Powderfinger by Keller Yeats

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Chapter 17

As usual, the heavy Oak desk was a model of precision, not even a pencil was unsharpened or out of place. All the honed graphite points, were exactly the same height their dedicated holder and not a single one of them, had been used for years. There was no longer any need for them, in the modern Police Force with it’s Keyboards, Mice and Cursors. Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes M.B.E, was sat in his highly cushioned, leather office chair, moving items millimeters at a time, in the futile pursuit of perfection, in his working life environment. He was also waiting, for DCI. Alexander Findlay, to arrive and subsequently brief him, on this unfortunate brutal double killing on the canal towpath.

Sykes, rested his head on the back of his chair and he glanced up at the radio controlled clock, which was hung precisely in it’s place. Located as it was, exactly in the middle of the wall and two-thirds of the way between the floor and the ceiling. To either side, in exact balance were framed photographs and certificates to highlight, his many proud achievements.

“Where is that damned man,” he exclaimed, as the fingers on the time piece, hit 2.45pm. “If I can make the effort to be here on time, you would think that he could do like wise,” he barked, then rose and began pacing, impatiently around his office. Stopping occasionally, to straighten some imagined tilt on a frame, or rub some minuscule imperfection, from one of his many awards and trophies arranged as they were, in size and importance on the book cabinet and his desk.

Briscombe, was a man who liked the world to run according to his timetable and he tolerated little, or no truck, with anybody who dared to contradict his somewhat demanding viewpoint.

“Where the hell is, that damn man,” he fumed. “It’s typical of that infuriating chap to be late and I’ll wager, that he did this on purpose, purely to annoy me.” With that outburst, his patience snapped and picking up the phone, he jabbed the button connecting him with his secretary, in order to enquire if Alex Findlay had arrived yet, or if she had been notified of some delay, or other.

“No Sir, not a thing but I suppose it could be a traffic related problem. It was very busy this morning, when I was driving in.” Then, just as he was going to put the phone down again, he heard her call loudly, “He’s just walked in through the door, right now. Hello, are you still there Sir?” He now knew, that DCI. Findlay was in the building, so he had no further use for Holly Drake and her infernal twitterings, as he thought of them. So, without bothering to answer her, he released the button and casually sat back in the plushness of his 'Company Director’ standard swivel chair and waited for Mr. Findlay, to duly arrive for their scheduled meeting.

While he waited, his eyes scanned the office, in search of some perceived imperfections. He imagined, falsely, that the Duty Logs were a little out of line on the desktop, so he straightened them up before Alex Findlay arrived at the door.

“Perfection is essential and always remember Briscombe, that those first impressions, invariably set the desired tone.” He said, sounding an awful lot, like his long departed mother. Which was a point, that was obviously, not lost on him, as he answered his own observation, “Yes indeed, mother.” Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes, clearly had a problem.

As a boy, born into an established upper Middle Class family, who were on the slide and were only going in one direction, down. The young Briscombe, had seen all the benefits of power, that were wielded so consummately by his Father, who owned The Corduroy Mill, located just outside of town. He had also witnessed that power begin to disappear, as the conditions in textiles changed dramatically. He had reacted to this loss of power and control by seeking perfection in his own world. What had started out as a need for stability had first become a habit and then an obsession. Just like, the man, or woman, who has to lock and unlock a door, or a safe for that matter, many times before they are satisfied, that it is secure, Briscombe Sykes, required his world to be arranged precisely, or he was constantly plagued by the thought that there was something that he had left undone. Or, more to the point, something that he could have done better. These days, the modern medical consensus, referred to this state of affairs, as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but Commander Briscombe Sykes, always excused this somewhat eccentric behavior, by the simple statement, that he was, “Born this way,” or alternately, he would say, that he was “always like this.” “Force of habit and all that” which was patently untrue but nobody ever cared to check. So, he got away with it and he was coming up to retirement in a few short weeks, so nobody was going to mount an investigation into his character, at this late stage in the proceedings. It would undoubtedly prove to be much simpler, to just let him fade away into the past.

“You can go in now, he’s expecting you,” Holly said to Alex, who slowly stood up and straightened his tie.

