Death of Cold
There were two more interviews which Carolus meant to manage that day, but he regarded them as little more than loose ends to be tied up—the man in charge of the bathing-huts beside the pier and Mr. Slicker, the pier manager. From neither of them did he expect surprises, but in that, in one case at least, he was wrong.
He found the bathing-hut attendant a middle-aged man wearing a blue jersey from which a thin and sinewy neck protruded to blossom into a rather startling face. This was pale, or seemed so in contrast to a sudden crimson nose—a comedian’s red nose, a shining beacon of a nose, bulbous and glistening. Two sad eyes peered out of above it as though they were for ever conscious of the crimson flash ahead of them.
Carolus wasted no time, but stated his business, explained that the attendant could help his investigations and asked him to come across the road for a drink.
“I don’t touch it,” said Mr. Swipely fiercely. I daren’t. It’s poison to me. But I’ll tell you what I can without that. What do you want to know?”
“Do you remember the afternoon before it was known that the Mayor had disappeared?”
“His last day on earth, you mean? Yes.”
“You were pretty busy, I expect?”
“I am always busy,” said Mr. Swipely in a hurt voice. “If you think it’s easy to look after these huts, you’re mistaken. It’s not only the people’s money. It’s their morals.”
“Really?” said Carolus, as though he were deeply interested.
“You’d have to do this job for a bit to believe it. I never would have. Not in England. Continental tricks, I should have called them.”
It was curious, thought Carolus, how the people of Oldhaven who lived on their visitors seemed invariably to disapprove of them. But he only looked at Mr. Swipely with an assumption of interest.
“Yes. The things I’ve seen. Make your hair curl. They’ll come here shewing wedding rings. I know ’em, though. You can’t do this job for five years without learning a thing or two. I have to Refuse. Can’t have that.”
“I wonder how you decide.”
“I can always Tell. Something about them. Then what I hear! You walk up and down outside these huts a time or two. You’d never believe it. Not in England, you wouldn’t.”
“I daresay not.”
“Then the way they go about. Hardly a stitch. I’d be sorry to see my wife making a parade of herself. Little bits of stuff, not enough to cover a child. Sunbathing, they call it. I’d call it something else.”
“What?” asked Carolus curiously.
“Never mind. You’d think that place would stop it. Never shew their faces down here. Leave it all to me. I had to say to one young person the other day, ‘You’re not going about like that, are you?’ She was quite put out. Called me a nasty old man. As if it was me that was to blame.”
“It must be very trying for you.”
“The men I know better. Worse, if anything. Bikinis, they call them. I’d give them bikinis if I had anything to do with it. I wonder the Corporation put up with it. It’s not like the old days, when they had to be decent on the beach. I can remember when they wore proper costumes. As for coming here asking for huts—people would have been ashamed.”
“In front of children, too. They don’t seem to mind who sees them.”
“We were talking of that afternoon . . .” said Carolus.
“Yes, I remember. There was a lot came for huts.”
“It wasn’t so much them I wanted to ask about,” said Carolus. “But people in the sea. You must find time to look up to see now and again, in spite of all that claims your attention here. Did you happen to notice anything that evening? Anyone swimming towards the pier from farther along the beach?”
“I don’t know what you think this job is,” said Mr. Swipely grumpily. “I’m a hut attendant, not a lifeguard. I’ve got more than I can attend to here, without watching what goes on in the water.”
“But you remember that evening well?”
“Certainly I do. It was the evening young Mrs. Wirral came down and hired a hut.”
Carolus looked sharply at him.
“Hired one of these huts. Are you sure?”
“Certainly I am.”
“Do you know her well?”
“Not from here, I don’t. But I’ve seen her about.”
“You don’t sound as though you like her.”
“I don’t. The cheeky baggage! She’d have taken her bathing-dress off altogether and walked about like a statue if I’d have let her.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Certainly she would. No shame at all. She thought I didn’t know why she came here.”
“Why did she?”
“I know. I’ve got eyes in my head. Mind you, they never tried anything with me. They knew better than that. Separate huts and never a word till they was in the water. But I watched them.”
“You mean she met someone here?”
“Of course she did. Bridger his name is. Works for the Co-op. They thought I hadn’t noticed they’d arrive a few minutes after one another. I don’t do this job for nothing, though.”
“I’m glad you don’t.”
“They came just before I closed. I’m supposed to finish at six. These two turned up just before. ‘Shan’t be a minute,’ she says. ‘Only just going in and out,’ he tells me. It was quarter to seven before they was back. Must have swum out a long way. All round the pier, I shouldn’t be surprised. I couldn’t see them after they’d gone in the water.”
“They were about half an hour gone, then?”
“All of that. I was beginning to wonder. Then I saw her coming in. She looked a bit done for, I thought. Didn’t say a word to me. Didn’t say she was sorry to have kept me waiting or anything. Walked straight by and went into her hut.”
“Sly-like, he comes in a few minutes later. As if they hadn’t been out together out there. He says nothing, either. I told them to hurry up because I wanted to get home to my tea. My wife wondered whatever had happened.”
“They left together?”
“No. Too cunning for that. But very likely they were waiting for one another round the corner. I know that sort.”
“Have you seen them since?”
“No, I haven’t. I shouldn’t be surprised if her husband had got to know. They’ve never been back, either of them.”
“Did you know that Mrs. Wirral hires a beach hut for the whole season?”
“Yes. Along at the far end.”
“Why didn’t she use it that evening, do you think?”
“She had some story about having lost the key.”
Carolus thanked Mr. Swipely and made for the pier entrance. He did not speak to Old Hammond, whom he wanted to see after everyone else, but hurried towards the manager’s office.
