Inspector Boyd sat at his desk, writing away at a document. The leather covered writing desk was so large it almost filled the whole of the floor of the little room and formed an effective barrier between Boyd and anyone who came through the door. Harpur mused that in many ways it was typical of the Inspector’s pretencions. The desk would have been more at home in the drawing room of a mansion on the Ormeau Road instead of the pathetically small office in the decrepit Belfast Police Office. Boyd commanded a small, glorified night watch, but he acted like he was running the London Metropolitan Police.
The office was a model of tidiness. Files and papers were stacked in neat, ordered piles on the desk. Everything was in its place. There was not a speck of dust anywhere. A large wall clock ticked out the seconds ominously.
The Inspector did not look up and Harpur found himself staring at the bald top of Boyd's head. Surrounded by a ring of brown hair and Boyd's beard, the top of the Inspector's head looked like a big brown egg that completely filled its nest. Harpur longed to whack it with a spoon.
He coughed. "You wanted to see me, Inspector?"
Boyd still did not look up. "Ah. Constable Harpur," he said. "I am writing a letter of condolence to Constable McIlwaine’s poor widow. If things were not bad enough they were only married a month. Just what the hell went on last night?"
Harpur did not reply. The policeman killed in Buttle's Loaney had turned out to be Sammy McIlwaine, a young recruit who had only just joined the job. Harpur did not really know him but he felt for his family and young wife. His own parents were both dead, his brother was away in the army, signed up for life, and the only person to worry about Harpur was a sister who lived in Lisburn. He was thirty-five and unmarried. Army life had seen to that. Constantly moving around the world and years spent in Burma and Rangoon was not exactly conducive to attracting a wife. However at times like this, Harpur was glad that there was no one who would have to mourn him.
"On top of that, you also failed in the task you were actually assigned to do. You let the grave robbers escape as well," Boyd continued. He finally looked up from his work.
Harpur looked straight ahead, deliberately avoiding catching Boyd's eye. It was an old army trick, used whenever the sergeant was screaming at you for doing something wrong. Stand up straight, look dead ahead, do not react to any goading.
"Not exactly a great night's work, all in all. What do you think?"
"I disagree, sir," Harpur said. "I know the identity of one of the grave robbers and can apprehend him at my leisure. I let him go because I had to assist a colleague who was in trouble. I also almost apprehended the murderer of Sammy McIlwaine."
“Apprehended? You shot him, man,” Boyd squinted at him as if the very act of looking at Harpur gave him pain. “Let’s talk about that shall we? Just what did you shoot him with? The Belfast Borough Police is an unarmed force. What exactly are you doing running around with a gun while on duty?"
Harpur knew that this would be coming. The police were indeed officially armed only with a long stick but Belfast could be a dangerous place, especially at night. Sometimes officers would slip a revolver or other weapon into their pocket as what was known in the job as ‘a little extra insurance’. There was also a standard excuse if anything went wrong and they had to explain the presence of their fire-arm.
"I found the pistol at the scene," Harpur said. "I assume it belonged to the felon and he had dropped it."
Boyd sighed and gave Harpur a long, hard look with both eyebrows raised. "Found it at the scene, did you?" he said, eventually. "How wonderfully convenient. You know I'm constantly amazed at the number of Belfast criminals who drop firearms at the scenes of their crimes for my officers to retrieve." Sarcasm dripped from every word like the acid that used to flow from the vats in the vitriol factory Harpur had begun his working career in before jacking it in to join the army.
"Very well," the Inspector continued, "you won't mind handing the pistol in to the desk sergeant who will deposit it in the arsenal at the Army Barracks." His face cracked into a malicious smile. "I'll expect to see a receipt from the sergeant on my desk by the end of the day."
"Of course," Harpur responded through gritted teeth, realising that the lie had cost him dear. He would never see his expensive, German-made gun again. “As I was saying, though,” he went on, “at least we can be sure the madman who attacked McIlwaine is gravely wounded."
"Gravely wounded?!" Boyd was incredulous. "So gravely wounded he was able to get up and run away? Ten constables searched the area and there was no sign of him anywhere."
"Sometimes wounded men can surprise you. I saw a man at the siege of Rangoon, Sir," Harpur explained "-A big sergeant from Glasgow he was-shot through the heart. He kept on running for two hundred yards. Didn't even realise he'd been hit, even though half his guts were hanging out his back. Then he looked down, saw the wound and dropped stone dead."
"I don't want to hear your army stories, Harpur!" Boyd snapped, rising to his feet. He was a tall, thin, gangly man. At six feet two he was four inches taller than the stocky Harpur. The Inspector wore a full, bushy beard, unlike Harpur who was clean-shaven apart from his clipped military moustache. Even though it was the current fashion for men, Harpur often wondered if Boyd actually wore his beard so full as compensation for the lack of hair on the top of his head.
