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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Shroud of Darkness (1954) => Topic started by: Admin on November 20, 2023, 11:06:35 am

Title: Chapter Two
Post by: Admin on November 20, 2023, 11:06:35 am
“WELL, THAT’S the way of it,” said the Paddington Superintendent of Police to Chief Inspector Macdonald, C.I.D. “It looks like being one of those interminable jobs. Our chaps have all got three hands full and then some, so if C.O. will take this one on it’ll help a lot.” He paused and then went on: “You’ll be seeing the surgeon yourself: Horrocks his name is, and he’s a very helpful, intelligent fellow. That’s leaving his professional reputation aside---I believe he’s a top-notcher. He says his guess is that the lad was knocked out with a straight one on the point---knocked right out---and his pockets looted. Then he was deliberately hit over the head with that iron bar while he was down, the bar being swung bludgeon-wise. Horrocks says his pockets couldn’t have been searched after he was bludgeoned, because turning him over would have killed him.”

“I’m quite willing to take Horrocks’s opinion on the matter,” said Macdonald, and the Super nodded, hearing the dry tone.

“Yes. A dirty business---cold-blooded brutality. And there’s not a thing on him to give us a lead as to who the lad is. His clothes are nearly new: mass-produced, all of them, obtainable in any town from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It seems likely that he’s straight out of the Forces---if he’s British. We don’t even know that. And as to whether he was just going to the station, or coming away from the station, or meeting someone for a quiet talk, or doing some dirty work on his own---well, it’s anybody’s guess. And no one of his description has been reported missing.”

Macdonald nodded. No one was better qualified than he was to know that until a victim has been identified the police have no solid ground beneath their feet. An unknown victim attacked by an unknown assailant spells the detective’s Waterloo (the young nurse’s name for the nameless patient in St. Monica’s had gone all round the local police). This victim was not only nameless: he had been struck down in London’s famous fog: that evening of solid black-out when nobody noticed anybody.

“It’s not only a negative, it’s a fogged negative,” said Macdonald.

The Super chuckled. “True enough. Now, for what it’s worth the surgeon said he’d have placed the boy as decent middle class---professional class rather than working class. He was clean, well-kept hands and feet, healthy and wholesome, an outdoor rather than indoor type. Not a tough or a lout or a lounge lizard. No sign that he smoked or drank. A nice-looking chap, the nurses said---you can’t see much now but bandages.”

“I think I’ll go and have a look at him,” said Macdonald. “We shall have to get the Press and the B.B.C. to issue descriptions. Somebody may have noticed him somewhere---the policeman’s abiding hope.”

“It often works,” said the Super. “Well, here’s wishing you luck---and I’ll get back to my juvenile delinquents. If I’d been told when I was a raw constable that gangs of twelve-year-olds were going to give me a headache I wouldn’t have believed it. We had a tough of ten last week---robbery with violence, can you beat it?”

Macdonald set out for St. Monica’s Hospital. It was still foggy, but not with the standstill blackness of last night. Today traffic moved slowly through yellow curtains of grime, grinding along in a convalescent sort of way and jerking to a standstill occasionally, when tired drivers got the gremlins and saw nightmare shapes looming up through the eye-stinging abomination which usurped the air.

Arrived at the hospital, Macdonald was sent up to Lister Ward, where Staff Nurse was slightly obstructive to begin with, but eventually decided that the quiet-voiced C.I.D. man was to be trusted. Lister was a small ward, and a very quiet one. Its quietude was a little ominous, for the patients here had no energy to complain; what energy was left to them was directed to the primary business of keeping alive.

The nameless casualty was in the bed in the far corner, screened from observation. Macdonald stood just within the screens and studied what the bandages permitted: chin, mouth, and nose. It was a comely face, he judged: firm chin and jaw, close, well-cut lips, almost smiling in their stillness. Whatever the lad might suffer later, thought Macdonald, he wasn’t suffering now. The tubes and tentacles of a blood-transfusion apparatus were beside him and Macdonald could see one relaxed hand, with long fingers and neatly cut nails. This interested him, because one of the fingernails showed a black mark of some previous injury---a week or more old. Any such detail might help in identifying him. Macdonald stood there for quite a long time: the boy must be alive, he knew, but he hardly looked alive. Only the closest observation showed the slow rise and fall of his breathing.

The nurse seemed to read his thought. “He’s doing very nicely,” she said evenly. “His pulse is really good.”

Macdonald smiled at her. “Thank you, Sister. I hope he’ll continue to be a credit to you. Now could I see one of the nurses who got him ready for the theatre? Or would they be on night duty, and asleep now?”

