The Twitching of Curtains, by Reena Mukherjee

The Mercedes glided to a standstill before the first house in Burkely Avenue. It was a quiet street, with no more than five little cottages and surrounded by country for ten to twenty miles around. A swarthy man in a tailored suit leapt out of the driver’s seat and sauntered up the lengthy driveway, a personalised pen clipped to his pocket engraved with the name ‘Ronald Tixon’. Impatient and sweating, he rapped smartly on the door, which was shortly eased back. The occupant allowed him in, and then slammed the heavy oak door closed again. Once more, the street was plunged into a ghostly silence. In the cottage directly opposite, which was saturated with innocent-looking orchids and roses, there was a movement at the window. The lace curtains at the pane quavered and slid back into place.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny in the quaint little village of Thornwood, whose main street was Burkely Avenue. The loud chimes of the Church bell could be heard as the locals went off to mass, and shopkeepers turned their signs around once more so that they read ‘open’. An elderly lady dressed smartly in a floral dress and Sunday hat thumped irritably on the door of number one, Burkely Avenue. “Agatha!” she snapped. “Agatha! We shall be ever so late for mass!” But her remonstrance was in vain, for there was no answer to her call. “Really!” shaking her head, she opened the door – it was unlocked – and entered. The lady’s name was Mrs. Julia O’Hara, a lady of strong principals who was especially disgusted at anyone who missed Sunday mass. Feeling somewhat guilty about entering a house without the owner’s permission, she hurriedly flitted from the kitchen to the sitting room, the bedroom to the bathroom, calling for Agatha. Finally, Mrs. O’Hara realised what the matter was… Agatha had disappeared!

“Good morning, madam. How can I be of service?” Constable Tom Rutherford was an affable fellow, middle-aged and alert. Setting down his cup of tea, he leaned on the stained wooden desk at the Thornwood police station. Mrs. O’Hara delicately dabbed at the corner of her eye. “It’s terrible, constable! Terrible!” she sniffed. The constable looked puzzled, “Steady on, madam!” he replied kindly, “What’s your name?” “Julia. Julia O’Hara. Oh, I don’t quite believe it!” Constable Rutherford nodded, “Tell me what’s happened.” Struggling to compose herself, Mrs. O’Hara told him her story. “My friend’s name is Ms. Agatha Smith. She lives at number one, Burkely Avenue. Every Sunday, we go to mass together – she never misses a single Sunday. Today, when I called for her, she didn’t answer. I know it was wrong, but I was so curious to find out what was keeping her I tried the door. It was unlocked, so I went inside…and she wasn’t there! She’s disappeared!” Mrs. O’Hara burst into tears. Smiling, the policeman offered her a hankerchief, “Now, now, Mrs. O’Hara! Why d’you say that? Couldn’t she have gone out?” Mrs. O’Hara vehemently shook her head, “She never goes out without me! Never!”

The sunset had streaked the sky with slashes of mauve and orange, for it was nearly five o’clock when Constable Rutherford and Officer Peters turned up at the house of Ms. Agatha Smith. The pair stepped inside the comfortably furnished home and gazed round. “Nothing amiss, sir,” Officer Peters remarked, shrugging, “it looks like she just went out.” “You will find, Peters,” Constable Rutherford muttered, “that people like Ms. Smith is reported to be would never leave their house unlocked – unless in an emergency, of course.” “Sir! Over here!” Officer Peters cried, bending down, “It’s a business card belonging to a Mr. Ralph Torringdale. Does that ring a bell?” The constable nodded slowly, “I believe so – he’s a solicitor, isn’t he? In London?” suddenly his eyes grew wide, “Quick, Peters!” he yelled, “Get the car! We’re going to pay a visit to London.” the pair of policemen rushed from the house and threw themselves into the police car. Officer Peters slammed his foot down on the accelerator and the two were speeding away into the sunset. Across the street, the curtains were slid back into place again.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Ralph Torringdale stood as primly as ever, “How may I be of service?” “My name is Constable Rutherford and this is Officer Peters. We’re here about the suspicious disappearance of a Ms. Agatha Smith. It is our belief that you know her.” Constable Rutherford replied darkly, leaning against the desk of the celebrated solicitor. He found smug men abhorrent, especially their suave manner – the way they thought that nothing in the world could affect them. Even now, the lawyer smiled coolly, “I’ve never actually met the lady.” “Then you do know her?” Officer Peters chimed in. “Perhaps. Look, if you want to arrest me, gentlemen, please do – but otherwise, I’ve got some important work to get on with.” his cordial smile disappeared, however, when Constable Rutherford produced a sheet of paper from his pocket.

“I suppose you know what this is, sir.” The constable smirked. “Officer Peters kindly picked up a search warrant for your premises on our way up to London. If your ‘important work’ can be conducted elsewhere, I will be much obliged if you would permit us to have a look around?” He looked at the solicitor, meeting his gaze with a defiant stare. With no choice, the solicitor consented and left the room, slamming the door behind him. With that, the two policemen began a meticulous search of the office.

