‘Quest for the Holey Snail’ – Opening chapters

These are the opening chapters of Quest for the Holey Snail,  which is available as an e-book and as a paperback.

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If you’d like more information about the book, click here.

 

CHAPTER ONE

There are times in most people’s lives when they would give their eye teeth for one of those Swiss Army knives with their vast array of handy little tools and gadgets. This exchange is rarely achieved, however, because very few people actually have eyes with teeth in them, unless of course they have recently been attacked by some wild beast or other which has tried to bite their face off. Fortunately for him, Horace Tweed had not been subjected to such an assault, but un-fortunately for him, this meant that he was lacking in any eye teeth to trade for a Swiss Army knife, which he so desperately needed at this particular moment.

Swiss Army knife

And even if he had been in possession of the requisite number of eye teeth, there was no-one in the immediate vicinity to trade them with, given that the only current occupants of Flat D, 221b Mortuary Street were himself and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Zoot, who Horace knew for a fact was not the proud owner of a multi-tool of any description.

The handy little tool or gadget he was most in need of right now was the one for unpicking the end of a roll of Sellotape which some idiot (very possibly Horace himself) hadn’t bothered to fold back neatly or even scrunch untidily the last time they’d used it. The reason he was in such urgent need of accessing the end of the Sellotape was as follows:

 1)  An important-looking letter had dropped through his letterbox earlier that morning.

2)  The aforementioned Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Zoot had immediately ripped the important-looking letter to pieces.

3)  Each attempt to reassemble the important-looking letter from its constituent parts ended in failure because of either:

a)  a gust of wind through the missing pane in the kitchen window (four times);

b)  a sudden and involuntary fit of sneezing (twice).

Some kind of fixative was therefore essential to the task in hand except that it was proving exceptionally difficult to release the end of the Sellotape, not only because Horace was seriously lacking in the Swiss Army knife department, but also because his obsessive nail-chewing habit had left him entirely lacking in the fingernail department too.

‘Damn and buggeration,’ he said, finally giving up on the tape and hurling it across the room, where it ricocheted off the chipped nose of a life-size plaster of Paris bust of Timothy S. Leatherman (inventor of the eponymous Leatherman multi-tool device) and out through the missing pane in the kitchen window of his third floor apartment.

 * * *

 The last thing anyone expects when out for a morning stroll along Mortuary Street – or any other street, road, avenue or lane for that matter – is to be struck on the top of the head with an economy size roll of Sellotape, hurled (albeit inadvertently) through the missing pane of a third floor window and travelling at a speed in excess of 83.7 miles per hour. Mr Dikgacoi was no exception, although he may not have agreed that this was the last thing he would have expected.

‘Ouch!’ he said, and his hand flew to the injured part of his skull, unprotected as it was by even a single productive follicle.

Still massaging the top of his head, he stooped to pick up the offending projectile and was surprised to find not one but two rolls of tape lying side by side on the pavement.

‘Hmm,’ he said as his double vision began to correct itself. ‘That’s the third to last thing I would have expected.’

‘You don’t see that sort of thing very often, even in my line of work,’ said a passing solicitor who specialised in no-win-no-fee personal injury litigation. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I think so,’ said Mr Dikgacoi. ‘But it looks like whichever idiot last used this tape didn’t bother to fold the end neatly or even scrunch it untidily.’

‘Any double vision? Headache? Mild concussion? Palpitations? Deep vein thrombosis?’ asked the solicitor and then glanced at Mr Dikgacoi’s totally bald scalp and added, ‘Sudden hair loss?’

‘Vision was a bit iffy, but it seems to be fine now.’

‘You can’t be too careful where head injuries are concerned, you know. Not in my experience.’

‘Have you had one then?’ said Mr Dikgacoi.

‘One what?’

‘Head injury.’

‘No, but I happen to be a solicitor who specialises in no-win-no-fee personal injury litigation and I think you have a very strong case.’

‘Case?’

