Nipped in the Bud

Winter had taken a last wistful look at the streets of Baltimore as the old lady forced her trembling hand to clutch the rail of the bus as it lurched to a halt at the corner of her street.  The driver watched her feel her way down the stairs, her white cane determinedly searching for obstacles.

“You OK, lady?” he asked.

She lifted a pale face towards the sound and mumbled her thanks.  She tottered rather than walked, stumbling on several occasions.  The driver snorted half-aloud, “Drunk.  Poor old girl.  You go and sleep it off now,” he muttered, concealing a momentary grin in the collar of his coat before edging the vehicle into the traffic.

The old lady coughed as the diesel fumes tickled her throat.  She weaved her torturous path through the scattered pedestrians who moved with selfless good humour out of her way.  A neighbour called out as the old lady fumbled with the keys to her apartment.

“Hi, Sami!  Good to see you back.  How was the trip?” but the old lady ignored the greeting.  She entered her living room and stumbled as she sought the comfort of a sofa.  She rested on it for a moment but then slid to the floor.  Soon, her breathing slowed and stopped…

Under a cloudless sky, a middle-aged man in a mid-brown suit stepped from his aircraft at Sydney Airport.  He whistled for a cab and directed the driver to take him to an address in the suburb of Liverpool.  As the driver forged through the traffic, the passenger scribbled in a spiral-bound notebook which perched precariously on his lap.  The cab driver sneaked a look, but when he realized his client was writing poetry, he immediately lost interest.

The passenger alighted at his destination and was soon entering a musty apartment.  He threw open the curtains to let the sunlight and a breeze clear away the evidence of disuse.  He began to unpack his suitcase.  It had been a long flight and he was weary.

It’s Australia for me, he thought, this overseas living, they can have it.  A nice break after losing my job but it’s great to be home.  He yawned.  God, I’m tired though.  Bloody jetlag, he thought. The unpacking continued until he paused.  Stuffed with clinical precision between his underclothes and his handkerchiefs lay a tiny flask.  Surprised, he lifted and shook it.  A grin warmed his weary face.  You old bastard, he thought.  Good job Customs didn’t find this little number.  You managed to get a little something to me after all.  He shook the flask and listened to the gurgling of the liquid inside.  OK, I’ll knock that over shortly.

The man completed his unpacking and, having tidied the room, he wandered, yawning, to the kitchen.  He opened the flask and took a hearty swallow.  Screwing up his nose, he spat and then emptied the remaining liquid into the sink, before tossing the now empty container into the garbage bin near the back door.

Nothing can beat a Foster’s, he thought, as he opened his refrigerator door and took a large swallow of the well-known Aussie beer.  Satisfied, he retreated to the bedroom and kicked off his shoes.  The socks smelled but he ignored that.

“Alwyn, old son,” he spoke aloud in the silent room, “you’ve got to think about your new life.  Your holiday’s over, you’re redundant … yeah, that’s the term the bastards used. And your wife’s gone to stay with her family.  Get a grip, mate.  You can find another job … Robyn’ll come good and stop blaming you.  She’s snapped out of it before.”  The room remained silent.

He settled into the softness of the familiar mattress, reached out one hand for Robyn, but then remembering she had gone, dropped off to sleep.  He did not wake again.

Spring in the North-East of England awakens the trees and catches the fancy of colourful birds as they twitter among the reviving shrubbery.  Green paddocks and clumps of bushes burnished with gold decorate the landscape, and sheep, their white coats still protecting them from the chill of winter, watch their world renew itself.

The postman delivers an unexpected gift.  A young woman undoes the protective wrapping.

“Look darling,” she calls to a little girl.  “It’s a flask from my friend.”  She uncorks it, sniffs and drinks.

“Ugh!  Not really my preference.  Neither was that man.  I didn’t like him much.  But the gang were nice.  Still, it’s the thought that counts, I suppose.  Come on, Adura.  Let’s take that walk.”

The strikingly beautiful child accompanies her mother along a path beside a trickling creek.  An old Border collie trots behind the pair, ever careful to keep his distance from the loitering sheep.  For some reason, he is petrified of their presence.

