A Comical Story Told In Two Parts
The First Part
Miss Kat Astrophe And Her Thomas
* * *
Any interpretation of this short story is done entirely at your own risk. I have incorporated English names into this compact chronicle to avoid disappointing those who find Russian a difficult language to pronounce.
And So We Begin
A Wild Winter’s Mid-Morning In The Reminski District, Moscow, Russia
His initial feeling of gushing pride at being selected by the captain of detectives from the final year of cadet school to accompany him to a murder scene was quickly forgotten as the ground beneath his feet both crunched in agony and screamed in pain, as by measured stride followed by measured stride, the distance between the warmth of an official car and the body of an untidily dressed man widened until at last the Police Lieutenant Colonel’s car was reached. A window of the automobile was lowered, but no invitation to share the warmth within was extended to the new recruit. Motionless he stood, unable to curb the chilling frost that rose through his leather-soled shoes and climbed his legs like Superman on steroids, soon eating at the flesh beneath his lightweight college garments. In increasing discomfort, he began his account of the scene he had just walked from.
“The body was found by a Miss Kat Astrophe. Well, sort of finding but not actually found in the sense of stumbled across. More seen as I told the station officer when I messaged him, Colonel. Of course, Lieutenant Colonel. I do know your full rank and I should have used it in my address. What’s that? Yes, I will certainly refer to you as sir if that’s what you want, Lieutenant Colonel, I mean, sir; sir. With your permission, I’ll carry on, sir?”
With a scornful frown embedded firmly on his world-weary face, the high-ranking officer looked contemptuously up at the humble cadet then ever so slowly nodded his head in a sign of approval.
“Very well, sir. When I interviewed Miss Kat Astrophe on her doorstep I discovered that she is Italian by birth which accounts for her beautiful suntanned skin. She has long jet black hair and a face to die for, oh and a voice straight from the opera as well. No doubt you may meet her, sir. What? Oh yes, the report. I hadn’t forgotten, sir. It was just that her beauty was so overwhelming, just like this cold.” He hastily cleared his drying throat and under a haze of freezing mist continued.
“She’s thirty-eight, twenty-six, thirty-six. I forgot to ask her age as I was concentrating so much on her measurements. I think I included all that in my first report. When your car arrived I thought her figure may have been the reason for your visit. My captain saw you pulling in off the road and told me to report directly to you as he had somewhere important to be. Yes, sir, he did go rather hastily. No, sir, I am not implying you would indulge in anything improper with Miss Kat because of her delectable figure. Although, I would add that I would if given the chance. Yes, sir. I agree that’s an inappropriate remark. Why did I say that? I guess because I wanted to appear as masculine as I could, sir. No, I most certainly am not suggesting that the police force that you are head of is a bunch of nancy boys as you so eloquently put it, sir. Most gracious, sir, my lord king, sir.”
Under normal circumstances, it would have been impossible to sweat in such cold conditions, but there was no normality on show in this part of Moscow.
“I’m complimenting you, sir, on your appreciation of the feminine figure.” His emitted cloud of misty breath sufficiently covered his embarrassment. However, nothing could stop his shivers. As the novice was congratulating himself on the quick-wittedness that most of the instructors at training school said he lacked, the happily ensconced superior officer flicked ash from his thick cigar that fleetingly mesmerised the cadet as it fell to the ground. But Kat would not disappear as swiftly as mere ash.
“I thought I’d leave Miss Kat’s age until this afternoon. It would make a great excuse for me to visit after you and I finish here, sir,” he said, hoping to elicit a smile from his senior officer. “What’s that, sir? Get on with it. Right, yes, I will. Where was I?”
He was standing in a small wooden thicket between the evenly fenced, newly constructed houses and a small meandering stream bubbling merrily away to his left. The shade from the trees added to the damp air from the stream gave the estate a somewhat pertinent connection to the name given to it by the building contractors: Crispy Hollow was, in the words of the man smoking the cigar— rather felicitous. If the cadet had assimilated the meaning of that word whilst enduring his education he would not have wasted time to search his mental dictionary in the hope of finding the definition that eluded him. As fast as he could he changed the subject.
