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The Ballad

Note: This is another of the short stories that I’ve been writing that focus on the history of James Leipfold, my private detective character. In this story, he’s imprisoned in Reading Jail after handing himself in to the police because of his guilt in a fatal traffic accident.

READING JAIL WAS A MISERABLE PLACE.

Leipfold had already spent a couple of months there, and he was glad that there was talk of the facility shutting down – even if that meant he’d be transferred to someplace with a more imposing reputation.

Life behind bars was a life of routine, which suited Leipfold just fine. The prisoners woke with the rising of the sun, showered and dressed themselves and then made their way down to the canteen for breakfast. After they ate, the guards watched on as they headed out into the yard for some exercise before being cooped back up in the cells for most of the rest of the day. On Sundays, the monotony was disrupted by the weekly church service. Leipfold wasn’t religious, but he went along anyway. He’d even befriended the priest who led the service – and promised to look him up on his release date.

Leipfold had already earned a little respect from his fellow inmates. It helped that they didn’t know what he’d done to get himself locked up in there, but he’d also served his country. That counted a lot in certain circles, and he hadn’t found it difficult to make friends. Well, maybe not friends, but there were people who’d have his back if a fight broke out.

Seven weeks in, Leipfold had already earned himself a nickname. They called him The Fixer, because he fixed things. He helped when they needed help, he knew things that the other inmates could never have even dreamed about, and he knew how to talk to the guards and the warden. Nobody really knew him, but everyone knew of him – he was The Fixer, and people went to him when they had a problem.

But Leipfold’s adjustment from disgraced ex-soldier to popular prisoner wasn’t easy. It didn’t take long, but like a quick trip to the dentist that wasn’t much consolation. He’d cemented his reputation as someone you shouldn’t mess with by punching a con called Bear, the biggest guy he laid eyes on the first time he was let out into the yard. For that, he earned himself a sprained wrist and a trip to lockdown.

On Leipfold’s next trip out, he was jumped by five guys from Bear’s posse, but he redeemed himself by swinging his fists like a champion boxer and fighting toe to toe with the meanest guys in the unit. The brawl had landed Leipfold in lockdown again, but only after his discharge from the hospital wing. When he was finally allowed back out, he was on his final warning. But there was no more trouble after that, and Bear and his crew adopted Leipfold as one of their own after witnessing him in action.

Politics in prison, Leipfold reflected, aren’t much different to the politics in Whitehall.

The other inmates thought he was fearless, but that wasn’t the truth. Leipfold was full of fear and racked with remorse to boot. He just didn’t care what happened to him, and if he was destined to wake up one night with a shank in his back then…well, he probably deserved it.

He couldn’t undo what he’d done.

But as dangerous as it was, it also made Leipfold feel alive, and he hadn’t allowed it to stop him from the pursuit of knowledge, the only thing that had kept him going throughout his tumultuous life. It had all started after the second fight, when the warden had requested a face-to-face meeting.

“What’s the problem?” the warden asked. He was an older man called Simon Mogford, a dour-faced, unshaven chap whose only concession to his personality was a single photograph of his son that sat in an old iron frame on his desktop.

“What do you mean, sir?” Leipfold replied, politely. His voice was muffled slightly by his swollen face, but he could still see through one of his eyes and he could tell from the warden’s expression that the state of his face had made an impression.

“You’re a former soldier, Leipfold,” the man said. “And an educated man to boot.”

“I went to Walthamstow Comprehensive,” Leipfold said.

“You know what I mean,” the warden snapped. “What I’m trying to say is, you’re not like the rest of the cons. You could have made something with your life. Why didn’t you?”

Leipfold shrugged.

“You want my advice?”

“No,” Leipfold said.

“Tough,” the governor replied. “You’re about to get it anyway. Find something to keep your mind busy. Don’t give up. And for goodness’ sake, don’t cause any more trouble.”

Leipfold paused for a moment and thought about it. He shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“What is it?”

