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A Wild Goose Chase

This piece is another Leipfold short story. I had planned to explore his backstory through a short story collection, but I’m not sure what’s happening with that due to it taking me forever to get the first novel out. Still, it’s a fun intellectual activity to see what he was like when he was younger, and a few familiar faces make a special guest appearance too. Enjoy.

 

LEIPFOLD HAD A HANGOVER.

It was a banging hangover, the kind that takes your legs out from beneath you and leaves a gritty, bloody taste in the mouth. He hadn’t showered for several days, he’d been drinking for about as long, and he couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten. There was a vague recollection of dry roasted peanuts, but he couldn’t place it. From the night before, perhaps.

He groaned and raised his head. It throbbed like he’d been kicked in the head by an angry mule.  The angry world was spinning in front of him, and he dropped his head again. It thudded off something solid and the pain blinded him all over again. He blacked out.

Leipfold woke up for the second time several minutes later. The ache hadn’t subsided, but the world was slightly more in focus and he was able to focus enough to see the hands of the clock as they ticked slowly around, marking the seconds as life slipped away from him.

He sighed and massed his temples, then forced himself to stand up and to look around him. He was at home, in the tiny London bedsit that he’d moved into after his dishonourable discharge from the army. He hated the place, but it was all he could afford – and without a fixed job, he didn’t think much of his chances of getting out of there.

Leipfold brushed his teeth and made himself a strong cup of coffee, then whipped together a bowl of instant noodles. He smothered it with soy sauce to try to give the stuff some flavour, then scooped the noodles lazily into his mouth with a plastic fork. It tasted like shit in a sandwich, but it was all he could afford – and, according to his calculations, it offered the most calories for the lowest price. The soy sauce was his only luxury.

Leipfold didn’t have a phone, so he started every day by taking a trip down the stairs to the front door, where his mail was deposited on the floor in an ugly bundle by the building’s lazy postman. He sorted through it, dropping his neighbours’ mail into the relevant slots and keeping hold of a couple of pieces that were addressed to him. His mail could wait – he could already tell that they were bills, and there was no point opening them until he knew he had the money to pay for them.

He tottered outside and breathed deeply as the cool, spring air hit his nostrils. The fresh air helped, and the hangover slipped to the back of his mind, at least for a moment. He wondered if he was safe to drive, then figured that even if he was, he wouldn’t be for much longer. So he decided to walk to the Rose and Crown instead.

The old pub wasn’t the most inspiring of places, but it was good enough for Leipfold as a base of operations. Cedric, the landlord, was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who didn’t ask too many questions of his customers. And he owed Leipfold a favour – a big one – from back when he’d been too young to even drink in the establishment. Leipfold used it as a pass to use the pub’s telephone, making a dozen or more calls a day. He was in trouble.

He needed work.

He ordered a pint from the bar and carried it over to his usual table in the corner. Cedric had already stacked up the day’s papers with The Tribune on top, so Leipfold settled into his daily routine by skimming through the paper until he reached the jobs section and the personal ads. They were always the same, or close enough for it to make no difference. Since his discharge from the army, he’d worked a number of dull, dead end jobs which had helped to pay the bills but which had left him feeling worn and backbroken, his spirits crushed. And most had only kept him for a couple of days – a week at the most – before letting him go.

The door opened and a man walked in, but Leipfold was in a world of his own. His hands were absentmindedly circling possibility opportunities while his mind wandered off by itself. Then someone sat a glass down on the table in front of him and startled him so much that he knocked the papers to the ground.

Leipfold looked up at the man and found himself facing another surprise. The man was not just a man – he was a policeman in full uniform, a sight that you didn’t often see in the Rose and Crown. The officer smiled and Leipfold looked at him – really looked at him. There was something in his eyes or his chiseled brow that reminded him of–

“James Leipfold,” the policeman said. “Long time no see.”

“It’s you,” Leipfold replied. “I remember you.”

“Yes,” the cop said. He smiled. “I see you don’t remember my name, though. Jack Cholmondeley. Good to see you again.”

