Once Isn't Enough
Once isn’t enough
by Morton L Duffy
“Oranges and lemons, say the Bells of St Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, say the Bells of St Martin’s. When will you pay me? say the Bells of Old Bailey. When I grow rich, say the Bells of Shoreditch.”
Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, vol. 2 (London: Mary Cooper, ca. 1744)
I had my feet on the desk when he walked in my office.
“I’m looking for ‘Kitty Winter Private Investigations’,” he said, name-checking the frosted glass door. He gave me a strange look. I jumped down from changing the light-bulb.
“You found me. Something bothering you?”
“No. No, I er, I didn’t expect you to be…”
I reminded myself I was off men like him. Ones with the looks, tact and charm to make a chat show host jealous. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks, but I’ve a business meeting in twenty minutes so I’ll just spit it out, shall I? My name’s Boyd Newell. It’s about my brother Lloyd. The police say he died after falling from the bedroom window of the house he was working in. I believe someone pushed him.”
“Why do you think that, Mr Newell?”
“We’ve both been in property development for twenty years. Lloyd wouldn’t do anything so stupid as fall out of a window.”
He wouldn’t want to lean on my window. Only the venetian blind was holding it in. Outside, the sleet fell steadily, as it often does in London in December.
“All I want is the address of whoever killed Lloyd. For the satisfaction of telling the police myself, to show them I was right. Then I’m going to sue them. Can you help me? Please. Lloyd was my twin. I know him.”
Doubtful I could help. But the rent was due, and this close to Christmas is always a slack period.
“Look, Mr Newell, I’ll be honest.” I laid out my terms. “Two days, in advance. I should know if I can help you by then. And if not, I’ll refund what’s unused.”
Boyd Newell withdrew a chunky manila envelope from an inner pocket and slapped it on my desk. “Here’s a grand for starters and all the details.”
He checked his flashy watch and shot his cuffs on the way out.
After he’d gone, I took my phone off charge and called Shinwell Johnson.
Me and him go back years. He earned his nickname ‘Porky’ and a glamorous reputation in prison. Doors in the criminal underworld open for Porky.
An hour later, at his favourite pub overlooking the Thames, Shinwell sauntered in. Six feet of lean muscle, sparkling eyes and a smile to dry the pavement and gain the barkeeper’s full attention. A dance instructor, he had women in a spin, literally.
I focussed on the job.
“Hmm,” he said, after reading the edited highlights. “The police grilled Boyd Newell about their finances. They’re satisfied that Boyd didn’t push Lloyd to claim life insurance money. No family rows. No substances, funny or otherwise, in the tox report.” He rubbed his ear. “A pissed off house-buyer? He buys up houses cheap before first-time buyers get a look in, fixes them up, then flogs ‘em on at a fat profit.”
“Well, I’ll check and see what DI Brookwood has to say. Which will be…”
Dave Brookwood had little to say except confirm a few details. “Keep out of the house, unless you want arresting for breaking and entering,” he warned. And no, he couldn’t get me a copy of the case file.
Later, in the darkness, the sleet gave up on its dream of becoming snow and settled for being plain rain. Shinwell picked the paltry lock on the back door of the house and we slipped inside.
Wiring like clawing grey fingers jutted from bare brick walls. Boxes of high-spec kitchen appliances stood in a line in the next room. We continued on a silent tour to the front bedroom. Two wooden sash windows. One minus glass.
“Maybe it’s grief,” said Shinwell quietly. “Guy gets careless, falls, and your client doesn’t want it to be just…”
“Just rotten luck?”
Getting to be a bad habit that; finishing each other’s sentences.
“Maybe something distracted the guy.”
“What makes you say that?”
Shinwell shrugged. “A lot on his mind. Lloyd left himself a shopping list for oranges and lemons.”
“On a box downstairs.”
“Shinwell, I could kiss you.”
His eyebrow raised. We’ve got all the skills. “Are you pissed?”
“How very dare you?”
“Okay, what have I done?”
“I pulled up the Newell’s separate websites. Lloyd renovated commercial premises. Boyd tarts up houses.”
“Oh. So, like us, maybe they sometimes worked together.”
“Let’s have a look at those boxes. I want to know if either of them bought stolen goods off the back of a lorry.”
Downstairs, I made notes of the kitchen equipment and suppliers. Shinwell pointed to the fruit shopping list, written in red marker pen on a fuck-off big oven box.
“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clement’s,” I said.
“You owe me five farthings, say the bells of Saint Martin’s.” He let out a low whistle because that’s expected of us. “Cat, this is expensive gear.”
