Authors: Edward Marston
Elaine’s Dance School in Gloucester with love and thanks for countless happy hours of Ballroom, Latin and Sequence Dancing
It was perfect Zeppelin weather – a dry, moonlit night without a breath of wind. When the fleet had crossed the British coastline, it was guided towards London by winding rivers and glistening railway lines. There was a blackout in the capital but the enemy could see the beckoning searchlights illuminating the sky. A Zeppelin raid created a terror that was completely out of proportion with the actual damage it could cause. Trains and buses stopped in their tracks, lights were dimmed, fires were drawn and some people huddled throughout the whole night in underground stations. Bolder and more curious inhabitants, however, came out into the street and tried to catch a glimpse of the monsters of death some 20,000 feet above their heads. They could hear the distinctive throb of the engines, punctuated by a series of small explosions from incendiary bombs dropped with indiscriminate malice by the German crews.
Simon Wilder was not at first aware of the raid. When he slipped out of the house and began the walk home, his mind was on other things. He’d gone a hundred yards before he heard the whirr of the engines and the successive blasts of the bombs. Farther down the road, a small crowd had gathered on a corner to gaze up with a mixture of
fear and wonder. Many of them had watched raids before but nothing like this one. The Zeppelins were not given the freedom of the sky. Fighter pilots of the Royal Flying Corps were already in action, soaring up to confront the enemy. Anti-aircraft guns were booming gamely from below but their shells were falling well short of the target. The Zeppelins cruised on with menacing indestructibility, dropping their bombs over a constantly widening area and spreading panic.
Something extraordinary then happened. One of the fighter planes, which had taken the best part of half an hour to climb to the requisite altitude, launched an attack with its guns blazing. The pilot’s aim was lethally accurate. A Zeppelin suddenly burst into flame and lit up the night sky with spectacular effect. All over London, people were able to watch an unexpected firework display as an enemy aircraft was destroyed over British soil for the very first time. It was a turning point. The capital no longer simply had to endure a raid and pray for survival. Evidently, it was possible to fight back at last. A huge but unwieldy Zeppelin could, after all, be reduced to a gigantic fireball. Those watching from below were so elated that they cheered and embraced each other. Seized by patriotic fervour, some even broke into the national anthem. It had been a night to remember.
Simon Wilder did not take part in the celebrations.
Stabbed to death, he lay in a blood-soaked heap on the ground.
The telephone was a mixed blessing. When it was first installed in his house, Harvey Marmion had been delighted. It meant that he had direct contact with Scotland Yard and – when he was at work – he and his wife, Ellen, had a means of getting in touch with each other in the event of an emergency. On the debit side was the fact that Superintendent Claude Chatfield could wake him at will at any ungodly hour and the last voice that Marmion wanted to hear when hauled out of bed was Chatfield’s. It was like the yapping of an angry dog. Having padded downstairs in his pyjamas, Marmion held the instrument inches away from his ear to deaden the superintendent’s stridency.
‘Is that you, Inspector?’
Marmion yawned. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘I know you’re tired but I make no apology. Thanks to that Zeppelin raid, I was trapped in a train outside Paddington for three hours. It was maddening. I didn’t get to bed until well after midnight.’
‘Did you want something, Superintendent?’
‘Of course I do,’ snapped Chatfield. ‘I didn’t ring you up to talk about the weather. We have another murder on our hands. A car is on the way to pick you up.’
‘Very good, sir.’ Marmion yawned again.
‘Wake up, man. You’re on duty now.’
Marmion shook his head to clear it then took a deep breath before speaking.
‘Where did the incident occur?’
‘Is the victim still there?’
‘No,’ said Chatfield. ‘I gave orders for him to be moved.’
‘I’ve told you before, sir. I prefer to see a body at the scene of a crime. You can learn so much from it.’
‘I saw the victim. I can tell you all you need to know.’
‘I’d rather have seen everything for myself.’
‘You can look at police photographs.’
‘Do we know anything about the man?’
‘Very little, I fear – he was in his late thirties, at a guess, and smartly dressed. There were no documents on him to indicate his identity. That’s really all I can say at this stage. Make a note of the address and get over there at once.’
‘I’ll have to collect Sergeant Keedy first.’
‘Oh, he’s probably still up, carousing. He’s a bachelor – at the moment, anyway. Young, single men have more energy than weary old husbands like you and me. Talking of which, have the sergeant and your daughter set a date yet?’
‘No, sir, they haven’t,’ said Marmion uneasily.
‘Marriage will slow him down. Wait until he becomes a father. Although,’ he added with a hollow laugh, ‘he might already have achieved that feat. Rumour has it that Sergeant Keedy did not live the life of a monk.’
