After a couple of weeks off, I’m back to sharing some more stories from the Leipfold series. These all take place before the start of Driven, my upcoming novel, and this one is actually referenced – although despite it happening before, it was written afterwards. Confusing, right?
THE CASE OF THE MISSING GNOME
JACK CHOLMONDELEY WAS VEXED to say the least.
“Mary’s gnomes have gone missing,” he said.
Leipfold, who was sitting beside him in a booth at the local Wetherspoons, looked confused. “Her gnomes?” he parroted.
“Her gnomes,” Cholmondeley confirmed. “She has a collection of the things. Those horrible little statues of old blokes fishing in ponds or holding little bloody signposts. They’re her pride and joy, and now some scumbag has pinched one.”
“Who’d want to pinch a gnome?” Leipfold asked.
Cholmondeley shrugged and reached absentmindedly for his coffee, nudging it slightly and spilling a little without noticing. He took a sip of it and scalded his tongue.
“Shit!” he growled. He held his hand in front of his mouth and blew on it, then wiped it off surreptitiously on his trousers. “Where were we?”
“Who’d want to pinch a gnome?” Leipfold repeated.
“Ah,” Cholmondeley replied. “Who indeed? A drunk, perhaps? Some kid pissed up on cheap booze?”
“There’s something else though,” Cholmondeley said. “Mary has dozens of the damn things, but only one of them went missing. Priscilla.”
“Like the queen of the desert?”
“Exactly,” Cholmondeley said. “Priscilla is her pride and joy. Her favourite gnome, if you can believe that. And I’m in the doghouse because she says I let it happen.”
“I think I see where this is going.”
“You’ve got to help me,” Cholmondeley said. “If I don’t find the gnome, my life won’t be worth living.”
Some men might have thought that Cholmondeley was overreacting, but Leipfold knew Mary – and he knew what she was like.
“Tough break,” Leipfold said. He thought about it for a moment. “Okay, so – theories.”
“What about them?”
“Have you got any?” Leipfold asked. Cholmondeley shook his head. Leipfold paused again. “Okay, then. How about this, then? What if it was one of your enemies? Maybe they took it to kit it out with spy cameras? Or even something more sinister? Explosives?”
“Jesus Christ,” Cholmondeley said. “You think so?”
“Not really,” Leipfold replied. “But it’s a possibility. You’ll know for sure if it reappears again. Perhaps you should get your boys to have a look at the rest of the collection in the meantime.”
“I’ll do just that,” Cholmondeley assured him. “In the meantime, I want you to put that brain of yours to some use.”
“I’m trying to run a business here,” Leipfold reminded him.
Cholmondeley shrugged. “So what?” he asked. “You love a problem.”
Cholmondeley asked his men to look at the gnomes, as per Leipfold’s suggestion, but they didn’t find anything.
Unfortunately for Mary Cholmondeley, they also destroyed a baker’s dozen of the things before she noticed they were missing and placed a panicked call to her husband. Jack was on duty, and not best pleased to be interrupted by more of his wife’s warbling about her precious collection. He broke the bad news over the phone and then held the receiver away from his ear as she shouted down it. He was glad that his colleagues couldn’t see him.
“Listen, Mary,” Cholmondeley said, trying to seize the initiative. “I’m at work, okay? I’ll talk to you when I get home.”
“Oh no, Jack,” she said. “Oh no, no, no. You’ve gone too far this time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My gnomes!” she howled. “You know how much I love those things.”
“I thought we might have been in danger,” Cholmondeley said, making a mental note to give Leipfold a stern reprimand. “I can’t help it if I put your safety first, darling.”
“Don’t ‘darling’ me, Jack.”
“I’m sorry,” Cholmondeley said. “But what’s done is done. At least the boys didn’t find anything.”
“I almost wish they bloody well did,” Mary growled. Amplified and distorted by a bad connection, her voice sounded hellish, almost satanic. It sent a shiver down Cholmondeley’s spine and a cold sweat to his furrowed brow. “I’m serious, Jack. I make a lot of sacrifices to support your career. I don’t ask for much from you. I just want my bloody gnomes. Is that so much to ask?”
“Of course not, dear,” Cholmondeley said. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” she said. “You make this better or else you’re in a lot of trouble. I’m going to go and spend some time at my mother’s. It’ll give you some space to figure out what’s really important to you.”
“You’re important to me, Mary,” Cholmondeley said. “You are.”
But she’d already hung up the receiver.
“How could you have been so wrong?” Cholmondeley asked.
Leipfold was sitting in his office, a couple of miles away from Cholmondeley’s throne in one of the Old Vic’s private meeting rooms. He was glad he was out of arm’s reach of the man. He was clearly having a tough time of it, and Leipfold didn’t want to give him an excuse to lash out at him. That wasn’t much of a problem over the telephone, though.
