A Liz Philips Mystery
I had never heard of the murdered man before and I couldn’t explain how one of my business cards had come to be in his jacket pocket.
The deceased had been found by the catering staff who came to open the café in the grounds of the local zoo that morning. He had been bludgeoned with a blunt instrument and the chimps had been let loose from their enclosure.
DI Boyle rolled his eyes skywards.
“Bad stuff just seems to happen to you, doesn’t it, Liz,”
I had no answer to that. I supposed it was true, but it’s not as if I went looking for it; well, not intentionally.
I met Boyle on the night of the mayor’s charity function. I had discovered that my friend and colleague was a scumbag who preyed on young girls and was about to happily behead him, when an innocent girlfriend, who owed him nothing, saved his life by tearfully begging me not to.
It was all over by the time the police arrived, and I guess I could have just disappeared into the night, but I decided to stay and brazen it out.
Boyle had gazed directly at me as I relayed my story and I guessed that this was a tactic he used to unnerve liars and sympathise with victims. He maintained a calm and dispassionate stare throughout and although he told me that I was reckless and foolhardy, I couldn’t help thinking that I saw something else there, almost like envy. Foolish private detectives were more likely to go where the sensible police feared to tread.
And now he was giving me that stern stare again over the top of one of my coffee cups. His calm blue eyes observed me carefully, taking everything in and giving nothing away.
“Did he have marital problems?” I asked. “Many of the people who hire me suspect an affair.”
“Mr Williams had been divorced for several years,” he replied.
“Hmm, Not someone I would have shaken hands with, then,” I said, thinking aloud.
“And where were you between seven and ten pm yesterday evening,” he asked routinely.
“I was here. I watched reruns of The Professionals on TV, then had a hot bath and went to bed about eleven thirty.”
“Can anyone else verify that?”
“No. I’ve always believed that guilty pleasures are best enjoyed alone.”
Detective Boyle raised only his eyes to look at me.
“I was divorced several years ago, too.”
“I see. And where is your ex-husband now?”
“Well, I’d like to think that he was burning in hell, piece by piece and very slowly. But, truthfully, I don’t know or care where he is.”
“Is there anyone else?”
“You mean apart from Lewis Collins?”
Boyle discreetly bit his top lip to suppress a smile.
“No, there’s no one else.”
“Well,” he said, draining his cup, “that’s all I need for now. I may need to speak to you again.”
“Well, you know where to find me.” I reached up to the top shelf of my bookcase. “Here,” I said handing him a red edged business card. “Have one of your own. I really must get round to changing that design.”
He didn’t laugh but again fixed me with a cool stare.
“Thanks,” he said with the merest hint of sarcasm, slipping it into his shirt pocket. “I’ll keep it close to my heart.”
The following morning, I donned a pair of strong walking boots and paid a visit to the zoo.
I paid a couple of extra quid for a visitors hand book and flipped through the pages. I scanned the names and faces of staff “happy to help”, but didn’t recognise anybody.
I strolled over to the ape enclosure, taking a good look at the surrounding areas along the way. The pedestrian walkways were clean and looked well kept. Beyond the pathways, artificial hills had been built, some grassed, and some planted, no doubt so that the noise of the visitors wouldn’t upset the residents.
The ape enclosure was roughly halfway between the petting zoo and the café. One part of the enclosure was sealed off and the locks on the remaining part looked conspicuously new.
I stood on the pathway and looked directly at the enclosure. Just in front of me was a yard of grass and then a waist high wooden fence, which served no particular purpose other than to mark a boundary. Beyond the wooden fence was another yard of grass and then the concrete and glass ape house.
A chimp cocked his head to one side and looked back at me.
“Have you got something you wish to say to me?” I asked sternly.
The retired gentleman on my left gave me an interested look, but his wife, who stood the other side of him holding his arm, looked across her husband to give me a horrified and disgusted stare.
“We are allowed out in the daytime, every now and then,” I said, smiling sweetly at her.
Mrs Retired lifted her head, drew back her shoulders and with her nose in the air, pulled Mr Retired away in the direction of the petting zoo. Mr Retired gave me a boyish smile over his shoulder as he let himself be led like an innocent child away from the dangerous harlot.
