GRANT had just come back from Hampshire, where a case had ended unhappily in suicide, and his mind was still reviewing the thing, wondering how he might have managed things differently to a different end; so that he listened with only an ear-and-a-half to what his superior was saying to him until a familiar name caught his whole attention.
‘Salcott St Mary!’ said Grant.
‘Why?’ said Bryce, stopping his account. ‘Do you know the place?’
‘I’ve never been there, but I know of it, of course.’
‘Why of course?’
‘It’s a sort of artistic thieves’-kitchen. There’s been a migration of intelligentsia to the place. Silas Weekley lives there, and Marta Hallard, and Lavinia Fitch. Tullis has a house there too. It isn’t Toby Tullis who is missing, by any chance?’ he asked hopefully.
‘No, unfortunately. It’s a chap called Searle. Leslie Searle. A young American, it seems.’
For a moment Grant was back in the crowded doorway of Cormac Ross’s room, listening to a voice saying: ‘I’ve forgotten my megaphone.’ So the beautiful young man had disappeared.
‘Orfordshire say they want to put it in our laps not because they think the problem is insoluble but because it’s a kid-glove affair. They think it would be easier for us than for them to pursue inquiries among the local bigwigs, and if there is any arresting to be done they would rather that we did it.’
‘Arresting? Are they suggesting that it was murder?’
‘They have a strong leaning to that theory, I understand. But, as the local inspector said to me, it sounds so absurd when you say it aloud that they shrink from uttering the name, even.’
‘Walter Whitmore!’ Grant let out his breath in a soundless whistle. ‘I don’t wonder they don’t like saying it aloud. Walter Whitmore! What is he supposed to have done to Searle?’
‘They don’t know. All they’ve got is some suggestion of a quarrel before the disappearance. It seems that Walter Whitmore and Searle were travelling down the Rushmere in canoes, and ——’
‘Yes, a kind of stunt. Whitmore was going to write about it and this chap Searle was going to supply the illustrations.’
‘Is he an artist, then?’
‘No. A photographer. They camped out each night, and on Wednesday night they were sleeping on the river bank about a mile from Salcott. They both came to the pub at Salcott for a drink that evening. Whitmore left early — in some sort of pet, it is alleged. Searle stayed till closing-time and was seen to start off down the track to the river. After that he was not seen by anyone.’
‘Who reported the disappearance?’
‘Whitmore did next morning. When he woke and found that Searle had not occupied his sleeping-bag.’
‘He didn’t see Searle at all on Wednesday night after leaving the pub?’
‘No, he says he fell asleep, and though he woke in the night he took it for granted that Searle had come back and was sleeping; it was too dark to see anything. It was only when daylight came that he realised that Searle had not been to bed.’
‘The theory is that he fell into the river, I suppose.’
‘Yes. The Wickham people took charge and dragged for a body. But it’s a bad, muddy stream, there, between Capel and Salcott St Mary, the Wickham people say, so they weren’t unbearably surprised not to find one.’
‘I don’t wonder they don’t want to touch the business,’ Grant said dryly.
‘No. It’s a delicate affair. No real suggestion of anything but accident. And yet — one big question mark.’
‘But — but Walter Whitmore!’ Grant said. ‘There is something inherently absurd about it, you know. What would that lover of little bunnies have to do with murder?’
‘You’ve been in the Force long enough to know that it is just those lovers of little bunnies that commit murder,’ his chief said snappily. ‘Anyhow, it is going to be your business to sift this artistic thieves’-kitchen of yours through a fine-mesh riddle until you’re left with something that won’t go through the mesh. You had better take a car. Wickham say it is four miles from a station, with a change at Crome anyhow.’
‘Very good. Do you mind if I take Sergeant Williams with me?’
‘As chauffeur, or what?’
‘No,’ Grant said amiably. ‘Just so that he knows the lay-out. Then if you pull me off this for something more urgent — as you will at any moment — Williams can carry on.’
‘You do think up the most convincing excuses for snoozing in a car.’
Grant took this, rightly, as capitulation, and went away to collect Williams. He liked Williams and liked working with him. Williams was his opposite and his complement. He was large and pink and slow-moving, and he rarely read anything but an evening paper; but he had terrier qualities that were invaluable in a hunt. No terrier at a rat hole ever displayed more patience or more pertinacity than Williams did when introduced to a quarry. ‘I would hate to have you on my tail,’ Grant had said to him more than once in their years of working together.
To Williams, on the other hand, Grant was everything that was brilliant and spontaneous. He admired Grant with passion, and envied him without malice; Williams had no ambition, and coveted no man’s shoes. ‘You’ve no idea how lucky you are, sir,’ Williams would say, ‘not looking like a policeman. Me, I go into a pub, and they take one look at me and think: Copper! But with you, they just cast an eye over you and think: Army in plain clothes; and they don’t think another thing about you. It’s a great advantage in a job like ours, sir.’
‘But you have advantages that I lack, Williams,’ Grant had once pointed out.
‘As what, for instance?’ Williams had said, unbelieving.
‘You have only to say: “Hop it!” and people just dissolve. When I say “Hop it!” to anyone, they are as likely as not to say: “Who do you think you’re talking to?”’
‘Lord love you, sir,’ Williams had said. ‘You don’t even have to say: “Hop it!” You just look at them, and they begin to recollect appointments.’
Grant had laughed and said: ‘I must try that sometime!’ But he enjoyed Williams’s mild hero-worship; and still more he enjoyed his reliability and his persistence.
‘Do you listen to Walter Whitmore, Williams?’ he asked, as Williams drove him down the unswerving road that the Legions had first surveyed two thousand years ago.
