Albert Fisher pulled on his boots and opened the door. It was still dark and the scent from last night’s firework display hung in the air, a reminder of another year gone.
He pulled his scarf around his neck and his hat over his ears. Jet, his dog, put his nose out of the door, sniffed and retreated back indoors.
“Come here, you soft bugger.”
With his head down, the dog trotted unenthusiastically back to his master who shut the door firmly behind them both. With his faithful companion at his side, Albert went across to the barn to check on his pigs. Grunting and squealing greeted him as he pulled open the door and he walked down the length of the barn, topping up troughs as he went. As he turned around to go back to where Jet was waiting for him, he stopped in his tracks and looked up. He could hear a woman screaming. It was Doris.
Spinning on his heels he ran back down the barn, his breath coming in clouds from his open mouth. As he rushed into the farmyard, he stopped suddenly. Doris was sitting in the hen-house, covered in feathers; they were sticking out from her face like hedgehog prickles.
“What are you doing there, you daft bat?” Albert shouted across to her, affectionately.
“A White Devil’s stolen a hen. He rubbed his slimy face on mine and stole a hen.”
“A White Devil! Have you been at the cooking sherry again?”
I sat in my chair, leaned back and put my feet upon the desk. My office fitted me like a pair of comfortable slippers, all that I was missing was a pipe. I had been here, in this little Lincolnshire town, for over a year now. I had even had my second Christmas here, and a good one it had been too. My hands rested on my stomach which was still recovering from not only the Christmas excesses but the New Year party the night before. My head was spinning and pink elephants were dancing a Highland jig on my head. Why had I volunteered to man the station this morning? Shepherd and Grayson would be tucked up in their beds, snoring away their hangovers. Even Fiona had still been asleep when I had crept out of the house.
I checked the duty rota; Flowers should have been here with me. Where the blazes had he got to? I decided to wander out into the main office to have a look around. Everything was quiet. I walked over to the station door and pulled it open. A cold breeze attacked me, making my eyes water and my breath freeze; it ran around me, pinching and poking, looking for exposed patches of skin that it could run its fingernails down. It found my neck. I slammed the door shut in its face and retreated inside, leaving the breeze hammering on the glass, trying to force a way in. Sticking my tongue out at it, I went back into the warmth of my office.
I was still rubbing my neck when there was a knock on the door. Flowers entered.
“Morning, Sir.” Why was he so cheerful, didn’t he know that hangovers were de rigueur today?
“You’re late!” I would teach him to be so damned cheerful.
“Sorry, Sir. Bit of an odd thing, really. As I was driving in, I saw a couple of suitcases outside The Cat and Fiddle. So I stopped.”
“They were full, Sir.”
“Of clothes, Flowers?”
“No, Sir.” Flowers looked pleased with himself. “Cooking fat.”
“Two suitcases of cooking fat?”
Flowers nodded, a smile broadening on his face.
“Just bring me some tea, Flowers. I’ll decide what to do in a minute.”
Flowers shut the door and I could hear his footsteps disappearing. Cooking fat! What stunt was Bob Archer trying to pull now? What would a landlord of a pub want with two suitcases of cooking fat?
The return of Flowers, balancing two mugs of tea and a plate of custard creams, interrupted my thoughts and I watched the constable, his face a picture of concentration, trying not to spill the tea.
“Thanks, Flowers. Just what I needed.” I picked up a biscuit and pulled it apart, smiling at its delicate yellow cream. “So where did you put the suitcases?”
“Put them? I didn’t put them anywhere, Sir. I left them.”
“What?” I spat crumbs over my desk. “Why? They are evidence.”
“Of what, Sir?”
“I don’t know, not yet. Finish that tea and come with me. We’re going to pick up the cases and have a word with Bob Archer.
As we drove the short way to The Cat and Fiddle, I thought about how my life had changed since arriving in this little Lincolnshire town over a year ago, a move that had been arranged by the Met. Five years previously, a particularly difficult case had blown my world apart, destroyed it; recovery had been a long process and my new identity and my posting here were all part it. When I had arrived here, I never thought that I would find happiness again, but I had done with Fiona Davies, the beautiful local GP; I had also become very close to my sergeant, Alan Shepherd, and his fiancée; in fact I was going to be ‘father of the bride’ at Easter. Unfortunately, a couple of months ago something occurred which made me think that the past was catching up with me; I knew that I would have to be on my guard to protect those close to me. There was no way on earth that I was going to let the bastards destroy my life for a second time.
The first thing that we noticed was that the pub looked asleep as we pulled up; it had evidently enjoyed the party as much as the regulars. The second thing that hit us was the total absence of suitcases. There was not a suitcase to be seen for miles. We got out and I locked my red Audi A4. I still missed my green Mondeo, it had been a faithful friend for many years, but a bit of careless driving on my part had been the cause of her demise. Fiona had fallen in love with the Audi, and so here I was in a red car. Red! I always felt like a pimple on a teenager’s face when I was driving it, bloody obvious.
“Let’s go round the back, Archer is probably clearing up.”
I led the way, with Flowers following, heavy-footed, behind me. I was so used to Shepherd scampering after me that the noise of Flowers’ boots was making my head ring. I should have left him at the station. Bob Archer was in the kitchen, arms in the sink. He looked up at us and growled. Wiping his hands on a tea-towel, he turned and his stomach led him to the door. I heard the lock pulled back.
“Morning, Bob. Happy New Year to you.” I smiled at him, my brightest smile.
“What d’ya want?”
“Suitcases, Bob. Constable Flowers found two suitcases in front of the pub this morning. I’d like to take a look at them, please.”
Bob Archer looked at me as if I had just dropped out of the moon. “You been drinking, Malone? What suitcases? I haven’t seen no suitcases.”
“Early this morning there were two …” I turned to Flowers. “What colour?”
“Early this morning, Bob, there were two blue suitcases outside the pub. What happened to them?”
“We’ll have a look around, Bob, if you don’t mind.”
“If you want to come in here, get a search warrant.” The door slammed in our faces.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth, Sir?”
“Not sure. He evidently has something to hide or he would have let us in. However, no magistrate is going to grant a search warrant for a couple of suitcases. Let’s get back to the station.”
We walked back to the car. Bob Archer was no longer in the kitchen. As we passed the window, the sink was deserted.
Back at the station, I left Flowers writing up a report about the missing suitcases; I would be circulating their description later, asking for information about their whereabouts. In my office, I spotted that the answer-phone light was flashing. What now? What other crime was going to greet me on the first day of the New Year? I pressed the button and waited with bated breath.
“Is that the Police?” The voice of a man crackled out of the speaker, not a young man. “It’s Albert Fisher here.” Albert! He sounded sober for a change. “Doris has been attacked by a White Devil. It’s stolen a chicken.”
The answer-phone clicked off and I put my head in my hands as my New Year’s resolution exploded into a million tiny stars; my New Year’s Resolution to solve sensible crimes only and not crimes involving naked sheep, over-fed pigs or silver cows. I looked at my watch. Half-past nine. My resolution had lasted for only nine and a half hours. I pushed my chair back and went out into the main office.
“Come on, Flowers, we’re off to Albert Fisher’s. We’ve got a hen and a White Devil to find.”