A Small Mystery for Detective-Inspector Quarally and Sergeant Dumpstry

by Brewster on May 5, 2014

Along the shore of northwestern England there existed several National Defence Installations guarded by bored young soldiers and, occasionally, bored young local police constables.  This latter fact had brought The Colonel to the Gulley County village of Dummerton in the guise of the recently appointed civilian head of the county’s police force and, consequently, a position superior to Detective-Inspector Quarally and his junior partner Sergeant Dumpstry. Of course they resented being led by a civilian appointee but as was always the case, they bowed before the tradition, and The Colonel’s authoritative demeanour, firm control of himself and equally firm belief in his ability to direct the constabulary soon mitigated, if not completely eradicated, their antagonism to the point where they worked together with a sufficient amount of smoothness to carry out their duties with a minimum of friction. It helped matters that The Colonel did not interfere in the majority of cases requiring police involvement.  The murder of one of the local policemen on guard duty at one of the Defence Installations did not fall into that majority.

After one of his men discovered the body of the unfortunate lad, the commander of the guard shift made one telephone call to his commanding officer, who in turn, shifting the responsibility for the actions to ensue to the civilian side, and thus relieving himself of the dreadsome procedures of investigating what appeared to be a murder on his patch but not one of his, he called the highest ranking official of the local police: The Colonel.

Urging the Royal Army lieutenant to secure the crime scene, The Colonel hung up the black bakelite apparatus and groaned, exactly the reaction expressed by Detective-Inspector Quarally after he replaced the receiver on The Colonel’s call to action.

Wearily, the pre-maturely grey-haired police official called through the open office door to his subordinate, “Dumpstry, order a motor right away, there’s a good chap. We’ve got a presumed murder out at the X Facility, one of ours unfortunately. No, we don’t know who yet. We’ll call the substation from the car and inquire.” Dumpstry pressed the appropriate intercom button, gave the appropriate order, sighed silently, popped the battered grey fedora on his bright red hair and walked out to the car park where he found Quarally behind the wheel of the black Humbler. He rarely allowed the Sergeant to drive the worn but fast old vehicle with the dull siren whose honking call of two blaring notes never failed to excite the Detective-Inspector.

“Do we really need that, sir? It scares babies and cats. The fellow is dead after all.” As always when admonishing his superior officer, the Sergeant’s tone of voice suggested nothing more than a casual but legitimate concern for the well-being of others in the animal kingdom, certainly not his own. In this instance the siren did in fact cause several infants to wail and as many cats of various ages to scuttle under beds meowing loudly as the motor vehicle sped through the grey afternoon. Villagers made telephone calls and officials made several more, and The Colonel eventually conducted a private chat with the Detective-Inspector whose future use of the mechanism diminished considerably, and who for years thereafter could not suppress the suspicion that his sergeant stood at no distance at all from the origin of The Colonel’s admonition.

Under a dull grey sky that persistently threatened rain, which often fell in lazy drizzles during the day and with thunderous force at night, the body of the young constable lay under a yellow tarp beneath the stone wall that separated the facility from the public road some twenty meters away. The killer had shot the dead man in the forehead at point blank range. Judging from the look of utter surprise on his face, the victim harboured no expectation of becoming a victim, which led the Detective-Inspector’s not unreasonable speculation that he, the dead man, knew his murderer.  The Colonel, who had arrived at the scene moments before the two policemen, agreed this might be the case.

The taped-off area now contained all the officials and paraphernalia involved with a violent death, all scurrying around doing their jobs under the benevolent eye of The Colonel who had already spoken with the lieutenant in charge of the military guard patrol to agree on jurisdiction and other such matters. The lieutenant was happy to turn the entire matter over to the local police once it had been fairly established that the murder appeared, at least for the moment pending further investigation, was in no way related to the Defence of the Realm.

“Mr Quarally.” The Colonel approached the detective who was doing his best not to peer at the hole in the dead man’s forehead. “All seems in your good hands, so I’ll be off. Do keep me informed, will you.”

