Death in the Back Row
The August afternoon had been hot and sultry, making patrolling Crammingdon marketplace a bit too warm for comfort. The sky was cloudless blue and at midday the sun made the open space near unbearable in full uniform. Eventually I took the highly unacceptable step of loosening my tie and undoing the top button of my shirt, not that it made a huge difference, and I found myself still seeking what little shade was available.
The shouts and laughter of a group of kids filled the air. Supervised by mams and big sisters, they were having a high old time leaping in and out of the pool alongside Alderman Watson’s drinking fountain. I had been called in from north division to cover a shortage of officers, mainly due to holiday entitlement and a summer flu epidemic depleting central division staff. I looked at my pocket watch as I passed, for the umpteenth time, the little merry-go-round and swing-boats that had been set up for the school summer holidays. Four-thirty-five, I glanced over at the Town Hall clock, it was still three minutes ahead of time, as I knew it would be. I noticed the people exiting the little cinema next to Lloyds Bank. Not surprisingly, the afternoon matinee had only attracted a small audience. I remember thinking that even the latest Laurel & Hardy “talkie” double bill, wouldn’t make me go into a stuffy cinema this afternoon and the “Magnificent Cinema” was stuffy even in the winter. It had the reputation of being a “fleapit” since it was common knowledge that the usherettes went around between houses with spray disinfectant, which did nothing to reduce the stuffiness of the atmosphere. My orders were, patrol until the place was clear enough to no longer present a target for pickpockets and villains, I decided to do just one more lap of the marketplace before signing off at Crammingdon Constabulary HQ Whitecross Yard.
Mothers and toddlers were already drifting away, heading home to get dad’s evening meal ready I supposed, and that seemed an excellent time to call it a day. Nothing exciting had happened, the most memorable parts of the afternoon was helping a lost little girl find her mam, who presented me with an ice-cream cornet a few minutes later, by way of thanks. An hour or so later I was swinging a skipping rope, tied to one of the lampposts, for six youngsters amid yells and shouts of several skipping songs; songs I remembered from my own childhood. A dad appeared after ten minutes or so and took over the rope swinging and I continued my wanderings. On afternoons like this, I often found myself thinking, as I was now, that Gilbert & Sullivan had made a mistake; a policeman’s lot, can be a very happy one at times!
Something caught the corner of my eye, the blue light was flashing on the police-box outside the town hall. Smartening my step, I hurried to answer the call. I was amazed that the emergency was at the cinema I had just seen emptying. Turning I saw a man in a blue suit whom I recognised as the cinema manager, trotting towards me waving his arms.
‘Hurry up! He’s in the back row,’ he shouted, and I followed him into the tiny cinema.
The building had once been a small music hall. Known back then as the Trans-Atlantic Vaudeville, it had managed to attract a number of first-rate artistes. Unfortunately, the small size of the auditorium meant that it often failed to make a profit. The stage had been removed and a screen installed allowing for another three rows of seats. What set the Magnificent Cinema apart from its rivals was the back row. The seating there was always in big demand in the evening because instead of single seats, it comprised of twelve double seats, small sofas; locals called them courting couches. The show had been a matinee for the kids, and the man causing the manager concern sat in the middle of one of the sofas. He was massively overweight. The confines of a standard cinema seat would have been of little use to him.
There was no need to have hurried, the man was dead and I guessed for at least an hour. I’m no expert of course, but a part of my job is dealing with people who have died. Sadly, this is often elderly people who have no relatives or friends and it can sometimes be several days before they are found. A quick examination of the seats around him suggested that this was just a death by natural causes. I guessed that his weight alone must have put a great strain on his heart.
‘Do you know who he is?’ I asked the manager getting my notebook out.
‘He’s a regular matinee customer, that’s all I know. Phyllis might know. She runs the box office,’ he said.
‘Could I have a word with her?’
‘Not at the moment she’s gone to the bank with this afternoon and last night’s takings. She should be back any time,’ the manager said looking at his wristwatch.
‘Have you sent for a doctor, Mr…?’
‘Worthy. Edward Worthy. Yes, he’s on his way.’
‘Thank you Mr Worthy, I’m going to search his pockets in the meantime, to try to establish who he is,’ I said and the manager nodded.