“I suppose it’s good to see you too,” Leipfold replied. “How have you been?”

“Not bad,” Cholmondeley said. “Not bad at all.”

They paused. Leipfold took a swig from his drink and looked at the policeman, who smiled and slid another pint across to him.

“I can’t drink on duty, James,” Cholmondeley said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a drink on me. I heard about what happened to me.”

“Nothing happened to me.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Cholmondeley said. “But perhaps it’s for the best. You were always too good for the army.”

“People died,” Leipfold murmured.

“That’s what people do.”

Another silence descended on the two men. Leipfold stared moodily at is pint while Cholmondeley’s radio crackled.

“How are you making your money, James?” Cholmondeley asked, eventually. Leipfold looked across at him sharply, but he could detect no malice in the policeman’s eyes. For what it was worth, it seemed like a genuine question.

“I’m not,” Leipfold said. “Not really.”

“I thought as much.” It went silent again. Leipfold left Cholmondeley with the stack of papers while he nipped to the little boys’ room. When he came back, the policeman was still there, and he’d bought him another drink.

“Two drinks?” Leipfold said. He raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth. It was the early afternoon and Cholmondeley had just lined up pints number four and five, which meant he was already a little merry and well on the way to the blissful stage when anything seems possible, the best stage to be in when trying to land a little work. “Anyone would think you’re trying to corrupt me.”

“Something like that,” Cholmondeley said. “Listen, I have a favour to ask.”

“You have a favour to ask?”

“That’s what I said.”

Leipfold laughed. “You haven’t seen me for years. How did you even find me?”

“I have my ways,” Cholmondeley said.

Leipfold chuckled. “You think I’m yours for two pints?” he asked. He thought it over. “What the hell. What’s the favour?”

“Well,” Cholmondeley said. “That’s just it. I wanted to pick your brains about something. Something off the record.”

“Why me?” Leipfold asked. “Why not ask one of your coppers?”

“I don’t want anybody to know,” Cholmondeley said. “Nobody. But I need help. I think you can help me, and I also think you can keep a secret. Better still, you don’t know anyone that I know. I can talk to you in confidence.”

“You hardly know me.”

“That’s rather the point,” Cholmondeley said. He looked around the room conspiratorially and felt satisfied by what he saw. Then he reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a plain-looking envelope. He tossed it over to Leipfold, who held it suspiciously in front of his eyes before slitting the seal with a fingernail and opening it up. He tipped it upside down and a half dozen rigid sheets of paper slid out and onto the beer-stained table in front of him.

“They used PVA glue,” the policeman explained. “PVA glue and old newspapers. Looks like a kid’s art project.”

“What the hell is this?” Leipfold asked.

“See for yourself,” Cholmondeley said.

So Leipfold did. He picked up the first of the notes by the corner, then held it up to the light to examine it. Someone had made the note by cutting different letters out of a newspaper and sticking them to the page in a haphazard jumble of different colours and fonts. The first note read, “FOlL0w thE CLUeS, MR. P0LicEMaN.” It was followed by another note, and then another, both of which read like the riddles from the adventure books that Leipfold read as a boy. It was all, “I’m tall when I’m young and short when I’m old.”

Leipfold gasped as he continued to work his way through the letters, and Cholmondeley asked him what he made of it.

“Hard to tell,” Leipfold said. “But whoever sent them was well-educated. At least, they were well-educated enough to use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.”

“But what do they want?”

“It’s a treasure hunt,” Leipfold said. “Looks like you need to follow the clues.”

“No shit,” Cholmondeley replied. “I figured that out already.”

“How did you get the notes?”

“The first one was delivered to the station,” Cholmondeley said. “Addressed to me in a plain white envelope.”

“Does anyone else know about it?”

Cholmondeley shook his head. “Not yet,” he admitted. “It felt…personal, somehow. I didn’t want to share it.”

“But you shared it with me,” Leipfold reminded him.

“Well that’s just it,” Cholmondeley said. “I need help. I tracked down the first four clues without a hitch. Each one pointed to a location, and each location had another clue for me. But now I’m stuck on this one.”

