The Killing of
For the best part of an hour, I had been trying doors and windows, and looking down dark entries. The yellow green glow of the gaslights created little pools, lighting the street alternately one side then the other. Between them a faint background light was provided by the last thin crescent of the moon, when it wasn’t covered by cloud. Here and there a glint of light escaped a heavily curtained window indicating a night owl; otherwise everything this side of the street was firmly locked and in darkness. On the other side the houses, like these, fronted straight on to the pavement. Over there, a few doors ahead of me, Albert West was carrying out the same task. I remember thinking, only a few more to do and we’d be a bit early tonight.
We weren’t supposed to of course, smoke that is, but every night at the end of the road, the two of us stood on the corner of Albemarle Road and Traffic Street and each lit a very welcome pipe. In a few seconds time when the clock on St Steven’s church struck midnight we would be into September. Already there was a nip in the air that hadn’t been there when I first walked this beat with Albert five weeks ago. Night point duty is a cold job at the best of times. Soon they’d be telling us to put our capes on; the only real concession to winter that the uniform allowed. Anything more comforting was down to us to provide. Alice was busy knitting me a pair of thick socks to go with the long woollen underwear we’d both giggled about in the co-op. The corner was our point; we were to wait there for fifteen minutes so that the local populace would know where to find us in an emergency. Walking the beat keeps you reasonably warm, standing on the point quickly chills you off; making it one of the least liked parts of the job.
‘No trade tonight. Not even a dead donkey!’ Albert chuckled. A reference to the night before when we had indeed found a dead donkey, and had to arrange its removal.
‘Let every night be like this after tonight,’ I replied. It was to be my last night with Albert as a companion; from then I’d be walking the now familiar streets on my own. You couldn’t try every door or window then of course, even though we were supposed to; just choose a few each side before crossing over and then doing the same that side. We had to do all of the shop and business premises; showing that we were about I suppose.
‘You’ll be alright, son, but can I give you a bit of advice?’
‘I ’ang upon your every word, Albert,’ I said, side stepping a half-hearted swipe.
‘Take it easy, enjoy your job, don’t get yerself injured trying to break up fights!’ he said.
‘Right, then how would you handle them?’ I asked.
‘Warn ’em to break it up and tell ’em to bugger off. If they take no notice, let them fight to a standstill then arrest ’em both.’
‘If one goes down, what then?’
‘One to deal with; a hefty punch in the belly normally does the trick. Two arrests and the crowd on your side.’
Before we could discuss it further, footsteps could be heard in the near distance. Instinctively we listened. Two sets of footsteps; that could mean only one thing. Two pipes were quickly tapped out over the edge of a doorstep and two police constables, the very model of the breed, stood at ease awaiting the arrival of their relief. As we suspected, this turned out to be Herbert Green, an even newer recruit than me, tonight being accompanied by the sergeant.
Jonathan Bell had been a sergeant for the last three years, with two more to do before he retired on a comfortable pension to a nice little cottage in Langton, a village about two miles from where we now stood. A pleasant man running to seed a bit we young ’uns thought, but still able to handle himself when the need arose, and with the experience of a lifetime doing exactly what we were now doing. Hating the paperwork that went with his new position he’d be in his element tonight, away from the desk. Being one of two sergeants on duty in the North Division gave him the chance to be out on the streets. The others thought he was out checking up on them but having spent a couple of nights with him, I thought he just loved the job. Behind his back the boys all called him “Sound”. Apparently it had started when he was a young bobby but then it had been “Sound-as”; sound as a bell. Now it was just “Sound”. Like any good leader he’d chew lumps out of you behind closed doors if you got it wrong or fell below his standards, but defend you to the death if anyone else had a go.
They rounded the corner of Clinton Street and made their way towards us. As they drew up with us we neatly stood to attention and saluted the pair. They returned our salute and we all stood easy.
‘All quiet, lads?’ Bell asked.
