Calamity in Kent: A British Library Crime Classic

Calamity in Kent: A British Library Crime Classic

In the peaceful seaside town of Broadgate, an impossible crime occurs. The operator of the cliff railway locks the empty carriage one evening; when he returns to work next morning, ...

About The Author

John Rowland

JOHN ROWLAND (1907–1984) was a publisher, journalist, civil servant and Unitarian minister whose detective novels have long been neglected. This ...

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Chapter I

In Which All the Trouble Begins

As soon as I saw the fellow I was sure that I was in for some trouble. It was not merely that he was acting queerly; quite apart from the fact that he seemed to be drunk, or stunned, or shocked, there was something queer, almost grotesque, about his appearance. He had a shock of red hair which had not seen a comb for many a long day. Stray locks hung unti- dily about his forehead. The fact that he wore thick-lensed spectacles with heavy horn-rims added to the queerness of his appearance. And he staggered about the front at Broadgate as if he was drunk.

I took rather a dim view of this chap interrupting my morning stroll. I had come down to Broadgate, that pleasant little seaside resort in Kent, to convalesce after an operation, and I had no desire to be worried in the course of a before- breakfast walk. I had, indeed, been enjoying the luxury of a lazy ramble along the front, breathing in the air with real delight. But then, in the distance, just where the little cliff railway (commonly called the Broadgate Lift) ran from the top of the cliff through a tunnel down to the beach, I saw this odd-featured man staggering about.

It was all more than a trifle odd. “James London, my lad,” I said to myself. “There is more in this than meets the eye.” I had not spent some years in the service of sundry Fleet Street journals for nothing. The experienced journalist who has been running a column of comment, like my “London Calling,” which used to be a feature in one morning paper, gets to know, by a kind of special sense, what is likely to be exciting news. And, in spite of the fact that I was supposed still to be a rather sick man, I felt my pulses racing at the idea that there might at this moment be breaking a news story which would be worth while. I was, in a sense, a freelance, since my illness had led me to resign from the post that I had occupied; but I knew that if this was anything more than a mere ten-days’ wonder, any of the London dailies would be glad to appoint me, on a purely temporary basis, as a special correspondent to deal with the matter that was now attracting my attention.

I don’t think that, in thus analysing my state of mind as I saw red-head staggering over the front at Broadgate, I am reading too many of my future ideas into my state of mind on that first day. I am pretty sure that what I have written went through my mind in quicker time than it has taken you to read it. And it certainly was a trifle odd that the man should stagger about in that way.

After all, it is only the most determined drinker who is drunk at a seaside resort at nine o’clock on a June morning. I did not believe that he was drunk. I had come down to Broadgate for a rest-cure; as I have said, I really took a poor view of this fellow upsetting my arrangements—I already felt that he might do that. But at the same time no journalist worth his salt can resist investigating a queer story that comes his way.

Therefore I walked briskly along the front until I came close to the red-headed monstrosity. He was now sitting on one of the seats. His head was held between his hands. He was leaning forward on the seat. I stood by him in silence for a moment. The very attitude of his body suggested shock or dejection or some great emotional crisis.

“In trouble, brother?” I said.

He did not reply. He did not even move. This, I thought, was queerer than ever. Surely my instinct had not been at fault? Surely this was not just an ordinary drunk, the only unusual part of the matter being the time?

I put my hand on his shoulder, and he jumped as if he had been shot.

“What is it?” he snapped. His voice was quiet, almost gentlemanly, if you know what I mean.

“In trouble?” I said for the second time.

He looked up at me. His eyes, I was surprised to see, had a greenish tinge. And at the back of those eyes was what I thought must be fear. Nothing else in the way of emotion would account for that queer glint in them.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.

“Can I help?” I asked. My journalistic instincts were now thoroughly roused, and I felt sure that something extremely odd was going on. There was something very queer about this man and the way in which he was talking. I thought that it would be as well to try to calm him down a bit, so  I sat down by his side, leaned back on the seat and crossed my legs. I got out my cigarette case, selected a cigarette, and held out the case to my companion.

“Have one?” I asked.

“Thanks.” He accepted gratefully. I lit it for him, noting that his hand was shaking painfully. He inhaled the smoke and puffed it out spasmodically. I now knew for certain that there was some trouble ahead of me. I tried to struggle against it, but I did not struggle very hard. What journalist would?

“What’s the trouble, brother?” I said.

“There’s a dead man in my lift,” he replied, in flat unemo- tional tones, as if he was merely making some remark about the weather.

“What?” It was my turn to be shocked, and, while I thought that I was pretty well shock-proof at my time of life, I was unable to stop myself shouting out this word.

“There’s a dead man in my lift,” he repeated, still without any kind of excitement in his tones.

