Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Dribble South of the River

Penned upon the 28th of July, 2013

Superintendent Dribble was not well pleased. He’d been called out of the city on a promising report that a Woking woman had killed her brother and fed him to her pigs, and found on arriving that she had actually killed her pig and fed it to her brothers. The better part of the day had been lost in taking statements regarding apple and chestnut stuffing, and now the Yard were directing him – on the principle that, as his time was already being wasted, it might as well keep it up – to look into an industrial accident in Rotherhithe. He parked his car in a cobbled yard, surrounded on three sides by blind walls beneath a filmy, tea-stained sky, and was met by the officer on duty.

“I hope you have a good reason for calling me out here, Sergeant.”

The sergeant – a tall, well-built fellow with a cockney face and an earnest manner – cleared his throat apologetically. “Issue of collapsing machinery, sir. A literary device fell to the shop floor and one of the factory workers was emotionally crushed.” He winced, having spent the past forty minutes surveying the grisly scene. “I wouldn’t have bothered you with it, but the site owner’s making a fuss, and insisted CID be involved.”

Dribble sighed and pulled a notebook from one pocket. “What’s his idea – foul play of some sort?”

“Union gangs, he says. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about radicals among the staff. Thinks they’ve been sabotaging the works.”

The gentleman in question appeared at the factory door and, spotting Dribble’s arrival, began to hurry down the steps toward them, waving his hat in the air. “Oh, lord.” Dribble murmured. “Just who is he, sergeant?”

“August Salmon, sir. Owns this place – they make patented bunting-tossers for the Royal Navy – as well as the slum-block across the road. Says he knows the Chief Commissioner, but I doubt it.”

The industrialist – a shabby creature in a very old-fashioned day-coat – met them in a whirlwind of agitation and outrage. “You are the detective? I expected you much sooner – much sooner! The uninterrupted continuation of my work is vital to the commerce of this city, and I will not allow this mutinous fatuity to poison the minds of-”

“I quite understand, Mr Salmon,” Dribble broke in, in a practised tone. “So there’s been labour activity on the site before?”

There had, it seemed. It had begun with secret meetings in the commissary – clandestine whispering, money changing hands. When ordered to conduct a search, the foreman had located a cache of revolutionary pamphlets behind a bank of lockers. Then, a series of mechanical failures, culminating in this tragic incident. “Although,” Salmon confided, “the man struck was one of the worst of the plotters. They didn’t bank on that, eh – the biter bit, and he tastes of his own medicine! Let them stew on that for a while!”

Dribble privately wondered whether the effects of stewing on one’s own medicine would be quite what Salmon had in mind. Out loud, he agreed that an inspection of the scene would likely be advisable. The site of the collapse was re-examined, where the Four Pillars of Industrial Discipline that supported the overhead machinery – labelled, in turn, “DUTY,” “SERVILITY,” “PLACIDITY” and “PUNCTUALITY” – certainly showed signs of decay or damage. The pockets of the deceased were turned out, and the seditious pamphlets were produced from an impromptu evidence locker in the strong-room. Finally, they retired to confer in the foreman’s office, where a window littered with dead flies looked out upon the factory floor.

“Well, officer? Do you agree that this was the result of a campaign of sabotage?”

Dribble sucked thoughtfully at his lower lip. “On balance… yes, Mr Salmon; I do. Sergeant?”

“Yessir?”

“Take Mr Salmon into custody.”

The manufacturer was too shocked to move until after the sergeant had placed the handcuffs on his wrists. When he did speak, his voice shook and his face was white with uncontrolled fury.

“How dare you! I shall have your job for this, you impudent lout! Sir Melvin Prigge will be hearing about-” His protests faltered as the burly constable guarding the door took him by the shoulder, and led him down the narrow steps and before the sullen eyes watching the factory gates from the surrounding windows.

“But sir,” asked the sergeant as Dribble stared at the evidence laid out on the foreman’s desk, “what tipped you off that he was sabotaging his own business?”

The superintendent indicated the pamphlets stacked before them. “These, for a start. The unions usually get theirs done up by Butter, or Cump, or one of the other cheap printers. You can recognise their work anywhere – thin paper, bad ink, and full of second-hand punctuation bought from the booksellers. These were run up by a proper commercial place, or perhaps one of the small academic presses – probably run by a friend of his. Second-” he turned to the window and surveyed the rows of still machinery. “How could radicals weaken those supports without anyone noticing? Look how he runs this place. Eyes on everyone during the day, and after hours, those doors are locked up tighter than a train set in a nunnery.”

“A what, sir?”

“My auntie’s sister was a nun. Mad for trains, those ladies were. Now, third – he said the victim was one of the plotters, but the man had a chapbook from the Morgenthaum Trust in his coat pocket. They’re the last people to be breaking machines or throwing bombs at financiers – throwing confetti, more like. They’re about the ‘virtue of wealth’ and rewards in Heaven and all that. Meaning, Salmon was lying, or a fool, or both.”

“But what about the secret meetings?”

“I don’t think there’s a commissary in the world where you couldn’t find secret meetings, if you went looking for them. Say you went ’round to the Yard, right now, and saw the lads whispering and handing around money over their tea – what would they be doing?”

The sergeant considered this for a moment. “Having a bet, I reckon. Probably about whether Corporal Cabbage’s wife will come back when she finds out his dad left him that chip shop in his will.”

“Well, ten bob says that’s all that was happening here. No, the only person who could possibly have been undermining the ideological foundations of this place is August Salmon himself. I’d say he’s been shorting on materials for years, until you could knock this place over with any puff of hot air that wafts down from Westminster – and heaven help us if some Sturm und Drang blew over from the Continent. It’ll be fraud, manslaughter, both net and gross negligence – and the Nihilists could probably have him civilly for plagiarising their criminal mischief, too.”

“That all makes sense, sir,” the sergeant ruminated, as they strolled out to the yard, “but… if he did all that, why risk exposure by calling us in and demanding an investigation?”

“That, Sergeant, is exactly the sort of behaviour I’d expect of someone who’d been secretly undermining their own ideas for quite some time. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s completely forgotten that he did it. The defence might make a case for ‘not guilty by reason of cumulative cant’… but you didn’t hear that from me.”

And with that, Dribble hoisted himself back into his car, pulled out of the grimy yard, and set off for a pork pie from the late Cabbage Senior’s chip shop.


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