“Well, they would be in the ordinary way,” she replied, “but this was an emergency case and very urgent. One of the theatre nurses didn’t get back because of the fog and Nurse Bland came back on duty, though she’d been on full time. Well, never mind that. If you want to see her, you’d better ask Matron, but she’s in Simpson Ward.”

It wasn’t very long before Macdonald was taken to the sisters’ office of Simpson Ward, and a comfortable-looking, middle-aged staff nurse came and looked at him enquiringly.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Nurse. I know you’re always busy,” said Macdonald. “I’m a C.I.D. officer. It’s about this lad with the head injury who was operated on last night. Did you undress him?”

“Nurse Stone and I did it together. We had to be very careful. I expect you saw we cut his things off: we couldn’t move him.”

“Yes. I realise that. I’ve just been in to see him, but the bandages don’t give one much chance. Can you tell me what he’s like---colour of hair, eyes?”

“Oh yes. I see what you mean. His hair’s dark---tawny dark: not auburn, but dark brown with red lights in it, rather unusual. His eyes are grey, with dark rings to the iris. I think he’d be a very attractive-looking boy. He’s tallish, about five feet eleven, and healthy; good muscles, as though he’d had plenty of exercise, but not a labourer, or a boy who works with his hands. And I’d have guessed that he’s a country boy, his skin was cleaner and healthier than a Londoner’s would be. He’s got a wonderful constitution---heart and so forth. He’d never have lived else.”

“That’s all very helpful, thank you very much,” said Macdonald. “It’s my job to try to get him identified. Until we do that, we’re stuck. You seem to be a very observant person, Nurse. Is there anything you can tell me, even anything you surmised, that might help? Don’t be afraid of saying anything that came into your mind, however trivial it may seem.”

The nurse stood and studied the tall, lean, dark fellow beside her; she liked him, his quiet voice and direct gaze, his natural manner of speech and something intent about him, almost akin to the intentness of a doctor asking her about a patient. It was an approach which she recognised and appreciated because sensible doctors often do appeal to the sum of judgment and observation accumulated by an experienced nurse.

“Well, I shall only be guessing, but I couldn’t help wondering about him,” she said: “he was brought in from Paddington Station, wasn’t he, where he’d been knocked over the head with an iron bar, or something? I remember thinking he’d probably been in the train, in a smoking compartment, although he doesn’t smoke himself---you can always tell from a person’s hands. You see, his clothes smelt of cigarette smoke, and that meant he’d been sitting somewhere smoky for a good time. Of course he might have been in a cinema or a public house---it was just that as we got his raincoat off the smell of his clothes suggested train to me.”

“Thank you for telling me. We want very much to know if he’d been in a train.”

“I tell you I’m only guessing, but I don’t smoke myself and I do notice smells. Then I thought he was well looked after, as though he’d got a mother or somebody who took an interest in him. His underclothes were almost new, but they’d been washed at least once---at least, that’s what I thought; and the washing had been done at home, because there weren’t any laundry marks. I’d have guessed him to come from a country home, where they did their own washing.” She smiled at Macdonald, half apologetically. “I’m only guessing, of course, but we do get into the way of noticing our patients, and summing them up by little things other people might not notice. I thought this boy might be a student of some kind, an undergraduate perhaps. That’s not so fancy as it sounds; he’s got a fine head and good hands.”

“I noticed his hands,” said Macdonald. “Well, thank you very much, Nurse. It’s very good of you to have taken so much trouble over my questions.”

“I’m only sorry I can’t help more. It seems a dreadful thing that a boy like that should have been attacked so brutally---but Sister says he’s doing nicely, and Mr. Horrocks is a wonderful surgeon.”

Macdonald’s next job was drafting a description of the injured lad, together with a description of his clothes, for publication in Press and B.B.C. Then he went to Paddington Station.

The area where the boy had been found was still roped off. The barrows and trolleys had been moved and a painstaking search made in the grime of the pavement. It was a wretched job, because there was no real daylight and searchers had to crouch low and grovel their way along the sooty footway. Nevertheless a keen young C.I.D. man named Denton had quite a report to offer. He showed Macdonald traces on the ground where the sooty deposit had been swept and dragged by the passage of a moving body, and where sharper marks indicated that the toes of somebody’s shoes had dragged over the ground.

“There was a trolley standing here, sir. I think it’s plain enough that some chap managed to worm his way underneath it and those marks show where he crawled out. If it’d been an ordinary night he’d have been spotted, but last night you couldn’t see a thing.”