‘Against whoever wilfully hurled this roll of Sellotape at you with malice aforethought and very possibly murder in mind.’

‘Well, I’m not sure about that,’ said Mr Dikgacoi, smiling politely. ‘Anyway, there’s no real harm done.’

The solicitor fished inside the top pocket of his waxed cotton Armani suit jacket and produced a business card, which had coincidentally been manufactured from recycled waxed cotton.

‘My card,’ he said, thrusting it between the palm of Mr Dikgacoi’s hand and the scalp he was still massaging with it. ‘In case you change your mind. Like for instance if you develop brain damage at a later stage as a direct result of the impact.’

Mr Dikgacoi thanked him and pocketed the business card at precisely the same moment as something else happened which nobody would have expected. (Well, perhaps not “nobody”.) A massive explosion was heard from just around the corner at the top end of Mortuary Street, and a huge ball of fire illuminated what would have been the night sky if it hadn’t been eleven o’clock in the morning.

The solicitor glanced at his watch. ‘Damn. Ten minutes early.’

He gave Mr Dikgacoi a freemasonly handshake and scurried off in the direction of a potentially large number of new and seriously injured clients.

‘Don’t forget to get in touch before amnesia sets in,’ he called out over his shoulder as he went. ‘You can always come crying to me, you know.’

* * *

 Despite its relative proximity to Flat D, 221b Mortuary Street, Horace Tweed was totally oblivious to the sound of the explosion on account of the fact that he was currently on his hands and knees with his head inside the bottom cupboard of a Welsh dresser in search of a Pritt stick which he seemed to recall putting there on 15th January 2007 after having completed the finishing touches to his Halloween costume in plenty of time for the big day.

‘Double damn and buggeration,’ he said as he added a decapitated Action Man to the growing pile of long forgotten “stuff” that was threatening to engulf both his ankles. ‘I’m sure it’s in here somewhere.’

A spoutless teapot bearing the image of a three-legged goat and the words “Prestatyn Welcomes Careful Drivers” joined the pile at precisely the same moment as the flat’s doorbell went “bing-bong”.

‘Ouch!’ went Horace, who had forgotten he was half inside a cupboard when he attempted to stand, thereby whacking his head against the underside of the drawer above.

Zoot the Staffie, who had withdrawn to his bed under the kitchen table when Horace had shouted at him over the shredding-of-the-important-looking-letter incident, now leapt into action and hurtled towards the door to see who the unexpected visitor might be. However, due to the highly polished nature of the bare floorboards, the hurtle turned into a high speed slide which culminated in a resounding “thump” at the base of the door and a temporary loss of consciousness.

Horace, who was well aware of the slipperiness of the floor, joined him at a considerably slower pace, massaging his injured scalp and then inspecting the palm of his hand to ascertain whether a bump had started to form. With his other hand, and with some difficulty due to the additional weight of Zoot’s bulk, he pulled open the door and surveyed his visitor from head to toe and back again.

This took fractionally longer than it would have done with someone of average height because the man was improbably tall despite the complete absence of any hair whatsoever. His camel hair duffel coat was about three sizes too small for him and was sufficiently untoggled to reveal the central section of a faded maroon T-shirt beneath and its partially visible image of a giant sea turtle.

‘Is this yours?’ said Mr Dikgacoi.

Horace examined the economy size roll of Sellotape in the man’s hand.

‘Poss-ib-ly,’ he said after a pause of several moments, not wishing to commit himself too early in the exchange for fear of self-incrimination.

‘Perhaps it would help you to identify the item if I were to tell you that the last idiot to use it let the end of the tape go back without so much as folding it neatly or scrunching it untidily.’

‘I see,’ said Horace, gently rubbing the now throbbing injury to the top of his head.

‘It hit me on the head,’ said Mr Dikgacoi, gently rubbing his own cranial injury.

Horace paused for even more moments than the last time.

‘I don’t suppose you happen to have a Swiss Army knife about your person, do you?’ he said at last, subtly shifting the focus of the conversation away from his personal culpability in the matter.

