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by David Hume







The policeman never knew what hit him. It couldn’t have been anything much smaller than the dome of St. Paul’s. All he had was an outsize head full of nothing but pain.

He tried to twist his head. As it fell back to the pavement his lips parted, the sound he made was midway between a groan and a squeal. The sharp edge of the kerb was digging into his neck. He passed a quivering hand across his forehead, found that he was missing something. After a few seconds painful thought he discovered that his helmet was no longer with him. Still, he was in no mood to worry about such trifles. It just meant nothing in his muddled life.

In some distant way he wondered what the time might be, decided that it just didn’t matter in any case. Time doesn’t mean very much when your head feels like a cross between the retreat from Mons, and a bag full of pain. So he groaned again, turned round on the wet pavement, and waited to see what was going to happen next. Not that that mattered very much either.

At odd intervals he wiped his rain soddened face with the back of his hand. He felt very grateful about the rain. In some way it slowed down the action of the trip hammer that was swinging around inside his head. The constant thump, thump made his world spin round.

The side of his face felt stiff, almost as though it had been parked for a few hours in a refrigerator. The feeling could not have been caused entirely by the cold. That wouldn’t account for the dull, constant ache, or for the feeling that his right eye was too big for the socket. He had other troubles, too. Warm blood was dribbling into his mouth, and his bottom lip felt the size of something exported from the Congo Basin. It was all very bewildering.

At last he struggled to raise his body so that he could sit on the kerb. Banners of colour careered before him like a crazy rainbow. The hammer inside his head surrendered to a new arrival, and a joy-wheel with serrated edges cut ribbons of pain in his head. He felt sick.

There were intervals of seconds when he felt partly conscious, almost human. But they didn’t last for long enough. Each time his brain groped through a mist, glimpsed daylight, and faded back into the night again. Yet the darkness in his head made no difference to the movement of the circular saw, didn’t dull the lacerating points, or still the spin. He couldn’t quite make up his mind whether he was dead or mad.

Things, he was sure, would improve if the pavement would stop moving. The constant sway, the weave of waves, made him feel more and more sick, increased the burden of weight suspended from what he supposed was his neck. It seemed impossible that one small neck could support the entire globe without breaking under the strain.

He turned so that he crouched on hands and knees. That didn’t improve matters. The pain remained with him, the sickness grew worse, and his witless head swung like a pendulum. He wasn’t sure what he intended to do. So he lurched to his feet, spun once on his heels, and slumped to the pavement again with a crash. After that he did not do any more thinking for quite a long time. . . .

It took him some considerable time to realise that somebody was shaking his shoulder. Why they should be pulling and pushing him he didn’t know, and didn’t care. A light glared before his eyes. At least the left eye blinked fractionally. The right one was closed. A distant voice sounded in his ear:

“What on earth has happened to you, officer? What’s the matter?”

The policeman wondered what the person meant. It was all beyond him. The questions were repeated. He didn’t want to listen to any more. The only important things were either to die, or sleep—and he didn’t care very much which it was. His head was gently lowered to the pavement. He was alone again. That made him feel happier. He just didn’t want folks to drift around bothering him. But he wasn’t left alone for very long. He sobbed as he was raised from the pavement. The movement started a million pains dancing in his head. That didn’t last for very long. A blanket of darkness swathed his brain again. He passed out entirely.

When the ambulance pulled up outside the Royal Hospital a Chelsea Divisional Detective Inspector and a sergeant were waiting for it. They took one glance at the constable as he was carried into the emergency ward. The inspector sighed, shrugged his shoulders.

“It’ll be a helluva while before he can tell us anything,” he said.

“Only thing we can do is sit down and wait. If they haven’t got to operate, I’ll take my pew at the bedside if you like.”

“We’ll both stay there until he comes round. A damned funny mess.”

“Wait a minute. I think this is the bloke who rang for the ambulance.”

A small, wizened man hovered round the doorway. He played restlessly with a large handkerchief, folding it, unfolding it, screwing it into a ball, straightening it out again. A long overcoat hung loosely from his thin shoulders, wisps of white hair showed round the edges of an old bowler hat, the uncreased trousers cascaded in rolls over his boots. The face was long and narrow, heavily seamed, the nose was singularly pointed, the lips tremulous. Little could be seen of the eyes. They were screened by long, straggling lashes. Every few seconds he looked towards the detectives, seemed anxious to attract their attention.

The inspector walked over to him. The old man shuffled his feet.

“Are you the person who found the constable?” he inquired.

“I am, sir.” The voice was weak and wavering. “It is a most awful affair. What on earth do you suppose could have happened to the poor man?”

“That’s just what I want to know. At the moment you seem to be the only person who can tell us anything. Mind making a statement?”

“Dear me, of course not! There isn’t very much I can say that would help you, sir. I only wish I could do more for you. It is all so very very dreadful. I really am at a loss—”

“I don’t want to butt in,” said the inspector, “but all I want to hear from you at the moment is what you know about the accident. Go ahead.”

