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The Hansa Protocol
By Norman Russell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2003 Norman Russell
All rights reserved.
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Detective Inspector Arnold Box stood in an obscure rear corner of St Swithin's Hall, and cast a professional eye over the motley audience who were listening intently to a lecture on Anglo-German Friendship. A rough poll-count had shown him that there were over fifty men occupying the rows of pine chairs. So far, nothing untoward had happened. A venerable and respectably dressed old man had passed a collection box for the Dockside Mission along the rows, and there had been a decent clinking of copper. Then the lecture had begun.
The lecturer, a scholarly man of seventy or so, with an abundant shock of white hair, spoke perfect English, with just the trace of a foreign accent. At a table behind him on the platform, sat a distinguished gentleman in evening dress. Box recognized him as Sir Charles Napier, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Most of the men in the audience looked harmless enough. There was the usual crop of elderly eccentrics who turned up for these political discussions, men with untidy hair and pince-nez, men clutching baggy umbrellas, and parcels of tracts. There were a few roughs there, too, one or two tramps sheltering from the cold, and a number of cocksure young men in loud suits, who had come there presumably for a laugh, or a row. For the moment, though, they were all listening intently to the lecturer's exposition of the theory of just and unjust wars.
St Swithin's Hall, a huge wooden tabernacle of a place, had been designed specifically for public meetings and concerts. It rose gauntly at the top of some steps in an alley sandwiched between Walbrook and St Swithin's Lane. A good deal of the London fog seemed to have seeped into the hall, merging with a cloud of thick pipe smoke to create a blue haze. Gas mantles flared on their brackets between the windows, their rising heat causing the festoons of British and German flags strung along the walls to nod and tremble.
Superintendent Mackharness had summoned Box to his first-floor office at King James's Rents in mid-afternoon, and told him to 'look in' on this particular meeting, which was to begin with a lecture delivered by the eminent German scholar and retired diplomat Dr Otto Seligmann, President of the Anglo-German League of Friendship.
'I want you to look in, Box,' Mackharness had said, 'and see that all's well. You know what kind of people can turn up at these political affairs, so stay for an hour or so, and see how things shape. It's the last day of the old year – well, I don't need to tell you that – and there may be some imprudent revellers loose on the streets. But the City Police will be there in sufficient numbers, so if anything unpleasant happens, leave them to deal with it. You'd better take Sergeant Knollys with you.'
'This Dr Seligmann, sir —'
'Dr Otto Seligmann, Box,' the superintendent had volunteered, 'is very well esteemed in high political circles – a well-known enthusiast for peace, and so on. He's the president of this Anglo-German League. And Sir Charles Napier, the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office – you've heard of him, I suppose? – well, he's the vice-president, and he'll be there too, as chairman of the meeting. He and this Dr Seligmann are old political friends and allies. So do as I say, Box, and get down there this evening. The lecture starts at eight o'clock.'
Inspector Box did not pay much attention to Dr Otto Seligmann. Of greater interest to him was a little knot of men who had congregated near one of the rear exits. There were plenty of vacant seats, but they had curtly refused to sit down. They were well-dressed and prosperous-looking men, but there was potential danger in the way they carried themselves, with a sort of half crouch, as though contemplating a lunge at some potential adversary. As they listened intently to the speaker, Box could see the mounting anger convulsing their faces.
It had always seemed extraordinary to Arnold Box that men could work themselves up to fever pitch over political niceties. What was so special about Anglo-German friendship, that it could bring this lot out of their warm houses on such a bitterly cold night? Did they really understand what the speaker was saying? Did they really care? Had they no wives, no mothers and fathers, no children, to occupy their leisure time in the evenings?
Next Tuesday, his aged and ailing father would be placed under the surgeon's knife at the Royal Free Hospital in Gray's Inn Road. When the decision had been made, last October, to sever his leg, January had seemed a long way off. Since Christmas, he had started to feel a mild panic, which he refused to recognize as fear. It was Saturday today. What might have happened to Pa by next Saturday? They could do wonderful things, nowadays. But they couldn't provide an antidote for fear.
