A short story featuring one of the briefer cases for the camper van detective in my new novel.
At The Seaside Nobody Hears You Scream
Debbie spotted the camper van as she walked across Riverside car park in her lunch hour, it was a handy short cut between the shops and the library. She read the poster in the window and imagined the private detective inside as a slightly seedy, middle aged man thrown out by his wife. But perhaps he could solve their library mystery. When the serious young man welcomed her she was worried he would consider their case flippant, but it seemed unlikely a private investigator operating out of a car park would be taken seriously by people with important cases to solve. She sat down on the narrow bench seat as he placed two mugs of coffee on the pull down table between them.
‘Mr. Channing, this case may sound unimportant, that is why we have not reported to the police.’
‘Many small events take on an importance only in retrospect; you must have reason to be concerned.’
‘When events went beyond the library we became worried, but it started several weeks ago. Books went missing; according to the computer they were on the shelves, but neither we nor library members could find them. Days later they would turn up; slipped amongst the DVDs, next to the public computers, even in our office or tea room.’
‘What sort of books?’
‘Always Agatha Christie, that’s what made it creepy, someone obsessed with murder or just a practical joker?’
Debbie saw Mr. Channing was taking her seriously, perhaps too seriously. She smiled ‘Some of our regular library members were not happy.
…a big library and I can’t even get an Agatha Christie novel, suppose she’s not politically correct…’
‘Describe your library.’
‘A rambling Victorian building, two and a half floors, lots of rooms, nooks and crannies, easy I guess for things to happen… there were the fires.’
The private detective sat up straight. ‘Surely those would need to be reported?’
‘Tiny fires, the first in the waste paper basket in our office, luckily a quick thinking visitor dashed in and put it out before the smoke alarm went off. But we couldn’t think how it started, it’s not like the days when staff smoked in the office. Then strangely it happened again, in the tea room bin. I smelt smoke, poured the kettle over; it must have started only a few seconds before.’
‘Have you noticed anyone strange hanging around?’
‘Half our visitors are strange… I mean they might be perceived that way. This is a big town, we welcome everyone. It’s somewhere warm and free to pass the time, people with learning difficulties or mental health issues,’ she glanced up at his framed psychology degree ‘or the unemployed… some look shifty, think everyone is staring at them.’
‘Okay, a very busy library, visitors wandering around, plenty of places to lurk unseen…’
‘And then there are the chocolates, left in our office, or on the shelves, but this week three of us found a box on our doorstep when we got home…’
The young man’s expression alarmed Debbie.
‘Why didn’t you say before, you’re rightly worried that someone is following staff. I’ll take you on, expect to see me wandering around the library, but do not acknowledge me. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to call the police if something…’
‘We could hardly dial 999 to say someone gave us chocolates’ she laughed nervously.
The library staff were fascinated by their private investigator, he revealed nothing of himself and blended in with library users.
For a week events continued, flowers appeared, the young detective showed staff a picture on his mobile phone, a young man with dark features.
‘Oh, that’s the chap who put the fire out.’
‘He’s not a member?’
‘No, you have to prove you are a local resident, we tried to explain to him… is he homeless?’
‘…and stateless. Calls himself Dave, he is mentally frail, but harmless. He has nothing to prove who he is; brought on a very long journey from a village as a young boy. He could have been born anywhere from the Balkans to Afghanistan. He loves the library and the staff, hence the ‘presents’, the fires… attention seeking. I have found a charity that can help him.’
‘But why Agatha Christie?’
‘His grandfather loved Agatha Christie, the most widely translated author in the world. Dave remembered how he cherished the books. It was all the old man knew about England, when he told the boy where he was going. Reading them was Dave’s only link with the past.’
‘So he didn’t want other readers taking them away!’
Later, the staff realised Mr. Channing had asked for no fee, curious, Debbie set off once again across Riverside car park, but the camper van was gone.
Toby had spent a week trailing around the Middle England town, from the bus station to all night MacDonalds, 24 hour supermarkets and of course the library. Toby even found himself sharing a changing room at the swimming pool with ‘Dave’. Finally he got to talk to him at the Salvation Army, letting them believe he was also homeless and as a young single man unlikely to get help from the authorities. The suspect was as lonely as himself, as lost as Anna, but ‘Dave’ was not missing, because he did not exist, did not have a sister to go and visit or a mother to ring him up. Toby had certainly learnt a lot about real homelessness and if The Salvation Army officers had suspected he wasn’t genuine they had kept it to themselves, for it was Toby who had managed to draw ‘Dave’ out of himself. He hoped the young man would take the help offered by a specialist charity organisation. The library staff had loved the story and promised no authorities would hear about the events at the library.