The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey


YOU don’t seem awfully sweet on this guy,’ Tad Cullen said, when Grant had finished this story over the telephone.

‘Don’t I? Oh, well, perhaps it’s just that he doesn’t happen to be what we call my cup of tea. Look, Tad, you’re quite sure that you have no idea, even in the back of your mind, where Bill could have been staying?’

‘I haven’t got a back to my mind. I have just a small, narrow space in front where I keep all that’s useful to me. A few telephone numbers, and a prayer or two.’

‘Well, tomorrow I’d like you to do the round of the more obvious places, if you would.’

‘Yes, sure. I’ll do anything. Anything you say.’

‘All right. Have you got a pen? Here’s the list.’

Grant gave him the names of twenty of the more likely places, going on the assumption that a young man from the wide open spaces and the small towns would look for a caravanserai that was both large and gay and not too expensive. And just for good measure he added a couple of the best-known expensive ones; young men with several months’ back-pay were liable to be extravagant.

‘I don’t think I’d bother with any more than that,’ he said.

Are there any more?’

‘If he didn’t stay in one of these, then we’re sunk, because if he didn’t stay in any of them we’d have to hunt every hotel in London to find him, to say nothing of the boarding-houses.’

‘Okay. I’ll start first thing in the morning. Mr Grant, I’d like to tell you how much I appreciate what you’re doing for me. Giving up your time to something that no one else could do; I mean, something the police wouldn’t touch. If it wasn’t for you ——’

‘Listen, Tad. I’m not being benevolent. I’m being self-indulgent and typically nosey and I’m enjoying myself to the top of my bent. If I wasn’t, believe me I wouldn’t be in London. I’d be going to sleep tonight in Clune. So good night and sleep well. We’ll crack this thing between us.’

He hung up and went to see what Mrs Tinker had left on the stove. It seemed to be a sort of shepherd’s pie. He carried it into the living-room and ate it absent-mindedly, his thoughts still on Lloyd.

What was familiar about Lloyd?

He went back in his mind over the few moments before his first feeling of recognition. What had Lloyd been doing? Pulling open the panel of the book cupboard. Pulling it open with a gesture self-consciously graceful; faintly exhibitionist. What was there in that to provoke a sense of familiarity?

And there was something even more curious.

Why had Lloyd said ‘On what?’ when he had mentioned Kenrick’s scribbling?

That, surely, was a most unnatural reaction.

What exactly had he said to Lloyd? He had said that he became interested in Kenrick because of some verses he had been scribbling. The normal come-back to that was surely: ‘Verses?’ The operative word in the sentence was verses. That he was scribbling was entirely by the way.

And that anyone’s reaction to the information should be to say ‘On what?’ was inexplicable.

Except that no human reaction was inexplicable.

It was Grant’s experience that it was the irrelevant, the unconsidered words in a statement that were important. Quite surprising and gratifying revelations lay in the gap between an assertion and a non-sequitur.

Why had Lloyd said ‘On what?’

He took the problem to bed with him, and fell asleep with it.

In the morning he began his hunt through the authorities on Arabia, and finished it not at all astonished that it had produced no result. People who explored Arabia as a hobby very seldom had money to back anything. They were, on the contrary, usually prospecting for backing themselves. The only chance had been that some one of them had proved interested to the point of being willing to share his backing. But none of them had ever heard of either Charles Martin or Bill Kenrick.

It was lunch-time before he finished, and he stood by the window waiting for Tad’s call and wondering whether to go out to luncheon or to let Mrs Tinker make him an omelette. It was another grey day but there was a slight breeze and a smell of damp earth that was queerly countrified. A fine fishing day, he noted. He wished for a moment that he was walking down over the moor to the river instead of wrestling with the London telephone system. It wouldn’t even have to be the river. He would settle for an afternoon on Lochan Dhu in a leaky boat with Pat for company.

He turned to his desk and began to clear up the mess of this morning’s opened mail. He had stooped to throw the torn pages and the empty envelopes into the waste-paper basket, but he stopped with the action half spent.

It had come to him.

He knew now who it was that Heron Lloyd reminded him of.

