Cat FlapAndrew Osmond / Mystery & Detective
By Andrew Osmond
Copyright 2011 Andrew Osmond
ISBN 978 1 907507 12 0
Back and forth. And back and forth. Ten paces to the left, two, three, four... Ten paces to the right, two, three, four... To the left. To the right. To the left. To the right. The big cat was shaking its head as it walked, almost as if it was trying to disentangle itself from some imaginary yoke that surrounded its shoulders; the shaggy mane flapping from side to side, a hirsute aurora around the face of a fading sun.
It would have been forty years ago – forty-one to be precise - that day at the zoo. He could still recall it vividly. It had been a cold afternoon, much as it was today: bright though and clear, the kind of pale blue, washed-out water-colour sky that you only get in early spring, when the sun does not possess the warmth to sufficiently infuse the earth with optimism, and when a solitary grey cloud can bring an instant cooling sufficient to chill the bone. It had been a day trip - they had gone on precious few at that time - and he had been looking forward to it for weeks. He had counted down the days in the secret diary that he kept in the back of one of his exercise books, crossing off each block of days, tallying, one, two, three, four: a row of little five-bar gates lining up across the paper. The expectation was always more exciting than the event. It was just the same at Christmas. It was a day trip organized by his dad. And his dad always kept his promises.
There have been times, since, when he has hated that lion. Hated his very existence; felt revolted by the mass of rheum accumulated in the corners of his baleful eyes, by the white snorts of air that rose from his wet nostrils; despised him for his captivity, his inability to be free. Of course, what he was really despising was himself. When he would sit down and think about things rationally, it was to realize that man and beast had actually come to share so much during those intervening years. Ironic, really.
They erected fences later, so he was told, tall metal bars that could not be scaled, but at the time they obviously thought the steep walls of the pit were sufficient confinement, which of course they were. There was never any question of the lion getting free.
Chapter One: Friday
“When in New Brunswick I saw the great wild grey cat and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley Abbey.” (William Cobbett: Rural Rides, 1830).
The Landrover had large wheels with wide tread and had mud splattered up the sides of its white paintwork, almost obscuring the constabulary logo. It looked the part for the job. Mick Jones didn’t think that any other kind of vehicle would have even managed to negotiate the mire that was his front driveway. He stood at the door of his small farmhouse, ready to meet his visitor; or perhaps wary that the new arrival should not venture too far over his threshold? He did not recognize the officer that eventually stepped out of the parked vehicle; first one leg emerging gingerly, tentatively exploring the solidity of the boggy ground, suspicious that the quagmire might suck him in up to his waist, anxious to get the minimum of mud on his brightly polished, black shoes. Mick had had plenty of experience of the local police in the past, but this was definitely a new blood.
“Michael Jones?” As an opening it was a predictable one.
“And you are?”
“D.S. James Leigh, Hertfordshire…”
“I can see.” Mick pushed the door behind him so that it swung open inwards. “You had better come in.” He smiled mischievously, before adding, “Make sure you wipe your feet.”
“And nothing else was taken?”
The tall detective was standing in a surprisingly tidy kitchen, tastefully maintained in the rustic style, perfectly in keeping with the rest of the smallholding. Mick was seated at a wooden bench, head in his hands, elbows resting on a long, pine table. He had the superficial air of someone bored by his official visitor, but his eyes belied his underlying agitation, the pale blue irises never still, constantly flicking from side to side, like windscreen wipers on a rainy day.
“Like I told you, that was the lot. A loaf of bread, some packets from the fridge, one kitchen knife as far as I can tell. One of the chicken’s missing from outside too, but that's not so unusual. It’s the damage's what I’m more concerned about.” Mick indicated towards the back door, where a small pane of glass had been smashed through, apparently to allow someone to reach the door key from outside. “I’ll have to get the locks changed now too. It all costs, you know.”
Detective Leigh had already heard the ‘times are hard, there’s not much money in a smallholding’ anthem several times already that morning. At the moment he did not want to be diverted from his particular line of enquiry. “Only one knife?”
“Yes, I’ve told you before. What's the big deal over the knife?”
“Can you describe it to me?”
Mick was momentarily flummoxed, “I guess so. It was much like those.” He pointed to a neat wooden block sitting on the shelf of an austere sideboard, which contained four knives of varying size but similar style and which, significantly, had holes to accommodate five such blades. “I would never have noticed anything was missing, except they are obviously a set.”
“And it is the smallest one that was taken?” Leigh removed a large, vicious-looking implement from the rear of the block and ran his finger down the blade, pulling it away sharply as he drew blood. “Sharp.”
“That’s what they’re meant to be,” said Mick.
