Death of Cold
John Rowlands as he stood on the deck of the pier might have been a captain on the bridge of his ship. He took his responsibilities seriously and wore his uniform as though it were an Admiral’s, instead of consisting as it did of a peaked hat and long white coat. “It ought to be enquired into,” he pronounced when Carolus had explained his mission. “I’ve thought all along that there’s something very to peculiar about it.”
“I’m glad you feel as I do,” said Carolus. “I’m sure you’ll do all you can to help me.”
“I don’t know about that,” said John Rowlands. “I don’t approve of private detectives.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“I always say, I stand for law and order and it’s for the police to enforce them, not for gentlemen who make a hobby of investigating crime. With all respect, of course.”
“Still, you would not wish to see a murderer go unpunished or a suicide unexplained?”
John Rowlands considered.
“Right’s right, he reflected profoundly. “There may be those would like to hush it up, but I don’t believe in that.”
Carolus adopted his customary tactics.
“You disapproved of Mr. Wirral’s attentions to your daughter, I believe,” he said crisply.
He saw that this had its effect. Rowlands cleared his throat.
“I always say, I’d disapprove of any man of his age making up to a young woman who could be his grandchild,” he said.
“But particularly of Mr. Wirral and your daughter?”
“I have brought up my daughter to look after herself, Mr. Deene. She is, I am glad to say, a very sensible girl. Unfortunately, she takes after her mother in one respect.”
“Yes? What is that?”
“Church-going,” said Mr. Rowlands unexpectedly. “A lot of religious flummery. Bowing and scraping. Hymn-singing. Hypocrisy.”
“I gather you are not a religious man.”
“My religion has nothing to do with churches and chapels, Mr. Deene. I don’t believe in cant and lip-service. I always say, I won’t mix with a lot of Pharisees. My God is the wind on the downs!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, my God is in the wind on the downs. The sun on the water. The rain on the leaves.”
“The storm in the tea-cup?” suggested Carolus naughtily.
“Everything, everywhere,” agreed Mr. Rowlands, ignoring details. “My God is nature. The stars in their courses. The bud on the trees.”
“A little comprehensive, don’t you find?”
“All-comprehending,” amended Mr. Rowlands. “Not someone only found in churches. My wife, unhappily, has never seen eye to eye with me in this. She’s church. She’s brought Gladys up to the same jiggery-pokery as herself. But in everything else my daughter is a most sensible young person.”
“So you were not really concerned with the late Mayor’s attention to her?”
“There are many things about Mr. Wirral I did not approve,” said Rowlands sombrely. “He was a frivolous man. He used his wealth without forethought and without seeking the good of others. I had to warn my daughter about him. I felt that to be my duty”
“It’s that last day which interests me,” said Carolus, trying hard to keep his patience. “Did you see anything of him after you looked in at the bar while I was with him there?”
“Yes, I did. I believed it to be Only Right to keep an eye on his movements. After you had left he went straight to the office of the pier’s manager—Mr. Alec Slicker.”
“You don’t know why?”
“It wouldn’t have been Right for me to go meddling and moiling in the affairs of my superior officer,” said Rowlands quickly. “But from where I happened to be standing I couldn’t help hearing some of the interview which took place between them.”
“I can’t remember the exact words, but the upshot of it was that the Mayor was accusing Mr. Slicker of dishonesty. I was standing some way from the office door, and only caught a word here and there. I could not go up to the door—that wouldn’t have been Right. I remember something about complimentary seats. The bar takings were mentioned. The Mayor referred to his accountants. There was talk of a public scandal. The Mayor seemed to be exceedingly angry.”
“And Mr. Slicker?”
“He did not raise his voice very much. It was not easy to catch his words at all. But he seemed to be pleading rather than denying or defying.”
“Do you think his plea was successful?”
“I always say, it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead,” said Rowlands. “But you know, perhaps, that Mr. Wirral was not a man to appeal to like that. There was not a softer side to him. His last words were something about prison. Not just threatening Mr. Slicker, but stating definitely that he would go to gaol. When he came out of the manager’s office he passed me, and I could see his face. He was white with anger.”
“Where did he go from there?”
“For lunch. To the Grand Hotel opposite.”
“How do you happen to know that?”
“I was due to go off duty at that time, as it was my turn for night duty later. I saw Mr. Wirral go back to his rod and line, then march off to the gates. I couldn’t help seeing him cross the road and enter the Grand.”
“It’s a pity you did not see more of his movements later in the day.”
“I was off duty, as I have told you. But I understand that he was approached by his housekeeper that afternoon not long after he returned from lunch.”
“Had she been before to visit him on the pier, do you know?”
“No. I can’t say she had. But I always say it’s a small world, Mr. Deene. She attends the same place of so-called worship as my wife. They go psalm-singing together. They believe in the same fiddle-faddle. My wife has occasionally brought Mrs. Thump back to the house for a cup of tea. I should have recognized her if she had come on the pier.”
“You didn’t happen to hear of anything else that took place on the pier that afternoon?”
“Not long before she came, I gather Mr. Wirral had been over to the fortune-teller’s both. That should tell you what kind of man he was. Listening to that mumbo-jumbo. I always say, the woman ought not to be allowed to practise. It isn’t Right.”
“You seem to have heard quite a lot about Mr. Wirral’s movements that day.”
