Authors: Robert Goddard
‘Dad’s a crook. Always has been and always will be. Well, you must know that. They say he’s a good chippy, but he’s never been content to work for a wage. Oh no, he’s always wanted more. But he’s been a good father to me in his way, so I’ve never had the heart to turn me back on him. I get that angry with him sometimes – like I am now. Then he talks me round and, before I know it, I’m laughing at his jokes again fit to bust. Mind, I don’t reckon I’ve ever been
angry. He’ll have to come up with something really special to wriggle back into me good books this time.’
We came at length to a shabby terrace of three-storeyed houses facing a railway embankment along which a seemingly endless train of rusting trucks was being slowly pulled, their wheels squealing like tortured geese. At the far end of the terrace, Alice turned in through an open doorway and started up an ill-lit staircase, on which the carpet had grown so thin that holes had been worn in the centre of each tread. The carpet expired altogether as we climbed towards the second floor and here the plaster had crumbled away from the wall in gaping patches, revealing the laths beneath.
Malahide’s room was at the front of the house, at the end of a dingy passage. His door looked more substantial than most of the woodwork around it, stout and fitted with a Yale
well as a mortice lock. Alice knocked loudly, waited and listened for a moment, then knocked again. There was no answer.
‘He’s not worked since Christmas,’ she said. ‘And it’s too early for him to be boozing. I’ll see if one of the other tenants knows where he is.’
She descended to the first floor whilst I waited. I heard her knock at another door, then there followed a muffled conversation I could not make out. A few minutes later, she returned, looking more worried now than angry.
‘It’s funny,’ she announced. ‘Old Mother Rudd don’t miss a thing, but she’s not seen Dad since Saturday.’
‘So, what do we do?’
She thought for a moment, then said: ‘We’ll go in. I’ve got some keys.’
A second later, the door was open. Alice was still struggling to remove her key from the Yale lock when I walked past her into the room. It was set in the eaves of the house, with the greater part of the ceiling sloping at forty-five degrees, lit by one dormer window. Of this, the mean furnishings and the chill, fetid atmosphere, I was instantly aware. Then, in the very next instant, awareness of something else, something altogether overwhelming, came upon me.
Malahide was lying flat on his back across a threadbare rug beneath the window. He was dead. I was certain of that even before I moved towards him and saw the bullet-hole in his right temple, the black clot of blood on his head and on the rug beneath him, the stiff, white, lifeless grip that death had taken on him.
I turned back to shield Alice, but already she had seen for herself. She did not scream or faint. She did not even blanch. She simply put her hand to her mouth, said ‘Oh my Gawd’, then lowered herself slowly into the only chair in the room.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘Somebody’s done him in.’
Now she was losing some of her colour and beginning to
‘He keeps whisky in that cupboard.’ She pointed at a wooden cabinet in the far corner. ‘D’you think … Could you …’
‘Of course.’ I fetched the bottle, found a glass and poured her a stiff measure. As she sipped it, I stepped closer to Malahide and crouched down beside him. There was nothing horror-stricken or agonized about his face. Death had come suddenly and unannounced, as if it had been waiting to pounce when he entered the room. He was wearing boots, jacket, muffler and mittens, suggesting he had just walked in, and his woollen hat was lying on the rug beneath his head. Only then, absurdly late, did I remember that the door had been locked from the inside. How had his murderer come and gone?
I rose and turned towards the window. One of the panes was punctured by a small round hole, with cracks radiating from it like a sunburst. I walked towards it until I was standing by Malahide’s feet. Looking down, I could see fragments of the mud that had been on the soles of his boots; it had dried and flaked off whilst he had lain there. Then I looked at the window. Through it I could see the railway embankment on the other side of the road. It, the hole in the glass and my head were now connected by an invisible line, a line that led my thoughts to the only possible conclusion. Somebody had stood on that grass bank, waiting for Malahide to step into view. And, when he had, they had raised their rifle, aimed and fired. But how, from such an exposed position? Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the bare electric bulb in the centre of the room. It was alight. The shot had been fired at night, when the embankment was in total darkness.
