Authors: Stella Whitelaw
To all my good writing friends that I have met at different conferences over many years. Thank you for all the fun, the advice and, of course, the parties.
he idea for the Pink Pen Detective came to Fancy in a dream. She had been tossing themes about for her new book for days, more lightweight than the caber but just as unwieldy.
Then she had this dream about a pink pen, the content of which slipped away from her like mist swirling on a foggy morning.
She looked up ‘pink’ and ‘pen’ in her
Ten Thousand Dreams Explained
manual and discovered that to dream about a pen meant inspired writing, which was too good to be true. To dream about the colour pink was unrecorded. This was a little disturbing. Was she the first person to ever dream in pink?
Red meant vigour, vitality and power. White meant spiritual innocence and wisdom. Since Fancy didn’t want to spend any more time on research about her dream, she decided the Pink Pen detective would combine all these attributes.
As she knew most of her readers thought her heroines were based on herself, it was necessary that the Pink Pen Detective should be as different as possible. Fancy made her heroine short, fair, slightly overweight, with an allergy to cats and a passion for grand opera. This was the complete opposite to Fancy.
On duty the Pink Pen Detective would be addressed as ‘ma’am’ as befitted her rank. Off duty, as befitted being short, fair and vulnerable, she was usually addressed as ‘Missus! Give us yer phone and yer bag!’ This was before she punched them in the guts with a tightly gripped bunch of car keys.
ow much?’ she asked.
‘Four quid to a nice young lady like you,’ said the
. His stall was piled high with reject and job-lot stationery. Envelopes, Post-it-notes, A4 copying paper, biros, erasers, cartridge ink, jiffy bags. The stock of some retail shop that had gone bankrupt in these uncertain times.
‘That’s a lot,’ she said.
‘There’s a gross in that box,’ he argued.
‘But how do I know that they all work?’
He grunted, getting tired of the argument. He’d been up since six, was cold and tired. He thrust the rose-painted box at her. ‘Try them,’ he said.
It was in her genes. A doctor once told her that she had ink instead of blood in her veins. She still had time to hit that red carpet, to follow in J K Rowling’s footsteps. She had already cast her books. Except she did not write about child wizards and dragons; she wrote about money and crime. People killing each other.
Fancy took out a handful of the pink pens and scribbled on a scrap of paper.
Four worked and two didn’t. But she loved the pens. They were all a delicate shade of pink, like the inside of a shell. They made the standard biro look like something from a Mumbai slum.
‘Three,’ she said.
‘Three fifty,’ he said, seeing her weaken.
‘Okay.’ She found the money and put the lid back on the box. She reckoned she had enough pens to last the rest of her life, assuming she lived a good few more years. If the accidents stopped happening, that is. She put them out of her mind.
Fancy stood still to savour the moment. It was ten minutes past eight on a summer’s morning with a clear blue sky, and only the vaguest errant cloud, somewhere very high. She was at a car boot sale. Rows of stalls with householders selling off their unwanted items on makeshift tables. Piles of outgrown
clothes lay on the grass. Toys tumbled in boxes. Worn books were stacked in brutal piles. There were a few trade stalls selling soap, detergents, dog bones, plants, fruit and vegetables. She could not look at the bones. They were disgusting.
She came to rural car boot sales out of curiosity, mostly
, gleaning ideas. Once she spotted one of her own books in a fifty pence box and offered to sign it for the astonished
‘If you say you wrote it, then I’d better read it,’ said the woman, taking the book back. ‘I could always sell it off next time. For a pound.’
Fancy had to smile. Books were disposable; so were pens. She used a lot of pens. She was a writer. And someone, out there, was trying to kill her.
Her writing name was Francine Burne Jones. Francine was a
of Frances. Her younger brother had never been able to pronounce the ‘r’ sound in her name. He got as far as Fancy, and gave up. Fancy never minded. She never minded anything. She was one of those easy-going people who never took offence. Life was too short.
Far too short, apparently. Her obsession with time had logged all the moments when the accidents happened. Yet some of them might not have happened, or were only about to happen and never did. How could she know what had not happened?
The first time had been in London, at Victoria Station, the Circle line on the Underground. It was the wrong time to travel. There had been a crush of people behind her, which surged forward as the train whistled into the station with a rush of hot air. Fancy had felt a distinct hard thrust in the middle of her back.
She staggered, then felt a sharp pull on her sleeve.
‘Hold on, missus,’ said a young student traveller, hauling her back. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry. There are others who want to get on.’
