Excerpt from Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker (2010)

      Internal Mail



      14.00 hrs

      (Package and covering letter sent by internal mail)

      For attn PC Roger Topping, Ilkley


      Great news, Rog, great news –

      At last all those long, incalculably boring, soul-destroying hours of trudging and waiting and moping and cussing have finally paid off, and the career-making case you’ve been yearning for (stuck out there on your lonesome, all stiff and cross and swollen — with that haunting, blue tinge around your gills — like a huge, neglected gouty toe; a beached whale; a dour, oversized funeral director with no funeral to direct; a bad joke; a lazy error; a missed train; a dropped stitch; an unsightly stain on the perfect, white napkin of West Yorkshire’s tea-cake and charity-shop capital) is about to land — not the cake, you dope — with a lovely, resounding plop! right in the middle of your capacious lap.

      Oh, and it’s a good one, Rog, it’s a choice one! It’s something that’s going to frustrate and perplex that razor-sharp intellect of yours for many, many years to come. It’s going to haunt your dreams, Rog, and dominate your every waking moment. It’s going to confound and enrage you, Rog. It’s going to challenge you in ways you never imagined, ways you never even thought possible.

      Put plainly, Rog: it’s going to take over your miserable, pointless little existence and turn it upside down in exactly the same way it took over (and turned over) mine (which is slightly less miserable and pointless than yours, admittedly. No, considerably less, Rog — considerably less — if you don’t mind my saying so).

      It’s a Red Letter Day, Rog, so thump the tub! Whoop it up! Blow off the lid! Because your time has finally come! And it’s an important time, Rog, a vital time, a time to cast aside ‘compromise’ and ‘waffle’ and ‘pragmatism’, and re-embrace all those old-fashioned principles of your gilded youth — ideas like … like ‘truth’ and ‘honour’, like ‘pride’ and ‘justice’. (Don’t think ‘mortgage’, Rog. Never think ‘mortgage’. Great men never think ‘mortgage’. And while we’re on the subject, don’t think ‘bun’. And try not to think ‘steak pie’ or ‘battered sausage’. I know how partial you are to those.)

      In short, this is no time for beating around the bush, Rog. It’s a time for plain speaking, a time for speaking your mind, a time for speaking as you find; a time for barking out orders, for slamming doors, for shoving your way, brutishly, into tiny, tightly packed rooms, squeezing your big, meaty hand into a powerful fist and banging it down, forcefully — again and again and again and again — on to desks and tables and other hard surfaces.

      It’s not a time for idle prattle and mooching about and eye-rolling and clock-watching (although, God only knows, there has been time for that in the past, Rog — and, God willing, still plenty more of it yet to come).

      It’s time to step up to the plate, Rog (and I don’t mean your dinner plate, lad), a time to gird your loins — if loins you still have (Sandy, my gorgeous wife — your ex — once told me how you liked to shed them, every autumn, the way a stag sheds its antlers. But darling Sandy — as we have both discovered, to our mutual cost — can sometimes be a little bit ‘creative’ with the truth, eh, Rog?).

      It’s A Time to Dance, Rog — as I believe the bestselling author, Melvyn Bragg, once so poetically exhorted us. Although if you do decide to break into a spontaneous quickstep — or a foxtrot, or a samba — please be sure to wear your head-brace, your shoe-supports and your corset (or else — dollars to doughnuts, Rog — those moronic jobsworths from Health and Safety will be sniffing around us, yet again, like a feral pack of constipated hyenas).

      Let’s throw caution to the wind, Rog! This is no time to shilly-shally, no time to test the water and teeter, nervously, on the brink. (Ah yes, I still fondly remember those compulsory school swimming lessons at Thornhill Baths: me, clowning around on the high diving board — to wildly cacophonous cheers from the boys, hysterical screams of terror from the girls — and then suddenly, with no warning, clicking into ‘The Zone’, striding calmly to its furthest tip, bouncing once, bouncing twice, and then performing — to assembled gasps — a near-as-dammit-perfect back-flip, barely disturbing the surface of the pool with so much as a ripple as I entered it. Incredible!

      And you, Rog? You? Far down below, Rog, crammed into an under-size pair of brown nylon/viscose-mix regulation trunks, your soft belly bulging over the waistband like a generous slick of extra-thick UHT cream, the voluminous skin of your upper torso pulsing translucently — ghastly and white as a portion of uncooked tripe — your chest heaving, uncontrollably, as you shivered and whimpered and clutched on to your towel, blinking, uneasily, into the blurry half-light.

