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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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BOOK: Petrella at 'Q'
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“I warned him,” said Mr. Cowell. “You heard me tell him.”

“You said what nasty dangerous things they were,” agreed his wife. “We didn’t even know he had one.”

“It was a brand new machine,” said Petrella. “Any idea where he might have got it from?”

“Tell you the truth,” said Mr. Cowell, “we haven’t been seeing a lot of Geoff lately. Boys at that age run wild, you know.”

“We’ve brought up six,” said Mrs. Cowell, and started to cry softly.

Mr. Cowell said, “He and Len were good boys really. It was that Ronnie Silverlight led them astray. Until they ganged up with him we never had no trouble. No trouble at all.”

 

It was one o’clock in the morning by the time Petrella got back to Patton Street. The Desk Sergeant said that there had been a number of calls. A Mr. Grant had rung more than once. And a boy who said he was Len Rhodes’s brother was asking for news.”

“How long ago was that?”

“About ten minutes a”That’s funny,” said Petrella. “I’ve just come from the Rhodes’. And I don’t think Len had a brother. What did you tell him?”

“I just gave him the news.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing. He just rang off. I think he was speaking from a call box.”

At this moment the telephone on the desk rang again. It was Mr. Grant. His voice was ragged with worry. “It’s Timothy,” he said. “He’s not come home. You haven’t—”

“No,” said Petrella, “we haven’t got him here. Is there anywhere else he might have gone? Had he got any friends?”

“We don’t know anyone round here. He wouldn’t just have walked out without saying anything. His mother’s beside herself. She wanted to come round and see you.”

“I don’t think that would do any good,” said Petrella. “We’ll do what we can.” He thought about it and then said to the Desk Sergeant, “Can you turn up the record and find out what happened to a boy called Ronald Silverlight. He was sent down for petty larceny, about two months ago. One of the Borstal institutes. See if you can find me the warden’s telephone number.”

In spite of being hauled from his bed the warden, once he understood what Petrella wanted, was sympathetic and co-operative. He said, “It’s a long shot, but I’ll wake Ronnie up and ring you back if I get anything.”

Ten minutes later he came through again. He said, “This might be what you want. I gather they were using some derelict old building down in the docks area. It wouldn’t be easy to explain. The best plan will be to send the boy up in a car. It’ll take an hour or more.”

“I’ll wait,” said Petrella.

It was nearly four o’clock before the car arrived, with a police driver and Ronnie Silverlight and a warder in the back. Petrella got in with them and they drove down, through the empty streets, towards the river.

“You have to walk the last bit,” said Ronnie.

Petrella thought about it. There seemed to be too many of them. He said, “I’ll be responsible for the boy. You two wait here.”

When they got to the building Ronnie said, “We used to shift the bottom board, see, and get in underneath. It’ll be a tight squeeze for you.”

“I’ll manage,” said Petrella.

He did it by lying on his back and using his elbows. When he was inside, he clicked on the torch he had brought with him.

“Up there,” said Ronnie. He was speaking in a whisper and didn’t seem anxious to go first, so Petrella led the way up.

When he opened the door, the first thing that caught his eye was a glow from a fire of driftwood in the hearth which had burned down to red embers. Then, as his torch swung upwards, the white beam of light showed him Timothy. He had climbed on to the table, tied one end of a rope to the beam, fixed the other in a noose round his neck, and kicked away the plank.

Petrella put the plank back and jumped up beside him, but as soon as he touched the boy, he knew that they were much too late. He had been dead for hours.

He must have done it, thought Petrella, soon after he had telephoned the station and heard the news. And he made up the fire to give him some heat and light to see what he was doing.

“It’s Timmy Grant isn’t it,” said Ronnie. He sounded more excited than shocked.

“Yes,” said Petrella. “It’s Timmy.” He was thinking of all the things he would now have to do, starting with the breaking of the news to his parents.

“He was a good kid,” said Ronnie. “Geoff wrote me about him.”

