Read An Explosive Time (The Celtic Cousins' Adventures) Online
Authors: Julia Hughes
An original story by the author, Julia Hughes who owns all copyrights. February 2012. Edited and published by Julia Hughes. For forthcoming and previous publications, visit the website:
WWW Julia Hughes
At two in the morning the Oxfordshire countryside surrounding the lay-by off Beckett’s Woods momentarily bathed in a pure white light. Seconds later a red hot ball of flames engulfed a lonely caravan, hungrily consuming every scrap of combustible material. Oversized scarlet petals hurtled skywards, falling back to earth as cinders and one or two landed on the aged land rover where they spluttered and expired. If Charlie Bozen had ever bothered to register the jeep in his name, it would have made identification of his body much easier.
As his daughters said, ‘It’s called a comfort zone for a reason.’ Crombie agreed with that sentiment. Rodgers, a man who never failed to throw his weight around whilst rarely pulling it, had invaded his little comfort zone at “The British Volunteer”. Since being made up to Detective Sergeant by virtue of his serving years and sitting the exam so often he must have the questions memorised, Rodgers had become even more intolerable, acting as though he and Crombie had more in common than age and service. Frankly Crombie would rather share a table with any of the other regulars enjoying their lunchtime pie and pint. Watching Rodgers slurp spoonful after spoonful of mashed potatoes and steak chunks and watery gravy into his maw, Crombie mentally tightened his belt and decided to grab a sandwich later. While The Vol no longer had sawdust on the floor, the original decor hadn’t changed much since the sixties, and the cuisine relied heavily on the pie and mash shop a couple of doors along. Rather than watch Rodgers filling his face, Crombie studied the boxing match posters on the wall opposite, including local hero Henry Cooper’s bout with Ali. Crombie had met him once, and asked the heavyweight if he thought the glove of “The Greatest” really did “accidentally” split during that crucial round. “Our ‘Enry” shrugged his broad shoulders and replied: ‘Ref thought so, and that’s all that mattered.’ A smile split his face, and he added. ‘I ‘ad ‘im on the ropes though. ‘E went dahn.’ He spoke with pride, and no regret of what might have been, contented to have played the game in the spirit of the sport.
The saloon bar door edging open interrupted Crombie’s musings, and a face topped with a mop of auburn curly hair appeared, followed by the slight form of WPC Holland. Spotting Crombie she gave a grateful smile, and sidled into the pub, hesitating when she recognised his companion.
Catching sight of her, Sergeant Rodgers nudged Crombie, and leering called out ‘Holly Bush! Still looking for your pussy?’
Crombie frowned, and beckoned the young policewoman over. Looking neither right nor left she scurried to the corner table, tugging at her skirt before slipping into the seat Crombie pulled out for her, hunching her shoulders against the blatant ogling of the mainly middle aged congregation of drinkers.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he asked, something he rarely volunteered for junior colleagues, but wanting to make up for Rodger’s coarseness. She shook her head.
‘No thank you sir.’
Her hands gripped the edge of the chair tighter, ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, but you know the circus at the Scrubs? The Ringmaster will only speak to a senior officer. Someone has stolen their elephant.’ She blushed as she finished speaking, and looked down at the table.
For a second or two Crombie thought she was pulling his leg.
‘An elephant?’ he repeated, waiting for the punch line.
Beside him, Rodgers cackled. ‘Sounds like Hollybush’s pussy nicker is getting ambitious.’ Sucking in his breath, he opened his flapping mouth again, preparing to broadcast louder for the benefit of those not all ready staring in their direction.
‘Rodgers if you don’t shut your big mouth and stop embarrassing yourself, I’ll report you for sexual discrimination and bullying in the workplace.’ Crombie warned. ‘Now piss off back to the station and do some work for a change if you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head.’
Rodgers gaped. Ignoring him, Crombie caught the barmaid’s eye ‘Susie, would you bring a couple of coffees out the front please.’