‘I do as a matter of fact,’ said Mr Dikgacoi.

Horace beamed. ‘And would it include the little tool for unpicking the ends of Sellotape amongst its array of handy little tools and gadgets?’

‘Of course,’ said Mr Dikgacoi, looking rather affronted that he could be taken for someone foolish enough to possess a Swiss Army knife without such a handy little tool or gadget.

‘Excellent,’ said Horace, his beam instantly switching from dipped to full. ‘Would you care for a cup of tea?’

‘I would, yes. Thank you very much.’

 * * *

 After an hour and nine minutes and two cups of tea, the important-looking letter was finally reassembled from its constituent parts with the aid of several inches of Sellotape, the end of which was now safely and neatly folded back onto itself.

During the lengthy reassembly process, Horace had explained to Mr Dikgacoi why he believed that the letter was quite as important as it made itself out to be. ‘I’d eat my hat if it’s not a reply to the advertisement I placed in a national and moderately well respected periodical not two weeks ago,’ he’d said.

‘What advertisement was that then?’ Mr Dikgacoi had not unreasonably asked.

‘I’ll show you,’ Horace had said and then rummaged in the top pocket of his pyjama jacket before producing the advertisement which he had previously clipped from the aforementioned periodical.

This is what it looked like:

Newspaper ad NEW bigger 10 Midtones -76

And this is what the important-looking letter said when it had finally been reassembled from its constituent parts:

Dear Mr Etc., Etc.,
Re your recent advertisement in the latest edition of “Practical Adventuring”, please visit me immediately for a foregone-conclusion interview re employment of an adventurous nature. We can discuss the personal physical harm issue at the time. If you do not possess a Swiss Army knife (minimum twelve handy little tools or gadgets), bring someone with you who does. The employment of an adventurous nature is top secret. Tell no-one else except the tall fellow with the Swiss Army knife who’s standing next to you.
Yours sincerely,
A Wellwisher
P.S. Finger buffet provided, but please bring your own croutons and/or nut allergy antidote if required.

 ‘Blimey,’ said Horace. ‘That sounds pretty exciting.’

‘What’s croutons?’ said Mr Dikgacoi.

‘Never mind that now,’ said Horace, who wasn’t entirely sure what croutons were either but had an idea it was another word for mad people. ‘This calls for a minor celebration.’

‘More tea?’

‘Not that minor a celebration. I was thinking more in terms of a glass of mildly alcoholic ginger beer.’

‘Splendid,’ said Mr Dikgacoi, who really wasn’t at all keen on ginger beer but certainly preferred it to tea, which he hated with a vengeance. ‘But shouldn’t we get going? The letter does say “immediately” after all.’

‘We?’

‘Well, I do have a Swiss Army knife, and to be perfectly honest, I too have recently been seeking gainful employment of an adventurous nature.’

‘Really? What an amazing coincidence.’

‘It is, isn’t it?’

 

CHAPTER TWO

 On their way to the address which was printed at the top of the important-looking letter (not shown in above facsimile), Horace suddenly realised he didn’t even know his new companion’s name.

‘So what’s your name then?’ he said.

‘D-I-K-G-A-C-O-I,’ spelt Mr Dikgacoi.

Horace frowned. ‘Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye? That’s a very long and unusual name if I may say so.’

‘No, that’s just how you spell it.’

‘So how do you pronounce it then?’

‘No idea.’

‘You don’t know?’

Mr Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye shrugged. ‘Never seen the need really.’

‘But what if someone asks you your name? Like I did just now.’

‘I spell it out. Like I did just now. I think it’s pronounced “Jacky”. Or something like that anyway.’

‘What did your parents call you?’

‘Nine.’

‘Nine?’

‘We were a very big family. My parents couldn’t remember all the names, so they called us all by numbers. The order we were born in. It was a bit confusing with the twins though. Seven A often thought she was being called when in fact it was Seven B and vice versa.’

