Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #Petrella At Q
“Wonderful, isn’t it,” said the driver of the lorry. Right in front of the entrance to the hoist a private car was parked.
Mr. Fawke glared at it. It was not only obstructing the doors of the hoist. It was blocking the narrow width of Tunstal Passage and so preventing the lorry from backing down it.
“I suppose it’s locked.”
The car, which was a newish dark blue four-door Austin saloon, was securely locked.
“You’ve got keys and things, haven’t you?” said Mr. Fawke to the police driver. “You use them to drive away parked cars.”
“I haven’t got anything with me, not personally,” said the driver.
“What about a break-down van? There’s one at Simmons Garage.”
“The thing is, are you entitled to move it?”
“For God’s sake! It’s blocking my own hoist.”
“We got twenty cars behind us now,” said the driver of the lorry helpfully.
“Must you use your hoist?” said the constable. “What about taking it in the front entrance?”
“And up two flights of stairs?” said Mr. Fawke. “Talk sense.”
Down Jamaica Road horns were beginning to sound in the mist.
“Must do something,” said the constable. “If you can’t get it in, you’ll have to move on.”
One of the men said, “What we might do, is lift the car up with the hoist. Then we could swing it out of the way, see.”
Mr. Fawke said, “Good idea. Let’s try it. And if it hurts the car, it serves the owner bloody well right for leaving it in such a bloody stupid place. Fix the hook on the front bumper, Jim.”
“I don’t know as you ought,” began the constable.
A figure was approaching up the passage.
“Some trouble here?” said the newcomer pleasantly. “Oh, my car in the way? If you’ll ask your man to clear the entrance I’ll back it out. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry to have been a nuisance. Urgent call.”
They saw now that the car had a sticker on the windscreen. “Doctor. On duty.”
It was only after the car had gone that it occurred to the constable, who was busy clearing the traffic block in Jamaica Road, that he had failed to get the doctor’s name. He had, however, made a note of the number of his car. UGC 368M.
Detective Sergeant Milo Roughead brought in a sheaf of papers and laid them on Chief Inspector Petrella’s desk with all the decorum of a butler bringing the morning mail to a ducal breakfast table. Beside the papers he placed a copy of the
Stockwell and Clapham Courier.
Milo Roughead was a newcomer to Patton Street. When he had first arrived Petrella, who had noted from his Details of Education and Previous Service that he was an Etonian, had been prepared to dislike him, but had found him entirely disarming.
“What’s this little lot about?” he said.
“Most of it’s routine stuff, sir,” said Milo. “There’s a letter from a Mr. Raby.”
“Yes, we know Mr. Raby,” said Petrella.
“Then there’s a copy for information, of a report from the boys in blue—”
“From the uniformed branch.”
“I mean, sir, from the uniformed branch,” agreed Milo unabashed. “It’s about an incident in Tunstal Passage last night. It looked like being a bit of a box-up, but it came out all right in the end. Oh, and Inspector Blaikie from Junction wants a word with you.”
“What’s in that newspaper?”
“I thought you might like to see that. It’s another letter from Mr. Mayflower.”
“About us,” agreed Milo.
Mr. Mayflower was an untiring writer to the Press. He acted as a local ombudsman, drawing attention to matters which he thought required airing. He seemed to devote a good part of his time to the police.
It is a source of amazement to me
[wrote Mr. Mayflower]
, that the police who, as we are constantly assured, are undermanned and overworked do not concentrate their attention on the more serious crimes. Nine-tenths of their energies appear to be dissipated in pursuing misdemeanours of no conceivable importance. Trivial offenders against parking regulations, shop opening hours and licensing laws are pursued with untiring zeal. Hours and days of police time are wasted, not only in the detection of these earth-shattering matters but in subsequent attendance at court—
It was an old complaint. And Petrella recognised that there was an element of truth in it. Particularly the bit about attendance at court. But Mr. Mayflower had chosen the wrong whipping boy. The fault did not lie with the police. They could not pick and choose which offenders they pursued. A more rational system of law and administration—
“Was there anything else, sir?” said Milo politely.
“You’d better tell Blaikie to come up. We don’t want to keep him hanging about.”
Inspector Blaikie was a railway policeman. Most of his work was concerned with pilfering from the two big depots in Petrella’s manor. They had done a lot of jobs together, and Petrella liked the dry little man who saved the railways around twenty times his own salary every year of his working life and got few thanks for it. This time, however, it was something else.
