It had been a cold, frosty February night. Now, in the early morning darkness, well before dawn, parts of the little town were beginning to come to life and prepare for the coming day. On the outskirts, away from the town centre, the lights were on in the small supermarket. Nearer the centre, the mouth-watering smell of bread, fresh from the oven, wafted from the open door of the bakery. A little further along, light shone across the pavement from the open door of the newsagents as the owner grappled the bundles of today’s news into the shop. An occasional car stopped outside and disgorged its occupant in search of an early morning newspaper and maybe a pack of cigarettes.
In the shadows, a small, tatty-looking old woman flitted from doorway to doorway, a grubby off-white coat tied around her waist with what appeared to be string. She seemed to be looking for something, and as she searched she muttered quietly to herself, absently running her fingers through her long silver-grey hair, much as a child might do.
As she got to the bakery, she hovered in the doorway, peering inside until a kindly woman dressed in white overalls came out carrying a large brown paper bag.
‘Morning, Florence,’ said the woman cheerily, her face glowing red from the heat inside the shop. ‘How are you today?’
The old woman in the grubby coat smiled uncertainly.
‘Have you seen Dougal?’
‘Still not found him, then?’ The lady from the bakery smiled kindly back at her, knowing she wouldn’t get an answer, but feeling she should ask anyway.
She handed the paper bag to the old woman, who looked down at it as if it didn’t belong there. Then she hugged it to her chest as if frightened it was going to be snatched away. She nodded her head in thanks and as she looked up at her benefactor, a tear slid down her grubby cheek. She was overwhelmed by this act of kindness, even though it happened every time she came into town.
‘I’ve done you a loaf of bread, two of those pies you like, and a couple of cakes,’ said the kindly woman. ‘And there’s a hot pasty on top. You should eat it now before it gets cold. Would you like to come in? I can make you a cup of tea to go with it.’
The old woman shook her head and backed away. She wasn’t being ungrateful, she just couldn’t risk going inside, no matter how kindly the lady in the shop might be. She gave another uncertain smile and then hurried off down a narrow passageway that led off in the direction of the old canal and the adjoining towpath, still clutching the bag to her chest.
The lady watched her go and let out a long sigh. The baker, a large, ruddy-faced man, emerged from the shop and slid an arm around her waist.
‘Never mind, love,’ he said to his wife. ‘You can’t make people accept your help. At least you know she won’t go hungry today.’
‘I know,’ she said, sadly. ‘I just wish I could do something more. I don’t even know where she lives, and I dread to think how she survives in this cold.’
‘Come on inside,’ he said, giving her a hug. ‘We’ll just have to drink the tea ourselves.’
The kindly lady was not alone in her ignorance. Not many people in Tinton even knew of the tatty old woman’s existence. Those that were aware of her called her Florence, because that’s what they’d always called her. It was doubtful if anyone could remember if it was her real name. In much the same way, no one really had any idea where she came from, or how she existed.
She made this journey into town two or three times a week, and had done for years. She always came under cover of darkness because she knew if she came into town any later, she would have to cope with more traffic than she could handle, and people would see her and stare at her. Some might even feel the need to pass nasty comments and tell her how she wasn’t wanted in this town. They didn’t seem to understand. They never had.
She just wanted her Dougal back, and then everything would be alright.
The Night Caller had been targeting the larger houses of Hampshire for some weeks now. Acting with impunity, he had so far robbed over a dozen homes, netting a haul of jewellery and works of art worth several million pounds. To date, no one had the faintest idea who the culprit was, despite him leaving a ‘Night Caller’ business card at the scene of each robbery. Last night, it appeared he had made his latest call – this time in the Tinton area.
DS Norman Norman hated going to these great big houses out in the country. It wasn’t that he had a problem with the people who inhabited them, it was more the case that they seemed to have a problem with him. He couldn’t see what their problem was. Okay, so he was a little untidy sometimes, but did that matter? As long as he was good at his job (and Norman thought he was pretty damn good at his job), what did it matter what he looked like?
He had an especially bad feeling about this one. This guy was a retired chief constable and had been knighted for his services to law and order. Norman was convinced this more or less guaranteed he was going to be given a hard time, and as he turned his car off the road and onto the long driveway and got his first glimpse of the enormous house, he just knew he wasn’t going to enjoy this job.
Sir Robert Maunder was an inch or two shorter than Norman and yet, when he opened the front door and stood silently looking Norman up and down, there was something about him that made him seem rather grand. But in that initial silence, Norman wondered if perhaps the only thing grand about this man was his own sense of self-importance. Perhaps it was the result of having spent much of his life looking down on people he perceived to be of lesser rank.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Sir Robert at last. ‘But we don’t allow your sort of people here. Now go away or I’ll call the police.’
