Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #Petrella At Q
“So it was you, was it?” said Petrella.
“That’s right, sir.”
“Then perhaps you’ll explain how one of the documents got into the hands of the editor of the local paper.”
“Lost the wallet, sir.”
“Had it taken.”
“Went up by tube. Victoria Line from Stockwell. Train was very crowded.”
Petrella considered the matter. So far there was an element of plausibility in it. Junior constables on routine errands usually travelled by public transport and, as he knew himself, the Victoria Line could be crowded.
He said, “What actually happened?”
“I don’t really know,” said Lampier unhappily. “The carriage was full. I was standing near the door. I put the wallet down on the floor, by my foot. When I got to Victoria it was gone. I made a fuss, but it wasn’t any use. Someone must have slid out with it the station before.”
“Why didn’t you report it?”
“I did, sir. That afternoon. Soon as I got back. To Sergeant Cove.”
Petrella was on the point of telephoning for Sergeant Cove when he spotted the report. It was at the bottom of his in-tray. He had been so pleased with reading about his own promotion that he hadn’t got down to it.
The editor of the
Stockwell and Clapham Courier
was an elderly man with a face like a bloodhound. Petrella knew him of old as a nurser of grudges and no friend of authority. He said, “The papers were dropped in here by hand this morning. We get a crowd of people in and out of the front office. No one noticed this one in particular. If they’re yours you’d better have them.”
He pushed across a bundle of papers. Petrella picked them up and looked through them. As far as he could see they were all there. He said, “Was there a covering letter?”
“Can I see it?”
The editor hesitated. Then he said, “I don’t see why not.”
The letter was typewritten. It said, “Dear Editor, I picked these up in a public house in Victoria Street this afternoon. I think they might interest you, particularly the stuff about Mr. Bond.”
The note was unsigned.
“These are official documents,” said Petrella. “You should have sent them straight back.”
“How was I to know? They’re not marked ‘Top Secret’ or anything like that.”
“They’re on official paper.”
“Doesn’t mean a thing. Anyone can get hold of notepaper.”
“If you didn’t know, why didn’t you ring up and find out?”
“Why should I go out of my way to help the police? What have they ever done to help me?”
It was an outlook Petrella had heard expressed before, though never quite so baldly.
“All right,” he said. “I agree there was no actual obligation on you to do anything. So why did you have one particular document copied, and send it to Mr. Bond?”
“Mr. Bond happens to be a friend of mine,” said the editor. “I thought he ought to know about it.”
“And that’s the whole story?” said Commander Abel.
“That’s it, sir.”
“Tell me about the previous case.”
“We’d heard a lot of talk about that particular garage. People who put their cars in to have a tyre changed, and when they came to collect them found the engine taken down and half a dozen things apparently needed putting right. And straight over-charging for any job that was done. It’s difficult to prove. Then we thought we had got something that would stand up. This man, Mr. Ferris, put his car in for an M.O.T. test. When he went to fetch it he got a bill for nearly a hundred pounds. The point was, he’d just had the car overhauled by a garage in Southend, where he’d been staying. A complete 5,000-mile test. He lodged an official complaint. We had to take it up.”
“But you couldn’t make it stick.”
“Bond had it all lined up. One of his mechanics gave evidence. A real old villain. Blinded the bench with science. Our Mr. Fairbrother’s a good magistrate, but he’s not a motorist. Invoices for spare parts, all in order. Work sheets showing time spent on the overhaul. If a man came in for a test it had to be made roadworthy. He’d told the gentleman that. He’d agreed. The job had been done. Here was the evidence.”
“Then what was wrong?”
“The whole thing was wrong,” said Petrella slowly. “The mechanic was in it, of course. He made up his own time sheets. The spare parts were bought for cash, from car breakers up and down the borough. The sort of people who keep no records. The invoices themselves were dirty little scraps of paper. And I fancy most of them had been altered.”
While Commander Abel was considering the matter, the third man present spoke. Mr. Samson was the senior legal adviser to the Metropolitan Police. He said, “I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. If Bond starts an action for libel, you’ve got something to answer.”