“Icoulduseabook,” Leipfold mumbled.

“What was that?” the warden asked.

“I could use a book,” Leipfold repeated.

“Oh,” the warden said. “Is that it? What do you read? I’ll get some books sent over. Hell, you can have all of the books in the world if it’ll stop you from getting into trouble.”

So Leipfold recited a long list of books from memory. There were a few specific ones, the ones from his youth that had some personal meaning, and the rest of the titles formed a weird mixture of Greek classics, self-help books and detective novels.”

When all was said and done, Leipfold had given the warden a total of 73 books, and some of them were rare or out of print. The warden stared across his desk at the prisoner, his sunken eyes like big black holes in the void of space. He whistled.

“Seventy-three books,” he said. “That’s a lot of books, Leipfold. I can’t do that.”

“That’s a shame,” Leipfold said.

The warden nodded. He stroked his chin theatrically and stared morosely into the distance.

“All right,” he said. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll get you your books, Leipfold. I’ll get you those and more, if you want them. But in return, I need you to do something for me.”

“Here we go,” Leipfold murmured.

“Can I trust you?”

“It depends what for.”

“Hmm.” The warden looked thoughtfully at Leipfold and stroked his beard again. “Well, what the hell? I need your help. I’ve heard rumours about an escape attempt. I need you to find out if there’s any substance there.”

“Who’s planning it?” Leipfold asked.

“I don’t know.”

“I see,” Leipfold said. “Well what’s the plan? When’s it going to happen? What are they going to do?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“Hmm,” Leipfold said. “There’s not much to go on.”

The warden shrugged. “Take it or leave it,” he said. “Get me some information and I’ll get you your books. Otherwise you’ll have to take what you can find from the library.”

Leipfold accepted the challenge, albeit reluctantly, and his investigation started immediately. He didn’t know what he was looking for, of course, but he had the kind of nose that could track down information as easily as a police dog could chase a criminal. But Leipfold didn’t want to start asking around. That sort of thing could get a man killed, and there was a big difference between feeling indifferent about life and death and having an outright death wish.

So he thought about the problem in his own special way and approached it from a different angle. He sat back and asked himself, “How would I do it?” The trick was to first solve that problem and then to work his way back from the solution.

Strictly speaking, prisoners weren’t supposed to have unrestricted access to writing material. But for Leipfold, he was willing to make an exception, and the convict was presented with a cheap pad of paper and a set of thin wax crayons. Leipfold was mortified.

“You can’t write in a Moleskine with a crayon,” he protested.

“You’re going to have to,” the warden said. “You shouldn’t have these at all. But at least with the crayons, you can’t hurt anyone.”

“Not true,” Leipfold replied. “I could melt them down and recast them.”

The warden sighed. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll arrange for you to have some pens. But please understand that if you step out of line one more time, the deal is off.”

“Understood,” Leipfold said.

The next couple of weeks passed slowly and unremarkably, and Leipfold made remarkably little progress. Still, he took notes on everything he could, and he also kept an ear out for gossip amongst the inmates. It wasn’t an easy task, because most of them kept themselves to themselves. If gossip was traded freely, it was traded between cellmates or purchased from the guards in exchange for cigarettes.

By the start of the third week, Leipfold still had no books and barely any notes. He could count the gossip he’d learned on a single hand, and the most interesting little nugget was that Oscar Wilde had been an inmate almost a hundred years earlier. His theoretical approach had worked a little better and he’d been able to identify a couple of weak spots, but he didn’t know what to do with the information.

The first weakness was the changing of the guards. Paradoxically, though there were more people to keep the cons in check, the exchange of information was at its weakest and the guards were less focused on the job in hand. The Sunday morning church service was another one. Security was lax and the cons could take a hostage by subduing the priest – but that’s as far as Leipfold got, and he couldn’t take it seriously as a viable option. If anything, it would lead to the convicts forming a smaller prison within the prison, stuck inside the chapel in a siege situation until one of the sides caved and surrendered.