D.S. Leigh sucked his finger, thoughtfully. He was silent for some moments before deciding. “I think we are going to have to get a S.O.C. team up here. Dust for fingerprints. You don’t mind?” There was a slight inflexion in the expression, but there could be no doubt that it was delivered more as a statement than a question.
Mick was on his feet instantly, “Yes, I bloody well do mind. What is this? I wouldn’t have reported anything if I’d have known you were going to make such a song and dance.”
“You don't need me to remind you that it’s your public duty to report a crime, do you, sir?” Sarcastic. Leigh might be a newcomer, but it was obvious that he had been thoroughly briefed, back at the station, about Michael Jones’s less than auspicious past.
Mick was not prepared to be bullied. “There's more to this. What are you not telling me? It's only a little knife and a bit of grub, nothing worth bothering with. I only told your lot because I needed to for the insurance. Thought I might make a claim. Get a few quid to mend that door panel. Amount of money I’ve paid them bastards over the years, I might as well get some of it back. There’s not much money in…”
Leigh cut him short, “Okay, Mr. Jones. I might as well tell you. You’ll probably be hearing it on the News soon enough.”
“Not here, I doubt it. I don’t have T.V. here, you know.” Too fast, too defensive. James Leigh made a mental note to have the license people pay a visit to the Jones farmhouse.
“Mr. Jones.” The detective waited for silence before continuing, “You may read in the newspapers that a potentially dangerous criminal has been seen in this area. He escaped from a high security remand centre on Wednesday night and we are led to believe that he is now in this region.”
“And you think he is here?”
“Was here. We have no reason to suspect you of harbouring him. Or should we?” The question was said as a joke, but Mick was quick to disassociate himself.
“No, no, not at all. But why…?”
“He'll be looking for food, he'll be looking for shelter. Have you checked your outbuildings?”
“Yes. No. Well, I mean, I wasn’t checking for an escaped con. Just to see if anything else had been stolen.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Jones. More than likely, it will prove not to be him, but the Scene Of Crime boys will be able to tell us for sure. So, no objections?”
“It doesn’t sound like I have a choice.”
“What has he done then?”
“The escaped con.”
Leigh was silent again. What had he done? He thought back to the old case file that he had so recently read. It was not easy to explain. In the end he decided to simplify the facts. “Murder.”
Luke was fast asleep in his buggy and his father was daydreaming about Tasmania. Arthur ‘Art’ Madison pushed the stylish three-wheel conveyance at a steady four miles per hour down the gentle incline, oblivious to the gusting wind blowing through the high branches along the denuded avenue of trees. There was a very fine, cold drizzle, which stung the exposed skin of Art’s cheeks and hands, and succeeded in misting up the see-through plastic canopy that protected his infant son from the worst of the winter’s weather. It had been a difficult morning and Art was glad of the opportunity to submerge in an imaginary world. He knew that his son might wake again at any moment; it was a short fuse before the reality bomb exploded.
He was on his hands and knees, crawling through the thick ground cover of ferns, across a brown carpet of dry, fallen pine needles, the slender spines a constant irritant as they pricked the skin of his palms and snickered their way into his clothes and boots. It had not rained for several days, which was unusual, and the sky, when he could glimpse it through the dense canopy of pine trees, was a brilliant blue. It did not make stalking any easier. He had set a course by the big gum tree that he had viewed from the ridge, but now that he was in the midst of the forest he was no longer certain that he was still heading for the distinctive eucalypt. It didn’t matter, he was no more or less likely to encounter his quarry there than anywhere else. And what would he do when - if - he came face-to-face with his elusive game? What then? That was the big question. He had imagined a dozen different scenarios, painting himself as hero or as villain in turn but, of course, it wasn’t really about him. He was merely the conduit; the creature, now he was the star turn. Beneath the needles the ground was soft and mulchy and his hands were becoming increasingly grimy from the rich soil; the lines across his palms looking like delicate tattoos where the dirt found refuge in every crease, or like a charcoal rubbing from a brass relief; his fingernails were clogged and black. He hadn’t imagined his progress would be so slow, or that the forest would be so unwelcoming. His lack of progress was a cause for depression, but the very impenetrability of the environment was also a reason for optimism. It could be here. Lack of faith, rather than an adverse landscape, was his greatest enemy. It would be here. There was a slight rise ahead, he would rest awhile there, give himself a chance to stretch his legs and clean off his hands and clothes. Perhaps he would be able to get his bearings again. It was a sound to the left that stopped him in his tracks. There were plenty of animals in the forest of course - wallabies, possums and bandicoots, devils, pademelons and spiny echidnas, he had seen them all at various times - birds too, but this felt different. Primeval. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise; realized that he had stalled his breathing in anticipation. He would have to stand up in order to see, but now that he was so close, did he really want to? He was almost scared to be proved right. Success might carry a greater price than failure. He pulled his legs forward so that he was in a squatting position, then rose up on his knees, before slowly, silently, drawing himself up to his full height. All was quiet. Tree trunk after tree trunk, receding into darkness. Except, suddenly, there, a branch cracked, and a blurry movement, just a glimpse, way off, but it was enough, the long snout and short, stumpy forelegs, the unmistakable transverse stripes across the rump...
