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Web of Discord
By Norman Russell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2004 Norman Russell
All rights reserved.
Death of the Poor Man's Friend
Detective Inspector Arnold Box shifted his position on the hard pine bench, and wished that he was back in his dilapidated but cosy office in King James's Rents. Police courts always depressed him. They invariably smelt of stale gas, beer and sweat, and the human detritus that filled them formed an exhibition of banal petty crime and drunkenness that never varied. You saw the same kind of weak or brutish faces, and heard the same ugly voices, whining excuses or croaking defiance, whether it was in Marlborough Street, or King's Cross Road, or here, in dismal Tooley Street, on the Surrey side, across the river from Tower Pier.
Box had heard about old Mr Locke, the sitting magistrate. He regarded Tooley Street Police Court as his private fiefdom, relishing his power to discipline and subdue his regular transgressors, at the same time giving the impression that he felt a sense of obligation towards them for providing him with such an interesting way of passing the time. He was a long-faced man, dressed in funereal black. His sparse grey hair was brushed well back from his domed forehead.
Mr Locke had already dismissed three old soaks with a caution, and had turned his attention to an enormous woman clad in a black dress and matching shawl, who stood between two policemen, her brawny arms folded across her chest.
'It says here, Bertha,' observed Mr Locke, 'that you broke several panes of glass in the Eagle public house in St Matthew's Lane, felled the landlord with one blow, and assaulted the police constable who was called to restrain you. Is all that true?'
'It is indeed, Your Honour. You should have seen that landlord hit the floor! Supposed to be the stronger sex, they say; I'm not so sure about that!'
Mr Locke sighed. He fiddled about with some papers on the bench, and then addressed the doughty woman prisoner.
'It strikes me, Bertha,' said Mr Locke, 'that you've gone too far this time. We can't have this type of thing going on. You'll go to prison for three weeks.'
The hefty woman laughed, and glanced round the court, nodding in friendly fashion to some of her neighbours, who rather nervously nodded back.
'Thank you, Your Honour,' said Bertha. 'I could do that standing on my head!'
'Well, perhaps you'd like another three weeks, so that you can do them standing on your feet. Take her away. Next!'
The magistrate's rough audience gave him a rousing cheer, but went quiet when he threatened to turn them all out into the street. The now subdued Bertha was hustled away down the steps beneath the dock.
My man will be next, thought Box. Yes, here he was, stooping and bleary-eyed, with an impassive young constable standing beside him. Poor old John! The court sergeant, an elderly man wearing a tight serge uniform and sporting a patriarchal beard, handed Mr Locke a sheet of paper, which he peered at over his gold wire spectacles.
'John Joseph Martin? Not one of our regulars, I notice. Dear me, you seem to have excelled yourself last night, according to this charge sheet. You became obstreperous – that's what it says here – in the Kentish Man public house in Redcross Street. You were ejected, and proceeded to smash the frosted glass window of the establishment, which I'm told is worth one pound two shillings and sixpence. Is all that true?'
'Yes, sir. I don't rightly know how it happened. Maybe I fell into it. It wasn't done deliberate. I was drunk, you see —'
'Yes, I do see. Only too well. It's the drink, my man, that's brought you here in disgrace before me this fine March morning. I don't know what's happening to this country. We seem to be drowning our wits in a sea of liquor. It was a bad night for windows last night, but I expect the glaziers will be happy enough this morning. Now, fortunately, someone's come down to speak for you. Somebody who knew you in better days. Detective Inspector Box, would you care to approach the bench?'
Box was pleased with the effect that his appearance made on the motley crowd sitting on the public benches. It wasn't every day that they saw a Scotland Yarder, a slim man of thirty-five with a neatly clipped moustache, a man who wore a tightly buttoned fawn greatcoat, and sported a curly-brimmed brown bowler hat, tipped forward over his brow in the approved fashion. He always tried to be smart and well turned out. He wasn't vain, of course. Nobody would call him that. And height wasn't everything.
Poor old John Martin. ... He'd worked for nearly thirty years in the stables of the Mounted Branch before retiring. He'd been a decent, dependable man, but a heavy drinker. It was very clear now that he was rapidly losing any self-esteem that might have been left to him. In a year, perhaps two, he would be dead.
