Episode 9: A Lodging House in Hackney
Season 1: The World Unseen
Neither Lock nor Draper moved. The air within the room seemed to take on a viscosity in which the two of them were immobilized, stuck like flies in treacle. Herbert could hear nothing but the sound of his own body thrumming in his inner ear. He sensed the person on the other side of the door was listening too. Did whoever it was know who they were and why they were there?
A floorboard creaked. And then, faint but distinct, came the sound of receding footsteps.
The Cryptic Branch is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
‘We must have given ourselves away somehow,’ Lock said. ‘No doubt our late worker will put a call into the police at West End Central, so we’ll have to move quickly.’
He handed the Pickerel Institute file back to Herbert. ‘Put that back where you found it.’
‘Don’t you want to take it with us, sir?’
‘No, in the first place, that would be stealing, and if we do get caught, I want the charges to be as light as possible. In the second place, I don’t want Mr Foreman and his associates to know what we came here for. We have our lead now and we’ll follow that for all we’re worth.’
While Herbert put the file back, Lock closed all the other cabinets.
When this was done, Herbert said, ‘I don’t think we can risk going back the way we came, sir. There might be a difficult encounter on the stairs.’
‘Agreed,’ Lock said. ‘Seems we’ll need the rope after all. Let’s have a look at this balcony.’
Lock went to the balcony doors, turned the small key, and opened them both. A blast of icy air rushed in, along with the sounds of a horse and cab making its way down the street. Two well-dressed men walked by in animated conversation, one of them laughing.
They waited until the street was quiet again.
Lock made a quick examination of the balustrade and then said, ‘This will take our weight. I don’t want to leave the rope behind. We can loop it around one of the uprights and then pull it down afterwards. It’s only a fifteen-foot drop. We could probably jump it, but I don’t want to risk any twisted ankles. Do you have enough rope there?’
‘I’ve got fifty feet here, sir. Plenty.’
‘Good. Let’s look lively, then. The police will be here soon.’
They put their gloves on. Herbert looped the rope over the balustrade and then fed the two ends down to the street. Lock put the handles of the tool bag over his shoulder and shinned over the balustrade. He gripped the two sections of rope and clambered down, swinging awkwardly.
Herbert followed, half-scrambling, half-sliding down the rope, and groaned with relief when his feet touched the pavement. He pulled one end of the rope, hand over hand, until it had fallen to the ground in a heap. Then he coiled it quickly and put it back over his shoulder.
From somewhere close by came the sound of several pairs of heavy boots tramping quickly over pavements. Police boots, by the sound of them.
Lock signalled for Draper to follow him. The two men hurried back round to the mews where they had made their entry. From there, it was straightforward enough to cut through the back streets to Piccadilly.
Lock checked his pocket watch. ‘Two o’clock. We’ll sleep until eight, breakfast, and then visit Mr Dalton. That all right with you, Draper?’
Lock had arranged a guest room at his club for Herbert. They had changed there earlier and crept out through the service entrance, so as not to be seen by any of the other members. Herbert, who had never stayed a gentleman’s club before, was looking forward to a kip, however short, while encased in crisp, clean sheets.
London was not yet asleep. On Piccadilly, cabs hurtled east and west, men in evening dress strode and swayed along the pavement on the lookout for more entertainment, and in the side streets, intriguing women waited for something or someone. Herbert was still acclimatizing to London and here, in the heart of the West End, were some of its most exotic creatures.
A group of young men in evening dress, drunk and boisterous, stopped to look at Herbert and Lock.
One of them glared with drunken hostility and pointed at them. ‘I say, oiks abroad. Shall we boot ‘em out? No right to be out on Piccadilly at this time of night.’
Herbert clenched his fists automatically.
Lock gripped his arm. ‘Easy there, Draper. We don’t want a skirmish right now. Fall back.’
Lock dragged him across the muddy, dung-spattered road and towards Piccadilly Circus. After a few calls and jeers, the young men lost interest in them.
They reached the Traveller’s Club, where the night porter, who seemed to know Lock well, admitted them unconcernedly, as if the sight of a notable member of the club, arriving in the early hours of the morning, garbed in workman’s overalls and carrying a tool bag, was a most natural occurrence.
‘Goodnight, Cooper,’ said Lock.
‘Goodnight to you, Major Lock. Sleep well, gentlemen.’
Herbert, like most soldiers, was used to grabbing sleep when he could, so he slept well for a few hours, and at eight o’clock he was washed, shaved, dressed, and ready for breakfast.
When he reached the dining room, Lock was sat waiting, reading the Times.
‘Good morning, Draper, have a seat.’
A waiter appeared. ‘Would sir prefer tea or coffee with his breakfast?’