‘You were about to give me an address. I have a pencil in my hand.’
As the superintendent gave him the details, Marmion wrote them down but his mind was elsewhere. The reference to his future son-in-law was deliberately intended to needle him. On the subject of his daughter’s engagement, Marmion was still sensitive, not least because the developing relationship between Alice Marmion and her father’s closest colleague had been kept hidden from him. It was not just the secrecy that hurt Marmion. Where young women were concerned, Joe Keedy had a reputation for loving and leaving them. Marmion did not want his daughter to be the latest casualty of a fractured romance.
‘I’ll get over there as soon as the car arrives, sir,’ he said.
‘Who raised the alarm?’
‘Someone who works as a postman,’ replied Chatfield. ‘He was leaving early for work when he found the body in an alleyway beside his house. It was probably just as well that it was still dark. He didn’t see exactly what had been done to the victim. It’s the reason I had the body moved so quickly. It was an indescribably hideous sight. That kind of thing always brings the ghouls running.’
‘You said that he was stabbed to death.’
‘He was also badly mutilated, Inspector.’
‘In what way?’
‘To begin with,’ said Chatfield, ‘someone gouged out both eyes.’
It took only one beep on the car horn to rouse Joe Keedy from his sleep. Jumping out of bed, he pulled back the curtain and waved to the car below. Then he dressed with speed. Since he was habituated to an early morning summons, he always shaved last thing at night so that he did not have to worry about a full day’s growth of beard when he awoke. Murder took precedence over grooming. When he had a
free moment, he could shave later on at Scotland Yard. Four minutes after the call, Keedy was leaving his digs and straightening his tie as he hurried towards the waiting vehicle. He was a tall, wiry, handsome man in his early thirties who took pains with his appearance. Marmion, by contrast, always contrived to look slightly shabby even when he wore his best suit.
Keedy opened the door and climbed into the back seat beside him.
‘Good morning,’ he said as the car set off.
‘Good morning, Joe.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Chat is sending us on a little visit.’
‘That sounds ominous.’
‘A phone call from our beloved superintendent is never an occasion for pleasure. When he drags me out of bed, he always makes it sound as if I was in breach of police regulations by daring to go to sleep.’
‘What has he got for us this time?’
Marmion passed on the information he’d been given. He was a solid man in his forties with the physique of a labourer. It was allied to a quick brain, an ability to work long hours without flagging and a tenacity that meant he would pursue any killer relentlessly until he was able to make an arrest. Keedy had the same sense of commitment. He’d joined the police force in search of action and found plenty of it. Having listened to his companion’s recitation, he grimaced.
‘Why would anyone gouge out the man’s eyes?’
Marmion shrugged. ‘I can’t help you there, Joe.’
‘I suppose that we have no idea when the murder occurred?’
‘We don’t have a precise time,’ said Marmion, ‘but it was obviously during the night. The blackout is a boon to criminals. They work best in darkness.’
‘It wasn’t that dark,’ recalled Keedy. ‘When I walked Alice back to her digs, there was an air raid on and we saw the most amazing thing. One of our planes shot down a Zeppelin. There was a massive explosion and night turned to day for what seemed like minutes.’
‘You and Alice should have taken shelter.’
‘I don’t think the Zeppelins had
on their targets list.’
‘I’m serious, Joe,’ scolded Marmion. ‘It’s a question of safety first.
may want to take risks but I’d rather you didn’t force my daughter to do the same. Look at the constant reports we’ve read of people being hit by fallen masonry from buildings that are bombed. You can’t be too careful.’
‘I wouldn’t have missed seeing that fireball for anything. It was marvellous.’
‘This is a war – not a sideshow.’
‘We were in no danger, honestly. We felt perfectly safe out there in the street.’
‘So did the murder victim.’
Word of the killing had spread like wildfire. When the police had first arrived at the scene of the crime, a number of people came out of their homes to see what was going on, then flinched at the sight of the corpse in the alleyway. Lights had been rigged up so that photographs could be taken. After making a preliminary examination, the pathologist said that the cause of death was all too apparent but that full details would only emerge at the post-mortem. The body had been duly removed.
By the time that Marmion and Keedy got there, it was light enough to see clearly. A uniformed policeman was guarding the spot where the victim had fallen. The paving stones were stained with blood. Passers-by tried to stand and stare but the policeman moved them on. As
soon as he saw the detectives, he recognised both men because their reputations went before them. During a series of murder investigations, their photographs had appeared regularly in the newspapers and their record of success was unrivalled. The policeman was a big, chunky man in his forties with a bulbous nose and rubicund cheeks. He stepped forward to greet the newcomers.
