Welcome to my turn on the Blog Tour for ‘Headline Murder’, a lovely and humorous cozy mystery set in 1960s Brighton. We meet Colin Crampton, intrepid reporter of the Brighton Evening Chronicle in Chapter One.
Chapter One Extract
A Crampton of the Chronicle mystery
By Peter Bartram
The phone call that set me on the trail of the disappeared golf man who left his balls behind came one scorching Saturday afternoon in August.
I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom of the Brighton Evening Chronicle feeling like a barbecued steak that’d just been flipped on the griddle. The window was open and the high summer’s heat oozed into the newsroom like boiled treacle.
I could hear a saxophonist playing a jazz riff in the Royal Pavilion gardens. Something slow and sultry in a minor key.
Even the long plangent notes seemed to be dripping with sweat.
I leant back in my chair, loosened my collar and tried to imagine I was Nanook of the North huddled in an igloo. But after a hard day, my brain was too tired to make the leap. The last edition – the Night Final – was on the streets and the newsroom was deserted. The other reporters had left for the beach. Or, more likely, the pubs. I should’ve joined them. I could almost taste the fizz in the gin and tonic. Hear the tinkle of the ice cubes. Smell the zest of the lemon.
But I had to work late. And the heat was doing nothing for my scratchy mood. My byline – Colin Crampton, crime correspondent – hadn’t been on the front page for more than two weeks. Worst of all, Frank Figgis, the news editor, had started to hassle me about the dearth of hard crime news in the paper. As if he thought I was Mr Big of the Brighton underworld. What did he expect me to do? Stage a payroll snatch? Mastermind a bank heist? Order up a body thoughtfully bludgeoned with a blunt instrument?
I picked up the Night Final from my desk, turned to page fourteen. The best I’d come up with for this evening’s paper was a vicar fined five pounds for cycling without lights. I was frustrated. Brighton’s more imaginative criminals seemed to have taken a vacation along with everyone else. Except me. I badly needed a holiday.
But I needed a front page headline – a splash – even more.
I put down the Chronicle and reached for my notebook. I flipped through the pages. Stared at my Pitman’s shorthand. I willed the strokes and logograms, the dots and dashes to give up a story. Any story. But it looked as though the only way I was going to get a splash was to jump off the end of Palace Pier.
The saxophonist reached his crescendo. The last notes faded in the heat.
I tossed my notebook back on the desk, stood up, walked over to the window and looked out.
The saxophonist was putting his instrument back into its case. He took out a spotted handkerchief and wiped his brow.
Behind me a voice said: “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.”
I turned. The poet was Frank Figgis who had materialised in the newsroom. He was a small man with a craggy face and skin creased with fine lines like worn leather. He had hard brown eyes and a prominent nose. He carved his shiny black hair into a strict centre parting with a tram line of bald pate down the middle. He had his jacket slung over his shoulder. His red braces hitched his trousers up so tight he always looked as though he was walking on tip-toe to avoid a painful injury. He smelt of Brylcreem.
I gestured at the empty room. “Let’s forget about the staring and just call me the last man standing.”
I crossed to my desk and sat down. “Or, in this heat, sitting.”
Figgis perched on the edge of my desk looking like an emaciated vulture in search of a snack. He shook the last Woodbine out of his packet and lit up.
“I’ve got nothing to lead with in Monday’s paper,” he said.
“August is always a slow news month,” I said. “The silly season.”
“Don’t I know it.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Anything at this morning’s magistrates’ court?”
“Saturdays are always quiet,” I said. “We were supposed to have gross indecency under the West Pier but the lawyer didn’t turn up.”
“Under the pier?”
“At the court. To defend the accused.”
“Who was the dirty dog?”
“A beach-front photographer. Looks like he’d got the wrong idea about close-ups.”
Figgis took another drag on his cigarette. “Might make a down-page par with a teaser headline.”
Figgis had a penchant for headlines with dreadful puns. I could usually second guess what they’d be.
“Over exposed?” I said.
“No. Sign of the times,” he said.
“As a headline on that story, it makes no sense.”
“No, I mean the story is a sign of the times.”
“Get with it,” I said. “This is nineteen sixty-two, the swinging sixties.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to swing it under the pier,” Figgis said. He rubbed his forehead as though he had a headache. The lines on his face looked deeper than usual.
Figgis was one of the old school journalists. I suspected he still yearned for the days when respectable spinsters sent their maids out the room, drew their curtains, dipped a digestive into their Earl Grey, then drooled over a column of court reporting in which “intimacy” took place, preferably with the lights on.
He stubbed out his fag between his fingers and tossed the dog-end into my waste bin.
“Swinging or not, we need some hard crime news to boost circulation,” he said. “Find something for Monday’s paper. And make it a stronger story than a dirty old man with his trousers round his ankles.”
He slid off the edge of my desk and headed back to his office swinging his jacket behind him.
“And, by the way, the headline on that West Pier story,” he said over his shoulder. “Beach bum.”
Figgis disappeared into his office. I thumped my desk with frustration.
And it was at that moment that my telephone rang.
I lifted the receiver.
A voice said: “Got a minute?”
It was a deep confident voice with a hint of rural Sussex in the vowels. It belonged to Ted Wilson. He was a detective inspector in Brighton’s police force.
I said: “What’s wrong with this town? It seems to have gone all law abiding.”
“Yes. Great isn’t it?”
“Not from where I’m sitting. Figgis and I have just been scratching around for a front page story for Monday’s paper.”
“As it happens, I could have something that might make a column or two for your rag.”
He said: “The owner of the miniature golf course on the seafront has disappeared.”
“So call the Salvation Army. They deal in missing persons. I deal in hard news. When I can get it.”
“So you don’t want to hear what I’ve got to tell you?”
I said: “There are only two types of missing persons. Those that are never seen again because they don’t want to be found. And those that turn up of their own free will because they do.”
He said: “You’ve forgotten the third category.”
“You mean the ones that turn up again dead?”
“Is that likely with the disappeared golf man?”
“I’m not saying that.”
“Has a crime been committed?”
“Not as far as we know. But we don’t think he planned to leave.”
“He left his equipment behind.”
“His golf clubs. And his balls.”
“That could be embarrassing.”
Wilson said: “Are you looking for a laugh or a story?”
I said: “What makes you think this is worth even a column inch?”
“Because there’s a backstory to it.”
There was a pause. I imagined Ted scratching his beard as he decided how to play it.
He said: “Perhaps we could talk about it over a drink. Let’s meet later.”
I said: “Not too much later. I’ve got a date this evening.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Fortunately not,” I said.
“How about seven o’clock?” Wilson said.
“Fine, as long as we don’t take more than twenty minutes.”
“Seven it is, then. The usual place.”
“Discreet, as always. I’ll be there.”
The line went dead.
I sat there for a minute thinking that a disappeared golf man who’d left his balls behind would barely make a ripple let alone a splash for the front page.
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