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Eerie Story by Grafton Maggs

                                         

                         

The Man who Collected Toby Jugs

                                (A Shiver for Christmas)                                                               

                                             ……………………

     The estate agent’s board had been angled from the upper window sill for over a year and now, at last, something was happening. The agent’s van pulled up outside, the driver hopped out and, with practised skill, hauled down the ladder from the top of his vehicle. He propped it against the shop front and set to work.

   Within minutes, he was back in his van, a cup of tea in his thoughts, and gone; the fruits of his labour displayed across the board: 

          “Another Property Let!

       Truss and Associate,

       Always there to support you!”

       The shop was in a prime position overlooking the Parade Gardens and, although in need of a face lift, was attractive with large windows on a double front. Probably the crippling outgoings- high rent, outrageous council tax, insurance (and whatever else)- had put the frighteners on any entrepreneur, accounting for the long period of no tenancy.

        Early next morning, as if making up for lost time, a plain black van drew up and two uniformed workmen got out. The front door was pushed open, its lower edge trapping and juddering across a pile of old mail on the dusty floor; a disturbed daddy-long-legs stilted away to safer parts. Within minutes, the black clad men had carried in all that was necessary to clean out the premises. They worked non stop throughout the day and it wasn’t until the sun was sinking behind the old castle that they chose to leave. With them went all the rubbish, bits of tatty furniture and those nail clippings left from the previous occupants’ activities.

         Barely after dawn the next day, a larger van pulled in and disgorged a team of workers, similarly clad to the previous day’s toilers; no doubt, part of the same shop fitting company. Equipment and materials were carried in, windows masked and, without further to do, work commenced. Hammering, drilling and the high pitched whine of rotary saws echoed across the Gardens throughout the day and on into the hours of darkness.

        There was every indication that they were working to a tight schedule, this routine being strictly adhered to for the whole of their occupancy. They seemed to be a self sufficient body and did not socialise.

         Within a week activities were switched to the outside. Windows were ripped out, bowed replacements fitted and the old warped door changed for one of mahogany with bevelled glass panels. With a final flourish, up went a polished mahogany board across the front of the shop, bearing graceful, swan-necked light fittings.

 The black van and the workmen left. Faceless beings.

          In an incredibly short time, the shop had been transformed and later, wise after the event, the villagers asked themselves why the strange conduct of this work force had never been commented upon at the time?      As is so often the case, in retrospect it was easy to see that something had not been right from the very beginning.

     Within hours of their departure, a sign writer came and, with practised skill, painted on the facia board, in gilded Old English script:

                 “The Connoisseur”.

      Carpet fitters came, and went. Box-like shapes, enshrouded with dust sheets, were carried in from unmarked vans and it was obvious, from the effort required, that they were of some considerable weight.    It all looked a quality job.  Villagers talked and wondered.

       Within days, a small ornate easel appeared in one of the windows carrying a board upon which was the cryptic announcement:

             “The Connoisseur”

          Autumn  Opening!

              On 1st November.

 But where was all this leading?     

 Enlightenment was soon to come when, with theatrical timing, a board appeared in the doorway.

            “Opening tomorrow!               

       The most discerning dealership in Wales!

       The Connoisseur knows what he’s looking for. 

        If he likes it, he will have it regardless of price!

        Every home, no matter how humble, has treasures!”

            Or, come in!    Buy something precious!

   

  Mystery solved! Now, the village knew!  But, it was all a bit of an anti-climax and many were dismissive – “….yet another antique shop/pawnbroker thing…!”  

         Its prognosis was debated with pessimism.

         The day of the opening dawned. Overnight the windows had been dressed. On the one side, shelves were bedecked with antique jewellery, watches, silverware and on the other, fine etchings, porcelain china were displayed with a few items of cut glassware aglitter, on a bed of deep blue velvet.         

   Inquisitive villagers stopped to gaze at these treasures. The more forward ones with Co-op bags dangling, peeked round the open door into the shop’s interior where a glass chandelier cast a gentle light on the soft grey carpets. They carried home tales of the treasures within. There were cabinets and glass topped counters packed with gold and jewels. Clocks, items of antique furniture and large framed pictures on the wall completed an impressive display.  There was the promise of even more treasures lurking in the shadowy room at the back. Very swish!

    With such a quality stock it was obvious that the Connoisseur, whoever he was, was not new to the game and local Lord Sugar pessimists were provoked to ask,

 “What game is he playing?  How could such an up-market business as this, possibly survive in our small seaside village?”

   Yes, there was money about, but little in the village itself- all the real brass was outside down the Peninsular, where the footballers, lawyers, medics and Council mandarins lived, in palaces overlooking the sea.

