Tell the Octopus
The tentacles of the brightly coloured octopus listening to an MP3 player wound around the walls of the underpass as it snatched at musical notes floating up to the ring road above.
Crumble, who came up with most ideas, had suggested it, Anastasia, the creative one, had designed the octopus, and Tug was expert at wielding spray cans and brushes with both hands. The friends’ mission in life was to paint vivid murals in impermeable colours the despair of work experience teams sent out to clean up the neighbourhood. But the town didn’t need cleaning up - it needed brightening up. Crumble, Tug and Anastasia knew that their artwork would never match the wit of Banksy’s but, being so good, it was seldom removed.
Anastasia’s empathic spirit had been inherited from her intuitive Russian mother. Crumble (so named because of his passion for rhubarb crumble) regarded reality as a mere intrusion into his thought world: barely 22, he had the world-weary manner of someone much older. Tug (short for the tugboat which he had worked on for a couple of years) was tall, totally original and a gentleman, careful not to give offence, even when it was warranted.
They all had mundane jobs. Crumble was the proof-reader for an educational publisher, Tug a scaffolder, and Anastasia designed acrylic nails for the fingers of women who never needed to scrub a floor.
As they added the finishing touches to their octopus on the wall of the remote underpass shunned by pedestrians, they noticed Detective Inspector Knight looking down at them with that stern, unreadable expression he always wore. The three of them froze as though it would make them invisible. There was no point. This man missed nothing.
“Oh shit,” murmured Anastasia.
Crumble and Tug remained like rabbits caught in the headlights even though Tug’s huge tam holding his dreadlocks stood out like a Belisha beacon.
Anastasia realised that it was useless trying to pretend they were a figment of the policeman’s imagination and waved cheekily. “Hi Inspector!”
“For pity’s sake, Annie!” hissed Tug. “You trying to get us arrested?”
Then it occurred to Crumble that the DI had better things to do than bother with small fry like them. “He’s off on important business. Look, he’s wearing a hat and gloves.”
And sure enough, after raising a disapproving eyebrow, DI Knight turned and strode across the ring road.
“Though that is weird.”
Tug and Anastasia agreed that the taciturn upholder of the law was strange so didn’t pay any attention to Crumble’s comment. The DI was barely forty, yet had the presence of a 10,000-year-old glacier and depths that would have intimidated anglerfish. The friends had frequently been ordered to the police station for defacing property after being reported by some busybody or other. They were always careful to paint designs on walls that already offended the eye so their owners never filed a complaint, much preferring to keep the artwork. The friends’ punishment - as such - was being hauled before DI Knight, who had more important things on his mind, to be admonished and dismissed like annoying insects with a perfunctory, “Get out and join an art class,” which was the most any of them had ever heard him utter at once. He didn’t need to say more; the icy glare was enough to intimidate a charging rhino.
Crumble had a theory about why the detective personally bothered to do even that. Most criminals were stupid and dealt with by uniformed police. It seemed to be the prerogative of plain clothes officers to dress down the more intelligent offenders, however inconsequential. Tug and Anastasia thought that Crumble was just flattering his own superior intellect. All the same, they decided to select more remote locations during daylight. This was one of the reasons Crumble was so intrigued to see DI Knight in his Sunday suit on a weekend by that remote underpass.
Another was that nobody accompanied him.
It didn’t seem odd to Anastasia: the man must have been chilly company. “So?”
“He’s up to something. By himself. On foot. Come on. Think about it.”
So they did.
Anastasia’s curiosity was triggered. “We’ve almost done here. Let’s follow him.”
“You crazy?” protested Tug. “We’re already in enough trouble.”
Anastasia quickly wiped the brushes and tossed them with their aerosols into the knapsack. She swung it onto her back, calling over her shoulder as she pursued the detective, “Come on, before we lose him.”
The other two followed her through the maze of roundabout underpasses, emerging in time to see DI Knight disappear into the narrow lane leading up to the country park on its far side. Tug still doubted that it was a good idea to pursue a senior police officer on - quite possibly - a secret mission, but was outvoted by Crumble and Anastasia. He didn’t actually dislike the man (Tug liked everyone), just found him intimidating in a way his companions couldn’t comprehend. He didn’t understand why Anastasia’s mother, whenever she felt obliged to remonstrate with the police on the behalf of her artistic daughter and friends, was fascinated by the frosty DI Knight and grateful for any excuse to see him. The friends would have been amazed to learn that the detective welcomed the brief conversations they were able to have in Russian. Also, Crumble, Tug and Anastasia’s artwork had a joyful exuberance even someone from a cold climate could warm to and, unbeknown to them, impressed both adults. It was unlike the pretentious daubs of many youths who had nothing better to do than make a mark on something - anything!
