This is a bit of a departure for me – a detective story. After all that reading of the classics, it was probably inevitable that I’d try my hand eventually. I hope it provides some entertainment.
A Diversity of Lanyards
“And that,” Pete said as he got up to pass me a cup of tea, “Was when I thought something was up.” I took the cup gratefully. It was small enough but very welcome. A thick flat thing with a handle I couldn’t get my finger through. The bed creaked as Pete sat back down – he was a heavy man and his hands were bigger than mine. He had to hold the handle itself between thumb and forefinger and lift it to his lips in a parody of gentility. He’d have been better off with his fingers wrapped around a mug, but they never leave mugs on the tea trays of B&B rooms like this one. His gesture only highlighted the grotty gentility of the place. Little bars of scented soap in the toothglasses. Knitted loo-roll cover. Postcards of the Lake District on the bedside table.
Pete was good. His name wasn’t Pete, but that wasn’t a problem. A lot of people don’t like a big man in our line of work. They think they’re conspicuous. People’ll tell you that it’s about looking average, you need someone that none could describe after they’ve sat next to them through the whole of breakfast. I disagree. No-one blends in perfectly, not on an empty station, or a Travelodge reception. Big blokes are great. They’re explicable, that’s what I like about a big man. You walk into a pub, there’s a big bloke, you don’t wonder why he’s there. Same at a caff or a chipper van. People are very prejudiced.
Even better if he gives you a look. Glances over his paper or looks round to see who you are. Annoy you a bit, that might. Big bastard thinks he owns the place. Looking at you like that. That’s good for him, and it’s good for me, because now you think you know why he makes you uneasy. Needled you a bit. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t suit every situation. But it’s better than all this grey rock nonsense, and little blokes with beige raincoats and canvas bags. You don’t stop to wonder who he is, or why he’s looking at you, you’re too busy resenting it. And they’re clumsy too, if need be. Or chummy. Knock over a chair getting past a table, slap you on the back on the way by, the possibilities are endless. It’s all stock in trade for a big man. And Pete was one of the best.
“Go on,” I said, “What made you think anything was up?”
“Lanyards,” Pete told me.
“And? That’s all I’m getting?” He shrugged.
“You’re the analyst, Mr. Webster. I only collect information, you’re the one who makes sense of it all.”
“Alright, then. Twenty questions, it it?”
“If you like.” He settled further back on the bed, and it creaked again. Hands in his lap. I’ve said Pete was good, and patience was one of the virtues which made him good. He didn’t much care if I worked it out or not. Or he managed to persuade me he didn’t. Maybe he persuaded himself too. A high boredom threshold is a real asset. Though it is quite annoying when you’re spending that much time together in a B&B.
“He was wearing two lanyards?”
“One lanyard or one question asked?”
“Far play, you can have that one for free.”
“So only one lanyard – that’s not a question, I’m sodding recapitulating, alright?”
Alright by me, Mr. Webster.”
“Who else was wearing a lanyard in the room?”
“What colour was his lanyard?”
“And everyone else’s lanyards?”
“Where were you sitting?”
“At the corner bar. In the corner. Facing away from him.”
“That bar at the Fitzwilliam is mirrored at the back, isn’t it?”
“What shoes was he wearing?” Pete’s often said that shoes tell you more than their owners would like. They’re easy to forget and fiddly to change. And people notice discarded shoes in places where you could leave a jacket or a shawl no problem.
“Light brown. Slip-on, I think, not laces. Those square long toes.”
“And his clothes?”
“Lightish blue jacket and trousers, a bit shiny. White shirt.” The fact he didn’t call that a suit gave me some sense of what the young man must have looked like in it. Pete has views on suits, in a way that makes me suspect he inherited them from uncles in East London. I like to think I’m more broad-minded. I mean, estate agents have to wear something, don’t they? Can’t have them wearing nothing.
“Who was hosting this party?”
“It was a corporate do, hosted by a firm called TruPhish. Computers. Blockchains. All that.”
“Was there anything different about his lanyard, compared to all the others?”
“I thought so.”
“That’s only half an answer.”
“It had a round bobble above the clear plastic bit which holds the slip of card.”
“Ah, a bobble. Well, that explains it all.”
“It certainly attracted my attention. Ten questions, by the way, in case you wanted to keep count.”
“Which is my cue to have a go?”
“If you like Mr. Webster. It’s that or try the herbal tea selection.”