“Yeah, if you were paying full whack for it. Boyd paid me in cash. Maybe Boyd or Lloyd owe cash. Money that’s not going through the books. What if someone came to collect the dosh?”
Shinwell’s thumbnail worried his bottom lip. “Worst case scenario, there’s a debt-collector with a baseball bat. Lloyd’s upstairs. Baseball Dude threatens Lloyd. Lloyd backs away and falls out of the window.”
“Baseball Dude gets the hell out of here.”
“Goes back to his boss, gets it in the neck for cocking up the job and will come looking for Boyd, meaner and angrier than ever.”
I nodded. “It’d explain why Boyd wants the address of whoever it is he needs to settle up with before they come back and give him a pasting.”
“Likely that’s all he’s after the address for?”
“As likely as a politician with two left feet winning Strictly Come Dancing.”
“Do you watch that?”
We finished up and split. He had a class to teach at seven.
The next morning, I had Oranges and Lemons playing on repeat in my head. Pretending to be Lloyd’s clueless temporary business accounts secretary on the phone didn’t dislodge the ear-worm.
When Shinwell rang at ten, I asked, “Can you do any door to door? Boyd’s notes say the police interviewed a florist about a white van. I rang her work, but she’s at home, nursing a broken wrist. Lives at number 22.”
“I’ll fit her in on my lunch hour, the rest I’ll do after my last class this afternoon,” he said and ended the call.
Route planned, I locked up and went to do my own ‘legwork’. Brickbats and tiles, say the bells of St Giles. Builders. Property developers. Check. Next nearest on foot then St Martin-in-the-fields. Trafalgar Square, teeming with shoppers, a daughter wearing felt reindeer antlers on a hat, market stalls, the enormous Christmas tree. Wrong St Martin’s.
The jolly woman I asked about the rhyme, said. “No, deary, you’re wanting the other one and St Clement’s. The Martin Lane area was where the moneylenders hung out, that’s where ‘you owe me five farthings’ comes in. That’s where St Martin Orgar stood.”
“It’s no longer there?”
“It partly perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666, then joined with St Clement, Eastcheap. The bell and bell-tower are still there, though.”
With thanks, I rushed off to St Clement’s. Half a dozen church visits later, my phone rang. Number not known, it said.
“Hello?” I said, plugging a finger in the other ear to deaden the rumbling traffic noise.
“I heard you want to talk to me. The bloke what had an accident,” a male voice said. A vehicle horn honked at his end.
“Yes, just a quick word.” Good old Shinwell had struck gold for me.
“I can give yer five minutes today or I’ll lose me job.”
“Could we meet somewhere after you finish work?”
“I can’t do that. Milk Yard, Wapping. Three o’clock. No police. Just you.”
The line went dead.
Over at Milk Yard, a quiet residential street, three came and went. The mystery caller didn’t show, so I phoned Shinwell.
“Nothing to do with me,” he said. “What were you thinking, going on your own? He could have abducted you. Or worse.”
I returned to my office resenting my pal inferring I couldn’t handle myself. Now, rule one of searching premises without giving the game away is to put everything back as found. The intruder did a sloppy job.
An hour later, Shinwell phoned.
“They take anything?” he asked.
“Good, that’s one less problem. There’s a different van on someone’s home CCTV. I found the van and the driver fitting the description. Could be a debt collector. The criminal sort.”
“Where are you? Is that a record playing in the background?”
“No, it’s an actual saxophone. I’ve tailed Van Man to the end of his street. Tin Pan Alley.”
Denmark Street, near St Giles’s church. A street of old brick-built shops that Boyd would love to convert to high-rent apartments.
“I’m on my way.”
I found Shinwell shivering, in a masculine I’m-not-even-cold way, in the mouth of an alley half-way down the narrow street.
“Van Man lives above that shop. Bugger, that’s him coming out now.”
A burly man in knee-length black boots and a coat looked up and down the street while locking his door. The man’s baggy red trousers looked brown in the dismal lighting of a street left to go downhill while awaiting imminent gentrification.
“What? The Santa Claus?”
Grabbing my hand, Shinwell hauled me into the doorway.
“He saw us,” he whispered, turning me around. Iron gates, blocking entry to the alley between musical instrument’s shops, rattled behind my back as he pressed me against them. How Shinwell placed his palm on the side of my face like a tender lover, wrenched a gasp of surprise from my throat. Our lips met. My coat felt far too warm.