“But surely,” said Abel, “a report like this is privileged.”
“What does that mean?”
“It can be set aside by proof of malice.”
“And just how would they prove that?”
“They’d say that this officer was so annoyed about Bond getting off last time that he made entirely unjustified allegations against him in a report. If the report had never gone outside Scotland Yard, it wouldn’t have mattered. But it did. It was published to third parties.”
“That’s something that wants looking into, too,” said Abel grimly.
“You’re sure you did have that bag stolen?” said Petrella.
“Dead sure, sir,” said Lampier. “It happened just like I told you.”
“You didn’t leave it in a pub in Victoria Street?”
“Certainly not, sir.”
Petrella examined the untidy young man critically. It was a long time since he had walked a beat himself. He tried to think himself back to those days. Lampier would have got to Victoria Station at about one o’clock. He probably hadn’t had any lunch before he started. Would he have stopped at a pub for a drink and a sandwich? It was perfectly possible. Was Lampier a liar? That was possible too. Was it any use pressing him further? Petrella thought not. There came a moment when policemen had to believe one another. He said, “That’s all right, Lampier. I just wanted to be clear about it.”
Lampier, as he was going, stopped for a moment by the door and said, “Is anyone going to make trouble sir, about that paper?”
“If they do, we’ll get over it,” said Petrella.
He managed to say it confidently, but it was a confidence he was far from feeling.
The next three months were not pleasant. Routine work continued. No one said anything. Even the
Stockwell and Clapham Courier
was muted. There was a brief paragraph to the effect that a local business man, a Mr. Bond, had issued a writ claiming damages against a police officer. Petrella had two further conferences with the legal Mr. Samson and could feel lapping around him, like the serpents about Laocoön, the strangling coils of the law. He knew enough about the processes of the civil courts to realise that no public servant came entirely clean out of that particular mud-bath.
Towards the end of the third conference something really alarming occurred. He began to detect, in the measured utterances of the lawyer, a suggestion that the matter might be compromised. A payment to solace Mr. Bond’s wounded feelings and an apology in open court. “My client wishes it to be understood that there is no truth whatever in the statements made about the plaintiff. The plaintiff is a man of excellent character.” Like hell he was. Bond was a crook.
“We’re in a cleft stick,” said Mr. Samson. “If we plead fair comment, we’ve got to show that what you said was fair. And that really means proving the charges against Bond, which was something you couldn’t do in court, and certainly couldn’t do now. We can run the defence of qualified privilege, but that lets them bring in all the arguments that you were prejudiced against Bond, that you didn’t like him, and were sore that he’d got off.”
“Which is true,” said Petrella. “But it wasn’t my reason for writing the report.”
“If you’re as candid as that when you give evidence,” said Mr. Samson grimly, “the case is as good as lost.”
It was a few days after this that Constable Lampier brought Nurse Fearing to see Petrella. She was a middle-aged woman, with an air of professional competence about her that was explained when he recognised her as the most senior and respected of the local district nurses. She said, “I rely on my little car, Inspector. If it goes wrong it has to be put right. I’ve been driving for forty years. I know a lot about cars, and I know that this garage swindled me. The man must be brought to book.”
Petrella listened, fascinated. A lifetime of dealing with nervous young mothers and panic-stricken young fathers had endowed her with a calm authority which brooked no argument. He said, “It isn’t going to be at all easy, Mrs. Fearing. I hardly think you realise just how awkward it is.”
“I’ve heard about the other case,” said Nurse Fearing. “And all the lies this man, Bond, told. How anyone could get up in court and say things like that passes my comprehension, but then, I’m old-fashioned.”
“All the same—” said Petrella. This was all he managed to say. For the next ten minutes it was Nurse Fearing who did the talking.
“I can’t stop you,” said Chief Superintendent Watterson. He sounded worried. “A member of the public has made a complaint. We’re bound to follow it up. There’s
evidence. But I need hardly tell you—”
“That’s all right,” said Petrella. “I understand the position. If we lose this one, we’re sunk, Another unsuccessful prosecution. Further proof that I’m prejudiced. Right?”
