Note: This is another of the short stories in the collection I’ve been writing about the early exploits of James Leipfold, the private detective character from my upcoming series. In this first draft, he’s still serving his time in Reading Jail.
LEIPFOLD WAS MINDING HIS OWN BUSINESS when the guards came in. He was alone in his cell, lying back on his bunk and staring absentmindedly up at the ceiling. Even up there, the paint and the plaster was covered with the rambling graffiti of a dozen different prisoners. Sometimes, when he was bored, he’d allow his eyes to wander over it again, just in case he saw something he’d missed. But that was unlikely, not with his memory. Like an elephant, he never forgot.
The screws ordered him to stand with his back against the wall, and he quickly obeyed them. He knew what happened if you tried a little civil disobedience, and he didn’t feel like being cuffed and taken to the hole. So instead, he stood back and allowed them to cuff him and drag him unceremoniously out of his cell, along the ganty, down the steps and through the administrative building towards the warden’s office.
“What’s this about?” Leipfold asked.
But the guards just shook their heads and continued to lead him on in silence. When they arrived at the warden’s office, the guards were quickly dismissed, and Leipfold was shown to his usual seat in front of the warden’s mahogany desk.
“Ah,” the warden said, “Leipfold.”
“Good morning, sir,” Leipfold said. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Yes,” he replied. “About that. Thing is, Leipfold, your name has been brought to my attention in connection with an assault.”
“An assault,” the warden repeated. “Your good friend Bear, to be more precise.”
“I heard about that.”
“Yes,” the warden said. “Well, about that. You see, my network of…uh, informants, believe that you’re responsible. I don’t need to remind you, of course, that this is a series matter. Bear is in the hospital wing.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’ll live,” the warden said. “But he’s livid. If he hears these rumours, he’s going to want to ask you a couple of questions. The attack left him blind in one eye, for god’s sake. It doesn’t look like there’s any neural damage, but it’s not always easy to tell.”
“What happened to him?” Leipfold asked.
“I was hoping you might be able to tell me,” the warden said. “It looks like he was attacked by some sort of heavy weight inside a sock. It must have been personal. They did their best to kill the guy.”
“That’s awful,” Leipfold said. “I’ll be sure to send him a bunch of grapes.”
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously,” the warden replied. “Do I need to remind you that you’re up for parole?”
“No,” Leipfold said. “I’m aware of that.”
“This could seriously compromise your chances, sonny Jim.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Leipfold protested.
“Would you tell me if you did?”
“No,” Leipfold admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I did it.”
“You might be right,” the warden said. “But I have to do something. I’m giving you a week. Find out who did it and report back to me. If you don’t come up with the goods, I’m going to have to hold you on suspicion of the assault.”
“Why don’t you just ask Bear?”
“Bear isn’t in much of a state to talk to anyone at the moment,” the warden said. “And besides, I get the feeling he’ll keep his mouth shut. Honour amongst thieves and all that.”
“Bear is no thief,” Leipfold murmured.
The warden turned his head sharply and looked over at him. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Leipfold said, shaking his head. “Just something that the other cons have been saying.”
“What?” the warden asked. He leaned in towards Leipfold until their faces were barely a foot apart. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know if I should,” Leipfold said. “I haven’t decided whether I believe it.”
“God damn it, Leipfold,” the warden bellowed, smashing his fist into the table and upsetting a half-eaten plate of wilted salad. “Tell me what you know right now.”
Leipfold sighed and leant back in his chair to try to avoid the worst of the warden’s spittle. It settled in Leipfold’s raggy, ginger beard like little flecks of dandruff or the food leftovers of a heavy meal.
“There’s a rumour,” Leipfold said. “Just a rumour, mind you. It’s going around that Bear was up for appeal and he might be getting out. The boys on the yard think that maybe there’s someone who doesn’t want him to get out. And there’s more.”
“Bear’s in for armed robbery, right?” Leipfold said. He didn’t wait for the warden to reply. “Well there are people who think he’s paying karma’s price for something else. They say he’s a sex pest. That he’s done a few things that he shouldn’t have done, to put it mildly. And as you can imagine, that puts him pretty low on the prison’s pecking order. You want me to find out who beat him up? It could have been anyone.”
“I’ll search his quarters, see what I can find,” the warden said. “But you’re going to have to work with me on this one.”
“Okay,” Leipfold said. “I’ll see what I can do. Will there be anything else?”
The warden shook his head and said there wasn’t.
Leipfold heard about the search a couple of days later. The warden didn’t take the time to update him, so he had to hear it on the grapevine. A Scotsman named Rod – one of Bear’s cronies and a strong contender for the hardest man in the facility – gave Leipfold an update in hushed towns in the rec room.
“They found some nasty shit in there,” Rod said. “Photos beneath his bed. Photos you’d never want to see.”