It was Wee Archie.

This was so unexpected and so ridiculous that he sat down on the chair by his desk and began to laugh.

What had Wee Archie in common with that elegant and sophisticated creature who was Heron Lloyd?

Frustration? Of a surety not. The fact that he was an Auslander in the country of his devotion? No; too far-fetched. It was something nearer home than that.

For it was of Wee Archie that Lloyd had reminded him. He had no doubt of that now. He was experiencing that inimitable relief that comes when one has remembered a name that has eluded one.

Yes, it was Wee Archie.

But why?

What had that incongruous pair in common?

Their gestures? No. Their physique? No. Their voices? Was that it?

‘Their vanity, you fool!’ said that inner voice in him.

Yes; that was it. Their vanity. Their pathological vanity.

He sat very still, considering this; not amused any longer.

Vanity. The first requisite in wrong-doing. The constant factor in the criminal mind.

Just supposing that ——

The telephone at his elbow gave its sudden purr.

It was Tad. He had reached number eighteen, he said, and was now an old old man but the blood of pioneers was in his veins and he was pursuing the search.

‘Drop it for a little and come and eat with me somewhere.’

‘Oh, I’ve had my lunch. I had a coupla bananas and a milk shake in Leicester Square.’

‘Merciful Heaven!’ said Grant.

‘What’s the matter with that?’

‘Starch; that’s what’s the matter with it.’

‘A little starch is fine when you’re ironed out. No luck your end?’

‘No. If it was a backer he was going North to see, then the backer was merely some amateur who had money; not anyone actively engaged in Arabian exploration.’

‘Oh. Well. I’ll be on my way. When shall I ring you next?’

‘As soon as you come to the end of the list. I’ll wait here for your call.’

Grant decided to have the omelette, and while Mrs Tinker prepared it he walked about his living-room letting his mind soar into speculation and pulling it down instantly to a common-sense level, so that it behaved like telegraph lines outside a railway compartment; continually soaring and continually caught back.

If only they had a starting-point. What if Tad came to the end of the likely hotels and still drew a blank? It was only a matter of days before he would have to go back to work. He stopped speculating on vanity and its possibilities and began to reckon how long it would take Tad to cover the remaining four hotels.

But before his omelette was half finished Tad arrived in person. He was flushed and triumphant.

‘I don’t know how you ever thought of that dull little dump in connection with Bill,’ he said, ‘but you were right. That’s where he stayed all right.’

‘And which is the dull little dump?’

‘The Pentland. How did you think of that one?’

‘It has an international reputation.’

That one has?’

‘And English people go on going to it generation after generation.’

‘That’s what it looks like!’

‘So that is where Bill Kenrick stayed. I like him more than ever.’

‘Yeah,’ Tad said more quietly. And the flush of triumph died away. ‘I wish you’d known Bill. I sure wish you’d known him. They don’t come any better than Bill.’

‘Sit down and have some coffee to settle your milk shake. Or would you like a drink?’

‘No, thanks, I’ll have coffee. It actually smells like coffee,’ he added in a surprised way. ‘Bill checked out on the 3rd. The 3rd of March.’

‘Did you ask about his luggage?’

‘Sure. They weren’t all that interested at first. But eventually they got out a ledger the size of the Judgement Book and said that Mr Kenrick had left nothing either in the box-room or the safe.’

‘That means that he took them to a cloak-room — to a left-luggage office, that is — to be ready to his hand when he came back from Scotland. If he meant to fly when he came back, then I suppose he would leave them at Euston to be picked up on his way to the airport. If he meant to go by sea, then he may have taken them to Victoria before going to Euston. Did he like the sea?’

‘So-so. He wasn’t daffy about it. But he had a mania for ferries.’


‘Yes. Seems it began when he was a kid at a place called Pompey — know where that is?’ Grant nodded. ‘And he spent all his time on a penny ferry.’

‘A ha’penny one, it used to be.’

‘Well, anyway.’

‘So the train-ferry might have had an interest for him, you think. Well, we can but try. But if he was going to be late in meeting you, I should think he would fly over. Would you know the cases if you saw them?’

