The return of the great armchair detective Mr. Cherek Ved is an event which is unlikely to be celebrated by a national holiday, abundant bunting and street parties. Even so, he is back in harness, as mobile as he ever is, given his history of back problems, and causing havoc in the ranks of the ungodly once more.
He is currently working undercover in the newsroom of a large-circulation local newspaper, which forms part of a major out-of-London media empire that also includes Sentinel TV. Mr. Ved is engaged as a temporary crime correspondent, which provides the opportunity to weigh up the suspicious characters in the newsroom and attempt to work out what it is that they have done.
An additional component of that task is deciding whether he can be bothered about doing anything with his knowledge.
Sally Lee glanced over her shoulder half an hour into a new working day, then she leaned towards the writer's work station and asked him what he had planned for that evening.
The writer shrugged. "Going darn the pub, probably. Why, have you got something dead good on?"
Sally seemed to be hesitating. The writer turned and saw that Andras Ektors had disappeared off somewhere. While Trevor Mercur was out of action with his leg in plaster, they were alone in their work station cluster and able to talk privately if they kept their voices down.
"Not really." Sally seemed to reach a decision. "Well, one of my friends was going on about this dead great restaurant and I was going to go there with Mike. This evening."
"But he's off to Gatesville, USA? Okay, I'm up for it if you're looking for a substitute."
"You don't mind?"
"How could 'going darn the pub' possibly be better than going to a dead great restaurant with an F-Star mate?"
"Okay, I'll book a table." Sally Lee gave her attention back to her work station with a smile of contentment.
The writer took a coin from a desk tidy in the top drawer of his desk. "If it's heads, you read the messages," he remarked loudly enough for Sally to hear. The bronze coin twisted in the air. He grabbed it and slapped it on to the back of his left hand. "Aha!" he said in triumph.
"Does that mean you don't have to read the messages?" laughed Sally Lee.
"My lucky penny strikes again." The writer offered the coin to his neighbour.
"Oh, this is one of the old pennies," Sally said. "Pre-decimal."
"Not just that. It's especially lucky," the writer told her.
"Yeah, right!" scoffed Sally. "Here! It's tails on both sides," she added after a few moments.
"There's this bloke in the market makes them. He's got hold of a load of pre-decimal coins and he saws them in half and welds heads to heads and tails to tails. You can get anything from a farthing to a half crown."
"It's got different dates on the two sides."
"That doesn't really matter for a lucky penny."
"How come you didn't get a two-headed one?"
"Because everyone buys those. It's buy one, get one free for the two-tailed ones."
"So you've got a spare in case this one's luck runs out?" laughed Sally.
"You can never have too much good luck," the writer said wisely as he detected a familiar brand of exotic scent.
"Marin, there's a press conference at the police HQ at Lesser Radditch Street in half an hour. We need our crime correspondent there. I've messaged you the details." Jill Day clicked away on her tall heels without waiting for confirmation that her message had been received and understood.
"That reminds me, I've not seen the Feck today," the writer remarked.
"I heard him yelling at someone as I went past his office," Andras Ektors volunteered as he returned to his work station. "Bloody hell! Is that Marin actually doing his messages?"
"The life of a temporary crime correspondent is all go," the writer said as he directed Jill Day's message to their local printer to obtain a hard copy.
I have threads and that is all that I have. I have no idea where they start and where they go. In effect, I have to seize each thread at some random point along its length and follow it in both directions.
I have to establish the identity of the person to which it belongs and uncover the dark secret at the other end - and cautiously in view of the unpredictability of the trapped rat. The mildest person may turn extremely nasty to ensure that a vile truth remains decently buried.
The Headline ran: POLICE HUNT JEWEL GUN-GANG.
The author of the story was identified only as 'The Crime Correspondent'.
"I suppose this is all in the interests of continuity," Andras Ektors remarked as he studied a copy of the early afternoon edition of the Sentinel & Advertiser. "You're supposed to think it's the usual crime correspondent, not a stand-in because ours got mugged." He made no attempt to suppress a broad grin at the thought of the pretentious Trevor Mercur receiving the attentions of a mugger in his local late-nite hypermart.
