Thursday, 1 March 2018

Stabbing pain

He glanced up as he collected his bag from the scanner and saw her for the first time.
‘Beautiful’ he thought, and he watched the slim, dark haired girl - undoubtedly Spanish - walking towards the platforms of the RENFE High Speed Trains. They were both travelling from Barcelona Sants. He was going to Pamplona. He wondered where she was going as he followed her to the platform escalators.

He was too late taking his gaze off her. As she passed the barriers at the checking desk where the uniformed staff scanned your ticket, she turned to join the queue which was facing him. She saw him and indicated clearly that she had by fixing his gaze for a few seconds. ‘Oops’ he thought ‘need to be more careful’; he dropped his eyes to the floor and took his place in the queue...right behind her. By a series of ‘beeps’ the queue moved forward as tickets were checked and passengers made their way to the platforms. His was platform 3 and he was not sure whether to be pleased that she was heading that way too. He felt a bit embarrassed and, by this time, was wondering if she thought he was following her. He decided to stop and fumble with his bags, looking disinterested as she stepped on to the first of the long escalators to the platform many metres below. Once she was out of sight and several people had followed her he made his way to the escalator and descended. About half way down he looked ahead to see her step off the escalator. Instead of moving on to the next escalator she stepped sideways and turned to watch him approaching her. He wanted to walk back up the escalator, he felt uncomfortable. Much to his relief, with only a few feet of escalator to travel, she turned and walked to the second one. He did not step on himself. Instead, he watched over the side until she had reached the end and stepped off. Again, she did not move, she looked up and caught his gaze before moving down the platform and out of sight.
Disconcerted and feeling stupid for staring at her in the first place he reached the platform and asked the uniformed lady were the ‘Preferente’ seats were; she told him that they were at the other end of the platform. His heart sank as that was the direction the girl had walked in. He decided to wait until the train arrived and people had started boarding before moving along to his carriage. That way he was unlikely to encounter her.

The beautiful high speed train glided in to the station and he made his way along the platform slowly against the tide of alighting passengers. With no sign of her he reached his carriage at the rear of the train, found his seat and sat down. She was nowhere to be seen and he sighed heavily, with relief. The train began to move, silently, from the station. He was looking out of the window as the train entered the long tunnel away from Barcelona Sants. The automatic sliding carriage door swished open. It was her.

She put her wheeled case in the luggage rack, checked her ticket, scanned the seat numbers and took her seat on the opposite side of the corridor. She was facing him and could see him clearly; as he could see her. He glanced at her a few times in quick succession, but she was not looking at him, she was flicking through messages on her mobile phone. She swiped left in large gestures as she deleted messages, occasionally stopping to read one in detail.

He realised that he was now staring at her and averted his gaze to look out the window at the passing Catalonian landscape and then drifted off to sleep.

After an hour he woke up and it took him a few minutes to recall where he was. He looked around and then saw her again. This time she was staring at him. He dared to hold her gaze for a few seconds and he imagined he saw a smile on her lips. He smiled back and considered going to speak to her, but his courage evaded him, she would probably leave the train before him and he realised – with a mixture of relief and disappointment – he would never see her again. But the few stations on the way passed and she remained on the train with only the final stop to go - Pamplona.

The approach to Pamplona was tedious, with the train stopping several times at deserted stations and then slowly trundling into the town. He waited until she got off the train –  pretending to take some time packing his shoulder bag. When she was on the platform, he followed to the single exit door which funnelled the passengers into the small ticket hall and through to the taxi rank. Several hundred people left the train, but most were being collected or just walked off into the town. He turned to the taxi rank, which was devoid of taxis, but not devoid of a single waiting passenger; the girl.

He slowly walked up behind her, hoping a taxi would come to take her before he reached the rank. No taxi came, and he had to take his place behind her. She turned as he approached and he quickly decided to speak, thinking it would be more natural. She was clearly aware of him.

‘No taxis; is it always like this?’.
‘No idea, first time here.’ She smiled but not very warmly.

At least she spoke English.
‘My first time too; got a conference at the university.’
She did not answer...and he was lost for further conversation.

A taxi arrived, and he briefly wondered if she would ask him to share, but no. She said something to the driver, got in and was off without even looking at him.

