Note: This short story is another first draft from the collection of shorts I wrote about Leipfold’s backstory. Here, he’s setting up Leipfold Investigations for the very first time after his discharge from the army and his subsequent spell in Reading Jail.
LEIPFOLD WAS IN BUSINESS.
Sure, he was sleeping on a friend’s sofa and running the business from his seat in the corner of the Rose and Crown, but he’d made a start, and that was the main thing. He’d registered the business with HMRC, speculatively opened up a bank account and put a couple of adverts in the Yellow Pages. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Besides, he was already bringing in a little business through word of mouth alone. He’d been surprised by how many people had heard of him, and how many people whose lives he’d touched when he was younger. They all bubbled up out of the woodwork. He was making so much money that he’d put a deposit down on an office, a cosy, empty little place on Balcombe Street, just round the corner from Marylebone Station. He hadn’t moved in yet, but he was looking forward to picking up the keys – and he’d already planned out the layout to the last square foot.
Against his better judgement, Leipfold had taken out a loan from one of Rod’s mates from the London underworld. The guy was a shark, but that was okay – Leipfold had found a way to manage him, and they’d struck up a deal where Leipfold did a little work for him in exchange for paying no interest, although he still needed to earn a couple of grand to finish paying him off and to square up. But it was worth it, especially now that he was turning over something resembling a profit, and it had made up for the fact that no bank in the world would have lent a man like him any money.
Most of the work was boring and repetitive, research-based stuff that Leipfold could carry out from anywhere. His days followed a simple routine. Every morning, he’d head over to the library and do the crossword in one of their reading rooms before winding his way between the shelves to find the books that he needed for the day. He got most of his information from a combination of the local papers and obscure records from nearby parishes, but he also learned a lot from non-fiction books about fingerprinting and a new, up-and-coming field called forensics.
One of his main clients was The Tribune, the local paper. Leipfold had come across one of their adverts in the own classifieds, replied to it, been invited in and eventually offered up a first assignment, which he passed with flying colours. His work mainly consisted of tracking people down for the journalists, mostly people on the shadier side of society, the working class people looking for a fast buck in the big city by playing fast and loose with the law.
One morning, a couple of days before his move to Balcolmbe Street, Leipfold was summoned to The Tribune’s offices for a new brief. They handed him a file with the little information that they’d been able to gather, then sent him off to find a woman called Jessica Beard.
“Who is she?” Leipfold asked. “And why do you want me to find her?”
“She killed her husband and went on the run,” Jan Evans, the paper’s editor said. As well as being Leipfold’s boss, she was a skilled writer and an amateur cryptologist, so the two of them got on like brothers and sisters from other mothers and misters.
“Great,” Leipfold said. “Thanks for telling me. Shouldn’t we leave this to the police?”
“I don’t necessarily need you to find her for me,” Evans replied. “You know us, we don’t want trouble. We just want to sell papers. If you find her then we’ll have to tell the cops, and I’m not sure that we want that attention. But if you can get us a statement – maybe even an interview – then we get the best of both worlds. What do you say?”
Leipfold frowned. “I’ll do my best,” he said. “Where do I start?”
“We’ve managed to track down a childhood friend of hers. She gave us a comment for us to fall back on, but we want to hear Miss Beard’s side of the story.”
“Give me the information and I’ll go,” Leipfold said.
And so Evans gave him an address and he followed the trail up north to the Midlands. The childhood friend of the murderess came from a small town called Nuneaton, a dull little place that seemed to be full of working class grafters and OAPs. To Leipfold, it was the epitome of working class Britain, a typical ‘Northern’ town that was built on the sweat of coal miners and factory workers.
According to the brief he’d been given, Jessica Beard was suspected of shooting her husband. The police had released a statement to say that she was a person of interest, and they’d warned the public to stay away. There was even a hotline for anyone with information. Meanwhile, friends and relatives were coming out of the woodwork now that the story was starting to break. One man, an ex-boyfriend of hers, had told The Tribune that she was in the habit of making death threats, and he’d also shared his theory that she’d killed her husband for her money. He’d told the paper that “she’s the type”, and dropped a hint that her husband had been cheating on her. Leipfold didn’t know how much to credit this guy, but intelligence was intelligence. He’d learned back in the army that sometimes you had to trust it until you could prove otherwise.
