A COWARDICE OF CROWS - A SYMINGTON BYRD MYSTERY

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THE PREMISE

 

Sometimes death is simple: to all intents and purposes, an open and shut affair. An old man dies in his sleep, a child trips and falls down the stairs, a woman goes under a train as it hurtles through a tunnel.

All tragic in their ways, all mourned: all above board. No need for the police, except to confirm what the family already knew.

The old man's heart gave out. The child - not watching where they were going - simply tripped and fell. The woman, unhappy in love, chose a violent way to end her life.

Except...

Looks can be deceiving.

The man held his ground, blocking the corridor door from her sight. "Where’s the photos, Millie?" The pretence of Mr Nice Guy gone.

"Not so bleedin fast. You’ll get your photographs when I gets me money. All of it. Every last shilling of it." The carefully turned out blond emphasised her point by poking her companion with a kid gloved finger.

"Bitch."

"Takes one to know one." She laughed again – a shrill bitter sound that ricocheted around the compartment. "Now are you going to pay up or am I going to tell HER and The Pawnbroker what’s goin on?"

As if to emphasise her threat, the train whistle sounded and for a brief moment, until the carriage lights flared, they were in darkness.

The man’s face – already pasty - lost all colour. "Don’t you fuckin’ dare, Millicent Jones!" he snarled.

"Then pay up and I’ll keep silent."

With another oath, the man rummaged in his pockets and withdrew an envelope full of cash. He stared at it briefly and had Millie been paying him any attention, she might have been worried about the look that flickered across his face. As it was: she only had eyes for the money.

Money, which he all but threw at her. "Take that!  It’s all you’re gettin. And if you try for any more…"

"Yeah bollocks it is! You’ll pay as much as I tell you to, as often as I tell you. You and  all the others. Too much to lose if you don’t. Gold don’t like people like you!" Grinning with all the confidence of one who’s got her own way, Millie turned on her patent heels and began counting the money. "Now sit down like a good little boy", she told him in a patronising tone. "And don’t say anything 'til we’re out of this bleeding tunnel."

So engrossed was she with her activity that Millie didn’t realise there was anything around her neck until it was too late.

She struggled. Put up a good fight. But the scarf was wound tightly and wouldn’t budge. Her eyes bulged; her feet slipped from under her. Flayed outwards at an unnatural angle. The man turned the ends of the scarf once more for good measure. It was over.  With a laugh, he pushed her body onto the seat, grabbed the wad of cash and stuffed it in his pocket. Then he opened the corridor door to let a second man into the compartment. "Find the picture, will you?" he ordered as the new man shut the door carefully behind him. "We’ll take the case, and look for her bloody diary later."

The second man, slightly thinner, and obviously more underfed than his companion, nodded and with a ruthless efficiency went through her coat and bag. "Got it." He stuffed the small black and white shot into his pocket, put her purse into her coat pocket and then removed a small piece of jewellery from his own jacket pocket. "Now, let’s see the pawnbroker wriggle his way out of this!" So saying he dislocated Millie’s jaw and shoved the piece as far down her throat as he could get it. Then he punched the dead woman until the cheek bones cracked and her face flattened. "Give us your scarf man. I don’t want them finding out how we did it!"

"Hurry up will you?" The other man snapped. "You and your bloody theatrics! We’ll be out the tunnel if we ain’t careful."

 

As the external door swung open, filling the compartment in the way Millie predicted but never expected, the two men got to work. Dragging the dead woman into an upright position, the wirier of the two men gave one hard shove and Millicent Jones – who had always been so careful of her appearance in life – fell under the train.

                                                                                                                                         ~~~

CHAPTER 1

 

Note from: William Melville M03, and sent to Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, Prime Minister, July 1902

 

Sir,

 

Unless otherwise indicated (as extracts from individual reports, journals and diaries) the following account is compiled from the testimony of eyewitnesses, and those closely involved with the case. For ease, they have been identified purely as "compiled from reports" - rather than name the individuals concerned.

 

LONDON

THURSDAY OCTOBER 4TH 1900,

 

Muffled against the night, a tall, professional looking man barged past an elderly lady, slammed his money under the nose of the ticket seller, and demanded a return to Brighton; then he ran – as though possessed by the devil along the platform towards the engine. There were plenty of empty carriages, but he was focussed on one door in particular, and reached it just as the train was beginning to chug slowly on its way. The carriage door opened and the man swung himself into the compartment.

"Strange place for a meeting! Would have thought you’d have been better working out a hotel, given what you do for the old man," he said to the woman who had let him in.

Millie didn’t bother either to acknowledge the newcomer’s arrival or to move her handbag, forcing the man to sit opposite her, with his back to the engine. "Trains are private," she told him when she eventually deigned to speak. "Carriage like this. Two exits. Can see who’s coming. Don’t get no interruptions. Specially if you bribe the conductor." Millie leant forward, allowing the man a good glimpse of bosom. "Want a bit of bribery, love?" He blushed and she laughed nastily at his obvious discomfort. "Considering why you’re here, I don’t recall you being a shy one." She laughed again and the man’s blush intensified.

In an attempt to ignore her the man went to open the window, causing smoke to gush into the confined space. "Oi don’t do that," Millie snapped. "We’re coming up to Merstham tunnel."It’ll smoke like Canton Sue’s bleedin opium den if you don’t shut the window." She pushed past the man and slammed the window closed. "Look stop crowdin me."

FROM: THE CASEBOOK OF SYMINGTON,  EARL BYRD

MAYFAIR, LONDON

THURSDAY NOVEMBER 1, 1900.

 

Why was I brought in? A good question.

At first glance Miss Jones' death bore all the appearance of a suicide. But the police surgeon had suspicions that went further than the usual post mortem afforded to such an unfortunate wretch. Certainly it was a consequence of his endeavours that an even more gruesome discovery was made. At this point in the case, still not enough to warrant my involvement; but sufficient for Chief Inspector Sir Charles Carter (CC to his friends) to be brought in to head the case. And it was he who brought me in. Within minutes of reading the Police Surgeon's report, a rider had been dispatched to my Mayfair flat, said report burning a proverbial hole in his satchel.

A woman had been thrown from a train; murdered by person or persons unknown.

The graphic nature of her death made grim reading.

But I'll be honest, brutal her death though her death was, it was not the thing that brought the messenger to my door  on November 1st 1900. It was the House of Commons cufflink stuffed down her throat.