A Little Local Affair by John Barber - Read Online
A Little Local Affair
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Summary

The strange circumstances of Alan Price’s death in a car crash is just the first in a series of bizarre events in the town of Fordhamton. DI Harley is not convinced that it was suicide. As his investigations continue he finds that although no one actually liked Alan Price no one was desperate enough to want him dead. In fact most people had more to gain whilst he was alive. Price’s ex-wife stands to lose her inheritance, his business fails and the staff are flung into unemployment, the Football Club faces extinction; and a by-election for a Town Council seat has to be called which no one wants to contest. Harley is forced to accept the unwelcome assistance of the emotionless DC Davis but has to admit that Davis has his own individual way of getting results. Price’s death leads to some unusual sexual and political relationships in town between people who would not normally speak to each other. The detectives become spectators in the bars and coffee shops, watching silently as more than one conspiracy begins to flourish. Their problem is unscrambling exactly what it is the various townspeople are plotting, or hiding form the investigation. Petty vandalism, arson and a dead American Private Investigator just make the situation more confused but it is the cold Davis who finds a solution that surprises everybody. A few of the characters use a strange mix of working class slang and English colloquialisms which some overseas readers might find puzzling. This is intended to add to the authentic local charm of a small middle English town as the large cast of residents act out their lives and loves through these pages.

Published: John Barber on

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A Little Local Affair - John Barber

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Part One

Chapter One – California, USA

Rusty Allen had completed another gruelling tour and it was good to be back in San Jose. His apartment was bigger than one man needed but Rusty Allen was one of those men for whom everything had to be that much bigger.

He woke this morning unusually thirsty. He took the jug of purified water from out of the fridge and drank a full glass. Then he poured another measure of the cool, clear water. He felt better; then without warning the most excruciating cramps began to tighten his stomach walls. Like a tall, forest pine sliced by the axe he first shivered and then crashed to the floor convulsed with pain.

He awoke a full twenty four hours later in a hospital bed. The nursing staff assured him that he would make a full recovery; there had been no permanent damage. But something didn’t feel right. He pushed down the sheets. And screamed!

Chapter Two – Fordhamton, England

Over five thousand miles away in the middle of the English countryside Alan Price was keeping his lunchtime engagement.

The Crazy Horse Hotel in the small village of Greenwich had two bars, a cocktail bar and a dining room all with authentic wooden beams, and a chef who had enjoyed brief fame on Breakfast TV.

Unfortunately it was the only surviving business in Greenwich. During the summer families drove from miles around to enjoy the chef’s specials, and on special occasions such as Mothers Day or Easter. In winter it echoed to the voices of a few locals.

The new management couple had hit upon a unique means of maximising income. They offered a special rate ‘dirty weekend’. It was so popular even couples that had been happily married for years giggled as they signed the register ‘Mr and Mrs John Smith’. An overnight ‘Away from it all’ break was even more popular although many couples found pressing reasons for having to leave only hours after arriving and had to forgo the full English breakfast that was included in the price.

Ronnie Carroll, one half of the new partnership had an empty pint glass in his hand. Usual?

Thanks. Alan Price watched silently as the bitter flowed into the glass with that satisfying, squelching sound. He had just raised the pint to the level of his lips when his mobile rang. He barked at the phone without reply.

Mobiles are useless here, remarked Ronnie. No signal. You remember last year when that mobile phone company wanted to hide an aerial in a lamp post on the Rutherford Road ….

Course I bloody well remember, interrupted Alan. I especially remember that bunch of philistines in green wellies who smeared the thing with dog shit. None of them even lived here. And I bet that every one of those tree huggers had a mobile stuffed down their back pocket.

His lunchtime guest sat by the window listening, but making no comment. Alan brought her orange juice to their table and managed a few sips of his pint before the Tabs latest hit piped through his mobile again. He moved up and down the bar, turning anti-clockwise in ever increasing circles. Finally by the table where the cutlery was cocooned in serviettes and cruet sets stood on silent guard, he heard a familiar voice.

Bloody bad reception, bellowed Alan.

Can't hear you, Alan. In a tunnel?

You're breaking up.

I'll keep it simple, Alan.

Just keep it simple then.

...Important I speak...

Speak a bit louder then; you sound as if you’ve got a mouth full of cotton wool.

Get back...

Where to?

Shit really hit fan if you don't……..

