INDIAN SUMMER ON PICKLOCK LANE by EW Farnsworth
The sun shone so brightly it shattered the eyes and painted the cobblestones of Picklock Lane gold. Everyone who knew the vagaries of the autumn weather was on the prowl this afternoon with the knowledge that winds, clouds and pouring rain would follow the reprisal of summer.
Harriet walked her baby in its new carriage proudly. The little one basked in the sunshine. In a flurry of pedestrians, they were part of the day’s parade. They did not rush at the lights but left plenty of room for their passage.
Others were not as careful as she. One mother herding her two toddlers came to the next corner, and the poor woman lost control of one as the other shot ahead into the traffic. The distraught woman screamed, but a tentacle swept the child out of harm’s way and deposited it back at its mother’s side.
Instead of being grateful for the salvation of her child, the almost bereft mother started shrieking in another key. She pointed at the figure who seemed to be responsible and drew the attraction of all passers-by.
“That woman is an alien. She has a long tentacle. I saw it extend halfway across the street. I wasn’t daydreaming. Help!”
Harriet shook her head and proceeded to cross the street when the traffic light changed. Though the woman with the two toddlers spoke with an incredulous policeman, gesturing and screaming at the top of her voice, the woman pushing her perambulator with one hand used the other to pat down her overcoat. She paid no attention to the hubbub behind her.
Harriet had walked two blocks beyond the corner where the sensation had occurred before the policeman caught up with her.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. I’d like to have a word with you.”
“Yes, Officer. I’m sure you know who I am.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have the pleasure.”
“I am the wife of your deputy chief of police.”
“Be that as it may, I must ask a question.”
Harriet straightened the blanket over her child before turning at full height to hear what the policeman had to say. “I’ll cooperate fully, Officer. What do you want to know?”
“A woman two intersections back along this lane claims that you are the owner of a long tentacle that saved her child from dangerous traffic.”
“Is that so? If I have such a marvellous instrument, pray where would I have put it? I am wholly occupied with my darling baby. I’m sorry that another mother should have experienced a scare. If I had been in her place, I would have been even more frightened of what my husband would do to me if he should find out what happened.”
“Exactly what did you see at the corner in question?”
“I saw an afternoon crowd like the one around us now—on promenade, enjoying the day. I saw a child dart out in the traffic before the light changed. Quick as a flash the toddler was back by his mother’s side when she started moaning and complaining in a biblical lamentation.”
“What do you have to say about a tentacle having been involved?”
Harriet looked around her. “May I be candid?”
“Of course. I need to get to the bottom of this matter, or my position will be at risk.”
“What must I say to preserve your job and settle the matter once and for all?”
“Tell me you don’t know what the mother with the two toddlers is railing about.”
“Officer, I’m not a psychiatrist. I can’t possibly know about her phobias and suchlike. I’m late getting to the butcher shop where I have my husband’s dinner waiting for pickup. May I proceed, or do you intend to arrest me?”
The officer turned a hundred shades of red. Harriet could see that the man was distraught.
“Well, Sir, I’ll forget the whole matter if you will. I’ve not heard a more implausible excuse for losing control of one’s children than that woman has put forward. My suggestion would be to subject her to rigorous psychiatric evaluation before anything she says is used in a court of law. I fancy she’ll clam up when you suggest that to her and her spouse. Besides, I think she should be grateful to have avoided—narrowly—a tragedy that might have made the evening papers.”
The officer tipped his hat and went back to the corner where the plaintiff was waiting impatiently. Harriet saw that the policeman’s words changed the woman’s demeanour. Now instead of wailing, she was weeping profusely. Her children had begun crying too. Though the woman stamped her foot in anger, the policeman held his ground. The woman hauled her two children across the intersection while the officer returned to his station to phone the matter in.
Harriet passed a newsboy hawking the yellow press story about octopuses being the first aliens to populate Earth. She bought a copy of the tabloid with the lurid picture of the tentacles reaching out of the page at the viewer. As tonight was the scheduled meeting of her husband and Fatty Millstone, she thought it might be interesting to stimulate conversation over a pint.
