The Accidental Assassin: An Island, A Poodle, A Body . . .

The Accidental Assassin: An Island, A Poodle, A Body . . .

by Jan Toms

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752462707
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jan Toms has written articles for Island Life magazine, and is the author of The Little Book of the Isle of Wight.

Read an Excerpt

The Accidental Assassin

An Island a Poodle a Body ...


By Jan Toms

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Jan Toms
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6706-1


CHAPTER 1

Victor Green had long come to the conclusion that the sun only shone on weekdays. From Monday to Friday he caught the number 2 bus to Newport, where for seven hours he stared from the window of the tax office, a caged creature locked away from the summer glory. The view from his office was tantalising, looking as it did across Church Litten, the old Elizabethan burial ground where once plague victims had been hurriedly disposed of because the churchyard was full. Now most of the tombstones had gone, the area was landscaped and mature, and beautiful trees provided summer shade. Victor loved to sit there during his lunch hour. One of the remaining gravestones was dedicated to John Hamilton Reynolds, who had been John Keats's best friend. Like Keats, Reynolds had been a poet, and Victor liked to think that the two men would appreciate his own modest verses. Sometimes he had imaginary chats with them, sitting under the weeping birch tree.

The view from the office also served to remind him of what he was missing at home – his sweetpeas, his hanging baskets, blue tits nesting in the bird box on his wall and the occasional glimpse of a fox. When he finally surfaced full of hope on Saturday mornings, the first thing he usually heard was the patter of rain.

Today, however, was different. It was one of those fresh, glistening mornings that promised a balmy day ahead. Suddenly alert he flung back the duvet, visited the bathroom, boiled an egg with toast, cleaned his teeth, stripped off his pyjamas and put on his gardening clothes. Two weeks ago a letter had arrived from the council, telling him to get his lime tree trimmed back or they would take matters into their own hands. Victor lived in fear of upsetting the authorities and for two weeks the letter had lain heavily on his conscience, but between them, work and the weather had prevented him from obeying the law.

Hurriedly he washed up, dried the dishes and put them away, fed the birds on the table outside the kitchen window then repaired to the garden shed, where a ladder, saw and various other paraphernalia were lined up in readiness. Victor was not very keen on heights. Indeed, two rungs up the ladder and his hands became clammy. In its own way, this was an act of heroism, overcoming the fatal flaw that was his vertigo. He had already studied the overhanging tree at some length and knew which branches must be amputated. To his mind it was an act of vandalism, but the law must be obeyed. The tree was a lovely tree-like shape, smooth straight trunk with lemony foliage fanning out to all points of the compass. He knew that by the time he finished it would look butchered – a word that conjured up images of mindless violence.

Victor liked words, not only their meanings but their shape and sound. He had once had a verse published in the village magazine, stirred by the memory of the pond that had formerly graced the grounds of the local manor house. Now the house was a hotel and it was up to the council to keep the pond according to its former glory but, sadly, the busy visitations of ducks and the addition of an old fridge and battered mattress meant that it now had a neglected air. Silently he recited some of his poem: Trembling weed amid the rushing foam – he thrilled to the metre of the line.

As he walked down the drive he had already made up his mind that if there happened to be a bird nesting in the tree then he would refuse to act and face whatever penalty the council might impose rather than have it disturbed. He saw the headlines in the Clarion: 'Local man faces gaol to protect blackbirds from council slaughter.' Like butcher, slaughter was one of those words red in tooth and claw. He shook off the lurking thoughts of death and destruction.

Victor was not much of a handyman but he had read up on ladders and safety, and knew about how to secure the steps, ensuring that they stood on level ground, stabilised with a wedge so that they would not slip away and leave him stranded in the tree. Local man spends night among the branches ... From the garden shed he fetched two warning road signs that he had purchased in Halfords. Twice a year he had to trim the front hedge and, there being no pavement, he was careful to ensure that a distracted driver did not come round the bend too fast and plough into him. Accidents were always high on Victor's list of preoccupations.

Having placed the signs and looked up the road several times to ascertain whether a lost juggernaut was about to attempt to negotiate the lane, he grasped the saw and ascended the ladder. Don't look down, that was the advice that had come from somewhere, a film perhaps, some cliffhanger that had made him grip the arms of the cinema seat and look away.

As he braced his knees against the rung of the ladder he felt them begin to tremble. Steady on, get on with it, get it over and done with. Later he would have the satisfaction of a job well done.

Tying the top of the ladder to a branch, he leaned across and, with a deep intake of breath, began to saw. The angle was difficult and his arms quickly began to ache but he ploughed on. After an eternity he heard a cracking noise, the branch suddenly succumbed and fell away. Victor followed its flight with his eyes, grabbing the trunk for support. Don't look down!

He breathed out long and hard, and gathered himself to tackle the next branch, a bigger and longer one reaching out across the lane. When he had cut it down he would have to descend and move it to the side of the road. Going down was worse than coming up. He had the same trouble in castle towers, spiral staircases, lofts. It was always the coming down that worried him.