Norman sighed heavily and began rummaging in his pocket for his warrant card. He could see this was going to be even worse than he had expected.
‘DS Norman.’ He held up his warrant card and rolled his eyes slightly as Sir Robert scrutinised it for a good few seconds. ‘I understand you’ve reported a crime. I’m here to investigate.’
‘Good Lord,’ said Sir Robert, looking at him suspiciously. ‘I knew things were getting bad, but is this the best you could do? I’m a knight of the realm, you know.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Norman. ‘We understood this was a simple break-in and no one got hurt.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’
‘Well frankly, Sir, you’re lucky to get a DS and a forensics team.’
‘I don’t like your attitude, Sergeant,’ said Sir Robert, angrily. ‘You seem to forget I used to be a chief constable. I know how these things work.’
Norman didn’t like Sir Robert’s attitude either, but he didn’t say as much. He could imagine Sir Robert in his heyday, looking after his cronies regardless of the crime that had been committed.
‘With respect, Sir,’ replied Norman, ‘I think you’ll find things have changed a bit since you were in charge. These days we rarely get to pick and choose our jobs. I just go where I’m sent and try to do my job to the best of my ability. You could put in a request for someone more important to come out if you like, but I wouldn’t expect too much if I were you.’
For a moment, Norman felt as if he and Sir Robert were engaged in some sort of stare-off, and he waited for the inevitable storm to break, and for him to be sent packing.
‘Don’t you even have scene of crime officers?’ Sir Robert said, suddenly, his voice calmer.
Norman was surprised by the sudden change of attitude.
‘There’s a forensics team on the way,’ he said. ‘They should be here in a few minutes. Perhaps you could show me the crime scene while we’re waiting.’
Sir Robert backed up and Norman stepped into the hall. He took a pair of thin forensic overshoes from his pocket and slipped them over his shoes. It was unusual for him to think of such a thing, but Ian Becks, Tinton’s forensic expert, had been very insistent on the phone. If this was the work of the Night Caller, Becks had warned, he didn’t want Norman leaving his ‘great big, heavy hoofprints’ all over the scene.
Sir Robert led the way through the house and up the stairs.
‘It was this Night Caller chap,’ he explained to Norman. ‘There’s no doubt about it. He even left his calling card.’
Norman didn’t comment on Sir Robert’s speculation, preferring to make up his own mind based on the evidence.
‘Is there much missing?’ he asked.
‘Most of my wife’s jewellery. I’m afraid she left her jewellery box out where it was easy to find.’
‘Don’t you have an alarm?’ asked Norman.
‘Damned thing didn’t work.’ Sir Robert sighed, sounding exasperated.
They reached the bedroom where the theft had taken place.
‘In here,’ said Sir Robert, as he pushed the door open.
The room was palatial in size and design with a huge four-poster bed at one end, tapestries on the walls and what appeared to be expensive Persian rugs on the floor. Norman thought it was way over the top, but then he supposed you have to fill a room this size with something, and modern furniture would definitely have looked out of place.
A large jewellery box sat on a dressing table. The lid had been thrown back, and several small drawers in the front were open. Norman peered inside to see what could best be described as a few scraps of jewellery in the bottom. Inside the open lid, a brilliant white card, about the size of a standard business card, stated clearly and simply ‘You’re a victim of The Night Caller’. The words ‘Night Caller’ were inscribed in a large fancy font.
‘Do you have a list of what’s missing?’ asked Norman, staring at the card.
‘Downstairs, on my PC,’ said Sir Robert. ‘I’ll print a copy for you.’
‘Where were you and your wife when he was emptying the jewellery box?’
‘Err, yes. That’s a bit embarrassing.’ Norman was surprised to see that the Knight of the Realm was actually reddening slightly. ‘I was actually hoping you wouldn’t ask.’
‘I’m a police officer, Sir Robert,’ Norman said, sighing. ‘It’s my job to ask questions, remember?’
‘Yes, of course.’ Sir Robert pointed to the massive four-poster bed. ‘We were both sound asleep in there.’
‘In the same room?’ said Norman, not bothering to hide his surprise now. ‘So, the alarm didn’t work, your wife left her jewellery box out in the open and you both slept while someone broke in and helped himself to its contents. Is that right?’
‘Yes. It sounds very careless of us, when you put it like that,’ mumbled Sir Robert sheepishly.
‘I would say careless is quite a good word,’ said Norman pointedly, but before he could say any more there was the sound of a doorbell ringing downstairs.
‘I must get that,’ said Sir Robert, looking as if if he had been saved by the bell. ‘My wife’s resting. She’s very upset.’
‘That’ll be the forensic team,’ said Norman, following the older man back down the stairs.