   Who was the genius behind this enterprise?”

          Nobody saw him arrive.  But, on the morning of the opening, there he was.

He walked out on to the pavement in front of the shop and looked approvingly across the manicured Parade Gardens. He breathed in the fresh sea air that ruffled the umbrella of bare sycamores over the War Memorial and then turned to inspect his windows. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he returned to the interior of his shop.

     Passers-by who did see him, looked twice. He commanded attention. To say the least he was attired with more flair that that of the average male in a village where the reigning fashion was the Millet’s look, in donkey brown.

     He was a short man, with that sort of girth obtained from good living. He had a broad mid-European face, lined, sallow skinned and crowned with thick greying hair. This mane curled over his ears and grew down, long and artily, over his collar. Thick lens glasses, obscuring heavily hooded eyes, rested on a fleshy nose.  What drew immediate attention was a puckered scar on the right side of his face which ran from his cheek bone to the corner of his thick lips.

     His ample figure was clad in a well tailored, indigo velvet jacket over a magenta shirt with flowing silk bow-tie. The colourful ensemble was completed by close fitting trousers in a delicate fawn, flared on to small feet encased in full brogue shoes.

In any of the village pubs, he would have stood out like Poirot in a Poundshop.

   .           The Connoisseur had arrived. He was ready for business.

   On that very first day, a few people ventured in. Some to gawp but some, surprisingly, came to do business and a few precious old family treasures changing hands.

     When asked how he should be addressed, he lisped,

     “Call me, the Connotheur!”

                                                   ……….

           News of the Connoisseur business soon reached Detective Inspector, Wesley Lloyd-George Parker and, now that the shop was open, he decided to nip down from the station and call in, on a goodwill visit (plod language for ‘a nose round’).  It was policy in the Force to keep an eye on businesses such as these, not only to offer security advice, but to make sure there was no funny business going on. A little whisper in the right ear, at the right time, could work wonders and discourage goods of doubtful origin changing hands.

          The D/I was no fool, he had a few years hard graft under his belt and had reached his present rank the hard way. He didn’t favour the present trend of the TV ’tec, - stubbled face, leather jacket, open shirt and jeans. Unlike his “with-it” contemporaries, he shaved closely, had a short back-and-sides and wore a belted raincoat, topped with a Dunn’s brown trilby. In other words, Parker looked what he was- a dedicated old time copper, incorruptible, doing his job to the very letter of the law. This latter quality had brought him a bounty of mixed blessings, it not only frightened the villains but a few fellow officers in high up places.  He knew that he had would never progress beyond his present rank.

        Parker had been reared in a family of good Chapel stock and this, coupled with the basic Bible teachings ingrained during his Council school days, had established within him a firm, uncomplicated belief. This belief, with a bias towards Old Testament judgement, influenced his whole life including his attitude to those transgressors who crossed his path. For certain types of villainy he could be ruthless but for many of those unfortunates who dabbled in the minor crimes, he had sympathy. Research into their backgrounds often explained why they were in the position they were. Parker made allowances.

    Parker walkled down from the station to make his call. He pushed the door open, ducked his head and entered; a soft chime emanated from somewhere back in the depths, almost immediately, the curtain at the back of the shop was swished aside and the Connoisseur walked in.

        “Good morning, Inthpector!”                Parker started.

  The voice had a throaty softness, with a hint of a foreign accent. Parker picked up, too, the undertones of London’s East End along with something else a little more exotic, all enhanced by a lisp (Peter Lorre came into his mind). The Connoisseur approached and held out his hand. Parker took it and was surprised by its cold softness. He became aware of a light perfume that came with this presence- violets?

  “How did you know, I was a police inspector, sir?”

   “Oh! I’ve been around, my dear Inthpector! I make it my busineth to know with whom I am dealing. Tho! what can I do for you?”

    “Just a routine call, sir. I can see you’ve got some very valuable stuff on display here and if you would like to have advice on security. It’s available.”

     “Thank you, Inthpector. I’m happy with my alarm and thecurity thythtem. It is thecond to none.     And, to put your mind at rest,- I do not deal in thtolen goods or launder!”

       Again Parker felt uneasy.

     “Why not look around Inthpector?  Treat yourthelf. What about that gold half Albert watch and chain over there?  Would look very imprethive over your apron next time in Lodge!” 

 The Connoisseur smiled, his hooded eyes held the inspector’s, unblinkingly.

        And then, he came out with something that was to haunt Parker, again and again, following the events that were to come.

           “And what do you think of my perthonal collection, over here, of Toby Jugth? These are not for thale, they are very preciouth to me. An expenthive hobby, but don’t you think they are exquithite?”    

     He half turned and indicated the tall cabinet at the back of the shop.

