THE HOUSE OF GODWINSSON
BOBBY OWEN STOOD for a time in silence, looking down thoughtfully at the dead man’s face. A small, insignificant face, lacking even that touch of repose and dignity which death, even violent death, so often gives, and one that Bobby had never seen before. Of that at least he was sure.
“Age about forty or a little under,” said the doctor. Then he added: “Well nourished. Took care of himself. First-class condition. Not like most of those we get about here. Hard muscles and all that.”
The speaker was the house physician in this small London hospital in whose mortuary they were standing. On hearing of Bobby’s arrival, and because he was still young and believed that the life of a highly placed official at Scotland Yard must be full of the colour and variety so sadly lacking, in his opinion, in that of a house physician, he had himself conducted Bobby to the mortuary, instead of leaving it to the attendant. He had been hoping to hear strange tales of crime and mystery, but he had not found Bobby very responsive. In fact, he had already classified Bobby as a rather dull, routine-ridden official. Nearly as much so, he considered, as his own seniors at the hospital.
In happy ignorance of this unfavourable verdict, Bobby was still staring at the quiet, dead face, wondering what answer those silent lips would have given to the questions that could never now be asked. A typical ‘little man’, to all appearance, insignificant and ordinary, one of those whom cartoonists today delight to depict, complete with bowler hat, umbrella, dispatch-case, for the gratification and delight of other ‘little men’, who do not so see themselves, since they are so well aware—and rightly—of their own immense significance. But about this man there was nothing in his outward appearance to distinguish him from any of those many millions who go daily to and fro about their business in the great cities of the world.
Yet there had been found in his pockets a careful, accurate, and detailed plan, correct to the last item, showing even the posi-tion of each piece of furniture, of Bobby’s own flat in a West-End London square, now less fashionable than once it had been. This flat had recently been obtained for him under what is at present called ‘top priority’ when his tenancy of the country cottage where he and Olive, his wife, had hoped to settle down had been terminated by untoward circumstances. Olive still at times lamented that lost country garden from which she had hoped to obtain fruit galore—rare and refreshing fruit, as fruit is in very truth in these days. Bobby’s own regrets, however, were less poignant. He had found reason to fear that he suffered from a weak back, one that much bending, as for instance, when planting out cabbages, might injure permanently. Olive had been less sympathetic than good, kind wives should be, nor had her suggestion of a mustard plaster and plenty of them been received with any favour. But she admitted that a flat in town had its advantages, and of course to obtain possession of one did mark them out as among fortune’s favourites. Fallen human nature always finds it pleasant to be conducted to the head of the queue.
It was the report of the discovery of this plan that had made Bobby leave his work at Scotland Yard—and there was plenty of it, for a fresh crime wave was in full vigour, with a new, and im-portant jewel robbery reported almost every week—to see if he could identify the dead man in whose possession the plan had been found. He had already seen and examined it, and he was puzzled. Great trouble and much care and thought must have been involved in its preparation. But generally speaking plans of that sort are prepared only when there is some specially valuable loot in sight—such as for example the jewels of the Duchess of Wharton, whose famous diamonds and rubies had recently vanished without trace. Nor had either duke or duchess been slow in expressing their opinion of a police unable either to prevent such a robbery or re-cover the lost jewellery. Yet very certainly in Bobby’s flat there was nothing of any outstanding value. Nothing to tempt the experts who had given the Wharton duke and duchess such a display of skill in planning and knowledge of jewellery, even though that demonstration had been received with small gratitude.
It might just possibly be bravado, Bobby supposed. The idea of burgling the home of a prominent Scotland Yard man might have been found amusing. It might have seemed a bit of fun. But crime is too serious a business for the idea of fun to enter into it. Too healthy an idea, perhaps, for the twisted mind of the criminal. Or again the idea might have been to discredit Bobby, whose appointment to the Yard was comparatively recent. But that seemed too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Or defiance? A challenge? But who could associate defiance or bravado with that insignificant, commonplace-looking little man to whom even death had failed so entirely to lend dignity or meaning?
There had been nothing else on the body of much interest. An identity card made out in the name of Joseph Parsons and already known to have been lost by the genuine Mr. Parsons some time previously, a small sum in notes and change—about £10 in all—keys, a pen-knife, and so on. Some of these things had been sent to experts for further examination. It had been noticed, too, that while the outer clothing was old, shabby, and as inconspicuous as its wearer, the undergarments were new and of fine quality, silk and wool; most certainly not what might have been expected.
Nothing, however, to give any clue to identity. No laundry marks, for example. A hanger-on of the underworld, Bobby sup-posed, a dabbler on the fringe of criminality. A ‘spiv’, to use the new word momentarily popular. Possibly this time one who had dabbled a little too deeply and had paid the penalty. It might be that his possession of a plan so clearly the work of an expert hand meant that he had been acting as a messenger between the expert and the expert’s employer, and had tried to double-cross one or other.
The house physician was growing a trifle bored by Bobby’s si-lence. He said now:
“Common little East-End type, except that he took care of himself. Most of them are riddled through and through with drink and disease. This chap had good teeth, even. Cleaned them, evidently. Quite rare.”
