IT was grey in town, but it was a friendly grey and comforting after the rainy levels of the Rushmere. And the young green of the trees in Westminster was vivid as fire against the dark background. It was nice to be among his own kind again; to get into that mental undress that one wears among one’s colleagues; to talk the allusive unexplanatory talk that constituted Headquarters’ ‘shop’.
But it was not so nice to think of the coming interview with Bryce. Would it be one of Bryce’s good days or one of his ‘off’ ones? The Superintendent’s average was one off day to three good ones, so the odds were three to one in his favour. On the other hand it was damp weather and the Superintendent’s rheumatism was always worst in damp weather.
Bryce was smoking a pipe. So it was one of his good days. (On his off days he lit cigarettes and extinguished them in the ashtray five seconds after he had extinguished the match.)
Grant wondered how to begin. He couldn’t very well say: Four days ago you handed over a situation to me, and the situation as far as I’m concerned is in all essentials exactly what it was four days ago. But that, put brutally, was how the case stood.
It was Bryce who saved him. Bryce examined him with his small shrewd eyes, and said: ‘If ever I saw “Please, sir, it wasn’t me” written on a man’s face, it is on yours now,’ and Grant laughed.
‘Yes, sir. It’s a mess.’ He laid his notebooks on the table and took the chair at the other side of the table that was known in the office as the Suspect’s Seat.
‘You don’t think that Bunny–Boy Whitmore did it, then?’
‘No, sir. I think it’s unlikely to the point of absurdity.’
‘Bunny–Boy doesn’t think so,’ Grant said with a grin.
‘Doesn’t he, indeed. Hasn’t he even enough sense to come in out of the rain?’
‘He’s a simple sort of creature, in some ways. He just doesn’t believe that it was accident, and says so. The fact that it would be to his advantage to have it proved an accident is irrelevant in his view, apparently. He is wildly puzzled and troubled about the disappearance. I am quite sure he had nothing to do with it.’
‘Any alternative suggestion?’
‘Well, there is someone who had the opportunity, the motive, and the means.’
‘What are we waiting for?’ Bryce said, flippant.
‘Unfortunately the fourth ingredient is missing.’
‘Not one sliver of a tittle.’
‘Who is it?’
‘The mother of Walter Whitmore’s fiancée. Stepmother actually. She brought Liz Garrowby up from babyhood and is fanatically maternal about her. I don’t mean possessive, but ——’
‘All the best for our Liz.’
‘Yes. She was enormously pleased about her stepdaughter marrying her nephew, and keeping everything in the family, and I think Searle looked like upsetting the apple-cart. That is a possible motive. She has no alibi for the night in question, and she could have reached the place where they were camped quite easily. She knew where it was because each evening the men telephoned Trimmings, the Fitch place, to report progress, and on Wednesday night they described the place where they were going to bivouac.’
‘But she couldn’t know that the men would quarrel and go back to the river separately. How was she going to work it?’
‘Well, there’s an odd thing about that quarrel. Searle from all accounts was a markedly equable person, but it was he who provoked that quarrel. At least Whitmore says so, and I have no reason to doubt him. He twitted Whitmore about not being good enough for Liz Garrowby and boasted that he could take her from him in a week. He was quite sober, so anything so completely out of character must have had an ulterior motive.’
‘You think he manufactured a parting with Searle that evening? Why?’
‘It could have been because he hoped to meet Liz Garrowby somewhere. The Garrowby girl was not at home that evening when the two men telephoned, so Mrs Garrowby did proxy. I suggest that she might also have done proxy in a more serious way.’
‘“Liz says will you meet her at the third oak past the old mill”.’
‘Something like that.’
‘And then raging mother waits for him with a blunt instrument and tips the body into the river. I wish to heaven you had been able to recover that body.’
‘You don’t wish it as badly as I do, sir. Without a corpse where are we?’
‘Even with a corpse you have no case.’
‘No. But it would be comforting, not to say illuminating, to know the state of the skull bones.’