‘All quiet Sarge,’ Albert replied.
‘Central has asked us to keep a lookout for a burglar. They say he’s gradually working his way towards us, so keep your eyes peeled. Nasty character… carries a cosh so you’ve my permission to truncheon ’im.’
‘Do they know what he looks like?’ I asked.
‘No-one seems to know! You know my motto lad! Anybody out at this time of night is up to no-good. Stop and question ’em, you’ll soon know what to do!’
‘They always have that shifty look if they’re up to something, as though they can’t quite make up their mind to run,’ Albert chuckled.
‘Yes, you can almost smell the fear. You two’ll soon pick it up. The coppers nose I call it; never fails,’ Bell said, speaking to us two young ’uns.
‘If he carries a cosh will he come quietly?’ I asked.
‘’E will if you truncheon ’im,’ said Albert and laughed.
‘Until he’s caught, draw your stick as soon as you see someone you think shouldn’t be about. Right, off you go.’
‘Good night Sarge,’ we said together, giving a parting salute.
Traffic Street marks the outer edges of the town on the north side, running roughly east west. Looking north it wasn’t quite open fields, but only the odd building here and there stopped it from being so.
Our beat, “C” beat, ran west for about a quarter mile then turned south back towards the town centre along Washington Road; respectable folk but much more down at heel than Albemarle Road. Washington Road has the graveyard of St. Steven’s church on its right as you turn back to the town. The church itself stood out as a dark silhouette its stumpy, weather cocked spire backlit by a now watery moon.
‘Looks like we might get a drop of rain!’ I said, nodding towards it.
‘You’re right… the wind’s changed, we’re certainly due a drop.’ Albert replied.
Nineteen- twenty-nine had been the driest year I could remember. Crammingdon hadn’t been as dry as some places, but even so we’d had a good deal less rain than normal. I estimated we’d only had about a tenth of our normal rainfall. Keeping my runner beans watered had become a constant task. Alice had made regular trips up the garden making sure that all of the water we used in the kitchen had ended around the beans, with little thrown away. Rain would be a welcome event for most people.
For a hundred yards or so we walked the left side of the street together before Albert crossed the road to start the check again. Every so often, on my side of the road, there was a yard down a narrow alley, just wide enough for a handcart or a hearse. Five houses, if you could call the tumbled down hovels that, lined each side of the yard. The final abode of the lowest of the low. A stinking haven for those who couldn’t, or in some cases wouldn’t, work; last stop before the workhouse. A common pump and trough for water were in the middle of the yard and a washhouse on the end of each block turned inward to form the end of the yard. Human waste was catered for by three soil closets, between the washhouses, serving about forty or more folks. Crammingdon, only short of being a city in name, had promised “Homes fit for hero’s” for the troops returning from the trenches of Flanders. As yet, and next year would put us into the nineteen-thirties, this hadn’t happened. Tanner’s Yard, Carpenter’s Yard and Blacksmith’s Yard were still served by the night-soil man; as were the houses along the street, though these had the luxury of an individual closet. The town centre was slowly being connected to a modern sewage system, with roads here and there disrupted as the work progressed. This end of the town was being systematically ignored since it was planned at some time in the future to raze it to the ground for those “hero homes.”
The general stench that night made us aware that the odd metallic scraping sound off in the distance was the night-soil men dragging and lifting the disgusting metal buckets across the cobblestones somewhere further on. There were inevitably odd spillages, slippery and repugnant; and the streets and alleys would show signs of this until it rained or some local inhabitant washed them away.
Tanner’s Yard was as dark as I expected and drawing my flashlight I walked down the entry noting the whereabouts of any spillages. The houses were dark and quiet and there was little point in trying doors; they’d nearly all be unlocked. Folk who lived like this had nothing to protect, nothing worth stealing. Neighbour looked after neighbour, sharing what little they had. It was the practice to just stand at the entrance to the yard and swing the flashlight beam around it. In any case for the most part we were seen as the enemy. Satisfied that all was well, or as well as it was ever likely to be, I moved on.
