Monday, 28 May 2012

The kitchen

The mother stayed behind in a police car. By turns hysterical and stock still she was restrained and comforted by two pale-faced woman PCs who looked as though they’d much rather be out here in the chilly night air jogging along the railway tracks with their armed and armoured colleagues and leading the search party of sniffer dogs with their handlers, forensics people, the terrified father, a specialist medical team, four priests and me.
   The dogs, I felt, were plain insulting. The priests that Detective Chief Inspector Cooke insists on having along on any operation involving me were pious-looking and earnest enough, but seriously; what harm could they do? But one of my chief strengths in these cases is my skill at tracking added to the ability to reason and speak with the authorities; albeit in this case with those very authorities who’d been unable, despite a full week’s warning that the intended abductor might strike again, to keep a Member of Parliament’s daughter safe in her own home. It’s true that certain breeds of dog can pick up scents consisting of only a few parts in a million but even the best of them can’t get round it when a kidnapper cuts the trail by climbing the wall of a disused warehouse and thence along its roof to the next building and so down to the far side of the high wall of a former brewer’s yard. They surely couldn’t follow such a trail even if they were lucky enough to scent a molecule or two of the sole issue of the marriage of the Right Honourable Sir Colin Orchard and the right pallid Lady Charlotte Orchard, nee Hampshire.
   I slipped down from the brewery wall, ignoring the stupid baying of the dogs (bloodhounds, just to rub it in), and motioned the Chief Inspector to join me.
   “He’s left the industrial part of the ruins. He’s on foot and he’s still got the girl. In a sports bag. Synthetic leather, mouldering canvass and intensely bitter old sweat. Some 1970’s aftershave too, so he’s not likely to be very new. You’re looking for a former squash player, I should think. Not that they’ll care about the details if they find him.” I nodded towards the police firearms specialists. When the likes of Tanya Anne Orchard are stolen by an abductor who’s already taken the children of three wealthy London families right out of their homes in the same neighbourhood and the latest victim’s father is a Cabinet minister you get more bang for your buck than the usual crowd of Special Constables and Sea Scouts beating the bushes. Emphasis on bang. I wondered if the firearms boys were the ones who’d been on guard duty when Tanya was taken from the attic bedroom of the Orchards’ town house. I hoped they were more concerned with putting the abductor down for her sake than to avoid police careers lived forever close to the traffic laws and parking regulations of London. This time he’d even sent them a warning note well in advance. Perhaps he was no longer thinking clearly; even by the standards of whatever his pathology was.
    “Where’s he headed, then?” panted the DCI, catching up.
   “Into the slum clearance across the fence. It’s logical; lots of empty terraced houses secluded from the populated parts of the city, built on coal cellars that’re handy for soundproofing and security and inhabited only by rats and the occasional drugged-up squatter. Easy to secure against squatters, no law around to object if he needs to enforce his privacy. Lots and lots of privacy. It’s probably why you never found what’s left of the bodies.” Our quarry was a frequent user of the Postal Service as well being as a dab hand with needle, thread and scalpel.
     I led the circus past the brewery’s high walls, through a gap in the redevelopment site’s recession-neglected safety fence and onto weed-choked streets whose abandonment testified to the victory of politics and bureaucracy over a neighbourhood that the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy in six years of war.
  The DCI held the herd back. The muscle formed a protective cordon around the Minister who looked about ready to bolt into the empty streets shouting for Tanya. Or order them to start an immediate house-to-house and thus warn off our friend with the surgeon’s instruments. So I’d have to do it quickly and I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way.
   The first street was empty. Nothing larger than a scruffy pigeon dwelt there; nor anything in the first side of the second terrace.
   The DCI and two cops with a battering ram and a pump-action lock pick just made it around the corner behind me when I found the house. Identical to the others, it was a soot-blackened Victorian relic of the railways and the huge families who served them. It stood like the blindfolded skull of a giant with its padlocked door and boarded-up windows. Nothing with a pulse now called that place home - though something with a good strong heartbeat would be calling it hell if her six years had taught her the word. Nothing pushed back at me as I approached the door, nor burned me when I placed my hand on the lintel that marked the threshold. And now I also knew that I was not alone.
   Orchard would be sure to order a frontal attack and Cooke’s experience of kidnappings and sieges would mean nothing to him. A father might panic when his children are threatened and do violent, dangerous, self-defeating things: especially a proud and arrogant one. Our master chef could do everything he needed in the seconds needed to smash down the door and I had just discovered that if Orchard and the SWAT boys went in there before me there’d most likely be a clutch of Metropolitan Police funerals within a fortnight and a bye-election in Yorkshire a week or two later. Boarded-up lower storey windows.