      You had good reason to feel apprehensive, Rog, having just — a few moments earlier — taken the very sensible precaution of removing your glasses: you were vulnerable, Rog. You were hamstrung. You were tragically incapacitated.

      Yet how could you have possibly known, Rog — except with the aid of very basic common sense — that your every move was being carefully scrutinized, from above, by a mischievous young prankster, svelte and bendy as a cat, in a pair of tight, bright red Speedos, who thought it would be a hoot, Rog — a veritable hoot, Rog — when the opportunity arose, to steal those precious glasses of yours and then conceal them — in an act of rare daring and audacity — behind the lifeguard’s chair?

      How could you have possibly known, Rog? How, Rog? Eh?

      And the moral of this insignificant little tale, Rog — if moral there be, at all …?

      GROW A PAIR, ROG!!



      It’s time to grab the damn world by the scruff of its neck and shake it, Rog. SHAKE IT!!

      YOU HEAR?!)

      Because I’ll make no bones about it, Rog: this case is a hard taskmaster. Remember Mr Philton, Rog? Dr Philton? With his heavy, dark green serge jackets, his Advanced Motorist badge and his chronic halitosis? Who made you wet yourself, Rog, piss yourself, Rog, in front of the entire class during Double Latin, after you forgot how to conjugate the Latin verb ‘to touch’?

      Pardon, Rog? Was that a ‘yes’, I just heard you mutter there? Was that a ‘yes’, Rog, accompanied by a nervous cough and a sheepish little nod of the head? It was? So you do remember, Rog? You do actually remember?



      Well, for your information, Rog, this case — this remarkable case, this extraordinary case — is every inch as exacting and fastidious as crusty old Philton was; every inch as unsparing and punctilious (with an impressive line in put-downs, Rog, just like that old bastard had).

      This case is a cruel mistress, Rog — the cruellest mistress. It’s a savage, top-dollar dominatrix; a natural red-head in thigh-high, black leather boots and matching corset. Wonderfully well-equipped, Rog (astonishingly well-equipped), with her regulation whip, her paddle, her rack, her cleats, her strap-on, and — naturellement! — that inevitable — almost prosaic — pair of stainless-steel nipple-clamps.

      She won’t take any prisoners, Rog (well, perhaps the odd one — but only with the general assurance of firmly established protocols, full legal consent, and an accepted release word).

      Much as you might expect, Rog, she pays precious little heed to society’s mores (that mundane index of ‘accepted niceties’ we all so love to depend upon). She’ll just sweep into your life, Rog, barge into your life, Rog, demand to know exactly how much you’re earning (to the last pound, per annum, up front), deliver a couple of devastatingly acute and haughty pronouncements (like: ‘You think you’re very funny, very witty, don’t you? You think you’re quite the card, but I can assure you that you’re not,’ or ‘I noticed a little earlier, when we were leaving the restaurant, that you’re going ever so slightly bald on top …’), then shoot you a disdainful smile, shove you into a chair, push up her skirt, calmly straddle your lap and promptly take over.


      Quick as a flash!

      Just like that!

      Can you see her, yet, Rog? Can you smell her?


      She smells of dirty musk and aniseed balls and cheap vodka, and that oddly persistent aroma from inside a moist, well-used Marigold washing-up glove. A wonderful smell, Rog, a heady, heaving, steamy aroma. Just close your eyes for a moment, Rog, and inhale it. Go on … just … yes … Inhale!

      Lovely, deep breath, Rog, lovely deep …


      Let it waft over you, Rog. Let it wash, gently, over you. Let it tip-toe around you and then creep — softly, so insidiously — inside your head. Let it calm your fevered mind, Rog, tickle your aching sinuses, and tingle on your tongue… Don’t stiffen, Rog! No need to stiffen! It means you no harm, Rog. Just allow yourself to trust it, Rog. Just give it your permission, Rog. Just hold out your hand, Rog, and welcome it in… That’s right! Much better! You’re doing well, Rog! You’re doing brilliantly! Feels really good, doesn’t it?

      Another breath now, Rog, deep, deep breath, now, Rog…


      Perfect, Rog. See how easy that was? Relax those shoulders, now, Rog, lower those shoulders… Great work! Now the face. Let’s relax the face, Rog, starting with the mouth. No more tension around the mouth. Feel the lips falling slightly apart… Excellent, Rog!

      Now the eyes, Rog. Relax the eyes. Feel them rolling back in your head… Good boy! Well done!