Back out on the street I could see Albert well ahead of me on the other side of the road. About twenty more houses brought me to Carpenter’s Yard and drawing the flashlight again I walked down the alley trying to establish where any spillages might be. Then I saw it. Initially I thought someone had dumped a bundle of rags in the alleyway. As realisation began to dawn a figure raced past me, almost soundless on rubber-soled shoes, heading for the street, pushing me into the wall, winding me. The impact made me drop the flashlight. Something else shiny and metallic clattered onto the cobblestones near the street, a knife, the blade caught momentarily in the moonlight. The figure, a man, stopped long enough to pick it up then sped off to the road and turned right. I should have given chase but the flashlight was illuminating the bundle. Wide eyed, my attention was totally grabbed by it, or rather her. The poor lass was lying up against the opposite wall, skirt around her waist, draws around her right ankle. Even with the limited light from my little lamp I could see that the side of her head was bashed in and blood and brains spilled over the shawl wrapped around her shoulders and out across the uneven cobblestones of the alley. I turned and added my vomit to the night-soil spillages. Coughing and spitting the acid taste from my mouth. I turned and was again caught, in a fresh flow of throat burning bile. Eventually I drew my whistle and gave three blasts; our signal, urgent assistance required. Not that it would make much difference to Victoria Smedley how quickly Albert responded. Whoever was responsible for Vicky’s death had used a knife to cut her. A cut, a mark not deep, just enough to draw blood, ran from her navel to her pubic hair, another ran across it midway forming a roughly hacked cross, bearing no respect to Christianity; blood had dripped down onto the cobblestones. I pulled the poor kid’s skirt back down over her knees before the first of what would be a long procession of folks arrived on the scene.
Lights began to flicker into life; gas and oil lamps were being lit in the houses as Albert came running down the alley, hobnails skidding to a stop when his eyes caught sight of her.
‘Bloody hell! Oh Vicky, you poor little sod,’ he said shaking his head.
Although we blew our whistles several times to alert more assistance this didn’t happen. After a couple of minutes, during which time the yard came alive and folks came to gawp, I left Albert with the body and ran a couple of hundred yards to the local newsagent. Telephone lines draped from a pole across the road to the eaves of the shop, confirming it was on the telephone. I hammered on the door, impatient at the delay, as the first few spots of rain marked the pavement. After what seemed an age an upstairs window shot up and an indignant face appeared.
‘Who’s that?’ yelled the disgruntled newsagent.
‘PC William Dexter, I need to use your phone urgently!’ I shouted.
‘Fancy banging like that… Blowing yer whistles at this time o’ night; has there been a murder or something?’
‘Yes there has been a murder, now can I use your phone?’
‘Blimey… yes, right.’
The window slid down again and a minute or so later the newsagent, clad in a long white nightshirt, appeared at the shop door shuffling keys in trembling fingers. He wore a floppy pointed hat like an elf; a toothless, sixty-year-old elf. Looking just how I imagined Scrooge in the Dickens story. The grotesque comedy of it failing to make me even grin.
‘Who’s been done in then, Constable?’ he asked as he finally let me in.
‘I suppose it’ll be common knowledge soon enough… Victoria Smedley. Though she’d not been formally identified yet, she’s well known to us.’
‘I know her, she used to come in here buying sweets; nice little girl. She used to…’
‘The phone, sir,’ I cut in abruptly.
‘Oh, yes… over here.’
I got back to the scene to find someone had supplied a rough wagon sheet and this was draped over the poor kid until the detectives arrived. Whilst I stood guard Albert did an inspection of the yard. Although we didn’t expect to find much in the way of evidence, he returned after a few minutes with a brick still sticky with blood; almost certainly the murder weapon. He slipped it under the wagon sheet to protect it from the rain.
