Episode 8: A Break-in in Mayfair
Season 1: The World Unseen
Nine o’clock on a drizzly evening, the moon barely visible in a murky sky, the gas lamps casting shallow pools of milky light, the damp, chilly air seeping through their skin and into their flesh and bones. Arthur Lock and Herbert Draper walked along Hill Street in Mayfair, hunched against the cold, clad in workman’s garb of flat caps, blue overalls, and hobnail boots, purposeful but not so hurried as to attract the attention of a passing copper.
Lock carried a tool bag, and Herbert a length of rope coiled over his shoulder. Should anyone have stopped them and asked who they were and what they were doing, they would have said they were gas fitters, called out to investigate a leak, and were now on their way back to their lodgings.
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Lock, with all the painstaking preparation that Herbert expected of him, was carrying business cards, to be flourished if necessary: ‘Maynard Brothers, Plumbers & Gas Fitters, 29 Marylebone Lane, London’. Maynard Brothers was a genuine firm and Lock had an arrangement with the senior Maynard brother, sealed with a generous cash payment, to support their cover story should it be necessary. Herbert prayed it wouldn’t be.
They made the briefest of stops outside 37 Hill Street, a narrow brick building topped with a gable.
Lock looked up at the windows. ‘No lights visible on this side. But it’s impossible to be sure with all the curtains drawn. I hope to God there’s no-one still working in the place at this time of night.’ He gestured for Herbert to follow him to the corner of the street. ‘I don’t want to risk going in through the front door. Too exposed. There’s a mews round the back. We can shin over the fence into the garden. Come on.’
They turned off Hill Street and into Hay’s Mews. Immediately, Herbert smelt the hay, manure, and warm, breathing horses. It was a typical London mews, stables below and living quarters above. Arthur tapped his shoulder and pointed to a fence of cast-iron railings between the corner of the mews and the stables.
‘We can get over there.’
Herbert watched as Arthur threw the tool bag over the railings and began the tricky climb.
* * *
It was five days since Arthur had sat by Herbert’s bed and told him he needed his help with a break-in. Herbert had laughed then — they both had — but he knew now it was no joke. The laughter, he supposed, had been because of his dazed state of mind: caused by the punches he had taken during the fight, the brandy and doctor’s concoction he had taken afterwards, and the absurdity of a man like Lock asking for his help with a criminal enterprise. It wasn’t until Lock returned the next day that Herbert had been in any state of mind to consider his feelings about the major and his request for help with this escapade.
There had been no laughter between them that morning. Herbert had slept badly and was still in pain. His left eye was still a slit. And though he had stopped spitting blood, he was now pissing it.
After some awkward pleasantries, it was Lock who breached the subject of their parting.
‘Are you still bitter towards me, Draper?’
Well, Herbert thought, we’re both on Civvy Street now. I suppose I may as well be honest with the major.
‘Yes, sir, a bit.’ He paused. ‘If I hadn’t gone away on that expedition with you, I would have been back home in Shrewsbury on leave when Martha and Wilf fell ill. I might have been able to —’
‘You wouldn’t have been able to save them,’ Lock said. ‘No-one could. The doctor did his best, but typhoid fever —’
‘I may not have been able to save them, but I could at least have been with them at the end,’ Herbert said, his voice loud now, louder than he had ever used with his commanding officer. ‘I could have been with them, but I went on that Tibet expedition with you, Major.’
‘I didn’t order you to, Draper. You volunteered.’
Lock was right. Herbert had volunteered, a desire for adventure and a sense of loyalty overriding the duty he owed to his family. And while the expedition had been making its way through the mountains of Tibet, his wife and son had been dying in a little house in England.
Now here he was again, following Lock on another expedition. And as before, the major had not forced him into it. He had volunteered.
* * *
‘Come on Draper, look lively there.’
Lock was looking at Draper with concern through the iron railings..
‘Are you alright, man?’
‘Yes, sir. Be right with you.’
Herbert threw the coil of rope over, held onto a post, and stepped up onto the concrete base of the railings. He gripped the top of two posts, one with each hand. There was just enough space on the top rail to get a foot in. The tricky thing then was to pull yourself up without losing your balance and getting impaled on the spiked finials.
‘It’s harder than it looks,’ Lock said, watching Herbert clamber and struggle to gain a stable footing.
‘You don’t need to tell me, Major,’ Herbert said.
He got both feet on the top rail for a few wobbly seconds and then jumped down into the garden.
‘We’ll try to come out through the front when we leave,’ Lock said wryly.
They picked up the tool bag and the rope, and Herbert followed Lock across the garden.
It was a typical neglected London back garden: scrubby grass, ugly bushes, uneven paving, and the smell of drains.
‘It’s a communal garden, so there aren’t any fences, but we need to find the correct back door,’ Lock said over his shoulder.
Herbert heard him counting the buildings under his breath.
‘This is the one,’ Lock said.
The two of them looked up at the windows at the back of the building.
