A broad stroke of salmon pink across the morning horizon was fanning out and dancing among the silvery grey clouds. Silhouettes of chimneys and buildings black as newly laid coal in a burning fire poked smoke into the awakening skyline.
Inspector Alexander Collier stepped out of the Wolseley and looked up at the hospital. A shiver of apprehension reminded him of a location that once housed him during Christmas 1917. Memories he did not want to revisit. Nevertheless, they bullied their way in. The stairs became that hill, the crest his objective. He remembered the sky filled with terror and the deafening cacophony of exploding shells. He could not move. Memories mired in blood-soaked mud, horrific screaming of the wounded and dying punched through to secure its stranglehold. Sweat dripped from his forehead. The rain. Oh, how it had fallen for days on end, tears from the dead and dying. Over the roar of this death-filled flooding he could have sworn he heard his younger brother Joe. Regrets. He could not save him. Survivor’s guilt ensnared him, seared to the battle of Passchendaele and a promise broken to their mom.
“Are you alright? Inspector!”
Jolted back to the present, he wiped his brow. “Go on ahead of me, Sergeant, I won’t be far behind.
His legs felt heavy, each step an effort. Gritting his teeth, he focused on the Sergeant’s back.
“Watch your step there, sir, a piece has broken off.”
Too late, he stumbled, hitting his knee against the sharp edge of the next step. Pain exploded from the point of contact sending him into a nauseated state. He gulped in bucketfuls of air and waited for the pain to subside. Finally, he accepted Sergeant Snowden’s extended hand and rose to his feet. “That’s what I get for not paying attention, Sergeant.” He dusted himself off feeling embarrassed from his mishap. “I’ll be alright, Sergeant.” Vigorously, he rubbed his knee. “Carry on, I will be more circumspect.”
On the opposite side of the street, in the shadow of a closed shop, the outline of a woman nodded in his direction. She appeared to motion him forward. He squinted to capture a sharper image. Briefly, she stepped into the lamplight. Queenie?
“Do you see something, gov? Did you forget something in the car?”
He turned back to point her out, but she was gone. Momentarily unsettled by the experience, he peered at the Sergeant. “I thought—no, nothing.” And he waved him on.
The heavy wooden door to the hospital slammed shut behind him. He took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. The marble laid foyer reminded him of a similar floor space where every inch had been at a premium. He limped into its centre. Paintings dressed several of the walnut-grid wall panels. Once he had forced himself to memorize similar paintings to escape the smell, sounds and agony of many like him who 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.”
He searched about to discover the source of the voice. A tall, lean, clean-shaven man in a three-piece business suit exited an office beside the stairwell and ...