James Johnson was a very unspectacular man. He lived on a small estate with his wife who, Mark had thought more than once, was incredibly spectacular. What she was doing with a man like James was beyond him and a matter of great speculation both internally and on several scraps of paper in his office. On this particular part of the case the great detective had found himself stumped.
Nonetheless, he was still owed a settlement of the final invoice.
Brian’s car came to a halt at the end of James’s driveway, directly behind an empty police car.
Brian’s heart pounded in his ears. An odd place, he noticed, for a heart to do its pounding.
“Come on.” Mark beckoned as he hurled himself out of the car, grunting as he went, slamming the door hard behind him.
Brian cautiously turned the engine off and followed mark up the short pathway leading to James’s front door, his eyes not leaving the police car until the policeman to whom the vehicle presumably belonged caught his eye, along with his colleague, being shown out of the front door of the next house along.
Before Mark could knock on the door it swung open and there stood the aforementioned unspectacular client dressed in his beige slacks and a short sleeved plaid shirt buttoned all the way up to the neck. His hair was dishevelled, which always made Mark liken him to a doctor in a 1980’s film franchise that he couldn’t quite put his finger on for some reason.
“What do you want?” James snapped.
His attitude was not as pleasant and quirky as he seemed to recall the doctor’s being, however.
“Good morning, James. This is my friend Brian.” Mark said gesturing at his red-faced, slightly clammy friend.
James shrugged his shoulders and turned his gaze back to Mark, not saying a word.
“I’ve just popped along to settle the final invoice.”
As James began to roar obscenities at Mark, Brian’s attention drifted to the police standing at the next door along. The woman at the door was red in the face, her cheekbones damp with tears, and a little trickle of snot beneath her nose. She sniffed and wiped her face with both hands. As she moved her hands away Brian recognised her face but could not quite place her.
“As I say, if you need anything you have our telephone number. We have access to excellent grief councillors.”
Her nipple was hanging out of her dressing gown Brian noted. This made him completely forget she had a face at all, let alone that he recognised it. It also went some way to improve his mood.
She nodded and sniffed at the same time, backing into her hallway and closing the door on the officers, who turned and headed for their car. As soon as their doors clunked shut Brian relaxed, but as he settled down and returned his attention to his old friend and his client he noticed that James was now trying to his Mark in the head with a brown shoe. Quickly Brian jumped in to join Mark in grabbing hold of James’s arms. Mark gave James a big shove, sending him tripping over his front step and toppling backwards into his house. Mark pulled the door closed and quickly took off down the path.
“Leg it!” He yelled, diving into the passenger seat.
Brian hesitated for a moment before joining his friend just as the front door swung open, starting the engine, and screeching off down the road whilst the one-shoed James hopped after them, his shoe raised above his head like the spear of a Spartan, a trail of obscenities spewing from his reddening head.
Akbul put the large goblet down on the floor at his feet and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His lips felt better especially once he pinched them between his thumb and fingers, wiping away the white phlegm that had built up on them. He scraped his tongue with his teeth, a layer of orange scum scraped away.
The pharaoh’s patience waned.
“Come, Akbul, show me the new wonder you have for me!” he said, gesturing for him to approach the throne.
Akbul picked his rucksack up and slung it across his shoulder as he crossed the long, cool room and rested the bag at the feet of the pharaoh, reaching down into the unzipped front section and pulling out a multi-coloured cube, handing it over to the pharaoh who looked at it in wonderment.
“And what do we call it?”
“It’s called a Rubik’s Cube. It is said that the man who can solve the puzzle of Rubik will unlock a great power within himself and lead his armies to many great and historic victories.”
He was very aware that he was over exaggerating but given his history with the pharaoh he was well aware that he would go for it, and the reward would be more than enough to get him to Las Vegas where his dream could finally be realised.
The pharaoh turned the cube in his hands, looking at the coloured squares.
“How exactly do I solve this puzzle?”
Akbul took the cube from the hands of the pharaoh and began to twist the puzzle around, explaining as he went the simple objective of the toy.
“But first pharaoh, before I leave this with you, I must ask for a great favour.”
“For this great power, Akbul, I will do anything.”
Akbul beamed with joy as he handed the cube to the pharaoh.
It had taken Ernie a considerable amount of time to walk to the office of Mark David – Private Detective. It was only once he was in the unkempt office itself that he realised he had absolutely no idea how he was going to communicate with a man he already knew to be inept but oddly frequently successful in solving cases.
Ernie had used Mark’s services several years ago to help locate his wife’s beloved Yorkshire Terrier. Several hundreds of pounds in bizarre expense claims later and the corpse of the animal had been FedEx’d to the family house whilst Mark took leave for a swift holiday in Cornwall.
It had later transpired that Mark had actually ran the dog over with a friend’s car and had kept the animal in a freezer for reasons still known only to him, despite his attempt to explain them in full and graphic detail to Ernie and his wife.