He began to saw with intensity. The branch was made of sterner stuff than its neighbour. Perhaps it had witnessed his attack and was ready to fight back. Victor felt sweat running between his shoulder blades and stopped for a second to wipe the back of his hand across his forehead. Afterwards he couldn't remember exactly what happened next, except that a wood pigeon preparing to crash-land onto the absent branch had realised too late that it was no longer there. With a squawk it veered off, struggling for the safety of the electricity cable above, but the sudden fluttering in his face caused Victor to jerk back and his worst nightmare became reality. Somehow his boot slipped on the rung of the ladder and he took flight, a short, sharp descent to the road below.

At the same moment, he heard a shout and the alarmed yapping of a small dog. He hit something soft but solid, and as his head cleared he realised that he was lying on the ground, only not the ground but something cushioning his fall. Groggily he struggled up to find a large man spreadeagled beneath him.

'I'm so sorry. Are you alright?' He leaned over ready to help the man to his feet but the man did not move. Victor blinked and looked closer. On the gravel of the path he noticed a trickle of blood slowly seeping into the dust. Like the millstream in his poem, it seemed to be gaining momentum.

'I say,' he touched the man's shoulder but he did not respond. Across the lane the little dog, a white poodle, had taken refuge on the bank and was barking spasmodically in a high-pitched key.

'Sir?' Gradually Victor metamorphosed from a man who had fallen from a tree into a first-aider at work. Check for vital signs. Do not move – or should that be put into the recovery position? Uncertainly, he placed his fingers on the man's neck, hoping for the gentle throbbing of a pulse, but there didn't seem to be anything. Oh god, surely he hadn't killed him? Would this be murder? Of course he hadn't meant this to happen. Was it the equivalent of driving without due care and attention? No one had warned him that an absent-minded pigeon might barge into him. At the very least it must be manslaughter. His legs buckled beneath him and he grabbed the foot of the ladder for support. It felt totally secure. At least he had done something right.

He looked helplessly up and down the lane hoping that someone would come along, but the road was empty. From the houses opposite, no one emerged to see what was going on. Somehow Victor stumbled his way up his drive and into the house, grasped the phone and dialled 999.

* * *

They soon arrived; the police, an ambulance and the neighbours attracted by the flashing lights and the wailing sirens. By now, Victor was sitting on the bank under the assaulted tree, struggling with black waves that whooshed in and out of his head. On the ground the other man, now well and truly dead, formed a motionless obstacle at the side of the road. The ambulance had to pull in further up, and on the other side, to avoid hitting him.

'Can you tell us what happened, Sir?'

Victor's tongue seemed to have lost contact with his mouth. Disconnected words escaped in a jumble. 'Tree ... pigeon ... man.' The policemen looked around at the growing audience. 'Did anyone see what happened?' No one had.

At any other time, Victor would have enjoyed the spectacle. He only knew about crime scenes and accidents from television dramas. Now real policemen and surgeons and photographers were plying their trade, right on his doorstep.

The ambulance men had examined the man on the ground, shaking their heads and brushing the gravel off their trousers. They turned their attention to Victor.

'Are you hurt anywhere?'

He didn't know. He didn't think so as he had managed to negotiate the drive and the telephone, but he certainly felt strange.

They took his pulse, looked into his eyes, asked him if he had hit his head. Not that he remembered. Instead, he felt again the whoosh as his body landed on top of the man, who was even now being photographed as evidence. Someone had gone through the dead man's pockets in search of his identity. Across the road Mrs Randall, who lived in Princess Beatrice Cottage, had picked up the poodle, which was still whimpering.

'I'm afraid we'll have to ask you for a statement,' the policeman said. A big, solid man, he seemed very nice, understanding. He said, 'Let's get you indoors, shall we? I expect you'd like a cup of tea?'

Victor certainly would. He wanted to sit in his favourite armchair and close his eyes and wait for the darkness inside to go away. He wanted to wake up and find that it was all a silly dream.

The nice policeman sat himself opposite Victor at the kitchen table and took out a notebook and pencil. He seemed to spend ages simply arranging things before he asked, 'Right now, can you tell me your name and date of birth?'

'Victor Rudolph Green, March 21st 1963.'

'The year that President Kennedy was assassinated,' the policeman observed. For a terrible moment Victor wondered whether he was making some connection between the president's death and the unfortunate accident of the man outside. Something in his brain reminded him that he had the right to remain silent.

'And your address is?'

'Princess Alice Cottage, Queen Victoria Avenue, Shanklin.' He seemed to be running out of breath before he reached the end of a sentence and took a calming mouthful of tea.

'A nice royal neighbourhood,' the friendly policeman observed. Victor nodded. It was nice, much too respectable for murder.

Somehow he stumbled through the rest of the statement. He explained about the tree, showing the man the council letter as proof. The constable asked him about the man who had broken his fall. Did he know him? Had he ever seen him before? He didn't and he hadn't. He asked him about his job, who he lived with, if he had ever been involved with the police before? He answered all the questions as best he could, all the time wondering if the poor dead man had a wife waiting for him at home, and, what would become of his dog?

