“Did you find what you were looking for Detective Inspector?”
“Do you own a handgun, Mr Smythe?”
The police interrogation room was nothing like the ones he had seen in the movies. No peeling paint or broken chairs. The room he was sitting in looked brand new and well painted in a bright version of blue — the inevitable two-way mirror was absent. Also missing was the tape machine that is famously turned off when the police officer wants to reveal a vital piece of evidence. No one got to say, “D.I. Whatshisname has entered the room,” because he was present when Mr Smythe arrived.
He wasn’t handcuffed to anything, and the excessively sweetened coffee was rather good — another police station cliche shattered.
Mr Smythe was warmly dressed having pulled a pair of jeans and a jumper on over his pyjamas. The officers were shouting, “Armed police, don’t move. Armed police, don’t move.” Confusingly, another officer, dressed in full body armour, was shouting, “Get down on the ground, get down on the ground.”
“So which one is it, fellas, don’t move or get down on the ground?” It seemed that the armour clad officers had either heard that line before or they were completely devoid of a sense of humour because they didn’t answer and pushed him face down onto the dusty carpet. From his squashed vantage point, he could see the blue sock that had gone missing some months before. It had worked its way under the sofa and was remarkably dust free considering its hiding place.
Before the officers swarmed into his apartment, Mr Smythe had enough time to change out of his pyjamas, but he decided that he couldn’t be bothered. If he was going to be incarcerated, he might as well be comfortable.
The Detective Inspector was wearing the same suit that he wore yesterday. It was expensive but tired — in need of a rest and a good cleaning. “I managed to remove the tomato sauce stain, but it really needs to go to the cleaners. I can’t press it as well as they can. Wear one of your other suits today and I’ll run it down to Luigi, he always does an excellent job with your suits,” said the Detective Inspector’s wife on the previous evening. He ignored her advice, not to annoy her, he had other ways of doing that, but because he was feeling blue that morning and this suit always lifted his mood. It looked like all the other suits he owned, but it wasn’t. It made him feel good on unpleasant days. He wore it when he had his annual review and when he had to tell a mother that her son was never coming home again. There wasn’t anything planned for this day that would prompt him to wear his favourite suit, but he was determined to wear it. It was either that or stay home and sleep all day.
“That’s not really answering my question Detective Inspector, and I’m reasonably sure that by now you know that I do own a gun, so why ask?”
“Force of habit I guess. We did check up on you Mr Smythe. A licence for a 1915 Webley .455. Where is that gun, Mr Smythe?”
“In my bank deposit box. Locked up safe and sound, but then again you know that as well because you would have found the receipt when you were going through my apartment. I do hope that your men didn’t make too much of a mess. I like my stuff to be where I left it, and the cleaning lady is going to give me grief for a month if your flat footed friends have been clumsy.”
“You’ll need to do a bit of a tidy round before the cleaning lady gets in but most of your stuff is still roughly where it used to be. Why was your front door open when we arrived, Mr Smythe?”
“Maybe I forgot to close it, or maybe I didn’t want your assault team to kick it in. I like that door. It’s timeworn, just like me — just like the building I live in — we have all been around for a long time, with the exception of the young man who lives next door to me — the one who plays the loud music at all hours — the one who smokes strange substances while playing loud music — the one who’s parents bought him that apartment just so he wasn’t in their house anymore. By the way, how is that young man?”
“He’s helping us with our enquiries. It’s taking a long time because he isn’t very bright, and I don’t mean academically; he can add up and spell and stuff like that, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to understand how the world works. He doesn’t seem to understand that if you call the police and tell them that some old bloke waived a gun at you, we tend to turn up in a hurry. We don’t like guns unless we are the ones holding them, and personally, I don’t like old blokes, so you can see where I’m coming from. This mad bugger opened the door with an illegal substance smouldering happily between his thin lips. He had several other highly suspicious substances secreted about his apartment. He seemed quite peeved when we took him and his illegal substances into custody. He had a few things to say when we arrested him — hang on a moment while I check my notes, yes, here we are, Why are yoos arresting me? You should be arresting that mad old bugger next door. He’s got a bloody big gun, and he hates music. I explained that we had taken you into custody, and I remember noticing how often he referred to that bloody big gun.”
“Did he have anything else to say?”
“Yes, he was quite forthcoming. I asked him why he called the police, and he said there was someone knocking at his door, and he doesn’t know how long this person had been knocking because the music was quite loud. When he opened the door there was, and I quote (the Detective Inspector referred to his notes) that mad bugger from next door, and he pointed a bloody big gun at me and told me to turn the music down. He then suggested that I find somewhere else to live. I asked him what he did next, and he told me he turned the music down and called the police. Does any of this sound familiar Mr Smythe?”
