Willow Pattern World

 

The world was white, blue, and every shade in between.

The young lovers ran for their lives, long gowns flapping in a breeze coming from all directions, tripped up by their embroidered hems and stumbling over decorative pebbles that conspired to make them easy prey for the maniac in pursuit.

He was getting closer.

Twice their years, the assassin moved effortlessly in this bizarre world. Armed with sword and whip, he sliced through the breeze that dared to turn to face him.

The young couple fled across an ornamental bridge to what appeared to be the sanctuary of a pagoda on its other side. The welcoming door almost within reach, the whip lassoed the petrified lovers with an ear-rending crack and, with a flick of their murderous pursuer’s wrist, they were hurled into the turbulent river below. Their heavy robes dragged them deeper and deeper, and towards the waterfall tumbling over the edge of this sinister world.

 

‘Oh good grief - not him again!’

The exasperated protests of the higher-ranking officers were inevitable at being once again overlooked in favour of a lowly detective constable.

‘He's ex army and can take care of himself. None of you lot should be allowed out without your mothers.’ It was unkind, but borderline true.

And that was that. The chief superintendent had spoken and, as always, his word went.

DC Blake had decided to join the police after half a lifetime in the army, which made him the oldest junior officer in the local force. Blakey, or “tattooed tree” as his reluctant colleagues called him, had that essential edge a detective needed to work things out. He was also good with firearms when required, the public respected him, and his mere presence could stop brawling drunks. Small wonder lesser mortals resented the man. Blakey was bound to be promoted over everyone else's head. Even the two DIs were apprehensive about him being designated to them, claiming that the man thought he was still driving a tank. The only person, apart from the chief superintendent, to appreciate the ex-soldier’s finer points seemed to be Murleen Persuad and for some reason her long-haired rug of a police dog tolerated him. But then, she had encountered far more intimidating individuals. In Guyana even the spiders had attitude and, despite being diminutive, she was seldom fazed by anything regardless of the number of legs it had.

The two officers and dog made an odd trio as they occasionally took a coffee break together in the quadrangle used to muster riot squads.

When Murleen expressed surprise the pitch of her voice rose like an excited bird’s. ‘No... Really? You being sent to find a lost heiress? By yourself?’

Blakey didn’t see what was so extraordinary in that. ‘The uncle reckoned she eloped with this son of the local baker. The chief doesn’t think it’s any big deal.’

‘What does the baker say?’

‘He's disappeared as well. Some festival to celebrate everything gluten.’

‘Looks like you need Tycho.’

At the mention of its name the dog's ears pricked up.

‘Don't think Fungus could find these two. Hopefully there’s no raw meat involved and I can’t see him tracking down a baker’s son for the sake of a Danish pastry.’

The police dog growled at the disrespectful nickname. That and any attempt to touch his handler could turn him into one big, fluffy fury.

‘What this heiress heir to then?’

‘Cosmetic company of sorts. Supplies chemicals for the industry. The uncle became its chief executive when her mother died in a car crash.’

‘Him would be chief suspect if they murdered then?’

‘Oh god yes.’

‘Tycho would know if he's a bad one.’

‘Yeah, and he might try to eat him before I've got proof.’

‘You get proof, then text me.’

‘You two would really like this to be murder, wouldn’t you?’

‘You wasted on house calls.’

‘Don't you two to ever answer to anyone?’ There was an edge of disapproval in the tone of a man trained to follow the chain of command.

‘They more interested in using his nose than teeth. Can get really boring at times.’

‘Okay. But let's keep this between us.’ Blakey binned his plastic coffee cup and turned to go to his car, which had once more just managed to scrape through its MOT.

‘When you getting that pile of junk replaced?’

‘When it stops going.’

That was logical for a man who lived in a mobile home in the middle of a wood - to avoid paying alimony he claimed, though no one believed he had ever been married - and had a secret hobby other detectives had so far failed to discover.

 

The balmy summer morning was becoming oppressively hot, so Blakey left his jacket in the car after parking at the end of Joseph Allcock’s long drive.

He ascended the steep steps to the front porch. There was an insignificant doorbell, but the temptation to announce that this was official business and not an opportunist tradesman was irresistible and he hammered the lion-headed doorknocker. Before Blakey could thud the doorknocker a second time a bolt was drawn back. At least Joseph Allcock's security couldn't be faulted.

The man was middle-aged and hard-featured with - Blakey fancied - a touch of Scrooge about him. The junior detective struggled to keep an open mind. Shooting suspicious-looking characters was no longer an option and when Joseph Allcock spoke he sounded civil enough. Comrades from the ex-soldier’s previous background seldom bothered with niceties, so he was still at odds as how to react when encountering them in someone he instinctively distrusted. Police training had taught him to be polite, yet always on his guard. To someone who had once bellowed at a platoon of men on manoeuvres, that could be perplexing at times.