“Accident, sir? I do hope and trust that you are right. I feared that some act of violence had been committed. Perhaps, though, you are right.”

“We can consider that after we’ve had your story. Make a start.”

“I can easily tell you all I know. As I said, I do earnestly wish that I was in a position to give you more—”

“Please, please,” said the inspector, “tell us what you do know.”

“Certainly, sir. It is very simple. Almost tragically simple, sir.”

The old man dabbed his eyes with the much crumpled handkerchief. The detectives moved their feet restively. This was beyond a joke.

“I was walking along the side streets between Fulham Road and Old Brompton Road, sir. When I was getting near The Boltons I suddenly turned a corner, and saw the poor constable lying unconscious on the pavement. It gave me a most frightful shock. It was such a dreadful sight. At first I didn’t know what to do. I raised his head, tried to find out what had happened. Either he was still unconscious, or he could not understand me. He just couldn’t say anything. I stayed with him for two or three minutes.

“Then I knew that I could do nothing for him, and I began to think that the poor officer’s life might even be in danger while I was standing there. I didn’t like leaving him at all. You can understand that quite well, can’t you, sir? But I just could not help myself. So I hurried away until I found a public telephone box. Immediately I gave the information to the Royal Hospital, asked them to send some vehicle instantly. I told them, of course, where they would find the constable. I thought it very important to communicate with the police. So I put through a call to tell you what I had discovered, and what I had done. As soon as I had done that I hastened back to the officer. Just as I arrived by his side the ambulance came.

“I thought it likely that you would wait at the hospital until he was brought in, and I knew that you would naturally be requiring a statement from me. I spoke to the ambulance men about it, and they suggested that I should travel back with them. I am here, and I fear that is all I can tell you about it. I feel so upset, sir, really I do. How that poor man must have suffered before he was found.”

The old man’s lips quivered, and he turned his head away as he stroked his eyes with the handkerchief. Tears were on his cheeks.

The inspector hesitated for a time. Ideas were occurring to him.

“Just as a formality,” he said, “I’d better have your name, address, and a few personal details. We may be needing to see you again.”

“Most certainly, sir. I am Ernest Walton of Madeira Avenue, Streatham.”

The old man waited while the sergeant wrote down the details. Tears still welled in his eyes, the lips still trembled.

“I am just a nobody with small independent means,” he added. “I live with my wife, my son, and two daughters. That’s all I can tell you.”

“Not quite,” said the inspector, glancing at the clock on the wall. “It is now twenty minutes past two in the morning. You must have found the constable shortly before two o’clock. You are a gentleman of means, and you’re some six or seven miles from home. How did that happen?”

“Unfortunately for me, sir, the answer is only too easy. I have been receiving medical treatment for the past ten years. I suffer terribly from insomnia. I have tried everything to cure it, and can’t. At night I get so weary of being in bed that I prefer to walk around until I feel tired. The doctor told me that I wouldn’t find it so tiring as tossing and turning in the bed. That explains why I was so far away from home at such an hour. Such a thing is not unusual for me, sir. It probably happens three or four nights each week.”

“You have my sympathy, Mr. Walton. It must be very exhausting. It seems very, very fortunate that your walk took you near The Boltons.”

“Indeed it does, sir. I can still see that poor man’s face.”

“Don’t let it upset you unduly, Mr. Walton. When I’ve had a word with the house surgeon looking after the officer I want you to take us to the spot where you found the man. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind?”

“Goodness gracious, sir! Of course, I wouldn’t mind. I’ll do anything.”

“Wait here,” said the inspector to the sergeant. “I’ll see whether we can get anything at this end before we take a look around.”

As he reached the end of the passage the door opened, and a nurse paced forward to meet him.

“Please come through this way immediately, officer,” she said. “He is partly conscious, but we’re taking him into the theatre in a minute.”

The inspector hastened after her. Two nurses stood by the side of the constable’s bed. A young house surgeon held his wrist. The policeman was unconscious. The inspector looked at the still form.

“He’s just gone off again,” said the doctor. “There is nothing he can tell you for some time. Three or four times he has repeated the same thing. That’s why I sent for you. I thought maybe he could tell you more before I took him to the theatre. That’s hopeless now. I’m sorry.”

“And what was the sentence he repeated two or three times?”

“He just mumbled ‘It was at Grimmett’s place.’ I asked him what he meant. He repeated the same sentence twice, and then passed out again.”

“H’m. I think I understand. Thanks very much, doctor. I know you’ll do the best you can for him. I’ll be back in an hour or two. Tell me, is the trouble very serious?”

“I am fairly certain the skull is fractured. But I’ll know more about it when I’ve had him on the table for a full examination. There are other injuries, but I don’t think they amount to very much.”

“I hope you’re right. All right, doctor. If he makes any statement of any sort please leave a message for me if you leave before I return.”

“Surely, I will, inspector. Anything you want to know before you go?”

