The Conquest That Came A Cropper

Something different today.

A friend, Eric Klingenberg (https://erick79.wordpress.com/), has begun setting a weekly writing challenge; a phrase to inspire a short story or flash fiction.

Last week’s phrase, The potato is the key, prompted the following. Unfortunately, it’s a few days late, simply because a stomach bug curtailed my writing temporarily.

Ironically, this week’s prompt is about aliens. If I take the challenge, I will have to make it as different as possible from what you’re about to read…

 

When I saw Dylan, he was diggin’ the ground like there weren’t no tomorrow. Which there weren’t, on the face of it.

‘Dylan? What’re you doin’?’

Dylan stooped and picked a potato out the ground. Threw it into the sack beside him. ‘Diggin’ my crops.’

‘Why’re you botherin’?’ I pointed at the sky. ‘That spacecraft’ll be here soon. It’s destroyin’ everythin’ in its path. Won’t be nothin’ left before long.’

Dylan carried on diggin’. ‘Don’t mean I can’t get my food out the ground.’

Another potato went in. Lookin’ west, I saw the spacecraft gettin’ bigger.

‘Heard on the radio the armed forces’ve been destroyed,’ I said. ‘That ship up there’s unbeatable, they’re sayin’. Taken out everythin’ to the west of us, ’s well as the whole of Asia and eastern Europe. Soon get round to the rest.’

Dylan looked up then. ‘That the only ship they got?’ he asked, surprise in his voice.

‘Yeah, ’pparently so. A thousand miles across each way, the radio said. Just ’fore the transmission went dead, that is.’

‘Hmm.’ Dylan pulled another potato.

He straightened, and lifted the sack. ‘Makes it all the easier,’ he said. ‘Thought there’d be thousands of ’em.’

I followed as he lumbered over to where he kept Daisy, his crop-dustin’ plane.

‘What’re you thinkin’?’ I said. I looked up again. The spacecraft was almost fillin’ the sky now. ‘You ain’t thinkin’ of takin’ them on?’

He shrugged. ‘Could be.’

‘You’re insane!’

He hauled the sack into Daisy, then climbed aboard. ‘Maybe.’

He fired the engine. ‘What’re you gonna do?’ I yelled. ‘You gonna do like in that Independence Day film? Fly into their laser beam thing and blow them up from the inside?’

‘You’ll see.’ With that, he took off.

I stared after him, and said a prayer to whatever god might be listenin’. Then I settled back to wait for my cremation.

’Bout twenty minutes after, I saw that spacecraft give a lurch. Like it was drunk, or somethin’.

I watched, fascinated. It wobbled a bit, like it was tryin’ to steady itself. Then suddenly, it gave a nosedive, and carried on goin’ down.

The crash came with a dust-cloud I had to bury my face not to get choked by. When it cleared, I was just in time to see Daisy flyin’ in. Coupla minutes later, Dylan landed.

‘What the hell happened there!’ I asked. ‘Was that you?’

He began haulin’ his sack of potatoes outta the plane. ‘Yeah; guess it was.’

‘But what did you do?’

He grinned. ‘You know that trick you can stop a car workin’ by?’

‘Huh?’ I had a think about it. ‘Hell! You don’t mean…?’

‘Yep.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘Knew all I had to do was find the exhaust and stick a potato in it. Stops anythin’, that.’

He picked up his sack, and started walkin’ towards the homestead. ‘Fancy some potato fries?’ he asked.

 

Back to St Marmaduke’s soon…

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Murder At St Marmaduke’s

Because of the fragmentary and top-down nature of this blog, a number of friends, having missed a few sections, have had to give up reading it.

For this reason, I am also posting each chapter, as I finish it, to my website. You can therefore catch up with anything you’ve missed from the first four chapters at http://www.colin-z-smith.com/masm.html

Now, if  you’ve caught up, read on…

 

The story so far: Joseph Makumbo has witnessed an old lady being murdered during a prayer meeting at church. Police Sergeant Ernie Bulstrode and his junior, Constable Terrence Dawson, have been investigating…

Chapter 5

Monday 4th November 1985: 14.00 – 14.45

Section (a)

Ernie Bulstrode and Terrence Dawson had been assigned to watch the interview room door. That was – Dawson had been assigned to watch the door; Ernie had assigned himself to watch Dawson. ‘Lad in there decides to do a runner,’ he’d said, ‘you won’t have a bleedin’ clue what to do.’

The fact was, he wasn’t going back to the front desk without his junior. The hour or so he’d been there while Dawson was at the church had been bad enough. Some woman had come in and asked where her missing cat was, for God’s sake!

He’d pointed her in the direction of the pet shop, telling her it was under observation for suspected pussy-napping. He’d happened to read the phrase in Busty just before she rolled through the door.

Now Dawson said, ‘I really don’t see why Makumbo’s been hauled in, Sarge. He told us everything he knew down at the church.’

Ernie raised an eyebrow. ‘He’s here, lad, because Inspector Clouseau’s decided that because he’s black, he’s got to have committed some crime or other. If he can’t get him for the murder, he’ll get him for the robbery. Or cat-napping,’ he added, thinking of the woman who’d disturbed his peace earlier on.

‘Is DI Hampshire really that prejudiced?’

‘He once had a dalmatian dog arrested for not being totally white. That answer your question?’

‘Oh, right.’ Dawson’s face creased into a frown. ‘But since we’ve been assigned to watch Makumbo doesn’t get away…’

‘Well?’

‘Well – shouldn’t we be on the inside of the interview room?’

Ernie spluttered. ‘What? And maybe learn somethin’ useful, all on our own? Like who really did the old lady in, and whether Makumbo saw the burglars at work? We wouldn’t want to do that in five minutes flat when the Great Plodhopper can take all night, now, would we?’