‘Good morning, Inspector,’ he said in a gravelly voice, ‘and good morning to you, Sergeant.’
The detectives nodded in acknowledgement.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Marmion.
‘PC Alec Bench, sir.’
‘How long have you been here, PC Bench?’
‘I was the first person on the scene,’ said the other, proudly. ‘Well, not exactly the first, of course. That would be Mr Parry, the postman.’ He indicated the adjacent house. ‘He actually found the body and came looking for us at once. This is our beat, you see. Everyone round here knows us.’
‘We’ll need to speak to Mr Parry. Is he at home?’
‘No, sir, he went off to work – but not before I took a full statement from him,’ he went on, patting the notebook in his top pocket. ‘Some people would have been very upset by what they’d seen but not Denzil Parry. It’s not the first dead body he’s stumbled on. Postmen see all kinds of nasty things in the early hours. Denzil has discovered two corpses,’ he confided, ‘though both were of poor, homeless wretches who’d simply frozen to death.’ He nodded towards the house. ‘Mrs Parry is the problem. When she heard about the blood, she came out here with a bucket of water and a mop. I told her that she couldn’t tamper with a crime scene.’
‘Quite right,’ said Keedy, eyeing the dark stain on the ground. ‘What happened from the moment that you got here?’
Alec Bench knew how to deliver a report succinctly. His account was so smooth and coherent that it was almost as if he’d been rehearsing it. When he described the arrival on the scene of Claude Chatfield, his face was impassive but there was a glint in his eye that suggested he was not overly impressed by the superintendent’s officiousness. Marmion and Keedy exchanged a knowing glance.
‘So you’ve met the superintendent, have you?’ said Keedy.
‘He didn’t stay long, sir. Once the photographer and the pathologist had done their jobs, the superintendent wanted the body moved at once so that the crowd would disperse. The neighbours were a blooming nuisance but you can’t arrest someone for being curious.’
‘I suppose that there were no witnesses.’
‘None that I know of, Sergeant.’
‘Yet someone might have been out and about last night. Air raids always bring out the braver souls.’
‘They may be brave,’ said Marmion, pointedly, ‘but they’re also foolhardy.’
‘If the constable was on duty during the raid, he’ll have seen what happened up there in the sky.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Bench with a chuckle, ‘there was a Zeppelin raid. I saw one of them shot down.’
‘It was thrilling, wasn’t it?’
‘I can’t wait to get home to tell the wife.’
‘The Zeppelin was blown to bits.’
‘I just couldn’t resist clapping my hands.’
‘Let’s concentrate on the murder victim,’ insisted Marmion, terminating their reminiscences of the event. ‘He deserves all our attention.’
He walked around the spot where the body had been found,
wondering how and when the attack had been made. Patently, the killer had chosen the alleyway in order to delay the discovery of the body. Nobody walking past in the dark would have been able to spot it there. Denzil Parry, the postman, had turned into the alleyway on his way to work and almost tripped over the corpse.
‘Right,’ said Marmion after a long pause, ‘I’m satisfied that there’s nothing else to see here. I’d like to interview Mrs Parry first. I’ll speak to her husband when he returns home. In due course, we’ll deploy our men to knock on every door in the vicinity. We may be lucky – but somehow I doubt it. Any witnesses would surely have come forward before now.’
‘What about me, sir?’ asked Bench.
‘When do you come off duty?’
‘I reckon it will be in just over an hour.’
‘You can leave well before then,’ said Marmion. ‘When I’ve finished with Mrs Parry, I daresay the lady would like to clear up the mess out here. This is a nice area to live in. Residents don’t want ugly bloodstains like that. When Mrs Parry does come out and wash away the stain,’ he went on, ‘I’d like to hear the statement you took from her husband. After that, you can go.’
‘Thank you, Inspector.’
‘When you get home, remember that, first and foremost, you’re a policeman.’
Bench was nonplussed. ‘What do you mean, Inspector?’
‘I mean that a brutal murder took place here and that it’s of more importance to us than the air raid, however remarkable it may have been. Tell your wife what happened down here on the ground – not about events up there in the sky. A burning Zeppelin may have given you some entertainment but you should focus on the plight of the
victim discovered by Mr Parry. He deserves our sympathy and so does his family.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Bench, accepting the reprimand.
Marmion’s voice softened. ‘There’s something else you can say to Mrs Bench,’ he added.
‘What’s that, Inspector?’
‘Tell her that you did your job well and that I said so.’
Bench rallied and straightened his shoulders.
‘Thank you, sir.’