« on: December 31, 2013 »

Two cops. One Bridge. Quoth the raven: Mind the gore

Martin Rhyde (pronounced 'ride') would always remember where he was the night the lights went out on Tower Bridge. He was on London Bridge, consoling a group of Americans who were distraught that the dull looking structure they were huddled on had a sign saying 'London Bridge' when surely it couldn't be, given the obvious postcard material downriver. Launching into a short history lesson, he cheered them somewhat by explaining that once upon a bloody time and several London Bridges ago (one of which was now in Arizona! Go bother an Arizonan policeman!) this was indeed the place to be seen if you were the dripping lopped off head of a traitor, but Tower Bridge was Tower Bridge and no, the Queen was unlikely to rename it for the convenience of admirers. Though he half seriously wished she would, if only to spare himself future duty as tourist information.

God knows why people always looked to him for help. Perhaps it was his face, which despite his strenuous efforts often managed a kindly visage. As he was about to continue on his way back to the South Bank police station he had so foolishly left to stretch his legs, Tower Bridge suddenly went dark. This annoyed the Americans, who had been snapping away. Martin's cop sense made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up smartly in alarm. Leaving the now serially disappointed shutterbugs to their consternation he hurried to his office, where his sarge was waiting for him. "Go to Tower Bridge," she said. Her terseness told him it was serious.

When he got to the bridge the lights were back on. Traffic had been halted on either side several dozen yards from the scene of the crime. The victim was lying exactly in the middle where both spans meet, cut neatly in half. As he cast a professional eye over a scene as gruesome as any ever witnessed on the headrest upriver, he presently became aware that he was being examined as well.

"Aga Räyburn, Metropolitan Police Service," said his observer by way of introduction. From her cool mien, Martin doubted that she got waylaid by many tourists. She continued: "As the victim lies precisely on the border of the jurisdictions of north of the river and south of the river, we will be working together on this."

"OK. I'm Martin Rhyde."

"Martin Rhyde?" she repeated, mispronouncing it 'reed'.

"No," he said. "Like 'ride'."

She appeared to consider this for a second, then squatted beside the sad spectacle that lay before them. "It's an Enigma," she said.

Martin had to agree.

"Whoever did this had access to specialist tools," Aga continued. "This was not easy to cut."

Suppressing an urge to gag, Martin turned away for a second.

"Are you ill, Marvin?" said Aga.

"It's Martin. No, I'm fine. It's just such a waste."

Aga cocked her head. "You are right, this is unlikely to be salvageable."

Marvelling at Aga's dispassion, Martin took a knee beside her. It was sad but true. This bicycle would never be ridden again, unless you wanted S&S couplings, and nobody wants that.

"Think out loud," said Martin.

"Whoever is responsible is making a statement," said Aga. "It's titanium, which despite the influx from China is still relatively expensive. However, it's also fixed gear. Couriers often ride such bikes – though few could afford one of these. Even if they could, they'd probably wrap tape around it. This is a critique on capitalism; only someone with ample disposable income, probably ill-gotten, would acquire such a frame. To render it unusable is to show contempt for–"

"You mean fixed wheel," said Martin.

"Excuse me?" said Aga, brought up short.

"You said 'fixed gear', said Martin. "It's fixed wheel."

Aga stared fixedly into the middle distance as if accessing a database unavailable to mere mortals, then said: "Sheldon Brown was known to call it fixed gear. Clearly fixed gear is what it is called." She paused again. "Google returns 2,360,000 results for 'fixed gear bicycle', but only 135,000 for 'fixed wheel bicycle'." Then finally: "Nobody really cares, Marlon."

"It's Martin," said Martin. "Never mind. You're probably right."

Just then they were interrupted by a loud "Oi! Bottle and stopper! Can I get past?"

A man on a Boris Bike was staring at them impatiently. "I'd like to get home in time for EastEnders," he added hopefully.

"No," said Aga. "That programme is rubbish."

"Go on home to your custard and jelly," said Martin, waving the man through despite a sneaking suspicion that the Boris Bike was no longer a rental; they had bigger fish to fry. "Everyone's a critic," he added under his breath.