“I’ll admit it was a long shot,” Leipfold said. “But it’s better to be safe than sorry. Besides, I always hated those gnomes. I did you a favour.”
“Yeah,” Leipfold said. “I knew your tech boys would destroy them if they took a look at them. Don’t pretend you’re not secretly glad that they’re gone.”
There was a pause on the phone line, followed by a sound that Leipfold interpreted as a muffled laugh from a man who was holding a hand over the receiver.
“You make a good point,” Cholmondeley said. “I always hated the damn things too. Made my front garden look like bloody Narnia. But that’s not going to help my marriage.”
“I can’t help you there, Jack,” Leipfold said. “It’s not my area. But I’ll keep investigating the missing gnome to see if I can find something.”
“Thanks,” Cholmondeley said. “I appreciate it.”
Jack tried his best to make it up to Mary. He bought her a dozen roses (“they remind me of death”), took her out to dinner at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant (“a waste of money”) and bought her a hundred new gnomes (“not the same”) that were delivered two days late by a Yodel truck. But it all seemed to make no difference. Mary was in a bad mood, and Cholmondeley was still on the receiving end of it.
A couple of days later, Mary came back from her mother’s house, and she took to skulking around the house in a black dressing gown and refusing to shave her legs. She made her husband sleep on the sofa.
“And all over a bloody gnome,” Cholmondeley said. “I don’t understand it, Mary.”
“Fuck the bloody gnome,” she said. Cholmondeley was taken aback and stunned into silence. It was the first time he’d heard his wife swear, and it ruined the illusion. It was like he’d caught her with her trousers down in the bathroom.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry,” Mary said. “I got a little carried away. But damn it, Jack. You know how I feel.”
Mary paused for a moment. She looked ashamedly down into her lap, even though she knew full well she’d done nothing wrong.
“Besides,” she said, eventually. It was never about the gnomes. It was about us, Jack.”
“You never let me be myself,” she said. “I’m just poor old Mary Cholmondeley, the homely wife of the keen cop. I always knew you hated those gnomes. So did I, they were bloody atrocious. But get this, Jack. You can get rid of the gnomes all you like, I don’t mind.”
“Really,” she said. “And instead, I’m going to start collecting bloody plastic flamingos.”
Cholmondeley hated the flamingoes even more than he’d hated the gnomes, and that did a lot to fix the rift between them. Within a couple of weeks, Mary had two dozen flamingos out front and a further dozen out in the back garden. She’d even pinned up a flamingo air freshener in his panda car.
Leipfold had been unable to find anything in the case of the missing gnome, and he’d formally resigned from the case after Cholmondeley told about the flamingoes. And by the time that Mary bought her fiftieth flamingo, he’d almost forgotten all about it.
Then he met the kid.
He was a wiry kid, the acne-faced youth from number twenty six who was known as a pleasant child who was nevertheless a menace because of what he got up to on his mountain bike. Cholmondeley couldn’t remember his name – David, Dean or Derek perhaps, although he could’ve been a Mike, a Luke or an Oliver.
David-Dean-Derek-Mike-Luke-Oliver approached him with a bike between his legs while Cholmondeley was mounting Big Beaky, his wife’s latest addition to the family. Big Beaky was like all of the other flamingoes, except he was eleven foot tall and weighed the same as a piece of flatpack furniture.
“Hi,” said David-Dean-Derek-Mike-Luke-Oliver.
“Hey,” Cholmondeley replied. “David, isn’t it?”
“No,” David-Dean-Derek-Mike-Luke-Oliver said. “It’s Jacob.”
“Jacob!” Cholmondeley said. “Ah yes, I knew it. How can I help you, Dean-Derek?”
“I wanted to say that I’m sorry, sir,” Jacob said. “I feel terrible.”
“You do? Terrible about what?”
“I stole your gnome, sir,” the kid said. “A couple of weeks ago. I’m sorry, I was drunk and it was a dare and well…”
Cholmondeley started laughing, which was clearly not what the kid had expected. He flinched and leapt backwards like a cat that’s attacked, which only made Cholmondeley laugh even more. By the end of it, he was struggling to breath and emitting loud whistles that sounded more like a kettle boiling than a human laughing.
“What is it?” the kid asked.
“You stole the gnome?” Cholmondeley said. “That’s bloody priceless. You almost ruined my marriage.”
“I’m sorry,” the kid repeated. “I still have it if you want it. I could bring it back.”
“Why the bloody hell would I want you to do that?” Cholmondeley asked. “Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned.”
“What happened to the rest of them?” the boy asked.
“They’ve gone, kid,” Cholmondeley said. “All thanks to you.”
“Jeez,” he replied. “I’m sorry, mister. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
“As a matter of fact, there is.” Cholmondeley smiled at him, a smile that was the smile of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “You see those flamingoes?”
“Yeah, I see the flamingoes,” the kid said.
“Good,” Cholmondeley replied. “Do me a favour, kid. I want you to make them disappear.”