‘’Ere constable, is that Vicky Smedley?’ asked a woman draped in a moth-eaten tartan shawl.
‘We think so, do you know her?’ I asked getting my notebook out.
‘’Ere, don’t write nothin’ down. I was only wondering!’
By five o’clock we were taken off the case, a couple of hours after the removal of the body. The only CID for the town was based at Central Division; three detectives in all, Tom, Dick and Harry. Namely: Detective Inspector Thomas (Tom) Brierly, Detective Sergeant Charles (Dick) Whittington and Detective Constable George (Harry) Harrington. Their nicknames had been originally coined in a newspaper article that hadn’t shown them in a particularly good light. Such irreverence was never used to their faces of course. Dick and Harry arrived on the scene around one-thirty and started taking statements. By then the rain had set in, not yet heavy but constant.
As usual in these sorts of areas, no one had seen or heard a thing. That was really all I knew of the case. DI Brierly sent us back to the station to make a formal report of the incident. The desk sergeant told me to keep it simple but cover the facts.
It was my first report concerning the discovery of a murder victim, the first attempt was shakily written – unreadable, I screwed it up and started again; satisfied, I read it aloud to Albert, before I handed it in.
Having met up with Sergeant Bell and PC Green at our point on Traffic Street, P.C. West and myself continued our beat back towards the town centre. This takes us down Washington Road. I entered Carpenter’s Yard at approximately twelve fifteen. I switched on my flashlight and immediately saw what I thought was a bundle of rags about halfway down the alleyway to the yard. A previously unseen figure raced past me, slamming me into the wall and winding me. It was then I realised it was the body of a young woman of about twenty. I believed it to be that of Victoria Smedley, who was known to me. Her lower clothing was disarranged, and a slash in the form of a cross had been made on her stomach, a head wound left little doubt in my mind that she was already dead. I summoned PC West with my whistle and on his arrival I went to the premises of W. W. Turfell, the local newsagent, to telephone the station. I arrived back at the scene and stood guard over the body while P.C. West searched the yard. His search turned up a brick sticky with blood. On the arrival of D.C. Harrington, P.C. West and I did a further inspection of the yard by flashlight, finding nothing else of an incriminating nature. D.I. Brierly arrived as we made our search. It began to rain heavily and D.I. Brierly made the decision to remove the body and dismissed P.C. West and me, requesting that we return to the station and make this statement.
5.45am. 1st September 1929 P.C. (64) William Dexter.
‘That agrees with what I’ve written, covers the facts as we know them,’ he said. ‘Sign it an’ give it to the desk. A cup of tea and let’s go home.’
Vicky’s was one of those cases that never really made the news. Shortly after leaving the scene, even before getting back to the station, the rain increased with a vengeance, coming down in buckets no doubt washing the scene clear of any further clues as to the perpetrator. Drawing a cape from the stores; I walked home, squelching and splashing. I remembered the knife. I hadn’t mentioned it in my statement. I’ll amend it when I sign on tonight I thought.
I arrived home about my usual time; Alice stood waiting at the kitchen stove.
‘Bacon and egg for my brave… What’s the matter?’ she asked, sensing I was depressed.
‘Nothing!’ I said, with as much of a grin as I could manage.
‘William Dexter; don’t treat me like a fool; something has shaken you up!’
‘Mm!’ I nodded.
‘Tell me my Sweet; it worries me when you’re like this!’
‘I found the body of a young woman just after midnight,’ I said feeling the bile rise again prompted by the smell of frying bacon and causing me to dash out to the WC.