‘More curtains,’ Lock said. ‘Let’s have a tinker with the lock. We’ll have to hope it’s not bolted on the inside.’
He reached into the tool bag and brought out a ring with a collection of picks on it. Herbert had often wondered when and how the major had learned all the tricks and skills he had. Lock seemed to take an interest in every practical occupation under the sun. Herbert had never met such a man for picking up practical stuff. He remembered that In India, Lock had learned how to ride an elephant, how to charm a snake, and fraternized with yogis, practising all those bodily contortions they got up to. Some of the other officers referred to him disparagingly as Swami Lock. But none of them doubted his competence and courage.
Herbert watched him work on the lock, his face taut with concentration.
* * *
‘After all those weeks in Tibet, we returned to the hill station, and the telegram was waiting for me… I blamed you, not as much as I blamed myself, but I blamed you,’ he had told Lock. ‘You may say I was a volunteer, but a man has duties and obligations. It’s not so simple as volunteering or not volunteering.’
The Major was not a man to display much feeling, but his jaw tightened. Unable to meet Herbert’s eyes, he ran a thumb over the scar on his face, a gesture Herbert knew showed he was turning something over in his mind.
Then he said, ‘Listen to me, Draper. I’m a single man and I’ve spent all my adult life in the army. I’ve neither wife nor children. I was brought up with little parental affection and I’ve always had to find my own way in the world. I haven’t even been close to my brothers. One of those brothers is dead now, and suddenly I’m responsible for his daughter. There’s a story there, which I’ll tell you in good time. I’ve never understood what it is to be a family man, but I can tell you now that I’ll defend that girl with my life.
‘If you followed me to Tibet from a sense of duty, then I’m sorry. But look inside yourself, man, and ask yourself if, like me, like any man with an ounce of spirit, you were lured by the adventure and the quest.’ Lock paused. ‘You have to build a new life now. Getting your head battered in a boxing ring isn’t it. As an old comrade, I’m offering you another path. Something’s afoot and I need a good man by my side. Will you join me?’
* * *
Herbert heard the lock clack.
‘The back door is always so much easier to pick than the front,’ Lock said. ’Now let’s see if they’ve bolted the door.’
They hadn’t. Lock turned the handle, and it opened. They could see nothing in the gloom ahead of them. They moved inside the house and closed the door behind them. Lock took an oil lamp from the tool bag, lit it, and set the wick low.
‘The office we want is on the first floor,’ he whispered. ‘And we didn’t need the rope after all.’
‘Never hurts to have a bit of rope with you, sir.’
Lock smiled. ‘No, indeed. Now, wait a moment, and let’s have a listen out before we do anything else.’
They waited, still and silent, in the passage, breathing shallowly, listening for any voices or sounds of movement. But all was quiet, apart from the scuttling of mice in the wainscot. Lock tapped Herbert’s arm, and they walked to the end of the passage. Then a short flight of uncarpeted stairs brought them to the entrance hall of the building.
They paused again, listening out. More mice scuttling, and then the sound of a floorboard creaking somewhere above them.
‘Might just be the house shifting,’ Lock said. ‘But let’s take it slowly.’
They crept up the stairs towards the first floor, with carpet muffling their footsteps now.
On the landing, they stopped again. Lock scanned the corridor.
‘I think these are all offices,’ he said, and then pointed to a door near the back of the house.
A sliver of pale light was just visible in the gap between door and floor. Herbert noticed the faint aroma of tobacco smoke. Then a short cough broke the silence, followed by some indistinct muttering.
‘Someone’s working late,’ Lock said. ‘But the office we want is the one at the front of the house. We should be alright.’
They crept along the corridor, Lock leading the way. They reached the door at the end. Lock held the lamp up, illuminating a brass plate inscribed with ‘Mr A. Foreman, Senior Partner’.
Lock turned the handle carefully. The door was not locked. He pushed at it cautiously, the pair of them listening out for any squeak of the hinges. But it opened noiselessly, and they darted into the room.
Lock put down the tool bag and turned up the lamp.
The room clarified. An impressive desk near the window dominated, bearing the paraphernalia of clerical work: pens, bottle of ink, writing paper, letter holders, an ivory letter opener, a paper spike, and piles of files and papers. Framed documents covered one wall and filing cabinets lined another. Herbert could see no personal effects of any kind.
‘A man married to his firm.’ Lock said, as if guessing his thoughts. ‘What we want will be in these filing cabinets, I think.’
‘Where do we start, sir?’ Draper said.
‘Let’s begin with Digby Stanton. I know he was using this office as a correspondence address.’
Lock located the cabinet holding the ‘S’ files. He rifled through them as Draper held up the lamp.
Lock shook his head. ‘Nothing. The other names I have are Barker and Dalton. You look under D for Dalton and I’ll do Barker. If we’re lucky, we might find a file for one of them.’
It took only a couple of minutes to establish that they weren’t lucky.
‘What now, sir?’
Lock thought for a moment. ‘Perhaps we’re not looking for the file of an individual, but an organization.’ He sighed. ‘I’ll start at A and you start at Z. We should meet somewhere in the middle.’
