SAFEST STREET IN THE NATION by EW Farnsworth
Picklock Lane was featured in The Times as “the safest street in the nation,” an opinion that led to a promotional bonanza as well as monthly attempts at bilious satire in the tabloids of the yellow press. Holding forth from his pub The Cracked Bell on that same street, Fatty Millstone hurled invective at “the insidious cabal of curmudgeonly scribblers” who “would pillory their saintly grandmothers if it bolstered readership.”
The moniker held its own as long as crime remained at manageable levels, but whispering campaigns among disgruntled citizens had their own way of stimulating criminals. Fatty marvelled at the ability of the police auxiliary to curtail new attempts at provoking mayhem. The tentacle vigilante was prominent again, at least in rumours. Each would-be malefactor was foiled before his or her crimes could be committed.
One deposition among many served to document the general perception: “I had only thought about robbing those pedestrians when I was seized by a tentacle and squeezed until I could hardly breathe. It’s not only unfair, but it transgresses my rights, earned since the Magna Charta! God bless me. I’ll have my day in court, I will. You’ll see.”
Harriet read the deposition to the assembled club over a pint of the tapster’s best stout with a dash of bitters. Then she laughed so hard her teeth fell out of her mouth into her glass. While she fished the appliance from her pint, Dame Hudibras picked up where she left off.
“The Tentacle is doing its holy work. Fatty, you don’t suppose the bad men will be heard about their supposed rights, do you?”
Fatty shook his head to the left and right as he pursed his lips and contemplated his drink. “Isn’t Colin working up legislation to stop such frivolous lawsuits? Harriet, if he isn’t doing so, perhaps you can stimulate his attention to that end?”
“Fatty, don’t overestimate my power over my husband. He has a mind of his own in these cases. At home, we have a rule: no talk of The Tentacle or the rumours of the day on the street. Our rule makes for scant dinner conversation, but I don’t care—as long as it precludes getting close to questions about tentacles. My husband still doesn’t know about mine, and I want to keep it that way. Things are sporty enough with our youngster having to be specially fitted with clothing to hide his appendage.”
“I have the same problem as she does. My husband the chief likes the protection The Tentacle gives your police operations. Heaven only knows what he would do if he should learn the truth.”
As if the word were a talisman for its opposite, three reporters from the tabloids pushed their way to the back of the pub and ranged around Fatty’s table. Each had been drinking, and he held a pint in his hand while he had fun with the deputy chief of police.
Their fearless leader said, “I suppose you’ve heard that our stories have been bland lately on account of the lie about safety on this street. Well, we know it isn’t so, don’t we, boys?”
The man’s two companions’ heads bobbled obsequiously as they eyed Fatty.
“Gentlemen, I have no idea how I can possibly help you with the swill you dredge up for the public’s consumption. In any case, I would not have my name associated with anything printed in your scabrous scandal sheets!”
“Our virgin volumes only voice the verities, Mr. Millstone. Why, not one tabloid is currently defending itself from slander in the courts. So that we don’t have to go out of our way to invent the news, we thought you might give us a hint about your deep cogitations. We only want something to whet our whistles.”
“Since you come to me with the affectation of innocence, I’ll give you something that won’t stick in your craws. A pattern, it is, among would-be malefactors. Someone is putting out the word for anyone taken “in view of intent to commit a crime” to include in his statement exculpatory language.”
“What’s that to the likes of us?”
“You’re the word men, the sculptors of language, the informal poets of the masses.”
“Cut the crap, Millstone.”
“I’m giving you the story of a lifetime. Parliament will be taking up the matter soon. You’ll have the scoop. Your choice is to follow this story wherever it leads or to try to find proof of the will-o-the-wisp tentacle your screeds are about.”
“I still don’t get it, Fatty. Maybe you can speak a little plainer so we can translate it into something intelligible.” He stuck his chin out resolutely as his hair flopped about on his head.
“Yeah,” said the man’s mates. “Tell us something we don’t already know.”
“Draw nearer, then,” Fatty said. As they edged closer, he said, “There is a lynchpin of all evil in this city, someone most powerful with a way of influencing the newspapers, even The Times. You don’t have to know who he or she is at the start, but you can convey the essence. Use your fertile imaginations—coupled with excerpts from police statements. I’m sure you have file cartoons of evil personages to serve until you can identify the real villain. Do you see where I’m heading?”
“Aye, but give us a name.”
“I’ll give you the name once you’ve proven you can get off The Tentacle and on to the mastermind behind the scenes, the one who is causing the evil, the one who wants to pull the wool over your own eyes.”