“Photos?” Leipfold repeated. “What were they of?”
“Kids,” Rod said, but he left it at that.
The news had spread halfway across the jail by the evening, and it was the main topic of conversation in the morning. Leipfold had spent the night thinking, catching just an hour or two of sleep, but he’d had an idea and after a careful evaluation, he’d decided to go with it.
He cornered Rod in the exercise yard – if you could call it that, when the man could have ploughed Leipfold into the ground without breaking a sweat – and outlined his proposition while the sun was still climbing up the sky.
“I need a favour,” Leipfold said.
“I’m listening,” Rod said, which in itself was a good sign. Leipfold had expected the man to laugh in his face. So he steeled his nerves and told Rod what he wanted from him.
Rod stroked his chin thoughtfully and looked at Leipfold, weighing up all 5”6 of him. At length, he asked, “What’s in it for me?”
Leipfold thought about it for a moment. “Well for a start,” he said, “you’d be helping me to get out of this dump.”
“Not interested,” Rod said.
“Okay,” Leipfold replied. “Well perhaps there’s something I can help you with. Something I can do in return.”
Rod thought it over for a moment. He looked Leipfold up and down again, trying to figure out how much he could trust him. “Well,” he said eventually. “There is one thing. But I don’t think you’ll be able to help me.”
“You’d be surprised,” Leipfold said. “What is it?”
“I was in a gang,” Rod explained. “Back in Glasgow. I won’t tell you which one, just trust me when I say that there are a lot of them. I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice.”
“I can imagine,” Leipfold said.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” the man said. “I hear you’re a good thinker. Well, perhaps you can think on this. I’ve been offered a reduced sentence if I testify, and our Joan has a kid on the way. I want to talk. I want to get out of here.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“You don’t understand,” Rod replied. “If I talk, they’ll kill her. They’ll kill me too. They’ll kill everyone I care about.”
“It could just be a threat,” Leipfold mused.
But Rod shook his head, exposing the tattoos on his thick, bullish neck. They wormed their way across his veins like lines on a cartographer’s work-in-progress.
“Okay,” Leipfold said. “I can see how that might be a problem. And if I help you, you’ll help me, right?”
“Then let’s do it,” Leipfold said. “Can you give me any names?”
“Yeah,” Rod said, and so he did. Leipfold jotted them dutifully down inside his notebook and promised he’d do his best, a plan already forming inside the brain that hid beneath his thick crop of ginger hair, directly behind the perpetual frown lines. Leipfold nodded at Rod and then quickly walked away to spend some time alone to mull things over.
Leipfold and his prisoners were allowed one call a week, and they had to be placed from a dreary communal room with grey walls and no windows. He was separated from inmates on either side by a pair of thin metal wings and a half-length curtain that was designed to give prisoners ‘privacy’ while still allowing the guards to see what – if anything – was going on.
But Leipfold had a good reason for not wanting to be overheard. He was putting a call into his local police station, and he asked the receptionist if they could put him through to Jack Cholmondeley.
Cholmondeley didn’t let him down.
“Leipfold,” he said. “Calling in from Reading Jail, no less. How’s it treating you?”
“Ah, you know,” Leipfold said. “Can’t complain.”
There was an awkward pause, and Leipfold and Cholmondeley both fell back into detective mode, listening to the ambient noise that was filtering in from the other end of the line and trying to picture the other man’s surroundings.
“Listen, Jack,” Leipfold said eventually. “I need a favour.”
Cholmondeley whistled softly through his teeth. “You’ve got a lot of guts, James,” he said. “You’re a convict and I’m a policeman. By rights, I shouldn’t even be talking to you. Why should I help?”
“Easy,” Leipfold said. “Because if you help me, I’ll help you to catch a criminal.”
“Interesting. Tell me more.”
“It’s out of your jurisdiction,” Leipfold said, “You’d need to work with the Scottish cops. Get it right, though, and you’ll be on the front page of the papers. This isn’t just any crime. It’s international.”
“Have you got any proof of wrongdoing?”
“I wish,” Leipfold said. “But I’m working on it.”
“If there’s no proof, my hands are tied,” Cholmondeley said. “Sorry, bud.”
“What if I get you your proof?”
“Then perhaps I can help,” Cholmondeley said.
“Great,” Leipfold said. “Listen, I can get you the proof you need. But I need you to put in a call for me.”
“Why can’t you do it yourself?”
“I get one call per week,” Leipfold said. “And I just used this week’s call on you.”
“So wait until next week,” Cholmondeley replied.
“I can’t,” Leipfold said, and then he explained why. Cholmondeley listened with mounting interest as Leipfold told him about the attack on Bear, the deal with Ray and the parole that he was hoping – perhaps naively – to be awarded. Then he dictated names, numbers and instructions, and Cholmondeley jotted them down as quickly as he could, occasionally asking Leipfold to repeat himself.