The Detective-Inspector readily agreed to do so and watched as the other climbed into his new, bright red Land Rover and drove off. “Right,” he said to the Sergeant, “let’s get started. We won’t wait for the autopsy; it won’t tell us much more that what the poor fellow had for breakfast and what caliber pistol did the job.”

Dumpstry nodded, his face passive, and murmured, “It will also give us the approximate time of death, sir, which may be helpful.”

Qaralley nodded in turn. “Indeed, indeed.” He paused on the way to the car. “Give a call to the substation and get his coordinates and personal data, married, single, etc.”

Sergeant Dumpstry said, “Will do”, climbed into the car and lifted the telephone mechanism. The Detective-Inspector drove.

Later, of course, they remembered it quite differently.

The Colonel experienced a small degree of disappointment over the fact that there were apparently no connexions between the poor fellow’s death and any international espionage fiddle-faddle; had there been the case would have been far more interesting to him.  On the other hand, and there typically was another hand, the fact that this appeared to be purely a civilian matter meant he could leave the investigation to Quarally and his staff of professional policemen about whose talents as rural enforcers of the law he harboured little doubt, though he did occasionally wonder how Quarally had attained the rank he currently held. No matter, the Colonel would soon be gone: he had already discovered the source of the leak of secret information about the National Defence Installations’ components, the real reason for his presence in the county – the middle-aged female miscreant had been arrested, urgently protesting her innocence, and awaited trial. Part of her urgency, she admitted to the arresting military police, was the fact that she had left a chicken boiling on her stove, which at some point might injure her kitty should the smallish creature decide to look into the source of the roiling odour emanating from the abused pot.  She could not, she said with some embarrassment, trust her traveling salesman husband to return to their cottage on the outskirts of the village providentially in time to turn the offending burner off.  The Colonel smiled briefly but with a modicum of satisfaction as he departed the X Facility and the commanding officer ordered a corporal to attend to the matter of the chicken in the pot.

Whilst Quarally sat at home in his Spartan bachelor digs with two friends playing a game of cards with few dependable and understandable rules on the edge of the village of Dummerton, the same village where Dumpstry ate a riotous supper with his wife and two small daughters after which the adults put the children to bed, having administered a mild sleeping draught, and settled in for a few hours of peace and quiet, she reading The Ambassadors, he contemplating the results thus far of the investigation into the death, clearly murder, perhaps even aforethought, of the young constable, whose name was actually Henry Jones, a single man but engaged to a lively village girl and living with his father in a cottage in the next village to Dummerton with the curious name of Stag’s Leap, curious because, while the neighbouring fields may have contained a stag or two, the utterly flat landscape boasted nothing nearing the height of a minor hill, not even a vague protuberance on the fens sufficiently high to justify the term “leap”.

The villagers of the Leap questioned by the dead constable’s colleagues from the nearby substation were uniform in their praise of the young man’s rectitude, promptness, and general innocuous behavior. No one there could think of anyone who might have harboured sufficient hatred or quick-trigger temper to have done the horrible deed, at the least no one among the interviewed would admit to such.  Village loyalties ran wide and deep and the inhabitants all lived happily and peacefully in the grace of the gods (or fates) who allowed them to bask in the paradisiacal social and economic climate of this most perfect of all English villages.  In short, no one seemed to possess any reason to do away with the young Henry Jones. But someone clearly did.  Uncomfortable thoughts plagued Dumpstry’s sleep that night.

The Colonel, annoyed at postponing his departure with his “niece”, who reasonably took advantage of the delay to pursue her study of the modern Greek language, telephoned the Detective-Inspector at the station twice the following day to spur the investigation on to an increased amount of speedy work. The exasperated Quarally nodded vigourously and assured his superior that he and his men could not work any faster than they already were. After the second somewhat tense telephone conversation he spoke with the Sergeant. “Dumpstry, there are two people in the Leap I believe we should talk to again. Get the motor, there’s a good chap.”