“Plenty. Still, I can wait for most of it. What caused the injury?”

“Difficult to say. I’d say some hard instrument —iron bar, truncheon, a brick, lead piping. Any of those would fit into the picture.”

“Thanks again. Looks as though somebody is going to find trouble.”

The inspector hurried from the ward. Outside he beckoned to the sergeant, drew him away from the miserable Ernest Walton.

“I’m beginning to see daylight,” he said. “Some tough did a busting job at Wayne Grimmett’s place. You know his house in The Boltons? Well, the constable found the man getting away with the proceeds, stopped him, and took a slug on the head that put him out of the party. First of all we’ll take a glance at the place where he was crowned. Then we’ll knock them up at Grimmett’s house, and find out just what happened.”

“Wayne Grimmett?” The sergeant frowned, eyed his superior curiously.

The inspector nodded as he caught the glance. He knew only too well what the sergeant meant. He merely repeated: “Yes, Mr. Wayne Grimmett.

“I’m ready now, Mr. Walton,” he said, “for you to escort us. We have a police car outside. Are you ready? We don’t want to waste time.”

“Indeed we do not. I am entirely at your disposal. Anything in any way that I can do to help you will be done.”

“Kind of you. We’ll start moving. Come along.”

Within five minutes the car pulled to a stop. Walton clambered out. He pointed to the pavement four or five yards away, announced:

“That is exactly where I found the wounded officer. He was lying across the pavement with his head in the gutter. I thought he was dead.”

The detectives flashed their torches, made a rapid examination of the scene. In the gutter lay a mud-stained helmet. On the edge of the pavement were fragments of broken glass—obviously from the lamp of the stricken officer. But no weapon was in sight.

They searched for a couple of minutes for traces of a struggle. They found none. And no weapon could be seen. The steady downpour of rain obliterated marks.

“Looks like a complete dead end,” said the inspector. He turned to Mr. Walton: “I don’t think there is any further need for you to remain with us. Naturally, we will be calling on you again. At the moment, though, I can’t see any way in which you can give us assistance. That being so it might be as well for you to get towards your home. I hope your insomnia will have vanished by the time you arrive there. Thanks very much for what you have done. We very much appreciate it.”

“Please don’t thank me, gentlemen. What else could one do? I am more upset about the poor constable than I can tell you. That is true.”

He bit his top lip as moisture filled his eyes again. As though ashamed to advertise such emotion he turned quickly on his heel, strode rapidly into the darkness.

“Queer bloke,” said the sergeant. “I wouldn’t like to be so touchy.”

“Nor me. Well, there’s nothing here to keep us. The whole facts must turn round Wayne Grimmett’s place. That’s where we’ll put our mitts on the real break. Let’s get around there right away.” He turned to the driver of the car: “You can leave the bus here, and wait for us. We’re only going fifty yards round the corner. Just stay put.”

They were not silent for long as they paced the pavement. Immediately they turned the corner the inspector gripped his colleague’s arm.

“This whole lay-out is screwy,” he said. “It is quarter to three, and all the ground-floor lights at Grimmett’s place are turned on. Yet the man insists on retiring early. He’s told me so many a time. Don’t be in too much of a hurry, and keep your eyes peeled. I’m thinking things.”

“So am I. And that’s no change. I’ve been thinking about Grimmett for the last five years. This is going to be an amusing interview.”

The inspector used his torch as they advanced through the small, front garden. He was noticing the footprints on the wet drive. Then he noticed something else, something much more important. A few yards away from the door a rubber glove lay at the side of the drive. It shrieked its own story to the housetops. Some person with no desire to leave their “dabs” behind had been paying Wayne Grimmett a late call. The inspector slid it into his pocket, pressed the door-bell. They waited impatiently for the butler to answer their call. Another surprise was coming to them. The door swung back, and Wayne Grimmett, swathed in a brocade dressing-gown, stood looking at them.

The man was quivering from the top of his bald head to the soles of his slippered feet. Saliva slobbered from one side of his partly-open mouth. His eyes were glassy, staringly wide. The hand on the door shook with an ague tremble. He started to speak, spluttered, said nothing.

“I’ve got an idea that you’ve had some trouble to-night,” said the inspector. “Tell me, what exactly has been happening here?”

“Nothing, nothing whatever,” stammered the man. “You are quite wrong.”

“Mr. Grimmett, I am quite certain that I am not wrong. What is it?”

“It is a mistake. It must be. What could be wrong? It is a mistake.”

“I think not. I have an idea there’s been a burglary here to-night.”

“A burglary? Here? To-night? That—that just couldn’t be possible.”

“It could be very probable. All your lights are on. You’re wondering what the burglar has got away with. That’s what you’ve been searching for. All right, Mr. Grimmett, just tell me—what have you missed?”

The surprises of the night seemed endless. The inspector moved into the hall in time to catch Wayne Grimmett. The tails of the brocade dressing-gown were fluttering as he faded out in a faint!


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