“If you don’t get home this time,” said Watterson, “we shall have to settle the libel case on their terms. And that won’t do your prospects any good at all.”
“You’re understating the case,” said Petrella. “I shan’t have any prospects left.”
“Are you going to take it yourself?”
“I may be foolish, but I’m not as foolish as that. I’m getting Mr. Tasker to handle the case.”
“Tasker’s good,” said Watterson. “But he can’t fight unless you give him some ammunition.”
“We shall do our best,” said Petrella.
He sounded, thought Watterson, unaccountably cheerful for a man who has placed his own head on the block.
Counsel for the defence said, “I only propose to call one more witness, sir. You have heard Mr. Bond, and seen the documents he produced. In the ordinary way I should have submitted that this evidence was quite conclusive. The solicitor appearing for the police challenged it—”
Mr. Tasker smiled blandly.
“—but was quite unable to shake it. Mr. Bond told us that he himself had purchased the new distributor—”
“Not new, reconditioned,” said Mr. Tasker without troubling to get up.
“I beg your pardon,” said Counsel with elaborate politeness, but a slight flush of annoyance. “I should have said the reconditioned distributor and the new set of points. He also supervised the work, which was actually carried out by his mechanic, whom I am now calling. If he corroborates the evidence already given I think you will agree that this effectively disposes of the charges which the police”—here
Counsel swivelled round and stared at Petrella who was seated beside Mr. Tasker—”the police have seen fit to bring for the second time in three months against my client. I hesitate to use the word persecution, but in the circumstances—”
“I think we’d better hear your witness first,” said the Magistrate mildly.
“If you please. Call Mr. Ardingly. Now Mr. Ardingly, I will ask you if you recall effecting certain repairs to an Austin 1100 motor car on December 28th of last year—”
Mr. Ardingly, who looked about seventeen, had blue eyes, curly hair and a shy smile, said he certainly remembered fixing a distributor to the car in question. Yes, he had done the work himself. Yes, he had filled in the time sheets which were shown to him. Yes, that was his signature at the bottom. After about five minutes of this, Counsel sat down with a satisfied smile.
Mr. Tasker rose slowly to his feet. He said, “Mr. Ardingly, this time sheet shows a record of six hours work on this motor car on December 28th and a further three hours on December 29th. Did you actually do that amount of work?”
“Nine hours to put on a new distributor,” said Mr. Ardingly in tones of surprise. “Not likely.”
“Then if it didn’t take you nine hours,” said Mr. Tasker with a look at Mr. Bond, whose white face had turned even whiter, “why did you put down that number of hours on the sheet?”
“I put down what the guv’nor told me to put down.”
“It’s a lie,” screamed Mr. Bond leaping up.
“I must ask you to warn your client to behave himself,” said the Magistrate. “If he does not do so, I will have him taken out of the court, and held in custody.”
Mr. Bond subsided slowly.
“Now Mr. Ardingly,” said Mr. Tasker. “About the distributor. The reconditioned distributor, which Mr. Bond has told us he purchased from Acme Spares—”
“That’s quite right. I went and fetched it for him myself. I slipped them a quid.”
“One pound?” said Mr. Tasker in beautifully simulated surprise, peering at the paper he held in his hand. “But this invoice is for twelve pounds and fifty pence.”
“You know how it is,” said Mr. Ardingly with an engaging smile. “They always add on a bit.”
“Very satisfactory,” said Chief Superintendent Watterson grimly. “Guilty as charged. Papers sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Charges of perjury pending against Bond. He can hardly continue his libel action against you. Would you mind explaining how you fixed it.”
“Fixed it?” said Petrella.
“You’re not in court now. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. How much did you pay Ardingly?”
Petrella looked genuinely shocked. “I should never have dreamed of doing such a thing. Besides it was quite unnecessary. The boy loathed Bond. He’s a nasty old man, and had already made a pass at him.”
“And how did you find that out?”
“He’s Constable Lampier’s cousin.”
“I see,” said Watterson. As, indeed, he was beginning to do. “No relation of Nurse Fearing, I suppose.”