When Box had finished his plea for leniency, Mr Locke pronounced judgment.
'It's always sad on these occasions,' he said, 'to have to contemplate a custodial sentence, especially when the defendant is a man of advanced years – seventy-two, in the case of John Joseph Martin. However, the Queen's Peace must be upheld. In your case, Martin, because of the good character given to you by this Scotland Yard officer, I am going to bind you over to keep the peace in the sum of five pounds, to be produced here, within the week. But if this kind of thing happens again, then I'm afraid you'll be locked up. You're free to go. Next!'
* * *
In the cell passage below the court, a seaman sat hunched forward on the dank stone bench, waiting to be called before the magistrate. The broken-down old drunkard who had been sitting on his left, had just stumbled up the steps to the dock. Poor old man! the seaman thought. He'd whispered to him that his name was John Martin, and that he'd once worked for the police. His clothes had been those of the respectable working class, and he'd made some attempt to patch and mend the old, worn garments. He'd reeked of drink, like the rest of them in this dismal hole.
The seaman knew that he'd be next up the stairs. Well, there were only two courses of action open to him. He'd created that row on the previous night solely in order to get himself arrested. If he was fined, and Oldfield was there in the court, then Oldfield would pay the fine and whisk him away to safety. If Oldfield wasn't there, then he'd say he had no money, which was true: he'd posted his pay to Oldfield on the previous night, so that he'd have only a few sovereigns in his pockets when he'd set out to get himself arrested. With no money to pay a fine, the magistrate would lock him up for a few days. Either way, he'd be safe, and within the week someone would be sent to collect him, and take him away.
The enemy had followed him all the way from Königsberg and along the Baltic coast. He thought that he'd thrown them off in Hamburg, but knew that they were still tailing him when he reached Bremen. They would have seen him when he got a berth on the Berlin Star at Bremerhaven. No doubt they would have seen him paid off at Chandler's Wharf, here in good old London. What he had learnt during his month-long investigation beggared belief. It was essential that he now kept himself alive to tell the tale.
That poor old man, John Martin. ... When he got home, he'd find a couple of sovereigns in his pocket – and something else, besides. Would he have the wit to draw a few simple conclusions once he was sober? Could he read? At that moment the seaman's name was called, and the constable took him by the sleeve. He mounted the steps to the dock.
* * *
Arnold Box was about to follow John Martin out of the court when the next trouble-maker was brought up from the cells. Something about the man caused Box to sit down again. This, surely, was not yet another specimen of the usual police court riff-raff? The prisoner, a lithe, upright man in his early forties, wore the uniform of a merchant seaman. His face was bronzed from long exposure to the elements, but there was nothing about his firm mouth and bright eyes to suggest either a drunk or a reprobate. What could this man have done to land himself in Tooley Street?
'Malcolm Enright, mariner, aged forty-one.' Old Mr Locke paused for what seemed an age, scrutinizing the impassive figure standing before him. 'I must say, Enright, that I'm surprised to see someone of your evidently respectable antecedents in a place like this. It says here that you broke a chair in the Prince Alfred Arms, Unicorn Place – remind me, will you, Sergeant? Unicorn Place.'
'It's just at the end of the street here, sir, near Vine Lane, by the new bridge.'
'Oh, yes. Well, Enright, you've spent the night in our cells, so you've had time to sober up and consider your position. You're still in uniform, I see. You were celebrating a discharge, I take it. What ship were you serving on?'
Box saw how Enright moistened his lips and darted a glance around the court before replying. He's expecting someone, he thought, and that 'someone' hasn't turned up.
'My ship was the Berlin Star, cargo steamer, out of Bremerhaven. I was paid off at Chandler's Wharf, and celebrated with a few beers. Maybe they didn't agree with me —'
'Maybe not. In fact, definitely not! And this chair – you didn't break it over someone's head, did you?'
The seaman permitted himself a slight smile. Box watched him, noting the lurking anxiety behind his apparently firm gaze. There was something decidedly odd about this man. Old Mr Locke was right. Enright didn't fit in to Tooley Street.
