December 27th. An evening chez Karno
Karno was in an introspective mood. A few years away from retirement, approximately four years seven months three days and nineteen hours, he thought that this might be the biggest case of his career, and in a rare moment of self-doubt wondered if he was up to it. Determined to spend a quiet evening reviewing what he knew, or thought he knew, about the case, he had a quick shower, dried himself and donned his favourite, particularly disreputable thinking ensemble. His ex-wife had absolutely detested it. Being in an introspective mood, he recalled her parting words.
“You’re unsophisticated, scruffy, not as clever as you think you are and you know bugger-all about women.”
Considering her points in reverse order, what he did know about women, people in general in fact, led him to believe that there was a dark side to everybody and that you could never really say that you knew somebody well. Clever? Well he supposed he’d put his fair share of villains away over the years. ‘She’ had put that down to solid, even stolid, police work. He could never make her see that sudden flashes of inspiration that solved cases usually only occurred in books or on television. The clever bit was concentrating on the details. He shuffled downstairs and went into the kitchen, bound for the fridge and slightly chilled scrumpy. Scruffy? He paused in front of the ornate mirror hanging at a rakish angle on the hall wall and regarded himself critically. Slightly threadbare red Norwegian-style cardigan with a geometric pattern picked out in blue and white, worn on top of a white (ish) tee shirt. A few ungeometric stains randomly interwoven with the original design, which the uninitiated or ungenerous might have mistaken for the remains of a misdirected soft boiled egg. A brown leather patch on the right elbow, a safety pin two buttons up from the bottom. The trousers matched nicely he thought, never having really thought about it before. Faded navy-blue corduroy with slightly, by nineteen seventy-five standards, flared bottoms. To round off the ensemble, his bare feet were encased in a pair of once-fluffy slippers that admittedly had seen better days. Scruffy? The bloody woman didn’t know what she was talking about, no dress sense whatsoever. Unsophisticated though, that hurt a bit. Taking a bottle of non-vintage scrumpy out of the fridge he opened it and looked round for a glass when his eyes chanced on a chrome cocktail shaker, something ‘she’ had brought when trying to wean him off cider.
“Why, why why do you insist on that that, that bloody yokels’ drink? I’ve brought a book of cocktail recipes and a shaker…”
Smiling to himself, Karno carefully poured the scrumpy into the cocktail shaker, screwed on the top, gave it a vigorous, two-handed shake above his head and holding it in one hand with the other behind his back, gravely poured the liquid into an almost clean glass on the kitchen table.
“Err, shaken not stirred, ze vay you are liking it Detective Chef ‘nspector” he said aloud, his voice an interesting but uneasy blend of deepest Cornishire and a vaguely East European accent. More Jethro Lorre than Peter.
He took an appreciative swig and smacked his lips.
“Perfect Lazlo, as always.”
“Vill the Detective Chef ‘nspector be dinning with uz zis evenink?”
“He might Lazlo, he really hasn’t decided yet.”
Walking back over to the fridge it did occur to Karno that quite possibly he’d been on his own too long. Surveying the contents of the fridge, after much deliberation, he selected the sole item, a traditional if elderly Cornishire Pastie. Putting it on a plate and placing it in the microwave, he hoped that one-minute on full power wouldn’t neutralise the medicinal benefits of the mould or spoil the delicate flavour of the pastie itself. Waiting for the ‘ping’ to announce supper that was ready, he found a pack of microwave chips in the freezer compartment.
‘Might as well have a balanced meal,’ he thought. He also found a bottle of organic tomato ketchup that he’d brought by mistake.
‘Gourmet night chez Karno. Maybe I should open a restaurant after I retire.’ He thought.
He scrutinised the ketchup bottle’s label, which promised no e numbers and no added sugar.
‘And probably no bloody taste either, oh well.’
Assembling his meal on a tray he headed for the armchair in front of the television, thinking to himself that it wouldn’t do to go over the top on the sophistication thing and eat at the table. He settled down in his chair, balanced the tray on his lap, took a further sip of his Scrumpy Manhattan and the phone rang.
“Twistleton- Smythe here Karno. Sorry it’s out of office hours and all that but I think I might have got something for you.”
“Right, right. Good news I trust?”
“Depends on how you look at it I suppose. The thing is, after we’d spoken I got to thinking and had a closer look through the notes. Something was nagging at me and I couldn’t put m’ bloody finger on it. Now, this might be something and nothing, but it seems that there might have been one more mobile phone than people on the balloon.”
