Alan Hunter: Gently Down the Stream

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Alan Hunter Gently Down the Stream
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    Gently Down the Stream
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Alan Hunter

Gently Down the Stream


There was something wrong at Sloley’s Yard. Everyone knew it, but nobody was sure what it was.

To start with, it had begun like every other Saturday morning during the high season. The men had come in early to begin clearing out the hire-boats which had drifted in on Friday night. A little later the women had come, chaffing and giggling, and soon the pillar-box red of boat blankets was seen as they were hung out to air in the hot June sun. Lastly came Old Man Sloley, white-bearded, neat in his old-fashioned slop-coat, and with him his son and junior partner, Harry, better known around the yard as young Rushm’quick. As usual, Old Man Sloley unlocked the office. As usual, young Rushm’quick set out in the long, low, powerful yard-launch to round up straggling hire-boats and, if necessary, tow them in. And for two hours, the work of preparation for a fresh batch of hirers went on without let or hindrance.

At the end of two hours, young Rushm’quick returned in the launch, an irritable expression on his face. He tossed the painter to a yard-hand, swore at him when he didn’t catch it and strode off to the office at a high rate of knots. From the office could be heard the sound of the two partners in conference. Rushm’quick sounded exasperated and defensive, Old Man Sloley was plainly in his tantrums. In a short while Sid Seymour, who was innocently varnishing a gaff under the office window, reported that they were busy phoning round the yards and quarter of an hour later the yard foreman was summoned to the conference. He came out frowning.

‘Fill up the launch — get the little tender out and fill her up, too.’

‘Someth’n’ wrong?’ enquired Sid Seymour, who had dropped his gaff to attend to these orders.

‘Never you mind. Just do what I tell you.’

Sid shrugged and went about his business. But he was pretty certain in his own mind now.

‘They’ve lost a boat,’ he muttered to Fidown Young. ‘All this mystery about it!’

‘Someone drowned, maybe…?’ suggested Fidown hopefully.

‘Drowned my foot! They’d’ve had the drags if it was a drowning job.’

But Fidown wasn’t altogether convinced.

Rushm’quick and the foreman came out with a map, over which they pored as the launch and tender were being fuelled. Sid strained his ears to catch something of what was going on, but Rushm’quick and the foreman kept their voices low and huddled the map between them. In the end he had found out nothing fresh. The boats set off, one downstream, one up; the Old Man was still phoning all round the option, and once more the yard settled down to its busy Saturday.

It was the middle of the afternoon when Rushm’quick got back. There was more than irritation in his look now. He slammed the door of the office behind him and a moment later the window, but Sid, throwing shame to the winds, nipped round the back of the office and clapped his ear to the wooden wall. He held this pose for quite five minutes — five rapt, enthralled minutes. Then he sneaked away down to the wet boat-house, where half a dozen others were awaiting his intelligence.

‘Drowned?’ demanded Fidown. ‘I lay my bottom dollar on a drowning.’

‘Drowning — naow! You’ve got it on the brain.’

Sid paused for a delicious moment while the others hung on his words.

‘It’s the Harrier — burned out up by Ollby Deek.’

‘Burned out?’ echoed Fidown.

‘Yeh — burned down flat to the water. And they found the bloke on it… all that’s left of him. The Old Man’s ringing the police up now.’

And he feasted his eyes on his mates’ incredulous faces.

There was a light on in Superintendent Walker’s office. Inspector Hansom knocked and went through without waiting for a reply. Inside the super, lean and keen-looking despite the hour, sat at his desk studying an interim report: he knew the way Hansom came into a room and didn’t bother to look up.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Let’s have the rest of it.’

Hansom sank his burly frame on to the visitor’s chair. ‘There’s a helluva lot of it to tell…’

‘Complications?’ The super glanced up shrewdly.

‘You can say that again. I hardly know where to begin.’

He sighed and made a pass at his cigar-pocket, but the super was a strict non-smoker, so it was only a pass. From down the corridor could be heard the clink of cups and there was an empty coffee cup at the super’s elbow. Hansom eyed it pensively.

‘Well, to start with, there’s no doubt about the corpse. That’s the one sure thing in the mess. There’s some cuff-links, a signet ring that didn’t quite melt and some bits of cloth that got protected in the crooks of the legs. The family have vouched for all of them. And here’s the bonus for a good detective.’

Hansom fetched out a little package wrapped in a handkerchief and untied it on the super’s desk. It contained a set of dentures, charred and a bit twisted in front but undamaged behind. The super stared at them unmoved.

‘You’ve traced the dental mechanic?’

‘I got his dentist’s address from his wife. He identified them and double-checked with the mechanic. Lammas only had them made a few months back.’

The super nodded and pushed the relics back to Hansom.

‘Tell me some more. Have you established the cause of death?’

‘The pathologist is working on it, but it could be accidental. The Harrier is a small auxiliary yacht with the engine in the well. The corpse was lying beside it and there’s indications that the cover was off the engine when the fire started. But’ — Hansom shrugged wearily — ‘that’s where the complications start.’

‘Go on,’ said the super.

‘Well, he seems to have had a woman with him — I got that out of them at the boatyard.’

‘Not his wife?’

‘Definitely not his wife. His wife didn’t know anything about the trip — he told her he was away on business.’

‘Do we know who she was?’

‘I’ve got a pretty sound idea. He had a secretary called Linda Brent. She hadn’t been in at the office since the Saturday previous and according to her mother she left with a suitcase, saying she was going to Gayton Holiday Camp. I’ve checked there, but they hadn’t heard of her. I got a photograph from her mother, but I haven’t had time to try it on any one.’

He produced a print from his wallet. It showed a curvaceous beach-girl with straight black hair, a heart-shaped face and appealing, wide-set eyes.

‘Quite a dish, isn’t she… though mind you, his wife isn’t to be sneered at.’

The super sniffed, but didn’t curtail his examination of the exhibit.

‘She wasn’t in the wreck?’

‘Nope. And she wasn’t at home, either.’

‘Nobody seen her?’

‘Nobody we’ve asked yet. And that isn’t all — Lammas’ chauffeur is missing too. According to the servants he said Lammas rang him last night with instructions to pick him up at Ollby. He took off in the car at 8.30 p.m. and that’s the last anyone’s seen of him. We found the car ditched in some trees at Panxford.’

‘And what time was the conflagration?’

‘We’ve got an old fellow at Ollby village who thought he saw smoke over that way at about 9.30 p.m. It’s so damned remote out there at Ollby.’

‘There’s a marsh-track through to the dyke, isn’t there?’

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