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The Advocate's Wife
By Norman Russell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2002 Norman Russell
All rights reserved.
At King James's Rents
Detective Inspector Box opened the dark shutter of the magic lantern, and a finely detailed black and white image of a street scene was thrown on to a sheet pinned to the end wall of the long, lime-washed room. A dozen or so plain-clothes detectives had arranged themselves on chairs and benches to watch the show. Still in outdoor clothes, with their hats balanced on their knees or placed on the floor beside them, their seeming informality masked an absorbed interest in the proceedings. They had been in the close, smoky place for nearly an hour.
Inspector Box strode to the front of the darkened room, cradled his chin in his hand, and looked with mock distaste at the image.
'We're nearly finished now, gentlemen,' he said. 'This is the tenth slide. There's one more after this, and then I'll leave you alone. I've shown you a series of little happenings, taking place over the last two weeks. Nothing special in themselves, but in the aggregate, they're telling us a very peculiar story. Little things, leading to something big.'
As always, when he had an audience, his voice – a bright, pleasing London voice – seemed to gain in clarity and confidence as he spoke. It was only rarely that he called meetings of this kind, and he relished the chance of playing to an audience.
'So, what have we here, gentlemen? A slop shop, with canvas trousers hanging out for sale, an oil-shop, two boys who've moved while the photograph was being taken, and one or two other beauties hanging around. A narrow little shop, with "Thron, Pledges", written over the door. Anyone recognize it?'
The room smelt of tobacco, and the charred wicks of oil-lamps. It was a forlorn place, used partly as a storeroom, and partly as a venue for meetings such as this one. Superintendent Mackharness, Box recalled, always referred to it as 'the drill hall'. That was the kind of description that would spring easily to an old Crimea veteran's mind.
There were a few murmurs, and somebody coughed. Then a voice said, rather tentatively, 'Back Sayer Lane, Elephant and Castle.'
The Inspector's dark eyes gleamed with appreciation. He blinked a little as he looked down the room through the mote-strewn beam of the magic lantern.
'Well done, whoever said that! Yes. Back Sayer Lane. Now look at the last slide, gents. Tell me what you think. If you see anything interesting, say so.'
Inspector Box returned to the lantern, and pushed the last of his collection of slides in front of the lens. It was another street scene, this time showing a greengrocer's shop with its goods spread out for sale on the pavement, a number of loiterers, and a man climbing into a cab. Another man had stopped at the greengrocers, and was looking down at an apple in his hand.
'Deacon's Flags, Newington. Just off the playground at Harper Road.' It was the voice of the officer who had identified the previous slide. Somebody clapped ironically, and the man added, half aloud, 'That's where I come from. I know all those parts – Newington, Walworth.'
'We're getting on,' said Box. 'We're showing the world that we know our way round in this great Metropolis! Now this is my favourite slide, gents – Deacon's Flags, as our friend there shrewdly pointed out. But am I to wait all day? Is this exercise going to be in vain? Should I have entertained you with Punch and Judy instead —?'
It was a sound of recognition, and it came from a burly man in a long overcoat, sitting half turned to the wall. Without shifting his position the man said, 'The cove who's just picked up the apple, Mr Box. It's Percy the Pug. Percy Liversedge. So it looks as though there's some wickedness afoot down Newington way.
'Quite right, my friend! Percy it is. Sharp as a pin, you are! But come on, gents, won't someone finish the job? Who else do you see?'
A voice from the dim far end of the room called out, 'Sir! The man climbing into the cab. It's Mr Gideon Raikes again!'
'Yes, it is,' said Box. 'Mr Gideon Raikes. That's his sixth appearance on these slides.'
There was a murmur from the audience, and a ripple of movement. Box rapidly switched the slides, showing them again the scene in Back Sayer Lane.
'See him? Just by Billy Thron's pawnshop door. Mr Gideon Raikes, with his back turned discreetly away from the camera. You all missed that one! And just at the edge of the picture, Percy the Pug again. Whenever you see that ugly mug, there'll be someone or something equally ugly in the offing. Now, there are laws of libel, gentlemen, and laws of slander, so all I'll say at this juncture is that Mr Gideon Raikes is a man of great prominence, and power, and influence. And Percy Liversedge works for him. Perhaps Mr Raikes doesn't know that Percy is a grand villain, and the patron of villains —'
'Maybe pigs can fly,' somebody said. There was a ripple of sardonic laughter.