         Parker looked. The cabinet was tall, superbly constructed of rosewood and bevelled glass. Each of the half dozen shelves, carried a collection of Toby Jugs. Parker bowed his tall frame to look more closely. He had little knowledge of antique china, or of anything antique at all for that matter, but he recognised quality when he saw it- these were, indeed, exquisite; the likes of which he had never seen before. Here was a collection of jugs, each one a product of painstaking workmanship. Facial detail was microscopically accurate with even the irises of the eyes discernible. Fingernails on hands, and even on the face of a watch, held in the hand of a top hatted dignitary, hands and figures could clearly be seen.  Parker marvelled.

    “I can thee that you are imprethed, Inthpector. And tho you thould be! There ith only one of each. Each an entity in ith own right.   I thearch high and low.  I wait patiently and eventually I get what I want!”   He chuckled.

    Parker shivered a little,

 “Well, I’ll be along now, sir. I’ve said what I have to and I’ll think about the watch but it’s a bit out of my league. Mr…?”

   “Call me the Connotheur, Inthepctor!    Yeth, yeth, think about it. I’m thure we could work out a price. One mutht look after the law… Muthtn’t one, Inthepctor?”

         “That depends ,sir!   Well, here’s my card. If you need me, thir, ..sorry, sir., just ring. And er, I wish you every success in your new business!”

    “Thank you, I’m thure you do, Detective Inthpector Parker!”

    Parker walked out of the shop and made his way into the village, he realised that he was sweating.

 What was there about this chap?  The D/I had been in the game a long time, and this experience, coupled with an innate ability to assess and categorize people, gave Parker an edge. But this fellow was on his own. A one off.  He shook his head. He walked on.            He mused, “I’ll keep a quiet eye on that monkey.”

Suddenly, he checked his stride. Without him having introduced himself, not only had the Connoisseur known he was in the Force but had addressed him by name.

 …………………………………………………………………

        Village interest, such as it was over the opening of a new business, dissipated within days and soon ceased to be a topic of conversation. Some people walked past the shop without a glance, some tarried a while to gaze at the baubles in the windows and some went in but little information circulated about its exotic owner.

     That bleak autumn morning, Jasper “Rufus” Morris, hungover as ever, shuffled past the shop, on his way to the Post Office to collect his benefit money. Never addressed by his Christian name since that history pageant in the Church School, he only answered to “Rufus”.  Until midday, few things in the environment registered upon his befuddled brain and as he passed, he hardly glanced at the contents of the windows, he’d already given them the once over. He was no collector, never having possessed anything of real value in his entire life, but he did know when a thing was worth a bob or two. These windows were packed with things ‘worth a bob or two’, but any beauty they possessed was lost on Rufus, he had a more pragmatic attitude to such things. He equated them to the number of pints he could buy if he were in a position to get his hands on them. This had been Rufus’ trouble for most of his life- his suffering from ‘Brewer’s Constipation’- he couldn’t pass a pub. 

   As a result, an early marriage, fortunately childless, had soon proved to be a disaster. His young wife had surrendered all hope when the drunken abuse became physical. Rufus was a bully. She walked out. He stayed on in the old family cottage and survived on his benefits, odd jobs and a little light fingered activity here and there.

   In spite of his small stature, he stood out in a crowd because of his flaming carrot coloured hair and was a familiar figure in most of the seafront pubs, always seemingly clad in the same clothes- scruffy trainers topped with frayed jeans supported by an old Boy Scout belt, clipped by the famous fleur de lis buckle. He boasted, that apart from the cottage, that belt was the only thing his father had left him. He never wore a shirt but only a rough navy blue seaman’s jersey and in the winter, moving from pub to pub, he kept the cold out with a grease-spotted reefer jacket.

    Rufus always had problems, invariably associated with cash flow, and, on this particular day, they were acute. His benefit handout was already spoken for and he knew that, as he came out of the Post Office that morning, three “mates” would be waiting for him to settle up. It would leave him with pennies to survive the week.

    Perhaps it was providence, who knows? But that morning, almost past the Connoisseur’s windows, he glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye. That glance towards the shop window was to lead him down a pathway beyond his wildest conjecture.

      There, discreetly placed in the corner of the window was a small card with bright red lettering: 

         Odd Job Person Wanted.

      Light Work

      Short hours.

     Good remuneration.

The last three adjectives he found pleasing.  He walked on a few paces. Stopped.      He smoothed his rough unwashed thatch of hair, tidied his reefer jacket. Coughed, hawked up something unspeakable which he forcibly spat into the gutter and turned.

    Soft chimes sounded from the back of the shop as he entered. After a few  moments, the curtain was pulled aside and the owner of the shop, lightly walked in.

