I got into a bit of a muddle with wordpress earlier on, all my own fault. My idea to start the jack Lockwood Diaries, a weekly blog of short stories went wrong to begin with, as I put it on the same blog as this, my own general writing oriented blog, thereby muddling everything up. Now Jack has his own blog, The Jack Lockwood Dairies, http://bit.ly/Ypjy0h but going straight to it is complicated for me, I must sort things out better. A friend suggested giving my character Jack Lockwood his own twitter account, and I’m sure this is a good idea. But the ramifications of new email address and fiddling about is more than I want to o bother with right now. And I’ve been tied up with other urgent things, meaning that my usual RT sessions have been halted for about 5 days., and I feel terribly guilty at the kind people who have RT my own two books and the jack Lockwood Dairies. Especially when I got keen and managed to fit in another story, yesterday, The Fake Pearl Earring. Does anyone think it’s a good idea writing short stories about the key character in my Jack Lockwood mystery series? The idea is that everyone’s short of time, they might happen upon the blog. Glance at it and maybe read the latest story, then see that the same character features in two full length novels. I’d almost like to start a debate: ‘Does Jack Lockwood really exist?’ but I think that’s stretching credulity a little too far, and while there’s a Sherlock Homes Society that’s dedicated to proving the great sleuth was an actual person, I doubt that JL will ever gather enough fans to garner the same manic support. And selling each novel for 77p. Is that a mistake? Should I charge more I wonder? Who knows?I have another email account to which all the bits and pieces that happened on twitter gets sent an email each time, and right now, there must be about 300 unread emails, all with info I imagine I’ve already got on the Connections button on twitter. But am I ignoring someone who’s writing to them? How do I repay the people who’ve RT me when I’ve simply ignored them because I;, not there? Guilt again.I’ve read two great books, Mulligan’s Reach, by @JennieOrbell, http://amzn.to/YzPw88 as well as Two short Stories by @H E Joyce http://amzn.to/YzPMnA , and have reviewed both. But you can read a book while you eat or rest for a tea break. The only cure for guilt is to do something about it. However I have to rush out now and sort something out. Do other people feel guilty a lot of the time?
Hello, my name is Jack Lockwood, I’m a criminal profiler, who also writes books about true crime and lives near Canterbury, in Kent, England. Here is what happened to me a little while ago:
“She’s horrible, an absolutely horrible woman, no doubt about it,” explained Cedric, as my friend Stuart and I lifted the new front bumper of the 1963 Austin Healey Sprite into place, and I slotted the bolt through the holes, as I squatted in front of the car on Cedric’s concrete front drive. “My sister Birdie is one o’ them people that people find cranky, nasty, bad tempered,” he continued as we worked. “But of course, she’s the living proof of that old phrase ‘it’s the squeaky wheel that always gets the grease’. Folks are nice to her, because life’s easier that way, she’s so nasty, they don’t want to cross her, see?”
Cedric was a stooping, white haired eccentric of 85, who lived in a small cottage in the village of Brookham, near my home on the outskirts of Canterbury. My friend Stuart Billingham and I work on vintage and classic cars as a hobby, and because Cedric still loves his classic sports car, and likes to go to old car rallies, we help him keep his vehicle in good shape, by replacing parts when necessary. It’s not a one-way street of favours: Cedric is a great character, and it’s good fun to chat to him and enjoy his stories of Canterbury life in the 1930s and 40s. He wears ancient cardigans and creased trousers, but everything about him is spotlessly clean and his home is undecorated but tidy, from the small front yard where we were standing with the car, to the interior rooms, whose walls haven’t met a paintbrush for fifty years.
Shortly afterwards the three of us were in Cedric’s undecorated ancient breakfast room, drinking coffee at his scrubbed pine table. He was telling us more about his sister Birdie, whom I’d only met a few times. I knew that she had a house clearance business in Canterbury and dabbled in antique dealing, and was quite a wealthy woman. Now in her early 70s, I’d heard that she’d bullied her large docile husband into an early grave a couple of years ago, and now was apparently concentrating on her business, which was doing very well indeed.
“Oh aye, the Midas Touch, Birdie has, she always has had,” Cedric muttered. “Matter of fact, one of you boys would be doing me a big favour if you help her out. She’s had some break-ins in her shop. She’d appreciate a bit of advice on security.” He fixed me with his glare. “And what with you knowing all about crime–”
“Well the best people are the police – the local crime prevention officer.”
