'The Heaving Rocks Lighthouse Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever, lovers, are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. They investigate a strange happening on a Lighthouse off the coast.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
The Heaving Rocks were a long ragged-toothed reef stretching some six hundred yards in length parallel to the coast of New Hampshire 4 miles out from Delacote City and its harbor; the city itself sitting a trifle north of Hampton, which was further inland, but south of Rye Beach. The Heaving Rocks were almost fifty yards across at their widest point; though forming a series of separate rocks, some reaching forty feet or so above the waves, others only just showing their fangs above the waves. As was only to be expected, with the shipping lane to Delacote City Harbor passing close by, a lighthouse had been built there, on the widest and largest of the rocks, somewhat towards the northern tip of the reef-line.
The designer of the 75 foot tall structure was Henry Anderson Lanniot, then aged 34. He was a student of George Stevenson, the great Scottish master of Lighthouse Architecture; the Heaving Rocks Lighthouse being completed in 1879. Twenty-two feet wide at the base and 75 feet high, it's main lamp was oil-fired until 1924 when it switched to electricity, utilised from an in-house generator supplied by the now superseded oil tank built into the raw rock of the reef under the lighthouse. As was usual it employed three keepers who spent two months together on the light before being relieved by the next team; and again, as was the norm, once on the rock and lighthouse, there they remained until the boat came with the next crew. If a storm intervened then they simply battened down and out-waited all the raging seas and winds could throw at the Light.
But even so things go wrong from time to time, and Monday August 13 1934 saw one such incident. Three days later a group of men washed up in the office of Drever and Cartwright, Private Detectives, Packer Building 5th floor, Corner of 12th and Rosemartin Road, Delacote City, where they proceeded to annoy the two ladies present as actual, as well as figurative, heads of the establishment.
"Now, now, let's get this straight." Alice not standing for any obfuscation nor sloppy description on her watch. "This Lighthouse stands 4 mile off-shore, it's manned by three officers, and at the present time two are missing and the third's a raving mental-case? That the gist of the thing, Mr Martin?"
"Put coldly, yes, that is correct."
Mr Thomas Martin was Head of the New Hampshire Coast Guard Department (Lighthouses); popularly, and colloquially, known as New Hampshire Trinity House, after its British ancestor and counterpart. Along to give support were Mr Colin Handley, Design Architect; Mr George Bakerly, Stores Officer; Mr Frederick Gallen, General Superintendent; and Mr Samuel Wallers, Vice Assistant Conveyor: they all looking glum as workhouse children at Christmas.
"Let's get this clear, which it hasn't been up till now." Fiona putting in her critique while it was still warm. "What put Mr—Watkins, y'say?—in'ta such a state of dereliction an' dismay?"
"And is he showing any signs of improving—it being, what, four days now since he was rescued?" Alice unfeelingly adding to Mr Martin's woes.
Mr Martin shuffled uncomfortably on his straight-backed chair on the other side of the long desk from the office's legal owners, though not finding a position any better to his liking.
"According to the Doctors in attendance, at the Langton General Hospital here, he is suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, shock, and the weakening effects of some sort of poison taken internally sometime within forty-eight hours of his being rescued." Mr Martin expressed his anxiety and lack of any further solid fact by shrugging his broad shoulders. "As to the other two keepers—"
A pause ensued as Mr Martin pondered internally on this further aspect of the mystery.
"What about 'em?" Fiona bringing the man back to the cold cruel real world.
"All we know is there is no sign of them anywhere in or around the Light." Mr Martin puffed out his cheeks in that universal expression of discomposure. "No-one, as yet, has given any logical reason for their disappearance, or how it may have been effected."
"Didn't something similar happen to a Lighthouse crew over in Scotland, some time ago?" Alice digging into the shadowy depths of her memory for this fragment of history. "I seem to recall there was a great deal of discussion over the mystery."
"Just so, the Flannan Isles Light in the Outer Hebrides." Mr Martin's knowledge seemingly well on top of this specialised corner of his profession. "Pretty close to an exact replica of events, in fact; as far as our preliminary investigation has shown: but perhaps your own inquiry will bring something new to the fore."
"When did this happen?" Fiona interested in this new angle. "The Flannan Isles thing, I mean."
