Death of Cold
On the day before the Mayor of Oldhaven was missing, Carolus Deene drank a glass of pale sherry with Dr. Fyrth in the bar of the Schooner Inn. They were both on holiday and had taken to having a daily chat over their elevenses in this comfortable if somewhat dingy bar. With ships in bottles and huge prints of clippers and schooners framed in heavy maple above them on the walls, they sat in easy-chairs and rested their glasses on the varnished upturned little barrels which made the tables of the place.
Carolus had come to Oldhaven as a boy when it had still had some of the characteristics of a fishing town and small, unfashionable resort. He could remember purchasing fish from the morning’s catch to take home and eat an hour later, and smiled rather ruefully as he thought of it, since the catch now was docketed, divided, distributed and sold in the Oldhaven shops, chilled by ice after its travel to London and back. He could remember pierrots and donkey-rides on the beach and a Penny Bazaar and winkles for tea. He tried to feel some of the ecstasy of childhood’s holidays among the sterner pleasures of today, the Fun Fairs and grimly resolute sun-bathers, the crowded cafés staffed by bored and over-paid hoydens, the holiday-makers who complained that they missed their television sets.
He stayed at the Aberdare, the largest hotel, which in his childhood had seemed a princely place. He could remember being brought here to dinner by his father, wearing his Eton suit for the occasion because everyone else was obliged to put on a dinner-jacket to enter the dining-room at night. There was no such rule today, and the hotel deteriorated in other respects, but at least in it Carolus was unknown. Nobody was aware that he was the Senior History Master of the Queen’s School, Newminster, who had written a book in which the methods of modern detection were applied to some of the great crimes of history and called Who killed William Rufus? Still less did anyone know that Carolus had applied his talent to one modern crime and discovered the murderers of a shopkeeper and policeman in his own town.*
Young Dr. Fyrth—Jack Fyrth, as he was popularly called—came every year to spend his summer in the town of which is father-in-law was Mayor. It was here that he had met Greta Wirral and married her two years ago. They always rented a tiny isolated cottage a mile beyond the last houses of the town. It had once been a Coastguard Station, built, so Jack liked to think, to check smuggling on that lonely foreshore.
That morning Jack Fyrth was rather jumpy and absent-minded, for he was expecting news at any moment from the nursing home, and this would be their First.
“I can’t ring up again,” he confided to Carolus. “They’ll think I’m crazy.”
“I expect they’re pretty used to it,” Carolus replied.
“They told me today they were surprised at a doctor behaving like that.”
“I don’t suppose a doctor is any better than anyone else in the circumstances. Have another drink?”
Jack Fyrth stood up.
“I better go and see Greta’s old man,” he said. “He’s fishing on the pier as usual. Like to come?”
Having nothing to do, Carolus agreed, and the two walked along the resounding deck of the pier until they found the Mayor sitting contentedly by his rod. He was smoking a small cheroot and because it was a breezy September morning wore a raincoat with the collar turned. He was a large man with a ruddy face. IHis crimson jowls hung loose and his nose was mapped with thin purple lines, but it was not an ugly or bloated face. He looked like a man who lived well and enjoyed it.
“What’s the news?” he asked Fyrth.
“None yet. I ’phoned again an hour ago.”
The Mayor nodded and began to pull in his line. When he saw a good-sized plaice on one of the hooks he chuckled. Carolus noted that he looked aside at a small stooping man with a sour face who was fishing close by. The Mayor seemed to take his time about bringing in his prize, as though he wanted the other to have a good chance of viewing it.
“That’s old Grool,” said the Mayor. “Can’t bear to see me land anything decent. I knocked him out of the Angling Competition this year after he’d won it twice running. Surly old devil.”
He re-baited his hook and cast his line again. The three of them chatted quite cheerfully for a time of the changes apparent in Oldhaven. Then, leaving Fyrth with his father-in-law, Carolus strolled across to the shrunken figure of the man they call Grool.
“Good morning,” he said and without waiting to be unanswered went on: “Are you having luck?”
“No,” said Mr. Grool.
It was, reflected Carolus with some amusement, a perfectly adequate answer to his question. He knew he was being a bore, but it interested him to see how the little man would react to his apparently well-meant silliness.
“Do you often come here?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Grool.
“Must be good fun. I expect you occasionally have a really good catch.”
Perhaps because this was not a direct question it received no answer.
Suddenly, however, Mr. Grool nodded towards the Mayor.
“What’s he using for bait?” he whispered fiercely.
“Sandworms. Same as you,” said Carolus.
Mr. Grool grunted.
“I expect it’s just luck,” said Carolus brightly.
Mr. Grool glanced at his rival with ferocity and malice.
“The luck of the devil,” he muttered.
Suddenly his line, which had no bell on it, began to bend and quiver.
“Eeeh!” he said and started to wind it in. As the hooks rose above water only one small dab was shewing. It was probably no more than coincidence that at this moment Mr. Wirral gave a loud laugh, but Carolus was shocked at the effect it produced on Grool. His expression was nothing less than murderous.
Carolus rejoined the other two.