‘Tea, if you don’t mind,’ Draper said with the uneasy air of a man not used to such plush surroundings or such attentive service.
‘Very good, sir.’
When the waiter had left them, Lock folded his newspaper and said, ‘Sleep well?’
‘Very well, sir, Like a log for those few hours.’ He looked around the dining room, taking in the high vaulted ceiling, the crystal chandeliers, the dark wood, the cream and mustard walls hung with paintings of distinguished gentlemen.
‘It’s very grand here, sir, isn’t it?’ Draper said.
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ Lock replied. ‘But more importantly, they serve a damn good breakfast.’ He eyed Herbert carefully. ‘Tell me, how did you find our little adventure last night?’
‘Well, sir, I’m rather glad we didn’t get caught. But aside from that, I rather enjoyed it. It reminded me of some of our antics in India, though without the heat and dust. I didn’t imagine I’d be taking up house breaking as a side occupation when I came home to Blighty, but, well, it was in good cause, wasn’t it?’
‘It was, Draper, the best cause in fact, that of helping to bring evil men to justice. But there’s a long way to go before we achieve that.’ Lock paused. ‘Now, I have to ask you — are you with me for the rest of the hunt? It’s only just begun and I suspect there’ll be a fair bit of danger along the way.’
He glanced over Herbert’s shoulder. ‘Here’s our breakfast coming. Let’s continue this conversation afterwards.’
Thirty minutes later the two men were sat in the club’s smoking room. Lock with a cigarette, Herbert with his pipe. It had been a hearty breakfast, though Lock’s unanswered question had taken some of the edge off Herbert’s enjoyment.
‘Well, Draper,’ Lock said. ‘Are you with me? I’ll match whatever you were earning in the ring, with something more on top.’
Herbert considered the matter. He had spent the last eight months on a path of self-destruction. Lock was offering him a way out. But could he take it? Wouldn’t be another betrayal of Martha and Wilf, of the atonement he had promised them, of the bargain he had made with God. His punishment was nowhere near concluded. But would the major understand all that if he told him?
‘Look, I know life hasn’t been easy for you,’ Lock said. ‘You need a purpose in life, man —’
‘I have a purpose in life,’ Herbert said.
‘No, Draper, you have a desire to punish yourself for something that wasn’t your fault.’
Herbert chewed his pipe stem.
‘Can’t you see your wife wouldn’t have wanted you to live out the rest of your life in this self-destructive way? And what about your son? If you want to do something for him in this life, why not something that will make him proud? I believe that they’re both with God now, Draper, and they’re weeping to see you what’s happened to you.’
Oh, the bastard’s laying it on thick now, Herbert thought. Even so, he wiped his eyes, pretending that pipe smoke had irritated them.
Lock leaned forward and spoke in the urgent tone Herbert remembered from their soldiering days, when they were about to embark on a mission.
‘Help me track down the brutes who killed my brother and my sister-in-law. It may take six months or it may take two years, but I won’t relent. And when we’re not occupied with that task, you can come up to Shropshire with me. I have a fair-sized estate that’s been neglected for a long time. It’ll take us a good few years to get into some sort of order. I’ll make you the estate manager and we’ll work as a team. We went through thick and thin together in India and we can do the same in England. I need a good man by my side.’
Herbert sighed. This was another path through life and he had to admit, if through gritted teeth, that the major was right: Martha would have wanted him to do something constructive with his life. But was this it? Gallivanting around London with Lock on near-criminal enterprises?
‘Tommy will be awful sore with me. He’s put a lot of time and effort into training me and arranging fights.’
Lock shrugged. ‘I can give Tommy a cheque that will soften the blow. Besides, he’s not your owner.’
‘There’s something else I must say.’
‘Losing Martha and little Wilf hit me hard…’
‘I’ve been hating myself for a long time…’
‘I’ve been hating you too.’
‘I know, Draper.’
‘I’m not sure if I can shake myself out of that… that state of mind.’
Lock sighed. ‘You know I’m not a great one for introspection, Draper. The only advice I can give is that I’m damn sure your wife wouldn’t want you to spend the rest of your life punishing yourself. It’s not too late to rebuild your life, man. I’m offering you a chance to do that.’
Herbert had no wish to argue with Lock. Instead, he mulled it over in silence. Did he really want to spend his middle years in the ring, getting slower and more decrepit, his mind slackening as surely as his muscles would? All hope had gone from his life. He had come close to ending it several times. And even if he accepted this offer of work and friendship from Lock, what good would it do him in the long run? He could only hope. But for now…
‘Very well, sir. I accept the offer.’
Lock smiled. ‘Good man. Let’s shake hands on it.’
‘And you’ll look after Tommy?’
‘Yes, we’ll go and see him together. But not today. Now it’s time we paid a visit to Mr Dalton.’