“Right, right. Might have been, you say. Not sure then?”
“Well there were certainly the bits and pieces of four mobile phones and only the charred remains of three people on board. Could have been the aircraft’s phone I suppose.”
“I didn’t know balloons had mobile phones. Invade every part of our lives, don’t they?”
“Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Every aircraft carries certain equipment. First aid kit, fire extinguishers, maps, that sort of thing. Entirely feasible that you’d stick a spare mobile phone in the equipment bag.”
“Ah yes of course, silly of me. Nothing left of it I suppose?”
“’Fraid not Old Chap. Bits of casing, that sort of thing. Nothing you could get any information about numbers from.”
“No trace of a whatchyacallit, a SIM card then?”
“No. Probably wouldn’t have been so much blown up as blown away. A bit light, you see. SIM cards that is.”
“Right, right. Pity really. So how would you blow up an aircraft?”
“Variety of ways Old Chap. You could have a barometric triggering device, straightforward timing device and of course remote control. Either radio signal or these days mobile phone.”
“Specifically, how would you blow up a balloon?” Karno braced himself for a witty remark.
“I’ll resist the obvious answer, bad taste and all that. We’ve tossed a few ideas around up here, but most of them whilst perfectly feasible are pretty unlikely we thought.”
“If you’re not too busy, I’d like to hear them. Might spark off a train of thought.”
“No nothing planned this evening. Well in no particular order, I suppose the most obvious would be to blow up the propane cylinder. You could partially sever the ropes holding the basket to the balloon or you could coat the inside of the balloon with a highly inflammable substance, which would raise the temperature of the fabric above its rated temperature. Bit unlikely that last one, for one thing you’d have no guarantee that the thing simply wouldn’t burst into flames the first time you fired up the burner. Not a reliable way of killing anybody.”
“Surface to air missile, but we can definitely rule that one out.”
“How about an explosive device hidden inside the balloon canopy, in a flame retardant package that would gradually burn away and then explode?”
“Possible I suppose. Unlikely but possibly.”
“What about if you detonated the device by remote control?”
“Very possible I’d have said. Except that isn’t what happened here. What you’re thinking of might well destroy the balloon canopy, or at least blow a large hole in the top.”
“OK, what about an explosive device inside the propane cylinder itself?”
There was a long pause.
“You still there?”
“Yes, still here. Just thinking about that one Old Chap. Tricky to actually do… no not what I meant. Technically perfectly feasible of course, but tricky to get at the propane cylinder to doctor it. I can think of a complicated scenario where you blew the tank and the supply valve. Wait a minute…complicated, might work though.”
“What might work?”
“Damage the delivery valve so it sticks full open, then blow the cylinder. That way you already have a good fire going, and then you release the remainder of the gas onto it. Too complicated by half though. Look here Karno, seems to me that we’re missing something obvious. Aha!”
“Indeed. The obvious question is why did the propane cylinder explode? The answer we thought was because of over-pressure caused by high temperature.”
“Isn’t there some sort of pressure-relief valve?”
“Yes, a disc which blows but we thought that the temperature rise was too rapid. We were sidetracked into looking at the disc specifications. If we accept that the idea was to kill the people inside the basket by means of an explosion, then a device inside the cylinder is the obvious way.”
“And the fire?”
“Quite possibly a useful by-product. If you accept the central premise that the idea was to kill the people in the basket. You see we look for forensic evidence which we can pass on as proof of criminal activity, but don’t start from the assumption that criminal activity took place.”
“I can follow that. So the fire actually might have been an accident then?”
“Accident in the sense that it was unplanned, yes.”
“Right, right. On a completely unrelated subject, parrots make good pets do they?”
“Eh? Oh not bad. Bit short of affection, can’t take them for a walk and they won’t fetch things. Oh and sometimes, you can’t shut the bloody things up, so be careful what you teach it to say. Thinking of getting one are you?”
“Possibly. Gets a bit lonely around the old homestead of an evening. Reason I asked was your good lady wife mentioned that you were washing the parrot the last time I rang.”
“Ah yes. They suffer from ticks and fleas you know. Once a month I spray the little bugger with a mixture of petrol and water, then rinse him off. Absolutely vital to rinse ‘em off, absolutely vital and I seriously recommend not using neat petrol.”
“Sounds like the voice of experience.”
“Yes… well the first one we had, I’d just sprayed him with neat petrol when he got out of the cage.”
“Possibly he objected to being sprayed with petrol?”