‘But Makumbo explained the murder…’

‘Oh, yeah. Little old ladies with pointy things.’ He gave Dawson a pitying look. ‘You really think that’s likely, lad?’

Dawson looked taken aback. ‘You saying he’s lying?’

‘Of course he is!’ Ernie tutted. ‘Thought we were beginnin’ to make a copper out of you.’

‘But why would he lie about something like that?’

‘’Aven’t a clue, lad. Probably thinks it sounds better than, “I run away when the burglars arrived, and left a little old woman to tackle them on her own.” Anything’d sound better than that; leastways, if I was tellin’ it, it would.’

‘But what about the vicar bloke? All that business about people being beaten to death with a lecture, or whatever it was? That’s got to be connected, surely? Why hasn’t he been hauled in as well?’

‘Oh, him!’ Ernie gave a snort. ‘Nutty as a monkey’s breakfast, lad. All this persecution complex these religious bods have. Get him in here, he’d be tryin’ to convert us to North Sea Gas, or whatever it is they believe in.’

‘There were loads of bodies down in the basement, though.’

‘Pound to a penny they were somebody’s pet gerbils or something.’

‘Gerbils? Sarge, they were people!’

‘Gerbils are tricky buggers, lad. Had one convince me and Mrs Bulstrode for years he was our son. Ate ’is way through ’ouse and ’ome before we realised he was nothin’ more than a rat with delusions of grandeur.’

‘Oh, all right.’ Dawson sounded annoyed at the joke. Ernie was pleased by that. The lad was beginning to show some spunk occasionally.

It wouldn’t stop him giving the constable all the grief he could, though. That’s what subordinates were for.

There was silence for a while, then Ernie said, ‘Anyway, lad, it’s not our problem now Hampshire’s involved. Though why Charlie Meredith chose him to lead this particular investigation’s beyond me.’

‘Why is the DI so prejudiced, Sarge?’ Dawson seemed to have got over his annoyance for the moment.

‘Ah. Goes back a long time. All to do with his missus.’

‘I didn’t know he was married.’

‘He ain’t, now.’

‘Oh?’

Ernie tapped his nose meaningfully. ‘Not the time, lad.’ He nodded towards the door that led to the CID corridor. ‘I reckon I hear the dull plod of an even duller detective comin’. With luck, he’ll have brought the CID brain-cell with him. Though personally, I reckon that Amita Chowdhary lass has got it on permanent loan.’

‘Vindaloo Girl?’

‘That’s what he calls her. Though -’ and he gave Dawson the hardest stare in his repertoire ‘- if I ever hear you refer to her by that name, I’ll take you out the back and beat seven shades of shit out of you.’

To his satisfaction, Dawson’s face went the colour of beetroot. ‘Sorry, Sarge. I don’t usually…’

‘Good.’ He turned his glare down a few notches; the lad wasn’t really that sort of tosser, and he’d have learnt this particular lesson good and proper. ‘Anyway, I’ve gotta go. When the Great Defective lets you bugger off, don’t forget to come straight back to the desk. Lots of work to be done.’

‘Work, Sarge? We’ve got work to do?’

‘Yes, lad, work. For a start, I’ve missed my elevenses and my lunch. Three sugars, as usual. And four caramel wafers.’

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: At St Marmaduke’s church, Mabel Cartwright, an old lady, has been murdered. Shortly after, the church is also robbed. The police are investigating. Two very interested observers, the effigies of two saints attached to the pulpit, watch on…

Chapter 4

Monday 4th November 1985: 13.00 – 13.15

‘All this excitement,’ Andrew said. ‘Don’t think we’ve seen so many people since the Dread Primary School Gathering of 1971. You know – when all those seven-to-ten-year-olds came galloping in and decimated the place in five minutes flat.’

He laughed. ‘Do you remember, one little monster coloured your beard pink? Took the then vicar weeks to get it off. Mind you – that could have been more to do with the amount he was charging people to come and take pictures of you.

‘I thought it looked rather good, myself. Lit up the church at night, as well. Could see in all the corners, even. Did wonders helping the mice avoid the traps.

‘Do you remember, they started worshipping you as “Squeakacoatl, the Bizarrely-shaped Mouse God”? Kept sacrificing bits of cheese to you? Rather sweet, I thought.’

There was no reply from James. Oh, be like that, Andrew thought.

He supposed his fellow effigy was still sulking over his romantic situation. The griffin from the font had now set up home on the pew-end opposite James’s gargoyle girlfriend, and the two other-worldly creatures, Andrew understood, were only one step removed from starting what he guessed would be an extremely ugly stone-wood hybrid family.

It wasn’t that he missed the sound of James’s voice; but it did get a tad quiet when the other saint was having the occasional sulking fit. Always had, even when they’d been people rather than engravings.

‘Loads of folk wandering around in white costumes,’ he carried on, hoping to elicit some response. ‘Powdering things, then brushing them down. Vicar’ll have a fit; they’re leaving more dust than that roof restoration gang did. Remember the mess they made? All those bits of tile mucking up the altar?

‘The vicar accidentally handed them out as communion wafers. Terrible row.’

There was still no response from beside him. Andrew sighed. This was a real mope.

‘Tell you something else,’ he decided to give it one more try. ‘They’re being a bit liberal with this “Police – do not cross” tape. They’ve wrapped it right round my chest and half-way up my chin. Any higher, I wouldn’t be able to say a word. How about you? You got any?’

After a moment’s silence, he heard, ‘Mmm. Mmm mmm mmm mm mm mm mmm mmm mmm mmm.’

‘Oh. Oh, right.’

A thought struck him, and he couldn’t help letting out a chortle. ‘Oh well; at least you can’t say anything else to upset Gargoyly.’

‘Mmmmm mm mm mm mm mm mmm mmm mmm.’