‘Yes, I can see that might have been tricky,’ said Horace and then pondered the awkwardness of pronouncing “Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye” for several seconds, staring out of the train carriage window as he did so and chewing on what little still remained of his badly bitten fingernails. “Jacky” didn’t suit Mr Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye at all, and “Nine” sounded far too impersonal.

‘I know,’ he said at last as he spotted an advertising hoarding on the platform of the station where the train had been waiting for the past eighteen minutes due to a stray Wrigley’s chewing gum wrapper on the line. ‘What about Christian?’

‘What about them?’

‘No, not Christians, plural. Christian as in Christian Dior. As your new name. Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye is far too much of a mouthful, and Nine sounds a bit… impersonal.’

‘Christian?’

‘Yes.’

Mr Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye looked doubtful. ‘I’m not sure, to be honest. If anything, I tend to see myself as more of a humanist really, and—’

‘Okay then,’ Horace interrupted and scanned some of the other advertising hoardings. ‘How about Persil?’

Mr Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye shook his head.

‘Kelloggs? … Birdseye? … Always Ultra? … MacNugget? … Texaco? … Exlax? …’

Mr Deeeyekaygeeayceeoheye shook his head with increasing vigour after each of Horace’s suggestions and then suddenly pointed through the carriage window. ‘There,’ he said. ‘What about that?’

Horace followed the direction of his pointing finger. ‘Mr Ladies?’

‘No, no, no. Next to the toilets. The big sign there.’

Horace shifted his gaze to the sign in question. ‘Yes, I see what you mean. It’s certainly got a ring to it.’

* * *

Fifty-seven minutes and twelve seconds later, when their train finally arrived twenty-nine minutes and eighteen seconds behind schedule at their destination station, Horace Tweed and Norwood Junction hurried along the platform, eager as they were to meet their new employer for the very first time.

Perhaps if they hadn’t been quite so eager, they might have noticed the man with the deep scar which ran from just below his left ear to almost the middle of his chin, narrowly bypassing the corner of his mouth. Dressed in a broad-brimmed, dark black hat and almost floor-length, dark black coat, he was leaning against the station wall, pretending to read an upside-down copy of Lurkers Monthly. He followed their progress with his eyes through a pair of dark black wraparound sunglasses, and the moment Horace and Norwood left the station, his feet followed them as well in a pair of red and white baseball boots.

And if the man in the baseball boots hadn’t been so intent on keeping his quarry in sight, he might have noticed the man in the off-grey, almost floor-length hooded robe and Union Jack flip-flops who tossed his copy of Unusual Footwear into the nearest litter bin and set off after him.

Flip-flops x4 TRANS 50 Midtones -38* * *

Horace was beginning to regret not having invested in a moderately priced A-to-B at the station kiosk as Norwood Junction had suggested. For his part, Norwood Junction (né Mr Dikgacoi) – or Norwood for short – was beginning to regret having unquestioningly accepted Horace’s assertion that he was genetically blessed with what he termed “an innate sense of direction”.

‘That’s not the same one, is it?’ said Horace as the two prospective adventurers stood side by side, staring at the long, low building on the opposite side of the moderately busy high street.

‘Same what?’ said Norwood.

‘The same station that we left not an hour and six minutes ago.’

Norwood studied the long, low building with its grey slate roof, its mustard yellow brickwork and its iron-framed glass awning, noting inwardly that the geraniums in the hanging baskets looked in serious need of a good watering.

‘It certainly looks very… stationy,’ he said.

‘Do stations often move then? Like it’s been following us around or something?’

Norwood briefly considered the possibility and then dismissed it as unlikely before the penny dropped and he realised the cause of the misunderstanding.

‘No,’ he said, turning towards his companion with a knowing smile which some might have incorrectly construed as mildly patronising. ‘I said “stationy”, not “stationary”.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Horace and paused lengthily before adding. ‘Is there such a word as “stationy” then?’

‘Yes indeed,’ said Norwood. ‘Of course it’s not much in use nowadays, but it was all the rage back in the day.’