   He was in the back bedroom with Tanya and she was at least still breathing, which made one of us. It was pitch dark but my sense of smell isn’t the only reason Cooke employs me. Seeing his face in the infrared glow of the girl’s life was like looking in a mirror once again after so many decades. He had the same haunted, hungry eyes that I’m told I have and he stood with the same thrumming strength I feel growing within me at dusk. 
   I didn’t try to talk him down or negotiate in any way. You can’t explain to such a creature that what he’s doing is wrong, and in any case I had at last realized his true motive in all this. He was no gourmet. He was old, but I was older and that counts for everything in these matters; more even than a father’s love.
    I brought Tanya out myself; alighting on the pavement by the specialist medics. They had to start their procedures immediately if this whole thing was not to be a waste of time – procedures they must have hoped never to need and had only ever simulated at Porton Down. They mustn’t be delayed by Orchard’s hysterics.

   Minutes later Cooke and I stood together as the biohazard van and the ministerial car raced away towards a carefully misnamed secure ward in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
   “You’ll not be getting any forensics from this one Chief Inspector,” I said. “A fire will gut the whole street before dawn due to a faulty field generator, perhaps. It’s started already. And when you’ve explained it all to him, Sir Colin will likely rush to sign the paperwork to bulldoze these streets and get the concrete poured just as fast as can be.” Cooke stared inquiringly at me. “You didn’t see what I saw.”
   A father might panic when his children are threatened and do violent, dangerous, self-defeating things. Especially a proud and arrogant one. The house wasn’t a kitchen at all. It was a nursery. 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Bona fides

Here’s another quickie thanks to the inspired Terrible Mind blog; a flash fiction tale based around a random sentence generator. Mine was ‘The valley gossips without a cold offender.’

   ‘The valley gossips without a cold offender.’
   That was only half true, as it turned out.

    In fact, it was a beautiful summer’s day; the first true one of the year & I was out for a constitutional & to let Fido get some exercise. He’d been a bit off his food lately & I hoped fresh air would do him good. He started out a bit withdrawn but the sunshine & the warmth & all the butterflies & lower-than-usual levels of road traffic, &c, seemed to perk him up a bit & soon he was positively skittish: tugging at the leash & dragging me to who knows where & towards who knows what deviltry further along the canal’s towpath, the scamp. One has to be firm: he’s a loyal friend & excellent company but one has to let him know who’s boss, so I applied a little pressure to the lead & scolded him gently. Soon he was bobbing alongside me again: trotting at my heels. Then I received an message which I stopped to read - much to Fido’s annoyance.

   “The dog’s totally comatose & the bitch just sits there whining & leaving her pups unfed & unattended. Can U help?!”

   That was from Miss Springer; a new neighbour of mine whose acquaintance I was eager to make. Alas, caring for a broody & moody Fido had not left me much time for romance in the past week or so & I’d missed no few meals of my own as a result. I messaged back, hoping she’d pick it up soon.

   “Have U thought of exercise? Works for mine; often as not. Try waving an old shoe under his nose & see what he does. Rgrds, GR.”

    Fido whined & pulled & I relented & let him bumble on, though I noticed with alarm that he appeared to be limping a little. I’d have to take a look at that if I could catch him unawares or in a mellow mood…but he hadn’t been in one of those for ages.  We ambled on along the valley, smelling the last of the May blossom & listening to the distant drone of trucks & the occasional car & also quite a lot of sirens, which I dislike intensely. Oh, another message; this time from Scottie.

   “Bloody Afghans at it again. Dirty bstrds don’t know how 2 behave. Shd i go round & complain about noise?”
   I hoped he wouldn’t do anything of the sort because the last time he tried to sort them out he got into no end of trouble with the Authorities. The politically correct idiots won’t let a chap protect own home against riff-raff such as the Afghans anymore as we would have in the good old days, & let’s face it; anyone daft enough to walk around in England’s short but intense summer heat in those stupid long coats has got it coming to him.
    Fido stopped for a nap on one of the benches the Council provides along the canals for the winos to pass out on, & I took the opportunity to check FaecBook. The only recent status update from any friend of mine had been removed. This always annoys me. Why do they do that? If you go to the trouble to get a load off your mind & tell the world your woes, why delete the damn thing? 