Echoing footsteps grew louder. Stopped. That was it. Santa bolted towards the church of St Giles. He raced through the iron railing gate like a victim seeking sanctuary.
The sound of bells and recorded Christmas Muzac completed this farcical chase through the graveyard gardens where my trusty friend caught hold of Santa’s flapping coat. Santa spun around with a bunched fist the size of a Boxing Day cooked ham.
He needn’t have bothered.
Shinwell stepped to the side, caught the hand and, with a move he might have learned in prison, forced Santa to the grass and sat on him. He had the man face down, an arm up his back.
“All right, Santa, start talking,” his captor growled.
“Wh-what about? Aaargh. You’re hurting me. I’ll give you money. My watch.”
“Jingle Bells, yer costume smells. Rudolph’s run away. Tell the lady about Lloyd Newell, for a start.”
Santa squinted up at me. “Oh, God, it’s you. I went. To talk. To. My shoulder! The arse who owned the house.”
I said, “You admit you’re hired muscle. Who do you work for?”
My muscle man shrugged.
“Not a ‘he’. Julia Sherringford. Bespoke kitchen cabinets.”
“Lloyd or Boyd Newell owed her money?”
“No, no. The arsehole who owned the house. I went to beg him to pay up. Not the f-aargh, me arm! Not the bloke who was there.”
“From the top, Santa,” said Shinwell, cutting him a little slack. “And mind your language.”
“I got the wrong bloke. The bloke who lived in the house, Harrison, he skipped owing my boss for a big order. Julia’s soft like that with customers she knows. He’s paid in cash before. This time he skipped with the cabinets. Only I didn’t know he’d sold the bloody house.”
“Julia orders you to go round and threaten customers?” I asked.
“God, no. And I wish I never had. Me job’s on the line here. It’s last in first out when a company downsizes. The difference between me eating steak once a month to not being able to afford a burger. Coming up to Christmas, and all. ‘Course, I was annoyed with the git. Obviously, I looked a bit like I might wallop him. I just wanted to speak to him, that’s all. I didn’t mean him to run like a rabbit and fall out of the bloody window.”
“Why did you break into my office, Santa? How did you know to do that?”
“I took a sick day off work. Said it was me guts. I wanted to talk to Mr Newell. Explain. I was screwing up my courage, followed him. Then I saw him go in a door and I was going to do it. Then I spotted your brass plate on the door and I knew he’d gone there to hire you. I was going to read your file, that’s all. That’s what you people do, isn’t it? Put all your info in a file in a filing cabinet.”
“We don’t run to the luxury of a filing cabinet.”
“Might be able to help you there. We do home office in the kitchen cabinets. Aargh, please, tell him to get off me. I can’t drive with a broken shoulder.”
“Well, answer the lady’s question.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’m sure your girl-friend’s impressed with your muscles.”
Well, they didn’t put me off. I shook my head. “Why the file?”
“To find out where Harrison was living. We’d have his address. Then Julia could take him to court. Save my job. Why else do you think I’m sitting in a store in an itchy wig and beard every evening? In case I don’t have a job come Christmas Day.”
“You’ll have to talk to Detective Inspector Brookwood.”
“And tell them I broke in your office. That’s my job gone, if I do.”
Shinwell let the man’s arm go and sat back. “Perhaps we could omit that part, Cat. Tell Brookwood that Santa came in and told you everything.”
I sighed. “It’s the season of goodwill. Crying out loud, Shinwell. You were right. Lloyd wrote himself a shopping list. This has absolutely nothing to do with oranges and lemons.”
“Except the case is a lemon.”
“Do you know how long that woman kept me telling me the entire history of London churches?”
“Think you mentioned that on the phone.”
The self-appointed debt-chaser cleared his throat. “‘Scuse me butting into your romantic moment for a sec. Your boyfriend’s sat on me and I’ve to go listen to kids asking for computer games I’ve never heard of.”
“You won’t mind if we come along,” I said. “We’ll go see DI Brookwood together after you finish there.”
“No, you might catch a shoplifter while you’re there. I caught one this week already.”
With exaggerated dignity, Santa waved away Shinwell’s hand to help him stand upright. We walked him to Covent Garden and settled down to watch him work, sitting on his glittered-up sleigh, under miles of blue-white icicle lights suspended across the store’s ceiling.
Shinwell leaned in close. “Cat,” he said. “That’s the first time you haven’t chewed someone’s ear off for calling me your boyfriend.”
“That’s the first time you’ve kissed me.”
“Once isn’t enough.”