Don't what?

…..take you to the cleaners…….

Who will?

Just ring me will you.

No need to be bloody rude. Alan forced the mobile back into his inside jacket pocket. The caller had signed off.

No bloody signal, raged Alan.

Unlike many local people Ronnie was not overawed by Alan Price. He didn't have to like the man to take his money. On the other hand he was never rude to his face. You can borrow the land line.

But Alan Price had stormed away and ignored him.

What was all that about? asked Alan’s female companion.

Alan Price was a stocky, muscular man. He wore gold on his fingers and silk on his skin. He owned Price's Tools, a plastics manufacturing company on the Diesel Park West Industrial Estate. He was a Town Councillor and Life President of Fordhamton Town Football Club. His company's logo was prominently emblazoned on all the teams shirts and training kit. Unfortunately, the financial health of the President ran counter to the club’s position at the foot of the KYM Mazelle Windows and Double Glazing, Clyde Valley and District League, Division 2 (East).

Nothing to worry you, replied Alan. He could see that the other was not convinced. The country’s going to the dogs. No mobile signal here, postmen on strike and interest rates about to rise. Tell me, why would anyone want to live in this country?

It’s the same wherever you go. Do you travel much Alan?

There’s too much to keep me busy here.

You know what they say about Jack and too much work.

Alan Price was about to answer when his phone rang again. He tried unsuccessfully to speak to the caller and returned to the table. He picked up his pint and took two long mouthfuls.

I'll ring from the office. Mobile's useless here, he added. It sounds important. Sorry, I have to go. If you can make that phone call I’d appreciate it.

Alan Price was a headstrong and impatient man. He was unaware of how rude his actions were. His companion’s comments as he made for the car park were lost on him, but they were not those of the lady he believed she was.

She started to punch in a number on her mobile for a taxi but Ronnie Carroll offered her the pub's landline.

The caller was Patrick Shelton and whatever was troubling Patrick sounded too urgent on the phone to delay.

His factory was on the other side of town and as he sped towards Fordhamton a satisfied grin never left his face. He made money, he was rich and no one liked him for being wealthy. There were those who thought him a cocky little upstart. He knew who they were, but they never said it to his face. Like the opinionated Mayor, and the shrewish Regan woman.

It is the nature of small English towns and villages that everyone is related to everyone else by family, marriage or business. Alan Price was no different and he knew how to get his own way; it gave him a buzz.

Then a sudden, strange feeling came over him. Bugger! was all he could say as he squeezed down on the accelerator just a fraction more.

Alan Price lived life in the fast lane but most other residents in the town of Fordhamton went about their normal business at a more leisurely pace. For one shopkeeper however, declining trade and advancing years had finally won.

Bobby Lord picked up the 'Sold' sign attached to a substantial part of Gladys Mills' splintered fascia. He knocked off the surplus wood and climbed back up his ladder that had been resting against the ironmonger's front wall.

Bobby worked as a part-time handyman for Jonathan King’s Estate Agency. He was a little, wizened man who wore ragged trousers and just a white singlet in summer and winter. Once again he nailed in the board, tugged on it to ensure that this time it was properly secured, descended the ladder and threw the claw hammer into the back of his rust ravaged pick-up.

Alex Harvey smiled. He stood at his bedroom window opposite and watched the ancient conveyance shudder into life and jerk along the High Street, leaving a trail of white and grey vapour in its wake. I wonder what bloody fool's bought that place, he thought.

He lived above 'Teargas', a specialist shop selling collectable vinyl, pop memorabilia, guitars and other souvenirs from the golden days of rock.

Cream Radio was playing the fading chorus of the Tabs latest chartbuster, 'Wanna Havva Partee Babee'. Alex had little interest in the latest of a long line of girl groups spawned from reality TV and turned it off.

Through dreamy ears half awake to the dawn he had heard the postman's knock. How did Allan Smethurst get up so early in the morning? Why was he always singing, and why always out of tune? He put the post on the kitchen table. It would wait.

He used to have the papers delivered but delivery boys always left them hanging halfway out of the letterbox on which passing dogs on lengthy leads attached to early morning walkers, felt compelled to relieve themselves. That was one reason Alex collected his papers from Ray Charles’ newsagents across the road. Ray’s daughter Melanie was the other. Alex realised he was once again staring at her extremely large breasts. He felt himself redden.