      And finally, the forehead. Release that frown, Rog. Feel all your pent-up stress and anxiety just slipping away, Rog, just lifting off you, Rog, just floating away from you… Wave bye-bye to all that nasty tension, Rog — Bye-bye tension! — and then make welcome, in its stead, this beautiful, almost overwhelming sense of peace and contentment…

      How calm you feel, Rog! How quiet! How serene! Embrace that sensation, Rog, embrace that warm feeling of safety and tranquillity… Just let everything go, Rog, just let…


      WAKE UP!!

      WAKE UP, ROG!!!


      You’ve taken your mind off the ball, Rog (what were you thinking, Rog?!) and she is striding towards you, at speed, her heels sounding like gunshots on the ceramic tiles — QUICK, ROG! QUICK! TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT!

      She is shouting something at you, Rog, as she cracks her whip — instructions of some kind, demands of some kind, but because of the blood pumping in your ears (tinnitus still a problem, Rog?) you can’t actually make them out…

      What’s she saying, Rog? What’s she…?


      That hurt!


      That hurt!

      My God — just look at her, Rog, look at her! What an astonishing spectacle she creates! What Babylonian splendour! What brilliancy! What brazenness! What filth! What grandeur!

      And what a figure she has, Rog! What curves! What lines! What definition! Check out those legs, Rog! Longer than Joey Barton’s arrest record! And that stomach, Rog! That six-pack! Tight as the Pope’s prophylactic allowance! And let’s not forget those buttocks, Rog; those fragrant buns! Harder than a pitbull’s forehead!


      Hang on a second, Rog… Something’s not quite right here. Something’s wrong. Just call it instinct, Rog, but something’s definitely amiss… What’s that she’s holding behind her back, Rog? What is it? A length of hose? A bat?! Well, whatever it is, one thing’s for certain: this girl is VERY, VERY ANGRY, Rog! She’s absolutely LIVID! She’s SPITTING TACKS! She is FURIOUS, Rog! Her rage is absolute, it’s all-consuming, it’s DOWNRIGHT, BLOODY MAGNIFICENT! (No. No. Put your badge away, Rog! You’re embarrassing yourself, now. Get a grip on yourself, lad! That type of buttoned-up behaviour simply won’t wash in this environment.)

      Oh dear. Oh dear. Just a fraction too late, Rog. She saw the badge (worse still, she sensed the attitude) and she didn’t like it, Rog. Not one bit. Her red lips are tangling into an ugly snarl. Her mean, green eyes are flashing and glinting like nasty slithers of candied angelica.

      BEWARE, ROG!! NO SUDDEN MOVES, ROG! BACK OFF, ROG! TAKE CARE!!! Because this girl will eat you up and spit you out! She’ll beat you to a pulp! She’ll drip hot candle-wax into your nostrils and stamp her stiletto-heeled boot into your prodigious gut. She’ll make you kneel and crawl and grovel, Rog. She’ll make you fawn and cower and snivel. She’ll make you ask nicely for every stupid little thing (‘Please, Miss, if you don’t mind, Miss…’) and then refuse you, point-blank.

      She’ll make you wish you were never born, Rog! She’ll make you bleat like a lamb! She’ll dress you up in a nappy — taunt you and tease you — demand that you pee yourself, then slap you, red-raw, when you do. She’ll make you greet and shudder and howl, Rog. I know she will, Rog, I know she will, because I’VE ALREADY BEEN THERE, Rog! I’ve bought the ticket, Rog! I’ve taken the tour, Rog! I’ve used all the facilities, Rog (and left them scrupulously clean, Rog, I can assure you)!

      OH, ROG! HOW I’VE SUFFERED AT HER HANDS! How I’ve bucked and gasped and strained at her ungodly demands! I’ve been her slave, Rog, her worm, her hack, her grub, her fag! I’ve been her fool, Rog, her fool!

      And how has she repaid me, Rog (for all my loyalty and patience, my stoicism and forbearance)? What has she deigned to give me in return, Rog? By way of fair exchange, Rog?


      NOTHING, Rog!

      Not a damn thing, Rog!

      Look at me, Rog! Just look at me! My manhood is in shreds! My dignity is in tatters! My life is in chaos! My pride is in ruins! AND ALL FOR WHAT, ROG? FOR WHAT?!

      I’m no longer afraid to confess, Rog, that over the past few months this case — this damnable case, this infernal case — has pretty much taken all I’ve had to give. It’s squeezed me dry, Rog. It’s drained me. It’s very nearly had the best of me: fact.

      It’s been a heavy burden, Rog. It’s been a heavier burden than — at times — it was possible for one, lone man (even a powerfully built man, well-preserved, with all his original features still intact) to bear. In truth (and in all humility, Rog), I sometimes thought this case might break me. At points I thought it had broken me. I was like a badly made, reproduction Staffordshire shepherdess (are you still collecting the Staffordshire figures, Rog?) after a bumpy ride down the A59 in the back of a stolen Ford Transit.

