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Chapter Four

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« on: November 21, 2023, 03:44:56 am »

“WELL---IT’S a starting point,” said Detective Inspector Reeves, “and that’s more than we might have hoped for, last night being what it was. . . .”

“ ‘Come thick night and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell . . .’ ” murmured Macdonald, but Reeves didn’t rise to the familiar quote. He was already staring out of the window as the train crawled dejectedly westwards through inspissated, sulphurous gloom. Macdonald, watching his younger colleague, knew that Reeves was chewing over the essentials of the evidence given by Sarah Dillon and the comments made by Dr. Garstang, which Macdonald had related. Reeves had a capacity for concentrating on reported evidence to the exclusion of everything else: he examined it bit by bit, rejecting what he thought irrelevant---or “fancy,” as he would have said, and eventually seizing on the bit which seemed to him essential. Dr. Garstang had picked out three key words: the mist, the moor, Princetown. Reeves had rejected these keys, or relegated them to the background. At the outset of a case Reeves was severely practical: his first reaction to the Paddington case was: “There’s a killer about. He didn’t pull it off this time, but he’ll try again. They always do.”

When he heard Macdonald’s précis of Sarah’s evidence, Reeves picked on one word---Reading---adding: “It’d be worth going there, just to see if any of the platform chaps can help. It’s the right direction, anyway.”

Macdonald had agreed. He knew that Reeves was well aware that further enquiries would be published and broadcast asking passengers who had travelled in the relevant part of the Penzance-Paddington train to report, but that there was bound to be a time lag before replies came in. Reeves, concentrating on the fact that the boy in the train had spoken to one of the men who boarded the train at Reading, considered that fact first priority, and Macdonald was of the same opinion, so to Reading they were travelling.

It was after half an hour of silence that Reeves began to talk. “All this psychologist’s stuff, Chief: isn’t it just trimmings at the moment? It always seems to me they talk round in circles and avoid the centre. Here’s a young chap comes to London and someone has a good bash at murdering him five minutes after he’s arrived. All this guff about claustrophobia and complexes caused by fog or smoke or what-have-you doesn’t do anything to suggest why somebody thought it important to put paid to him.”

Macdonald nodded. “True enough, but every chap has to apply his own type of shop to any problem that’s presented to him.”

“Seems too elaborate to me,” said Reeves. “I’d rather have the homely feet-on-the-ground judgment. The girl said the boy was a nice boy. I gather you thought the girl was a nice girl.”

“I did,” put in Macdonald, “without any reservations.”

“Noted. My guess is that the boy knew he’d got involved in something pretty murky and wasn’t too happy about it, and when he got talking to the girl he realised his project would seem just revolting to her, and he dithered around trying to see a way out and wondering if he dared ask her advice about it.” Reeves broke off, adding: “I know that interpretation would be dismissed as a hundred-per-cent sentimentality by the clevers. Sentiment---ugh!” He screwed up his lean, dark face and snorted, and then went on: “All the same, the young of today may talk all this sophisticated stuff, but fundamentally they’re just young---just what I was when I was green and twenty---and a nice girl can still have an upsetting effect on a boy who was once nice.”

“I think you’re right,” agreed Macdonald. “Sentimental or not, there’s common sense to me in the idea that the boy was worried, possibly in a blue funk, and would have given his head to confide in Sally Dillon, because she has just the quality of serenity and stability which would seem desirable to a boy in a mess. Well, that suggests that he knew he was in for trouble, but it doesn’t suggest the nature of the trouble.”

“Somebody thought it worth while to loot his pockets and then kill him,” said Reeves. “It wasn’t done merely to obtain what was in his pockets. The boy wasn’t just being employed to hand over stolen property or something of that kind.”

“Agreed,” said Macdonald. “To me the facts indicate that he could have given somebody away: he was a danger. So much a danger that somebody thought murder was a smaller risk than letting him live.”