Leipfold wasn’t much of a religious man, but the weekly sermons started to take on more and more importance as he carried out his investigation. His gut told him that there was something there, even while his brain was protesting that there was no chance. But he’d trained himself to follow his instincts, so he started to pay more attention to the services – and to the people who attended them. There were three people in particular who stood out, three bruisers from the white supremacist group who were all swastika tattooes and shaved heads. They might have found religion, Leipfold supposed, but they didn’t look like the type. Besides, they hadn’t been there for Leipfold’s earlier visits, and there was talk on the yard that they were up to something. The rumour was that they were planning on starting a riot, which didn’t seem to fit in so well with the Ten Commandments.

After three weeks on the case, that was all Leipfold had. Unfortunately for him, the warden was pressing for answers, and Leipfold was called up to his office a couple of times a week to provide an update. The day after the Sunday service, he found himself back in the warden’s office, breaking the unwritten rules of the prisoner’s code by snitching on another con. But it was a small price to pay for a stack of books.

The warden asked Leipfold whether he had any proof, and Leipfold was honest when he replied to say he hadn’t. “Just a hunch,” Leipfold said, “but I usually trust them.”

“A hunch,” the warden repeated. “Well, a hunch is better than nothing. I’ll pull their chapel privileges and get my guards to keep extra tabs on them.”

“Good plan,” Leipfold said. “So can I have my books now?”

The warden laughed. “Not yet,” he said. “Let me follow up on the information. If it turns out to be good, you’ll get your books.”

Leipfold was dismissed shortly afterwards, but the issue of the books still weighed heavily on his mind and he felt sure that there was something more to the story. So he resolved to do a little more digging.

If the warden can have his little spies, Leipfold thought, then I can have mine.

That’s how he ended up paying Bear and his friends in cigarettes in exchange for services rendered. They didn’t know why Leipfold wanted them to spy for him, and they didn’t care. They just cared about the cigarettes.

The reports started to filter in. Big Jim overheard one of the men boasting that he’d be getting out within a month or two, and Bear himself beat another rumour out of one of racists that the three men liked to hang around with. Spitting blood and teeth to the floor, cornered in the back of one of the rec rooms and out of sight of the guards, the man had shouted, “They have a man outside. I swear to god And one time I heard them asking if something was strong enough, but I didn’t catch what they were talking about. That’s all I know, I swear. Please don’t hurt me.”

Bear was a violent man, but he was also a man of honour. So he let the battered man pick himself up and get out of there.

Leipfold handed out a couple more packets of cigarettes for the information and then returned to his cell to mull it all over. There wasn’t much to go on, but he needed to think – and act – fast if he wanted to stop them. The warden should know, but it was dangerous for Leipfold to ask to see him. The cons might get suspicious. So instead, he followed his meagre clues through to their logical conclusion, charting his progress in the pages of his notebook.

When the warden finally called Leipfold into his office, he was ready to deliver his results. He was more than ready; he was hopping from foot to foot. His sources – or rather, Bear’s sources – said that tonight was the night. If the warden wanted to stop them, he’d need to ask fast.

“What have you got for me?” the warden asked.

“Nothing more than a theory,” Leipfold replied. “But you’re going to want to look into this. I’m right, I know I am.”

“Right about what?”

“The escape happens tonight,” Leipfold said. “That much I know. You understand that I can’t disclose my sources.”

“Of course,” the warden said. “I assume you can trust this source of information?”

Leipfold thought about Bear and his big, battered fists.

“Yes sir,” Leipfold said. “I believe we can. But understand that the rest is pure conjecture. We can trust that today is the day. But as for the plan…well, all I’ve got is how I would do it.”

“That might have to be good enough,” the warden said. “Perhaps you’ll earn those books after all. Tell me. What do you think the plan is?”

Leipfold held out his notebook and the warden gratefully accepted it.

“I’ll talk you through it,” Leipfold said. “Let’s start with the riot.”

“The riot?”