* * *
The house on Well Street, in the borough of Hackney, was one of several in a three-storey terrace of brick. Herbert guessed it had been built as a family home, but was now, judging by the ‘No Vacancies’ sign in the window, a lodging house. Shabby net curtains were just visible behind windows coated with grime. Probably full of sad, lonely men like me, he thought.
The two of them walked up to the front door, where Lock gave the knocker a hefty thump. The door swayed open. They waited and heard a woman’s voice call, ‘I’ve no spare rooms, if that’s what you’ve come for.’
‘No, that’s not what we’ve come for,’ Lock called back.
‘Then I don’t need any of what you’re selling. I gets all my household supplies local.’
‘We’re not salesmen, I can assure you,’ Lock called back impatiently. He pushed the door open wider and gestured for Herbert to follow him in.
The hallway was dark, with bare floorboards and nothing in it other than a hall stand holding a few umbrellas. The scent of carbolic soap didn’t quite mask the stale smell of boiled vegetables beneath it.
‘We’d like to ask you —’
Lock didn’t finish the sentence because a woman, wiping her hands on an apron, had emerged at the farther end of the hallway and was peering at them through the gloom. She came closer and said, ‘You want to see me?’
She was thin and drawn, and her thick grey hair was tied up in a bun. Herbert guessed she was no more than forty years, but her face displayed the deep lines of a troubled life.
She gave Lock an appraising look, clearly making a judgement about his social status.
‘I don’t usually have gentlemen like yourself visiting,’ she said. ‘Most of my lodgers are working men or commercial travellers.’
Herbert wondered what she made of him. His clothes were nothing like Lock’s Savile Row outfits.
‘My name is Arthur Lock, madam, Major Arthur Lock. Here’s my card.’ Lock handed her the token of social status, a thick creamy card with discreet black lettering.
The woman looked at it and seemed to be satisfied. ‘And I’m Mrs Grimaldi. What’s this all about?’
‘This is my colleague, Sergeant Herbert Draper,’ — Herbert realized Lock was using their military titles to impress the woman — ‘and we’d like to ask you some questions about one of your tenants.’
‘You’re not from the police, are you?’ the woman said, more weary than suspicious.
‘No, but you might say it’s a legal matter. I’ll be happy to explain the situation, but first, may I ask, is Mr Dalton at home?’
‘Mr Dalton? Well, I’m not being funny, but he doesn’t keep regular hours that one, so I don’t rightly know.’
‘May we sit and talk for a minute?’ Lock said.
The woman nodded. ‘You’d better came into the parlour.’
Herbert noticed she was rubbing Lock’s business card as if it was a lucky charm.
They followed her into a small room at the back of the house. Four easy chairs were arranged around a low table. Cheap prints of rural scenes covered the walls, and china ornaments of various kinds cluttered the shelves: winsome animals, even more winsome children, Toby jugs, and little idealized cottages.
‘Would you gentleman like some tea?’ Mrs Grimaldi asked.
Herbert would have said yes, but Lock shook his head. ‘No, thank you, madam. Tell me, do you run the house on your own?’
‘Yes. My husband was a bricklayer, but he died a few years ago. My daughters are both married now, but they live close by, so I see a lot of them.’
‘And you’re not sure whether Mr Dalton is at home?’
‘No. Like I said, he keeps funny hours. I lets my tenants come and go as they please. So long as they don’t make a racket or upset anyone.’
‘The house is very quiet,’ Lock said. ‘I assume all your other lodgers are out?’
‘Well, I don’t monitor the coming and goings, but yes, I suppose. I certainly haven’t heard no sound of anyone. But I don’t clean the rooms until the afternoon. That’s when I give them a knock, just in case.’
‘And Mr Dalton? Is he a late riser?’
‘A late riser, yes.’
‘Do you mind if I knock on his door, just to see if he’s in?’ Lock said.
‘Well, I suppose that would be alright,’ Mrs Grimaldi said.
‘Very good, can you show me where —’
‘Come this way.’
They followed Mrs Grimaldi along the hallway and up the staircase to the first floor. There were three doors off the landing and she pointed to one on the right.
Lock stepped towards it and rapped it with his walking stick.
Lock rapped again.
‘He must have left for the day,’ Herbert said.
‘Do you mind if I check?’ Lock said to Mrs Grimaldi and, without waiting for a reply, turned the handle of the door.
Herbert watched it open onto a dark room, curtains drawn. But through the gloom, he could see a figure, dressed in a suit, lying on the bed within. The smell that came from the room was unpleasant.
Lock stepped quickly to the bed. He felt the wrist and then the neck of the figure.
He glanced up and said, ‘He’s dead.’
Mrs Grimaldi shrieked.
The Cryptic Branch is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.