"What I said was fact, not opinion," said Aga. "Your taste is questionable. I'll have to file a report."

Shrugging his large shoulders, Martin returned his gaze to the unfortunate frame. Something troubled him. "This isn't right," he concluded.

"You are correct," said Aga. "The Pedal Cycles Construction and Use Regulations 1983 require pedal cycles 'with a saddle height over 635 mm to have two independent braking systems, with one acting on the front wheel(s) and one on the rear'. This bicycle does not possess any brakes; therefore it is illegal."

"That's not what I'm referring to," said Martin. "Look closely. It's actually two different frames."

It was true. The front of the bicycle was an Enigma, according to the decals. However, judging from the characteristic V above the track ends, the rear was from a Van Nicholas.

"It's almost as if somebody couldn't decide which one to buy," said Martin, musing philosophic.

Their first stop in the hunt for their quarry was a specialist shop in Soho known to sell both fixed gear and titanium bikes.

"Aga Räybúrn, Metropolitan Police Service," said Aga, showing the proprietor her ID then a polaroid of the half breed. "Do you recognise this?"

"I remember the front. It was stolen last week when my back was turned. Of course it was a whole bike at the time."

"Is there anything else you can tell us?" asked Martin.

The man shook his head. "No. Except that right before the bike was stolen a man came in saying 'I want one of those', pointing to that bike. But surely it was a coincidence."

"It might not have been," said Martin. "Do you remember what the man looked like?"

The proprietor said he didn't. Just then a customer came in. He was wearing a helmet with a small camera attached to it.

"Do you come here often?" Aga asked him.

"Yes, literally all the time," the customer replied, casting a furtive glance down at her leather trousers to record them for his special archives. "Are you trying to pick me up?"

"No," said Aga. "I do not find you attractive. I must confiscate your helmet cam to help solve a crime."

They went back to her station and gave the camera to one of her colleagues to process the footage. Meanwhile Martin attempted friendly chat. Although Aga could be abrupt, and indeed off-putting at times, there was something about her that demanded his respect. With improved people skills she would make an ideal partner.

"With improved people skills you would make an ideal partner," he told her.

"What do you mean, Meerkat?" she asked, looking genuinely puzzled.

Martin sighed. "I'm talking about little things like remembering a fellow detective's name. My name is Martin. It doesn't even sound like Meerkat."

"I will try harder, Meerschaum," said Aga.

The footage was ready for them the next morning. It showed a man walking out of the bike shop with the Enigma. He was rather distinctive.

"That's odd," said Martin. "You'd think the shop proprietor would have remembered a Beefeater."

"Yeomen Warder," said Aga in a corrective tone.

"What?" said Martin.

"'Beefeater' is the colloquial name of the Yeomen Warders, the guards of the Tower of London," said Aga. "It is also a little-known (and used) reference to long, thick sideburns, but I fail to see any significant connection with hairstyle to our case."

"Yes, well, I think we'd better go talk to this Yeoman Warder," said Martin.

They located the Beefeater, who only incidentally had long, thick sideburns, taunting the ravens. Empty bottles of gin were kicked over at his feet.

"They treat these bastards better than they treat me!" he slurred. "All right I admit I nicked the bike – but it wasn't for me. I was being blackmailed. So lock me up in the Tower!" At this point he nearly collapsed in wildly inappropriate laughter, shaking his fists in the general direction of the world.

"Tell us who blackmailed you and I'll get you into rehab," said Aga, braving the fumes to get right up into his face.

"Quoth the raven: Nevermore." He hiccupped then tipped over into the green, unconscious.

Aga slapped him several times more than was strictly necessary, but Martin had more luck rifling through the man's pockets. He pulled out a clue.

Martin fiddled with the business card he'd found on the drunken Beefeater as Aga drove them in her Mini down to the Sussex workshop of the frame builder whose card it was. So many unanswered questions: Why cut two perfectly good bikes in half then combine them in a macabre tableau on a misnamed bridge? Why was the Beefeater being blackmailed? Could this be the first in a series of terrible crimes against high-end bikes?

"Think out loud," he suggested to Aga, hoping for a breakthrough.