‘Any evidence that Searle was interested in the girl?’
‘He had one of her gloves in his collar drawer.’
Bryce grunted. ‘I thought that sort of thing went out with valentines,’ he said, unconsciously paraphrasing Sergeant Williams.
‘I showed it to her and she took it well. Said that he had probably picked it up and meant to give it back to her.’
‘And now I’ll tell one,’ commented the Superintendent.
‘She’s a nice girl,’ Grant said, mildly.
‘So was Madeleine Smith. Any second favourite in the suspect stakes?’
‘No. Just the field. The men who had no reason to love Searle, and had the opportunity and no satisfactory alibi.’
‘Are there many?’ Bryce said, surprised by the plural.
‘There’s Toby Tullis, who is still sick at the snubbing Searle administered. Tullis lives on the river-bank and has a boat. His alibi depends on the word of an infatuated follower. There’s Serge Ratoff the dancer, who loathed Searle because of the attention Toby paid him. Serge, according to himself, was dancing on the greensward by the river’s rim on Wednesday night. There’s Silas Weekley, the distinguished English novelist, who lives in the lane down which Searle disappeared from human ken on Wednesday night. Silas has a thing about beauty; has a constant urge to destroy it. He was working in a hut at the end of the garden that night, so he says.’
‘No bets on the field?’
‘N-o. I think not. A saver on Weekley, perhaps. He is the type that might go over the borderline any day, and spend the rest of his life happily typing away in Broadmoor. But Tullis wouldn’t jeopardise all he has built up by a silly murder like this. He is much too shrewd. As for Ratoff, I can imagine him setting off to do a murder, but long before he was half-way there he would have another fine idea and forget what he originally set out to do.’
‘Is this village entirely inhabited by crack-pots?’
‘It has been “discovered”, unfortunately. The aborigines are sane enough.’
‘Well, I suppose there is nothing we can do until the body turns up.’
‘If it turns up.’
‘They usually do, in time.’
‘According to the local police, five people have been drowned in the Rushmere in the last forty years. That is, leaving Mere Harbour and the shipping part out of the reckoning. Two were drowned higher up than Salcott and three lower down. The three who were drowned lower down than Salcott all turned up within a day or two. The two who were drowned above the village have never turned up at all.’
‘It’s a nice look-out for Walter Whitmore,’ Bryce commented.
‘Yes,’ Grant said, thinking it over. ‘They weren’t very kind to him this morning.’
‘The papers? No. Awfully good-mannered and discreet but they couldn’t have made pleasant reading for Bunny–Boy. A nasty spot to be in. No accusation, so no possible defence. Not that he has any,’ he added.
He was silent for a little, tapping his teeth with his pipe as was his habit when cogitating.
‘Well, I suppose there is nothing we can do at the moment. You make a neat shipshape report and we’ll see what the Commissioner says. But I don’t see that there is anything more we can do. Death by drowning, no evidence so far to show whether accidental or otherwise. That’s your conclusion, isn’t it?’
As Grant did not answer immediately, he looked up and said sharply: ‘Isn’t it?’
Now you see it, now you don’t.
Something wrong in the set-up.
Don’t let your flair ride you, Grant.
Something phoney somewhere.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
The trick of the distracted attention.
You could get away with anything if you distracted the attention.
Something phoney somewhere. . . .
He came back to the realisation of his chief’s surprise. What was he to say? Acquiesce and let it go? Stick to the facts and the evidence, and stay on the safe side?
With a detached regret he heard his own voice saying: ‘Have you ever seen a lady sawn in half, sir?’
‘I have,’ Bryce said, eyeing him with a wary disapproval.
‘It seems to me that there is a strong aroma of sawn-lady about this case,’ Grant said; and then remembered that this was the metaphor he had used to Sergeant Williams.
But Bryce’s reaction was very different from the Sergeant’s.
‘Oh, my God!’ he groaned. ‘You’re not going to do a Lamont on us, are you, Grant?’