“How do I look, Doll?” he jokingly asked her.

“Supoib, Sir,” she instantly replied, in a really crummy Hollywood accent.

“Supoib.” Alex Findlay, grinned and then slowly walked towards the ’Super’s Office,’ but immediately before he reached for the door, he spun around on his heels and left Holly Drake with a hearty,

“Here’s looking at you kid.”

She smiled warmly at him, as he crisply rapped, the requisite three times on the door to The Bosses den and then silently, waited to be called forth, from within.

The sound of a crisp knocking on the office door, alerted Briscombe Sykes, who waited for a few seconds, before calling, “Come.”

Alex Findlay, opened the panelled wooden door and walked confidently in. “I’m guessing, that you wanted to see me for an update on, what the press are calling 'The Canal Cutter Horror,’ if I’m not mistaken, Sir?” He offered, with a polite questioning tone in his voice. Having made his opening gambit, Alex, then manoeuvred himself into position, on the opposite side of the desk and laid his case notes, on The Commanders desk top and sat down, ready for anything that The Super, threw at him. Then, after another deliberately elongated pause, which seemed to last for far too long, and ignoring the proffered case notes, Sykes spoke.

“I trust that you have something to tell me, regarding the investigation of this unfortunate case?”

Alex had been rehearsing his response to this question in the car, all the way from the Morgue and the answer still contained an awful lot of nothing.

“Well, come on then, let’s hear it. I haven’t got all day you know?” Thundered Sykes, inquisitorially. Whenever Commander Sykes, made enquiries about an ongoing case, Findlay was fairly sure he could detect, an air of indifference in his voice. So he attempted to interest his Boss, by starting with,

“This is proving to be a very complex case, and we are having a great deal of difficulty finding anything concrete to stand an arrest warrant upon.” It seemed to Alex, that this direct kind of approach, with just a friesant of intrigue thrown in, was the best policy, whenever answering one of Commander Sykes’ disinterested enquiries.

He was wrong. Briscombe’s pallor, changed in an instant. “Are you trying to tell me,that we’ve not even got a suspect to be going on with. What the hell have you lot been doing for the past week, or so?” he roared. Briscombe Sykes was furious, there was a veritable eruption of spluttering and half completed sentences, erupting from the opposite side of the desk. “So, what you’re trying to tell me is, that you’ve got nothing. Who is your man on the ground and please don’t tell me it’s Joseph Crilly.” Before Alex could get a single word out, he was off again. “That man, could spend an eternity, deciding on what to have for breakfast, when there’s only one thing on offer.”

Alex, took a breath and prepared to speak but his Boss, was not finished yet. “Get somebody on board, who’s a touch less diligent, or we’ll be going along the same stretch of water for months, until somebody proves to him, that it’s wet. Are you sure it isn’t one of those Hostel inmates? They are the most likely suspects given their proximity and criminal tendencies.”

Alex was used to these incoherent explosions from Sykes and sat patiently waiting for the veritable forest fire, to finally burn itself out and the dust to settle on the landscape. Meanwhile, he looked for an explanation that would serve to calm the fires in the mouth of the commander.

“Really Sir, we aren’t having the best of luck, when it comes to gathering much usable information about this perpetrator.” Stated Alex, trying to defend his officers position in this investigation. “I think, that we should concentrate our efforts, more on the things we don’t know, rather than keep on looking for something to incriminate, one, or more of the unfortunate lads from the hostel.” He stopped there and waited to view any reaction that was forthcoming from Commander Sykes. There was nothing coming back, so he pressed on.

“The little information that we are receiving, is all arriving, in dribs and drabs and is either highly fanciful, or unverifiable by any standard means.”

Disappointed with his DCI’s summary, Briscombe Sykes just looked at Alex and scowled. “So what you’re saying is, that you’ve actually, for all intents and purposes, got nothing to go on?”

Now, it was Alex who was mentally scowling. He wanted to say something like, “That doesn’t matter, we’ll just make something up, that fits the bill, if that’s O.K. With you.” It may have been what he wanted to say but he realised the conversation was now getting a touch too close, to area’s which Alex didn’t wish to go to at this time. So, in an attempt to extricate himself from an increasingly awkward situation, he swiftly changed the focus of the conversation by saying,

“It’s been suggested, that it may be to our benefit, if we got a couple of divers in, to have a look in the canal and see what they come up with.”