All of this information gave Leipfold a few ideas, but Evans has a few ideas of her own and had ordered Leipfold to track down the childhood friend and to follow up any leads from there. Leipfold was expecting resistance, but the friend had been paid off by the paper and was more than happy to answer Leipfold’s questions.
“I might not be much help, mind,” she said. “We ain’t that close.”
“That’s okay,” Leipfold said, absentmindedly. “Can I come in?”
“What’s your name again?” Leipfold asked.
The woman laughed and told Leipfold that she was called Pamela, a fact that he remembered just as soon as she mentioned it.
“Thanks, Pamela,” Leipfold said. “Mind if I call you Pam?”
“You can call me Thomas if you like,” she said. “Makes no difference to me. What do you want?”
“I’m trying to get hold of Jessica Beard.”
“Of course you are,” she said. They’d reached her living room, and she gestured for Leipfold to sit down in one of her battered leather armchairs. He obliged but she remained standing, looking down at him from a position of power. “You’re just like the rest of them.”
“The rest of who?”
“The rest of the bloody journalists who won’t leave me alone,” Pam said. “They’re trying to dish up some dirt on Jess and I want to part in it. For the record, I think she’s innocent.”
“Interesting,” Leipfold said. “Why’s that?”
“It’s just not like her,” Pam said. “She’s a vegetarian for a start. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Leipfold shrugged. “People change,” he said.
“Not Jess,” Pam said. “I’ve known her since we were kids.”
“Perhaps you don’t know her as well as you think you do.”
“Perhaps.” Pam sighed and unfolded her arms, then pulled up some space on the sofa. Now Leipfold was slightly to her left, but the tension was already starting to dissipate and he was almost feeling welcome. He decided to chance it by asking for a cuppa, but Pam told him the milk was off so he settled for a glass of water.
“Well,” Leipfold said, “I love a good conspiracy. You say that you think your friend is innocent?”
“I can believe that,” Leipfold replied. “I haven’t seen anything that convinces me she’s guilty. But then, I haven’t seen anything to prove her innocence, either. Maybe I can help.”
“I can try,” Leipfold said. “But you’re going to need me to help you to help her.”
“How do I do that?” she asked.
Leipfold grinned. “To do that, you need to make an introduction.”
It took him a while, but Leipfold managed to convince Pam that he was neither a cop nor a journalist. His best – and only – evidence was the brand new pack of business cards that he’d had delivered a couple of days earlier, but their effect was lessened somewhat by the fact that they were still wrapped in plastic. Still, the fledgling detective was good at talking, if nothing else, and he managed to convince her of his integrity, if not his abilities.
As a result, he found himself in a face-to-face with the woman who he was never supposed to meet in the first place. They met up in a small café just off the high street. It was the kind of place that served greasy strips of bacon on chipped plates with little sachets of brown sauce for a side garnish. It was overflowing with builders, painters, decorators and plumbers – the kind of people who wear overalls to work and catcall women as they walked past to go to their important meetings and to move on with their lives.
Jessica Beard was an attractive young woman with blonde hair and a pleasant smile. She had a little extra weight perhaps, but it made her more of a woman than most. She carried herself well and exuded confidence, as Leipfold quickly discovered.
“So how can I help?” she asked.
“It’s more a case of how I could help you,” Leipfold replied. “But you’ll need to tell me what happened.”
“I assume you’re referring to my husband.”
“Correct,” Leipfold said. “You’re a wanted woman. You’re on the run from the police for god’s sake. You’re not going to last long, innocent or not. They’ll find you.”
“But that’s not fair,” Jessica replied.
“Life isn’t fair. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
There was a lull in the conversation, and Leipfold punctuated it by slapping his fist against the table, splattering a fly and smearing its insides across one of the menus. Jessica flinched visibly and leant away from him.