‘No need to be rude.’

He smiled to himself; it was nice to be able to tease James for a change, rather than being on the receiving end.

Then something caught his eye; and, as far as it was possible for a frieze to freeze, he froze.

‘Oh heck,’ he said.

‘Mmm?’

‘Well – you know I told you they’ve been carrying all those stiffs up from the vault?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Well, that’s what they all were; stiff as the proverbial sermon. The old woman on the floor, though; they’re standing around her taking photographs at the moment…’

‘Mmm?’

‘And when they had their backs to her for a second…’

‘Mmm?’

‘I don’t think they’ve noticed; but she turned over so they could capture her good side.’

End of Chapter 4

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: A murder and a robbery have taken place at St Marmaduke’s church. The police – in the form of Constable Terrence Dawson – are investigating. Terrence has called on assistance from his superior, Sergeant Ernie Bulstrode; while the vicar, Father Frank Rawlings, has called on his wife, Clarissa – ministering in her own unique way to Joseph Makumbo, who witnessed the murder – to come and help clean up the mess caused by it…

Chapter 3

Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30

Section (f)

Joseph watched in astonished horror as Father Rawlings held Mabel Number Three’s legs aloft and berated the policeman who was patiently trying to get him to drop them.

‘My choir have every right to practise in peace! We have a very important Evensong tonight; it’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Eric the Unfortunate, and they have to have the Te Deum in the correct order. On Friday evening, instead of “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord”, they sang “Thee God we, O praise; thee acknowledge Lord to be the we”. That will never do!’

Clarissa Rawlings was standing by Joseph’s side, the mop and bucket he’d carried to the church for her poised ready for action. ‘Perhaps, darling, we should wait for the constable’s superior to arrive,’ she suggested.

Joseph had encountered mixed emotions when, after she’d taken her phone call, she’d announced that her husband wanted them at the church. Hot and bothered as he’d been with her presence so close on the sofa, he’d suddenly found that when it was removed, he began to hope it would return as quickly as possible. Becoming disappointed when he realised it wouldn’t, he’d cheered up with the thought that at least he’d have the compensation of her company on the short walk to the church.

He’d been rather disgruntled, therefore, when they’d arrived and Clarissa had shaken the young policeman’s hand in greeting. He’d felt she held on a fraction longer then necessary. Her smile had been a little too friendly as well.

Oh my! he’d thought a second later. Surely I should not be experiencing such feelings? Should they not be more natural to Father Rawlings?

The thoughts he was beginning to have regarding Clarissa Rawlings were frightening him. Even for thinking of her as ‘Clarissa’ Rawlings rather than ‘Mrs’, his mother would have had him locked in his bedroom and on his knees in prayer for a week.

‘A good idea, Mrs Rawlings,’ the policeman said. He looked thoroughly harassed. Joseph began to feel sorry for him; then he saw the smile he gave the vicar’s wife, and the smile she gave him back, and the feeling was pounced on and pummelled into submission by another, far darker one.

At that moment, a heavy tread sounded in the porch, and a look of relief passed over the policeman’s face.

‘Is there a problem here?’ the tread demanded, entering the church behind them.

Joseph looked round. A shorter, older, more rotund version of the policeman stared back at him; rather rudely, he thought.

‘I’m Sergeant Bulstrode. I said, is there a problem here?’

Father Rawlings broke the ensuing short silence. ‘Ah, Sergeant. I was just telling your constable…’

The sergeant transferred his attention to the action at the front. His eyes popped, and his face turned a colour Joseph could only assume that the word ‘puce’ had been especially invented for.

‘Excuse me, sir.’ The voice that came out of the puce was low and dangerous; like that of a very large dog whose bone had been picked up from in front of its eyes. ‘Would you mind telling me why you’re waving that lady’s legs around like that? Most undignified, I’d say. Not to mention tampering with evidence.’

Joseph looked back towards Father Rawlings’ battle with Mabel Number Three’s prone form. He saw the vicar’s face crease into a frown.

‘Evidence, Sergeant? What do you mean? Miss Cartwright will have had nothing to do with this dreadful robbery, if that’s what you’re thinking. And it might be helpful if you officers were out looking for our valuable candlesticks instead of congregating in here like it was some kind of meeting place. Time is wasting, Sergeant. The tealeaves will be having it away on their toes as we speak.’

There was a splutter from beside Joseph. ‘I’m so sorry, Sergeant,’ Clarissa Rawlings said. ‘We were watching an episode of The Bill last night.’

Joseph turned back to the sergeant. ‘Excuse me, sir. I can help with regard to the murdered lady.’

The stare coming out of the popping eyes transferred itself back to him, only doubled in ferocity. It became the kind of stare you could only quail in front of, and Joseph duly quailed.

Before either he or the sergeant could speak further, however, the vicar cut in: ‘Ah, yes; Joseph. Do you know that when you left earlier this morning you failed to lock up after you? And look – church property has been stolen and damaged. What were you thinking?’

For not the first time that morning, Joseph felt his jaw work up and down with no sound emerging. At the same time, as if he and the senior policeman had suddenly formed themselves into a ventriloquist act, the sergeant supplied the necessary words: ‘Are you saying, vicar, that the death of that poor woman is of secondary importance to the theft of a couple of candles?’

‘Candlesticks, Sergeant, candlesticks! Why is it that you officers seem obsessed by the candles we put in them? They only cost one pound from Woolworths. The candlesticks, on the other hand…’

‘That’s beside the point, sir…’ the sergeant began to interrupt.

‘Of course it isn’t!’ The vicar was not to be deflected, it seemed. ‘We have any number of elderly congregants who are able to take Miss Cartwright’s place. Why, Joseph here is himself replacing Mr Jenkins, whose head was beaten against the lectern a few months ago. Our missing items, however, are invaluable!

