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Authors: Maureen Jennings

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Traditional, #War & Military, #Traditional British

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BOOK: Beware This Boy
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“Here, let me do it,” said Doug Aston, the younger man.

“Why, thank you. Just be careful.”

He took the box by the handles and placed it on the bench between Irma and Tess, who were at the far end.

“Mrs. Dimble, I’m leaving you in charge for now,” said Mrs. Castleford. “I won’t be long.”

She bustled off and Audrey started to sing softly, “
I’m in the mood for love, simply because you’re near me …

“Shush. You’re so wicked, Audrey Sandilands,” said Tess with a grin.

“I wonder why they had a miscount on the red shift,” said Sylvia.

Audrey made a guffawing noise. “That’s a bit of malarkey, if you ask me. It’s an excuse for Mrs. C. and Phil Riley to have a little shag. Or search for some more missing keys.”

“But they’re both married,” exclaimed Sylvia.

Irma looked disapproving. “Let’s not get into gossiping, shall we.”

The girls subsided into a chastised silence that was only half sincere.

Tess lifted out one of the cylindrical papier-mâché pots from the box. She began to count out her quota of fuses, placing each one in her tray.

“I keep trying to tell you what happened to me as I was coming here,” Audrey said as she watched.

“What happened to you on the way here?” chorused Tess and Prue.

“Well, this bloke bumps into me, see. Suddenly I feel his hands all over my bottom. ‘Oi, what do you think you’re doing?’ I says. ‘Sorry, miss,’ says he, ‘it’s this fog. I mistook you for a lamppost.’ What cheek.”

The others all laughed. Audrey was as thin as a stick.

“Too bad for him he didn’t collide with our Sylvia here,” said Tess. She gestured with her hands, making curving movements. “He’d have thought he’d died and gone to heaven.”

Sylvia blushed. For a young girl, she had a full figure. The two workmen were pretending not to listen in, but they were. They grinned at each other.

Tess went back to counting out the fuses as she removed them from the pot.

“Fifteen … sixteen … and never been kissed … seventeen … eighteen, wished she had been …”

“Hurry up, slowpoke,” said Audrey, drumming her fingers.

“I can’t rush today. I didn’t get home until one o’clock. I was at a dance.”

“Did you meet anybody interesting?” asked Prue.

“I did indeed. A Canadian bloke. He joined the
RAF
. Ever so smashing, he is. He’s going to meet me tonight after work.”

“I don’t understand how you can go out dancing at times like this,” interjected Irma. “What if there’s a raid?”

Tess shrugged. “I’d rather be done in having a good time than be sitting shivering in a shelter when the bomb lands. Friday was enough for me.”

“I feel the same as you, Tess,” said Prue.

They were silent for a moment, then Prue clapped her hands in a good imitation of the supervisor.

“Now, girls, no gloomy thoughts. Chins up.”

“She’s the one should talk about chins, not me,” said Audrey, patting her own lean jaw.

There were two rectangular boxes in the middle of the bench. One contained plugs, the other specially designed brass holders. Having finished her count, Tess removed one of the plugs and inserted a fuse from her tray.

“Here you go. Here’s baby.” She passed both plug and fuse along to Prue.

“Here comes some screwing,” said Prue with a lewd grin. She had one of the holders at the ready to engage the threads of the plug.

Audrey yawned. “Stop playing around, you two. Oh, what the hell, I might as well tray up too.”

Impatiently she reached for the papier-mâché pot and started to pull it towards her.

“Oops, why is it so wobbly …?”

“Audrey, be careful,” Irma cried out in alarm. “Don’t! Don’t move it like that!”

The meagre fire in Detective Inspector Tom Tyler’s office seemed to be in its death throes, smoking continuously. The old police station, with its ill-fitting window frames and doors, couldn’t cope. Tyler knew he shouldn’t use up his coal ration all at one go, but he was very tempted. He was dressed warmly enough, but he craved brightness and warmth.