Reality check. Cassiobury Park. Friday afternoon. February. Raining. Luke crying.
He had become a single parent by accident. Okay, so he wasn’t technically a single parent, but pretty much as good as. Art remembered the conversations that he had had with Amanda before Luke had been born; before Luke had even been conceived.
He had never quite imagined having children. If he was being honest, he quite liked the idea of being the last of the Madisons: a full stop in a long line of generations. Somehow it gave you a certain power: a control over your own destiny in a world, which is otherwise ruled by little biological building blocks. If we are to believe that there is no God in the traditional sense, and Art guessed that he pretty well did, and instead the sole function of the human race is to continue effectively replicating itself, or at least acting as efficient hosts to allow a series of little genes to replicate themselves, somehow, by saying no to this whole process it seems a bit like giving yourself a higher status. You are defying nature - A Rebours - you are saying that you are the ultimate goal that all these years of selfless reproduction have built towards. It all ends here. Art quite liked that idea. Selfish, yes. But it was a state he had always felt quite content with; a state Amanda had ultimately accused him of being guilty of. Was it a philosophy that answered any of the questions about why we are here, or the meaning of life? Perhaps not, but he had largely never been troubled by them. Not to get him wrong, he had occasionally considered what it would be like to have children, but he had only ever considered them in respect of them being spectators - and enraptured spectators at that - all the more to cheer on their father’s greater glory. It was a bad attitude to have, and he knew it, and so for twenty-eight years was sensible enough not to bring anyone into the world simply to make up numbers in the audience. But times change, and the clear cut thoughts you have when you are young become shot through with doubts, mainly of the ‘what if?’ variety, as you get older, and you begin to think of the consequences of ‘what if you were wrong?’, and you begin to think about potential regrets, and wanting to keep them to be too few to mention.
They had talked about it on and off for over a year. Some people seemed so certain on the issue; it was as though parenthood was their only reason for being. With Art and Amanda it hadn’t been like that: theirs had been a dilemma of ambivalence. If only they could leave things to chance, and have the decision made for them. Except they couldn’t just leave things to chance: there was one big decision to be made. And so it was decided that Art would stop his regular purchases at Boots. After that they could leave things to chance.
Three months, six months, a year, possibly a couple of years: they would try and then, honour satisfied, give up, saying, “It was not meant to happen” and get on with the rest of their lives. That had been the plan. One month! One shot Madison. It all happened so quickly that Art never had a chance to decide if he felt shocked or pleased; scared or excited. Pretty damn virile, though, he was in no doubt about that.
In hindsight, her decision to go to New York was not as unexpected as it had seemed at the time. They had had discussions about it beforehand, he just hadn’t been listening; hadn’t wanted to believe that anything would change, to acknowledge that things had been far from rosy with their relationship for several years now. The arrival of the baby was like a final toss of the coin: tails, all would be well, heads, it would only make matters worse. It was no contest. Luke was a two-headed coin. Babies can not be expected to be a magical relationship glue. Her decision to leave her son behind was not so expected, although her justification was perfectly logical.
“I have always been the main bread-winner. Now that my maternity leave is finished, the magazine has offered me an opportunity to join their sister organization. As managing editor. Don’t look so surprised. I told you it was a possibility three weeks ago, when I popped in to see Maggie.”
“Art! For God’s sake! Do you never listen? My boss.”
“Of course, of course.”
“It would mean working in New York. Living in New York. You understand?”
“It’s too good an opportunity to turn down. You know how I’ve worked for this; dreamed of this. You only get offered something like this once in a lifetime; turn it down now and I won’t be considered again. I’ll be too old.”
“I’ll be back once a month. It’s part of the deal. I insisted upon that. I will still see you and Luke.”
“The salary is huge. I’ll send money back for you. You won’t have to change anything. You can still keep your part-time job at the University, and carry on with that other nonsense you do in your spare time. You know it makes sense.”
“You can look after him, can’t you? And I’m sure your sister will have him when you are at work.”
“How can you, what? Oh, Art, what? What? You always turn everything to be about you.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
“No. What then?”
“How can you?”
Luke watched as the familiar face that he had become to associate with the sound ‘dada’ peered anxiously at him through the clear plastic bubble. He gave a big toothy grin of recognition to his father and then the pinnacle of the Madison gene pool shat silently and contentedly into his nappy.