Note: This short story is one of several shorts about James Leipfold, the protagonist in my upcoming series of detective novels. This is just the first draft, but I wanted to share it with you to see what you think!
“OI MATE, YOU GOT A CIGARETTE?”
14-year-old James Leipfold flinched as he heard the words, then bowed his head and increased his speed slightly until he was half-running, half-walking through the underpass.
His mind was working overtime as he tried to analyse the situation without turning his head. The easy confidence with which the request had been made, coupled with the timbre of the voice and the slight inflections of the dialect, put him in mind of a spotty 17-year-old, probably one of the kids (he thought of them as kids even if they were older than him) from the estate. He could hear the click-clacking of bicycle wheels and amended his mental picture to include a couple of accomplices, probably wearing Doc Martens and leather jackets and trying their best to look pissed off at the world.
“Oi, I’m talking to you,” the voice said. It was closer this time, and Leipfold was still thirty feet from the end of the underpass. Like most of the estate, the underpass had a bad reputation. Drug deals, solicitation, mugging and murder – if it could lead to jail time, it had happened there. Leipfold was so buys wondering what the walls would say if they could speak that he didn’t register the screech of the bike’s tyres until it skidded to a halt in front of him.
Leipfold stopped dead in his tracks, then risked a quick glance behind him. His assumptions, for once, were incorrect; the man on the bike was in his early thirties, and the two of them were alone in the underpass. The bike was built for comfort not for speed, and the man had short black hair and a sharp suit that would have looked more at home in a bank or the Houses of Parliament than in a shit-stained underpass. He wore patent leather shoes which looked unsuitable for a bicycle ride and a platinum wedding ring on his left hand. He looked appraisingly at Leipfold.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “You deaf or something?”
Leipfold shook his head but didn’t say anything.
“Well, whatever,” the stranger said, as he put a foot to the floor to steady himself. “You got a ciggie?”
“Why?” Leipfold asked. “You don’t look like a smoker. Your fingers for a start. Immaculate, never chewed and no nicotine stains. If I give you a cigarette, will you need a lighter, too?”
“Perhaps you’re having problems at work. Shouldn’t you be in the office right now? Or maybe it’s to do with the wife? You’ve got a tan-line on your finger, you must be more careful to put your ring on in exactly the same place. Did she catch you–“
Leipfold was cut short as the ring – along with the fist that it was riding on – connected with his cheek. It wasn’t a hard punch, but it did take him by surprise and send him reeling a couple of steps backward.
“You horrible little shit,” the man said. Then he boosted himself back on to his pedals and rode away. Leipfold spat a little blood and laughed himself silly. Must’ve touched a nerve, he thought.
Violence was a part of life for Leipfold, and though his nose throbbed and his eyes were watering, he savoured the pain like a connoisseur. He’d never been good with people; either that, or he was too good. He knew what buttons to press to get people going, whether they were friends and relatives or total strangers in the underpass. He liked to make them uncomfortable, to disrupt their narrow-minded view of the world and to push them until they snapped and did something that they wouldn’t normally do. And in spite of the shiner he’d be sporting once the swelling died down, he felt good about himself. And he felt good about the man on the bicycle, too. Hell, Leipfold thought. Maybe he’ll feel bad enough to patch his life up. One minute you’re hitting a kid in the underpass and the next you’re trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Like a wake up call, but with a fist to the lips.
Leipfold walked out of the underpass and along the street for a couple hundred yards before sitting down on a low wall and lighting a cigarette. He watched as the traffic rolled by and wondered whether the man he’d just met had stopped to call his wife. In his (admittedly limited) experience, women were perceptive creatures of a seemingly different species, simultaneously more observant and less likely to encourage confrontation. But he’d be willing to put a fifty on the fact that the man was having an affair, a twenty on the fact that his wife already knew, and a tenner on him being so shook up that he’d come clean and she’d forgive him. And a fiver said he’d goaded a stranger into punching for no real reason other than it being a cheaper thrill than a hit of cocaine or amphetamine.
Leipfold’s train of thought was interrupted by a familiar clicker-clacker sound, and for a brief moment he entertained the thought that the man on the bike had doubled back to apologise. Then he started laughing again when he realised it was three teenage kids (older than him, again) tearing along the path like they were racing Croydon’s equivalent of the Tour de France. The leader of the pack hit a wheelie while the three of them hooted and guffawed their way past. He watched them with lazy amusement as they disappeared towards the inner city.
Leipfold finished his cigarette and flicked it to the floor, and was about to get up and go about his business – mostly taking notes on the locals and getting himself into trouble – when he spotted the policeman hobbling along the path towards him. He was a tall man who walked with a slight stoop, who cut his scruffy black hair short and wore his uniform with the same kind of reverence that an army veteran has for the medals he earned. Not quite imposing and with a baby face that betrayed his inexperienced, the policeman still exuded an air of quiet confidence and authority that persisted despite the scowl on his face and the perspiration that had pooled around his temples and started to dribble inexorably down the sides of his face.
