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Duncan Johnstone
Literary Correspondent
9:40 AM 31st December 2022
fiction

James Grant And The Disappearance Of Miss Barclay

 
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James Grant came down from his upstairs flat to the office below collecting, as he did so, the post from the doormat. Strange, Sheila usually did that as she was always in early with a cup of coffee waiting for him to start his day. He entered the office and put the correspondence down on her desk. (Sheila always went through the correspondence, ditching circulars etc. and showing James the most important items.)

To his surprise there was no coffee, and, more seriously, no Sheila. Very unusual. She was always so prompt. Perhaps there had been some unavoidable delay. Anyway, she deserved a late morning occasionally.

He sat down at his desk and considered what the day held.

It was not until about 11.00am that he thought he should check up on Sheila, and so he phoned the number of the house she shared with her brother, John. 

It was John who answered.

“Is Sheila with you?” asked James.

“No. She didn’t come home last night. I thought perhaps …” His voice trailed off.

“She left here at the usual time yesterday evening.” There was a note of concern in James’ tone now. 

John, too, was concerned. His first thought was that it might have something to do with him. Although he officially worked for the Civil Service, in fact Civil should be replaced by Secret. As it happened, however, it had nothing to do with John.

“I’ll call back if I learn anything”, promised John.

“Same here.” They rang off.

It was only now that James Grant thought of going over to look at the correspondence he had placed on Sheila’s desk. One envelope stood out. It was handwritten in capital letters and bore just his name and the word “Urgent”. Clearly it had not come by post but had been pushed through his letterbox by the writer.

He took it over to his own desk and opened it. There was a single sheet of paper - and from the inside there fell out a lock of hair; a lock of dark brown hair; a lock of Sheila’s hair. The message on the single sheet of paper was brief and to the point, and also written in upper case -

IF YOU WISH TO SEE YOUR LOVELY ASSISTANT AGAIN LET US HAVE THE DIARIES. WE WILL CONTACT YOU TODAY.


What diaries? James himself had two. One was a journal in which he wrote his reflections and sometimes comments on recent cases. The other was a simple A5 appointments diary. Of what interest could these be to anyone?

It was already gone eleven. He had wasted time by thinking that she had just been delayed. Clearly the situation was more serious. Much more serious.

And then the phone rang. He steadied himself, and lifted the receiver. 

“Grant here.”

“Mr Grant. You have received my message? We want the diaries.”

“What diaries?”

“You know very well. We will contact you again at this time tomorrow - fail and you will not see the lovely Miss Barclay again.”

“If you hurt her …”

“We won’t hurt her. Our clients like pretty girls - and she is certainly a pretty girl.”

The emphasis on the word “We” was disturbing. 

“That is all. We will speak again tomorrow.” And with that the phone went dead.

A moment’s hesitation - and then James phoned 1471. Surely the caller wouldn’t be foolish enough to let his number be traced - but there was always a chance, however slight. He did well to do so, for a number was given. He dialled. A voice answered:

“Hello. You're through to The White Boar.”

James paused only momentarily. The White Boar. The call was very local. He had a thought. 

“Is Eric there by any chance?” He knew that there was a very good chance, for Eric spent most of his time - in the daylight hours that was, at the pub. The one exception was Sunday when he religiously spent the whole day with his wife, the lady with the lovely Scots accent that James had met just once.

“I’ll get him for you, Sir.”

A few moments later Eric answered: “Who’s this?”

“It’s James. James Grant.”

“Ah! Mr Grant. ‘Ow can I ‘elp you Sir?”

“Two things. First - have you been there for a while?”

“I just popped in briefly”, was the reply. (Eric’s ideas of ‘briefly’ bore no resemblance to the definition of that word given by the Oxford English Dictionary!)

“I just wondered. Did you happen to see a man using the telephone a few minutes ago? If so, can you describe him?”

Eric had noticed in a vague way and gave a general description.

“Thanks.”