“Old Grool nice and matey this morning?” suggested the Mayor, with a chuckle. “Pleased to see me catching fish? Jolly type, isn’t he? Let’s go and have a drink.”
They made for the Elizabethan Bar.
When he saw the words and letters rendered almost unreadable by the turns and twiddles added to make them old-fashioned, Carolus decided that the reality could be no more absurd than the name, but stained oak and highly polished warming-pans, witch balls and latticed windows were displayed, while under their feet the sea rolled round the iron framework of the pier.
“Oh God!” he could not help explaining.
“Fearful, isn’t it?” said Fyrth. “But wait till you see Glad.”
It was obvious at once that ‘Glad’ was waiting to see them—or at least one of them. She was a fleshy young woman with a rich, wet smile and rather good eyes. Her hair glittered in golden waves and she wore a black dress. She was enticing and cosy.
“Mr. Wirral dear,” she said, beaming only to the Mayor. “I was wondering when you’d come in. Do you want your usual?”
“Good morning, Gladys,” said Mr. Wirral. “You’re looking very nice this morning.”
The Mayor was the practised bar gallant, Carolus noticed. The old gentleman’s eyes grazed hungrily on the open spaces of Glad’s person, the low neck and plump arms, the pretty pink face.
“Oh, go on,” said Glad inevitably. “I said, do you want your usual?”
“And I said you look very nice this morning. It cheers me up to see you.”
“I should think you wanted cheering up after those old fish of yours. Caught any today?”
“One or two, my dear. But there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it. Yes, please, a pink gin. Mr. Deene? Jack?”
Carolus decided to say nothing which would interrupt the traditional flirtatious repartee between the customer and the barmaid. Period stuff, he decided; not the period of the bar’s ridiculous name, for such a conversation in Shakespeare’s time would have been more frank and earthy, but the period of the bowler-hatted romantics and high-collared ladies who are depicted in illustrations of the reign of Edward the Peacemaker.
“I wonder you can tear yourself away from your old fish,” said Glad.
“You know I have to come and see your lovely face, my dear. Couldn’t get through the morning without that.”
“I’m sure you couldn’t. As if you didn’t look at all the girls’ faces on the pier!”
“Oh, come now. You don’t mind an old man using his eyes, do you?”
“I’ve seen yours popping out of your head before now. I know you too well.”
“You mustn’t say that. Mr. Deene will think you mean it.”
“So I do.” She turned to serve a Bass and a Worthington and returned when the money from the sale was in the till and her customers sipping. For a moment neither Glad nor the Mayor could think of a suitably facetious remark.
Then the swing door of the Elizabethan Bar was opened and the pier manager entered. Mr. Alec Slicker was thin and prematurely bald, and this morning looking harassed. He nodded to the Mayor and ordered a double whisky.
“I should like to call into your office presently,” said the Mayor in a voice very different from the sugary one he had been using to Glad.
“What time?” asked Mr. Slicker.
“Before lunch?” There was a scarcely question enough in this to earn it an interrogation mark.
“Very well,” said the manager in a resigned and cheerless voice.
Carolus noted that he swallowed his whisky and ordered another.
Before Glad could return to the attack, her father, John Rowlands, the pier attendant, put his head in the door.
“Mr. Wirral, your bell is ringing,” he said seriously.
“Back in a moment, my dear,” said the Mayor and went to attend to his line.
“Isn’t he a caution?” smiled Glad fondly. “I can’t imagine him as Mayor, though, can you?”
“Well, I’ve seen him,” said Fyrth.
“He’s ever so nice really,” went on Glad, changing her tone to be serious and confidential. “I mean, he’s so kind, if you know what I mean. I’m sure he’d be the first to help anyone in trouble. Everyone likes him. Well, almost everyone. I can’t answer for those who are jealous, of course. She looked decided Mr. Slicker, who stood at the far end of the bar finishing his third large Scotch. You wouldn’t think he had an enemy, would you?”
As Mr. Wirral entered, Carolus felt inclined to agree with her. The man was smiling and looked rubicund and healthy.
“A whopper,” he said. “A pound at least. Old Grool is hopping mad.”
Fyrth at this point led Carolus away. His last impression of the Mayor was of a strong, rather amorous elderly man leaning over the bar, looking into Glad’s jolly eyes. Carolus thought afterwards that this little scene was marred by the Mephistophelean shade of Mr. Slicker in the background looking anxious and distressed.
Carolus walked down the short pier with Jack Fyrth.
“What do you think of the old man?” asked the Mayor’s son-in-law.
“I like him,” said Carolus.
“I thought you would. Now I think I might ring up the nursing home again, don’t you?”
“Certainly,” said Carolus.
But he saw from Jack Fyrth’s face as he left the telephone booth that there was no news yet.
They parted, and did not meet again till the evening when Fyrth had received his news. He came to Carolus’s hotel in a state of great elation just as Carolus was drinking an appetizer at half past seven. They dined together on the strength of it.
“I really ought to go and find the old man,” said Jack. “He’ll be tickled to death. I left a message for him on the pier, so he’ll know by now.”
But Mr. Wirral, as it was later realized, never received that message.
* At Death’s Door, by Leo Bruce (Hamish Hamilton, 1955).