"Nineteen Hundred, ma'am." Mr Martin again up to the mark with details. "The Flannan Isles being a set of rocky outcrops some way west of the Outer Hebrides themselves. You couldn't have a more isolated environment if you tried. The Light itself is actually set on a hill high above the shoreline, which is broken and rocky with heavy seas rather the norm than otherwise. A passing liner reported the Light was out; but due to inclement weather it took over a week before a relief ship could attend the scene. They found all three Keepers missing, a certain amount of dis-arrangement of furniture and equipment, and some shocking external damage, apparently due to an extremely localised heavy storm which had apparently passed across the island at some point recent to the Keepers' disappearance. No sign of the Keepers was ever found."
"Hum!" Alice reflecting on this story with a frowning brow.
Fiona turned to Mr Bakerly, a short rotund somewhat pale man with thin receding hair.
"Mr Bakerly, does the Lighthouse—yours—have a boat? A tender, or row-boat of some sort?"
"No." Bakerly shook his head firmly. "It was tried, having a small boat on the Rock by the Light; but it was soon found such wouldn't do. It was tried having it tied to a small jetty built on the sea-line, amongst the rocks; but the whole affair was swept away in the first Winter storms. Over the years several other boats were tried; the latter ones simply small row-boats which could be man-handled down from the boat-house built higher on the Rock closer to the Light; but again, it simply was hopeless, the annual storms doing for everything provided, no matter how steadfastly built. You are probably unaware of the extreme power and strength of these Winter storms in this part of the North Atlantic; if it ain't built like a Lighthouse, it simply will not survive."
As he had been speaking Alice had been considering other aspects of the case.
"Was there any evidence of physical disturbance inside the Lighthouse? I mean, of a sort that might imply the men had argued or even fought over something?"
Frederick Gallen here took up the conversation, leaning forward on his chair.
"No, ma'am." He was in his thirties, sandy-haired and square-jawed. "My team went over the whole Light with a fine-tooth comb. There was an over-turned chair in the mess-room on the first floor; but in itself this did not show any sign of an extended ruckus or anything of that sort. In the rest of the Light all was as it should be."
"Anything missing?" Fiona taking her own route to enlightenment.
"Missing? What, for instance?" Mr Martin furrowing his brows over this question.
"Anything at all; doesn't matter how small or seemingly inappropriate or insignificant." Fiona giving widely of her experience over the years. "In matters such as the present problem, we often find that little things lead on to greater, ending in an explanation."
Another silence filled the long office, echoing loudly from the half-wainscoted walls. All five men looking uncomfortable and not a little at sea, in the purely metaphysical sense of the term.
"No, the reports I have read do not mention anything being out of place, or missing." Mr Martin glanced at his colleagues. "Only Mr Gallen and Mr Bakerly have actually been out to the Light; I, and the rest of the Committee, relying on their reports to clarify the situation."
"Which they signally haven't achieved, or you all wouldn't be here now, eh?" Alice pinning the butterfly to the card with a trifle more savagery than the case necessitated.
"Uu-uum." Which, though hardly satisfying the strictest definition of a clear reply, was all Mr Martin could come up with at short notice.
An hour later the ladies had their haven to themselves once more. Alice extemporising on the small amount of knowledge afforded them by the lately departed Committee members.
"I've heard of murders in hotels, in private houses, in cars, even." Alice shuffling on her chair as she got into the run of the thing. "On golf courses—you know, bodies in bunkers and what-not—or being thrown off high buildings into the street below; that sort of thing. Murder by rote, you might say."
"You have a twisted mind—just for the record."
"Ha-ha, you!" Alice pouting like a girl. "Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes—or being thrown from high cliffs into the sea. Then there's the many methods of administering poison; that's a whole new subject in itself—"
"What, lady; you're interrupting an interesting train of thought here?"
"Al, you amaze me." Fiona setting her own thoughts out in the open and down on paper come what may. "Frighten me, even. What's with this, somewhat inappropriate, attention to the nastier ways of topping someone, all of a sudden?"
Alice gazed at her lover with a look of careworn sadness.
"Fay, I'm just going over what might have happened, but obviously didn't, over on the Heaving Rocks Lighthouse." She smiled condescendingly, having just thought of a particularly juicy rejoinder to her partner's criticisms. "You recall what Holmes said, when faced with a series of frightful unexplained deaths?"
Fiona eyed her loved partner with interest, overlaid with a certain level of worry.
"Where's this taking us, lady? I think you're going off the track a little, ain't yer?"
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Alice quoting madly from memory, hoping she had it right. "I'm just casting aside what might have been the answer to the Problem of the Missing Keepers; but, obviously, wasn't, is all."
Faced with a situation which certainly was getting out of control Fiona swiftly changed the subject; rather sharply, it must be admitted.
