“Death in the Sun”
a Geoffrey Lord tale
The heat was oppressive that afternoon, cooking the sand and brazening the outstretched, squirming bodies such that they resembled brass sardines.
One of the sardines, however, was outstretched but not squirming; the blackening on the shoulder was caused not by the sun’s heat, oppressive though it was, but by the muzzle of a gun put up against it—and the trigger pulled.
We may classify this particular sardine (for let us continue to deem him that) by that appellation of stock melodrama, the crooked lawyer. He was a crooked lawyer, a nasty, no-good scoundrel, the type who robs Peter to pay Paul and keeps a perquisite-for-self on the side. His name? You remember George Thurlow, no? Of course you do. Universally-known as the sort of lawyer for whom the term “shyster” was invented—indeed, the term was too kind for that low-grade arachnid.
And now a kindly hand had taken the incentive and delivered him to his maker. Sadly, said hand had not seen fit to deliver him as brazened as the other sardines, but let us not gild (or brazen) the lily. Nevertheless, George Thurlow was a human being (perhaps; the physicians are out on that point), as deserving of life as any of us (perhaps; the philosophers are out on that point), even if Sheriff Hank Gibbons nearly spat on the body as he overlooked it:
“I don’t have anythin’ good to say about that man, Mr. Lord—I woulda gladly shot him myself if I thought I coulda got away with it. Came along from the city, all how-do-ya-do and fancy, the way the city folk do—exceptin’ yourself, ’course; you’re almost like a local—and rents the Arning place, right next to the public beach, every year. Not that he liked bein’ there, naturally: only that he was a cheapskate, and old Mrs. Arning lets it out cheap. And now he’s dead.”
“Now he’s dead,” Mr. Geoffrey Lord repeated softly, removing his glasses and polishing them with his pocket handkerchief. The first time he had visited Nordharbor, he remembered, he had seen George Z. Thurlow (very important, that middle initial) on the old Arning balcony, sunbathing as if he expected to be seen and heralded by all, and told himself that Thurlow was setting himself up for a run-in with tragedy. He’d known Thurlow from a case on which Pop O’Leary had asked Geoff’s help; Thurlow had defended the doctor involved (for a hefty fee) and won the case. (For all his flaws, no one could call Thurlow a bad lawyer.) Geoff, that nicest of men, had disliked Thurlow—a pompous peacock with a mean streak to match—ever since.
Pop O’Leary had been philosophical about it—“If we went after every crooked lawyer in New York…”—while sweet Paula Vale let her emotions get the better of her—“Shoot the crook!” Geoff remembered shooting Miss Vale an amused looked and thinking that he was now seeing a new side to her.
“Is there any reason he should be at the public beach, Sheriff?” Geoff inquired. The point had puzzled him.
“No reason at all—though it’s the least of our worries. Gad, if only he’d committed suicide!”
“I understand the conviction. The footprints?”
“The footprints. Gad Almighty, the footprints! Explain that and Nordharbor’ll give ya a parade, I’m bettin’. How can a man be shot (at close-range, mind ya—see the powder burns round the hole in the shoulder?) in the middle of a beach, in full view of a dozen people, with only his footprints around, and nobody sees the fella that did it?”
For that was what had happened. Thurlow had walked out on to a sandbar, watched by the sardines mentioned before. Some carefully, some askance, but all saw him. And two shots rang out on a hot summer afternoon, and the man was dead, shot in the shoulder and the back. Alone on a sandbar, with only his footprints leading up to him. Weird? Unreal. The sort of thing you’d expect of a Lewis Carroll phantasmagoria, or—if you have the tastes that you probably have, dear reader—a detective story of the impossible sort.
The tide was coming in.
“I suppose the water couldn’t have washed away any footprints?” Mr. Lord asked, at this point clutching at straws (for he saw no way it could have happened either).
“No, siree,” said Sheriff Gibbons. “He was in the middle of the shoal, as nice as you could get, and there woulda been something around him. Nothin’. Mr. Lord, there wasn’t nobody here, I’m tellin’ ya. Not a single living soul came to this barge exceptin’ the man himself. Ghosts, goblins—there’s talk of an old Indian legend aroundabout these parts…”
“An awfully able one who can fire a modern gun,” Geoff said, smiling. “No, Sheriff, there’s a human side to this puzzle. Have you ever read detective stories?”
“Ah,” said the Sheriff, cocking his head to one side. “I thought it’d get to that. Ya write ’em, don’t ya? That’s why I called ya up when I heard ya was in town—seems like a detective-story sort of crime, if y’know what I mean…”
“Do I ever. Body, shot at close range, found on otherwise unmarked sand, whole house of suspects… I suppose a boat couldn’t have come up nearby and someone could have fired from that?”
“Woulda got caught up on the reef,” the sheriff pointed out, “and ’course somebody woulda seen it.”
“Silly notion, anyway—sorry,” said Mr. Lord. “And the first person to find the body?”
“Hm, yes, siree, we thought of that. Lots o’ people on the beach saw him fall; we had a few different calls in to the precinct about the case. But nearly everyone was sayin’ no one approached the body till my men and I got here.”
“Well: back to the house of suspects, then—the Arning house, to be exact. His son?”