Reeves nodded. “I know all this is just guessing,” he said, “but you’ve got to postulate some sort of theory to make the thing come alive: at least, I have. If I don’t think of the boy as a human being I can’t make sense of any of it. I can see a boy saying: ‘Look here, I’m through with all this. I’m not going on.’ ‘This’ may be anything from stolen property to toying with the Queen’s enemies----”

“Oh, more simply, going back on his gang,” said Macdonald. “When I started police work, gangsterism pertained to Chicago and blokes like Al Capone. But now the gang is well developed over here, and it’s worth remembering that the chap who defaults on his gang creates not one enemy but many. Well, here’s Huntley & Palmers---token of Reading town. We can but try our luck.”

Their luck was in---thanks to Sarah Dillon. The fact that she had been able to say so precisely in what part of the train she had travelled made all the difference to railwaymen who knew exactly how the long train had fitted the long platform. The restaurant car of the train in question had pulled up just in front of the subway exit at Reading, and at this exit two platform inspectors had been on duty, in addition to a senior official who had been patrolling the platform.

“We had a bit of trouble ourselves,” said the latter---an experienced old railway man named Barron. “Fog gives us worry enough, what with trains being cancelled and delayed, and, as you fellows know, fog’s reckoned as a godsend to the sneak thief.”

“We know that, all right,” agreed Macdonald sympathetically. The C.I.D. man knew that there were some witnesses whom it didn’t pay to hustle, and Barron was one of them. He’d got a story to tell and he’d tell it best in his own leisurely way.

“We’re always on the alert when there’s a bad fog, quite apart from the difficulties over arrivals and departures,” went on Barron. “On a night like last night, you could hardly clear a van or get mailbags or parcels on to the platform without being afraid some old tough or young hooligan was lurking unseen a couple o’ yards away, watching his chance. You see, we’d had a bit of a row at the end of Number One platform---a gang of rowdies, half drunk all of ’em, started up a free fight. I reckon they were some of the bookies’ hangers-on from the dog racing---we get some rough chaps in that line. But I’ve known a row of that kind put up to distract attention from the real doings, if you follow me.”

“I follow you,” said Macdonald. “Start a row to occupy the police and platform men so that some other member of the gang can get on with his business.”

“That’s it---steal unattended luggage, or force the shutters of a tobacco kiosk. Well, I wasn’t on Number One, but when I heard the shindy I alerted all our chaps on the upside. We’d been warned the West of England train was stopping here, and we were sending up London passengers by it, as the earlier London train had been cancelled. We checked tickets carefully at the barrier, but that’s no proof some of the rowdies didn’t cross the line at the far end of the platform. I’ve no proof they did, mark you, but seeing what happened your end, it’s only fair to tell you we had some rough characters on the station when that train halted.”

“Did you see anybody suspicious your side?”

“No---everything was quiet enough, but you couldn’t see anybody more’n a yard or so away from you. But I do know this: the restaurant car came to a stop with its rear-door level with the barrier, and several passengers boarded the coach immediately behind it. I can’t tell you anything about most of them, barring that they’d asked me time and again if there were any hope of a London train, but one gentleman I did know, and I reckon he travelled in the middle compartment of that coach you’re enquiring about.”

“Well, we’re in luck, then,” said Macdonald, “because it’s a great deal more than we could have hoped for.”

“And in addition to that, he’s a nice gentlemanly reliable chap,” added Barron. “I’ve known him by sight for years. Name of Weldon. He’s an engineer, or at least he’s concerned with an engineering business; radio parts, I believe: his works are just a bit back from the river, not far from the biscuit factory---Strand Lane, I think it is. He lives in London, but he travels up and down pretty often. The season-ticket office would give you his address.”

“Thanks very much. That’s a very valuable piece of assistance,” said Macdonald warmly.

Barron paused a moment and then went on: “Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ve told you he’s a reliable respectable man---but that’s not really what you’re out for, is it? What you want is a criminal type, one of the cosh boys. Maybe the chap you’ve got in hospital got nosy with one of these toughs who were kicking up a shindy on Number One last night---and I don’t see how Mr. Weldon can help you there. He’s the opposite of all that, a steady-going, hard-working gentleman, I’d say.”

