If, after reading this, you want more, there is a link at the end.
Albert frowned, his face creasing as he began poking about. Petunia’s collection of engagement, wedding, and eternity rings were not where they always sat on her dressing table. They were there yesterday, weren’t they? How could they go missing?
Rex wandered into his human’s bedroom, wagging his tail lazily from side to side until he caught the scent of the cat. The unwelcome scent meant the cat had been in here again. He’d caught it sitting on his human’s bed just yesterday, but this wasn’t the lingering smell from then, this was fresh. He jumped up to put his front paws on the bed, sniffing along the cover to find the spot it had occupied.
‘Down, Rex,’ commanded his human, a kindly old man whose nose was just as unused as all others of his species. So far as Rex was concerned, humans were fun to be around, but also intensely frustrating as they ran around using their eyes and ears, when the information was right there if they would just sniff it in.
Albert stared at the dressing table again, moving things around until he spotted the glint of gold. There they were, he signed with relief. His eldest grandson was planning to propose, he discovered yesterday. Martin was twenty-seven, a sensible age to be tying the knot, and though he hadn’t been asked, Albert wanted to offer the ring he bought Petunia when he asked for her hand. It was a two-carat diamond with a cluster of lesser diamonds around it. It cost a silly amount at the time; three months wages, if his memory served him correctly, but she had been worth every hard-earned penny.
His frown returned: the engagement ring wasn’t there. The eternity and wedding band were, but not the one he wanted. How had they come to move anyway? Turning to spy the dog, an oversized German Shepherd, who was now lifting the valance with his head as he looked under the bed, Albert said, ‘Rex!’ to get the dog’s attention. He raised his voice to see if he could make the dog jump and chuckled when he heard the animal knock his head against the underside of the bed.
Rex popped back out, a scowl on his face. He played tricks on his human regularly – looking under things until his human gave in and got on the carpet to see what he was looking at was a favourite. He fell for it every time, even though there was never anything there to look at. However, it simply wasn’t on for his human to get his own back.
‘Rex, have you been in here messing with things?’ asked Albert.
Rex raised one eyebrow. ‘It was the cat. Can you seriously not smell it? It smells like evil mixed with gone-off fish.’
Albert stared down at the dog, wondering what the odd whining/chuffing noises were all about. ‘Honestly, dog, I swear you are trying to answer me sometimes.’
Rex walked up to the dressing table and gave it a sniff. Then made a surprised face because there was visible cat fur among the items displayed. Looking up at his human, Rex would have shaken his head if he knew to do so.
A knock at the door disturbed them and Rex exploded into action. He loved when people came to the door. It was the unexpected element that triggered his excitement. Behind the door could be anyone! It could be the postman with a parcel, or one of his human’s children with his or her family; that was always fun. Or, it might be someone calling to see if Albert wanted to go to the pub. That happened sometimes. Forgetting the cat for a moment, Rex barked and ran, charging down the stairs to run at the door where he leapt up to place his front paws either side of the small frosted-glass window. A whiff of Old Spice cologne and moustache wax told him the person outside was the man from across the street.
Albert put the two rings into his trouser pocket as he made his way down to the front door. He had to fight Rex to get him out of the way, eventually shoving the daft dog back and holding his collar with one hand so he could open the door. The shadow outside proved to be Wing Commander Roy Hope, Albert’s neighbour from across the road.
Albert wasn’t expecting him, but the two men got on well and saw each other in church each week. Their wives had gone to school together and were friends their whole lives. Albert’s wife, Petunia, had been gone for most of a year now, and the couple across the street liked to check in on him semi-regularly. Albert greeted his caller. ‘Good morning, Roy.’
Roy wasn’t one for chit chat, especially not when he had a purpose. ‘I say, old boy, you’ve got a snooper.’
‘A what?’ said Albert, not sure he’d heard correctly.
‘A snooper,’ announced Roy again, speaking loudly as was his habit. However, he then leaned in close to whisper surreptitiously, ‘It’s that woman from number twenty-three. The odd-looking one who just moved in. She’s up to something,’ he concluded confidently.
Albert, a seventy-eight-year-old retired detective superintendent, was known by his children for poking his nose in when he thought a crime might be occurring, but he hadn’t noticed anything untoward about the new neighbour two doors down. ‘When you say snooping…’ Albert prompted Roy for more.
Roy wriggled his upper lip, an act which made his pure-white bushy moustache dance about. ‘She was looking through your windows, old boy. I saw her, blatant and bold as brass. Cupped her hands either side of her head and looked through your windows. Then she moved to a different spot. ‘I dare say she was casing the joint and getting ready to burgle you.’