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. I think you’re right. Those marks weren’t made by a sack being dragged, or anything of that kind, because the toe marks show clearly---it was somebody’s feet made those marks. But there’s nothing to show who made them.”

“Not a thing, sir. I hoped we might find a button that got dragged off, or something like that, but no luck that way. The only thing is that the chap must have got his clothes properly mucked up: there’s an oily patch on the ground there---you can see where it’s smudged. That’s paraffin from the lamps the navvies put round the place where they were working, so the chap who wriggled under the trolley must have got paraffin soaked into his coat as well as the other muck.”

“Perfectly true, and very carefully observed, Denton,” replied Macdonald, “but can you tell me what he was doing there? If the chap under the trolley was the assailant, what was his object in getting under the thing when he could have bolted as easy as say-so? On a night like last night anybody could run round in circles and not get caught.”

“Mightn’t he have dropped flat when he heard Buller coming up, sir?”

“He might have, but it seems more likely to me he was under the trolley before Buller came up. Buller had a good torch: he saw the one chap on the ground: the probability is that he’d have seen the other unless he were concealed by something.”

“Somebody snooping, sir?” queried Denton.

“Maybe,” cogitated Macdonald, “but if that’s so it makes the whole thing more complicated. However, it’s no use guessing at this stage.”

Macdonald then went to consult with the railway authorities as to the trains which had arrived at the terminus between eight and nine o’clock last evening. It was five minutes after nine that Buller had found the injured lad, and Dr. Maxwell had said that when he examined the boy it was probably only about ten minutes since the injuries had been inflicted. While he had no evidence at all that the boy had arrived at Paddington by train, Macdonald had noted Nurse Bland’s belief that it was a country boy she had helped to prepare for the operating theatre last night.

Arguing on probabilities, using common sense because there was no evidence to help, it seemed to Macdonald more likely that the boy had arrived by an incoming train rather than that he was going to catch a train to take him out of London. Surely, if he’d been staying in London and was going to catch a train at Paddington, he would have gone to Paddington by the tube on a night like last night: the busses had stopped running before nine o’clock, and nobody but an experienced Londoner could have found his way on foot through the foggy streets. If he had come to Paddington by tube, the boy would have emerged straight into the station hall, and not gone near the carriage approach where he was found. If, on the other hand, he had just arrived from the country and didn’t know London well, he might not have known where the tube entrance was---and he certainly couldn’t have seen the “underground” signs from the arrival barriers last night. He was told that the train from the west of England---Penzance, Plymouth, Newton Abbot, Exeter, and Taunton---had arrived at 8:50; the Cardiff train had got in at 8:25, the Malvern one at 9:03.

On account of the probability of its time of arrival Macdonald enquired further about the Penzance-Plymouth train. Had there been a ticket collector at the barrier, or had tickets been taken on the train, and where was the last stop before Paddington?

“According to normal workings, Taunton was the last stop,” was the reply, “and tickets were collected on the train any time after Taunton, but last night the train stopped at Reading, where a few passengers boarded it. It was the business of the Reading inspectors to collect these tickets, but . . .”

The “but” referred to the famous fog. The Western Section of British Railways had got its trains through somehow---all credit to those concerned, but . . . “Now you had a murderous assault almost under the nose of the police---and no blame attached to the man on the beat last night,” said the railway official, “and if some of our platform men didn’t spot every passenger who got a lift on a train not scheduled to stop, no blame to them either.”

Macdonald agreed wholeheartedly, took notes of some outgoing night trains, particularly the 9:50 p.m. to Penzance, via Bath, Bristol and Exeter, and then went to try his luck with platform and buffet staff and hotel porters. He asked questions because it was his job to ask questions, knowing beforehand what the answers would be. “What, last night? . . . Have a heart, mate,” to one plain “Don’t be funny. Last night? Last night was . . .”

Macdonald agreed.

In the canteen at C.O. (which to C.I.D. men means Scotland Yard) a middle-aged expert once attached to M.I.5. was having his grouse. “Talk about a hardy perennial, I thought I’d done with it in 1941. Then I thought I’d buried it in 1945 and cremated it in 1946.”

“A phoenix of a case,” put in Inspector Reeves.

“Phoenix? I tell you what it’s like---but you wouldn’t remember, you’re not old enough.” (This was an aside to Reeves.) The expert turned to Macdonald, who had just come in. “Jock, what was that 1914-18 war story, about some complaint for damage done by troops put in by a farmer in Flanders? The point was that they never got it settled and the case chased some poor devil of an adjutant round every section of the front, from Wipers to Verdun.”