 

 

DIGRESSION ONE: ON THE COMING OF THE RAILWAYS AND WHETHER THERE REALLY IS SUCH A WORD AS “STATIONY”

PLEASE NOTE: This is the first of a handful of digressions to be found at random intervals throughout this book. To be honest, they don’t really add much to the story itself, so you can skip them if you like or maybe come back to them later. It’s entirely up to you of course.

* * *

By the annoying and totally meaningless phrase “back in the day”, Norwood was referring to: “the period during the reign of Queen Victoria when the entire public transport system was revolutionised by the coming of the railways”. Indeed, it was the monarch herself who was directly responsible for this revolution by offering a prize to anyone who could devise a means of travel which didn’t involve horses (Royal Proclamation 871). This wasn’t because she was some kind of namby-pamby, anthropomorphising, vegan eco-warrior who was on some kind of soft-in-the-head mission to liberate the entire equine species from its traditional role as an oppressed beast of burden. Not a bit of it. In fact, she loved nothing better than sitting on them, being pulled around in carriages behind them and occasionally even eating bits of them too.

And here’s another fact. It is only relatively recently that historians have discovered a clue as to the real reason why the Queen Vic was quite so keen to find an alternative to horsepowered travel, and it materialised in the form of a letter unearthed from a heap of undelivered post at a Royal Mail sorting office in Billericay. The letter – somewhat ironically undelivered due to “Insufficient Postage” – was written in Her Royal Monarchness’s own hand and addressed to her faithful servant and Scottish comedian, Arnold “Billy” Brown. In the letter, she describes in particularly graphic detail how she’d been strolling along Prince Regent Street the day before to “check out the bargains in the January sales” when she’d slipped on a massive pile of steaming horse doo-doo and gone flying bustle over crown to the obvious amusement of a bunch of nearby proletarians. Tellingly, she concludes her letter with the now famous invocation, “Who will rid me of this turbulent horse shit?”.

Grovelling royalist sycophant as he was, Brown would of course have been straight onto the case before you could shout “The Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s yer uncle”, but since he never received the letter, he did naff all about it, which probably explains why Victoria had him beheaded as a “disobedient Scottish git”.

So, despite Brown having failed her in her hour of need, the Queen took matters into her own hands and issued Royal Proclamation 871. Spurred on by the generosity of the royally offered prize (two tickets to a gig at the Albert Hall), engineers – both amateur and professional – laboured night and day to try to devise a means of public transport which didn’t involve horses. There were many failures and a smattering of not-quite-successes. One such of this latter category was the invention of an external combustion engine by a part-time cobbler named Thadeus Boatbuilder. The creation of this remarkable means of propulsion made it almost inevitable that he would win the coveted prize until the day arrived when the initial prototype was to be put to the test.

In the absence of real guinea pigs in those days, Thadeus assumed the role himself but with disastrous results. Having securely strapped a four-wheeled external combustion engine to the underside of each of his feet (which incidentally made him appear twenty-seven inches taller), he fired up the first of the two engines, and a serious design flaw became immediately apparent. Thadeus had overlooked the necessity for some kind of dual ignition system which would start both engines simultaneously, and as a result, his left foot shot forward at an alarming rate while his right foot remained firmly planted to the ground. Tragically, this meant not only that his invention was consigned to The Dustbin of Silly Ideas (until rediscovered and substantially modified by Henry Ford many years later), but also that two funerals had to be held in order to bury both halves of Thadeus’s body.

The months turned into even more months, and Queen Victoria began to despair that a horseless public transport system was little more than a whimsical royal pipedream.

‘Cheer up, old thing,’ said Albert Hall, the Prince Recent, over breakfast one day. ‘I’ve been hearing some jolly exciting stuff about this new railways thingummywotsit.’

‘Railways?’ said the Royal Wifeness. ‘What on earth are railways when they’re at home?’

‘Great long strips of metal tied together with planks. They can put them almost anywhere apparently.’

‘And their point is?’

