Seamus Fliphook had been noticeable by his absence. Apart from a letter sent to Verity Lambush with rather ambiguous content which made vague mention of knowing something that no one else in Fekenham did the odious man had seemed to have departed.
News of Rupert Snatch-Kiss had grown cold and even though rumours spread as they always do very little was heard of the man. Some speculated he was trying to buy the local brewery but no confirmation was forthcoming.
Underwear was still being stolen. Folks were getting slightly hot under the collar yet cold down there and had started to press Sergeant Wheelspin, the local bobby, along with young Cyril Updike (PC) to do something about it. Lacking clues or evidence neither policeman had much to go on. Not so Brigadier Largepiece.
The privet hedge at number forty-two, Windy Willow Avenue, rustled like a stale pack of crisps. It was midnight, and dark shadows lay like velvet cloth upon the garden of Mini Duckworthy, widow these long years, but beloved of Ted Sandpip, the local lock keeper.
Some hours ago, a vigilante group had, whilst gathered at The Frog and Radiator decided that enough was enough, that Fekenham was a law-abiding village and there was no room in it for a stealer of women’s underwear. After forming a vague plan, the league of self-styled watchmen made their way to Windy Willow Avenue, more precisely, to the abode of Missus Duckworthy. No one was exactly sure why they had chosen Mini’s abode. Perhaps it was when Ernie Stalworthy had suggested that a certain ramshackle and wayward sort of path seemed to wind its way toward the eastern side of Fekenham that the team had proposed heading east and to Windy Willow Avenue.
Secreted behind the hedge, with stiffening limbs and aching joints, were Victor Clapp, Ernie Stallworthy and Brigadier Largepiece. The moon shone a pale light that painted the garden of Mini Duckworthy with an alien silver hue that pushed the shadows back to hide, along with our three spies, behind the privet hedge.
An unexpected cough issued from Victor Clapp’s throat and was greeted by the Brigadier’s middle-class, whispered tones.
“Silence in the ranks there, chaps. Try to keep a lid on it. Don’t want to give the game away, do we now?”
Silent glares met the Brigadier’s comments, but due to the darkness and the fact that an overgrown section of the hedge was going straight up the Brigadier’s left nostril, while an adjacent section blocked his vision, he was prevented from seeing either of his chums’ faces.
The Brigadier was old school – Eton, Rugby and then Sandhurst. Now in his early seventies but still spritely and as smartly attired as a show room dummy if not quite as stiff. He led his men by example. Decorated during the time of the Korean War he was no coward. Standing six-foot exactly he cut a fine figure but crouched over as he was his aging limbs were beginning to ache somewhat.
Silence fell again, heavy, like the beating wings of large bats. The three men sat waiting, exuding a nervous air of anxious expectation. It had the same feel as when guilty schoolboys have taken matters into their own hands and are about to teach a rival school gang a lesson. From a distance a stray barn owl’s hoot was followed by the dull wing-beat of a pigeon as it flew across the horizon, leaving a brief image on the pale moon’s skin.
A rumble as though of distant thunder suddenly exploded into hearing, sending shock-waves coursing through the Brigadier.
“I say! What on earth was that? Sounded like a ruddy fog horn.”
“It was Ernie,” replied Victor Clapp.
“Ernie?” queried the long retired military man.
“Yes,” responded Clapp, “he just farted.”
“Hurrumph!” snorted Largepiece. “For goodness’ sake shove a cork in it but keep it quiet.”
Ernie Stalworthy, late of Hackney Parish, relatively new to this region, hoisted his trousers up and patted his pockets. He was a rum looking sort of man, ferret featured and seemingly unwholesome. He gazed now, ignoring his explosive digestive system, across the Duckworthy homestead
On the other side of the privet hedge was Mini’s garden and cottage. Low-built and snug, it settled its roots deep down into the Fekenham hillside like a blind mole caught in the open. Beyond the cottage rose Fekenham Hill. It was the place where Egbert Leatherside defeated Carak the Cruel in the battle of Feckit. This was all ancient history, of course, as the battle was fought in the early tenth century, but around Fekenham memories last as long as the hills, as do the tall tales that pass on from father to son and are generally told, in modern times, around the fireplace at The Frog and Radiator.
“Oi, Clapp. Get your bleedin’ elbow outta my ear!” hissed Ernie Stallworthy his Cockney vowels flattening the English language.
“And you get your bloody boot off of my foot. You are crushing my corns!” threatened Clapp.