"It's also accurate," the writer pointed out. "There isn't another active crime correspondent other than my good self."
"Well, accurate-ish," Andras Ektors admitted.
"The raid was over in minutes and had all the hallmarks of a professional operation," Sally Lee read. "It appears to have been planned with military precision, said Detective Inspector Marting Bayleaf. Is that really his name? Marting?"
"Checked, double-checked and confirmed," said the writer. "And I know what you're thinking. Obviously, it was planned. They didn't just turn up with a few guns on the off-chance there might be something worth pinching at that moment. So why mention the obvious? Or is this intended to be some sort of adverse criticism of the bad guys? Planned robberies are socially unacceptable but unplanned ones are okay?"
"Or are you just stuck with clichéd police quotations?" said Andras Ektors. "Are the Bayleafs related to the Petronas family, by the way? They seem to have similar ideas for making Martin a more interesting name."
"I didn't like to ask in case he thought I was taking the piss," the writer admitted.
"Ah, Mr. feckan crime correspondent, I've had a look at your work schedule and you can fit in a couple of hours in the archive." Pierson Day arrived to break up the discussion.
"Right." The writer presented a wall of relentless keenness.
"And keep your eyes open, okay?"
"And Sally, that fung shway idea for stations when the trains are late? That was good. Keep it up." Pierson Day offered his concept of an encouraging smile before he moved on.
"You sneaky sod!" the writer said. "You mean you were taking notes when we were taking the piss out of your duff job the other day?"
"Wasn't that my idea, feng shoowy at stations?" Andras Ektors added.
"No, it wasn't," Sally said firmly. "And you've got to write something."
"This is, in fact, true," the writer admitted.
Mr. Cherek Ved has the patience to sift information from all sources and match pieces until he finds ones that fit - in much the same way that an archaeologist attempts to assemble sections of pottery from sherds. Mr. Ved's keen analytical brain could not be long denied the conclusion that the present Mayor of Chedney has been up to the same suspect tricks as his ancestor.
Not stealing sheep but a modern equivalent - stealing the ratepayers' resources. The sinister Dark Corrigan has been adding private jobs to official contracts. He has also been involved in influence-peddling and a number of the correspondents in the local newspaper have proved to be victims of 'dodgy' decisions by council officers.
Mr. Ved felt entitled to use the slang term 'dodgy' because of its spivish connotations. In fact, he felt it would have been more appropriate to christen the Corrigan child Dodgy rather than Dark. In all hism
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The writer zapped the pop-up box with Ctrl-Alt-H, then found that he had lost the direction of his unfinished sentence.
'The Feck', as the deputy editor of the local newspaper is so amusingly known, has lit a fuse on a bigger bomb than he expected. His intention was to seek to embarrass the mayor and his family on purely selfish grounds.
But Mr. Cherek Ved's reseaches have shown that Pierson Day has brought together victims of the Ottrals as well as the Corrigans. And the victims are people who know enough to be able to plan a collective revenge.
On a new day at the start of a new week, the writer found himself in a thoughtful mood. The Friday evening out with Sally Lee had been an enjoyable occasion and well organized. Sally had booked the table at her 'dead great' restaurant, and provided taxis to and from the restaurant so that neither would be tempted to be a drink-driver.
The arrest of the paper's temporary crime correspondent on a serious charge would have been interesting news, the writer felt, but not a positive career move.
Now, safely indoors on Monday morning after braving heavy traffic on streets drowned by a sequence of torrential downpours, the writer was pretty much convinced that there had been a hidden agenda on Friday night. He was fairly certain that Sally Lee had dawdled over her coffee after a very enjoyable meal, and that she had made sure that she had been on the point of leaving with a bloke in tow as one of her friends had been arriving at the restaurant with a small mob of what used to be called 'beautiful people'.
