Note: Today, I’m continuing with my little series of Leipfold short stories. I’ve written a bunch of these over the last few months and so I thought I’d share a few – although I must warn you, these are first drafts and should be treated as such. In this piece, Leipfold investigates a burglary at the office downstairs.
THERE HAD BEEN A BURGLARY.
Leipfold knew it had happened as soon as he opened the front door to the building. The building on Balcolmbe Street was a relic of the Victorian era, with long corridors and tall ceilings. The central hallway led to a downstairs bathroom and a graphic design company – Leipfold often joked that both were full of shit – and if you followed it round then it snaked up a flight of stairs to Leipfold’s office on the first floor.
The first clue was the stack of mail in front of the door – or rather the lack thereof. They were stacked instead in the receptacle beside the door, and there were letters that hadn’t been there when he’d left on Friday night. It was rare – very rare – for the graphic designers to come in over the weekend, and Leipfold hadn’t touched them. It could have been the landlord perhaps, but he usually let himself into the offices and took the mail with him, and he always gave a couple of days’ notice.
Besides, there were scuff marks in the doorframe that suggested a tool had been used, an oily footprint on the carpet and a general bad vibe in the air that reminded him of when he was in the army and a shout rang out about a sniper. Something had happened and he wanted to know what.
He walked cautiously up the stairs, bracing himself for fight or flight if he came across someone. He wished he had a weapon, but all he had were the two built-in weapons that he’d been born with. The doorway to the office was closed, but it was just on the latch and not the main lock, which Leipfold checked religiously every time he left the place. That was enough to prove that someone had been in there – but if they had, they hadn’t forced the door like they did downstairs. They’d either used a key or picked the lock – but either way, they’d dodged the brute force approach and showed a little intelligence.
It was hard to tell whether anything was missing. Leipfold cast his mind back to how he’d left it, reproducing it in his head in high definition, but everything looked the same as it had when he’d left it. But Leipfold knew that that meant nothing – they could have copied down some information or booby-trapped the place without leaving any noticeable traces.
That meant that the rest of his day was a write-off. He had to inch his way around the office, examining every part of the office for something unusual. He expected a bomb to go off at any moment, or to discover that someone had stolen his computer. But neither happened, and it was mostly a wasted day. He only one thing out of the ordinary.
One of his case files was missing. The file for a man called Bear that he hadn’t seen since he’d been locked up behind bars with him in Reading Jail.
Leipfold finished checking the office, but there was nothing else for him to learn. Once he was satisfied, he picked up the phone on his desk and placed a call to Jack Cholmondeley at the Old Vic, one of the city’s most prestigious and underfunded institutions. Leipfold told him all about the break-in – as well as what had been taken – and then asked the copper what he was going to do about it.
“Well,” Cholmondeley said, “I can take a look at it. I mean, I’ll investigate. Sounds to me like there’s someone who needs taking off the street. But to be honest, James, you haven’t given us much to go on. Do you have any idea who might be behind it?”
“None whatsoever,” Leipfold replied. “Isn’t it your job to find that out?”
“Listen, friend, I’d love to help,” Cholmondeley said. “You know I’d love to help. But I haven’t got the men to spare. I’ll need something concrete. A proper lead.”
“Hmm.” Leipfold paused for a moment, mulling it over. “It could have been Bear, I guess. But why? And why now?”
“Okay,” Leipfold said. “I’ll look into it and see what I can find out. If I get anything concrete, I’ll bring it to you.”
“Good lad,” Cholmondeley replied. “If I were you, I’d start with your landlord. See if he can help.”
“Oh no,” Leipfold groaned. “I was afraid it might come to this.”
Leipfold’s landlord was a useless old man who’d retired young and lived a life of relative comfort in one of his properties. He paid his way with the money he made from his tenants, and so he had a habit of cutting corners as a result of it. If he could fix the problem himself, he would do – and if he couldn’t, he’d leave it until it could no longer be ignored.
He wasn’t very receptive. Leipfold reported the break in for the second time, but the old man was unhelpful at best.
“What do you want from me?” the landlord asked.
“Good question,” Leipfold replied. “I want you to install some security measures. CCTV cameras, they’re all the rage these days. Some deadlocks for the doors. Maybe a burglar alarm.”
“I can’t afford that,” the landlord said. He always had been a man of few words.
“Isn’t it your duty as the property’s owner?”
“To a certain extent,” the landlord replied. “I comply with the law. And if you’re unhappy with the current situation, you’re free to leave.”