As it happened, Albert hadn’t the slightest idea what these so-called railways were supposed to be for, so never mentioned the “R” word again from that day until quite some fortnights later when an astonishing announcement was announced. According to the newspapers, some bright young spark by the name of Stephenson had finally figured out what to do with the massive network of rusting strips of metal that now covered the entire country. Having grown bored with writing books about pirates and blind people called Pew, he had turned his attention to designing what he called a “Railway Carriage” (later to be renamed “Pullman” after some other writer chap). Unfortunately, this invention wasn’t going to win him any prizes – royal or otherwise – on account of the fact that the carriage remained completely motionless unless towed by an awful lot of horses. However, not to be thwarted, Stephenson returned to the proverbial but nevertheless real drawing board and quickly invented a “Train” (or as it has come to be known in more recent times, the “Delayed Seventeen-Ten From Carshalton Beeches”).

And the rest, as they say, is “The History of British Public Transport Systems Through the Ages” except for one small detail. Delighted though Queen Victoria and her subjects were with Stephenson’s brilliant new invention, it soon became clear that something was missing. Although a growing fleet of Trains and Carriages had been happily criss-crossing their horseless way the length and breadth of the country, there wasn’t one single place where they could stop so that people could get either on or off them. These “Passengers”, as they were known at the time but later renamed “Customers” for some bizarre reason, grew ever more frustrated as they waited patiently beside the Railway only for a Train and its Carriages to whizz past and cause them to miss all kinds of important meetings and appointments.

Something had to be done – and quickly. But just as frustration was threatening to turn into all-out revolution, a certain Mrs Gwendoline Terminus hit upon the extraordinary idea of inventing specially designed buildings which she called “Stations” after her son, Derek. So thrilled was Her Royal Victorianess with this simple but highly effective solution that she instantly rewarded Mrs Terminus with the specially created honour, Keeper of the Royal Off-Peak Season Ticket. At the same time, the Queen issued Royal Proclamation 893, in which she decreed that the very first Station to be built should be named “Victoria” and that all future Stations should look pretty much the same (i.e. “stationy”), although not necessarily as big.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO (Continued)

‘I’m afraid all stations look pretty much the same to me,’ said Horace, back in the present. ‘But if it is the same one we left an hour and six minutes ago, that means we’ve been—’

‘Walking in an enormous circle,’ Norwood interrupted.

They continued staring at the station for several seconds, both wondering how to turn a bad situation into a better one, when their attention was suddenly diverted by the sound of screeching tyres. Instinctively, they turned towards the noise to see a large, dark black van with normal-sized, dark black tinted windows hurtle sideways from around the nearest corner and onto the wrong side of the road. The sound of screeching tyres was immediately amplified to eardrum-piercing proportions as the drivers of half a dozen vehicles on the correct side of the road slammed on their brakes to avoid a collision. This was followed by the hooting of numerous horns and several gestures of a sexually explicit nature as the van narrowly managed to maintain a semi-upright position and then mounted the pavement only yards from where Horace and Norwood were standing.

But the van showed no signs of slowing and, if anything, seemed to increase its speed as it bore down on the prospective adventurers.

‘Look out!’ someone shouted helpfully, but neither Horace nor Norwood had time to even wet their pants, let alone get out of the way, so they resorted to the age-old defence mechanism of shutting their eyes.

There was yet another screech – much closer this time – and then the sound of van doors being thrown open.

Horace and Norwood both opened their eyes at exactly the same moment to see three enormous figures leap out of the van, the front of which was now a matter of inches from where they stood. The three were dressed identically in dark black from head to foot, including matching ski masks, and were clearly in a hurry.

Horace and Norwood stepped back to let them pass, but the sheer weight of the massive hands which grabbed hold of them was sufficient indication that they had utterly misread the situation. Innocent by-gawpers watched in horror – and several took photographs or videoed the scene on their mobile phones – as the tall, bald stranger and his shorter and even stranger companion were swept off their feet (not at all in the romantic sense) and bundled unceremoniously into the back of the van.