“Right then, sir. As I said at the beginning of this report the body wasn’t actually discovered by Miss Kat, the woman with the body that I’m recalling as I speak in the hope that such a memory will keep me warm.” He paused, waiting for a benevolent gesture but none was forthcoming. With chattering teeth, he continued, “She did see a man but didn’t know it was a body at that stage. She thought he was up to no good, causing her to call for us. No, sir, I’m not going faint with cold. I understand, sir. Business first! No use moaning about a spot of winter. Yes, I suppose Siberia would be worse. Ahem.” He cleared his throat again. “It was the dog Thomas who first noticed the body before anyone knew it was a body. Oh no, sir, no! I’d never call you by your first name. I didn’t even know you had a first name, let alone that name was Thomas. How strange is that, it’s also the name of Kat’s dog.”
After jumping up and down a few times, frantically trying to get his blood pumping through his veins and then rubbing his hands together as though his life depended upon it, the investigating novice fetched some small sticks, which with the aid of his lighter, along with the current edition of The Police Times which Thomas the man, not Thomas the dog, generously threw at him, he made a fire and squatted before it, fantasising about the polished car door opening with a seductive Kat lying across the back seat, beckoning him to enter. An audible sigh uncontrollably escaped his lips.
At that precise moment, he caught sight of his loftier companion gaping, spellbound at the twinkling flames with wisps of smoke. Being below eye level he needed Thomas, the man, not the dog, to focus on the scene in order that Crispy Hollow could be confined to the morning memory leaving Kat Astrophe filling the imaginative cadet’s afternoon; if not her then a hot bath would not go amiss.
“Well, now, sir, back to business. It took quite some time to find the body as it was well camouflaged being clad in an overall and hat the same colour as the fencing panels. It was so good that I and the captain walked past him three times. It was only after I fetched Thomas could I find him. Thomas enthusiastically wagged his tail when he saw the body, but alas he thought the thing in our body’s hand was a bone. No, sir, it was not possible to search the man for identification. Both I and the captain thought something would break off if we did; it was that fragile. But of course, something did. Thomas jumped up before I had a chance to stop him and broke whatever it was in the man’s hand and swallowed it whole. I can’t say that in my report. Especially as your name is Thomas, sir. My station officer might think it was you who bit off whatever it was. I think it best that in the report I should change Thomas the dog’s name into another name to save any confusion with your name, Thomas.”
The shivering private prayed for a hole to appear down which he could escape, as a wide-eyed, visibly steaming, high-status officer screamed from the car. His spittle froze before it hit his face, but his acid words cut holes in his ambition. He floundered. “No, sir, I’m not being disrespectful by referring to you by your Christian name. I was about to speak of Thomas the dog.”
Another scathing attack followed his explanation raising the temperature outside the car to almost match the heat inside.
“Oh, dear! I seemed to have stepped in it again, don’t I? How on earth would I know that you’re Jewish, sir? And who on earth would have told me that a Jewish first name is not called a Christian name at all, but your patronymic name.”
As all his hopes of an early and rapid promotion vanished in the vapour that dispersed within inches of the opened window and the thought of the embarrassment he faced on his return to training school was too much to endure, he abandoned the slow deliberate approach he had adopted for one of outright attack. He stood and looked down at his opponent.
“Sir, I’m in danger of going the same way as our peeping Tom went. Yes, he died from the cold that’s eaten through my bones whilst he too was standing still as I’ve been required to do by your intransigence. To wrap this case up quickly I am prepared to say that he was peeping through a hole in Miss Kat’s fence hoping to see her undress. I remember her saying words to that effect when I saw her.”
No car door opened to dispel his severe discomfort. Nor was there a hint of termination to his suffering. With no alternative to turn to, he ploughed on.
“Unless we cut Thomas open we will never know what it is that Thomas took from the man. It could have been an address book, a phone, a wallet, or anything. I shall simply refer to it as his whatchamacallit. Yes, sir. I was being serious. Unless we have a complete corpse the autopsy cannot be performed successfully and a coroner’s verdict cannot be guaranteed. Yes, sir, I agree,” he stuttered between the rattling of his teeth. “Your name should be omitted from the report. That’s if I still have fingers to write one.” Nothing would change this pitiless, unshakable individual. It was as though he was a throwback to the KGB of which the cadet had read. Resigned to his fate, our selfless cadet carried on courageously.
“There we have it, sir. I’ll write it up as the man who snuffed it without a whatchamacallit whilst being degenerate in the thicket and file it under death due to extraneous circumstances. What’s that, sir? No such thing? Well, there should be in my opinion.”