Petrella’s torch picked up a flash of white. It was a piece of paper which had fallen off the table. On it was written, in Timothy’s schoolboy script, two lines. Petrella recognised them as coming from a hymn, but he did not know, until Father Amberline told him long afterwards, that they were from the hymn that the choir had been singing that evening.

 

And death itself shall not unbind

Their happy brotherhood.

 

Petrella folded it up, and slipped it quickly into his pocket. It was against all his instincts as a policeman to suppress evidence, but he felt that it would be brutal to show it to Mr. and Mrs. Grant.

 

 

Winter
The Cleaners

 

Part I

 

Inquest on the Death of Bernie Nicholls

 

“Say it after me,” said the Coroner’s officer, eyeing the jury as a drill-sergeant might eye a batch of recruits. “I will diligently enquire into and a true presentment make—” The jury did its best. “Of all matters given into our charge concerning the death of Bernard Francis Nicholls. And will without fear or favour a true verdict give according to the evidence produced before us”

“—according to the evidence,” said a bright-looking girl, three beats behind the choir and in a very clear voice, “produced before us.”

The Coroner’s officer looked at her suspiciously and replaced the printed card on the shelf in front of the jury box. The Coroner said, “Well now—” and Police Sergeant Underbill of the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police took the oath and explained to the Coroner that, being on duty on the morning of January 1st, he had been passing Malvern Steps and had observed what appeared to him to be a body lying on the foreshore below the Malvern Jetty and just above the high-water mark.

“What time of day was this, Sergeant?”

“Approximately half past seven, sir. Just beginning to get light.”

The Coroner made a note. He was a nice little man and Petrella, who was at the back waiting to be called in the next case, knew him for a breeder of canaries and an unreliable bridge player. A sound enough Coroner, though, who went by the book when it suited him and stood no nonsense.

“I directed the police launch to the steps and climbed down onto the foreshore. I found the body of a man lying head downwards, that is to say with his head towards the water. Since he had quite clearly been dead for some time, I did not disturb the body. I observed a broken portion of wooden railing near the body and I saw that there was a break in the railing which ran along the edge of the quay about six feet above him. I therefore deduced—”

“That’s all right,” said the Coroner. “You thought he’d fallen through the railing, very probably he had.”

A man, with thick black hair and a thick white face, rose to his feet, said, “The point will be disputed, sir,” and sat down again.

The Coroner said, “Good gracious. Mr. Tasker. I didn’t see you. Do you appear in this case?”

“I represent Mr. Mablethorpe, the owner of the premises and of the quay,” said Mr. Tasker.

“And I represent the deceased,” said a thin, sad-looking man.

The Coroner peered at the second speaker over the top of his glasses, identified him, and said, “Very well, Mr. Lampe. Some dispute about liability, no doubt. Looks as though we shall be here for some time. I expect that’s all you can really tell us, isn’t it, Sergeant? Any evidence of identity?”

Mr. Lampe rose once more to his feet and said, “I am able to identify the body. The man was employed in my office and his name —”

“Better have this formally. For the record, you know.”

Mr. Lampe accordingly moved from his seat on the solicitors’ bench to the witness box and told the court that he identified the deceased as Bernard Francis Nicholls, aged fifty and employed by his firm, Messrs. Gidney, Lampe and Glazier, as a legal assistant.

“Not a qualified solicitor?”

“No sir. But a very experienced conveyancing clerk. He had been with us for five years.”

“When did you see him last, Mr. Lampe?”

“When I left the office at about six o’clock on the night of December 31st.”

The Coroner’s officer said, “There is a witness who saw him later that evening.”

“Very well,” said the Coroner. “But let’s hear the doctor first. I’m sure he wants to get away. Doctors always do.”

Doctor Pond said that he had examined the body, both
in situ
and later at the Kentledge Road Mortuary. There were minor abrasions, consistent with a fall from the quay on to the foreshore, a distance of about six feet. There was also one large depressed fracture, on the crown of the head, a little right of centre. He placed his own hand on top of his head to demonstrate the position. The Coroner nodded and said, “He could have hit his head, I suppose, when he fell.”

Dr. Pond said, cautiously, that there were several large stones embedded in the mud of the foreshore and he understood that the police had removed one of them for further examination.