The police could have prosecuted the friends - they did other defacers of property - and perhaps the mural of nude cyclists in police helmets on the rear of the police station’s ancient bike shed had been going a bit too far. Even though it was executed at the dead of night, their style was too unmistakable for their own good. Yet, surprisingly, it remained there!
As they darted up the lane after DI Knight, Crumble warned Tug to keep his head down. The young man was over six foot tall and conspicuous enough without the Jamaican colours standing out like a gigantic lollipop. Tug pulled off the tam and let his Rasta locks tumble out.
DI Knight didn’t intend to cross the park. He continued on up towards the private, palatial properties overlooking the town. Then stopped.
Crumble, Tug and Anastasia ducked into the cover of some bushes before he glanced about to check that the coast was clear. They saw the detective enter the gate at the rear of one of the mansions and descend the steps to the property’s boundary. His pursuers noiselessly dashed up the lane to peer down through the bushes. A large, affluent looking man in his sixties was waiting for DI Knight by a tool shed. Several hoes and spades were propped up against it after being cleaned. A garden fork’s long, gleaming prongs pointed skywards and caught the sun’s rays. This was obviously the gardener’s pride and joy.
It didn’t take Crumble, Tug and Anastasia long to recognise the heavy man as Archie Rogetinham, ex-mayor and outspoken critic of the council funding causes he believed charities should deal with. They knew him well. He was the one responsible for defeating the proposal to paint murals on the dreary walls of municipal buildings. They almost felt some empathy for the detective as there was obviously deep animosity between the two men.
Anastasia suddenly remembered something and looked at her watch. “How long are we going to do this? I promised mum I’d collect the groceries.”
Tug took out the fob watch from his embroidered waistcoat. “It’s only two o’clock. This was your idea. You got plenty of time.”
“Quiet you two!” Crumble whispered urgently. “Something’s going on!”
And sure enough the two men’s conversation was becoming heated.
“You are tiresome and obsessive, Detective Inspector Knight. You do know why I wanted to see you, don’t you?”
“You’re afraid I’ve now gathered enough evidence to get a conviction.”
“Don’t threaten me, you contemptible little upstart!”
“And you’d be right.”
“A fat lot of good that will do you.”
The friends were fascinated to see the taciturn detective at work, cool and fearless in facing down this huge man who believed he owned everything and everyone.
“Why don’t you just let this drop as your superiors told you?” Rogetinham warned DI Knight.
“They were wrong.”
“Don’t be so bloody arrogant! When were you promoted to chief constable?”
The detective’s cool tone turned to ice. “Now I have a dossier that will ensure the arrests of you and your network of child molesters.”
Crumble, Tug and Anastasia held their breath. They hadn’t expected this.
The large man’s voice lowered menacingly. “And, assuming that this fantasy of yours is true, what guarantee do you have that no harm would come to these young people as a consequence of you arresting me? - Theoretically of course.” Archie Rogetinham had enough influence to make the threat, even against the police officer recording the conversation.
“These children have already been harmed.”
“But we must assume that they are still alive - in this alternative reality of yours. Should you make any foolish move, how would you live with yourself if anything happened to them?”
The detective was unfazed by the threat. “In this ‘fantasy’ of mine, your octopus has a network of tentacles linked to child traffickers which stretches to the far side of the world.”
Anastasia realised that the analogy with her octopus design in the underpass was not coincidental. “He knows we’re here!”
The other two looked at her, horrified.
Archie Rogetinham growled menacingly. “I promise that if you come up against me in any way, children in this theoretical universe of yours would start to die.”
DI Knight had no answer for that. For a second a murderous expression crossed his impassive features.
The large man laughed at the chink in the imperturbable man’s armour. “And don’t even think about taking the law into your own hands. If anything happens to me, the children you are so gallantly trying to protect will meet a very unpleasant fate. There is nothing you can do to prevent it but keep your mouth shut, like some of the parents who sold their children into prostitution.”