His haughty onlooker smiled menacingly then without a minimum of kindness raised the car window, turning up the heat as soon as it was closed. His companion slithered closer to Thomas the man, and Thomas the dog returned to his original position; snuggled tightly into Kat Astrophe’s discarded black housecoat.
As the chauffeur drove the two occupants in the official police car away from the scene, its exhaust emissions propelled the nigh frozen junior officer into the waning embers of his apology for a fire. Racked by fatigue and cold, he lay there dreaming of Kat and the catastrophe of a missing whatchamacallit hoping Thomas the dog would experience agony in its passing. As the car pulled away Italian Kat’s rhapsodic voice asked,
“What is a whatchamacallit, Thomas?” Thomas the dog passed wind and gave a small yelp as Thomas the man took hold of her soft enticing hand and started to explain. “Allow me first to put before you an offer you can’t refuse, my dear.”
However, the international saga of the deaths by extraneous circumstances did not end on fire in Moscow. Several moons were to pass before all was made known.
* * *
The Strange Case Of Mr. Isaac Johnson
By The Same Stupid Author
Any interpretation of this short story is done entirely at your own risk.
I have attempted to translate this compact chronicle of events into British English avoiding American English as much as possible. If this transcript remains in any sort of English then it’s a miracle.
* * *
The Mid-Morning Subway Train From Union Square To Pelham Bay Park, New York
It was an unseasonably cold morning even for the city that never sleeps. Perhaps someone had forgotten to leave the heating on overnight. Okay, I will stop trying to make jokes about a serious situation that happened two days before Christmas Day. The detective was stuck with a stiff on a subway train. Yes, you’re right. It was not a normal stiff. This dead body had no obvious sign of how he died. Silently our astute detective contemplated the paper and legwork involved in a murder case compared to one of natural death and the natural death won hands down. The only thing working against that simple conclusion was the stiff’s hands. The back of his hands rested against the inside of his knees with open palms and fingers spread, suggesting he had been holding something. But what and why had they remained like that as he fell from the seating?
The police officer had tried to offload the case to Union Square District of police, but they wouldn’t take it.
“Listen, bud, just cos the corpse has a ticket from here means zilch in our book. He stopped at your end, bud. He’s yours, dude. Knock yourself out with him.”
A transit patrolman had found a witness who was now seated in the warmth of the Pelham Bay police station. Officer first-class, Frank Tuey, had taken a statement in which the woman, Miss Chance Goneabegging, had said that she and the John Doe were two of the last three passengers in that carriage. The other man she described as well built, about six feet tall, wearing a dark blue hooded overcoat, which hid his face and hair colouring. She had, however, added an ominous caveat—‘He had the look of the devil about him.’ She didn’t explain what had made her assume that. This Devil of a man had a dog. She wasn’t sure of the breed but guessed it was a Doberman, big, black with light brown patches, lean, and ferocious with teeth that sparkled under the garish carriage lights. It was the snarling of this dog that had emptied the carriage. The owner and she, along with the dead man, were the only ones the dog was unexcitable with.
She went on to say that sometime between Buhre Avenue and Pelham Bay Park she thought the dead man was stroking this dog because its head was obscured by the dead man’s coat which was open and hanging loose as he bent forward. She had no idea what caused him to fall. As to whether her dog-owning fellow passenger had seen him collapse she was unable to confirm, as shortly after his dog returned from the dead man its owner moved along the carriage, presumably to be closer to the station entrance at Pelham when the train stopped. The detective followed procedure and called for an investigative team of forensic experts to examine the scene. Whilst he waited he went to see patrolman Frank Tuey, mainly to get warm and get a coffee, but also to see the witness.
He was stunned, having to grab the top of the desk where she was seated to save himself from falling. Miss Chance Goneabegging was a looker. Tanned skin, blonde hair, blue eyes and a body that would take you to heaven and keep you there. I would certainly do that, he thought, referring to the ride to heaven. Miss Chance explained how she was on vacation in America for the Christmas and New Year holiday. She especially wanted to see the ball drop in Times Square, she said, which made our detective wince in pain. In his youth, he had been in the Square one New Year’s Eve and saw a young lady trip and fall under the ball. Not nice, he recalled but praised himself for the rhyme. What rhyme, you ask? I don’t know but he did.
