Saturday, 8 February 2014

Aloysius Lark hits the street (or "The Case of the Missing Madrigal")

“Up the stairs, first on the left” said the helpful stranger with the face of a Persian prince and the voice of a Cockney barrel boy. The carefully constructed blonde in Prada heels smiled thanks and sashayed up the narrow staircase, fully aware of the impact on those watching.

In the gloom behind unwashed windows obscured by towers of box files, an equally unwashed man took a furtive swig from the coke bottle in the nearest one and summoned his best Sussex Downs accent to bid the shadow at the door enter. 

In walked a vision of statuesque but studied femininity. Arched brows, a slash of red lipstick, eyes that kept you guessing - and the merest hint of an Adam’s apple.

(‘When’s a dame not a dame?’ the PI thought in his best Raymond Chandler inner narrative.)

“Aloysius Lark at your service, dear lady. You can call me Al. How may I help you?”

“I’ve come up from Brighton,” came the husky reply.

(‘Figures.’)

“My name’s Bambi Fancipants and I manage The Wayward Strumpets drag and burlesque troupe. Maybe you know them?”

The PI grunted and shifted uncomfortably is his swivel seat.

The cool blonde’s composure suddenly melted as she gushed: “Help me, Mr Lark. You’re my only hope! Madrigal’s being held to ransom.”

Madrigal was her ancient one-eyed tomcat. Sounded like a thoroughly vile creature to Lark, but Fancipants seemed distraught at the thought of anything hurting a hair on his scabby tabby head. Days after Madrigal stopped turning up at her seafront villa for his morning kedgeree, she’d received a ransom note from Hamish McFarb, her silent partner in the Wayward Strumpets business and owner of Bundlewood Fun Fur Factory. His demand? Complete control of the Strumpets’ assets – or the cat would become mittens.

“I’m a wealthy woman and there’s nothing I won’t do to have Madrigal safely back where he belongs – except surrender the Strumpets to that beast McFarb! He’s gone to ground and I need someone local to ferret the weasel out."

She paused, before continuing coyly: "And let’s face it, no-one’s going to believe I’m a simple check-out girl at the Tesco superstore, are they?”

After giving Lark her details, a description of the mangy Madrigal and the last known whereabouts of McFarb, Fancipants turned on her exquisite heels and left, leaving the PI intrigued, but faintly miffed.

Final demands spilling onto the floor witnessed the fact that he needed the cash. But this was no run-of-the-mill ‘Toy Boy does a runner’ or ‘Mrs Goggins loses her dentures’ case. It would take real leg work – and that meant he’d have to leave his second-storey office, venture downstairs and hit the mean streets of Sussex.

First, though, there was no harm in a little Googling to gird his loins for the task ahead. Nothing could have prepared him for what the results revealed…

          The Sussex Sentinel – 27 July 2009:

Freak ice boulder kills movie star and spinster

Hollywood and a Sussex village are reeling after a freak accident claimed the lives of one of Tinsel Town’s hottest properties and the local librarian.

Rick Rivers and Bambi Fancipants died instantly when a 500lb block of ice and frozen waste plummeted onto the stage at the Holthorne-by-Sea fete, where Rivers was presenting prizes in the cooking competition. Investigators believe it had formed as a result of a faulty valve on the toilet of a plane that took off from Gatwick Airport 20 minutes earlier. The frozen sphere is thought to have fallen off just before the aircraft crossed the English coast.

Rivers is best remembered for his impromptu performance of “The Lumberjack Song” when accepting the Oscar for his supporting role in “Mounting Miss Maisy” this year. Born Dickie Pond in Holthorne-on-Sea, he had returned to the village to conduct research for a documentary about his rise to fame – and to open the annual fete.

His agent Barbra Heinschleck said: “Since Rick arrived in LA, he had turned our world upside-down with his cute English accent and penchant for playing bad guys. The tragedy is that he was poised for greatness – both professionally and personally. Not only had he been on the verge of signing for a major new movie deal, we were about to announce our engagement.”