      My paint — once so pristine — has been scuffed and chipped by this case, Rog. My shiny veneer has been irreparably clouded. At one point — I’ll openly admit — I was even in imminent danger of losing my crook.

      Oh yes, I was very nearly shattered by this case,

Rog. I say again: very. nearly. shattered. by. this. case. Rog.

      Thank heaven for Bostik.

      My hands tremble a little as I write to you today, Rog — I don’t doubt that your well-trained eye has already detected the slight wobble (which is precisely why the force holds you in such high esteem, Rog, and a major reason why they decided to ship you — lock, stock and barrel, at the very peak of your powers, without any kind of warning or consultation — from the bustling, crime-ridden metropolis of Leeds, to the sedate, country town of Ilkley, where you now employ your prodigious portfolio of detective skills in overseeing school fetes, book fairs and minor traffic infractions, while maintaining a standard of service which no other qualified recruit on the modern force today would knowingly dare to replicate.

      You’ve got huge guts, Rog, huge guts. Let no man presume to tell you otherwise — or any woman, either, if one ever gets within spitting distance).

      But enough of my inconsequential witterings, Rog (For what do they matter now? I am yesterday’s news, Rog. My battle with this case is over), let’s just grasp the nettle, Rog, together, Rog, and press on, shall we? Because it’s all about you, now, Rog. This is your moment. So take it, Rog, grab it, Rog (the moment, Rog, not the nettle, you idiot), with those huge, flabby mitts of yours, and hold on fast, kid. Prepare yourself for the ride of your life! It’s sure as hell going to be a bumpy one!

      Buckle yourself in tightly, Rog (I took the precaution of asking them — in advance — to enlarge and reinforce the safety-belt. They were surprisingly cooperative, Rog, and they assured me — after doing their sums — that they were at least 37 per cent sure that the stitching would hold in the advent of a sudden stop. Eh voilà, Rog — Les jeux sont faits!).

      Because whatever happens, Rog (and which of us may know what the future holds?), it’s going to be a crazy, hazy cavalcade, Rog: a blur of light and speed and blood and lust and heat and spunk and fire (but no biscuits, Rog. No digestives or ginger snaps or HobNobs. Possibly an outside chance of the odd Garibaldi… but then… well… possibly not).

      Draw a deep breath and pinch yourself, Rog (more than an inch, Rog? Yeah. I thought as much), because what you’re holding between your eight fat fingers (and two still fatter thumbs) is the Wacky Races of all cases. This is the Top Banana, Rog. This is THE BIG ONE! And it’s all yours, now, Rog. It’s completely and utterly yours, now, Rog.

      Blink back the tears, Rog, because this case — this extraordinary case — this astonishing case — this case, which has foiled, baffled and dumbfounded some of the country’s greatest living detective minds… Although… actually… no. On second thoughts, it was only my great, living, detective mind (as you are probably already aware, my faithful colleague, PC Hill, has been off sick for the past month after misaligning his spine — and nobody else ever really gave a tinker’s cuss… A quick word to the wise, Rog, while we’re on the subject: never attempt to learn t’ai chi from a stuttering Bulgarian bricklayer with one ear).

      So here it is, Rog, here it is. My stomach loops and contracts as I hand it over (dodgy prawn sandwich at lunch, perhaps?). I am full of relief and awe and gratitude — a little humble, a little proud.

      Here it is, Rog. It is yours. It was meant for you, Rog (and I say that with all sincerity). It was preordained, Rog. It was written in the stars, Rog. It was fated.

      It’s your destiny, Rog. It was always your destiny.

      Because there have been other cases, Rog, and other officers, but there has never been this case, Rog, and this officer. There has never been PC Roger Topping and (my teeth tingle as I prepare to write these words) the case of THE BURLEY CROSS POSTBOX THEFT. Or does it sound better the other way around? THE BURLEY CROSS POSTBOX THEFT case? I’m not entirely sure, Rog. Perhaps the second way is best. Or perhaps the first. Yes. The first. Perhaps the first has more punch, Rog, more attack, more gravitas.

      Right. Good. I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. So let’s get down to business now, shall we?

