“No. No arrest,” said Grant to Superintendent Barker over the telephone in the early evening. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt about its being murder. The surgeon’s sure of it. The button in her hair might be an accident — although if you saw it you’d be convinced it wasn’t — but her fingernails were broken with clawing at something. What was under the nails has gone to the analyst, but there wasn’t much after an hour’s immersion in salt water . . . ‘M? . . . Well, indications point one way certainly, but they cancel each other out, somehow. Going to be difficult, I think. I’m leaving Williams here on routine inquiry, and coming back to town tonight. I want to see her lawyer — Erskine. He arrived just in time for the inquest, and afterward I had Tisdall on my hands so I missed him. Would you find out for me when I can talk to him tonight. They’ve fixed the funeral for Monday. Golders Green. Yes, cremation. I’d like to be there, I think. I’d like to look over the intimates. Yes, I may look in for a drink, but it depends how late I am. Thanks.”
Grant hung up and went to join Williams for a high tea, it being too early for dinner and Williams having a passion for bacon and eggs garnished with large pieces of fried bread.
“Tomorrow being Sunday may hold up the button inquiries,” Grant said as they sat down. “Well, what did Mrs. Pitts say?”
“She says she couldn’t say whether he was wearing a coat or not. All she saw was the top of his head over her hedge as he went past. But whether he wore it or not doesn’t much matter, because she says the coat habitually lay in the back of the car along with that coat that Miss Clay wore. She doesn’t remember when she saw Tisdall’s dark coat last. He wore it a fair amount, it seems. Mornings and evenings. He was a ‘chilly mortal,’ she said. Owing to his having come back from foreign parts, she thought. She hasn’t much of an opinion of him.”
“You mean she thinks he’s a wrong ’un?”
“No. Just no account. You know, sir, has it occurred to you that it was a clever man who did this job?”
“Well, but for that button coming off no one would ever have suspected anything. She’d have been found drowned after going to bathe in the early morning — all quite natural. No footsteps, no weapon, no signs of violence. Very neat.”
“Yes. It’s neat.”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it.”
“It’s the coat. If you were going to drown a woman in the sea, would you wear an overcoat to do it?”
“I don’t know. ‘Pends how I meant to drown her.”
“How would you drown her?”
“Go swimming with her and keep her head under.”
“You’d have scratches that way, ten to one. Evidence.”
“Not me. I’d catch her by the heels in shallow water and upend her. Just stand there and hold her till she drowned.”
“Williams! What resource. And what ferocity.”
“Well, how would you do it, sir?”
“I hadn’t thought of aquatic methods. I mightn’t be able to swim, or I mightn’t like early-morning dips, or I might want to make a quick getaway from a stretch of water containing a body. No, I think I’d stand on a rock in deep water, wait till she came to talk to me, grip her head and keep it under. The only part of me that she could scratch that way would be my hands. And I’d wear leather gloves. It takes only a few seconds before she is unconscious.”
“Very nice, sir. But you couldn’t use that method anywhere within miles of the Gap.”
“There aren’t any rocks.”
“No. Good man. But there are the equivalent. There are stone groins.”
“Yes. Yes, so there are! Think that was how it was done, sir?”
“Who knows? It’s a theory. But the coat still worries me.”
“I don’t see why it need, sir. It was a misty morning, a bit chilly at six. Anyone might have worn a coat.”
“Y-es,” Grant said doubtfully, and let the matter drop, this being one of those unreasonable things which occasionally worried his otherwise logical mind (and had more than once been the means of bringing success to his efforts when his logic failed).
He gave Williams instructions for his further inquiries, when he himself should be in town. “I’ve just had another few minutes with Tisdall,” he finished. “He has got himself a waiter’s job at the Marine. I don’t think he’ll bolt, but you’d better plant a man. Sanger will do. That’s Tisdall’s car route on Thursday morning, according to himself.” He handed a paper to the sergeant. “Check up on it. It was very early but someone may remember him. Did he wear a coat or not? That’s the main thing. I think, myself, there’s no doubt of his taking the car as he said. Though not for the reason he gave.”
“I thought it a silly reason myself, when I read that statement. I just thought: ‘Well, he might have made up a better one!’ What’s your theory, sir?”
“I think that when he had drowned her his one idea was to get away. With a car he could be at the other end of England, or out of the country, before they found her body! He drove away. And then something made him realize what a fool he was. Perhaps he missed the button from his cuff. Anyhow, he realized that he had only to stay where he was and look innocent. He got rid of the telltale coat — even if he hadn’t missed the button the sleeve almost up to the elbow must have been soaking with salt water — came back to replace the car, found that the body had been discovered thanks to an incoming tide, and put on a very good act on the beach. It wouldn’t have been difficult. The very thought of how nearly he had made a fool of himself would have been enough to make him burst into tears.”
