Fiction

Rhyme Nor Reason

Phyllis Lee Peterson December 1 1948
Fiction

Rhyme Nor Reason

Phyllis Lee Peterson December 1 1948

Rhyme Nor Reason

Fiction

Phyllis Lee Peterson

DONCHER go ’way, Annie!”

The woman’s voice rose stridently above the steam that encircled the washtubs as she turned to where the child waited quietly.

“Doncher go gettin’ yerself lost now. There’s a luve!”

Her voice softened and she bent down to bestow a moistly maternal kiss on the white face in its pale frame of fair curls.

From the low doorway she watched the small figure’s erratic progress out to the sunshine upon the cobbled street and her heart filled with familiar alarm when the child’s crutch caught in the uneven stones.

“Watch yerself, Annie!”

Miraculously the lurching figure regained balance and the child turned to wave reassuringly before she continued her slow methodical way, the useless leg dragging behind her.

The woman wiped her hands in her apron absently and stood in the doorway, watching. Then she sighed and her shoulders sagged as she turned bach into the dim interior where the steaming washtubs waited.

THE FOREGOING is a reconstruction of the unimportant incidents that led up to the first murder, compiled from the thick dossier of notes and clippings which lay upon my desk. It is the opening scene in the drama of terror that gripped London and shook that usually stolid city to its foundations. How I became involved in the affair is another matter entirely.

It all began one morning about a month ago. I was sitting before my desk in the library, the sunlight dappling the bindings of the books that lined the walls, heightening the sombre richness of the room in which 1 had gathered the things I liked best. A half-consumed breakfast lay upou the tray in front of me as 1 leafed through the morning paper, when Steven entered with his usual noiseless tread and laid the card down before me. I yawned as I picked it up.

“Not an appointment at this ungodly hour, surely !”

Steven coughed, a dry, restrained cough, and I looked up at him quizzically. Now, Steven has looked after me for seventeen years, “done for me” is, 1 beiieve, the expression; and apart from a partiality for my particular brand of Scotch whisky, he is completely unobtrusive. His manner that morning told me that this was no ordinary visitor and I looked down again at the card in my hand.

“Inspector David Nixon,” it read. And in the corner the black words leaped up at me from their white background. “Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard.”

“Well, Steven,” I smiled as I saw his troubled face. “It must be you they’re after. Certainly I can’t get into much trouble!”

I gave the wheels on either side of my chair a push and propelled myself back from the desk.

“Here, clean up this mess, man! We can’t, keep the C.l.D. waiting. And put that rug over my legs! I don’t want to scare the fellow.”

I watched him as he carried out my orders and dexterously adjusted the rug to hide my shrunken, warped limbs. Then I ht a cigarette and waited, with some curiosity 1 must confess, for my unusual caller.

HE WAS a short, thick-set man of more than middle age, with a pleasant smile, and as he looked down at me his eyes traveled inadvertently to the wheel chair in which I sat.

“Sir John Fenwick?”

I nodded. “You will pardon me if I don’t rise.” I tried to hide the bitterness in my voice and his discerning eyes darkened with pity.

“Of course, sir. I didn’t know. I . . .” The sentence trailed off and I pushed the silver cigarette box toward him to help cover his confusion.

“It’s quite all right, Inspector. Most people don’t until they see me. That’s why I never make appointments outside this house.”

He watched the white smoke rise from his cigarette.

“I congratulate you, Sir John. Your achievements in the field of criminal psychology are wellknown at the Yard. In fact, they claim that you know more about the workings of the criminal brain than any man in Europe. How do you do it?” “Simple, my dear Watson!” 1 waved my hand at the room about me. “Books! All those books you see there! And people, the people who come to see me. My consulting room is over there and my private quarters are all on this floor. There are no steps, only ramps in the house. My man comes in every day and I have a nurse during office hours. For the rest,” I shrugged my shoulders, “I manage myself!”

HE LOOKED at me admiringly for a moment and then his manner became brisk and businesslike. 1 leaned back in my chair and relaxed.

“You’ve seen the morning papers, Sir John? There’s a small item in the back somewhere 1 d like you to read. Here! I’ll find it for you. Did you happen to notice that?”

1 looked down at the four-inch column to which his finger pointed. It was headed, “Child s Body found near Crescent Court Road,” and 1 shook my head as I read it.

A little girl, Annie Hastings by name, had wandered away from home the previous afternoon. A policeman on duty found her body thrown among some bushes late that night. She had been strangled.

1 looked up at Nixon’s grim face as he watched me intently.

“Horrible, but not unusual in a crowded city like London!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sir John.” He leaned toward me earnestly. “It wasn’t a sex murder but a stupid, senseless killing. There was no rhyme nor reason to it. And the Yard s afraid there’ll be more like it. That’s why they sent me to you.”