"Thinking out loud is the act of expressing in recoverable and external form new thoughts which you encourage your mind into exploring. Often these lead to new avenues of thought. When you think out loud you detect and explore ideas and concepts which are either unknown, or as yet unexplored. This exercise can be the first step in moving from a mental doldrums into new paths of exploration." Said Aga, unconvinced.

The man they were looking for was named Mark Reilly. They located him at his Enigma workbench. "What can I do for you?" he asked politely but with a hint of wariness.

"Aga Räybúrñ, Metropolitan Police Service," said Aga, showing him her ID and a photo of the mutilated victim. "Half of a bicycle made here was found last night on Tower Bridge. We have learned that it was stolen by a Yeoman Warder from a shop in Soho. We want you to tell us about the frame."

Reilly sat heavily on an empty box, crushing it. Then he began to sob. Either he was a good actor, or he was truly heartbroken. Was he also leaking a guilty conscience?

"Tell us all about it," said Martin, offering a hand to the broken man's shoulder which was brushed away.

"That was Eleanor," said Reilly when he had finally calmed down enough to speak. "I put everything I had into her, all my skills, all my hopes and dreams, all my love. She was the culmination of a lifetime of frame building experience: my crown jewel. And now she's gone."

Aga was unmoved. "If Eleanor meant so much to you, why did you give her to the bike shop in the first place?"

A brief flash of anger crossed Reilly's face. "My business partner insisted. 'You just build them,' he said. 'Don't get sentimental.' He said we didn't have that luxury."

"Why did you use the Beefeater to steal Eleanor back?" asked Martin.

Reilly looked miserably up at the detectives: "It was the only way I could get her back without my partner knowing." He started sobbing again until Aga tensed as if she was getting ready to slap him. "I had learned of a plot by the Beefeater to swap the Tower of London ravens with crows. As you know, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Kingdom will fall."

At this unburdening he briefly perked up, then immediately deflated. "I can't believe Eleanor has been violated," he finally croaked.

"I'm arresting you on suspicion of blackmail," said Aga, applying cuffs with a practiced hand then folding him with some difficulty into the backseat of the Mini.

Martin was ruminative on the ride to the Smoke. "It's a shame. Reilly could go to prison for having saved the Kingdom. If you believe that tripe." Which he was ashamed to admit he secretly did, thanks to a beloved nana who had filled his young head with much stuff and nonsense. Not that he would ever admit that to Aga.

The frame builder ignored them both, staring vacantly out the window. "Darkness there, and nothing more," he whispered to himself, though actually it was quite sunny out.

The car radio crackled: "Get to the Tower of London. There's been a homicide related to your case."

They dropped Reilly at the station and raced to The Tower, where the ravens were pecking at the Beefeater's lifeless eyes. "It's tradition here," said the officer at the scene, almost apologetically. What wasn't tradition was that the lower half of his body had been replaced with the rear triangle of the Enigma, though bike thieves used to find themselves shorter by the headset.

"Curiouser and curiouser," said Martin. "I wonder if the killer has read The Third Policeman."

Aga scratched the scar on her chin, which she'd gotten in a long ago bicycle accident. It itched whenever she had to concentrate, like when Martin tried to make a joke. "Let's go back to the station," she said after a thorough and fruitless search for evidence. "There may have been further developments."

There were. A user calling him or herself 'Ravenbait' had posted a video on YouTube showing a cat being spanked. It was obviously a fake cat – the button eyes were a giveaway – but there was still outrage in the comments. It was getting more hits than news of the Beefeater's murder. Ravenbait promised to advance from corporal punishment to decapitation if certain demands weren't met:

1. When Big Ben strikes 12 o'clock midday everybody talk like the Queen.
2. The tannoys at Waterloo Station to play 'Waterloo' in place of platform announcements. A heavy metal cover version.
3. Tower Bridge to be renamed London Bridge.
4. Trafalgar Square to be filled with foam packing peanuts to the height of Admiral Lord Nelson's chin.
5. Boris Johnson required to busk on the South Bank, juggling sticky toffee pudding.
6. Homeless to be housed in the London Eye.
7. Prince George to be put up for adoption.
8. Lady Gaga to be taken off the radio.
9. Cycling cafe Look Mum No Hands! given sanctuary status; those inside cannot be arrested by a clodhopper.