    “Good morning, thir! I athume you thaw my little advert in the window and you are interethted?”

 Rufus blinked, he was taken aback by the proprietor’s sudden appearance and perception.

  “Yeah! Yeah! That’s right.  Mind you, it depends like on what you got in mind, like with my back I gotta be careful with things, like.”

    “Whatever! I think you could well fill the bill. Jutht what I’m looking for!”

Rufus couldn’t believe his ears,

   “Really?.. You sure?  What’s it all about then? Must be a snag somewhere.”

  “No! No! My dear Rufuth, you’ll do! Morningth only. Light cleaning. Bit of carrying- nothing heavy. Leaveth me free to deal with more prething matterth.  You hold the fort in the thop in my abthence- I’ll give you a key. What about thith for remuneration?”

      He handed over a slip of paper. Rufus glanced at it. He gasped.

  The Connoisseur whispered, “Gelt, of courthe. Rufuth! Gelt! Hard cash! Just between ourthelveth! Thtart tomorrow?”

  Rufus found himself outside on the pavement, wondering if this was all a dream, this was the first steady job offered to him for years! And what a screw! Part time, no questions asked! No need for the social security boys to know. He couldn’t get to the White Rose quick enough for a celebratory pint,- if there was enough left from his payout.

…………………………………….     

       Back in the Central, D/I Parker was baffled. He was unable to find any information on the Connoisseur. In fairness, he had no justification to root around, but, there was something there he was not happy with- old copper’s instinct?   There was nothing on record at central intelligence and the last thing he wanted to do was to go in and ask questions. The Connoisseur looked like one of those smoothies who knew his way about, especially when it came to harassment. No, thought Parker, enough to do elsewhere but I’ll keep an eye on the little prat, all the same.

………………………………………….

Next morning, surprisingly, Rufus turned up on time (almost). He had gone to the immense trouble of having a wash and a shave (even though he’d had one only two days before). A strong cup of tea and a few paracetamol had cleared his head and, now, he was as ready for work as he would ever be.

    As before, in response to the chimes, his employer made the theatrical entry via the curtains and came into the shop,

“Good morning, Rufuth! On time, I thee. Well done! Bodthe well for our future relationship!”

.   He shepherded him to a cupboard in the corner and opened it to reveal the cleaning equipment. Rufus’ drooping spirits lifted when he saw, on the top shelf, an electric kettle, cups, saucers and all that was necessary to make a brew.  A further delight was to see the green and red tea box that housed his favourite Yorkshire blend, alongside which a packet of Jammy Dodgers and Pot Noodles nestled. Rufus was a man of discerning taste.

  He was shown around the shop, his responsibilities spelled out, stressing the care to be taken in handling any of the contents, Finally, he was taken up to the tall cabinet standing in a rear corner.

     “Thith cabinet, Rufuth, ith very, very thpecial. The Toby jugth inthide are my own thpecial collection. Each one hath a tale. I had to pay dearly to gain possession of them. They are not for thale! Only I have the key to thith cabinet and only I clean them. You will polithh the glath on the outthide only.    Nothing elthe!     Underthtand!”

    The last words were quietly hissed. Rufus gulped and nodded and then turned to look at the contents. He drew in his breath sharply, the realistic eyes on the face of every one of those jugs seemed to be looking at him, (blimey, he thought, thirty Lord Kitcheners telling me, “I’m needed”).     He moved away, back to the cleaning cupboard.

       Without overexerting himself, Rufus worked his way into the job. He grinned to himself, it was a doddle!  Then, just before dinner time, came a surprise.

  “Rufuth! I have to pop out for a few minutes.  Keep an eye on the shop. Won’t be long”.     He departed.

 Rufus immediately downed tools, brewed another cup of tea, and took a Jammy Dodger.  Sipping and crunching, he walked around the shop visually examining the contents of the windows and that of the inside cabinets. Rufus would be the first to admit that he knew nowt about antiques but even he could see that this was quality stuff.

 His contemplation was interrupted; true to his word; the boss was back within minutes of leaving.

   “You may go home now, Rufuth, you have done well today.  Here! Take these!”

 He handed Rufus a bunch of keys.

    “You will use them tomorrow morning to unlock the thecurity thutters on door and windowth and then let yourthelf in. Take great care of them for obviouth reasonth. I thall not be plethed if you loothe them. Underthtand?”     

  As the last words were uttered, Rufus saw his boss’s eyes narrow behind the thick lenses. He nodded.

     “And clear up those crumbs from the floor before you leave!”

Rufus shuddered. Without knowing it, his thoughts were akin to those of his old adversary, D/I Parker- ‘you don’t mess about with a geezer like this’.