Ï stared at him in surprise.

“We’ve got to get whoever did this for several reasons,” he went on. “hirst of all, it happened

right in the heart of London, less than a mile from where we're sitting. Secondly, the murderer’s a maniac who’s tasted blood.”

“How do you know that?” I interposed.

“Because of the third and most important reason. The child was a cripple!”

He flung the words at me and I wheeled my chair over to the window while the full horror »f them sank in. In the square below I could see the children playing. Children with hoops and tricycles who could walk and run. Their shrill voices rose up to me as I turned back to the Inspector.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked quietly.

His face cleared as 1 propelled the chair back to the desk.

"As you may know, Sir John, the C.l.D. makes a practice of calling in experts in every branch of science when their assistance is needed. We feel in this case that we could use a psychologist. Someone to help us trap the murderer of Annie Hastings by gett ing inside his mind and showing us how it works!”

My expression must have shown bewilderment and he went on to explain.

“Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but we’re dealing with something twisted and abnormal. And we can’t leave one stone unturned to catch this fiend before he strikes again. We feel at the Yard that it’s the work of a maniac and there’s no help coming from informers in the underworld.”

“Not if the murderer’s insane. An isolated maniac with a blood lust makes no confidants. That’s one reason why they never caught Jack the Ripper.” I shook my head hopelessly.

"However, I’ll do what I can. The case is naturally of some interest to me since I have something in common with the* victim. And the fact, that it liappenod near here may be of some use. Although it might as well be a thousand miles away as far as I’m concerned.”

My fingers drummed impatiently on the1 rubber tires of the wheel chair.

“Are there any clues? Anything that would help to understand tin? twisted mentality you consider responsible?”

“Only this.” He reached into his pocket and brought out. a coin that, clattered as it fell among the papers on the desk. I picked it up curiously. It was a sixpence, but. strangely bent and twisted although the date was recent.

“It looks as if a train had passed over it.” I examined the warped bit of metal carefully.

“That’s what we think, too.” Nixon looked at me eagerly. “It was clutched in the child’s hand when they found her. And that’s all we’ve got to go on. No one saw Annie Hastings from the time she left her home at five until her body was found af ten o’clock that night. But . . . His voice was grim and hard as he pocketed the bent sixpence, “We’ve got to find whoever killed her. It can’t happen again!”

I nodded. “I’ll help in any way I cun. Leave me your telephone number and I'll get in touch with you.”

He jotted down his local number on the card and rose to leave. His relief at my promise of co-operation would have been comic under any other circumstances,

She died with a bent sixpence in her hand—murder without a clue or motive, until they sought a solution in the nursery

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but after he had gone I felt futile and resentful.

My mind turned to Annie Hastings and I shuddered at the picture it evoked. Poor little thing, I thought, she never had a chance!

I SAT UP late into the night, poring over volumes on criminal psychology and following the tortuous processes of minds that were warped and twisted. There had been other cripple-killers in the past, Not many, it is true, but enough!

There was Gustav Froelich, the sadist who roamed Vienna during 1888, but he had not killed children. And Louis Leblanc, whom the Sûreté of Paris had caught red-handed at the beginning of the century. But he had robbed his victims and the motive there was obvious! There were others, stunted, weird outgrowths from the cerebral norm. None of them had left sixpences in small, clutching hands.

They had one thing in common, these creatures who lived again in the pages 1 read. They had all committed more than one murder before they were caught. I sighed as I undressed and pulled myself from the wheel chair to the ropes that I used to hoist myself into bed. Perhaps Scotland Yard was right! Perhaps the strangler was even now reaching out for his next victim!

The boy settled back uncertainly in the strong arms that held him.

“You taking me home now, mister?” He looked up into the white face above his own in the darkness.

“ Yes, Johnnie. I'm taking you home.” The boy was reassured and lolled back as the man began to hum broken snatches of familiar nursery tunes.

“ ’Cause I can't walk myself, you know. And when you took me out of my wagon, there in the park-—”

“7 know, Johnnie. It’s just up these stairs a bit.”

The man lurched strangely from side

to side and the boy clutched his arm as they swayed together up the four steep steps that led to the top of the sagging fence.

“We’re almost home now, Johnnie.” The man was panting as he dropped to the ground on the other side and reached up for the boy who stretched out twisted arms to him. “Almost home!”

THE JANGLING of the telephone cut into mry troubled dreams and stopped abruptly as I lifted the receiver from the hook.

“Sir John!” It was Nixon’s voice. “You were right. He’s done it again!” Sleep fled and I struggled to a sitting position.

“Where, this time?”

“In a lot behind the fence that shuts off Little Warren Street. A dead end! If we send a car for you—” he hesitated, “would you come?”