"Well, we can see for ourselves in a day or two, when Mr Gallen takes us out to the Light." She pursed her lips, thinking of the snake in the argument appertaining to this adventure to come; rather exaggerating the theme than otherwise. "Wonder what it'd be like, crossing the raging seas in a Breeches Buoy swinging helplessly on a rope high over the roaring waves? Dam' glad the Hesperides' has a tender t'take us comfortably over t'the jetty."
"Dam' dangerous method of transferring from Rock to ship." Alice recalling what Mr Bakerly had told them of how the undertaking was achieved. "A Breeches Buoy? Sitting in a canvas chair, on a rope dangling from an overhead cable, a block and tackle sixty feet in length running them along till they reach the Rock or the ship? God, wouldn't do that if my life depended on it, ducks."
"Har!" Fiona harbouring a clearer idea of the lengths her lover would be forced to, in a dangerous situation. "Perhaps. Anyway, wha' d'ya think?"
"About the Mystery of the Vanished Keepers?" Alice waxing humorous. "Obviously a three-pipe problem; better send a telegram t'Baker Street pronto, and get Holmes on the case quick as we can."
"Only doing my best, lover." Alice not in the least embarrassed. "So, theories? Well, to tell the truth, I ain't got any, not to fit present needs, anyway. I'm flummoxed."
"Oh, that's a great help."
"I'm only human, dear."
Fiona proceeded to tap a pencil on the desktop for just that length of time calculated to annoy her partner; in retaliation Alice, well used to this method of semi-cogitative thought on the part of her beloved companion, quietly but clearly hummed a rousing chorus from 'The Pirates of Penzance' which, while having little if any relevance to the case in hand, was at least deeply satisfying to one of the women in the long office. Then Alice suddenly stopped her recital, having thought of something which gave her the shivers.
"You know what?"
"This Heaving Rocks Lighthouse."
"What about the dam' thing?"
"You know we're gon'na have t'go out to investigate it?"
"Yeah, so? What d'ya mean?"
"In person." Alice reaching the core of her simmering fears. "We're really going to have to take a boat out there, climb on the Rock, and go in the Lighthouse. And if the seas happen to be too rough for the tender, there'll be no escape,—it'll be the breeches buoy for us, for real."
Fiona thought about this esoteric action for several seconds.
"Hell, we can't do that. Dragged by breeches buoy only inches above the ragin' seas on'ta a jagged Rock—amongst all that rollin' ocean? Give over, gal."
Then she thought about it some more.
Two days later the dreaded event took place; Fiona and Alice, neither relishing participation in the experiment, found themselves on the NHCG Hesperides half a mile off the Heaving Rocks Reef, staring in disbelief at the literally heaving seas all round; the barren rocky coastline, if the shattered rocky landscape rising just above the waves could be so called; and the tall slim but massive tower of the Lighthouse itself; like a white spear pointing to the sky.
"Jee-sus!" Alice making plain her thoughts on the dramatic sight.
"Yes, it does tend to take visitors that way." Frederick Gallen stood on the ship's maindeck beside his passengers, looking like a kid out on a spree. "It's certainly impressive and may appear to the inexperienced eye somewhat, er, dangerous; but not so much as you may think. The breeches buoy'll take you both across as nice as ninepence, don't worry."
"Mr Gallen, I think I'll worry on my own time, thank you; and right now my worry potential is just about t'go over the red safety mark." Fiona making plain her desire to be somewhere else. "I see you already have the ropes an' what-not set up on the jetty over there for the breeches buoy; how'd ya do that?"
"There's the usual three-man team of new Keepers on duty." Frederick grinned as he explained, obviously in his element. "And another two temporary men as back-up, to attend to the breeches buoy, there being so much coming and going over the, ah, events of the last week or so, you understand."
Alice, while this conversation had proceeded, had been taking observations of her own.
"What're those seamen doing on the foredeck along there? Those three men who appear to be working on what looks suspiciously like a mortar?"
"Oh, that's the rocket launcher." Frederick grinning like a kid on Guy Fawkes Night.
"A rocket launcher?" Fiona staring at the activity on the foredeck herself now. "What the hell?"
Frederick, faced with this level of non-understanding, merely smiled even wider.
"It launches the rope across to the jetty; then the Keepers' fix it to their derrick there; and the rope and tackle here on the ship, powered by a small petrol engine, do the necessary; that's it, the dark blue painted box-like machine beside the seamen."