The butcher showed the deputy chief’s wife the kidney he had set aside for her specially. She approved of the selection and gestured for him to wrap the organ in brown paper and tie it with twine. She stowed the parcel in the carriage alongside her baby. She calculated that she had just enough time to walk home, get the baby ready for dinner and start baking the kidney pie before her husband arrived. As the butcher’s cat came out of the back of the shop, it jumped on the counter to be petted by the one woman he trusted. She chucked the animal under its chin while her tentacle slid under its belly.
“I don’t know what trick you use to charm that cat, but it’s smitten.” The butcher picked up the cat and poured a bowl of heavy cream on the floor. The calico purred and then growled as Harriet waved and left the shop.
In the event, she arrived in plenty of time to do everything necessary to prepare for the advent of her man. She even laid out his slippers, a pipe and tobacco so he could smoke while he relaxed after his busy day. She laid down the tabloid on the low table before his ottoman. Soon the aroma of kidney pie filled the apartment. The child held its milk bottle while it drank greedily.
Colin came through the door at precisely five-thirty and made for his comfy chair. Soon the room was redolent of kidney pie and tobacco smoke. Harriet found her husband absorbed in the tabloid article she had laid out for him. She kissed him on the cheek by way of welcome.
“Harriet, you are so good to me.”
“It’s no more than you deserve, Darling. What do you think about the idea of octopuses coming from outer space?”
“What will our scientists come up with next? It’s perfect grist for the tabloids, though. I have a story for you from the station that jives with this. It seems a tentacle snatched a young child from the jaws of death right on Picklock Lane. That’s what the mother is saying.”
“Is it possible? Were there witnesses?”
“Anything is possible, I suppose. As for witnesses, she was the only eye witness.”
“So what’s going to happen?”
“Nothing. Fortunately, the child was saved. If I were the husband, I’d give the wife a good hiding with my belt. Not only for letting the tyke get out of control but also for lying about the matter.” He took a long draft of his pipe and blew the smoke toward the ceiling. Meanwhile, Harriet tiptoed back to the kitchen to get the dinner ready. Her bottom tingled at the thought of getting a beating, but she felt relatively safe about her situation in this case.
Colin enjoyed his kidney pie, especially since it was served with a pint of Guinness, accented with a squeeze of lime. He complimented his wife on her marvellous cooking, and she reminded him that Nancy was coming at eight to babysit while they went to their favourite pub to talk with Fatty Millstone.
“I thought Fatty should see the article about the tentacle. He is always interested in outlandish news.”
“That will be fine. Let’s not take up all our time with nonsense like octopuses coming as aliens. Fatty owes me street news I can use to make arrests as early as tomorrow. His new list of suspects and the hot skinny about criminals makes my career safe—and keeps our pay cheques coming. The chief has been talking about his retirement again. As I am his Man Friday, I stand to be taking over when he steps down.”
“It’s no less than you deserve. In fact, you already would have made Chief if things hadn’t wound down about the alien invasion.”
“That’s all water over the dam, Harriet. We have to look forward, not through the rear windscreen. I thought we had a chance with the MP, but he turned out to be untouchable. Now that he has resigned, we’ll have to find a new vantage for glory.”
Harriet nodded demurely. “You’ll know best how to proceed, Darling. You always do. Do you want your pudding with whipped cream now or when we return from the pub?”
“Let’s have our dessert now. When we return from the pub, I’ll want to go straight to bed.”
She raised her eyebrows. “But not to sleep, I should hope.”
He smiled at her slyly. “We shall see, my Lamb. As you probably know, the heavens have opened. We’ll be wading through rivers in the streets to get to our pub. So we’ll wear our slickers, hats and boots.”
After dessert, Nancy arrived to commence her baby sitting. The deputy chief of police and his wife ventured fully dressed in rain gear to make their way to their pub.