The rain had an even more devastating effect than washing the scene of Vicky’s murder clean. Boundary Road, as its name suggests, is on the edge of the town on the south side. The town cemetery sits on a plateau about a hundred feet above the town. Boundary Road climbs steeply up past the cemetery, known locally as Cemetery Hill. When electric trams came to the town around nineteen-hundred, Cemetery Hill was recognised as being too steep for them and it was excavated back to reduce the gradient, thus leaving a high pavement on the town side of the road and requiring a high stone wall to be built to support the cemetery on the other side. The abnormally dry spell had caused cracks in the ground everywhere, but especially where it had been disturbed. It had been commented on in the local newspaper that graves were sinking and a large gap had appeared between the earth and the new retaining wall both inside the cemetery and where the wall met the roadway. The rain that had started the previous night had continued without let-up; nature catching up on things I suppose. Just before midday on the day of the discovery of Vicky’s body the cemetery wall collapsed, burying a town-bound tramcar, and cascading mud, coffins and corpses across the road and down the hill. The rain continued without a moments break and the scene was a nightmare. Just before one o’clock I was seconded to South Division to give such assistance as they might need.
Although no-one had actually witnessed the tramcar being engulfed, it wasn’t on the track beyond the cemetery and hadn’t arrived at the marketplace its terminus in the town. That made the most important job the herculean task of attempting to find survivors. Since it looked as though the wall had toppled over, rather than collapsed in a pile, the chance of anyone still being alive was remote. There was however no shortage of volunteer diggers; dozens of people had turned up with shovels and buckets to do whatever they could. The rain continued unabated and the hill was a sea of mud, added to from time to time by further falls and slips of earth, coffins or their grizzly contents. Little was being achieved and it was clear that something more effective was required. At about four-fifteen in the afternoon help arrived in the form of a detachment of the local army regiment. Equipped with a convoy of motor-lorries and a hundred or so skilled sappers they soon began to make noticeable inroads on the task. Even so, it was obvious that it would take several days to create a full rescue. Two groups were detailed to move such coffins as were still in one piece. One of the vehicles was loaded with rough wooden coffins, probably a remnant stock from the Great War.
Once the army took control we were asked to keep the general public at bay. I was detailed to stand at the foot of the high pavement and allow only such people who lived in the houses up the hill to pass, dodging into the shop doorway at the bottom of the hill when the rain did its worst. Standing there in that shop doorway as darkness fell, the rain ran off the canopy forming a little silvery curtain a foot in front of me. To stop myself dwelling on the crumpled body of Vicky Smedley, I forced myself to think how the war had affected my childhood.
I was six when it started, too young to realise what it would mean. At first everyone expected it to be a rather jolly, gentlemanly affair. The general thinking was that it would consist of set battles. “All be over and back home by Christmas!” was the way people saw it. The reality had of course been somewhat different. I lived in Derby then. Dad worked on the Chaddesden railway sidings, reorganising incoming goods trains into new trains for their onward journey. We had lived in a railway cottage, a terraced house really I suppose, a couple of streets away from Derby Racecourse. I can’t ever remember it being used as a racecourse. My first memory of it was as a training ground for soldiers before going off to France. As each regiment of soldiers moved off to join the battle, on their last night here they had a farewell party. All the kids in the neighbourhood were invited and given the unimaginable feast of sausage and mash followed by spotted dick and custard; we pushed and shoved for that. They put on a little show for us with singing and dancing, then, next day they were gone, replaced by a new lot to start the process all over again.
Shortages were severe. Rationing didn’t start until close to the end of the war. The thing that first hit me was the way Mr Saunders’ sweet shop had altered. His window had always been filled with dozens of big glass sweet jars; acid drops, rhubarb and custard, and Dad’s favourite, bull’s eyes. Thursday was payday and Dad would put his wage packet on the kitchen table. Mam would feel in the pocket of her pinafore and produce a two ounce tin of St Bruno. Dad always said the same “Thank you my love”, and they would have a peck of a kiss. Each week there was always three pence “left over” after Mam had put the money away. She had a collection of tins, assorted tobacco and cough-drop tins, into which she shared the money. The rent was always done first, the money placed in an old St. Bruno tobacco tin for payment on Monday morning. “Must keep a roof over our heads” she said every week as she closed the tin, though at six the significance was lost on me. I can’t remember what the other tins were for, only really being interested to see if the magic thre’pence would be there again that week. Always it was there, so that my sisters Edith, Florence (I called her Flossie) and I had a penny each to spend in Mr Saunders’ shop after school on Friday. Once the war had started the bottles in the window got fewer and fewer. As each one emptied, it disappeared from the window, never to be replaced. One day as we passed the sweet shop, we saw the blinds were down and a notice on the door said, “Closed for the duration”. It turned out that Mr Saunders had been called up to join the army. As kids of course we just thought – Oh! – no more sweets. We never saw him again.