My legs ached with unfamiliar, shooting pain.

“From the waist down, Inspector, I’m dead!” I stifled a groan as I tried to make him understand. “For twenty years I haven’t left this house. And if I did, I’d have to be carried about like a baby! I’m sorry, Nixon, but you’ll have to use your eyes for us both.” There was a pause on the other end of the line. When Nixon spoke again he sounded tired.

“I understand, Sir John. I’ll come over to see you as soon as I can. Sorry to bother you at this hour.”

No trouble at all. I hung up and took a deep breath. There was sweat on my forehead as I rubbed the crooked travesties of limbs that were my legs.

IT WAS noon when Nixon came in.

His stolid face was lined with fatigue and there were deep circles under his eyes.

“You’ve had lunch?” I asked. He shook his head and slumped down into a chair while I rang for Steven and ordered something for us both. When the man had gone, Nixon began to speak but I held up my hand.

First a Scotch, Inspector! You

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need it. Here, shinny up that ladder to the second shelf from the top. Now, lift out those big Kraft - Ebbing volumes. There!” I watched him as he reached into the back of the shelf and brought out the bottle of Dewar’s. The expression on his face amused me and I threw back my head and laughed heartily.

“I keep it there on account of Steven,” I explained. “All my friends know where it is and, since I never drink alone, one of them can always get it down for me. Rut Steven doesn’t know where I hide it. If he did, I’d never have a drop left!”

Nixon smiled as we touched glasses across the desk.

“Very ingenious! And very good, too!”

He set down the empty glass approvingly and I leaned eagerly forward.

“Now,” I said. “Tell me all about it. Was there a sixpence this time?”

“No!” He frowned and shook his head. “Otherwise it was the same as the first one. A crippled child again, this time a boy of five. And only a few minutes’ walk from where they found Annie Hastings. The only peculiar feature is the scene of the crime.”

“A lot behind a fence that blocks off a dead-end street, you said over the telephone.” I watched him as he rose and paced up and down.

“That’s it. A rum spot to choose for a murder.” There was a dogged persistence about the man as he turned it over in his mind. “Why did he do it there? Why did he climb a fence with the child and drop down into a little piece of vacant land surrounded by houses before he strangled him? There were other places nearby that were more isolated and easier to get to.”

“Nobody around heard anything?”

“We’ve been to all the houses that look down on the place. No one heard a sound. Why didn’t the child cry out?”

“Perhaps it was someone he knew and trusted,” I suggested.

Nixon frowned impatiently.

“It seems unlikely. His father left him in the park for a few minutes while he crossed over to the adjoining street to get some tobacco. He was only gone five minutes or so. And when he came back, the little fellow’s wagon was standing there empty. That was at dusk—about eight o’clock. They found him at ten, dead!”

“I wouldn’t get too despondent about it if I were you, Nixon.” His obvious distress upset me and I smiled reassuringly. “After all, the murderer’s establishing a definite pattern. He strikes within a small radius. His victims are always children. Crippled children. And he seems to prefer the hours between dusk and midnight for his work.”

“It’s not good enough.” Nixon flung himself down into a chair. “The public’s raising a hue and cry and the newspapers are after us in full swing. We’ve been besieged by phone calls from parents of children, particularly handicapped children. And the only thing we can do is to put on extra police and impose a curfew in the district.”

“A wise move. The murderer will have more difficulty in finding victims.”

I nodded approvingly as Steven wheeled in lunch. “The crippled child always needs more love and protection than the child who is normal. You see, I speak from experience.”

THE hateful memories of my childhood crowded in on me as I lifted the napkin from a silver dish and

passed it across the desk to Nixon. For a fleeting moment I felt again the sick fut ility of those days and I leaned down hastily to retrieve with trembling fingers the roll that I had dropped.

“I was lucky, of course.” I pushed the dark memories back into the pigeonhole where they belonged and smiled at Nixon. “I had money and education. Rut these others . . . the crippled children of the slums like Annie Hastings and the other—what was his name?”

“Johnnie Farnham.”

“Johnnie! They used to call me that.” I was silent for a moment and Nixon watched me curiously.

“What chance have they got?” I asked suddenly.

“They have the right to live. To grow up—”

“The right to sit in the sun while the world goes by them,” I said scornfully. “It’s not enough. My heart aches for them. The neglected children. The ones nobody cares about!” “Their parents—” Nixon’s eyes were fixed upon me intently and I flung the words back at him.

“Their parents! People who let them wander the streets alone or leave them in wagons in the parks!”

“You seem to feel strongly about it, Sir John.”

His voice was insistent, probing, and I lit a cigarette to hide my emotion.

“Perhaps. Rut if I had ten thousand pounds, I’d make a place for those children. A paradise for twisted arms and crooked legs. However,” I smiled ruefully, “1 haven’t got that much money. Only the dream.”