Now he was relieved; clearly, she had no interest in him and he had probably not made a very positive impression on her. A second taxi arrived, he said the name of his hotel – Blanca de Navarra – and they drove off.

Entering the lobby, he fished out his passport and presented it to the receptionist. He tried some of his elementary Spanish but she replied fluently in English. After a few minutes, a photocopy of his passport having been taken and his credit card swiped he turned to find the lifts. As he located them across the lobby one of the lifts opened and, to his surprise, the woman from the train came out and walked across the lobby in his direction. This time he was not going to miss the opportunity. ‘Hello - just what are the chances?’.

‘Very high, I’d say, given how few decent hotels there are here.’

She was curt and cold and clearly not impressed with Pamplona, or the hotel.

‘Oh, I don’t know, I saw quite a few on the web but this was near the conference.’ He replied. ‘You’re not going to the conference too, are you?’

She did not reply.

‘Well, I wonder if you’d like to have a drink later?’ The words were out before he had even thought about them.

‘Sure’ she said - to his surprise - ‘I’ll come to your room and pick you up’.

‘My room? I was thinking...OK then’ he was taken aback at her forward suggestion but the offer of coming to his room seemed too good to miss. After all, he thought, who knew what it might lead to.

‘What time’ he asked.
‘When I’m ready’ she replied.

She was not exactly warm or friendly, but she was in charge.
He unpacked, and his mind was on one thing only. The girl and the prospect of her coming to his room. He felt his breathing deepen and his heart rate accelerate. What should he wear, would he have time for a shower, or a drink at the bar? But he realised, in fact, he was stuck. Her vagueness about when she would come and his desire to see what this was leading to had got him trapped in his room – he dare not leave as he as sure she would not come back if she did not find him there.
After a few hours – during which he was beginning to wonder if she had been being sarcastic – he heard a knock. He peeked through the security hole, and there she was.

When he opened the door she asked if she could come in.

‘Of course’ he replied, turning and walking into the room ‘come in. I was wondering if you were going to come at all.’

She said nothing.

‘I wondered if you’d seen me at the station in Barcelona and on the train, but I guess you did. I thought maybe we could...’
He turned; she was close behind him. She gazed into his eyes, put an arm round his neck and, with her head to the side, drew him in for a kiss. He willingly cooperated and leant forward, holding her gaze. He did not see the knife which she thrust into his solar plexus and up into his heart.

As he slumped to the floor the last thing he heard was: ‘Oh I saw you.’

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The old summerhouse – a Christmas story

Turning the key in the lock, the old man opened the door to the welcome warmth of the house, and closed the door on a cold Christmas Eve. He recalled the days when Midnight Mass really took place at midnight. But, to avoid drunken revellers joining in, for the last few decades it had taken place early in the evening. He also recalled Midnight Mass with his wife and their row of children, all glassy-eyed and dozing off, thinking of Santa Claus rather than the Saviour of the World. Now he was alone, his wife long dead and his children gone. Christmas Day was almost the only time a few of his children came to visit with their children, although he had long since stopped preparing Christmas dinner. He found this a hard time of year. When he was working, it was the one time he was guaranteed to be at home for any length of time. His wife had loved Christmas and the effort she put in on Christmas Day was enormous. He used to help, but he preferred to watch as she enlisted the children in small tasks such as decorating the cake and putting the final decorations on the tree. Now the house was empty and, apart from his memories, all he had to remind him at this time of year were cards sent to ‘Robert and Davina’ by people who had not bothered to update the lists on their computers when they printed out their labels. He always sighed at the thought but could not resist picking these cards off the mantlepiece and looking at them. The pain of missing her these twenty years was an experience of sadness at the loss but also gratitude for the pain of still longing to be with her.

He poured himself a glass of whisky and sat by the fireside, surveying the Christmas cards and recollecting Christmases past. The family had few traditions but any they had were related to Christmas. One tradition, developed after the children had mostly left home, was that he and his wife used to go out to the summerhouse and have a drink when the Christmas preparations were done. It did not matter how cold or how late, they took their drinks to the end of the long garden and sat for a while with the light on in the summerhouse and the doors closed. There was something special about sitting in the pitch-black garden with the warm glow from the summerhouse lighting up a small semi-circle of the lawn. Their habit amused the children who arrived late on Christmas Eve to see the light on at the end of the garden and the kitchen table laden with food.

