When they found him, all pale and dead and murdered, they thought he was a schoolboy. A man of twenty-five soaked in rainwater and mistaken for a thirteen year-old.
And then someone said: “That’s the farmer’s son. He can sell anything.”
The identification was verified: “Yes, he sold me a pen once when all I wanted was a packet of butter.”
And again: “He sold me a canoe during that drought we had.”
The Chief of Investigations and I tramped through the rain to the farmhouse where we passed on the news to his milky-skinned mother.
Who said: “He always had so much going on.” Not any more.
We began our investigations by driving to the local garage. The Chief stayed in the car whilst I scurried out to get snacks, returning to the car with my arms full. Like a damp squirrel.
We rode around some more, looking at things through the windows of the car, trying to investigate whilst keeping dry.
The Chief would say: “Is that a clue?” Pointing at something in a field somewhere.
To which I would reply: “I’m not sure, I can’t quite see from here.”
“One of us is going to have to get out.”
“Well I’m not.”
“Well… oh, it’s probably nothing.”
We decided to base our investigation at the farmhouse instead. In front of a roaring fire we sat and asked endless questions of the family, the witnesses we had found and anyone else we could interrogate until the rain stopped.
Over that week the Chief and I became quite close to the farmer’s wife and her family as murder investigations and funeral arrangements blended into one. And so on the morning of the funeral we found ourselves in the farmhouse kitchen, putting our butchery skills to good use in preparing the mourners’ dinner. With that done we changed into our funeral clothes, which were quite black but not as black as some.
The service was short and ended with the words: “There are lots of things, and nothing lasts forever.”
It was still raining when we stepped back out into the elements.
The Chief turned to me and said: “Right, let’s get on with this investigation. Whodunnit, eh?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ve lost my appetite.”
The Chief scowled and said: “Well, I’d rather have a bite to eat first but if we must then I suppose we could skip the dinner and get straight back on the trail of this darned murderer.”
I looked around at the rain and told him: “No, I mean all this… this whodunnit stuff. I’m not sure that I care anymore.”
“But we’ve got to find out whodunnit.” And then he shouted, the word coming right out of the bottom of his belly: “WHODUNNIT!”
“I don’t know if I want to know.” I mumbled along. “It’s always something grisly and wrong… something that I don’t want to know about.”
The mourners were filing past us, out into the pale and wet whodunnit day.
I said: “I’m sorry.”
I formally resigned from the whodunnit the next day, took all of my savings out of the bank and used them to buy my own private island somewhere out in the middle of the North Sea where I set up a coffee house called: ‘There Are Lots Of Things, And Nothing Lasts Forever.’
The trawlermen who stopped off on their way past were sceptical about cappuccino at first but after a short while they were happily knocking back espressos and macchiatos without a cynical sardine swipe in sight, and I was happy in my- What’s that? The phone?
I got up to answer the coffee house phone. It was the first time it had ever rung.
On the other end of the line: “It’s me.” The Chief.
He said: “I found out whodunnit.” It sounded like he was standing out in the hammering rain back home.
I laughed: “Yeah. Well done.” And then, sober: “I mean it, well done.”
“Thanks.” A pause. “Don’t you want to know who it was? Who it was what dunnit.”
I thought about it, thought my way through the coffee fug and across the stormy North Sea and back in time to the pale and dead farmer’s son and the Chief and I stood over the body in the rain.
And then said: “To be honest, I don’t remember much about the case – the clues, the suspects, I don’t even remember the method of murder. The answer wouldn’t mean a whole lot to me. Is that alright?”
From the other end of that bleak and stormy North Sea phone line: “I suppose.”
“I mean, if you want to tell me, you can.”
“Well, pop in for a coffee sometime. On the house.”
The phone line crackled, just for something to do. Otherwise it would just have been silent.
We stayed like that for a while, the North Sea between us.
Oh go on then: “Chief?”
I could hear the fuzzy static of his smile all those miles away.
That morning I found a dead rabbit in the road, a high and dry November morning sun and funghi growing in the hedgerows. Big brown top-heavy mushrooms had growth-spurted their way out of every crack in the long-limbed trees and up through holes in the road tarmac. They were everywhere. I phoned the sculptress and asked her whether she had seen them and she dropped the phone, picked it up and giggled and then told me to come over and see. She sounded so excited that I just had to go.
