It all started as a typical Silly Season newspaper story. A journalist suddenly noticed how few beggars there were around on the streets in big cities and she included a semi-serious piece on the subject in her weekly column. Another of the nationals, a tabloid with big ideas, then took her to task for making light of a serious problem in what was supposed to be a serious newspaper.
And then the politicians got in on the act and tried to take all the fun out of it. The Shadow Home Secretary, who seemed unable to afford a decent holiday abroad, stirred up an artificial row about the reason for the lack of beggars.
He wanted everyone to believe that a cruel government's tougher guide-lines to the police and local authorities had driven the problem underground. The government, on the other hand, insisted that its new initiative, put in place before the summer recess, was giving former derelicts places to stay and useful things to do that kept them off the streets.
Journalist Pete Tallow was used to the derision of his drinking companions in the local pub. Even though he only worked for the local paper, they held him answerable for the failings of his counterparts on the nationals. He needed his sense of humour even more than usual when the politicians were let out of the Palace of Westminster for their summer break and the nationals had to look elsewhere for amusement.
"Great, this, isn't it?" remarked Gavin, one of the regular crowd of critics, who had folded his paper to show a headline. "It's getting so there's more reporters pretending to be beggars then real beggars these days."
"Is that why you never give the poor sods anything?" grinned Terry, who made his living from installing central heating systems. "In case it's some bum of a reporter on twice what you make? Not a real beggar making a couple of grand a week?"
"I don't do that sort of job," Pete Tallow remarked to the crowd in general. "The phoney undercover stuff."
"No?" said Tom, a painter, with a grin to suggest that Tallow looked ready to hit the streets as a beggar without the benefit of make-up or a change of clothing.
The reporter, who was tanned, an average height and build and in his mid-forties, dressed for comfort in an ancient leather jacket and dark blue trousers with just a vestige of a crease when he went to the pub in the evening. His short, somewhat sculpted beard allowed him to get away with turning up for work without shaving when he was in a hurry. His three companions were in their thirties or forties and not noticeably more smartly dressed.
"Are there really less beggars about?" said Terry. "Or is it the Tory press just telling its usual lies?"
Tallow let the slander and bad grammar pass over his greying head.
"You don't see as many as you used to around the shopping centre," said Gavin. "But is that because this rubbish in the papers is right? This famous government initiative is giving them things to do to keep them off the streets?"
"More like it's the police moving them on to stop them bothering the shoppers," Terry said.
"Not my story." Pete Tallow disowned it. "I'm on your local rag, remember? I'm nothing to do with this artificial row the London papers are trying to brew up."
"So what are you up to this week?" grinned Gavin. "More fêtes and stuff?"
"Two flower shows and an art exhibition," said Tallow.
It was all routine work, nothing to set the headline writers on fire but it was the sort of human interest stuff that the people involved in the events wanted to see in their local paper. And writing up these events kept a roof over Pete Tallow's head.
The steam was going out of the argument over beggars for lack of genuine public interest, but the exhibition of avant-garde sculpture that Tallow had to cover set the pot boiling again. Tallow was the paper's art expert because he had knocked about with one of the town's painters for several years - before she had become fashionable and abandoned their small town's small colony of painters for the big money in London.
Tallow enjoyed a good art exhibition because he knew enough to be able to say the right things. His reviews were generally well received as knowledgeable pieces and 'good' exhibitions were usually good for a couple of glasses of decent white wine and a free snack meal on the opening night. That was as close to a perk as Tallow managed in his present job.
When someone attracted their attention to this provincial exhibition, the national tabloids were quick to remind the nation of the gallery's past transgressions against good taste, which had been supported by Lottery money, to their disgust.
Critics lined up on either side of the argument. Those who thought that the work had great artistic merit were defending the indefensible with contempt for the general public, according to the tabloids, or supporting an artist's legitimate right to have his work seen so that it could be judged, in the opinion of the quality papers.
One piece in particular offended the tabloid critics. Beggars' Banquet by Oliver Boccari featuring six skeletal human beings roasting rats over a camp fire in a large, plastic cube. The fire was a particularly life-like lighting effect - and about the only thing that the work's opponents liked - although they all agreed that he had captured his characters with a master's eye for detail and composition.
Opposition politicians claimed that the work was an allegory depicting the degradation imposed on a level of society by a vindictive government. A government spokesman dismissed the interpretation as sour grapes by out-of-office and unelectable politicians, whose policies would reduce the nation to the condition of the tramps in the glass case if they were ever able to trick their way into power again.
The artist was content to stay out of such stormy waters. Oliver Boccari insist that the viewer had the right to make up his or her own mind over what the work was about. His job was merely to create a composition that would force the viewer to think and to challenge his or her preconceptions about the world.
There was a sensation in the gallery in the exhibition's second week when a ragged individual started to point at the tableau and insist that he recognized one of the figures. Attendants were able put him out without too much effort, but the damage was done.
Interest in the exhibition was renewed as the media pounced again on controversy. The creator of the work of 'sculpture' insisted that the man was a looney and he was not going to be dragged into his fantasy world.
Oliver Boccari took a visible delight in being rude to everyone who tried to raise the subject. The art gallery went to the local High Court to get an order protecting the work when the police decided that they wanted to examine the contents of the glass case.
To the delight of the tabloids - and also the broadsheets, even if they refused to admit it - the protection order was overturned after a brief but vicious legal battle in the High Court. A victory soon turned into egg-on-face time for the police.