The landlord of The Vol provided a couple of tables and benches mainly for the benefit of smokers, on this breezy spring day they had the narrow strip of concreted “beer garden” to themselves. Susie followed almost on their heels with a tray of coffee; Crombie clattered around with the cups, giving Rodgers time to lumber past on his way back to the station, though Crombie doubted any work would be done.
Holland began apologising again for interrupting his lunch break.
‘No worries, next time text me, and I’ll meet you outside.’ She didn’t look old enough to be allowed in pubs, and the experience of approaching two senior officers in what was unofficially a men only drinking hole clearly flustered her.
‘Drink your coffee, take a deep breath, and start at the beginning WPC Holland.’
Crombie fished around in his pocket for his notebook, by the time the policewoman composed herself, he’d found both pen and paper and flicking to a fresh page jotted down the date and nodded for her to begin.
‘Sir, I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s been an increase in people reporting their pets going missing. Usually it’s just one or two enquiries a week, and hardly ever cats, usually dogs that wander off and they’re normally taken in by the dog warden, or reported found dead by the council’s recycling operatives.’
Crombie frowned ‘You mean dust bin men?’
Holland nodded. ‘But since Tuesday Sir, we’ve had around four enquiries a day. It’s made a very sharp increase on our charts.’
She glanced at her notes again. ‘One young boy came in most upset, he lives on the fourth floor of Wendover tower block, and his Great Dane has gone missing.’
‘A harlequin Great Dane?’ Crombie wanted to know.
‘Yes Sir - if that’s a multi coloured dog.’
Little Stevie Walsh walking the giant animal along Barbary Road and up to the Scrubs regular as clockwork twice a day was a common if somewhat comical sight in the area.
‘And now an elephant has gone missing?’
Holland nodded, flushing again for some reason. ‘The woman who phoned it in sounded really nice, but when I went up to the Scrubs to interview the owner, he refused to cooperate. He said he wanted to talk to someone in authority Sir, not a schoolgirl.’
Crombie felt a wave of protective indignation on her behalf again, and said gruffly.
‘In future, you remind any punter who questions your authority that you’re an officer of the law acting on behalf of Her Majesty.’
She gulped, and for one horrible moment Crombie thought she was about to start crying. Instead she looked up to glare at him.
‘Thank you Sir. I’ll do that. If that’s all I’ll go now.’
‘Sit down again.’ Crombie breathed out in exasperation. Smoothing out her skirt once more, Holland sat back down, biting her lip and staring over his shoulder.
‘This circus. When did it arrive?’ Although he knew the answer to this. Three times a year a funfair hit the Scrubs, twice a year the circus pitched its Big Top.
‘Sunday just gone sir, the last show will be this Sunday, and they pack up and leave on Monday.’
‘And when did the pets start disappearing?’
Her face paled as the implication sank in. ‘But Sir, they’ve only got a few performing ponies and this elephant.’
‘And you think I’m jumping to conclusions? Finding the nearest scapegoat?’
Her glance flickered over his shoulder, then back down to the table, and a hand crept up to her hair, where she began twisting at a stray tendril, blinking hard at her notebook as though willing another explanation to magically appear there in blue ink.
Crombie drained his coffee, suddenly impatient with his role as mentor.
‘Think WPC Holland, you’ve got a sharp increase in the number of domestic pets going AWOL - and the only change in the status quo is the circus coming to town.’ Adding: ‘Cause and effect Holland, and you go after the most likely cause first.’
While she struggled with the mixed metaphors, Crombie rose to his feet. ‘I’ll go and have a word. What’s the guy’s name? In fact, give me your notes.’
Relief flooded her face. ‘Thank you Sir, shall I come with you?’
She did look like a schoolgirl playing at being a police officer, and she’d already allowed her authority to be questioned, something Crombie would never have tolerated even in his long ago probation days.
‘No.’ As a consolation prize he added. ‘Tell Sergeant Rodgers there’s a pile of filing on my desk, and diesel receipts in my top right hand drawer. He can get on with that, and tell him I’ll be making random checks. You draw up one of your graphs, that’ll be a great help.’ Fumbling a five pound note from his wallet, he folded it on the coffee tray. ‘Take that back inside and thank Susan for me.’
