PAUL TERHUNE IN QUEER TOWN
First episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1066 December 23rd 1944.
THE CHRISTMAS WELCOME
The mist was so thick that although the signpost stood out like a tall, white ghost the right of the fork-roads, Paul Terhune could not read the directions on it. The road straight ahead was broad and glistened as only wet macadam can glisten. The road to the right was narrow and winding and the surface was none too good. Nine travellers out of ten would have kept to the broad road, but Paul Terhune was tired of driving. Patches of fog, with ice on the roads, had haunted him ever since he had left London that noon. He had lost his way three times, had skidded twice, and was now lost again, with darkness closing down. Long before now he had expected to reach a certain old world inn that he knew in Norfolk, there to spend Christmas, but he was so weary of straining his eyes through mist and drifting snow that he no longer cared if he reached his destination. All he wanted was a roof over his head, a hot meal, and a fire. His Christmas was going to be a lonely one, anyway, so it did not much matter what company he found. He climbed out and moved across to the signpost, shining a powerful torch on the two outstretched arms. The air was raw and bitterly cold, but he could smell the salt of the sea, and knew the coast was nearby, the arm pointing straight ahead indicated: Portmaven, 18m. The other said: Holdenwall, 3m. “Holdenwall it’s going to be,” grunted Terhune, with sudden resolution. “I’m blessed if I’m going to drive another eighteen miles this Christmas eve. I seem to know the name of Holdenwall.
I believe it’s a favourite holiday resort in the season. There’s bound to be a hotel there.” He let in the clutch and turned the nose of the car to the right, feeling the difference at once as he ran off the macadam. He did not know this part of England very well. Most of his life had been spent in India, where he had risen to a high position in the Indian Police. Now he was retired, and living in London, where he sometimes helped Scotland Yard with unusual cases. But no thought of work had been in his mind when he suddenly decided to get out of London for Christmas and spend a few days in Norfolk. He wanted to find good company somewhere and enjoy a holiday in old fashioned surroundings. Now, as he bumped along the dwindling track, he remembered having heard that Holdenwall was one of the few remaining walled towns in the country. He knew Totnes, in Devon, with its picturesque gates, and wondered if this town on the East Coast was much the same. If so, it would make a very suitable setting for the Christmas period. The mist grew thicker as he went along, and it was some minutes later before he discovered he was running along a causeway no more than twenty feet wide. It was made of solid stone blocks, thickly coated with mud and sand. By peering cautiously to right and left he saw he was crossing a wide expanse of salt marshes, with water glistening here and there. He at once dropped to dead slow.
There appeared to be no wall or fencing to prevent him running over the edge into the mud. He remembered having glimpsed a large notice board some way back and guessed it had warned him against this very thing. Setting his firm lips, he kept to the middle of the causeway as far as possible. As long as he took it steadily he should not come to harm, though it would be difficult to see what would happen if he encountered another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. However he seemed to have the world to himself that night, and not a glimmer of light showed ahead. His own headlights were good ones and served him well. Somewhere near at hand he heard the booming waves, and it occurred to him that this causeway was probably under water at high tide. It was just his luck that he had struck it when the tide was out. Peering ahead with a definite strain, he finally made out massive walls. Ramparts seemed to loom before him, and he was about to stop and investigate when his headlights picked out a semi-circular gateway ahead. He drove through it at less than eight miles an hour. It was as well he had done that, for the road bore sharp to the right, and he found himself running over old-fashioned cobble stones. “Phew!” he muttered. “I didn’t know such a place still existed in England.” The mist still blurred all detail, but the motorist could see that many of the houses and shops on either side had overhanging eaves. The roofs were tiled, and windows leaded. It was like going back four hundred years. Here and there a lamp-post gave flickering light from a gas burner, but no chink of light came from any of the buildings. Shutters were closed and blinds drawn. “Don’t blame ‘em!” thought Terhune. “They’ll be shutting out the mist. The town must be a bad place for rheumatics in the winter—Hello!” The road had widened in front of a timbered building outside which hung an undoubted inn sign. Paul Terhune sighed with relief and swung the car in towards the inn. He turned down his headlamps then got out, leaving his bags where they were for the moment. Rather stiffly, for his muscles had become cramped, he climbed the two steps and groped for the door know. To his great relief it turned, and he stepped into a warm, dark passage, where the only lighting came beneath a curtain hanging on his left. He lifted the curtain and passed underneath, finding himself in a long, low room where the rafters were only a few inches over his head, though he himself was not very tall. Dim gaslight revealed about a dozen men assembled near a counter; the air was thick with smoke, which was disturbed by the sudden draught of his arrival. Everyone turned, and Terhune almost gasped. He had never seen a more evil looking lot of faces. If they had been gangsters they could not have looked more forbidding. They were mostly muffled in greatcoats, though some had sweaters or the jerseys of fishermen. A dozen pairs of eyes regarded him sullenly. “Good evening!” he said. “A Merry Christmas to you!” There was no reply from anyone. Drinks were held suspended in mid-air as they glared at him.