They drove through the end of a chilly rainy afternoon from Dummerton to Stag’s Leap, a distance of some 15 miles, and parked next to the village green on the wrong side of the street. Quarally suggested they have a pint before interviewing the couple he had decided required a second go-round. Looking up at the partially cloudy blue-gray sky, Dumpstry searched his mind for a polite but effective demurral, but found none. He considered the chill in the air and agreed: a smoky whisky would contribute to warming at least his interior organs, and two or three additional glasses would bring a warm flush to his cheeks and neck and the ability to mildly distance himself from the proceedings to follow.  However, being a good cop, he knew that one glass would be sufficient unto the day.

They sat in a corner booth in the public bar where the drinks were a tad cheaper than the saloon bar on the other side of the wall.  Dumpstry asked, “What caused you to think about another interview with the post mistress and her husband?”

Quarally sighed and sipped the tepid gin and bitters.  “You know how things like this go, Charles. Clues show up in the least expected places.” The Sergeant nodded but remained discretely silent and inconspicuously scratched the back of his head.

“And this,” Quarally said, waving his left arm briefly around the room, “this is an unlikely place, I would venture to say.”

“Yes sir, as unlikely as any where most of the villagers come and go throughout the day.” The Sergeant couched his response in a perfectly modulated neutral tone of voice, a talent he had worked out over the years of his association with the Detective-Inspector. The latter took most of the Sergeant’s camouflaged jibes at their face value and thus took no offense, but did occasionally wonder if his partner against crime might be travelling in deeper waters than he at first judged to be the case.

“And there,” Quarally nodded at the non-descript figure just entering the establishment who appeared to be anxious about something on his mind. “The husband of the postmistress,” he clarified the identity of the man who the Sergeant had known for eight years. “Always dressed in brown, have you noticed?”

Sergeant Dumpstry, who thought it only polite to come up with a reasonable form of response, in turn nodded and murmured, “Yes sir. He’s a hunter, the clothing blends into the local landscape.”

“The hunter home from the hills,” Quarally pronounced with the tone of authority he brought to statements about whose antecedents and relevance he was assured.

“To be sure, thought the landscape around here is pretty flat actually,” the Sergeant ventured.

“Nonetheless,” Quarally almost whispered. “Nonetheless, Charles, I fear we must arrest him for what our French colleagues would call a passionate crime.”

“O? A crime of passion?”

“Quite so, Sergeant, quite so.”

“There are things you have not informed me about, sir?”

“Humm … yes, I’m afraid I am in possession of certain information about the case which you as yet are unaware of.” Quarally did not actually beam like a dim light bulb as he imparted this bit of knowledge to the Sergeant, but a viewer unaware of the nature of the situation could be excused for the thought that the Detective-Inspector exuded a certain level of satisfaction vis-à-vis his companion.

“Then, perhaps –“ that unknowledgeable person began with some severity.

“Yes, yes, of course, but first let us have another drink. On me this time.”  As the Detective-Inspector walked to the bar, the Sergeant wondered at the phrase “this time” – he’d not had the opportunity to buy his superior a drink in more than a year. Furthermore, the curious behavior of his superior in rank never ceased to amaze, and occasionally truly astound the occasionally astonished Sergeant. Should they not be discussing this matter in the official confines of their offices at the station?

It seems that Mr and Mrs Roonable Smith, for this was the hunter and his postmistress wife’s conjugal name, were going through rather a rough patch in their marriage, as the Detective-Inspector explained, after first sipping his fresh lukewarm gin and bitters, and this had caused a few rather loud, if not raucous, arguments in their cottage, portions of which could be heard by pedestrians moving along the lane.  No one, it seems, took the most recent of these contretemps very seriously in the light of the fact that the Smiths’ behavior had been part of their less than wedded bliss for years and had not been physically, as opposed to verbally, violent, and thus had lost any shock value this method of connubial communication might once have had.

Having reached this point in his dissertation, the Detective-Inspector looked rather blankly at the Sergeant and murmured, “What about lunch? I’m suddenly very hungry.”

Not to be deterred, the Sergeant responded, “The perhaps culprit seems to have had the same idea so I’m sure we shan’t lose him in the meantime. Additionally, we know where he lives.” Indeed, Mr Smith appeared to be consuming the contents of a crockery pot accompanied by slices of soft, whitish bread and a pint of dark liquid the Sergeant guessed to be a stout, Guinness no doubt.