Watching his shambolic shape heading towards a battered green estate car, WPC Holland thought that if Crombie swapped the faded leather jacket for one a little better fitting and straightened up occasionally, he’d be quite fanciable, in an older man type of way, he still had all his own hair and teeth. She scowled at the empty coffee cups, but then remembering Crombie had authorised her to give Rodgers an equally mundane task, placed them onto the tray and re-entered the pub. The interior seemed homely rather than gloomy now, the old codgers supping at their pints were smiling, not leering. WPC Holland remembered she was an officer of the law, and tried not to skip back to the station at the thought of lording it over the repugnant Rodgers.
Crombie nursed his elderly car over the “traffic calming system” certain the bumps existed only because the Mayor of London hated motorists, and drew up to the traffic lights at Scrub’s Lane just as they turned amber, to the disgust of the Porsche driver behind him who gave vent to his frustration. Crombie barely registered the irate honking, lost in thought. He probably knew more about elephants than the average person; he also knew that the person or persons responsible for the animal’s disappearance would call themselves “liberators” rather than thieves. That was the most likely explanation, although he supposed a rival circus could be behind the elephant’s disappearance, and there was even an outside chance the beast had simply wandered off and would be found quietly grazing in someone’s front garden. Policing London could be pedestrian and predictable and this case began to intrigue him. He hoped it wasn’t just a publicity stunt that would result in the police looking ploddish. The honking grew more frantic, Crombie finally noticed the lights were green and pulled away.
Thirty minutes later, Crombie shivered and regretted sending Rodgers back to the station. The elephant’s owner who was also the ringmaster seemed pathetically grateful to have someone his own age taking charge, and confided that his biggest worry was that ‘this business’ would get into the press and attract the attention of the “animal rights’ loonies”. Expressing no concern for the elephant’s safety, or sign that its disappearance caused him emotional distress, the distracted roly poly little man merely confirmed WPC Holland’s notes:
An eight-ton African elephant had shucked off her bonds and distaining the specially converted trailer still parked up on the asphalt, calmly strolled out of the Scrubs and was last seen headed towards the North Pole, whereupon she disappeared from sight.
Crombie guessed that the only reason Stephenson wanted the police involved was to get a crime number for an insurance claim. Jeffery Stephenson and D.S. Rodgers made a fine pair.
To demonstrate he was a detective, not just an insurance clerk to be whistled for, Crombie insisted on speaking with some of the circus performers and demanded to be shown where the animal had been kept.
He was suffering now. The wind whipped across the largest common ground in London, swirling around Crombie to play noisily with the canvass of the big top. Crombie kept his head down as he followed the ringmaster’s son, mentally composing a map of the wasteland known as Wormwood Scrubs.
Stretching over two hundred acres, it was originally commissioned by the military in 1812 to exercise their horses.
One of the best grammar schools in London at one end, the notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison at the other and the pioneering Hammersmith Hospital in between; all flanking the left hand swath of the Scrubs as it curled up towards East Acton almost two miles away. The Grand Union Canal, running parallel to a disused railway line formed the right hand border. Both canal and railway were reminders of happy times when travelling to far off corners of the British Isles meant a pleasant meander through countryside.
Crombie dragged his mind away from holidays, concentrating on the problem before him, as he slogged head down against the wind towards the rear of the big top, cursing again at the thought of Rodgers in his warm cosy office.
In contrast to his Dad, Tarquin was skinny and lanky, with a dusting of bum fluff under his adolescent chin. Now he and Crombie tramped towards a spot that looked as though a flying saucer had landed and taken off again vertically. A perfect circle of sloppy mud around ten foot in diameter surrounded by ragged grass. Crombie stood on the perimeter, watching as Tarquin slipped and slithered to the stake at the circle’s centre. Stooping by the stake, Tarquin fished around in the gloop; straightening to heave on a chain and groaning with exertion as he yanked the oversized links free. Crombie stepped back quickly as the chain slurped upwards bringing a spray of muck with it.
