.
“More than one, you mean?” pressed Carolus.
“Oh dear! Four! Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’ve got eyes, haven’t I?”
“Certainly. I only thought . . .”
“Four, repeated Mr. Grool aggressively. Four of whom I knew. I don’t know how many more.”
“You really mean . . .”
“For he met that day. Shameful. And his line in the water all the time.”
Carolus goggled successfully. He knew better than to ask questions now. The little man was roused and bitter and, having started, would give him all the information he wanted with no more than an incredulous prod or two.
“There was the fortune-teller,” said Mr. Grool.
“Not the Original Gypsy Lee?”
“That’s what she calls herself. Her name’s Hammock. He went to see her that afternoon.”
“Perhaps he just wanted his fortune told.”
“Perhaps.” Mr. Grool managed to throw spite, incredulity and sarcasm into the two syllables. “And perhaps not,” he added. “How do you think she can get permission to ply her illegal trade if the Mayor had not supported her claim? Infamous!”
“Ttt . . .”
“Then the barmaid . . .”
Mr. Grool nodded. In and out of that bar all day,” he explained.
“But surely that’s what bars are for?”
Mr. Grool ignored this. “It upset her father,” he went on. “He could see for himself. Wirral was three times the girl’s age. Shocking!”
“Butt you said four,” said Carolus after a long pause.
“Yes. His housekeeper. So called.”
The satyr’s grin returned to Mr. Grool’s face.
“She looked like it. From her appearance you could scarcely imagine anything else. But what was she doing down here that last afternoon?”
“Perhaps she came to see Mr. Wirral about something.”
“I have no doubt she did. But what? That’s the point. Despicable!”
“And the fourth?”
For a moment it seems that Mr. Grool was not going to answer. Then he said thoughtfully, “The fourth was the new one.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“New one. I’d never seen her before. A big, vulgar-looking woman. Auburn hair. Over-dressed. A bit of his past, no doubt.”
“Did she come and talk to him?”
“No. That’s just the point. She came down the pier. I could spot her a mile off. Scent? A reek of scent. Flagrant!”
“I was watching her. When she came near Wirral she gave him a look. Unmistakable. It was as though she winked to him. I’ve never been more outraged. She walked on. I can see her now. One of those big women with a lot of shape, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” admitted Carolus.
“When she had passed Wirral got up, left his line and followed her. Degrading!”
“He was gone for half an hour or more. Somewhere down the end of the pier. I couldn’t see where. Some shady meeting-place, I’ve no doubt. When he came back he was looking very different.”
“In what way?”
“He’d had the stuffing knocked out of him. I could see that. Shaken, he was. He couldn’t get a drink because the bar wasn’t open. But I could see he needed one.”
So do I, thought Carolus. Talk about embarras a richesse. If Mr. Grool gave him much more of these lavish details he would begin to feel dizzy. There seemed no end to the scandalous secret life of the late Mayor.
But Mr. Grool was only just getting into his stride.
“That’s not all,” he said.
“By no means. There was a most improper and vulgar scene here that afternoon.”
“Another woman?” gasped Carolus.
“No. A man called Tiplock. A stationer, I gathered. Bookseller. Newsagent. Something of the sort. There had been trouble before between him and Wirral, I gathered. Now the man had a grievance. He’d been to prison.”
“Brixton. Six months. he blamed Wirral for it.”
“How was that?”
“I didn’t hear all the details,” admitted Mister Grool. “The man was furiously angry. Threatened to throw old Wirral into the sea. You know that Wirral owned the local evening paper, I suppose. The Evening Call. And the printing works. I gathered that this man Tiplock had refused to stock his newspaper. Or his local guide. Or his timetables, or stationary, or anything that came from his press or works. Can you blame him?”
“I don’t know his reasons,” pointed out Carolus.
“You don’t need to. You knew Wirral. His newspaper was full of photographs of himself.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s a fact. Winner of the Angling Competition. Holding up a wretched little fish he managed to catch.”
“But, Mr. Grool, when you won it surely your picture appeared?”
“Different matter. I don’t own the horrible rag. However, this man Tiplock would have no dealings with Wirral. And he found himself arrested.”
“On what charge?”
“Some trumped-up nonsense about his selling indecent books. Abominable!”
“Perhaps he had sold indecent books.”
“He blamed Wirral. And he told him so. You should have heard him. He gave the old man a dressing down he’ll never forget. Never. It did me good to hear it. I thought he was going to set about him there and then.”
“Did this Mr. Tiplock leave the pier afterwards?”
“I don’t know. None of my business. I come here to fish. It wasn’t so very long afterwards that I went myself.”
“Oh. You left before Wirral?”
“Certainly. Always do. I don’t stay half the night in the hope of another dab or two. Wirral was still here when I packed up and went home.”
Carolus wondered whether he dared to ask one question of fact.
“That was about?” he ventured.
“Six. I always leave at six o’clock.”
Carolus said nothing to that.
“Old Wirral killed himself,” summed up Mr. Grool. “Shame. Fear. I don’t know. It was obvious that he was in a mess with all these people. I wasn’t surprised to hear what he had done.”
“Don’t think it could have been an accident then?”
“Certainly not. Far too careful.”
“Or . . . murder?” suggested Carolus. He was pleased to see that this had a startling effect on Mr. Grool. It was the little man’s turn to goggle.
“Why not? You seem to think he had enemies.”
“Yes. But . . . I confess I never thought of that. You think Wirral may have been banged on the head . . .”
“There is no possibility of that, it seems. But I don’t think he committed suicide.”
He left Mr. Grool looking bewildered and rather perturbed. What a powerful and impressive word, he reflected, was this ugly disyllable. He repeated it to himself. Murder, he said, as walked along the resounding planks.