"Maybe if you had shot a bit straighter you might have killed him and he would not still be free to murder again," Boyd shouted. "You are an insubordinate maverick Harpur. You think you can do your own thing, act the way you want and carry your own equipment and its just not good enough."
Harpur was not sure he had ever seen Boyd this angry and wondered if something else beyond his normal antipathy for Harpur was fuelling his passion.
There were a few seconds of stony silence. Harpur doggedly stared straight ahead, looking out of the window behind the Inspector but oblivious to the view. Boyd finally sighed and sat down again.
"However, due to poor McIlwaine's death I am now short of a constable to work on finding this lunatic. You’ve seen the killer up close and on top of that-" he swallowed hard "-on top of that, I have actually had a request that you be transferred onto the case."
Harpur raised his eyebrows and finally looked in Boyd’s direction.
"Apparently the Reverend Wilson has been singing your praises for saving him and his daughter," Boyd growled, the words grating in his throat like broken glass. "As it turns out the friend he was at dinner with last night was William Patterson and he told him all about the gallant policeman who rescued them." Boyd's tone of voice was once more bitter with sarcasm.
Harpur's mind raced. No wonder Boyd was so resentful. Patterson was a very wealthy man, a leading industrialist of the town. He owned several big linen mills and an import-export warehouse at the docks. He was also chairman of the Belfast Corporation and rumour had it that he intended to stand for the new Belfast seat in Parliament. The Police were funded by the Corporation and so the Corporation was their boss. Patterson was the sort of person Boyd spent most of his time sucking up to. The Inspector was desperate to gain social status and career advancement. Yet here was one of the bigwigs of the town singing the praises of a lowly constable like Harpur. To make it worse, Harpur knew that in his commander’s eyes no constable was a lowly as him.
"I’ve had a personal request from Mr Patterson," Boyd continued, "that you be transferred onto this ‘Belfast Butcher’ case, and"- he swallowed hard again-"you be given a position of responsibility. Apparently he made some enquiries about you and found that one of his brother Freemasons served with you in the army. This individual is of the mistaken opinion that you are a 'stout fellow' and the sort of person who should be brought in to deal with this madman." Boyd sighed and rolled his eyes. "You are drafted into the investigation, Harpur. Acting detective sergeant. Effective immediately. You report directly to me, understand?"
“Detective sergeant?” Harpur’s eyes widened. “The Belfast Police are really just a night watch Sir. We’re not the London Metropolitan Force. We don’t have any detectives.”
“Well we do now,” Boyd said. “You. The Corporation wants this murderer caught, Harpur. So we must catch him.”
Harpur, dumbfounded, did not reply for several seconds. "Thank you Sir," he finally blurted out.
"Oh don't thank me, Harpur," Boyd shook his head. "If it was up to me you would be being disciplined for letting two criminals escape justice in the one night. However, at the end of the day we work for the Corporation and what the Corporation wants the Corporation gets." He leaned back in his chair and regarded Harpur with a cold, hostile stare. "Have you any idea what is at stake here, Harpur?"
"Of course I do." Harpur retorted. "There's a killer on the loose, sir. More innocent people could die."
"Not just that, Harpur," Boyd hissed. "Our very reputation is on the line. The folk in Dublin Castle would love to see us done away with. They want the whole country under one Police force and the force they want is Robert Peel's damn Irish Constabulary. There are even those here in Belfast who would prefer that. After all, why should the Corporation continue to employ us at their own expense when they could get policing paid for from the general tax burden of the Empire? This sort of thing makes us look bad and gives ammunition to those who want to do away with us."
And by ‘us’, you mean your own personal little empire, Harpur thought silently.
Boyd levelled a warning finger at Harpur. "You may have used your military or masonic connections to get this post Harpur but if you foul up again by God I swear I'll have you thrown out of the Belfast Police."
The words hung in the air for a few moments, then Boyd barked "Dismissed" and turned his attention back to the stack of papers before him.
Harpur turned to leave. He had just put his hand on the door handle when the Inspector spoke again.
"One more thing Harpur."
Harpur stopped and turned around again. "Yes Sir?"
"I've just completed the Christmas duty rota," Boyd said, his mouth cracking into an unpleasant smile. "I've decided that as far as leave requests go, priority will obviously go to married men and those with families. You are neither and are now working on the case with top priority, so your leave request is denied. You're working Christmas day this year."
Harpur opened his mouth but before he could speak the sound of smashing glass came from behind him.