Read Petrella at 'Q' Online

Authors: Michael Gilbert

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Petrella at 'Q' (2 page)

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And there, quite suddenly, it was. A scene, complete in every last detail. A working-class family, composed of wife and children, sitting in their front room, being talked to by a visitor (parson? social worker? policeman?) but remaining totally unresponsive to his efforts. Answering in monosyllables. Trembling. Heads bowed down. Why? Because they know, but their visitor does not, that there is a monster in the back room. Their father, a violent criminal, had escaped that day from prison and is hiding there. Certainly heads would hang and limbs be trembling. It is at that moment that their visitor (he is now quite definitely a policeman, and a youngster at that) recalls the lines of the poem and realises the truth. He bursts into the back room, and tackles the intruder, who gets the better of him, and escapes. Pursuit. Final capture.

In that short sequence, which cannot have lasted for more than a few seconds, a complete character was encapsulated. A young policeman, in his first posting (this was automatically North London, since we had lived in Highgate before migrating to rural Kent); sufficiently interested in his job, and in the people involved in it, to visit the wife of a man who was serving a prison sentence; sufficiently acute to notice the unnatural behaviour of the woman and her normally rowdy children; sufficiently imaginative to deduce the reason for a single, furtive glance in the direction of the kitchen door. Courageous enough to go for the man, not nearly strong enough to overpower him, but with sufficient tenacity to continue the chase after he had been roughly handled; above all, an unusual young man, who read and could quote poetry.

 

Most police work was knowledge; knowledge of an infinity of small, everyday facts, unimportant by themselves, deadly when taken together. Nevertheless, Petrella retained an obstinate conviction that there were other things as well, deeper things and finer things; colours, shapes and sounds of absolute beauty, unconnected with the world of small people in small houses in grey streets. And while in one pocket of his old raincoat he might carry Moriarty’s
Police Law,
in the other would lie, dog-eared with use, the
Golden Treasury
of Palgrave.

“She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,”
said Petrella, and,
“That car’s been there a long time. If it’s still there when I come back it might be worth looking into.”

 

Almost everything that happened afterwards was as traceable to that first conception as is the character of a real person to the vagaries of his parents and the accidents of the nursery and the schoolroom. Other things were added later, of course. Why was he called Petrella? A foolish question. Why are you called Gubbins? Because it was your father’s name. Why such an odd name? Because his father was a foreigner. Then why Patrick? Because his mother was an Englishwoman.

It was this dichotomy which produced the two opposite strands in his character. His father was a professional policeman, who carried out a job which was not always agreeable, in a totally professional manner. In such a situation, the end might be held to justify the means. At the same time, since he was a political policeman, it was inevitable that he would, from time to time, question the motives and the character of the people who gave him his orders.

From his mother, the daughter of an architect and the grand-daughter of a judge who was also an accomplished painter, he derived the cultural heritage of the English upper middle class, together with something else; an abstract notion of what was fair and what was unfair. It is a notion which is unfashionable in the materialistic win-at-any-price atmosphere of today. But curious that it should be sneered at when one considers the state in which the world now finds itself.

A Spanish temper and an English sense of equity. Such dangerous opposites were capable, from time to time, of combining into an explosive mixture capable of blowing Patrick Petrella clean out of the carefully regulated ranks of the Metropolitan Police.

At the moment of writing, he is a Detective Chief Inspector, in charge of one of the three stations in a rowdy but colourful South London Division.

His position dictates both the types of wrong-doing he will encounter and the general method of their solution. (Incidentally, it also overcomes an initial difficulty. A purely amateur detective who is also a series character has somehow to account plausibly for the extraordinary sequence of crimes with which he becomes involved. If a corpse is found in the library every time he happens to visit a country house, people will soon stop asking him down for the weekend.)

To a member of the C.I.D. crime is his daily portion. It will certainly not be an undiluted diet of murder. The crimes which come his way will cover innumerable variations on the general themes of theft and violence, of arson, blackmail, forgery and fraud.