The Crime at Vanderlynden’s, Mottram,” said Macdonald promptly. “I’ve still got it. ‘Une vierge esquintée’---a damaged virgin, as the interpreter had it. Don’t tell me you’ve got a similar complaint?”

“The only similarity is that they keep sending the flicking case back to me,” said the special-branch man. “What sort of people do they think we are? An American citizen, travelling in Europe on business, disappeared in 1941, before the Yanks got cracking. The folk in his home town---Denver, Colorado---said they had evidence he’d left the Continent for Great Britain at the end of February ’41, and he’d never been heard of again. Would we be so kind as to locate him? I ask you! What d’you remember about February and March 1941, Jock?”

“Plymouth, Bristol, Merseyside. Blitzes,” murmured Macdonald. “Particularly Plymouth, but all the ports got it. Sandwiched in between the fire blitz on the City of London and the fire blitz on Westminster later.”

“That was May 11,” put in somebody else, and the special-branch man went on:

“Well, the enquiry first came to me in March ’41: the U.S.A. Embassy asked for a particular enquiry: Charles Dorward, the bloke was called. Nobody had ever heard of him this side. If ever he got to England, it’s to be presumed he copped his packet as soon as he landed---if not before: the port approaches were being bombed to hell as well as the cities themselves. We did all we could, worried the landing authority and passport blokes silly---as though they hadn’t got enough to worry about already---and got the local men to check up on hotel registers, but all to no effect. So far as we could tell, the bloke had never got here. That was in 1941. In 1945 the U.S.A. swells got busy again. Could we do another checkup? It was a matter of inherited property, quite a sizeable fortune, and they wanted to determine the time of Dorward’s death, in case he’d predeceased so-and-so---or hadn’t predeceased him. I told the old man it was waste of time opening it up again, and he blethered about V.I.P.s and international relations and God knows what, so we did the routine stuff again and sent off a whale of a report, just to show we’d tried, though for all the use it was we might just as well have cabled ‘Nix.’ ”

“Look here, James,” said Macdonald: “as a matter of professional curiosity, is this inherited property and determining time of death a genuine reason, or an excuse for another of their famous witch-hunts?”

James chuckled---he was a saturnine-looking, weary-eyed fellow. “Search me, Jock. It’s not really my business to enquire, but human nature’s human nature. So far as I can make out, Dorward helped to get a few fugitives out of Germany, and he seems to have been associated with an Italian named Francesco Revari, who did his best along the same lines. But that’s all off the record. I was only asked to trace Dorward as an American citizen. If you’ll believe it they’ve started again: this trust money or whatever it is has moved into the area of litigation---quite a huroosh they’ve got going---and one of the witnesses who was in London in 1941 swears he got a telephone call from Dorward some time in March ’41. The call was cut off when the raiders came over, but the witness swears it was Dorward speaking, so Dorward must have been alive and in England at the time---and will we look into it again?”

“Quite an idea,” said Macdonald. “I don’t know what their judges swallow in the way of uncorroborated evidence, I know ours would spit it out fast enough---with apologies to their Lordships for the vulgar analogy. But it looks as though this case might keep you in clover until you’re due for a pension, James. There’s no end to the possibilities of enquiries.”

“Trace all exchange operators on duty in March ’41,” said James sardonically, but Reeves cut in:

“I call it plain silly. If you couldn’t trace the bloke in ’41, you certainly can’t trace him now. Tell them he copped a direct hit while telephoning and no traces of the incident remain.” Turning to Macdonald, he went on: “Got Waterloo identified yet, Chief?”

“No. I’ve got his person, so to speak---habeas corpus---and the nurses say he’s doing nicely, which may mean anything, but there’s not been any enquiry or report, and the blokes at Paddington said: ‘Don’t be silly,’ when I asked who they’d seen last night. Don’t blame them, either. So it looks as though we may be tooling round asking retailers to identify mass-produced flannel bags and plain tie. Etcetera.

“Not grumbling by any chance, are you?” demanded James. “If so, I’ll buy it. You take Charles Dorward while I get Waterloo identified. Your spot of trouble isn’t a dozen years overdue.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Macdonald. “I’d rather write reports---which is what yours boils down to---than roll round with a suitcase and get chatty with retailers. How many shops retail gents outfittings . . .”

“What a pity their ages don’t coincide,” said Reeves.

James, who followed this cryptic utterance, cocked an angular eyebrow. “Even if they did, Jock would steal my thunder,” he grumbled.

“Not him. I’d pinch it myself,” said Reeves.