Albert almost snorted a laugh. The lady in question was in her mid-twenties and chose to dress in a manner which residents of the village might think unusual or odd, as Roy chose to put it. She was an EMO, Albert thought, though he struggled to keep up with all the fashions and trends now. Her clothing was mostly black and had a ravaged look to it. Apparently, it could be bought like that, even though, to Albert’s mind, the wearer looked to have lost a fight with a tiger. The laugh which started to form, died when he remembered his wife’s missing engagement ring. ‘When was this?’ he asked.
‘Yesterday, old boy. And again this morning.’
Albert’s eyebrows made a bid for freedom, hiking up his forehead as they tried to reach the summit of his scalp. Leaning from his door and craning his neck around to look in the direction of her house, he said, ‘You say she was looking through my windows?’ The comment was made more to himself than to Roy. ‘I think I might need to find out who she is.’
Rex had been waiting patiently, but the scent of the cat was ripe on the air. Trained by the police to discern different smells, he’d qualified as a police dog only to be fired months later for having a bad attitude. The only dog in the history of the Metropolitan Police to ever get the sack, Rex had been loyal and obedient to his human handlers but despairing of their inability to use their olfactory systems to smell the clues. He generally worked out who the killer/robber/criminal was within minutes and got upset when the humans wouldn’t listen to him.
The cat had been in his house, and Rex was going to have a word with it.
‘Rex!’ shouted Albert as his dog ran across the front lawn and leapt the low hedge into his neighbour’s garden.
‘Won’t be a minute!’ barked Rex.
‘What’s got him so excited?’ asked Roy.
Albert muttered some expletives, ducking back into his house to snag the dog lead from its hook. Then, when Rex stopped at number twenty-three and started sniffing around the house, he saw an opportunity.
‘It would appear that I need to retrieve my dog,’ he announced as if orating to the back row of a theatre. He’d spotted something of interest already and had a legitimate reason to take a closer look.
‘You’re going over there, old boy?’ Roy wiggled his moustache, and set off too, ambling down the street with a sense of righteous purpose.
Rex would go into the house to find the cat if someone would open the door, but he could smell that the cat had been through the overgrown undergrowth at the front of the house in the last few minutes. That meant it might still be outside. He followed the smell to the side of the house where a tall wrought iron gate barred his progress.
He could hear his human calling his name. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed the old man and his friend with the facial hair coming to him. Heaven’s be praised, they understood for once: the cat needed to be taught a lesson.
He pawed the gate, making it clang as it moved, but it wouldn’t open. Frustrated, Rex peered into the dark space down the side of the house where the gate led to a path overgrown with more weeds and shaded by an out-of-control wisteria. The scent of the cat was rife now, though Rex couldn’t believe it when the evil feline wandered into view.
Rex barked his displeasure. The cat sat on its haunches and began to lazily lick a front paw. This was the first time Rex had seen it. Until now, all he got was the smell to let him know it had been in his garden and into his house, finding itself a comfortable place to sleep on his human’s bed – a place where Rex wasn’t allowed to go! The cat was missing its left eye, which gave it a hellish appearance when combined with the tattered left ear. Then Rex noticed the stumpy tail when the cat flicked it in an annoyed way.
Rex barked again, louder this time, letting the cat know what was in store if Rex caught it on his land again. The cat flicked its tail and sauntered away in an overly casual manner.
Albert and Roy arrived at the front of the property, opening the garden gate to proceed down the path to the door.
Seeing them, Rex barked, crouching his front end, and signalling as the police handlers had taught him. ‘It’s right down here! Open the gate and I’ll get it!’ Rex knocked the gate again with his skull, keen to get through it and teach the cat a swift lesson in humility.
From his front door, Albert could see an envelope dangling from the letterbox. Rex’s decision to go to the property gave him a perfect reason to see if the homeowner’s name was on it.
‘Why is he barking madly like that?’ asked Roy. He couldn’t see anything that would make the dog want to continue to bark.
Roy’s question gave Albert pause, his dismissive answer about the dog being bonkers dying on his lips as he observed Rex’s behaviour. Was he alerting? That’s what it looked like. He knew Rex’s background as a police dog. Albert’s three children were all serving senior police officers; a call to his youngest one was all it took to scoop one of many dogs who failed the training. He only found out afterwards that he’d been duped and given a problem dog who passed the training but then couldn’t be managed.
Whatever the case, Rex was displaying behaviour he’d seen before in other police dogs. If he were interpreting it correctly, his dog could smell one of three things: drugs, guns, or cash. ‘Rex, to me,’ he used his insistent voice and the dog complied.