Hey, Leipfold thought. She really wouldn’t hurt a fly. That friend of hers was right.
He also thought that if she reacted like that to the death of a fly, there was no way that she’d kill a human being. Leipfold knew from experience that it took more than a swat to do the job.
“My client will want to speak to you,” Leipfold said. “Would you be willing to talk to the newspapers?”
“Hell no,” Jessica replied. “They think I’m guilty. And besides, all they want is a story. They don’t want me to tell them what actually happened.”
“And what did happen?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “I left for work as normal, headed to a few meetings, grabbed some lunch. You know, the usual. I don’t know why, but I stopped to call the office before I headed back in and one of my colleagues told me that the police had been over. She said they thought I’d killed my husband, and it seemed like a good idea for me to keep my head down. I don’t want to go to jail for something that I didn’t do. It was a set up.”
“Perhaps it was,” Leipfold said. “I wonder. They must have had their reasons for it. Something doesn’t add up here.”
Evans from the Tribune called Leipfold up at his hotel that evening, and she wasn’t happy with his lack of progress. She’d asked him to invoice her for the time so far and to cancel the rest of the investigation, which Leipfold had agreed to do. But he’d already committed himself to the investigation, and not just by making the journey up north from the capital. Something just didn’t seem right.
He met up with Jessica the following morning. They’d arranged to meet in the hotel’s lobby, and she led the way from there to a nearby coffee shop. It was a quiet place, which meant that the two of them could talk without being overheard. Jessica wanted to meet in public, despite the risk that she might be recognised, because she said that it gave her a chance to escape if she needed to. That worked for Leipfold, because he thought that she might be better off if she was captured.
“You should hand yourself in,” he urged. “Tell your story to the authorities. If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t trust them,” she said. “They’ve already made up their mind. They think I did it.”
“Yeah,” Leipfold said, “but they have to prove it. All you need to do is get a good lawyer. Tell your side of the story and force them to prove otherwise. But you should talk to the press. They can be a powerful ally.”
“They’ve already made up their mind as well,” she said. “But I didn’t do it.”
“We just need to come up with a different narrative,” Leipfold said. “We need to present an alternative set of events to explain what happened here. For example, perhaps your husband committed suicide and set you up to take the fall. Or perhaps it was a hired hit. Did your husband have any enemies?”
“Not that I know of,” she said. “But what do I know? I’m starting to find out that I didn’t know my husband as much as I thought he did. That is, if the press can be believed – which I don’t believe they can.”
“If you don’t trust the press, you’ll have to trust the police,” Leipfold said. “You can’t do this alone. You need help.”
“I thought you were going to help me.”
“I’m trying to,” Leipfold told her. “I’m giving you advice. You should hand yourself into the police. Tell them your side of the story. If you really are innocent – and I believe you – then they’re looking at you while there’s someone out there with a murder on his conscience and the freedom to kill again.”
“You’re saying that if I don’t hand myself in, they’ll kill again?”
“They might do,” Leipfold said. “And even if not, don’t you want justice for your husband?”
“Eh.” She shrugged and looked bashfully across at Leipfold. “I won’t pretend that I didn’t much like the guy.”
“Maybe don’t tell that to the cops,” Leipfold said.
Leipfold left Nuneaton that evening and all thoughts of Jessica Beard were pushed from his mind the following morning when he moved into his shiny new office. In fact, the next two weeks were so busy that he didn’t think of her once, and as far as the press was concerned, the story was over. He hadn’t heard so much as a rumour.
But that all changed one day when Jack Cholmondeley came round to pay him a visit. He’d recently been promoted to sergeant, and he wore the rank like a badge of honour. It had changed the way that he held himself, the way that he talked. He was clearly proud of who he was and where he’d come from, and Leipfold could relate to that. The new office was doing wonders for his self-esteem, reminding him that he was so much more than just an ex-con who used to have a drinking problem. He was a functional member of society, and no one could take that away from him.
The office was still just a skeleton. Leipfold didn’t have the budget to kit it out properly, so it consisted of a second-hand desk from a charity shop and five plastic chairs that he’d salvaged from a skip. He also had a couple of books in the inbuilt bookcases, as well as a cheap plastic kettle in the kitchen area. It didn’t look like a serious place of business, but some serious business was already taking place in there.