“What were the other thing, Sir? You said two things.”

“The other is confidential. I want to get into a house to which I have not been invited - in the early hours of tomorrow morning. I wondered if you could help me. There would be a small remuneration for it.”

Eric was a petty criminal who liked to think of himself as a Robin Hood of crime. It was true that he only stole from those who could well afford it, and also that he was never violent. He was, in the old phrase, a “lovable rogue”. From James’ point of view at the moment the key consideration was that Eric could get into just about any house in the area.

“I’ll meet you at 1.00am then.” And James specified the place of meeting.

James reflected with some amusement that his two closest male friends these days - and he thought of Eric as a friend - were a police inspector and a minor criminal.

He sat back at his desk and reviewed the situation. These were the facts - 

The letter he had received had clearly been pushed through his door and thus was from someone nearby.
The fact that the phone call had come from the local pub confirmed this.
James thought there was something familiar about the voice, although when he had met him his wife had done most of the talking.
Eric’s rough description of the man he had seen make the call was confirmation.

Now he knew who had called him and, he believed, where Sheila was.

He phoned John Barclay again and told him what he knew and what he intended to do. He rejected John’s offer of help, but asked that he be ready in the early hours of the morning to look after Sheila if his, James’, efforts had proved a success.

Time hung heavy and every minute on the clock seemed like an hour. But he could do nothing until the appointed time.

At last it came and, as promised, Eric was there for his part in what James hoped was a rescue mission. They were outside the house of the Wetherby family - now just Mr & Mrs Wetherby since the death of their daughter (his step daughter, Selma).

It was when James realised who had called him that he also recalled the diaries that had been demanded in exchange for Sheila’s safety. They were the ones they had taken from her room following the murder of Selma.

Eric produced from his pocket a bunch of keys as they stole quietly up to the house. It was amazing to James how proficient his burglar colleague was. In what seemed only a few seconds he had selected a key from the bunch, inserted it into the door, and, after a few manoeuvres with his wrist, the door swung quietly open.

“Shall I come in with yer, Gov?” asked Eric. 

“No. We don’t want you being found on the wrong side of the law!” And so saying James handed Eric a brown envelope with the ‘small remuneration’ promised.

He entered the house as quietly as possible and closed the door behind him. At first all seemed quiet. But then he thought he heard sounds from somewhere below. There must be a basement where Sheila was being held.

He had a small torch in his pocket and switched it on, shielding the light with his other hand. Yes. There was certainly a sound from below. The voice of a man. He listened intently, hardly daring to breathe. A sound. A man’s voice. “Come on. One little kiss wouldn't hurt!”

James waited no longer. There were steps ahead of him leading down towards the voice. He sprang down with no pretence at secrecy any more. The door at the foot of the stairs was slightly ajar. He flung it open and a white fury came over him at what he saw.

Sheila was bound by her arms to a chair and Wetherby was attempting to kiss the resisting girl.

James Grant was not normally a violent man. He had done some boxing at school and continued it at University. But he had not done any since, although he knew how to protect himself and, he reckoned, could probably still put up a good show if called upon to do so. Now he did not hesitate but rushed into the room. As Wetherby turned to see what had happened he received a violent punch in the solar plexus. Before he could straighten up there was another blow which dislocated his jaw and left him unconscious.

“Oh my love. Are you alright?” The words came from him before he had time to think. He hoped she had not heard the first three. Hastily he freed her from the chair. She had fainted , but not before she had heard James’s words - all of them. Lifting her in his arms he sped back up the stairs and out into the road. His car was a little distance away but he soon reached it and, seating her carefully in the front passenger seat, he got in and drove straight to her home. As expected, John was there ready to receive his sister and look after her for the time being.

They exchanged a few words and then James returned to his office and then up the stairs to his flat. He must read those diaries that were apparently so important. But for now, exhausted, he removed his shoes and coat and collapsed onto his bed. He was asleep in seconds.

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