For the most part, such crimes will be solved by the well-tried methods of the police. The asking of questions, the taking of statements, the analysis of physical evidence, the use of the Criminal Record Office, the Fingerprint Bank and the Forensic Science Laboratory. It is routine stuff for the most part; more perspiration than inspiration, but maybe none the less intriguing for that.

Petrella has the good fortune to belong, at a particular stage in its development, to what is, without question, the finest police force in the world. Whether he will rise any higher in it depends in part on his own efforts, in part on whether he can get along without unduly upsetting the top brass and in part on a number of imponderables about which it is pointless to conjecture.

I can only wish him well.

 

 

Summer

The Elusive Baby

 

At the seaside, a heatwave can be a blessing. In August, in South London, in Detective Inspector Patrick Petrella’s view, it was too much of a good thing.

“Arson, wife-beating and indecent exposure,” he said to Detective Sergeant Blencowe. “Mostly the result of bad temper.”

“Seasonal,” said Blencowe. “Like shoplifting and cruelty to children. We get them at Christmas. You want to count your blessings. At least we aren’t lumbered with—”

What wrong-doing they were not lumbered with will never be known, because at that moment the telephone in the C.I.D. room at Patton Street rang. Petrella picked up the telephone, listened for a moment and said, “Damn and blast. All right, I’ll be right over.” And to Blencowe, “You’d better come with me. Someone’s lifted a baby.”

Baldwin Mansions was an old, but not unattractive block of council flats, arranged round an open courtyard. The flats had tiny balconies, with low balustrades. Outside the entrance to staircase E, a group of women had collected. The centre of attention was a sobbing woman. Not unattractive, thought Petrella. Middle twenties. Light hair, and a sunburned skin which was a contrast to the white cockney faces round her.

Constable Owers greeted his arrival with relief. “This is Mrs. Morgan,” he said. “It’s her baby boy. He was in the pram, on the balcony here.” He indicated the perambulator, a new and rather expensive model, with a strip of material which acted as a sort of blind in front.

“I thought—I thought he was there,” said the girl.

“You thought?”

“She means,” said Owers, “that she usually keeps that sort of flap thing down in front. The child’s very sensitive to sunlight.”

“That’s right,” said one of the women. “Always down, that flap in front was.”

Petrella detected a note of criticism in her voice. Maybe she was a fresh-air fiend. He said, “I suppose that means she can’t tell us when he went.”

“Nine o’clock she says she put him out,” said Owers.

“That’s right,” said the girl. She started to cry again.

Petrella was remembering all the things that he now had to do. The routine was well established, but there was a lot of it He said to Blencowe and Owers, “Start taking statements from all the women who live here. We want to know if anyone has been seen in this courtyard since nine o’clock. Any stranger. Particularly a strange woman. You know the form. I’ll get back to the station and alert Central. I’ll need a description of the baby. Can anyone give me that?”

He looked round the circle, which had fallen oddly silent. It was Owers, in the end, who said, “She gave me a sort of description. It was nine months old. Dressed in a white coloured wrap-round thing.” Constable Owers was a bachelor. Blencowe said, “He means a body-binder.”

“Black hair, quite a lot of it for a baby of that age. Blue eyes.”

The girl stopped crying long enough to say, “He had his father’s hair and eyes. He was the image of his father.”

“That’s enough to be going on with,” said Petrella. He made his way back to the car which had brought him. As he was climbing in he noticed that one of the women had followed him. She said, “Excuse me for taking the liberty, but I’d like a word with you.”

“Certainly,” said Petrella. “Jump in the back, we can talk there.”

The woman said, “I don’t want to make trouble, but the others thought I ought to have a word with you. Before you start anything.”

Petrella said, “Yes,” cautiously.

“It’s like this. We don’t think there is no baby at all, not really.”

“What makes you think that?”

“That Mrs. Morgan, she’s been here more’n a month now. And none of us haven’t seen the baby.” She added, with a depth of meaning which was not hidden from Petrella, “Nor we haven’t
heard
it, neither.”

Petrella, who knew something of the way life was lived in council flats, said, “I suppose it’s possible. Some babies are a lot quieter than others.”