“My man was coming back himself from the terminal at Grain,” he said. “You know they travel in mufti sometimes to pick up ticket bilkers. Well, he noticed this man, who got on at Graystone Halt – that’s a little station on the marsh between Cooling and Cliffe. When they reached London Bridge they both got out, and our chap heard this man say to the ticket collector, ‘I’m sorry I hadn’t time to buy a ticket. I got on at Gravesend.’ So he intervenes, and says, ‘I think you’re mistaken, sir. I happen to know you got on at Graystone Halt.’ Without batting an eyelid the man says, ‘Exactly, that’s what I said. Graystone.’”
“It would be easy to mishear it,” said Petrella.
“Certainly. But they’re both absolutely certain they didn’t. They swear he said Gravesend, and said it distinctly. The upshot of it was, they took his name and address and reported it to me.”
“What sort of man?”
“He was a doctor. Doctor Lovibond. He lives in your part of the world.”
Petrella said, “Yes. I think I can place him. About sixty. Reddish brown face. Bushy-grey eyebrows, grey moustache. Has done service in India.”
“That’s the man. Respectable citizen. Perfectly clean record.”
“If your chap had waited a bit before he butted in and let him pay for a ticket from Gravesend, you might have had a case. As it is, I don’t believe you’ll get anywhere with it.”
“That’s my view,” said Blaikie. “We’d better drop it.” He sounded relieved.
When he had gone, Petrella started on the various dockets and reports. The officious Mr. Raby, until his retirement, the manager of one of the local banks, reported that a shop called Blooms Antiques in Tooley Street was selling replicas in gold of the medallion struck to commemorate the recovery of King Edward the Seventh from appendicitis.
“It appears to me,”
wrote Mr. Raby in the neat handwriting which had refused a thousand overdrafts,
“that unless Blooms is an authorised dealer in bullion, which I beg leave to doubt, he is acting in contravention of Section 2 of the Exchange Control Act 1947. The objects relate to an incident which took place in 1901, they cannot be described, in the words of Statutory Instrument No. 48 of 1966 as coins or objects of numismatic value more than one hundred years old.”
Petrella took the report and placed it firmly at the bottom of his pending tray. He felt a growing sympathy with the views expressed by Mr. Mayflower in the
Stockwell and Clapham Courier.
The last report concerned what Sergeant Roughead had described as the box-up in Tunstal Passage. Petrella read it rapidly and was on the point of throwing it into the out-basket for filing when something struck him.
Petrella was blessed, or cursed, with visual memory. It was the sort of memory which enabled him to recall telephone numbers, dates on documents and details of that sort, usually quite unimportant. And he was certain that he had seen the number plate UGC 368M somewhere recently. He concentrated for a moment on the problem. A newish dark blue four-door Austin saloon. He saw it, in his mind’s eye, parked outside a house. A house not far from his own. A house in Craven Road. A doctor’s house. That was right. The car belonged to Doctor Lovibond. The man who had made a mistake about his railway ticket.
It was a mild coincidence. The sort of thing that was always happening in real life. If Petrella had had more to do that morning he would have dismissed the matter from his mind entirely. In the end the action which he did take was to extract Mr. Raby’s letter from the bottom of his pending tray, and send for Sergeant Roughead. He said, “Go and see Blooms Antiques. It’s a respectable little shop, as far as I know, run by a man called Friar. Find out what this is all about.”
“Loosen him up a bit?”
“Certainly not,” said Petrella. “You’re not playing the wall game now. Just ask him where he got these medallion things from.”
When Milo had departed Petrella put on his hat and coat and walked down to have a look at Tunstal Passage. Something was worrying him.
Tunstal Passage runs sharply downhill from its junction with Jamaica Road, between the flanks of two large buildings. One was Merriam’s iron foundry. The other was a furniture repository. There were side doors to the yards of both these buildings, after that a length of blank wall, then a pair of wooden gates which blocked the end of the passage. On the gates, in faded white lettering, Petrella could make out, “Wharfside Properties Limited”.
He got one foot onto a bollard, hoisted himself up, and looked over. Immediately in front of him was a row of shacks, the biggest being a Nissen hut, the smallest no larger than a toolshed. None of them looked habitable or inhabited. Beyond them he could see an expanse of grey flecked with flashes of white where Father Thames ran by in full flood.