The highwaymen who had planned to rob innocent pedestrians thought those two gentry folk would be easy prey.
“Stand and deliver,” their leader said as he raised his pistol with one hand and extended the other for Colin’s cash.
Harriet whispered, “Don’t do anything sudden, Husband.” She squeezed his arm with her hand.
As fast as a whiplash, a tentacle reached out and snapped the outlaw’s wrist, making his pistol clatter in the wet street. The highwayman looked at his useless wrist and felt the pain of his break while he gestured for his two associates to rush the couple. They might have done significant damage if they had not been rooted to the spot by a tentacle wrapped around their ankles. Two loud pops brought them low. Three men were now howling on the cobblestones. Colin picked up the pistol and surveyed the damage. Of course, the tentacle that had laid the criminals low was nowhere to be seen. Colin trussed the robbers and walked to the nearest police call box to summon uniformed officers.
“We don’t need to wait for the police. We can still make our meeting with Fatty tonight if we hurry.” Colin led Harriet through the rainstorm. Before long, they were sitting at their favourite table at the back, in the company of Fatty Millstone.
“I thought you might not be coming. The weather is frightful—after a gorgeous day.”
“We almost didn’t make it, Fatty,” Colin said. “Three armed men tried to rob us in the street.”
“How did you foil their attempt?”
Colin looked at his wife. Then he looked at Millstone. “It was a miracle. We stood there, and in a few snaps and pops, the three men were lying on the cobbles groaning. My men will have found them by now. I have their weapon in my pocket. Just think of their audacity—to attempt a robbery of the deputy chief of police at gunpoint.”
Harriet took this occasion to lay the tabloid on the table, the octopus image facing Fatty. “What do you think of this news about aliens?”
Fatty perused the pictures and words. He whistled softly. “Who knows what the yellow press will think of next?”
Colin said, “That’s not all. Today, a woman claimed that a tentacle whipped her small child out of dangerous traffic where it had run amok.”
“Does it matter what saved the child as long as it is now safe?”
Harriet said, “That’s what I thought too, but people are still on edge about aliens.”
Colin shook his head. “That brings us to the topic of the night.”
“Definitely not. We lost our chance with the MP, but I have independent news from trusted sources that the illicit alcohol and drugs the man was trafficking are being sold by some other organization. I’m hoping we can team up to find out the leadership of that organization and make arrests.”
“Don’t you think that the same protection that stood in your way when you wanted to bring down the MP is going to be guarding the man’s successor?”
“I just don’t know. I think interdicting the MP’s operations would be a prize effort that might take me to the top of the police organization of this city.”
Fatty’s brow wrinkled as he though through the idea, as if for the first time. “I don’t think you should be hasty. You don’t want to become the victim of unintended consequences.”
Harriet nodded sagely. “I told you, Colin, that Fatty would be able to see things clearly.” Fatty felt a tentacle stroking the back of his calf under the table.
Colin turned his pint glass with his fingers as Fatty gestured to the tapster to bring them another round. “I do like your idea about the MP’s former networks, but we need to discover who was providing him with top cover and to know for certain that the new purveyors are not invulnerable. Why don’t I nose around and let you know how things stand next Tuesday at this table?”
“Do you have a new list of suspects for me right now?”
Fatty reached into his coat and brought out an annotated, multi-page list with intelligence and contact data.
As he leafed through the sheets, Colin’s face broke into a big smile. “This is priceless information.”
“And it comes to you at no charge. I don’t think you’ll have trouble making your accusations stick if you keep to the script I’ve just handed you and arrest the criminals in the order in which they appear.” Fatty knew the deputy chief would be rolling up the rest of his competition by following his instructions.
“Do you think it will be sufficient to get my husband into the chief’s chair?”
Fatty shook his head. “It’s a patchwork of bits and pieces. Of course, you could claim all these criminals comprise an enterprise with a kingpin in command, but that is just not true. You don’t want to be caught in a lie. That would lose you the opportunity forever.”