He allowed a few seconds to pass, then added: “A dirty night, but I expect you get a lot of this around here. “It’s none too good on the road.” “Motoring?” came in a husky whisper from the landlord, a fat man with a bulbous nose, who had leaned over the counter and revealed two tattooed forearms of tremendous proportions. “Yes, I’ve come from London this afternoon, and it’s not been much fun,” replied Terhune, loosening his coat. “Then ye’ve taken the wrong road!” rasped the man behind the counter. “Ye should’ve kept straight on at the fork instead of turning right.” “No, I’ve had enough of the road for tonight. I came here purposely,” admitted the visitor, wondering when the group would stop staring at him. “I want to put up over Christmas. I suppose you’ve got rooms?” “Yes, but they’re all occupied,” snarled the landlord. “I haven’t a bed to spare.” Terhune looked at the crowd about him and decided they could not be visitors. They were undoubtedly local men, and they would not be staying at the inn. “Oh, I see, that’s unfortunate! Perhaps you could direct me to another hotel?” “All closed for the winter!” whispered the fat man. “This is the only one open, an’ I can’t take you. Best get on to Portmaven. Ye’ll get in there.” There were nods and grunts of approval from the bystanders, and the man from India felt an unusual surge of anger. They did not want him, that was clear. A man with under-hung jaw leaned towards him and jerked a thumb towards the door. “Ye’d best be going right away, mister. Another ten minutes and the tide will be lapping the causeway.” “I’m not going!” Terhune heard himself saying. “I can’t drive any further tonight. If you can’t find me a bed, I’ll sleep on a table, on a couch, on the floor, or anywhere, but I’m not going out into that fog again.
THE INSPECTOR OF POLICE
Everyone looked at the landlord, who slowly opened a flap in the counter and came out. He was even more enormous than Terhune had believed and must have weighed all of twenty stone. “I told ye I can’t put anyone up. House is full!” he rasped, his voice never rising above a whisper. “There’s no place for ye here.” His attitude was threatening, but any manner less likely to intimidate Paul Terhune it would have been hard to find. “Then at least you can give me is a hot drink and a meal,” Paul Terhune said. “I’ll not do that. I’ve no time to prepare meals this time ‘o night. The staff’ve gone off for Christmas. I’ve let ‘em go home,” whispered the man, and again the crowd nodded assent. Terhune stiffened. “Listen, just what’s the idea? One minute you tell me the inn is full up, and that every bed is occupied, and the next you say you’ve sent the staff home for Christmas. If that is true, I can have one of their beds. I can pay, if that’s what you’re worrying about.” The fat man’s eyes became glazed and stubborn. “I’m sayin’ there’s no room for ye here,” he murmured huskily. “I’ve no time fer trouble on Christmas Eve. This is a private party.” Paul Terhune looked at the rows of ugly faces. Some of them leering. One man had his mouth open, his jaw sagging loosely. “Can either of you gentlemen direct me to the police station, please?” demanded the visitor. “Being licensed as an inn implies certain obligations, as you’ll find out when I’ve made my complaint. Which way is the police station?” To Terhune’s surprise, there was a burst of coarse laughter all round. Then the landlord dropped a heavy hand on Terhune’s shoulder and propelled him towards the door. “Up the street as far as the square, then ye’ll find it on the left hand corner,” he chuckled. “Ask for Inspector Thacker or Sergeant Proctor.” The next moment the infuriated traveller was out in the cold and fog, almost blundering into his parked car. More laughter sounded inside the inn. He buttoned up his collar and turned up the street with grim resolution. It was not worth taking his car for such a short distance. He was tingling with rage.