Cholmondeley sorted through the sheets of paper until he found the one that he wanted, then slid it across to Leipfold over the table. Leipfold reached over to grab it, nudging his forgotten pint aside as he did so. He read the message out loud.

“I’m a place of worship but I live atop the river,” he intoned. “I’m the final little secret for the city to deliver.”

“Weird, right?”

“Not at all,” Leipfold said. “That’s Vauxhall Bridge.”

Cholmondeley looked across at him, stunned. “It is?”

Leipfold nodded. “There’s a sculpture of St. Paul’s on it. It’s down the side, but you can’t miss it if you look for it.”

“And you just happened to look for it?”

“I just know things,” Leipfold said. He grinned. “Have you wondered what this is all about? What these things mean and why they were sent to you in the first place?”

“Of course,” Cholmondeley replied. “Who wouldn’t? In fact, that’s the question that I want an answer to. And it’s why I’m trying to solve the bloody thing in the first place.”

“You must have some idea.”

“I have several,” Cholmondeley said. “But if I follow the clues to the end then I won’t have to speculate. I’ll know.”

“Spoken like a true copper,” Leipfold muttered.

“What was that?” Cholmondeley asked.

But Leipfold refused to repeat it, so Cholmondeley shook his hand and left him to it, scouring the paper for vacancies while cradling the remnants of his free pint of lager.

 

***

 

Cholmondeley headed back to the station and cracked on with his work, ploughing through case notes like there was no tomorrow until clocking off time, when he packed it all neatly away and headed out of the building. His meagre salary wouldn’t stretch to a vehicle, but he was more than happy to take the tube around – or, when he was on duty, to hop behind the wheels of a police vehicle.

It was getting late by the time that he left the office, but the treasure hunt felt like a stone around his neck and he knew that if he didn’t visit the bridge, he wouldn’t sleep. So he hopped on the Victoria line and raced over to Vauxhall Bridge, arriving in the south of the city just as the sun was starting to set.

Cholmondeley walked up and down the bridge with his usual policeman’s swagger, trying to get a feel for the place before he bit the bullet and looked for what he was looking for. He found it on the upstream side of the bridge, a sculpture of the city’s iconic cathedral in the hands of a beautiful woman who held a pair of calipers in her right hand and the cathedral in her left. She was tall – taller than any woman Cholmondeley had ever met – and she was imposing, and the policeman had no idea how he was going to get down to her.

And then he saw the message, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. It was written in waterproof chalk on the pavement and read “for a good time, call…” It was followed by an eleven digit phone number. Cholmondeley wrote the number down in his notebook and made his way to the nearest phonebox, then entered a few coins and punched a few digits. There was a click and then somewhere, a phone began to ring.

It rang and then it rang some more. Then it clicked through to an answering machine and a familiar voice transmitted itself through the airways.

“Hello, Jack,” Leipfold said. “It’s me.”

“Son of a bitch,” Cholmondeley growled.

“Listen, there’s a point to all of this,” Leipfold continued. “You’re probably asking what this is all about and why I put you through your paces to get you this far.”

“You’re damn right.”

“Do you remember the Swires kid? Well, he’s not a kid anymore. Word on the street is that he did something. He did something bad. Now, I’m willing to help you to take him down, but I needed a little assurance. If I help you out, you have to promise that you’ll take him down. If this comes back on me, he’ll have me killed.”

“It was a test,” Cholmondeley murmured.

“I need you to keep going on this one,” Leipfold said. “Bear with me, Jack. This one’s a tough one. I want you to find me the garden where sovereigns grow. Then find the place where the fish swim and jump into it. You’ll find the woman you look for with her feet in the silt.”

“And why should I do that?” Cholmondeley asked, although he knew he was talking to a recording. But Leipfold didn’t answer, and there was a click on the other end of the line as Leipfold’s cassette recorder kicked in. Cholmondeley slammed the phone back onto the hook and scowled at it, then headed underground again to retrace his steps.

Leipfold was still in the Rose and Crown when Cholmondeley got back there, although his voice was significantly more slurred and his eyes were like two pricks of light at the end of two tunnels. Cholmondeley wondered how many more drinks he’d had – and whether he’d had any success with his job hunt.

