‘I DON’T want to appear in Salcott just yet,’ Grant said as they drove out of Wickham. ‘Is there some other way to the river bank?’
‘There’s no way at all to the river bank, properly speaking. There’s about a mile of field-path from Salcott to where they were. But we could reach the place just as easily from the main Wickham–Crome road, across the fields. Or we could turn off the road by a lane that goes to Pett’s Hatch, and walk down the river bank from there. They were moored about a quarter mile below Pett’s Hatch.’
‘On the whole, I’d rather walk across the fields from the main road. It would be interesting to see how much of a walk it is. What kind of a village is Pett’s Hatch?’
‘It isn’t a village at all. Just a ruined mill and the few cottages that used to house the workers there. That is why Whitmore and Searle walked into Salcott for their evening drink.’
The ever-efficient Rodgers pulled a one-inch Survey map out of the pocket of his car, and studied it. The field opposite which they had stopped looked to Grant’s urban eye exactly like any other field that they had passed since leaving Wickham, but the Inspector said: ‘It should be about opposite here, I think. Yes; there’s where they were; and here is us.’
He showed the lay-out to Grant. North and south ran the road from Wickham south to Crome. West of it lay the Rushmere, out of sight in its valley, running north-east to meet the road at Wickham. At a point level with where they were now halted, the river ran back on itself in a wide loop over the flat bed of the valley. At the point where it first curved back, Whitmore and Searle had made their camp. On the farther side of the valley, where the river came back level with them, was Salcott St Mary. Both their camp and the village of Salcott were on the right bank of the river, so that only a short mile of alluvial land lay between their camp and the village.
As the three men reached the third field from the road, the countryside opened below them, so that the relevant section of the Rushmere valley was laid out for them as it had been on Rodgers’s map: the flat green floor with the darker green scarf of the Rushmere looped across it, the huddle of roofs and gardens on the far side where Salcott St Mary stood in its trees; the lonely cluster, back up the river to the south, that was Pett’s Hatch.
‘Where is the railway from here?’ Grant asked.
‘There is no railway nearer than Wickham. No station, that is. The line runs the other side of the Wickham–Crome road; not in the valley at all.’
‘Plenty of buses on the Wickham–Crome road?’
‘Oh, yes. But you’re not suggesting that the fellow just ducked, are you?’
‘I’m keeping the possibility in mind. After all, we know nothing about him. I’ll admit there are more likely possibilities.’
Rodgers led them down the long slope to the river bank. Where the river turned away south-west two large trees broke the line of pollarded willows: a tall willow and an ash. Under the ash were moored two canoes. The grass still had a trampled look.
‘This is the place,’ Rodgers said. ‘Mr Whitmore spread his sleeping-bag under that big willow, and Searle put his round the other side of the ash where there is a hollow between the roots that makes a natural shelter. So that it was quite natural that Mr Whitmore should not know that he wasn’t there.’
Grant moved over to where Searle’s bed had been, and considered the water.
‘How much current is there? If he had tripped over those roots in the dark and taken a header into the river, what would happen?’
‘It’s a horrid stream, the Rushmere, I admit. All pot-holes and under-tows. And a bottom of what the Chief Constable calls “immemorial mud”. But Searle could swim. Or so Walter Whitmore says.’
‘Was he sober?’
‘Cold, stone sober.’
‘Then if he went into the water unconscious, where would you expect to find his body?’
‘Between here and Salcott. Depends on the amount of rain. We’ve had so little lately that you’d normally find the river low, but they had a cloudburst at Tunstall on Tuesday — out of the blue in the good old English fashion — and the Rushmere came down like a mill-race.’
‘I see. What became of the camp stuff?’
‘Walter Whitmore had it taken up to Trimmings.’
‘I take it that Searle’s normal belongings are still at Trimmings.’
‘I expect so.’
‘Perhaps I had better take a look through them tonight. If there was anything interesting to us among them it will have gone by now, but they may be suggestive. Had Searle been on good terms with the other inhabitants of Salcott, do you know?’
‘Well, I hear there was a scene about a fortnight ago. A dancer chap flung a mug of beer over him.’
‘Why?’ asked Grant, identifying the ‘dancer chap’ without difficulty. Marta was a faithful recorder of Salcott history.
‘He didn’t like the attentions that Toby Tullis was paying to Searle, so they say.’
‘No, if all reports are true,’ Rodgers said, his anxious face relaxing to a moment’s amusement.
‘So Tullis wouldn’t love him very much either?’
‘You haven’t had time, I suppose, to get round to alibis.’