Looking at his whisky he realised that he had forgotten to get a jug of water to dilute it. He went to the kitchen and ran the cold tap. Looking up at the kitchen window, down the garden into the dark night he saw something that took his mind off his whisky. The light on the summerhouse was on. ‘Impossible’ he thought. Since his wife died he had rarely used the summerhouse and not at all for at least a decade. She had loved the summerhouse and he had built it for her. Now it reminded him of her and it was too painful. Lately he stored things there such as garden tools he rarely used and, in doing so, he simply opened the door and threw them in. The old cane chairs were still there and a pile of old books, half-read by his wife, lay on a small table. The wood on the summerhouse was bleached and bent with the sun and the windows were opaque with spider webs.

‘Impossible’. This time he said it under his breath. He looked away and then looked again to ensure that it was not just a reflection. He turned off the kitchen light to see better and, without doubt, the summerhouse light was on. The grass around it was illuminated and he could see the frost was forming on the grass, glistening. He opened the back door and, breathing in the cold crisp air, he stepped out and walked carefully up the garden, towards the summerhouse. As he approached he was in no doubt that what he was seeing was real and moved closer. There was someone sitting there, which made his heart miss a beat, but he kept moving closer and then slowly opened the door.

She was older than he remembered, with greying hair and her face more wrinkled. She wore a long white dress that he did not remember, and which seemed poor protection against the cold. But she looked up and smiled and he knew it was her. The summerhouse was tidy, and the windows were crystal clear. One of the books was open on the table. ‘You’ve tidied up’, he said, and she smiled again. Sitting down on the wicker chair next to her he stared in disbelief. Tears began to roll down his cheeks and she reached out and took his hand. He truly believed he had never been happier.


Next morning the children and grandchildren began arriving, letting themselves into the house. The first to arrive shouted through the house to see if he was there but were not surprised to find the house empty. He always went back to the church for the Christmas morning Mass and then took a long walk in the local park. He preferred to return to a full house and pretend to be surprised that anyone had turned up rather than greeting them as they arrived. The morning went on and the families worked together to get food ready and prepare for Christmas Dinner. Still their father had not arrived, but they decided to open the champagne anyway. There was none in the house, but they knew it would be chilling outside in a box by the kitchen door. His son opened the door and the box was there. He took out a bottle and, glancing down the garden before closing the door, he noticed the summerhouse door was open.


That was where they found him, his hand outstretched and sitting motionless but smiling in the wicker chair. The place was dusty and full of tools and the other chair was piled high with junk. They did not notice that one of the books on the small table was open.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Encountered briefly

off the Heathow Express, he made his way to the concourse and strode to Terminal 3.
It was June and this was the sixth of his monthly visits that year to Hong Kong to check up on various business interests and ensure that his retirement funding was safe. Terminal 3 was like a second home and he moved towards the front door instinctively and confidently. He did not see her.