   “Stay away! Stay away!” That was  no message. In fact it was an actual voice from behind a garden hedge across the canal. “I’m not kidding, GR!” came the voice again. “They’ve gone batshit crazy.”
   I recognised him; an old hunting pal of mine back in the day. “What’s the matter, Bernard?” I called across the water.
   “My animals have gone insane. First, Missy passed out a day ago & then this morning she gets up & she throws him on the sofa in an attack that was downright pornographic & then bites poor Sam’s throat. I haven’t got a clue what to do about it, either, as no-one seems to be about & you can call & call & call & no-one answers. It’s not as if there aren’t any of police around these days; town was swarming with them the day we got back from the coast.”
   “Hang in there, Bernard,” I called back. “I’m sure there’ll be a simple explanation for all this & it’ll be back to normal soon.”

   But it didn’t get better. Just then a man came staggering along the path; all weaving & unsteady on his feet like a drunk, & kind of moaning to himself. Then a couple of soldiers in biohazard suits & combat gear popped up from behind a garden wall & popped him a couple of rounds in the head, & off they went. I don’t mind gunshots: it’s the training, of course, that I received back in the day when on tour in Helmand Province, but for me running towards gunfire is in the blood.
  I checked Fido & he was out cold. In fact, he was a little too cold even by his standards to be healthy. Try as I might, I couldn’t wake him for a very long time & I had a Dickens of a job dragging him back home & even then as soon as we staggered together in through the open door he just slumped & flaked out again.  

   That was three days ago, & I’ve learned to adjust to the new conditions. Fido’s still very cold, though not offensively so, & some of the other pets are still ambulatory - after a fashion - as valley gossip tells me, but we manage. He’s lost it completely on the can opener front & he can’t throw a Frisbee worth a damn but I have lots of fun burying him & digging him up again, & he is, after all, made of bones.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The choice

  “Let him go DS Hobson,” said the Chief Superintendent.
   “Sir - what? Let him go! He’s a terrorist sir. We can’t just let -…”
   “We’re letting him go, Detective Sergeant Hobson, as indeed we’re letting all of them go on the orders of the Home Secretary himself. These boot prints you can probably see on the seat of my trousers are in actual fact from the Right Honourable gentleman’s personal size nines.  Wait a few minutes for the custody sergeant to sign the others out and then take Batman here and get rid. With his property, including the gas guns and the bags of herbs. Make sure he signs for it and he leaves and gets back into his little Noddy van with the rest of the freaks and goes away forever. And make sure you forget about him. Forget the night’s operations, Sergeant; and pretend we spent the whole evening watching the nightclubs and takeaways for drugs and other unpermitted naughtiness.”
   “Sir, this gear’s evidence. How can you call it property when it’s all weapons? Top of the line crossbows, detonators and shaped charges are evidence. Machetes in Brixton aren’t used for ice sculpture, sir, and these… -“ Hobson jabbed the broken-nailed finger of a plain clothes surveillance specialist at a bundle of pointed wooden slats bound with wire to a pair of mallets “-do you suppose his mates were planning to build a really low picket fence somewhere in South London?”
   “It’s not evidence because no crime has been committed. And you’ve asked me your three questions which means as far as this particular fairy tale’s concerned you’ve had your lot. Fifteen minutes, and out he goes.”