After ten minutes or so of resting his weary eyes on her beautiful face, he walked her as far as the street where he made to say goodbye. Something made him stop and reconsider any bland farewell.
“Miss Goneabegging, excuse me for being slightly forward but I see you’re wearing no ring of any description. I’m wondering if you would do me the honour of having a drink with me this evening. Maybe we could meet in the bar at your hotel?” She agreed to an eight o’clock rendezvous at the Walker Hotel Greenwich Village.
* * *
On returning to the subway car he was in a happier disposition, with a warmer heart, and warmer thoughts which we will not go into, but his revived spirits did not last. The forensic pathologist was crouched above the body with another crime scene officer hovering over him. It was he who asked the detective if he had seen the powder on the victim’s face. He had not. He explained how he hadn’t wanted to get too close to the stiff before they had their way with him. It was the pathologist’s judgement that the powder was Scopolamine, known also as ‘Devil’s Breath’ and ordinarily used in small quantities as a preventative of travel sickness but in larger volumes, it was the most deadly poison on the planet.
“Do you think the train ride made him a bit nauseous, doc, and as he went to take some Scopolamine a jolt splashed it all over his face?” he asked, hoping he could write it up as a death caused by a natural jerk on a subway train.
“I can’t be sure, officer. All I can say is that with that amount on his face he’d be dead within seconds, so where did he hide the means of administration? All we found was this empty cellular phone wallet lying under his knee. We found no phone on the body to go with it.”
He held out an evidence bag of contents from what now seemed a murder victim’s pockets. The detective groaned uncontrollably as he took it, then on hearing that the post-mortem could be performed in the morning when toxicology had reported, he sat down opposite the forensic team, alternating his brooding stare from the body to the spread-out possessions in front of him.
Fighting against insanity he picked up the wallet—Isaac Johnson, 2358 Bay Avenue, Pelham Bay. He was described as a cryptologist working at IBM in Union Square. There was money inside and the usual array of credit cards. Then came the loose stuff. Car keys, house keys, safe deposit swipe card, change, and expensive-looking pen, but no notebook. Unless the notebook was the target this man was not the victim of a robbery. The only suspicious thing came down to the empty cellular phone wallet that he kept twiddling in his fingers. He checked his watch, a little before noon. He used his own cellular to call the transit police. When patrolman Frank Tuey came on the line he asked why Miss Chance was travelling to Pelham Bay. On receiving the answer that Tuey had never asked her that, he next called the Walker Hotel in Greenwich Village.
“No, I’m sorry, officer. We have no Miss Chance Goneabegging staying here. Are you sure of the surname? Only it seems a little concocted, wouldn’t you say?”
Detective Investigator first grade Peter Thomas had wondered about that, yet in spite of his own curiosity, he had relied on officer Tuey to ask the relevant questions and authenticate her name, nationality and where in New York she was staying. Although all of that would have only taken a few telephone calls, he had been overcome by her femininity.
* * *
The Following Afternoon In Captain Jack Lemington’s Office
“The post-mortem report states clearly that this is a murder inquiry, Detective. Poisoned by Devil’s Breath. And the prime suspect is where? God knows where that’s where. Wherever where is. For all we know the broad could be on a train, a boat or plane, but do not sing any song about that if you value your life. There was no third man with a dog. That took half an hour to discover by simple detective work. You’re now a traffic cop, Thomas and lucky I don’t ask for your badge. IBM does not have an office in Union Square and Isaac Johnson does not live in Pelham Bay. That took ten minutes to work out. It’s my guess the victim knew this Miss Chance Goneabegging and it was his phone she was after. You certainly let a chance go a begging, didn’t you!” He looked at Thomas and shook his head in disappointment. “Your mother would be ashamed of you. What? You didn’t know about her and me? Well, you do now. The file on this has been sent to the FBI. It includes your cock-ups. I could have hidden them but I didn’t know where, as I told you before. Anyway, it’s their case now, son. I can’t help you from here on in. Pick a fast motorcycle in case they come after you.”
In the room even the silence was silent and the still stagnant air was frightened to move in case it caused a ripple through the energy of time.
“Yes, Peter, you heard right. I called you son, son.”