“It’s a good dream. The world could use more like them.” Nixon rose wearily. “Rut in the meantime we’ll make London a safer, kinder place for your protégés.”

“1 have an idea, Nixon.” I hesitated, afraid of his ridicule, but the words tumbled out suddenly of their own volition. “If there’s another murder, it may involve an animal. Probably a cat or a dog.”

He looked at me strangely.

“What makes you think that?” he asked slowly.

“Something I came across the other night in an old volume I happen to have. A reference to a case that happened a long time ago. The records are very vague but there are certain similarities. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific.”

“Well,” Nixon rose wearily, “It’s something, anyway.”

I felt sorry for him as he picked up his hat.

“What time are you off tonight? Twelve o’clock?” I fumbled in a drawer of the desk. “Here’s a key to the flat. Drop in before you go home and I’ll give you a nightcap.”

1 silenced his protests with a wave of my hand.

“Cheerio, Nixon! Don’t worry and —I’ll see you later.”

The little probationer shivered as she pattered down the dark hall on rubber-shod feet. There was something in the air, something sinister and undefined, and she gripped the flashlight in her hand apprehensively. Perhaps

it was the fog, she thought, the London fog that she could never get used to and that turned the city into a murky jungle of stone. She came to the door of the ward and peered nervously into the darkness.

The window at the end was open and from the grey nothingness outside a cat wailed. The probationer shivered again as its shrill announcement of fierce love and hate tore through the silence. London, she thought bitterly. A city of fogs and cats!

She paltered over to the window on

noiseless feet and the bright cone from the flashlight stabbed the darkness before her, bathing in radiance the white face of the distorted figure that crouched there. Then the man lunged toward her and the metal tube fell from her nerveless fingers and clattered on to the floor. She screamed as she turned and ran wildly into the hall and the black form flattened itself on the window sill and clambered out into the. grey ness.

The wail of the cat rose in intensity to a bubbling shriek and then stopped abruptly.

THE clock in the corner behind me struck eleven and 1 stirred as I sat in the darkness, looking out upon the shrouded city. Thin grey tendrils of fog curled in through the open window to touch my face with clammy fingers before they melted into the shadows around me. I reached for the decanter on the simili table beside me and my hand stopped abruptly in midair as the key turned in the lock.

“Who’s that?” My ear caught the sound of slow footsteps and I turned in their direction.

“It’s Inspector Nixon, Sir John. I took the liberty of dropping in on you a little earlier than you expected. May I turn on the light?”

“No!” He stopped abruptly at my harsh command and I could feel his eyes boring into me through the darkness. 1 pulled myself together and said hastily, “If you don’t mind . . . the fog and the darkness fit in with my mood tonight. You’re standing by the desk and there’s a chair there. Feel around for it and sit down.”

I could hear him as he complied. “There was an attempted murder tonight in the Crippled Children’s Hospital, Sir John. A little over an hour ago, to be exact.” I noticed a curious metallic quality in the Inspector’s voice as he went on. “This time he didn’t get away with it!”

“Then you’ve got him?” I leaned forward excitedly in the darkness.

“Not quite. But we’ve got an eyewitness in the nurse who interrupted

him. And we’ve got a clue to go on.”

“What is it this time?” I asked. “Not a crooked sixpence and not a crooked stile. But the body of a crooked cat. You see, I am familiar with Mother Goose, Sir John.”

1 ignored this remark but there were beads of sweat upon my forehead.

“Go on,” I said.

“There was a dead cat outside the window where he got away. A cat with a broken back.”

“You mean,” I sounded incredulous, “he stopped to kill a cat?”

“With a brick. He had to, you see, to follow the crazy pattern he’d set. The murderer’s insane, of course.”

The contempt in his voice cut like a whip and I writhed under its impact.

Suddenly his manner changed and his voice dropped to a relentless politeness.

“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink, Sir John? Some of that Scotch you’re hiding in the darkness there?” He rose abruptly and switched on the lamp that hung over the desk.

“You might tell me at the same time who got it down from the shelf for you!”

I shrank farther back into the shadows but he went on pitilessly.

“I’m a family man myself, Sir John. And 1 don’t like child killers. There are three men outside to help me take you to the station where the nurse who saw you is waiting to identify you. Will you come quietly?”

I looked at his face as the light fell upon it and I saw that it was ruthless, implacable.

“There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile!”

His eyes were upon me as he quoted the rhyme and I gripped my chair.

“He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile.

“He had a crooked cat . . .”

The words sang themselves over monotonously as I lurched up and began to walk, shambling and stumbling, to where the handcuffs glittered in the light. And I knew that the claw marks on my face were as livid as they had been an hour ago. ★