Ernie was quite pleased with the result as it happened, having regained his favourite chair in the living room and no longer stepping in the dog bowl of water in the kitchen each morning. For this reason he had tipped Mark quite considerably and also recommended him to a few of his colleagues over the years.
‘Still,’ he thought, ‘the packing peanuts were probably a bit much.’
Ernie looked around the office trying to decide how to get a message to Mark without actually being able to hold onto anything for any great length of time. He looked at the telephone and considered leaving a voicemail but he could not get the phone out of its cradle.
‘Perhaps,’ he thought, looking down at the scattering of documents across Mark’s desk and knowing from practice that a pen was far too heavy to pick up and use, ‘if I could just somehow tear some letters out of these pages.’ But try as he might he could barely pick the paper up let alone tear it.
He leant away from the desk and sat back on a smaller table in the back corner of the room. As his backside began to sink into the table a little his belt caught something and as he turned he saw a noisy, spattering kettle begin to boil. Its steam warmed the wooden cladding of the back wall but more importantly the frosted window next to the offices main door.
He reached stretched out his finger and began to write.
To say Brian was unhappy about having driven Mark to a client’s house with whom he had recently played a game of hide the salami with would be a classic case of the understatement.
“What did you expect to happen?” he growled at Mark, “You slept with his wife, and then asked him to pay you for the privilege!”
“Ah,” Mark retorted, his finger sticking in the air, “but she was not cheating on him, though I had an inkling that she was indeed the type to be capable of the act, and that inkling was proved to be correct the only way I was able to do so at the time.”
“And you couldn’t have told him she wasn’t cheating I suppose?”
“Well, yes. But who would pay me for finding that out?” Mark asked, a smug look on his face.
“Who would pay you to sleep with their wife?” Brian replied with some vigour.
“You’d be surprised.”
Brian shook his head and turned out of the estate.
Brian sighed. This was not an argument he would win, nor one that was particularly helping his mood nor his own problems.
“So, where to now?”
Mark looked in the wing mirror as the car turned from the estate and noticed the absence of a car that was parked there on their arrival.
“Did you notice the police were next door to James?” Mark asked.
The question had reminded Brian of something.
“Come to think of it, I did recognise that woman’s face.” Brian said with an eyebrow raised.
“Did you also happen to recognise the nipple, or just the face?”
“Just the face.”
“Where from?” Mark asked as the car picked up speed.
It was at this point that the car made a screeching U-turn much to the disapproval of the oncoming car, whose horn sounded and breaks smoked and squealed. Mark also found this unsatisfactory as he quickly grabbed the handle above his door and, oddly, screamed the word ‘crumbs’ in the tone of a teenaged girl.
Brian dropped a gear and sped back in the direction of the estate.
“What are you bloody doing?” Mark screamed, his hand pressed on his chest with panic.
“That woman, with the nipple!”
“What about her?”
“I remember who she is.”
“You’ve placed the nipple?”
“The face! That is Missus Borg.”
Mark blinked, his knuckles white from holding onto the handle of the door so tightly.
“That’s the wife of the man I didn’t kill.”
The cow had spent a long time alone on the infinite staircase and could have sworn she had recently eaten some grass. In fact yes, there some was now, still in her mouth. How odd then, that the bowl of grass remained full to the brim she thought to herself, before shrugging as much as a cow is able, and taking another mouthful of grass and slurping a mouthful of water.
She looked between her legs and saw that her udders were swollen and veins protruded unattractively from the sides of them. What a cruel twist of fate it was that whoever had invented cows had made them in a way that they required a human to milk them every so often. Conversely, how fortunate that humans were invented with the desire to drink the milk of other species. Well, cow’s, goats, and occasionally something called a ‘Soy’.
The cow seemed to remember reading an article at some stage about the dangers of failing to milk a dairy cow and how they very well may explode should enough time elapse between milking. Whilst she vaguely remembered this article, she could not remember whether there was any truth in it, nor could she remember ever having been milked.
A drop of milk fell from one of her udders and made a light splash against one of the stairs, which echoed oddly around the room, which presumably had walls somewhere that she was unable to see.
“I do wonder,” she wondered “If the meaning of life is simply to offer a continuation of life itself. To keep the species going, and provide some kind of insight into how one survives in the world. How to source food, and drink, for instance. The very basic of things? Or whether it is indeed to push the species to the next level of evolution. Thumbs, perhaps, or knees that let you go back down the stairs instead of just up them.”
Suddenly, she needed to sneeze. So she did.
Where was she?
She had forgotten, so she decided to have some nice grass. She hoped there was some left.