'As you so truly observe, my friend, said Box, 'pigs might fly. So – all of you – keep your eyes peeled for our Percy, and keep Mr Raikes discreetly in your sights, because Back Sayer Lane is where Thunder Aitken hangs around, taking orders for explosives, and Deacon's Flags is the favourite resort of Murder Malthus, the bomb-maker.'
Inspector Box closed the dark shutter of the magic lantern and turned down the wick of the oil lamp. He blew sharply across the burner, a little streak of smoke ascended, and the show was done.
One of the men asked a question.
'How did you obtain those photographs, Mr Box? Wouldn't Raikes or Liversedge have seen the camera?'
'It's a very good question, Constable. I took those pictures myself, and had them turned into glass slides later. Photography's by way of being a hobby of mine. I used two special detective cameras, one hidden in a cravat, and the other made up to look like a brown paper parcel! That's it for today, then, gentlemen. Thank you for coming in from your divisions. Disperse to your duties, officers, and keep a watching brief!'
Inspector Box stood for a while at the open door, watching the group of detectives disperse. Two distant clocks in the vicinity of Whitehall were striking nine. It was an especially bright September morning, and the gloomy yard was receiving more than its usual share of sunlight. On days like this, if you looked up at the soot-stained blank wall above the open colonnade, you could see the ghosts of painted letters: 'Parr's Carriage Repair Establishment', they read. The autumn sun always brought them back to life beneath the generations of black paint and tar that had tried to extinguish them. Superintendent Mackharness always called that lopsided cobbled space, wedged between tall black buildings, 'the exercise yard'. Well, everyone to his taste.
Box turned away from the door. A burly, uniformed police constable, an impressive figure with a flowing spade beard, had opened the inner shutters of the room, sending beams of sunlight across the boarded floor. He was now engaged in packing away the magic lantern and slides into their tin container.
'Mr Box, sir,' said the constable, 'I hear that you're going down to the Old Bailey later this morning? I'm only asking, because Mr Shale said he might drop in later. He'd be sorry to miss you.'
'Mr Shale knows already, thank you, PC Kenwright. I sent him a note last night. I promised Sir William Porteous that I'd be there at the Bailey for the end of the trial. The trial of Albert John Davidson, I mean.'
'Albert John Davidson? That wasn't one of our cases, was it, sir? I don't recollect the name. Not a case for the Yard, at any rate.'
'Albert John Davidson, Constable, is a murderous ruffian, one of the thugs employed by Percy Liversedge, and he'd been promised ten pounds in sovereigns for attacking and robbing a gentleman called James Hungerford, principal of Hungerford's Patent Flour Mills, at his premises in Gainsford Place, down near St Saviour's Dock. He confronted poor Mr Hungerford as he walked from his office into the yard. The idea was, that he should bludgeon him, and then steal his watch.'
'And did he, sir?'
'No. Instead of doing that, he produced a pistol, and shot Mr Hungerford at point-blank range, killing him instantly. He was seen calmly removing the dead man's watch and chain before making off at a good pace towards Artillery Street. And there, Constable, Providence, or fate, decreed that he should trip on the cobblestones, slippery after a fall of rain, and shatter his ankle. There he lay, helpless, until he was taken into custody. His ankle's mended now, but I don't hold out much hope for his neck.'
Constable Kenwright secured a leather strap around the tin container. He looked slightly puzzled.
'It sounds an open-and-shut kind of a case, if I may say so, Mr Box. I wonder why such a high-class barrister as Sir William Porteous bothered himself with a case like that? Any court counsel would have done.'
'Very astute of you, Constable. But you see, this Davidson had been surrounded by a cocoon of ingenious lies and faked alibis. That's why the "open-and-shut case" has dragged on for three weeks. It took someone of Sir William Porteous's stature to get to the truth of it all in the end.'