Years ago Grant had gone into the farthest Highlands after a man and had brought him back; brought him back sewn up in a case so fault-proof that only the sentence remained to be said; and had handed him over with the remark that on the whole he thought they had got the wrong man. (They had.) The Yard had never forgotten it, and any wild opinion in contradiction to the evidence was still known as ‘doing a Lamont’.
The sudden mention of Jerry Lamont heartened Grant. It had been even more absurd to feel that Jerry Lamont was innocent, in the face of an unbreakable case, than it was to smell ‘sawn-lady’ in a simple drowning.
‘There’s something very odd about the set-up,’ Grant said stubbornly.
‘What is odd?’
‘If I knew that it would be down in my report. It isn’t any one thing. It’s the — the whole set-up. The atmosphere. The smell of it. It doesn’t smell right.’
‘Couldn’t you just explain to an ordinary hard-working policeman what smells so wrong about it?’
Grant ignored the Superintendent’s heavy-handedness, and said:
‘It’s all wrong from the beginning, don’t you see. Searle’s walking in from nowhere, into the party. Yes, I know that we know about him. That he is who he says he is, and all that. We even know that he came to England just as he says he did. Via Paris. His place was booked by the American Express office at the Madeleine. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the whole episode has something queer about it. Was it so likely that he would be all that keen to meet Walter just because they were both friends of Cooney Wiggin?’
‘Don’t ask me! Was it?’
‘Why this need to meet Walter?’
‘Perhaps he had seen him broadcast and just couldn’t wait.’
‘And he had no letters.’
‘Searle. He had no letters all the time he was at Salcott.’
‘Perhaps he is allergic to the gum on envelopes. Or I have heard that people leave letters lying at their bank to be called for.’
‘That’s another thing. None of the usual American banks or agencies has ever heard of him. And there is one tiny thing that seems odd to me out of all proportion to its actual value. Actual value to this case, I mean. He had a tin box, rather like an outsize paint-box, that he used to hold all his photographic stuff. Something is gone out of the box. Something roughly 9 inches by 3½ by 4, that was packed in the lower compartment (it has a tray like a paint-box with a deeper space below). Nothing that is now among his belongings fits the space, and no one can suggest what the thing could have been.’
‘And what is so odd about that? There must be a hundred and one things that might have been packed in a space that size.’
‘As what, for instance, sir?’
‘Well — well, I can’t think off-hand, but there must be dozens.’
‘There is ample space in his other cases for anything he wanted to pack. So it wouldn’t be clothes, or ordinary possessions. Whatever was there, in the tin box, was something that he kept where only he would be likely to handle it.’
Bryce’s attention grew more sober at that.
‘Now it is missing. It is of no obvious importance in this case. No importance at all, perhaps. It is just an oddity and it sticks in my mind.’
‘What do you think he might have been after at Trimmings? Blackmail?’ Bryce asked, with interest at last.
‘I don’t know. I hadn’t thought of blackmail.’
‘What could have been in the box that he could turn into cash? Not letters, that shape. Documents, perhaps? Documents in a roll.’
‘I don’t know. Yes, perhaps. The thing against the blackmail idea is that he seemed to have ample means.’
‘Blackmailers usually have.’
‘Yes. But Searle had a profession that kept him very nicely. Only a hog would want more. And somehow he didn’t look to me like a hog.’
‘Be your age, Grant. Just sit quiet for a moment and think of the blackmailers you have known.’ He watched this shot go home, and said, dryly: ‘Exactly!’ And then: ‘Who would you say was the blackmailee at Trimmings? Mrs Garrowby got a past, do you think?’
‘Possibly,’ Grant said, considering Emma Garrowby in a new light. ‘Yes, I think it’s quite possible.’
‘Well, the choice isn’t very wide. I don’t suppose Lavinia Fitch was ever out on the tiles?’
Grant thought of kind, anxious little Miss Fitch, with the bristling pencils in her mop of hair, and smiled.