Dr Otto Seligmann was still talking. Sir Charles Napier, Box noticed, had shifted his position behind the table, and was making renewed efforts to fix his attention on the speaker. Even professional diplomats could experience boredom. If he and Seligmann were old friends, then he had probably heard it all before.
A sudden marked change in the speaker's tone suggested that he was going to stop.
'So that, gentlemen,' said Dr Seligmann, 'is my plea. Trust in the good sense of the various and varying peoples of Germany. Do not allow yourselves to be swept up by your British fear of foreigners. There must be no war in our time. Let that be the slogan, the watchword, of the Anglo-German Friendship League. No war in our time!'
Was that it, then? Had he really finished? Dr Otto Seligmann had been talking for over an hour. Really, it had been more than flesh and blood could stand! Box saw his sergeant, Jack Knollys, suddenly open his eyes, and sway slightly, as though he had been asleep on his feet. A giant of a man, he had taken up his station next to the knot of angry men. There were another six police officers in the hall, an inspector, a sergeant, and four constables. They were all City Police, there to see fair play, and keep the peace.
Dr Seligmann sat down, to a half-hearted barrage of clapping, a few cheers, and a bit of foot-stamping. Sir Charles Napier stood up, and thanked the speaker for all his time and effort. He was sure that the audience had been fascinated by the many insights that they had been given into the complexities of the issue under debate, and that they would take his words to heart. Dr Seligmann, he said, would now be happy to answer any questions.
One man had already stood up from amid the serried ranks of chairs, and had waved his hand in the air to attract the chairman's attention. Hello, thought Box, what's this? It was one of the cocksure young men, a fellow of about thirty, with a shock of yellow hair.
'If what you say about Germany is true, Dr Seligmann,' said the young man, in a loud and belligerent voice, 'what about the French in 1870? That wasn't very peaceful of Germany, was it?'
Strewth! A troublemaker. Some kind of nark with a mouth too big for his mind. Why couldn't they just sing the National Anthem and go home?
Dr Otto Seligmann sprang to his feet.
'My friend!' he cried. 'I am only too well aware of the shadow cast by the events of 1870. I myself was present at Versailles in that year, when the German Empire was promulgated with great triumph from the old palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King! I witnessed Prince Bismarck proclaiming our Prussian King, William I, as Emperor of Germany —'
The knot of well-dressed men near the exit suddenly gave a rousing cheer, and waved their hats in the air. Some members of the main audience turned round to look at them, and one or two joined in their cheering. Box was suddenly alert. He moved closer to Sergeant Knollys. The elderly German scholar on the platform held his ground.
'But don't you see, my friend, that there was no need for the rise of faction and dissent? To people like me, the establishment of that new empire meant that Europe could look forward to a new era of stability and prosperity! Already, in the sixties, we had averted war by the subjugation of Denmark and Austria —'
'Very pacific, I must say!' shouted the man in the audience. 'Very peaceful for the good folk of Denmark, and the Frenchies you butchered in Alsace —'
Another man sprang to his feet, overturning his chair as he did so. He began to jabber in a shrill, angry voice. No one could hear what he said, but a murmur began to weave its way through the audience. It was turning into a crowd, thought Box, and a crowd will soon turn into a mob.
One of the knot of men standing near Sergeant Knollys began to shout something in what Box took to be German. It sounded like an accusation: 'Verräter! Verräter!' The man's face was convulsed with hatred, and a vein pulsed and throbbed in his temple. He shook his fist at Seligmann, and at the same time his companions picked up the word as a furious rallying-cry, and howled it as a special imprecation in the general direction of the platform.
Somebody unseen began to winch the heavy velvet curtains closed across the stage.
'Right, Officers,' Box shouted. 'Get him out, and shut him up!' He had jabbed an urgent finger first at the raging German, and then at the young man with the yellow hair.
Sergeant Knollys had evidently been waiting for the word. He put two massive arms round the shouting German, lifted him bodily off his feet, and virtually ran out of the hall with him through the door leading to the vestibule. At the same time, one of the uniformed City Police hauled the original troublemaker out of his seat, and dragged him away into a side- room.