The big constable motioned towards a narrow, low passage that led to the front of the building.
'Sergeant Boyd's in the front office, sir,' he said. 'He came in abut ten minutes ago. He's been down in Newington, so he told me. It'd be nice if he could come here to the Yard. On a permanent basis, I mean. He was telling me yesterday that he's been twenty-five years in the Force, and twenty of those as a detective.'
'Yes, that's very true, Constable. But Sergeant Boyd's a staunch divisional man. He's always been with "B" Division, and no amount of cajoling from me can persuade him to come here full time. I've known him all my working life, ever since I started at the Yard as a callow youth in 1880. He was already a sergeant then, still in "B", of course, but always involved with us on various London jobs. He used to curb my inclination to make a noise and answer back, which, I might say, came natural in those days!'
The big constable permitted himself a smile, and picked up the magic-lantern case. He turned towards the passage.
'Mind your head, sir,' he said, as he stooped beneath the low archway.
Box winced. It's all very well, he thought, to warn people about minding their heads, when you're a giant of a man like Kenwright. Six foot four, at least. For himself, he was quite content to be of medium height. There was no need to stoop. Not if you were of average stature. Nobody could say that he was small!
George Boyd was standing in front of the office fire, his overcoat hoisted over his arms, his hands thrust deep in his trouser pockets. A loud yellow muffler added a touch of brightness to the front of his dark serge suit. A cigar with a perilously long arch of ash hung from his lips.
'So there you are at last, sir! Finished your lecture? What did that lot think of your slides? Did any of them spot our Percy?'
Detective Sergeant Boyd's loud, cheery voice had its usual effect of lightening the atmosphere of Box's office. The cigar remained firmly glued to his lips, but the ash cascaded down his coat, and on to the long office table.
'You untidy devil! Look at the mess you've made with that ash! Why don't you spice yourself up a bit? Yes. Various bright sparks spotted Raikes, and Percy, his henchman. After a bit of cajoling, that is! So, all in all, Sergeant, my labours were not in vain.'
'It's "spruce yourself up", not "spice".'
George Boyd laughed. His laugh was, and always had been, an explosion of mirth. Box looked at him. At fifty, he still had the same aura of contented optimism that he had shown when Box had first met him. George had told him once that after he was promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant in 1874, he had decided that no further advancement was needed. He had been contented with his lot in life since that time.
'Sir,' said Boyd, 'there are definite signs of further movement down Newington way. Whatever was being put in train, as recorded on those slides of yours, seems to be coming to a head. Murder Malthus has been seen twice in the last two days, both times in conversation with Percy Liversedge. Thunder Aitken apparently has gone to ground, but that doesn't surprise me: Aitken's always been cautious.'
More cigar ash tumbled down George Boyd's front, coming to rest on his yellow muffler.
'Now, here's the interesting bit, sir. Some persons unknown have started loading crates into vans in a yard behind Callaghan's Warehouse in Back Sayer Lane. They were watched through field-glasses.'
'Excellent! You're a shining ornament, George! Anything else?'
'The Doyle brothers, and Jimmy the Docker have been talking to Murder Malthus on Deacon's Flags. Just this morning, I mean. When they moved off, we followed them on foot. They made some kind of reconnoitre in Prince Frederick Mews, which is an alley at the rear of the premises of the Royal Roumanian Credit Bank in Prince Frederick Street. One of the Doyle brothers produced a key to enter an empty shop —'
'Say no more, George! Our clever friends are planning a bank job! Clever, yes; but not clever enough! They've let us see too much.'
'So it would seem, sir.'
'We'll put a ring round that area, Sergeant Boyd, that will put paid to Percy's explosive ambitions. Well, well! A bank job! I rather suspected it might be something like that.'
'Well, sir, we'll see. It certainly looks like it. I'd better be getting back, I suppose.' George Boyd cast his eyes up at the ceiling, which was stained black with years of soot from the heavy two-burner gas mantle. 'Next time I come,' he said, 'I'll bring a bucket of whitewash, and a brush!' Box followed his glance, and laughed.