“Another thing, she used to take it out in the pram, always with that flap down. Once, last week, Missus Crombie couldn’t resist it no more. She said, ‘I must have a peep at the little darling’, and she lifted the flap.” The pause was clearly for dramatic effect.

Petrella obliged her by saying, “What was inside?”

“Two packets of soap-flakes and one of corn-flakes.”

“Soap-flakes,” said Petrella. “Washing. Surely you’d have noticed that.”

“We’ve seen baby clothes. A pile of them hanging out to dry. But what we said was, baby clothes don’t necessarily mean a baby.”

The verdict of the jury of matrons was clear. And it was a verdict which put Petrella right on the spot. He knew, none better, the necessity for speed when a baby was stolen. The whole of the police of the Metropolis and the Home Counties needed the news. Hospitals, child-welfare organisations, chemists’ shops, children’s clothing shops had to be alerted. A warning had to go to all Registrars. And that most useful ally, the Press, had to be briefed. He also knew that if he set all this in motion and was being fooled, he was booked for something worse than a red face.

Back at Patton Street he got on the telephone and put his divisional boss, Chief Superintendent Watterson, rapidly in the picture. Watterson said, “From what you tell me, it seems to me we’re on a hiding to nothing either way.” (Some Chief Superintendents would have said “you”, not “we”. It was one of the reasons he liked working for Watterson.) He said, “She’s only been at Baldwin Mansions for a few weeks. The baby’s nine months old.”

“If it exists.”

“What I thought I’d do is get the girl round here for questioning. That’s natural enough in the circumstances, and it’ll keep her away from the Press. I’ll find out where she came from, get there quick. If there was a child, someone there
must
know about it.”

“We’ll hope it won’t be the Outer Hebrides,” said Watterson, who came from those parts himself. “All right. Whilst you’re doing that, I’ll alert Central, and start things moving. But I’ll warn them to keep it out of the papers for the moment. Right?”

“Right,” said Petrella. It was a relief to have some definite action ahead of him.

An hour later, as he sat in the front seat of the police car which Sergeant Blencowe was driving, he thought about the story the girl had told them. It was a simple one, and it could be true. Her husband, Evan Morgan, was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, and twenty years older than her. They’d been married for six years. During the first five years, he had had a shore-based job at Chatham and they had lived in their caravan on a site near Cuxton on the Medway. A year ago, two disasters had hit them at the same time. The caravan site had closed, and her husband had been re-rated for service on an aircraft carrier, currently in the Indian Ocean. A local landowner, a retired Commander Fanshawe, had come to their rescue. It was the Commander’s address, the Manor House, Cuxton, that Petrella had scribbled on a piece of paper.

The Commander opened the door to them himself. Petrella put him down as a man with money, who had left the service before retiring age to look after his property. When Petrella said, “I’ve come about a Mrs. Morgan. I believe she had a caravan on your land recently,” the Commander stared at him blankly then burst out laughing and said, “Whoever said the law was slow? Fancy you getting on to it so quick.”

“Getting on to what?” said Petrella blankly.

“I suppose the planning people alerted you. Mind you, I knew it was wrong, but it didn’t seem to be hurting anyone. But regulations are regulations. Tell me the worst. Am I going to be put in prison?”

Petrella had at last grasped what he was talking about. He said, “You mean you didn’t get planning permission for her caravan to be on your property?”

“I tucked it away, behind Long Shaw Copse. I didn’t think anyone spotted it from first to last.”

“That’s what I really want to talk about,” said Petrella, and told him the story.

“It’s funny you should think that,” said the Commander. “It did occur to me, from time to time, that it was rather an elusive baby. I never saw it myself, and I couldn’t swear that anyone else did. Mind you, if she was fooling, she did it thoroughly. I saw baby clothes hung out to dry once or twice. And baby foods and stuff like that used to be delivered. I know that, because the tradespeople left the stuff here, and she collected it. They wouldn’t go up to the caravan. She had a boxer bitch she used to leave in charge when she went out. A short-tempered old girl. She took a piece out of my trousers once.”

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