The child calls, “Mummy!  Why are you looking so sad?  Did I do something wrong?”

Alison turns to her daughter.

“No, darling.  I’m just not feeling very well.  Let’s sit down for a while and rest.”  She moves, – her body listless, her face wan – towards a tree   She prepares to sit within its shade.  The shoulder bag that Alison always carries tumbles from her weakening hand and the flask she had placed inside it clinks as it strikes a sharp rock.  With an uncoordinated gesture of her hand, Alison slumps to the earth. Liquid begins to trickle from the broken flask.

“Poor Mummy,” Adura says as she pats her mother’s hand.  “Perhaps it was the long trip.  That aeroplane took forever to get us home.  You rest now, Mummy.  Doggie and I will look after you.”  The old collie settles beside the little girl as he keeps a wary eye on the sheep.

Alison’s eyes rest on the beautiful face of her daughter.  The mother tries to speak but finds she is unable to move. Adura fades from her sight and soon eternal darkness descends.

Luane Wells was a product of her generation.  Fifty-seven years old, she had taught school for thirty years in one of the toughest neighbourhoods San Francisco could muster.  Nobody fooled with Ms Wells; nobody wanted to.  Detested at first for her strictness, she was soon respected for her fierce but fair treatment of her pupils.

It was a surprise to the whole school to learn that she had finally taken leave to visit an old friend in another country.  That Ms Wells would take other than the mandatory school vacations required discussion, dissection and reassembly of thoughts. An explanation was eventually found, one that never in Ms. Wells’ most irrational imaginings, had she experienced any, have occurred to the redoubtable Ms Wells.

But now Ms Wells was dead … poisoned in her flat, and the school was completely unhinged.

Joshua was a proud and generous man.  His father had come to London from Nigeria in the early eighties.  Within weeks he had found his soul-mate and married her.  Their son had grown up in the slums of London’s East End, with no money, hosts of friends and the deep love of two parents who also happened to adore each other.  He was now in his early twenties and, having returned from his first trip abroad, was bursting to tell his parents of his experiences.  He would see them the next day but for now had to sit through a tutorial. He drowsed, as his tutor droned on about the latest research into the Machiavellian economic policies of the current Labour government.

Joshua did not like his tutor.  Mary-Ann had an acerbic wit and took every opportunity to make the young Nigerian the butt of most of her jokes.  In a fit of anger, Joshua had once handed in an assignment with the names of all of his relatives inserted as one word between his first and last names.  It had been a mistake and Mary-Ann was unamused.

Struggling to remain awake, Joshua reached into his bag and with the stealth of a mother leopard engaged in the hunt, sneaked a deep drink.  Lady Fortune looked away.  Mary-Ann was not deceived and confiscated the flask.  She ordered Joshua to attend at her office immediately after class.  Time passed and the tutorial was over … but Joshua did not move.  He appeared to be asleep.  In a rage, Mary-Ann berated him for his overly carefree attitude and, receiving no response, reached out and shook him.  But Joshua was beyond her tormenting forever.

Police Lieutenant Mac Sunon was puzzled.  An old lady had died close by his precinct in Baltimore the previous Spring and he was no further towards establishing a reason for her death.  He yawned aloud as he sat behind his desk.  He was deep in thought.

“It might have helped if that lazy mongrel in the lab had done her job more quickly,” he mumbled, forgetting that a rookie constable was working at a nearby desk.  Meredith was a sprightly piece with a smart mouth.

“That’s Swafford for you, Lieutenant.  Never been known to get to a job today if tomorrow will do.”  She smiled at Mac, a little ‘come-on’ in her dancing eyes.

“What the hell would you know about it, Marshall?” Mac snarled.  “You an expert on crime now?  They teach you that in College too?”

“I picked it up from my father, Lieutenant!”  Meredith snapped back at him.  “Remember the legendary Captain Marshall?  Or was he a bit before your time?”

