SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : CHAPTER SEVEN
A Man Of Many Parts
Judge Embert Wimple was not amused. Normally, he looked forward to his day in court, especially now that all his cases were heard in camera, a stage which gave him latitude for the odd quip which might have been misinterpreted in an open forum. Today was different, for the judge had become immersed in space travel, and was resentful of matters which interfered with his studies in that field. He was heading toward the conclusion that, desirable though interplanetary missions were, there was no good reason why the astronauts involved should undergo unnecessary hardships. Why not, he reasoned, wait until people could be sent to Mars and beyond in reasonable comfort? The direct route was the thing. None of this intolerably lengthy sling-shot stuff. What was needed was an improved propulsion system. So the judge was mired in questions of plasma rockets, nuclear pulses and the like. This would be suitable fodder for the long winter evenings, which were far off, this being July. Small wonder that the legal luminary was more than usually detached from mundane matters.
From what little Embert Wimple knew of it, today’s case was all too earthly, its only somewhat unusual feature being that one of the litigants was not an individual, but a bank. Reluctantly putting aside his joust with celestial mechanics, the judge girded his loins to address the troubles of his fellows. There would be compensation later, in the form of an evening with an audio-tape of ‘The Mikado’. For a devoted Savoyard, what could be better?
Ritual being what it is, Embert Wimple was pleased to note that the contestants in the case were represented by two familiar faces, Rodney Melliflewes appearing for the prosecuting bank and Daniel Pettigrew for the defendant, Malcolm Bentley. The advocates had no doubt that the judge would fail to match their faces with their names and as ever, no-one would be disturbed. The only exception had occurred four years earlier, when Judge Wimple had got the two counsels’ names right, but had repeatedly misapplied them. That had caused some confusion until the learned gentlemen had got the hang of it.
Having established that all was as it should be, the judge nodded at Melliflewes. “Perhaps you would make a start, Mr Brewster,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Honour.” That wasn’t too bad, thought Melliflewes. After all, though he rarely appeared nowadays, Brewster was a pretty senior chap, so there was obviously nothing derogatory here. “The incident with which we are concerned occurred on the ninth of March. At about one-thirty in the afternoon of that day, the defendant entered my client’s High Street premises in this city. The branch is a relatively small one, with four cash desks, two of which were closed at the time. Mr Bentley approached one of the open counters, depositing upon it a shopping bag and producing with his left hand a note, demanding money and indicating that he was armed. In his right hand, Mr Bentley had a large manila envelope, deformed in such a way that the cashier was convinced that it concealed a gun. The cashier fainted, causing her colleague, who had no customer at the time, to spring into the breach. This second lady immediately grasped the position and emptied the cash drawer into Mr Bentley’s bag.”
“Was there no resistance?” said the judge.
“No, Your Honour. The standing instructions to the bank’s staff are that none should be offered.”
“Not even a token gesture?”
“No, Your Honour.”
“I see. What happened then?”
“The defendant left the premises with the money, which amounted to six hundred and eighty pounds. It was only afterwards that matters became somewhat bizarre.”
“Did they indeed? How?”
“Mr Bentley returned to the bank at 2.45 p.m., seeking to rent a safe-deposit box. By that time, the police had visited the premises, done what they had to do and left. Normal business had been restored and even the young lady who had earlier collapsed was back at her post – as it happened, the very one at which the defendant again appeared. Mr Bentley duly completed the formalities and deposited the stolen money in his newly-acquired box.”
“Astounding,” said the judge. “So, you are saying that Mr Bentley robbed the bank, then almost immediately rented a safe-deposit box in the same branch, in order to secure the proceeds of his activity. Was he not recognised?”
“He was, Your Honour. That is how we come to the present position.”
Melliflewes offered a ‘digestive’ pause, but overdid it and the judge was not disposed to tolerate histrionics. He leaned forwards. “Surely you do not wish to keep us in suspense, Mr Medlicott? Our task here is to resolve cases, not prolong them. Please enlarge.”
Being an old campaigner, Melliflewes was unruffled. “I was about to, Your Honour. When he first appeared, Mr Bentley was in disguise, wearing contact lenses, a black wig and a very striking black suit, with a chalk-stripe motif. On the second occasion, his appearance was his natural one, as you see him now.” The judge noted that defendant had close-cropped blond hair and wore a blue denim jacket, plaid shirt, faded blue jeans and steel-rimmed glasses. “Yet you say that he was spotted. How?”
“It was fortuitous, Your Honour. Mr Bentley, who was – and still is – unemployed, was attending a course on computer literacy, his intention being to find work commensurate with the training provided. As is common in such circumstances, he had been given an identifying cardboard lapel tag, bearing his forename. He wore that item when he carried out the raid and again when he returned.”
“Good gracious,” the judge exclaimed. “This is like reading a book of jokes. So, Mr Bentley not only robbed the bank branch, then promptly used the same place to put away his booty, but advertised himself while so doing?”
Melliflewes bowed. “That is more or less the case, Your Honour.”
“How was he apprehended?”
“It was not the name in itself that betrayed him. The tag merely identified its wearer as ‘Malcolm’. The real revelation came in that the defendant, being of a nervous disposition, had at some point handled the item and while doing so, had torn it before first visiting the bank and had repaired it with clear adhesive tape. When he first appeared, the cashier was not able to read the name, but noted the tape. When Mr Bentley returned to rent the safe-deposit box, the young lady he accosted for the second time was in a state of heightened alertness. She contacted the branch manager while Mr Bentley was dealing with the paperwork. The manager informed the police, who detained the defendant when he sought to leave the bank. Under questioning, Mr Bentley confessed, albeit on a qualified basis. The bank felt obliged, in the wider public interest, to initiate the proceedings which have led us here.”
