Fateful Choices: The Finale
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 Short Story of Fiction by B. B. Wright
The weeks passed quickly and by Saturday, August 19, 1939, news about the murder of Arthur Brodley and related stories with respect to the capture and incarceration of his murderer, Joseph ‘Philly’ Morris, had slipped into the middle pages of the Echo. Throughout most of the month, the Monte Carlo Ice show, Akhbar’s Indian show, complete with a levitating woman, Max Miller, who was considered to be the rudest comedian that ever lived, and the crowning of Miss Betty Meadus as Queen of High-Cliffe, graced the front pages of the Echo. Toward the end of August the front page of the Echo shifted dramatically with the signing of the ten-year non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23. On Tuesday, August 29, the Echo announced: “Children Evacuation to Bournemouth Begins Tomorrow.” Herbert Morrison, leader of the London Country Council, was quoted to have issued this advice: “Children—be kind to each other. Parents: Make the kiddies cheerful. Others: Show a British smile.” As August drew to an end, the pages of the Echo were filled with the growing crisis; still, it made room on the front page to report on a jewel heist from Knibbs & Son in Boscombe. No mention was made on any of its pages about the Brodley murder or the compelling circumstantial evidence against ‘Philly’ Morris as argued by his lawyer, Richard Bell, or that the trial would begin on Tuesday, April 30 at the Central Criminal Court in London, commonly known as the Old Bailey.
On Friday, September 1, Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later, on Sunday, September 3, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in deeply sad undertones that war had been declared against Germany.
Everyone in Britain awaited a calamity after the German invasion of Poland but none materialized; they had expected a robust response to the German invasion of Poland but little of military importance took place. Only stilted sameness existed between people as they went about their daily business trying to absorb and adjust to the torrent of prohibitions of what they could not do and what they had to do. Their transition to this new normalcy ached for relief from the portentous suspension they found themselves in and they willed their attitudes to shift away from Hitler’s machinations to the greater pleasantries and possibilities inherent in holiday planning that smacked with the wholesome and real camaraderie of family and friends. The children who had been evacuated to the Bournemouth area for their protection began to return to their families as reality’s tenuous hold on the preciousness of time regrouped to momentarily follow a different drummer. This period between September 1939 and April 1940 became known as the “Phoney War” or “Sitzkrieg.”
Legal sparring between the Crown and ‘Philly’ Morris’s lawyer, Richard Bell, had pushed the trial to Tuesday, June 25. During that summer of 1940 the fate of Britain hung in the balance as the battle for Britain was fought out overhead between the British Air Force and the German Luftwaffe.
Satiated and exhausted with the daily news of death, the usual curiosity seekers that filled a courtroom during a murder trial had lost their taste for its details and, apart from those actually involved in the trial, the courtroom in Old Bailey was empty.
Norman Steffens had a square face with a jaw line that could chisel granite. Noted for being incredibly outspoken and self-assured, the 34-year old newspaper reporter had developed a reputation for not only his disconcerting ability to analyze events and detect underlying patterns but his uncanny ability for crystal clear language in his articles. As a result, he had developed a sizeable readership. Fixated on this trial, he had turned his finely oiled skills to champion ‘Philly’ Morris’s innocence. His first ‘shot across the bow’ of the Prosecution’s case was a carefully crafted and well received article that challenged the credibility of the saliva test to identify blood type.
On the morning of September 7, Chief Inspector Collier entered the courtroom and nodded in Steffens’s direction when their eyes met as he sat down on the bench at the opposite end to him. Time marched by slowly as Collier reviewed the critical parts of the trial in his mind while he awaited the jury’s verdict. Indelibly seared into his mind were the words of Morris’s lawyer when he had held aloft one of the cigarettes butts and asked the jury “…how is it possible that invisible traces of saliva could even remotely determine the blood type of an individual? In all conscience, could you send a man to the gallows on such skimpy evidence?” Bell’s all-out assault on the credibility of the saliva test had been immediate as seen on the faces of the jurists. It had become quite obvious to Collier that the well-presented case by the prosecution had just been usurped and that it had been reduced to a single scrap of disputed evidence.
When the jury entered, Collier glanced in Steffens’s direction and found him looking at him with a smirk on his face. It didn’t take long before Collier felt the red-hot heat of anger and disappointment begin to leave its imprint as it crawled up the back of his neck.
