A short story by Matt Wingett
‘Observe the way in which the victim is holding the napkin, Jenkins,’ said The Legend, drawing on his meerschaum as they stood over a corpse that lay sprawled in a grime-filled alley half-lit by the lambent glow of gaslight. ‘What does it tell you?’
Sergeant Jenkins turned his dull brown eyes toward his senior officer, his internal blankness seeping out across his face.
‘That he wanted to wipe his mouth, Sir?’ said the other, sighing. He was painfully aware of being in the presence of Portsmouth Constabulary’s finest. A man of infinite imagination, who knew exactly how to piece together the evidence to create what he valued most: The Incriminating Narrative.
The Legend smiled superciliously as he peered at the napkin.
‘Really Jenkins, have you learned nothing from your time with me?’ he asked in that superior way he had that turned his Sergeant’s face to puce, adding insult to injury by poking him rhythmically in the chest with his pipe stalk in time with his words. ‘Here we stand at the start of the 20th Century, and still your mind remains unreceptive to the sensitivities of my Narrative Method.’
The Narrative Method. With it, The Legend had solved the most baffling crimes. For example, The Case of the Disappearing Dockyard Donkey. The Legend had shown, through the construction of an elaborate narrative that its disappearance had been initiated by a gentleman with a hare lip, angered at his rejection by society. This hare-lipped gentleman had arranged a meeting with a one-legged Russian, the pair concocting a plan that had somehow involved the Donkey’s abduction…
‘Or something,’ Sergeant Jenkins thought, his brow creasing to a distressed furrow as he tried to remember the tortuous narrative The Legend had devised to explain the Dockyard Donkey’s Disappearance.
The case had caused a sensation in the Portsmouth Times, and The Legend had taken great pleasure in declaring to its editor on the High Street his famous dictum:
‘The Narrative Method is that by which the investigator weaves strands of gossamer to produce a web in which the villain is captured more surely than any spider apprehends its fly.’
The hare-lipped Donkey thief and Russian monopod had spirited the creature away at night by hot air balloon, The Legend had expatiated. Enquiries showed the co-conspirators to be living beyond the British Empire’s jurisdiction, somewhere in Northern France. The Donkey’s whereabouts remained unknown.
The case had filled many a column-inch and many an advertiser had advertised because of it. Indeed the Donkey’s owner had become something of a minor celebrity as the victim of such a bizarre crime. So, when Sergeant Jenkins spotted the submerged undersides of four hooves pointed at the sky, and beneath that the bloated corpse of a donkey, right near to where the Donkey had Disappeared, it was declared by all parties concerned that this donkey was not the Donkey, but another donkey.
Investigation showed that this donkey had bitten through its halter and fallen off the wharf in the night.
‘Upon a barrowload of bibles, I’ve never seen that donkey before in my life,’ the Disappeared Donkey’s owner declared fervently.
‘This definitely isn’t the Donkey. Obviously,’ The Legend confirmed, his superior tone quelling all dissent.
So, with the solving of one mystery, that of the Disappearing Donkey, another was born. The Appeared Donkey’s appearance to this day remains an unsolved mystery.
In the alleyway, Sergeant Jenkins huffed as he remembered the Donkey case. Who was he to gainsay his boss? The Mayor of Portsmouth himself had congratulated The Legend on the affair. And the Mayor paid Jenkins’s wages.
The Sergeant realised, with a sinking feeling he was going to be forced to have another crack at the Narrative Method, which he always seemed to get wrong.
He regretted that this was because his own father had been a man of little imagination.
‘You’ve read one book, you’ve read them all,’ the Old Man had told once told him. Taking him at his word Jenkins had decided to read them all; Charles Dickens’s Hard Times being the one he chose. Gradgrind, that humourless individual who knew the danger of imagination was the character he most identified with.
Asked his opinion of the book by The Legend, Jenkins had replied: ‘Mercifully short, Sir.’ At the same time, he was pleased he had mastered all of English Literature in such a brief span.
As he was bid, Jenkins stepped up to the body and studied the napkin closely. There was a crumb upon it, and a little smear of grease, along with the faint smell of stale beer.
He looked along the street. The body was not three hundred yards from The Mystery – a public house of dubious reputation. There was a deep dent in the top of the man’s skull where someone had stoved in his brains.
In a flash, he saw a sequence of images moving in his mind like a play. Was this the elusive Narrative Method The Legend so often quoted? He decided to unfold his story to The Legend and see what he thought.
‘Well, the way I see it, Sir… um… bear with me,’ he straightened and cleared his throat. ‘H-hm. The unidentified man having had a beer and perhaps…’ He knelt again and sniffed at the man’s greasy fingers. ‘Perhaps a lamb chop smothered in gravy, wandered out here in the night, where he was set upon by an assailant or assailants unknown, using -’ he leapt across the path to a pile of discarded newspapers in a corner of the alley and drawing a pen from out of his pocket, inserted it into the neck of a heavy stoneware bottle protruding from the pile. He lifted it victoriously. On one side it was spattered with a crusted, sticky substance darkening to black, but still showing its original colour – blood red. ‘Yes – using this empty blood-smeared ginger beer bottle as a weapon, Sir!’ Jenkins said, with some genuine pride. ‘Now, Sir, how’s that?’
The Legend drew himself to his full height and looked down on his short, whiskered Sergeant, his expression difficult to divine. He kept his narrowed eyes on Jenkins for a few moments longer as he considered the scenario he’d presented.
‘Excellent. Excellent, Jenkins,’ he said with a flat, ironic tone that made Jenkins stiffen. He knew that tone. It was the one that preceded the one word he found the most infuriating when it issued from The Legend’s lips. That word was –
‘However,’ The Legend continued, ‘There are one or two things you appear to have overlooked.’