He got up from his desk, where he’d been trying to justify being at the station on a Sunday afternoon by filling out the endless forms that the Ministry of War required these days. They were mostly requests to replace missing ration books or identity cards. Each had to be considered carefully. Not exactly an exciting task, but being at home with Vera was so painful, he avoided it as often as possible. It’s not that they squabbled anymore; they didn’t. It was just that there was a silence
between them that he found impossible to bridge. Had he even tried? Perhaps at first after the tragedy, but Vera had made it clear she didn’t want to. So he’d stopped and they remained locked each in their own loneliness and sorrow.

He went over to the window. Outside, a fine drizzle was falling on the empty streets. Even before the war, the shops and pubs in the little country town were always closed on the Sabbath, but today everything looked bleak and uncared for. Flowers gone from the front gardens, few displays in the shop windows. The weak afternoon light was fading fast but there were no lights showing in the houses. It was the hour for blackout. Whitchurch had not so far experienced the bombing that the big Midlands cities of Birmingham and Liverpool had, but the townsfolk were conscientious. For a brief moment, Tyler leaned his forehead against the cold windowpane. Then he turned around and stepped away.

“For heaven’s sake, Tyler,” he said to himself. “Moping won’t help.”

He was about to go into the front hall to see if he could get Sergeant Gough to stir up a cup of tea when the intercom buzzed. He answered it.

“Call for you, sir. From Mr. Grey at Special Branch.”

Tyler felt a pang of alarm. “Grey? What’s he want?” He hoped the man wasn’t calling with bad news about Clare. He’d had only one letter from her in three months. He assumed she was still in Switzerland.

“He didn’t say. Just that it was important.”

“It always is with that bloke. He probably reports his daily bowel movements to Winnie himself.”

Gough chuckled. “Shall I tell him you’re not in?”

“Good God, no, Guffie. What are you thinking? If the local boffin needs to talk to me urgently, I’d better answer. Could change the course of the war.”

He didn’t add “and give me something to do,” but he had the feeling that Sergeant Gough understood that.

“I’ll put him through. And I was just about to make a pot of tea. The wife sent over some fresh-baked tarts for us.”

“Now, that is important. You should have said so earlier.”

“I was saving the surprise, sir.”

Tyler picked up the telephone receiver.

“Evening, Tyler. Beastly weather, isn’t it.”

“Certainly is, sir.” He felt like saying,
It’s November. This weather comes about regularly every year
, but he waited for Grey to get to the point. He could hear him sucking on his pipe.

“I’m calling because I have a job for you. There’s been an explosion in one of the Brum munitions factories. Rather a nasty affair, truth be told. Some fatalities. Happened earlier today. I had a ring from the inspector at Steelhouse Lane. Name of Mason. He’s an old chum of yours, I understand. He said you were stationed in Birmingham at one time.”

“I was. Several years ago now.”

“He said his officers are stretched thin what with dealing with raids and so forth. He asked if we could spare you to handle the investigation.”

“Investigation, sir? I don’t consider myself an expert in explosives.”

“Don’t need to be. It’s no different from any other kind of police work. All a matter of common sense, really. You’ll no doubt find the blow-up was caused by carelessness, but we want to make sure there was no sabotage involved.”

Grey had a way of tailing off the ends of his sentences as if his energy was expiring, like the air from a pricked balloon. With that and the ubiquitous pipe in his mouth, his listener was constantly forced to ask him to repeat himself.

“Did you say sabotage, sir?”

There was a light tap at the door and Sergeant Gough entered, balancing a tray on one hand. Tyler waved to him to put it on the desk.

“…  always a possibility,” murmured Grey. “The commies have quite a following in the industrial towns. Not to mention all the nationalists, who are as active as fleas on a dog in these places. If it’s not the Welsh, it’s the Irish or the Scots. Next thing, every piddling county in England will be demanding its own government.”

Tyler nodded to Gough, who poured out a cup of tea and mutely pointed at the jam tarts.