Fiona, for one, wasn't impressed.
"Jeez, if I'd known this before we started out, I wouldn't have started out; an' I think I can confidently speak fer my partner, too."
"Dam' straight, lov-, er, lady."
Frederick simply shook his head at this feeble attempt at mutiny on the part of his passengers.
"Nothing to worry about, ladies." He grinning like the Cheshire Cat the while. "It's been done lots of times; all the Keepers have come and gone from the Light using the breeches buoy since it first opened, God knows how long ago in the last century. No victims, wounded, or losses so far. What can I say?"
"What I can say, Mr Gallen, is I don't want to be the first to break the run of good luck, is all." Alice giving the tall man her meanest look, apparently to no avail. "This whole thing's crazy as fu—as all get-out. I mean to say—look at it. The seas are boiling all round the shore and jetty; there's a bloody gale blowing; it's impossible."
"Just first-time nerves, madam." Frederick showing his iron fist, now the velvet glove had failed across the board. "It's the only option left to us to reach the Rock. Shall I make that plainer? If you want to gain access to the Rock and the Light for your on-going investigations this is the way, the only way, to do so. Up to you both, ladies."
Twenty minutes later, one after the other, Fiona then Alice sat in the bucking swinging breeches buoy facing the seventy yard haul twenty feet above the crashing waves to the Heaving Rocks Lighthouse jetty. The fact this jetty, made of large substantial chunks of granite strongly bound together, was clearly built to withstand the forces of the ocean, did nothing to relieve the anxieties felt by both women in their individual journeys across, or actually above, the raging waves. For it was a fresh day, with a light breeze, and the waves, though relatively subdued, still crashed on the boulders of the Rock with what seemed Gargantuan force and noise; not to mention the blinding sheets of spray, like heavy rain squalls, continually washing over the women during their enforced progress. Sufficient to say when they both stood four-square and definitively on the Rock they were already soaked from head to foot, notwithstanding their duffel coats, heavy jeans, and thick high rubber boots.
"F-ckin' hell!" Which was Fiona's first reaction to having endured, indeed survived, the journey from boat to solid ground.
"Jee-sus-Jee-sus-Jee-sus!" Which was Alice's contribution to the philosophic interpretation of the event. "I ain't never gon'na do that again."
"We still have'ta get back off this bloody Rock, y'know."
Frederick Gallen, accompanying them as official expert, stood on the bare hard rock underfoot fresh-faced, exuding good-cheer to one and all; obviously simply enjoying a grand day out—which was by no stretch of the imagination the ladies' combined feelings on the matter. Standing in front of the Lighthouse itself both Fiona and Alice were relieved to find they didn't need to climb a vertical line of metal rungs to reach an entrance high above; instead there was a perfectly feasible, though deep-set, entrance door at ground level, which Gallen proceeded to open with the mighty iron key he had sole command over; then politely standing aside to let the women enter the scene of the suspected crime.
Inside they found themselves in something mighty like the interior of an ancient Norman castle; the walls were raw stone, granite, and obviously thick as mighty tree-trunks; the walls were visibly curved all round, giving a slightly off-putting aspect to the way the ladies' viewed the room; and it was cold as the Arctic. The fact the only furnishings seemed to be a series of high strongly built wardrobes and closets all round the walls not helping new arrivals to feel much at home.
"If this is a home from home, then someone's got the wrong idea, is all." Alice being as critical as her present wet uncomfortable state allowed. "Jee-sus, it's cold."
"No heating; at least, not down here." Frederick giving the sad news with a shrug of his wide shoulders. "Oil heating upstairs, in the living quarters; come on, this way."
There were two doors in this lowest of the lighthouse's rooms; Frederick leading the way to the nearest which, on opening, showed a close tight spiral stone staircase built into the wall rising at quite a steep angle. Continuing to lead the way Frederick tramped upstairs, the women following after at not such an athletic pace. On reaching the next floor they were relieved to find a room more comfortably furnished. Chairs, though plain straight-backed wooden ones; a long table with drawers under its top; a low set of cupboards and a sink to one side.
"Where's the water come from?" Alice on top of the important details. "I mean, the drinking and cooking water."
"From a large tank in the sub-section, below ground; but an electric motor pumps it up to a smaller tank just below the Light itself, thereby giving the necessary pressure." Frederick giving out this information blithely from long experience of such. "It's automatic, a time-clock; you'll hear it going at odd hours during the night, if you stay here for several days, that is."
