Read The Incendiary's Trail Online

Authors: James McCreet

The Incendiary's Trail (6 page)

Again, the two lower-ranking officers exchanged looks, neither wanting to enter into an argument with their superior, yet both convinced of its necessity. Inspector Newsome ventured:

‘Certainly not, sir. But I have identified a number of areas requiring attention. For instance, a man may become a policeman on the grounds of height and on the production of proofs of
good character—’

‘I know the regulations, Mr Newsome.’

‘Yes, sir. But height and character are no evidence of analytical intelligence, as we saw with the case of Daniel Good and with Miss M’Farlane. Those constables could do little more
than follow the rules they had been given, without applying individual thought to the situation.’

‘And that is why we established your Detective Force,’ answered Sir Richard. ‘With men of higher acumen, who are given the freedom to investigate serious cases as they see
fit.’

Here, Inspector Wilberforce cleared his throat preparatory to speaking:

‘With respect, sir. The men of the Detective Force are a fine body, but they have weaknesses. Recruited from the regular constables as they are, their faces are often known to every
inhabitant of their district, which rather nullifies their civilian attire. Furthermore, a beat policeman acquires a particular gait during his years on the street. Any criminal can identify it,
even when they do not know the detective by sight.’

‘Indeed,’ added Mr Newsome, keen to keep up the momentum. ‘You will have seen the recent figures showing unarguably that the criminal sees us more clearly than we see him. The
majority of crimes are committed during the “relief”, when the beat officer returns to the watch house to be relieved. Our own regulations and practices are used against us.’

‘And, if I may add more,’ interjected Mr Wilberforce, ‘our men are forbidden to associate with known criminals and are dissuaded from entering a public house unless in pursuit
of a specific crime. Even then, if he is not in uniform, he must reveal his true identity when challenged. Such regulations only hinder our men in their duty.’

Sir Richard stared at the surface of the table for a long moment, his cool demeanour betrayed by blazing eyes. Questioning the Metropolitan Police was analogous to questioning his judgement. He
spoke without raising his eyes from the table:

‘Gentlemen, the policeman – whether detectives or not – must by necessity be honest, temperate, sober and industrious. We all know the terrible legacy left to us by those early
constables who were corrupt and violent drunks. No policeman under my authority will be associating with criminals – only observing them and locking them away. Our detectives are to observe
and gather information for the
prevention
of crime. You know this.’

‘And we most emphatically agree, sir,’ added Mr Wilberforce. ‘We have seen already that disguise and deception can lead to accusations of entrapment from the judiciary. I am
thinking of the case of those two constables in plain clothes who ordered drinks from a bar keeping unlicensed Sunday hours.’

Sir Richard’s hand came down on the table. ‘My patience is being tried. First you disagree; then you agree. Why are we sitting here in conference? We concur that no policeman will
associate with nor descend to the status of a thief.’

‘But might not a thief rise to the status of a policeman?’

The question was put by Mr Newsome, with the solicitude of a man who holds a lucifer match to a volatile substance. A thunderous silence descended over the room and the fire crackled as if
impelled by Sir Richard’s resultant countenance. His voice took a hard edge:

‘Are you suggesting, Inspector Newsome, that we recruit thieves to become police constables? If so, I must question your sanity. It is a mockery of everything for which we
stand.’

Mr Wilberforce held up a hand to stay Mr Newsome’s next utterance, and made his own:

‘Not thieves, sir, but one thief – or rather one kind of thief. And not to be a policeman, but merely to aid a detective in his investigations. If you would permit me, I would like
to make my case before you cast out our suggestion entirely.’

The police commissioner let forth a long sigh and waved a dismissive hand. ‘Proceed. But understand that my scepticism is insurmountable. I listen only out of respect for your previous
military achievements, Mr Wilberforce.’