“Very clearly stated, Mr Carstairs,” said the judge. “I am much obliged to you, though the apparently provisional nature of Mr Bentley’s confession needs some clarification. I think we must hear what the defence has to say.” He turned to Pettigrew. “Your comments please, Mr Fetterman.”
Pettigrew braced himself. “Thank you, Your Honour. The bare facts have been stated by the prosecution, but there is more to the matter. My client does not deny that he did what he is accused of, but there are substantial mitigating circumstances.”
Pettigrew emulated his learned colleague’s pause for effect, but the judge was still in no mood for theatricals. “I suspected as much,” he said. “Please tell us all.”
“Your Honour, we are dealing with a sad case, in that my client is afflicted by a distressing malady. He is given to delusions which cause abrupt changes in his behaviour, followed by short-term amnesia, then a return to his normal state. On account of this he was, some time ago, admitted to a psychiatric institution. He –”
The judge waved a hand. “One moment. You say he was admitted, yet he seems to have been free when this incident occurred. Did his confinement have no effect?”
“Regrettably not, Your Honour. Mr Bentley discharged himself after escaping the restraints placed upon him, assuming the persona of the institution’s director and conducting the customary evening visits to patients, before leaving the premises on his bicycle.”
“Discharged himself, you say,” snapped the judge. “Was he not subsequently reconfined?”
“No. He originally entered of his own accord and there was no administrative machinery to compel him to return.”
“I see. Now, do you intend to anaesthet … stimulate us with details of any other events following Mr Bentley’s exit from the institution?”
“Yes, Your Honour. A short while afterwards, he was found sitting on a dustbin outside a Manchester night club, playing a ukulele, apparently under the impression that he was George Formby. No charges were made against him.”
“Very interesting,” said the judge. “was there anything further?”
“Yes, Your Honour. Several months ago – that is to say rather over a year after he had regained his freedom, Mr Bentley was discovered in a public park in this city, with his limbs so contorted that it was necessary to summon the fire brigade to disentangle them.”
“Bless my soul,” said the judge. “And who was he on that occasion?”
“The late Harry Houdini, Your Honour. Again, there were no charges.”
Judge Wimple rubbed his brow. “I don’t believe I can cope with much more of this,” he said. “Perhaps you would omit your client’s further intermediate adventures, if any, and tell us who he was on the occasion we are addressing here?”
“Certainly, Your Honour. There were no other incidents until the one with which we are concerned. It occurred when Mr Bentley was under the impression that he was the late Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, a gangster who flourished many years ago in America.”
“Perhaps influenced by something he had read,” said the judge, his mind flashing to a story he had enjoyed many years earlier, which featured a man who believed himself at various times to be a number of well-known men, including the very hoodlum named by Pettigrew. “No doubt that explains the wig and the suit you mentioned. I believe Mr Diamond had luxuriant hair and was noted for fashionable dress. However, it does not clarify your client’s wearing of the lapel tag when he was in disguise. What about that?
“It is easily explicable, Your Honour. Mr Bentley had become so accustomed to detaching and re-attaching the tag that he did so almost automatically. It was, in the context concerned, an oversight.”
“I see. So, your client made off with his booty. What then?”
“For a brief period, his mind was a blank. He returned to his lodgings, undressed and took a short nap. When he awoke, he had emerged from his delusional state and found himself in possession of this sum of six hundred and eighty pounds, with no recollection of how he came by it. He knew that he had started the day with little more than two pounds. Not wishing to keep a substantial amount of money in his room, he changed into his normal attire and went to the nearest bank – as it happened, the one he had . . . ah . . . inadvertently robbed – and rented the safe deposit box. In the overall process, he lost an afternoon of valuable tuition.”
“This is all very odd,” said the judge. “Why did he not simply open an account, or pay the money in to an existing one?”
“Mr Bentley does not have a bank account, Your Honour. Apart from accepting the merits of safe-deposit, he does not trust financial institutions.”
The judge could not resist a smile. “I imagine the sentiment is mutual,” he said.
“That may be. However, when matters became clear, after Mr Bentley’s apprehension, he at once apologised most profusely and insisted upon handing the proceeds of the robbery back to the bank. He had thus made such restitution as was within his power – he could not do anything to compensate the cashiers for having pained them as he did. He was, and is, distraught by his own behaviour and is further deeply perturbed by what he sees as the vindictive attitude of the bank.”
The judge nodded, staring hard at Pettigrew. “Very succinct, Mr Balmforth,” he said. Then he turned to prosecuting counsel Melliflewes. “Anything to add, Mr Makepiece?”
“Only that we would emphasise one point. Clearly, there is agreement as to what occurred. However, my client is one of a large number of finance houses, many of them targets of people who are, happily for all of us, often incompetent felons. Had there been no proceedings against the defendant, the wrong signal would have been given to other actual or potential criminals.”
“A fair point,” said the judge. “Now, I believe I understand the matter and do not need to retire. Are both parties willing to accept my decision?”
They were, so the judge summed up. “It is sometimes observed that there is nothing new under the Sun. In general, I agree, but there are variations on basic themes. In this case, the defendant’s behaviour was most enterta . . . reprehensible. However, he did try to make amends, and if we were all to be called to account for our misdeeds, there would not be enough courts in the world to hear the actions. My conclusion is that the defendant is undoubtedly guilty, but must be treated with compassion, as he is obviously troubled, in addition to which he showed his remorse in the most practical way. I impose no fine, but recommend that he be committed to another institution, similar to the one from which he earlier fled, but this time with higher walls. Proceedings concluded.”
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