By the time Akbul had got back into his cramped flat he was absolutely parched, and the muscles in his arms burned from the weight of the item he had bartered the pharaoh for. He kicked the portapotty door open and clunked the heavy, bright object down on the rickety coffee table in front of him, which immediately collapsed under the strain.
He mopped his brow with his forearm, exhaled a lungful of air and gazed down at the most magnificent treasure he had ever seen. The bust of Tutankhamun lay on the floor between the shards of coffee table and dirty cups. The simple vision of the item took his breath away. He knew that having this in his possession must mean that it must now be missing from the ancient tomb in the present, and so he must act quickly to get from the flat to his storage room.
He stepped over the bust and jogged, as much as his flip flops would allow, into the kitchen, clicking the kettle on and getting two cups out of the cupboard. He threw two lumps of sugar into each cup along with a teabag and grabbed the glass of milk from the refrigerator. He waited by the kettle, his fingers rapping on the worktop until finally it clicked. He sloshed the water into the cups and stirred them frantically with a spoon from the side, adding a splash of milk to each cup as he went. He made sure to add plenty of milk, partially to hide the taste, but mainly to make the horrible sweet drink as cool as possible. He picked the cups up and headed back to the living room, taking painful, flesh-searing sips of molten hot tea with each step.
He stood over the bust. Something about the eyes drew him in. They brought a sense of peace to him which was welcome, given the amount of caffeine he got through each day. His hands stopped shaking and before he knew it the cups of tea had gone stone cold in his hands. He took long, large gulps until both cups were empty and tossed them onto the sofa.
He opened the door of the portapotty and held it open with his foot before scooping the bust up and dragging it into the portable toilet with him. The door closed and opened simultaneously and he dragged the bust back out of the door and into the dark abyss containing the infinite staircase and a cow. He lay the bust halfway up, and indeed halfway down, the staircase.
The cow tilted her head, then looked between her legs. Then she looked at Akbul.
What she appeared, according to Akbul at least, to be saying was:
What she was actually saying of course was, “If you don’t milk me right now, I’m going to ruin this staircase.”
“You already have some.” He told her, gesturing at the bowls of grass and water before hopping back in the portaporty and back to his flat.
The cow wondered up, or down, the stairs. She was never quite sure anymore, and looked at the bust which she absolutely swears told her in no uncertain terms to “sod off.”
She did another sneeze and fell over onto her side, where she lay as stiff as a doorpost.
Sandra had showered, pulled on some elasticated black leggings and her favourite striped jumper which had become shiny in some parts from the repeated ironing. She was drying her hair in the hallway when her mobile phone started to vibrate on the shelf in front of her. It was Tony.
She turned off the hairdryer and put it down at the bottom of the stairs before answering her phone.
“Sandra, I’ve just heard the news. Are you okay?”
The question had caught Tony off guard somewhat.
“How did you find out?”
“I, um, well I am a councillor, you know. I heard it from the Superintendent.”
“Ah, I suppose the Superintendent knows all about us then, does he?”
Tony opened his mouth but decided it would be for the best if he just went ahead and shut it again.
“Had a right good chat about me at the pub with him no doubt? I see how it is, Tony. Well, why don’t you just pi—“
“Sandra!” he interjected, “Sandra, I’m sorry. I just wanted to check on you. I’m coming over.”
Sandra started to weep into her handset.
“I j-just can’t believe he went on holiday without me!”
If Ernie had been there, he would probably have tried to grab one of the pillows again.
She hung up the phone and shuffled her feet up the hallway, turning into Ernie’s study. She dropped heavily into his computer chair and sighed, her cheeks blotchy and red, but she rested only for a moment as something odd caught her eye.
On a shelf above the computer monitor, sticking out ever so slightly from between a PC magazine and an unread volume of ‘Fight Club’ was a small maroon booklet. She pulled it out and looked down at it for a moment. Then she pulled it open to the laminated page.
“How the bloody hell did he get to Morocco without a passport?” she asked herself as she looked down at the straight faced headshot of her dead husband.
Akbar was thirsty. Not in the usual way after a trek across the desert. This was a thirst that was insatiable, that dried his body out from his lips to his legs. He felt his organs drying out, becoming stiff and cracked.
He was leaning into the kitchen sink, cups pushed aside, with the cold tap running right into his mouth but the cold water offered no relief.
He splashed water in his face, leaving his red, bloodshot eyes open in the hope that the water might hydrate them again to no relief.
The pain was intense. He could feel the blood thickening in his veins, the flow slowly coming to a grinding halt.
He tore his shirt off and looked down at his reddening torso, blisters forming and bursting before his eyes. His skin was boiling away from his body and the pain was becoming too much to handle.
He splashed water onto his chest but it simply hissed and steamed, causing more pain.
He rushed across the kitchen, cups falling to the floor as he slid himself across the kitchen counter, grabbing the glass bottle of milk. He poured it into his mouth, some seeping from the cracks of his mouth, bubbling and curdling. He tossed the bottle to the floor, smashing it and sending glass slipping around the kitchen floor.