“Lazy article. He came last week, just huffed and puffed, then wandered off out again, saying she needed to install an expensive alarm system – then he went on about how the police wouldn’t come out unless someone actually saw an intruder on the premises – the days of an alarm going off and the coppers just coming along, are long gone I’m afraid.”
So that’s how I happened to call on Birdie Allardice the following Monday. Just as Cedric had said, she certainly didn’t look like a woman to be reckoned with.
Birdie’s shop was large, and to reach the front counter I had to negotiate vast old wardrobes, chests of drawers and shelves full of china figurines, and glass cases packed with assorted smaller items, including broken fob watches and a glass eye. Behind the counter was a very small bird-like woman, her huge black-framed glasses dwarfing her round face and very much out of kilter with her small mouth and narrow nose. Her frown as I approached was disconcerting.
“You’re late. You said as how you’d be here at 12 o’clock!” were her first words.
“Forget it then. If ten minutes late matters so much to you.”
“No, no, now you’re here you may as well make yourself useful,” she snapped, scurrying from behind the timber length and looking me up and down. “You’re very good looking,” she frowned, as if it was a sin. “I don’t normally trust handsome men. Cedric tells me you’re something to do with the police, and you write books?”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m a Behavioural Investigative Adviser. That’s what used to be called a criminal profiler.”
“Got fancy degrees and such then?”
“One or two.”
“And you help Cedric look after that wretched old car?”
“When I’ve got time.”
“Daft old fool. Shouldn’t be driving at his age, but what can you do? Stubborn, some men, really stubborn. OI, YOU! YES YOU!” she called across to a couple of boys who’d entered the shop. “I’ve got my eye on you little beggars, anything goes missing, and I’ll know where it’s gone!”
The boys looked terrified before they made for the door, its clanging bell echoing as they left.
“Might as well tell you what it’s all about,” Birdie said, pushing past me and locking the outer door and turning the sign in the window to closed. “Thing is, I’ve been accused of doing something terrible.”
“I thought you were worried about break-ins,” I said.
“That as well. But it’s all linked in. Look, follow me, Jack, that is your name isn’t it?”
I followed her into the back room, then along a corridor until we reached a large garage-like area, filled with all kinds of things. Some of the items looked valueless, other pieces appeared to be antiques. There was a musty smell reminiscent of ancient dust and cobwebs, as if the room wasn’t used very often.
“This is where I was broken into last week. Fact is I’ve had some trouble. Six weeks ago tomorrow, my friend, old Mrs Davies, died. She had a house in town, and her son came down from Birmingham and sorted everything out. He’s a mean, tight fisted basket, disliked him moment I set eyes on him. Mrs D never saw sight or sound of him from one year to the next, but when she died he was straight down here like a vulture looking for pickings. When he’d got rid of anything of value, he asked me to clear the house of the old furniture, which I did. He gave me a bugger-all price I can tell you, and I took everything. That’s the way it works, see? As a rule the householder has a good look around, makes sure there’s nothing of value left in the place, then he asks me what I charge to take away the old tat – that’s what it usually is, most of it, sometimes I do it free. I almost offered to do it free for him, more fool me, load of rubbish it was, but I saw sense in the end. And if I can make any profit on any of the items I clear, then that’s my good luck.”
“Seems clear enough.”
“Exactly. It should be. But it’s a sight more complicated than that. Mrs Davies had a daughter as well, but she died. However there’s a granddaughter who lives in New York. A very sweet girl, she’s popped into the shop now and again when she came to visit her granny. Samantha’s an extremely talented violinist. Do you know anything about professional violinists?”
“Well, little Samantha told me that every professional violinist needs to have their own instrument. And that violin becomes a part of them, a absolutely vital part of their performance. When Samantha passed all her exams, Mrs Davies bought her a very valuable violin, made in 1886 by Eugenie Degani, of Venice. She paid about thirty five grand. I was staggered, but they tell me that Stradivarius violins, the rarest of all, can fetch millions. Something to do with the rarity, but also the old wood is supposed to give a sweeter sound, kind of thing makes a performance extra special.”
I was wondering where all this was leading.
“But it seems that Mrs Davies bought the violin, only last year and never got around to registering it as belonging to the girl,” she said.