Briscombe Sykes, did not like the sound of this one bit. “That was another one, of Crilly’s belt and braces suggestions, was it?” He said derisorily and then just dismissed the option, as though it had never been brought into the conversation. “You say, that the perpetrator used the same weapon both times, so it would appear, that he, or she is taking it away with them. So I can’t see the point of using divers, to retrieve ‘what’ exactly?” He glared at Alex, who just returned his stare. Getting no response, Sykes continued “You do realise, the requisition of a team of divers, on a hunch, would be reckless to say the least and considering the financial constraints, heaped upon the service, by cut backs and spending limitations, it would be utterly irresponsible of me, to agree to your request, in the present fiscal climate” insisted his Commander.

Alex, seeing the Commanders face behind his desk, looking distinctly re-empowered, smiled inwardly and quickly added, “It’s was only a thought, that’s all.”

Unfortunately, some years previously, Alex Findlay had crossed swords with Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes MBE, long before he acquired that exalted rank. DCI Briscombe Sykes, had been his first DCI, on the very first case that he had worked on shortly after he left college. Alex, like many other recruits, had entered the service, with high hopes that one day, he might make a real difference. At first, everything had seemed to go smoothly and nothing untoward happened during his first fortnight in the job and he had felt that he was fitting into the team quite well.

Then, one Thursday night, around Midnight, the call had come in alerting the station to an ongoing situation they needed to respond to. There was a gang fracas in progress on the local Sherwood Estate, during which a motorcyclist, who worked for Don Vincenzo’s Pizza Parlour, had been stopped, pulled from his machine and had his motorbike and eleven thin crust pizzas stolen. When officers reached the scene some twelve minutes later, all that was left was the Walker Boys, who numbered thirteen young bruisers, being faced off, by the eleven ‘hard men,’ of the equally territorial and notoriously violent, Fagin Clan. The Walker Boys, were the senior partners in this gang land rivalry, they had originated during the poverty stricken days, that followed the First World War. Even when things, became a little more normalized, after the slow recovery from the Wall St. Crash and all the ensuing unemployment, had started to recede from the public’s memory, the Walkers continued in much the same fashion. Extorting money and doing a little “Protection,” work for local businesses, proved to be more lucrative, than working for the standard wage.

The Fagin Clan, on the other hand, did not arrive on these shores, until after the Second War. The Fagins were of Southern Irish descent and originally, their chosen field of business, was drugs. Heroin had been their starting point, but things expanded and far too many 'Johnny Come Lately’s,’ got involved in the drug market during the Love & Peace days of the mid-sixties, which in turn, caused the family, to reconsider, their position. Logan Fagin, the Great Grandpappy of the family, could see the writing was on the wall and he changed their focus, away from narcotics and into scrap metal instead.

Nowadays, both families were a mere shadow of their former gangster selves. Times had changed, and now their youths were reduced to stealing Pizza’s from a delivery

driver, like common or garden street hustlers. It did not take too long for the officers present to work out that the perpetrators, were probably the Walkers and that incredibly, the ‘innocent’ victims of this theft, were it seemed, the Fagin’s. The two families, were then forcibly kept apart and gradually bundled into the Black Maria’s, for the trip to the station. It was only then, that Officer’s discovered the crumpled body, lying like some heap of rags discarded in the gutter, bleeding. Shockingly, it was the beaten body of the motorcyclist who was almost instantly recognised, by nearly all of the lawmen, as Peter Fagin.

Peter, who at 17, was the youngest member of the Fagin family, had deliberately chosen not to follow in the families footsteps and was ploughing his own furrow through this world. Peter, was considered to be an intelligent lad, who was bound for something far better. In just over a years time, he would have been taking his ’A’ Levels and then, he would be embarking, on a whole new pathway. There would be no gangland antics for Peter Logan. In his wisdom, Logan had not only seen the changes coming in the clandestine world of narcotics and moved the family onto more fertile ground, but he had also been intelligent enough to comprehend the advantages of education, to the family.