In the streets everyone was wearing watermelon smiles and sneezing as though sneezing was the future. On the way to the sculptress’ house I counted sixty-two bless-yous.
When I got there she was grinning pink ear-to-ear as well. She kissed me on the cheek and then took my hand and pulled me through her house to her work room, where her black cat had just carefully dipped the end of his tail into her cup of tea. Having spoiled the cup of tea, the cat then flicked its tail and turned to glare at the sculptress and I as if we were doing something wrong.
Not to mind, my attention had been caught by the sculptress’ latest work in progress – a brand new piece carved from soft and obedient brown mushroom mystery. It was a story about a young girl and a large suitcase, the suitcase being nearly the same size as the girl and the title being, ‘The Least Secret Of Your Secrets.’ It was the first mushroom sculpture I had ever seen in the flesh.
From behind us came the sound of the sculptress receiving an email as the voice of her dead husband proclaimed: YOU’VE GOT MAIL. I had never asked how the sculptress’ husband died but I do know that shortly after his death he took up a haunting residence in her email inbox and had been monitoring her communications ever since.
The sculptress read the email and then reported to me that her dead husband was very much disapproving of my visit. I took one last admiring glance at, ‘The Least Secret Of Your Secrets,’ and turned to go but the sculptress stopped me for a moment: there was no need to go just yet.
I passed the afternoon in her work room as she put the finishing touches to the sculpture, making tea and coffee and sneezing and occasionally putting together a watermelon smile for her work. As the sun dropped lower in the sky the orange afternoon light burned through the window and I made reference to ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.’
I left the sculptress’ house as the day got dark. There was a big bad witch of a cloud hanging to the east and lit-up church spires to the west. Straight up above me was the sky and below me was the ground, all the elements packed up and crunched down together into a hard-packed encyclopedia. The funghi did not seem to have grown much but they were still there and everywhere, flopping around and making the world look like a very different place.
‘You can go swimming any time you like, any day of the week.’
It was a Wednesday and a Moustachioed Gentleman cycled past a lake-side billboard as he made his way home from his latest television appearance as a presenter on ‘The World’s Least Memorable Telephone Numbers,’ a programme on which members of the public tried to prove that they had telephone numbers that were really difficult to remember. It had become something of a ratings hit and as the Moustachioed Gent cycled he basked in the sun and his minor fame whilst puffing on a cigarette and pretending to be a steam train.
Some clean-shaven member of the public, as fresh-faced as a boy band member, hurtled into the side of the Moustachioed Gent’s bicycle and sent him sprawling. The clean-shaven man wrestled him to the ground and began to tug at his moustache, a swollen ginger handlebar with carefully cultivated curls like Norwegian fjords. The Moustachioed Gent stared up at the man as he tried to protect his moustache, noting the man’s mad-wide eyes which were encircled with deep-set brown worry circles as though someone had used his face as a coaster for their cup of tea.
Suddenly the clean-shaven man stopped. “Oh… oh… I’m sorry.” He let go of the moustache and tried desperately to unruffle the now-ruffled ginger moustache. “I am so sorry me laddie, please accept my apologies.” The clean-shaven man got to his feet and walked away, still apologising under his breath.
The Moustachioed Gent lay on the ground for a moment, wondering what had just happened and then a realisation hit him like a man knocking another man of a bicycle. That was no clean-shaven face! He thought. That was no fresh face! That was a face, if ever he saw one, a face that was crying out for a moustache. Crying out for one, or mourning the loss of one.
“!” The Moustachioed Gent leapt up, righted his bicycle, lit up another cigarette to resume his impersonation of a steam train and set off like a locomotive in search of the clean-shaven man.
When he caught up with him, the clean-shaven man was still apologising over and over as he went, breathing sorries into the air in the direction of no one in particular. When he saw the steam train/Moustachioed Gent approaching him, steam/cigarette smoke clouding above him, he spread his arms and declared: “Pardon me Monsieur, I am so sorry for my indiscretion. It shames me to interfere with such a bonny moustache.”