When the policeman entered, a morose silence descended amongst the punters. Even out of uniform, he had the look of someone official, and the evening drinkers at the Rose and Crown were the kind of people who didn’t like to be overheard by strangers. Cholmondeley ordered a pint – what the hell? he thought – and went to sit down next to Leipfold. The younger man didn’t even look up from his newspaper.

“How can I help you, Jack?” he asked.

“You bastard,” Cholmondeley replied. “What’s the deal? I should charge you for wasting police time.”

“You listened to the message, then,” Leipfold observed. “I know you, Jack. I know your kind. I’m willing to bet that you played it by the book. You wouldn’t have wasted police time. That’s why you’re here right now, in your civvies and not your uniform. You’re off-duty.”

“You still wasted my time,” Cholmondeley said.

“So?” Leipfold replied.

Cholmondeley growled and pushed himself back on his seat. Then he stood upright and motioned for Leipfold to do the same.

“You want to fight me?” Leipfold asked. He sounded wry, almost amused. The other punters had drawn back in a semicircle around them. For them, this was the night’s entertainment. They wouldn’t be happy until fists were flying.

But Leipfold refused to get up, and Cholmoneley’s anger dissipated as quickly as it came when he felt the eyes of the drinkers upon him. Leipfold eyed him warily and gestured to the seat opposite him. Cholmondeley took it and stared right back at him.

“Listen,” Leipfold said, carefully. He looked around the room, daring the drinkers to meet his eyes. He couldn’t risk being overheard – not with such a sensitive subject, and definitely not in the middle of the Rose and Crown. “Don’t cause a scene, okay? This is private business. That’s why I started the damn treasure hunt in the first place. If Swires finds out about this…”

“He won’t,” Cholmondeley said.

“Follow the clues, Jack,” Leipfold insisted. “You won’t regret it.”

Cholmondeley wanted to ask for further details, but Leipfold held up his hand and excused himself to go to the little boy’s room. He climbed out of the window and headed off into the night.”

 

***

 

It was the following afternoon, and while Cholmondeley was still following the clues on the sly, he’d roped in a little help from the diving team – a man called Wilko who looked a little like the fish that he swam with. Wilko was an unpopular man, but that worked in Cholmondeley’s favour. He didn’t have many friends at the station, but Jack Cholmondeley was one of the popular cops who seemed somehow destined for greatness. So when Cholmondeley asked him for a favour – “strictly off the record, of course” – the man felt almost contractually obliged to help him.

And so Wilko suited him while Cholmondeley drove the car, and they parked outside the Rose and Crown before cutting across the back and along to the riverbank. The water was muddy there and visibility was slim, and Cholmondeley didn’t even know what he was looking for. But with no other active assignments, Wilko was happy to have an excuse to look around, and the murky waters of the Thames provided the perfect training ground.

He went under for ten minutes or so, then surfaced again to get his bearings. He waved at Cholmondeley and removed his mouthpiece, then shouted, “I found something!”

“What is it?” Cholmondeley asked.

But Wilko just shook his head, reattached the mouthpiece and dived back under. He resurfaced a couple of minutes later with a leather case in his hands, which he hauled to the side of the river and dumped onto the bank. Cholmondeley couldn’t wait for the diver to resurface and disengage himself from his equipment, so he worked his hand at the straps and tugged it open. The water had rusted the buckles and the leather had lost some of its colour, but it held it together until Cholmondeley managed to get one of the straps unhooked.

Then a mini waterfall spilled out all over the pavement as the leather folded in on itself and the bag collapsed. The water was the colour of urine and smelled just as bad, and the bag itself had the smell of death all over it. Cholmondeley had smelled it just once before as the first responder to a grizzly suicide, and he knew that it would clog up his nostrils for the days and weeks to come.

Inside the bag, he found a severed arm, half a leg and a clump of scalp with the hair still attached. The stench was unbelievable. It took everything Cholmondeley had to hold his lunch in. Wilko, meanwhile, was spared the stench by his breather, which he was wisely still wearing. He looked quizzically at Jack Cholmondeley, who returned his gaze with a baleful frown.