‘It’s back there somewhere,’ Rex whined. ‘I’m not going to hurt it. I just want to make sure it doesn’t come into the house again.’
To Roy, Albert murmured, ‘I need to make a phone call.’
Albert stayed in his neighbour’s front garden confident his dog had made so much noise that there couldn’t be anyone home. Yet if someone did come to the door, Albert had a line prepared in his head about wanting to welcome their new neighbour in person. He plucked the envelope from the letterbox, fishing for his reading glasses only to discover he’d left them at home
Albert offered the letter to Roy with his left hand, using his right to dig around for his phone. ‘Can you read this and tell me what name is on the address?’
Thinking it likely the letter was for the previous resident since the new owner only just moved in, Albert was pleased when Roy said, ‘Ophelia James.’ The person in the house previously was Darren somethingorother.
The ringing in his ear stopped when his call was answered, the voice of his youngest son echoing loud and clear. ‘Hello, Dad.’
‘Are you at work?’ Albert asked, getting straight to the point – a trait he’d instilled in his children at an early age.
At the other end of the call, Chief Inspector Randall Smith pursed his lips. His dad didn’t call very often, and when he did, it tended to be because he wanted to know something he couldn’t find out for himself. ‘I am,’ Randall replied cautiously.
‘Super.’ Albert grinned at Roy and waggled his eyebrows. ‘Can you look up the name Ophelia James for me, please, son?’
Randall sighed. As he suspected, his father was poking his nose into someone’s business. It wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last, but helping him with information generally resulted in trouble. ‘I don’t think I should do that, dad.’
Albert’s smile froze. ‘Why ever not? I think I’m onto something, Randall.’
‘Like the time you thought the verger was sending poison pen letters?’ Randall reminded him.
‘He was sending them!’ snapped Albert. ‘He got arrested for it last week.’
This was news to Randall, not that he expected to hear of every crime committed in his home county; he worked in London after all. Nevertheless, he narrowed his eyes and questioned his father. ‘Are you making that up, dad?’
‘No! Patricia Fisher caught him. She’s got quite the nose for solving crime, that one. She should have gone into the police herself.’
Dismissing that line of conversation, Randall said, ‘Who is Ophelia James and what is it that you think she might have done?’
Albert thought about how to answer Randall’s question in such a way that his son would relent and use his computer to provide the information he wanted. He couldn’t think of anything though, so he just said, ‘She’s been looking through my windows and your mother’s engagement ring is missing. Also, Rex is alerting at her house so there might be drugs here. Or a body,’ Albert added quickly, thinking it might prompt his son to comply. ‘There’s definitely something going on and I just want you to check to see if she has a record.’
‘I’m sorry, Dad. I have an insurance scam case I need to crack. All my time has to be devoted to that.’
‘Insurance scam you say?’ Albert feigned interest, hoping to keep his son talking long enough to change his mind.
Randall groaned. ‘Yes, Dad. A person gets a call from a firm who sound real, has a website, and are offering a great introductory rate. They target older people a lot; it’s all very ugly and they can get away with people’s life savings. Anyway, there’s a new crew operating in this area and I’m getting a lot of pressure to catch them. If you don’t mind, Dad. I really need to get back to the investigation I am supposed to be leading.’
Albert could sense that further persistence would lead to an argument and he remembered being under pressure to produce a result. To end the call, he said, ‘Very good, Randall. I’m sure you’ll get them.’
Roy, who hadn’t heard the other half of the conversation, asked, ‘We are on our own?’
‘Very much,’ Albert grumbled. Skewing his lips to one side, he fished the rings from his pocket to show Roy. ‘My Petunia’s engagement ring is missing. Quite inexplicably missing,’ he added. ‘It was there the last time I looked, which might have been yesterday, but someone had disturbed the things on her dressing table, and they took her diamond engagement ring. I was planning to give it to my grandson if he wanted it.’
Roy narrowed his eyes at Mrs James’s front door. ‘And this woman has been snooping at your windows, old boy. I dare say there’s a connection.’
Rex listened to the exchange, pointing out each time either human paused that it was the cat they needed to speak to. They just weren’t listening, a human trait which had always irked him. The cat was here somewhere, possibly inside the house if the back door was open or it had one of those cat flap thingies.
He chose to investigate again since the humans were just standing around talking.
Albert was faced with a dilemma. Law abiding his entire life – he had to be, of course, but his wife’s ring was missing, and this woman had been looking through his windows. He reached a decision, stepping forward to rap his knuckles smartly on the doorframe.
‘You going to confront her, old boy?’ asked Roy, somewhat surprised by the escalation.