Past security and through the perfume vending shops and caviar counters, he wound his way through the causal travellers to the Cathay Pacific lounges and waited by the lift. She was some way behind, watching him carefully, deliberately holding back making sure he could not see her.
The boarding call for Cathay Pacific CX250 went out in the airport but she was already at the gate, waiting. Passengers started arriving and she moved to the furthest corner of the area near the gate, watching. The queue of economy passengers was beginning to grow, her queue, but she was in no hurry to join. She watched the corridor leading to the gate and soon spotted what she knew to be the first and business class passengers arriving - suits, smart luggage and attitude. After a few minutes she saw him, striding down to the gate, relaxed - probably quite drunk - and heading to the short queue of priority passengers. The boarding staff were looking intently at computer screens, swiping themselves in and out of the glass door leading to the gangway waiting for the cabin crew to declare the plane ready for boarding. The call came to start boarding and the priority queue began to move. When he had boarded, she moved to the end of the queue of economy passengers.
At the end of the gangway he showed the smiling Chinese lady his boarding pass, stepped on to the plane and turned left. Settling down, he sipped some champagne, flicked trough the various magazines and checked the selection of films on the TV set. His mind was far from anything that was going on behind him.
She stepped on to the plane and turned right.
The twelve-hour flight was punctuated by dinner, drinks and films for both of them. He thumbed through some documents and checked a few details on his laptop. The week ahead was as familiar to him as having breakfast. Always the same. Same hotel, same colleagues to meet, same restaurants and then the inane expats who knew he'd be in town eager to see him for a drink and tell him about how wonderful life was in Hong Kong. Truth is, they were bored stiff. He knew that but he played up to them; they had contacts and contacts were everything in Hong Kong. And then there was her. He always thought about her when he was travelling because he was usually leaving her or returning to her and either way, memories were evoked. Anticipation and reflection are two sides of the same coin and his life was spent flipping that coin. Casually turning the page of the in-flight sales magazine he decided not to buy anything...there was always next time.
She hardly slept. Between films and trying to read she stared forward at the curtain separating the economy and premium sections of the plane. She knew he was there and had to overcome the temptation to go through and see him. She wasn't ready and she knew he wasn't either. She thought about him and realised this was his life. She too knew about the two sides of the coin, except that she was not flipping it. Instead, she felt flipped. She looked back to what she had left that morning and fretted over the details of locking the house, cancelling the newspapers and packing. She drifted off to sleep, could not be roused for breakfast and only woke when one of the cabin crew asked her to fasten her seat belt for landing. This unnerved her as she wanted to be well prepared for landing. Instead she had a book to pack, shoes to put on and a passport to locate.
'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hong Kong International Airport'.
The seat belt sign went off and he was up and ready to leave immediately. A few minutes wait and then the smiling Chinese lady bade him good morning and he stepped on to the gangway. He was in the airport in seconds and heading to passport control; today the flight had docked at the 'low' gates so he only had to walk a few hundred yards to the gates where his Hong Kong frequent visitor barcode would let him through in seconds.
She was panicking, the economy passengers could not leave until the business class passengers were off and the curtain - which had been closed at landing - remained closed. She was not near the front either. Eventually she left the plane and she started running towards passport control. There was no sign of him. The passport queue was growing and she joined it and snaked her way to the booth.

Finally, she was in the baggage hall but he was already through. She had no bags to collect so she ran to the customs gate and though into the main. airport. And then she saw him.
Leaving the customs hall, he scanned the crowd at the barrier and slowed down until he saw her. A well attired and beautiful young Chinese girl ran to the end of the barrier and when he reached her she flung her arms round him and they kissed.

They walked out into the main hall, he with his arm round her, talking animatedly, and then they stopped. He pulled her towards him, cradled her head in his left hand and pushed her hair back out of her face and kissed her affectionately on the forehead and then on the lips.
'Hello darling' the familiar voice at his shoulder said. He let go of the girl and looked round.

'Who is she?' said the girl. He did not answer.

'I'm his wife' the woman replied for him. 'You're always telling me I should come with you on your business trips' she said to him 'so I thought I'd come and surprise you. Looks like I did.'

The story continued…but the marriage did not.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The thirty-second

Jet lag was setting in but he had been told not to give in to it. He turned left out of the Holiday Inn on to Nathan Road and walked towards the harbour.

His wife was up in the room, snoring, unconscious.

In less than a minute the sweat was trickling down into the small of his back. It was his first time in Hong Kong. His eyes felt like there were grains of sand in them. Boarding the BA flight at Heathrow had seemed like the start an adventure; now he was already dreading the flight home.

The pavements were thronged and the massive TV billboards at the end of Peking Road were flashing bright light and booming out adverts.

'Hello'..'hello sir'...'you from England?'

He turned towards the person greeting him. A small Indian man was smiling at him and offering him a card.

'Copy watch? Copy Handbag for your wife?'.

'Tell you what, I've just arrived, I'm very jet-lagged and tired and my wife is sleeping. I'll just take a card if that's OK and I'll come and see you tomorrow'. He took the card and walked on unsure if he meant what he said or not – jet lag was leading to confusion and he just needed some space.

'Very good price sir, very cheap.' 'Copy Rolex.'

'Are you still here?' I thought I said I'd see you tomorrow. I have your card so I can easily find you.' He held up the card to look at it and it was snatched back.