“Can you at least fix my buzzer?”
“I’ll add it to my list,” the man said, which is secret code amongst all landlords meaning ‘I’m never going to do it’.
“What about if I foot the bill for the work?”
“If that’s what you want,” the landlord said, “then it’s fine by me. But you won’t be getting a penny from me. You’ve already got me acting as your doorman.”
“What do you mean?” Leipfold asked.
“That chap, that friend of yours,” he said. “The one I let in last night.”
“Woah,” Leipfold said. “Slow down. Who are you talking about?”
“That well-spoken chap you sent down to your office,” the landlord said. “It must have been Saturday, maybe Sunday. Early afternoon.”
“What did he look like?”
“It’s hard to say,” the landlord said.
Leipfold turned to a clean page in his notebook and grabbed a pencil. “I’m going to try to draw him,” Leipfold said. “But I need you to guide my pencil. Let’s start with the shape of his head.”
It took the best part of twenty minutes, and Leipfold could sense the man getting more and more irate as the time passed. But by the end of it, they had a reasonable interpretation of what the man had looked like, and Leipfold sense that it was the best he was likely to get.
The depressing thing, Leipfold thought, as he started to work his way around the estate, is how I could tell the landlord knew something. I don’t have any friends.
Leipfold was on a fool’s errand. He’d made it his mission to take the drawing around every business in a one-mile radius of the office, hoping against hope that someone would recognise his poorly rendered photofit of the man who’d been inside his office. Unsurprisingly, the search was long, tedious and mostly unsuccessful. He was just about to give up when he got a match from the girl at Starbucks.
“Yeah,” she said, her eyes lit up with excitement. “I remember this guy. He was in here over the weekend. Came in for a latte.”
“What kind of time are we talking?”
“Must have been Saturday afternoon,” she replied. “Maybe 3 PM. Just after the lunchtime rush.”
“Sounds about right,” Leipfold murmured.
“Who is this guy?”
“Oh,” Leipfold said. “Just some scumbag.”
“This is exciting,” the barista said. “It’s just like I’m in a movie.”
“Yeah,” Leipfold said. “Something like that. Is there anything you can tell me about him? I’m trying to find him.”
“Hmm,” the woman replied. She thought about it for a moment. “He looked rough and ready, you know the type. Sat in the corner so he could keep an eye on the rest of the customers. You get those guys every now and then. You just need to keep your head down and wait until they leave. This guy, though. He was on another level. The worst part of it was his accent. Eastern European, Russian maybe. It was hard to tell, but whatever it was, it was terrifying. Scared the shit out of me, let me tell you.”
“Wonderful,” Leipfold said. “I love scary people. Can you do me a favour?”
“What’s that then?”
“Call me,” Leipfold said, scribbling down the office’s line on a sheet of paper in his notebook and handing it over to her. “If he comes back in, I want to know. I need to catch this guy in the act.”
“What’s it worth?” the woman asked. Leipfold sighed and gave her a few notes from his wallet. Then he bought himself a coffee and went about his business.
His next stop was The Tribune’s office. He’d tried to book an appointment with Jan Evans, the paper’s editor, but she’d palmed him off and hooked him up with a new reporter called Phelps instead.
“Make it quick,” Phelps said, and so Leipfold did his best. He told the newspaperman about the break-in at his office, as well as how his useless landlord had failed to act on it. He also shared his suspicions that it was a case of organised crime and made a public pledge that he wouldn’t rest until he tracked the man down. He also shared his sketch with the man and asked him if they’d be able to run it in the next issue of the paper.
“There’s no story in it,” the man said. “Our readers won’t care. You could run it as an advertisement, I suppose.”
Leipfold shrugged. “Whatever it takes,” he said. “And I need you to mention something else. I need you to bait the hook.”
“How’s that, then?”
“Some of my notes were stolen,” Leipfold said. “And we need to mention it. They were important notes on a case I’ve been investigating and I have reason to suspect that they’re the cause of the crime. Someone was looking for them, and they think that they’ve destroyed my entire case. I need them to know that they haven’t.”
Leipfold started sleeping in the office. He wondered whether he was losing his mind. For the first time since his days on the bottle, his mind felt clouded and almost unusable. It felt like he’s switched heads with an idiot, and he didn’t like it.