Every bone in Joseph’s legs seemed to vanish at the same instant, and he began to collapse. The next moment, Clarissa Rawlings’ hand was under his arm, and then he felt a pillowy softness beneath his head.

It felt nice. Then he realised what the pillows were, and the rest of his bones vanished too.

‘A man was beaten to death against the lectern?’ The sergeant now sounded as if he was forcing out the words through teeth that were glued together. ‘And you didn’t think there was anything untoward about it? Didn’t think to report it to us, for example?’

Father Rawlings was staring at him. ‘Why – why should I? I mean – these elderly people have to go to glory sometime. Better here than anywhere else; at least they’re nearer to God when they go. And it wasn’t as if there was much blood involved. We hardly needed to spend anything on cleaning fluid. No need for a fuss at all, really.’

End of Chapter 3

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: A murder – witnessed by Joseph Makumbo – and a robbery have taken place at St Marmaduke’s church. Meanwhile, Sally Evans at Proctorpress Publishing Company – for whom Joseph works – has taken delivery of the first couple of chapters of the manuscript of a new novel.

Her boss, Kevin Proctor, is ploughing through the tale of a love triangle between a Patagonian shepherdess, a prince of the Undongo tribe in East Venezuala and a merman from the planet Oolaxian…

Chapter 3

Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30

Section (e)

Kevin Proctor disengaged himself from the doings of the Patagonian shepherdess and her two male suitors. Or rather – her one male suitor and the merman from Oolaxian, about whom there seemed to be a slight confusion regarding sex. Of which he/she/it seemed to be getting rather a lot, mostly from various nubile females who fell under some alien hypnotic power it wielded; but occasionally from their boyfriends/husbands, when it took the fancy; and once, disturbingly, from a pet budgerigar belonging to one of them.

He sighed, suspecting that the search for a bestseller-list candidate would be going on a while longer.

He stretched, and got up from his desk. He’d go into the outer office and see if Sally had the coffee-maker on the go.

Hmm. Perhaps Sally would be susceptible to a little alien hypnotic influence? The merman’s technique was described in minute detail between pages 46 and 53.

He shook himself mentally. Not a chance.

He opened the door to his office and passed into Sally’s reception area. ‘Hi, Sal,’ he said.

She glanced up from a letter she was typing. ‘Can I help you, Kevin? And it’s Sally, if you don’t mind.’

‘And it’s Kev, if you don’t.’ It was a game they’d been playing every day for the two years Proctorpress had been in existence. Sally insisting on the full version of her given name; and he insisting on the shortened version of his.

At least – he hoped it was a game. If she wasn’t treating it as such, it might result in her finally upping sticks one day, and the thought of her loss gave him unpleasant sensations in areas where he’d rather be feeling pleasurable ones.

He strolled over to the coffee pot, which, as he’d expected, was full.

‘Cup?’

‘I will, please.’

He poured two, and brought one to her desk.

‘Joseph’s phoned in,’ she said. ‘Asked if he can take the day off. He seems to have had some trouble at the church he goes to.’

‘Really? Well, there’s nothing urgent, that’ll be fine.’

‘I said as much.’

Standing over her, he made sure to keep his gaze fixed unwaveringly on her face. He’d learnt early – and at the cost of great personal embarrassment – that letting it slip elsewhere brought wintry frosts into the office that froze the central heating pipes solid.

Not that it was a hardship looking at her face.

Concentrate on business, Kev.

‘Anything interesting in the post?’ He doubted there was, but it might keep his mind on other things. Or off other things.

Concentrate!

She indicated a small pile of correspondence at her elbow. ‘Three letters; all from HL Danvers, all posted Saturday, all asking how you’re getting on with her latest work of, and I quote, outstanding genius…’

He closed his eyes. The merman and the budgerigar were imprinted on the back of his eyelids.

‘An invitation to the Aberystwyth Literary Festival to discuss the influence of 14th century Singapore novelists on fifteen-year-olds in comprehensive education…’

‘?’

She quirked an eyebrow at him. He’d come to recognise it as her equivalent of a smile, and whenever she unbent herself to do it, he had a wild hope she might be softening towards him.

‘Again – not a chance.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Oh, er… Nothing. Nothing. Just thinking that one through. Anything else?’

‘Yes. This.’ She handed him an A4 envelope.

He groaned. ‘Oh no. Another HL Danvers, I take it?’ The Patagonian shepherdess’s creator had been submitting a manuscript a month for the last year. He was running out of polite ways to tell her, ‘Your novel is interesting, but sadly it does not fit our list at the present time.’

‘No, surprisingly not,’ she said. ‘Someone else; someone we’ve not heard from before.’

‘Oh?’ He raised his own eyebrows in surprise. Nobody but HL Danvers had submitted anything for months.

‘Yes,’ she went on. ‘Very odd; it came by airmail.’

‘Sorry?’ He searched her face to check if she was serious. As her face always looked exactly that, it was impossible to tell.

‘The postman seemed in rather a hurry. And he left the letters and invitation scattered over the stairs as he went.’

‘Really?’

He took the envelope and the invitation from her. He’d leave the mystery of the ‘airmail’ remark for another time. Perhaps when he’d learnt to work out how to tell when she was joking.

Did she ever joke? He really didn’t know.

Concentrate.

‘Usual reply to the others?’ he said.

‘Just finishing it.’ She indicated the letter in her typewriter. ‘I’ll sign for you; it’ll be in the post this afternoon.’

‘Cheers, Sal; you’re a love.’ That was another game. He dared just enough…

‘Sally. And one day I’ll be able to take you to court for that remark.’

He carried his coffee back into his office and closed the door. Her reply had only been at about three on the frost scale. Hope flickered again.

And one day, I’ll be able to ask you out on a date.