'I can show you. Now. Copy watch sir.'

'OK - show me one. But I'm not buying tonight.'

He expected that the man would roll up a sleeve or produce one from a pocket. Instead the man raised his hand up and waved. Two more Indian men appeared and the man was off, waving his card and calling 'Copy watch' at the next western passer-by.

'So, you want copy watch, sir?' One of the Indian men said.

'Er, no!' I just asked to see one but I'm OK now, I'll just go back to my hotel,' He could see the entrance to the Holiday Inn from where they were standing.

'Come with us, we show you copy watch sir'.

'But I don't...' he had no choice, with one of the Indian men at either side of him he was too tired to resist being led off the main drag, into an alley and up a flight of steps. The metal door at the top yielded to the two sharp taps from the man in front and he was led into a small stuffy room filled with other Indian men and a few local Chinese.

The door closed behind him and he knew now there would be no escape without a purchase.

'What do you want sir?'

'Well, nothing really. I just asked to look at a copy Rolex. I don't know if I want to buy.'

'We give you very good price.'

'I'm not promising to buy, I have no money with me'.

'You can use credit card sir'

'I don't have that either...'. but he petered out realising that the bulge in his breast pocket was obviously a wallet.

'No way! I'm not handing over my credit card.'

'No need to sir, we take you down to ATM to get cash. One at corner of street.'

'Fuck this' he thought 'why did I get in this mess?'

'So, here is copy Rolex, very good.' and he was shown a watch.

He had no idea what a Rolex looked like but this looked like a nice watch with a crown logo on the dial and a small magnifier over the date. The seller turned over the watch to show the exhibition back. Glass showing the mechanism – the sure sign of a fake. But they knew he had no idea what he was doing and he was quite impressed.

'OK, how much?'

'Twelve thousand Hong Kong'

'Fucking what?'

'Is cheap, sir.'

'It's not far off a thousand pounds, bloody hell.'

'It's cheap. Rolex costs many thousands.'

'This one costs many thousands. Bloody hell, I had no intention of spending that much on anything.'

It was like they were just ignoring him.

‘I’m going now?' he tried to be assertive.

They really were ignoring him, just carrying on sorting out watches and texting on their phones.

'Can I at least sit down?' The heat and humidity were really crushing him and he felt nauseous. He looked round the room. No free seats and nobody was offering him one.

'Twelve thousand Hong Kong, you have cash?'

'No, I don't.' At least that offered him a way out of the room.

'OK, come with us.' and he followed two men down the steps, with one behind him.

He considered making a run at the foot of the stairs but the two men in front stood very close to him and the one behind stayed within a step away. In any case, his legs felt like jelly.

There was nobody at the HSBC ATM and he meekly inserted his card and entered his PIN. He was pushed aside and the rest was done by one of the men who took out twelve thousand Hong Kong dollars, put it in his pocket and handed over the watch.

He was standing alone within a second.

‘At least they’re honest.’ he thought, ironically, as he retrieved his card from the ATM.

Dejected but glad to be free he returned to the hotel and got into bed with his wife.

Next morning, he was awake before her, thinking about the previous night.

She rustled slightly as she woke and asked him the time.

'Eight thirty.' he glanced at his new watch.

'And what's the date? I've lost track already.’

He glanced at his watch again, 'It's the thirty-second of July'

'Bastards.' he thought, and flung the watch across the room.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Old lace

The house was dark and quiet.

It was Christmas Eve and the rest of the houses on the street were lit up and noisy. This one was dark and quiet but the owners were at home, he knew they were. He pressed the bell and knocked loudly and confidently on the door. Silence.

He tried again with the same result. Then he took a key from his pocket and let himself in.

'Hello. Anyone at home?'


'It's me, I've arrived. Anyone at home?'

The house was cold inside and no lights were on downstairs. But there was a dim glow from the upstairs landing, and some quiet voices.

Cautiously, he went up the stairs to the source of the light and the voices. Entering a room at the back of the house, he saw the old man on the bed with the bedside light on. The voices came from the radio by the bed. The man was not breathing. Dead.

Checking the other rooms upstairs he found the old woman on the bathroom floor. Dead. A younger man was in the front bedroom, also dead. Going downstairs he entered the kitchen and the young woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slumped forward. Dead.