One day, I remember it was a Saturday and it must have been a bit after twelve o’clock, Dad only worked till twelve on a Saturday and he had just arrived home. He had put his hand on my shoulder and said,
‘I’ve been thinking, we should be doing something to help us win the war, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, but what can I do?’ I remember asking.
‘We could help best by trying to feed ourselves so that we don’t need to buy so much from the shop.’
‘There would be more for other people?’
‘No… well yes there would be… an’ good to think that way. No I was just thinking of our family Mam and the girls an’ us two chaps. Staying healthy and happy, that’s what we should try to do for ourselves. What do you think Will?’
‘Yes,’ I nodded, ‘but how?’ feeling grown up by being consulted.
‘It’ll be hard work and I can’t do it on my own. Will you help me son?’
‘Yes Dad,’ I said and I meant it.
‘Right then we’ll start now,’ he said.
But Mam had called us to the table for her famous stew. Rabbit that I remember tasted especially good since Dad and I had a plan of action…
A voice broke into my thoughts
‘Still on duty constable?’ it asked bringing me back to reality.
‘Yes sergeant,’ I replied, though clearly I was.
‘You’re from North Division?’
‘Had a murder there last night!’
‘Yes, I found the body.’
‘You found Vicky Smedley?’
‘Yes!’ I nodded, the scene flooded back to me, causing an involuntary shudder.
‘Bloody hell lad that must have been a shock. Your first murder?’
‘Yes, sergeant, head all bashed in and badly slashed… actually made me sick.’
‘No disgrace in that, son. If you were on duty then you should have finished at six this morning?’ he asked.
‘I did. Called back in for this lot at one, arrived here at just before two, sergeant.’
‘It’s ten-to-ten,’ he said, taking out his pocket watch. ‘Nothing more we can do here, bugger off home lad. I’ll sign you off at ten. Get a hot bath if you can.’
‘Thank you sergeant, good night,’ I said, as we both saluted.
To my wife Pauline
Thanks must go to the archives department of Canadian Pacific Railway for their assistance with checking the travel arrangements in force in the winter of 1929.
Copyright © 2018 Dennis Talbot
The right of Dennis Talbot to be identified as the
author of this work, including the composition of the front cover, has been asserted in accordance with
All Rights Reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise) without the previous written permission of the copyright holder.
This is a work of fiction.
All characters, places and events other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any
resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
First Published in 2018
If you are searching for a great historical fiction or crime mystery then Dennis Talbot’s, The Killing of Cristobel Tranter, is for you! I was immediately drawn to the book because the main character, Will Dexter, has a great history and a fascinating job. He is a police constable who right off the bat finds the body of a dead woman.
This novel expertly mixes Dexter’s home life, past and the thrilling police work necessary to find the killer.
One of the things I found most impressive about this novel was the dialogue. Dialogue can make or break a book, and Talbot did a wonderful job of making it feel authentic. I enjoyed the quirky slang and period appropriate wording. It really helped in character building because it created dynamic characters.
Britt13 On Line book Club
What readers have said:
An outstanding and gripping novel that is a MUST READ!
This is a historical detective novel with a cracking story, couldn’t put it down!
A brilliant story that captures the era so well, more please!
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