“Difficult to say with parrots, strange creatures in many respects. Anyway, damn thing flew past the vicar when he was lighting up. Quite spectacular actually, never realised parrots could achieve that sort of speed in level flight. Cost me a fortune in redecorating though and the children wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. Poor vicar couldn’t deliver a sermon for weeks either, burnt lips you see. I kept finding sticky notes on the fridge accusing me of being some sort of anti-avian monster and waging a terror campaign against the Church. I say, you won’t report me to the RSPCA or the Synod, will you? It was unintentional, I was absolutely devastated.”
As was the parrot, thought Karno.
“No, mums the word. Sounds like parrots may be a bit too high maintenance given the price of petrol, and anyway I was thinking more along the lines of something that might be pleased to see me when I got home, rather than be apprehensively wondering if I was going to spray it with something unpleasant.”
“Don’t get married and have kids then. Rarely pleased to see you unless they want something. Try a cat. As long as you feed them regularly, they’re affectionate.”
“Call me cynical, but that was a bit like my experience of marriage. Still, cat food’s not that expensive I suppose. Less than designer school bags and holidays in the Caribbean at any rate. Thanks for your help.”
“Anytime Old Chap, anytime.”
So possibly a bomb detonated by a mobile phone then. Karno found that his gourmet supper had gone cold and his Scrumpy Manhattan had warmed up. Chewing on a less than crisp chip, he turned possible connections over in his mind.
Kliskey had brought a restored Armstrong Siddely from Kory about eighteen months ago, but the car was now registered in Scrotum the butler’s name. Had it been registered in his name when it was brought, or re-registered after the balloon accident? Approximately four months after buying the car, Kliskey was killed and it was looking less and less like an accident. Kory was killed four months after Kliskey, and that very definitely was no accident. Anything special about four months, phases of the moon, that sort of thing? Mind the gap…no, WHY the gap? Obviously a warm Scrumpy Manhattan was more potent that a chilled one, perhaps Lazlo would mix him another. Four months. The killer went away for four months perhaps, where and why?
What about the couple in the balloon with Kliskey, were they connected in any way? Apart from buying a car from him, there didn’t seem to be any obvious connection between Kliskey and Kory, or none that had come to light yet. The Kory killing could be a random act. How was the bomb detonated? Seemed unlikely that anybody would doctor a pack of Christmas crackers, presumably on sale the Christmas before the Korys’ were blown up, and then not detonate them assuming it was a random killing and they were detonated by remote control. Idiot! If the crackers were detonated by a SIM card the Christmas after they were originally on sale, then the killer knew exactly who his victims were. So the Korys were targeted, but all of them, some of them? There was a crash and Karno woke up with a start. The tray was on the floor. Luckily, the Scrumpy Manhattan was unspilled on the side table, so he finished it. Contemplated the mess on the floor, he reckoned that a cat or dog would by now have been busy clearing up the mess but a parrot, like a wife, would most likely be calling him a clumsy oaf. He went and found the second bottle of scrumpy. The phone rang.
“The Putrid Pastie Place, take-aways our speciality.”
“No I’m sorry, my sense of humour. Who…?”
“Major Shortanastie, Ivor, we spoke the other day.”
“Indeed we did, indeed we did Major. Anything for me?”
“Ivor, please. Not really. Nobody’s been looking for hired guns just recently, leastways not for a job in this country. No rumours either. Sorry about that.”
“It was a bit of a long shot. Tell me, how would you go about blowing up a gas cylinder?”
“Easy. Strap a charge to it.”
“That doesn’t seem to have been the case, anyway somebody would have noticed.”
“Still easy. Depending on the type of cylinder of course, you could unscrew the nozzle assembly and drop a slim device inside. Screw the thing back together again then detonate it with a phone SIM card, that was what we were talking about I seem to remember.”
“Yes, this is a different case but maybe connected. Wouldn’t there be traces of the explosive?”
“Not necessarily. Wouldn’t need much. What gas are we talking about?”
“Oh no problem then. Literally a few grams of explosive would do it. That and say just a squirt of petrol just to get everything burning merrily.”
“Wouldn’t that be obvious?”
“Not necessarily. Of course if you wanted something completely untraceable it might be trickier…”
“But if you really weren’t bothered about leaving traces of an explosive device then the chances are the evidence would be missed?”
“Quite possibly. Not guaranteed of course.”
“Right, right. I think perhaps I’ve been over-complicating my investigation.”