 ………………………………….. 

 Following morning, Rufus arrived, on time, and as instructed unlocked and ran up the roller shutters. He was impressed by their smooth soundless operation. The two locks on the door were turned and he walked in. True to pattern, within seconds, the Connoisseur parted the curtains and made his customary silent entrance.

       “Good morning, Rufuth!. On time I thee, well done. Get on with your chorth, I thall be back in a few minuteth. Any one callth in, tell them to wait!” He departed,

    Rufus pulled out the new Dyson and listlessly pushed it about, as he skirted the glass topped cabinets he paused to view the contents. His eye settled on a tray of men’s gold rings. He passed, wheeled about and came back. He glanced over his shoulder at the door- no one around! He went behind the cabinet and found the lid unlocked. It took him less than a minute to raise, insert his hand and pocket a plain gold band ring, one of a dozen. He moved the rings slightly to close the gap and shut the lid.

 Within seconds, the ring lay securely in the back pocket of his frayed jeans. He grinned to himself, he knew of a ready home waiting for this little object the absence of which couldn’t possibly be detected from such a melange of gold trinkets.

     Old Seamus would cough up a ready tenner and no questions asked!

 He turned back to vacuum, humming happily.

  He nearly jumped out of his skin, when a voice spoke immediately behind him,

    “Obviously very happy in your work, Rufuth, I hear you hum. That pleathes me. I like my employeeth to be content!”

    “Blimey! You frightened the life out of me then. I didn’t hear you come in!”

    “Before you make your cup of tea, Rufuth, I wish to thow you thomething. How to deactivate the alarm thythtem.  When you enter the thop, you have two minuteth to act. Tap in thith number on the thecurity panel here behind the curtain”.

   He handed Rufus a business card with five numbers written on it.

 “Remember the numbers, Rufuth, and dethtroy the card. Thould be eathy for you. Firtht two numberth – your age.    Third, fourth and fifth- your houthe number!”

  Rufus smiled and then, suddenly, blinked. He had never given any personal information. He felt a bit uneasy.

………………..

 That night in the Rose, Rufus took Seamus to the far corner of the bar, to be alone.

“What‘ll you fork out for this, Seamus?” He produced the heavy gold ring. The old man looked quickly over his shoulder and grabbed the piece of jewellery.

  “Be careful, mun!  Where did you get this?” He turned towards the wall,  took in the eighteen carat hall mark and weighed it in his hand. He put it quickly in the poacher’s pocket of his greasy anorak.

     “I’ll bet a quid you lifted this from the shop you’re working in!  Didn’t you?”

Rufus smirked, “Could be, Seamus! Could be!   How much?   Tenner?” 

   “Follow me to the gents, Rufus and don’t speak until I say! OK?”

    In the toilets, Seamus lifted a warning finger to his lips, he kicked open the doors of the WCs; satisfied, he took a roll of grubby notes from his inside pocket and peeled off one.

Later outside the pub,

     “Be careful, Rufus! But anything else like this, I can shift. OK?”

……………

   Slowly the business picked up and, whenever necessary, Rufus stayed in the shop and held the fort in his boss’s absence. More often than not, he took advantage of these excursions but, heeding Seamus’ warning, he filched carefully and selectively. Always, it was something small, and one of many, that would find its way into his back pocket; with such an extensive stock in the cabinets, nothing apparently was missed.

    The days went by and Rufus began to think that his guardian angel was watching over him. He couldn’t believe his luck, the work was light, ridiculously well paid and often he was sent home early. His boss may have been a good business man but it was obvious to Rufus that he was trusting to a degree bordering on downright stupidity. Rufus didn’t mind –it suited him fine!

  Greed often leads to downfall and, maybe, if Rufus hadn’t succumbed to the blandishments of old Seamus, this nice little scam would have continued indefinitely and not finish in the terrifying way that it did.

  Seamus was a bitter man and never missed a chance to hit back at the society which, he felt, had treated him so badly. After a long and cruel war he had been discharged, because of wounds, with a miserly pension and the resulting rancour had extinguished any trace of conscience. Society owed him a living and Seamus took every opportunity to see that that debt was paid. He was too shrewd to involve himself directly in any theft but was always there to buy the right stuff, no questions asked. He never unloaded his spoils locally and a few times a year he would disappear off the local scene,

      “To have a little holiday, maybe do a little business- who knows,” he smirked.

      Surprisingly, he had “no form” but D/I Parker, amongst others, swore that he would finger his collar one day.

    “We all know what that shifty little devil, Seamus, is up to and, sooner or later, I’m going to nail him. With six inch nails to a brick wall. He never carries the can, it’s always someone else. But I swear, I’ll get him ….and when I do, he’ll go down for a long time…!” .