I turned back to the chimp, which this time puckered up for a kiss.
“Not a chance, sunshine,” I said and continued towards the café.
A sign on the door told visitors that “due to unforeseen circumstances, no food would be served today, however the coffee bar would be open.” The café appeared to be a long rectangle with the furthest half cordoned off. A harassed pair of workers were doing their best to supply cappuccinos and blueberry muffins to equally harassed parents as the children raced against each other from the door to the blue and white police tape.
“It’s disgusting,” I heard one mother complain. “You pay all that money to get in and they can’t even provide any lunch today.”
I looked over the top of the tape into the area beyond. Chairs were still on top of the tables and the lights had been left off. Just the other side of the tape was a rubbish bin for public use. I leaned over slightly to take a look inside and noticed a couple of empty cans of extra strong lager.
I patiently waited my turn at the counter and smiled at the student-aged youth as he thanked me for waiting. I glanced at his colleague, but she kept her head down and busied herself stacking dirty cups.
“Do you sell extra strength lager, here,” I asked politely and the youth raised his eyebrows and grinned with a good-for-you expression.
The mother next to me wrinkled her nose as if she could already smell it on me and ushered her children away.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he replied, still grinning, “but the off licence in the next parade of shops is the nearest place for that.”
“In that case I’ll just have a snack bar to go.”
As I left the café, I walked back through the picnic area and passed a pair of smooching teenagers on one of the benches.
Seeing them reminded me of something else. In my day, if a bus shelter was unavailable, we looked for other suitable quiet corners.
I made my way back to the ape enclosure and took another look at the area of ground that surrounded it.
The earth by the right hand side of the house was flat and well trodden down, showing an obvious pathway through the neglected shrubs.
I glanced over my shoulder and not seeing anybody looking, I hoisted myself onto the wooden fence and swung my legs over the top. I followed the well trod pathway and passed a door on the side of the ape house, with what looked like a brand new padlock securely fitted. The pathway did continue beyond the door, but here looked slightly less well defined, as if fewer feet took this path. It led to the back of the ape house where there were fewer shrubs, slowly dying in a two yard patch against the zoos boundary wall. Cigarette butts littered the ground around a large stone that looked like it had been pulled from a rockery somewhere.
I stood on the top of the stone and tried to look over the wall, but it was too high; about seven feet. I tried to position my feet a little more securely on the stone and stretched up my arms towards the top of the wall. Taking a deep breath I jumped and caught hold of the top edge of the wall. I kicked with my feet searching for any kind of purchase against the brick, until I could bend my elbows to gain me sufficient height to look over the top.
I saw the main road sweeping away to the left. On the other side of the road, quite close by was a small parade of shops, in the middle of which was an off licence. I smiled, thinking I had learnt at least half of what I needed to know.
I dropped down and made my way back to the public area.
Before heading back home, I stopped at the parade of shops along the road. Walking into the off licence, I searched the fridges for extra strong lager and found the brand I was looking for. I bought a large single can and gossiped with the guy behind the counter about how awful it was; what had happened at the zoo.
“Bin ‘ere twenty years,” he boasted, “and never seen the like.”
“Did you know him, then?”
“Nah, only them kids what work there. They’re always hangin’ around, going large.”
I pulled the visitors hand book from my bag and showed him the page with the staff photographs. I pointed to the youth from the coffee bar; Ryan Smith.
“Yeah, ‘im and ‘is girlfriend; same lager as you. That’s her,” he said, pointing.
I took another look and saw a picture of the blond girl who was working with him, Sally Jackson.
Boyle phoned me the next day.
“We’ve had some serious reports of a woman acting strangely on the zoo premises,” he declared. “I don’t suppose you’d care to comment, would you?”
I closed my eyes but didn’t bother with an excuse.
“What are you doing, Liz?” he demanded, his patience running thin. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I think we need to talk to the young couple who work in the coffee bar again.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’? I’ll talk to the couple in the coffee bar again. About what?”
I tried not to smile.