“We’d better call this in,” Cholmondeley said.

The diver nodded at him and backed away from the bag, then took of his mask and switched back to the natural air that the planet had to offer. “I’ll see you back at the station,” he said. “If anyone asks, I wasn’t here.”

“I won’t involve you unless I have to,” Cholmondeley said. It wasn’t quite a promise, but it was good enough for Wilko, who left the scene and put the call in while Cholmondeley waited for backup to arrive.

Back at the station, they were able to take a closer look at the bag and its unpleasant contents. But Cholmondeley had seen enough, so he left it to the morgue to do their work and told them to have a report on his desk as quickly as possible. Cholmondeley wasn’t even in charge of the case – that dubious honour had been passed onto one of his superiors, a man called Bilstone who scared the bejeezus out of everyone he worked with.

So Cholmondeley found a quiet room with a telephone line and put a call in to the Rose and Crown. Cedric, the landlord, answered on the second ring. He sounded like he’d been drinking on the job, and Cholmondeley surmised that he probably had. It was that kind of pub.

“Get me James Leipfold,” Cholmondeley said.

“Never heard of him,” the man replied.

“Funny looking chap,” Cholmondeley explained. “Red hair. Drinks like a thirsty cat. Sits in your pub while trying to find work.”

“Oh, him,” Cedric said. “I know the one you mean. Hang on, I’ll go and get him.”

Cholmondeley waited impatiently for Leipfold to pick up the receiver. He could hear a dull chattering of voices in the background, the sure sign of a British pub in the inner city. Then Leipfold grabbed hold of the phone and said Hello. He was breathing heavily, like a smoker who’d just placed last in a marathon.

“Leipfold,” Cholmondeley growled, “you could have warned me.”

“Warned you about what?”

“The body, goddamn it,” Cholmondeley said. “How did you know it was there?

“I didn’t,” Leipfold replied. “It was just a good guess. Let’s just say that it was the word on the street.”

“I could bust you as an accessory after the fact.”

“You could,” Leipfold admitted. His voice was slurry but still legible, a little soft around the edges but still clearly the voice of a man who was in possession of all of his faculties. “I hoped that the little treasure hunt would impose upon you the seriousness of the help that I gave you. If word gets out, I’ll be skinned alive. I’m trusting you to keep it to yourself.”

“You made me prove myself,” Cholmondeley said, but he was laughing.

“I had to,” Leipfold replied.

Cholmondeley laughed. It was a bitter laugh, but it had its undertones of geniality, like a department store Father Christmas being made redundant.

“Well, I proved myself all right,” Cholmondeley said. “And now there’s a Jane Doe in the morgue. I don’t suppose you know what happened to her.”

“Blunt force trauma,” Leipfold replied. “At least, that’s the word on the street.”

“Well, we’ll see if that’s true.”

From the other end of the phone line, Cholmondeley could hear Cedric kicking up a fuss and trying to get Leipfold to hang up. The policeman guessed that another of his punters – probably one who paid better – wanted to use it.

“Is there anything else?” Leipfold asked.

“Well, I’m not amused by your bloody antics,” Cholmondeley began, “but I’d be lying if I told you that you don’t have a certain style. Are you sure you won’t reconsider joining the force?”

“I’m sure of it,” Leipfold said. “Jack, I really need to go. Good luck with your investigation.”

“You have a talent, James,” Cholmondeley replied. “A rare talent. If you won’t join me then perhaps you should work against me. Form a detective agency. Start putting those skills of yours to good use instead of wasting my time.”

Cholmondeley waited for a response that never came, but he did think he heard something in that final half a second as he pulled the receiver away from his ear and slammed it back into the cradle.

It sounded like laughter.

But Jack Cholmondeley wasn’t in the mood for laughter. He had half a body in the morgue and a whole heap of unanswered questions. He thought about Jimmy Swires, now grown older and uglier. And he wondered whether he was sleeping well that night.

Whether he had anything on his conscience.

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