Tug placed a reassuring arm about Anastasia as she attempted to keep her involuntary sobs silent. Even the unemotional Crumble seemed upset.
DI Knight looked the monster straight in the eye. “You are a foul creature. I intend to save these children from further abuse, one way or another.”
“By signing their death warrants?”
“Pretending to be a respectable citizen does not put you above the law, however much influence you may have.”
Archie Rogetinham gave an evil chuckle. “Oh, how naive you are, Detective Inspector. Of course it does. Haven’t you learnt anything?”
“Excrement will always retain its stench, however deep you try to bury yourself and your crimes.”
The large man went scarlet with rage and landed such a ferocious blow across the DI’s face he was slammed against the shed. “You insolent upstart! Even your superiors know their place! It’s about time you learnt yours!”
Archie Rogetinham would have launched a murderous attack if the police officer had not seized the garden fork and swung its prongs towards his attacker.
“Don’t be so bloody ridiculous! You wouldn’t dare!”
No sooner had the words left the huge man’s mouth than he tripped and toppled forwards.
The ex-mayor and pillar of the community was impaled on the fork.
Crumble, Tug and Anastasia could see the tips of its long prongs exit the wide back, a brief spurt of blood patterning his light-coloured jacket.
Unable to take in what had just happened, the detective momentarily froze. He clutched the fork’s handle in disbelief and gazed back into the horrified expression so close to his face before allowing the body to fall sideways. Archie Rogetinham lay on the ground, twitching for a moment. After the faint gurgle of blood welled up through his throat, he ceased to move.
DI Knight took off a glove to feel for a pulse in the man’s fleshy neck. Crumble, Tug and Anastasia could tell by the way he withdrew that the ex mayor, and bane of creative endeavour, was dead.
“Run!” hissed Tug.
“No!” warned Crumble. “He’ll see us. Even if he does know we’ve witnessed everything he won’t want us involved. Hide over here.” He pulled Tug and Anastasia into the cover of the bushes on the far side of the lane.
Seconds later the detective darted up the steps, wiped the blood away from his split lip and checked that no one was about before dashing back down the lane.
The friends came out of hiding.
Tug was worried. “Think anyone else saw?”
Crumble had already taken that into account. “No chance, the trees blocked the view from the house and we would have noticed anyone else in the grounds.”
Anastasia was still trying not to sob. “But what do we do now?”
“You heard Rogetinham. If DI Knight does anything to harm him or this network of paedophiles, children will die.”
“But it was an accident...”
“Like that would matter. It would be best if the death’s taken as a murder committed by somebody else. If anyone finds out DI Knight was here... well... you know what will happen.”
“But all those poor kids. What can we do?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
So Crumble, Tug and Anastasia reluctantly returned to the octopus in the underpass to half-heartedly add some finishing touches before going home.
Archie Rogetinham had been an important person and his death was reported in the national news. And, just as the friends were hoping it would be declared an accident or murder by an intruder, Detective Inspector Anatoly Ilyich Knight was held on suspicion of murder. The police would not release any other details as their ‘enquiries were ongoing’.
Archie Rogetinham’s wife had known the exact time of her husband’s secret rendezvous with DI Knight. He had demanded the detective meet him to discuss his ludicrous obsession with him being involved in a paedophile syndicate. She was well aware of the animosity between the two men and, when her husband hadn’t returned to the house, immediately went down to find his body.
To make matters worse the investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Davis, had not been able to account for the DI’s bruised face or whereabouts at that time. His mobile had been switched off and car left unattended for over two hours only a mile away.
When Crumble, Tug and Anastasia secretly met in an underpass immediately after hearing the news it wasn’t to paint the walls. Two of them were near panic.
“That gang will start killing those kids!” blurted out Anastasia.
“And you heard DI Knight - they’re all over the world!” added Tug.
“DI Knight said he had evidence.” Crumble told them before they became irrational. “He would have put it in a safe place immediately after this happened so, if they believe that, it might buy some time. The main concern is him being charged with the murder of Archie Rogetinham.
Now Tug was near to tears. “But we have to do something!”
“So we shall,” Crumble announced calmly. “If it was proved that DI Knight couldn’t have committed the murder, these child traffickers would have no reason to start killing children.”
“But he’s hardly likely to admit it.”
“In the face of the circumstantial evidence, who is going to believe him?”