A couple of tiring hours passed by, in which nothing came of turning out drawers and searching under sofas. Finally, just as they were winding up, Officer Peters pounced on something lying by the fire grate with a loud ejaculation. “Look at this, sir! It’s a piece of paper. Missed the fire, by the looks of it! See here – ‘To Ralph, burn after reading. Ms. Smith is alone; I will go to see her this evening. Tixon,’” he finished with a triumphant whistle. Constable Rutherford nodded, “The recently acquitted Ronald Tixon, cleared of robbery because of his hotshot lawyer…Mr. Ralph Torringdale. If Tixon’s in the neighbourhood, let’s search the posh hotels. He’s made quite a lot by suing the police, and I’ve no doubt he’s enjoying a comfortable bed for once.”

The next evening, Constable Tom Rutherford and Officer Peters sat placidly in the interview room as a fuming Ralph Torringdale was dumped at their feet. “He’s confessed, Ralph,” the constable informed the solicitor, enjoying his turn at being suave, “Tixon’s split. But we only have half of the puzzle. We know you want to force your client, Ms. Smith, into signing her property over to you, and so you enlisted Ronald’s help to abduct her. He owed you, didn’t he, after you rescued him from a hefty prison sentence? Anyhow, we need to know where you’re holding Agatha Smith. Tell us now, and we’ll put in a good word for you at your trial.” The lawyer’s face twisted into a snarl, “She’s at number 5, Burkely Avenue.” he looked up at the two policemen, eyes mocking them, daring them to go. Constable Rutherford pushed back his chair, seething, “Peters, you continue the interview. I’ll be back with Ms. Smith, and then Solicitor Torringdale will see what it feels like to be on trial himself!”

Taking no notice of the speed limits, Constable Rutherford surged into Burkely Avenue and his car jerked to an abrupt halt outside number five. The house was overgrown with bright flowers – and lace curtains covered the windows. Not bothering to knock, the policeman put his shoulder to the flimsy wooden door – and a moment later he was standing inside. The house appeared to be deserted. The constable warily descended the stairs to the basement, a look of dagger-like determination plastered upon his face. A moment later, he was standing at the cellar door, from where he could here muffled cries of ‘Help! Please, help me!’
Breaking down the door, he immediately fell to his knees and began working on the bonds of a gagged elderly lady he took to be Ms. Agatha Smith, assuring her she was now safe. He didn’t ask any questions – it was the only courteous thing to do, until the lady had seen a doctor. He’d gotten her to her feet and the pair were just about to make their exit from the bug-infested cellar when a shadow fell across them. It was the profile of a lady the guard sent to keep Ms. Smith under supervision – and as she turned around to face them properly the constable noticed she was holding a gun. Constable Rutherford nodded grimly, “Yes, Mrs. O’Hara. Well done. A very convincing episode it was, your teary-eyed profession that Ms. Smith was missing! But I rather figured someone in the neighbourhood was keeping Torringdale and Tixon informed of Ms. Smith’s movements – someone she trusted – and no one fitted the profile better than you, miss. You found out Ms. Smith was a rich lady, you conspired with her corrupt lawyer and you, Mrs. O’Hara, deceived her! You deceived your friend, who had faith in you.”
Mrs. O’Hara lowered her gun, grinning sadistically, “Oh, she has a lot of money. I deserve something, and just borrowing a bit won’t hurt, will it?” she watched as the constable put his hand to his holster, and her grin widened as he gasped, realising that in is hurry he’d left it on his desk. He and Ms. Smith were sitting targets as Julia O’Hara raised her gun once more. Then, something unexpected happened. All this time Agatha Smith had been silent but now she couldn’t control her anger and hurt any longer. Something within her snapped. With an ear-splitting screech, she lunged at Mrs. O’Hara, who she saw now only as a traitor. They struggled, and with a sudden bang the gun went off.

“Well, all’s well that ends well, is what I say,” Mr. Rutherford smiled, his amiable old self again. “I won’t go to jail, will I?” Ms. Smith asked anxiously, as the body of Mrs. O’Hara was loaded into an ambulance by the paramedics. The constable shrugged, “One often falls into the pit they dig for another. No, it was an act of self-defence – all you need is a good lawyer.” The paramedics finished up, and Officer Peters joined them, smiling to himself, as he declared, “Speaking of good lawyers, I’m afraid Mr. Ralph Torringdale is unavailable. He is, I’m afraid to say, permanently detained.”

***
The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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2 Responses to The Twitching of Curtains, by Reena Mukherjee

  1. Pingback: October Short Story Comp (Espionage and Deceit) Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  2. Saikat Ghosh says:

    Interesting read, sounds like an old teacher of mine from Lucknow, India. (smile)

    best,
    saikat

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