The tension that there weren't an even 10 demands was palpable.

"The public is growing restive," said Aga's boss. "There's an ugly mood in the air. You two had better solve this case soon." He went off to liaise with the mayor's office.

"There is no logic to the list," said Aga. "It is misdirection while the next criminal act is being perpetrated. In fact I think there is no connected rationale for the crimes at all, though certain motifs recur."

But Martin knew something Aga didn't know. He now knew he had to go to Look Mum No Hands!, alone; and that he might not get out alive.

Martin was a green young bobby on the beat when he made a very bad mistake. He fell in love. The object of his affection was a lollipop lady named Emma. "I love a man in uniform," she told him. He also preferred when she wore hers. Unfortunately Emma had an ex. His name was Phil and he didn't take kindly to Martin stealing his 'Thora Hurd' even if she had flown the coop. Phil got nasty, stalking Em and even going so far as to hire thugs to repeatedly flick Martin's hat from his head and scarper off. To take Phil out of the picture Martin nicked him for menacing a pedestrian on a zebra crossing, and made sure the charge stuck. Phil was said to have been killed trying to escape from prison by tunnelling under the wall and drowning in a vat of custard in the basement of a Greggs Bakery.

"Phil must still be alive," explained Martin to Aga. "The V in the Van Nicholas is for Vendetta. I have a feeling I'll find the half with the handlebars outside Look Mum No Hands!. As I am the clodhopper in question, you are 'Lady Gaga'. He means that you are to stay away. The rest of the list is simply the fruit of a diseased mind. Though frankly I wouldn't mind #3."

Martin entered the cafe, half a Van Nic outside as expected. A hastily scrawled sign on the door said SANCTUARY. He was alone, having extracted a promise from Aga not to follow. Turn Turn Turn was playing on the radio.

"The Byrds," said a man sitting at a table in the corner. "The were briefly called The Beefeaters, you know."

It was the bloke on the Boris Bike that Martin had let pass through the crime scene on Tower Bridge what seemed like a lifetime ago. It was Phil. "Actually, it's now Grant," he said. "I changed my name along with my face." He preened. "Plastic surgery. You like?"

"Can't say it's much of an improvement," said Martin. "I'd ask for my money back."

"What I'd like is Emma back!" roared Phil/Grant, startling the other patrons. "But you made sure I couldn't have her, didn't you."

"The heart wants what the heart wants," said Martin sadly. "When I went plainclothes she left me, too."

Grant played the world's smallest violin, grinning malevolently.

"What do you want?" asked Martin. "I mean, besides the pleasure of watching the city scramble for enough foam packing peanuts to satisfy your YouTube followers."

"What I want," said Grant, opening his jacket and revealing bandoliers of what appeared to be blocks of plastique, "is to take you to hell with me." He paused. "But first I want you to shoot that waitress in the foot. As a show of good faith."

"I didn't bring a gun," said Martin, stalling for time. "Sanctuary, remember?"

"Here, use mine," said Grant, handing him one.

Martin promptly pointed the gun at Grant and pulled the trigger. It clicked hollowly; the chamber was empty.

Grant laughed like a delighted, demented child. "I knew you'd do that! You're so predictable. I've enjoyed our little chat, but now I have to blow you up along with all these other nice people."

With that he pushed the button on the detonator. Martin instinctively ducked. Nothing explosive happened. "Boom," said Grant, spreading his hands, his Cheshire grin more maddening than ever. "Plasticine."

Taut nerves snapped. Enraged at being toyed with, Martin lunged across the table, hands already in choking position. He was only restrained by the Look Mum No Hands! waitress, who referred him to the sign on the door.

"Were you aware," said Grant after a moment's silence, "that you have a daughter?"

Still seething, Martin simply stared at Grant, who retrieved a laptop from his bag. He set it on the table between them, opened it, and brought up a live webcam of a city street. Somehow Grant had gained access to CCTV. He zoomed in to show a pretty young woman on a Boris Bike.