Joseph Allcock seemed genuinely concerned about the disappearance of his niece, Kimberly. She had always been wilful. Eloping with, Sam, the baker's boy was possibly to spite him because she could not inherit her mother's business until she was 20 and, after two years of her uncle administering the estate, the resentful Kimberly was capable of anything.

DC Blake dutifully noted down everything he was told before turning his attention to the decadent surroundings. The large house, with its inappropriate tower and turrets, could have only been constructed by a Victorian who had read too much Thomas Mallory, not that King Arthur would have installed his round table here.

‘Mind if I look around?’ the detective asked.

‘Of course not,’ said the owner. ‘You'll only find spiders to take statements from.’

‘There is no chance your niece could have been here without your knowledge?’

‘Not her. The London apartment is Kimberly's natural habitat. She has no interest in the family home. It belongs to me anyway, and I'm sure she doesn't have keys.’

Most of the rooms were unused since Joseph Allcock's wife moved out with the family and two dogs. Though she did not live in, the housekeeper had kept the place in good order, curtains drawn against direct sunlight and furniture covered with sheets. But Blakey had an expertise not even Murleen Persuad knew about. The nose that had become so accustomed to the smell of battleground cordite could also detect perfume. The more steps he climbed up the tower, the more noticeable it became. This faint odour was light, expensive and the sort chosen by a young woman.

Tycho would have been impressed.

And then there was that other secret talent which he guarded even more closely. The ex-soldier was an expert jeweller, adept at spotting precious slivers that escaped into the workbench apron. On the top flight of stairs something tiny glittered by a skirting board. He knew it was a diamond before he stooped to pick it up. And this small stud earring could only have been discarded deliberately.

An expensive breadcrumb. But leading to where?

The top landing was panelled and door-less, yet the width of the tower and floors below meant that there must have been a room up here somewhere.

Blakey pulled out his phone. ‘Got a really intriguing one here, Murleen. Could use Tycho's nose. You free to leave at the moment?’

As he ended the call, Blakey detected an odd, sweet aroma. It was nothing like the expensive perfume and permeated the far wall where the uppermost room should have been. He took out a penknife and tapped his way around the panelling.

‘Looking for something?’ A voice on the lower landed enquired.

‘Where's the door?’

‘Not easy to find,’ Joseph Allcock called up. ‘It can only be opened from down here.’

There was a click and several panels slid aside.

Shelves of willow pattern porcelain lining the walls of the secret room were illuminated by light from a window in the high ceiling. Shattered pieces of the collection littered the floor as though a tornado had swept through.

Joseph Allcock came up the stairs. ‘Please go in.’

The hardly perceptible change in the man’s tone persuaded Blakey to surreptitiously jam his penknife in the doorframe so the panels could not close on him.

As soon as he stepped inside he saw them.

Two contorted young bodies were lying amongst the shards of willow pattern porcelain, smashed in their desperate attempts to escape whatever had killed them. There were no obvious marks on the bodies, but their expressions were frozen in horror, as though gasping for breath.

There could only be one reason why Blakey had been invited to witness the gruesome tableau, so he wasn't surprised when the door closed behind him. Immediately that faint aroma he had been unable to identify filled the room of death. This was the house of a chemist and he shouldn't have been surprised that his chosen method of murder was toxic gas.

The DC held his breath long enough to identify the vent it was hissing from, pull off his shirt and attempt to block the fumes with it.

The toxin was quick working. Everything began to swim and take on a life of its own. The willow pattern room metamorphosed into a vivid world of blue, white and every shade in between. The sensation was terrifying, but Blakey had encountered far worse in combat. He hurled himself at the door and wrenched it open.

Joseph Allcock had not been expecting this, and in trying to push him back was dragged inside by his victim. He may have created the hallucinogenic poison, but had no resistance to it.

While Blakey was plunged into a willow pattern world, his would-be murderer was attacked by the livid, fire-breathing dragon that encircled the ex-soldier's torso. Every ripple of his muscles as he blundered about his own blue and white hallucination helped set the astounding tattoo free to pursue an existence of its own, one intent on devouring Joseph Allcock. The man shrieked like a demented banshee as the fiery hallucination tore at his sanity.

Blakey was aware of standing on the bridge by a pagoda. His deranged attacker was trying to drag both of them into the fast-flowing river to quell the flames of the monstrous creature incinerating him.

The ex-soldier managed a lucid thought, ‘What the hell! I can swim!’ And he dived into the turbulent waters below.

But the current had supernatural force. He was carried to the waterfall at the end of the willow pattern world, the shrieking of the deranged Allcock ringing in his ears.