As though by magic, the atmosphere in the hall returned to normal. The German's companions suddenly became very meek and embarrassed, and left the hall, though not before darting venomous glances at the now inscrutably curtained platform. They were followed by the venerable old man, who was still clutching his collection box. The inspector gently restrained him, and propelled him out of the hall and into the front vestibule overlooking St Swithin's Lane. Sergeant Knollys was just coming through the entrance. He was smiling rather grimly to himself.
'All's well, sir,' he said. 'Our German friend assures me that he meant no harm. He's very sorry for any trouble he may have caused. I've taken his name and address. He's a pork-butcher by trade, so he tells me.'
Box permitted himself a rueful laugh.
'What a waste of police time, Sergeant Knollys! It'll be in the papers, tomorrow. "Scuffles broke out". That's what they'll write. You don't know our venerable friend here, do you? This is Birdy Sanders. He goes round shaking an imitation charity box, and collecting coppers for himself. It won't do, Birdy! You're a wicked old man, and you won't get to Heaven at this rate. See to him, will you, Sergeant?'
Inspector Box handed the collecting-box to Knollys, and re-entered the hall. It was cold in the vestibule, where a chill wind managed to blow the outer doors open and closed with a dull thudding sound. The bare boards were wet and stained with recent deposits of mud. A single tear began to roll down the old man's cheek.
Through the flapping doors, Knollys glimpsed a dark figure slowly mounting the steps up from the street. Presently a tall, round-shouldered man of fifty came into the vestibule. He wore the instantly recognizable peaked cap and long double-breasted overcoat of a constable in the River Police. He was a hollow-cheeked man with a drooping moustache and bright, irreverent eyes.
'I'm told Inspector Box is here tonight,' he said. 'We've something down at Waterman's Pier that he'd like to see. It's only a few minutes' walk from here. This side of London Bridge. Are you one of his posse, or has he just took you up for assault and battery?'
'I'm Detective Sergeant Knollys, Constable. I'll tell Mr Box you're here.'
The constable nodded towards the wretched old man who was standing in absorbed misery beside Knollys.
'This your old dad, then? Or shouldn't I have asked?'
Knollys laughed. He looked out at the bleak, cold alley, where a few winking lights could be seen at the corner of St Swithin's Lane. The last day of December, 1892, had chosen to furnish the inevitable crowds of revellers with a bleak prospect for the New Year. He thrust the collecting box into the old man's hands.
'Hop it,' he said. 'Don't let me see you round here again.'
Uttering shrill cries of thanks and blessing, the old man stumbled away down the steps, clutching the box of coppers to his chest.
'Have you got a name, Constable?' asked Knollys. 'Or do you prefer to go around incognito?'
'Joseph Peabody, 406, Lower Station, Blackwall Hulks. You go in there, Sergeant, and tell your gaffer Joe Peabody's here. We've something waiting for him down at Waterman's Pier. Something that's on the turn, and won't keep.'
It was dark in the narrow lanes beyond Walbrook, but Joe Peabody moved surely and swiftly, bearing steadily downhill towards the river. After about ten minutes or so, the three men emerged on to a wide pier, where the darkness of the alleys was banished by the blaze of light from gas standards along the quay. They could see that the river was alive with ships of every description, and winking mast lights seemed to cross and re-cross each other in the gloom.
Two men were waiting on the pier. They stood beneath an iron arch, flanked by two lanterns, stamping their feet, and blowing on their hands. It was becoming bitterly cold.
'Good evening, Inspector Cross,' said Box, 'you've something for me, I'm told?'
Sergeant Knollys knew about the River Police, but he had never encountered one of them at close quarters until Joseph Peabody had treated him to a bit of mild impertinence back at St Swithin's Hall. Inspector Cross looked no different from his constable, or from the shivering sergeant accompanying him. In their long thick coats and peaked caps, they all looked the same.