He wondered if he ever would.

Oh, to hell with it. He slung the new manuscript on top of the Patagonian shepherdess, and began to read the invitation to Aberystwyth.

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: An old lady has been murdered at St Marmaduke’s church. The church has also been robbed, and the vicar has reported this – but not the murder – to the police. Constable Terrence Dawson has been despatched to investigate. His sergeant, Ernie Bulstrode, waits for him to return…

Chapter 3

Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30

Section (d)

The phone beside Ernie Bulstrode’s elbow jangled into life. ‘Dawson!’ he yelled in the direction of the kitchenette.

Damn!

He grabbed the receiver. ‘Camtown Police Station,’ he said, turning over another page of Busty. Korporal Karen smouldered up at him, wearing combat knickers and a tommy gun slung over her shoulder. He wondered how much damage her twin howitzers would cause if pointed in the wrong direction.

‘Er, Sarge.’

‘Oh, it’s you, Dawson. Where the blue blazes are you? My bleedin’ mug’s been empty for hours.’

There was a sharp indrawing of breath at the other end of the phone. ‘Listen, Sarge, this is important. There’s been a murder.’

‘You what!’

Ernie wrenched his attention away from Korporal Karen and his lack of refreshment, and onto the phone call. ‘Say that again, Dawson.’

‘There’s been a murder, Sarge.’

Ernie clapped the hand that wasn’t holding the phone onto his head. ‘What the ’ell ’ave you done, Constable? I told you to go and find out what was going on; not to kill anybody.’

‘No, Sarge!’ The agitation in Dawson’s voice increased. ‘There’s an old woman here, lying on the floor. Looks like she’s been dead a while. The vicar doesn’t seem bothered. Keeps wanting me to help move her down to the crypt.’

‘Eh?’

‘Yeah. Reckons he’s got about five others stored down there.’

Ernie gripped the phone tighter. ‘You listen to me, lad. I’m comin’ over there. You tell that vicar fella nothing gets moved until I get there. You got that?’

‘Yes, Sarge. Oh. Hang on.’

Ernie heard a stream of muffled dialogue for a moment, then Dawson said, ‘Erm – he reckons the choir’s coming in at four o’clock to practise. Says he needs to clear up before then.’

‘Dawson!’ Ernie could feel his pulse quicken. He’d been warned about getting too agitated; the doctor reckoned his blood pressure could only go so much higher before his arteries exploded. ‘I couldn’t give a tinker’s goolies about the choir. Tell him they can practise up the bell tower or something!’

There was another stream of muffle. ‘Erm – he reckons they’ve tried that; the acoustics aren’t right, though.’

‘Dawson!’

There was a loud clunk, as if the phone on the other end had just hit something very solid; the floor, for instance. This was replaced by a scrabbling noise.

‘Erm – sorry about that, Sarge.’

Ernie controlled his patience. Just. ‘You tell that vicar that his choir can go -’

No, he decided, I am going to lose my patience after all, and bugger the arteries.

‘They can go ************************************** so far as I’m concerned!’

There was dead silence from the other end. Then Dawson said in a very small voice, ‘Do you really want me to put it in so many words?’

Ernie felt rather better for his outburst; and nothing inside him appeared to have gone bang. ‘Look, lad, from what I’ve heard of church choirs, I doubt they’d know an acoustic if they fell over a bucket of ’em. Nothing moves till I get there – right?’

He slammed the phone down, lifted his overcoat off its stand, and shrugged it on. As he left, he hung the ‘closed’ sign on the reception window. The great unwashed public could go solve their own problems for a while.

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: At a Monday morning prayer meeting at St Marmaduke’s church, an old lady is murdered. The vicar, Father Frank Rawlings, discovers that the church has also been robbed, and reports this – but not the murder – to the police. Constable Terrence Dawson is despatched by his sergeant to investigate…

Chapter 3

Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30

Section (c)

Father Rawlings was striding around the front of the church, pointing out the empty places that had once held valuable objects: ‘…and here, there were the candlesticks that the Terrified Trappists of Teddington donated to us in 1580. Before my time, of course, but much admired over the years by all visitors to St Marmaduke’s…’

Terrence Dawson watched, fascinated, as the vicar lifted his leg to make another transition over the body lying on the floor, its head swathed in a pool of blood. A couple of chairs stood beside it, the plastic, school-room type. As he stepped over, Father Rawlings grabbed one in each hand; then, on the other side, he deposited them neatly onto a stack to one side of the choir stalls.

It was as if the dead woman hadn’t registered on his conscious; as if his legs were operating independently in order to keep him from falling over her.

‘Are you taking notes, Constable?’

‘Hmm?’ Terrence tore his gaze away, bent his head and pretended to jot something down in his notebook. ‘Erm – expensive, were they, these candles?’

He lifted his head again, and encountered a stare that would have had Sergeant Bulstrode asking for tips on technique. ‘Candles? What on earth are you on about, Constable? I’m talking about the candlesticks. Absolutely priceless. Been in the church since…’

‘Since 1580; you said.’ He felt himself reddening, and bent his head again quickly.

‘And here – ’ Father Rawlings was moving towards the back, stopping at a counter mid-way that held a small pile of leaflets ‘- the box where money is posted for the History of St Marmaduke’s from its founding in 1473 BC pamphlets has also been broken into. Absolutely disgraceful.’

The vicar gave a grimace. ‘I suppose I shall have to ask those of the congregation who have bought one of the pamphlets to pay again. Printing costs don’t meet themselves, you know. And whilst I’m about it, I really must get the date corrected. The earliest instance of a church here is actually 24 BC.’

Terrence did make a note this time. He supposed the fingerprint experts should be called in. No doubt the thief had worn gloves. But every avenue had to be explored. And the date of the candlesticks might be a help in tracking them down. Though they would probably have been made some years before that…

What the heck are you thinking? This is ridiculous!