Fortunately the large growth of facial hair masked the reddening in Alex's cheeks. He shifted his attention to the front page of the Guardian.

Who's bought Glad's place then? asked Melanie. The pink cotton crop top fought to restrain her curves as she reached upwards to refill the top row of the cigarette cabinet. Be nice to get a new face in town.

It will be an old one and be gone just as soon as her husband decides he can't afford to carry on supporting what is essentially an expensive hobby.

You're a cynic, Alex.

Alex didn't answer. Melanie added the paper to Alex's account. He went out of the newsagents and looked upwards. Bobby Lord's efforts at attaching the 'Sold' board next door had turned the ironmongers into 'F ills Hard'.

Alex watched through the bolted front door as Gladys Mills sealed another box of plumbing accessories, and thinking no more of Melanie's optimistic comment left her to continue packing. The future remained a closed book to him; his work, his hobby, his career were all in the past.

And so it might have remained but for the grey suited office clerk who joined him at Gladys Mills’ window. The other opened his briefcase and took a lime green sheet of A4 paper with its official looking Council logo in the top corner and fixed it to the window with a roll of sellotape from his coat pocket.

Alex had seen quite a few planning notices and his gaze went straight to the most interesting line of all. ‘Oh dear," he said to himself and for the second time that morning a broad smile lit up his face.

The traffic that once clogged Fordhamton's main thoroughfare now flowed smoothly on the bypass. Every now and then a juggernaut edged its way through town having missed the sign that would have steered them away from the narrow High Street. The metal plate had been twisted back to front by a wide load.

In keeping with most other days Alex ambled across the High Street with no expectation of being hit by a passing vehicle. It was a little early for lunch and too late for breakfast. Alex had little respect for the ticking of clocks. His footsteps took him back across the road and into The Horse With No Name, situated next door to Teargas.

On the walls and from the ceiling were hung coaching horns, brass pans and kettles, prints of scenes from the Pickwick Papers, faded menus and wooden farming implements. They were a constant reminder of happier days. Occasional drinkers would admire the shining brasses and polished wood for a few moments then leave to continue their journey.

Alex acknowledged the two hairdressers sitting on the bench by the bay window, where the foliage from a cluster of potted plants tumbled untidily over the sill and onto the leather clad seat.

Why were all the hairdressers in Fordhamton closed on Mondays? He once joked about opening another salon in town called 'Never on a Monday'; people thought he was serious and he never mentioned the subject again.

Bill Withers was tall, broad and drank his own beer. Alex never drank in pubs where the landlord never drank his own beer. Alex rarely moved outside of town.

A few months ago this place was packed lunchtimes. Almost all the trade was reps 'passing through'. I was out there shouting at some stupid bastard to stop parking on the grass.

Alex wondered if the existence of a red faced publican with ginger moustache was mentioned at annual sales conferences, or downloaded from travelling salesmen’s blogs, along with the best hotels and unmapped short cuts that were not updated on to the obligatory satellite navigation system.

Alex stuck his nose in his pint. He had heard it all before, like a favourite record that had been badly scratched. He offered to buy them both another pint. The offer was gratefully accepted. He looked at the grandfather clock, squeezed between the gents and the dartboard. It was three minutes past one. Make it three, said Alex.

The froth had just settled when Dave Edmunds walked in. March was young and pleasantly mild but beads of sweat cascaded from Dave's temples and forehead. His face glistened.

Dave eased his enormous frame on to a stool. Fat stubby fingers concealed the beer glass. Need this, he groaned. Four staff short. I hate Mondays.

Dave was Assistant Manager at the Fordhamton branch of the Hues Corporation. They were now the only Banking group to have a presence in town. All the other financial institutions had pulled out of this and most other countryside branches and offered thousands of staff a career change opportunity. The premises had been sold on to chains of coffee bars, or hairdressers or bored housewives needing space in which to sell their discounted job lots of designer dresses.

When I joined the Bank it was considered a job for life. No way, José. They call it economies of scale but I know what it means. Staff cuts. Some bugger in the Community Service Sector actually used the word 'downsizing' to me. I thought he was talking about my weight.

Dave took large gulps of his beer in between phrases. I didn't join this Bank to end up cashiering on a Monday morning.

The ornamental waterfall on Dave's forehead had dried up, but as he slid out of his jacket he exposed the ominous damp patches forming under his armpits.