Colin now looked despondent. “No, I cannot be untruthful. My integrity is the foundation for my reputation.”
Harriet patted her husband’s hand. Her mind seemed to be elsewhere. Fatty too was thinking about other matters when the two officers arrived to report on their arrests.
“Sir, we’re sorry to interrupt you, but we thought you should know we apprehended the three men who tried to rob you this night.”
“No problem, Officers. Here is the weapon they used in their robbery. The man with the broken wrist was wielding it.” He handed them the pistol, which they placed in an evidence bag.
“We’ve taken the three to the station for interrogation. Do you want to make a statement tonight or tomorrow when you come in?”
“I’ll write a deposition tomorrow morning, thank you. You may return to your duties with my thanks for a job well done.”
“Sir, there’s one more thing. The three men are telling the same story—that magic was involved in the robbery.”
“Well, supernatural business, anyway. They cannot account for their injuries. Did you break one wrist and four ankles?”
“I did not.”
“Well, someone or something did. The three thieves were interrogated separately but their stories are identical.”
“I’ll review all the evidence tomorrow morning. Will you join us for a pint?”
“No, Sir. We won’t be drinking on duty, will we? Certainly not. Have a good rest of your night. After what we’ve seen, I expect this is going to be a long watch for us.”
When the policemen had gone back into the slanting rain, Colin sipped his pint and mumbled a few words under his breath.
“Husband, what are you saying? If you mumble, people will think you’ve gone daft.”
Colin’s lip drew into a tight, thin line. “I was just thinking what a coincidence it is that a woman should have her son spared certain death and three savage robbers should have been thwarted by mysterious means. I don’t suppose you could shed any light on this business, Wife?”
“I know no more than you do, Husband. I am just glad I was in your capable company when the robbers came at us. I might have become a blithering idiot if I had been alone.”
“That is why we always walk together after dark. It is good policy that we do so.”
Harriet stroked Fatty’s calf vigorously with her tentacle. He felt a chill run up and down his spine. When he looked at the woman’s face, he saw she had dropped her false teeth into her pint. She was looking vexed and trying to fish the denture out of the glass.
“Harriet, don’t you think you should put your denture back in so we can go home? Nancy will be worried if we’re late.”
“Colin, you are always right. I won’t be but a minute. Do you mind if I go to the loo once I have my denture in place?”
“I don’t think that would be wise. The loo will have gone overflowing on account of the rain. You don’t want to slip and fall in that muck again.”
“I’ll hold it as best I can. But we have to hurry now. There, my denture is back in my mouth.” She stood and pulled on her coat and hat while Colin pulled on his. He tucked the intelligence papers that Fatty had given him inside his coat. As the couple passed out the back door, Fatty Millstone heard the words Closing Time. He still had half a pint left, so he gulped the liquid down and prepared to face the elements. When he was ready, he went out the back door, popping his umbrella open as the rain hit him. His shoes filled with water instantly, and he sloshed through the streets to his apartment.
All night the alien mastermind conferred with his clones. First, he verified that none of the three armed robbers was associated with his organization. Second, he checked his data on the MP’s connection and dispatched two of his clones to keep the man under strict observation. Third, he reviewed everything that had been printed in the newspapers about the octopus origin of aliens on Earth. He thought about what he had discovered until daylight:
I am glad my associates are clear of the armed robbery. As to the MP, I’m going to have to get close enough to him to discover the upper connections of his networks—without compromising myself. And the leaks about the octopuses are disturbing but not fatal for our operations. In fact, they may be helpful. Harriet was at the bottom of at least the second of the day’s two supernatural events. I have a hard time believing that her husband is unaware of her alien status. She is clearly a skilful strumpet, but she takes risks that will someday get her into trouble. She made my day by deferring to her husband’s judgment about the loo. If she had decided to override his wish, she would have wallowed in the slime. Oh, faugh, she stank the last time she fell in the ladies’. Even her tentacle could not have helped her keep upright.