“Where’s your lift?” I asked.

He indicated the gate behind him, the gate which led to the entrance of the cliff railway. For the moment I had forgotten that it was usually called the Broadgate Lift.

“You are the operator of the lift?” I enquired. He nodded.

“And when did you find this dead man?” I asked. “When I unlocked the gates this morning.” Red-head was

thawing a bit now, getting almost chatty, I thought. It seemed that he had suffered from a pretty considerable shock, and the fact that I was giving him a chance to unburden himself was something that he very much appreciated.

“What time was this?” I asked.

He glanced at his wrist-watch. “About ten minutes ago,” he said quietly. “During the season the lift starts working at nine o’clock. It finishes at night at half-past six.”

I considered this for a moment. “Then you locked it up at half-past six last night?” I said.

“Yes.”

“And the corpse was not there when you locked up last night?” I said.

He shuddered slightly. “No,” he replied.

“But it was there when you opened the gates this morning?”

“Yes.”

“Were the locks tampered with in any way?” I asked. This seemed to me, at first sight, to be the obvious line of attack, though why on earth anyone should bother to get into a lift in order to die was something that it was not at all easy for me to understand.

“The locks hadn’t been touched,” he said. “I’d be prepared to swear to that.”

“What sort of locks were they?” I asked.

He paused for a moment before answering that one.    I got the feeling somehow that he was now at last realising that he was telling me a very queer tale. Indeed, I was already envisaging the headlines that the story would make. It seemed that my instinct when I had first caught sight of red-head had been true enough. This was a story that was going to hit the headlines all right. Just where it was going to lead it was impossible to say, of course; but that there would be some repercussions in Fleet Street and elsewhere I felt certain enough.

The man had not replied to my last question, so I thought that it might be as well to repeat it. “What sort of locks were they?” I said slowly, speaking as one might when speaking to a subnormal child.

“Padlocks,” he said. “The bottom gates are locked from the inside. Then the lift is brought to the top, and the gates are fastened by means of a padlock on the outside.”

I considered this. “What happens to the key?” I asked. It seemed to me to be as well to get all this clear before going any further in direct investigation—before, that is, having a look at the dead man who had appeared so mysteriously in the lift.

“I take it home with me,” the man said.

“And it is certain that no one pinched it from you during the night?” I remarked.

“Quite certain.”

“It had not been tampered with during the night?”

He shook his head with great emphasis. “The key is on the bunch in my trousers-pocket,” he said. “I take the bunch out of my pocket and put it on the dressing-table at night. I did that last night, and the bunch of keys was still there this morning. Nothing unusual happened, you see.”

I considered this. The fellow’s story hung together. It was sensible and rational enough, except for the fact that this corpse had appeared in a place where it had no business to be. I found it difficult to believe. Yet I knew that in a moment I should have the evidence of my eyes to prove that what the man said was true. After all, no one would spin a yarn of that sort without foundation.

I was resolved to keep my mind clear; and I thought that the best way of doing so was to get all the facts straight before I allowed my mind to be complicated by the view of the body in the lift.

“Might I have your name?” I asked.

“Bender,” he said. “Aloysius Bender.” And the rather fantastic name seemed to go well enough with his undeniably fantastic appearance. He swept the long red hair away from his forehead with a weary gesture of his hand.

“And you live?”

“In King’s Square,” he said. “You see, I am a pensioner. I had a nasty wound in the war, which left me with a limp.” He indicated his leg. Now I understood why he staggered. It was partly the effect of his war wound, which had left him with a really nasty limp.

I had been at the start almost repelled by the man’s odd appearance. Now I was beginning to like him. The whole thing had clearly been a terrific shock to him, which was understandable enough. Now he was beginning to get over the first shock, and was therefore in every way more normal.

“This dead man in your lift,” I went on. “Do you know who it is?”

He shook his head. “The man was a complete stranger to me,” he said. “Never saw him in my life before that I know. But, of course, we get a lot of strangers down here during the season.”

I nodded. “Got any idea how he got into your lift?” I asked. “I can’t think,” he admitted.

I looked around me. The sea stretched out, blue and clean, before us. On either side stretched the quiet, peaceful promenade of Broadgate. And behind us the neat houses of the little Kentish town straggled up the hill. The whole situ- ation seemed to be wrong. It was not here that one would have expected to find sudden death. Of course, I knew well enough the slogan of some famous journalist—was it Lord Northcliffe?—that the unexpected always happens. But the fact that such a thing has been said doesn’t mean that we are any the less surprised when it comes off. And as I looked at the red-headed man by my side I reflected that this was yet again one of those things.

Trite enough, I suppose; but before I was finished I was to see that it was by no means one of those things—it was something queer and fantastic, something that was almost, if not quite, unbelievable.

