Uncle Jack had given them a short list of Tom Hartford’s favorite places to ply his trade. They found him at the third place they looked, sitting in his cab, the third in a taxi line near Trafalgar Square. Charlie strode up to the driver’s window and caught the man’s attention. Tom rolled down the window and politely said, “Sorry, Guv, you need to take the cab at the head of the queue.”
Charlie flashed his credentials. “Just wanted to have a quick word with you, Tom, see if maybe there was anything you’d like to get off your chest. Maybe you want to talk about the condition of your face,” Charlie prodded. No sense mucking about, Charlie knew from experience. Get them on the defensive right off the bat and don’t give them time to think
The man didn’t look worried so much as resigned. “Oh, so they went to the coppers, did they?” the cabbie asked in a deep growl. “So why did they send you? Isn’t this a job for the military police? A Bobby would have done the trick, I’m sure. But a detective inspector seems a bit grand for the likes of me.”
Charlie was confused, not only by the questions but by the fact that the man was smiling as he asked them as well. “Just start at the beginning and tell me what happened,” Charlie said flatly. Never volunteer information. Let the suspect talk. More chances for them to get caught up in a lie that way.
“Twenty people saw what happened,” said the driver defiantly. “Ask Terry Oliver, he was working the bar. You don’t have to take my word for it.”
Charlie was getting a little fed up. “So far you haven’t given me any words to take in any way,” he pointed out to the other man.
“I was enjoying a pint, minding my own business. Those two soldier boys wanted to know why I wasn’t in uniform. Said a big bloke like me should be able to fight. I tried to tell them about my headaches. My ears are ringing all the time. I don’t think too clearly. I sure enough tried to do my bit. Army, navy, RAF, they wouldn’t have me. But those two were drunk. Didn’t want to hear a word. I tried to ignore them, but one of them threw his drink in my face. I don’t even remember what happened after that.” The man sounded sincere, and Charlie could now plainly see that the so-called scratches were indeed cuts to his cheek that could have been cause by knuckles. The lumps and bruises added credibility to his story as well.
“Where did this take place and when was it?” Charlie asked with some disappointment. As he more than half expected, the fight had taken place during the span of time that the medical examiner had given for Kat’s death. The pub was a popular local place. The story would be easy to verify. If he was in the pub drinking during the time when Kat was getting the call from the hospital and being picked up by a cab, he couldn’t very well have been driving the cab. And if had in fact been in the pub for as long as he said he had been, he couldn’t be the killer.
“So am I in trouble with the army?” the cabbie wanted to know.
“I’ll have to verify your version of the event,” Charlie said. “What sent you to the pub at four in the afternoon? That seems like a prime time for picking up fares.”
“I have to stop driving when the headaches start,” was the answer. “Makes it hard for me to see, especially at night. I was hoping I could make it stop with a few pints. That works sometimes.”
“I’ll be checking on your story then,” Charlie said, and moved away to join Billy on the sidewalk.
“Well?” Billy queried.
“Either he is a criminal mastermind and the best actor alive,” Charlie said with bitter disappointment, “or we just eliminated our best suspect from the list. We need to pop over to The Nags Head on James Street to ask a few questions, but I don’t hold out much hope.”
As Charlie had surmised, a barman, two barmaids and a handful of customers were all more than willing to back up Tom Hartford’s story. As the barman said, the two soldiers had it coming to them. He went on to say that Tom was a regular customer and a nice fellow if perhaps a trifle slow on the uptake. They also corroborated the fact Tom had arrived sometime around four and had been there for at least three hours slowly nursing a pint or two before the fight started.
One of the barmaids chipped in. “Those two army lads were drunk when they got here. Looking for trouble, they were, no doubt about it. Tom tried to put them off, even after one of them threw a nearly full pint of Guinness in his face. As soon as Tom stood up, the soldier tried to hit him.”
A bearded old-timer chimed in at this point. “I saw Tom fight in the ring once. I could have told them not to tangle with him. Even their army training didn’t help. That Tom can take a punch, right enough.”
“We all broke it up pretty quickly once it started,” explained the barman, “but not before those two took a pretty stiff drubbing. Tom was knocked about a bit, but those two must look like hell. Tom had his cab parked around the back. Once the soldiers cleared off, Tom went out and slept in his cab. He was still there the next morning.”
Charlie thanked them all and he and Billy left, feeling as if they were right back where they started in the investigation. There was still a chance that the watchers they had posted at the Crowley house would spot one of the cabbies or someone else showing a little too much interest in the Crowleys, but that was all they had to hang their hopes on.