‘It wasn’t me. It was the crowd behind,’ she said, trembling, as the automatic doors opened. The youth helped her board. She was shaking and white-faced, her feet not obeying her commands. The time was exactly 5.01 p.m.
‘Are you all right?’
‘I don’t know. It felt like someone pushed me in the back.’
‘No manners these days,’ he grinned.
Then there had been the No. 11 bus incident. Fancy had been to Somerset House to check some facts in their archives. She was the last person to board the bus, waiting by the driver for the crowd to move down. A rucksack came flying through the air at speed. It nearly threw her off her feet and into the milling traffic of the Strand. She caught hold of the door rail. A fellow passenger grabbed her arm as her feet struggled for balance.
‘Blimey,’ he said. ‘That was a close one. You could have been killed. Where did that come from?’ The rucksack was lying in the middle of the road, being crushed and smashed by vans, taxis and another red double-decker bus. It was 12.16 p.m. by the clock outside one of the stores.
Fancy was trembling. She didn’t relish being crushed by the red double-decker trundling behind.
‘Never saw it coming,’ said Fancy, gripping his arm tightly. The wind was blowing through her high-pinned knot, the side wings of dark hair whipping across her face. She would get off at the next stop. She wanted to get off and run.
She disappeared into the crowds milling around in Villiers Street. She needed something to steady her nerves. A strong black coffee. She slid into a café and took a stool with her back to the wall. She didn’t want to risk being pushed in the back or hit by another flying rucksack. She had two black coffees, back to back.
There was nowhere to run when someone threw a missile through her bedroom window and showered the bed with glass fragments. She awoke with shock. The night air and street lights
lit the room in an eerie yellow. Fancy hardly dared to move. Shards of glass had pierced her pillow like miniature javelins. The rose-patterned duvet was a sea of coloured glass. She moved gingerly, hoping there was nothing sharp on the floor.
Her slippers were tucked under the bed and had escaped the shower, so her bare feet had some protection as she switched on the bedside lamp and carefully stood up. A tinkle of glass fell around her like a chandelier disintegrating.
It said 2.46 brightly on her digital clock. The second figure clicked on relentlessly. She needed a cup of tea before she swept this lot up. No good calling the police. The perpetrator would be long gone, unless he was planning to break a lot more windows. There was no one outside. She could hear nothing, only a
owl a long way away, probably delivering a letter to Harry Potter.
‘Oh my God, what a mess,’ she said, shaking.
Fancy pulled on a towelling robe and tied the sash tightly. Both back and front doors were firmly locked, bolted and chained. An old lady had owned the church lodge before her and had had every protection installed apart from a moat and a couple of guard dogs.
The attack might not have been directed at her personally, thought Fancy, trying to be rational as she switched on the
kettle in the tiny tiled kitchen. It could have been directed at the building itself. Relics of religion got to some individuals. People were always amused by her address.
‘And where do you live?’ an interviewer would ask. Usually a Sunday magazine reporter who hadn’t done his homework.
‘I live in a church,’ she’d reply.
‘Are you a nun, then?’
‘It’s part of a converted Victorian church. What’s left of the original church is only a very small section. They started to demolish the building after it had been empty and derelict for years. A developer came along and turned what was left into two lodges. I have the smaller one. Just room to swing a computer.’
Fancy had rescued two pews, which were now set alongside
two walls in the sitting room. The plan had been to arrange throw cushions and sit on the pews. But gradually books took over and rejected manuscripts and current work. Piles of unread magazines leaned against the end armrests. The cushions ended up on the floor.
Her desk faced the window, one of the original church windows. The lower half had been replaced with clear glass but the top was a cacophony of angels, blowing long-stemmed
. Fancy loved the angels with their flowing hair and feathery wings. She hoped they were looking after her.
If she looked long enough, she always imagined, one of them would wink. But they never did. At least, not when she was looking.
So it was not unexpected if some lout, staggering home after seven pints washed down with vodka and lime, took offence at the religious relic standing off the street. There was a low brick perimeter wall there that anyone could leap over.
Her bedroom also had a narrow church window. Some haloed saint tending lambs and little children who gazed up at him in adoration. The colours were vibrant when it caught the sun. It was shattered now.
Fancy spent the rest of the night curled up on her squashy sofa with a blanket, having decided to clear up in the morning before starting work. She was dismayed to find not a stone or a brick, but a huge lump of concrete on the bedroom floor.
size. Injury size. She might have had more than a nasty headache.