‘Well, that was a bit unceremonious,’ tutted a woman by-gawper, continuing to film the van as it made an even louder screech than all of the previous ones put together and sped off on the legally designated side of the road.

One of the only two people who were not photographing or videoing the hasty departure of the dark black van was a man in a broad-brimmed, dark black hat and almost floor-length, dark black coat. Apparently, he had no interest whatsoever in recording the event for posterity — or even for a few quid from the media — and jumped into the nearest taxi instead.

The only other person who wasn’t photographing or videoing the hasty departure of the dark black van was a man in an off-grey, almost floor-length hooded robe and Union Jack flip-flops who immediately clambered into the nearest-but-one taxi.

Tune Latine loqueris?’ he asked the cab driver.

The cabbie shot his passenger a glance in the rear-view mirror but was unable to make eye contact due to the hiddenness of the man’s face inside the cowl of his robe.

‘Sorry, mate,’ he said. ‘Don’t speak Latin. Where you wanna go?’

O me miserum,’ said his passenger (which is actually Latin for “Oh bugger”) and then followed up with, ‘Sequere illud vehiculum!’ and repeatedly jabbed his finger in the direction of the hastily departing dark black van.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

In all her years on the force, Detective Chief Inspector Harper Collins had worked with plenty of cops who liked nothing better than a good fresh corpse to get their teeth into. Not literally, of course, although there were a fair few who shared some of the more unpleasant personality traits of a demented werewolf or half-crazed vampire. But she wasn’t one of them. Almost by definition, murders were messy affairs, and the scene of the crime itself was invariably awash with blood and other unmentionable secretions as well as the occasional detached body part.

After a particularly gory double homicide a few months earlier, she’d seriously considered applying for a transfer to Traffic, but then it struck her that the life of a traffic cop wasn’t just about giving out parking tickets and breathalysing pissheads. They had their fair share of maimed, mangled and occasionally decapitated motorists to deal with when it came to multi-vehicle pileups on the motorway – very probably a whole lot more vomit-inducing than any murder scene she’d ever had to attend.

But as murder scenes went, even DCI Collins had to admit that this one really wasn’t so bad after all. The immaculately tidy master bedroom of a suburban semi and not so much as a pinprick’s worth of blood in sight. Male victim – late sixties or early seventies – bare-chested and flat on his back near the foot of the bed with his arms still attached to the torso and stretched out at right angles. The legs straight and together and also attached. Almost as if he’d been fixed to an imaginary horizontal crucifix. The expression on the man’s face was almost peaceful, and if it hadn’t been for what looked like the deliberate positioning of the body, it might well have appeared that he’d died from natural causes. But whoever the killer was, they’d made no attempt to conceal the fact that this was a murder.

By contrast to Harper’s relief at the almost sanitary condition of the murder scene, her youthful and disturbingly casual detective sergeant was patently disappointed.

‘Not much blood then,’ said DS Maurice Scatterthwaite as he squatted beside the body and shovelled another plastic forkful of curry-soaked chips into his already over-crammed mouth, his normally hollow cheeks expanding alarmingly to cope with the additional onslaught.

Harper didn’t respond. Stating the obvious was one of Scatterthwaite’s many irritating habits. Another was his constant snacking and how he never seemed to put on an ounce of fat however much he ate.

‘So if there’s no blood,’ the sergeant went on, ‘that’s a pretty good indication he must have been murdered elsewhere.’

‘Well, no,’ said Harper from her own squatting position on the opposite side of the victim. ‘I’d say that the absence of blood is more likely an indication that there aren’t any holes in his body. Other than the standard anatomical quota, that is.’

Scatterthwaite sniffed and chewed on another forkload while he considered the theory, apparently unable to think with his mouth closed.

‘Could be,’ he said, wiping a drip from his nose on the back of his latex-gloved fork hand, an action which resulted in a dollop of curry sauce disengaging itself from the fork and ending up on the corpse’s bare chest.

