“I’m sorry to call so late without warning Mr Pengelly sir, but I know you’re a night owl and I really need to pick your brains urgently…”
Inspector Tom Griffiths’ heartfelt, pleading tone and uncharacteristic air of desperation immediately told Lloyd Pengelly to let his ex-colleague in, even though it was well past midnight and he was preoccupied working on a manuscript on this balmy July night. Pengelly knew Griffiths fairly well, having watched the burly giant rise through the ranks from naive, eager constable to sharp, meticulous senior detective during their shared time in South Wales Police. That rise up the hierarchy had continued since Pengelly had quit the force five years back, and Griffiths seemed certain to soon reach Superintendent level too. The dourly efficient and rigidly conventional career cop was notoriously unsusceptible to emotion, uncertainty or self-doubt, yet beads of sweat were rolling down his forehead. If Tom Griffiths was confused and flustered something must be very wrong.
“Come in Tom, it’s good to see you, take your coat off, I’m up in the study tinkering ineffectually with my next book, you can help me polish off a bottle of malt.”
By the low glow of a desk lamp and the moonlight angling through the half-open dormer window, they settled with their whiskies in comfortable armchairs in the loft-conversion at the top of the Pontcanna house and, after a brief bout of perfunctory small talk, Tom got straight to the point.
“I know you’re wondering why I’m here and why I didn’t even phone beforehand, sir…”
“Tom, sorry to interrupt, but can you please call me Lloyd? I haven’t been your superior officer for years. If we’re going to talk openly about serious matters, as the tension in your body language indicates you wish to, let’s drop all that nonsense,” Lloyd said in a soothing tone.
“Right you are Lloyd! Still seems odd though after all those years sir,” responded Tom with a semi-grin.
He took a gulp from his Dalwhinnie.
“Something very strange and very disturbing happened in Cardiff today,” began Tom, acutely aware he had Lloyd’s full attention. “I’ve just come from a meeting with the Chief Constable, the Commissioner and all the senior staff and we just don’t know how to proceed. None of us have ever experienced anything like it. If anyone can help it is you. You had a peerless reputation for cracking difficult cases when you were in the force and you’ve had huge success as a writer of clever whodunnits since you left. Your experience, analytical mind and ability to think outside the box could see something that we’re missing.”
Tom paused a moment as if waiting for Lloyd to agree. Lloyd, watching Tom carefully, remained silent, but an almost imperceptible tilt of his head encouraged the younger man to continue.
“The facts are straightforward and undisputed. Two overnight security guards employed at the Principality Stadium did their routine final circuits of the ground at 11pm, found nothing amiss and as normal returned to their office overlooking Westgate Street. There had been no matches or events at the Stadium that day, just a pre-booked guided tour which lasted from 2pm to 4pm and was attended by 16 people, all of whom were recorded as leaving at the end of the tour. The two men spent a quiet night in the office, periodically checking a bank of over 30 CCTV screens that cover every nook and corner of the Stadium inside and out. As dawn broke one of the men left the office to stretch his legs. He entered the arena at the top tier on the east side and immediately saw a large dark object in the middle of the pitch. Thinking it was a rubbish bag that had somehow blown into the Stadium – the roof was open – he went down to the pitch and found a thick hessian sack containing a heavy, immovable object. The emergency services were called and, after bomb disposal had pronounced it safe, the sack was opened. Inside was the naked, dead body of a man. Apart from some dried blood around his mouth and nose, there were no visible signs of foul play.”
Tom stopped to take a sip of his drink, looking across the room at Lloyd, but Lloyd had the lamplight behind him and his facial expression was hidden by shadow.
“To cut a long story short,” Tom continued, “the corpse was taken to the forensic lab and almost immediately identified. It was the Secretary of State for Wales. He had been in Cardiff on Welsh Office duties since the previous day. He was staying at his Bay apartment and was due to return to London today. A full autopsy was carried out. The first thing they noticed was that his tongue had been cut out. Shortly afterwards they found that tongue. It was inside his anus.”