‘No. It wasn’t until early evening that we found it might be more than a simple case of missing. Up till then it was a simple matter of drag and search. When we found what was turning up we wanted outside help and sent for you.’
‘I’m glad you sent so soon. It’s a great help to be there when the tapes go up. Well, I don’t think there is anything else we can do here. We had better get back to Wickham, and I’ll take over.’
Rodgers dropped them at the White Hart, and left them with assurances of any help that was within his power.
‘Good man, that,’ Grant said, as they climbed the stairs to inspect their rooms under the roof — rooms with texts in wools and flowered wall-paper —‘he ought to be at the Yard.’
‘It’s a queer set-up, isn’t it?’ Williams said, firmly taking the pokier of the two rooms. ‘The rope trick in an English meadow. What do you think happened to him, sir?’
‘I don’t know about “rope trick”, but it does smell strongly of sleight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. The old conjurer’s trick of the distracted attention. Ever seen a lady sawn in half, Williams?’
‘Many’s the time.’
‘There’s a strong aroma of sawn lady about this. Or don’t you smell it?’
‘I haven’t got your nose, sir. All I see is a very queer set-up. A spring night in England, and a young American goes missing in the mile between the village and the river. You really think he might have ducked, sir?’
‘I can’t think of any adequate reason why he should, but perhaps Whitmore can.’
‘I expect he will be very anxious to,’ Williams said dryly.
But oddly enough Walter Whitmore showed no anxiety to put forward any such theory. On the contrary, he scorned it. It was absurd, he said, manifestly absurd, to suggest that Searle should have left of his own accord. Quite apart from the fact that he was very happy, he had a very profitable deal to look forward to. He had been enormously enthusiastic about the book they were doing together, and it was fantastic to suggest that he would just walk out like that.
Grant had come to Trimmings after dinner, tactfully allowing for the fact that dinner at Trimmings must be very late on broadcast day. He had sent in word to ask if Mr Whitmore would see Alan Grant, and had not mentioned his business until he was face to face with Walter.
His first thought on seeing Walter Whitmore in the flesh was how much older he looked than he had expected; and then wondered whether it was that Walter looked much older than he had done on Wednesday. He looked disorientated, Grant thought; adrift. Something had happened to him that did not belong to the world he knew and recognised.
But he took Grant’s announcement of his identity calmly.
‘I was almost expecting you,’ he said, offering cigarettes. ‘Not you personally, of course. Just a representative of what has come to be known as the Higher Levels.’
Grant had asked about their trip down the Rushmere, so as to set him talking; if you got a man to talk enough he lost his defensive quality. Whitmore was drawing too hard on his cigarette but talking quite freely. Before he had actually reached their Wednesday evening visit to the Swan, Grant deflected him. It was too early yet to ask him about that night.
‘You don’t really know much about Searle, do you,’ he pointed out. ‘Had you heard of him at all before he turned up at that party of Ross’s?’
‘No, I hadn’t. But that isn’t strange. Photographers are two a penny. Almost as common as journalists. There was no reason why I should have heard of him.’
‘You have no reason to believe that he may not be what he represented himself to be?’
‘No, certainly not. I may never have heard of him, but Miss Easton–Dixon certainly had.’
‘One of our local authors. She writes fairy-tales, and is a film addict. Not only did she know about Searle but she has a photograph.’
‘A photograph?’ Grant said, startled and pleased.
‘In one of those film magazines. I haven’t seen it myself. She talked about it one night when she came to dinner.’
‘And she met Searle when she came to dinner? And identified him?’
‘She did. They had a wonderful get-together. Searle had photographed some of her pet actors, and she had reproductions of them too.’
‘So there is no doubt in your mind that Searle is what he says he is.’
‘I notice you use the present tense, Inspector. That cheers me.’ But he sounded more ironic than cheered.
‘Have you yourself any theory as to what could have happened, Mr Whitmore?’
‘Short of fiery chariots or witches’ broomsticks, no. It is the most baffling thing.’
Grant caught himself thinking that Walter Whitmore, too, was moved to think of sleight-of-hand.
‘The most reasonable explanation, I suppose,’ Walter went on, ‘is that he lost his way in the dark and fell into the river at some other spot, where no one would hear him.’
‘And why don’t you approve of that theory?’ Grant asked, answering the tone that Whitmore used.