The Moustachioed Gent, a frustrated detective, de-saddled from his bike and let his curious train head lead him into a tunnel. “Why don’t you tell me all about it,” he said with his best TV smile.
“Well…” The two men had taken off their shoes and socks and placed their bare feet in the cool water of the lake. As the clean-shaven man talked, the Moustachioed Gent primped and primed his moustache, restoring it to its pre-trauma state. “Monsieur, I must apologise again for disturbing your moustache, I know how this is for I too once had a fantastic moustache-“
“Surely not quite as fantastic as my own?”
“Well, that is beside the point. I had one once, once upon a time… on Monday to be precise.”
The Moustachioed Gent burst: “You shaved it off!”
“Worse than that, monsieur. It was stolen.” The colour drained from the Gent’s moustache until it was a transparent handlebar some way short of its previous beauty. “Stolen monsieur. Wrenched from my face by a devil man with strong hands and… half a baker’s dozen other moustaches on his face.”
The Moustachioed Gent gasped. “A serial offender!”
The man nodded. “Six and a half moustaches.”
The Moustachioed Gent had nothing to say to this. The two men sat in a dejected silence, the time coming and going, spidery second hands ticking by and every second another potential moustache crime.
Eventually. “We have no option. We must go after this man. We must find him and bring him to justice.” The Moustachioed Gent’s face was set to stern and grim determination and his moustache twitching with investigative fervour. “We must start right away.”
“Monsieur, may I suggest that we begin by searching the lake. It seems a likely way for him to go. We could hire a pedalo and make an afternoon of it.”
For a moment the Moustachioed Gent was unsure – there was nothing to suggest that this criminal would be found on the lake. But then he reasoned that it was a nice day and that a trip on a pedalo would give him the opportunity to impersonate a steamboat, and so he agreed.
On their way to the pedalo shack he stopped at a stall and bought a melon and a black marker pen. “So that we can build a photofit profile of this rogue,” he told the clean-shaven man. They paid for three hours pedaloing up-front and set off across the lake.
The lakefish dipped and dived and breaded themselves in the light foam which trailed the pedalo-speed pedalo across the lake. The clean-shaven man had embellished the melon with seven and a half moustaches so far – some in the traditional upper-lip moustache location, some on the chin, some on the cheeks, some on the forehead – and every now and again he would take the melon and add a few more details as the memory of the attack returned to him.
“That’s a lot of moustaches,” noted the Moustachioed Gent after a time.
“He was one hell of a Moustachioed Gentleman.”
“He is no gentleman. Please do not ever use that word for- ice-cream!”
The Moustachioed Gent had flung his arm out and was pointing away across the water and when the clean-shaven man followed his pointing finger he saw, bobbing on the lake, a floating ice-cream parlour. With ice-cream now in their investigative minds, they pedalled faster towards the dinghy and the sound of the solitary waltz playing like a bugle call for ice-cream.
The floating ice-cream parlour was really an old fishing boat with the fish knocked out of it and ice-cream installed in its plaice. It was run by a moustachio of the Moustachioed Gent’s acquaintance who could usually be found leaning cockily out of the window and supplying ice-cream to dayboaters.
But as the investigative duo charged closer in their pedalo something seemed not quite right. There was no sign of the moustachio in his usual pose.
The Moustachioed Gent felt the ice-cold hand of ice-cream dread in his stomach and on his moustache.
“We must be careful,” he warned as they got closer.
“But Monsieur, it is only a wee ice-cream boat.”
The Moustachioed Gent did not reply.
When the pedalo reached the boat the Moustachioed Gent stood up, rocking the boat from side to side until he was able to steady himself by putting his hands on the counter of the ice-cream parlour.
The place was a mess – ice-cream splattered everywhere, ice lollies melting slowly, strawberry sauce sprayed up the window. The Moustachioed Gent ran his finger through the sauce and then licked it.
It was not strawberry sauce.
It was raspberry sauce.
He pulled himself up onto the counter and climbed through the window, ice-cream and sauce muddying his trousers, and then slipped down into the boat. He landed thumpily on top of the prone body of the moustachio. There was raspberry sauce everywhere and the moustachio’s moustache was nowhere to be seen. His face was an awful empty thing.