“Can’t we tell the police that it was an accident?” suggested Anastasia.
Crumble gave her a circumspect look. “The fact that the two men met would only confirm that he has compiled enough evidence to bring the network down. Don’t forget that Rogetinham had contacts in the police who were able to suppress his previous enquiries. With DI Knight locked up, they might get to the dossier first. There is only one thing we can do - and the sooner the better.”
“What’s that?” asked Tug.
“Annie is sure that DI Knight knew we were watching.”
“Why would that stop him thinking up something to save himself - and those kids?”
At last the truth dawned on Anastasia. “Because he’s waiting for us.”
An hour later the three artists approached the reception desk of the local police station.
“We have come to make a statement concerning the murder DI Knight is accused of.”
The desk sergeant gave Crumble a penetrating look which warned him that this was no joking matter.
He went on in his most confident tone. “It is possible he was with us at the time.”
“You mean that you are his alibi?” She sounded incredulous. “What time this was?”
“It was definitely two o’clock. We were doing this octopus in the ring road underpass when it happened...” Anastasia started to explain.
Crumble’s raised hand was unable to stop her gushing on.
“And we know it was that time because I had to get back home to collect the-”
“There’s no need, Annie. I’m sure we’ll all be given the chance to make a full statement.”
Instead of dismissing the young people for time wasting, which had been Crumble’s main concern, the desk sergeant looked relieved.
She picked up her phone. “I need to speak to DCI Davies. This is important.”
Crumble, Tug and Anastasia made their statements, having carefully agreed on every detail of their encounter with DI Knight beforehand. They declared that he had been struck by a half empty beer can hurled from a lorry on the ring road. (Crumble suggested the split lip and bruise had to be caused by something that unlikely because it was even less credible that this man would have tripped over anything.)
After the friends had signed their statements and told to make themselves available should any further details be required, they went away to hold their breath.
They needn’t have worried. DI Knight did not contradict their story.
Shortly afterwards a news bulletin announced that the investigation implicating him had been dropped.
Weeks passed with Crumble, Tug and Anastasia living in fear of a knock at the door from some reporter or other busybody claiming to have proof of their fabricated alibi. Lie or not, it had saved the lives of some already traumatised children.
Two months later the news headlines were about an international paedophile and child trafficking ring being broken up in a joint operation by police forces across the world.
At last Crumble, Tug and Anastasia were feeling relaxed enough to plan their next artistic foray against ugly, unsuspecting walls when they received an invitation to paint a mural on the central library. A sizeable consignment of KNOxOUT paints had been donated to them by a well wisher and was awaiting collection at the council’s supply depot.
The artists were shown into the room where the tins of pollution combating paints were stored. Nobody knew who had donated them, only that the order had been placed several weeks previously and the shipping manifest had no purchaser’s name. There was just an envelope addressed to Crumble, Tug and Anastasia.
Anastasia opened it with an acrylic nail and pulled out a card. On it was a manga style octopus listening to music on headphones.
As she looked at it she was overwhelmed with dread.
Crumble and Tug wondered why she had suddenly become ashen.
“What’s up Annie?” asked Tug. “Looks as though we did good after all. DI Knight wouldn’t have spent out on all this gear if we hadn’t.”
“It’s not that,” she whispered.
“What then?” asked Crumble.
“How do you mean?”
Anastasia couldn’t say, but that cold clenching in the pit of her stomach insisted something terrible had happened. So the others accompanied her to the police station, the only place they could think of to find out what it was.
The mood inside was sombre.
Anastasia went up to the desk sergeant and asked, “What happened?”
She looked at the three friends and decided that they were entitled to know.
“DI Knight was attending a suspect’s address. He was stabbed trying to release some children being held there. He died in the arms of a young girl. She thought his last words were, ‘Tell the octopus that...’ but English wasn’t her first language and he didn’t finish the sentence.”
Crumble, Tug and Anastasia silently left to work on their next design.
The gable end of the library facing the High Street had scaffolding against it for several weeks as work was carried out on an elaborate mural. When the protective canvas came down, an octopus holding flowers looked down benignly on the pedestrian precinct. Its tentacles framed the portrait of someone the local residents now understood to be very special.
Their local hero, Detective Inspector Anatoly Ilyich Knight had been immortalised in pollution absorbing, permanent paint.