“Why would she need to? “
“Something of that value? Of course she needed to. But fact is, because she didn’t do that, and she never expected to die, none of us do, do we? And her son, Samantha’s uncle Harold, is claiming that the valuable violin should form part of Mrs Davies’s estate, that, according to law, it belongs to him, as he was the sole beneficiary of her will, that she never got around to changing to include leaving the violin to Samantha, as of course I know she’d have wanted to. And Harold, the bastard, he’s determined to have it.”
“Which will wreck Samantha’s chances as a musician.”
Birdie nodded. “Girl’s been using the instrument for nigh-on a year now, she’s getting a lot of work with orchestras, and is making her name with a couple of her pals as a trio. But without the violin, or another one of a similar quality, her career grinds to a halt.”
“That’s a mess,” I agreed.
“Thing is, now the violin has gone missing,” Birdie said. “Samantha had left it with her mum for safekeeping while she went on holiday, so my guess is that someone heard that Mrs D had died, and broke in before Harold got there. But Harold reckons as how I’ve taken it, that it must have been hidden in the house. Had the police here, wanting to search my shop. They weren’t allowed to without a warrant, so I reckon it’s him who’s been trying to break into my premises, to search for it himself. But it’s ridiculous, because Harold searched his mum’s house before he let me in. He knew the violin wasn’t there then.”
“And Samantha left the violin at her mum’s house, yet it’s disappeared?”
She shook her head in exasperation. “Yes. It’s a real mystery. Harold’s convinced it must have been hidden, and I somehow found it by accident.”
I checked her locks and gave her the name of a friend who fits high-end security systems, for a thorough assessment of her aging locks and alarm.
That night I stayed in the storeroom, really as a favour to Cedric, and because Birdie was obviously scared of whoever the mystery intruder might be. I was dozing off, surrounded by the timber furniture, the tick-tock of a grandfather clock in the corner my only company.
Then, just as I’d drifted into sleep, I heard a sound. A footstep outside the back door – earlier on Birdie had showed me that the back entrance to her shop led from the rear of the storeroom. I got up and ran across to where I could see the door – deliberately left unfastened – was opening, letting in the cold night air.
“Hey!” I almost grabbed the man, but he was too fast for me, pulling away and escaping before I’d been able to hold on tight enough. I ran after him but it was no good. Soon he’d vanished into the night.
I woke Birdie up and we reported the attempted break-in to the police, but they didn’t even bother to send anyone round. My security fitter friend arrived next day and beefed up Birdie’s locks and alarm system. At least, it seemed to me, that if the intruder came back, there was no way he’d be able to get in.
For the next few weeks I forgot all about Birdie and her problems, was busy with various other things. It was a couple of months later that I was in Cedric’s kitchen with my two friends, chatting away as usual over coffee. Cedric showed me the newspaper, The New York Times, with a glowing report of a concert given by a trio of classical musicians, one of whom was called Samantha Davies.
There was a short piece beneath the main article about the sell-out concert:
Ms Davies, described as a musical prodigy, had recently lost her own valuable violin, and because it wasn’t in her name it hadn’t even been insured. However, a very similar instrument arrived at her home by private courier a week ago, with no explanation as to who had given it to her, just saying that it was a ‘gift from an unknown admirer’. Valued at around fifty thousand dollars, the unknown admirer certainly must have admired Ms Davies’s performances.
“Birdie was telling me only the other day,” Cedric continued, “when you get the contract to clear a house, you legally own everything that’s in the house, that means all the movable items. What I heard was, that Samantha paid a visit to Birdie’s shop when she came over soon after her mum died, right after her holiday.”
Stuart, speaking from behind his usual three-day stubble and fringe of lank hair above pig-like features, nodded knowingly. “So if, after seeing Birdie, Samantha had been asked to leave an item in her mum’s house, after her uncle had checked the premises were clear for Birdie to take everything away from, if that certain something were found by Birdie within the premises of the house after she’d been authorised to clear the place, then, according to the contract, it would belong to her?”
“And I imagine that an antique violin, even a valuable one, can’t necessarily be identified? Or if it has a serial number or something, that this can probably be altered?”
“I daresay it can,” Cedric replied.
“But you described your sister Birdie as a Squeaky Wheel,” I said, pondering on the ramifications of what had happened. “Who was so disagreeable that people were nice to her because they didn’t want trouble. An unpleasant, awkward woman.”
