Fiction

Hold the back page

By: Vanessa Cutts

It was a quiet Sunday in early May and Mrs Braeburn had just observed a small black darter dragonfly momentarily hovering around the cuckoo spit on the branches and leaves of a large Rosemary bush at the end of the herb garden. Inside the foam bubbles of the cuckoo spit the tiny plant sucking froghopper nymph surveyed her horticultural employment as she picked the first full size ruby lettuce, the same image repeated in each tiny bubble. Zoom hadn’t been invented in the 1980’s, unless you count the view from compound eye. She could hear what she thought was a woodpecker in one of the trees. She knew she wouldn’t be able to impersonate it but likened it to a school ruler with one end wedged in a closed drawer and the other bent to its flexible limit and released to reverberate and peter out. She could probably replicate it if ever necessary.

When she had all the leaves required for making whatever plans were forming in her head for lunch she returned to the house and put the basket on the kitchen table.

Her husband Inspector Dale Braeburn was about halfway through reading the paper whilst reclining on an old chaise longue in the sunlight that bleached the view out of the windows. The upholstery needed recovering and the sunlight made the once piled fabric appear flocked and several shades lighter than in reality.

‘Sensationalism!’ he muttered to himself.

‘Your feet are on the sofa!’ said his wife.

‘’What?’

‘Your feet. On the sofa!’ repeated his wife.

‘It’s not a sofa. Sofas are those dreadful things people sit on to watch TV. This is a seat meant for one person not some public bench for common use.’

‘You’re being a snob. Why?’ she asked.

‘Turkish carpets are ‘soffahs’ and Egyptian benches are ‘suffahs,’ chaise longues are not day beds and Ottomans are not French lit. ‘

‘Nobody told you to take a seat, did they,’ she interrupted. ‘Why are you being so pedantic?’

‘My feet are killing me, so I decided to put them up.’

‘Why the stuff and horsehair about the chaise longue?’

‘What do you mean?’ said Inspector Braeburn with an arrogant air.  ‘If I wanted to share it there’s not enough canape to go around.’

‘Stop behaving like a spoilt child and tell me what the problem is.’

‘It’s the crossword puzzle. I do the damn thing every day and well I know the way he thinks. But today the clues are written by someone else. I suppose he is on holiday or something. I can’t get the last two clues and it is bugging me.’

‘What are they?  Try me!’

‘Another name for a peer.4 letters’

 ‘Jetty………………….’

‘That’s what I thought but its 5 letters.’

‘What about the other sort of pier a Lord or something.’

‘Brilliant.’

‘And the other one?’

‘What charges when you pay attention to the meter gauge?’

‘I might have to get back to you on that.’

‘What are the other answers? Are there any helpful letters?’

‘Well there’s the E from the word ‘murder’ and a T from the answer ‘guilty’.’

‘Let me see. Is it Battery?’ suggested Mrs Braeburn.

‘Lord and Battery! Lord Battery. Good heavens! Isn’t he the newspaper magnet?’

‘Who?’

‘Lord Battery,’ repeated Mrs Braeburn.

Hang about there’s a story on the second page about him, look ‘MAN POISONED BY LEAD IN FISH AND CHIP PAPER INK’. Government pressurised by EU to ban the use of newspapers for fish and chips owing to content of lead in the ink. Apparently, he ate the stuff every day. Must have built up in his blood stream. ‘

‘When did he die?’ asked Mrs Braeburn.

‘Says it was yesterday. But if it was yesterday how come his name was in the crossword clues?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know yet, but I’d like to find out. The words are usually an organic progression of the news and find their way from the front page to the clues on the back after about a week. His death is reported the same day as what looks like something fishy in the puzzle,’ explained Inspector Braeburn.

‘So why are the clues on the back? When do you think the crossword was written and why is the normal bloke away?’ Mrs Braeburn was now getting quite involved and felt the questions would lead to some logical answer.

‘Maybe there’s more to it. Let me see the puzzle. ‘

‘Maybe he is sending a message or telling us who’s responsible,’ said Inspector Braeburn.

‘Do you think it’s someone at the newspaper or the fish shop?’ asked Mrs Braeburn fuelled by her new interest.

‘Where does the newspaper come from?’ said Inspector Braeburn in response.

‘The local newsagents usually donate their unsold papers instead of them being taken away to be pulped I believe,’ volunteered Mrs Braeburn.

‘Nobody else was poisoned?’ asked the inspector.

‘No not to my knowledge.’

‘Who would have a motive do you think? The newsagent? The Chip Shop? The newspaper?’

‘We need to know who knew his routine? Who knew he would be eating the fish and chips from that paper?’ Mrs Braeburn was trying to be logical.

‘More to the point. How did the crossword puzzle compiler know in advance enough to put the clues and the death in the puzzle,’ said Inspector Braeburn. ‘It has to be him but why?’

‘Doesn’t Battery own shares? Is it that paper or a different one?’

‘I’m going to ring the station to make them aware of this and request the authorisation to question the crossword man.’

Mrs Braeburn returned to the kitchen and started to prepare some food. She picked up a peach from the fruit bowl, one that was ripening in the magnified rays through the glass of the window, warming it and amplifying its taste to match a Mediterranean market stall rather than high street supermarket chiller and sliced the knife through the fragrant, red skin and flesh to the stone, turning it one full rotation. Then placed the knife on the chopping block and took the peach confidently in both hands and twisted it in opposite directions, in a manor not dissimilar to ringing the neck of a chicken, maintaining exactly the right firmness of pressure  not to damage its flesh or rip its skin.