"The very thing I have a mind not to do, thanks all the same." Alice again expressing her urgent need to be somewhere else as quickly as possible.
"Is this the room where the overturned chair was found?" Fiona showing she at least still had her mind on the job.
"Yes." Frederick nodded. "One of these, round the table; can't say which in particular now, though. I was here that day; the chair was just tipped on its side, lengthways by the side of the table where you, Miss Drever are. No sign of anything that could be said to point to an actual fight or foul play, though."
"Any blood anywhere?" Alice coming back to the land where private detectives spent their working hours. "That'd show something queer had happened, meb'be."
"No blood neither—I mean either; or is it, after all, nei—"
"Whichever, shows no-one was, er, wounded or injured." Fiona taking up the flow. "How many rooms are there in this joint? Only one to every floor, is it?"
Here Frederick was happily in his element.
"The Light's over seventy feet high." His eyes took on the glazed expression of someone speaking by rote. "Two subterranean levels where the water and oil tanks are; the ground floor, the first floor, where the general equipment is stored; then this what might be called mess-room; up above we have two rooms given over to radio communications—"
"Radio? You can communicate with the land, the shore?" Fiona surprised by this modern development.
"Yes, oh yes." Frederick nodding delightedly again. "All mod cons, you might say. A great help in letting the shore know which ships are passing by, or if shore wants to give the Light information on its own account. Constant communication, you might say."
"What do the records show the amount of radio messages were on the days before the, ahh, event?" Alice all ears at this interesting twist in the case. "Any of the Keepers send messages on the day in question?"
Here Frederick paused to consider; he looking anything but happy.
"Well, to tell the truth—"
"It helps, y'know." Fiona being just as sarcastic as she felt was needed.
"—er, umm," Frederick put off his game somewhat by this intervention. "What I mean t'say is, none."
"None what?" Alice, her notebook on her knee as she sat at the table, all efficiency and ready to take down the damning details. "What?"
"Radio messages." Frederick sighed sadly, then came clean. "On the day the relieving boat arrived and finally managed to send someone across to the jetty—it not being a piece of cake without help from the other side, y'know. Anyway, we got across just in time t'find nothing. No-one in sight, nor sign of anyone at all. We found Watkins on the floor beside his bunk on the living-quarters floor, unconscious; with what appeared to be an empty bottle of some kind of medicine on the table by his bunk. The radio was pristine, switched-off as if at the close of the last trick—"
"Trick? What trick?" Alice already out of her depth.
"—er, tour of duty, four hours on, four off." Frederick explaining the esoteric details of a Lighthouse Keeper's day. "Whoever had last used the radio had switched it off in the accepted manner."
"Was there a log-book of radio messages?" Fiona hunting around for the minutiae. "When was the last message sent? When was the last incoming message, for that matter?"
Frederick nodded enthusiastically at this question.
"Oh yes." He carried on nodding, as if it were a tremor he couldn't control. "It was lying on the table by the radio; we had it taken to the Coast Guard HQ in Portsmouth."
Alice had been scribbling madly, taking all this down; now she looked across at the official.
"What were the last messages, then? Anything interesting, from our point of view?"
Frederick shrugged again, this time gloomily.
"No, the last message the Keepers' sent out was on Thursday, the ninth." He frowned, remembering the details. "Just ordinary weather reports; a list of the ships passing by. Nothing interesting there; only the usual liners, cargo ships, or private yachts; none coming anywhere close to the Light, as you might expect."
"If they stopped sending, or answering, for three or four whole days, why didn't the authorities back at Portsmouth get anxious?" Fiona raising her eyebrows as she made this fair point.
"Loss of radio contact isn't a rare occurrence; quite common, in fact." Frederick now started shaking his head, just for the change. "It can be put down to failure of valves or modulators, or something else electrical. The Keepers' may fix it in a couple of days, or it may have to wait for the next relief boat to bring spares. As the relief boat in this instance was scheduled for the next Monday, just a few days off, we simply put some spare valves and what-not on board the Hesperides and went out to relieve the men in the usual way."
Another silence echoed around the walls of the nearly circular room; this in itself supplying Alice with her next point of order.
"Frederick—can I call you Frederick?—"
"Of course, go ahead."
"Well, the thing is, can you hear the noise in this room?" Alice waved her pencil-free arm around, narrowly missing Fiona's shoulder. "There's a kind'a constant low rumble; I can hear it plainly, if you can't. What is it?"
