A Short Story of Fiction by B. B. Wright
An Inspector Alexander Collier Mystery
Inspector Alexander Collier Mysteries will often provide a choice for the reader. If you want to obtain a deeper understanding or a ‘feel’ for the period follow the embedded links (high-lighted blue and underlined) found in the text of the story.
Chilling November Days
Diane Waumsley pulled her woolen hat over her ears and jacked up the collar on her coat to ward off the damp, chilling November wind when she stepped out of the vehicle. Before closing the car door, she leaned back in.
“Thanks Uncle Sandy. But…are you sure you don’t mind? It’s six…and…well …I could’ve found…”
Alexander Collier shook his head and smiled. “I appreciate your concern, Rebecca, but if I’d minded I wouldn’tve offered. I’m up much earlier than this most mornings.”
As was his habit, Collier was already dressed for the day in his 3-piece “London Drape” suit.
“But, Uncle Sandy, it could be a week…Maybe more.”
“Be off with you. Your Auntie Lila’s waiting with my breakfast,” he lied, knowing that breakfast would not be on the table for at least an hour, “and I dare not test her mood so early in the morning.”
“Especially this Sunday morning,” she added, stretching across the seat and kissing him on the cheek. Her expression took on a more sombre veil as she asked: “Are you… sure you’re ready for today, uncle?”
Until two years ago, every Remembrance Day her uncle had shut himself away in his study and drank. Last year was the first time he had gone to watch the ceremony. She was proud that this year he would later don the uniform and participate in the march.
Remembrance Day ceremonies on the second Sunday of November each year had always been a difficult time for her uncle. He had never spoken about his experiences during the last World War—the so-called war to end all wars—but she had learned bits and pieces from her mom, his sister. Still, she never knew or understood why her uncle had not participated in the ceremonies. All she knew was hinted through family gossip and that it had to do with the loss of his brother, Joe, in 1917. As she grew up, she had come to accept that her uncle was a private man who contained many deep, dark secrets hidden in the antic of his mind.
He removed his Homburg hat and combed his fingers through his salt and pepper hair.
“This day…” His gaze drifted before returning his attention back to her. “Conjures up much that I would prefer to forget…But, it’s time,” he replied with a reassuring smile. “Now, wipe off that concerned look. Aye, I’m ready. I’ll do fine.”
Knowing that he had not touched a drop of liquor in two years, she felt reassured and squeezed his hand to convey her love and support.
“You’ll be coming to supper this evening?” She nodded. “Good. We’ve…invited your mom. I hope that’s okay?” he asked with a disconcerting look.
For a moment she didn’t know what to say and she slipped onto the passenger seat and closed the car door.
“I really don’t…”
“If your mom could have taken back her words…”
“What?! And have her lie instead?!” She interjected, unsuccessfully trying not to raise her voice and firmly folding her arms across her chest. “Obviously, she told you what she said?” she continued, her voice breaking slightly. He nodded. “I’m sorry uncle. But, then you also know that they were cruel, hurtful and anti-Semitic words against my fiancé.”
“I do… Wait a minute…did I just hear you correctly? You and Lanny are engaged?”
“A month ago.”
Taken off guard, he felt hurt to discover about their engagement this way.
“I take it that your mom already knows?”
“No! It occurred after our row.”
He decided against asking why he had not known sooner preferring to wait for a more opportune time.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” he continued. “He’s a fine young man. I should think supper should be interesting…very interesting, indeed,” he chortled. “Still, it will be a grand time to celebrate!”
He bit the corner of his mouth as he carefully thought out his next words.
“Surely, Diane, you know that your aunt and I would be the last to defend or support your mom in her beliefs. We support you. Always! And that having been said, you can’t solve anything without confronting it head on. I should know. At least tolerate her for this evening. Let’s see where it goes.” He shook his head. “Heaven knows how your mom came about to think that way, though I do have my thoughts on the subject. At least give it try.” He sighed deeply. “Did you know that Richard’s in Germany with Elsa.”
She looked at him quizzically.
He took in a few deep breaths before continuing. “He’s there to help Elsa get her family, her Jewish family, safely out of Germany. I’ve been trying to help through contacts in London. And, in light of what has just happened in the last few days, I’m deeply concerned for their safety.”
“Shouldn’t their British passports be safeguards enough?”
Collier shrugged. “Ninety per cent of the new reality in Nazi Germany is perception especially when it comes to Jews. If Richard and Elsa disappeared, they would be difficult if not impossible to trace. That’s why I’ve got the Foreign Office doing the best they can to keep close tabs on them. That may be the best and only safeguard my son and Elsa have got.”
“Have you heard from them?”
“Not since Kristallnacht on the ninth. I’ve been told that they went into hiding. So, your aunt and I are waiting it out. No news is good news…I guess.”
He adjusted his position to fully face her.
Contrary to his skepticism and logical disposition he had prearranged a visit (his second visit in two years) before breakfast with the psychic, medium Elizabeth Stoddard (a.k.a. ‘Queenie) to talk about his son. And, time was running short. Her book Psychic Glimpses, tucked away in his inner pocket, pressed uncomfortably against his chest each time he moved and acted as an unwelcome reminder.
“Diane, let’s get back to you for a moment. I understand how you feel about your mom, I’m not happy with her either, but shutting her out doesn’t solve anything.”