'Hello, police and ambulance please.' He replaced the receiver and sat down in the living room.

Against a backdrop of blue flashing lights and an increasing number of people arriving at the house, he tried to explain to the detective who was interviewing him what he had found. The police officers who initially arrived with the ambulance had long since departed to be replaced by a forensics team and two detectives.

DCI Barnes had checked the positions of the bodies and given permission for them to be removed to the morgue. Four deaths in different rooms changed the house from the location of some tragic accident to a potential crime scene. But there was no obvious sign of trauma on the bodies, no blood anywhere and no signs of a struggle.

The house was tidy and there were signs of preparation for Christmas. There were four Advent calendars in the kitchen, the type that irritated DCI Barnes as they had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead they offered a chocolate each day: teddy bears and bunnies, nothing to do with Christmas. 'How stupid' he thought.

Neighbours were being interviewed and now he turned to the young man who had dialled 999 in the first place. They were in the living room.

'I'm sure you told the uniformed officers and my assistant everything, and I'll be checking their notes, but please tell me again.'

'I don't know what else to say' said the young man. 'I arrived for Christmas, let myself in and found them all dead.'

'What's your link with the family and why were you here?'

'I'm a friend. I knew the younger couple, the son and daughter-in-law of the older couple. I was at school with him and they invited me here for Christmas.'


'I'm on my own and they had been out of the country for a few years and we planned to get together. I know – knew – the parents well too.'

'You had a key.'

'Yes, I've had it for years. I was asked to keep it in case I had to look after the house while the old couple were away.'

'And did you? Did you have to look after the house?'

'No. In any case, I live over 100 miles away and don't come here a lot.'

'Well, you can't stay here. But I don't want you to leave town either. We may need to interview you again, we may need fingerprints.'

'Of course. I've already booked a B&B.'

'OK. Let my assistant have the details of how to contact you. Do you have a mobile?'

'No, left it at home. I wanted a break from texts and emails over Christmas.'

'OK. We'll be in contact. You're free to go.'

But as the young man was leaving, DCI Barnes said 'And we'll need the key that you have. This is a potential crime scene so it will have to be treated as such.'

'Of course' replied the young man. 'Oh, just one thing, I left my bag in the kitchen. The key’s in it.' He returned to the living room and handed the key over, shook hands with DCI Barnes, and left the house.

DCI Barnes called his assistant back into the living room; he was clearly enjoying speaking to the young female from forensics.

'For God sake concentrate. Let's take one final look at all of the rooms.'

'But forensics, Sir...' DCI Barnes cut him short 'Forensics what? They look for small things and miss the big ones. Let's take one last look, together.'

They started upstairs and visually swept each room. Given the nature of the deaths, they were not sure what to look for, but DCI Barnes knew how important it was to have a clear visual image of the scene before returning to the CID offices to consider the evidence and read the forensics and post-mortem reports.

They finished in the kitchen. While they were leaving, DCI Barnes stopped and turned.

'Anything wrong, Sir?' asked his assistant.

'Yes, something's different in here' said DCI Barnes.

'Of course, Sir, there was a body at the table when we arrived.'

‘Very funny’ replied DCI Barnes ‘That wasn’t what I meant’.


The post-mortem report stated: ‘poisoning by arsenic’. The forensics team had nothing to report and the neighbours on either side of the house could only recall the family being unwell just before Christmas. Headaches and diarrhoea a few days before Christmas Eve. They said they were probably going to 'lie low' for a few days and have a quiet Christmas. The neighbours did not recall if they had heard the family mention expecting a visitor for Christmas.

'How do you get arsenic poisoning?' DCI Barnes was speaking to the police pathologist on the phone.

'Seems you get it by ingestion – eating or drinking it – probably over a few days.' DCI Barnes was explaining the outcome of his telephone conversation to his assistant. The headaches and shits they reported add up. Also, they reported them over a few days. They died on Christmas Eve and since they died in different rooms or were too confused to think – another sign of arsenic poisoning – nobody raised the alarm.'

'Suicide?' suggested the assistant, with a sarcastic tone.

'Don't try to be funny. But it had gone through my mind' said DCI Barnes.