“Looking for expertise where none was actually required?”
“Exactly so. Signal would get through OK, into the tank I mean?”
“You’d probably want to make sure you tried to detonate it close to a signal source to be certain, but I can’t see any real problems.”
Karno made a mental note to have Rosie locate the nearest mobile mast to the explosion. Something else flitted through his mind, but was gone before he knew what it was.
“Thanks for that. Helped sort a few things out in my mind. Just to make sure I’ve got it, you could cause any explosive material to detonate by rigging up a small triggering charge, and firing that off with a SIM card and watch battery?”
“That’s it. Just a thought, should have occurred to me when you first mentioned propane. You wouldn’t need any explosive material; you’d just need to cause a spark. The propane would ignite and bang!”
“What about the safety over-pressure disc in the cylinder?”
“If you were working on the cylinder you could mess around with that as well. The disc is designed to indicate if it has been ruptured due to overpressure, no indication of that and you wouldn’t think anymore of it.”
“Right, right. Well a few things have certainly clicked into place this evening. Thanks for calling me.”
“No problem. Obviously, this conversation never actually took place.”
“Obviously. Night then.”
A thoughtful Karno rang Twistleton-Smythe.
“Sorry to disturb. Hope you weren’t in the middle of disinfecting anything?”
“What? I say it’s the middle of the night y’know.”
“Right, right. Sorry, no I’d lost track of time. I can call you tomorrow.”
“I’m awake now.”
“Right, right. Well I’m told by one who should know that you could ignite a propane cylinder simply by causing a spark, provided you buggered around with the over-pressure disc first. That would cause the cylinder to explode.”
“Actually, what would initially happen is that you’d get a sudden increase of supply pressure which would overcome the demand valve in the burner. So, it wasn’t a fault in the burner after all. Right we’ll look into that and get back to you in a few days. It’s in your jurisdiction so I’ll just dump it on your plate. Anything else?”
“No; sorry to disturb and all that. I’ll leave you to polish Polly. Sweet dreams.”
OK, so two murders then. Six if you were being precise but two occasions which murder was committed. But who were the targets? Was there any connection between the two crimes at all? Maybe he had a hit man in his parish that specialised in killing by explosions and it was the perpetrator who was the connection, not the victims. Must establish connections, he glanced at his watch, too late to go out for another bottle and this definitely was more than a two bottle problem. An advert in the open Cornishire Clarion, carelessly flung on the floor, caught his eye.
‘Will’s Whets. We deliver your booze to your door when you’re too pissed or idle to go and get it.’
That’ll do for me he thought and dialed the number.
“Will’s Whets.” A young male voice answered the phone.
“Good Evening Will’s Whets. What’s your delivery charge?”
“Depends on where we have to go squire.”
Logical. Karno gave him the address.
“A fiver. We really cater for parties, so the more you order the cheaper it is.”
“In a sense yes, you’re right I suppose. Got any scrumpy, non-vintage?”
“Certainly have. Denzil’s Delight, Jethro’s Jump-up Juice, Tremayne’s Tipple, Cadan’s Comfort, Demelza’s Downfall and Genern’s Giggly.”
“I’m not surprised. Anything more, how can I put it…?”
“Aurally appealing to the middle-aged pisshead?”
“I was thinking sophisticated myself.”
“Well, it’s not that cheap but I do know of a little brew. Apples taken from the south side of the orchard, picked just before they fall by a rosy-cheeked young maiden and lovingly placed in oak drying-racks so there’s no bruising which can knocker the flavour. It’s a small family concern, they don’t sell much.”
“Why’s that then?”
“They drink most of it themselves.”
“Seems like a reasonable recommendation. Don’t give Miss Rosie Cheeks much of a chance of remaining a maiden though. What’s the name of this nectar of the gods?”
“Chy Cos Cidre.”
“Chicos? Not a local family then, Mexican are they?”
“Ah. Never heard of it. Good is it?”
“Never tried it squire. As a responsible supplier of alcohol I can only sell you three cases at a time.”
“I was thinking more like three bottles.”
“Eighteen quid cash and I’ll be round in ten minutes.”
“Done.” Putting the phone down Karno thought that he might have been but then ‘Wills Whets’ sounded a pleasant young man.
Much later, he decided the first crucial question was did Ma Kory buy the exploding crackers in the January sale as she claimed. ‘Why’, he thought, then wondered ‘why what?’ Then it was morning.
Hope you enjoyed it, do let me know what you think.