Akbar rushed through the kitchen and into the living room where, peculiarly, the bust had appeared, despite having been taken to the staircase just a few minutes ago. It was definitely looking at Akbar and telling him in no uncertain terms, to “sod off.”
Akbar’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed to the floor.
The Ford Granada screeched to a halt, the tyres dragging across the slight grit of the road, rubber leaving a track behind the car as it popped up onto the curb outside of the Borg residence.
The noise had drawn Sandra’s attention and she pushed her fingers between her venetian blinds expecting to see Tony’s car pulling up. What she saw instead was two dishevelled men in their thirties hopping out of a very old Ford with rust on its body work, and worse than that, they appeared to be jogging towards her front door.
She pulled her hand away from the venetian blind and peered through the crack in the hallway door, looking through the glass of her front door as the worse looking of the two men knocked on the door frantically. They were discussing something with some intensity, each speaking over the other at some pace.
“I want it noted that I feel this is quite a poor idea, Brian.”
“I want it noted that your idea of a good idea is FedExing a dead cat to its owner.”
“If you tell this woman you are wanted in connection with the murder of her husband she will call the police faster than you can say ‘I accidentally left my passport on a pyramid in Morocco.”
“I need to know more about him and whether he had any other enemies.”
“You definitely said other enemies just now.” Mark said pointing his finger in Brian’s face.
“You know full well what I mean.”
“You know this man.”
“I know of this man.”
“You know the dead man, your documents were found all around him, you’ve seen his wife’s nipple and now we are stood at her front door to ask her if she knows of any other enemies, implying you not only know the man but have a motive to murder him.”
“He’s my boss.”
“I knew it!” Mark exclaimed, pumping his finger into the air.
Brian shook his head, “You didn’t know anything. And besides, you definitely didn’t know that he also—”
Sandra opened the door interrupting the conversation. Both men fell silent and looked right at her, their eyes open wide enough for the whites of their eyes to be on show more than is standard convention.
“Are you reporters?” She asked.
Sandra knew little of reporters, but she expected that they were poorly paid and, apart from a handful of them working for GQ Magazine, imagined them to be terribly dressed. If she were to draw a picture of two journalists, she would in fact have drawn a picture of Mark and Brian.
“Ah.” Mark hummed, looking at Brian.
“Well. No.” Brian responded.
“We are actually Private Detectives.” Mark interjected, reaching inside his jacket and pulling out a creased business card, curled at the corners, and handing it to Sandra. “Well, I am. This is Brian. My, ah- client.”
“Client. He’ll be paying me. He’s a client.”
“Missus Borg,” started Brian, “I think we need a chat about Ernie.”
Sandra looked up from the business card.
“Why do I know your face from somewhere?” She asked Brian.
“I think I may be of some assistance here,” Mark interjected, stepping between the two, “Do you have any tea, Missus Borg?”
Her curiosity was peeked and she felt unthreatened by the two men standing at her door who she identified as being deficient in intellect. She invited them to join her for a nice cup of tea.
“Excellent,” Mark beamed as he wiped his feet on Sandra’s doormat, “I don’t suppose there’s a custard cream in your biscuit tin by any chance?”
As the door closed the councillor’s BMW pulled up behind the old Ford Granada. He leant forward in his car seat and looked at the rusted car in front of him, then up at Sandra’s house and back to the Ford, raising his eyebrow.
He switched the engine off, unfastened his seat belt and, with no husband to worry himself about, he let himself in.
The cow had no idea how long she had been asleep but she knew that she felt a lot better for it. She had been under an incredible amount of stress recently what with the house move and the incredible pain in her udders which, she was relieved to find had drained out of their own accord whilst she was sleeping.
She got back to her feet and looked down at herself. She was shocked to see that she was an odd colour. Black and white. She leaned over and looked between her legs.
“What the hell are those things?” she thought with great panic at the sight of her udders.
She licked her lips and saw that two bowls were lay out in front of her, one filled with water, one with grass. She had a big slurp of water and chewed on some grass, but she was craving something else, something sweeter. She was craving something that came in small cubes. A lump of something. Sugar, perhaps?
Sugar. She wanted a lump of sugar.
She also quite fancied someone sitting on her back and taking her for a lovely walk. That sounded brilliant.
She reared up on her hind legs and kicked her front legs around for no reason other than she felt like it. Then she blew air through her lips, making them vibrate. It tickled so she laughed, and an odd noise came out. If she was to write it down she would spell it ‘moo’.
A very odd noise indeed, for a horse.
She looked down between her legs again. Those things were most troubling, and they were very much in the way.
She decided that she would go for something she instinctively called a ‘gallop’ for a while and then she would simply have to do something about that thing stuck in between her legs.