‘Father Rawlings,’ he said.

‘Yes, Constable?’ The vicar was fussing around with the box, a cube of metal with a slot in its top and a door in its back. It had been levered out of its mounting in the cabinet, and the door hung open, limp and buckled.

‘Could I ask you not to touch that, sir? And, by the way, do you know there’s a dead body on your floor?’

Father Rawlings looked up and frowned. ‘Oh yes, I’ll need your help there, if you don’t mind.’

‘Help?’

‘Yes.’ The vicar was striding towards the front again. ‘Your help to move her, of course. We can’t have people cluttering up the place. I’ve Evensong at five o’clock – we need to make sure everything’s clean and tidy by then.’

Terrence felt himself goggling.

‘Hopefully, my wife will be here soon,’ Father Rawlings continued. ‘With a mop and bucket. Unhelpful of Miss Cartwright to bleed all over the floor like that. Not to mention that – that -’ He inclined his head towards what looked like the congealed remains of a pre-packed casserole near the body.

‘But Father, there’s a dead woman here! And unless the part of my training course that dealt with how to spot a suspicious death misled me, she’s been murdered!’

‘Oh, yes.’ Father Rawlings treated the statement with the same air of matter-of-factness he might have given an enquiry for directions. ‘That often happens when the ladies get together.

‘We generally store them in the crypt. You can give me a hand down with her if you would, when you’ve finished taking the description of our missing cross.’

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: At a Monday morning prayer meeting, Joseph Makumbo witnesses one elderly lady murder another. Shortly after, a villain’s son, Darren Chafford, robs the church, which has been left open. Meanwhile, two postmen have a duel to determine who will deliver an envelope to Proctorpress Publishing Company. Later that morning…

Chapter 3

Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30

Section (a)

Spiky Simmonds whistled as he bounded up the steps of Cheaprate Building, on his way to the fourth floor and Proctorpress Publishing Company. He’d finished his own round in double-quick time in order to get to this moment. Most of what he’d delivered had probably gone through the wrong doors; but then, his round consisted almost entirely of wrinklies, and one old person’s post was very much like another’s, as far as he could see.

He’d given Bill Johnson a good pasting in their duel, as expected; Fred Harris had called the contest off after five minutes to stop old Johnno ‘taking too much punishment’. Two of the others had carried Johnno home, while two more had divided his round between them; apart from the prized Proctorpress envelope, of course.

Spiky chuckled at the thought of Bill Johnson standing preening himself in front of Sally Evans. The old fool would have looked ridiculous.

At the top of the stairs, he turned left into the Gents. Just as well to check the ol’ appearance.

He spent several minutes with the gel pot he routinely carried in his post bag, fashioning his hair into an even sharper version of its trademark punky style. Sweet, he thought, flashing himself a grin in the mirror.

He opened the door to leave. ‘Excuse me,’ a voice said. ‘I believe you have forgotten something.’

Bugger! The envelope.

Turning back, he snatched it from the washbasin. ‘Thanks, geezer,’ he said.

Halfway through the door, he stopped.

Very slowly, he turned round.

He scanned the washroom. Urinals – uninhabited.

Cubicles – doors all standing wide open – ditto.

‘You are welcome,’ the voice said, right beside his ear.

Section (b)

Sally Evans sat at her desk and braced herself for the coming ordeal.

She’d heard the cheerful whistle ascending the stairs, a sure sign that a package from the post office was about to come her way; nobody but the postman, thrilled with the thought of coming to see her, ever sounded that happy in the building. From the bouncing rhythm of the footsteps, she could tell it wasn’t Bill, whose plod – even when he was about to enter the office – was as unvarying as the cliched manuscripts her boss generally received.

No matter. That just meant there’d be a different grey-clad figure striding through the door any second, grinning like a maniac, making googly eyes at her and staring at her chest while pretending not to.

She’d heard the toilet door swing open and shut a few minutes before; now she heard it again.

Footsteps pounded across the hallway floor, and she shot backwards in her wheelie-chair as the office door detonated inwards. She only had time to register the expected uniform, topped by a headful of what appeared to be railing spikes, before something brown was hurled in her direction. Then the figure was gone, and she heard footsteps thundering down the stairs. The front door crashing into the wall sounded clearly, even as far up as she was. Then silence fell, all the deeper for the noisy entertainment that had preceded it.

Sally stared at the door, still vibrating from the force of its opening. The envelope had skidded with surprising accuracy onto her desk, through a small pile of paperwork, then off again and onto the floor beside her.

She picked it up, and wheeled her chair back to her desk. Then she got up and shut the door, checking for damage. A bit of plaster on the wall was dented where the handle had impacted it, but otherwise nothing was too badly amiss.

Next, she took off her overcoat, which she’d donned as protection against the expected leering.

Shrugging, she reseated herself. Whatever was going on, at least she’d been spared that for another day.

She opened the envelope and extracted a neatly-bound set of papers; another writer-in-hope’s manuscript. Surprisingly thin; her trained eye estimated that, given the normal double-spacing and adequate margins, the whole would come to around 6,000 words, enough for two or three chapters only.

Sensible. The last effort from a wannabe that had come thudding onto her desk had amounted to 800 pages of total gibberish; far better to send in a portion, so her boss could dictate the inevitable rejection a lot sooner.

She laid aside the covering letter, and glanced at the manuscript’s title. Ah, another murder mystery.

She busied herself with the paperwork that had been scattered by its odd arrival. She’d give the manuscript to Kevin later; he was currently doing battle with a love triangle between a Patagonian shepherdess, a prince of the Undongo tribe in East Venezuala and a merman from the planet Oolaxian, so there was no hurry.