* * *
That Evening In The Federal Office Building at 26 Federal Plaza on Foley Square, New York
“I have a photo and DNA match on that Isaac Johnson guy found on the subway this morning. According to the CIA, he’s a Russian army lieutenant, last seen leaving Kabul, September 1989. Here it says; aged twenty-seven which would make him fifty-four, which is precisely what it says on this autopsy report. It’s him alright. I’ll fax it through to Langley and give them the headache.”
* * *
One Hour After The File Arrived At The CIA Headquarters
“That subway death in New York that pinged up involving the Russian spymaster and the disappeared woman is kicking up a storm in the Director’s office. It seems this Johnson guy, real name Kauli Kough, was caught up in a similar scam in Moscow two years ago and one in London, England seven months back. When we sent one of our agents to London he got confused between MI5 and a highway they have. He kept driving around and around the M25 motorway waiting for someone to wave him down. He picked one guy up who he thought was his contact only to find out he wanted a ride to Birmingham. He thought he meant Birmingham, Alabama so he shot him for being stupid and dumped his body at a service station.
“Reports on both the Moscow and London incidents place Kough with a dame called Deva Station. She’s with Mossad and would you believe listed as a friendly. The Director is on the phone to Tel Aviv now. Last I heard was— ‘clear your mess off my doorstep’ then he slammed the door closed and caught his little pinkie. Didn’t you hear his screams? London went down the damage control route. The witness who saw Kough coughing into a handkerchief given to him by Deva Station is six feet below ground and the whole team of pathologists who worked the body are hiding in a snowdrift in Canada. The witness they popped off was a single guy but those lab people were all married. There’s to be a government inquiry, however, they don’t know which government is to deal with it.
“The stiff in Moscow had the same powder on his face as on ours and the one in London. Apparently, the patrolman in Moscow was left to freeze to death thinking the powder was the frost. They found a half-written note saying a dog had taken what he called a whatchamacallit. We’ll never know what he saw and what the dog took. Come to that, what’s a whatchamacallit? He was Moscow’s man posing as a fence painter but spying on Deva Station. There was no sign of his control, a police captain, who couldn’t have shown. My inside man inside Moscow Central thinks this Deva Station woman is a Columbian man, but they drink a lot of vodkas over there and sometimes don’t know the difference between inside and inside.
“Some parts of the intelligence community in London had a theory that she was French and believed she was spraying Chanel on everyone hoping to boost French exports before that Brexit thing the Russians are running. Another part just wants to go to war with the Russians, or if there’s no backing for that then they want to invade Seychelles and occupy the islands for a couple of years whilst this all sorts itself out.
“When the Director took the call from London I was still in his office and from what I could gather he and London want to go to Columbia dig up all Borrachero trees they can find so that they can’t make any more of the stuff and sell it on. Said they want to plant them in Afghanistan and share the profits.
“The stolen phones are never likely to be recovered. All we can assume, according to our leader, is they held sensitive material and Deva Station killed Kauli Kough under Mossad’s instructions. However, it turns out Israel wants Kauli Kough’s body and to do away with the traffic cop. I heard he was worried about Christmas. We could bottle some Scopolamine and send it to him as an aftershave, or better still find Deva Station and send her.”
* * *
There was a smudged tear on the fuel tank of traffic officer Peter Thomas’s motorcycle as he wrote out his first speeding ticket as morning broke on Christmas Day. In the rear of the chauffeur driven car he had stopped, shielded by the blacked-out windows, sat the glamorous figure of Miss Deva Station aka Chance Goneabegging, but the thought of his father being Jack Lemington was too much for Peter Thomas to care and as far as Miss Deva Station was concerned she was looking out the wrong window for her Thomas, not sure where she had lost him.
Suddenly, without warning, the chauffeur grabbed hold of patrolman Thomas’s sleeve and called out in a loud voice—“Don’t ask for whom the trumpet sounds, just roll up those trousers and dance away. Just dance away those tears. Just dance away your fears. Disregard the bogeymen and learn the mandolin.”
But sadly Peter Thomas who by then was overcome with grief, never clearly heard what the driver said and never really cared. Instead of dancing he gunned his motorcycle and without looking over his shoulder, nor plucking any chords of any mandolin, pulled out in front of a fast-moving police cavalcade transporting his father to the prearranged rendezvous he had with Miss Deva Station at The Bates Hotel, Downtown. Neither he nor the intended participant in the fun and games he had in mind noticed poor Thomas laying in a flattened pose having been squashed by several cars. He was dead and nobody cared.
You can cry now.