“So you think he did it?”
“I don’t know. There seems to be a lack of motive. He was penniless and she was a liberal woman. That was every reason for keeping her alive. He was greatly interested in her, certainly. He says he wasn’t in love with her, but we have only his word for it. I think he’s telling the truth when he says there was nothing between them. He may have suffered from frustration, but if that were so he would be much more likely to beat her up. It was a queerly cold-blooded murder, Williams.”
“It was certainly that, sir. Turns my stomach.” Williams laid a large forkful of best Wiltshire lovingly on a pink tongue.
Grant smiled at him: the smile that made Grant’s subordinates “work their fingers to the bone for him.” He and Williams had worked together often, and always in amity and mutual admiration. Perhaps, in a large measure because Williams, bless him, coveted no one’s shoes. He was much more the contented husband of a pretty and devoted wife than the ambitious detective-sergeant.
“I wish I hadn’t missed her lawyer after the inquest. There’s a lot I want to ask him, and heaven knows where he’ll be for the weekend. I’ve asked the Yard for her dossier, but her lawyer would be much more helpful. Must find out whom her death benefits. It was a misfortune for Tisdall, but it must have been lucky for a lot of people. Being an American, I suppose her will’s in the States somewhere. The Yard will know by the time I get up.”
“Christine Clay was no American, sir!” Williams said in a well-I-amsurprised-at-you voice.
“No? What then?”
“Born in Nottingham.”
“But everyone refers to her as an American.”
“Can’t help that. She was born in Nottingham and went to school there. They do say she worked in a lace factory, but no one knows the truth of that.”
“I forgot you were a film fan, Williams. Tell me more.”
“Well, of course, what I know is just by reading Screenland and Photoplay and magazines like that. A lot of what they write is hooey, but on the other hand they’ll never stop at truth as long as it makes a good story. She wasn’t fond of being interviewed. And she used to tell a different story each time. When someone pointed out that that wasn’t what she had said last time, she said: ‘But that’s so dull! I’ve thought of a much better one.’ No one ever knew where they were with her. Temperament, they called it, of course.”
“And don’t you call it that?” asked Grant, always sensitive to an inflection.
“Well, I don’t know. It always seemed to me more like — well, like protection, if you know what I mean. People can only get at you if they know what you’re like — what matters to you. If you keep them guessing, they’re the victims, not you.”
“A girl who’d pushed her way from a lace factory in Nottingham to the top of the film world couldn’t be very vulnerable.”
“It’s because she was from a lace factory that she was what-d’you-call-it. Every six months she was in a different social sphere, she went up at such a rate. That takes a lot of living up to — like a diver coming up from a long way below. You’re continually adjusting yourself to the pressure. No, I think she needed a shell to get into, and keeping people guessing was her shell.”
“So you were a Clay fan, Williams.”
“Sure I was,” said Williams in the appropriate idiom. His pink cheeks grew a shade pinker. He slapped marmalade with venom onto his slab of toast. “And before this affair’s finished I’m going to put bracelets on the chap that did it. It’s a comforting thought.”
“Got any theories yourself?”
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’ve passed over the person with the obvious motive.”
“Jason Harmer. What was he doing snooping around at half past eight of a morning?”
“He’d come over from Sandwich. Spent the night at the pub there.”
“So he said. Did the County people verify that?”
Grant consulted his notes.
“Perhaps they haven’t. The statement was volunteered before they found the button, and so they weren’t suspicious. And since then everyone has concentrated on Tisdall.”
“Plenty of motive, Harmer has. Clay walks out on him, and he runs her to earth in a country cottage, alone with a man.”
“Yes, very plausible. Well, you can add Harmer to your list of chores. Find out about his wardrobe. There’s an SOS out for a discarded coat. I hope it brings in something. A coat’s a much easier clue than a button. Tisdall, by the way, says he sold his wardrobe complete (except for his evening things) to a man called — appropriately enough — Togger, but doesn’t know where his place of business is. Is that the chap who used to be in Craven Road?”
“Where is he now?”
“Westbourne Grove. The far end.”
“Thanks. I don’t doubt Tisdall’s statement. But there’s just a chance there’s the duplicate of that button on another coat. It might lead us to something.” He got to his feet. “Well, on with the job of making bricks without straw! And talking of that Israelitish occupation, here’s a grand sample of it to flavor your third cup.” He pulled from his pocket the afternoon edition of the Sentinel, the Clarion’s evening representative, and laid it, with its staring headlines, “Was Clay’s Death an Accident?” upward, by Williams’s plate.
“Jammy Hopkins!” Williams said, with feeling, and flung sugar violently into his black tea.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01