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: Joseph Makumbo attends a prayer meeting at church, during which one elderly lady murders another. The vicar, Father Rawlings, who has left Joseph to the rather disconcerting ministrations of his wife, discovers that a robbery has also taken place.

Meanwhile, in another part of town…

Chapter 2

Monday 4th November 1985: 09.15 – 10.00

Section (e)

Ronnie Chafford shot up from his armchair as the door of the flat thundered open. ‘There were a body, Dad!’ his son, Darren, screeched as he careered into the sitting room. ‘A freakin’ body!’

‘Jesus, Dazza!’ Ronnie clutched at his chest as his heart threatened to make a getaway through it. ‘I thought you was the Old Bill! Frightened the ’ecking life out of me!’

‘Nah, it weren’t no Jesus, Dad! It were an ol’ biddy!’

Darren began an agitated pacing around the room, weaving tight little circles as he went. It looked like a complicated manoeuvre he might make to avoid being followed. Ronnie glanced anxiously at the door, expecting to see blue-clad figures lumbering through. Darren had never quite got the hang of shaking off shadowers; it was one of the two O-levels he’d failed, along with advanced safe-cracking.

‘Calm down, Son! What you goin’ on about!’

But Darren was chuntering to himself in that weird accent he’d picked up from five years at the Brumagen School for Aspiring Ne’er-do-wells (Dudley Campus). Ronnie couldn’t tell what he was saying; but then, since the boy had returned from up-north-parts, Ronnie had needed a translator to decipher his breakfast requests.

One of Darren’s circles brought him close, so Ronnie grabbed his arm and held on tight. ‘Dazza,’ he yelled, so close to his son’s ear he heard an echo come back from inside it, ‘will you calm down and tell me what the ’eckin’ flip you’re goin’ on about!’

The boy went rigid; his jaw dropped and his eyes turned inward to stare at each other through his nose.

Ronnie relaxed, confident he’d got his son’s attention. ‘Right; now we’ve got a bit of order, tell me what you’re talkin’ about.’

It was a relief to say something that didn’t end in an exclamation mark. He let go of Darren’s arm and flopped back into his chair.

Darren, trembling, slumped onto the sofa opposite. ‘That were loud, Dad,’ he complained.

‘Never mind that. What’s this about a body?’

Darren’s eyes, which had returned to more-or-less normal, closed briefly, and he shuddered. ‘I were on me way to Mr Singh’s, like you said…’

‘Uh huh.’ Ronnie had sent Darren to the newsagent’s to pinch a copy of Criminal’s Weekly. He suddenly noticed with annoyance that the boy’s hands were empty. There was an article on how to grow lockpicks in a window box he wanted to read.

‘Well,’ Darren was going on, ‘I were passing that church place, you know…?’

‘St Marmite’s, that the one?’

‘Yeah. An’ I saw that the door were open. So I thought I’d ’ave a look inside, like.’

Ronnie raised his eyebrows. ‘We’ve cased that joint before, Son. You know it’s used on a Monday morning for their prayer meeting thing.’

It was his turn to shudder, as he remembered being collared when they’d got through the door one morning on a recce. Several old women had (and he still couldn’t work out how) dragged them to the front, then spent the next half-hour talking to the air about them. According to the women, he and Darren had walked through the door as a ‘blessing’ to the church; he still, after nearly a year, ground his teeth at the thought of exiting several pounds poorer than he’d gone in, when the intention had been to leave a great deal richer.

‘Yeah, but this were twenty to, Dad,’ Darren cut into his thoughts. ‘I knew they shoulda gone by then.’

‘An’ ’ad they?’

‘Yeah. But Dad, this ol’ biddy were there, lyin’ on the floor. An’ ’er eye, Dad…’

Darren shuddered to a halt again, and Ronnie sat back to think. He couldn’t be sure if the boy had actually seen what he said he had, or if he’d been sniffing his socks again. Either way, if there was a chance that St Marmite’s was standing open and unguarded…

‘Come on, Dazza,’ he said, heaving himself to his feet again. ‘We’ve got a church to visit. With a dirty great bag.’

Darren’s eyes snapped open, and he stood as well. ‘Oh, sorry Dad. Forgot to say.’

He went out into the hallway. Something went ‘chink’, and he lumbered back in, a sack slung over his shoulder. When he set it down, the ‘chink’ repeated.

‘Did it before I come out, Dad. Thought I might as well. I were wearin’ me gloves an’ that, an’ I ’ad the bag an’ me chisel on me, so it were easy to get into the safe.’

He reached into the bag and pulled out a plate of such – silveriness – Ronnie felt his jaw drop. Another reach in, and out came a goblet of the same lustre. Four candlesticks followed, and then a gold cross. The light from the window hit these objects and danced around the room, causing Ronnie to narrow his eyes against the dazzle.

‘All right, Dad?’

He became aware that he was still gawping. He snapped his mouth shut, and said, ‘All right, Son…?’

He couldn’t say any more, his brain was leaping too many somersaults to find the right words.

Darren was pointing proudly to the sack. ‘Like it, Dad?’

With extreme reluctance, Ronnie wrenched his gaze from the shinies. The sack was daubed with thick white streaks. ‘SWAG, Dazza?’ Ronnie enquired, reading the capitals they made.

‘Painted it on meself, Dad. The cops are so stupid round ’ere, I thought they’d be bound to think it were just a joke.’

‘Did it work?’

‘Yeah. One even ’eld it for me while I nipped round to Singh’s for your paper…’ He withdrew the awaited copy of Criminal’s Weekly from the sack. ‘Sorry, I ’ad to pay for it; thought it’d look suspicious if I just grabbed it and run. But there were some loose change in the church, in some sort of offerin’ box, so I used that. ‘’Ope that were all right?’