Tom took a natural break for his words to sink in, gulped back a slug and then pressed on.
“The Stadium has been searched with a fine toothcomb but nothing suspicious has been found. Not a trace of DNA or fingerprints has been found either on the corpse or the sack or the pitch. The time of death is put at about 6 to 8 hours earlier but the cause has yet to be established despite multiple tests. It seems likely his tongue was removed while he was still alive. Now you see why I couldn’t give you any advance notice sir, I mean Lloyd. Right now there’s a complete news blackout until we can think of something, anything, to tell the public. We haven’t even informed the family yet. The deceased is a government minister, he has been murdered, he has been mutilated in a shocking way, he has been found in the middle of Wales’ most famed structure, there is no conceivable explanation for how his body got there without anyone noticing, there is no motive…”
“Well, apart from the fact he was a despicable little shit,” butted in Lloyd suddenly, laughing out loud at his own gallows humour. Tom smiled.
“I want to hear your first reactions, your knee-jerk thoughts, what your instincts tell you.” Tom’s voice had that unfamiliar pleading tone again.
“OK, I’ll give you my spontaneous response to what you have told me,” said Lloyd, switching smoothly to seriousness. Caressing his scotch in one hand, he addressed his words directly at Tom. “What we have here is an archetypal Locked-Room Mystery, that staple trope of detective fiction. All the essential ingredients are present: a seemingly impossible crime is carried out in plain sight, in a closely observed yet totally inaccessible location, and yet nobody saw it. I’ve tried to write a few myself, and most have ended in the bin. What I do know is that there are a finite number of explanations. I’m presuming that you have eliminated the obvious suspects, by which I mean those with some opportunity however limited and difficult. In other words the two security guards, the 16 people who took the Stadium tour, and any other staff that had access to the building after it closed?”
“All have been traced, interviewed and cleared apart from three Japanese visitors who took the tour,” answered Tom. “We believe they subsequently travelled across the Severn Bridge in a hire car and we’re in the process of locating them. The two security guards are continuing to help with enquiries, but at this stage they seem entirely innocent. Both have worked at the Stadium for more than five years, one of them for nearly 10, and both have squeaky-clean track records. They know each other as colleagues, but are not particularly close and do not socialise. They clocked on at 10pm, when the last five of the day staff clocked off – all this was recorded on camera and electronically. Neither was ever out of the other’s sight for more than a few minutes before the body was seen. They would have to be geniuses to pull off this stunt, and by no stretch of the imagination could they be called that. Alone, or together, I’m as certain as I can be that they have nothing to do with it.”
Lloyd let Tom’s final words hang in the humid night air for a moment before responding. “Ok, I will accept for the sake of argument that none of these people are involved – although I would still like to see a list of everyone who was in the Stadium that day. That said, the famous words that Conan Doyle put in the mouth of Sherlock Holmes come to mind: ‘when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’.”
Lloyd got up from his chair as he spoke. He walked around the room slowly, flexing his stiff muscles and getting the blood circulating. Tom followed suit and also stood up.
“I need to use the loo,” he said.
“Downstairs, second right,” said Lloyd.
Tom returned a few minutes later. Lloyd had fixed him another drink and was sitting back in his armchair again.
“Well, Tom,” he said in a softly authoritative voice, “I’ve considered what you’ve told me and I can offer an explanation that fits all the circumstances.”
“Really?” exclaimed Tom with genuine surprise.
“Yes indeed,” Lloyd responded instantly, his voice lowering and intensifying as he continued. “As I said earlier, you have asked me to solve what amounts to a Locked-Room Mystery and such puzzles can only have a finite range of solutions. These include accident, suicide, mechanical devices, impersonation, stunts, animals, acrobatic manoeuvres, secret passages, remote control, optical illusion, time shifts and fake death. And none of those could conceivably apply in this case. Therefore, returning to that old Sherlock Holmes maxim, I am left with just one possible explanation.”
Lloyd fell silent. Tom sipped a bit more whisky and inched forward to the edge of his seat, fists clenched, hardly able to wait for Lloyd’s next words. Lloyd remained silent. Hints of early dawn were beginning to bleach the black night sky.