“What we want at the beginning of a case like this is evidence we can rely on,” said Macdonald. “We haven’t got the injured boy identified yet, but I’m not worrying much about that. If he’s a country lad, as seems likely, it’s possible his folks don’t take a daily paper or pay much attention to the radio. It may be some days before we get him identified. But if he travelled on that train---and I’m pretty sure he did---what we want to know is what he did when he got out on the platform at Paddington. And that is what your Mr. Weldon may be able to tell us.”

“Wel---you never know. Maybe he did notice something,” said Barron, “though on a night like last night . . . Still, it’s no use harping on that. One thing I would say---if Mr. Weldon says he did see anything, then you can rely on it. He’s a reasonably sensible man. You notice things like that on the railway when you get to know regular passengers. If a man’s unreasonable, it’ll come out, complaining of this and that and exaggerating about trains running late and all the rest.”

“Yes. I see what you mean,” said Macdonald. “I’m very glad to have your opinion---and thanks very much for the trouble you’ve taken.”

Before he left Reading, Macdonald went and had a word with the local police, while Reeves nosed around the station, following his own line of investigation. The disturbance at the mainline station had been reported, but the elderly constable who reported it hadn’t taken it very seriously. Half a dozen louts, not drunk enough to be taken in charge but “boozed enough to be quarrelsome” had got restive because there seemed to be no chance of a train, and a row had broken out in which shoving and shouting were more prevalent than genuine fighting. When the constable intervened the bunch of rowdies had scattered: a couple of them had been turned off the station, and the others had disappeared down the subways and been heard of no more. The constable thought it quite likely that the row had been a put-up job, and that some other toughs had used it as a cover to reach the up-platforms by crossing the lines instead of going through the barrier, but on a night like last night, with a station the size of Reading, it was difficult to see what passengers had been doing.

The Reading police had not had much to report in the way of crime recently: thefts from cars and lorries---particularly the latter---had been their main concern. In this respect they believed that a gang was operating: clever young toughs, who had a selection of forged ignition keys or their equivalents, had observed the habits and movements of the regular lorry drivers: the lorries were moved while the drivers were having a meal or were otherwise occupied, and having been driven a few miles off, the vehicles were abandoned again after some part of their cargo had been removed, presumably to a waiting car (this was a familiar nuisance to the police in all large industrial towns). But there had been very few crimes of violence of late.

Macdonald asked if the police had any reason to believe that the railway was used by the operators of these rackets: the reply was that the police believed the gang were not local thieves: that while several men co-operated in spotting and reporting on movements of vehicles, it was probable that some of them did use the railway, especially as Reading Station had an unrivalled variety of routes at the disposal of men who wanted a choice of getaways.

“We shall get ’em sooner or later,” said the philosophic inspector. “What we really want to do is to get the chaps who’re organising the business, not merely the tough who moves the lorry. In my belief there’s a number of youngsters employed to shift the stuff, and there must be a depot somewhere or other where the loot’s stored. All the same, I doubt if our bit of bother connects up with your case, because there’s been no violence involved at our end. Your job’s quite a different cup of tea.”

Macdonald met Reeves again at Reading Station. The latter establishment had few enthusiasts to sing its praises, but Reeves had enjoyed his tour with the railway men.

“What a place to play hide-and-seek in,” grinned Reeves, “and how my youngest nipper would have enjoyed it. On a night like last night, when all traffic was running dead slow, you could have done more or less what you liked about crossing the permanent way, and getting free rides, too, for that matter.”

“Glad you enjoyed it,” said Macdonald. “It’s back to London for both of us, hoping that Mr. Weldon is as observant as he’s respectable. There’s a restaurant car on the next up train, so we can get some tea to wash the fog down. It’s thickening up again, ready for the rush hour.”

“Where does the bloke hang out?’ asked Reeves.

“Lancaster Gate Crescent.”

“That’s convenient of him: might have been Epping or Epsom or Weybridge or Walthamstow,” said Reeves. “I don’t generally quarrel with London, but weather like this makes you realise how far away one place in London can be from another place in London.”