“Anything to postpone that.”
I stood up and looked out of the window, which is as close to pacing the room as you can get at the Orchard Blossom Guesthouse. Through the Georgian bars embedded I the double glazing I could see the corner of the road below. Cars rolling away from the roundabout one side. The guesthouse bins the other.
“Right. How’s this? You noticed that although he was wearing a rainbow lanyard like everyone else, his rainbow was the wrong way round.”
“Like flying the Union Jack upside down as a distress signal?”
“Possibly, but more like some idiot council on the Queen’s birthday who can’t tell which way up you put the flag. This made you look more closely at the man in question, and you realized he wasn’t a computer programmer. His suit had creases in the forearms which showed he had spent long hours at a computer in it, which betrayed him since no-one who writes computer programmes wears a jacket whilst doing so, only front of house do that. He should not have been at that party, and in fact had sneaked past security in order to…oh, I dunno, seduce the wife of the venture capitalist funding their launch. You know this because you overheard him at the bar and ordering champagne, but having it sent to a room rather than taking it out to the party.
“You’re a bit of a romantic, aren’t you, Mr. Webster?”
“I like to think so. Go on, then, what’s wrong with that theory?”
“Nothing in particular, it just wasn’t what happened. Well, and it fits the facts but it fails to account for the bobble on the lanyard.”
“Oh yes, musn’t forget the bobble. More questions, then.”
“Very happy to oblige.”
“What was the décor like at the party?”
“Balloons tied to the tables. A few of those standing banners which fold up into a bag. Video screens with the company’s presentations running. A lot of old-fashioned computer equipment strewn around, sort of ‘microchips through the ages’ idea. Oh, and some young women who had been hired to greet people and make themselves agreeable, if that counts as décor.”
“How did you know they were hired?”
“I knew one of them from other jobs.”
“Did you recognise the young man?”
“Never seen him before in my life.”
“That doesn’t answer the question. You could have recognised him from a description, or a picture.”
“No, I didn’t recognise him at all.”
“Was it a sit-down meal or a buffet?”
“Neither. Plenty of booze, but only a few canapes and nibbles going round.”
“Via the greeting girls?”
“Not them! They don’t serve food or drink. Not that they think they’re too good for it,” he added hastily, with the respect of one professional for another, “But people won’t chat to them if they’re waiting on tables.”
“Has the firm been losing money?” I tried a new angle.
“How would I know that?”
“I’ve never found it appropriate to ask how you know what you know, Pete. I’ve always suspected I don’t want to know.” That got a grin.
“I did ask around, out of curiosity. Or call it background. They seem to be quite solvent.”
“What stage of the event did you notice him?”
“They were getting ready to have some speeches – moving a microphone stand to the front by the banners.”
“Was the young man anything to do with the job you were on at the time?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Did he turn out to be related to anyone else at the party?”
“Not that I know of – and if he was, it didn’t have any effect on what happened. One more.”
“Would I have read about this case in the papers?” It wasn’t a good last question.
“What case, Mr. Webster?”
“Alright, that’s your way of telling me it was all terribly discreet and you couldn’t possibly comment.” I finished the last cold sip of my tea. “So tell me, then. What was going on, that his lanyard tipped you off to?”
“Well the first thing I noticed was that his lanyard was the same as everyone else’s in the room.”
“Yes, you mentioned. They call it diversity, don’t they?”
“They do. That’s exactly what they call it, Mr. Webster. And there was a lot of it in that room. All those rainbow lanyards, and I thought, something’s off there.”
“But if everyone’s lanyards were the same, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t have an invitation, presumably?”
“You’ve lost me.”
“There was a lot of free booze, at this party. Fizz and white, mostly, with some bottles of beer.”
“You have a moral objection to open bars? Or did this just mean people weren’t coming over to your seat to order drinks, so you couldn’t eavesdrop?”
“Close to that. If people aren’t paying for their drinks, they’re not fetching them. If the booze is free, it must be getting round the room somehow. And everyone there was wearing the same colour lanyard. No blue for guests and red for staff, or whatever the usual colour code is.”
“This egalitarian world we live in. I never had you picked out as a snob, Pete.”
“Yes you did, Mr. Webster, but that’s not the point. This man’s lanyard was very slightly different.”