“Now you’re making us mad, Fatty. We weren’t born yesterday.”
“No, nor fallen off the turnip truck at the last bend,” chimed his mate to the right.
“Still, we’re not babes in the woods.”
“And, I’m certain, you’d not be speaking in clichés to gull me. So get cracking. I want to see your tabloids on the hunt for the dastardly malfeasant. Harry him, boys!”
The three newshounds quaffed the dregs of their pints and set them on the table. Having their marching orders, they filed out the back door, excited to have drunk from the Hyperion Spring.
“That was masterful, Fatty,” Harriet said as her tentacle rubbed the back of his calf nearest her.
Fatty did not dare adjust his seating since the wife of his boss was stroking the back of his other calf with her tentacle.
“Do you think those reporters will be able to convince their editors to take the bait?” Dame Hudibras asked.
“As sure as I’m convinced The Tentacle will prevail wherever men cannot.”
“That’s an alien idea if I ever heard one.” Harriet shook her head and dropped her denture into her pint again.
The three drank until Closing Time, and then they went their separate ways.
At his apartment, Fatty called his clones for a late night meeting. “I have postulated a criminal mastermind in the city. By morning, the idea will hit all the tabloids. I want you to drop everything you are doing that does not relate to our liquor and drugs businesses and find the name of the villain who fits my description.”
“Is anyone out of bounds in our search?” asked the most percipient of his offspring.
“For openers, keep the search without artificial constraints.”
“So, we should include you, for instance, in the mix of suspects?”
“Idiot. Of course, I’m not to be mentioned or even contemplated. Now get busy. And have a name by daylight.”
As Fatty Millstone had prognosticated, the next morning the tabloids were rallying to the same hue and cry. A vicious mastermind was polluting the minds of would-be criminals in the city. This mysterious individual knew how to seed minds with malice so they all said the same things when they were questioned after their arrests. For example, they claimed to have been accosted by The Tentacle. For example, their rights were being infringed. For example, they should be allowed to commit the crimes they were accused of before they were subject to arrest.
The entire city was upset by the revelation that a subtle influence was extant in their midst. Fingers pointed, and names were put forward. Citizens called meetings at their favourite pubs to flesh out their ideas. Criminals thought twice before they allowed their minds to consider illegal activities. In other words, a collective conscience became operative.
As the press had a news hole of limited dimensions, the running tales about The Tentacle subsided. The glowering, menacing visage of The Mastermind took a different form in each tabloid, but, for once, The Tentacle was not pictured in a single issue from the yellow press. It was as if an eraser had eliminated any consideration of the disembodied, suckered whiplash appendage, and a new image invaded its space and subsumed it.
Millstone’s minions had not let the grass grow under their feet. They had discovered a name that would do Fatty’s objective justice. It was their fellow newshound Crenshaw. Fatty held back that name until just the right time. He let curiosity burgeon and blossom. The public rumour mill amassed clusters of names of innocents and guilty alike. The citizens railed about having their brains washed in public. They cawed like carrion crows about their outrage.
At his weekly meeting with Fatty, Colin the MP voiced his concern.
“I don’t know how all this started, but my fellow parliamentarians are calling for a head. If I don’t find one, they’re liable to take mine as the villain’s.”
“Calm down, Colin. Sip some of your pint and relax. Look into my eyes if you can see them in the darkness.”
“You’re right, Fatty. It’s just that I have been swept up in the panic of the day. Three days ago, this so-called mastermind wasn’t even a figment. Now, what with the tempest in the press, he has captured the public’s imagination. How can we regain the good old days when all we had to worry about was a benign tentacle?”
“You’re going to laugh at the folly of this interval, though there are dangers until we dispel the current feelings. What if I told you that the way out of the maze was named Crenshaw?”
“No, Your Eminence. The yellow press reporter of that name.”
“That addle-brained misanthrope? Your sworn enemy? That Crenshaw?”
“The very same. And the mere mention of the man’s name in Parliament will head the hounds in another direction.”
“And you’ll be happy to hound an enemy.”
“And you’ll be happy to get back to The Tentacle.”
The MP set out to write a grand speech, which he would deliver at Question Time tomorrow. The theme of his talk would be Crenshaw, the man who overreached.
Colin deftly interleaved the name Crenshaw his speech—as if it were extempore—in the middle of the questions. Specifically, because he did not emphasize the name, the pressmen jumped upon it—all but Crenshaw himself, who saw the proverbial “handwriting on the wall” and slunk away, guilty like. The media captured the nasty reporter as he turned with a sneer showing his disdain. The next day, his image became the substitute for the evil mastermind in all the tabloids, including his own.