“Aye, she is. No charm at all. But one thing I learnt from my old dad, women can be crafty as a barrel-of-monkey. And Birdie, she always did know right from wrong.”
If you liked the above, you might like to look at Jack’s two books, available on Kindle: Rock’n’Roll Suicide
and the second one, Doppelganger http://amzn.to/112n98l
See you very soon, and thanks for being interested in my life
From now on, the Jack Lockwood Diaries will be all together on Jack’s blog, which is http://jacklockwood.wordpress.com/
I have been tagged by @TerryTyler4 to do this blog, and here is a link to Terry’s post: http://terrytyler59.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/a-very-british-blog.html
Q. Where were you born and where do you live at the moment?
I was born in Croydon, and I now live in Coulsdon, in Surrey, quite near Croydon, so I have not travelled far.
Q. Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere at the moment?
Yes, always lived and worked in Britain. I write features for a magazine called Kent Life, which showcases various towns and villages and places in that county.
Probably Kent, which is one of what’s called the ‘Home Counties’, meaning counties near that surround London. I particularly like Canterbury, with its fabulous historic cathedral, and also the Kent coastal towns, such as Sandwich. This town was one of the ‘cinque ports’, meaning that in the middle ages it was one of the five south coast ports valued by the King for its naval importance and shipbuilding industries, so valued that these five towns were exempt from royal taxation, and were given many other perks as well. Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate and Margate are wonderful too. And Maidstone, Kent’s capital town combines fine historical buildings with the convenience of a 21st century town, while Rochester, with its many links to the famous writer, Charles Dickens, is splendid.
Yes, I set both my Jack Lockwood novels in and around Canterbury, plus part of Rock’n’Roll Suicide centred around a fictitious mansion near to Bath, in the West Country. I love Bath itself, it’s an extremely beautiful historic town, and I briefly mentioned Bath too, notably Pulteney Weir, a water feature below a famous bridge in Bath, that’s depicted in paintings.
Q. There is an illusion – or myth if you wish – about British people that I would like you to discuss. Many see the ‘Brits’ as ‘stiff upper lip’. Is that correct?
It is to some extent, but I would have thought this is shared by several other European countries. I think a better way of putting it is that British people are stoical: they take the knocks without complaining and struggle through adversity, such as our current economic malaise. British people admire understated kindness and consideration, they don’t like ostentatious shows of emotion that seem false – that’s not to say that they’re not as emotional as anyone else. I very much liked the late John Le Mesurier, a wonderful actor who was calm, gentlemanly, kind and infinitely charming. I like to think he is an ideal ‘typically British’ gentleman, personifying qualities that can be admired by everyone. An Iranian girl once told me that Iranian people say that British people are referred to as ‘potatoes’ in her country, because of their apparent dullness. Not a nice thought.
Q. Do any of the characters in your books carry the ‘stiff upper lip’? Or are they all ‘British Bulldog’ and unique in their own way?
Possibly. Jack Lockwood gets knocked about quite a bit and just carries on without moaning – I have been accused of having him bashed about too much, maybe he should have an easier time.
Q. Tell us about one of your recent books
Doppelganger is about my hero, Jack Lockwood, falling in love with a woman he meets by chance, with a backdrop of a serial killer at large in the cathedral town of Canterbury. Once he’s truly smitten with Lucy, he discovers that she is the absolute image of a girl who murdered her classmate, when aged nine, and was incarcerated and later released with a new identity. The story is an ‘is she or isn’t she’ type of story, where twists in the plot confuse Jack more and more, his ultimate fear being that Lucy is not only the same person as the child killer, but may now be the serial killer. All is finally resolved, but nothing at all is as straightforward as it seems.
Q. What are you currently working on?
The third Jack Lockwood novel, which I think I’m going to call Sheer Fear, and so far I’m researching skydiving and climbing on tall buildings, as a fear of heights is going to be central to the workings of the story. Also I’ve just started the Jack Lockwood Diaries, regular short stories on my blog about the hero of my novels.
Q. How do you spend your leisure time?
Doing DIY and building repairs on my (very old) house, going to local writers’ circles, avoiding cooking by eating out in Wetherspoon pubs.
Q. Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?
Ideally a global audience, but unfortunately it’s more likely that British people are going to be more interested in an English hero operating in a British town.