"Say hello to Eleanor. Much loved, though I hear her mum had her heart set on a boy."

Her mum? thought Martin, head spinning. "You mean… Emma? Em had a baby?"

Grant looked entirely too self-satisfied at the prospect of tearing a hole in Martin's world. "Emma may have washed her hands of me, but I kept tabs on her. Old habits die hard." He zoomed the camera in more closely. "See the package Eleanor is carrying? Filled with C-4: the real deal this time. She's a courier. But she's still too poor to afford her own bike, poor thing."

Martin's heart melted at the sight of it. A daughter! And he'd missed her entire childhood. He hadn't even been there to show Eleanor how to ride a bike; it was clear from the way she wobbled through traffic. Guilt hit him like a gut-shot.

"The bomb she's carrying is set to go off the next time she gets to a docking station," said Grant. "There's one just south of Tower Bridge near where she's meant to deliver the package. There may be time to rescue her if you can get there in time. Feel free to use my bike." Which was a sick joke, of course. As was the entire charade that had led to this moment of truth.

Martin leaped up and made a target of Grant with his finger. "I'll get you if it's the last thing I do," he pronounced coldly. Then he rushed out to save his daughter.

Though Aga hadn't come with Martin, she hadn't been idle, either. Bringing her team together, she had teased the mildest of clues into evidence, evidence into leads, and leads into action. By the time Martin was racing to keep his newly discovered daughter alive, Aga was calling Eleanor's dispatcher to warn her of the fatal consequences of docking the Boris Bike.

Eleanor never heard the dispatcher. A connoisseur of the oldies, she was listening to 8 Miles High on her iPod.

Martin prayed fervently to a god he didn't believe in to make it to the bridge on time. The enormity of what he'd been denied triggered a fantasy movie in his head of how he would make it up to her. He imagined long walks on the South Bank listening to her problems and offering fatherly advice. In short, he didn't pay attention to where he was going.

Informed that the dispatcher couldn't contact Eleanor, Aga sped downtown in her Mini.

As Eleanor approached Tower Bridge, she noticed a tall ship moving towards the bridge. It must be opening soon. She put on an extra burst of speed to make it across first, eager to deliver the package in a timely manner.

Martin arrived at the bridge, having broken most traffic laws and possibly a few laws of physics. But something wasn't right. He looked downriver and noticed that Tower Bridge was opening to let a ship through. Tower Bridge! He was filled with horror at his monstrous error. Nobody in the history of London has ever mistaken London Bridge for Tower Bridge. Clearly a vital spark of intelligence had failed to leap across a synapse in his harried brain as he had rushed down to the river.

Aga uncharacteristically broke a few traffic laws, too. She made a mental note to report herself. Her squad followed in neat formation. Influenced by her taste in cars, they drove Minis, too.

Eleanor had done it! The customer would be pleased. She spotted a docking station and headed towards it.

Martin was rooted to the spot. Despair had rendered him immobile. He was out of time; he felt it in his bones. He watched as the bridge arms slowly heaved themselves up. Just as they parted, a Mini flew across the small chasm, followed by several more. He couldn't believe his eyes. It must be Aga!

Martin held his breath.

"This is the wrong bridge," he heard someone say. It sounded like the Queen. It was 12 o'clock.

There was a muffled boom.

Martin wept.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Eleanor -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Eleanor -
Nameless here for evermore.

The press blamed Eleanor's death on iPod cycling. It was also noted that she wasn't wearing a helmet.

Grant was never seen again. It was rumoured he had more plastic surgery, badly botched: look mum, no face.

Boris Johnson enjoyed his stint at busking, but found juggling too strenuous. He painted himself gold and nearly suffocated, like the Bond girl in Goldfinger.

Charges were dropped against Mark Reilly on the condition that he perform community service putting bikes together at Halfords.

After brief airplay of Waterloo, platforms at Waterloo Station are once again back to normal.

Baby George is living happily in Cheshire. He stands to inherit a two-up two-down.

Bike thieves are no longer beheaded. Officially.

Aga hasn't had occasion to work with Martin again.

Martin can sometimes be found on the South Bank, reciting poetry.