I emptied his pockets, and laid their contents on the seat beside him, though there was nothing to give a clue to his identity. A bunch of assorted keys contained what seemed to be a car ignition key, together with a handkerchief, a wallet containing a pound note and a ten-shilling note and a business card for a local garage. Four shillings and sixpence in loose change was in another pocket. An ashtray fixed to the back of the seat in front of him, contained two chocolate bar wrappers, screwed up and stuffed into it, I pulled them out and straightened them, and placed them on the seat alongside the contents of the man’s pockets. I had to smile the two bars were from a locally made range. “Mrs Longdon’s Homemade Confections”, they were both favourites of Alice my wife. On the back of the wrapper of every product was a sort of pedigree.
“In 1884 Mrs Millicent Longdon began making sweets and chocolate to help the family finances. Originally sold from her cottage door, they quickly gained a reputation for quality and taste. When it became clear that demand was becoming greater than she could cope with, we, Barrington Bros, offered to produce them for her to her own recipes. That was in 1891. We now produce and supply her delicious range to the four corners of the world.” One was a half-pound fudge bar, the other a large size “Turkish Delight” bar, both of them chocolate coated. Barrington Bros products were always a little more expensive than other products but they were really good.
The doctor arrived as I looked under the seat and generally around the floor for anything that might be helpful.
‘Is there no more light than this?’ the doctor snapped. The auditorium lighting was subdued to say the least.
‘I can turn it up a bit,’ the manager said.
‘Then kindly do so, can’t see a bloody thing in here!’ the doctor snapped and the manager hurried off.
‘Are those his?’ the doctor asked nodding at the chocolate wrappers.
‘They were in this ashtray, so I imagine so, unless they are from last night,’ I suggested.
‘The older I get the more I think people really are their own worst enemy. Look at the size of this chap, the last thing he needs is a mountain of pure sugar!’ he snapped.
A few seconds later the light increased, but even so, it was nowhere near as bright as the foyer.
‘Is that it?’ the doctor asked, as the manager returned.
‘That’s it but I’ve brought you a flashlight.’
‘Like working in a bloody coalmine!’ the doctor said, grabbing the light.
Phyllis, the box office girl had returned from her trip to the bank and, seeking the manager came through into the auditorium. As her eyes fell upon the man I had to smile. She let out a gasp and clutched her mouth in a very “silver-screen” sort of way and slumped into a double seat the other side of the central aisle. I went to the aisle and crouched beside her.
‘I’m sorry to have to ask you questions, miss. I can see that this has upset you but I need to find the identity of the gentleman,’ I said, nodding in the deceased’s direction.
‘I don’t know his name, but he comes here once a week, always in the afternoon, for the matinee,’ she sniffed.
‘Never in the evening?’ I asked.
‘No. Never, he needs a big seat you see, and the back row is always filled with young couples in the evening!’
‘I see, what else can you tell me about him?’
‘He always arrives good and early, polite he is, always puffing and panting, seems to have difficulty walking, as though his feet hurt him, all that weight I suppose,’ Phyllis said, with a sniffle.
‘Does he have a car do you know?’ I asked.
‘I wouldn’t know; I doubt he walks very far though, sir. Even climbing the three steps at the front door has him struggling for breath!’
‘I found two chocolate bar wrappers in the ashtray in front of him. Would they be his?’
‘Yes I served him, myself. He has a half-pound bar of fudge and a large “Turkish Delight”. It’s always the same, every time he comes in. Very keen on his fudge and “Turkish Delight” the gentleman is… Was!’ she said and a tear rolled down her cheek.
‘You always serve him?’ I asked.
‘There’s only me in the box office for the matinees, it’s not so busy in the afternoon so I have to serve the snacks as well.’
‘Well, well, well, look what I’ve found!’ the doctor said holding a hip flask at arms-length and waving it around. ‘Rum, from the smell of it.’
‘I missed that,’ I admitted.
‘In his back pocket, found it when we rolled him over. You’d better have this as well,’ he said holding up a tiny leather bound diary.