Using both hands to hold up a leg iron capable of encircling a cat walk model’s waist, Tarquin twisted it this way and that, displaying its emptiness to Crombie:
Crombie nodded sagely. He might not be the finest detective on the Met’s force, but even he could see there was no elephant at the end of the chain. Lu-Lu had packed her trunk and without pausing to say goodbye, lumbered off. Behind Crombie the excited yells and the chatter of a circus going crowd ebbed and flowed, but today, there’d be no appearance from the star of the show.
‘Sir, do you have any recent photographs of this elephant?’ Crombie asked.
‘No I don’t, it ain’t a pet you know, it’s a valuable working animal. You know what an elephant looks like doncha? This ain’t even my bloody job anyway.’
‘What do you mean, this isn’t your job? Aren’t you the elephant’s keeper?’
Tarquin sneered. ‘Not likely. Stinking bloody thing. Nah - that’s Charlie Bozen. And he pissed off the night before the elephant went missing.’
Crombie suppressed the urge to slap a pair of handcuffs over the bony wrists and march him down the station for wasting police time.
‘And no one thought these two incidents might be connected?’
‘Leave off! Bozen would never fit an elephant in his shitty caravan.’
‘But he could have driven the caravan off site, then come back for the elephant.’
Tarquin squinted down his nose at Crombie, not quite brave enough to sneer openly at the perceived stupidity. ‘Why would he do that?’ He pointed over to the faded livery of the circus vehicles. ‘There’s the fucking thing’s lorry. He could have got the keys.’ Muttering under his breath: ‘Fuck me, you’re supposed to be the detective, ain’t yer?’
‘But he could have passed information on to a third party.’ Crombie ignored the swearing and implied insult.
Tarquin pulled out his cigarette packet, tipped the last cigarette out and flicked the empty packet aside, to be half buried by mud.
‘Pick that up.’
Tarquin squinted again.
‘Your rubbish.’ Crombie pointed. ‘Pick it up.’
He could have been speaking in French. Sighing, Crombie looked up at the sky, as if checking a non-visible sun for the time, reached around the back of his waistband and detached the handcuffs there.
‘OK. OK. Chill out.’ Tarquin bent to pick up his litter, his glance sweeping around the circus ground to encompass the discarded programmes, hot dog wrappers and other debris scattered carelessly.
‘Happy now?’ He asked.
Allowing the handcuffs to dangle from one hand, Crombie fished out his notebook and pen.
‘Tell me everything you know about Charlie Bozen.’ He said.
Everything he knew about Charlie Bozen took Tarquin ten minutes to tell. Apparently Bozen was a thick set arrogant looking bloke who acted hard and thought he was god's gift to women, and went commando under his grease stained jeans. Crombie didn't want to think about how Tarquin came by that information. Although Tarquin looked bemused when pressed for a more detailed physical description, when prompted he recalled Bozen's jeep registration number with the ease of a savant. Tucking away his notebook to indicate he'd finished with the formal questioning, Crombie smiled inwardly at the look of relief on the youngster's face; The kid would have to get up a lot earlier to fool Crombie, the father of four daughters.
‘What about the dog fights?’ He asked, with an air of casual innocence.
‘No idea what you’re talking about officer. I hope you’re not imply that because we’re carnie folk we’ve got anything to do with missing pets.’
Crombie swooped on this. ‘I never mentioned any missing pets.’
Tarquin pointed wordlessly towards the avenue of trees lining the Scrub’s edge. Rectangles of white were pasted to nearly every other trunk, the word ‘Reward’ large enough to read above various colour photographs, Crombie thought he recognised the massive form of Beckham, Stevie Walsh’s dog.
He rattled the handcuffs again. ‘Maybe you’d better accompany me. I’ll get Traffic to drop you back. They can check out those vehicles while they’re here.’