‘Oh, yes. Bill and I shared a Company bungalow. I helped pack them. In fact one of them’s mine, if it comes to that. He just took the two of them. He said if we bought many things we could buy a suitcase to ——’ Tad’s voice died away suddenly and he buried his face in his coffee cup. It was a great flat bowl of a cup, willow-patterned in pink, which Marta Hallard had brought back from Sweden for Grant because he liked his coffee out of large cups; and it made a very good screen for emotion.

‘We have no ticket to recover them with, you see. And I can’t use any official means. But I know most of the men on duty at the big terminuses, and can probably wangle our way behind the scenes. It will be up to you to spot the cases. Was Bill a labeller by nature, would you say?’

‘I expect he’d label things he was going to leave behind like that. Why, do you think, did he not have the left-luggage ticket in his pocket-book?’

‘I did think that someone else may have deposited those cases for him. The person who saw him off at Euston, for instance.’

‘The Martin guy?’

‘It might be. If he had borrowed papers for this odd masquerade, he would have to return them. Perhaps Martin was going to meet him at the airport, or at Victoria, or wherever it was that he had planned to leave England from, with the cases and collect his own papers.’

‘Yeah. That makes sense. I suppose we couldn’t Agony-advertise for this Martin?’

‘I don’t think that this Martin would be very willing to answer, having lent his papers for a piece of sharp practice and being now without identity.’

‘No. Perhaps you’re right. He wasn’t anyone who was staying at that hotel, anyway.’

‘How do you know that?’ asked Grant, surprised.

‘I looked through the book: the register. When I was identifying Bill’s signature.’

‘You’re wasted in OCAL, Tad. You should come to us.’

But Tad was not listening. ‘You’ve no idea what a queer feeling it was to see Bill’s writing suddenly like that, among all those strange names. It sort of stopped my breath.’

Grant took Lloyd’s picture of the crater ‘ruins’ from his desk and brought it over to the table. ‘That is what Heron Lloyd thinks that Bill saw.’

Tad looked at it with interest. ‘It sure is queer, isn’t it? Just like ruined sky-scrapers. You know, until I saw Arabia I thought the United States invented sky-scrapers. But some of those old Arab towns are just the Empire State on a smaller scale. But you say it couldn’t have been this that Bill saw.’

‘No. From the air it must be quite obvious what it is.’

‘Did you tell Lloyd that?’

‘No. I just let him talk.’

‘Why do you dislike the guy so much?’

‘I didn’t say that I disliked him.’

‘You don’t have to.’

Grant hesitated; analysing, as always, just exactly what he did feel.

‘I find vanity repellent. As a person I loathe it, and as a policeman I distrust it.’

‘It’s a harmless sort of weakness,’ Tad said, with a tolerant lift of a shoulder.

‘That is just where you are wrong. It is the utterly destructive quality. When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in. But that is merely personal conceit. Real vanity is something quite different. A matter not of person but of personality. Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”. It is a frightening thing because it is incurable. You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about. He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch.’

‘But that’s being insane.’

‘Not according to Vanity’s reckoning. And certainly not in the medical sense. It is merely Vanity being logical. It is, as I said, a frightening trait; and the basis of all criminal personality. Criminals — true criminals, as opposed to the little man who cooks the accounts in an emergency or the man who kills his wife when he finds her in bed with a stranger — true criminals vary in looks and tastes and intelligence and method as widely as the rest of the world does, but they have one invariable characteristic: their pathological vanity.’

Tad looked as though he were only half-listening because he was using this information on some private reference of his own. ‘Listen, Mr Grant,’ he said, ‘are you saying that this guy Lloyd isn’t to be trusted?’

Grant thought that over.

‘I wish I knew,’ he said at last. ‘I wish I knew.’

‘We-e-ll!’ said Tad. ‘That sure puts a different look on things, don’t it!’

‘I’ve spent quite a long time this morning wondering whether I have seen so much of the vanity in criminals that I have begun to have a “thing” about it; to distrust it unduly. On the face of it Heron Lloyd is irreproachable. He is more: he is admirable. He has a fine record behind him; he lives simply; he has excellent taste, which means a natural sense of proportion; and he has achieved enough surely to satisfy the most egotistical soul.’