‘Well, for one thing, Searle had eyes like a cat. I had slept out with him for four nights, and I know. He was wonderful in the dark. Secondly he had an extra-good bump of locality. Thirdly he was by all accounts cold sober when he left the Swan. Fourthly it is a bee-line from Salcott to the river-bank where we were camped, by the hedges all the way. You can’t stray, because if you walk away from the hedge you walk into plough or crop of some kind. And lastly, though this is hearsay evidence, Searle could swim very well indeed.’
‘There is a suggestion, Mr Whitmore, that you and Searle were on bad terms on Wednesday evening. Is there any truth in that?’
‘I thought we should get to that sooner or later,’ Walter said. He pressed the half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray until it was a misshapen wreck.
‘Well?’ Grant prompted, as he seemed to have nothing more to say.
‘We had what might be called a — a “spat”, I suppose. I was — annoyed. Nothing more than that.’
‘He annoyed you so much that you left him at the pub and walked back by yourself.’
‘I like being by myself.’
‘And you went to sleep without waiting for his return.’
‘Yes. I didn’t want to talk to him any more that night. He annoyed me, I tell you. I thought that I might be in a better humour and he in a less provocative mood in the morning.’
‘He was provocative?’
‘I think that is the word.’
‘I don’t have to tell you that.’
‘You don’t have to tell me anything, Mr Whitmore.’
‘No, I know I don’t. But I want to be as helpful as I can. God knows I want this thing cleared up as soon as possible. It is just that what we — disagreed about is something personal and irrelevant. It has no bearing whatever on anything that happened to Searle on Wednesday night. I certainly didn’t lie in wait for him on the way home, or push him into the river, or subject him to violence.’
‘Do you know of anyone who would be likely to want to?’
Whitmore hesitated; presumably with Serge Ratoff in his mind.
‘Not that kind of violence,’ he said at length.
‘Not what kind?’
‘Not that waiting-inthe-dark kind.’
‘I see. Just the ordinary sock-inthe-jaw kind. There was a scene with Serge Ratoff, I understand.’
‘Anyone who gets through life in close proximity to Serge Ratoff and doesn’t have a scene with him must be abnormal,’ Walter said.
‘You don’t know of anyone who might have a grudge against Searle?’
‘No one in Salcott. I don’t know anything of his friends or enemies elsewhere.’
‘Have you any objection to my looking through Searle’s belongings?’
‘I haven’t, but Searle might. What do you expect to find, Inspector?’
‘Nothing specific. A man’s belongings are very revealing, I find. I am merely looking for suggestion of some sort; help of any kind in a very puzzling situation.’
‘I’ll take you up now, then — unless there is anything else you want to ask me.’
‘No, thank you. You have been very helpful. I wish you could have trusted me far enough to tell me what the quarrel was about ——’
‘There was no quarrel!’ Whitmore said sharply.
‘I beg your pardon. I mean, in what way Searle riled you. It would tell me even more about Searle than it would about you; but perhaps it is too much to expect you to see that.’
Whitmore stood by the door, considering this. ‘No,’ he said slowly. ‘No, I do see what you mean. But to tell you involves —— No, I don’t think I can tell you.’
‘I see you can’t. Let us go up.’
As they emerged into the baronial hall from the library where the interview had taken place, Liz had just come out of the drawing-room and was crossing to the stairs. When she saw Grant she paused and her face lighted with joy.
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘you’ve come with news of him!’
When Grant said no, that he had no news, she looked puzzled.
‘But it was you who introduced him,’ she insisted. ‘At that party.’
This was news to Walter and Grant could feel his surprise. He could also feel his resentment at that flash of overwhelming joy on Liz’s face.
‘This, Liz dear,’ he said in a cool, faintly malicious tone, ‘is Detective Inspector Grant from Scotland Yard.’
‘From the Yard! But — you were at that party!’
‘It is not unheard of for policemen to be interested in the arts,’ Grant said, amused. ‘But ——’
‘Oh, please! I didn’t mean it that way.’
‘I had only looked in at the party to pick up a friend. Searle was standing by the door looking lost because he didn’t know Miss Fitch by sight. So I took him over and introduced them. That is all.’
‘And now you’ve come down here to — to investigate —’
‘To investigate his disappearance. Have you any theories, Miss Garrowby?’
‘I? No. Not even a rudimentary one. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s fantastically senseless.’
‘If it isn’t too late may I talk to you for a little when I have been through Searle’s belongings?’
‘No, of course it isn’t too late. It isn’t ten o’clock yet.’ She sounded weary. ‘Since this happened time stretches out and out. It’s like having — hashish, is it? Are you looking for anything in particular, Inspector?’