From Holthorne-by-Sea the Rev. Obidiah Digby, vicar of parish church St. Mary’s-On-The-Side, said the community was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

“Naturally, we’re deeply saddened by the death of little Dickie Pond – I mean, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “But the greatest blow is the loss of Miss Fancipants - she represented everything great about rural English life. The very soul of discretion, she was always eager to serve in any way she could.”

Neither Rivers nor Fancipants left any family. However, a Last Will and Testament found in the spinster’s cottage bequeaths her collection of Anne Summers memorabilia to the Brighton Home for Wayward Strumpets and expressed the desire that her cottage be converted into a new 20th Century Erotica wing of the county library.

Well! The dame in his office a while ago sure hadn’t seemed dead, but it seems she’d wanted it to look that way five years ago.

Al couldn’t help thinking that a simple name change might have made the ruse rather more effective.

He sighed heavily, laced up his boots and lumbered down the dingy staircase to street level. That’s where he had to be to track down the fiendish McFarb – he was sure his contacts wouldn’t let him down.

He was wrong. 

Neither the knots of teenage gangstas defacing the town’s walls, the friendly landlords, the not-so-friendly betting shop managers, or the philosopher tramp who held court in the bandstand knew a thing. Or if they did, they weren’t talking. 

He even approached the sweet-faced lady in a pink hijab greeting indifferent Waitrose shoppers with a hopeful smile and “Wiggy Shoe?” as she tried to sell them copies of ‘The Big Issue’. Nothing.

Then, inspiration stuck. He shuffled into the saloon bar of ‘The Poisoned Pen’ where he found old Harry, business correspondent of the local rag, propping up the bar like one of the historic pub’s ancient beams.

“McFarb, old chap?” chirruped the hack after Lark told him who he was trying to find. “Piece of cake! I was at a junket at his place just last week. Launched a new line of pet warmers - dreadful idea. Probably make him a fortune. Quite an arse really, but the man knows his single malt.”

In vino veritas, indeed...

...Two hours later, buoyed with renewed hope and a skinful of Dewars, Lark hailed a taxi and headed for Clayfield Flats, the not-so-secret hide-out of the plush goods magnate.

An eerie silence descended over the damp landscape as the cab sped away and the PI started tramping up the muddy private lane towards the sprawling mock-Tudor monstrosity. Rooks cawed a creaky welcome and something rustled in the hedgerow.

The house seemed deserted. No hum of TV or radio betrayed a presence within, nor did any lights brighten the inner gloom. But a sound from the rear alerted Lark’s attention. An insistent, mechanical tak, tak, tak, tak accompanied by a scent of scorched metal that grew stronger as he skirted the sodden lawn and headed for the back door. Unlocked, it opened easily to reveal an artfully reconstructed ‘olde worlde’ kitchen packed with 21st century stainless steel and halogen hobs. An old-fashioned kettle was rocking on the hotplate as the heat warped its faux copper base.

A flight of worn steps led down to the basement scullery, from where what sounded like a miniature pneumatic drill could be heard. Lark descended the stairs and peered into the darkness at the bottom. The steady, defiant gaze of a single gold-green eye staring out of the face of the biggest cat he’d ever seen floated out to greet him.

Of course. The famous Madrigal.

“Well, that was easier than I expected,” said Lark out loud as he bent down to scoop up the feline.

He jumped back abruptly as a sharp-clawed paw swiped at him, threatening to sever something vital. Only then did he spot what the animal was sitting on. The lifeless chest of a moon-faced man with a 1970s porn star moustache and a tartan tie. There was a sticky pool of half-dried fluid on the far side of his face that was turned away from the dim light.

Madrigal was idly playing pat-a-cake with a round glutinous object. A small trail of slime and blood showed the progress of the cat’s plaything from its original owner’s eye socket.

Aloysius Lark screamed.
       

Once the shock of realisation passed, he took out his last century cellphone and dialled his client’s number. “Miss Fancipants, I don’t think McFarb is going to be troubling you anymore.”

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