…………..        

   A week later, Seamus made his play.

           “Rufus, my old mate!  I’ve got to give it to you, boy! You’ve put your hands on some good stuff.  Lovely stuff.  Stuff easy to move on. But have you stopped to think?      Now listen to me!        Do you realise what a fantastic position you’re in? This boss of yours trusts you. Blindly!    He should have his head examined”.

     Seamus looked around. He put his arm around Rufus’ shoulder and steered him outside the pub, across the road to the public toilets. Usual precautions, no one there. He spoke,

        “Look Rufus! There’s a fortune there, waiting to be picked up and no one will ever think you’re involved! You tell me you’ve got the keys. You know the alarm code. You’ve got the lot! There must be the odd occasion, surely, when your boss leaves the premises to go away. You can walk in. Pick up the best stuff. Lock up and walk out! I can give you a shoulder pack, gloves, headlamp - the lot!  That’s all you need! Choose the light stuff. Forget the Rembrandts - hard to unload those. Plan exactly, in order, what you’re going to nick. You’ll be in and out in minutes.  I’ll be round the corner with a van. Pop the haul to me. Push off back to bed. I’ll do the rest. In the morning you turn up. Surprise! Surprise!   There’s been a burglary! Nothing to connect it with you! Everyone knows you, Rufus, such a heist is way out of your league! You’re a small time tea leaf, Rufus.  You couldn’t possibly handle anything like this. How could you trade it on, anyway? Out of your league, my lovely boy. I’m telling you, Rufus, I could give you a kick-back on this, so big that you’ll never be short of the ready again for the rest of your life!”

   Rufus shied back.

“Blimey! What you talking about, Seamus!  No way! I don’t mind picking up this and that, here and there, but hell! This is like nicking the crown jewels!”

     “That’s why no one will connect you to it, you dummy! Look! Go home, Rufus!   Have a think. Look at the manky way you live. Think what a few quid could do for you. You know where I am, you pathetic little twit! Shove off home!” He pushed him away.

     They left the salubrious premises and parted.

  Rufus went home and had a restless night. This could be the answer to a prayer!  Or, knowing his luck, a short cut to becoming a guest again in one of HM’s boarding houses. He’d already been there twice and he hadn’t liked the accommodation, the food and, in particular his fellow guests. He was in a dilemma.

      Then, somehow, things started to take control of themselves, like a runaway express train. On the Friday morning, whilst casually chucking around the Dyson, he was interrupted by his employer.  

    “Rufuth!  You can enjoy a long weekend. I’m off to London on Thunday morning, back on Tuethday. NO need to come in on Monday. Jutht keep an eye on the thop when pathing!””

 “Yeah, OK, Boss. Yeah! Fine. No problem. See you!”

        Rufus couldn’t believe it!  Cor! Made to measure!  

    What would Seamus make of this? Here was the opportunity he said might turn up!   He went straight down the Rose. Seamus was in his usual corner, sipping a pint. He saw the excitement in Rufus’ face.

        “Here sit down, you stupid ‘aporth. You’re sending out signals like a flaming lighthouse!” He went off to the bar and brought back a pint.

          “Drink this. Cool off. What the hell’s the matter with you?”

      “Like you said Seamus! It’s happened!”

“What’s happened?”

  “The boss is away over the week end!”

    “No wonder you’re het up! Now quickly, sink that and push off.  Keep well away from me and have nothing to do with me from this moment on. I doubt very much, Rufus, if you’ve read much Shakespeare, but, as the Bard said,

      “…we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures..”.

   . Rufus looked  bewildered.   Seamus moved hastily on,

      “Never mind!  Just go, Rufus. I’ll see you in the choo-choo across the road.

  Tonight, at eleven!”

 Seamus went back to his corner. Rufus sank his pint and departed.

The evening dragged.

Eleven o’ clock, he slipped in to the side entrance of the public loo. It looked empty but a toilet flushed in one of the cubicles and out came Seamus. He pulled Rufus outside into the bushes. He spoke very softly.

    “We do it, Sunday night. Late.  Nip round the back of my place in an hour’s time.. I’ll let you in. We talk. Whatever happens, don’t let anyone see you come, OK?”

Rufus nodded. He went home.