“It’s worked for me,” she retorted.
“Really?” he asked, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “So does that mean you’re now not coming to supper?”
Her expression softened as she thought through her reply.
“I’d like to bring Lanny with me, if that’s okay?”
A broad smile creased his face as he shook in head in despair. “Diane…Diane…I wonder at times if you’re really listening. Of course you may. It wouldn’t be a celebration without the two of you present. And, I won’t take no for an answer.” He adjusted his hat back on his head.
“Good, then it’s settled. I’ll…we’ll come. Thank you, Uncle Sandy.”
The two them held hands tightly in silence before she finally exited the vehicle.
As she watched her uncle drive off, she was surprised to see him turn left at the intersection rather than continue straight through which would have been the direct route home. Giving a slight shrug, she turned and ran across the road toward the hospital.
Normally, she would not have begun her shift until 4:00 P.M. and supper with her mom would not have entered into the equation but the shift switch as a favor for her friend, Gillian, had changed all that. Fearful of sleeping through the alarm, she had had a broken sleep and felt tired. The thought of supper now with her mom made her feel frustrated and edgy and she resented this additional concern being added to her day.
Ninety minutes early for her shift, she still hoped to be running at full tilt by the 7:30 patient briefings.
Her stomach growled as she made her way up the steps to the hospital. Mentally, she chastised herself for not accepting her aunt and uncle’s invitation to breakfast. Maybe, she thought, it would have been a more ideal time and location to talk about her impending supper with her mom. She had forgotten that her cousin, Richard, was dating a Jewish girl. And, she was more than surprised to learn from her uncle that the two of them were now in Germany.
She hadn’t grasped the urgency of their mission.
Preoccupied, she misjudged the next step and stumbled but quickly regained her balance.
Composing herself, she looked at the few stairs remaining to the front door of the hospital and attempted to focus her attention on the day ahead but hunger pangs began to press her immediate needs like a thirsty day in the desert without water. Pushing aside The Observer newspaper that peeked out from her oversized purse, she began to rummage along its bottom.
“Ah! There you are you little rascal.”
Pulling out a Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp, she quickly unwrapped it and continued to traverse the remaining distance. Though, she had her toast and egg sandwich, sliced and wrapped, and digestive biscuits, the chocolate bar for the moment took precedence—a kind of reward for her just being here at this god-awful time—and she wolfed it down.
After she had changed into her nurse’s uniform in the locker room, she tucked The Observer under one arm, picked up her bag with the egg sandwich, biscuits and thermos of tea and headed to the stairwell for the walk up the three flights of stairs to Ward CH3.
She looked forward to using her extra time before patient briefing for getting her head together and to satisfying the grumbling needs of her stomach in the small lunch room off the hall leading to the nursing station.
When she opened the door from the landing onto the Ward, she was stunned to find the staff in frenzied panic. Whatever had happened, the staff was functioning at critical levels.
Her newspaper fell to the floor when she grabbed the upper arm of one of the nurses she recognized running by.
“Judith, what’s wrong?” Diane asked, alarmed.
“Oh, Diane…She was my patient, under my watch…she’s missing! Please! Let me go!”
Judith pulled away and disappeared into one of a series of patients’ rooms lining the hall on either side before reappearing and heading to the next.
“Who’s missing?” Diane called out, picking up the newspaper and stuffing it under her arm as she scurried after Judith who had disappeared into another room.
“Did you see anyone on the stairwell?” Judith asked when she reappeared.
“Search the two rooms on that side and I’ll finish up along here.”
“Judith? Whom am I looking for?”
“Rebecca…Rebecca Grynberg,” Judith replied breathlessly, unable to fully avert her eyes from Diane.
“Rebecca? But…how? When? She was too ill to…”
“We know. We all know. Please, Diane, do what I asked. We’ll talk… later.”
For a brief moment the two of them stood in silence facing each other until Diane broke the silence.
“Then…if you all know…that…Judith, what are you not telling me?”
“We think she may have been taken.”
“Taken? Then, the police must have been…?”
“No! The administration told us to thoroughly check the hospital first,” Judith interjected.
Diane’s lunch bag crashed to the floor along with The Observer as if to punctuate the uncomfortable awkwardness that had suddenly been thrown up between them.
Judith knows I’m the niece of Inspector Collier, Diane thought. And, she still expects me to blindly follow these dumb orders? I can’t. “How long do you think she’s been missing?”
“No more than two hours.”
“Two…?! Let’s quickly finish up here so we can call the police.”
“We?! No! You can’t do that! I just told you admin…”
“Maybe you can’t Judith but I can and will!”
I do hope you are enjoying the story so far. There is much yet to learn about Inspector Alexander Collier and his family as well as the times he lived in.
The procedure used to eventually solve Rebecca’s murder would have been impossible in the United States because of the Fourth Amendment.
The unprecedented growth of discovery, technological and scientific (medical) advances we take for granted in our modern age often blinds us into thinking that this is always the way it was. The link (at “nurse’s uniform”) to the interview with Mildred Brown Shaw R.N. says otherwise. Her experiences, as a nurse in the United States during the 1930’s, provides rare practical insight to nursing during this period and what Diane Waumsley may have experienced during each of her shifts in Ward CH3.
Thank you for giving your valuable time to follow this series. Hopefully you will continue to enjoy the series as much as I do writing each episode.
B. B. Wright