“For God’s sake be quiet. You will wake the whole ruddy neighbourhood,” croaked the Brigadier.
“Good God, man, can you not control your bowels?”
“Me bowels ain’t a problem. It’s me sister giving me all that bleedin’ raw fruit that’s upset me functions,” hissed Stallworthy.
“Harrumph” replied the Brigadier, at a loss for words. A sharp crack, followed by yet another strange noise, broke the whispered conversation, and then came an odd bleating.
“This is the last time that I am bound to tell you to be quiet,” stage whispered Largepiece, “I am surprised that the good lady hasn’t yet heard us. One more piece of your nonsense, Stallworthy, and I will be off. Do I make myself clear?”
“But that wasn’t me, honest,” said the Londoner, “That sound came from behind me.”
“All sounds come from behind you, or so it strikes me,” said Victor Clapp, before being hushed by the Brigadier. Another sound, a stealthy creeping as of steps taken softly, came from the other side of the garden. The hinges of the garden gate, rusted by years of weather, creaked a warning, and silence descended on the trio like a death shroud. Once again they heard the odd sound: a sort of muted mewling that was nothing like the sound of Ernie’s bowels, or the bowels of any other person, come to that. It was something curiously common, but which no one could identify.
Three sets of eyes peered out from the hedgerow. Moving with a feline secrecy, a dark and heavily shadowed form was slinking along the garden path, wrapped in a long trench coat with the collar pulled up high and wearing a large fedora low upon its head. The figure was tall and thin and wraith-like: ominous, like the breath of death. The three confederates hunkered low and quiet and watchful. Ernie Stallworthy shifted position in readiness to pounce. He felt another urge to fart but bit his fist and held it in—the fart that is not his fist.
The figure inched its way along the path and toward the clothesline, which was strewn with washing left out to dry. A pair of undergarments, knickers and a brassiere, fluttered softly like autumn leaves. The wraith approached them on whispering heels. With guilty and furtive glances the trench-coated shape moved closer to the underwear, his fingers hovering in front of him as if he were a thief in the night. For a moment time stood still, reflecting the sudden hesitation in the tall stranger’s movements. The wind hushed softly as though holding its breath. The moon shone down reproachfully. Even the grass of the lawn seemed to cease all movement, and then, as though unable to control himself any longer, the famed Fekenham knicker thief stole forward with hands outstretched.
As he did so, two things happened: a strange rustling came from further over in the garden, followed yet again by that odd bleating, and, at the same time, the privet hedge bustled, and the Brigadier, Stallworthy, and Clapp blundered out from its dark sanctuary. They moved with the singular, slow-motion action of a retarded tortoise. The Brigadier was the swiftest, but his aging joints betrayed his formidable will-power, taking valuable time as he creaked forward, slowly building up speed. Stallworthy was the fastest, but tripped over his own feet, farted again, and fell in front of Clapp, who, tripping in an ungainly manner over Stallworthy’s prostrate form, fell headlong into the mystery man’s midsection. With a whooshing sound, like air escaping from a punctured balloon, or a bagpipe, the man fell onto his knees. The Brigadier, joints now functioning, leapt upon the vile varmint and pulled his head up into the moon’s glow.
“I knew it!” he barked. “It’s you. You are the Fekenham knicker thief!”
Major Lillycrap, through misted eyes and gasping lungs, unable to speak due to having the wind head butted out of him, looked every bit the guilty party.
Over by the vicarage, a frustrated Seamus Fliphook tried once again knocking at the door. There was no answer. The lights were out both literally and very possibly with regard to the vicar. Knowing the volumes of whisky that Linkthorpe consumed, Seamus assumed the man to be so drunk as not to be able to hear his own door knocker.
Taking a pen and a scrap of paper from his pocket Fliphook wrote a note which he then folded and thrust through the vicarage letterbox.
The message on the note read…
I KNOW WHO YOUR DAUGHTER IS.
The following morning, after a swift hair of the dog to chase the headache away, the vicar spotted the note. Utterly perplexed as to why someone would write such a message was beyond Elvis Linkthorpe. Surely everyone in the village knew he had never married and had no offspring?
Major Vivian Lillycrap was arrested by PC Updike, cautioned and put into the village jail whereupon he protested his innocence and demand a lawyer be sent for. Sergeant Wheelspin, forever one to do things by the book, put a call into Mayhew, Mayhew and Hust. Personally he thought Lillycrap guilty and deserved a good thumping but modern-day practise denounced such action.
For now the Major was detained at her Majesty’s pleasure.