The remainder of the train journey had not improved Taylor’s mood. Sir Archibald had remained cryptic about his presence, insisting that he was here merely to observe, for the moment, whilst his hulking companion had sat there, Taylor was sure, attempting to menace him with his chilling, silent gaze.
“All this Top Secret stuff, it’s a load of nonsense. If this is government business, what are we here for? And if it ain’t, what’re him and the darkie here for?”
They were crossing a series of low, grass-topped dunes toward a cluster of figures in the distance. From the station they had travelled by police car, along empty, early-morning roads to the beach, from where Wakely and Singh and struck out over the rough terrain with only a simple “follow me” from the older man.
“Thinking on it, there’s no reason for us to be dragged up here anyway. The locals should be able to handle a murder, and like I say, if it’s all ‘Top Secret’ then I’m sure they’re more than capable of hanging around looking official. It’s all a waste of my time!...oh, and yours, sir.”
The sun was still low in the sky, and a low sea mist was hanging over the dunes, refusing to be moved by the thin breeze coming off the sea. Ahead of them a cluster of figures, two constables, and four men in suits, stood in a loose knot around a figure lying on the beach. A small rowboat stood forlornly on the shore, a mute witness to the night’s drama.
“But anyway, if we are going to be acting for the Government it could be exciting eh? We could be hunting spies and communists and all sorts! You know sir, stuff like that ‘What are the Forty-Nine Steps?’”
The sergeant paused, his monologue broken.
“Thirty-nine Steps, Taylor. Thirty-nine. If you must drivel on in such a manner you could at least do so accurately.”
Inspector Morris sighed. Despite himself, the only thing he could think of, scanning the beach, was that it would make a good landing for a longboat, and at the moment a good spot of butchery and pillage would probably make him a good deal more relaxed. Whether he should start with the obtuse Ministry man ahead of him or his depressingly talkative Sergeant was currently beyond him. Ahead of him Sir Archibald reached the body, and turned towards the two policemen.
“Right then. If you’d like to start your investigation, I’ll observe for the moment and assist you if it becomes necessary.” he barked. “This is Sergeant Harrison, he’ll fill you in on what the local constabulary have discovered so far”
One of the suited men stepped forward. Morris noted that of the other three, one was stood near the rowboat, apparently gazing out to sea, whilst the others were stood with Sir Archibald, apart from the uniformed constables. More Ministry men, he thought. Harrison reached out, and shook the hands of the two Scotland Yard officers. He seemed nervous, glancing towards the other men there, and the body, as he stood back and fumbled for a notebook from his coat pocket. Taylor muttered something that Morris didn’t catch, although it was probably derogatory, but before he could question it, Harrison began a stumbling report.
“Erm….right, sir. The body was discovered about eleven last night, by a constable who was investigating reports of gunfire on the beach. The report was about 10, sir, but it took a while to get out here”
“Thought you’d wait until the shooters had left more like” muttered Taylor. Morris shot him a stern gaze.
“Just ignore Taylor, Harrison, his mouth isn’t always connected to his brain, I’m afraid”
“Yes sir, well….the constable got here, and found the body, did a quick search for ID and found a key for a boarding house. Not far from here, really, ‘Daleview’, it’s called. We got the landlady out here, so confirm his identity, a Mrs Merriweather, and she confirmed his name as James Kenton. Said he’d been boarding with her for about a week. He had a passport and so on with him too, which say the same. So we’re pretty sure it’s him. sir.”
Harrison shifted his feet in the sand, and looked around again, flipping pages in his notebook.
“Anyway, so we checked his room, and it was empty ‘cept for a few clothes and the like, and then Mrs Merriweather, she says that he’d left a phone number with her, in case of emergencies, so we rang that, and this gentleman,” he gestured at one of the men standing next to Wakely, who nodded to him, “Mr Wilson, he came over and said he worked for the government and we shouldn’t do anything else until someone came up to take over from us. So that’s what we did, sir”
Morris thanked Harrison, and stepped forward to survey the body. Kenton had been hit in the chest, a shotgun, by the look of it and pretty close range too. Thrown backwards, he lay spread-eagled out on the beach, in a thick smear of blood that had drained toward the sea, turning the sand black. The corpses face registered shock and pain, eyes staring at the grey skies, as if searching for the reasons for their owner’s sudden demise. Next to the body was a large black leather bag, opened and empty.
“Anything in that?”
“No sir, just like we found it”
“There was though. Something heavy, too, judging by the indentation left in the sand. Anything else on the body?”
“Just some papers sir. Passport, a few receipts, train ticket, and this sir, not sure what to make of it”
Harrison pulled out a small bag from a pocket, containing Kenton’s papers. He handed Morris a carefully folded piece of paper, typed both sides in small print. Morris read it carefully, a slightly puzzled look on his face, and passed it to Taylor.