‘But you think — there’s something wrong somewhere.’

‘Do you remember a little man in the hotel at Moymore who did missionary work on you?’

‘Persecuted Scotland! The little man in kilts.’

‘A kilt,’ said Grant automatically. ‘Well, for some reason Lloyd gives me the same feeling as Archie Brown. It’s absurd, but it is very strong. They have the same ——’ He looked for a word.

‘Smell,’ said Tad.

‘Yes. That’s about it. They have the same smell.’

After a long silence Tad said: ‘Mr Grant, are you still of the opinion that what happened to Bill was an accident?’

‘Yes, because there is no evidence to the contrary. But I’m quite prepared to believe that it wasn’t, if I can see any reason for it. Can you clean windows?’

‘Can I what?’

‘Clean windows.’

‘I could make a shot at it if really pushed, I suppose,’ Tad said, staring. ‘Why?’

‘You may have to before this is over. Let us go and collect those suitcases. I’m hoping that all the information we want will be in those cases. I’ve just remembered that Bill booked that berth to Scoone a week in advance.’

‘Perhaps his backer in Scotland couldn’t see him until the 4th.’

‘Perhaps. Anyhow, all his papers and personal things will be in one of the cases, and I’m hoping that it will include a diary.’

‘Bill wouldn’t keep a diary!’

‘Not that kind. The Meet–Jack-1.15-Call–For-Toots-7.30 kind.’

‘Oh, yes, that. Yes, I expect he’d have one of those if he was going touting round London for backing. Brother, that may be all we need!’

‘That will be all we need. If it is there.’

But nothing was there.

Nothing at all.

They began light-heartedly with the obvious places: Euston, the airport, Victoria; pleased with the formula that worked so well.

‘Hullo, Inspector. What can I do for you today?’

‘Well, you might be able to help my young friend from America.’

‘Yes? One for the three-thirty?’

‘We’ve got one for the three-thirty. He wants to know whether his buddy left a couple of suitcases here. Do you mind if he has a look round? We don’t want to move anything. Just to look.’

‘Well, that’s something that’s still free in this country, Inspector, believe it or not. Come behind, will you?’

So they came behind. Each time they came behind. And each time the tiered luggage looked back at them, contemptuous and withdrawn. As detached as only other people’s belongings can look.

From the likely places they moved on to the mere possibles, sobered and apprehensive. They had hoped for a diary, for personal papers. Now they would settle for even a sight of those suitcases.

But there were no familiar cases on any of the shelves.

This so staggered Tad that Grant had difficulty in dragging him away from the later ports-of-call. He went round and round the filled racks in an unbelieving daze.

‘They must be here,’ he kept saying. ‘They must be here.’

But they were not there.

As they came out on to the street, baffled, after their last bet had gone down the drain, he said: ‘Inspector, I mean Mr Grant, where else is there that you would leave luggage after checking out of a hotel? Have you those personal lock-up places?’

‘Only limited-period ones. For people who want to park a case for an hour or two while they do something.’

‘Well, where are Bill’s things, why aren’t they in any of the obvious places?’

‘I don’t know. They may be with his girl.’

‘What girl?’

‘I don’t know. He was young, and handsome, and celibate; he would have a fairly wide choice.’

‘Yes, of course. That’s maybe what he did with them. Which reminds me.’ His face lost its discontented, purposeless look. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly dinner-time. ‘I’ve got a date with that girl in the milk-bar.’ He caught Grant’s eye and looked faintly abashed. ‘But I’ll stand her up if you think I can be any good to you.’

Grant sent him away to meet his milk-bar sweetie with a slight sense of relief. It was rather like having a mournful puppy around. He himself decided to postpone dinner for a little and go and see some of his Metropolitan friends.

He dropped into the Astwick Street Police Station and was greeted with the identical phrase that he had been listening to all the afternoon and evening: ‘Hullo, Inspector, what can we do for you?’

Grant said that they might tell him who was on the Britt Lane beat just now.

The man on the beat was P.C. Bithel, it seemed; and if the Inspector wanted to see him he was at this moment in the canteen having sausage-and-mash. His number was 30.

