Stranger than fiction . . . or is it?

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The Independent Online
WHEN I was a cub reporter, I used to hang around a lot at big fires, motorway mayhems, etc, and that's how I got to meet Inspector Bathwaite. He was a senior policeman who couldn't wait to get out of the force and write his stories down in a book.

'And, by gum, I've got some stories to tell,' he told me once, late at night during the Praed Street Kebab House siege. 'Some you wouldn't believe. Some that I wouldn't believe if I hadn't been there to verify them. Like the one about the 150-year-old murder . . .'

'You didn't solve a murder committed nearly two centuries ago, did you?' I asked, hoping to hear more. 'I didn't know police files were kept open that long.'

'If you just let me tell the story in my own way, at my own pace, we might get somewhere, lad,' said the inspector, cuffing me kindly round the ears. 'Any road, it wasn't a murder on police books. It was stranger than that. See, a friend of my wife's called Betty, Betty Murphy, was absolutely convinced that she had been reincarnated after many previous lives. She used to natter on about it endlessly, with my wife drinking in every word, and me half-listening as I ate my tea. You often meet people like that, though I can't say I have ever suspected myself of adopting previous aliases.

'She claimed she had been, in various previous lives, a cabin boy with Nelson, a Chinese scribe and a shop assistant in a Victorian jeweller's. She couldn't remember much about the life as a Chinese scribe or as a cabin boy, which was a pity, as I'd like to have heard more about Nelson first-hand. But she remembered the Victorian shop bit very clearly, more particularly the way she died.'

'She remembered dying?'

'Well, she could remember this bloke coming in one day and threatening her with a pistol, and her resisting, and him shooting her, and knocking over a whole tray of diamonds she was trying to protect. So, yes, I expect you could say she remembered dying, especially as it's her last memory of that life.'

'Could she remember anything about her murderer?'

'No. I asked her that. A moustache, dark, that sort of detail. Hopeless. But this is the extraordinary thing. I had a colleague at Scotland Yard called Ernie, Ernie Lott, who was an inspector, like me, and who once told me that he was convinced he had been on earth before.

'We knew each other well. You have to, to tell each other things like that. But the extraordinary thing is that he was convinced he had been a Victorian doctor in a previous existence, and that he had had terrible money troubles and had finally been reduced to holding up a jeweller's shop where he had shot the lady assistant.'

'Good God]' I exclaimed.

'My feelings, too. I asked him casually if he could remember anything more about it, but he said not, apart from the vague impression that he had knocked something over as he fired the shot.'

'The tray of diamonds]'

'Precisely. This left me in a quandary. I had the solving of a century-old murder case in my hands. I had the victim and murderer or at least their reincarnations. Should I make an arrest?'

'I would have thought,' I said slowly, 'that it was not up to you to make the arrest. It was up to the reincarnation of the Victorian policeman who had been on the case.'

'I thought of that,' said Bathwaite stiffly, 'but I wasn't sure how I should set about finding him. Perhaps you can tell me how you would have done it?'

'Well,' I said, 'I might at least have brought Betty Murphy and Ernie Lott face to face, and seen what happened.'

'I did,' said Bathwaite. 'I still blame myself for it. I invited them both round to my home, and when they saw each other, Ernie said, 'Oh, my God', and Betty gave a shriek and fainted dead away. She never really recovered. She had a sort of nervous breakdown, and died two or three months later. Ernie never mentioned it to me again, except once, to say in my ear, 'Jim, I must be the only man in history to kill the same woman twice.' '

Just then the siege started up all over again, and lights started flashing, and Bathwaite ran off, and I never did meet him again, not to hear more of the story, anyway. I did bump into Inspector Lott once, though, and told him what Bathwaite had told me. He roared with laughter and said Bathwaite was a notorious leg-puller and never to believe a word he said.