Authors: Michael Gilbert
The Body of a Girl
First published in 1972
Â© Estate of Michael Gilbert; House of Stratus 1972-2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
The right of Michael Gilbert to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.
This edition published in 2012 by House of Stratus, an imprint of
Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,
Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.
Typeset by House of Stratus.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.
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This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author's imagination.
Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.
Born in Lincolnshire, England, Michael Francis Gilbert graduated in law from the University of London in 1937, shortly after which he first spent some time teaching at a prep-school which was followed by six years serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. During World War II he was captured following service in North Africa and Italy, and his prisoner-of-war experiences later leading to the writing of the acclaimed novel
âDeath in Captivity'
After the war, Gilbert worked as a solicitor in London, but his writing continued throughout his legal career and in addition to novels he wrote stage plays and scripts for radio and television. He is, however, best remembered for his novels, which have been described as witty and meticulously-plotted espionage and police procedural thrillers, but which exemplify realism.
HRF Keating stated that
was amongst the 100 best crime andmystery books ever published.
“is inevery way as good as those of Agatha Christie at her best: as neatlydovetailed, as inherently complex yet retaining a decent credibility, and asfull of cunningly-suggested red herrings.”
It featured Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who went on to appear in later novels and short stories, and another series wasbuilt around Patrick Petrella, a London based police constable (later promoted)who was fluent in four languages and had a love for both poetry and fine wine. Othermemorable characters around which Gilbert built stories included Calder and Behrens. They are elderly but quite amiable agents, who are nonetheless ruthless andprepared to take on tasks too much at the dirty end of the business for theiryounger colleagues. They are brought out of retirement periodically uponreceiving a bank statement containing a code.
Muchof Michael Gilbert's writing was done on the train as he travelled from home tohis office in London:
“I always take a latish train to work,” heexplained in 1980, “and, of course, I go first class. I have no trouble inwriting because I prepare a thorough synopsis beforehand.”.
After retirementfrom the law, however, he nevertheless continued and also reviewed for
, as well as editing
âThe Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes'
Gilbertwas appointed CBE in 1980. Generally regarded as âone of the elder statesmen ofthe British crime writing fraternity, he was a founder-member of the BritishCrime Writers' Association and in 1988 he was named a Grand Master by theMystery Writers of America, before receiving the Lifetime âAnthony' Achievementaward at the 1990 Boucheron in London.
MichaelGilbert died in 2006, aged ninety three, and was survived by his wife and theirtwo sons and five daughters.
September 7th that year fell on a Tuesday. On that day, three things happened, none of them of any apparent importance. Later they were to combine, as certain chemicals, harmless in themselves, may do, to produce violent results.
Michael Drake-Pelley, aged fourteen, and his younger cousin, Frank, planned an early morning bathe, to mark the last day of an enjoyable summer holiday on the river.
Detective Inspector William Mercer received by first post confirmation of his promotion to Chief Inspector and of his appointment in charge of the C.I.D. at Stoneferry-on-Thames, which is one of the larger up-river stations of Q. Division of the Metropolitan Police.
Later that morning in No. 1 Court at the Old Bailey, Mr. Justice Arbuthnot sentenced Samuel Lewis, Daniel Evans and Raymond Oxley to fifteen years imprisonment each for robbery with violence. “This was a brutal and greedy crime,” he said. “In the course of it you beat to the ground a young girl and smashed in the face of a man who sought to prevent you snatching the money which belonged to their firm. You can count yourselves fortunate that neither of them died. Had they done so I should have sentenced you to imprisonment for life and made a recommendation to the Home Secretary that the sentence was not to be reviewed for at least twenty-five years.”
The three men received the homily and the sentence without a flicker of interest.
When Scotland Yard moved to Petty France, the police retained a block of offices next door to their old headquarters. They found them useful for informal meetings, since there is a subway entrance from Cannon Row Police Station. The block belongs to the Statistics Department of the Board of Trade and they actually occupy the ground and the first floor, but if you wander, by mistake, into the upper storeys you will be politely sent about your business by a uniformed policeman.
In the front room, overlooking the Thames, three men discussed the Lewis case.
At the head of the table was Deputy Commander Laidlaw, thin, dedicated, and already showing the signs of the disease which was to destroy him. It was Laidlaw who had conceived the idea of the Regional Crime Squads and he was now in charge of all twelve of them. On his right was the C.I.D. boss of No. 1 District, Chief Superintendent Morrissey, a large, white-faced, Cockney Jew who looked as formidable now as when, twenty years before, he had climbed into the ring to box for the Metropolitan Police. The third man, who would have pass unnoticed in any bowler-hatted crowd of commuters, was, in his own way, the most distinguished of the three. He was Sir Henry Hatfield, seconded from the Home Office as standing adviser to the Clearing House Banks. He said, “You can congratulate yourselves, I think, on getting rid of that little lot.”