Albert turned his head to the side and spoke over his shoulder, ‘I’m going to introduce myself and ask if there was something she wanted. I can make out like I saw her outside my house. I’ll be the friendly neighbour, and we shall see how she responds. You can tell if a person is lying by what their eyes do,’ he told Roy knowingly.
He didn’t get to check out her eyes though because no one came to the door. He chose to try again, opting to use the heavy brass knocker on the door this time. However, when he lifted it, the door moved: it wasn’t closed, only pushed to. With the slightest tap of his index finger, the door moved two inches.
Rex got no luck at the side of the house, the cat hadn’t returned to taunt him from behind the gate, but when he looked back at the two humans, he saw they had the front door open. Rex had never really understood the concept of property: if he peed on it, it was his. Wasn’t that a simpler solution? Humans had all manner of strange rules about who could go where. Rex chose to ignore them because they made no sense, saw the chance to get his own back on the cat by invading the cat’s place which he intended to mark as his own once inside, and ran for the widening gap.
Albert never saw him coming, the dog streaking past his legs to fly inside the house. ‘Rex, no!’ he yelled, which had as much effect as throwing a spider web in front of a charging bull.
‘I know you’re in here, cat!’ barked Rex. ‘Let’s see how you like it! Where’s your favourite spot? I’ll be sure to mark that one!’
His human was shouting something discouraging – he often did. Rex, however, knew it was his job to keep the cat out of his human’s house and that was what he was going to do.
Dumbfounded on the doorstep, Albert grimaced at his friend the wing commander. ‘I’ve got to go after him. Heaven knows what damage he might do. The poor woman hasn’t even had a chance to settle in yet.’
‘It doesn’t look like she’s unpacked,’ observed Roy, peering through the now wide-open door at the boxes stacked against the walls.
From inside, they could hear Rex barking. Then a thump as the dog knocked something over. Albert swore and went into the house. He knew that by law he wasn’t technically breaking and entering. He didn’t have the homeowner’s permission, but the door was unlocked, and he would be able to argue that he felt it necessary to retrieve his dog. Another crashing noise propelled him across the threshold just in time to hear the squeal of a cat as it screeched somewhere deeper in the house.
‘Should we be in here, old boy?’ asked Roy, joining Albert inside the house.
Rex was barking insanely now, toward the back of the house and loud enough to alert people in the next village. The cat was spitting and hissing in return with just as much volume. Albert expected to find the cat backed into a space too small for his dumb, oversized German Shepherd to penetrate, but he didn’t get the chance to find out because the next thump was followed instantly by the sound of scrambling feet as the cat ran and the dog chased.
Albert and Roy were in the narrow hallway that ran alongside the stairs when the cat rounded the corner ahead of them, leaning into the bend and running for all it was worth. It’s much lower centre of gravity ensured it could turn quicker than the dog, which appeared about a heartbeat later, slamming into the wall opposite the room he was leaving because he was moving altogether too fast to change direction.
Rex struck the wood panelling with a jarring blow to his right shoulder, but it wasn’t going to slow him down for long. The cat had said several unkind things about his mother and the local stray dogs – it was not the sort of thing he could forgive, not on top of the blatant home invasion. The cat had earned itself a chewed tail at the very least.
Bouncing off the wall, Rex put his head down and powered on. The cat was going to go out of the front door, he could see the opening ahead of him, daylight streaming in enticingly. Once the cat was out in the open, he would be able to catch him.
Albert’s eyes flared as the cat shot between his feet and the dog looked set to follow. Mercifully, Rex made himself thin, squeezing against the wall to pass by his human’s legs without touching them.
‘Don’t worry!’ barked Rex. ‘I’ll get him when he goes outside!’
But the cat didn’t go outside, he banked hard at the bottom of the stairs and flew up them. Rex’s paws slipped and slid over the hallway carpet as he tried to follow. His butt slammed against the front door, banging it back against the wall as he finally got his legs under control.
‘Rex!’ Albert bellowed after the dog, but Rex was already powering up the stairs when Albert shouted, ‘Leave the cat alone!’
Rex didn’t slow down but he did hear what his human said. It mystified him. Why were they here if it wasn’t to deal with the cat? He got to the landing and had a choice of directions. The house smelled of the cat; enough so that he was finding it difficult to determine which way the cat went. Huffing in frustration, he put his nose to the carpet and started sniffing his way along.
Albert called again, yelling the dog’s name to no avail. ‘I’d better go after him,’ he grumbled, placing his hand on the banister.
Wondering what he ought to do and feeling like an unnecessary extra because he wasn’t adding any value, Roy volunteered, ‘I’ll come with you. Many hands and all that.’