'No, sir. I didn't hit anyone with the chair. I fell down on it, staggering, like, and it broke. They tried to take the money to pay for it from my pocket. The landlord, and his barman. I knocked their heads together, and threw them out into the street.'
There was a ripple of laughter from the court. Mr Locke turned aside to conceal a smile.
'Quiet! Very well. Now, this kind of thing can't be tolerated, but as this is your first appearance before us, I'm inclined to let you off with a fine. And you're to pay for that chair. You're fined five pounds. Next!'
Box saw the alarm leap up in Enright's eyes. He glanced desperately around the court again.
'I haven't got five pounds —'
'What? Well, in that case, you'll have to serve four days in the cells — Now what's the matter?'
The swing door had been hastily pushed open, and a stout man in a black suit bustled into the court. His round face was covered in perspiration. He struggled towards the bench, puffing and panting. Box saw the sailor's shoulders relax with what was clearly relief.
'Your Honour,' gasped the stout man, 'I apologize for my lateness. I intended to be here at the commencement of proceedings, but the traffic on the bridge was horrendous —'
'Who are you?' demanded Mr Locke testily. 'Are you a witness in this case? Have you got a name?'
'Gabriel Oldfield, sir. Chemist and druggist. I heard last night that my poor friend Malcolm Enright had got himself into trouble, and hastened here to provide him with a character. But the traffic on the bridge —'
'Yes, yes. You keep telling me about it. I don't know what you expect me to do. I'm not an engineer. Perhaps next time – if there is a next time – the new Tower Bridge will be open at last, and you can come across on that. Now, your friend Enright has just been fined five pounds, which he says he hasn't got. If he doesn't come up with the money, he'll be sent in the wagon to Southwark Bridewell. It's all the same to me.'
Oldfield was already tugging a bulging wallet from an inside coat pocket. It seemed to be jammed in the silk lining.
'Heave!' cried someone on the public benches. 'Mind the moths!' added someone else, to a shout of laughter.
'Oh, shut up, will you?' cried Locke. 'Any more of that, and I'll clear the court. Now, Oldfield, are you going to pay Enright's fine or not?'
'Yes, sir. I have it here. I'll pay it right away.'
'Very well. Pay it to the court clerk in the office outside. Enright, you're dismissed. Next!'
Box hailed a cab in Duke Street Hill, and told the cabbie to put him down near the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street. It was only half past eleven, and he wasn't due back at King James's Rents until two, so there'd be plenty of time for a lunch of bread and cheese in his snug rooms in Cardinal Court, one of a maze of little squares squashed into a rough triangle between Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. The cabbie turned into Borough High Street, and so on to London Bridge.
That man in the court had been right. Traffic on the bridge was nearly at a stand-still, jam-packed with freight-wagons, carts and omnibuses. They'd dug up the road in King William Street to lay a new gas main, and that didn't improve matters....
When he had a moment, he'd call on poor John Martin, and see how things were with him. He had a room of his own over a public house near Bermondsey Leather Market. Meanwhile, he'd organize a whip-round among the folk in Whitehall Place to pay his five-pound fine.
The cab broke out of the knot of traffic, crossed Upper Thames Street, and made its way briskly into Cannon Street. It was a bright day, but the sun refused to come out, and was lurking somewhere behind the banks of fitful cloud. Maybe it would rain later.
That sailor man's tale didn't ring true. He wasn't your typical brawler. And he wasn't your typical merchant seaman. He looked like an engineer, though his merchant navy uniform had carried no special insignia. And his friend the chemist. ... They seemed an oddly assorted pair. Malcolm Enright, and – what was the chemist's name? He couldn't remember. Still, it was none of his business. Old Mr Locke had sorted it out.
As the cab passed in front of the Mansion House he glanced to his left, where he could glimpse the narrow opening of Garlick Hill, and recalled that it was in a secluded square leading off this street that he had first encountered his new sergeant, Jack Knollys. He recalled the shattered display cases in Damian Shulbrede's dim jeweller's shop, and the dramatic rescue that Sergeant Knollys had made there.
