TURN OF THE TIDE
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WHAT ALWAYS BEATS them in the end, is how to dispose of the body. But, of course, you know that as well as I do...
THE TURN OF THE TIDE
by C. S. FORESTER
WHAT ALWAYS BEATS them in the end," said Dr. Matthews, "is how to dispose of the body. But, of course, you know that as well as I do."
"Yes," said Slade. He had, in fact, been devoting far more thought to what Dr. Matthews believed to be this accidental subject of conversation than Dr. Matthews could ever guess.
"As a matter of fact," went on Dr. Matthews, warming to the subject to which Slade had so tactfully led him, "it's a terribly knotty problem. It's so difficult, in fact, that I always wonder why anyone is fool enough to commit murder."
All very well for you, thought Slade, but he did not allow his thoughts to alter his expression. You smug, self-satisfied old ass! You don't know the sort of difficulties a man can be up against.
"I've often thought the same," he said.
"Yes," went on Dr. Matthews, "it's the body that does it, every time. To use a poison calls for special facilities, which are good enough to hang you as soon as suspicion is roused. And that suspicion—well, of course, part of my job is to detect poisoning. I don't think anyone can get away with it nowadays, even with the most dunderheaded general practitioner."
"I quite agree with you." Slade had no intention of using poison.
"The only other way, if a man cares to stand the racket of having the body to give evidence against him, is to fake things to look like suicide," Dr. Matthews continued, developing his logical argument. "But you know, and I know, that it just can't be done. The mere fact of suicide calls for a close examination, and no one has ever been able to fix things so well as to get away with it. You're a lawyer. You've probably read a lot of reports of trials where the murderer has tried it. And you know what's happened to them."
"Yes," said Slade. He certainly had given a great deal of consideration to the matter, and had put aside the notion of disposing of young Spalding and concealing his guilt by a sham suicide.
"That brings us to where we started, then," said Dr. Matthews. "The only other thing left is to try and conceal the body. And that's more difficult still."
"Yes," said Slade. But he had a perfect plan for disposing of the body.
"A human body," said Dr. Matthews, "is a most difficult thing to get rid of. That chap Oscar Wilde, in that book of his—Dorian Gray, isn't it?—gets rid of one by the use of chemicals. Well, I'm a chemist as well as a doctor, and I wouldn't like the job."
"No?" said Slade politely.
"There's altogether too much of it," said Dr. Matthews. "It's heavy, and it's bulky, and it's bound to undergo corruption. Think of all those poor devils who've tried it. Bodies in trunks, and bodies in coal cellars, and bodies in chicken runs. You can't hide the thing, try as you will."
Can't I? That's all you know, thought Slade, but aloud he said, "You're quite right. I've never thought about it before."
"Of course, you haven't," agreed Dr. Matthews. "Sensible people don't. And yet, you know," he went on meditatively, "there's one decided advantage about getting rid of the body altogether. You're much safer, then. You can't have a trial for murder unless you can prove there's a victim. There's got to be a corpus delicti, as you lawyers say. A corpse, in other words, even if it's only a bit of one. No corpse, no trial. I think that's good law, isn't it?"
"By Jove, you're right!" said Slade. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he regretted having said them. He did his best to make his face immobile again; he was afraid lest his expression might have
hinted at his pleasure at the mention of this very reassuring factor in the problem of killing young Spalding.
But Dr. Matthews had noticed nothing. "All the same, it's only a theoretical piece of law," he said. "The entire destruction of a body is practically impossible. But if a man could achieve it, he would be all right. However strong the suspicion was against him, the police couldn't get him without a corpse. There might be a story in that, Slade, if you or I were writers."
"Yes," assented Slade, and laughed harshly.
There never would be any story about the killing of young Spalding, the insolent pup.
"Well," said Dr. Matthews, "we've had a pretty gruesome conversa-tion, haven't we? And I seem to have done all the talking, somehow. That's the result, I suppose, Slade, of the very excellent dinner you gave me. I'd better push off now. Not that the weather is very inviting."
Nor was it. As Slade saw Dr. Matthews into his car, the rain was driving down in a real winter storm, and there was a bitter wind blow-ing. Slade was glad it was such a tempestuous night. It meant that there would be no one out in the lanes, no one out on the sands when he disposed of young Spalding's body.
Back in his drawing room, Slade looked at the clock. There was still an hour to spare; he could spend it in making sure that his plans were all correct. He looked up the tide tables. Yes, that was right enough. Spring tides. The lowest of low water on the sands. There was not so much luck about that; young Spalding came back on the midnight train every Wednesday night, and it was not surprising that, sooner or later, the Wednesday night would coincide with a spring tide. But it was lucky that this particular Wednesday night should be one of tempest; luckier still that low water should be at one thirty, the best time for him.
He opened the drawing-room door and listened carefully. He could not hear a sound. Mrs. Dumbleton, his housekeeper, must have been in bed some time now. She was as deaf as a post, anyway, and would not hear his departure. Nor his return, when Spalding had been killed and disposed of.