'Do you know who the man is?' he managed to ask.

'Not yet.' The policeman explained that there would have to be an inquest but that for the moment Victor's doctor was coming over to give him something to help him with the shock.

'It looks like an unfortunate accident,' the nice policeman said. 'Whatever happened, we'll get to the bottom of it but in the meantime, try not to worry.'

Clearly he didn't know Victor. He worried about everything; work, his garden, the world economy, whether there was a God ... And now he had killed somebody – oh yes, there was plenty to worry about now.

CHAPTER 2

Doctor Delaney signed Victor off work for a week. He had known him since he was a child and knew all about his nerves. In the distant past, Victor's mother used to bring him to the surgery for a variety of ailments that usually sprung from some fear engendered by school bullies. Victor's father had died when he was eleven, not early enough in Dr Delaney's opinion. He had bullied the boy, and made no attempt to hide the contempt he felt for this rather wan, willowy child who was more at home in the poetry class than on the rugby field.

Doctor Delaney recognised in the young man the boy he remembered. At thirty-seven, he was still wan and willowy, with a hesitant lisp and an inclination to stutter when he was nervous. 'Try not to worry,' he advised. 'It wasn't your fault. It was an unfortunate accident that might have happened to anyone.'

Silently Victor answered: Not to an intrepid tree climber who wouldn't flinch when a wood pigeon accidentally barged into him! He remembered once going to the America Woods and climbing a horse chestnut tree in pursuit of large conkers, which were hanging invitingly out of reach from a branch about twenty feet off the ground.

'Dare you!' Douglas 'Glossy' Glossop and James 'Jimbo' Gray had taunted him, classmates of the same age but twice the beef, boys always in search of amusement at someone else's expense. Victor had shaken his head, listened to the jibes, then, in a rare moment of defiance, scaled up the tree with remarkable agility for him. On a branch level with the conkers, he realised that they were still out of reach.

'I can't!' he shouted down. 'They're too far away.'

'No they aren't. Climb out on the branch. Go on!'

He tried but his nerve failed. He began to cry and they booed him, jeering, calling him cry-baby, sissy, namby-pamby. Once they calmed down he prepared to descend and face his humiliation, but something awful happened. His body seemed to seize up and he couldn't move.

'Come on! Come down!'

He couldn't. Finally bored and shrugging off any responsibility, Glossy and Jimbo left him there, still shouting insults until they were out of hearing. When he didn't arrive home for tea his mother went out to find him, defying his father's injunction to leave the boy alone, that he had to learn to stand up for himself, fight his own battles.

When his mother finally discovered him he was clinging to the branch as if his life depended upon it, which it did. It was she who summoned the fire brigade and, like a cat up a tree, he was hoisted down and told off for going up there in the first place.

He couldn't bear to remember his father's contempt, the endless, ongoing sneering.

'I will sign you off work for a week, so just take it quietly now.'

He realised that the doctor was speaking and with a gushing sense of relief he thanked him.

In the coming week, safely freed from the yoke of the tax office, Victor read about himself in the paper. In view of his condition he was excused attending the inquest, which was more or less a formality, the case being adjourned until more could be discovered about the man on the ground.

He was pleased to see himself described as a local poet, although they had got his name wrong, calling him Vincent Green instead of Victor Green. That aside, the strange thing was that nothing seemed to have been learned about his victim. No one had reported him missing. His photograph, taken with his white poodle, was featured in the press but nobody seemed to recognise him. Eventually, Mrs Harris from the Beau Rivage guesthouse down on the Esplanade had come forward to say that he had rented a room from her for a few days. He had paid in advance but on the second morning he had simply left. She had only just heard about the accident.

The police examined the room looking for clues but there was nothing to indicate who he might be. He had left no luggage and had signed in under the name of Smith. The only defining evidence as to his identity was the small white poodle that looked strangely incongruous alongside the bulk of the man.

Victor studied the man's face. It was large and pugnacious. He appeared to have suffered a broken nose and had cauliflower ears, although Victor couldn't imagine that he had inadvertently inflicted such damage. Remembering what a cushion Mr Smith had made, he thought that he might have been a bouncer or a bodybuilder. It was some tiny consolation that he didn't look like the sort of man who was kind and considerate and a valuable member of society, but then he chided himself for such unkind thoughts. Who was he to judge another man's worth?

The fate of the little dog kept him awake. If no one had claimed 'Mr Smith', then surely no one had claimed the poodle, who he had come to call 'Fluffy'. Poor Fluffy, where was he now? The next time the nice policeman popped round to report that there had been no progress, he asked him where the dog was.

'Dogs' Home. They're hanging on to him in case someone comes forward.'

'And if they don't?'

The policeman shrugged. 'Bit of an old dog, bit of a flea bag, I doubt if anyone else would want him.' The death penalty loomed for Fluffy. Victor, amazed at his temerity, said, 'I'd like to take him in. It is the least I can do.'


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Accidental Assassin by Jan Toms. Copyright © 2011 Jan Toms. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Accidental Assassin: An Island, A Poodle, A Body . . . 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was fun to read