‘Yes,’ Grant said. ‘Inspiration. But I doubt if I shall find it.’
‘I shall be in the library when you come down. I hope you will find something that will help. It is very dreadful being suspended from a spider’s thread this way.’
As he went through Searle’s belongings Grant thought about Liz Garrowby — Marta’s ‘dear nice Liz’— and her relations with William’s ‘push-ee’. There was never any saying what a woman saw in any man, and Whitmore was of course a celebrity as well as a potentially good husband. He had said as much to Marta, coming away from the party that day. But how right had Marta been about Searle’s power to upset? How much had Liz Garrowby felt Searle’s charm? How much of that eager welcome of hers in the hall had been joy at Searle’s imagined safety and how much mere relief from the burden of suspicion and gloom?
His hands turned over Searle’s things with automatic efficiency, but his mind was busy deciding how much or how little to ask Liz Garrowby when he went downstairs again.
Searle had occupied a first-floor room in the battlemented tower that stuck out to the left of the Tudor front door, so that it had windows on three sides of it. It was large and high, and was furnished in very superior Tottenham Court Road, a little too gay and coy for its Victorian amplitude. It was an impersonal room and Searle had evidently done nothing to stamp it with his personality. This struck Grant as odd. He had rarely seen a room, occupied for so long, so devoid of atmosphere. There were brushes on the table, and books by the bedside, but of their owner there was no trace. It might have been a room in a shop window.
Of course it had been swept and tidied since last it was occupied six days ago. But still. But still.
The feeling was so strong that Grant paused to look round and consider. He thought of all the rooms he had searched in his time. They had all — even the hotel rooms — been redolent of their late occupier. But here was nothing but emptiness. An impersonal blank. Searle had kept his personality to himself.
Grant noticed, as Liz had noticed on that first day, how expensive his clothes and luggage were. As he turned over the handkerchiefs in the top drawer he noticed that they had no laundry mark, and wondered a little. Done at home, perhaps. The shirts and linen were marked but the mark was old and probably American.
As well as the two leather suitcases, there was a japanned tin case like a very large paint-box, with the name ‘L. Searle’ in white letters on the lid. It was fitted with a lock but was unfastened and Grant lifted the lid with some curiosity, only to find that it was filled with Searle’s photographic material. It was built on the lines of a paint-box, with a top tray that was made to lift out. Grant hooked out the top tray with his forefingers and surveyed the deeper compartment below it. The lower compartment was full except for an oblong of empty space where something had been taken out. Grant put down the tray he was holding and went to unroll the camp outfit that had been brought back from the river-bank. He wanted to know what fitted into that oblong space.
But there was nothing that fitted.
There were two small cameras in the pack and some rolls of film. Neither separately nor together did they fit into the space in the tin box. Nor did anything else in the pack.
Grant came back and stood for some time considering that empty space. Something roughly 10 inches by 3½ by 4 had been taken out. And it had been taken out when the box was in its present position. Any heaving about of the box would have dislodged the other objects from their packed position and obliterated the empty space.
He would have to ask about that when he went downstairs.
Meanwhile, having given the room a quick going-over, he now went over it in detail. Even so, he nearly missed the vital thing. He had run through the rather untidy handkerchief-and-ties drawer and was in the act of closing it, when something among the ties caught his attention and he picked it out.
It was a woman’s glove. A very small woman’s glove.
A glove about Liz Garrowby’s size.
Grant looked for its mate but there was none. It was the usual lover’s trophy.
So the beautiful young man had been sufficiently attracted to steal one of his beloved’s gloves. Grant found it oddly endearing. An almost Victorian gesture. Nowadays fetish-worship took much more sinister forms.
Well, whatever the glove proved, it surely proved that Searle had meant to come back. One does not leave stolen love-objects in one’s tie-drawer to be exposed to the unsympathetic gaze of the stranger.
The question to be decided was: whose glove, and how much or how little did it mean?
Grant put it in his pocket and went downstairs. Liz was waiting for him in the library as she had promised, but he noticed that she had had company. No one person could have smoked so many cigarettes as the ends in the ashtray indicated. Grant deduced that Walter Whitmore had been in consultation with her over this affair of police interrogation.
But Liz had not forgotten that she was also a secretary and official receptionist for Trimmings, and she had caused drinks to be brought. Grant refused them because he was on duty, but approved of her effort on his behalf.
‘I suppose this is only a beginning,’ Liz said, indicating the Wickham Times (once weekly every Friday) which was lying open on the table. YOUNG MAN MISSING, said a modest headline in an inconspicuous position. And Walter was referred to as Mr Walter Whitmore, of Trimmings, Salcott St Mary, the well-known commentator.