“Yes, doctor?”

“I examined the contents of the stomach,” said Dr. Pond, with the relish with which pathologists always seem to discuss this topic, “and I discovered what appeared to be the remains of a meal taken shortly before death consisting principally of ham and bread. It was also apparent that the deceased had consumed a substantial quantity of whisky in the last hours of his life. There was evidence, from the degeneration of the liver and the spleen that this indulgence may not have been of recent origin.”

Observing the jury looking baffled, the Coroner said helpfully, “That’s the doctor’s way of saying that he had been a heavy drinker for some time. Would you have said an alcoholic, doctor?”

“It would be difficult to be certain.”

“And in your opinion the blow on the head was the cause of death.”

Dr. Pond hesitated for a moment and then said, “It was certainly one of the causes.”

“One of the causes?”

“It is possible that the blow on the head rendered him unconscious and that the proximate cause of death was exposure. You will bear in mind, sir, that the night of December 31st was a very cold one. There was a short fall of snow around midnight and there was snow actually on the body when I saw it.”

The Coroner said, “Yes, I see,” and the jury tried to look as though there was some point which they ought to be thinking about. “Were you able to arrive at any conclusion as to the time of death?”

“In the circumstances, it was not easy to be definite. But when I saw the deceased at nine o’clock that morning, I judged that he had been dead at least eight hours. More probably ten or twelve.”

The young lady juror said, “If there was snow on the body and none underneath it, it would mean that he was there before the snow started at midnight, surely.”

“That would be a logical conclusion,” said the Coroner blandly. “Thank you, doctor.”

The next witness, a big red-faced bald-headed man said that his name was Saul Elder, and that he was licensee of the Wheelwrights Arms in Sutton Street. He knew the deceased well by sight. He regularly patronised the Wheelwrights Arms and had been there on the night in question. He had eaten two rounds of ham sandwich and had consumed three double and two single whiskies.

“Was that a normal evening’s intake?”

Mr. Elder said that it varied. Sometimes Mr. Nicholls drank more than that. Sometimes less. It was about average. He had left about eleven o’clock.

“Did he seem to be in normal spirits when he left?”

For a moment Petrella, who knew Mr. Elder well, thought that he was going to make some gruesome play on the word spirits, but he evidently recollected where he was and confined himself to saying that Mr. Nicholls looked much as usual.

The last witness was Detective Chief Inspector Loveday, in whose manor Malvern Steps lay. (A hundred yards downstream and it would have been Petrella’s headache.) He said that he had been called to the scene at half past eight. Some photographs had been taken, which he could produce. He had taken charge of a large piece of stone and had submitted it to the Forensic Science Laboratory. He could also produce their report. The point of interest in it was that they had found a quantity of blood on the stone, and embedded in the blood, some small splinters of bone. The blood was of the same group as the deceased and the splinters were quite clearly from his skull.

The Coroner said, “The jury can see the photographs if they wish. But I don’t imagine that they add anything to your evidence, Inspector.”

The witness agreed and said that the jury might find some of them a bit unpleasant. The foreman, after collecting nods, said he thought they could arrive at a verdict without seeing the photographs.

Inspector Loveday was about to step down when it was observed that Mr. Tasker was on his feet. He said, “Tell me, Inspector, was one of them a photograph of the broken piece of railing we heard about?”

“Yes.”

“Of the railing itself?”

“Yes.”

“I’d like the jury to see that one.”

“Perhaps you have a spare copy for me,” said the Coroner.

Spare copies were produced with such speed that Petrella guessed that Loveday must have been warned what to expect.

Mr. Tasker said, “I’d like you to observe that the railing is comparatively new, and is formed of stout upright posts, approximately five inches square, set in concrete. The railings themselves are bars of wood four inches by three. I shall be calling Mr. Mablethorpe who will tell you that it was erected, under his personal supervision, less than two years ago. The wood is oak, which is not”—here Mr. Tasker bared a fine set of white teeth—”a notably fragile material.”

“I’ve no doubt it was a very fine fence,” said the Coroner. “But the fact is that one of the bars broke.”

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