“I am not an inquisitive man. I leave that to the so-called religious people. But I know the difference between Right and Wrong. I always say, the late Mayor was a man of loose principles.”
“Did you hear anything else?”
“Not of Mr. Wirral. But I believe that my superior officer was indisposed.”
“I’m not surprised, if you mean Slicker. He was knocking back whisky with a rush that morning.”
“So far as I am concerned he was indisposed,” said Rowlands grandly.
“At what time did you report for night duty?”
“I came on at ten o’clock.”
“And you did not notice the rod and line left there”
Rowlands stared at Carolus rather blankly for a moment, but when he answered it was quite calmly and clearly.
“I did not,” he said. “I was here, there and everywhere that night, attending to my duties. There is a great deal to do on a pier, you see. I always say, a pier is like a great ship, a liner, and every member of the crew has his responsibilities. I do not neglect mine, Mr. Deene. I do not dress up to look like an old sailor and tell lies about my life at sea.”
“Why should you?”
“Why indeed? But Some Do,” said Rowlands darkly. “I am content to fulfil my duty.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Carolus. “Is there anything else you would like to add?”
“Nothing whatever. I’ve given you what little information I had.”
“You did not, for instance, hear or see anything during the night which could be connected with Mr. Wirral’s disappearance?”
Rowlands hesitated, then said, “No.”
“I’m sorry to press this, but are you quite sure? Nothing at all?”
“I’m quite sure that I have nothing to tell you, Mr. Deene. “I feel that I have already gone against my principles in discussing these matters with a private detective.”
“I’m sorry you should feel that. I’m really only trying to get at the truth.”
“I daresay your motives are satisfactory,” said Rowlands, “but your occupation is not one I can respect, I’m afraid.”
With that, Rowlands walked away, leaving Carolus a little baffled. Such rich self-righteousness seemed scarcely natural. Carolus sighed. The pattern was not even beginning to form. With a number of interviews like that he might know something of how the late Mayor had spent his last day alive, but that was not his main problem. He wanted to learn how Wirral had died.
There was one thing which Rowlands had said which was quite new and would possibly lead to further details, though they might be useless. The man had gone across to the Grand Hotel at lunch-time. Because in this particular work of reconstructing the last hours of a murdered man Carolus was painfully meticulous, he decided now to go to this hotel himself and make inquiries.
The Grand had once justified its name. Before the childhood of Carolus it had been an hotel of some standing, in which rather long Victorian meals were served by attentive waiters, an hotel to which city gentleman came for the week-end, sometimes not quite properly accompanied. Red plush and gilt had graced its lounge then and bottles of ‘bubbly’ were demanded by sporty men in bright check suits for ladies with large feathery hats. Now it had brightly coloured basket chairs and tables with glass tops, hideous incandescent lighting and very evident staff problems.
He approached a young woman at the desk who was reading the strip cartoon in a daily newspaper.
“Yes?” she asked wearily, without looking up
“I wonder if I might have a few words with your head waiter?” asked Carolus.
“Head waiter? Oh, you mean George.”
“I don’t know his name, I’m afraid.”
The young woman ceased to follow the adventures of an over-muscled man with a leopard skin who crossed the universe in an atomic rocket, but she immediately began to study the scarcely less improbable exploits of a girl who spent most of her life in her underclothes.
“I expect he’s somewhere about,” she said absently
“Perhaps you would be good enough to send for him?”
She looked up at that. One would have thought that Carolus had made an improper suggestion to her.
“He’ll be doing the lunch,” she said, sighing noisily. “You’ll find him in the dining-room.”
George was a sad man in a frayed evening-dress suit with a soiled dicky. He did not welcome Carolus to the empty dining-room.
“Are you the head waiter?” asked Carolus.
“Yes. If you want a table you’ll have to come later. I don’t know how many I’ve got yet.”
“I don’t want a table. It’s extremely unlikely that I shall ever want a table. Did you serve Mr. Wirral when he came here to lunch on his last day?”
George looked up at once. His expression became one of guarded interest.
“Was he alone?”
“No. He had his son and daughter-in-law with him.”
“Thank you. That’s all I wanted to know.”
This last statement was wholly untrue, but Carolus thought rightly that George, like Mr. Grool, was more likely to be provoked than persuaded into confidence.
“That’s Paul Wirral,” George enlarged. “Supposed to work on the paper. Not much good, if you ask me.”
“I don’t,” said Carolus.
“I heard what they were talking about most of the time.” Carolus yawned. “Young Wirral was trying to get his old man to put some money into a scheme of his. He wanted to build a hotel out on the marshes where the Old Coastguard Station is. He reckoned that land could be developed.”
“He was wrong,” said Carolus indifferently.
“That’s what the Mayor said. It would be a white elephant, he said. Nothing his son could say would change him. Young Mrs. Wirral didn’t take much notice. She’s not the sort for business. Likes a good time, she does.”
Piqued by the small interest Carolus shewed in this, George plunged deeper.
“Before that day I hadn’t seen the Mayor for some time. He didn’t often come here. Used to, once upon a time. But he didn’t seem to like this place lately.”
“I’m not altogether surprised,” said Carolus as he handed the bewildered George a tip. “I don’t myself. Good morning.”
George, with a tip in his hand, made a major concession.
“Good morning, sir,” he said.