 As arranged, Rufus nipped up the back lane to Seamus’ house. A tap on the back door and it was opened immediately. Seamus pulled him in to his kitchen and talked earnestly for a good twenty minutes. A very simple plan but he didn’t let Rufus go until he was happy. Then, before letting him back out into the dripping, overhung lane, Seamus fired a parting shot,

    “This will be the making of you, Rufus, you’ll never have to worry about needing a bit of the ready any more. It’ll all be in untraceable cash. Hide it and spend it sparingly. But before you go, let me tell you one thing, boyo! “

 He gripped Rufus’ arms and pulled him close. Their heads were inches apart. He looked hard into Rufus’ eyes,

    “Now look! There’s nothing can spoil this except your own stupidity. If you make an ‘ows-yer-father of this and Parker gets his cuffs on you- you will keep your trap shut! There’s nothing to connect me with any of this and that’s the way it’ll stay! 

Get me! If you go down, you go down alone!  You keep your trap shut! I’ll look after you whilst you’re inside and when you come out. BUT! If you get me fingered, Rufus, I’m telling you, boy, you won’t know what hit you!”

    His grip tightened and he shook Rufus hard as he growled out the last sentence.

 Rufus stared helplessly, gulped and nodded.

   “Now!  Shove off!    Next time I see you, you’ll be handing me the goods!

There’s only yourself to worry about- nothing else can bring you grief!”

Rufus slid out into the lane and sneaked away, Seamus’ last words echoing in his head,

“…There’s only yourself to worry about-nothing else can bring you grief,…!”

      He had no idea just how very wrong that message was.

………………………………………..

  Sunday dawned. Early Churchgoers shuffled their ways through a dark village enshrouded in heavy sea mist, to the melancholy of which was added the eerie muffled wail of the fog horn on the Lighthouse island. 

  This mist persisted throughout the day, without lifting, and on into the evening.

  Rufus, as per his briefing, remained indoors all day and, as the hour approached, prepared himself for the planned heist. The fog was a bonus.  The hour came.

  He left his TV on a bit louder than normal and switched on his bedroom lights. Just before midnight, he silently slipped out of his home and, by a devious back lane route, made his way to the shop. He encountered nobody. Excellent!  The Parade, as expected at this hour, was deserted. He donned the latex gloves, quickly unlocked the door shutter and ran it up soundlessly. He unlocked the door and quickly pulled the shutter down behind him,

Perfect! All done in seconds and nobody about on this filthy night! He fed in the appropriate code to disarm the security system and, elated by his slickness, set about his task He put his pack on the floor, fitted his head light, and made a beeline for the cabinets of his choice. Within minutes, all those preselected valuables were in the pack.          

    He turned to go, well ahead of schedule. Then the tall glass cabinet, in the corner of the shop, caught his eye. The one that contained the Toby jugs.    He hesitated.   

He knew how highly valued these were and he had more than enough room in his pack for one or two. He cursed, he didn’t have a key!  But, there was time, he decided to force the lock.

     He placed the edge of a screw driver into the frame. Inadvertently, the beam from his head torch flashed across the faces on the jugs. He shuddered.

     They were all looking at him.   

Then, he thought he heard a sound.       

He looked around.       

Nothing.

 He turned back to the cabinet and re-applied the screwdriver.  Again, a slight sound, behind him.           

Rufus sniffed- funny- Violets?

                            A hand was gently placed on his shoulder.

          Rufus froze.     He had never been so terrified in his whole life.

           He turned and found himself facing the Connoisseur.

The light from his head lamp was reflected back from the heavy glasses, yet, he could see the dead staring eyes behind them, eyes that belied the smile on his employer’s full lips.          Softly the Connoisseur spoke,

     “I wath expecting you, Rufuth!  Jutht drop your bag and come through to the back with me,   I have a nice surprithe for you!”

    The bag fell from hands that had suddenly lost all their strength.  Rufus felt he had lost control, not just over his body, but over his entire being. The Connoisseur placed an arm over his shoulders and gently shepherded him through to the back of the shop.

………………………………………………………………………..

That night, in the wee small hours, a few villagers were disturbed in their slumbers by what they thought was the plaintive sound of a seagull, or something like it, calling to the night in anguish; others said that they had heard a single long rolling peal of thunder.

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

      Seamus gave up after an hour and went home, cursing himself for being so stupid as to deal with half wits like Rufus.

 “Never again! You do all the work. Lay it on a plate and they always make a dog’s dinner of everything. I never learn!”

  He went home. Downed a stiff drink and went to bed. He had hardly gone off when some thing or another woke him up. He turned over, grumbling and swore vengeance on Rufus when he caught up with him.

………………………………………………………………………………………..

    For a day, or so, little concern was shown for Rufus’ absence from the village scene. However, missing for several days from his favourite drinking holes, raised comment and, although not regarded with any great degree of affection, by the end of the week, there was concern. Someone knocked on his door. No reply. His door was forced but no sign of Rufus.  His TV was on and the lights were on, but no Rufus.