The manager’s call to Whitecross Yard, had set things in motion. The duty sergeant had switched on the police box light that had alerted me, and informed the CID department. On the arrival of DC George Harrington I made him aware of the situation, and handed over to him, carrying out his request to search the immediate area. Within the hour, much to the manager’s relief, the body of the unknown man had been removed via a fire exit at the side of the cinema, and taken to the pathology department at Crammingdon Hospital. I then, returned to Police HQ at Whitecross Yard to make a written report and then back to my own station in north division.
It wasn’t until three or four days later that I learned the man’s death was being treated as suspicious. DI Brierly, the head of Crammingdon CID had called me in to Whitecross Yard late one afternoon.
‘You found the body, is that right Dexter?’ he asked.
‘The Cinema manager found him. I was first officer on the scene, yes sir.’
‘Tell me your first impressions of the scene.’
‘Well sir, the place was hot and stuffy, but then it normally is. As I followed the manager into the auditorium, I saw a big man; I estimated his weight at twenty to twenty-five stone, sir. He had slithered forward until his knees were pushed against the seat in front, and he was lolling back in the seat with his head to one side, sir.’
‘The pathologist made him, twenty-six stone, and initially put his demise down to that fact alone. Today he informed me that the chap had actually been very cleverly poisoned or had committed suicide,’ the DI grinned.
‘Poisoned chocolate bars, sir?’ I smiled.
‘Maybe! The pathologist is still looking into that.’
‘If he bought the bars at the box office, then it’s purely chance that it was our chap that was poisoned. It could have been any customer,’ I pointed out.
‘We will possibly know more once we find out who he is and where he lives. The only real clue we have, is a business card for a local garage, but they reckon they don’t know him. A twenty-six stone man is hard to miss so I guess it’s just by chance that he happens to have their card in his wallet. That’s why I’ve brought you in, you were first on the scene and you’re an observant sort of chap; is there anything that you think we’ve overlooked?’ the DI asked.
‘I’m sure there was nothing else at the scene, I had a good look round, sir. I did miss the fact that the chap had a hip flask; the doctor found it in his back pocket when he moved him,’ I admitted.
‘Not up to you to move the man, so don’t let that worry you. Did you search all of his pockets?’
‘Yes, sir, there was nothing other than what you’re already aware of sir,’ I said but added, ‘I wonder where he picked up the garage card, sir?’
‘We’ll never know that.’
‘Often businesses put their cards in places where lots of people go, libraries, barbers’ shops, post offices that sort of thing. Is it worth asking the garage where they display their cards, sir?’ I asked.
‘Can’t do any harm, I’ll get my lads on it first thing in the morning. Thank you PC Dexter, if you think of anything else, let me know!’ the DI grinned.
‘Of course, sir,’ I agreed, and set off home, anxious to see my two-year- old twin boys and Alice my wife, the light of my life.
My route home takes me directly past the shop of Cyril Turner, my own barber, and I decided to drop in to see if he displayed the cards of E M Jenkins, Motor Engineer, the name on the card in the dead man’s wallet. I didn’t think he did, I couldn’t remember seeing them, and such was in fact the case. I made a small detour to call in on Benjamin Wooley a barber a couple of streets away, again without success. The post office is only a few hundred yards from my home, but I didn’t even bother to call in, I was sure the murder victim, if that was what he really was, would have been known to me if he lived local enough to use that post office. He was after all a very memorable man!
The boys are growing fast, becoming quite a handful and Alice was glad to pass them over to me when I arrived home at about six o’clock. George, the younger by about half an hour, looks like being the natural leader, with Will happy to play second fiddle. I commented on this after a few minutes of playing wooden bricks with them.
‘Do you think so? I’ve been watching them for days, and they seem to take it in turns to be ringleader. It seems to alternate as they get tired. They had their first little fight this afternoon, about “Wonky Bear”,’ she laughed.
‘They’ve each got a bear, what was the problem?’ I smiled.
‘Somehow they both love “Wonky”. Let’s face it, he has more character!’ she laughed.
It was true that although both bears had started out as near identical as we could get them, one of them had been through the wars. “Wonky” had a lop-sided ear and an arm that hung a bit awkwardly no matter how Alice tried to stitch it on straight making him, or her, a bear of distinction!
The boys had eaten and I washed them and put them to bed with a story. We sat in the kitchen by the range, and passed a pleasant evening in our own company.