Their train toiled slowly back through the thickening murk of the Thames valley and British Railways provided hot toast and thick slabs of fruitcake to two detectives who had both picked up more ideas in Reading than that town usually provides. It was true that they had spent a deplorable amount of the working day in fogbound trains, but neither considered the time wasted. To Macdonald’s amusement Reeves immersed himself in a dog-racing manual, studying form and wins and owners with his usual concentration, and occasionally studying entries in his own pocketbook.

“Working up the patter?” enquired Macdonald.

Reeves nodded. “It may be a mug’s game, but I’d be an outsize in mugs if I weighed in without a spot of knowledge. You never know when you may need to put on an act.”

“Have British Railways been priming you?” asked Macdonald.

“Well, I got chatting with some of them---and I thought I’d improve my mind,” he responded, his lively grin suggesting that he had an idea of his own.

It was just after six o’clock that they arrived at Lancaster Gate Crescent, a curving terrace of Regency houses hidden away behind the loftier buildings adjoining the Bayswater road. Number thirteen, where Mr. Weldon lived, announced “Service Chambers,” that more stylish variation on “American Flatlets” of the interwar period.

Mr. Weldon, whose chambers were on the ground floor, opened his front door himself and stood looking at them with an expression of rather weary enquiry. Macdonald thought at once how Weldon fitted Sally Dillon’s description: he looked a businessman, his clothes were good but not smart, his age around fifty, his figure heavy but not obese, his face sleepy but not unintelligent.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. We are C.I.D. officers, investigating a case of assault. Can you spare us a few moments?”

“Come in, officers, come in,” replied Weldon at once. He had a deep voice, pleasant in quality, and his intonation expressed the least degree of irritation, as well as sleepiness.

He led them through a tiny lobby to a big comfortable sitting room, warm and quiet, where central heating and a good open fire had done something to dispel the prevailing fog.

“Filthy day,” he growled. “I tell you straight I was asleep in my chair when you rang the bell---fed up, like several million other Londoners. Sit down, both of you. What’s the trouble?”

“You’ve probably read in your daily paper of a casualty at Paddington Station last evening,” began Macdonald.

Weldon waved a hand towards an unopened copy of the Times. “I haven’t even opened my paper today: it wasn’t delivered when I went out---you can’t blame anybody for anything in weather like this. I’ve spent most of today driving out to an inaccessible factory near Luton, and when I came in I had a drink and went to sleep. So you’ll have to tell me anything I ought to know. It’s true I was at Paddington yesterday evening, if that’s any help to you, though how you fellows knew I was there I don’t quite see.”

“Our enquiries took us to Reading, sir, where one of the platform inspectors gave us your name,” replied Macdonald. “The facts are as follows: a young man, severely injured about the head, was found in Paddington Station last night. Evidence leads us to believe that he travelled on the West of England train which arrived at Paddington about nine o’clock. This train stopped at Reading----”

“Quite correct. I travelled from Reading on it myself,” said Weldon.

“Can you tell us what part of the train you travelled in?”

“I can. In the coach immediately behind the restaurant car, about the middle of the coach.”

“Have you any recollection of the other passengers in your compartment?”

Weldon sighed. “My God, what a question! I can’t tell you quite why---probably the infernal fog---but that journey last night seems to have invested itself with a sort of nightmare quality. I was dog-tired, for one thing, and the fog had an unreasonable element in it. Too much of a bad joke altogether. I’d had a long day at the works---I’m an engineer by trade and I’m a director of a small works in Reading. I’d hung around God knows how long in that qualified fog waiting for a train, and I was more asleep than awake. But I expect I can rake up a few facts if you’ll let me worry away at it at my own pace and not expect me to trot it out pat. Incidentally---you know my name. I don’t know yours.”

“My name’s Macdonald---Chief Inspector. My colleague’s named Reeves.”

“Thanks. I like to know who I’m talking to. Cigarette? Might as well be as comfortable as we can. Now about the people in that compartment. There were three when I got in---I do know that because I went for the remaining corner seat, facing the engine. Opposite me was a stoutish, middle-aged woman: odd-looking party, mannish rather than feminine in effect. On the same side as her there was a boy, and there was a girl in the corner opposite to him. As I got in, another chap followed me. I remember him the most clearly. He was a bad ’un. Can’t tell you how I knew it, but know it I did.” He paused a moment. “You say you’ve been at Reading, so I take it you know there was a bit of a rumpus on the station---free fight, or something.”