“Excuse me,” the policeman said, slowing to a halt in front of Leipfold. “The name’s Jack Cholmondeley. I don’t suppose you saw a bunch of kids going past on bicycles?”
“Might’ve done,” Leipfold replied. “What’s it worth?”
“It’s worth a bloody great deal,” Cholmondeley replied. “The little bastards jumped and then rode away before I could get a good look at them. Looks like they got you, as well.”
“Don’t play ignorant with me, young man,” Cholmondeley replied. “That’s quite the shiner you have there.”
“Oh, that,” Leipfold replied. He briefly thought about telling the policeman about his altercation with the man in the suit and then decided against it. “Yeah, I saw the kids you’re looking for. They went past a couple of minutes ago. You’ll struggle to catch them on foot, though.”
“I thought as much,” Cholmondeley replied, gloomily. “Did you happen to get a good look at them?”
“Not really,” Leipfold said. “One of them had a mole on his right hand.”
“Well that’s just fantastic,” Cholmondeley replied, sarcastically. “Now I just need to track down a guy with a mole in a city of–“
“No need,” Leipfold interrupted, gesturing for the policeman to let him speak. “I recognise the mole.”
“You recognise a mole?” Cholmondeley asked, incredulously. “Who does that?”
“I do,” Leipfold replied. “You’re after a boy called Jimmy Squires. He has the same mole in the same place, it has to be him. We go to the same school, I’ve seen him around.”
“And you checked his hands for moles?”
“It’s hard to miss it. Besides,” Leipfold admitted, grudgingly, “I saw the back of his head. It’s him.”
“Excellent,” Cholmondeley said. “Do you know where the boy lives, this Jimmy Swires?”
Leipfold shook his head. “Sorry. And I didn’t get a good look at the other two, either. Anything you can tell me to narrow it down? I, uh…I know the circles he hangs around with.”
Cholmondeley considered this for a moment and said, “One of them had a limp. He could’ve been faking it, but I doubt it. I’m a policeman, you see? I know when people are lying.”
No you don’t, thought Leipfold. If you did then you would’ve called me out on it.
Out loud, Leipfold said, “Mark Flowers. His dad runs the Fox and Hound. He’s tight with Jimmy and he walks with a limp. Tells people he was knocked off his bike, but everyone knows he was a sick little kid., Could’ve done us all a favour if he’d been brought out in a body bag, but that’s neither here nor there.”
“Interesting,” Cholmondeley murmured.
“You said there were three of them, right?”
“I did indeed.”
“Good,” Leipfold replied. “You might want to have a word with Donnie while you’re at it.”
“Donnie?” Cholmondeley asked.
“Mark’s older brother,” Leipfold explained. “Those two are inseperable, like twins or something. I think he feels bad for not being able to help when Mark was ill, so he follows his brother around like a guard dog. If Mark was there, so was Donnie.”
“How do you know all this?” Cholmondeley asked.
Leipfold laughed, then winced as the pain in his face flared back up again. “I watch people, Mr. Policeman. It’s what I do.”
Cholmondeley nodded absentmindedly and scribbled the names down in his notebook. “Well, gee,” he said. “Thanks for the help, young man. Would you mind if I take your name and address down so I can get in touch if I have further questions?”
As a matter of fact, young James Leipfold did mind. It wasn’t the done thing to be seen talking to a copper, especially on an estate like the one he lived on. Talking to him here, just past the underpass where there were no nosy neighbours to keep tabs on them, was bad enough. A policeman turning up at his door in uniform would be tantamount to social suicide, unless they cuffed him and bundled him into the back of a Black Maria. So Leipfold gave Cholmondeley a fake name and address, then made his excuses and went about his business before the policeman could ask any further questions.
Leipfold’s eye darkened over the next couple of days, but his mood didn’t. As the only child of a working class mother and father in an underprivileged estate on the edge of London, he was left mostly to his own devices. His mother had accepted his story about a bogus game of rugby, and if his father noticed the big bruise on his son’s face then he didn’t mention it. But then, Charles Leipfold had been involved in his fair share of scuffles over the years and only last month he had come home with a bruised knuckles and blood on his shirt. When his wife had asked where the blood had come from, he’d simply shrugged and said, “From people’s faces.”
He spent his time keeping an eye on Jimmy Swires’ place with his father’s Bausch and Lomb binoculars. He’d told the policeman that he didn’t know where the three hoodlums lived, but that had been a lie. Leipfold’s memory verged on eidetic, and he made it his business to know other people’s business. But he also wasn’t a grass, and while he’d been happy to help the policeman by pointing him in the right direction, he wasn’t going to do his job for him.
On the evening of the second day, his patience paid off, and he watched from a distance as Cholmondeley and one of his colleagues parker their car outside the Swires’ dilapidated council house and knocked on the door. The two men entered the house – after some to-ing and fro-ing with James Swires Sr. – and re-emerged some ten minutes later with the Swires kid in tow. He wasn’t cuffed, but he might as well have been. They bundled him into the back of the car and drove away into the evening.