The hands of the clock seemed to be moving very fast. He must make sure everything was correct. The plow chain and the other iron
weights were already in the back seat of the car; he had put them there before old Matthews arrived to dine. He slipped on his overcoat.
From his desk Slade took a curious little bit of apparatus: eighteen inches of strong cord, tied at each end to a six-inch length of wood so as to make a ring. He made a last close examination to see that the knots were firm, and then he put it in his pocket; as he did so, he ran through, in his mind, the words—he knew them by heart—of the passage in the book about the Thugs of India, describing the method of strangulation employed by them. He could think quite coldly about all this. Young Spalding was a pestilent busybody. A word from him now could bring ruin upon Slade, could send him to prison.
Slade thought of other defaulting solicitors he had heard of, even one or two with whom he had come into contact professionally. He remembered his brother solicitors' remarks about them, pitying or contemptuous. He thought of having to beg his bread in the streets on his release from prison, of cold and misery and starvation. The shudder which shook him was succeeded by a hot wave of resentment. Never, never would he endure it.
What right had young Spalding, who had barely been qualified two years, to condemn a gray-haired man twenty years his senior to such a fate? If nothing but death would stop him, then he deserved to die. He clenched his hand on the cord in his pocket.
A glance at the clock told him he had better be moving. He turned out the lights and tiptoed out of the house, shutting the door quietly. The bitter wind flung icy rain into his face, but he did not notice it.
He backed the car out of the garage, and, contrary to his wont, he locked the garage doors, as a precaution against the infinitesimal chance that, on a night like this, someone should notice that his car was out. He drove cautiously down the road..
There were lights in the station as he drove over the bridge; they were on for the arrival of the twelve-thirty train. Spalding would be on that. Every Wednesday he went over to his subsidiary office, sixty miles away. Slade turned into the lane just beyond the station and then reversed his car so that it pointed toward the road. He put out the lights and settled himself to wait; his hand fumbled with the cord in his pocket.
THE TRAIN WAS A LITTLE LATE. Slade had been waiting a quarter of an hour when he saw the lights of the train as it drew up to the station. So wild was the night that he could hear nothing of it. Then the train moved slowly out again. As soon as it was gone, the lights in the station began to go out, one by one; Hobson, the porter, was making ready to go home, his turn of duty completed.
Next, Slade's straining ears heard footsteps.
Young Spalding was striding down the road. With his head bent before the storm, he did not notice the dark mass of the motorcar in the lane, and he walked past it.
Slade counted up to two hundred, slowly, and then he switched on his lights, started the engine, and drove the car out into the road in pursuit. He saw Spalding in the glare of the headlights and drew up alongside.
"Is that Spalding?" he said, striving to make the tone of his voice as
natural as possible. "I'd better give you a lift, old man, hadn't I?" "Thanks very much," said Spalding. "This isn't the sort of night to
walk two miles in."
He climbed in and shut the door. No one had seen. No one would know.
Slade let in his clutch and drove slowly down the road. "Bit of luck, seeing you," he said. "I was just on my way home from bridge at Mrs. Clay's when I saw the train come in and remembered it was Wednesday and you'd be walking home. So I thought I'd turn a bit out of my way to take you along."
"Very good of you, I'm sure," said Spalding.
"As a matter of fact," said Slade, speaking slowly and driving slowly, "it wasn't altogether disinterested. I wanted to talk business to you."
"Rather an odd time to talk business," said Spalding. "Can't it wait till tomorrow?"
"No, it cannot," said Slade. "It's about the Lady Vere trust."
"Oh, yes. I wrote to remind you last week that you had to make delivery."
"Yes, you did. And I told you, long before that, that it would be inconvenient, with Hammond abroad."
"I don't see that," said Spalding sharply. "I don't see that Ham-
mond's got anything to do with it. Why can't you just hand over and have done with it? I can't do anything to straighten things up until you do."
"As I said, it would be inconvenient."
Slade brought the car to a standstill at the side of the road. "Look here, Spalding," he went on desperately, "I've never asked a favor of you before. But now I ask you, as a favor, to forgo delivery for a bit. Just for three months."
But Slade had small hope that his request would be granted. So little hope, in fact, that he brought his left hand out of his pocket holding the piece of wood with the loop of cord dangling from its ends. He put his arm around the back of Spalding's seat.
"No, I can't, really I can't," said Spalding. "I've got my duty to my dients to consider. I'm sorry to insist, but you're quite well aware of what my duty is."
"Yes," said Slade. "But I beg you to wait. I implore you to wait, Spalding. There! Perhaps you can guess why, now."
"I see," said Spalding, after a long pause.
"I only want three months," pressed Slade. "Just three months. I can get straight again in three months."
Spalding had known other men who had had the same belief in their ability to get straight in three months. It was unfortunate for Slade—and for Spalding— that Slade had used those words. Spalding hardened his heart.