Both pensioners made their way up the stairs using the handrail to give them a bit of extra oomph, but just as they reached the landing and both turned right toward the front of the house, the cat shot out of a bedroom behind them and bolted back down the stairs.
Rex was hot on the cat’s heels and, to Albert, it looked as if he’d managed to nip the cat’s backend or tail because he had bits of fur stuck to his jowls.
Now sensing victory, Rex took the stairs in two bounds, his powerful legs driving him on at a pace the cat couldn’t match. The cat’s only chance was to climb, but there were no trees outside. Rex wasn’t going to hurt it, he just wanted to establish some ground rules. It was bad enough that he had to share his garden with the local squirrel mafia, but a cat that believed it could come into his house and sit on his human’s bed? Well, there were limits to what he would tolerate. It didn’t help that the cat looked like something the devil might have vomited.
However, going as fast as possible proved to be a mistake. At the bottom of the stairs, he had altogether too much momentum to switch from a downward trajectory to a horizontal one. He crashed into the carpet, knocked into a coatrack, and slammed the door back against its stops. The cat was gone, haring across the front lawn by the time Rex looked up. Only a heartbeat had passed but the front door was swinging shut.
Snarling at his choice of pace over planning, Rex bounced back onto his feet and shot through the gap before the door slammed shut behind him with a thump.
At the top of the stairs, Albert swore yet again. The dog was finally out of the house, but the stupid beast didn’t have the sense to stay where he could be found. He might chase the cat to the next county before it occurred to him to question where he was.
‘Do you think we should look for Petunia’s ring?’ asked Roy. When Albert turned to look at him questioningly, he added, ‘Since we are already here.’
It was a tempting proposition, but not a sensible one. ‘We should go. The lady was snooping through my windows, that doesn’t mean she came inside. It doesn’t mean she did anything wrong at all. This is her house, and we shouldn’t be in it.’
Roy nodded, knowing his friend was right, and they made toward the stairs.
With his foot poised to descend the first step, he heard the distinctive sound of a car pulling onto the driveway.
Rex leapt the fence that bordered the front of the garden, following the cat. ‘I’m gonna get you, cat!’ he barked as he chased after it, his tongue lolling from the right side of his mouth. He’d heard the shouts from his human – it wasn’t so much that he chose to ignore him, Rex simply knew what was best. If his human’s nose worked properly, he would know the cat had been in the bedroom and would be thanking Rex for his diligence.
The cat shot under a car, evading Rex just when he was almost close enough to pounce. Forced to stop and go around, Rex lost sight of the cat and had to use his nose to continue the chase. Down a side alley between the houses, Rex plunged through brambles and gnarly undergrowth that pulled at his fur. He barely noticed any of it because the cat had somehow given him the slip. Had it found a bolt hole in the mouth of the alley and slipped through it to escape?
He would have to go back and check, but he pushed on another yard first because a leafy green bush obscured what was ahead and the whole area stunk of cat. Bursting through the bush, leaves exploding in every direction, Rex skidded to a stop. It was a blind alley and he’d reached the end. He spun around to go back but, confronted with an unexpected sight, he froze to the spot in shock. Now he understood why the alleyway smelled of cats.
Back at the house, Albert and Roy were also frozen to the spot. Below them, the front door swung open – Ophelia was back from wherever she had gone, and they were intruders in her house. How could they possibly talk their way out of this one? It wasn’t as if the story about the dog would work any longer, Rex was goodness knows where by now, probably still chasing the cat.
Albert felt a pang of concern for his big, dopey dog, but he had a bigger problem right now: what to do? The sensible thing would be to call out to Ophelia, give her a completely honest explanation and beg for her forgiveness. She could call the police, and if she did, he would wait patiently for their arrival. Embarrassment was the biggest issue.
Roy whispered, ‘Any thoughts, old boy? We seem to have landed ourselves in a bit of a pickle.’
Unwilling to speak because he could see Ophelia from his position at the top of the stairs. She was standing in the hallway, taking off her boots, bending over awkwardly to unzip them one at a time with her left hand. Her right hand was holding her phone to her ear. Employing a professional voice, she sounded like she was selling someone a life insurance policy or something similar. Too engrossed in her work, she didn’t see the two old men standing at the top of the stairs. While they gawped at her and wondered what to do, she padded out of sight through her house in stockinged feet.
If they were quick (and lucky) they might be able to slip out undetected!