“We'd congratulate ourselves,” said Laidlaw, “if we thought they were the last of their kind.”
“Or the worst,” said Morrissey.
“You've put away three major gangs in the last two years.”
“All due to Dibox,” said Morrissey, adding, “That sounds like a T.V. commercial dunnit?”
“The Dibox system has certainly proved its worth,” agreed Sir Henry. “Do you think the opposition might be beginning to tumble to it?”
“I imagine they must be starting to put two and two together,” said Laidlaw. “They're not fools. They must wonder how we got onto Oxley, within twenty-four hours. Particularly since he was only driving the getaway car and no one identified him on the job and he had very little form. They must guess it was something to do with the notes themselves, even if they weren't able to work out the answer.”
work it out,” said Sir Henry. “What could they do about it? You can't remove the mark. You can't even decipher it, except with proper apparatus.”
“What they'd do,” said Morrissey, “they wouldn't be in any hurry to spend the money. They'd set up a stocking. The stuff from today's job goes into the top of the stocking. The pay out for it comes from the bottom. From a job done maybe two years before.”
“Or a mixed lot of notes from a number of different jobs,” said Laidlaw.
“If they operated on that scale there'd be a lot of money involved. It's curiously bulky stuff. Where do you suggest they'd keep it?”
Morrissey said, with a grin which exposed two gold-capped teeth, “When we put out the buzz that the big boys might be stocking up, you'd be surprised at the ideas our favourite little grasses came in with. Everything from a blasted oak in Epping Forest, to the third lavatory cistern from the left at Waterloo.”
“Neither of those sounds very promising,” said Sir Henry primly. “More likely they keep it in a safe, in a private house, or some legitimate-looking business. Or maybe in a strong-room or a safe deposit.”
“Agreed,” said Morrissey. “The trouble is, our informers don't move in such select circles. They hang round in pubs, picking up gossip. Most of it's untrue, and what isn't dead lies is twisted.”
“It's a fact,” said Laidlaw, “we've never been able to get a man on the inside of any of the really important outfits. They're too careful. They pick their own recruits, from prison or Borstal mostly. And they vet them, and their families and backgrounds very thoroughly before they even approach them. Then they're given small jobs to start with, to try them out. It might be years before they graduate to a real operation. And they know that if they do get caught, their families will be looked after. There's not much inducement to split.”
“And plenty of bloody good reasons not to,” said Morrissey. “Anyone who gets ambitious in that direction gets reminded about Cobbet, and then he thinks again.”
“It was the Crows. They're just about the biggest outfit left. They'll be bigger still, now that Sam Lewis has gone, because they'll pick up the minor characters from his lot. Cobbet was a fringer. He did small jobs for them. He was never on the inside. He got the idea he wasn't being treated right. Then there was some trouble about a girl. What with one thing and another, he offered to squeak. We handled him dead careful, I can tell you. Outside telephones, third party contacts, different meeting-places each time. But they found out.”
Sir Henry said, as if he hardly liked to ask the question, “What did they do to him?”
“They had a full-scale trial, judge and counsel for the prosecution and counsel for the defence and âYes, me lud,' and âNo, me lud,' and they found him guilty and executed him. What they actually did was they popped him head first into a barrel, alive I gather, and filled it up with wet cement. You could just see the tops of his legs sticking out. It was stood, like that, in a garage workshop the gang used, with a canary in a cage hung on the left foot. The only one who thought that touch real fun was the canary. He chirruped away like anything, for forty-eight hours, I'm told.”
“You mean they kept it there, openly, for two days.”
“That's right, and all the boys were brought in to see it, in turn. Then it was put into a van, driven down to Grays in Essex, and dropped into the river.”
“How did you find all this out?”
“Find it out? We didn't have to find it out. The story was round the whole of South London. They meant it to be. They didn't even mind people knowing where they'd dumped the barrel. It went into thirty foot of water with a tidal scour running at five knots. It'll have rolled somewhere out into the North Sea by now.”
“They've learned two lessons from America,” said Laidlaw. “The power of money, and the power of fear. A man who knows how to handle those two weapons can become very powerful. He can laugh at the law for a long time.”
“But not for ever,” said Sir Henry.
“I hope not. Although there have been times and places when crime has got on top. It goes in waves. And it can't last for ever. But it's very unpleasant while it does last.”
A slight and quickly controlled tightening of the lips signalled the pain which had unexpectedly reached out and gripped him.