Mac was in his thirties, Meredith ten years younger.  Meredith’s father had been killed soon after Mac had joined the police force.  The younger man had studied each of the Captain’s cases and hoped one day to be somewhere near as efficient as Meredith’s father had been.  That Mac found the rookie constable immensely attractive was one of his best-guarded secrets.

He snorted in ill-humour unwilling to admit that he had been bested.  Secretly, he admired the spunk of the young she-cat assistant.

“Did Swafford really find nothing we can use, Lieutenant?” Meredith asked ignoring Mac’s cranky behaviour.

Mac stared at her for a brief moment before answering.

“Nothing, too long since the old girl’s death.  We’ll just have to accept that she died of natural causes,” Mac replied.

“But we both know that’s not right, Lieutenant.  That old lady was killed.  I can sniff a homicide when it happens,” Meredith replied.

Mac grunted in acquiescence.

“For Christ’s sake, woman, call me Mac when we’re alone, can’t you!” he snapped.  It was the first time he had let any of his feelings show.

“Only if you call me Merryme,” was the tart reply.  It was followed by one of her warm grins.  Mac felt suddenly that the day was not a complete loss.  He unbent enough to smile but it was so brief that Meredith almost missed it.  Her day also seemed brighter.

“Damned if I will,” Mac grunted.  “I’ll call you ‘Merry’ and you’ll have to put up with it.”

Meredith busied herself at her desk, the shuffling of paper a welcome camouflage for the bright red spots that had formed on her cheeks.

Mac’s next comment was all business.

“Merry, get on to the internet for me.  Take all damn day if you have to but cross-match this business with whatever you can find that suggests our old lady.  Google it or whatever the hell you do.  No matter how bizarre, log it.   I’ve got a call coming in on another matter.  OK?”

“Sure, Mac.  No problem.”

“And when you’ve finished today, let’s meet somewhere quiet and talk.  The chief’s told me to stop wasting resources on this one, so we’ll do it on the quiet.  OK by you?”

Meredith’s happiness barometer soared.

“Sure Mac.  There’s a bar not far from where I live.  I’ll meet you there about nine o’clock.  You’re the policeman.  You’ll find it.  It’s called The Pink Bra Strap.”

She grinned and said, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t name it!” She was gone.

Peter cursed as the tinny caught once again on a mud bank.

“Oh, c’mon Mark, put your shoulder to it.  The bloody fish are not all that heavy.  Heave!”

With a sucking sound the boat broke free and the two friends pulled it to higher ground before loading it on to the trailer.  Peter drove to Mark’s flat.  Scaled and gutted, two large bream were soon sizzling in the fry pan.

Mark tossed Peter a can of beer and the two men drank as they waited for the fish to cook.  A pleasant silence, disturbed only by the spattering of the oil cooking their food, enSamid.  Fishermen don’t have to talk to communicate.

“You never did tell me how your trip went,” Peter said.

“It was OK,” Mark replied, nodding thoughtfully.  “Funny old coot.  That reminds me.  I’ve got something he asked me to bring home and share with you.  Hang on, I’ll get it.”

He opened the refrigerator door as Peter turned the fish.

“These are coming along nicely,” Peter said.  He turned to where Mark was withdrawing a flask from the depths of his fridge.  “What’s that you’ve got there?” Peter asked.

Mark grinned.  “A celebratory drink courtesy of my trip overseas.  He was most insistent that we have it together.  A sign of comradeship, he called it.”

“Well, let’s knock it off then.  You have a go and then hand it over to me,” Peter replied.  “Steady on, don’t drink it all.”  He grabbed the flask from his companion and took a deep swallow.

“Can’t say I like it all that much,” Peter said.  “Oh well, to each his own, I s’pose.”

He began to feel a little woozy.

“Here, Mark.  Take over with the fish, will you.  Too much sun today.  I’m feeling a bit sick.”

He dragged his wandering attention to his friend just as Mark slipped to the floor.  Peter soon followed.  Their fishing days were over.

Promptly at nine o’clock, Mac stepped out of the darkness.  The bar had been quite easy to find.  There was no sign of Merry.