Gibbons gave the OK to the deputies standing nearby to take the body away; there was no evidence to be found on the bar, he and Geoff had determined (the gun? Probably thrown into the ocean by an invisible killer, they reasoned); and, even if there were, the water would soon sweep it away anyway.
“His son, yup,” he said. “And his housekeeper and the boy doin’ work for him. Gad knows they’ve all got a reason for it, but then I’ll bet ya half the town does. We can’t quite narrow it down, can we?”
“Maybe we can,” said Mr. Lord. “Listen here, Sheriff, there’s a way someone could have killed Thurlow without ever being on the sandbank. There’s an old solution in detective fiction…”
The house creaked, as if it were about to give up its ghost and sink into the sea at last, and folks had long said Mrs. Arning would go with it—prob’ly one of her reasons for letting it for so little, the Sheriff told Geoff as they walked up the beach to the estate. Geoff looked up at the balcony and recalled how many times Mrs. Arning—white-haired, tall and noble, with the accent and bearing of near-royalty—sat there, overlooking the waves (her late husband’s true love, people had gossiped), being waited on by the obsequious Billy, a cheerful lad of about 19. Billy stayed on after Mrs. Arning left—left the house, left the town, handled the business details through a lawyer—and did various odds and ends for Thurlow.
“His motive,” the Sheriff laughed unhappily.
The housekeeper was about fifty—a dumpy woman with stringy hair and the complexion of glue. Mrs. Ball, her name was (though no one had seen Mr. Ball in many years)—Edith Ball, she of the Judith Anderson face and voice. She was brought in from New York, and there had been talk (Geoff remembered, and told the sheriff) years ago, of marriage between her and her employer. All scuttled when said employer married Beryl Innes.
“Her motive,” said Geoffrey Lord.
And the son, August: a grown man with the brain of a child, who had hated his stepmother and was delighted when his father threw her out. Not that he liked his father any more, but then he rarely bothered his father and his father rarely bothered him. His stepmother, however, had longed for August to leave his room, to leave his father’s house, to grow up and live and… Not for the Thurlows, this lifestyle. Miss Paula Vale would have said that they were not a very nice family.
It was August who blocked the doorway when Geoff and the Sheriff had tried to enter.
“The sheriff?” he said. “You’ve come about the woman?”
“We’ve come about your father’s death,” Sheriff Gibbons said sharply.
But Mr. Lord said, “Woman?”
August Thurlow sighed. “Of course, the woman. The old woman who owns this house.”
“Mrs. Arning? But she’s…”
“I know that. But she was here.” He stamped his foot as if about to throw a temper tantrum. “She bothered me, going through all the rooms. I’d like to have her arrested.”
“Huh.” The sheriff coughed. “For what charge, exactly? Enterin’ her own house?”
The housekeeper’s entrance interrupted August Thurlow’s outburst of a reply. “Sheriff Gibbons? Yes, one of your men talked to me on the telephone. I understand you wished for a statement of our whereabouts?”
“That would be appreciated, ma’am.”
“Indeed. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Thurlow, Mr. Cummings, and I all heard the shots—”
“Billy,” the Sheriff explained.)
“—at about 1:18, is that correct, sir?”
This to August.
“I guess,” that personage sulked.
“That fits in with what the coroner said,” Gibbons whispered to Geoff.
“Now, as for where everyone was…”
“One moment,” Geoff interposed. “Mrs. Ball, do you know where everyone was before you heard the shots?”
“Before? I don’t know…” She knew exact whereabouts when she heard the shots fired—of course she did. Mrs. Ball, in her ever-knowing way, was expectant and ready for that.
“About 10 to 20 minutes before. Apologies for the question, but as I was just saying to the sheriff—well, it’s connected to our theory on how the crime has been committed.”
“Let me think, sir,” said the eternally unruffled woman, now ruffled and unaware how to react to it. “Mr. Cummings was here, with me—before he went up to the roof to bring up Mr. Thurlow’s golf clubs, sir. I was explaining how, under Mr. Thurlow—the late Mr. Thurlow—one could not act as one acted in Mrs. Arning’s day… I don’t know about Mr. Thurlow.”
“I was in the game room, playing with the pool balls—nothing murderous, Sheriff. But I do have an alibi for the time of… Anyway, how about that woman? She probably murdered Father—everyone hated Father.”
“Did you?” said Mr. Geoffrey Lord, who already knew the answer to the question.
Billy Cummings was the last to arrive. Yes, he had been up on the roof when he heard the shots; yes, he knew why the Sheriff and Geoff were there; and…
“You knew the woman?” said August Thurlow.
“Of course,” said Billy, surprised. “I thought everyone knew. It was Mrs. Arning—she explained how she wished to see her old home. Of course I took her through the rooms–she was gone before we heard the shots, you know–and…”
“My God,” said Mr. Lord, suddenly. “What a fool I’ve been. Of course—yes. That’s the only way it could have been done. Billy, one thing: did she explain why she wished to see everything?”
“I—I think she’s sick, sir: I mean, in the sense that I doubt she has long to…”
“That’s it,” the great man murmured. “Fool that I am.” He paused again. “Sheriff, if the question is one of arrest…”
Who killed George Thurlow?
How could the murder have been committed?