      The package, you will observe (if you double-check the contents back against the enclosed inventory — which, of course, you will; I would expect nothing less of you, Rog), is thirty-seven documents short of the initial haul. These consisted of twenty-two Christmas cards (from four original sources, all of which contained only the most perfunctory of messages), nine responses to a private advert in the local press about a foolproof, non-invasive remedy for unreliable erectile function (it’s an ageing population, Rog), three applications to take part in a government-funded solar water-heating scheme (environmentalist poppycock), a £212 cheque bound for an Egyptian donkey sanctuary near Cairo (raised by Wincey Hawkes at The Old Oak during the village’s monthly bridge night), another of £425 (bound for a clock repair specialist from Harrogate), and a third of £2,838 (heading for the Burley Cross Auction of Promises account at the Cooperative Bank, Ilkley), all of which I have duly returned to Wincey, by hand, on Tuesday (on the understanding that she may well have cancelled them during the intervening period).

      I took the difficult decision to dispose of the remaining thirty-four documents as I saw fit (i.e. got Mary on the Front Desk to reseal them with Sellotape last Friday and bang them back into the post), because they couldn’t be crammed inside the Jiffy bag (this was the only bag in the building, Rog, and it’s my bag. There’s been a bust-up with Supplies. The wife of the tiny dick in charge recently delivered twins — one in breech — and word on the street is that a whole twelve weeks later, she’s still staunchly refusing to put out. So now we’re all paying the price, Rog; it’s well over a fortnight since I’ve so much as laid eyes on a paperclip).

      Don’t be overly concerned by the green staining on the bag — it formerly contained my monthly delivery of organic kelp powder (amazing stuff — absolutely amazing. It’s worked wonders for my lazy bowel. I’m now regular as a station-clock, chiming twice daily: once at ten, and once at eight, on the dot).

      Ever the consummate professional, I have seen fit to contact Messrs Thorndyke, Endive Jr, and Augustine personally (by email, at www.hystericaltosspots.com) to inform them of the fact that this case is now being passed on to the Ilkley Constabulary. I don’t doubt that you will be hearing from them very shortly. In fact you have probably heard from them already. In fact you are probably hearing from them right now, if the phone in your office is ringing…

      Is it ringing, Rog? Thought so. Did you answer it, Rog? You did. And was it Mr Thorndyke’s solicitor, Rog, ‘keeping up to speed’ on things, while jabbering away, inanely, about heaven only knows what? Of course it was.

      Since I have a few minutes to spare before tea-time (who tiptoes ever closer on her sweet, icing-sugared feet) and because I consider you ‘an old mucker’, Rog, I’ll give you a quick précis of my activities in relation to this case over the past six weeks (although, if you prefer, there’s always the enclosed file: a whole 474 pages-worth of completely pointless paperwork, duplicated thricely, as regulations stipulate).

      Credit where credit’s due, Rog: PC Hill actually did much of the early legwork. His initial visit to the crime scene was on the morning after the theft (on the evening of the 21st — the night of the crime — we were all somewhat preoccupied in Skipton, as I’m sure you will recall, by my televised appearance on the National Bravery Awards — live, from the Café de Paris in London — following those tragic incidents surrounding the blaze at Tilton Mill; the fascinating denouement of which has been closely followed — and faithfully recorded, with accompanying photos and lengthy panegyrics from a grateful public — in the local and national press. Although, as I said at the time, Rog, ‘The label of “hero” sits uncomfortably on me. I’m just a typical, northern copper doing an extremely difficult — and often dangerous — job to the very best of my blah, blah, blah…’).

      We have reason to believe that the break-in took place at approximately 21.00 hrs. The local vicar assured PC Hill that he posted a letter (case letter 15) at about 20.55 that evening, when everything appeared ‘just as normal — in fact, if anything, more normal than normal’. (PC Hill comments in his accompanying notes that he found this ‘more normal than normal’ statement, ‘slightly odd’, but that he didn’t press the reverend any further on the point because ‘he had just started a nose bleed and only had one tissue’.)

      The crime was reported to us (with almost indecent alacrity, Rog) at 21.12, by Susan Trott — of Black Grouse Cottage — who had been, I quote: ‘out looking for hedgehogs when I was horrified to notice the postbox door had fallen off and was just lying there, on the ground’.

      The report PC Hill submitted was, to put it generously, a tad perfunctory (you will notice that some of his ‘extra thoughts’ were jotted down on to torn shreds of chip paper — that fool in Supplies has so much to answer for!).

      No serious attempt was made to dust the crime scene for fingerprints because — as you can read for yourself — it had been ‘bucketing down with rain all morning’.

      His search for any kind of tool or instrument which might’ve been used to engineer the break-in was limited to ‘a quick peek in a nearby hedge’, where he was surprised to discover ‘a rusty, old biscuit-tin containing two slightly mildewed pornographic magazines: Trumpet for Boys (Issue 13, June 1998), and Golden Horns (Issue 4, December 2002)’. As you can probably detect from the titles, Rog, they were directed towards the specialist brass band enthusiast’s market, and aren’t currently included in the body of evidence because PC Hill took them home for ‘further detailed scrutiny’ (he plays a wind instrument himself; possibly the clarinet), and has yet to bring them back.

