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Authors: Robin Paige

Death at Rottingdean (24 page)

BOOK: Death at Rottingdean
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“What sort of thing did he poke into?” Lord Sheridan asked sharply.
Fat Jack knew he had gone too far. “ ‘E was just ... nosy,” he said. “ 'E liked to know wot was goin' on.”
“Captain Smith, on the other hand,
was
well liked?”
The constable nodded, relieved at the change of subject.
“He was friendly with the villagers? A congenial sort?”
“Well,” the constable said cautiously, “I don't know about congenial. Most coast guards keep to themselves. But 'e got along wi' folks.”
“How long had he been here? Where did he live?”
“ ‘E came 'ere three years or so ago from Dover, I ‘eard 'im say. ‘E lived in the cottage behind the old customs office on the 'Igh Street. 'E had no wife.”
“Did he have any enemies?”
Harry Tudwell's name trembled on the tip of the constable's tongue and threatened to fall off. Fat Jack closed his mouth and shook his head. Whoever this man was, whatever his real business, it was not safe to name names.
“What about Mr. Thomas?”
The constable blinked. Trunky Thomas? Yes, he'd thought about that possibility. Trunky had a skiff, several, in fact. Trunky had just as much reason as anybody, maybe more, to want George Radford dead. And Trunky was keen to displace Harry Tudwell—had, in fact, gotten the backing of the more prominent villagers. Perhaps he had told Foxy that he was taking over as lander, and they had argued. Perhaps ...
“What about Mr. Thomas, Constable?” Lord Sheridan repeated, watching him narrowly.
“Forgive me, m‘lord,” Fat Jack muttered, feeling pinned. He couldn't suggest Trunky as a suspect any more than he could suggest Harry, and for exactly the same reasons. “Ye caught me off guard, m'lord an' I had to think about it.” He looked up, trying to meet Lord Sheridan's eyes. “But I doubt Trunky's yer man, sir. I don't know of a reason ‘e'd 'ave to kill anybody.” He paused and added, cautiously: “Why d'ye ask, sir?”
Lord Sheridan pulled out a gold pocket watch and consulted it. “I should like to talk with Mr. Thomas before the hour grows later. Would you care to accompany me, Constable Woodhouse, or are you too”—his lordship's mouth quirked again—“too busy?”
Fat Jack sighed and cast one last, longing look at his cold tea and folded newspaper. “I s'pose I can spare th' time,” he said grudgingly.
“Good.” Lord Sheridan turned toward the door. “I don't imagine it will take too long, or prove too taxing.”
22
The last of the Rottingdean smugglers was probably ‘Trunky'
Thomas, who was the uncrowned king of the Gap at the turn
of the century, as he was the proprietor of Rottingdean's four
bathing machines as well as being owner of several fishing
boats.
—HENRY BLYTH
Smugglers' Village: The Story
of
Rottingdean
 
 
 

