A Chief Inspector Visits

London, 1939

Sitting at his cluttered desk, the newspaper spread wide in his hands, Detective Chief Inspector David Marlow inadvertently allowed his tea to turn cold. He read furiously, as though if he didn’t finish the article he would be failing the country. What he read turned his blood cold as his forgotten cup of tea. His sergeant popped his head round the office door and, before he could say anything, Marlow turned the front page to face him.

He watched the sergeant quickly scan the headline. “Bloody hell,” he said blankly, his face matching his tone.

Marlow folded the newspaper and placed it on his desk. The headline was still visible though, screaming at him:

10-YEAR AXIS PACT SIGNED IN BERLIN”

He tried not to stare at it but it was ingrained in his memory now anyway. The Rome-Berlin Axis was well known of course, but now they had gone and signed a damned pact to formalise it! A pact to stand by each other in the event of conflict. “Automatic military action” the article had said, “unconditional” was another word used. He supposed it didn’t matter much – if talks disintegrated so badly, Britain would have her allies – but it seemed another step closer. In a few months, or maybe even weeks, they could be at war. Again.

His mind was cast to his niece, busy at home packing for her visit to Canada. It calmed him to think she would be a whole ocean away from this mess. Perhaps she might stay there and see out the war on the other side. She had only planned a month or so, and coincidentally would be in the country at the same time as the King and Queen on their royal tour. Surely if war broke out after she left, she would stay? Would they all stay? An ocean crossing wouldn’t be safe for anyone, especially if America joined them in the fight.

So consumed with thoughts of Genevieve’s safety was he, that he completely ignored all that his sergeant told him. It was only when he heard the word ‘Kent’ that he suddenly tuned back into the conversation.

“The county?” he said sharply.

Sergeant Woodward looked thoroughly bewildered. “No guv. D. C. Dennis Kent. ‘Im from the West Country. I was told you know ‘im. Am I wrong?”

Marlow clicked his tongue against his teeth. Yes, he knew of Kent. He was another of the reasons Marlow had been so keen to encourage Genevieve’s trip across the Atlantic. “What of the fellow?”

From the prior occasions on which Genevieve had invited the man for tea, Marlow had gleaned that Kent hailed from Bristol, though that may have been obvious simply from his accent, and his entire family remained there still, including his estranged wife. Even as he thought it, Marlow felt an uneasiness. He tried ever so hard not to impart his own beliefs onto his niece; she was headstrong, and he admired that, yet he couldn’t remove the nagging suspicion that this fellow was no good. Since the first time they met – both of them barrelling into his house one rainy night three years prior, drenched to the bone, dripping water all over the place and looking mightily shifty – Kent had rubbed Marlow up the wrong way.

For a start, he was several years older than his niece. She had been eighteen the day they met, he in his early thirties, and then there was that wife. Kent gave no explanation as to the reasons for their estrangement and Marlow never asked – in truth it was none of his business – yet he wondered what she might say of the relationship between her husband and Genevieve. Genevieve continuously insisted they were merely friends, with no romantic entanglement. Marlow found that unlikely. His niece was unmarried, inexperienced, dense to such adult experiences. He blamed the idea of a married man forcing his company upon her as the one reason for his developing a particularly nasty ulcer in his stomach lining.

Still, the man had no-one in the city that Marlow was aware of. He certainly had no plans for calling on Genevieve and interrupting her packing. And so he called for a car to take him to the hospital.

He found Kent in the fifth bed along the ward, sitting up and drinking a glass of water, though it seemed to cause him pain to do so. Sergeant Woodward was not wrong; the man looked like utter shit. His lips were split, the cuts crusted over yet oozing pus; both eyes were swollen and blackened, his cheeks simultaneously black and red and yellow, bruising all the way into his hairline; the bruises continued down his neck and disappeared into his hospital robe, though several further marks were visible along his arms. He saw Marlow approaching and seemed to slump where he sat.