Monday mornings are just the same as all the others, intoned the gloomy landlord as he waved goodbye to the two hairdressers. Take Glad Mills. Who's going to take that shop on? If I wanted a couple of six inch nails in a hurry, or a hose clip, or just to borrow a plunger to unblock the ladies loos then Glad would have it. Didn't have to buy the stuff in multipacks at the cash and carry. And now she's gone.

Alex was about to tell the other two his news but was interrupted.

Pint when you're ready, prompted Dave, who had been patiently waving his empty glass under the publican's eye.

The others declined. It was still only one fifteen. Bill poured him another pint of Barclays Harvest Bitter just as Roger Miller arrived. And one for Roger.

Before anyone could exchange a word of greeting Roger took a long draught of his pint, wiped his mouth and planted both hands firmly on the bar with elbows straightened.

I had Alan Price in earlier, he began, inviting the rest into his private world. A word in your ear Roger, he says. A bullet in the brain would be more appropriate, continued Roger, taking another long drink.

He was in his late forties and wore handmade suits and plain shirts; his hair was regularly trimmed by his wife Elaine who used to work as a hairdresser in town before Roger opened the T.V. shop, a couple of years before his expansion into computers and software and then mobile phones.

In the brief hiatus whilst the others took a sip of beer, Dave Edmunds let out a heavy sigh. Local politics were as tedious as Head Office Marketing manuals; and he had little respect for Alan Price either. What's the time?

Alex looked down at Dave's empty pint. Twenty to two, he replied, and glanced at the grandfather clock. He was right. Dave drank at three pints to the hour; his lunchtime habits were as precise as the pubs prized timepiece.

Pint? asked Dave. They all agreed but Roger offered to pay.

They nodded and each raised a fresh pint of Barclays Harvest Bitter to their lips. Dave was about to say something, but his words were choked by a screech of rubber and the sickening explosion of disintegrating metal.

An articulated lorry covered in the logos and labels of all the beer and spirit brands of the Amsterdam and Mersey Brewery had missed the bypass. It had slowed down to negotiate the narrow High Street but not slow enough for Alan Price, who hit it head on at fifty miles an hour and was killed outright.

Bloody good riddance, said Roger later.

Patrick Shelton waited in vain for Alan Price to call. It was too late now to do anything about Alan's investments and the businesses and people affected by them. By the time most people had eaten their evening meal, all the world knew of the crisis at Apollo Health Foods. The problems at a company in a southern state of America were to affect residents in Fordhamton who had never even heard of Apollo Health Foods, and would rather forget the day that they did.

Chapter Three

So, what we got? Detective Inspector Steve Harley of the Area Murder Team called over the young sergeant. He was standing at the beginning of Fordhamton High Street; a long stretch of houses set back from the roadside interrupted occasionally by driveways or a B-road that took the local traffic to one of the many villages that dotted the countryside around the ever expanding townscape.

Local businessman by the name of Price. Came towards the T-junction there at some rate of knots … straight into the side of the lorry. Wallop!! No chance.

Do you know him?

Only by reputation guv. Local councillor, got a business on the Industrial Estate at the other end of this High Street. He puts most of his cash into the local football team. He had a reputation as a bit of a Jack the Lad.

Likeable bloke?

It didn’t do to not like him, if you get my drift.

So what is it? Drink?

Liked a drink apparently.

So desperate for a drink he hurled himself at a lorry loaded full of booze?

What’s your interest in this guv?

Harley replied with a wry smile. No one else available. I’m a spare part these days waiting for a posting back to town.

Steve Harley was a London man. He was at home in the fast paced capital. Ever since his temporary posting to the rural team he had felt like a guest at a midday cocktail party dressed in last nights clothes. His suits were always a little crumpled and shirts rarely pressed, worn straight from the washing machine. He was tall and fitted his clothes but they didn’t fit the countryside. He shaved every other day; acceptable in some parts of the force but not in the civilised social circles of Fordhamton and its comfortable hamlets

Anything else, apart from the fact he’s a known face about these parts?

Well, there is this sir. Waiting for the experts to turn up but I’ve seen a few of these sort of things before and it don’t quite add up.

Sergeant Jim Sullivan a big man who filled his uniform as if had been made to measure for him escorted Steve Harley back from the crumpled remains of Alan Price’s BMW and down the B road from where the car had sped.