“Gimme a Manhattan, will you, buddy?” he asked the bartender.  “And deliver it to that table in the corner.  I’m waiting for a friend.”

Mac sipped his drink and the time passed.  Never one to be put upon, his mood turned ugly as the wall clock showed nine thirty.  Preparing to leave and cursing Merry for her absence, he spotted a pair of lace up shoes near his own foot and looked up into the smiling face of his colleague.  That face captured him and he forgot her lateness.

“Mac.  I’m on to something.  I know it,” she burst out.

Ever the stickler for logical thought and action, Mac replied, “Tell me what you’d like to drink and then tell me what you’ve got.”

Settled, Merry began.

“Google was useless. Altavista gave me an alternative view but again, nothing. I tried our police database but there was nothing there either.  I used every combination I could think of, but nada, nix, nothing.  Then, I got a bright idea.  I tried the FBI and …”

“You what!?” Mac exploded.  “How the hell did you gain access there?  That’s restricted.  You’re a rookie.  The chief could toss you out for trying that stunt.”

“Yes,” said Merry, “well, I kidded a bit.  I told the officer that you wanted some information but were too busy to ask him yourself.  Sorry, he was quite a nice man, really.”

“A nice man she tells me!  Oh God!” Mac groaned.  “That’s when they threw you out.”

“Well, not really.  You know that poor man spends so much time at work, he’s got no real choice left to him.  You know, his wife ran off and took their three kids with her.  Two little girls and a baby still in diapers.  I felt so sorry for the poor man.”  Merry took a sip of her drink.

“Never mind the poor man,” Mac grunted.  “Rather think of me up before the chief tomorrow with a ‘Please Explain’ notice around my neck.”

“But I got what we needed,” Merry replied.  “Of course I couldn’t look at the files myself but the man was good enough to do a search for me.  He found one case like ours in San Francisco.  A schoolteacher took a sudden holiday and then just up and died.  No apparent cause.  That’s two unexplained deaths.”  She beamed at him and patted his hand in encouragement.  Mac seemed inconsolable.

“Two cases, Merry.  Do you know how many people get killed in the US every day?” Mac asked.  “The chief will have my guts.”  He stopped and then shrugged.  “Just the same, I’ve got a feeling you’re on to something.  I’ll see what I can find out.”

Merry leaned across the table and kissed his cheek.

“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” she remarked with an impish grin.

The meeting with Chief Bill O’Brien next day was as frosty as Mac had expected.  After the initial bawling-out, Bill surprised him by ordering that he continue his investigations.

“Twenty-four hours and that’s all.  Get on to your contacts in the UK and Australia,” he said.  “That’s where all the crims hang out.  Don’t waste your time in Scotland.  You’ll find nothing there.  All too busy keeping “their business” warm under those short dresses the men wear, or arguing about Alex in the pubs. Willie, where’s your troosers?  That sort of useless rot.  No, they don’t get into anything as subtle as this.  Stay with the UK and Australia.  See if they’ve got anything weirder than usual going on over there.  Just don’t waste too much time.”

“Yes, chief,” Mac replied as he stood up from his chair.

“And Mac.  Tell that Marshall woman she’s not her father and to stop using your name in these little brain spurts of hers.”  He nodded dismissal.

The following morning Mac called for Officer Marshall.

“Come in and close the door,” he directed, “and sit down and stop fussing.”

When they were alone, he relaxed and a smile broke the stern features of his face.

“Merry, my friend and colleague.  Have I got a story to tell you,” he began.  “We’re dealing with wholesale murder, international murder, killing on the grand scale of the old days.”  He proceeded to tell her what he had unearthed.

“So you see,” he concluded, “all of the victims had been on a recent trip or were associated with some friend who had been away on a visit.  They’d all been into one country, to one city in fact.  I’ve checked all itineraries.  They all visited parts of the country and hosts of other places, but the common denominator is ….”

His enthusiasm dropped away.  “But do you know how many people live there?  We have a city but nothing more.”

Merry grasped his hands in hers and squeezed.

