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.


Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Christmas party

The word penetrated the loud chatter, reached her ear and the ‘cocktail party effect’ kicked in.
‘Yes, I work locally. Love my job.’
She disengaged from the hungry gaze and the increasingly salacious conversation of the man who was speaking to her and tossed a glance in the direction of the voice she was actually listening to. She was not disappointed.

A young, bronzed and handsome man was entertaining a group of women who clearly knew him well. Locals, maybe, or patients, she thought. Perhaps he was a plastic surgeon; eminently possible judging from the mounds of well-chiselled flesh on display.

She decided…she was moving in. She was stunningly attractive herself – and knew it – and just loved the idea of being with a rich, professional man with all the material benefits and the status that could bring. There was nothing she liked better than being one up on her friends who seemed to make do with the least accomplished and least solvent men they could find. She’d been with a few, but she knew she was just passing through, ready for something and someone better. She deserved it.

Her courage deserted her for a moment as she proceeded to ignore the man in front of her. But she knew what to do. She made an excuse and asked directions to the bathroom. There she locked the door and took a small hand mirror out of her bag. With no more than a cursory glance at the back of her hair and her makeup she placed the mirror flat on the toilet seat, emptied a small amount of white powder on to the mirror and parted it into two lines with her credit card. Rolling up a new plastic five-pound note – perfect for the job – she knelt down and inhaled the powder deeply into each nostril and waited for the effect.

She was taking no chances tonight. Her weekend coke habit had got her through some sordid sexual encounters. How much better would tonight be if she was up and ready with the courage afforded by the narcotic and its particularly aphrodisiac effect? Tonight, she was not interested in being coaxed, cajoled and played with. She was out to impress and, assuming he did, this man was going to get what he wanted, and quickly. There would be plenty of time for foreplay in the future.

She cleaned up and returned to the party. The guests were momentarily distracted by some very loud arrivers, her target was abandoned for a few seconds and she moved over beside him.
‘Hi, I’m Meg, nice to meet you.’
‘And I’m Greg, nice, er, very nice to meet you.’
‘I’m not local.’ she said ‘I’ve just arrived here and moved into a flat across thei road. It seems everyone gets invited.’
‘Yes.’ he replied ‘I’ve been coming for a few years, but I don’t live all that close. I know a lot of people here – especially the women – due to the work I do.’
‘I know what you do’ she responded and it’s one of the reasons I came over. I’m shameless really, but I tend to like people for what they do and it helps if they’re good-looking.’

Greg had now lost interest in the heaving bosoms and frequent, inappropriate, fondling by the other women around him. He focused solely on Meg and he could see she was interested in him. He had come expecting the usual platitudes and attention seeking behaviour of the women at the party. He was not sure how their husbands tolerated it but he didn’t mind – usually. Now he just ignored them, moved closer to Meg and said:
‘I can’t hear a thing in here, let’s move to the kitchen where we can talk.’
‘Job done’ thought Meg.

There were a few people in the kitchen; people who did not fit in with the party next door. The obvious intimacy and the unconscious signals indicating the newly arrived couple wanted privacy soon drove these uncomfortable individuals back to the party.
‘That didn’t take long’ he said, and Meg just smiled, moved closer and started to kiss him.

‘That didn’t take long either’, he gasped as Meg unashamedly continued. Greg’s ego was flattered. He was unaware this was a drug-fuelled infatuation with what he was rather than who he was. But he could see how it was going to end and he was not going to put anything in the way.

‘We need to get out of here’ he told her and he was already phoning a cab, struggling to speak to the person on the phone while Meg tried to invade his mouth and ears with her mouth and tongue. ‘OK, that’s fixed, let’s get outside.’

It was cold and, as she had only crossed the road to the party, she had no coat. He had a jacket so she slipped her hands under to keep herself warm. The taxi took a while to arrive and they stood in a slightly embarrassed silence. The effects of the coke were wearing off but her breasts were still tingling and she was content to know that they were together.

‘Where are we going?’ She had not considered this in the rush to leave the party. ‘My place. It’s not too far’ replied Greg. This pleased her. She would see where he lived and see what other joys awaited her if things worked out. You could tell a lot from a person’s home, especially a man’s house. Was there a wife? Were there children? Was he single and ready to form a relationship? She was besotted with the image of this man she hardly knew; the effect of the coke had not entirely worn off.

Once in the taxi she yielded to his advances; his hand was inside her blouse and under her bra. His hands were rougher than she imagined but this only accentuated the feeling of pleasure that was engulfing her.

The taxi driver was grateful for a generous Christmas tip. The truth was they could not wait for the change. They ran into the house and the sex was over in minutes. He had never experienced anything quite like it.

The next morning he woke to see Meg looking at him and smiling. ‘Thanks, I had a wonderful evening’ she said. He just smiled back and said ‘coffee?’ But Meg offered to make it saying that she’d find everything. He should just stay in bed and she’d be back soon.

Meg wanted an excuse to see the house. Last night they had not turned on the lights before going upstairs to bed.

She was clear that there was not another woman here. The house was quite small but this was a good neighbourhood and why did he need a large house when he was alone? She looked for evidence of other interests and hobbies but, apart from a few books, CDs and a widescreen television, she did not learn much more about Greg. Still, he was single and she was convinced he was successful. The fact that he looked good was a bonus.

She returned with the coffee and, feigning coyness, asked if they’d see each other again. ‘Of course’ said Greg, ‘I think you’re fantastic.’

‘So, can I give you a lift home?’ he asked. ‘It’s cold and you have no jacket and it’s too far to walk.’ She agreed, and they planned to meet again that evening.

‘It’s only a two-seater’ he said. In her head she hissed ‘YES!’ as she realised what one of his interests might be – fast cars. This was getting better as she imagined being dropped off at her flat. Ferrari? Porsche? Audi? she wondered.

‘It’s in the garage, I’ll take it round to the front of the house and meet you there.’ He left by the back door; she pulled the front door closed behind her. When she heard an engine revving at the rear of the house she strained to see if she could guess what was coming.

The white diesel engine transit van with ‘Greg the Tree Surgeon’ in lurid green letters drew up beside her, Greg reached over, opened the passenger door and shouted ‘hop in love.’