"Oh, that's the sea; the ocean; to be exact, the waves coming in from parts foreign thousands of miles away and beating on the shores of the Heaving Rocks. They're so powerful there's a constant barrage of sound, vibrations really, which echo through the ground and the stonework of the Light, giving this low sort of echo or constant vibrato. You get used to it, and learn to ignore it, after a while."
Both Fiona and Alice, happily landlubbers from the soles of their feet to their eye-teeth, reflected on this odd aspect of living on a lighthouse; then gave up the effort simultaneously.
"Frederick?" Fiona having something else on her mind.
"This room, here, is circular, more or less; but the one below, the first ground floor room we entered, wasn't—it had at least one wall that was straight, why's that?"
Frederick frowned over this question, clearly going over a plethora of possibilities; then hit the right answer.
"Oh, that'll be the oil-tank storage room."
"Thought you said that was down below, in the basement?" Alice sharp as a tack on this detail. "Beside the water tank?"
"Originally they were on the same level, the first basement cellar-room." Frederick again bringing up long unused information from memory. "When the Light was oil-fired; then, when electricity came along, the large oil-tank was obsolete, so another, smaller was put in on the ground floor, in the side-room there. It's a poky little place, sort'a half-circle in appearance—just enough room for the small oil-tank, and not much else."
Fiona and Alice pondered this interesting piece of information, Alice studiously adding it to her detailed notes, sharpening another pencil for the purpose.
"Shall we go up?" Frederick all enthusiasm like a home-owner showing-off their house to visitors. "Four more levels yet, not counting the Light itself—that'll take your breath away, I guarantee you, ladies'. You can say hallo to the present three-man team of Keepers, too, in passing; you already having met the two temporaries, back at the jetty. This way, again."
An hour later the three were back on the lower mess-room floor; the women having had as much to do with the intricate interior and doings of the lighthouse as they wanted or felt needful. As Frederick went outside to see to their return journey, via breeches buoy again, to the waiting relief ship, they took the time to consider various possibilities.
"So, the Light's got a range of fifteen miles out to sea?" Fiona recapitulating one piece of information that had caught her attention. "But it goes round, in a three hundred and sixty degree circle; so, why don't we see it, back in Delacote? Ought t'blind anyone walking the streets at night."
"You missed the other detail Frederick let slip, in his lecture." Alice, as usual, on top of this loss. "He said it has a block, a back-plate that bars the light from shining in that direction. The light, as a light, can only shine out to sea, about a one hundred and eighty degree scope, only."
"Oh, that explains it." Fiona trying to look as unimpressed as all get-out.
But Fiona had another get out of jail free card to use in this delicate situation.
"I don't know, but something irks me about that ground floor room. You know, the one with the angled side-room where the new oil-tank apparently has its home. I wan'na go down an' take another gander round the joint before we leave. Comin'?"
"—'course I'm coming." Alice affronted at this devil-may-care attitude to partnership. "What? You think I'm going to sit here an' do my knitting, while you're away getting on with it? Imbecile."
"Only askin's all, dear; don't get het up." Fiona not contrite in the least. "You know it always goes ter your complexion when ya do."
"Fool! Come on, you go first; this spiral stair's so narrow I wan'na land on you if I trip, not the other way round."
In the ground floor room all was as they had left it, except that now they knew the purpose of the second door, in the flat-walled side of the room.
"Is it locked?"
Fiona put a hand on the straight handle and pushed down.
"Yeah." She rattled the handle a few more times, but without success. "Reckon one of the Keepers'll have the key. We passed one in the room on the floor above; shall I run up an' ask for it?"
"Nah, better let Frederick know, and let him do it the official way." Alice very much aware of the niceties of intricate investigations of this delicate nature. "Keep to the rules, and all that nonsense."
"Yeah, suppose so." Fiona agreeing, though without good grace. "I'll go out an' shout to him; he's down by the jetty gettin' that dam' breeches buoy ready fer us. Only be a jiff."
Ten minutes later the ladies were back in the ground floor room, standing by the door to the oil-tank annex with Frederick by their side.
"Here's the key; can I leave it with you, whatever you want to look at inside? I've still got some delicate business to oversee re the dam' breeches buoy down by the jetty—may be a trifle late gettin' you both off; no worry, just one of these things that crop up."
"Gives us time t'take a look in the oil-room, thanks." Fiona practicing her politeness skills.
"No problem; though I must say Mathieson, upstairs, took a deal of persuasion to hand the key over." Frederick frowning over the memory of this confrontation. "Almost as if he felt the oil-tank room was off-limits to all and sundry; especially yourselves. Wasn't a tittle happy at having to hand the key over to me for you to take a glance through the room."