“There’ll be something that drew them to that horrible place.  We’ll find it, Mac.  I know we will.  Let’s get all their names together and see what surfaces.”

Several hours later, they gazed at a name which Mac had circled in red ink.

“Who is this guy?” he wondered.  He shook his lean body and looked across the desk at Merry.  There were tears in her eyes.

“Why, Mac?  Why did he have to kill them?  I keep thinking of that little girl, left out in a paddock with a dog and some sheep.  Why would this monster do this terrible thing?”

“I don’t know, darling, but we’ll find out.  We’ll catch a flight tomorrow morning and get some answers.  You go on home.  You’ve had enough for one day.  I’ll ring our colleagues over there and see to the paperwork.”

He watched her leave.  Neither had noticed the term of endearment, but both would remember later.

The following morning the fog cleared and their aircraft made good time.  They were met by Sergeant Parsons, a plain, serious-faced man who shook hands and agreed that all formalities were in order.  Parsons was used to the ‘good life’ – the nether region of his massive trunk overflowed the driver’s seat.  Merry was forced hard up against the door as she sat in the old Chevrolet beside him.  His conversation consisted of little other than grunts.  Bromhidrosis on a lengthy journey would be a trial, Merry thought, as she instituted a regime of shallow breathing to filter the odour.  She wished that she had clambered into the back with Mac. A short drive brought them to a run-down apartment block.

They approached a seedy flat on the second floor and Parsons rapped sharply.  Merry noticed the fingers of his right hand bore the telltale signs of the heavy smoker.  A man, stooped with advanced age, opened the door.  Having identified themselves, the police were invited into a kitchen which seemed to contain little more than a flea-bitten sofa, a table, a computer system and a refrigerator, its handle grubby from years of use.  A hallway led to what the occupant confirmed was his bedroom and toilet area.

Mac asked if they could be seated and the owner nodded his tiny head.  His cheeks were thin to the point of being cadaverous and a tiny ginger moustache adorned his upper lip.  Two front teeth jutted slightly.  He settled in a rickety chair opposite them.  A light wisp of dried foam dusted the moustache.

Parsons began.

“Sir, we’ve come to ask if you can throw any light on the deaths of several people who are known to have visited you recently.”

The man nodded.  “My writing group.”

“Yes, your writing group.  Some of the members of that group are now dead, sir,” Mac commented.

“All of them soon, I suspect,” he said, with a nod of his head.  “I killed them all.  You’ll hear about the others sometime, I guess.”

“But why?” Merry burst out, unable to contain herself any longer.

Ron pointed to a magnificent portrait of a famous writer of years past.

“Oh really, what else was I to do?  When they wrote their piddling prose, they all laughed at Ernie.”  He shrugged.  “So I gave them a flask of Fosters plus a little bit of something I added to take home with them.  Those who couldn’t visit will get theirs in the mail.”  He nodded in a sage manner and commented.  “Blasphemy cannot go unpunished, you know.  Ernie Hemingway will always be worshipped in Idaho, don’t you agree?”

He waited for an answer, puzzled by the horrified expressions on the faces confronting him.  Drinking Fosters was an acquired taste but, with his additive, an unfortunate, but certain, death. The ale alone made those not brought up from birth on it feel a ‘bit-off’, but really, he thought, these people are more than somewhat over the top.  The female was actually whimpering.  Very strange.

Parsons stepped forward and read him his rights.  As Mac applied the handcuffs, the prisoner turned to Merry and begged, “Please, please let me take my fridge along with me.  And my photo of Ernie.”

Hardening her heart, she ignored him and hurried to secure a rear seat next to Mac.  The prisoner’s manacles were secured to a bar in the vehicle’s front cabin.  As Parsons drove, Merry tuned out the sound of Ron’s gagging breaths by remembering the awful fate of his victims.  Pity Parsons didn’t have a heavy dose of halitosis as well, she thought.

She felt Mac’s hand rest tentatively on her breast. She took it in her hand and kissed it. “I hope you’re a greyhound tonight, old man!” she said.