"No," he said. "I can't promise anything like that. I don't think it's any use continuing this discussion. Perhaps I'd better walk home from here."
He put out his hand to the latch of the door, and as he did so, Slade jerked the loop of cord over his head. A single turn of Slade's wrist—a thin, bony, old man's wrist, but as strong as steel in that wild mo-ment —tightened the cord about Spalding's throat. Slade swung around in his seat, getting both hands to the piece of wood, twisting madly. His breath hissed between his teeth with the effort, but Spalding never drew breath at all. He lost consciousness long before he was dead. Only' Slade's grip of the cord around his throat prevented the dead body from falling forward, doubled up.
Nobody had seen, nobody would know. And what that book had stated about the method of assassination practiced by Thugs was perfectly correct.
SLADE HAD GAINED, now, the time in which he could get his affairs into order. With all the promise of his current speculations, with all his financial ability, he would be able to recoup himself for his past losses. It only remained to dispose of Spalding's body, and he had planned to do that very satisfactorily. Just for a moment Slade felt as if all this were only some heated dream, some nightmare, but then he came back to reality and went on with the plan he had in mind.
He pulled the dead man's knees forward so that the corpse lay back in the seat, against the side of the car. He put the car in gear, let in his clutch, and drove rapidly down the road—much faster than when he had been arguing with Spalding. Low water was in three quarters of an hour's time, and the sands were ten miles away.
Slade drove fast through the wild night. There was not a soul about in those lonely lanes. He knew the way, by heart—he had driven repeatedly over that route recently in order to memorize it.
The car bumped down the last bit of lane, and Slade drew up on the edge of the sands. It was pitch-dark, and the bitter wind was howling about him under the black sky. Despite the noise of the wind, he could hear the surf breaking far away, two miles away, across the level sands. He climbed out of the driver's seat and walked around to the other door. When he opened it the dead man fell sideways, into his arms.
With an effort, Slade held him up, while he groped in the back of the car for the plow chain and the iron weights. He crammed the weights into the dead man's pockets, and he wound the chain around and around the dead man's body, tucking in the ends to make it all secure. With that mass of iron to hold it down, the body would never be found again when dropped into the sea at the lowest ebb of spring tide.
Slade tried now to lift the body in his arms, to carry it over the sands. He reeled and strained, but he was not strong enough—Slade was a man of slight figure, and past his prime. The sweat on his forehead was icy in the icy wind.
For a second, doubt overwhelmed him, lest all his plans should fail
for want of bodily strength. But he forced himself into thinking clearly; he forced his frail body into obeying the vehement commands of his brain.
He turned around, still holding the dead man upright. Stooping, he got the heavy burden on his shoulders. He drew, the arms around his neck, and, with a convulsive effort, he got the legs up around his waist. The dead man now rode him piggyback. Bending nearly double, he was able to carry the heavy weight in that fashion.
He set off, staggering, down the imperceptible slope of the sands toward the sound of the surf. The sands were soft beneath his feet—it was because of this softness that he had not driven the car down to the beach. He could afford to take no chances of being embogged.
The icy wind shrieked around him all that long way. The tide was nearly two miles out. That was why Slade had chosen this place. In the depth of winter, no one would go out to the water's edge at low tide for months to come.
He staggered on over the sands, clasping the limbs of the body close about him. Desperately he forced himself forward, not stopping to rest, for he only just had time now to reach the water's edge before the flow began. He went on and on, driving his exhausted body with fierce urgings from his frightened brain.
Then, at last, he saw it: a line of white in the darkness. Farther out, the waves were breaking in an inferno of noise. Here, the fragments of the rollers were only just sufficient to move the surface a little.
He was going to make quite sure of things. Steadying himself, he stepped into the water, wading in farther and farther so as to be able to drop the body into comparatively deep water. He held to his resolve, staggering through the icy water, knee-deep, thigh-deep, until it was nearly at his waist. This was far enough. He stopped, gasping in the darkness.
He leaned over to one side to roll the body off his back. It did not move. He pulled at its arms. They were obstinate. He could not loosen them. He shook himself furiously. He tore at the legs around his waist. Still the thing clung to him. Wild with panic and fear, he flung himself about in a mad effort to rid himself of the burden. It clung on as though it were alive. He could not break its grip.
Then a breaker came in. It splashed about him, wetting him far above his waist. The tide had begun to turn now, and the tide on those sands comes in like a racehorse.
He made another effort to cast off the load, and when it still held him fast, he lost his nerve and tried to struggle out of the sea. But it was too much for his exhausted body. The weight of the corpse and of the iron with which it was loaded overbore him. He fell.
He struggled up again in the foam-streaked dark sea, staggered a few steps, fell again—and did not rise. The dead man's arms were around his neck, strangling him. Rigor mortis had set in and Spalding's muscles had refused to relax.