"Hmm, interestin'." Fiona nodded her thanks as Frederick made off outside again. "Almost suspicious, one might hazard, if one had a suspicious nature; you got a suspicious nature, gal of my heart?"
"As a wolf on the prowl, darling."
"Ha! Well, here we are, queens of all we survey." Fiona inserted the key in the lock, giving her partner an expectant look as she did so. "Now, this dam' key; Frederick took so much trouble prising it out'ta the hand of the Keeper, hope it works. Ahh, right; now,—where's the dam' light switch?"
Having found the switch and flooded the small annex with a blurry yellowish something that might be called light, on a very dark day, they took time to give the dusty interior a regular detective's going-over.
"Square metal box-like object up against the far curved outer wall—"
"Lem'me guess, that'll be the reclusive oil-tank."
"You'll go far, young 'un." Fiona smiling broadly, all the same. "Now, what's in here?"
Close to the door, against the inner side of the small straight wall, stood a low cupboard, with a single wooden door held by a clasp. Fiona took only a few seconds to swing it open, revealing the contents; Alice crouching down to inspect the interior.
"Rolled up electric cable; some radio valves; something else radio-oriented, switches and wires. A couple of empty bottles with screw caps. Another bottle half-full of something dark and oily-looking. A cardboard box—"
"Haul it out, so's we can get a look."
Alice did the necessary, opening the box on her knee, regardless of dust; of which there was surprisingly little. Inside lay a pile of circular thick paper roundels, whose purpose was to seek; but both women had seen such before in their careers, and took only milli-seconds to identify them.
"Paper filters, for clarifying liquids—"
"In our line mostly used, up to a coupl'a years ago, for filtering moonshine." Alice finishing the dive into recent history. "What do a group of Lighthouse Keepers want with hooch filters?"
The women took another few moments to consider the situation, coming to the same conclusion.
"They're makin' hooch, somewhere, in this dam' Tower o'Babel." Fiona nodding with certainty. "Interestin' turn o'events."
"Does it have anything t'do with the past disappearances, do you think?"
"I think it may have everything t'do with same, lover." Fiona wholly convinced of the fact. "What they need, obviously, is a still, or some arrangement of jars an' pipes actin' as such. See anythin' like?"
A long silence took station in the confined quarters of the small irregularly shaped room as the women searched with all due diligence, until finally Fiona hit gold.
"Al, over here, behind this dam' oil-tank."
"What? Where? Lem'me see."
"Don't push, I can hardly see, myself." Fiona giving out the ground rules. "There's only a narrow space t'slide past the dam' tank as it is. Ahh, here we are; well, would ya look at this?"
Alice, close behind her partner, craned her head over Fiona's shoulder.
"Can't see a dam' thing. Switch you torch on."
Fiona did as required, shining light into the dark space in the corner hidden by the oil-tank.
"Ha! Here she be; a still, by all that's glorious."
"Dam' right." Fiona nodding in agreement. "All the needful; bottles, glass containers, pipes, and exhaustin' apparatus. Hallo, what have we here? See this stain?"
Both women bent over the dark marks, until another few seconds brought further enlightenment.
"Scorch marks, and these rubber pipes and this glass container are all partially melted."
"And this stain, here; it's blood t'a certainty." Fiona bending over a small shelf fixed to the wall at waist height. "And, now I come t'look, see the marks on the inside of the door? Looks like someone wanted t'get out in a hurry."
"A flaming hurry, judging by the scorched wood on the inside of the door." Alice scratched her chin in thought, before reaching a surprising conclusion. "God! D'you think one of the Keepers' was down here, and accidentally set himself on fire?"
The women had moved back to the main part of the small ante-room, now examining the inside flat surface of the door in fine detail.
"It's definitely a possibility." Fiona coming to the same conclusion as her partner. "Even likelihood, I'd say. God, not a nice way t'go."
"What do you suppose the run of events was?" Alice now regarding the mystery as a puzzle to be unlocked by intellectual methods alone.
"I'd say—I'd say—yeah, one Keeper was down here, doin' what people do t'make hooch. Some detail of the process got out'ta hand, an' flamin' oil splashed everywhere; an' meb'be also the raw hooch." Fiona narrowed her eyes as she continued. "He must'a been pretty severely set alight, I'd think; he charged around this narrow space, clawed the door open, ran out in'ta the main room, then out the entrance onto the rocky ground outside."
