Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (4 page)

‘Ar. That’s right.’

You see, I was leaning against the front left-hand wing of my car – the very one that I calculated would be damaged on X’s car – and X had been leaning against it to hide the damage from this chap I was talking to. I put some more questions, as tactfully as I could, but wasn’t able to find out anything further about the man or his car. I was at my wits’ end. For want of something to say, I assumed a hideously jocular tone.

‘Well, I’ll have to ask George about this ladyfriend of his. Can’t have that sort of thing, eh? And him a married man. Wonder who she was.’

The jest struck oil. The chap scratched his head.

‘Come to think of it, I know her name, only it have gone out of my head. Saw her at the pictures last
week
. In Chel’unham. She wor’ in her undies – and not much of them neither.’

‘In her undies at the pictures?’

‘Ar. In her undies. Mother was proper shocked. Now what was her name? Hey, Mother!’

A woman came out of the farm.

‘What were the name of the picture us saw last week, Mother? The first one.’

‘The supporting picture?
Housemaid’s Knees
.’

‘Ar. That’s it.
Housemaid’s Knees
. And this young lady – she were Polly, the housemaid, see? Cor, she didn’t ’alf show her knees, too.’

‘Daft like, I thought it was,’ said the woman. ‘Our Gertie’s in service, but her don’t have no lace lingerie nor no time to flaunt ’er charms like that thurr Polly. Give her what for, I would, if her did.’

‘You say the girl my friend had with him that night was the one who took the part of Polly in the film?’

‘I wouldn’t swear to it, sir. Don’t want to get the gentleman into trouble, eh? Hurr, hurr, hurr. The lady in the car kept her face turned away, see, most of the time. Dessay her didn’t want to be reckernised. In a fair rage her was, when the gentleman turned on light inside car – “Turn the damn’ thing off, George,” she says. That’s how I caught a sight of her face. And when I sees this yurr Polly on the pictures, I remarks to Mother, “Hey, Mother, if that bean’t the young lady was in that car what stopped at ford!” – didn’t I, Mother?’

‘You did.’

I left the couple soon after that, having thrown out some dark hints about the desirability of their keeping all this to themselves. Even if they do talk, they’ll have nothing to go on but the idea of an illicit relationship between the two, which I think I fostered with some skill. They couldn’t remember the name of the actress who played the part of Polly, so I drove straight to Cheltenham and found out.
Housemaid’s Knees
is a British film. One might have guessed that from the title – typical of the British genius for cheap, vulgar indecency. The girl’s name is Lena Lawson. She’s what they call ‘a starlet’ (God, what a word!). The film is on at Gloucester this week. I’ll go tomorrow and get an eyeful of her.

No wonder the police didn’t get these people as witnesses. Their farm is in a deserted place, down a road where few cars come even in the daytime. They didn’t hear the BBC appeal, because their wireless was out of action that week. And in any case, what was there to connect this couple in the car with an accident nearly twenty miles away?

Here’s the new data about X. His Christian name is George. His car has a Gloucestershire registration mark. Taken in conjunction with his knowledge of the existence of the watersplash (he surely wouldn’t have time to go hunting for one on a map), this strongly suggests that he lives in the country.
And
, Lena Lawson is his weak spot. And when I say weak spot – I mean it – the girl was obviously terrified when my friend accosted them at the ford; she said, ‘Oh do hurry up,’
and
tried to keep her face hidden. My next step is to get in touch with her. She’ll obviously crack under pressure.

30 June

SAW LENA LAWSON
tonight. Quite a cute number, I must say. I shall look forward to meeting her. But Gawd what a film! Spent quite a lot of time after breakfast looking up the names of all the garage owners in the county whose initials begin with G. Made a list of a dozen or so. It’s a queer sensation, looking down a list of names and knowing that you’re going to obliterate one of them.

My plan of campaign is beginning to occupy my mind. I’ll not write it down till I’ve worked out the general line. I feel somehow that Felix Lane is going to be useful. But all the ridiculous, boring little details one has to attend to before one can get in touch with one’s victim, let alone kill him! – one might almost be organising an Everest climb.