Grant found Number Thirty at a table by himself at the far end of the room. A French grammar was propped up in front of him. Looking at him, sitting there unaware, Grant thought how London policemen had changed in type in the short space of a quarter-century. He himself, he knew, was a departure from type; a fact that had been of great use to him on various occasions. P.C. Bithel was a dark, slight boy from County Down with a matt sallow skin and a kind reassuring drawl. Between the French grammar and the drawl, Grant felt that P.C. Bithel was headed for great things.

The boy began to get up when Grant had introduced himself, but Grant sat down and said: ‘There’s one small thing you might do for me. I’d like to know who cleans the windows of 5 Britt Lane. You might make a few inquiries when ——’

‘Mr Lloyd’s place?’ the boy said. ‘Richards does them.’

Yes, indeed, and indeed P.C. Bithel had a future; he must keep his eye on P.C. Bithel.

‘How do you know that?’

‘I pass the time of day with him here and there on my beat. He stables his barrow and things in that mews further along Britt Lane.’

He thanked the budding Superintendent and went away to find Richards. Richards, it seemed, lived above his barrow. He was a bachelor exserviceman with a short leg, a cat, a collection of china mugs, and a passion for darts. There was nothing that P.C. Bithel, not long from County Down, did not know about his London beat.

At the corner of Britt Lane was the Sun, where Richards played darts, and it was to the Sun that Grant went. This was to be an altogether informal arrangement and it demanded an informal launching. He did not know the Sun or its proprietor, but he had only to sit still and behave himself and presently he would be invited to play darts, and from that to having a quiet one with Richards was only a step.

It was a step that took a couple of hours, as it turned out; but eventually he had Richards to himself in a corner with a pint. He was debating with himself whether to produce his card and use his official credentials for unofficial business, or to make it an affair of one exserviceman obliging another for a small consideration, when Richards said:

‘You don’t seem to have put on any weight with the years, sir.’

‘Have I met you somewhere?’ Grant asked, a little annoyed that he should have forgotten a face.

‘Camberley. More years ago than I like to think about. And you needn’t worry about forgetting me,’ he added, ‘because I doubt if you ever saw me. I was a cook. You still in the Army?’

‘No, I’m a policeman.’

‘No kidding! Well, well. I’d have said you were a dead cert for C.I.G.S. I see now why you were so anxious to get me into a corner. And me thinking it was my way with a dart that won you!’

Grant laughed. ‘Yes, you can do something for me, but it isn’t official business. Would you take a pupil tomorrow for a small consideration?’

‘To do any special windows?’ Richards asked, after a moment’s thought.

‘Number 5 Britt Lane.’

‘Ho!’ said Richards, amused. ‘I’d pay him to do them?’


‘That bastard is never pleased. There’s no hanky-panky about this, is there?’

‘Neither hanky, nor panky. Nothing is going to be abstracted from the house, and nothing upset. I’ll go bail for that. Indeed, if it will make you any happier, I’ll put the contract in writing.’

‘I’ll take your word for it, sir. And your man can have the privilege of doing Mr Flipping Lloyd’s windows for nothing.’ He lifted his mug. ‘Here’s to the old eyes-right. What time will your pupil be coming along tomorrow?’

‘Ten o’clock do?’

‘Make it half-past. Your valentine goes out most mornings about eleven.’

‘That’s very thoughtful of you.’

‘I’ll get my early windows done and meet him at my place — 3 Britt Mews — at half-past ten.’

It was no use trying to telephone Tad Cullen again tonight, so Grant left a message at the Westmorland asking him to come to the flat as soon as he had had breakfast in the morning.

Then he at last had dinner, and went thankfully to bed.

As he was falling asleep a voice in his head said: ‘Because he knew that there was nothing to write on.’

‘What?’ he said, coming awake. ‘Who knew?’

‘Lloyd. He said: “On what?”’

‘Yes. Well?’

‘He said it because he was startled.’

‘He certainly sounded surprised.’

‘He was surprised because he knew that there was nothing to write on.’

He lay thinking about this until he fell asleep.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01