Leipfold had a hunch that Jimmy wouldn’t take long to crack, and so he hopped on to his bicycle and headed over to the Fox and Hound. The place was a quintessential English pub, not one of the quiet country pubs where farmers stopped off for a quiet pint after a hard day on the fields but a bustling spit and sawdust boozer that watered down the spirits and trained its staff on how to throw drunks out and to keep the peace with the baseball bat beneath the counter. Leipfold had been in there a couple of times to bring his old man home, and while there was something undeniably magical about the stench of spilled beer and stale cigarette smoke, he wouldn’t have wanted to live there, like the Flowers family.
Leipfold’s hunch was proved correct when, just over an hour after his arrival, Cholmondeley and his colleague pulled up outside the police. He watched the chaos that ensued after they walked in. Coppers weren’t welcome in a pub like that, and half the locals had a reason to run at the sight of a badge or a uniform. When the two men entered, the hustle and bustle stopped abruptly, to be replaced – after a few moments of hostile silence – with an angry sussorous. Leipfold smirked as he spotted a dozen undesirables making their way out of the pub by a side entrance, then wandered over to the front of the pub and lit a cigarette while he waited for something to happen.
He could see the backs of the officers through the window, and he watched as Cholmondeley’s hand inched imperceptibly towards his truncheon. The barman – a young man of eighteen or nineteen with the faintest hint of fiery stubble around his chiselled jaw, was mouthing angrily, and while Leipfold couldn’t make out the words, he understood the gist of it.
Then all hell broke loose, as the barman reached for the baseball bat. He tried to raise it up into a batter’s stance, but Cholmondeley reacted faster, swiping down with his truncheon and breaking the man’s arm with a single sweep. Leipfold couldn’t hear the sound that it made and he was glad of it, but he heard the bartender’s guttural wail and was almost bowled over by the mass exodus of the remaining punters.
Cholmondeley’s partner cuffed the man, dragging the broken arm roughly into place, then the two men escorted him out of the pub on shaking legs and into the back of the police car. He spotted Leipfold leaning against the wall and nodded at him.
“He started it,” Cholmondeley shrugged. “And we finished it.”
Cholmondeley’s partner waited in the car, radioing for back-up while Cholmondeley went back inside.
Leipfold lit another cigarette and smoked it down to the filter, then flicked it aside and waited for Cholmondeley, who re-emerged shortly afterwards with Mark and Donnie Flowers in front of him. Donnie was cuffed, but Mark wasn’t; even in the half-light, Leipfold could see from his expression that he wasn’t going to cause any trouble. He was too scared. Leipfold figured that this was probably the first time the youngest member of the Flowers family had ever been in trouble with the law. Leipfold, ever the cynic, thought it was unlikely to be the last.
Meanwhile, a couple of Black Marias arrived, pulling up outside the pub and idling to a stop. Two more policemen spilled out onto the pavement, and Cholmondeley beckoned them over. He handed over his suspects and watched, stony-faced, as they were led over to the waiting police cars.
“Looks like we didn’t need backup after all,” Cholmondeley said.
His partner grinned. “You can never be too careful, Jack,” he said. “Besides, it looked like you had your hands full.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Cholmondeley replied. “Go on, get in the car. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
His partner did as he was told, and Constable Jack Cholmondeley watched him as he retreated to the relative warmth and comfort of the car. One of the support vehicles had already left for the station, and the driver of the other one gunned the ignition and set off after it. Leipfold and Cholmondeley were alone again.
“Thanks for your help, kid,” Cholmondeley said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“You know, we could use a lad like you. How old are you, anyway?”
“Sixteen,” Leipfold lied. He could tell from the cop’s reaction that it hadn’t worked, but Cholmondeley let it pass without comment.
“Want my advice?” Cholmondeley asked. Leipfold didn’t, but he didn’t have much choice. “Stay in school. Work had and get good grades, then come and see me when you’re ready. There’ll be a job waiting.”
“Yeah,” Cholmondeley said. “In the police force. We’re always on the lookout for new recruits, especially when they’re as perceptive as you are.”
But Leipfold shook his head. “Mister,” he said. “I’m many things, but I’m no cabinet. Never will be.”
Cholmondeley smiled and laid a head on his shoulder. “Perhaps you’ll change your mind,” he said.
Cholmondeley smiled again. “Well,” he said, “if you do change your mind, you know where to find me. You seem like a decent kid. Make sure you stay that way.”
“I’ll do my best,” Leipfold said. Then they shake hands and Cholmondeley returned to his partner. He climbed into the passenger seat and they made their way back to the station.
He’s a nice guy, Leipfold reflected, staring thoughtfully into the distance. Shame he’s a copper.
But he knew he’d remember Cholmondeley’s name, and not just because his memory was damn near eidetic. It never hurt to make contacts, even if they were policemen. You never know, Leipfold mused. He might even turn out to be useful.
Then he remembered his father’s words of wisdom. “There are two types of copper,” he used to say. “Bent cops and dead cops.”
But Constable Jack Cholmondeley was different, friendly. And young James Leipfold was forced to admit to himself that maybe Cholmondeley was neither.
The exception that proves the rule.