Who Cleans The Insides Of Postboxes?

I bit into my sandwich and it left a tiny streak of butter on my cheek.  I was worrying myself into circles.  “That’s how you end up with stones in your shoes,” my old boss would have said.  He would have said that, and I would have stopped worrying.  But now he wasn’t here, and I was worrying and I had stones in my shoes.  I finished my sandwich, eating and thinking, my mind and my jaw both working in circles.

Sandwich over, I picked up my phone and dialled down the line to my assistant.  “I need some results right now and you’d better, you’d better have some results or… have you got any results?  Have you?”  He sighed a long sigh down the long long telephone line.  No, there had been no progress.  We were no closer to finding the bugger.

We had officers searching high and low, on the look out for a whisper of a snippet of an idea of a clue.  “Don’t put all your chickens in one basket,” my old boss would have said.  “Because they might not all fit.”  I’d have felt like punching him.  But having him here now, to help as we looked for that elusive bugger, that would have been good.  I carried on and on in circles, all through those chewed-sandwich days.  “Someone must know something,” I said to my assistant.  The man we were looking for was not particularly dangerous, but he was a nuisance, a right pain.  His thing was fake goods, and they were everywhere.  Everything from fake sandwiches to fake shoes to fake stones.  His fakery was all over the place and no one in the city was sure that what they were doing was real any more.

The bugger had evaded our detection through the canny use of fake noses, fake moustaches, fake glasses… fake skin.  We knew that he made wigs out of roadkill and could only guess at what other materials he was using.

I was at the the Library of Criminal Thoughts and Deeds and Processes and Perpetrators checking up on the work of the criminal librarians, when the call came.  The librarians’ job is to search through the dusty books of crime – the past, the present, the fictional – looking for anything which could help us.  They were not too pleased when my phone rang and disturbed their quiet and tender work, but I answered it all the same.  “Boss,” said my assistant.  “Yes?”  “We’ve got a lead.”  “Yes!”  “Interrogation are on their way now.  And administration.  And the anaesthetist.”  “The anaesthetist?”  “Yes.”  “I’m on my way.”  I wasn’t on my way, I was still stood in the library.  But moments later I was in my car and speeding to the address I had been given.  I met my assistant and the rest of the teams just around the corner from the address and he filled me in.  “Mr Nathaniel Breakfast, a known associate of the bugger.”  “Good.”  “He may be quite feisty, we thought it best to send in the-“  “Yes yes,” I said.

The operation went like this.  Stage one – the break-in team would break down the door.  Stage two – the immobilising unit would rush in and grab the target.  Stage three – the anaesthetist would administer a local anaesthetic.  Stage four – the interrogators would fire questions at the helpless, woozy, befuddled target.  Stage five – administration would go in with the case filing cabinet so that all the relevant documentation was to hand.

I strolled in just as the interrogators were getting into their stride, barking confusing questions at Breakfast.  “Where?”  “When?”  “How?”  They kept things simple.

Eventually, Breakfast gave us the address we were looking for – the bugger’s base of operations, his centre of fakery, his little world.  An abandoned junkyard out on the Dapperdude Road, near the traffic lights.  Administration verified it against the information we already held and when they had confirmed that it all stacked up, I asked the interrogators to check again.  “Check before you trek,” my old boss used to say.  It wasn’t one of his better sayings.  The interrogators fired the questions at Breakfast again, harder, faster, closer.  The wrecked man gave the same information a second time.

And I was gone, out of the building and down the road.  This was where I was best.  The best catcher in the force, my old boss used to say.  That was why I had followed him into office.

I tore down Simnel Road and then Getadog Lane and up the redbrick avenue known locally as The Shallots.  Then I slowed, stealthy stealthy catch the bugger.  Crept around the corner, my fingers steepled in fake-weaponry, playground style.