Those officers present, realised the situation now had the potential to get very ugly, very quickly. It would have to be dealt with rapidly and above all else, justly. Logan Fagin, even as old, as he was, still wasn’t exactly known for being averse to ordering a little judicious violence, when he thought that it was called for and unfortunately, Peter was his favourite Grandson. Peter had only been doing this pizza job at weekends, to make some money for his studies at University. If they were to get this wrong then it wouldn’t only be Peter Fagin’s blood on the floor. It would only need one misinterpreted, or rash move and they could very easily have a gang war on their turf and nobody wanted that.

DCI. Briscombe Sykes, could clearly see the advantages of a swift resolution to this particular case. If he played this one right, he could emerge from the shadows, as something of a hero, of the people. “The People’s Copper,” sounded good in his ears and if he was lucky, the epithet would stick and that would be no bad thing.

“Come on lads, get to it. I want this arsehole, in the charged lock up before midnight,” and he called out to his team. “Remember, nothing is too small, or insignificant for your attention. In fact, I’ll bet we’re looking at the culprit, right now,” he voluminously stated, whilst theatrically putting on a display of concern, that made it appear to any casual observer, that he was going to get his man, or die trying. “So let’s get on and clear this one up.”

His minions, then started obediently rushing around the scene, like they were a pack of hunting dogs and on closer inspection, Ian Walker, the youngest of that clan, was found to be covered in blood that clearly wasn’t his. Ian, had somehow avoided the melee and was sitting on the kerb, unhurt in the whole incident and he’d only been there, in the first place, due to goading from some of his older siblings. Peter Fagin, was rushed to hospital immediately but the Trauma Team, could do nothing for him and he died of his injuries a few hours later, without regaining consciousness.

“It’s of no concern,” Sykes muttered, “We’ve got, what’s his name and he’s going down.” As he spoke the words, he could hear the phrase, “The People’s Copper,” resounding in his head.

DCI Briscombe Sykes, as he was then, had Ian Walker charged with murder, due to the blood evidence. He had a result. Briscombe, had taken another step on his road to glory. “All hail The People’s Copper,” is what the local press would undoubtedly proclaim.

However, there was a rather massive and very ugly fly in this ointment and the new boy, Alex Findlay, was the keeper of this rather large fly. For it was he, who had observed Ian Walker, standing back from the angry mass of waring brothers, as the punches flew and it seemed to him, that Ian Walker, was doing no more than fulfilling his familial duty by his presence, but not getting involved in any of the rough stuff.

In his defense, Ian Walker claimed to have become covered in Peter Fagin’s blood, whist trying to help him, before the general family fracas really got underway. In truth, when he was questioned about his part in the killing, Ian Walker had professed to being Peter Fagin’s friend. He insisted that he and Pete, often went for a drink together in the Dancing Bear Public House. The fact, that two intelligent young men of the same age, who enjoyed similar recreational activities, Football, Chess, Music and of course, girls, should be such good friends, was hardly a great surprise to any thinking person. After all, family loyalties aside, they even attended the same school, Lancaster Road Academy together.

Their teachers, predicted great futures for them and that didn’t exactly make either of them popular with many of their fellow students. So, it was almost inevitable that they would become firm friends and thus, antagonize some of their family members. Out of a genuine consideration for these long standing enmity’s, they both chose to meet in The Dancing Bear, on Friday nights to pursue their friendship. ’The Bear,’ was located slightly outside of town, on a quiet ‘B’ road and was a favourite haunt of surreptitious acquaintances. So, it was the natural place where the two supposed enemies, would choose to meet up.

Peter and Alex Findlay, had tried to make this point to DCI Briscombe Sykes, on several occasions but to no avail, Sykes had his man. Alex had not been called to give any evidence, when the case came to court and Ian Walker, had been found guilty as charged, receiving a long sentence. DCI Briscombe Sykes, was immensely pleased with himself and made much of “The cracking of this difficult case,” while Alex Findlay, just carried on with his life. It wasn’t until three months later, that he heard Ian Walker had hung himself, in his cell, only four days after being incarcerated behind the cold stone walls of Strangeways prison in Manchester.