“It had a mysterious bobble, I remember. Don’t tell me, there was a diamond ring hidden in the bobble.” Pete smiled politely. “No, a microchip! He was smuggling out the secret code which runs the TruPhish computer empire, having downloaded if from the display screen whilst one of the greeting girls distracted the CEO.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the two kinds of lanyard they often give you at places like this”, Pete went on, kindly ignoring my last suggestions. “One’s got a little clip so the clear plastic bit with the card can be attached. “Mr. Acreage, TruPhish Launch Party”, or whatever. It’s a quick way of seeing which event you’re with.”
“It can also be very convenient when you forget people’s names at one of these parties. So I imagine.”
“The other kind have a clip, but they also have a bobble. Inside that is a long thin retractable bit of string.” I felt a bit queasy, and must have shown it, because he added “No, it’s not that kind of story. Everyone’s still alive. But this allows you to pull down the wallet with the card in it and press it against a card-reader.”
“And he had the wrong kind of lanyard?”
“Or the right kind. Maybe they simply ran out when they were preparing the name tags for the party, but here’s a man surrounded by people whose lanyards act as invitations, and he’s got one that looks like it opens doors.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing Stood off. Sat quietly. I thought he was security for someone. If he was, my job had just got more difficult. And more complicated because I didn’t think that was the kind of room I was in.” Hands in his lap again. Very quiet. “But I couldn’t quite believe it. He wasn’t the type somehow.” I would trust Pete’s judgement. He knows a lot of types. “And then I twigged it.”
“And then what?”
“Got up from the bar, and opened the door for him next time he was going through it, because he was carrying a box. Then he knew he’d made a mistake. We were on the other side of the door, in a hotel corridor, and he had his hands full, and I didn’t. I had to keep the momentum going, so I pretended I knew which door he was heading for. Grabbed his lanyard, the string came out, he was off balance and I slapped the card against the nearest door. It worked. Green light, and I kicked it open, and we both went through.”
“What was in the box?”
“Very old bits of computer?”
“Those old games machines and whatever they were, part of the display I told you about. They can be quite valuable to the sort of people who buy tat like that. And here he was with an empty champagne box of the stuff, which he’d helpfully cleared away whilst they were setting up for the speeches. I’d seen it done once before.”
“You’d seen someone lift vintage computer devices from a London hotel during a champagne reception?” Pete looked polite again, which is his way of sneering.
“No, not that. But I’d seen the flowers lifted from a wedding once. Stands, centrepieces, sideboard arrangements. That time I didn’t know what was happening until three thousand pounds had walked out the back door. So I knew what I was looking at. He must have had a plastic staff card slipped between the folded namecard in the lanyard, and it let him through the doors.”
“Did he admit it?”
“He didn’t have to. I didn’t want him to. I just wanted him guilty and worried enough to piss off and not cause any bother. It would have been very awkward for my job, if anyone had noticed the results of his scam. So I told him to walk his shiny cuffs and his scrubby little riah off the premises. Or I’d break his legs.”
“And he did?”
“Yes, he did. And then as I came back through, I realized what he’d been doing.”
“I thought you said he’d been stealing the computers?”
“He had, but how was he going to get them out? A staff passcard’s no good, a hotel like the Fitzwilliam wouldn’t trust its staff an inch. Cameras all over the service entrances, and I should think they could work out which card was used when. He could get them out of the room as a waiter, but he couldn’t get them out of the hotel.”
“What was he doing, then?”
“Stashing them somewhere. If I was him, I’d have walked over to the bar at the next function room, and improvised. Because whilst he was in the TruPhish party, everyone thought he was a guest. Until he started clearing things away, then they’d have thought he was staff. But on the other side of the door, anyone meeting him would think he was a guest again.”
“Because of the rainbow lanyard.”
“Precisely. All that diversity going on. Corporate citizenship. You didn’t use to get that down Old Compton Street, not the way I remember it. And that jacket and trousers. Pale brown shoes. No-one could be blamed for not knowing where he belonged.”
“So he walked up to the door as a guest, and through it as a waiter?”
“That’s it. I think it was seeing him in the mirror of the corner bar that gave me the idea. I could see him coming up in one side, and going away in the other. And the funny thing is, I never found out which one he actually was.”
“Well, was he a waiter who’d passed himself off as a guest. Or was he a guest who’d passed himself off as a waiter? It didn’t matter to me, I just wanted him to troll out of there so I could get to work. But I do wonder. You often can’t tell these days, Mr. Webster, have you noticed that?”