D. Mitchell: The King of Terrors

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D. Mitchell The King of Terrors
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D. M. Mitchell

The King of Terrors


The Body in the Barn The Unpublished Memoirs of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Rayne of the Yard December 1952

I am not a squeamish man. That particular commodity was expunged from my being in the trenches of Paschendale during the Great War, where as a naive young man I beheld sights so dreadful and over such a lengthy period of time that I became (I am loathe to admit) all but inured to the daily horrors they presented. A body ceased to be a person. It was a dead thing, a frail, corporeal shell from which the spirit had flown. I developed the emotional tactic of mentally divorcing one from the other in order to better shoulder and carry out the duties and the responsibilities that my regiment and my country expected of me.

In my professional — and I might say quite successful — career in the police force, I found that my hard schooling in France and Belgium, my youthful immersion in the squalid depths that constitute human perversion, left me with a clear and reasoned mind free from the shackles of unnecessary emotion. A state of being which I have found on many occasions benefited my mind’s effective operation.

So, I reiterate: I am not a squeamish man.

Neither, or so I thought, was Detective Inspector Wilson, whom I had known for seven years or more. A more levelheaded, objective and forthright a fellow I had never known. Hitherto I would have cast him in the same mould as I, a man tempered in the fiery furnaces of France. I had not expected to find him in the state I did. He was clearly agitated, and I suppose his agitation served to infect my own spirit that day too, for I had not expected my steel-hard shell to be breached so readily.

It was the summer of 1929, mere months, as I recall, before the Crash in America, which would send dire economic ripples around the globe, and a full ten years before the world embarked on another orgy of bloody madness, as if out of the bitter soil of economic ruin would grow the choking weeds of dictators and despotism. In the summer of 1929 we were as yet blissfully ignorant of all that. Yet, in an old barn on the edge of a Suffolk field, I felt we uncovered portents of the evil to come. Intimations of the evil that resides eternally within all men.

I use the word evil carefully. I am not a man given to believe in the full connotation of the word, though I am a man who believes privately in God, and by turns, I suppose, a Devil; but I never expected, during my role as a police officer, to ascribe the term to any aspect of my work. Not until that day in 1929. Not until Wilson came over to me, his face deathly pale and I instinctively knew something was terribly amiss.

My first thought was that he was feeling under the weather, nursing a summer cold perhaps. Detective Inspector Wilson was possessed of such a resolute character and impressive determination that I had seen him carry on working whilst in the grips of a dreadful fever and refuse to give in to it. As he approached me I told him he looked shocking and that he really mustn’t overload his system so; his chest suffered badly, a legacy of being gassed during the war.

‘No, really, I am quite well,’ he assured me.

‘Well you certainly don’t look it,’ I told him pointedly.

He did not say anything immediately; he signalled instead for me to follow him to the barn.

There were already a number of police cars there, and an ambulance looking to get its wheels stuck in the mud. It was only when we reached the twin corrugated iron doors to the dilapidated old barn, guarded by two uniformed officers, did he stop and turn to me.

‘Hell, sir, I haven’t seen anything like this in all the time I’ve been on the force.’ He took a cigarette from a silver case, offered me one, which I refused. He planted the cigarette firmly between his lips, snapped the case shut and pocketed it. ‘Are you sure you don’t want one?’ he said as he flicked his lighter into life and touched the flame to the end of the cigarette. ‘You might find you’ll need it.’

I admit I laughed, because I partly felt he was having me on. But he shook his head and I noticed his left hand shook a little as he placed the lighter into his trench coat pocket

‘I say, old boy, what have you got in there?’

‘That’s just it, sir, I’m not certain.’ He indicated with a quick jerk of the head for me to follow, tossing aside the unfinished cigarette at the door, which an officer ground into the mud with his boot.

The unmistakable stench of death hit my nostrils, though in truth I had caught the smell earlier. It was a familiar smell, yet one I have never been able to grow accustomed to. Perhaps it is because it never failed to resurrect those painful memories of France, of man’s continued inhumanity and pathetic little existence; his ambitions, his greed, his lust and selfishness — everything he is inevitably becomes little more than a stinking soup.

I knew instinctively, just from the smell, that the body had lain here some considerable time. The inside of the barn was dark, illuminated only by the light from the open doorway and the feeble glow from a lamp held by another uniformed officer. It took a second or two for my eyes to grow accustomed to the dark. In the far right-hand corner of the barn there appeared to be a mound of white ash.

‘It was found by the farmer. He thought some animal or other had crawled in here to die, like a fox or something. It’s been disturbed, as you can see, because he poked it around with his stick, not knowing immediately what it was. Then he uncovered the head.’

What he’d discovered was a human torso, every limb, including the head, had been separated from the body, the legs and arms laid in a neat row by the body and the head placed centrally on top of them. The whole had been covered in a fine white powder.

‘Quick lime?’ I said.

‘That’s right,’ Wilson replied.

I saw him groping for his cigarette case again.

‘Man or woman?’ I asked, bending to the corpse and taking out my handkerchief to cover my nose and mouth. Apart from the heavy decomposition that had taken place it had been mauled by rats too.

‘That might have been difficult to ascertain,’ he replied, ‘had we not found this.’ He went over to a small mound of clothes and carefully picked up a wallet with his handkerchief. ‘There’s money still inside, not a great deal but enough to tell you that robbery wasn’t part of it. The identification inside says he’s one Jimmy Tate.’

‘The late Jimmy Tate,’ I quipped. ‘So do we know who Jimmy Tate was?’ I queried. This was no frenzied attack. The body had been carved up in equal proportions as far as I could tell.

‘We’re carrying out preliminary enquiries right now. Early indications are that he’s a local man. Apparently he owned and ran a small scrap yard about two miles away. We’ve got someone there now.’

‘Whoever did this can’t have been in a hurry. They took their time.’ The carcass wouldn’t have been out of place at Smithfield market, I thought. I looked over the head. ‘There have been a couple of sharp blows here; the skull is caved in.’ Not enough to have killed him outright, I surmised, but certainly enough to incapacitate him, to knock him senseless. The thought that he’d been hacked alive I found deeply disturbing.

‘I’m of the mind they brought him to the barn to finish him off,’ said Wilson, ‘probably clobbering the poor fellow at his home, dragging him here. We’ll know soon enough if we discover blood there. They most likely used a car; there are tracks out there but it’s rained quite a bit since this happened and it will be the devil to pick them out. We’re trying to see if we can find the types of tyres used.’

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