After a moment he attempted to shift up the bed, to straighten his spine as a mark of respect but the movements caused him pain and he abandoned them in quick measure and settled instead for, “Good morning, sir.”

“Morning,” Marlow replied gruffly, coming to a standstill next to his bed. “I see you’ve had quite the night! What the devil happened? Matron tells me you refuse to speak a word of it.”

Kent lowered his eyes shamefully and didn’t respond.

Marlow took a step closer. “You were discovered in a gutter in Soho at one o’clock in the morning. It shouldn’t require a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard to solve this little mystery.”

Kent scrunched his face in embarrassment then remembered it was injured. He hissed at the pain and touched his lip gingerly.

“So who did it, was it the girl’s ponce?”

Kent’s eyes flickered, and he stared at Marlow for several seconds, then nodded slowly.

“For God’s sake, man!” Marlow hissed. “You’re a damn police officer!”

Kent hung his head. “I know. I’m sorry, sir.” He glanced up nervously. “Does – does Genevieve know?”

No,” Marlow replied angrily. He pulled up a chair from the bedside of a sleeping man nearby and sat on it, leaning toward Kent over the bed. “And I do not intend to inform her. She’ll be sailing to Canada presently and I intend to see her off with no knowledge of this.” He shook his head. “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know, sir. I must be mad.”

Marlow could think of no response, so they fell into a seething silence. Kent tried another sip of water and swallowed with a gasp of pain. He certainly did look as though he was suffering. Perhaps that was punishment enough for visiting with a woman of ill-repute. You could never trust those men, that’s what Marlow had discovered through his years on the force. Sure there were those who looked out for their girls, but the majority saw only pounds, shillings and pence, and treated them like animals. All it took was a wrong look and they would lash out violently.

Marlow’s eyes narrowed and he said suddenly, “Now look here, I’d never tell Genie who she can step out with. I dare say she has a head on her shoulders… but if you ever – ”

“We’re friends, sir, and I promise that’s the end of it. Genevieve has been jolly good to me.” He looked up and Marlow saw that his eyes had reddened. “I’d be a fool to try anything that might jeopardise it.” He hung his head again. “A fool,” he repeated, possibly to himself.

Marlow sat back.

“Sir. Were you ever married, sir?”

Marlow pursed his lips. “No,” he replied, without looking at Kent.

Another moment of silence.

“My wife wishes that I agree to a divorce.”

“Quite right.”

“Sir?” Kent looked hurt.

“You live apart,” Marlow said, as though Kent were stupid. “And now you have been unfaithful in the most shameful manner possible.”

“But how can you reconcile divorce, sir, with God?”

Marlow sighed. “I choose not to take my devotion to God so literally. I have faith and I try to do what is right most of the time.”

Kent pouted sulkily. “I’m not sure I know what is right anymore, sir.”

“You could begin by helping your wife find happiness.” Marlow glanced at his watch; it was nearly noon. “I must be on my way. You’ll stay here and rest, Kent. I shall inform your superiors.”

“What will you tell them, sir?”

Marlow raised his eyebrows. “The truth! You were found beaten in an alleyway in Soho. It is not my responsibility to exact discipline.” He paused thoughtfully. “Perhaps you might request a transfer, Kent. I dare say a change of scenery will do you the world of good. I know a fellow in Manchester who might be able to arrange something.”

“Thank you, sir,” Kent mumbled. He looked glumly at his hands, unable to meet Marlow’s eye.

Detective Chief Inspector Marlow bid him good day and ambled out of the hospital, nodding his greetings to several members of staff along the way. In his line of work he found acquaintances in professions all across the city, even those old professions with which Kent was apparently intimately involved. He padded down the steps and out into the bustling streets of London, and the headline he had read that morning suddenly appeared, unbidden, in his mind’s eye.

When Genevieve returned from her tour he would bounce her back to Foxtwistle, that would surely be the safest place. No doubt she would pitch a fit but he would be firm, he must be firm. He nodded to himself, agreeing with his own decision.

He would remain here, of course, for he could never abandon London town; she needed him as much as he did her.