"Probably still alight, and screaming fit to be heard back in Delacote." Alice following her lover's train of thought. "He must have scrambled around these dam' boulders, missed his way, and fallen in the sea. The Keeper up in the mess-room, hearing the commotion throws his chair aside, rushes out, see's the mess, and goes after his partner."
"Who, by this time's already food fer the fishes, if slightly scorched." Fiona taking up the story again. "The second man, almost certainly in a blue funk, slips on the rocks or, nearer where he saw his partner fall in, is swept away by a wave himself; never t'make it back t'land—if y'can call this barren anteroom t'Hell solid ground at all."
The women paused to consider the climax of the tragedy.
"The third Keeper was probably somewhere too far away to help quickly." Alice pondering on the likely answer.
"Yeah, meb'be up tendin' t'the Light itself." Fiona tracing the possibilities to their lair like a professional. "Far too high an' separated from events to be of any use at all. Finally admitting defeat, after trying to find his lost mates, he gives up an' takes t'drink, t'soothe his shattered nerves."
"Especially," Alice tracking the unseen drama with a fine eye. "as what he takes to drinking is their home-made hooch; probably one hundred and fifty proof."
"Yeah, aero-engine fuel at its finest." Fiona showing disgust at the mere thought. "Usually, I expect, they watered it down till it was just barely drinkable; but in his shocked state, an' knowing the radio was knackered an' no use, he started drinkin' it neat."
"End result, when the relief ship arrived, he was pretty much pickled to the gills for real." Alice nodding soberly over the imagined scene. "Be lucky if he recovers, I'd say."
"Won't be workin' as a Lighthouse Keeper any more, that's fer sure." Fiona now taking wider events into consideration. "Frederick, an' the rest of the Coast Guard Committee, will have'ta examine the whole platoon of Keepers, not just this lost trio; the replacement team here as we speak, as well: indeed, all the Keepers on the rota! They must all have been in on it, for it to have gone on over time in such a close working environment."
"Think I hear Frederick out in the main room as we speak." Alice coming back to the realities of the situation. "Better let him know our theory right-off. He may need to examine the still, and other pertinent things, himself."
"Well, let's get to it; after you, gal."
The private office of Drever and Cartwright, back on the solid ground underpinning Delacote City, seemed a literal Paradise to the returned detectives as they rested their weary backsides on the leather chairs by their long working-desk. A week had gone by since their excursion to the Heaving Rocks Lighthouse, and only that morning had they received the last telephone call from the New Hampshire Coast Guard Committee, giving the final details covering the tragic events of the past couple of weeks.
"So, let's get this straight." Fiona on a journey to personal comprehension. "The gist of our theory turned out t'be what had actually happened?"
"More or less." Alice agreed, glancing over her notes. "The surviving Keeper lasted long enough in hospital to give a confession; the first Keeper did set himself on fire and throw himself into the sea; but it wasn't till two days later that the second Keeper, feeling guilty and continually going out on the rocks to search for the remains, was washed off a rock into the sea and drowned."
"The last Keeper, shocked t'the core, lost his reason an' took t'drink." Fiona taking up the sorry tale. "As expected, their own hooch; which they generally triple-filtered and watered down four parts water t'one of hooch before ordinarily takin' the risk of actually drinkin' the vile brew."
"He, not being in his right mind, drank it straight; thereby knackering his liver, or kidneys; dam' it, probably both and other organs beside." Alice screwing up her lips in disgust. "After which, never mind recovering, it was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. And so the whole story's out in the open at last. Started off as one of those sea mysteries that're so entertaining to read in magazines and novels; then turned into just a dirty tragedy, that could'a been so easily avoided."
"Some folks just never learn, ducks."
"Something in that, Fay, something in that."
A quiet silence filled the room as both women thought back over the events of the last few days; then both sighed together, as one.
"Fay, I'm going out to the shops this afternoon, hats, clothes, underwear, swimsuits, fancy fripperies, and I'm going to bankrupt myself in the doing-so. Any arguments against such a course of home remedy for depression?"
Fiona gave this subject three seconds worth of intense scrutiny.
"Sounds like a plan t'me, lover. Can I come an' do the same, too?"
"Wouldn't think of going anywhere without you, babe of my heart."
"Har! Jes' gim'me a minute t'get my coat. You OK t'go?"
"I'm always OK t'go, dear; you should know that by now."
"Hoo-Hoo! Two seconds, lover, an' I'm there."
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.