The Moustachioed Gent could not bear to look. He climbed back over the counter with quiet movements and keeping his eyes under careful control so as not to accidentally see the moustache-stripped face of his old friend the moustachio.
Back in the pedalo, the clean-shaven man drew another moustache on the melon, by now a strangely crowded marker pen face.
“Onwards,” called the teary Gent and they set off again, sure that they were somehow on the right track but with no idea of where they needed to head next.
“Oh monsieur. I cannae tell you how sorry I am. But we will find him, oui. Oui will find him.”
The Moustachioed Gent was silent again. There must have been twenty thousand moustaches in the towns and villages around the lake – the thief could be anywhere by now, harvesting more, sating his freakish thirst-
“What’s that?” The clean-shaven man had spotted something in the water, something small and orange. They pedalled towards it and found an orange ice lolly.
“Ah! We cannot be on the wrong track now!”
The Moustachioed Gent fished it out of the lake, disturbing the afternoon snack of a small lakefish who was licking the orange ice enthusiastically. He peered at the ice lolly through his magnifying glass but could find nothing of note.
Still, a few minutes across the lake they found a lemon lolly, floating innocently.
And after that, a strawberry one.
A whole trail of frozen treats leading across the lake towards the rocky shore.
The Moustachioed Gent was beginning to bristle. “He may be strong and he may be canny but no one steals moustaches from gentlemen and gets away with it. Who does he think he is? Can he not grow his own? When I get him…” He was beginning to tear. “No one gets away with this kind of thing!” He stood up and raised his fist to the sky. And then sat back down and continued to pedal.
At last they reached the rocks and found a whole heap of ice lollies bobbing around in the water like hungry fish. The Moustachioed Gent looked up the cliff and gulped, nervous of the scramble upwards.
“But monsieur, you are looking the wrong way.”
“I happen to know that there is a hidden cave, see how there is a wee gap in the rocks down there? I do not believe that the thief has escaped up that way at all but has instead retreated to the caves.”
“How can you be sure?”
The clean shaven man ran his fingers along his bald upper lip. “Monsieur, I cannot be sure. It is a hunch.”
“With all respect, you no longer have a moustache. Perhaps this is fuddling your hunches?”
“Weeell… ok. What would you suggest, monsieur?”
The Moustachioed Gent looked up the cliff and down to the gap in the rocks and he listened to the rational thoughts in his head and the hunches coursing through his moustache. Something in the confidence of the clean-shaven man told him that he was right, that he knew something the Moustachioed Gent did not.
“Ok, we will try the underground caves. I trust you know the way?”
The two men clambered from the pedalo into the water which stung cold like a freezer. The sun was falling out of the day and taking with it the light and the heat and all comfort and enthusiasm. The Moustachioed Gent touched his moustache carefully and worried about taking it under water before deciding that it was a small price to pay.
“Okay monsieur, follow me.”
The clean-shaven man ducked under the water and began to swim down, deep deep down, about ten feet under the surface of the water to the gap in the rocks. The Moustachioed Gent followed, noting the strange and exquisite beauty of geology and promising himself a trip back some time, in happier circumstances.
They swam through the narrow gap, their elbows grazing the rocks. The Moustachioed Gent’s moustache now thoroughly drenched.
It was not a long way through the passage before the cave began to open up ahead, high-domed doom caves which ran black with darkness so that when the two men broke the surface of the water they could only tell the cave’s height by the echo of the sounds they made.
The Moustachioed Gent gasped for air and shook his hair and his moustache dry, reaching out with his hands and finding the clean-shaven man a few feet away.
“This is it?” the Gent asked eventually.
“Yes, we are here.” The clean-shaven man’s voice sounded different in the cave. It seemed to have lost its strange Franco-Scottish sway.
The Moustachioed Gent was cold. His moustache again drained of colour.
“Yes, here you are.” A third voice. And then a light, a lit match from up above.
The Moustachioed Gent, treaded water and looked up to see a man perched on a ledge. He saw him with his eyes and his eyes tried to describe to his brain exactly what the man looked like. He was not tall, though he may have just been crouching. He did not look strong, but in the darkness it was difficult to tell. His face was not large but that may just have been because it was crowded with so many things…
So many moustaches.