I looked down at Malahide’s body. So swift, so unprepared had been his exit that it seemed, in some childish sense, unfair. A neat and instantly fatal head-wound administered at thirty yards’ range. It was a marksman’s shot, less a murder than an assassination. The assassin had reconnoitred the scene, no doubt, had chosen the embankment as the ideal vantage point. He had waited for Malahide to come home,
climb the stairs, to switch on the light, to move obligingly to the uncurtained window. Then, too quickly even for pain to register, he had killed him, and descended the bank and vanished into the night, leaving Malahide where he lay, for us to find him.
How long? How long had he lain there? He had not been seen since Saturday. Saturday night, then? It was quite possible. The weather had been cold, mercifully too cold for putrefaction to set in. For four days his corpse had patiently awaited discovery, four days in which his murderer could have covered every one of his tracks. I shivered. The preparation, the calculation, the professional efficiency: they made the crime seem worse, less shocking, perhaps, but infinitely more sinister.
Then, with a violent shudder, I moved away from the window. The invisible line had become solid, tangible, horribly real. And along it had travelled something far worse than the logic of how a murder had been committed. Fear had coursed suddenly and irresistibly into my mind. Why had Malahide been killed? There could surely only be one reason. Lizzie Thaxter’s letter. The letter of which I too possessed a copy.
Alice was staring at her father’s dead body, motionless with shock, disabled by incomprehension. ‘I never thought anything like this would happen,’ she murmured. ‘It was just … just one of his wheezes. Did somebody kill him because of a forged letter from a woman who strung herself up twelve years ago?’
‘Do you know of any other reason?’
She shook her head. ‘He had enemies. He deserved to have enemies, Gawd knows. But, they’d have given him a walloping, not … Maybe in a fight, maybe in the heat of the moment, somebody could have killed him. But not … not like this … Like he’s been … executed.’ She left her chair and knelt beside him. ‘Poor old Dad. At least it looks like it was quick, but … The poor old bugger.’
She was about to cry. Desperate to prevent her, I blurted
my theory of how he had been killed. ‘A rifle fired from the railway bank is my guess. See the bullet-hole in the window? Probably at night. The light’s on, you see?’ She looked dumbly from her father’s face to the window, to the bulb, then back to her father. ‘Who else did he sell letters to, Alice?’
‘I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. I only know there were three.’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘Thursday. The kiddy’s birthday. When he brought the bricks. Wrapped in red crêpe paper.’ She stifled a sob. ‘He was full of himself. Carried away with his cleverness. Excited fit to burst.’
‘Excited about what?’
‘The money he’d been paid, I suppose. There wasn’t anything—’ She broke off and frowned with the effort of recollection. ‘Hold on …’
‘What is it?’
She pushed herself upright and moved slowly back to the chair. ‘There
something. Of course there was, I just thought … Well, it was one of his regular stories. I’d heard it a dozen times before. But, this time, he really seemed to think … Gawd, that must be it.’
‘What must be?’
‘Who’d have thought it after all these years? Who’d have bloody thought it?’
She took a deep breath and summoned her concentration. ‘How much d’you know about what he was sent down for twelve years ago?’
‘The theft of Bank of England bill paper from a mill at Ross-on-Wye. He and two accomplices, Joe Burridge and Peter Thaxter, now both dead.’
. That’s right. Except that’s not right, not according to Dad. He always said there was a fourth in it, somebody who put up the money, who told Joe Burridge that the mill printed bill paper for the Bank of England, that it’d be dead
to steal. Burridge would never say who he was. He was the only one of the gang who had any contact with him. He reckoned this … fourth man … would see them all right when they got out, would share the proceeds with them.’
‘Burridge had delivered some finished notes to him – to the fourth man, I mean. I don’t know how many or what value. I don’t even know if it was true. Dad believed it – or said he did. It could just have been another of his dreams. I always thought it was. Till now.’
‘Burridge died in prison without identifying this person?’
‘That’s right. But Dad had seen him once, he said, just once. He’d gone to Burridge’s place in Brum and this bloke had been leaving at the same time. Burridge never admitted it was him, but Dad was sure it was. Of course, with Burridge dead, he had no way of finding him. He didn’t know his name or anything about him. Except his face. He said he’d never forget that. He said, if he ever saw him again, he’d know him at once. And then he’d settle with him.’
‘Settle with him?’