At The Cracked Bell, unnumbered toasts were made to the unmasking of the devil behind all evils in the city. If there was a hit of villainy, Crenshaw had its name. The police naturally put the poor man under continuous surveillance, threatening arrest for so much as spitting on the pavement, which Crenshaw rarely did. Fatty Millstone sat with Harriet and Dame Hudibras while the pub denizens caroused. Harriet was merrier than usual as she had not yet dropped her denture in her pint. Dame Hudibras laughed till her sides nearly split as she mimicked Crenshaw stealing out of the Parliament press box.
Fatty sat puzzling how things might turn out when a hush descended on the pub. Crenshaw had entered and, head down, pushed his way to the table in the back.
“Millstone,” the yellow pressman said, “I don’t know how you did this to me, but I know in my heart you are to blame. I may never work on Fleet Street again. Do you have anything to say to me?”
Fatty never let his eyes lose contact with the reporter’s. In even tones, he replied, “Mr. Crenshaw, I frankly don’t know why you would make such an accusation. From my perspective, you have neither the wit nor the instinct for secrecy that a mastermind of crime would have to exhibit. In any case, I hope you’ll have a drink with me to settle any remaining differences we have between us.”
“Mr. Millstone, I’ll not drink with you or your whores. Don’t think I am unaware of what those trollops are doing with you under your table.”
Fatty rose to his full height. “Mr. Crenshaw, from the high position of master criminal, you have just descended to the nadir of respect. The ladies who drink with me tonight are the wives, respectively, of our MP and our chief of police. I am honoured by their presence. I demand, therefore, your immediate and abject apology for having caused them mental harm.”
Crenshaw, whose judgment was not ever sound, made the mistake of refusing to listen. Fatty therefore frog-marched the man to the ladies’ room and threw him onto the slushy floor where the loo had overflowed. When Crenshaw rose, he was covered in shit and urine. His face was a mixture of red from embarrassment and brown from faecal smears.
“Millstone, I’ll get you for this.”
“Crenshaw, I’m sure you’ll do your level best to bring me low. Give it your best shot. Your every move will ennoble me, and I’ll have revenge for every tit and tat. I’d suggest that you go to your hovel and clean yourself, but first stop by my table and apologize.”
The newshound stopped by the table and bowed in mock submission, to Millhouse as well as the ladies. “I beg your pardon, ladies, for anything I said that caused you harm.”
Harriet nodded at the stinking man and dropped her denture into her pint as she tried to stifle a guffaw. Dame Hudibras raised her affronted nose and waved her hand dismissively. As Crenshaw turned, he missed seeing the tentacle that was wrapped around his right foot, so he launched himself headlong on the floor where the other tentacle beat him on the behind until he hollered.
“Let that be a lesson to you, newshound,” Fatty Millstone said. Then he raised a hand to summon a barmaid to clean up the mess. To the startled young lady, he said, “Clean the floor wherever Mr. Crenshaw has trod tonight, but especially the loo where he had his downfall. You’ll probably need help and a mop with pail.”
The one thing Fatty could not fathom—in fact he had not accounted for the eventuality—was how fast the myth of Crenshaw as mastermind was dispelled after it became widely known that he was the named figure for the role. Not gradually, but overnight the tabloids dropped stories that concerned the mastermind or Crenshaw himself. The news hole being vacant, something had to fill it. So The Tentacle became the primary image foisted into the public’s imagination. Fatty shrugged at the turn of events, but Colin the MP was eternally grateful for his advice. Further, his boss the chief of police, was satisfied to return to the status quo. At their weekly meeting, he made himself clear.
“Fatty, you have outdone yourself. I am pleased. Tell me again about how you threw Crenshaw into the ladies’ room where the loo had overflowed. One day, that rat is likely to file an action against you and the police force, so I have to know the truth.”
“Sir Hudibras, I don’t think the truth will enter the equation. So rest easy. Once Crenshaw puts what happened together in a deposition, he will be cast in a foul aspect. And his own fellows from the yellow press brigade will publish every salient detail.”
“What about his allegations of tentacles tripping and beating him as he departed this establishment that night?”
Fatty raised his eyebrows as if to say, “What credibility would the newsman have?”
The knight raised his pint, and Fatty touched his glass to his boss’s. The two drank until Closing Time, happy to have overcome an odd circumstance with wit and subtlety.