2 July

IT IS AN
interesting comment on the fallibility of human intelligence – even of an intelligence above the average
– that
for two days I have been racking my brains to work out a really safe murder plan, and only this evening did I realise it was quite unnecessary. The point is this – since no one but myself (and presumably Lena Lawson) knows that ‘George’ was the man who killed Martie, no one can ever discover my motive for killing George. I realise, of course, that legally motive does not have to be proved against an accused man provided that circumstantial evidence proves him guilty. But in actual fact, where there appears to be no possible motive, only direct eyewitness of the crime could secure conviction.

Provided George and Lena do not connect Felix Lane with Frank Cairnes, the father of the child they ran over, nobody on earth can ever find any connecting link between me and George. Now, no photographs of me appeared in the press in connection with Martie’s death. I made certain of that. Mrs Teague was giving the reporters no chance. And the only people who know that Frank Cairnes is Felix Lane are my publishers, who are sworn to secrecy. Therefore, if I play my cards sensibly, all I have to do is to get an introduction to Lena Lawson,
as Felix Lane
, get at George through her, and kill him. If by any chance she or George has read my detective novels and seen the ‘mystery’ stunt – the ‘who is Felix Lane?’ stuff – that my publishers have been running, I shall merely say that it was all a publicity fake and that I have really been Felix Lane all along. The only danger would be if someone I knew found me posing as Felix Lane
with
Lena, but I don’t think that will be very difficult to avoid. For one thing, I shall grow a beard before I have any doings with the luscious starlet.

George will take the mystery of Martie’s death to the grave with him (where he’ll have all eternity to meditate on the bestiality of road hogs), and in the same grave will be buried therefore my own motive for the ‘crime’. The only possible danger could come from Lena. It may prove necessary to get rid of her too, but let us hope not – though I’ve no reason at present to suppose that she’d be any loss to the world.

Are you commenting unfavourably, ghostly confessor, on my desire to save my own skin? A month ago, when first the idea of killing Martie’s murderer began to insinuate itself into my mind, I had no wish to go on living. But my will to live somehow grew strong, as my will to kill flourished; they have grown up together, inseparable twins. I feel I owe it to my revenge that I should get away with this killing scot-free – as George so nearly got away with his killing of Martie.

George. I’ve already begun to look upon him as an old acquaintance. I feel almost a lover’s impatience and trembling anticipation of our meeting. Yet I’ve no real proof that he is the man who killed Martie; nothing more than his odd behaviour at the watersplash, and a feeling in my bones that I am right. But how shall I be able to prove it? How shall I ever be able to prove it?

Never mind. I’ll not cross my bridges till I’ve come to them. What I have to remember is that I can murder George, or X, or whoever he is, with absolute impunity – as long as I don’t over-elaborate or lose my head. An accident, that’s what it must be. No nonsense about subtle poisons and complex alibis, just a little push when he and I are walking along a cliff, or crossing a street, that sort of thing. No one will ever know my motive for wanting to kill him, and therefore no one will have any reason to doubt that it was a genuine accident.

Yet, in a way, I’m sorry it must be like this. I’d promised myself the satisfaction of his agony – he does not deserve a quick death. I’d like to burn him slowly, inch by inch, or watch ants honeycomb his living flesh; or, there’s strychnine, that bends a man’s body into a rigid loop – by God, I’d like to bowl him down the slope into Hell …

Mrs Teague came in just then. ‘Writing at your book?’ she said. ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, you’re lucky you’ve got something to take your mind off—’ ‘Yes, Mrs Teague, very lucky,’ I said gently. She was fond of Martie, too, in her way. She’s long ago given up reading the mss on my desk. I used to leave notes for my apocryphal Life of Wordsworth lying about – that put her off all right. ‘I like a good read, mind you,’ she said once, ‘but none of your highbrow stuff. Gives me the bellyache, it does. My old man was a great reader – Shakespeare, Dante, Marie Corelli – he’d read ’em all. Tried to get me to. Said I ought to improve my mind. “You leave
my
mind alone, Teague,” I says, “one bookworm’s enough in this house,” I says, “Dante won’t butter your parsnips for you.”’

However, I’ve always kept my detective mss locked up, and I’m keeping this diary locked up too. Though, if any outsider happened to find it, he can assure himself that it’s just another of Felix Lane’s thrillers.