“He never recovered consciousness, did he?” Bobby asked.
“No. Whoever shot him knew where to put the bullet. Passed out within ten minutes of admittance. Only thing was that while the nurse was trying to dress his wound he opened his eyes and said: ‘Don’t do that, dad,’ and next moment he was dead. Like that. Unusual. I mean dying chaps do sometimes talk about their mothers, call the nurse ‘mum’—that sort of thing. But not about their fathers. I expect he was an orphan and his dad brought him up—and gave him a good thrashing at times. Eh?”
Obviously the house physician was a trifle pleased with this exercise in deduction. He looked at Bobby to see what the Scotland Yard man thought of it. Bobby said very likely that was how it was. The house physician glanced at his wrist watch and said he must be off. Matron would be on his track if he didn’t look out. He departed accordingly, confiding to the sister who had been searching for him everywhere that he didn’t think much of the Scotland Yard johnny, who didn’t seem to have anything to say for himself. Nor had he been gone more than a minute or two, and Bobby was on the point of following his example, when the door opened and there appeared the mortuary attendant, accompanied by a big, burly man of middle age.
“Beg pardon, sir. I didn’t know any one was here,” the attendant said. “Gentleman for identification,” he explained.
Bobby was looking at the attendant’s companion.
“Stokes, isn’t it?” Bobby said. “Tim Stokes, I think?”
“That’s right, Mr. Owen,” the other answered, looking a little uncomfortable.
For he and Bobby knew each other well. One of the very first duties Bobby had been called upon to perform after his acceptance of the Scotland Yard appointment had been to sit on a disciplinary board before which had appeared Mr. Stokes, then a station ser-geant in the double X division. Sergeant Stokes had clearly been guilty of gross neglect of duty; but there was little to substantiate the more serious suspicion that for some time he had been working with a criminal gang, giving them information of police procedure and plans. This he had strenuously denied, and all that could be done was to dismiss him from the Force for his proved negligence. Since then little had been heard of him, but Bobby had seen one report to the effect that ex-sergeant Stokes had been noticed on several occasions loitering near the Canon Square car park, whence rather too many cars had vanished, even though nearly all had been quickly recovered. It had almost begun to seem that this car park was being made use of as a handy spot where to find a car when any rogue happened to have need of one. Finally the car attendant had been changed, and as a result cars appeared now to be more inclined to stay put. Nothing to implicate Mr. Stokes, though.
The attendant drew back the sheet Bobby had replaced to cover the dead man’s face. Stokes said slowly:
“That’s him right enough. Poor old Joey. Never thought he would end up that way.”
“Known him long?” Bobby asked.
Still speaking slowly, even too slowly, Stokes answered:
“I don’t know as you could rightly call it knowing him. I used to see him at ‘The Green Dragon’. That’s the house I use pretty regular, and so did he. We got chatting. About the dogs generally. He was interested, and so was I. He knew a lot. Tipped me off on a good thing more than once. That’s all.”
“I think not,” Bobby said, and Stokes looked hurt. Bobby went on: “Any idea who did this? Or why?”
“I wish I had,” Stokes answered; and this time not slowly at all but with an emphasis and vigour that at least sounded genuine, sounded, indeed, as if inspired by real feeling. “Joey was always straight with you, always ready to do you a good turn.” He looked again at Bobby and spoke with the same emphasis as before: “If I knew anything to help you spot who did him in, I would tell you quick as you like. And so would others, too. One of the best. But I don’t, Mr. Owen, sir, and that’s gospel.”
Bobby was not sure whether to believe this or not. Stokes seemed really moved. But, then, that made it all the more difficult to believe that his acquaintance with the dead man had been as casual as he pretended. Strange, too, that he had heard so quickly of what had happened and come so promptly, to identify the victim. But for the accident of Bobby’s presence, would that identifi-cation have been made, or would Stokes have slipped away, satisfying himself, but saying nothing? Stokes was speaking again.
“It’s a bad business. I don’t hold with murder. So I don’t. You can believe me, Mr. Owen. If I get to know anything, I’ll pass it on O.K.” Again there seemed real feeling in his voice. “Poor old Joe,” he said once more.
“If you feel like that,” Bobby asked quietly, “why not tell us all you really know?”
“So I have,” Stokes asserted, and, as if to avoid saying more went to help the attendant rearrange the sheet covering the dead man. “Narrow squeak that first time,” he remarked. “Must have meant it all right to shoot again. Wonder why any one had it in for him so bad as that?”
“How do you mean—narrow squeak the first time?” Bobby asked.
“Well, it looks like it, don’t it?” Stokes said, and pointed to a small abrasion just above the top of the left ear where certainly, now it was pointed out, it seemed as if a bullet had grazed the head.
Bobby stooped to look, frowning and puzzled. When he looked up again Stokes had slipped away. The attendant said:
“If you ask me, guv., that bloke knows more’n he wants to say.”
Bobby nodded an absent-minded agreement and departed. He did not feel over-confident that the help Stokes promised would ever be received. The contrary, perhaps. But he decided that he would ’phone the D.D.I.—the Divisional Detective Inspector—and suggest that Mr. Stokes should be kept under observation.