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The Darlington Substitution (Chapter 6)

25th March 2018
(Short Story)

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A few days later, against my prevailing urges, I travelled to Stockton to fulfil my next book signing commitment. Given the vacuum of success I’d experienced during my first attempt, I felt a little like a lion tamer re-entering a ring in which he’d previously been mauled.

I parked Mary’s car in a carpark behind the swimming baths and stood at the ticket machine for a period while I decided whether to invest in more parking time than the sixty minutes that you get for free. After a short deliberation, I decided to speculate to accumulate and invested a pound for an additional three hours.

Then, box of books in arms, I made my way through the back streets between the High Street and the River Tees to Silver Street, the location of Drake the Bookshop.

On my arrival, Richard Drake led me to a table towards the back of the shop and offered me a cup of coffee. He returned with my coffee and grabbed a few of my books to market among the shoppers on the High Street, leaving his wife Mel to look after the shop. Drake’s has a welcoming feel about it. I do like an independently-run bookshop. As I took my position at a table towards the back of the shop, I wasn’t that concerned about how many books I might sign. I was happy to sip on my coffee and listen to the Beatles record playing on a turntable in the corner.

 

My tranquillity was interrupted by an old gentleman who, on taking what seemed like an age to make his way down the shop, engaged me in conversation concerning the inappropriate use of the hyphen and other apparently outrageous grammatical errors. I was hoping I could sell him one of my books, but feared it may not hold up to his scrutiny. He regaled me of how, whilst on a trip to London during the fifties, he’d knocked on the door of a publishing company to inform them of some corrections their signage required.

I was trying my best to appear interested in order to maintain some level of professionalism. It wasn’t easy. Over his shoulder I could see Mel at the other end of the shop who had noticed my predicament and was trying her utmost not to laugh. As our conversation spiralled into other realms of irrelevance we were joined by a younger chap. The young chap assisted me in my attempts to humour the old man for a while before calling him out. “Are you going to buy one, then?”

“Buy what?”

“One of Doctor Watson’s books.”

“Oh no,” replied the gentleman. “My wife would go mad if I came back with another book.”

“So, you come into bookshops with no intention of buying a book?”

“Yes.”

“Right.”

There was a pause broken by the older gentlemen who shook both our hands and began his journey to the other end of the shop and finally the door.

“That was a bit cruel,” I said with a smile.

My newfound cohort smiled back and offered his hand to introduce himself. “Will Nett,” he said.

“John Watson,” I chimed.

“It looked like you needed some help,” said Will.

“I must admit I was struggling to maintain an appropriate level of interest.”

“Yeah, I’ve done a few of these myself. You do get the odd interesting character.”

“You’re an author?”

“Of sorts. I’m currently writing a book about golf.”

“Really,” I responded. “Let me know when it’s published. It sounds like the perfect present for Sherlock.”

“Does he like golf?

“No. I don’t think he does, but that’s his Christmas present from myself and Mary organised anyway.”

“So, how’s it going?” enquired Will. “Are you managing to shift many?”

I returned him a look of minor despondency.

Will smiled. “It’s tough, isn’t it? All the signings, media appearances and the like.”

“You don’t say,” I replied. “I was on A Chat with Charlie the other day?”

“Oh yeah. I’ve done that a few times. How did it go?”

“It wasn’t great if I’m honest.”

“Really?” replied Will with a confused smile.

“Yeah, erm, I thought I’d come across quite well, but they didn’t broadcast it.”

“Maybe it’s been rescheduled for another time.”

“No. It’s been deleted.”

“That’s strange,” said Will. “With the amount of notoriety yourself and Sherlock are generating, I would have thought they’d have been all over it.”

“Apparently not.”

“And they deleted the recording?”

“Yes. They didn’t want it cluttering up their hard drive.”

Again, Will looked perplexed. “You know I’ve always thought Charlie Darlington was a bit suss,” he said. “He has all his airs and graces, but he’s always into some dodgy scheme or other.”

“How do you mean?”

“Just stuff that’s a bit tacky. You must have seen him fronting those double-glazing adverts in the Darlington and Stockton Times? He drives around in a Merc, but will stoop to anything for a few quid.”

Not having seen what Will was referring to I shook my head.

“Then there was that fire,” continued Will. “That’s got to have been an insurance scam. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is how he paid for the car.”

“Fire? What fire?”

“Yeah, he bought this big gaff in Guisborough. It was a bit dilapidated but he planned to renovate it and sell it on at a profit. A couple of months after he moved in, it burned to the ground. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’d tried to save a few quid on the survey and ended up buying a wreck that he could do nothing with.”

Holmes: The Darlington Substitution by Melvyn Small“But surely the fire service investigated the cause of the blaze?”

“They did,” replied Will with the look of a man whose hypothesis looked to be running aground. “They concluded it was due to an electrical fault in the house next door. That belonged to an old girl who hadn’t had the electrics looked at since the war. She perished in the fire and the enquiry ruled it to be an accident. It was sad. They say she went back into the burning house to rescue her cat.”

“Maybe it was an unfortunate accident,” I said. “It’s hard to see how Darlington would profit from that. Any insurance money would only cover his mortgage.”

Will looked over his shoulder to see who was within earshot. Apart from Mel, who was dealing with a customer on the phone, there was no one.

“Perhaps not,” he said. “All it would take is a couple of invoices from some dodgy builders to make it look like he’s done more renovation than he actually has and he’s quids in. Everyone knows he’s in a bit of a financial hole and the insurance money fills some of that in.”

I paused to think. Will was certainly presenting a compelling argument.

“Did you not hear about the fire?” asked Will.

“I don’t recall it.”

“It was front page news of the Gazette. It even got a mention on Look North.”

“I tend to read the Northern Echo,” I conceded. It was a little bit embarrassing given I was effectively employed by their rival. “I’ll have a look later. Sherlock has an Evening Gazette archive in his bathroom.”

Will smiled, thanked me for the book and, after shaking my hand, made his way towards Mel at the till.

 

Halfway through my allotted time slot, having sold only three books, including the one to my fellow author Will Nett, I decided I was deserving of a break. I excused myself to Mel and made my way into town for a Costa coffee. It was a warm sunny day and I ambled to my destination in no particular rush to get back to the job of not signing paperback books. As I pulled on the door handle of the coffee shop, the thought struck me that Will’s theory concerning Darlington’s involvement in an insurance fraud did seem plausible. Although, it was difficult to think the man I had met would stoop that low. I was starting to appreciate he wasn’t a particularly genuine character, however I wasn’t sure he was the type who would resort to arson to help himself out of a financial scrape. To that point I’d met a fair few criminals and he didn’t seem of that ilk.

 

I returned to Drake’s with my mind whirring. I hopped from one theory to another and back again. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of Darlington the calculating criminal with the cheesy cartoon of a man I had recently met. My deliberations were put on hold at the sight of the queue of people at my book signing table.

“There you are,” exclaimed Drake whose efforts to market my book had clearly reaped some rewards.

I retook my seat, grabbed my Sharpie book signing pen and set to work scribbling my name inside the front cover.

Read Chapter 7 Now >


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Mel Small
Mel Small
(United Kingdom)

The founder of Indipenned and the writer of some books. These include Holmes Volume 1 and the imaginatively titled follow up Holmes Volume 2. Dislikes turnip and beetroot (the Devil's fruit).


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