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.
A broad stroke of salmon pink across the morning horizon was beginning to fan out and to dance among the silvery grey clouds. Silhouettes of chimneys atop buildings black as newly laid coal in a burning fire poked smoke into the awakening skyline.
Inspector Alexander Collier felt a shiver of apprehension as he closed the door of the Wolseley and looked up at the hospital. It reminded him of the one that once housed him during Christmas 1917. Strobe lit memories like unfettered celluloid on a reel gone mad dashed through his mind as in that moment he began to relive the constant rain and the blood soaked mud and horrific sounds of death that once surrounded him and eventually took him to a hospital in Paris. Over the roar of death, in that brief illusionary skirmish with unwanted memories that were thought so well sealed, he saw and heard his brother, Joe, as they neared the crest of their objective.
Survivor’s guilt—Why me?—had ensnared him as he struggled daily to come to terms with the horrific days leading up to that November 6. 1917 day when the unfulfilled promise he had given to their mom lay dying in his arms while the battle for the crest and town of Passchendaele swirled around them.
The usual jauntiness in his step was absent as he followed Sergeant Snowden up the stairs to the hospital’s entrance.
When the cinema in Collier’s mind went black and its doors opened once again to release him into the fresh, uncertain clarity of the present, only then, did he hear Sergeant Snowden calling out to him.
“Watch your step, sir.”
Too late, Collier stumbled, hitting his knee against the sharp edge of the next step.
Sergeant Snowden quickly extended his hand and helped Collier to his feet. “Sir?…Are you alright?”
“That’s what I get for not paying attention, Sergeant.” Feeling embarrassed, he preoccupied himself with brushing away the dirt from his pants. “I’m alright,” he lied, feebly attempting to reassure the sergeant while rubbing his knee vigorously to allay the pain. “Carry on, sergeant. I will be more circumspect from here on.”
On the opposite side of the street and in the shadows of the closed shops, the outline of a woman nodding in his direction and motioning him with her hand to move on caught his attention. He would have sworn it was Elizabeth Stoddard (a.k.a. ‘Queenie’) but dismissed it as his imagination when he looked back again to find that she was gone.
Sergeant Snowden opened the heavy wooden door to the hospital and stepped aside to allow Inspector Collier to precede him.
Collier hesitated, took in a deep breath and slowly let it out, before limping across the threshold. As he stood in the open, empty marble foyer he remembered when a similar floor space had been at a premium and movement next to impossible. The paintings on the walnut grid wall panels reminded him of the ones he had forced himself to memorize to escape the smells, sounds and agony of the multitude of others, who, like him, waited for hours on stretchers for medical attention.
“Greetings Inspector Collier! A pleasure to meet you, a pleasure indeed! I have heard lots about you from your niece.”
Collier looked up to see a tall, lean, clean shaven man in a three piece business suit with an outstretched hand quickly moving across the foyer from an office beside the stairwell to greet him.
“And… who…are you?” Collier asked, shaking the man’s hand.
Collier reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and took out his notepad and fountain pen.
“Oh, of course, forgive me. My name is Klaus Becker. I’m the hospital’s administrator.”
“Are you normally here this early, Mr. Becker?”
Becker chuckled nervously and shook his head while unsuccessfully attempting to discern what Collier was writing in his notepad. “Normally I wouldn’t arrive until mid-morning. But…well…exceptional circumstances, don’t you think?”
“Yes…Exceptional. Do you mind?” Collier’s knee was throbbing as he pointed his pen in the direction of a small desk with two chairs a short distance behind them.
“We could use my office, Inspector.”
“No, this will suffice,” Collier replied curtly, hobbling quickly to the chosen destination. Relieved to be sitting and rubbing his knee, he waited for Becker to join him.
“Is there a problem, Inspector? You appear to be in obvious discomfort?” Becker asked as he sat opposite him.
“It’s nothing more than discomfort to give me a sharp reminder not to be inattentive,” he replied with a smile. “Thank you for your concern.” He rubbed his knee a few more times before picking up his pen and opening his notebook. “Now, Mr. Becker, when did the young girl go missing?”
“I was told that she was discovered missing during 4 A.M. rounds.”
Collier checked the time on his wrist watch and re-read something he had written earlier in his notepad. “How frequent are these rounds?”
“In the section of the ward Rebecca was located, they are every two hours.”
Collier looked at him quizzically.
Becker crossed one leg across the other and leaned back in his chair. “The frequency of the rounds depend on the severity of the problem. In Rebecca’s case she was well on her way to recovery from pneumonia. In fact, she was scheduled to return home by mid-week.”
“When were you informed, Mr. Becker?”
For a man so meticulously dressed, Collier was surprised to see that Becker wore mismatched socks.
“I’d guess shortly after 4 A.M.”
“Why did it take you so long to call the police?”
Becker sat straight up in his chair, shifted uncomfortably and with a shrug replied: “It’s not the first time a child has pulled a prank on us. I thought the little girl may have been playing some sort of hide-and-go-seek game on us. So, I directed the staff to check every possible nook and cranny where she may have hidden.”
“I see…So she was that kind of little girl?” Collier asked with a slight smile.
“No…Yes…I really don’t know. I was just covering the bases.”
“I see. We’ll come back to what bases you were covering later. What I need from you right now, Mr. Becker, is an auditorium or meeting hall that could temporarily house the staff presently on duty. Do you have something like that? ”
Becker thought for a moment before answering. “The only room large enough to do that, Inspector, is the solarium on the top floor. But, I’ll need to get to the intercom in my office before the shift changes to alert the various departments.”
Collier noticed that his niece, Diane, had just come down the stairs and was walking over to Sergeant Snowden.
“When do you expect the Grynbergs? Rebecca’s mother and father?” Collier asked.
Becker’s eyes went blank and he said nothing.
“I take it from your reaction that you haven’t yet informed them? Why?”
Shifting on his chair and looking away, Becker replied: “I thought that would best be done by the likes of you, Inspector.”
Collier looked at him long and hard before continuing. “I guess that’s a fair statement though I’m not sure what you mean by “the likes of you,” but no matter. Is it normal hospital procedure to do that, Mr. Becker?”
Becker leaned forward and locked eyes with Collier. “There’s nothing normal about what has happened or the times we live in, wouldn’t you agree, Inspector?”
“To my very point, Mr. Becker…still, I wish to know if this was normal procedure for all patients. Or, was it just for your Jewish patients?”
The small smirk at the corner of Becker’s mouth told Collier what he needed to know and he decided it would be unwise and fruitless at this time to pursue this line of inquiry. He noted it in his notepad.
“How many exits does this hospital have?” Collier asked flatly.
“Four.” Becker stood up and began to chop through the air with his outstretched arm as he turned: “North, South, East and West.”
“Well, Mr. Becker, before this shift heads home I need them in the solarium. It’s imperative that no one from this shift leaves.” He recorded the time in his notebook. “Why are you still here, Mr. Becker?” And, he derisively dismissed him with the wave of his hand.
With a deep sigh, he watched Becker scurrying back to his office and wondered whether he knew or cared that the time-wasting search he had sanctioned may have cost the little girl her life. Before he closed his notebook he wrote: Could Becker have had another reason to delay the call to police other than his obvious anti-Semitic attitude? Closing his notepad and replacing the cap on his fountain pen, he returned both to his inside pocket and stood up and with a slight limp walked over to where his niece, Diane, and Sergeant Snowden were standing. He took Diane’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze before turning to Snowden, who had already come to attention.
“Sergeant, no one can leave this hospital. Time is of essence. I need constables to cover the four exits.”
“Yes sir! How soon do you need them?”
“Four hours ago.”