She sat in her kitchen, thinking about the three accidents. Not exactly accidents because she had not been hurt, only frightened. They were happenings, really. She wondered if she ought to tell someone. Her publisher would be amused.
‘It’s your imagination,’ he’d say. ‘You’re thinking up another plot.’
Her kitchen was small but modern. The fitments were teak, space-saving, not an inch wasted. She even had corner cupboards with swinging shelves. There was no colour scheme. Nowhere to
paint. The floor was black and white tiles, vaguely ecclesiastical. She always made sure there was a pot of some flowering plant on the worktop. She ought to grow herbs. Parsley would be useful.
But a lump of concrete was a lump of concrete. She knew she should report the incident but she was running out of time. By late afternoon she had to be in Derbyshire at the Northcote Writers’ Conference. It was a tedious four-hour drive up the M1 after leaving the M25. Not a pleasant journey if the motorway was crowded with huge container lorries or had ground to a standstill because some car had overheated in the middle lane and caused a solid tailback.
She was booked as an evening guest speaker at the conference and to run the crime-writing course, which was four one-hour lectures spread over four days. Her lecture notes and PowerPoint presentation were all ready. It was the first time she had run such a course and Fancy was nervous and apprehensive. She wondered if she had enough material or if the delegates would be interested and amused. She wanted it to be fun as well as informative.
Boredom would have them walking out in droves, yawning and ready to put caustic comments in their feedback forms. She guessed that Northcote would have a popular bar and the website featured spacious, flower-filled gardens in which to chat and drink. They would both be a magnet to the writers.
Clothes were the last thing on her mind. She threw in a variety of items, not knowing what was expected. Posh or casual? It might be cold and wet or hot and humid. She had to be prepared for any Derbyshire weather. She had a feeling there would be parties. Writers in groups always held parties. They were a gregarious lot, chatting and laughing. She hoped they would make her welcome. Shy was Fancy’s middle name. Not really. Her middle name was Burne.
What shoes? Black pumps for day; plain slip-ons; gold for evening. And trainers for walking. At least she was organized in the shoe department.
And the pink pens. She took a good supply of pink pens. She
knew from experience that her pink pens melted away. Writers collected them as souvenirs, thinking that perhaps her publishing success would brush off on them if they used one of her pink pens. Perhaps it did.
Fancy wrote crime, both fiction and non-fiction. She also edited a mystery magazine called
was thriving. It was her baby. The logo was a double
made of entwined snakes. Pretty creepy. Fancy had not dared to argue with the artist who designed the logo and the front page.
began as a quarterly, became bi-monthly and now it was monthly. Waterstones, W H Smith and railway stations all stocked it. The problem was getting enough material of the high quality that Fancy insisted on. She was encouraging retired police officers to write articles about cold cases from the past.
‘I want real stories,’ she told them through their own house magazine. ‘People want to read about real people, real crimes, real police work.’
Fancy paid above the going rate. She was not one of those editors who tried to get away with paying as little as possible. Writers had to eat, pay vets’ bills, buy petrol. She was the one who went short, drove a vintage 1970 Vanden Plas car that was held together with rust and duct tape, bought the best vintage clothes from charity shops. She had a sharp eye for Jacques Vert shirts. They had style.
There was time to report the incident at the local police station. The building was still of the old-style, which was miraculous in these days of closures.
‘Yes, miss? Can I help you?’ asked the duty sergeant from behind a high desk. The colour scheme was the usual cream and glutinous dark green. There were a few uncomfortable-looking, hard grey metal chairs pushed against the walls.
‘Someone threw a missile through my bedroom window last night and showered me with glass,’ said Fancy.
‘Did you see who it was, miss?’
‘No, I couldn’t. They ran off. It was dark.’
‘You should have phoned us. Dialled 999.’
‘What could you do? He would have been miles away before you arrived.’
‘Our officers know what to look for.’
‘DNA? Fingerprints? Footprints?’
‘What time was this, miss?’
‘You know the time exactly?’
‘I always know the time exactly. It’s an unfortunate habit.’
‘And what was the missile?’ The desk sergeant was writing furiously in the incident book. ‘It’s evidence.’
Fancy tried to lift a heavy plastic bag onto the counter. ‘Here’s your evidence. A lump of concrete wrapped in bubble-wrap. Not touched by my human hand. It’s all yours. I’m off now to face the motorway.’