Back at the Yard Charlie called Lady Emily once more to ask if she had any further details on the arrival of their other son. She told him that William would be coming in some time the following day by military transport from the Mideast, but the way these things worked there would be no set time. She explained that planes were often delayed due to weather or enemy raids on the airfields. Mechanical problems developed, or a higher priority passenger could bump him off the flight. The contingencies of war would prevail. She promised him that she would inform him directly she got any word, but she most likely wouldn’t know anything until he landed somewhere. Charlie thanked her and rang off.
Next Charlie called the hospital where Harrison Crowley was recovering. He talked to the doctor in charge of the case. The doctor told him that Harrison was to be discharged the following day and that his patient was doing splendidly. Once again Charlie said thank you and put down the telephone. He called Billy into his office.
“We have two Crowley sons that will no doubt be of interest to the killer. One is arriving tomorrow and the other is being released from hospital,” Charlie told his young friend. “None of this is public knowledge, it’s all been kept very quiet. The killer can’t even know for sure if Harrison was wounded seriously or even fatally. I suppose there is a chance that he circled back after shooting Harrison. We weren’t looking out for cabs at that point, So he might have followed the ambulance to the hospital and know which one Harrison has been in. I keep coming back to my idea of using you as bait.”
Billy didn’t look overly thrilled at this prospect, but he didn’t say anything.
Charlie continued speaking. “What if the General were to go pick up his son at the hospital? The staff car will be driven by Sergeant Nair, but it will be me in the back wearing the General’s coat and hat. You come out of the hospital in Harrison’s uniform, limping and using his cane. If no one takes the bait the first time, we could always restage the entire production again and again. That seems more likely to work than my idea of a one-legged man with a murderer out to get him leaving his house and taking a stroll without an escort. It isn’t much of a plan, but it is the best I have come up with.”
Charlie talked to the Chief Inspector and got permission to put the plan into action. The Chief was intrigued by the originality of the plan, but he also thought it was a bit of a long shot. Phone calls were made and the General was more than willing to allow the use of his staff car and driver as well as one of his uniform coats and an old cap to aid in the tracking down of the murderer. It was agreed that he would remain at the well-guarded Imperial General Staff Headquarters while the plan went into effect.
Charlie headed over to the General’s office to do his part, but not before he called the hospital where Harrison Crowley was staying. His undercover watchers reported that there were at least two taxi cabs and sometimes more either lined up in front of the hospital or cruising nearby at almost all hours of the day and sometimes late into the evening. The watchers had not identified any particular cab drivers, so Charlie had no way of knowing if any of them were on the short list that his uncle had suggested. But he still wasn’t altogether convinced that one of those on the list was the killer.
He figured they would try the plan in daylight first. He felt that gave them the best chance of drawing the killer out. If it didn’t work the first time they would try again after dark. And then again the following day and evening. He didn’t have anything else to try.
Meanwhile, Billy went to the hospital to prepare for his part in the performance. Harrison Crowley was whisked away in the back of an ambulance from the rear of the hospital and taken to the Crowley residence after a brief stop to let him climb out of the ambulance and into a private automobile owned by a police official. He entered his home through the service entrance in the rear, guarded by two armed undercover officers. Back at the hospital, Billy, wearing the wounded man’s uniform and cap and using his walking stick, waited for his time to step out onto the stage.
The plan went off without a hitch. Charlie, wearing the General’s coat and hat, was driven out of the headquarters area by Sergeant Nair. They were both armed with pistols. They motored in stately fashion to the hospital in the large staff car and parked at the front. Sure enough, Charlie saw one cab parked nearby and another one driving slowly past. He didn’t get a good view of either driver, but it occurred to him that a cabbie could also easily park his cab a few streets away and be watching the hospital steps posing as a pedestrian. He found himself trying to look at everyone and everything at once.
Billy had been in the lobby waiting until he spotted the staff car. When he saw it, he pulled the peaked cap lower over his face, put his head down, and with a decided limp and much help from the walking stick, he set off through the doors and down the steps. He also had a pistol in his pocket and there were two plainclothesmen in the lobby ready to rush out at the first sign of trouble.
Charlie watched Billy coming down the steps. He couldn’t help smiling to himself. Billy had his arm in a sling and from any distance he could indeed pass himself off as Harrison Crowley. Charlie thought he might be overdoing the limp just a bit, but on second thought he had never seen the Captain walking with his artificial leg on.
The bait might have been tempting, but it wasn’t taken. No shots rang out. No one showed the slightest interest in Billy at all as he climbed into the back of the staff car.
“We might have better luck when we drop you off at the house,” Charlie told Billy without really believing it himself.
At that moment, a shabbily dressed man who had been slowly walking along the sidewalk towards the hospital began to pick up speed and veer towards the parked vehicle.