“Yes. We heard about it.”

“Well, I’m up and down that line pretty frequently and I know there are a few toughs who come up and down. Racing touts, some concerned with the Newbury course, some with the dogs at Reading. I’ve no interest in gambling of any kind. I believe it’s true that the dog-racing business is honestly run, by and large, like horse racing, but there’s always some hangers-on, twisters, and so forth.” Here he yawned, a wide face-splitting yawn, and apologised hastily. “Sorry---but it’s the damned weather. Look here, I’m wandering on. Stop me if I’m off the point.”

“Not at all. I want you to go on. You’re being very helpful,” said Macdonald.

“Well, you know your own business best. When this doubtful customer took a seat beside me, the first thing I thought was that my wallet was in an inside pocket, my top coat was buttoned up, and my attaché case had nothing of value in. I’m not the only mug who’s had his pocket picked in the train.” He rubbed his greying hair and went on slowly: “I can’t even tell you if I’d seen the bloke before or whether it was his type I recognised. And he’d got some pals on the train. I saw one of ’em peering in from the corridor---signalling, perhaps. I don’t know. Perhaps it was the fog, and being dog-tired, and the row at Reading and I was imagining things. Anyway, take it or leave it---the chap beside me was a bad hat if my judgment’s worth anything.”

“Did he speak to, or take any notice of anybody else in the compartment?”

Weldon sat and pondered. “I’m not certain. The girl got up and went along the corridor. She was gone quite a time. I was sitting with my eyes shut---my head ached. I sat up once because I thought someone spoke to me. It was the young chap in the far corner, saying something to the chiser---not to me, but the lout beside me didn’t answer.”

“Can you remember what the young chap said?”

“No. I can’t. Asked for a light probably. I didn’t really hear.” He broke off, his square face worried. “Look here, I’ve told you I was whacked to the world. I’d taken a dislike to the blighter beside me, I was fed up and irritable, and if I told you I’d heard what was said I should be making it up. To the best of my recollection I heard the word ‘camp,’ as though the one chap was claiming acquaintance with a service pal---but I don’t really remember and I didn’t really hear. If it hadn’t been that I distrusted my next-door neighbour I shouldn’t have noticed it, but the younger chap looked honest---though a bit lacking.”

“When you got to Paddington, did you notice what happened to either of the young men?”

“They passed me on the platform. The stout dame got out first: then myself. The chiser followed me. I turned round because I didn’t trust him immediately behind me, and I saw his pal closing up, the older chap who’d been in the corridor and stared in at us. So far as I can remember this pair and the young chap hurried off in a bunch. I wasn’t doing any hurrying. I lost sight of them before I’d gone a few yards.” He threw his cigarette end in the fire and reached out for another smoke. “Look here, Chief Inspector, I’ve been trying to answer your questions truthfully, and you may think I’ve spun you a yarn that’s a bit over-coloured. You’ve got to remember this damned fog’s got on everybody’s nerves, including mine. It’s made the day’s work harder and longer, and when you get the hell of a journey at the end of it you get unreasonable. I’ve told you one of these chaps was a bad hat and one looked less than a hundred per cent and they went off up the platform at the double. Well, just divide all that by half and maybe you’ll be nearer a fair estimate.”

“Well, sir, checking your evidence by evidence previously received, it sounds to me as though you’re being pretty accurate. I agree with you that the fog had been so poisonous all day that everybody was affected by it more or less, and I understand what you mean when you say that the journey had a nightmare quality----”

“Very sympathetic of you. Chief Inspector. I’d hardly have blamed you if you thought I was a bit weak in the upper story myself, blethering about nightmares and bad hats. And now, for the love of Mike, tell me what all this is leading up to. I realise it’s your business to ask questions and mine to answer them, but even a patient chap like me wants to know the reason he’s being interrogated. Who was it got laid out---and where?”

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