Ronnie’s mental assessment of Darren had undergone a complete one-eighty. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘it couldn’t be more alright if I’d done it meself.’

He took the sack, and began to reload the bullion. ‘I’ll hide this away, Dazza, then we can get rid when the heat’s off a bit.

‘And meanwhile -’ he hoisted the sack over his shoulder ‘- I’m gonna write to that flippin’ school of yours about that safe-crackin’ O-level.

‘Failure, indeed.’ He gave the sack a chink-inducing shake. ‘Reckon you should’ve got double-A plus, Son.’

End of Chapter 2

Murder At St Marmaduke’s

The story so far: Joseph Makumbo attends a prayer meeting at St Marmaduke’s church, during the course of which one of the elderly ladies also present murders another. The vicar, Father Frank Rawlings, discovers that a robbery has also been committed, and reports this to the police. Meanwhile…

Chapter 2

Monday 4th November 1985: 09.15 – 10.00

Section (c)

Joseph accepted a second cup of tea from Clarissa Rawlings. She bent over to pour, and he studied the wall opposite with desperate concentration.

He’d had no idea clothing could be so loose. Or underwear so…

Nonexistent.

He hadn’t seen such a sight since…

Well, never.

Throughout his young life, his mother had kept him well removed from the distaff side of Adam-and-Evedom, even to the extent of packing him off to a school where the genders were separated by confining them to different halves of the campus. The halves were divided by two enormous chain-link fences, several yards apart. It would only have taken a few rolls of barbed wire in the no-man’s land in the middle to turn the school into a World War Two film set. Any boy who dared to even begin scaling the fence on their side would inevitably hear their name bellowed across the playground, after which they would disappear into the sanctum of the headmaster’s office; followed soon after by a tear-stained, buttock-rubbing reappearance.

It soon became the norm that you didn’t even stand at the fence and look across to the other side, lest the teachers misinterpret your intentions. Thus Joseph didn’t see a girl close up until well after his sixteenth birthday.

‘There you are, Joseph.’

Her voice was like liquid honey poured slowly over a hot buttered muffin. He tried to remember how to say ‘Thank you’, and failed.

She reseated herself next to him; uncomfortably too next to him. He could feel heat coming from several parts of her body, and tried not to think about those parts, or any other parts. And failed.

He’d been astonished when she’d opened the door to his frantic ringing, all thoughts of Hettie Number One and Mabel Number Cartwright temporarily driven from his mind. He’d been seeing her around the church on Sunday mornings, but had no idea who she was. As she was the only other person in the congregation with an age in relatively small double figures, he’d been trying to get up the courage to speak to her. His heart had sunk even lower than before when, standing on the vicarage doorstep, he’d realised she was Father Rawlings’ wife.

After an interval of what had seemed an hour or two, during which time she’d gazed at him with one eyebrow quirked and a half-smile playing about her lips, he’d managed to gasp out, ‘Church, madam. Murder.’

Her eyes had widened. ‘You’d better come in. Joseph, isn’t it?’

Now she leaned towards him. Even more towards him. ‘You’ve had a nasty shock, Joseph. Do try to – relax.’

Even to his ears, which had never been exposed to as much as a Two Ronnies’ sketch prior to living by himself, the pause in front of ‘relax’ seemed laden with innuendo.

One side of him was pressed hard against the end of the sofa. He jumped as he felt a melony softness push against his arm on the other side. Try as he might, he couldn’t make himself any thinner. ‘Relax’ didn’t seem to have any space to wedge itself into.

Now he felt warm breath tickle his ear. ‘Perhaps you should lie down, Joseph,’ she whispered. ‘Would you like to do that?’

Breathing was a distant memory. All he could see was the colour orange, and he realised with another start that his eyes were closed. The softness was pressing more insistently, and he knew that in a moment he was going to whimper. Something was happening lower down that his mother would have beaten him to within an inch for if she’d seen it…

And then the telephone rang.

Section (d)

Clarissa smiled at Joseph and rose to answer the phone. Knowing his gaze would be glued to her backside, she added an extra wiggle to her walk as she crossed to the sideboard where the instrument lay.

You really aren’t a nice person, Rissa.

She stopped short. That damned voice again.

It was herself, of course. Her damned conscience, forever beating her up about this or that.

Shut up, she snapped back. I’m not doing any harm.

Oh really? Her conscience voice had its usual mix of wry amusement and contempt. And what harm do you think it would do Frank, knowing how you were behaving right now?

Oh –

She cut off the intended swear-word. Leave me alone, she finished lamely.

It was true; Frank would be devastated if he knew she was toying with Joseph like she was. And yet, she couldn’t help it.

Oh really? her conscience said again.

Look, she thought furiously, you know about Frank’s problem. I’ve got to have some fun – in that way. I’m twenty-seven, for God’s sake. And if I’d wanted to be a nun, I’d have joined St Benedict’s on the other side of town.

So just because your husband is fifty-five and impotent, and you want to have your thrills, it’s okay to seduce a young, attractive member of his congregation?

Seduce? I’m not seducing! I’m – I’m –

But there her argument fell flat. ‘Mildly flirting’ was the phrase she wanted. But she couldn’t voice it. She knew she was doing more than that.

Beginning to realise?

Oh, shut up!

It wasn’t as if she would actually take Joseph upstairs and do the deed. She had enough self-control not to do that. Later, when he’d gone, she’d take herself off there and satisfy the feelings that were being stirred by her teasing. But she’d never –

Are you really sure you have that much self-control?

She gulped. Was she?

‘Are you all right, Mrs Rawlings?’

His voice broke her internal wrangle, and she realised with a start that the telephone was still jangling in front of her. She reached out her hand to pick up the receiver.

‘I’m fine, Joseph,’ she said, trying to put conviction into her voice. ‘Just fine.’