“Some of it. I remember asking him politely to turn the music down. I’m a writer and need peace and quiet. I’ve been asking him for a considerable period, but he doesn’t listen.”
“As I said, we ran a check on you Mr Smythe, and it seems that there is a big gap in your history. The war years — no reference to your service except that the French awarded you the Croix De Guerre, they don’t give those to just anyone, and you won’t find one in a Weeties packet. Apart from that, it is as if you didn’t exist during those years — I wonder why that is? What were you up to for all that time? I’m a curious person, Mr Smythe. My job isn’t glamorous. In fact, it is mostly mundane, so my curiosity is all that keeps me going. The gun we found in your safe deposit box — what’s the story behind that gun? Who is William Richard Smythe? It’s his name engraved on the brass plate on that mahogany box.”
“If you are going to go around opening things, don’t you need a warrant Detective Inspector?”
“Not since the government brought in the anti-terrorism law. We call it the do whatever we like law, but that’s another story.”
“The gun belonged to my grandfather. His parents gave it to him just before he was sent to the front in WW1. The box is mahogany, and the ammunition is genuine, although I wouldn’t guarantee that it still works. The box and the gun were returned to his family when he was killed. He made it all the way to the 6th of November 1917. He led the charge. Only four men made it across the open ground. They held the enemy trench for four hours, but the brass had not planned on success, so reinforcements weren’t sent. The general’s idea was to wear the enemy down by throwing away young lives. They never expected their soldiers to succeed, and when they did, they were left to fend for themselves — on the wrong side of no-mans-land. The enemy sent a message asking if they could return the bodies of the four soldiers, my grandfather among them. They admired their bravery and wanted to honour them. Their commander refused the request, and the bodies were not recovered for several months.They found their graves during an offensive that pushed the enemy back behind their lines.”
Detective Inspector Ketchen listened respectfully to this account. He had served in the last war, and his ancestors had served in WW1. He had heard the stories of disregard for man and beast.
“We’d have a tough time convincing a judge that you are a terrorist Mr Smythe, so you had better go home. Remember, I don’t like old people so don’t come up on my radar again. The kid, next door to you, might have been frightened by you and your bloody big gun, but I don’t scare so easily.”
“I didn’t have a bloody big gun Detective Inspector if you remember, but I promise to stay out of your way. With everything I have seen in my life, all I want now is to write my books, drink coffee and sleep, and all without musical accompaniment.”
“Go on, piss off then. That young bloke won’t be back for at least eighteen months — enjoy the silence.”
When Mr Smythe arrived home, he tidied up as best he could and made a cup of tea. Darkness came early at that time of the year. He sat by the window and thought back to his time in the war — behind enemy lines. Then as now, the simplest solution to a problem was the best.
It was freezing outside, and by the time the officers had completed their search of the apartment and found nothing they would be most unlikely to climb out onto the ancient window ledge and look behind the pillar to the left of the window. A cursory glance at the window sill would suffice.
The building that Mr Smythe lived in was built at the turn of the nineteenth century. A time when things were built with pride — built to last. The building and his apartment had character. The windows were double hung and went from floor to ceiling. The view from his window was unobstructed, and he was high enough that traffic noise was at a minimum. He waited a long time for an apartment in this building to come onto the market. Several times he was tempted to buy one of the apartments on the other side of the building which had a restricted view, but now he was glad he had stuck it out and did not settle for second best. He had learned patience in his previous profession.
The moronic, tone deaf juvenile in the next apartment was only a temporary annoyance, and now he was gone, and all it had cost Mr Smythe was a bit of inconvenient house tidying and a conversation with a police detective who would rather have been anywhere else. This was not the first mission that had ended well, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
When darkness had descended, Mr Smythe climbed out onto the window sill and reached around the pillar and retrieved the plastic bag hanging from a nail that someone, long ago, had driven into the side of the weathered timber pillar.
He unwrapped the parcel and retrieved the gun.
His grandfather had been presented with matching Webley .455s. This one had lost its mahogany box somewhere along the way. He cleaned and oiled the gun and wrapped it in an oily rag. He concealed it all in an old pillow case that had long since lost its usefulness.
The apartment next door was now empty, but there was no way of knowing who might move in. Once a spy, always a spy, and young spies become old spies by never taking anything for granted, and always preparing for the unexpected.