“Come on in,” Leipfold said. “I’ll give you the tour.”
The tour didn’t take long, and the two men were soon sitting side by side on the plastic chairs drinking coffee and talking about the good old days. For Leipfold, it was just a good, old-fashioned chit chat – until Jack Cholmondeley mentioned Jessica Beard.
“She’s in custody,” Cholmondeley explained. “She turned herself in up north and got brought back down in a deal with West Midlands Police. I had my reservations, but the orders came down from above. We took her in and charged her.”
“Murder,” Cholmondeley said. “Although she told us a different story. We know that you talked to her, for example. I wondered if you could tell me what happened.”
“I can do that,” Leipfold said, and so he launched into the story of his journey up north and Jessica Beard’s insistence that she was innocent. Leipfold had no proof, of course, other than the woman’s word, but that was all he’d needed.
“That’s quite the story,” Cholmondeley said. “Unfortunately, I have spoilers. I know what happened at the end. Jessica Beard is dead, James. I’m sorry.
“Suicide,” Cholmondeley said, simply. “I’m sorry, James. You can’t save everyone.”
“It wasn’t my job to save her,” Leipfold protested. “It was yours.”
Cholmondeley hung his head. “You’re right,” he said. “And I’m sorry. If I could go back in time and change things, I would.”
“Perhaps there’s another option,” Leipfold murmured.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I think we should look into it,” Leipfold said. “What do you say, old friend? Will you help me to uncover the truth?”
Cholmondeley smiled. “Let’s do it,” he said.
The two men met up later that day, after Cholmondeley finished his shift. The policeman had a lead that they’d never followed up, on the assumption that the woman’s suicide had brought about an end to the case.
But now they were no longer limited by that assumption.
Cholmondeley knew that the dead man had a lover – better still, he had a name and address. She was called Rita Long and she lived on a council estate in Hammersmith. Cholmondeley drove them there in his brand new black BMW, which he’d bought for himself as a treat when he was awarded his promotion. He regretted driving it when he realised where he’d have to park, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that if someone tried to damage or steal her, he’d do his damnedest to come down on them with the full weight of the law.
Rita Long was living with a housemate and a large dog that looked like it had been hit in the face with a shovel. To Leipfold’s surprise, they were invited into the living room and granted an audience.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” Rita asked.
“Good question,” Leipfold replied. “We’re here to talk about your ex-boyfriend.”
“You mean Anders?”
“Is that his name?” Leipfold asked.
“Yep,” Cholmondeley replied.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said. “It was just sex. Strictly no strings attached.”
“And now he’s dead,” Leipfold said. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
She shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t know him too well. It’s sad that he died, but you know. Life moves on.”
“Not for Anders,” Cholmondeley said.
“We were wondering whether there’s anything you could tell us about his death,” Leipfold said. “I understand that the police never came over to talk to you, so I thought we’d make up for it.”
“What do you want to know?” she asked. “I’ll help if I can, but I doubt I can help.”
“Do you think it’s possible that he committed suicide?” Cholmondeley asked.
She shook her head. “Hell no,” she replied. “He just wasn’t the type.”
“What type was he?”
“It’s hard to say,” she replied. “I didn’t know him that well. Like I said, it was just sex.”
“Interesting,” Leipfold said, even though it wasn’t.
The rest of the interview followed a similar pattern – Leipfold and Cholmondeley asked the questions and Rita Long gave them answers that didn’t really answer them. Their suspicions were awakened, although neither man really knew why. It was just a joint hunch, but it was enough for them to act upon.
Rita and her housemate were kind enough to allow them to search the house, but they didn’t find anything unusual. But both women refused them access to their cars, which set off a warning bell in Leipfold’s head. He took a closer look at them when he left, peering in through the glass to see if he could spot anything untoward. He found something. It wasn’t much, but it was something – just a single drop of crimson on the driver-side mat. Probably blood, but possibly not.