      While it obviously pains me to level criticism at an officer from my own division, Rog, I don’t believe, in all candour, that PC Hill initially appreciated the true gravity of the Burley Cross Postbox Theft scenario — a serious schoolboy error for a young bobby of his obvious talent and considerable potential (and talking of errors, Rog, I think you’ll agree that he really does need to learn the correct spellings of ‘necessary’ and ‘instigated’).

      Even so, there’s a perfectly passable description of the condition of the box itself. (‘Overall, the thing’s in a pretty terrible state. I’m surprised it’s still functional. It’s falling to pieces… There’s a bit of botched-up paintwork covering several inches of rust around the base, and another bit around the door’s hinges… To break into it, all you’d’ve really needed to do was jab at it for a while with a flat screwdriver or a putty knife…’)

      You will doubtless already be aware of the backstory re the postbox, Rog. The Royal Mail — or Consignia (or whatever jumped-up moniker they’re giving themselves nowadays) — have been trying to replace it with a modern box for the past three years and have been repeatedly foiled in their attempts by a shadowy — but nevertheless deeply influential — pressure group in the village called The Burley Cross Preservation Corps.

      The Corps is controlled by Independent local borough councillor (and gibbering idiot) Baxter Thorndyke. Thorndyke is also a staunch mainstay of both The Burley Cross Public Toilet Watch (est. 2005), and The Burley Cross Road Safety Committee, a group whose chief aim is to encourage motorists to stick to the busy A road that bypasses the village, rather than taking the — admittedly, rather tempting — short-cut straight through the heart of it (they have their own luminous, faux-military uniform and functioning speed gun — which they bought on the internet — and spend many a pleasant hour each week pointing it at random drivers and intimidating them with it).

      You will know yourself, Rog, that the postbox at issue is actually situated in Ilkley Constabulary’s policing territory (I rue the day some pea-brain on Wharfedale Council found themselves with a spare half-hour to waste before lunch one morning, and saw fit to spend it cheerfully reallocating the police boundary for Burley Cross, dividing it, haphazardly, between our two adjacent forces. For the record, I still don’t know who’s responsible for the barn and outbuildings at Deep Fell or the small housing estate on Hollow Nook Farm… So far as I am aware, they currently police themselves).

      The girl at the call pool who registered (and then allocated) Susan Trott’s emergency call (Cindy Withers. Are you familiar with Cindy, Rog? Incorrigible shrew. Terrible chip on her shoulder — probably acquired from lugging that phenomenal pair of Double-D cups around everywhere with her) still stridently maintains, in her own defence, that while she appreciated the fact that the box was on your watch, the caller — Susan Trott — phoned from a land-line inside her home, which is directly adjacent to the box, and therefore on ours.

      A bag of evidence being unearthed in the back alleys of Skipton — a mere ten hours thereafter — was also considered pertinent to where the case ultimately ended up.

      Of course the people in charge of these life-and-death decisions (hard to believe they actually have a whole department dedicated to this kind of guff, Rog, manned entirely by the idiot sons and daughters of Police Commissioners, I don’t doubt), always reserve the right to change what we laughably call ‘their minds’ (thereby effortlessly generating yet another skip-load of paperwork), and have apparently resolved to do so in this instance (I honestly don’t know why this might be, or what they can possibly hope to gain by it, Rog, I just try my damnedest to keep my head down, and take all their stupid, petty, pointless — not to mention hugely disruptive — subterranean political manoeuvrings with a very, very generous pinch of salt).

      Returning, if I may, to the issue of the theft itself; it might interest you to discover (and this is not something PC Hill made an official note of, but he happened to mention it to me, afterwards) that during his cursory, five-minute perusal of the postbox, he was approached and engaged in conversation/ loudly interrogated/helpfully advised/subtly lampooned/openly insulted (take your pick, Rog) by at least twelve different individuals, including the aforementioned Thorndyke (don’t these crackpots have jobs to go to, Rog? Or lives to lead? Or hedges to trim? Or Raku classes to attend?), who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend ‘Your Vehicle is a Loaded Weapon!’ on one side and ‘Watch out World — I’m a Highwayman!’ on the other.