X-ray pictures soon proved that the disputed work was nothing more sinister than wax sculptures on metal frames. And when the authorities began to look for someone to blame, they found that the derelict who had caused all the trouble had disappeared.
"So what've you done with him?" his friends demanded the next time Pete Tallow showed himself in their local pub.
"I keep telling you, it's sod all to do with me," Tallow protested. "This is strictly down to the nationals."
"So what do you reckon to the new tramp he's put in the tableau?" said Mike, who worked in a bank.
The artist had included a new figure that resembled the fugitive derelict before putting his work back on show. The man was placed off to one side, looking on but clearly not invited to join the rat-feast.
"Everyone reckons it's an actor Boccari hired to get himself some publicity," remarked Terry.
"He's also threatening a libel action against anyone who writes that," said Tallow.
"How much do you reckon they're going to be offering for someone to shop him by next week?" said Mike.
The tabloids had started at a dinner for two at a posh restaurant and worked themselves up to £1,000.
"As much as they dare as long as no one takes them up on it," said Tallow.
Beggars remained in the news for many reasons over the next month. Almost every newspaper sent at least one reporter out to be a beggar, insisting that their method of operation was quite different from those of their competitors. Genuine beggars helped to keep the story alive by complaining to the Press Council. They insisted that no one was giving them money any more in case they turned out to be just reporters.
The Great and the Good, and The Usual Suspects, managed to drag the issues of aggressive beggars, the mentally ill in the community and on the streets, and their set of hobby horses into what they proclaimed was a great debate on the future of society. As usual, the public lost interest before they came to any earth-shattering conclusions.
Oliver Boccari's agent turned down six very serious cash offers for Beggars' Banquet before the right one came along. It was on his way home from signing the deal that the sculptor found out that his notoriety had a down-side too.
He normally locked his car doors when he was driving through a city but he had forgotten on this occasion. The thrill of breaking into the big-time of the sculpture market and the knowledge that he had at least two more commissions for life's victims in the bag had relaxed his attention.
When the passenger door opened unexpectedly and he found himself looking at a bread knife from close range, Boccari could do nothing but follow the orders of the man wielding it.
He turned three or four corners in quick succession and found himself lost in back streets. The soft-spoken man with the knife told him to stop. Boccari pulled up in an alley. The man made a flicking gesture with the knife. Boccari interpreted it as an order to get out of the car. The man with the knife followed him, struggling past the steering wheel and maintaining a grip on Boccari's sleeve to stop him from getting away.
They entered one of the buildings and stood in an open space lit by the street light just outside. Boccari looked at his captor in more detail as the man let him stand at a greater distance, as if daring him to run for it.
That greater distance reduced the smell of old, unwashed clothes, which ponged as if they had been carefully stored so that they would retain the maximum stink. Even before the knife-man announced that he was a friend of the disappeared derelict, Boccari knew that he was dealing with another of that kind.
"You've been messing with the wrong sort of people, sonny," said a soft voice. "People with nothing to lose."
"I don't know what you mean," said Boccari.
"If I kill you, I get a nice, warm cell for the next ten years."
"And you also have to follow orders in gaol and do what you're told. Or else. Prison officers don't like people challenging their authority. So what's your problem? Maybe we can sort something out."
"Maybe I've been waiting for someone who deserves it to get that nice, warm cell."
"If you had, you wouldn't be standing around chatting. So what do you want?"
"I want you to tell me what happened to Jackie. But take your time because I'd like to have to slice bits off you to make you talk. Things like ears and toes, and fingers. But your nose at first. Then more vital bits. This knife is nice and sharp. It's your choice. You can die in one piece or go looking like something's that's been through a garbage disposal."
"What guarantee do I have you'll believe me if I can't tell you what you want to hear?"
"Don't come the occult with me, pal. I know what happened. I just want to hear you say it. I saw your van driving out into the country at half-two in the morning. And I saw a spade inside when it got back at half-six."
"You saw me in the driving seat, too?"
"You're telling me you got someone else to do that part of the job? Your butler?" the derelict added in a sneering tone.
"I'm telling you I don't go driving around at two in the morning."
"Okay, Mr. Clever Dick, I want the name of the driver, too. So I can give him the business as well. I think I'll start with your left ear about five seconds from now, so you'd better start talking. Four. Three. Two..."
A pane of glass broke. The knife-man's head turned in that direction. There was a whip-crack noise and he spun round with a feathered stump sprouted from his face. He seemed to go into slow motion, struggling to bring the knife blade up higher, failing and falling.
Boccari drew in a ragged breath.
"Who forgot to lock his bloody car doors?" mocked a female voice.
"Alice, if there is a next time, don't cut it so bloody fine, okay?" said Boccari.
"Can we use this one?"
"No, we need them alive. They lose all muscle tone when they're dead."
"Okay, we'll just dump him like the others. You know, if you were a proper sculptor, instead of having to make plaster casts of real people, life would be a whole lot simpler."
Oliver Boccari shrugged. It was an old argument and a spurious one. His sister loved the excitement of being bait, of letting an untraceable derelict stalk her with evil intent and then springing a trap and turning from victim to predator in an instant.
He had a talent for copying Nature rather than creating new objects. She had the ruthless turn of mind that supplied him with subjects. And now, their complementary talents had brought them to the verge of making serious money. It was hardly time for a change from tricks to the hard labour of learning to do the job properly. ■