   The ex-prisoner reached for his BlackBerry in the evidence box and tapped at it for a while; ignoring Hobson. After five minutes he looked up and smiled.
   “You have a family I see, DS Hobson,” he remarked in a Northern accent.
   “Yes. Two daughters. How did you -…”
   “Ten and seven; Hayley and Anna, and I see both are doing well at school.”
   “Don’t touch them, you bastard! If I even suspect you mean them harm you’ll never know I’m there till you hit the deck. Just you bloody leave them alone.”
   “Can we please both sit down again now? Of course I’ll leave them alone; it’s you that’s going to hurt them. I know you. I know the type.”
   “What the fuck do you mean by that? I love those girls. I’d kill for them without a moment’s thought and do the time happy they’re still alive.”
   “Then you have the precious opportunity tonight to avoid screwing up their lives forever. Problem is, I know your type. Looking at you tonight is just like seeing myself in the mirror - and I urge you to forget that not everybody walking around in London tonight can do that.” He smiled and scratched at the bags under tired eyes. “You’re that kind of copper, DS Hobson. You can’t leave well alone. You need to know what evil’s being done and where and by whom so you can chase it down - even if the courts let the scrotes walk nine times out of ten. That’s why you stay on at work after all the others head off for the pub or back to the wife, or back to someone’s wife anyway; because you can’t stand to let evil go unchallenged. Am I wrong? No? And that’s why you missed Anna’s Nativity last Christmas, (I’m guessing here), though you probably also drove the girls to the Police Federation pantomime while taking a short break from your crusade to put one more offender behind bars to make the streets just a tiny bit safer for all the little Hayleys and Annas of the world. Yes?”
    “What’s your point?”
    “You can do one of two things tonight. You can forget about me and my friends and go back to picking at the alibis and statements of ordinary villains till you find a crack and you collar them. On a lighter note, you’ll still be able to sleep at night and also know you’ll probably be available to kiss your sleeping children when you come home from all that unpaid overtime. Think about it DS Hobson; you can just let us go and still be able to go home after pulling a night shift without utter dread filling your heart. That’s Plan A.”
   “What’s Plan B?”
   The stranger sighed. “You follow our van using the tracker you probably installed tonight. And then one of two mutually exclusive things will happen.”
   Hobson didn’t confirm or deny. “What’s that, then?”
  “If my friends were lucky tonight and survived in decent numbers, a couple of the other teams – (you didn’t really think you’d nicked us all, did you?) -  will roadblock you before we’re five miles outside the M25. Then they’ll show you video footage of your children going to school and where you all holiday in summer and photos of your wife’s work and her mother’s house in Southend and you’ll let yourself believe you’re backing off because you can’t fight some kinds of organized crime.”
   “And if your friends were unlucky?”
   “Then they’ll be understaffed and in need of recruits and they’ll probably let you follow us all the way back to South Wales.”
 “What’s in South Wales?”
   “Valleys. Mountains. Forests. Abandoned coalmines full of interesting equipment. Ministry of Defence land. A thickly wooded RAF compound containing a village that sits in the middle of five circles of state-of-the-art fortifications. Go there, and that’ll ruin your family’s life.”
   “Why’s that?”
   “Because then you’ll no longer be able to convince yourself that we’re terrorists or a cult or the Russian Mafia. You’ll beg us to move your entire family to Llan Erewon and never, ever sleep soundly outside the wire again.
   It’s up to you, DC Hobson; it’s your choice entirely.”

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Pageant Song

Pageant Song

   “But Mother, what if nobody likes me?” asked ash-blonde Alexandra from the breakfast bar. Her mother looked up from the colorful pageant brochure.
  “’Likes’ you, dear?” replied Dorothea. “It’s not quite about being liked so much as being admired - or at least being seen and recognized. Americans set great store by appearances and fame and if we are to be Americans now we must learn to live by their customs. We must learn to show respect to the country that took us in when no other would. We have a home now and property rights and persecution of us is illegal here. We even have green cards and the chance to earn citizenship. We will make our way in this new land as so many others have done before, but it will mostly be thanks to our beauty and the fame that it brings. And you are fair, my dear: so fair of skin and blue of eye when you take the care to sleep enough. We are doing the proper thing, my love, and this will stand us in good stead when seeking preferment and a home in a better part of town.”
   Dorothea gazed out of the window at the quiet avenue and the cars that passed and at neat, orderly gardens bordered by smooth, rain-silvered sidewalks that were mostly used by children on chrome-framed bikes and zombie-bile acid skateboards and by retirees thriftily conserving their Social Security by saving on gasoline. The quiet here was oppressive; broken only by commuters driving home for dinner or by black-clad, purple-haired teenagers daring long-suffering parents to tell them to turn that goddamn noise off. Dorothea longed for the exciting atmosphere of the downtown areas with their quilt of races and the so-stimulating commercial life with its scarlet, pulsing rock and roll feeling of the great city at night. But the eggplant lady from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services had been firm. When the Marine Corps handed Dorothea’s people over to the civilian authorities the immigrants were instructed to settle far from areas of racial and religious tension which their presence might enrage further. Black and white and red and yellow folk were all learning now to despise one another despite a flag that once upon a time had sheltered all the world’s races in the liberating shade of equality of its red and white and blue.
   In return for sanctuary under Temporary Protected Status the newcomers must dwell far from the inner cities for some years. The newly arrived tribe’s reservation would be in the suburbs. The Elders were informed that the USCIS has acquired (at a bargain price) a half-finished development that had gone bankrupt just a few weeks before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dragged the rest of the economy down with them. Mrs. Collins had joked that the suburb’s developer was ‘still running after four years, the lily-livered son of a bitch’.
   “We need seed capital for businesses of our own, such as market stalls or to buy more taxis now that the yellow car companies have rejected us and we may not go in where we are unwelcome. And we are unwelcome in so many places; even in Hollywood and San Francisco. Some of our men have positions at the Pentagon but most honest employment for women (other than agricultural labor under a blazing sun) is closed to us. Food service is uncomfortable and even the oil companies of Alaska - where we would surely flourish – are now returning our resumes unread after The Incident. Domestic service and nursing are unthinkable for all concerned. But beauty pageants offer cash prizes; cash for stock or rents for retail premises. Silver grows into gold, as we say. If there is one thing our people have in abundance, it is beauty.
   Alexandra dear, you must dress now. Wear the sapphire dress and the ruby necklace. With your snow-hued skin you will resemble the stars and stripes and the judges will love that.  And remember to lower your voice right down if you are required to sing. Uncle Emil will be here soon to drive us to the pageant in his fine new automobile. Pink Slip Cabs will furnish our tribe with our second step up the ladder after your first prize in Orange County set Emil on his way.
   Please remind Sophia to apply a great thickness of foundation and you make sure to wear the tinted lenses. The pansy purple tonight, I think. To advance to the next round you will need clear and attractive photographs. Skimping on powder and forgetting the contacts will make your pictures blurry and red-eyed. Tsha! But you are growing too thin to be pretty to American eyes. You are not auditioning to be a supermodel, Alexa. For goodness’ sake girl, hurry up - finish your breakfast before it clots.”