Q. Can you provide links to your work?
Rock’n’Roll Suicide http://amzn.to/XVQ9GF
From now on I’ll be posting regular snippets from the life of Jack Lockwood, the hero of my Jack Lockwood Mystery Series of novels that are available on Kindle for just 77p, or 99C (see below)
I hope you enjoy the first one:
Last night I couldn’t sleep. Kept getting up and walking around to try and clear my head. There was that song running around over and over, The night has a thousand eyes, by Bobby Vee. I heard it on a Golden Oldies radio programme and now the lovely melody was running through my head and I just couldn’t get rid of it. Bobby Vee had recorded it long before I was born, but for some weird reason it evoked all the magic of the sixties for me: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Cliff Richard, the Everly brothers. So I was thinking about the past already, but my mind drifted back to a past that was a lot further back than the sixties.
It doesn’t help my peace of mind living alone in this gatehouse. There’s a history here, and sometimes I feel as if it’s a history I don’t like. A hundred-and-fifty years ago it straddled the lane from the woods, its central section wide open, to allow the horses and carriages to pass underneath the arch and on up the long drive to Allingham Grange, the mansion which has long since been demolished to make way for the luxury flats that sit up on the hill, all new brickwork and modern glazing. They’ve built a proper road now of course, so all the Mercedes and 4X4s troop up Eternity Drive towards their big integral garages beside the little houses that are mostly identical to each other, although the ‘Allingham Residences’: three and four bedroom detached homes are quite a bit more substantial than the ‘Allingham Standard’ homes, that are mostly two bedroom flats.
I’d bought the gatehouse some years ago and got permission to make alterations to the listed building, even to build an extension at the back. Yesterday evening I’d been rooting around in the loft and found a big box of very old books, and I was so intrigued by them that I brought them into my living room and tipped them out onto the floor. One of them had a date in the front: 1889, and was clearly a child’s school textbook, a geography book with maps of the world, with lots of the countries depicted in pink, the colour of the old British Empire.
It was a cold night, frost on the windows, the grey ash of the log fire a cruel memory of last night’s leaping flames. I made myself some hot chocolate and sat at the table, leafing through the old books again. All around was the musty, cheesy smell of old paper, that took me back to my childhood and my own, notably unacademic, schooldays. Though I’m not a natural student, I’ve always loved books, especially old books, with their leather covers and thick yellowed pages. Amongst them was an old photograph album, with ancient sepia photos pasted onto each page, with names and dates, ranks of gloomy forbidding men with large whiskers and mousy ladies, hidden inside voluminous bonnets and coats.
What should I do with all these volumes, I wondered? Nominally, of course, they belonged to me since they were in the Gatehouse when I bought it, but there was a chance that whoever had once owned these personal items might still having living descendants, and I’d like to return them to whoever it might be.
Then, when I was flicking through A pictorial history of Cambridgeshire, something dropped onto the floor. I stooped down and picked it up. It was a large slip of paper with swirling extravagant lettering on it, on yellowing thin paper. At the top right hand corner was a date, 7 September 1901, and in the middle were the words The Canterbury and District Mutual Bank Company Ltd, below here Pay, with the P very large and scrolling across the page. And in neat copperplate handwriting was written Mrs Lavinia Covington, and on the line below that was a signature, that looked like Jonathan Ballantyne.
It was just like a modern-day cheque, apart from the fancy style of lettering, and the name of the bank which I’d never heard of: presumably it had gone out of business or merged with a bigger branch many years ago. There was no ‘paid’ stamp on it, so, apparently, this cheque had not been presented to the recipient’s bank. And a thousand pounds in 1902 was a fortune. A mystery that would now never be solved.
Ballantyne. I remembered hearing that that was the name of the family who used to live at Allingham Grange, the large mansion that had been demolished in 1985, to make way for the current residential development of flats and apartments, the Allingham Estate.
By this time dawn had broken, and I was ruminating on the conundrum of the old cheque that had never been cashed. Had the person who’d received the cheque died before being able to present it to his or her bank? Had the writer of the cheque asked them not to use it, paid them in some other way? Surely in that case it would have been destroyed?