He didn’t quite know why, but for some reason Alex felt a severe pang of guilt, over the jailing of Ian Walker and his subsequent death. If only he had been a little more forceful, when he had been making his doubts about the prosecution known to Sykes, the outcome may have been very different. After all, he had paid a visit to ’The Dancing Bear’ to see whether he could unearth some collaborating evidence regarding the unlikely friendship, between Ian Walker and Peter Fagin. When Alex, had shown the Landlord of the establishment, Roy Drayton, a couple of photographs of the lads, he instantly identified them. He remembered being wary, when he had observed them getting on so well and then paying many return visits, to his establishment.

“Everybody in this trade,” he had offered, “knew exactly, who they were.” Then, after a brief pause to consider his next words, added “Jesus, a Walker and a Fagin, waltzing into your bar together, now that was just asking for trouble.” Several shakes of his head later, Mr. Drayton, continued, “They simply ordered some drinks and sat down at that table over there,” he said and vaguely indicated, with a wave of his hand, a position somewhere on the periphery of the lounge area. “It was always on a Friday evening and they seemed to spend the whole night, just laughing and chatting up the girls,” he had stated. Then came back with the statement “They were never a moments trouble and in fact, you could say, that they were model customers. Just a couple of pints, a few laughs and then off to the Chinese Chippy, for something to eat.”

Alex, had then carefully enquired, about their times of arrival and departure. The talkative Landlord, was now clearly enjoying this question and answer session, excitedly responded, “They’d get in here, around 8.00 and as I said, they’d be gone around 10.30. Never later. Something about getting in, before their brothers got home.”

Ian Walker’s word, plus the evidence, supplied by PC. Findlay, hadn’t been enough to sway Briscombe Sykes in his conviction, that he had caught the perpetrator. “I should have been more forceful. I shouldn’t have been so cowed by a senior officers opinion,” said Alex, still kicking himself over the death of Ian Walker after all this time. From that day and on, he and now Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes, generally tried to avoid each other. “It’s all a matter of perspective,” Sykes, had once said to him. “You’re too soft, to ever succeed in this line of business. Way too soft.” From that point, he resolved, that in future, if he ever found himself in such circumstances again, he was not going to be deflected from a line of investigation, by the intervention of any senior officer, or anybody else for that matter. He was going to pursue the evidence to the bitter end, inconvenient or otherwise.

He, and the now Commander Sykes, would clash again, over another dubious prosecution, a couple of years later when Alex had discovered a questionable change in a written statement. Apparently, the original had been retracted at the insistence of the accused and a newer one had been substituted, in the crack of available time between the original copy being taken down, at around Midnight and the next morning’s wake up.

Something seemed to be wrong in the department, but the more that Alex Findlay probed the circumstances of this and a couple of other dubious investigations, the more often than not, he found he ran straight into Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes.

There was nothing solid, no evidence that would hold up in court. Some months later, Alex found himself before a disciplinary panel, on obviously trumped up procedural charges and had been slapped back to Uniform, for his sins. The reprimand stung his pride, but it also reinforced a deep passion within him, for the truth to be known, no matter what the cost. All very Grammar School and perhaps a concept that was a touch beyond its sell by date, but he honestly believed the old adage that, “the truth will set you free.” He recalled the anger he felt when he had been informed of Ian Walker’s death in his cell and the guilt, that he had felt for not bringing forward the flaws in the evidence that DCI.

Briscombe Sykes had used to erroneously convict him, of a crime that he didn’t commit. “Hmm, B.S by initials and B.S by nature,” Alex grumbled to himself, but ever since that apotheosis on his personal Road to Damascus, he had never been known, even in the face of a hurricane of counter predictions, to be a Copper who backed down in order to have an easy life or an easy conviction.

From that day onwards, Alex Findlay and Briscombe Sykes, had merely tolerated each other, as colleagues. Their separate career paths and divergent approaches to ’the job,’ had kept them at arms length. However, through current circumstances, Alex now found himself answering directly to Commander Sykes once again, and he didn’t like the feelings that it engendered, one bit.