‘Yes,’ Grant said. ‘The daily Press will have it tomorrow.’
WHITMORE’S COMPANION DROWNED, they would say tomorrow, on the front page. WHITMORE MYSTERY. FRIEND OF WHITMORE DISAPPEARS.
‘It is going to be very bad for Walter.’
‘Yes. Publicity is suffering from a sort of inflation. Its power is out of all proportion to its worth.’
‘What do you think happened to him, Inspector? To Leslie?’
‘Well, for a time I had a theory that he might have disappeared of his own accord.’
‘Voluntarily! But why?’
‘That I wouldn’t know without knowing more about Leslie Searle. You don’t think, for instance, that he was the type to play a practical joke?’
‘Oh, no. Quite definitely not. He wasn’t that kind at all. He was very quiet and — and had excellent taste. He wouldn’t see anything funny in practical joking. Besides, where could he disappear to with all his belongings left behind? He would have only what he stood up in.’
‘About those belongings. Did you ever happen to see inside the japanned tin box that belongs to him?’
‘The photographic box. I think I must have once. Because I remember thinking how neatly packed everything was.’
‘Something has been taken out of the lower compartment, and I can’t find anything that fits the space. Would you be able to tell what is missing, do you think?’
‘I’m sure I shouldn’t. I don’t remember anything in detail. Only the neatness. It was chemical stuff, and slides, and things like that.’
‘Did he keep it locked?’
‘It did lock, I know. Some of the stuff was poisonous. But I don’t think it was kept permanently locked. Is it locked now?’
‘No. Otherwise I shouldn’t have known about the empty space.’
‘I thought policemen could open anything.’
‘They can, but they may not.’
She smiled a little and said: ‘I was always in trouble with that at school.’
‘By the way,’ he said, ‘do you recognise this glove?’ And produced it from his pocket.
‘Yes,’ she said, mildly interested. ‘It looks like one of mine. Where did you find it?’
‘In Searle’s handkerchief drawer.’
It was exactly like touching a snail, he thought. The instant closing-up and withdrawal. One moment she was frank and unselfconscious. The next moment she was startled and defensive.
‘How odd,’ she said, through a tight throat. ‘He must have picked it up and meant to give it back to me. I keep a spare pair in the pocket of the car, a respectable pair, and drive in old ones. Perhaps one of my respectable pair dropped out one day.’
‘That one, certainly, is one of the kind I keep in the car pocket. Presentable enough to go calling or shopping with but not too grand for everyday wear.’
‘Do you mind if I keep it for a little?’
‘No, of course not. Is it an “exhibit”?’ It was a gallant effort to sound light.
‘Not exactly. But anything that was in Searle’s room is of potential value at the moment.’
‘I think that glove is more likely to mislead you than help you, Inspector. But keep it by all means.’
He liked the touch of spirit, and was glad of her quick recovery. He had never enjoyed teasing snails.
‘Would Mr Whitmore be able to tell what is missing from that case?’
‘I doubt it, but we can see.’ She made for the door to summon Walter.
‘Or anyone else in the household?’
‘Well, Aunt Lavinia wouldn’t. She never knows even what is in her own drawers. And Mother wouldn’t, because she never goes near the tower room except to put her head in to see that the bed had been done and the place dusted. But we can ask the staff.’
Grant took them up to the tower bedroom and showed them what he meant about the empty space. What had lain in that oblong gap?
‘Some chemical that he has already used up?’ Walter suggested.
‘I thought of that, but all the necessary chemicals are still there and hardly used at all. You can’t think of anything that you have seen him with that would fill that gap?’
They could not; and neither could Alice the housemaid.
No one did Mr Searle’s room but her, she said. A Mrs Clamp came from the village every day to help, but she did not do bedrooms. Just stairs and corridors and offices and that.
Grant watched their faces and speculated. Whitmore was poker-faced; Liz half interested by the puzzle, half troubled; Alice apprehensive that she might be held responsible for whatever was missing from the case.
He was getting nowhere.
Whitmore came to the front door with him, and peering into the dark said: ‘Where is your car?’
‘I left it down the avenue,’ Grant said, ‘Goodnight, and thank you for being so helpful.’
He moved away into the darkness and waited while Walter closed the door. Then he walked round the house to the garage. It was still open, and it held three cars. He tried the pockets of all three, but none of them held an odd glove. None of them held any gloves whatever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14