He started to wonder whether it was all in his head. Perhaps there hadn’t been a break-in after all, or maybe they’d targeted the graphic design company downstairs. Besides, what was it that the girl in the coffee shop had said? Something about an accent? Leipfold had pissed a lot of people off in his career, but they were all from Brixton and Brentford instead of Belarus. Maybe it was all just a wild goose chase. Perhaps he was searching for an innocent man, whose only crime had been to speak a strange accent in the British capital. Maybe the file hadn’t been stolen. Maybe he’d simply mislaid it.
But then he dismissed those thoughts as the rumblings of an impatient mind and continued to do what he did best.
A couple of days later, when Leipfold was in the middle of a meeting with one of his clients, the telephone rang. He excused himself for a moment and picked it up, then rattled off some instructions to whoever was on the other end of the line.
“Something’s come up,” he said, ushering the clients out of the office as quickly as he could. “I’m sorry. I’ll call you just as soon as I can to reschedule.”
“You’d better,” one of the clients said, but Leipfold didn’t hear them. He was already sprinting down the street towards the coffee shop, where the man with the bad accent was in the process of ordering another latte.
By the time that Leipfold got there, the man was nowhere to be found, but the barista who called him was able to point him in the right direction. He raced down the street until he hit the T-junction, then chose a direction at random and continued to jog down it. Surely, Leipfold reasoned, he can’t have gone far with a hot cup of coffee in his hands.
But there was no sign of the man, and he returned to the coffee shop with a racing heart and an overwhelming sense of disappointment.
That night, when Leipfold was asleep in the office, he was awoken by the tinkle of glass. It came from the hallway – out somewhere on the ground floor near the graphic designers’ office. He pulled himself groggily to his feet and reached out for the two-by-four he kept beneath his desk. With the wood in hand, he opened the door as quietly as he could and then snuck out onto the landing.
There was definitely someone down there. Leipfold could hear movement, but he couldn’t make anything out in the darkness. He continued to work his way down the steps, skipping the third from the top because it squeaked when you put too much pressure on it. He made it to the bottom and then stood there in the darkness. The air felt heavy, invasive.
And then there was movement, and Leipfold swung the wood through the air and made contact. A bone crunched as the wood made impact and a voice cried out in the darkness. Leipfold kicked out at the man and felt his foot connect with skull, then hobbled over to the lights and turned the switch on. The light hit his eyes and blinded him momentarily, but the guy on the floor faced the same disadvantage – and he had a minor concussion to contend with, too.
When his eyes adjusted, Leipfold took a good look at him. He was close enough to the sketch to be a match, but he was different enough so that Leipfold hadn’t spotted the resemblance until the man was lying in a crumpled heap in his hallway.
“Cor,” Leipfold said. “I know you. You’re the spitting image of old Bear. He must be your father.”
“I’m not saying nothin’,” the man said. His voice was muffled by the swelling that had already started to kick in, and he spat out a couple of teeth at the end of the sentence.
“Ah,” Leipfold said. “A double negative. So you are saying something?”
“Forget about it.”
“Fine by me,” Leipfold said. “Dear me, what was the plan? Does your father know you’re here?”
“You can’t do this,” Bear Jr. replied. “You’re not a copper.”
“No, I’m not.” Leipfold smiled unsettlingly and leaned in a little closer. “But I can call one.”
It was a couple of weeks after Leipfold’s citizen’s arrest, and life was pretty much back to normal. He caught up with Cholmondeley over a soft drink in the Rose and Crown. Cedric didn’t seem best pleased that Leipfold had brought a policeman into his booze, especially because they were both drinking soft drinks instead of beers and spirits. Besides, it was bad for business.
But Leipfold and Cholmondeley continued their conversation in blissful ignorance. If they felt the eyes of the landlord upon them, they didn’t show it.
“So what’s the story?” Cholmondeley asked.
“I want to press charges,” Leipfold replied. “I want that kid behind bars where he belongs, just like his father.”
“Oh,” Cholmondeley said. “Haven’t you heard? Bear’s up for appeal. He might be getting out.”
“We’ll see about that,” Leipfold replied. “Here, I want you to take this.” He slid a plain-looking envelope across the table to Jack Cholmondeley. “Take it with you and read it later.”
“What is it?”
Leipfold grinned. “It’s my notes on Bear. I always knew they’d come in handy one day. This is what the kid was after. It should be good enough to put the kibosh on any chance of appeal that he has. It might be enough to further prosecute.”
Cholmondeley grinned and snatched the envelope away. “You reckon?” he said.
Leipfold nodded. “There’s some serious shit in there,” he said. “Don’t read it on an empty stomach.”