The police station was a massive stone building with iron bars over the windows. It did not look as though it had been altered in three or four centuries. Just a clink of light showed where the massive, studded door was. It creaked loudly as he pushed it inwards. “That you Reeves?” came from somewhere on the left. Paul Terhune walked into an inner office where a surprised sergeant was taking his feet down from the desk. Some bottles of beer stood nearby, and a sprig of holly dangled from a gas-jet. The sergeant was small, white-faced, and had the palest eyes Terhune had ever seen. “I’ve come for a little help.” “Help!” The sergeant snapped upright. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” His tone added to Terhune’s irritation. “My name’s Paul Terhune!” he said curtly. “I imagine I have as much right to be here as anybody. I have just arrived in Holdenwall by road and seek accommodation for the night. At the inn the man refuses to put me up. I want you to come and remind him that he is compelled to do so under the Innkeepers’ Act.” “Not if he hasn’t room,” growled the sergeant, glancing towards an inner door. “Nobody can make Jim Windle do what he doesn’t want to do. If he says he’s full up, there’s nothing we can do about it.” “He’s not full up. He gave himself away on that point. For some reason he insists that I go on the Portmaven. I’m doing nothing of the kind. I’m staying here the night. I’ve a perfect right to do so, Haven’t I?” The inner door opened and a middle-aged Inspector put out his nose. It was by far the longest nose Terhune had ever seen on a human being, though the face behind it was ordinary enough. “What’s the matter, Proctor?” he demanded. Paul Terhune told him with some heat, and the Inspector came out. He was excessively tall and thin. He looked at the visitor with obvious distaste. “Are you expecting us to start trouble with our local innkeeper on Christmas Eve?” he asked. “Have some consideration for others, my dear sir.” “Consideration!” exploded Terhune. “What consideration have they had for me since I’ve arrived here? I can get neither room, drink, nor meal. What sort of place is this Holdenwall if a traveller is kicked out on such a night—If you don’t want to quarrel with your precious innkeeper, please put me on to some householder who will accommodate me for the night.” The Inspector shook his head. “We can’t crash in on people this late on Christmas Eve. They’ve all got family visitors of their own. I doubt if you’d find a spare bed in all Holdenwall. You’d better take the innkeeper’s advice and drive as quickly as you can across the causeway before the tide comes in.” Terhune bristled. “Have you got any cells here at the police station?” he snapped, and when the Inspector nodded, the man from India snatched up a paperweight from the desk and hurled it at a clock on the wall, smashing the face. “Now arrest me for willful damage and put me in one of your cells! I’ll at least have some shelter.” He had acted swiftly, and the impact of the paperweight made such a noise, that the two men jumped nervously. Terhune was surprised to see the Inspector drop one hand to his side pocket and grasp the butt of what was evidently an automatic. Just for a moment the man’s face was fiendish, then he recovered his composure, and nodded to the sergeant. “Proctor, you were a witness of that. Arrest this man and put him in. It won’t be just for the night, my friend. The local magistrates don’t sit until Wednesday next, and you’ll have to stay here until then. We’ll teach you that you can’t be high handed in Holdenwall!
You won’t find the cells the best sort of accommodation for Christmas.” Terhune shrugged his shoulders as the sergeant pulled forward the charge sheet and pulled out his wallet. “You’ll find all particulars of me in there, and if you want any more you can ring up Scotland Yard for references,” he snarled, and was surprised to see the Inspector pale as he snatched for the wallet. “Scotland Yard! What have they to do with it?” “I have many friends there. As you will see from my papers, I was an Inspector of the Indian Police until three years ago. Recently I’ve been helping Scotland Yard. I intend to take this matter up with them when I get back. You know more about that inn than I do, but I’d say from personal observation that there is some special reason why they do not want a stranger there tonight. It’s nothing to do with me. All I want is a bed, and whether it is your police cell or at the inn, I do not care.” The Inspector was shuffling through the papers and cards in the wallet at express speed. He was licking his lips feverishly, and when he looked up a few moments later he was showing his teeth in a wide grin. “Forgive us, Inspector Terhune! I’m afraid we tend to lose our manners down here in the wintertime. I’ll phone the landlord right away and insist that he finds you accommodation. If he makes any trouble, I’ll scare the stuffing out of him…Excuse me!” He went back to the inner room, and Terhune heard him using the phone.