Having settled into their own meals, the Sergeant a cheddar cheese and fruit platter with a half-pint of ale, the Detective-Inspector a beef stew with yet another glass of room-temperature gin and bitters, the latter continued his discourse between mouthsfull of stew.

“You see, what I’m getting at is the importance of interviewing neighbours in cases like this one. Very important because neighbours know things, you see. We must of course be careful about the potential untrustworthiness of some testimony. That’s a fact of life for us coppers, right?”

The Sergeant contained his bafflement behind a façade of a full mouth chewing vigourously on an orange peel decorated with a tiny sprig of parsley that did not end up attached to his front teeth but finally found its way down to the appreciative belly the flatness of which its owner was secretly extraordinarily proud.

Before the Detective-Inspector could continue his homily on the use of caution when the police interviewed witnesses related however innocently to a crime, the door to the public saloon swung loudly open as a full-bodied woman in her late 40s charged into the room, hair and loose clothing of a slightly Bohemian character flying about unconstrained by any artificial sartorial device.  She marched up to her husband’s table, bent over and hissed at him in what the Sergeant later could only describe as an intense, snarling manner, and at some length, until her husband reached up and gave her a resounding slap on her right shoulder.  Having accomplished this unexpected act of violence, Mr Smith rose from the table and, grasping his wife by the shoulder he had so recently attacked, marched them both out the door into the street where two uniformed constables quietly but with firm conviction arrested both of them, he for excessive violence in a public house, and she for the murder of the young policeman on guard duty at the National Defence Installation.

“You see,” repeated the Detective-Inspector smiling with a broad look on his round face, “even with all the caution in the world, it just doesn’t do to ignore the testimony of neighbourhood witnesses.”

The Sergeant experienced several different and contradictory emotions as he struggled to digest both his cheese and fruit and the knowledge he had just been given: annoyance at his lack of involvement in the case, a creeping sense of hostility at the manner in which his superior officer had apparently been responsible for solving the case, and a modicum of admiration and wonder at the fact that the Detective-Inspector had caused the matter to be closed is such a quick and satisfactory process. He shook his head and responded in a soft, neutral tone of voice with a mere hint of a dying fall,” Well done, sir.”

Of course it wasn’t over at all: the perpetrators had to be brought to trial, convicted and sentenced. Given the damaging and convincing testimony provided by the neighbourhood witnesses, the jury brought in the verdict of guilty with regard to the postmistress, whose real name, it became clear in the courtroom, was Earline, so named by her father, whose nickname in certain circles was Speedy, because he really wanted a boy he could call Earl: guilty as charged. The jury recommended her husband Roonable Smith be let off on a short probation period because it seemed that he had suffered a broken heart as a result of the murder.

“You see,” the Detective-Inspector said to the Sergeant prior to the trial and its scandalous revelations, “it wasn’t at all as it seemed.”

“Not as we thought it to be?”

“Not at all,” Quarally said with satisfaction. “and the newspapers will undoubted get it all wrong as well.”

“They usually do, don’t they, sir?”

“Yes, no subtly there by any means, you see,”

And the Detective-Inspector proceeded to explain to his Sergeant that the entire matter had to be examined from a different perspective. Indeed the complicating factor, as it turned out to be, was the reversal of the normative situation pertaining to an intensely felt romantic triangle, as Quarally made clear in, to Sergeant Dumpstry, excruciating detail. Earline Smith had shot poor Henry Jones because he was having an affair with her husband Roonable Smith and thus had become a viable and immediate threat to her social standing in the small, tightly-knotted community in which they all lived.

          “Damn and blast!” the Colonel expostulated in a mildish tone. “A matter of sex and sympathy, lust and stupidity – what a banal combination to hold up my aeroplane. Over and done now thankfully.”  He looked fondly at his “niece” and said, “Let us be off then, my dear.”

Kali nichta,” she said with a smile and took his proffered arm as they walked across the tarmac toward the aircraft.

Portland, Oregon – Key West, Conch Republic

March-April 2014

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