“About what they were doing in the grounds of the zoo after closing on the night of the murder. At the back of the ape house is a patch of ground where the employees go to have a smoke. I think that those two are dating and climb over the boundary wall after dark for some alone time. The CCTV cameras face the front of the ape house, right?”
“Right,” confirmed Boyle. “But we’ve already reviewed the tapes and no one went towards the back of the ape house after six thirty. We still don’t know how the chimps got out.”
“I have theory,” I said, taking a long shot. “Williams was already dead at closing time. The zoo is closed to visitors at five o’clock. Romeo and Juliet smuggled out the weapon, came back later and jumped the wall where the CCTV wouldn’t capture them. They released the chimps by breaking the lock and left the zoo the same way they got in.”
“But why? That seems a lot of extra trouble to go to.”
“They must have known that the chimps would be attracted to the café. They sell plenty of sweet stuff there. Maybe they hoped that the chimps would cause sufficient damage to be blamed for everything.”
“Some chimps have been trained to use primitive tools,” said Boyle, “But most don’t wield blunt instruments.”
“And they don’t put their larger cans in the rubbish bin or turn the lights off when they leave,” I added. Those things must have occurred to Boyle, too.
“So, who killed Williams?”
“I think that’s a question for them,” I replied, thinking some more. “It just seems really convenient that he was found so easily the following morning. Did Williams have family?”
“Yes, his ex-wife is a local woman. He came from Newcastle.”
“Newcastle! Of course, now I remember.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Boyle was starting to get irritated again.
“We need to talk to that girl and I do mean ‘we’. I’m coming with you.”
We went back to the zoo that afternoon and found both the staff together. Their smiles faded when they realised that the stern police officer and the friendly nosy parker were working together. Noisy static interrupted the calm as police officers talked outside the door.
“According to the visitor handbook,” I said to the girl, “your name is Sally Jackson. Ten years ago I helped a woman and her nine year old daughter, disappear from an abusive husband. Did you know I suggested that name?”
“I had to change my name too,” she shrugged. “It’s as good a name as any.”
“Ah,” said Boyle, understanding. “That’s how your father found you. He followed the name, looking for your mother.”
“I couldn’t risk him finding mum or following me home.”
“So you struck him, several times, with a hammer that just happened to be at hand?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” responded the girl cheekily. “I never leave home without one.”
Now I knew Sally didn’t do it.
“There must be a site maintenance locker around here somewhere,” I said. “I don’t suppose you’d know where it is, would you.”
The pair glanced at each other. They both knew where it was located.
“Your mother had travelled all night to get to London and found me in the morning. She had the business card originally.”
“She gave it to me. She said it was lucky, would keep me safe. I kept it in my purse.”
“So, when all your nightmares came true and your father walked in through those doors, close to closing time, you gave him the card to placate him?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t enough. He said he’d find her with or without you.”
“There was a little tussle, and he struck you didn’t he?”
Sally didn’t answer, but I walked around the counter not waiting for permission. She resisted a little when I tugged at her sweater, but the red marks of a fist against her ribs were unmistakable. I nodded to Boyle.
“Where did you get the hammer from, Sally?” asked Boyle sternly.
Sally said nothing. I glanced over my shoulder into the staff room behind the counter.
“It’s not in there,” said Ryan calmly, reading my thoughts.
“But the maintenance locker is, isn’t it? I know where it is,” I said to Boyle. “C’mon.”
I took Boyle back to the ape house and led the way to the back where the large stone sat. It took both of us to lift it up onto its side, but underneath was everything we needed to find.
The hammer was there with a clear bloody thumb print, along with the smashed padlocks from the enclosure.
“Ryan must have been in the back room when Williams found Sally,” said Boyle.
“You won’t be too hard on him, will you?” I asked Boyle, nervously. “He was defending his girlfriend.”
Boyle was non-committal.
“We’ll get him an experienced brief.”
A constable called to me from the pathway.
“Excuse me, miss. We’ve just arrested a man who says he knows you; Harry Baker.”
“Oh my god!” I said, turning back to Boyle. “That’s my stepdad!”