'Did one of them kill the others?'

'Unlikely, the cause of death was identical and the dose of arsenic was much the same in each of them. Someone wanting to kill the others would want to make sure they were dead first. We can't rule it out, but it's just very unlikely.'

'How'd you get them all to take the arsenic?' asked the assistant.

'If we knew that, we'd have the killer. Assuming there is one' DCI Barnes replied.

'It's a bloody mystery then, Sir.'

DCI Barnes stared hard at his assistant.

‘What, Sir?’

'It's not a fucking mystery any more. I've got it.' DCI Barnes picked up his car keys and started running and his assistant ran after him.

'Get uniformed over to the B&B, I'd like him there at the house' shouted DCI Barnes.


In a blaze of blue lights and a cacophony of sirens, DCI Barnes and his team arrived at the house.

'He's not at the B&B, Sir' reported DCI Barnes' assistant.

‘Of course he’s not – and, conveniently, no mobile phone either. I’ll bet his address is false – did anyone check that out? I’ll bet not.’

They entered the house and went to the kitchen.

'Perfect' said DCI Barnes 'Bloody perfect.'

'What is, Sir?'

'How do you think a group of people were all poisoned over a few days? Nobody suspected anything, they thought they had a Christmas 'bug' and didn't seek any help. Why? And not done by anyone in the house. How? Clever.'

'You've lost me, Sir. Do you think the visitor did it? How?'

'Think will you? What's missing from the kitchen? What did he remove? More to the point, why did we let him come in here?'

'He did, didn't he? But he did it so quickly that we couldn’t stop him. Didn't seem like there was a problem.' The assistant looked puzzled.

DCI Barnes exploded: 'The Advent calendars, they're what's missing. He came back in here and removed them.'

'OK, so they're missing'

'Yes, missing. That's how you get people to take small doses of poison over a few days, send them stupid Advent calendars. The chocolates must have been laced with arsenic.'

'Don't worry, Sir, we'll get him.'

'No we won't.' Said DCI Barnes.


Shoeshine boy

The first thing I saw was the brush on the cobbles. A young man had appeared from a side street off Haci Ali Sreet and darted in front of me. He carried a narrow wooden box and a curved black brush a foot long had fallen out. I picked it up and shouted that he'd dropped something – my first mistake.
'Oh, thank you sir.'

I walked on, satisfied with my good deed which added to my feeling of well-being. That morning I had run five miles along Kennedy Cadde and had also located the Church of Saints Peter and Paul off Bankalar Cadde but only with the help of a man in a fibre glass booth looking after a construction site. Street name signs are scarce in some parts of Istanbul and on the way back from Mass I waved an appreciative sign of thanks to the man in the booth. That was just before I saw the brush.

As I walked toward Karaköy tram station I heard ‘Sir, sir' and turned to see the shoeshine sitting on a stone plinth at the foot of Bankalar Cadde with his box on the ground in front of him. He was gesturing me to put my foot on the small – foot shaped – platform that rose from the centre of the box.
'Please, please. I clean your shoes'
Imagining an act of gratitude for my act of kindness I agreed – my second mistake.

He immediately smeared my shoes in wax, ignoring my protests that the sides of the shoes were suede leather and did not need polishing. He continued to wax and polish. The fact that he ignored my protests worried me but I was too late; the shoes were fully waxed and polished. I had not needed my shoes polishing and had avoided all the shoeshines in Divan Yolu and was cursing myself – feeling violated – for not just walking away.

I thought I should offer him some token for his efforts but I only had four TR in my rear pocket. Coins which I needed for my tram token. I had my wallet with US dollars and a five TR note. 'Perfect' I thought, five TR would be enough. I took the wallet from my jacket – my third mistake.

Despite trying to conceal the contents of my wallet and deliberately keeping the section with dollars closed tight with my thumb over the dollars, the shoeshine spotted the dollars. Taking no interest in the five TR note I offered him, he managed to remove a twenty dollar note from my wallet and slip it into his left trouser pocket. I was shocked at the sleight of hand and before I could open my mouth to protest he did it again saying 'Eighty Turkish, both shoes'.