‘Thank you, sir. I will be brief. Let me introduce the figure of the cracksman, whom you undoubtedly know. He is a prince among criminals: often educated, often dressed like a gentleman
– occasionally an actual gentleman. Not for him the insensate robbery or violent act. He plans his robberies many weeks in advance; he is patient and judicious; he is intelligent and careful.
He is very seldom caught, unless stumbled on in the commission of his crime, for he is not a man to boast in public houses or sell his acquisitions through pawnbrokers. Indeed, he knows that
sobriety and anonymity are the keys to his continued freedom. Other criminals know of him by reputation, but not by sight.’

‘If I may add something,’ ventured Mr Newsome, ‘the cracksman is to the criminal world as the detective is to the world of policing. Both parties possess many of the same
essential attributes – except honesty. Moreover, there is no corner of the city that is closed to the cracksman; no regulations bind him in the pursuit of his goal and he knows the criminal
classes better than any policeman. Better still, he is virtually invisible. He is limited by none of the restrictions that bind our detectives, though he may possess their skills. Were he an honest
man, he might be the greatest detective alive.’

The inspector concluded boldly and caught Mr Wilber-force’s approving gaze. They believed they had made a good case and raised many of the issues discussed privately prior to this
extraordinary conference. Silence reigned in the room as Sir Richard contemplated what he had heard. A street hawker shouting his wares was heard indistinctly through the window.

Sir Richard stood as if to end the meeting. The other men also stood.

‘But he is not honest, gentlemen. In the eyes of the law – and of myself – he is a criminal like any other criminal, no better or worse than the petty thief or the vulgar
bully. To have such a man working for the police would taint us for decades to come. And even if I did give my consent to this frankly ridiculous scheme, how would you propose to coerce such a
figure as the cracksman to give up his profitable life of crime to work with his sworn enemy the police? Have you considered this?’

‘Yes, sir,’ answered Mr Newsome. ‘Although I admit it would not be easy. First, we would have to catch such a man. We would then have to hold a punishment over his head to
compel him to act in our interests. It may also be necessary . . . necessary to offer the possibility of a pardon in payment for his services.’

‘Aha! Now I know you are joking with me, Mr Newsome! Catch the elusive cracksman in the commission of his crime, hold him in gaol and then offer him work with the Detective Force in return
for a pardon? Excellent! A reward for his crime! Maybe you would like to present other criminals with similar gifts?’

Superintendent Wilberforce interceded: ‘We understand, sir, that this is an extraordinary proposal. We would not consider using such a man except in extraordinary circumstances, and then
only once. It would not become a regular practice – merely an experiment.’

‘You are right, Mr Wilberforce,’ retorted Sir Richard. ‘It would not and will not. I have listened to your ideas and I am not impressed. I have worked tirelessly to see the
Metropolitan Police become the shining beacon of propriety it is today and I will not countenance criminals within our ranks. I trust the matter is now concluded. Gentlemen – I have work to
attend to.’

And with this, the commissioner left the room colder than when he had entered it. The two remaining men returned to their seats in defeat, but not entirely surprised by the conclusion.

‘Fear not,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘There will be another case like that of Daniel Good or Miss M’Farlane. We are at the mercy of the newspapers when such things occur.
Though he may aver otherwise, Sir Richard is highly sensitive to public opinion and he may have to make a choice: further humiliation or a bending of the regulations.’

‘I hope you are right. Our hands are currently as securely manacled as those we arrest. I abhor the criminal as much as any policeman, but if I can use him to solve a greater crime, I will
do so.’

‘Then we must wait and – dare I say it? – hope for an occasion to approach Commissioner Mayne again.’

‘And to apprehend a cracksman at work.’

‘That, I believe, is the greater challenge.’

Having left their mysterious prisoner to consider their words, Superintendent Wilberforce and Inspector Newsome now sat in a secluded room at Giltspur-street Compter. The old
soldier Wilberforce, lighting a briarwood pipe, displayed a more excited demeanour than was his habit as they prepared to play their accustomed game.

‘He is quite an enigma, is he not, Mr Newsome? What do you adduce from the evidence at hand?’

‘Well, the tattoo suggests he’s a seaman, or associates among them. This might point to an address off Ratcliff Highway or about the docks. Similarly, the flogging scars bespeak the
discipline of a ship, and the dagger is something the sailor is seldom without.’