‘Sir?’ said the Sergeant, a sinking feeling taking hold of him again. ‘Really Sir?’
‘Indeed. You will recall, Jenkins, that I asked you to inspect the napkin still clasped in the dead man’s hands. You will notice by the way it is folded that it was prepared for the table by a left-handed person. I wrote a monogram on the folding of napkins by left-handed people, and this fold conforms exactly to the Belgrade Variation. Furthermore, the angle at which pressure was applied to the napkin and the nature of the fold reveals a person of diminutive stature.’
‘Diminutive stature, Sir?’
‘Correct, Jenkins. Now observe the twisted lip this man has developed. A sure sign of snake venom. The man who poisoned the unfortunate victim used a venom drawn from the fangs of the krait, perhaps the world’s most deadly of snakes, revealing that the murderer has spent years in the subcontinent of India. In sum, we are seeking a left-handed travelling Serbian dwarf well versed in the art of poisoning. I believe that if you search the local hostelries -’ he broke off for a moment, perplexed by Jenkins’s behaviour. ‘By the way, what are you doing with that bottle?’
Jenkins was carefully wrapping the stoneware bottle in a sheet of waxed paper he had drawn from his pocket.
‘Keeping it as a reminder, Sir,’ he replied. ‘Of your brilliance, Sir.’
‘Ah, very good,’ replied The Legend.
‘By the way, you don’t think that asking the police to find a well-travelled Serbian dwarf with a pet snake might be a bit of a tall order, Sir? If you will excuse the pun?’
The Legend was about to answer when, to Jenkins’s surprise, a short man in a wide-sleeved shirt and baggy trousers distinctly reminiscent of the style worn in Eastern Europe emerged from a house nearby. In his hand he held a small wooden cage from which a hissing sound proceeded.
‘Seize him Jenkins!’
Called to act, Jenkins never let the Constabulary down. He leapt towards the Serbian his truncheon drawn, only to find that The Legend had done exactly the same. A struggle ensued, in which Jenkins and The Legend sought to disentangle themselves from each other. In the mean time, the sawn-off Serb made his getaway, through the dark and noisome streets of Old Portsmouth.
Jenkins was still ready to fly after the fugitive, but The Legend dulled his keenness with an angry look, poking him violently in the chest with his pipe stalk again.
‘It’s no good Sergeant, Serbian dwarves are renowned for their fleetness of foot! By this time he’ll be halfway to Timbuktu. – And damn it, my pipe has broken!’ – he added as the stalk cracked under the repeated impact with the Sergeant’s uniform.
‘Very good, Sir.’
The Legend threw the pipe on the ground and glared imperiously at Jenkins.
‘All that remains is for you to contact the newspapers to describe how I have solved yet another case -’
‘- And how yet another villain has got away, Sir,’ Jenkins said with narrowed eyes, a shade of puce once again around them.
‘Well, we can’t get them every time.’ The Legend answered.
‘Just once would be gratifying,’ Jenkins muttered under his breath as he stooped to lift something from the ground.
Several weeks later, in response to a knock at his door, The Legend called ‘Enter,’ in his imperious way. He was not surprised to see Sergeant Jenkins standing in the doorway, as he had done countless times before. He was holding a sheet of paper.
‘Sir, I wonder if you would take a look at this.’
Two large smudges filled with lines and whorls could be seen on the sheet.
‘What is this?’ The Legend asked, impatiently.
‘New information, Sir,’ Jenkins replied. ‘Regarding the Case of the Left Handed Serbian Dwarf Poisoner. Not that he poisoned dwarves, you understand, Sir.’
‘Well, what are these?’
‘Fingerprints, Sir,’ replied Jenkins with a flat, respectful voice. In reply to The Legend’s questioning look, he explained: ‘Impressions left by the hands on the objects they touch, Sir. A new method of identification used to track down criminals. Have you not heard of it?’
‘I have not.’
‘I thought not, Sir. What with you concentrating so much on the Narrative Method. Fingerprints are proving most effective in tracking down villains. Because you see, Sir, everybody’s fingerprint is unique.’
The Legend’s eyes bulged as his Sergeant went on: ‘So, for example, Sir, were one to test for fingerprints something one knows a person has held, and compare those fingerprints with a piece of evidence a felon has held, one could safely deduce that if those prints were the same, then the people who held both objects were in point of fact one and the same person, too.’
‘Very interesting, Jenkins, but -’
Jenkins cut him off with an impatient, raised hand.
‘It appears, Sir, that the person who held the ginger beer bottle we found at the scene, which a pathologist has confirmed fits exactly into the depression in the skull of our deceased man was the same person who held the pipe you so petulantly threw on the floor at the murder scene. After poking me in the chest with it. Quite a lot. Sir. In fact, Sir, it would seem that you and the bottle-wielder share an identity. Your identity, Sir, that is,’ he added, explanatorily.
‘Further enquiries reveal that a small foreign herpetologist witnessed you smashing the poor drunken victim over the head in a fit of rage because the sot wouldn’t step out of your way. And it appears the Serbian ran for it when he saw you because he realised you were a police officer and would try, as the common parlance has it, to fit him up, Sir.’
Sergeant Jenkins paused for a moment and drew himself to his full height, as The Legend froze, stock-still behind his leather-covered desk.
‘I am beginning to realise after years under your brilliant tuition, Sir, that murder does not usually happen because of a great narrative. No, Sir, quite the opposite. In most cases, murder is devoid of imagination. That’s why I am going to call my new approach to crime, Sir, The Gradgrind Method. In deference to you Sir, and your wonderful stories.’
‘Oh, and by the way, Sir. You are under arrest,’ said the Sergeant with a degree of satisfaction. ‘For murder. Sir.’