“And things are happening here, under our noses, that I don't like. I don't only mean the crime figures, though they're frightening enough. I mean the sort of general breaking loose and kicking over the traces that's going on in all classes. It may sound an odd thing for a policeman to say, but I believe the real reason is the breakdown of religion. If people aren't afraid of going to hell in the next world, they don't see any reason why they shouldn't have the best time possible in this one. And if your idea of a good time is drink or drugs or girls or boys, and they cost money, and you haven't got any moneyâthe answer's obvious, isn't it?”
“There's a difference,” said Sir Henry, “between a lowering of moral standards, and a breakdown in law and order.”
“One leads to the other,” said Morrissey. “I don't suppose you heard what happened at King's Cross Station just before Easter. It was kept under hatches. This was the Crows too. They'd joined up for the occasion with two local outfits. There were more than thirty of them involved, and they were most of them armed. They were aiming to lift a very big consignment of used notes that was coming up for pulping. It was guarded, of course. Two of the boys from the Birmingham force came up with it and there were two railway policemen to meet it. We got a last minute tip-off, realised it was going to be a nasty party, put in six car-loads of our own,
called out the heavy mob from Wellington Barracks. In a way, we overdid it, because they saw what was coming and scarpered. Total casualties, one of our men with shotgun pellets in his leg, and one getaway car caught in a side street. And all we could charge
with was obstruction. All right. But just suppose for a moment that we
been tipped off. What do you think the score would've been then? Four dead policemen, plus any outsiders who happened to get in the way.”
“All the same,” said Sir Henry, and he said it in the tones of a man who needs reassurance, “you are not suggesting a total breakdown of law and order. The men would have been caught and punished eventually.”
“If the police all did their job,” said Laidlaw.
“Are you questioning the morale of the police?”
“I'm not questioning their morale. I think it's pretty high at the moment. But policemen are human. Their training makes them less susceptible to bribery and fear. But there must be one or two of them who can still be boughtâor frightened.”
Outside, a police launch was coming down against the flood tide. The man in the bows held a boat hook. He signalled with his free hand, and the boat sidled across towards a long black bundle which was drifting upstream. He reached over, drew the flotsam towards the boat, then lost interest and pushed it away. The boat shot off downstream, the bundle continued to drift, bobbing slightly in a ruffle of wind as it passed under Westminster Bridge.
Morrissey said, “Even one bent policeman can give criminals a lot of help. The higher he is, the more he can give them.”
Detective Chief Inspector Mercer was finishing his packing. He was a man in his late twenties or early thirties, with a lot of dark hair, worn rather long and a thick sensual face. His appearance was not improved by a puckered white scar which started at the cheekbone and gathered up the corner of the left eye so that it seemed permanently half closed. He had thick shoulders, a barrel of a chest, and legs disproportionately long for such a body.
The furnished room in Southwark which had been his home for the last two years held a bed, an armchair, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers and not much else. Emptying one of the small drawers, he pulled out a battered diary and thumbed through the pages. In the section headed âUseful Notes' there were half a dozen entries, each containing a girl's name followed by a telephone number. Mercer tore out the pages, dropped them into an ashtray, set fire to them and watched them burn. They had all been useful to him, and some of them had been fun too. He hoped he would be as lucky in Stoneferry, but he rather doubted it.
That evening, as they did every Tuesday, business permitting, Superintendent Bob Clark, the head of the uniformed branch at Stoneferry, and his wife, Pat, drove round after dinner to play bridge with Murray Talbot, and his wife, Margaret. Murray Talbot was a J.P. and chairman of the local bench, and before the game started, whilst Margaret was cutting sandwiches and Pat was helping her with the coffee, the two men sometimes talked business.
Bob Clark said, “The new man starts tomorrow. Name of Mercer. Youngish, I'm told. Probably a bit of a new broom.”
“No harm in that,” said Talbot. “I liked Watkyn well enough. We all did. But he was a sick man towards the end. He may have slipped a bit.”
“If he did,” said Bob Clark, “it wasn't reflected in the crime statistics. Do you realise that this station has the highest average in the Division for indictable crimes cleared up?”
“Good show. I expect you'll get a medal when you retire next year. If they decide to give you a gold watch, I'll open the subscription list.”
The words were spoken flippantly, but the sincerity behind them pleased the Superintendent. He was saved the trouble of answering by the return of the ladies.
It was half-past six and the sun, which showed blood-red through the early morning mist, had no warmth in it. Michael Drake-Pelley and Frank, naked as the day they were born, hauled themselves out of the black and smoking waters of the Thames by means of an overhanging bough, and stood on the narrow strip of shingle which formed the up-river point of Westhaugh Island.
“That was fun,” said Michael.
“LâlâlâLovely,” said Frank.
Their towels were in the punt which was hitched to a willow. As they went to fetch them Michael caught his foot in something, tumbled forward onto his knees and uttered a word which, at fourteen, should not have been in his vocabulary.