Time seemed to stand still. The city hissed and sighed in the torpid air. Eventually Lloyd spoke. “My suspicions were aroused immediately. It is a hot, sweaty, summer night, yet you, a large man, arrived at my door wearing a fur overcoat. This could only mean you were carrying something that you wished to conceal. So, when I took your coat in the hall, I did it in such a way that allowed me to feel the inner pockets. I found what I was looking for, Inspector Griffiths.”
Tom Griffiths had sunk back into the armchair. His glass was empty, his eyes were fixed on Lloyd.
Lloyd Pengelly now spoke with menacing clarity. “You will already be feeling a creeping paralysis Griffiths. That is because I slipped tetrodotoxin into your drink when you went downstairs to retrieve what was in your coat. Tetrodotoxin is extracted from puffer fish and is more poisonous than cyanide. By now it has paralysed your diaphragm and, as I’m hearing, your breathing is becoming more and more shallow. You will be dead by sunrise. Until then you will remain paralysed and in ever-increasing agony while remaining fully conscious. I guess that the hat-pin and small hammer you hid in your coat are now up your sleeves. Your complete inability to move means you will not be able to use them to kill me tonight as you intended. A hat-pin is the perfect murder weapon of course; insert in one nostril, hammer upwards, instant death guaranteed, leaving an imperceptible pin-prick in the lower brain. You overplayed your hand Griffiths. I saw right through your attempts to play me at my own game with an intriguing mystery, pandering to my profession as a writer of crime fiction and police procedurals. Only someone with your massive ego and self-regard would think they’d outwit me with such an insultingly preposterous story, a mind-game designed to humiliate and belittle, complete with knowing references to the nose-bleed that would be the only trace your hat-pin would leave and my description of the Tory Secretary of State for Wales as an arselicker in my last book. Your motive is obvious. Increasingly I am moving away from fiction and into investigative journalism, with articles about the endemic corruption, malpractice and criminality that bedevils Wales. With my insider’s knowledge and network of contacts it was only a matter of time before I turned my spotlight on the police. I knew you were a rotten apple the day you joined as a cadet – a bigoted, cruel, greedy, power-hungry, conformist, establishment crony who will stop at nothing. And you knew you’d be spending a life in prison when I exposed your years of wrongdoing. I had to die. You failed in your mission. Game, set and match to me, you vile fascist bastard.”
Lloyd stopped speaking for a while to smirk at the sight rapidly unfolding in front of him.
“You also failed to notice,” he continued, “that when you left the room I put heavy plastic sheeting under your chair. This is to limit the appalling mess you are now beginning to make as the salivating, sweating, vomiting and diarrhoea get worse and you approach coma, respiratory failure and death. As you certainly wouldn’t have told anyone you were coming here tonight, I have the time to dissect, package, weigh down and dispose of your stinking body in the Severn by tonight…”
A mobile phone bleeping in Tom’s trouser pocket halted Lloyd in his tracks. He got up, extracted the phone carefully and read the message: FORGOT JULIE & LEN’S ANNIVERSARY STUFF IN COAT U BORROWED! SILVER HAMMER & MY HAT-PIN DON’T LOSE THEM! HOPE FLU EASING XX
It was nearly 5am. The rising sun was picking out wisps of apricot-hued cirrus clouds bruising a deep blue sky. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Lloyd Pengelly was always off-grid – that way he left no digital footprint. But he had a radio. He turned it on in time for the BBC Radio 2 hourly news headlines.
“In shocking news the Secretary of State for Wales has been found dead, apparently murdered, in the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. We go over live to our chief reporter in Ca…” CLICK. Lloyd turned the radio off.
Tom Griffiths was still conscious, his hugely dilated, profusely weeping eyes seemed to engulf Lloyd.
Lloyd addressed him one last time. “My mistake, I should have thought of it…disguised as Japanese tourists, his enemies catapulted him into the arena from the scaffolding of the BBC building being erected on Wood Street…”