‘Christ almighty,’ said Harper as her sergeant produced the paper napkin thoughtfully provided with the takeaway and began dabbing at the gobbet of sauce. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘What’s the problem? He’s dead, isn’t he?’

‘I’m not talking about offending the guy. I’m talking about this being a crime scene. You know? Forensics and stuff?’

Harper stood up and looked around the bedroom for the photographer, realising she needed some decent shots of the symbols on the victim’s chest before Scatterthwaite obliterated them altogether with his paper napkin. There were a couple of SOCO guys dusting for fingerprints and generally poking around in the room’s various nooks and crannies, but neither of them seemed to have a camera. She went out onto the landing and spotted the photographer at the far end, half leaning out of an open window. She called out to him, and he swung round, dropping his Nikon to chest height.

‘What’s so interesting out there?’ said Harper.

‘Sunset. Don’t see one like that very often.’

‘And this sunset has a bearing on the crime scene how exactly?’

The photographer mumbled something down at his camera.

‘Right then, David Bailey,’ said Harper. ‘Arse in here. Now.’

She nodded towards the open bedroom door behind her, and the photographer slouched along the landing, head down as if he’d just been summoned to the headmaster’s office.

‘But I’ve already done in here,’ he said as he passed.

‘Really? Well, I’d like to watch this time.’ She pointed to the corpse. ‘Victim. Close-ups. Lots. And make sure you get some crystal clear shots of the symbols on his chest – what’s left of them.’

She folded her arms and studied the symbols again while the photographer clicked away, her brow knotted in concentration as she struggled to decipher their meaning. Forensics would have to do a proper analysis, but as far as she could tell, the marks had been made with a blackish-red shade of lipstick. The two-inch high characters looked like a string of Roman numerals except that the first ‘X’ was about half the height of the others, and the penultimate character was a right-angled cross:

Chest symbols x4 TRANS

But what if the right-angled cross was meant to be a plus sign? If that was the case, then maybe the small “X” was actually a multiply sign. Three times twenty plus ten. Seventy. Okay, so why not just write “70” or even “LXX” if the murderer had some kind of thing about Roman numerals? And why did the whole thing have a diagonal line drawn through it?

Chest symbols x4 TRANS crossed out

Maybe whoever drew the symbols changed their minds and decided to cross them out afterwards, but then why not just wipe them off? After all, Scatterthwaite had managed to erase part of the final “X” with his paper napkin without even trying.

He was still squatting beside the body and was now licking the last vestiges of curry sauce from the Styrofoam takeaway carton. She contemplated asking him what he thought the symbols might mean, but instantly dismissed the idea as being a complete waste of breath. Besides, the photographer had just asked him to move away from the body so he could get some clearer shots, and she knew that simultaneous motor and mental activity were well beyond the sergeant’s capabilities. He stood up, brushing some chip residue from his white forensics overalls onto the victim’s chest, and was about to take a step back when there was a faint crunching sound. He lifted his plastic-clad foot to see what it was he had trodden on and then bent down to inspect the carpet immediately next to the corpse.

‘Hello. What’s this then?’ he said, poking at something with his finger.

‘Whatever it is, don’t touch it,’ said Harper and quickly moved to his side of the body so she could see for herself what evidence he’d destroyed. But by the time she got there, Scatterthwaite already had whatever it was in the palm of his hand.

‘Yuk,’ he said. ‘What the hell’s that doin’ here?’

Harper peered over his shoulder to examine the object of his revulsion, her weight mainly distributed onto her back leg in case she needed to jump back in a hurry. And for once, she was forced to agree with him. What indeed was a now crushed and presumably once whole snail doing in the middle of an otherwise pristine bedroom carpet?

END OF OPENING CHAPTERS

Quest for the Holey Snail is available as an e-book and as a paperback.

If you’d like more information about the book, click here.

To read one of the book’s featured digressions, click here.

Please feel free to leave a comment, and let me know if you’d be interested in reading more.

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