A long, loping Confuscius across his upper lip, a Poirot on each cheek, a Zappa running like a scar on the left hand side of his chin. A scraggly and unidentifiable thing was fitted across his forehead and beneath his right eye a strange half-moustache wiggled evilly. The whole thing was a bizarre freak show gallery of hairy appendages, a fearsome thing which for a moment made the Moustachioed Gent feel pale and small.
But in the next moment he was once more full of virtuous anger and he went to raise his fist to the many-moustached man.
The clean-shaven man was holding his arms in a strong grip.
“What are you doing?”
The clean-shaven man just laughed, badly and madly and not good news.
The Moustachioed Gent stared at his face again, at the vacancy on his upper lip and at the brown circles around his eyes. As though someone had used his face as a coaster for their cup of tea. It all clicked! The phoney accent, the fake worry rings, the oddly-prescient suggestions. It had all been a set up.
The many-moustached man lit a torch high on the cave wall and then dropped down into the water. Despite his moustachelessness, the clean-shaven man was stronger than he looked and try as he might the struggling Gent could not break free of his grip.
His moustache was pale and dripping, its vitality all drained, suddenly the centre of attention. Nowhere to run and hide.
“This will make an excellent addition to my collection,” sneered the many-moustached man as he swam across to the tussling duo.
“You will not find it easy to take.” From closer up the Moustachioed Gent could identify a moustache on the thief’s right temple as the one belonging to the moustachio who ran the floating ice-cream parlour. “Thief! Scoundrel!” he shouted. He bit and kicked but found nothing he could reach.
“You may think of me as a thief,” said the many-moustached man, now treading water by his side, “but I like to think of myself as a curator. I do this for the benefit of moustaches everywhere.” He raised his hands up towards the high ceiling of the cave in a gesture of world dominance.
In his left hand was a contraption which looked like a cross between a razor and a butterfly net.
“Come here my pretty.”
The Moustachioed Gent looked for a way out. There was no way out. Nowhere for his moustache to go. He wished that his moustache could grow wings and fly off, or arms and fists with which to put up a fight, but that was not going to happen and what was going to happen was that this evil man was going to steal his beautiful moustache and keep it on his face, the wrong face.
“No!” shouted the Gent. “No!”
“Come here, aren’t you a gorgeous thing?”
The many-moustached man was closing in and the clean-shaven man shifted quickly so that he was restraining the Gent from behind, one arm strapped across his torso and the other holding his head deadly still at the top of his neck.
“You’re going to be a lovely addition to my catalogue,” said the many-moustached man and the eight and a half moustaches on his face all twitched with what was either joy or outrage.
“I’ll never stop looking for you,” whispered the Moustachioed Gent. “I’ll never give up.” He could have been telling his moustache or the many-moustached man but since the two were going home together the point was academic.
The moustache-removing contraption was startlingly close. The Gent tried to kick out, tried to struggle in any way he could.
“The more you struggle the more it will hurt,” the many-moustached man informed him. “The more likely that I will remove the moustache imperfectly, that I will accidentally wrench it in two or twist it out of shape.”
The Moustachioed Gent struggled against his impulse to struggle and finally stopped his body still. “Confucius said,” he began, looking straight into the devilish eyes of the many-moustached man. “He said that, ‘a man without a moustache is a man with no soul.’ You may have eight… eight and a half moustaches but you have no soul.”
The cave spun with the sound of the excited chuckle of the many-moustached man accompanying the sound of snipping and catching. Once the moustache had been removed, the clean-shaven man held the gent under the water until he bubbled frantic breaths and then blacked out in the black water.
When the Gent awoke it was to a sore head and pains running through most of the rest of his body. The first thing he did, before he had even opened his eyes, was to run a finger across his upper lip to feel nothing but the tiniest bristles growing to form a new moustache. And when he opened his eyes he found himself staring up at a bright sky, the ground wooden and moving beneath him.
He sat up and spat water. He looked down and saw strawberry sauce everywhere. He corrected himself – it was raspberry sauce – and then scooped some up with his finger and tasted it.
“Right chump, where is it?”
More unfriendly words. He looked up and saw a friendly, though somewhat changed face. It was the face of the ice-cream moustachio. No longer a moustachio. Now just the owner of a floating ice-cream parlour.
“What have you done with my moustache?”