The writer had mulled over his suspicions on Saturday and he had even tried to phone Sally on Sunday afternoon - but she had been out. He had detected in her Monday good-morning, the air of a conspirator and also someone with a guilty secret. Sally Lee kept the secret to herself for an hour and ten minutes. Then she suggested a coffee break in a tone that was not to be denied.
"Okay, what's the big secret?" the writer asked when they had obtained their plastic cups of coffee-flavoured liquid.
"Secret?" Sally attempted an air of innocence.
"Remembering, of course, that you are talking to the paper's crime correspondent."
"Which makes you what, Chief Superintendent Petronas of the Yard?" scoffed Sally.
"You don't have to be a chief superintendent to know you're making your mind up about telling me something."
"Okay, I may have a bit of a problem with Marge. That mate of mine we ran into on Friday night?"
"Of course, I could always shine a bright light in your face and threaten you with a lead-filled lump of garden hose so it's not your fault if you tell me."
"Okay, I may have been going on a bit to Marge about the new bloke in my life."
"Mike, yes. And I don't think she'll believe he got moved to Seattle at practically no notice."
"You suspect that your best mate Marge would be unshakably convinced that Chazzer dumped you?"
"She's not my best mate."
"So you felt the need for a substitute? Someone who was male, breathing and able to walk about on his own without dribbling?"
"It's not quite as bad as that." Sally began to smile in spite of herself, driven by the mock relentlessness of the inquisition.
"Well, the only tiny cloud on the horizon that I can see," the writer mentioned, "is that I don't look a whole hell of a lot like Chazzer."
"You mean, you don't think you look like one of my lot?" Sally said.
"Let's get it on the record, for the sake of the ethnic police, that you said that, not me. And I was thinking more of the hair colour, which is more obvious from a distance. Mine isn't jet black like Chazzer's. Or yours."
"This is, in fact, true."
"Or could it be that you didn't actually tell Marge that Chazzer's one of your lot? Assuming it to be obvious?"
Sally frowned. "That could be true, as well. I sure hope I didn't! No, she'd have been giving me funny looks after seeing me with you."
"So what it all comes down to is that I had a meal with an F-Star mate and she proved to one of her mates, who's not her best mate, that she's not short of a bloke for an evening out?"
"Are you okay with that, Marin?"
The writer shrugged. "Everyone wins."
"You're really okay with it?"
"That stuff you messaged me from the archive on Friday." Pierson Day barged into the conversation with the confidence of someone who knew that he could not be denied. "I need some more details by eleven-thirty."
"Get on it right away?" the writer said.
"To the exclusion of all else." The Feck-Monster strolled on, looking pleased with himself.
"Hello, what are you up to?" Sally asked through a grin.
The writer shrugged. "Things are going on, and I'm doing some of them, but I'm not a party to the overall strategy."
"Sounds like there's a lot of that going on."
"True. But you'd much rather polish the image of some people than others. Are we doing lunch? So you can put me in the picture about the Marge situation?"
"You're sure you don't mind?" Sally asked doubtfully.
"Some people thrive on other people's conspiracies," the writer assured her through a reckless smile.
How ironic that one of the managers of this great institution should have picked someone more or less at random to be their temporary crime correspondent and, unwittingly, to have chosen one of the greatest living detectives in one of his celebrated undercover roles.
There are secrets aplenty in this throbbing hive of activity - and none is likely to remain hidden with Mr. Cherek Ved on the job.
The rain clouds had blown over leaving Chedney damp, grey and chilly. Even so, the writer decided that some pub grub well clear of the Sentinel building would be a good idea for lunch.
The writer and Sally Lee armed themselves with hot sausage sandwiches, crisps and glasses of a robust burgundy. They had barely settled themselves at a table before they were three.
Marge Sommers bought her personal fragrance from a source similar to the one favoured by Jill Day. She was slightly larger than the chief executive assistant to the Sentinel & Advertiser's editor-in-chief in height and bulk, and her personality was about 25% greater in force and self-confidence.
Marge was on her way out of the pub and heading for an important appointment concerned with some charity do. She had no time to be introduced formally to Sally's companion, and she barely had time to invite them to a weekend garden party, as a couple, before she had to dash off to get on with her busy life.