I had breakfast, dozed for an hour, then reached the conclusion that this box of books, the photo album, and the un-cashed cheque, belonged to the descendants of the people who lived in the big house, if any Ballantynes remained living. And if, indeed, I could trace any of them, they would be probablyt be keen to see their property, so the least I could do was make some effort to contact them. A search of the local phone book showed just one Ballantyne, living in a residential area of nearby Canterbury, in Monroe Gardens. What was the harm in driving into town to see if L A Ballantyne happened to be a descendant of the Ballantyne clan who had once been Lords of the Manor? He or she was unlikely to be in, but it was worth going, just in case.
Monroe Gardens was a pretty ordinary sort of road in a quiet part of town , a turning off Stour Street. Towards the end I found the number I was looking for: 74. Parked outside was a grubby white van, and two big men in tee shirts, dirty jeans and scruffy trainers were unfastening ladders from its roof. The taller of the two, the one who had a shaved head and a large red pustule on his cheek, spat in the road as he manhandled his end of the ladder.
Going up the front drive I lifted my hand towards the bell but before I pressed it, it opened up, to reveal a tiny old lady with short silver hair, and a brown face that was as shrivelled as a walnut. She was dressed in slacks and an old sweater. And she looked scared.
“Yes?” she asked nervously. “What is it now?” She looked at me first, before staring beyond me, directing anxious wary glances over my shoulder towards the two men, who were now clattering their ladder against the house.
“My name’s Jack Lockwood, and I live in what used to be the Gatehouse to Allingham Grange,” I began.
“The Gatehouse?” I had her full attention, and for a few moments the hunted, wary expression left her eyes. “I passed it the other day. Someone’s renovating it, converting it into a house. Is that you?”
“Yes, that’s me. The thing is, I was in the loft area and found a box of books that I imagine belong to whoever used to own the Grange. I knew the family was called Ballantyne, and I found your name in the phone book. I wondered if you were a descendent.”
The smile transformed her face. “Yes, I’m Lydia Ballantyne. I had an older brother, but he died recently. As far as I know we’re the last of the Ballantynes – at least the ones descended from the Allingham Ballantynes.”
“Good. Then shall I get them from the car? There are photographs and books, and something rather special.”
“Really? My goodness, how interesting…”
She was beginning to say something else when one of the builders, the one who had long greasy hair and a tight mean mouth, pushed in front of me, staring down at her, without so much as acknowledging my existence. “Bad news my darling. Afraid it’s much worse then we reckoned at first.”
Somehow the my darling grated on my nerves. So did his patronising attitude, his leer, the way he put his hand against her wall and sprawled there letting his fat gut hang over his belt, as if he owned the house.
“See, love, it’s not just a few tiles, oh dear me no, darling, all them tiles up on the main roof is blown.”
“Don’t wanna get technical with you darling. Thing is, them clay tiles defragment over time. We call them blown, because they expand and split, and shatter to pieces, on account of the frost getting inside ’em see? You’re lucky we noticed in time, if the rain had got into the roof you’d have had rotten timbers and all sorts of nasties. We’ve gotta replace them all, just no point in messing about.”
“Will it be expensive?”
“Would be if anyone else was doing it love, but we’ll give ya a good price for cash, yeah? So you give me a monkey – that’s five hundred quid in cash – and I can get down the suppliers and buy them in now, and we can start the job soon as they’re here.”
“If you think it’s really necessary, I suppose–”
“–Trust me darling, we’re doing you a big favour.” He stepped closer. As he clapped a hand onto her shoulder I noticed her flinch. “I’m Terry, my mate over there is Pete. Tell you what, why don’t we start stripping them off right now, no point hanging around. And we won’t say no to a cuppa, my darling. Bring it out to us would ya? Two sugars for Pete, but I’m sweet enough as I am.”
I slipped away from his charm offensive and stared up at the roof, the tiles of which the man had claimed were ‘completely blown’. In the past I worked as a builder, and I knew all about delamination of old clay tiles. The ladder was leaning up against the house, and, while no one was looking, I climbed up to gutter level and carefully examined the tiles. I could see a couple of cracked ones over by the chimney stack, but all the others looked to be in remarkably good condition. Not a single one of them was blown: blown tiles have an easily noticeable frizzy look to their outer surface, cause by the breakdown of the glaze, and at their edges are a series of split lines. I pulled at one that was a couple of rows back from the gutter, and slid it out from under the row above and pulled it away from the roof.