“The riot,” Leipfold confirmed. “Remember the three white supremacists that I told you about? The ones that you banned from church?”

The warden nodded.

“Well,” Leipfold said, “they’re planning on starting a riot. Soon, if I’m not mistaken. They’re going to use their gang as a front to distract you while they try to make their escape. When are the guards changing over?”

“Any minute now,” the governor said. “It’s probably already in progress. Why?”

Leipfold shook his head. “We may be too late,” he said. “That’s when it’s supposed to–“

The conversation was interrupted mid-sentence as a loud klaxon pierced the air. The warden looked at Leipfold and then picked up his phone. He placed a call and had a short conversation, then angrily slammed the receiver back into its cradle. He looked back over at Leipfold.

“Sounds like your prediction is coming true,” the warden said. “They’re going to need me out there on the floor so I want you to tell me everything you can. But you’d better make it quick.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Leipfold said. He cleared his throat. “The riot’s just the first step, a distraction. The next bit is a little bit…well, there’s no finesse there. It’s a brute force attack. They’ve got someone on the outside.”

“Who?”

“It’s impossible to tell,” Leipfold said. “But whoever it is, they’ll need a large vehicle. A lorry perhaps, or maybe a fire truck.” He paused for a moment. “Yes,” he added, “I think they’ll use a fire truck. They can use the hose as a weapon or get the ladder out. They’ll have to steal it first, of course.”

“Hang on,” the warden said. “I won’t be a moment.”

Leipfold watched as the warden rushed over to his desk again. He placed two more calls in quick succession, gabbling into the receiver so quickly that it was hard to understand what he was saying. He sounded like an auctioneer on speed.

When he put the phone back down, he rushed over to Leipfold and said, “A fire truck has gone missing. Word is that they were carjacked by masked gunmen.”

“It’s happening,” Leipfold said. “You need to set up a roadblock. Call in the army if you need to. Put everything you’ve got on it. They’re going to smash and grab.”

“Where?”

“How should I know?”

“Well what would you do in their place?” the warden asked.

Leipfold rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And if I’m right, I get the books?”

“Damn it, Leipfold,” the warden said, slamming his fist down. “If you’re right, you can have all of the books you want. Tell me.”

Leipfold rubbed his chin again. He took his time to answer.

“I guess,” he said, “I’d grapple the bars of the cells, hook it up to the engine and yank them right out of the wall. Then I’d extend the ladder up to the window, drag the men into the fire engine and head hell for leather away from here. The siren would help shift the traffic, then you can switch out to a getaway car and leave one guy left in the fire engine to lead the cops in the wrong direction.”

“My god,” the warden said. “And you think this is happening?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Leipfold said. “But if I were you, I’d look into it.”

There was an almighty bang, a huge, oppressive sound that was like a bomb going off. The walls shook and plaster snowed down from the ceiling, settling like dandruff in Leipfold’s ginger hair. The aftermath of the explosion – or whatever it was – was still shaking the building’s foundations. The floor started to buckle beneath them.

“What was that?” the warden shouted. He doubled up in a coughing fit as his lungs filled up with plaster, dust and detritus.

“We’re too late,” Leipfold said. “You’d better stop them.”

“Wait here,” the warden said. “I’ll look into it.”

“What about my books?” Leipfold shouted, but the warden had his back to him and he just kept on scuttling away towards the cellblocks.

And so he was left there alone in the warden’s office as the building continued to shake. The siren had stopped blaring and been replaced by an unearthly rumbling sound. Leipfold wondered what was happening and whether the three men had made good on their escape. He hoped not.

The warden had left his door open, and Leipfold walked out into his reception and then found himself on the other side of another door and out into a hallway. There was a fire exit at the end of it, barred shut but presumably still useable. A ticket to the outside world.

Leipfold sighed and stared at the door for a few moments. Then he doubled back on himself and headed back to the warden’s office. He closed the door when he entered and settled back to wait for the warden to return.

Published inFiction

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