'"Good evening" be damned, Arnold! There's nothing good about it. And what's all this "Inspector Cross" business? I'll not waste words, as we'll all be dead of the cold if we stay out here jawing much longer. Just on an hour ago, we tied up the galley at this pier, having come up on shore patrol from Blackfriars. We'd just stepped up on the boards when we saw a little steam launch down there, hugging the shore. It sounded its whistle, as though to attract our attention, and then – well, you tell him, Jimmy.'
The shivering sergeant took up the tale.
'Somebody on the launch chucked a dead body over the side. Before any of us could move, Inspector, the launch was off and away. There's a little skiff down there, and we used that to bring the body in —'
'We've laid it out on a table in the pier-master's office over there. As soon as ever Dr Kelly comes, we'll go in and take a proper look.'
At that moment, a rowing-boat approached the pier, propelled by yet another huddled member of the river force. Sitting upright in the boat, was a stout man wearing a fur-collared coat and a dark wide-awake hat. He seemed to be complaining angrily in a strong Irish brogue about being disturbed from his dinner at such an inopportune time.
'You're just a gang of galley-slaves! What do you mean by disturbing a respectable doctor with your dead bodies? Pirates, most of them. Why don't you leave them to float out to sea? Come on, man – help me up the ladder.'
Inspector Cross surveyed the newcomer from head to foot with a detached interest, as though the big, bluff Irishman was a specimen in an anatomical museum.
'You're very civil, as always, Dr Kelly,' he said. 'Now, here's a little thought for you to ponder, before we look at the latest pirate to be fished out of the river. We're policemen, Doctor, so we have to account to higher authority for every corpse that we find. But you – you can bury your mistakes.'
Dr Kelly bellowed with laughter, in which the River Police joined. They moved swiftly across the quay towards the pier-master's office.
The dead man taken from the river lay on a trestle table, which had been dragged under a flaring gas burner suspended from the ceiling. Box looked at him, noting his heavy features, and the stubble on his chin. His black hair was plastered close to his skull by the river water, and his rough seaman's suit of dark serge was heavy with moisture.
Inspector Cross pulled open the man's jacket to reveal his bloodstained shirt and waistcoat. He pointed to a torn inside pocket, and turned to Box.
'There was something in that pocket, Arnold, that decided us to send for you. We knew you were up there at St Swithin's with Sir Charles Napier. We'll talk about that later. Come on, Doctor, take a look at this man, and tell us what he died of. Jimmy, you give him a hand.'
Dr Kelly seemed to be no respecter of persons, living or dead. With the help of the River Police sergeant he closely examined the man's chest, where a gaping wound had been revealed beneath the shirt, and then turned him over on to his front with a sickeningly wet thud. For five minutes or so he poked and pummelled the body, then stood back, wiping his hands on his overcoat.
'Well, now,' he said, 'I can't do anything much till you've brought him up to Horseferry Road mortuary tomorrow. As you can see, he's a man in his early forties, a trifle overweight, but nothing that would have mattered much. He's been shot in the back from close up with some kind of medium calibre pistol, and the bullet's passed right through him. Shot in the back, so perhaps he was running away from somebody. That's all. Give me a hand again, Jimmy.'
Dr Kelly and the sergeant hauled the heavy body on to its back again, and then they left the pier-master's office, accompanied by the man who had rowed the doctor to the pier. They could all hear a fresh outbreak of banter, accompanied by the doctor's full-throated laugh, which turned into a fit of luxurious coughing as he descended the iron ladder to the rowing-boat. Inspector Box broke the silence.
'Why did you send for me, Bob?' he asked Inspector Cross. 'This is divisional work. Nothing to do with me.'
Cross jerked his head towards Constable Peabody, who had said nothing at all since Box, Knollys and he had arrived at the pier.
'Joe there will tell you what it's all about. I'm going back to the galley. I'll wish you good night. And you, Sergeant.'
Inspector Cross strode out on to the quay, closing the door firmly behind him.
Excerpted from The Hansa Protocol by Norman Russell. Copyright © 2003 Norman Russell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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