Blakey was falling, falling, falling as something seized his ankles and dragged him down jagged rocks.

Then he became aware of a huge, slavering monster standing on his chest.

‘You stop doing that Tycho! You found him! That's enough!’

Blakey was lying on a lower landing, shirtless. To his relief the huge, hairy monster bounced off in pursuit of a gibbering prey that dashed past them.

The detective's head was throbbing too much to make sense of what had happened.

Then the chill of reality returned.

‘How did you get me down here, Murleen? You're half my size.’

‘Tycho help. You see teeth marks and feel bruises tomorrow.’ But something else was consuming her admiration. ‘I knew you had a tattoo, man, but not that! That is incredible!’

Blakey had lived with the huge dragon encircling his torso for so long it had become part of him. The astonishment of others could be disconcerting, and since the rise of YouTube he had been careful not to take off his shirt in public.

‘Had it when I was stationed in the Far East. They know how to do the colours out there.’ Then he realised what was going on. ‘Where's that murdering..?’

‘Screechy fellow who dashed past us?’

‘Hope there was only one.’

‘Tycho, he chase him.’ Murleen added, ‘He not eat him, though. He's a good dog.’

At that moment Blakey didn’t much care one way or the other.

He pulled himself up. ‘Where's my shirt?’

‘I going to hide that.’

‘I need to put it on before backup arrives.’

‘No man! It's evidence now. Bodies of two young people in there - I ain't tampering with a scene of crime.’ She was helping him down the stairs as reinforcements came up them.

‘Two bodies in room at top. Killer out there somewhere.’

But the attention of the uniformed officers was mostly focused on Blakey's remarkable tattoo.

‘What's wrong with you? Ain't none of you seen a tat before?’ she scolded, a little too gleefully for her friend's comfort.

Outside, the milling emergency services were also momentarily distracted by Blakey’s remarkable dragon despite the murders inside and raving mad culprit being pursued through the grounds by Tycho.

As the chief superintendent stepped from his car, Blakey tried to report, but a paramedic clamped a mask to his face with instructions to breathe deeply. The rush of pure oxygen immediately cleared his head. The DC pulled the mask away and bounded off in the direction of Tycho's enraged howling, leaving the senior officer to wonder whether he was seeing things.

‘Tycho got man Sir!’ Murleen announced triumphantly. ‘He not harmed! Just crazy!’ Then she dashed after Blakey.

‘Get after them!’ he ordered a uniformed inspector. ‘I want that man to be arrested by somebody sane.’

Still hallucinating, Joseph Allcock had managed to scramble onto the roof of a derelict cottage. The effort of getting up there had jolted him back to reality, as well as the fact that Tycho was circling below, furious at not being able to get at him.

‘Good boy Tycho! You stop now!’ Murleen told him.

The dog immediately stopped yowling and came to heel.

Blakey fixed the murderer with a steely glare. ‘Why did you kill Kimberly and Sam, Mr Allcock?’

There was no point in denying the crime. His best plea would be insanity. ‘She would have destroyed the family business. Her and that dough-brained moron!’

‘If the death sentence for incompetence was mandatory, the UK's economy would be catapulted into the black overnight.’

The inspector turned up in time to hear the interrogation and decided to let Blakey carry on.

‘The company should have come to me! I'm the chemist! That girl only knew how to wear perfume, not make it!’

Given the situation, there was only one other question. ‘Would you like to come down here and be arrested, or do I have to come up there?’

‘That roof not take your weight, Blakey,’ Murleen warned. She turned to the inspector. ‘Nor yours. I go up.’

‘No chance!’ The two men ordered together.

But the dog handler was already shinning up the iron drainpipe.

Joseph Allcock puffed himself up threateningly as the small woman picked her way across the crumbling roof tiles.

‘That no good! You not toad! You come down now or I push you off! Tycho need dinner!’

The police dog let out a penetrating howl that made the suspect reconsider his situation.

‘Now that's the way to do it,’ Blakey told the inspector.

‘Where the hell did she come from?’

‘Amazon rainforest I wouldn't wonder.’

Despite himself, the inspector cast a glance of admiration at Blakey's tattoo: it was tempered by disapproval. He hadn't been aware of what all the canteen gossip had really been about until then.

‘I keep a spare shirt in the car. Should just about fit you.’

‘Thanks.’

Joseph Allcock came down, was arrested and the crime scene cordoned off.

Murleen resentfully watched Blakey put on his borrowed shirt.

‘I could marry any man living inside a dragon like that,’ she admitted.

‘Fungus wouldn't stand for it, and...’

‘And?’

‘And you know full well that I'm gay.’

She shrugged. ‘Why is it I always fall for them?’

‘Because that dog of yours doesn't allow any straight blokes near you. It's either Fungus or a love life.’