“You are up for this, aren’t you, Tyler?” said Grey. “Change of scene is as good as a rest, they say.” Tyler had been about to bite into one of the tarts, but he stopped. He wasn’t in the slightest bit tired; he wasn’t suffering from any bodily fatigue. But Grey said something else, which got lost.

“Beg pardon, sir.”

“According to my secretary, there’s a train leaving at nine tonight. As this is a special operation, you can put in a requisition for expenses. Keep them reasonable, there’s a good chap. We don’t have a lot of dosh to fling around. Mason said you can bunk in at the station. They’ve got spare rooms.” He paused and Tyler heard him strike a match. “All right, then? Ring me in a couple of days and let me know how you are getting on. The explosion was probably just what it seems to be – human error. But keep your eyes open. If any of those fanatics have been monkeying around we’ll string them up.”

Before Grey could disconnect, Tyler said, “Have you had any word from Mrs. Devereaux, sir? I mean, is she all right?”

Grey muttered something that Tyler managed to catch this time. “She is well. We are thinking of having her return to London while she can, but that is up to the ministry. Good luck, Tyler.”

The telephone clicked off, leaving Tyler to hang on to that morsel of news like a starving man.

The train was slow and it was going on for eleven o’clock when Tyler arrived in Birmingham. The carriages were unheated, and when he disembarked, he found himself moving stiffly.
Like an old man
, he thought to himself, not pleased.

The fog was pervading even the station and he felt it entering his lungs, dank and sour. Some change of scene! The Shropshire rain, miserable as it might be, at least felt clean. He turned up the collar of his macintosh. Passengers were dispersing quickly, but he paused for a moment to get his bearings.

A man muffled to the eyebrows was leaning against one of the pillars having a cigarette. “Taxi, sir?” His cab was barely visible.

“No thanks, I can walk faster.”

“Suit yourself.”

“You’re taking a gamble, aren’t you, mate? Driving in this weather?”

The man shrugged. “Got to make a living, don’t I.”

Another passenger, a man in an army greatcoat and peaked cap, came through the doors.

“Taxi, Captain?” This time the driver scored a hit.

“Good luck,” Tyler called after them. “Now, where were we?” he muttered to himself. He’d brought a filtered torch with him and he snapped on the light. Fat lot of good that did. The beam was simply bouncing back off the wall of fog. He’d have to rely on memory. Not too hard, considering how many times he’d walked his beat in this area. He’d been a police constable for – what was it? four years? After their second child was born, he talked Vera into moving to Birmingham with promises of a better salary, better social life, but she’d never settled down. Finally she gave him an
ultimatum: either he returned to Whitchurch with her and the two kiddies or she was leaving him. Tyler had capitulated without much argument. He agreed it would be better for them to grow up in the country. However, he did miss the raw, tough edge of Birmingham life and the challenges of being a police officer there. Tyler sighed. Water under the bridge, that was.

He moved on, gaining more confidence in his route as he did so. The Industrial Revolution had spawned Birmingham, and nobody would ever pretend that this perpetually grimy city was elegant or charming, the way some of the older English towns were elegant and charming. However, people had made their lives here for generations, and the present destruction was distressing to see. Almost every few feet there was evidence of the damage that the recent bombing raids had inflicted. There were craters in the road with police barricades around them as warning. He had to walk around piles of rubble, and his light showed him glimpses of the collapsed walls of houses.

He had just turned the corner onto Colmore Row when a man loomed out of the darkness in front of him. They almost collided but the other man sidestepped nimbly into the road. At that moment a bicyclist shot out of the gloom and, unable to stop in time, crashed into the man, who fell heavily to the ground. The bicycle skidded violently and the rider slipped from the pedals. However, he quickly straightened and, without pausing to see what damage he had caused, pedalled off.

“Hey, look where you’re going,” shouted Tyler. He aimed his torch but the bike was swallowed up by the fog. He glimpsed only a slight figure wearing a balaclava and dark clothes.

The man was getting to his feet slowly and Tyler went to help him. “You all right, sir?”

BOOK: Beware This Boy
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