“There is next to nothing more, that I can offer, on this one, at this moment, Sir. I’ve got teams scouring the area for leads, and we are currently undertaking a more detailed search of the old Battersby’s Tar Works site.” Sykes just stared at him from underneath his eyebrows and waited for Alex to continue. “The Ravens Gate, is situated right in the middle of the crime scene and the only clue, if that’s what you could call it, is from a tramp, who stated to a ‘colleague,’ that there was something very strange happening around the old works.”

Briscombe Sykes, raised his head from his supporting hands and now seeming more interested commented, “Like what?” Alex, desperately fished for his words, he could hardly mention his own unfortunate experiences of the other day.

“Like, this old tramp who hangs around on the canal, along the stretch where the two murders occurred reckons, that he heard something a few nights ago and it scared him so much that he changed his pitch because of it.” His interest now peeked, The Commander stood to speak to his DCI. He drew himself up and puffed his chest out, as a sign of his superiority and rank. Unfortunately for him, Alex Findlay, could read him like a cheap novel and he knew that he was considering the possibilities, of finding this vagabond and fitting him up, just like had been done to Ian Walker all those years ago.

“We need to find this tramp chappy, he could well be our killer. This could be the trail, that you failed to find, even when it was right there, under your nose, snapping at you.”

'Typical Sykes,' thought Alex. 'Half a story, few of the facts and even less evidence.' Commander Sykes, then thrust his not inconsiderable bulk forward and shouted,

“It’s little wonder, that you stalled at DCI Alex, it’s a miracle that you even made it that far. Do you remember, what I told you, all those years ago, when you had that bee in your bonnet about proof of guilt ? I said to you then and I’ll say it again now for your benefit, the fact is we know some of the things, that the criminal would never admit.” He continued without a pause, “Let me tell you, it’s applied pressure, that loosens the lid on a difficult case like this one, and you need to start squeezing the tube a little harder, Mr. Findlay.”

Alex looked pityingly at Briscombe Sykes and all the old feelings of contempt, that had enabled this antipathy, to continue over all this time, rose again in his mind. 'You’re just a corrupt piece of shit, Sir,' he thought, but he remained silent and just seethed inside.

Commander Sykes continued, “Get this vagrant and you will probably have captured your killer.” At this point, Alex butted in, he simply couldn’t help it and in a raised tone, he pointedly stated;

“Not good enough, Sir. We can’t just grab some old homeless bugger and fit him up. If it’s not him, then the real perpetrator, is still out there, on the loose and would be free to kill again, at will.”

Sykes, was now losing patience, with his obstructive DCI. “As may be the case, Alex, but then if he kills again, we can always give him another more fitting epithet and then, hey presto we no longer have a serial killer, known as The Canal Cutter, we just have another arrest, of some murdering tramp. After all, who’s going to give a damn, about the original killing of some slapper, who got herself done in, after a night on the lash. You just see if I’m not right, Alex?” His insensitivity, was staggering,

'Jesus Christ,' thought Alex, 'Thank God, his time’s nearly up!' This was the Briscombe Sykes, that Alex remembered, cold, mean and corrupted. Thank goodness, he was only a few months from retirement and then, some quiet little seaside town would have to deal with him. BS was not quite finished yet,

“On consideration,” he said completely out of the blue, “I think that we’ll get those divers for you, then nobody will be able to say, that we never gave it our best shot.” There were no surprises, in what said. He was just the same as Alex remembered him, BS was still the same dislikable individual he had run into all those years ago. The public image he portrayed, still held more sway with him than was healthy for a senior officer, and it was still a case of ’to hell with anybody who got in the way of another P.R. victory for the great Commander Thornley Briscombe Sykes.

Alex Findlay, took this pause in proceedings to attempt to make his exit. So, with hope and a prayer he asked,

“Is there anything more, Sir because if there isn’t anything really pressing, I would like to be excused because I really must get on. I’ve still got a few people to see and I’ll keep you informed of the results.”

Sykes, glared from the other side of his desk but said nothing more and just waved his hand dismissively, in the general direction of the exit, with a grunt. Alex didn’t require a second invitation and quickly departed, heading for his car muttering a variety of veiled threats, that would never come to anything. Commander Sykes, was simply not worth it and Alex, had more pressing matters to attend to.

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