‘But what am I looking for, sir?’
‘Any file that relates to an organization or corporation. Any file at all, however unlikely it may seem.’
‘But that will take —’
‘ — hours. I know, Draper. But I’m certain that the information we seek is in this office.’
Herbert put the lamp at the midpoint between them and opened the top drawer of the last filing cabinet. How in heaven’s name did I get myself in this situation? he asked himself.
* * *
Will you join me?
Herbert, bewildered and somewhat resentful, considered Lock’s question. But what was all this about?
Before he could open his mouth, Lock said, ‘Boxing’s no good occupation for a man like you, Draper. You’ll be thirty this year — ’
It impressed Herbert that Lock remembered his age, but then that was one of his knacks as a commanding officer — he knew everything about his men: birthdays, families, where they were born and brought up…
‘ — I’ve seen old boxers. I’m sure you have too. Unable to string a sentence together, sitting in the public bar, drooling from their corner of their mouths, barely able to remember who they are, let alone who anyone else is. Is that what you want?’
Herbert rubbed his temples. ‘To be honest, sir, forgetting who I am and what I did, or didn’t do, well… I wouldn’t mind it. My life is hellish at the moment, all the memories and the guilt…’
Lock’s eyes glinted. ‘Ah, so that’s it. You see it as a punishment, the just deserts of a man who neglected his family. You want to be hurt and punished. That’s why you carried on fighting that man-mountain yesterday. Your trainer wanted to throw the towel in, but you wouldn’t.’
Herbert shifted uncomfortably in his bed. Am I that transparent? he thought. Bloody Lock, too bloody clever by half.
‘Something like that, sir,’ he said sheepishly.
‘Well, you’re a damn fool!’ Lock said. ‘A man with your strength of character and talents could still live a life in which he did some good for others, even if he didn’t want to do any good for himself.’
Herbert stayed silent. He wished the major would go away and leave him to be miserable on his own. His head was throbbing and his bladder needed emptying again.
‘Listen to me, Draper. I’m offering you a way out, a way into a different life. A useful life, perhaps even a satisfying one.’
‘I have a contract with Tommy,’ Herbert said weakly. ‘I can’t get out of it.’
‘Oh, bugger Tommy,’ Lock said impatiently. ‘I’ll deal with Tommy.’
‘I don’t understand. Are you offering me a job, sir?’
‘Yes, I am, though not a conventional one. But I need to know one thing, Draper. If you think I share the blame for keeping you from your family and you still hate me for it, then we’ll shake hands and say our goodbyes. Tell me, can you forgive me?’
Herbert thought about this for a long moment. Then he said, ‘I honestly don’t know, sir.’
* * *
As the night wore on, Draper’s commitment to the adventure faltered. Lock forbade him from smoking in the room and from going down to the garden to smoke. As far as they could tell, the person working late was still in the building, though they had heard no sound of them at all.
Herbert’s sole consolation was that Lock offered him the occasional nip of whisky from a hip flask. Still, it was drudgery to sort through the dozens and dozens of files stored in those cabinets, and pulling out the ones relating to organizations, organizations as diverse as the Sandridge Hunt and the Windsor Society for Distressed Gentlewomen. He would hand them to Lock to peruse, and Lock would rifle through the contents before shaking his head.
The Major might be right that boxing will addle my brain, Draper thought grimly, but won’t rooting through these endless piles of paper do just the same?
He sighed and began on the Ps. Soon after Lock had examined and then rejected the file of the Peckham Homeopathic Dispensary, Draper came upon a file labelled for the Pickerel Institute. Something to do with fishing, he wondered idly, though surely no-one fishes only for young pike?
‘Another one, sir.’
‘Pass it here.’
Herbert noted even Lock was sounding weary now.
Lock held the file closer to the lamplight and began leafing through the papers inside.
‘Hmmm… seems mostly financial items, invoices, receipts, that sort of thing.’
Then his expression became alert.
‘Hullo, what have we here? Travel receipts for a trip to Ireland… train tickets… boat tickets… hotel invoice… for the Atlantic Hotel in Galway.’
‘The dates match, Draper. This is what we want.’
‘But who are they? The Pickerel Institute? What does it mean?’
Lock rifled hurriedly through the rest of the file. ‘I don’t know. There’s no correspondence in here. It’s all financial items.’
Lock went back to the start of the file and began working through it methodically.
After a minute or two, he held up a sheet of paper. ‘Look, a receipt headed Irish excursion disbursements. Paid out to a Mr Lawrence Dalton, 48 Well Street, London. He’s the villain who broke into my brother’s house and stole his notebooks. We’ll pay Mr Dalton a visit later today.’
Draper was about to answer in the affirmative when the sound of shoes on carpet, barely audible, came from outside the door. Both men suddenly froze. It was the sound of someone trying not to make a sound. And then another sound, metallic and unmistakable.
Lock frowned and then whispered, ‘We need to think quickly, Draper. We’ve just been locked inside this room.’
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