He found Mr. Slicker a man very changed from the harassed individual swallowing whisky to give himself confidence whom he remembered seeing on the day of Wirral’s disappearance. A flower was in his buttonhole now, and it seemed to symbolize the whole blooming self-satisfaction of the man.
“What can I do for you, old chap?” he asked complacently.
“I’m inquiring into the circumstances of Wirral’s death,” said Carolus and sat back to watch the effect of this.
There was almost none.
“Oh yes,” said Mr. Slicker, adjusting his tie, but not out of nervousness. “Pity, wasn’t it?”
“I thought you might be able to help me.”
“If you can shew me how, I shall be delighted. I had a high opinion of the late Mayor.”
“I think I can shew you how. On his last day he had a violent scene with you in this office. Perhaps you could explain the circumstances of that?”
“Ha! ha!” said Mr. sticker. “You’re a one, aren’t you? I wonder what gave you that idea?”
“A very simple thing. The argument between you and Mr. Wirral was overheard.”
For the first time Carolus thought he noticed signs of uneasiness in Mr. Slicker.
“I should scarcely call it an argument. A chat, really. We were discussing entertainments.”
“And receipts,” pointed out Carolus. “It ended with a very specific threat on the Mayor’s part. He told you that he intended to send you to gaol.”
“Well, well,” said Mr. Slicker. “You have been hearing a story, haven’t you? I’m afraid you’ve got a very exaggerated version of what happened, old man. I shouldn’t rely on the evidence of Rowlands, if I were you.”
“I don’t,” said Carolus.
“The fact is that there was a small bone of contention between us. But I had put it there. I had confided in the Mayor a certain matter connected with some accounts. It’s of no interest now. The whole thing has been cleared up. I hadn’t realized what a vindictive, self-righteous old mountebank Wirral could be.”
“I thought you had a very high opinion of him?”
“So I had at one time, otherwise I shouldn’t have told him what I did. Instead of treating it as the confidence of a friend, the old blighter threatened to take it to the police.”
“Was going to, in fact. On the next day. Not that it would have made much difference, as I know now.”
“I don’t understand that, I’m afraid. Of course I realize that I shouldn’t expect you to explain all this to me, Mr. Slicker. I’m only interested in the matter of Wirral’s death.”
“Don’t worry, old chap,” said Slicker, with familiarity too quickly assumed. “I shouldn’t discuss anything I didn’t want to. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t hear about this if you’re acting for the family. The fact is that when Wirral first disappeared I realized that I was in a sticky position. I guessed that Rowlands had been snooping round. I don’t trust him an inch with his ‘My Gawd’s the wind on the downs’. So I went to the police and told them the whole story. I saw a type called Cotter. Detective Sergeant Cotter. I explained about this little discrepancy in the books and how I had been to Wirral about it. I said I thought I could get it paid back immediately . . .”
“And could you? Is it paid back?”
“Oh yes. The lot. I had a few uncomfortable days, mind you, when I didn’t know what this Cotter intended to do. Then he told me that the police did not intend to prosecute.”
“Why was this?”
“The Chief Constable, I gathered. Doesn’t want a lot of scandal in the town. He was very put out by Wirral’s death and all the hu-ha in the newspapers about it. Didn’t want more trouble. So the whole thing has blown over.”
“But if Wirral had lived it might not have?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I daresay I could have talked him round. I’d always got on very well with him before this.”
“When did you see him last?”
“Who? Old Wirral?”
“Some time that afternoon, I suppose. I was rather under the weather.”
“You saw him fishing?”
“I expect so, old chap. I can’t actually remember much about it.”
“Did you stay in your office that day?”
“Yes. I seem to remember that I had a nap.”
“What time would you have to come out?”
“Knowing myself, I should guess about six o’clock. When the pubs opened.”
“And you don’t remember seeing Wirral again?”
“Not actually. No.”
“Well, thank you . . .”
“What about a drink, old man? Let’s wander along to the bar, shall we?”
“I’m afraid I’m rather late for a lunch appointment.”
“No, thanks. I’m grateful to you for your information.”
“That’s all right. Be seeing you.”
But Carolus was not grateful. While Slicker had seemed not to mind how self-incriminating he was, his information followed the pattern set by Grool, Rowlands and Tiplock—it stopped short at the relevant times. All of them had known something of Wirral’s movements that day, but no one, apparently, had seen him at any time later than six o’clock. He had been solidly there, a man very much of flesh and blood, and then he had been there no longer. No one, it seemed, had watched him go. No one had heard him or spoken to him or seen him after Grool had left him sitting by his line till two schoolboys had come on his body stretched on the beach days later, days which that body had certainly spent in the sea. “Wirral was still here when I packed up and went home . . . about six,” said Mr. Grool. Mrs. Hammock, the Original Gypsy Lee, had not seen him after his consultation. John Rowlands had been off duty all the afternoon. “I did not see Mr. Wirral any more that day,” he said. Mrs. Thump could remember nothing—not if he were to offer her a hundred pounds. Mr. Tiplock had seen him, but only from a distance, and soon after he had spoken to him. Now the manager, who had gone from his office to the Elizabethan Bar as soon as it opened, could not remember seeing Wirral—“Not actually. No.”
It was beginning to become unreal. Scores of people on the pier and dozens, probably, who knew Wirral by sight. Yet not a scrap of information about him after Grool’s recollection that he was still fishing at six. Everything else. The woman who had spoken to him. His threats to Slicker. Tiplock’s threats to him. But beyond that not a word. It was as though there were a conspiracy of silence.