Still carrying the liberated tile, I climbed down and assessed the situation. The man was still chattering away to the old lady in her doorway. He seemed to be trying to shoulder his way past her into the hallway, while his mate was rooting around in the back of the van. He looked up as I came closer.
“Was you just up our ladder?” he asked as he turned towards me, frowning, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
“You got a fucking nerve. Had a good mind to pull it out from under you. Clear off, mate, before my mate Terry comes back and gives you knuckle sandwich.”
“Do you know what a blown roof tile looks like?” I asked him, shoving the tile in front of his face.
“Your mate Terry just told the lady that all the tiles were blown. They’re not.”
He stepped forward and grabbed me by the lapels. “What’s your game, mate? Do you wanna get fucked? Cos that’s what’s gonna happen.”
“What’s going on?”
Terry had left the lady at the door and was sprinting towards us. The old lady hung back, fidgeting with the sleeve of her sweater.
“This interfering arsehole said–”
I knocked his hand away and moved towards Lydia Ballantyne, showing her the tile in my hand. “Excuse me Mrs Ballantyne, but your roof is perfectly sound. I know about these things, and I can promise you there’s no earthly reason for you to have those tiles replaced.”
She looked from me to the two men who were getting more and more furious by the second.
“Fuck off and mind your own business!” snarled Terry, exposing gaps between his few yellowing teeth. He dived toward me, but when he tried to grab me I backed away.
Mrs Ballantyne was running back to her house, evidently terrified.
Terry slammed me up against the house wall, his fetid breath an inch from my face, his hands on my throat, while his friend loitered nearby, having picked up a long piece of heavy-looking timber. “What’s your fucking game? You wanna nick the job for yourself?”
Instinct took over. Instinct and my long experience from my bare-knuckle boxing days. I twisted sideways. The punch to his gut took effect. He let go, staggering backwards. Before his friend had a chance to do anything, I smashed my fist into Terry’s Neanderthal nose twice, two thwack thwacks, using the edge of my knuckles, as I’d been taught. The angle of smash was calculated to inflict maximum damage with minimum risk to my fist.
Blood from his mangled nose spattered everywhere. Pete, less confident now, was moving away. Without a word, he lifted the ladder and hoisted it up onto the van’s roof, while Terry held a dirty tissue to his blood-covered face.
The ladder was barely secured to the roof as they drove off.
Apparently Terry and Peter had called early that morning, persuading her to let them look at her roof. She’d been too intimidated to argue with them, and was hugely relieved when I explained that the damp problems she was experiencing, that had allowed her to be persuaded she did have a serious roof problem, was clearly due to the couple of cracked tiles I’d seen when I was up there.
Half an hour later we were sitting in her living room, the box of books opened, its contents spread around the floor in front of her. To see her face light up as she looked at the old photographs, telling me the names of long dead relatives, was a joy.
The un-cashed cheque was something she just could not understand.
“One of life’s great mysteries,” she said. “Though I do remember talk of my great grandfather getting one of the servant girls into trouble.” She coughed in embarrassment. “A baby, you know. This could have been a very very generous payoff.”
“Which she was too proud to accept?”
“Perhaps. Though it’s hard to believe anyone could have such principles.”
“But surely,” I said, “a servant wouldn’t have had a bank account?”
“Of course she wouldn’t, but that man was so out of touch with reality, how ordinary people lived, that he wouldn’t have realised such a thing. Besides, there are always ways by way of solicitors to cash cheques, especially a cheque for this amount of money.”
Mrs Ballantyne turned towards me and smiled, and in her expression I could see she was still beautiful, the remains of a lovely woman’s features had never left her face, lined and wrinkled by age as it was. “I really don’t know how to thank you enough Jack. I’m extremely short of money. Those men insisted that the roof job was vital, and I was terrified to spend the little capital I’ve got. Are you absolutely sure the roof isn’t in a dreadful state?”
“Certain. But I’ve got a friend who’s a builder – a real builder – and he can come round and set your mind at rest if you like. By the way, I also happen to know a little bit about secondhand books. And last night I noticed that at least one of these appears to be a first edition. I think it could be worth a lot of money.”
“I really don’t know. Possibly thousands.”
“You knew that. You could have kept it. Yet you tried to trace the rightful owner?”
“Of course,” I replied. “Rather like the servant who your ancestor got into trouble and offered to buy her off, and she refused his cheque. A matter of principle.”
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