It was the week before Christmas. There had been a lull in crime, and Sergeant Comfort and Inspector Braid had a rare chance to stop for a coffee and a look at the papers.
“Maybe villains have to do their Christmas shopping like everyone else, sir,” hazarded Comfort. “That’s why there’s a bit of a lull.”
“You’d think that any self-respecting villain would shop-lift his way to Christmas,” said Braid. “Remember that Henry Moore that was stolen the other day? I bet there’s some art-loving crime baron somewhere and his gang said to themselves: ‘Let’s give the boss a real treat this Christmas!’ So they went out and nicked it as his Christmas prezzy.”
“And it’s not even the oddest thing in the news,” said Comfort. “What do you reckon to this missing African percussion group?”
Braid shook his dead. Comfort stabbed vaguely at the paper.
“A dozen of Africa’s finest drummers set out from Heathrow to get to Milton Keynes for a concert. Never arrived. Vanished from the face of the earth. It’s not as if they were asylum seekers, or anything. Just vanished. A bit like those bagpipers.”
“Oh, some Scottish pipe band who were meant to be strutting their stuff in Trafalgar Square. Something to do with Nelson, I think. Set out from Edinburgh. Never arrived. Vanished into the void.”
“Between you and me, Comfort, I shall not mourn them. I find that a little pibroch goes a long way. Any other missing persons to whom you wish to draw my attention?”
“Not unless you count the dairy workers.”
“Some small dairy unit in Wales which employed eight local girls reported the other day that none of them had turned up for work. Now they’ve all gone missing. Not a trace of them.”
Inspector Braid went very quiet for a moment. Then he said: “Anyone missing from the House of Lords?”
“Don’t you see, Comfort? It all makes sense. What’s another way of saying eight girls who work in a dairy unit?”
“Eight maids a-milking, perhaps?”
“Twelve drummers drumming. Eleven pipers piping. People are going missing according to the words of The Twelve Days of Christmas. But it’s jumped to the eight maids a-milking. That’s why I wondered if any leaping lords or dancing ladies had been reported missing.”
“I’m with you, sir. No, no missing titled persons have been reported. Unless you count the Sadlers Wells chorus.”
“Not with you, Comfort.”
“They’re doing one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, sir. The one with a chorus of peers.”
“That’s the fellow. The other day the chorus went missing. None of the peers turned up. Had to do it without a chorus.”
“Good God!” said Braid. “It all fits! Somebody somewhere is going through The Twelve Days of Christmas and re-enacting the whole thing! What’s the next line? Eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming . . . Well, I don’t suppose anyone’s going to miss seven swans too much.”
“No, sir. Unless in the Royal Ballet.”
“They’ve got a new production of Swan Lake, I believe. Loads of swans there.”
“Then we’ve got to warn them. . !”
Braid made a grab for the phone, and fell out of bed, which woke him up.
“Are you all right, Keith?” said Mrs Braid, from the other side of the bed.
“Just a bad dream,” he said. He picked up the book which had sent him to sleep a few hours before. One Two, Buckle My Shoe. “My fault. I shouldn’t have been reading Agatha Christie at my age.”
He went back to sleep, and in a moment was trying to work out why six pantomime actors playing Mother Goose round the country had suddenly vanished into thin air. But that’s another story.
The Independent Thursday Dec 22 05