Aloysius Bender was sitting quiet all this time. The chap had clearly been hard hit by what had happened. So much had the whole affair hit him that he was still, although more or less recovered from the primary shock, unable to take in much of what was going on.

I spoke again. The thing was, I told myself, to get as much as I could out of him now, before the police got on to him. I knew that, at any rate in theory, I should have reported everything to the Kentish police before I did anything in the way of questioning. But I was first of all a journalist; and the idea that I might well be getting on to a genuine scoop right away was something that no journalist could resist, even at the risk of getting on the wrong side of the law. And anyhow I knew that if the local police showed any signs of cutting up rough, my old friend Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard would do something to pull me out of any spot of trouble in which I might manage to involve myself. In any case, a journalist, unless he is doing something really flagrantly illegal, will always let his news-sense get the upper hand.

So I asked Bender: “Any idea of how the man came to die? I mean to say, was there any sort of indication of whether he had had a fit or anything of that kind?”

Bender grinned. It was the first time, in fact, that there had been indication of emotion, apart from fear, in his face. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I know how the man died all right.” “You do?” This was better still, I told myself. I am not a ghoul, I should warn you, but I am a journalist, as I think

I have mentioned more than once already. “Yes. He was murdered.”

I suppose that I should have been prepared for this, but as the words came out I felt a little shudder, partly of excite- ment, partly of alarm, run up my spine.

“Murdered?” I said.

“Yes. He was lying on his face, and the hilt of a nasty-looking knife was sticking out of his back.”

Again the headlines flashed before my eyes. I really was in on something big here. As soon as I had had a look at the body I should really have to phone London. And I ran over in my mind the sundry news editors known to me, any one of whom would be prepared to appoint me as their special representative for the time, to send exclusive news of this affair. For the time being, I was well ahead of everyone else— ahead even of the police—on what might well turn out to be the crime of the season. The well-trained journalist gets, without too much difficulty, to recognise the crime which is going to hit the headlines, and to see that it is definitely of more interest than another murder which is worth only a paragraph on an inside page.

And if I knew anything about it, this Broadgate murder was one which was going to pack the headlines on the front pages for a good many days to come. And I had the incredible luck to be in at the start!

The fact that, technically speaking, I was still a sick man did not worry me unduly. I knew that I had made a good recovery, and that this little holiday at Broadgate was merely an extra precaution which my doctor had decided to take. In any event, sick or not, this chance of a scoop was the sort of thing that no worthwhile journalist could possibly disregard. I resolved to take Bender in my confidence.

“Look here, Mr. Bender,” I said. “I happen to be a journalist. This may be a great chance for me.”

He looked a little scared. “You mean…you mean that the papers will print all about this?” he said.

“Well.” I grinned. “It’ll be one of the sensations of the century,” I said. “After all, a man murdered in a locked lift. It’s a real mystery, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” he admitted. But there was something a bit reluctant about his tone. I wondered if I had made a mistake by telling him who and what I was. Still, the damage was done now, if, indeed, it was damage. And the next job was obviously to see what I could about the dead man.

“Can I have a look at the body?” I asked.

“What about the police?” he responded. I had been wondering how long it would be before he got around to that. Still, I knew that I could handle him.

“If I come with you to the lift,” I said, “that will be an extra witness. It will give you support if they ever come round to suspecting you.”

“You think they might?” There was a real quaver about his voice now. There was no doubt that I had put some fear into his heart by suggesting that he might perhaps come under suspicion. I was sorry for the chap in a way. But I had to put my own future as a journalist first. This might well put me on the Fleet Street map again, after the long absence from newsprint which had been caused by my illness.

“I’ll be a perfect witness to support you, Mr. Bender,” I said. “Lead on to the lift! I’ll see what there is to be seen, and then we’ll fetch the police in. Don’t worry; there’ll be no trouble for you, no trouble at all.”

I could see that his mind was not really at ease. He was more than a bit worried. Probably he hadn’t realised, until I reminded him, that this was to become a front-page sensation in the press. But all the same he had enough sense to see that I might well be of some use to him, if he ever came under suspicion of this murder.

So, like a lamb, he led the way towards the lift. I was excited enough. The prologue, I told myself, was over. The first act of the play was about to begin.

Reviews of

Calamity in Kent: A British Library Crime Classic

“First published in 1950, this reissue of a detective story set in a British seaside resort is an exhilarating example of the “impossible crime,” or locked-room, mystery. Rowland shows how a journalist might see what a cop doesn’t see, and vice versa, in intriguing ways, as the murder spans out into a black-market petrol conspiracy worthy of Foyle’s War. This riveting reissue is part of the British Library Crime Classics series. (Starred review)”

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