‘That’s our gold star, award-winning policy,’ Albert heard Ophelia say as he carefully placed his right foot on the next step down. ‘Yes, Mrs Hatton, that will cover all your funeral expenses and leave a very worthwhile cash sum behind.’ There was a pause while the person at the other end spoke; Mrs Hatton’s voice impossible to hear, of course. ‘Yes, we can set that up right now, Mrs Hatton. All it will take is an initial credit card payment of fifty pounds. That verifies the account and the money will be transferred to your investment pot so you’re not really paying anything, you’re just investing it.’
Albert listened intently for just a few seconds. He was trying to work out how to announce his presence without causing the poor woman to wet herself with fright. But as the conversation went on, he began to wonder what he was listening to. Ophelia James sounded as if she were working for a big insurance firm, but Albert had never heard of Silver Linings Life Insurance and Bond. Not that his knowledge extended to encompass every firm on the planet, but to his detective’s brain, there was something fishy going on.
Roy tapped Albert on the shoulder, startling him to the point that he almost had a south of the border accident. While his heart restarted, and Roy whispered an apology, the conversation downstairs shifted gear: Mrs Hatton was ready to make her initial deposit and Ophelia was coming their way!
‘Yes, Mrs Hatton. Customers who deposit over two hundred pounds when they open their account do obtain access to a higher level of interest. The ladder system Silver Linings employ has a top tier of four percent net interest for those customers able to deposit an initial sum of a thousand pounds.’ She was coming back along the hall and there was nothing that way except the front door and the stairs.
Albert backed into Roy, bumping into him where he frantically gesticulated that he should turn around and start moving. ‘Hide!’ Albert whispered, giving his friend a shove to get him moving. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom to pick from and no way of knowing which direction might be the safe one. They turned left, toward the back of the house, their shuffling tiptoe steps carrying them swiftly into a small bedroom filled with nothing but unopened boxes.
They heard Ophelia jog up the stairs, her younger legs making a mockery of the effort it took them, but as they held their breath, uncertain where she might be heading, they heard her turn right toward the front of the house.
Peeking through a gap between the door and its frame, Albert could see her swift movements. The phone was cradled between shoulder and ear to give her two free hands. Diagonally across the corridor, he could see her frantically moving items around to uncover what she wanted: a laptop computer.
‘Yes, Mrs Hatton. I can take the deposit now. You wish to take advantage of our one time only joining bonus? I must congratulate you on your vision, Mrs Hatton. You have invested wisely.’ There came a brief pause while Mrs Hatton spoke, then Ophelia said, ‘I just need to take the long number from your credit card.’ Sixty seconds later, the call ended with a whoop as Ophelia celebrated her sale.
Albert was already more than a little suspicious, but her next words left him with no doubt.
‘Another sucker,’ she cheered. ‘There’s one born every minute.’ Ophelia was scamming people, selling them a fake insurance policy, and taking their money. Her victims would never get anything for their investment and her number was most likely blocked so once the call ended their money had already been paid into her account and there was no way to get it back. There would be layers of confusion hiding the money as it transferred from one account to another, but even if the victim were to report the fraud, they willingly paid the money and who is to say what conversation had taken place after the fact.
This type of fraud was in its infancy when Albert retired from the police, and he worked murder investigations more regularly. Today he knew there were teams of boffins set up to track down criminals involved in internet and phone-based fraud. Computer forensics they called it. His kids talked about it sometimes.
The question at the front of Albert’s brain now, was what to do about it?
Across the street in the alleyway between the houses, Rex found himself surrounded.
He’d run blindly into the alley, assured of his dominance and supremacy. However, the confident feeling, crashing through the undergrowth using sheer power and determination to force his way through, now seeped away as four dozen sets of eyes stared back at him.
The cat he’d been chasing stood front and centre where it meowelled at him, a deep, evil noise that spoke of violence and spitefully sharp claws. A ball of worry found its way to the pit of his stomach as yet more cats pushed their way through the undergrowth or walked along the top edge of the fence six feet above the ground.
He tried a defiant bark, ‘Oh yeah, kitty cats!’ Even he could hear that it sounded forced though. He backed away a pace, only to hear another cat emit its low mournful growl from the wall that blocked off the alley. Now scared for his exposed backend, Rex started to look for a way out.
The cats were edging closer, their tails bolt upright and the fur spread out to make them look like bottle brushes. Coming in on all sides and from above, there wasn’t a single direction he could go that appeared to be safe.
Seeing no choice, he bunched his muscles.
‘Randall, it’s Dad,’ Albert whispered into his phone.
Randall slumped his head onto his free hand. He was getting nowhere with the stupid insurance scam case and his dad wouldn’t leave him alone. He accepted that he wasn’t the best-behaved child growing up, but he was forty-one and surely his past crimes ought to be forgiven by now. Why was his father continuing to punish him?