"It makes me feel exhausted, just being on the same planet as people like that," the writer remarked. "Where did you meet her?"
"We were at school together," Sally admitted. "She married money and I didn't. And after her husband gave up the struggle to keep up with her, she goes round organizing people for her charities."
"She's a predatory divorcee?"
"Widow. Jerome had a heart attack while he was out sailing and the Miami Coast Guards had to rescue the body."
"How vulgarly dramatic. I can say that if she's not your best mate?" the writer added.
Sally shrugged. "Marge is okay. At least, she used to be okay before she became so high-powered. We had some great times in our twenties."
"That's the trouble with people. You can't rely on them not to change into something less good. Talking about trouble, I assume you've been going on about some bloke called Mike? What's going to happen when Marge finds out my name is Marin?"
Sally shrugged. "I'll just have to accuse her of having cloth ears if she pulls me up. Or we don't have to go on Saturday if you don't think it's a good idea."
"I'm up for it if we can get away with it without embarrassing you. As long as I don't have to surrender my wallet and my credit cards for charity at the door."
"No, the Binghams isn't a charity do. Sarah's another school friend."
"So what's Marge doing issuing invitations to her garden parties?"
"Sarah loves to have parties but she hates organizing. Marge loves organizing."
"Sounds like they were made for each other. I hope the rain keeps off."
"It won't dare rain on Marge," Sally said with confidence.
"Hey, Marin, does Jackie know how pally you're getting with Sally?" sports correspondent Jeff Boon asked as he caught up with the writer at a coffee machine during the afternoon.
"I hope you've not got me bugged," the writer said. "Or you're having me followed."
"I happened to see you in this posh restaurant on Friday night. But I figured neither of us needed the distraction of a chat. I know, I didn't."
"Like that, was it?" laughed the writer.
"The feck are you two up to?"
The voice passed behind the writer. The Feck-Monster continued on with his mission to spread alarm and despondency without stopping for a reply.
"Oh, yes," said the writer, "your suspicions about Mrs. Pat Howell, correspondent to our letters page, being the most highly pissed off? I have independent confirmation that she's a lot more than just pissed off."
"How interesting," said Boon. "I just knew there was something serious going on. And I bet he's up to his fat neck in it."
"A conclusion that goes well with your history of betting on dead certs," the writer observed.
The writer had mentioned the café in the Sentinel TV region of their massive building - the one with exotic 'windows' with their virtual street scenes - during his account of his week of night duty. When Sally Lee began to make noises about going somewhere different at lunchtime on Tuesday, it seemed the logical place to suggest. When he found Marge Sommers on a collision course with them just inside the café, the writer began to wonder just how far the universe could push the concept of coincidence.
Marge was taking part in some arts programme for Sentinel TV. The writer heard the names of the programme and the presenter but they meant nothing to him and did not stick. There had been some delay and the production assistant with her had been providing Marge with coffee in interesting surroundings. Marge, of course, had no time to chat. She was off to tape her interview now.
"This is looking quite serious, you and me," the writer remarked as he and Sally headed for the service counter. "Your mate seeing us having a meal together three times. Twice when you couldn't possibly have set up the meeting because I chose where we had lunch."
"I know," laughed Sally. "Worrying for you, isn't it? Are you starting to feel trapped?"
"I'm just wondering what would happen if your mate saw me having lunch with Jackie."
Sally shrugged. "So what?"
"You mean, there's nothing wrong with me having lunch with a woman who's not a part of our virtual relationship?"
"Actually, I don't think it could happen." Sally put on a cheeky grin. "I feel like I'm in the middle of one of your daft conspiracy theories. The universe is arranging things so that Marge can't help thinking we're an item. It must be. When was the last time we had a meal together on three successive working days?"
"Not within living memory," the writer admitted. "Yes, it certainly feels like there's something larger going on. Some force controlling our lives."
"And we can only hope it's not something evil, like the Feck."
"Knowing the way the universe works, it's bound to be something evil like the Feck," the writer decided.