‘Alright, alright, keep your hair on.’ Tarquin’s eyes flickered from the “missing” posters to the Big Top, one hand digging awkwardly at his jean’s pocket as he searched for a light.
‘Look, I didn’t tell you this OK? Bozen had another little racket going. A nice little earner, every place we stopped in. Dad don’t know nothin’ about it.’ Cupping the lighter’s flame with both hands Tarquin focussed on lighting his fag with the intensity of someone performing brain surgery, took a deep drag and went into a coughing frenzy.
‘And Bozen paid you to look the other way.’ Crombie finished for him.
Tarquin spluttered and nodded at the same time.
‘What was it? Illegal dog fighting?’
This prompted a nasal snigger. ‘Good, very good detective. Keep it up, I bet Nipper of the Yard’s spinning in his grave.’
Crombie gave the smug git one last chance.
‘You’ve told me everything?’
‘Everything officer.’ Tarquin sniggered again, not caring that Crombie suspected he was lying. Not knowing that Crombie would be back for him, like a dog worrying a meatless bone.
Turning on his heel, Crombie hurried away, hands thrust deep in his jacket pockets; the fresh spring breeze seemed to grow stronger as it swirled wildly round the wide open expanse of scrubland.
From the slurping and squelching it’d be some time before Tarquin escaped from the slurry created by poor Lu-Lu as she’d trampled aimlessly at the length of her chain. Crombie increased his pace, ignoring the man’s indignant call to ‘wait up.’ He’d spent quite enough time in Tarquin Stephenson’s company, and cursed him for adding complications to the elephant’s disappearance. Flicking to a fresh page in his notebook, Crombie resigned himself to another round of snatched interviews with the circus folk.
Bozen didn’t appear too popular with his fellow artistes. Long legged girls wearing feathers in their hair and not much else, lowered long false eyelashes and pouted sparkly lips when asked about the man, although they all professed to “Love Lulu” pleading with Crombie to track her down and “bring her home”. The clowns merely tooted oversized horns at him, their own mouths thin and scowling beneath painted on smiles.
Crombie knew he should make some attempt to re-interview the ringmaster, but the man scurried into the Big Top, shrugging into his red long tailed coat to start the matinee show on catching sight of him. Sighing, Crombie decided he really needed to get some lunch inside him before deciding what to do with this new information.
He slowed passing a hot dog stall, tempted by the smell, until he noted the prices - four pounds - for a small hot dog - a skinny sausage in a bun! Crombie walked on; pleased his girls had never really liked circuses. They’d been more fun in his day, performing seals and monkeys, lion tamers and men being shot out of cannons. Having seen how that poor elephant spent the majority of her day though, it was probably a good thing that performing animals were becoming a thing of the past.
According to Stephenson Senior, circuses would soon go the way of his elephant, and vanish too. This was one of the last six or seven still travelling, and Crombie dismissed his theory that a rival circus might be responsible for the animal’s disappearance. Most likely someone had pissed Bozen off, and in a fit of peevishness he’d freed Lulu’s chains. In fact, knowing the neighbourhood round here, it was entirely possible someone was hanging onto her in hopes of a reward. He saw immediately the flaw in this deduction. Bozen went missing twenty four hours before the elephant. Feeling a tug on his sleeve, Crombie turned to find himself looking down at a man in his seventies, a thin grey man with deep scored facial lines and a flat cap clamped over his skull.
‘Sir?’ Crombie prompted when the man didn’t speak. Swiping a hand across his mouth to mime he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, the man pressed some photographs into Crombie’s hand, nodded and walked unhurriedly away, hands in pockets. Slipping the glossy photos into his own pocket, Crombie decided to examine them in a less public place. The North Pole Star pub would suit very well, and was just across the road. Crombie was certain that Tarquin Stephenson hadn’t told him everything, and knew that Crombie knew he was holding back. Crombie played with the idea of going back to arrest the prat, then dismissed it, thinking tomorrow would be soon enough.