‘Why are you whispering, Dad?’ he asked.
Albert didn’t answer immediately. The sound of Ophelia moving around downstairs had stopped, like she thought she heard something and froze her body to listen more intently. When he heard her flick the kettle on, he let go the breath he held and continued to whisper, ‘Son, I’ve got a confession to make which you won’t like, but I also think I might have found your insurance scammer. Or one of them at least.’
Randall jerked forward in his chair, excited for a second, but then, analysing what his father just said, he closed his eyes to ask, ‘What is the confession, Dad?’
Albert considered how to broach the subject but decided there really wasn’t a good way to admit he was guilty of trespass.
‘Dad?’ prompted Randall, still waiting for the confession to come.
‘Okay, Randall, here it is. You need to come to number twenty-three Hibiscus Drive. The woman I asked you about earlier – Ophelia James? Well she is involved in the insurance fraud you are investigating. Or she is involved in a separate insurance scam, but either way, you need to seize her laptop and have your forensic computer boffins go over it. It’s in her front bedroom.’
Randall’s deep frown deepened yet further, creasing his forehead to bring his hairline almost down to the point where it touched his eyebrows. ‘How do you know … hold on, are you in her house?’ The idea that his elderly father might misbehave that badly horrified him, but he already felt certain it was true.
‘Of course not, son,’ Albert lied. ‘I’ll explain when you get here. You probably ought to bring a crime scene van.’
Randall wanted his father’s claims to be true. The computer and phone fraud people were so elusive. Catching them always took months of painstaking hard work and then they had to prove, without question, the person’s criminal intentions only to find, all too often, it was the minnow they had snared, not the big fish running it. Nevertheless, he knew he had to at least check out his father’s claim. He was due to brief the chief constable at five o’clock and it would be nice to have something to tell him for once.
With a huff of exhalation from his nose, Randall, pushed back his chair and started to get up. ‘All right, Dad. I’ll be there shortly. If you are in her house …’
‘I’m not, son,’ Albert lied again. Roy tugged on Albert’s shirt, trying to get his attention. Albert lifted a finger to beg a moment’s grace.
‘Just don’t be by the time I get there, okay?’ warned Randall.
‘We’ll meet you outside.’ Albert promised, hoping he could find a way to make that true. Roy was tugging on his shirt again, so he ended the call quickly by adding, ‘See you soon.’ Putting his phone away, he turned to see what Roy wanted so urgently and felt the blood drain from his face.
Ophelia was standing in the doorway to the back bedroom, holding a small calibre handgun on them. Cocking her head to one side, she snarled, ‘Who the heck are you two?’
The cat had lured him into a blind alley and the only way out was through the platoon of feline horrors facing him. Rex leapt as the cats came for him. His powerful jaws were no match for hundreds of tiny, razor sharp claws and he knew it. His only way to minimise injury was to put his head down and run, so that was what he did.
In the house, Ophelia took a step back, leaving the doorway as she moved into the upper hallway. Her gun never wavered, pointing directly at the two men. With her left hand, she reached into the back pocket of her jeans, producing a phone. She didn’t speak to Albert and Roy as she lifted it to her ear.
‘Donny? Yeah, I’ve got intruders in my house. I think they know about the scam.’ She turned her head away slightly, grimacing at whatever Donny said in reply. ‘I don’t know, do I? I just heard them upstairs in my house. No, the new house.’ Clearly Donny was displeased with what she had to tell him. ‘Look, they need to be disposed of. Just get over here.’
The call ended with a note of finality and she backed up further to the stairs. ‘Come along, old codgers. You picked the wrong house to snoop today.’
‘Why were you snooping at my house?’ asked Albert, thinking it was a good idea to keep her talking.
Her brow furrowed. ‘Your house. I have no idea who you are, old man.’
‘I live at number nineteen. My name is Albert Smith and I have already called the police. They are on their way here now.’
Ophelia snorted a laugh. ‘Nice try, old man. Even if the heat do show up, you won’t be here and there’s nothing in the house to prove I’ve done anything wrong. Donny’s system is perfect: no overhead, isolated units working alone, undetectable. Much better than any of the other scams I’ve worked. Now, move!’ she jerked the gun at them, beckoning they both follow.
Albert didn’t want to, but he saw little option, and they couldn’t hope to escape from upstairs, so they needed to go down anyway. With their hands aloft, Albert, then Roy, followed her down the stairs. Ophelia walked backwards, but the faint hope Albert held that she might trip and fall, came to naught.