It was as they began to skirt St Paul's Churchyard that Box suddenly became aware of the purposeful crowd hurrying along Carter Lane. Arnold Box knew all about crowds. This one was not bent on mischief. Its members, for the most part respectable City clerks, messengers and telegraph boys, were joined by grim-faced workmen and a growing number of street traders, all converging on a narrow slit between the tall buildings of Carter Lane. Box rapped with his knuckles on the ceiling of the cab, and the cabbie opened the flap in the roof.
'Cabbie, I'm Detective Inspector Box of Scotland Yard. Can you find out where all those people are going? They seem to be pouring down Verity Street.'
The cabbie's face disappeared from the open hatch, and Box heard him call out to one of the hurrying men on the pavement.
'What's amiss, mate? Where are you all going?'
'It's Sir John Courteline. He's been killed. Murdered.'
'Did you hear that, sir? Sir John Courteline – who'd want to harm a hair of his head, for God's sake?'
'I don't know, cabbie,' Box replied. He forgot all about having a quiet lunch in Cardinal Court. 'I don't know,' he repeated, 'but I'd like to find out. Can you get this cab down Verity Street and into Edgerton Square?'
The driver closed the roof flap, and began to manoeuvre his cab along the narrow lane called Verity Street. The vehicle moved forward through a seething mass of angry men, their faces contorted with rage and grief. It was a grief that Box shared. Sir John Courteline, millionaire financier, was known as The Poor Man's Friend. Hundreds of projects for the relief of England's poor were wholly financed by him. Thousands literally owed their lives to him. He had funded trade schools, free hospitals, work projects. Five years earlier, he had been knighted for his services to the poor. And now he was dead – murdered, if these angry, frantic men were right.
The cabbie stopped his vehicle against the railings of the central garden in Edgerton Square, an elegant, secluded rectangle of tall, eighteenth-century houses with bow windows and wrought-iron balconies. Box could see the front door of Sir John Courteline's house gaping wide open, though the near hysterical crowd thronging the pavement made no attempt to trespass beyond the whitened doorstep, where two stalwart constables were stationed.
Box scribbled a note on a piece of paper, and handed it to the driver, together with two half crowns.
'Cabbie,' he said, 'be sure to deliver this note to the duty sergeant at 2 King James's Rents. You know where it is, don't you? Across the cobbles from Whitehall Place, on the other side of Aberdeen Lane.'
Box left the cab, and pushed his way through the crowd. Someone shouted angrily, 'Who'd want to shoot Sir John Courteline, for God's sake? What's happening to this country?' There was a groan of assent, accompanied by a surge of bodies towards the open door of the house, through which Box could glimpse the rich appointments and gleaming gas-lanterns in the hallway. Box elbowed his way through the crowd, and hurried up the steps. Luckily, both constables had saluted him in recognition, so he had no need to waste time in idle chat on the pavement.
As soon as he stepped into the hall, he heard the screaming. It was a woman, hidden somewhere in the house, giving vent to wave after wave of hopeless, abandoned lamentation. Box stood transfixed. He could sense grief in the sound, but something else, a kind of horrified despair. After a few moments the sound subsided, and terminated in a single chilling cry of anguish.
Box took hold of the heavy bolts behind the front door, and slammed it shut. The hall reverberated to the angry crash, bringing a uniformed sergeant out from a sort of glazed sentry-box beneath the stairs. The man saluted, and Box raised his hat in reply. Evidently the sergeant recognized him, which was just as well.
'Who have you got here, Sergeant?' he asked.
'Inspector Graham, sir, from "C" Division. We haven't sent to the Yard yet —'
'I was just passing, Sergeant. Tell Mr Graham that I'm here, will you?'
As Box's eyes adjusted to the gloom of the hallway, he realized that a group of frightened domestic staff stood huddled together near the great mahogany staircase. They, too, had been transfixed by the screams of the unseen woman. They seemed to be shrinking in horror from an ugly, heavy pistol lying on the hall floor. At that moment the sergeant returned. He followed Box's gaze, and said, 'It was thrown down by the assailant, sir, as he ran from the house. Mr Mervyn, the butler there, saw the man coming out of the study.'
Excerpted from Web of Discord by Norman Russell. Copyright © 2004 Norman Russell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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