‘There isn’t much choice, you see. I suppose if it was blackmail at all it must have been Mrs Garrowby. So your theory is that Searle was murdered for a reason that has nothing to do with Liz Garrowby.’ And as Grant made no immediate answer to that, ‘You believe that it was murder, don’t you.’
‘I don’t believe he’s dead.’
There was a moment of silence. Then Bryce leaned forward over the table and said with immense self-control: ‘Now, look here, Grant. Flair’s flair. And you’re entitled to your whack of it. But when you take to throwing it about in chunks it becomes too much of a good thing. Have a little moderation, for Pete’s sake. You’ve been dragging a river for a whole day yesterday trying to find a drowned man, and now you have the nerve to sit there and tell me you don’t think he was drowned at all. What do you think he did? Walked away barefoot? Or hobbled away disguised as a one-legged man supported by crutches which he had tossed off in an idle moment from a couple of oak branches? Where do you think he went to? What is he going to live on from now on? Honestly, Grant, I think you must need a holiday. What, just tell me what, put this notion into your head? How does a trained detective mind jump from a straight-forward case of “missing believed drowned” into a wild piece of fantasy that has no connection with anything in the case at all?’
Grant was silent.
‘Come on, Grant. I’m not ribbing you. I really want to know. How do you arrive at the conclusion that a man isn’t drowned after finding his shoe in the river? How did the shoe get there?’
‘If I knew that, sir, I’d have my case.’
‘Did Searle have a spare pair of shoes with him?’
‘No. Just the ones he was wearing.’
‘The one that was found in the river.’
‘And you still think he didn’t drown?’
There was a silence.
‘I don’t know which to admire more, Grant: your nerve or your imagination.’
Grant said nothing. There seemed to be nothing to say. He was bitterly aware that he had already said too much.
‘Can you think of any theory, however wild, that would fit your idea of his being alive?’
‘I can think of one. He could have been abducted, and the shoe tossed in the river as evidence of drowning.’
Bryce regarded him with dramatised respect. ‘You mistook your vocation, Grant. You’re a very good detective, but as a writer of detective fiction you’d make a fortune.’
‘I was only answering your challenge and supplying a theory to fit the facts, sir,’ Grant said mildly. ‘I didn’t say I believed in it.’
This slowed Bryce down a little. ‘Take them out of a hat like rabbits, do you. Theories in all sizes to fit any figure! No compulsion to buy! Walk up! Walk up!’ He stopped and looked for a long moment at Grant’s imperturbable face, sat slowly back in his chair, relaxed, and smiled. ‘You damned poker-face, you!’ he said amiably. He searched in his pocket for matches. ‘Do you know what I envy about you, Grant? Your self-control. I’m always flying off the handle about something or other; and it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good. My wife says that it is because I’m not sure of myself and I’m afraid I’m not going to get my way. She attended a course of six lectures on psychology at Morley College, and there is nothing about the human mind she doesn’t know. I can only conclude that you must be damned sure of yourself behind that nice equable temper of yours.’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ Grant said, amused. ‘I was anything but equable when I came in to report, and had nothing to show you but a situation that was exactly the same as it was when you handed it over to me four days ago.’
‘So you said: “How’s the old man’s rheumatism today? Is he approachable or do I go on all fours?”’ His little elephant eyes twinkled for a moment. ‘Well, I suppose we present the Commissioner with your neat report of the facts as they exist, and leave him in ignorance of the finer flights of your imagination.’
‘Oh, yes, sir. I can’t very well explain to the Commissioner that I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach.’
‘No. And if you’ll take my advice, you’ll stop paying so much attention to the rumblings of your stomach, and stick to what goes on in your head. There is a little phrase commonly used in police work that says, “in accordance with the evidence”. You say that over six times a day as a grace before and after meals, and perhaps it will keep your feet on the ground and stop you ending up thinking you’re Frederick the Great or a hedgehog or something.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01