“Here you go Sergeant, this looks more like your sort of thing”
The Sergeant took the paper, and started to read…
“…Sank deeper in the bowels of the earth. Grasping my torch tighter I descended after him, following the distant flickering of torchlight far ahead. The passageway was dry and straight at first, heading towards the depths with a surety that was unsettling, as if I were walking downwards along the barrel of great rock-hewn cannon, ages old. But the warnings of Wilmarth’s manuscript were soon proved to be true, as the track suddenly and without warning gave beneath my feet, sending me sprawling downwards into the dark abyss below.
The torch lay shattered by my feet, and I was now aware that I had fallen into some subterranean grotto, illuminated only by the phosphorescent mould growing on the walls, which afforded enough light for me to survey my new surroundings. The slope above me, my only hope of escape back to the warmth and security of the surface, was too steep to climb, and covered in loose rocks liable to fall at the touch of the unwary. The cavern itself was tall and cavernous, a cathedral of primeval rock, of which I stood by its high altar gazing into immeasurable darkness. In the distance I could hear dripping water, and the haunting whistle of wind moving through the myriad stalagmites and stalactites that to my mind were the pillars of this ancient church. Of Harpenden there was no sign.
I started to move down the aisle towards the sound of water. Dimly lit towers of rock formed gargantuan choir stalls to either side, and a pulpit of jutting basalt stood clear of the walls, ready to preach sermons to the stalls of witless fungi and careless insects that filled the body of the cathedral. The ground underfoot became first damp, and then carpeted in mosses, and an increasingly musty smell permeated the air. As I crossed the floor, beneath the towering, dimly-lit vaults, an oppressive air fell upon me. It was as if a millennia of silence had carved some malignant presence into the very naked rock, and the dim whistling ahead started to prey on mind as I grew closer to it’s unseen source.
At the back of the cathedral I reached the font, an upwelling of water from the rock, running off through a water-carved cutting in rock towards a crypt under this natural edifice. A cool breeze ran up though the passage, promising freedom from this dank place, but still the ethereal whistling came from ahead, deeper in the recesses of the cavern. For a moment I was torn. Should I continue to press on into the blackness? The vastness seemed to call to me, urging me to strike out and explore the full horrible beauty of this natural parody of man’s greatest works. But I remembered my purpose, stiffened my resolve, and disdaining further exploration of this strange, antediluvian place, I descended into the passage, towards the crypt. .
The passage was small and slippery, with such treacherous footing that I was only able to avoid a repeat of my plunge into the cathedral by bracing my aching body against the slime covered walls. It opened out into a crypt, illuminated only by the same moulds as the cavern above, with the water flow running into a wide and shallow lake, the contents of which filled me with wonder and horror!
For facing me was a mass of riveted iron, pitted and rusted from age, a ship, here, in this place! Impossible! Shaken, I felt my way around the hull until I found the anchor chain, embedded in the wall of the crypt. Here I climbed to the deck, and crossed the rotting wooden planking to the wheelhouse. Of the unfortunate crew there was no sign, but I was able to arm myself with a rifle strewn carelessly on the deck. My mind was reeling from my discovery. To find an ironclad here? I could not conceive of how or why it could be. That the papers I had read spoke of lost treasures in the caves was incredible enough, but to find a ship buried here seemed impossible. But here I stood at the wheelhouse, deep beneath the world, surrounded by darkness and…..”
“Well?” said Morris. “Recognise it from your excursions into the literary world?”
“No Sir, but maybe it’s not published? Looks like it was done on a typewriter to me. And there was more sir, at least a page before and after. And it’s a bit heavy, don’t you think, all this rock cathedral malarkey! And a ship in a cave? It’s like pirate stories from when I was kid! Anyway, you don’t think he was killed cos he was writing a book do you? Or cos his stole one?”
“No Sergeant, I don’t. But I was hoping you’d notice the writing in the margins, rather than subjecting it to literary criticism.”
Taylor looked back at the paper, turned it sideways, and read out load.
“‘Collier. 86 Kitchener Street’. Not a lot of help, sir. How many Kitchener Streets can there be? Anyway, seems pretty straightforward to me. We’ve got a good ID on this guy, he was carrying a bag from this row boat, and got shot. Probably by smugglers sir. Maybe he wanted more money, or they didn’t want to pay him. Probably Irish, to boot. They have a falling out, kill Kenton, take the stuff he was smuggling, leave us with the body. I don’t see what they need us for sir. No problem, really.”
“But there is a problem, Sergeant Taylor”
The voice came from the man by the rowboat, deep and steady as he turned to face the policemen. Taylor stepped back in surprise, and even the normally stoic Morris gasped at the clear identity of the man who faced them.
“This man cannot possibly be James Kenton. Because I am.”
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