    Seamus didn’t know what to think, certainly Rufus didn’t have the bottle to do a flier with the goods. Besides, a successful burglary of any magnitude in this village, would have caused a hell of a stir by now.  The last thing Seamus intended to do was show any interest in the absence. He shrugged his shoulders, picked up his pint and came to a decision. Masterly inactivity was the answer but, when he did get hold of him, he’d ring his grubby neck.

      Through the usual channels, it reached Parker’s office.

It was Parker’s business to know the movements of certain types in his manor. He’d long been informed by one of his snouts that Rufus was working at the Connoisseur’s. And now he was missing. He sent a uniformed plod to Rufus cottage to make routine enquiries.  An obvious early call, too, was his workplace. Parker decided to do that himself.

………………..

    As before when the D/I entered the shop, the owner appeared promptly from behind the curtains, again the barely perceptible bouquet of violets.

 “Good morning, Inthpector! I think I know why you are here.”

 Parker felt the hairs rise on his neck– what was there about this man?

“Indeed, and why is that, sir?”

“Well, ath I’m thure you know, I employ local fellow, Rufuth, to carry out thothe rather tediouth tathks that arise from running a buithneth thuch ath mine. He theemed quite happy and then, thuddenly, he’s not here!   I do hope I haven’t upthet him in any way.  I’m thure you’ve come to theek any information or maybe you bear newth for me?”

 “Well first of all, sir. Anything missing from your stock? That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Has he dipped his sticky fingers and taken a flier? I assume, with the quality of the stock that you have, that you keep a tight check on it.  Anything missing,  no matter how small?”

  “Well, Inthpector, as far as I can thee, nothing hath gone. Mind you, I must confeth that that thought did croth my mind.      But, no!  Nothing  appearth to be mithing.

How unkind we are to mithjudge Rufuth in that way!”

  Parker was, well and truly, perplexed. Rufus was a light fingered little git, he knew that, and it was just  the sort of half baked thing that he would do- pinch from his boss, disappear for a day, or two, and come back to try and lie his way out of trouble (never successfully). But, all this was out of pattern. Nothing missing. No sign of Rufus for a week. His cottage left with lights on.

   It didn’t take a genius to realise that something was very wrong somewhere.

 “Well, sir, it appears that he’s not committed any crime here. Maybe he’ll turn up, or get in touch, in a week or so. Please ring me if he does, or, if you have anything to add.  You have my number.    Thank you for your time, sir!”

   The Connoisseur looked into the D/I’s face. He smiled,

 “Alwayth ready to help our guardianth of the peace, Inthpector”.

      Parker turned to go. He swung round and his glance took in the tall cabinet in the corner, the one that held the precious Toby jugs.

 Something caught his eye.   He turned back and approached the cabinet.

 On a lower shelf, behind two other jugs, was a flash of colour he hadn’t seen before. This jug had a figure with flaming orange hair and there was a familiarity about the caricatured features.  D/I Parker felt a clutch at his heart.    He looked closer. 

 Scruffy trainers were topped by faded jeans and a blue seaman’s jersey. A faded navy blue reefer jacket was open to reveal- in meticulous detail:

  A belt with the Boy Scout, fleur de lis, buckle.

   “Thomething wrong, Inthpector? You look pale. Can I get you a drink?”

………….

   With heart thumping, Parker hastened from the shop, stumbling out on to the pavement. He crossed the road to the deserted Gardens, impervious to the first fine snowflakes of winter settling upon him. Short of breath, he dropped on to the nearest bench, removed his hat and felt the cooling snow fall on his damp forehead.

He was trembling.

   How long he sat there before his shocked system began to normalise, he had no idea.  But gradually, the innate physiology of his body reasserted itself and the pounding and trembling ceased. Yet, his mental state remained in turmoil.

   What had he encountered that morning? This was something beyond all logical explanation. He replayed the morning’s events through in his mind, again and again.   .    It terrified him.  

   He had no idea what this was all about; it was something far beyond his ken. Who on earth would believe his account of what he had witnessed that day? He questioned his own sanity and desperately wondered how to move on.

   The snow was now falling more heavily and he began to feel the bitter cold creeping in to his bones, yet he continued to sit there. He leaned forward, rested his head in his hands and searched his mind.

      In despair, he prayed for guidance.     He began to calm down.

    In the back of his mind, in that terrifying blackness, enlightenment slowly came like the dawning of a new day and, with the increasing light, came understanding.   .         

        Of course! 

 Parker stood, pulled himself up to his full height and firmly replaced his trilby hat.

Now he knew what path to take and he vowed, for Rufus’ sake, to take it.

With purpose, and now composed, D/I Wesley Lloyd-George Parker walked off into the swirling snowflakes.                

                                                                                        

 

      (Mumbles Oct. 2013)


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