They were just in time. Leipfold’s call hit the threshold and was automatically cut off just as Cholmondeley was repeating his instructions back to him.
It was a couple of days later, and Leipfold was starting to worry. His usual fortitude had been replaced by a perpetual state of nail-biting nervousness, and he spent most of his time sitting in his cell and working on his case. Although he had no idea whether he’d even get to plead it.
In the afternoon, Leipfold was called into the warden’s office. He allowed himself to be manhandled along the gantry with unusual aplomb.
“Sit down, Leipfold,” the warden said, but Leipfold was way ahead of him and had already lowered himself into his usual seat in front of the warden’s desk.
“I thought you’d like an update,” the warden said. “I’ve just had your pal Jack Cholmondeley on the phone.”
Leipfold tensed and leaned forwards in his chair. “What did he want?” he asked.
“Seems like you provided him with some information,” the warden replied. “He wanted me to tell you that the Scottish police have made an arrest. He said, hang on…ah, here it is. He said, ‘Tell him his boys did good. They caught the Scallies in action and called it in. By the time the Scot cops arrived, they had three members of the Scally Gang trussed up at the scene. Wrapped up in masking tape and everything. Like I said, his boys did good.’”
“Uh huh,” Leipfold said. “Well that’s good news.”
“But what does it mean?”
“Just a little justice,” Leipfold said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay,” the warden said. “Well what’s the latest with Bear?”
“I’ve got nothing new for you,” Leipfold admitted. “But bear with me. I have a feeling that I’ll have something for you any day now.”
The next stage of the plan went without a hitch. Leipfold gave Rod the nod, and the two of them met up in the canteen, facing away from each other as they ate and talking in low voices so that they wouldn’t be overheard.
“We got them,” Leipfold said. “Your boys, the scallies.”
“Yeah,” Leipfold said. “Three of them, but they matched the descriptions you gave me. You sure that’ll be enough?”
“I hope so,” Rod said. “We got the ringleaders.”
“So you’ll testify?”
“I might do,” Rod said. “I’ll think about it.”
“But you’re going to help me,” Leipfold said. It wasn’t a question. “I held up my end of the bargain. Now it’s time for you to hold up yours.”
“All right,” Rod said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The Scotsman disappeared the following day, and Leipfold later heard a rumour that he’d agreed to testify against the Scallies and been placed on witness protection. Good on him, Leipfold thought.
He was unsurprised when the guards rattled his door and ordered him to follow them to the warden’s office.
“How can I help?” Leipfold asked, once he was safely sitting down in his usual place in front of the mahogany desk.
“Ah, Leipfold,” the warden said. “I have news for you. Looks like you’re off the hook. I’ve received some new information on the attack on Bear.”
“I have indeed.” The warden paused for a moment, his lips twitching like the curtains on a suburban street. They broke into a smile. “I’m sorry for ever suspecting you, James.”
“So who was behind it?” Leipfold asked.
“Oh,” the warden said. “Just some Scottish chap. Rod, I think his name was. Maybe Rob, I don’t know. Who cares? He came clean and told me all about it. Must have had a guilty conscience.”
“Must have,” Leipfold said. “So what happened to him?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll get away with it,” the warden said. “What with those photos we found, I’m sure the guards will turn a blind eye to it. And besides. He testified against his old gang and your pal Cholmondeley’s lot locked them all up. Rod’s getting out early and joining his family. They’ll be given new identities and we can all sleep easier knowing there’s a little less scum on the streets.”
“Well I never,” Leipfold murmured.
“Anyway,” the warden said, clapping Leipfold on the shoulder. “That’s good news for you of course. I’ll be giving you a clean bill when they put you up in front of the probationary board. I’ll even recommend that they release you, as much as it pains me to do so. We’ve got a date, too. Six weeks, think that’ll be long enough for you to polish your suit?”
“Only six weeks?” Leipfold replied. “Well damn, I’d better start getting ready.
That night, alone in his cell as the other convicts slept off another eventful day in the jailhouse, Leipfold was settling in for the night. He was lying on his bed and scoring a narrow gash in the wall with a fingernail, ticking the first day of many off in the first bar of a tally chart that would count out the way to freedom.
When the graffiti was complete to his satisfaction, he turned to the sock beneath his bed. It was just a plain, white, prison issue gym sock, but with a few red stains on it that looked like little spots of rust. And it was heavy, bulky, like a foot was already in it. Leipfold held it up to the light.
He climbed out of bed and surveyed his cell, then spent a few cautious seconds listening at the door. When he was as sure as he could be that he wouldn’t be disturbed, he upended the sock and scattered pebbles and grit across the floor.
He swept them beneath his bed with a bare foot, then spent the next two hours unpicking the sock and flushing the threads down the toilet. He whistled while he worked.