‘He was going on about it on Thursday, but different, not the same. He was cheerful, you see, cheerful like … Well, I paid him no attention, but, looking back, I can’t explain his mood unless …’
‘Unless he’d seen the fourth man?’
‘Yeh. That’s it. It was just like … like he’d found him at last.’
I looked down at Malahide’s taut, immobile face and remembered the grin with which he had left me at Southwark Bridge, remembered also the words with which he had cut short my questions. ‘
Maybe I thought I recognized him, but, now you’ve put a name to him, I reckon I must have been wrong
.’ No, he had not been wrong. I knew that now and so, too late, did he. Major Royston Turnbull was the fourth man. And, three days after learning from me who and what and where he was, Malahide had been murdered.
‘What do we do now?’
‘I … I beg your pardon?’
‘About Dad, I mean. Call the police?’
The police. Yes, soon they would be here, eager to know what connection I had with the dead man, what this business of forged letters was all about, of what interest it might be to the officers handling the prosecution of Consuela Caswell. What I had paid Malahide specifically to avoid, his murder would inevitably achieve. And vague allegations concerning former accomplices would swiftly be overriden. Unless, of course, my part in his discovery was never known.
‘Wait a moment, Alice,’ I said. ‘Do you realize what calling the police will mean?’
‘I’ll have to tell them about the letters. And you’ll have to admit aiding and abetting him. He’ll be written off as a blackmailer who got too greedy for his own good. And you’ll be seen as his accomplice. Do you want that to happen?’
A fear of the consequences of her father’s death was now added to her shock at the fact of it. ‘No,’ she mumbled. ‘’Course not.’
‘Then listen to me. We must find his copy of the letter and I must be elsewhere when the police arrive. I must have nothing to do with the case. Do you understand?’
‘Yeh. Reckon I do.’
‘Do you know where the letter would be?’
‘His jacket. He always kept it on him.’
I knelt beside the body and gingerly raised the jacket by tugging gently at the lapel. There was something small but bulky in the breast pocket. With my other hand, I reached in and pulled it out. It was a greasy leather wallet, thickly filled with five pound notes. There must have been at least thirty of them. I heard Alice gasp at the sight and wondered if they were the ones I had given him. Folded behind the notes was a sheet of paper: Lizzie’s letter in a rough hand I took to be Malahide’s. When I held it up, Alice nodded and I thrust it into my pocket. I removed the money, leaving only a ten shilling note, hesitated, then offered it to her.
She recoiled. ‘I don’t want that.’
‘You may as well take it. The police will keep it if you don’t. And it’ll make them more suspicious. Besides, in a sense you’ve earned it.’
‘I can’t. It’s stealing from the dead.’
‘He’d have wanted you to have it, surely?’
‘Well … I suppose so … But …’
‘You said you needed it. And I’m sure you do. So, take it.’ Still she shook her head. ‘This is the only chance you’ll have.’
‘Hundreds of quid just like that? What would Charlie say?’
‘Does it matter? I can’t leave it here, Alice. You must understand. One of us has to take it.’ And my conscience, I refrained from adding, would be the easier if it were her.
Suddenly, her disgust at the idea faltered. There were children to be fed, after all, tallymen to be kept at bay. She reached out and accepted the money.
‘I must go now.’
‘Wait five minutes after I’ve left, then tell Mrs Rudd and go to the nearest police station. Say you were worried because he hadn’t come to see you as expected and called to see if he was unwell. Say nothing about the letters. Or the fourth man, if it comes to the point.’
‘It’s all right,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I know what to do.’
‘Good. In that case, I’ll leave.’ I moved to the door, paused and looked back at her. ‘I’m sorry, Alice, really I am. He didn’t deserve this.’
‘You’ve been kind,’ she murmured. ‘But you can go now. I’ll see to him.’
I decided not to tell Imry about Malahide’s death. I had shared my experiences and discoveries with him every step of the way, but now murder, sudden and clinical, had blocked my path. From this point on, for Imry’s sake as well as my own, I knew I must be my own counsellor. He would
have approved of leaving Alice Ryan to cope alone. And he would certainly not have approved of what I proposed to do next. Therefore, I simply reported that I had been unable to trace Malahide beyond Croad’s building site and had been forced to abandon the search.