      PC Hill said Mr Thorndyke became ‘quite hysterical’ during their brief exchange, and at one point virtually screamed, ‘This is exactly what they wanted! Are you blind?! Can’t you see?! This is exactly what they wanted! If you actually have any serious intention of investigating this crime — and catching the cowardly vandal who committed this atrocity — then stop dawdling around here like a wet weekend, stuffing your face with battered cod, and go and speak to the man behind it! Talk to Trevor Woods! Talk to their henchman, if you’ve got the balls! He’s up to his scrawny neck in all of this!’ (I feel I must just briefly note, in passing, that there have been no actual road fatalities in Burley Cross since 1917, when, according to town records, ‘an inebriated flower-seller — of poor repute — slipped on some filthy cobbles, fell under the wheels of a cart and was instantly killed.’

      It should also be noted that Cllr Thorndyke was wearing a T-shirt — and only a T-shirt, in temperatures of 20 degrees and under — during his exchange with PC Hill. PC Hill said, ‘His teeth were chattering as he spoke. It was actually quite difficult to decipher what he was saying at some points. I don’t know why he didn’t just go home and put his coat on.’)

      A short while later, as he was climbing into his patrol car, PC Hill apprehended the aforementioned Mr Woods (the source of all this unbridled hysteria), driving up to the box in his postal van. PC Hill said he was ‘to all intents and purposes a broken man, skulking around the place like a beaten dog…’

      On being questioned about the theft, Woods was quoted as saying, ‘They can’t pay me enough to do the collection here, mate. They’re nutters. They should have me on danger money. They’re all sodding lunatics.’

      Suffice to say, following PC Hill’s initial investigation of the crime scene (and following the discovery of the refuse sack of letters found dumped in a back alley in Skipton — a mere two doors down from the bijou residence of notorious local petty criminal, Timmy Dickson), I contacted all those individuals whose letters now form a part of the official evidence, informing them that their post couldn’t be returned — or forwarded on — until it had been formally declassified as such.

      Next, I initiated an official mail-out to the entire village (also enclosed, Rog, translated into the obligatory three languages — I chose Portuguese, Mandarin and Xhosa) to try and discover if anyone had posted a letter on the evening of Dec. 21st, which had not — for some reason — been retrieved in the Skipton cache.

      Nobody had, although Rita Bramwell couldn’t be entirely certain. She said she thought she might have sent something, but that she wasn’t sure what it was, or to whom it was addressed (she’s several wires short of the full radio, Rog). As it transpired, she had actually sent something (case letter 13).

      When I then asked her if she had received my earlier communication (informing her that exactly such a letter was being held by us, as evidence), she hotly denied that I had sent her one — although her husband, Peter Bramwell, later found it stuffed down the back of a chaise longue, and was kind enough to apologize to me for his wife’s behaviour.

      I subsequently sent Mrs Bramwell a photocopy of her own letter (in an attempt to dispel her confusion). Her response was not at all as I had expected it to be. She hotly denied having sent it — in a long and erratic email — making a series of wild, unsubstantiated claims and accusations — one of which was that it had been ‘forged’, and that I myself was ‘in the frame’ as one of the suspects for the crime (we all had a good chuckle at that in the staff canteen)!

      Several people were, you will be stunned to discover, Rog, a little peeved by the news that their post would not be immediately returned to them (you may have seen the bilious squall of angry letters in the local rag, Rog), but this is Burley Cross, after all: a tiny, ridiculously affluent, ludicrously puffed-up moor-side village, stuffed to capacity with spoilt second-home owners, southerners, the strange, the ‘artistic’, the eccentric and the retired (most of them tick all of the above boxes, Rog, and several more besides — although I’m sure I don’t have the natural intelligence, fine vocabulary or social acuity to do them all justice here… Matt Endive (Sr) — case letter 4 — who perfectly exemplifies those latent, Burley Cross characteristics of tragic retard and unalloyed fat-head combined, called me a ‘bumped-up little northern grammar-school oik’, only yesterday on the phone, and then, when I laughed him off, said I was ‘tragically out of my depth’ and ‘riddled with contumely’. I responded — quick as a flash, Rog. I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t mean “contumacy,” Mr Endive — from the Latin com = intense + tumere = to swell?’

      A long silence followed, Rog, and I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed every damn second of it — although, in retrospect, I think he probably did mean contumely).

      Of course you know better than anybody, Rog, what kind of problems we’re up against here: to say Burley Cross is ‘Little England writ large’, would be like saying Stilton is ‘a dairy product with blue bits running through it’ (i.e. an understatement, Rog, and a considerable understatement at that).

