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Peter Tremayne

The Fiery Devil

A curse upon the fiery devil, thundering along so smoothly. . He loitered about the station, waiting until one should stay to call there; and when one did, and was detached for water, he stood parallel with it, watching its huge wheels and brazen front and thinking what a cruel power and might it held. Ugh! To see the great wheels slowly turning and to think of being run down and crushed!

Chapter 55, Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens, 1848

“Captain Ryder?”

Mr Josiah Plankton peered myopically at the business card that the young man had offered and glanced up with a quick bird-like motion of his head. Then he adjusted his gold-rimmed pince-nez and turned his gaze back to the card.

“Captain Ryder of the Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police?” There was a slight inflection of incredulity in his tone.

“Exactly so, sir,” nodded the young man who stood before him with a pleasant smile on his tanned features.

“You’ll excuse my momentary consternation, sir,” Mr Plankton said as he motioned his visitor to a seat in front of the large ornate desk he occupied. “I was unaware that the members of the Detective Department of the London Metropolitan Police held military rank.”

The young man appeared unabashed as he seated himself in the chair.

“My captaincy was in the 16th Lancers, sir. I was. .” He shifted his weight slightly to adjust his position to one of greater comfort. “I was wounded last year at the Battle of Mudki during the Sutlej Campaign and thus, being unable to serve the colours further, I was persuaded by Colonel Rowan to join the Metropolitan force in the newly established Detective Department. The colonel considered that I had a talent in that direction.”

Mr Plankton laid the young man’s card on the ink blotter before him and glanced quizzically at the detective.

“Commissioner Sir Charles Rowan, eh? I have had the pleasure of his acquaintance, for he helped some years ago with the framing of the Solicitors’ Act in Parliament. I then represented the Incorporated Law Society of England and Wales. So, do I presume that you are here in an official capacity on behalf of the Commissioner?”

“Your presumption is correct, sir, in that I am here representing the Metropolitan Police.”

“Then how may the firm of Scratch, Nellbody and Plankton assist you?”

“I am given to understand that you are solicitors acting for Dombey and Son, the shipping company?”

Mr Plankton gave a sad smile. “I am not sure that such a state of affairs will last many days longer. You have doubtless heard the news from Threadneedle Street?”

Captain Ryder made a faint motion of his hand.

“Then there is truth in the story that the company may soon go into liquidation? Or at least Mister Paul Dombey is to be declared a bankrupt?”

Mr Plankton was serious.

“In any other circumstances, Captain Ryder, I would have replied to you that I am bound by my client’s confidence, but the news is all about the town. Dombey and Son will soon cease to trade. Mister Dombey may well be able to call on some reserves but if the firm lasts out a twelve-month, I will be surprised.”

“As Dombey and Son are a considerable trading company that, surely — and if I may be so bold to say so — will impinge on the business connection with your own firm, sir?”

Mr Plankton smiled wryly and gestured to his office with an encompassing sweep of his hand. Captain Ryder became aware of several boxes and cases in various stages of being packed.

Even some pictures had been taken off their wall hanging in preparation to be crated.

“I am about to retire. The few remaining accounts that exist are being placed elsewhere by my chief clerk, who is also moving to another practice.”

“But Messrs Scratch and Nellbody. .?”

“Have been deceased these last ten years, sir. I am sole partner and now it is time for me to have some peaceful retirement. My intention is to move to France. I think the sun and wine of Provence will be conducive to my constitution after the smog of the City. London is no place for retirement.”

“I see, sir,” nodded the young man. He paused and then cleared his throat. “I am, sir, placed in a delicate position for my duty persuades me that I need to trespass into what you may deem as the confidential matters of your client.”

Mr Plankton replied with a thin smile.

“In which case, sir, I shall decline to answer your questions. However, if you place those questions before me, I will be better able to judge to what extent you may trespass or not.”

Captain Ryder gave an apologetic grimace.

“Speaking for the Metropolitan force, our jurisdiction scarcely reaches to Woolwich. We have only recently been requested to extend our policing to that area of the Arsenal. Therefore it is as a special matter of government intervention that we have been asked to pursue some inquiries pursuant to an incident that took place further abroad.”

Mr Plankton looked bewildered.

“Government intervention, sir? I am not sure that I am following you.”

“We have been asked to intercede in a matter following a request by no less a person than Mister Cudworth of South Eastern Railways who has the ear of … of certain government officials.”

Mr Plankton spread his hands, still mystified.

“I am at a loss sir. South Eastern Railways? I know of no business dealings between Dombey and Son and South Eastern Railways and …”

The solicitor suddenly paused and looked thoughtful.

“Just so, sir,” the young man smiled briefly, noting the change of expression. “Two weeks ago today there was an incident at the railway station of Paddock Wood. It used to be called Maidstone Road Halt until a few years ago. It is, as you doubtless know, a station on the main railway line running from London Bridge to Dover. A man was killed at that station. South Eastern Railways, of course, own that line.”

A look of understanding began to form on Mr Plankton’s features.

“Your client, Mister Paul Dombey, was a witness to this incident,” added Captain Ryder as if to clarify matters.

“The incident being when a former employee of Mister Dombey fell in front of the express train from Dover to London,” sighed Mr Plankton, shaking his head as though it was distasteful to be reminded of the unpleasantness.

“You are correct in that particular, sir. Except that this was no mere employee but a certain James Carker who had been manager of Dombey and Son and who had recently run away with Mrs Edith Dombey, the wife of his employer.”

Mr Plankton made a disapproving sound by clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“I am aware of these unhappy circumstances, sir, but I hardly see the relevance of any inquiry …”

“Furthermore,” went on Captain Ryder, interrupting, “certain charges had been laid against James Carker as a suspect in embezzling large sums of money from the company. It is that embezzlement that, in my understanding, has brought the company to the verge of ruin.”

“I fail to see in what capacity Mr Cudworth of South Eastern Railways has asked for the inter. . the intervention of the Detective Department of the Metropolitan force in this matter?

Surely the local coroner has dealt with the matter?”

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