S
o,” said Mr. Landsdowne crisply, “it is decided? Ye'll carry th' third lantern and work wi' me t' see that everything falls out accordin' t' our plan?”
Trunky Thomas folded his hands over his belly and sat back in his wooden chair, regarding the village chemist, whom he did not like and certainly did not trust, with suspicion. In fact, truth be known, Trunky had got where he was in life by suspecting everyone and not trusting anyone. He and Foxy Smith had been alike in that much, at least. But he had to admit that Landsdowne had brought him a clever idea, and that with the proper direction and under the proper leadership, it could work to everyone's advantage, including his own.
“Right, then,” he growled. “Tell ‘Arry I'll do it.” He narrowed his eyes. “But if ye cross me in this, John, I'll have yer—”
“I won't cross ye, Trunky,” the stoop-shouldered chemist said emphatically. “I speak fer th' village when I say ye're our man. We're tired o' ‘arry's shilly-shallyin', ‘is caution-this an' caution-that. We're countin' on ye t' keep us movin' forward.” He stuck out his thin hand. “ ‘Tis a bargain, then?”
“A bargain,” Trunky said.
“Good. I'll go back an' tell ‘arry that we've agreed to be 'is two signal-men.”
They shook hands, the chemist took his leave, and Trunky settled his bulk in his chair and put his boots on the square deal table that served as his desk, looking out the window to the ocean. The sky was cloudless and a brisk wind blew out of the south, ruffling the Channel. If this weather held until tomorrow night, they should be all right. And after that, it would be clear sailing.
Trunky smiled to himself, clasped his hands behind his head, and tilted his chair on its back legs. If he were judged by what he was thought to own, he was not the most prosperous man in Rottingdean. Three small fishing boats, two skiffs, four bathing machines and a broken-down old pony to turn the capstan that hauled them up and down the beach, this frame shack perched at the edge of the cliff, that dilapidated cottage on the Whitehaven Road where he lived. Not much, by most accounts, to show for a lifetime of hard work.
Which was exactly the way Trunky liked it. He didn't want anyone to know that he was a rich man—houses in Newhaven, a valuable acreage on the outskirts of Brighton, notes in a bank vault, a cache of sovereigns hidden in a wall. These secret holdings were the fruits of his years of diligent effort as a one-man free-trade entrepreneur. He had been smuggling long before the investors had appeared and seduced the villagers with an offer they could not refuse. But if you asked anyone in Rottingdean to name the village's most respected man, he'd be up there, top of the list, well above Harry Tudwell.
Trunky's lip curled at the thought of Tudwell. He had warned Foxy Smith that the man was a bandy-legged little coward and not to be trusted to manage the landward side of the operation. It was too bad that the captain hadn't listened to reason and gotten rid of the troublemaker long ago. If he had, he might be—
Trunky's thoughts were interrupted by a tenative knock at the shack door. He raised his head and tipped his curly-brimmed bowler back with a grimy thumb. “‘Oo's knockin'?” he called gruffly.
“Jack Woodhouse,” came the reply.
Ah, Fat Jack, the laziest man in Rottingdean. But a reliable man, a cooperative man. A man who knew when to watch the wall. Trunky raised his voice. “Come in, Fat Jack, an' mind th' door, that th' wind don't take it off!”
The constable stepped inside, a tall, brown-suited gentleman at his heels. Fat Jack, with an oddly fearful glance that Trunky could not read, fumbled his way through introductions. “ ‘Is lordship 'as some questions,” he said. “ ‘Bout young Radford an' Cap'n Smith.”
“That so?” Trunky asked, not getting up, and not taking his heels from the table. Since there were no other chairs in the shack, his visitors, perforce, had to stand. He spoke with a barely disguised insolence. “Wot does yer lordship want t'know?”
“To begin with,” Lord Sheridan said mildly, “who stabbed George Radford, who bound him to a heavy weight, and who rowed his body out to sea in a skiff?”
Trunky dropped his hands and rubbed a finger over his chapped lips. “Stabbed, eh?” he muttered. “Trussed up an' towed out t' sea?” He cast a contemptuous look at the constable. “ ‘E didn't fall on 'is knife as ‘e jumped off th' cliff t' drown 'isself, th' way Fat Jack told it to us?”
Fat Jack opened his mouth to remonstrate, thought better, and closed it.
“No,” his lordship said. “He did not.”
Trunky narrowed his eyes and picked out the most relevant point. “Whose skiff?”
“That, Mr. Thomas,” his lordship said thoughtfully, “is a central question. I wonder if you would mind our taking a look at yours.”
Trunky did mind, as a matter of fact. He minded very much, but it was safer not to show it. “Wot else d'ye want to ask?”
“Who might have wanted to kill George Radford?”
Trunky was by nature a slow and deliberate man who thought questions through before he attempted to answer. This question, however, afforded an opportunity he could not resist. He responded before he reflected. “Ye might talk t' ‘Arry Tudwell. 'E's the stablemaster at ‘Awk'am Stables.”