      This is, after all, the same place where the local council’s decision not to install a speed-bump last year caused a mini-riot on Pancake Day which was later ‘Recorded for Posterity, that Future Generations Might Read and Weep’, in a seven-hundred-line epic poem, (still pinned up on the notice board outside the local shop, with copies available for sale inside):

      The butcher got the worst of it, when spade and axe did fall,

      The baker put up quite a fight, when caught up in the brawl

      (Ironically, there is no baker in Burley Cross, Rog, and never has been, either, so far as I am aware.)

      Before I finally wind up, Rog, here’s a little something extra that might just pique your interest: while nobody was willing to admit to having had a letter stolen during the theft, two people were determined to make it publicly known that the letters written in their names were not penned by their own hands (the first, Rita Bramwell, as mentioned previously; the second, Tom Augustine, whose letter about a little incident at the public toilets I found especially informative, Rog — if deeply unedifying).

      A final, brief aside, Rog: I couldn’t help remarking on how many letters had been sent on the day of the robbery. The number seemed unusually high in these text- and email-friendly times (even taking into consideration the pre-Christmas rush). I was about to launch some half-cocked investigations re The Royal Mail (Consignia, et al.) when PC Hill happily set my mind at rest on the issue.

      It transpires that an extremely attractive, young lady — Nina Springhill — has recently started work in the post office, and, since her employment there, the volume of post being sent from the village has significantly increased (not only that, but an unprecedented number of pensioners — all male — have reverted to the traditional way of receiving their bi-monthly pay-outs: at the counter, as opposed to having it paid directly into their bank accounts).

      I was only too happy to check the veracity of this tip-off myself, Rog, a week or so back, when I dropped into the PO to buy a book of stamps (in fact I bought three — two more on successive visits) which Sandy later came across — on wash day — while going through my pockets.

      When I staggered home from work that night, there they all were, formally arranged on the kitchen table, like pieces of evidence — in fact I think there may have been five of them, in total — and Sandy standing next to them, pointing, with a face like thunder, demanding to know who I was planning to write to, and why.

      (I mean all this fuss and nonsense over seven little books of stamps, Rog! Whatever next, eh?!)

      So that’s pretty much the sum of it, Rog. I do hope my paltry insights have proved moderately useful as I step graciously aside — severing the spell-binding umbilical of this case once and for all — and redirect my energies to solving Skipton’s ever increasing backlog of run-of-the-mill murders, arsons, rapes, indecent assaults etc. (and, of course, in case I ever get too smug and complacent: the perennially fascinating mystery of Mrs Compton-Rees’s nomadic recycling bin; they found it in Hurston on Friday, then, on Sunday, a bemused call from the Laundromat in New Leasey…).

      Hush, my boy! Hush! What’s that I hear? Is it the trusty rattle of Mrs Spokes’s tea trolley?

      Before it arrives, Rog, I should probably alert you to the fact that Timmy Dickson, our main suspect for the crime (this type of activity is right up his street, Rog — or should I say ‘right up his back alley’, Rog? Arf! Arf!), has a perfect alibi. He was bedridden in hospital in Leeds that week, after his electronic tagging device rubbed up against the delicate flesh of his calf, generated a blister, and provoked a nasty case of cellulitis (transpires he’s allergic to penicillin, Rog, and blew up like a balloon when they pumped him full of the stuff!).

      Fishing Saturday week, Rog? It’s been too long! How are your shifts? I’m free in the p.m. from one, if that’s any good to you. The following week I’m thinking of heading off to Royal Dornoch for a round or two (they say it has the same latitude as Moscow!) with Richard Usbourne (always useful to have a shrink handy on the links, eh, Rog? Although in your case, a pathologist might be more in order!).

      I do think I’ve earned it, Rog, all things considered. PC Hill’s little problem put the kibosh on me joining Sandy on her annual pilgrimage to County Wicklow to lay flowers on her father’s grave (I was planning to join her for the first time this year — possibly taking the opportunity of popping in on Druid’s Glen, afterwards, on the sly!). Sandy’s still bearing quite a grudge after making the trip on her own.

      When I mentioned that I might be heading off to Royal Dornoch over breakfast this morning (which, for the record, I made myself — there’s still quite an atmosphere of rancour in the house over the ‘stamps issue’), Sandy suggested that I might enjoy ‘taking a short trip up my own backside’, instead, then added, as a vague afterthought, ‘Although that might be a little difficult, Laurence. I’m not sure if you’ve actually returned from the last one yet.’

      Ho ho!

      The truths we speak in jest, eh, Rog?

      All the best,

      Sergeant Laurence Everill

      PS To touch, Rog: tango, tangis, tangit, tangimus, tangitis, tangunt

      PPS Hmmn. A lovely warm slice of Treacle Spice Tray-bake and a steaming mug of tea! Yes. That’ll do nicely, thanks.