3 July

GENERAL SHRIVENHAM DROPPED
in this afternoon. Engaged me in a long controversy about the heroic couplet. An admirable man. Why is it that all generals are intelligent, kindly, charming and knowledgeable, whereas colonels are invariably bores and majors for the most part unspeakable? A subject ‘Mass Observation’ might investigate.

Told the General I’d be going off for a long holiday fairly soon. Couldn’t stand the way this place reminded me of Martie. He gave me an exceedingly sharp glance out of his guileless old blue eyes and said:

‘Not going to do anything foolish, I hope?’

‘Foolish?’ I repeated stupidly. For a moment I thought he must have somehow read my secret. It sounded like an accusation, almost.

‘Mm,’ he said. ‘Take to drink. Women. Pleasure cruises. Shooting grizzlies. Silly nonsense, all that. Work’s the only cure, take my word for it.’

I was so relieved this was all he meant that I was seized by a rush of affection for the old man – wanted to confess something to him, to reward him for not having found out my secret as it were – an interesting reaction. So I told him about the anonymous letter and my ruined flowers.

‘Really?’ he said. ‘Horrible. Don’t like that sort of thing at all. I’m a mild-tempered man, you know. Hate shooting animals, and that sort of thing. Of course, I used to do a bit of shooting when I was in the Service, tiger chiefly – but that was a long time ago, in India – beautiful beasts, graceful, a pity to shoot ’em, I gave it up after a bit. What I mean is, the type of fella who can write an anonymous letter – I’d have no compunction about shooting him, none at all. Reported it to Elder yet?’

I said no. An unholy gleam of relish lit up in the General’s eye. He insisted on my showing him the anonymous letter and the beds where the flowers had been destroyed and asked a lot of questions.

‘Fella comes in the early morning, eh?’ he said, gazing commandingly over the terrain. His eye finally came to rest on an apple tree and he gave me a leer of outrageous irresponsibility.

‘Just right, eh? Sit up there quite comfortably. Rug. Flask. Gun. Get him as he comes out in the open. Leave it all to me.’

After a little, I gathered from him that his intention was to sit up in the tree with his elephant gun and
loose
it off in the direction of the anonymous letter-writer.

‘No. Damn it all, you can’t do that. You might kill him.’

The General was quite wounded. ‘My dear fellow,’ he said. ‘Last thing I want – get you into trouble; just frighten him, that’s all. Cowards, those sort of fellas are. Cowardly. You wouldn’t be troubled with him any more, bet you a pony. Save a lot of fuss and bother – keep the police out of it.’

I had to be rather firm with him. As he was going away, he said, ‘Perhaps you’re right. Might be a woman. Don’t care about shooting women – there’s so much of ’em too, more easy to hit by mistake, especially in profile. Well, keep your pecker up, Cairnes. Come to think of it, what you want is a woman. Not a flibbertigibbet. A good, sensible woman. Look after you, and make you think you’re looking after her. Someone to quarrel with – you fellas who live alone, like to think you’re self-sufficient, living on your nerves – if you haven’t someone to quarrel with, you start quarrelling with yourself, and then where are you? Suicide or the madhouse. Two easy ways out. Not good enough, though. Conscience doth make cowards of us all. Not blaming yourself, about the boy’s death, I hope, eh? No need to, my dear fellow. Rrrm. Dangerous to brood about it, though. A lonely man’s an easy target for the devil. Well, come over and see me soon. Magnificent crop of raspberries this year. Made a pig of myself yesterday. Goodbye.’

He’s as sharp as a needle, that old boy. That rambling, abrupt stage-military idiom is all my eye. He probably adopted it as camouflage from behind which he could surprise and rout his less talented colleagues, or just in self-defence. ‘You start quarrelling with yourself’, not yet, at any rate. I’ve got another quarrel on hand, and bigger game to hunt than tigers or anonymous letter-writers.

5 July

ANOTHER ANONYMOUS LETTER
this morning. Very disagreeable. I cannot have this person distracting my attention, just when I most need to concentrate on the main business. Yet I feel unwilling to put the matter into the hands of the police. I feel that, if I knew who it was, I should stop worrying about these stupid little pinpricks. Will go to bed early tonight and set my alarm for 4 a.m. That ought to be early enough. Then I’ll drive in to Kemble and catch the breakfast train to London. Have arranged to lunch with Holt, my publisher.

6 July

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