As it happened he was standing out on the street, enjoying a kerbside fake cigarette.  He looked at me through the clumsy disguise of his fake moustache, glasses, nose, skin, teeth.  The large cardboard collar of his coat which brushed against his roadkill wig.  I pointed my fingers at him.  He swore and dropped his cigarette.  The chase began.

The somewhat innocent and vaguely anonymous members of the public who were out and about that day – and I, having been so obsessed with the investigation did not know what day it may or may not have been any more – moved out of the way of our rough sprints, the two of us heads up and pounding our way along the pavements, land flying beneath our feet, arms everywhere, wild wild.  The thrill of the chase.  All the days and weeks of frustrating investigative procedure disappeared behind me.  I could have chased the bugger forever if he’d let me.

As it was he ducked into a café on the Bestbitter Road.  As I followed him into the rather grubby establishment I expected to see him scrambling through the back door but instead I found him backed against a table, breathing heavily, holding a sachet of white sugar as a makeshift surrender.

He had been a clever bugger.  Cafes were neutral ground – I could not arrest him in there as per the revised rules and regulations of investigation and arrest.  Still, he was only denying the inevitable.  He held his hands up as if to acknowledge the fact.

“Sit down with me for a while,” he offered, and I did, warily.  There was no one else in the café but us, save for the owner who busied back and forth between the kitchen and the counter, averting his eyes from the table at which myself and the bugger sat.  “Can I get you something to eat?” he asked, and I noticed that whenever he spoke his fake features wiggled up and down with the movement of his jaw.

I declined his offer with a shake of the head and took an apple from my pocket.

He sighed and spread his hands on the table.  “Look, I’ve surrendered.  Can we just talk in a dignified and peaceful way, please?  I’m not just some dumb criminal mastermind, you know.  I have thoughts about all kinds of things.”

“Like what?” I spat the question in the way that my old boss had taught me.

“The nature of reality.  The hidden things that people don’t… things like… who cleans the insides of postboxes?  And when?”

“You’re just faking a clever thing to say,” I told him.  “You make all these things, these bogus things, you replace real and solid things and sell people flimsy replicas.  Even your words aren’t real.  Your sentences are transparent shams of sentences.  Your ideas are boxes of hot air dressed up in disguises.  But you don’t fool me.”

He listened to what I had to say and then left a silence across the table for a moment.  Then he put his wrists together and held them up for me to see.  “So arrest me.”

“You know I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re in a café.  You know that we can’t-“

“That would make sense if this were a real café.”

I looked around at the walls of the crumbling establishment, at the tables, at the windows.  It all seemed real enough but then I remembered how good he was, how adept at making people believe the authenticity of the inauthentic.  Maybe we were sitting in another of his lies.

“Ok, good one.  But why are you telling me this?  Even if you think you can escape me, back up is on the way.  Tens of police officers will be-“

He waved his hands in the air as if to shut me up.  “Yes, yes.  That would make sense if they were real police officers.”

I stared straight ahead, thought about what he had said and about the quality of his faked goods.  I took a long, deep, crunching bite of my apple.

And then I began worrying myself in circles again, doubting my colleagues, my assistant, my old boss, everything and everyone in a flustered loop until I didn’t trust the clothes I was wearing or the hair on my head.

As I finished my mouthful I grabbed hold of reality again.

“So what is real?” I asked.

“Me, you?” he answered.  “I don’t know.  This is what I was saying about the nature of… whatsit…” he coughed, “reality.”

“Reality?”

And then all in one movement he stood, upended the table and was across the counter and out of the back of the café and I, my wits about me, was after him.  The chase back on.  Reality forgotten.

In the back yard of the cafe, as the bugger tried to climb over a pile of cardboard boxes, my assistant caught him in a rugby tackle.  Out in the open he was fair game and nicked with the satisfying snap of a pair of trusty handcuffs around his wrists.  I tore the disguises from his face, looked him in the eyes and just for a moment he looked – stared – straight back at me.

And as my assistant lead him away, the bugger knew that he had planted a seed of doubt in my mind.

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