Donny, it seemed, lived close by, for the call was only two minutes old when a van pulled up outside. ‘You see?’ smiled Ophelia, ‘You’ll be long gone before the police can show up. You’re going for a nice drive in the countryside.’
The door opened to reveal a large man with a crew cut. He had a bullet shaped head which was tattooed to create a mask of sorts on his face and he had multiple piercings which distorted his nose, lips, and ears. His outfit, if one could even call it that, made him look like an Ewok who had been attacked with a hedge-trimmer.
Donny’s face curled into an unpleasant sneer. ‘Who are these two?’ he growled.
Her gun still pinning both men in place, Ophelia replied, ‘My neighbours, I think. That one,’ she jerked the gun at Albert, ‘Says I was looking through his window earlier.’
‘Were you?’ asked Donny.
‘I was looking for my cat.’
‘That flea-bitten thing is still alive?’ he growled.
‘You leave Hellcat alone,’ she frowned. ‘He and I have been through a lot together. He’s just settling into a new place, that’s all. He likes to explore other people’s houses.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ Donny shut off the conversation. ‘The van’s outside, and there’s no one around.’ He looked directly at Albert and Roy. ‘I’ll have to gag and tie them. I’ve got some carpet in the van to roll them in. They can go into Cliffe Lake. It’ll be a few centuries before anyone finds them.’
Albert couldn’t stop himself from gulping at the calm manner in which Donny discussed their dispatch. Behind him, Roy was fiddling with his walking cane. A nervous habit, Albert was sure.
Donny opened the front door to get the things from his van, but as he took a step forward, a blur of something brown hit his shins.
With a girlish squeal of shock, Donny flew into the air, but the blur wasn’t done yet. Unable to slow down, it piled through Ophelia who was facing Albert and never even saw it coming. She too went from perpendicular to horizontal in the blink of an eye, crashing back to the hallway carpet in a confusion of limbs and a cry of pain.
Albert was fast to seize the slim chance they’d been given, kicking the gun from Ophelia’s hand where it skittered free to hit the skirting board.
Roy went around Albert’s back, a glint of reflected sunlight drawing Albert’s eye to the thin sword the wing commander had drawn from his walking cane. His eyes went wide, but not as wide as Donny’s who found the tip of the sword skewering the front of his shirt.
Like an old, yet still dashing Robin Hood, Roy barked, ‘I may be getting on, young man, but I’m willing to bet my sword can find your heart before you can draw your next breath. I suggest you lie still.’
Bewildered by the turn of events, Albert looked at Rex. His dog was panting hard and he had blood dripping from half a dozen different facial cuts. With a finger pointed at Ophelia, Albert commanded, ‘Rex, guard!’ the dog instantly curled his top lip and growled at the woman who stank of the cat.
Outside the door, a flash of red and blue caught his attention: Randall was here, his son’s disbelieving face framed in the side window of his car.
The sun was beginning to set when Roy’s wife wandered across with his evening glass of port. She brought one for Albert too, the men clinking their small glasses together in a toast.
They were sitting on two fold-out garden chairs, also provided by Mrs Hope. Rex’s wounds proved to be superficial, tiny slices in his nose, eyebrows, and ears but the combined effect made it look like he’d run though a reel of razor wire.
Randall emerged from the house, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘We’ve got it all, Dad. The contacts on their phones have led us to the other scammers in the ring. They are all being arrested as we speak. The chief constable is over the moon.’
Donny and Ophelia had been arrested and taken away already, both protesting their innocence but with evidence stacked against them. Albert didn’t think they would see freedom for a while. Her possession of a firearm and the likelihood that Donny’s van had been used to transport other captive persons, would carry more weight than the fraud charges anyway.
Randall checked around to make sure no one was within earshot before lowering his voice to say, ‘I just have one question, Dad. Why were you anywhere near her house?’
The sound of a cat hacking loudly stopped Albert from answering straight away, but it was his giant fearless dog backing away that made him pay attention to it. The cat was Ophelia’s, they discovered. When it appeared earlier, she begged the police to look after it. They were waiting for the RSPCA to arrive because it looked like it needed urgent veterinary treatment, or perhaps euthanasia. Right now, it was hunched over, it’s mouth open as it heaved a giant hairball onto the lawn.
Disgusted, but unable to look away, Albert, Roy, and Randall all saw the glint of something shiny ooze out of the slimy mess. It finally broke free of the gunk, plopping to the ground where it rolled over.
Randall moved closer, the cat opting to scurry away with a hiss. ‘It’s a ring,’ he observed.
Rex laid down with a huff and put his head on his front paws. ‘I told you it was the cat,’ he sighed.
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