An hour later Paul Terhune was in a large, oak panelled bedroom, getting ready for his much needed bed. Things had moved rapidly once he had got the Inspector on his side. When he had returned to the inn there had been a different reception for him. A hot meal awaited him beside a roaring fire in an inner room and judging by the silence in the bar the other revelers had gone. The landlord had almost fawned on him, and telling the visitor there was a fire and hot water bottles in his room. Relaxed and well fed, Terhune had not failed to notice the silence and sense of emptiness in the hotel as he passed to his room. One or two of the bedroom doors had been open, and he had seen they were unoccupied. The landlord had evidently lied to him when he had first arrived. Evidently no other visitors were staying there for Christmas. An undersized boy with the face of an old man had helped him upstairs with his bags. As he gave the youth a shilling, Terhune had enquired: “Many visitors for the holiday?” “Uh-uh! Gug-gug-guh!” had come from the cavernous mouth of the other, and he had pointed to his ears and mouth before snatching the shilling and departing. “A deaf mute!” Terhune had growled. “A bright assortment of people around here in the winter. It may have a holiday atmosphere in the summer, but now—Ugh, it gives me the creeps! This room is nearly as bad.” The light was poor, for there were only candles upstairs. He kicked the logs on the fire to make the flames rise higher and was able to see that the furniture was massive and very old. The bed was a four poster, there were window seats under the shuttered windows, and no less than seven doors to the room. He went around these one by one and discovered that six of them opened into deep cupboards which smelled of mustiness and damp. The seventh was the one by which he had entered. He locked that one.
Lying in bed, he was wondering about all that had happened. What had been the real reason why he had been received with alarm and resentment when he had first arrived at the hotel? Why had the crowd in the bar room laughed when he mentioned going to the police? Why had the police refused to help him at first, and why had the Inspector grabbed instinctively for a revolver when Terhune had smashed the clock? As he lay there watching the flicker of the flames on the ceiling, he could hear a dull booming noise, mingled with the lapping of water. It seemed to come from just outside the window, and at first he was puzzled. Then he remembered the tide would be in now. It sounded as though it came almost to the outer walls of the hotel. The idea intrigued him. Holdenwall must become an island at high tide. The inn was probably right up against the sea wall. He had not noticed in the darkness. Wind rattled the shutters, but he decided to open them and take a look. Padding across the carpet in his bare feet, he made a startling discovery. It was impossible to open the shutters of the window because they were padlocked. In each case there was a strong new padlock fastening the shutters tightly in place. Without shattering those, or getting a key, he could do nothing. His expression hardened. “If they think they’re going to shut me in here with closed windows all night, they’re mistaken,” he muttered. “The landlord will have the key.” As he donned slippers and thick dressing gown he heard a clock somewhere strike midnight. Christmas had come. In most towns’ bells would be ringing, but none were ringing in Holdenwall. The inn itself was as quiet as the grave, except when a piece of wood crackled in the fire. He hurried to the door, unlocked it, and tried to step outside. To his surprise the door would not budge. He pushed harder, but with the same result. Then he put his shoulder to the door and thrust with sufficient force to make the oak panels creak, but he gained nothing by that. The door still did not move. It was wedged or bolted on the outside. Tight-lipped, Terhune went to the bell push on the wall and tugged with all his might. It might be gone midnight, but he was angry. He was not the sort of visitor who could be locked in a shuttered room for the night. Jim Windle would learn that when he answered the bell. The man from India could hear it ringing and clanging somewhere below. Nothing happened. Nobody came up the stairs to answer it, and after waiting a few minutes he tried again, harder this time. The clanging seemed to fill the hotel, but there was no result. His ringing was ignored. It began to dawn on him that the hotel was empty. There was no one to hear his summons.
Gritting his teeth, he went back to the fireside and did some hard thinking. There was no doubt about it. Something very strange was going on, and they did not want him to see anything of it. As he stood there, turning the matter over in his mind, he heard the chug-chug of a motor boat somewhere outside the window, then the sound of men’s voices, subdued and low pitched. Other sounds came to him, the unmistakable rattle of oars, the lapping of water under the bows of a sturdy craft, then bumps and thuds which indicated heavy objects were being moved about. It was maddening not to be able to see what was going on. His expression grew harder and harder, and he suddenly remembered there was one way of cheating those who had locked him in and fastened the shutters. In his kit he had some burglars’ tools which had more than once served him well. Hurriedly he searched his bag and found them. Selecting what he wanted, he climbed on to one of the window seats and started work on the nearest padlock. It was not the first time he had opened a lock of this kind. He did not need light to do this; touch was more essential. His lean brown fingers moved with assurance, and he knew that in a few moments the padlock would be open. Then a faint rustle in the air made him half turn. He glimpsed a tall, dark figure standing close behind him, and as he instinctively threw up an arm to protect himself, a shattering blow descended on his head. At one o’clock on Christmas morning, Paul Terhune became unconscious, and toppled backwards into the strong arms that awaited him.
PAUL TERHUNE IN QUEER TOWN 8 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1066 – 1071 (1944 - 1945)
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2019