The thing is guv, no rubber from his tyres on the road.

I heard they found ginger marks.

Where? replied a quizzical Sullivan.

In your pants. Harley laughed. Sullivan assumed that is was some kind of private joke amongst the murder squad. He was right. You’re a bit too young son. Famous killing back in the sixties. Some geezer finally admitted to it but everyone thought the Krays left Tommy known as ‘Ginger’ Marks holding up the M1 in a concrete overcoat. Turns out he was dumped in the North Sea. Never found him though.

As you say guv, before my time. Sullivan carried on walking. If you saw a forty foot articulated lorry ahead you’d slam on the anchors wouldn’t you. Price did the opposite.

You think he was a suicide jockey?

Why top yourself when you’ve got a big house and money in the Bank?

It’s not always what it seems son. Who knows what goes on inside some people’s minds? Did the driver have anything else to say?

That’s funny as well. He was slowing down. Realised he should have been on the by-pass but his satnav was out of date and he missed it; so he was taking it easy through the approach to the town. It used to be the main route north and south. That’s why they put the by-pass in. So this driver saw Price coming at him and swears that Price was shouting something at him.

Anything useful?

He thought it looked like ‘get out of my bloody way’

Then he puts his foot down and drives straight into a forty foot lorry.

That’s about it sir.

Where had he been? Do you know?

Not much around here. Only small villages or what’s left of them and a few local pubs.

Where does this road lead to?

Small little village called Greenwich.

I’ll take a drive.

Harley drove down the uneven country lane, with the loose surface occasionally being squirted from under the car’s tyres until at the sign that denoted the beginning of Greenwich the ride became smoother, courtesy of the property developer whose desirable apartments and country houses lined the approach to the village. He slowed down at the sign indicating the twenty mile an hour speed limit and noticed the idiosyncratic eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture of the old village in comparison to the standard design of the modern developments that guarded the approach.

He parked outside the Crazy Horse Hotel and stepped into the reception area. A late middle aged man with thick black hair welcomed him.

What can I get you sir?

Nothing for me. Just information. Steve showed the manager his warrant card.

I suppose you want to know about Alan Price?

How did you know that? He’s only been dead a few hours.

It may be quiet round here but news travels fast; especially the interesting sort.

You knew him?

Everyone knew him.

But not everyone liked him. Did you?

I’m the hotel owner and manager, Inspector, said Ronnie Carroll very matter-of-factly. I like everybody. Until they walk out of the door.

Did he drink here much?

Occasionally. In fact he was here only a few hours ago.

Had he drunk much?

That’s the odd thing, said Ronnie Carroll. You sure you don’t want a drink? On the house.

I’ll have a tomato juice with all the trimmings, celery salt if you’ve got it and I’ll pretend it’s full of vodka. Harley followed Ronnie Carroll into the smallest bar to the right of the reception desk, the same bar in which a little earlier Alan Price had been drinking with his guest.

Ronnie busied himself mixing Steve’s drink whilst the latter glanced around the bar. Quiet this time of day is it?

Quiet most times of day now. No one lives here much, they have to chase work elsewhere and the newcomers well, you don’t see much of them until late evening or weekends.

So you’d remember Alan Price being here. Regular was he?

Not what I’d call a regular; neither what you’d call a local either. He liked to drink here. Out of the way you see.

No I don’t see, replied the increasingly irritable Inspector who did not enjoy the slow pace of country life. He was looking forward to a return to an inner city where spades were called spades and not used as agricultural implements.

He liked to do business here.

Harley understood this to be a local euphemism. So was he by himself this afternoon?

No he wasn’t. He met a lady here. Hardly spoke much until he left.

Steve Harley drained his juice. So she left with him?

Look, everyone will tell you Price was an arrogant, rude and self centred man. Successful but never went to any charm school. He got a message on his mobile and left. Sudden like.

What happened to the woman?

She rang for a cab. On the landline. No signal round here. They tried putting an aerial in a lamp column but ……

Harley was not interested in local communication problems. He cut the landlord short. No way to treat a lady is it?

I see it all here. Nothing surprises me. People get on with their own lives and I get on with mine; as long as they spend a bit of time and their money here and don’t give me bother why should I bother them?

I’m more of a town man myself. Goes on a lot does it, round here? Hanky panky, bit on the side?

"Unlike in your job Inspector I