‘Hmm. I concur he may
once
have been a sailor, but nothing about his clothes or gait suggests that he is one still. And the dagger is not typical of a sailor’s knife –
it is more like the thin-bladed knives carried by some Italians or Corsicans. In addition, there is an intelligence to his face that one does not see among the seafaring class. Do you know much of
phrenology?’

‘No, I am sceptical of it, but there is undoubtedly some native wit in his countenance. One would expect little less from an experienced cracksman.’

‘If he
is
a cracksman.’

‘We have the tools, Mr Wilberforce. Why else would he be carrying such a package? And then there is the diamond – a large and exceptionally high-quality specimen.’

‘That, as you well know, is the weakest point of the evidence against him. The diamond was suspended about his neck on a steel chain that had clearly been fastened there. It was not
possible to pull it over his head. And the diamond itself was suspended inside a steel capsule on the chain, the strength and quality of which being such that we had difficulty cutting it free. All
of which leads me to conclude that the necklace and capsule was made for strength alone – not show. In short, I believe it belongs to him.’

‘What you say is true, Mr Wilberforce, but this in turn raises the question of why a man would carry a large diamond about his neck inside a steel capsule.’

‘For the purposes of bribery, of course. When the cracksman is caught away from his base, he is lost. He necessarily trusts no one and may even eschew the company of women in order to
protect his anonymity. What does he do when trapped and cornered like a fox? He uses his one bargaining piece: the valuable diamond that cannot be pulled from his neck by force. The only way to
obtain it is to lead the cracksman to his freedom.’

‘Or to decapitate him, which would not discommode a number of criminals I have known. Nevertheless, you make a good argument and I admit it is a quite brilliant piece of forethought on the
part of the prisoner, if our reasoning is correct.’

‘Indeed, most everything about him shows remarkable ingenuity, from the cork-soled shoes to the reversible tailcoat. Tell me, was the number on his collar a genuine one?’

‘Yes, I have checked it. It belongs to PC Wiseman of Stepney Division. He lost his jacket in a fight with a Negro man a number of weeks ago – a most unusual event, in fact. The
constable was accosted while on his beat and knocked unconscious. He woke to find his head supported on a rag and his tailcoat missing. Not a word was exchanged during the brief assault.’

‘Curious.’ Mr Wilberforce puffed at his pipe, which had already filled the room with its fragrant smoke. ‘What do you make, then, of his silence? Could it be that he is
mute?’

‘I think not. It is the masterstroke of his strategy. We know nothing about him, and can discern nothing. He knows this and is certainly hiding something from us. Of course, we could
arrange for some of the turnkeys here to persuade him to speak, but I suspect he has experienced worse treatment and would not break his silence until almost dead. The scars about his wrists and
ankles would suggest a period of worse incarceration.’

The two men contemplated the facts in silence for a moment. The sound of a fight erupted from somewhere within the prison walls and echoed along endless passages to where they were sitting.
Outside, the great city of London was about its criminal activities: cutting purses, picking pockets, burgling houses, counterfeiting and plotting. Somewhere, a murderer was lurking.

‘Is he the man we are looking for, Mr Newsome?’

‘He may be. The question is if he can be turned to our purposes. It may require some deception on our part.’

‘Of what are you thinking?’

‘Most likely he knows nothing of PC Wiseman. If our prisoner
is
implicated somehow in the theft of the uniform – or even if he is not – we could tell him that the PC in
question is dead. He is in possession of the “dead man’s” uniform and a dagger. On this evidence alone he could hang, especially if he persists in his silence.’

‘It is a cruel deception.’

‘We already have him for burglary. I feel sure there is a resident within range of the arrest who will readily admit to having lost a large diamond. Thus, transportation is likely a
further bargaining wedge. As with those tools of his safe-breaking trade, we may apply them to the tiny fissures of his resolve and crack the cracksman.’

‘I am sure you are correct, though there is no call for the services of such a man at present. Sir Richard would not permit it for the whimsy of our experiment.’

‘The time will come, and if we engineer it correctly, our man will be waiting still.’

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