Later that evening, Leipfold and Cholmondeley discussed the new developments over soft drinks in the Rose and Crown. They’d independently arrived at the same theory, although a theory was all it was.
“Perhaps there was a murder after all,” Leipfold said. “And perhaps we just met our murderer.”
“Perhaps,” Cholmondeley agreed. “Maybe it was an accident. When she realised what she’d done, she tried to shift the blame.”
“We need to prove it,” Leipfold said.
“Leave it to me,” Cholmondeley replied. “I’ll see if I can get a warrant.”
The days passed slowly, and Leipfold had almost lost interest in the case by the time that Cholmondeley stopped by to provide an update. He met Leipfold at his office again, which was starting to look a little more lived in. He’d even got hold of a couple of potted plants, although they were already starting to look worse for wear. It wasn’t really Leipfold’s fault. The office didn’t get much sunlight.
“So what’s the latest?” Leipfold asked.
“We got a hit on the blood in Rita Long’s car,” Cholmondeley said. “The boffins at the station used this new technology called DNA profiling and were able to match it to Anders Beard. So we brought Long in for questioning. And guess what.”
“She changed her story,” Leipfold said.
“Got it in one,” Cholmondeley replied. “The blood was a smear, not a drop. We put it to her that the only way it could have got there would be if she tracked it in herself after being present at the scene herself.”
“Is that true?”
“No,” Cholmondeley replied. “But she didn’t need to know that. The upshot is that she changed her story and told us that she discovered the body – but that she didn’t want to call it in because she didn’t want his wife to find out about her.”
“Hmm,” Leipfold said. “So she’s saying it was a suicide?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Then why did she tell us he never would have done it?” Leipfold asked. “You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems likely that she really did try to set the wife up.”
“I agree,” Cholmondeley said. “But we still need proof.”
“Yeah?” Leipfold replied. “I might be able to help you with that. I know a guy that we need to talk to. You brought your car, right?”
Cholmondeley had brought his car. It was parked outside on Balcombe Street, and the two men climbed into it and then roared away into the night, with Cholmondeley driving and Leipfold providing directions. He’d already set up the rendezvous, and he led Cholmondeley through the streets to a lock-up in East London. There was a guy waiting outside for them.
“Be careful,” Leipfold said, while they were still in the car and looking out at his contact through the pristine glass of Cholmondeley’s BMW. “You let me do the talking, okay? This guy’s dangerous. Don’t let him know that you’re a cop.”
“It’s a good job I’m not wearing my uniform,” Cholmondeley said, sardonically.
They opened the door and stepped out to talk to the guy, who refused to give them a name. Leipfold showed the man the inside of his wallet and said, “Tell me what you’ve got.”
“Well,” the guy replied. “It’s like I said on the blower. It weren’t the dead girl what bought the shooter. I sold it to that other one, that one whose photo you showed me.”
Over the next couple of minutes, the man continued to tell his story, prompted by Leipfold when he started to ramble or wander off-topic. The gist of it was that Rita Long had bought the weapon, and the man they met even had a surreptitious video of the deal.
“I use a GoPro inside my jacket,” he said. “It’s inconspicuous but it does the job. I record each sale.”
“Bit of a risk,” Cholmondeley said. “Doesn’t that incriminate you?”
Leipfold glared at him, but his contact didn’t seem to notice. “I guess,” he said. “But it’s good to have some leeway if the cops get hold of me. Plus my clients know not to turn on me. If anything happens to me, their tapes go public. I’m not an idiot.”
“Right,” Leipfold said. “And so you can prove that you sold the gun to Rita Long – and not to Jessica or Anders Beard?”
“I can,” the man said. “If you make it worth my while.”
Leipfold looked over at Cholmondeley. “What do you say?” he asked.
Cholmondeley looked straight back at him. “I need to think about it,” he said.
It was a couple of days later and Leipfold was in a good mood. He finished off the crossword and then turned back to the front page story in The Tribune.
The headline read: Cops Make New Arrest in Beard Murder Case. Leipfold smiled and threw the paper across the room and into the trash.