'They'll not spend any money here now, George. If you think this room's bad, you should see Mr Mackharness's gloomy abode upstairs!'
'Your guvnor came stumping down here to see me, half an hour ago, while you were showing the slides. Old Growler himself. "Good morning, Sergeant", he said. "How are you? We don't see enough of you at King James's Rents". Wasn't that nice of him?'
'Astonishing,' said Box. 'He's trying to poach you from "B" Division! He certainly wouldn't say that to me. Not half he wouldn't! He'd shed no tears, George, if I went out through that door and never came back!'
George Boyd shook his head in mock despair. He threw the remains of his cigar in the fire, and began to button his coat.
'You're too hard on him, Mr Box. Now, you're not to take offence, because none's meant, but here's a little bit of advice: try to meet Old Growler half way. You're stuck with him, you see, and he's stuck with you. And beware of jumping to conclusions too quickly. You'll come a cropper one day, through doing that.'
Inspector Box looked at himself in the big, fly-blown mirror. His own image showed him a slim, smart man in a tightly buttoned fawn greatcoat. The recently grown moustache, he thought, was a decided improvement. It gave him a dashing, military kind of look, with a discreet suggestion that he might be older than his thirty-five years. Medium height? Decidedly. Not everyone could be a giant, like Kenwright. George, he saw, was watching him with an amused smile on his lips. Box turned away from the mirror.
'I'll bear in mind what you say, George. I'll handle Mackharness with kid gloves. I'll give deference where deference is due. I'll ... what are you looking for? Are you searching through that coat of yours, or wrestling with it?'
'I'm looking for something I forgot to give back to you last week. Ah! Here it is. Your key to the glory-hole. A very useful place, that. Just think, Arnold: if I was an inspector, I'd have a key of my own! Still, one can't have everything in this life. I'll be off, now. Back to keep an eye on Percy and his friends. You know where to find me if you want me. Oh, and don't forget what I keep telling you about Napoleon.'
Sergeant Boyd pushed open the glazed swing doors of the office, crossed the vestibule, and hurried down the steps into the street. Box followed him out on to the dusty pavement.
'George,' he said, 'you've been telling me things about Napoleon for more years than I care to remember – things that are usually not to my advantage. So what is it this time?'
Boyd's infectious laugh rang out from the bleak, cobbled street.
'Well, sir, it's just this: Napoleon was a great man, too. And he was only five foot nothing!'
Long after George Boyd had disappeared in the direction of Whitehall, Arnold Box stood on the steps of 2 King James's Rents, and looked down the dim road, filled for the moment with a blue haze of smoke, blown down from a hundred chimney stacks. Just in sight, twenty yards or so to his left, he could see the old entrance to 'A' Division in the little narrow street called Great Scotland Yard. Until two years earlier, members of the public had come to that door when they'd wanted to 'see a police man'. It was in actual fact the back entrance to 4, Whitehall Place, the old office of the Metropolitan Police Commissioners.
But two years earlier, all that had changed. The Metropolitan Police had removed themselves, lock, stock and barrel, from this festering collection of cramped old houses, and taken up residence in the gleaming new fairy palace on the Embankment. Some, though, had been left behind, including himself and a dozen other officers, shepherded by Superintendent Mackharness, the limping old growler in the mildewed office upstairs.
One day, perhaps, they would all be spirited away to the fairy palace. Until that happy day dawned, they were marooned in 2 King James's Rents, one of the later annexes acquired by the Criminal Investigation Department in one of its frenzies of expansion out of Whitehall Place. The battered building, with its labyrinth of connecting rooms, was reputed to be as old as Whitehall. It got its name from the fact that it had provided lodging for the Scottish courtiers who had arrived in London with James I. That canny monarch had charged them rent for the privilege. The rear portion of the Rents, where the 'exercise yard' was situated, had been acquired in 1845.
Box went back up the steps, and pushed open the swing doors. Daylight never penetrated with any conviction into the front office, and the gas mantle burned and spluttered for most of the day and night. He sat down at the long, cluttered table with his back to the fire, and lit a slim cigar.
Excerpted from The Advocate's Wife by Norman Russell. Copyright © 2002 Norman Russell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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