Petrella came down off his perch and walked slowly back up the passage. What he was trying to work out was which of his patients Doctor Lovibond could have been calling on at seven o’clock in the evening in Tunstal Passage.
“I thought it funny myself,” said Mr. Friar, “but I didn’t see anything illegal in it. This lady brought along six of them in a case. Said her great-uncle used to collect them. Heavy great things. Solid gold, no fooling. I’ve got the last one here.”
He unlocked his wall safe and brought out the medallion.
“Weighs just over five ounces. Six of them. Two pounds of gold. Worth something these days, eh?”
Sergeant Roughead examined the medallion curiously. On one side was a conventional representation of the head of Edward VII, Hanoverian nose jutting defiantly over rakish beard. On the other side the date 1901 and the words “
“I took one of them along to Francks,” said Mr. Frhr. “They looked it up for me in their catalogues. It’s genuine all right. See what it says on the back. Lover of Peace. That’s what they thought of him. My old father used to sing a song about that.” Mr. Friar threw back his head and croaked out, “There never was a King like Good King Edward: Peace with Honour was his motter: God Save the King.”
Milo was enchanted. He said, “Do you know any more verses?”
“There was one about mothers and babies. I don’t recall exactly how it went.”
Milo recollected that he was there on duty and said, as sternly as he could, “You realise you’re not supposed to deal in gold.”
“These are antiques.”
“Nothing’s antique until it’s a hundred years old. You’d better not sell this one until I’ve found out what the form is. I mean, until I’ve made a report.”
“I suppose,” said Petrella, “that one of them could be genuine and the other five could be modern copies of it. They wouldn’t be difficult to make. And there’s no way of dating gold. It’s the only metal that doesn’t age in any way at all.”
“What would be the point?” said Milo. “Friar was simply selling them for their weight in gold.”
“The point,” said Petrella, “is that he was able to sell them at all. And that someone was able to sell them to him. If you went along to a shop with a bar of gold weighing two pounds and tried to flog it, you’d have a lot of questions to answer, wouldn’t you? But take along a set of six medals, in a nice case, property of your late great-uncle, and nobody bothers. I suppose, by the way, you found out who did sell them to him.”
“It was a Mrs. Smith. She gave her address as 92 Maple Avenue.”
“There’s no street called Maple Avenue in this district.”
“The same thing struck Mr. Friar. When she left, he sent his boy after her. She had a car parked out of sight round the corner. And he got its number: UGC 368M.”
It was at this point that Petrella decided to devote some real attention to the case.
He said, “Go down to Graystone Halt. It’s the station beyond Cooling on the Isle of Grain branch line. Doctor Lovibond was there two days ago. To hide the fact that he’d been there he told a stupid lie and risked getting into trouble. I’d like to know what he was up to.”
“If I disguised myself as a tramp—”
“Wear your old Etonian tie,” said Petrella. “No one will mistake you for a policeman.”
“It’s an odd sort of locality,” said Milo. “Flat as your hat. Cabbages and cattle. Ditches between all the fields, running down to the river. You have to pick your way. There’s several places you can go in up to your waist.”
“No. I had a guide. A chap who’s got a big house down there. He’s a stockbroker, but he’s mad about birds. The ones with wings and beaks I mean. He spends his time out on the marshes watching them through field glasses.”
“And who did you tell him you were? A fellow ornithologist.”
“As a matter of fact, I used to be his fag. I thought it was time he did something for me for a change. He gave me a damned good lunch. And we walked over the fields down to the river. He spotted a pair of goosanders—”
“It sounds lovely,” said Petrella. “I suppose you remembered what you went down there for?”
“Certainly. This chap’s going to be very useful. He knows all the local characters. Pays them to report the arrival of any rare birds. It’s a funny part of the world. Very cliquish, if you know what I mean. There aren’t many strangers, and any that come along get noticed. It used to be a great place for smuggling. The ships came up the river by night and the stuff was floated ashore and picked up at Cassibon Inlet or Egypt Bay. If there was any trouble, they used to hide it in the church at Cooling. Under the pulpit, actually. My friend’s going to pass the word round. Give people the number of the car. If that doctor’s up to anything they’ll soon ferret it out.”