In a smog-filled room of cigarette smoke at the Strand Palace Hotel positioned close to Trafalgar Square, River Thames and Covent Garden on the north side of The Strand in London, ‘Philly’ Morris celebrated his newly won freedom with the newspaper reporter Norman Steffens by opening a second bottle of champagne. Well on their way from being just inebriated to blindly drug, Steffens watched as Morris lollopped about the room slurping his drink and singing “Andy The Handy Man.”
“T’is George Formby’s best song, don’t you think? “ He poured another glass and offered more to Steffens.
“Damn it, ‘Philly,’ it’s barely pass noon and I can barely feel the end of my nose,” Steffens chortled, waving ‘Philly’ off.
“Noon…schmoon…who cares.” Bottle in one hand and the glass in the other, Morris flopped down on the couch opposite Steffens, spilling the contents of his glass on himself. “Fock! “ He exclaimed. “What an arsehole, I am!” Placing both bottle and glass on the table in front of him, he wiped himself down with the cushion beside him. More or less satisfied with the result, he poured himself another glass of champagne. “This, my good friend, is for you and me lawyer,” and he began to sing his rendition of the George Formby song:
“Now he’s a jack-of-all-trades as busy as a bee
Should anything need fixing, just get in touch with Steffens
If you’re water cisterns frozen, or the baby’s face turns blue
Ring Lawyer Bell on the telephone, cos he knows what to do
They call me ‘Philly’, Winner ‘Philly’, a lucky man indeed.”
Morris’s face turned red as he choked on his own laughter.
When Morris had stopped laughing, Steffens shifted forward on his chair and leaned across the table separating them. “Tell me something, ‘Philly,’ and this has been something I have never been able to figure out, how do you think the murderer gained access to Brodley’s safe and where does the hair curler figure in?”
Morris suddenly took on a sober demeanor. He finished the small amount of champagne in his glass and returned it to the table between them. Sitting back in the couch, he spread his arms along its back. “My guess… and …I’m only guessing ‘Steffie’ old boy…but I’d put my money on his granddaughter.”
“Hmm…that’s interesting, why her?”
“She gained a lot from the old man’s death.”
“You mean his estate?”
“And its contents. Worth a fortune.” He poured himself another glass of champagne and swirled the contents around. “I think old chum that the murderer and her were in cahoots….Like you and me…a real win-win situation. Salut!” And, he drank the contents of his glass in one gulp.” As for that hair curler…” He shrugged.
“I think I’d better head off while I can walk,” Steffens said, standing up.
Unable to stand up after several attempts, Morris glared at him. “But, its way too early to go! Stay and celebrate!”
Fending off Morris’s entreaties to remain, Steffens weaved across the room to the door and left.
Several hours later, Steffens was awakened from a deep sleep by someone banging on his door. Disoriented, he stumbled out of bed and after stubbing his toe and tipping over a chair as he made his way across the room, he finally opened the door.
“Jesu… ‘Philly’…” The vomit and alcohol stench was too much for Steffens and he backed away in disgust.
Morris stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. Sobbing and using the wall as a brace to hold himself up, he blurted out: “I can’t live with it anymore…I’ve got to tell somebody. The jury was wrong…I killed the old bastard.”
Appalled, Steffens began to pace the floor. He and the jury had been duped and there was nothing he could do. British libel laws were stringent. He was the only one present to hear his confession and once tried and found innocent, Morris could never be tried again for the same offence. If he reported what he had just heard he knew Morris would deny it making him libel for massive financial damages. And, he had no intention of giving Morris that satisfaction.
The mournful, wailing sounds of air raid sirens echoed across the City as Steffens descended the stairs to the bomb shelter. He felt no qualms or remorse about leaving Morris’s drunken and unconscious body in his room, only despair at being so thoroughly duped. He hoped that if luck worked in his favor, Morris would be found dead amongst the rubble and he could reveal his confession.
Brodley’s granddaughter, Valerie, was in London that evening too, staying in a hotel a discrete distance away from the Strand Palace Hotel. Unfortunately, her hotel took a direct hit and she died before she could leave her room for the bomb shelter.
The outcome of the trial bothered Chief Inspector Collier until the truth was finally revealed a full decade later. As ‘Queenie’ Stoddard predicted, his career blossomed but, not without much heartache. Confounded by ‘Queenie’s’ uncanny ability to forecast future events, his curiosity and analytical mind finally got the better of him and he visited the Stoddard household.