“Is he? And what might have been Mr. Tudwell's motive?”
Trunky shrugged. “Radford got too close t' ‘is business, mebbee.”
“What business?”
This question, sharply put, gave Trunky pause. Perhaps he should not have been so quick to implicate Harry. After all, that particular sword could cut both ways. “Ye'll ‘ave t' ask 'Arry,” he said evasively. “ ‘E's a close-mouthed man. I don't know much about 'is business.”
“Let us go on, then,” Lord Sheridan said. “What do you know about the murder of Captain Smith?”
Trunky's eyes narrowed. They were now treading more dangerous ground. “I know wot I ‘eard,” he said cautiously.
“Then you did not see the body?”
Trunky said nothing.
His lordship reached into his pocket and took out a green pasteboard ticket. “This was found beside the body, Mr. Thomas. It is similar, is it not, to those used to enter your bathing machines?” Fat Jack, looking on, coughed anxiously.
Bugger the ticket! Trunky started to speak, stopped, started again. “Lots ... lots o' people use th' bathin' machines,” he said finally. “ ‘Alf th' people in Rottingdean's got tickets.”
His lordship held it up. “With the stub still attached?”
Trunky swallowed. He must have dropped the ticket when he pulled out his handkerchief to mop his forehead. But it didn't mean anything, anyway. He had come straight from the old windmill to the Black Horse with the announcement of Foxy's murder. Half the town knew he had been there.
“Well, yes,” he said, “now that ye mention it, I prob‘ly did drop that ticket. ‘Twas a real shocker t‘see th' cap'n sittin' there wi' a bullet 'ole in ‘is middle, dead as a door-knocker. I pulled out me 'andkerchief t' mop me brow. Prob'ly lost it then.”
“And that was what time, Mr. Thomas?”
Trunky knew exactly what time he had been there, but he scratched his head, pretending to think. “Oh, mebbee eight o‘clock or after. 'E was cold,” he added helpfully. “ ‘E'd been dead a good long time when I saw 'im.”
“And who do you think might have killed him?”
Trunky gave the nosy lord a long stare. Two-edged sword or not, he now had no choice. “Talk t' ‘Arry,” he said.
“I shall,” his lordship replied. He fixed Trunky with his sharp brown eyes. “Do you have a gun, Mr. Thomas?”
Trunky's throat closed over his quick denial, and it was a good thing, too. Too many people—including Fat Jack, standing there with his eyes bulging out, and Harry Tudwell, who would be glad enough to incriminate him—had seen his gun.
“I do,” he said at last. “No law against ‘avin' a gun. A man wi' proppity needs a gun t' defend hisself.”
Lord Sheridan glanced around the shack as if to question Trunky's claim to property, but said only, “I should like to see it, please.”
Trunky shot an apprehensive glance at the constable. He could say that he kept it at the cottage, but Fat Jack, who had been in the shack one day when he took it out, would likely betray him. The constable looked away. Trunky sighed. Opening the drawer, he took out his Webley revolver, the gun his brother had brought back from the Zulu wars, fifteen years before. He laid it on the scarred wooden desk.
Lord Sheridan picked it up and sniffed the muzzle. “Recently fired,” he murmured. He worked the catch and broke the gun open, then held the barrel up to the light and sighted through it while Trunky cursed himself for not having cleaned the weapon. Then he snapped the action shut and placed the gun on the table, saying nothing. Trunky put the gun back in the drawer and closed it. “I used it fer target practice last week.”
“Is that right?” his lordship replied, one eyebrow raised. “Several of you shooting, were there?”
Trunky swallowed. “No, just me. I got a butt set up behind me cottage.” His tongue felt thick and his hands had gone clammy. “I didn't shoot ‘im.” He swallowed and said it again, louder. “I didn't shoot Foxy, ye 'ear?”
Lord Sheridan looked at the constable. “Please see that Mr. Thomas does not leave the village before the coroner's inquest, Constable Woodhouse. I am likely to have other questions for him after I have talked to Mr. Tudwell.”
Fat Jack cast a miserable glance at Trunky. “Yessir,” he said. His face was slick with sweat, as if he were suffering the pains of the grippe. “Wotever ye say, m'lord.”
His lordship looked back at Trunky, his expression flat and unrevealing. “Now, shall we have a glance at those skiffs?”
The examination of the skiffs took the better part of a half-hour, but if it yielded any evidence, Lord Sheridan said nothing of it to Trunky or the constable. When the two men had left, Trunky returned to his shack and resumed his accustomed posture, feet up, hands clasped behind his head, eyes searching the inscrutable ocean.
But Trunky was not smiling, nor was he reflecting on his houses or land or bank notes or gold sovereigns. Rather, he was thinking with despair about the impending inquest and wondering how in God's name he was going to persuade the twelve men of the coroner's jury to believe his story.
23
Kipling suspected it.
—EZRA POUND The
Cantos
 
 
... Not twenty paces away a magnificent dog-fox sat on his haunches and looked at the children as though he were an old friend of theirs.
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