I lost my temper and admonished him loudly for removing money from my wallet. Eighty TR was too much and he already had several times that amount. He still had the second twenty dollar note in is hand so I snatched it back, shouting at the top of my voice; he looked scared and offered me some TR; but I was being hustled. He had twenty dollars in his pocket and, short of a fight, I was not sure how I was going to retrieve that. I looked him over, he was a half-starved street boy, skin and bones. All I wanted was to get away, so I turned and walked to the tram.

If I felt violated by the wax on my suede leather, that was nothing to my feelings on the tram. Worthless, betrayed and violated. I tried to rationalise the event and even to justify his actions – Stockholm syndrome. My sickness turned to anger and I longed to be off the streets of Istanbul.

Back in the DoubleTree Hilton on Urdu Cadde my wife was waiting. While I was at Mass she had been studying Google and local maps to see how we could spend our last day in Turkey. She had noted the Galata Tower and I agreed it would be good to see this landmark. I told her about the shoeshine. She seemed concerned about the loss of twenty dollars but not about my humiliation. Having agreed to visit the Galata Tower I asked where it was and looked at the map. It was almost at the spot of my humiliation by the shoeshine. I felt sick but agreed to go.

We bought our tokens and took the tram back to Karaköy. I showed my wife where we'd become twenty dollars shorter. We walked up Bankalar Cadde and followed signs to the Galata Tower. The queue to visit the tower was hundreds long and moving slowly so we decided to have lunch at Pepo Cafe and then explore the shops on the backstreets.

The shops bored us and we took an alternative route back to Bankalar Cadde. As we left the side street to cross Bankalar Cadde, a familiar figure walked past me to enter the street we had just left – Haci Ali Street. Walking quickly with head down, he had hoped not to be recognised, but my doubts were dispelled when I looked back and saw the box of brushes, cloths and wax.

As I recognised him he looked back and smiled. I took that to mean he thought I was going to be friendly but when I walked towards him he began to run. Instinctively, I ran after him. He must have been forty years my junior but he had not reckoned on meeting a middle-aged athlete. I nearly caught him immediately but his youth and knowledge of the back streets of Istanbul meant he could sprint where I could not. He was up the steep cobbled street and almost out of sight before he turned left into a side street. His initial speed could not match my stamina and I was at the corner before he had disappeared from the street. He turned off, again to the left and that was his first and final mistake. It was a dead end...blocked by a hole. The construction site near the Church of Saints Peter and Paul which extended down to Bankalar Cadde. This had been his escape route.

Breathing heavily, he stood a few yards in front of me, still clutching his shoeshine box. A wave of pity passed over me as I realised that this box represented his sole way of making a living. I had no idea what I was going to do, until he provided the answer. He tried to dart past me, back down the street and I stuck out my foot. He fell over badly, landing on his right shoulder on the unforgiving cobblestones. He landed on his back with his brushes and cloths strewn around him. From the way he cradled his shoulder I guessed he had broken his collar bone.

I walked over to him and as he tried to shuffle away, still on his back. Holding his arm up towards his shoulder to relieve the pain, he was unable to turn over and he wanted to be able to see me. I was looking down at his face. He was genuinely frightened this time. I placed my foot on his throat.

'Please sir, little girl back in Ankara, my daughter' he cried.
Now I felt no sympathy.
I pressed harder on his throat.
'Please, please'

I kept pressing with my foot and he began to struggle; letting his right shoulder go limp, he grimaced in pain trying to use his left arm to punch my leg. His legs flailed but were too far away to reach me.

I grabbed his left arm and continued to press on his throat and he began to choke. Soon he was lying in a pool of his own urine as his bladder emptied. Then he stopped moving and breathing.

Looking round, I expected someone would be watching, this was a tourist area and someone must have seen the chase. But the street was empty.

He was not heavy and I dragged his body towards the construction hole and looked down. Twenty feet below was a skip and I kicked his body over the edge, into the skip. The locals had been using the skip to deposit their plastic bags of rubbish and his body disappeared – engulfed by the bags. There was no sign of him.

I kicked the implements of his trade over the edge of the hole and all that remained of him was a stream of urine trickling down the sloped cobbled street. I made my way downhill, back to Bankalar Cadde.

My wife was waiting.
'Well?' She asked.
'Got away' I replied.