‘Can’t say I do, sir. I’m not one for the country, much. Being born and brought up in it is a drawback.’
‘Yes. You know just how workaday it really is.’
‘More Silas Weekley than Walter Whitmore.’
‘I don’t know about the Silas bloke, but it certainly isn’t like anything Walter Whitmore makes of it.’ He thought of it for a little. ‘He’s a dresser-upper,’ he said. ‘Look at this Rushmere trip.’
‘I mean, there wasn’t anything to prevent him staying at home with his aunt and doing the river valley like a Christian, in a car. The Rushmere isn’t all that long. But no, he has to frill it up with a canoe and things.’
Mention of Walter’s aunt prompted Grant to another question.
‘I suppose you don’t read Lavinia Fitch?’
‘No, but Nora does.’
Nora was Mrs Williams, and the mother of Angela and Leonard.
‘Does she like them?’
‘Loves them. She says three things make her feel cosy in advance. A hot-water bottle, a quarter-pound of chocolates, and a new Lavinia Fitch.’
‘If Miss Fitch did not exist, it seems, it would be necessary to invent her,’ Grant said.
‘Must make a fortune,’ said Williams. ‘Is Whitmore her heir?’
‘Her presumptive heir, at any rate. But it isn’t Lavinia who has disappeared.’
‘No. What could Whitmore have against this Searle chap?’
‘Perhaps he just objects to fauns on principle.’
‘To what, sir?’
‘I saw Searle once.’
‘I spoke to him in passing at a party about a month ago.’
‘What was he like, sir?’
‘A very good-looking young man indeed.’
‘Oh,’ Williams said, in a thoughtful way.
‘No,’ said Grant.
‘American,’ Grant said irrelevantly. And then, remembering that party, added: ‘He seemed to be interested in Liz Garrowby, now that I remember.’
‘Who is Liz Garrowby?’
‘Walter Whitmore’s fiancée.’
‘He was? Well!’
‘But don’t go making five of it until we get some evidence. I can’t believe that Walter Whitmore ever had enough red blood in him to conk anyone on the head and push them into a river.’
‘No,’ Williams said, considering it. ‘Come to think of it, he’s more of a push-ee.’
Which put Grant in a good mood for the rest of the journey.
At Wickham they were welcomed by the local inspector, Rodgers; a thin, anxious individual who looked as though he slept badly. He was alert, however, and informative and full of forethought. He had even booked two rooms at the Swan in Salcott and two at the White Hart in Wickham, so that Grant could have his choice. He bore them off to lunch at the White Hart, where Grant confirmed the room-booking and caused the Salcott booking to be cancelled. There was to be no suggestion yet that Scotland Yard were interested in the matter of Leslie Searle’s disappearance; and it was not possible to conduct inquiries from the Swan without creating a sensation in Salcott.
‘I’d like to see Whitmore, though,’ Grant said. ‘I suppose he is back at — what do you call it: Miss Fitch’s place.’
‘Trimmings. But he’s up in town today giving his broadcast.’
‘In London?’ said Grant, a little surprised.
‘It was arranged like that before they set out on this trip. Mr Whitmore’s contract calls for a month off in August, when broadcasting has its “off” season; so there was no question, it seems, of passing up this week’s broadcast just because he was canoeing on the Rushmere. They had arranged to be in Wickham today and to spend the night there. They had booked two rooms at the Angel. It’s the olde-worlde show-place in Wickham. Very photogenic. Then this happened. But since there was nothing Mr Whitmore could do here, he went up to do his half-hour, just as he would have if they had reached Wickham.’
‘I see. And he is coming back tonight?’
‘If he doesn’t vanish into thin air.’
‘About this vanishing: did Whitmore agree that there had been disagreement between them?’
‘I didn’t put it to him. That’s what ——’ The Inspector broke off.
‘That’s what I’m here for,’ Grant said, finishing the sentence for him.
‘That’s about it, sir.’
‘Where did the “disagreement” story come from?’
‘The Swan. Everyone who was there on Wednesday night had the impression that there was some kind of tension between them.’
‘No overt quarrel?’
‘No, nothing like that. If there had been anything like that I could have taxed him with it. All that happened was that Mr Whitmore left early without saying goodnight, and Searle said he was angry about something.’
‘Searle said! To whom?’
‘To the local garage-keeper. A chap called Maddox. Bill Maddox.’
‘Have you talked to Maddox?’
‘I talked to them all. I was in the Swan last night. We spent the day dragging the river in case he had fallen in, and making inquiries all round the neighbourhood in case he had lost his memory and was just wandering. We couldn’t find any body, and no one had seen him or anyone answering his description. So I finished up at the Swan, and saw most of the people who had been there on Wednesday night. It’s the only pub in the place, and a very nice respectable little house run by a Joey; an exsergeant of Marines; and it’s the meeting-place for the whole village. None of them was exactly anxious to involve Mr Whitmore ——’
‘Popular, is he?’
‘Well, popular enough. He probably shines by comparison. There’s a very odd crew lives here, I don’t know if you know.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard.’
‘So they didn’t want to get Walter Whitmore into trouble, but they had to explain why the two friends didn’t go back to their camp together. And once they broke down and talked they were unanimous that there was some sort of trouble between them.’
‘Did this Maddox volunteer his story?’
‘No, the local butcher did. Maddox had told them about it on the way home on Wednesday. After they had seen Searle go away by himself down the lane. Maddox confirmed it, though.’
‘Well, I’ll go and see Whitmore when he comes back tonight, and ask for his story. Meanwhile we’ll go and see the place where they camped on Wednesday night.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14