Monday, 14 May 2012

Life begins

   I decided to celebrate my fortieth birthday (and long years of marriage) with a quickie divorce and a barbecue. The meat was rather bitter and unpleasant and the Inspector says that without genetic fingerprinting I’d be a free man today.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Won’t you come out and play?

  “Dear Prudence! It’s been ages. How are you?”
   “Well enough, Neil. Thank you for asking. Let’s see you, shall we? Come Neil; a mother worries when her son disappears for such a long time. Ah, you’ve done well. Were we otherwise, I’d say you’ve grown but since we are as we are I’ll say you’ve become more solid. I’m grateful for you, boy. ”
  “Not proud Prudence; just grateful?”
   “Pride’s a sin Neil, don’t thou forget. And Pride comes in many guises, such as this Pledge of yours. Can you say on oath there’s no pride at all in foreswearing the chase for gentler-found victuals?”  
   “They’re still people Prudence; still our countrymen. And didn’t you accept the Change and survive the wounds of Marston Moor to make England a better home for goodly folk? I don’t want to hurt them: I want to protect them which is why I always dreamed of being a soldier.”
   “Jarl Erik says you’ve done well and sends his regards, though he says you’re too soft with the vanquished. And Sir Richard greets you and asks ‘Do you ever sup amongst the Moors you’ve bested?’”
  “One or two; in the heat of battle or when I’m unobserved and angered by what they do to their own people. And we don’t call them Moors now. No; it’s the half litre bag for me and moonlit helicopter rides when duty calls. Let’s go into town. There’s a pub by the hospital and a nurse I need to meet and pay tonight. She doesn’t ask much and I like to keep friends all across the city, which beats making enemies…or making too many friends. Hey, Prudence, not that way; it’s too dark and secluded down there, and… Oh, marvellous.”  
   “Well, good evening’, sir and bitch. Nice watches. Expensive. And what’ve you got in the briefcase for us tonight, eh?”
   “Prudence, you’ve tricked me again.”
   “A lad needs to work for his supper sometimes. It’s good for the character and fine, healthy exercise – and will a dozen footpads be missed?”
  “I do work for my supper Pru, but now I’ve no choice but stick around so you don’t finish them off. And you, yes; you with the knife. You obviously don’t watch enough television.”
  “Wotcher mean, you little queer?”
  “When you watch films where one or two harmless-looking people in dark alleys are menaced by gangsters and they don’t act scared at all, or run …What happens to the gangbangers every single time? No idea? Too late: there she goes. Prudence, don’t empty them – leave the dregs. I mean it, mother.”