‘First we have to find out who the crossword compiler is,’ said Inspector Braeburn, talking into the telephone in a raised voice from the garden room. ‘And who his replacement is.’

‘Do you suspect either of them?’ came the reply from his colleague on the other end.

‘Both. I suppose. But the replacement will lead us to the crime. Presumably he wrote the Battery clues,’ answered Braeburn.

‘If there is one! You can’t be sure it’s a different man.’

‘Or woman. Yes I can. I’ve been doing that crossword for 20 years and I feel like I know whoever it is that compiles it and there are definitely two different minds at work.’

‘If Lord Battery is dead as reported,’ continued the policeman on duty at the station, ‘he died yesterday and the crossword had to have been compiled at least the day before the news happened to meet the newspaper deadline.’

‘Deadline! You make it sound like someone’s cutting the phone lines,’ said the Inspector.

‘Once we’ve spoken to the crossword man or woman we can try to establish a motive or link to Lord Battery,’ he continued. ‘What other business interests does he have? Where to look? Companies House, can you get on to it and we’ll check him out.’

Inspector Braeburn instructed the staff at the station to get the contact information required from the newspaper and call him back with the details.

He reread the information he had noted down during the telephone conversation.  Lord Battery’s cause of death. The lab report and results detailed: 35% lead dust gets into the lungs causing enough lead poisoning with 95% of that will entering the bloodstream resulting in acute headaches, chronic muscle pain anaemia. 25-60 Ug/dL [ micrograms per unit of blood] give rise to neuropsychiatric effects and fatal contamination resulting in seizure. Consistent with ingesting excessive amounts from contact with newsprint ink.

Inspector Braeburn wasn’t satisfied and he wouldn’t be until he solved the crossword puzzle.

‘What if its personal revenge?’ his wife said as he entered the kitchen.

‘Like what?’

‘A love crime of passion. An affair or a love child.’

‘You do have an active imagination, should I worry if its overactive?’ asked Inspector Braeburn.

‘Men are so practical and there are only so many motivations in life – hate, jealousy, revenge ….’his wife said defensively.

‘Maybe Lord Battery poisoned the crossword man in some way. Blackened his cryptic, folio fingers with lead and ink in yesterday’s news.’

‘Yesterday’s fish and chips is supposed to be tomorrow’s news.’

‘Battered cod, plaice and chips. Salt and vinegar and ketchup.’

‘Shall we get some. Get to know this Lord Battery and his batter a bit better?’

‘Good idea!’

The following day Inspector Braeburn made an appointment to meet with members of the newspaper and a Kevin Sargent crossword clue compiler. They were all distressed by the unfortunate death of the owner of the paper and had their own opinions on share prices and motives but the most interesting fact he found out was that Kevin Sargent met with his old school buddy Lord Battery every day for fish and chips at lunch time. Inspector Braeburn located the chip shop and source of newspaper but no realistic or logical motive would fit the crime or cause of death.

The Fish and Chip shop was much like any other. Similar to the one he had visited the previous day. The concentrated smell of chip condiments, sodium chloride and Sarson’s, made him hungry again. The interior had a chrome counter with a glass cover to protect customers from the hot fat; and there was the predictable DIY adjustable plastic peg letter menu on the wall with a list of fish and portion prices. The staff remarked that Lord Battery and his friend were regulars and well known but there was nothing they were aware of that was of any note. On the subject of the newspaper wrapping, it was the same supply they always had and did not appear tampered with, it was always tied in bundles and the exact sheets used for any customer would be totally random.

He had to speak with Kevin. He looked at the existing suspects.

The crossword compiler Kevin – school friend and confidant. Was there a story behind their friendship? Was he secretly waiting for the opportunity to right some dark festering wrong that Lord Battery was unaware of? Why was he away?

The replacement crossword compiler – did he or she write the clues that coincided with his death on the same day, in effect acting like a belated prophet.

The wife – would she have added to the slow poisoning in some way, knowing that he had such a weakness for the salt and vinegar condiments. Was she jealous of a relationship? Did she suspect an affair or was she having one and looking for a lucrative way out of her marriage?

Newspaper staff – what motivation would they have? Was there a chance they would be losing their jobs? Had anyone been sacked and have reason for revenge?

No! He wasn’t there quite yet.

When Inspector Braeburn got home there was a message to call the station. It turned out somebody had confessed. Not to the murder but to tampering with the crossword. It transpired that a Miss Greasy, junior copywriter had been working late on Wednesday, the day before the murder and overheard her boss Lord Battery saying that he had murdered someone. ‘Yes, he’s dead. I killed him,’ were the exact words.  She told on him in the puzzle because she was so scared and had to tell someone; didn’t know what else to do. The Inspector had been reading the puzzle clues wrong, Battery wasn’t the victim, but the murderer and his death was a coincidence. He was in actual fact referring to a missing pet when telling his wife on the phone that he had killed it. Although it had been an accident, the handbrake was apparently to blame, and he was angry with himself when confessed the tragic action. ‘Yes, he’s dead. I killed him.’ 

Inspector Braeburn licked the salt from his fingers, folded the paper and threw the binary weave of words, widows and lines to read between into the trash.

Categories: Fiction

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