Thursday 21 September 2023

The Strange Case of the Missing Bikes by David Rudd, black coffee

 They’d dealt with mysterious events before, but none so close to home. This had happened not just in the village, but in their clubhouse.

     ‘We know it was locked,’ said Daniel.

     ‘That’s the strange thing,’ piped up Diana. ‘The door was locked with the key still under the flowerpot.’

     ‘So,’ Barney chipped in, ‘it sounds like an inside job.’

     ‘Of course it was inside,’ said Diana. ‘It was in our garden shed!’ She ignored the older ones’ laughter.

     At ten-years-old, the twins were the youngest. Clara, whose father owned the butcher’s, was the oldest at twelve. In between was Barney, Clara’s cousin, who stayed during the holidays, which is when their adventures occurred. And, of course, there was Rusty, the Bassett hound, who, in human reckoning, was forty-two but, in dog years, was a sprightly six. Together, they were The Five Fixers.

     It was a bit crowded in Clara’s treehouse, but it was private. No grown-ups around. The Fixers had been forbidden entry to their clubhouse until the police had inspected it, although they’d already been in there that morning to get their bikes, which is when they discovered they’d gone.

     ‘Brand new they were, too,’ said Diana. ‘Birthday presents from Mummy and Daddy.’

     ‘And that was all they took?’ enquired Clara.  ‘Definitely sounds an inside- … I mean, a job done by someone who knew where the key was.’

     ‘It’s strange,’ put in Daniel, ‘that Uncle Leo was so upset.’

     ‘He was, wasn’t he?’ reflected Diana, ‘And yet he didn’t want Daddy to contact the police.’

     ‘Even though Chief Superintendent Craven is a friend and neighbour,’ said Clara.

     ‘So, what’s Uncle Daniel’s job?’ asked Barney.

     ‘Not sure,’ said Diana. ‘He travels a lot.’

     ‘I think I heard Daddy say,’ interjected Daniel, ‘he works for MFI.’


Uncle Leo was in the garden, smoking. He’d had an exhausting morning. Last night was bad enough, socialising with his sister and their socially clambering friends. His boredom threshold had been severely tested, so he’d drunk far more than he’d intended. Then he’d been woken this morning by the twins shouting.

     Going in search of caffeine, he’d found Judy, the ‘help’, preparing breakfast. She’d insisted he sit down while she brewed some coffee. He was impressed. He usually got instant.

     ‘You’re a wonder, Judy. They don’t deserve you,’ he said.

     It was a heartfelt remark. She cooked, cleaned, washed, and did maintenance work, yet remained largely invisible. She’d make a good intelligence officer, though Leo.

     ‘Why are the twins shouting?’ he’d asked.

     ‘It’s their bikes,’ Judy had replied. ‘They say they’ve been stolen. I think they’ve just left them somewhere. Wouldn’t be the first time!’ While she talked, Judy had deftly transferred glistening stacks of bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes to some chafing dishes. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr Peters, I must get on.’

     Leo had taken the hint and wandered outside with his coffee. He’d repeatedly asked Judy to call him ‘Leo’, but she always reverted to ‘Mr Peters’. And who was he to disturb Little Baddercombe’s medieval sense of social order?

     In the garden he encountered the twins sitting in one of the apple trees. Rusty was running around below, looking for a way up.

     The twins clambered down to tell Leo about their missing bikes. They insisted he saw the scene of the crime. Once inside, Leo detected an all-too-familiar odour.

     ‘They were right here, Uncle Leo,’ Diana exclaimed.

     ‘Mysterious,’ Leo replied, lighting another cigarette to conceal the pong.

     ‘And we’re meant to be having our Fixers meeting in here,’ added Diana.

     As discreetly as he could, Leo ushered them out of the cramped space, expressing a keen interest in the Fixers’ adventures.

     Daniel scampered ahead, leaping into Leo’s open-top MG. ‘Can we have a ride, Uncle Leo?’ he begged, making revving noises as he gripped the steering wheel.

     ‘Later,’ said Leo.

     ‘Awww!’ complained Daniel, inquisitively fingering the controls.

   Once the twins were called for breakfast, Leo went back to the shed and uncovered the crystal meth. It was in a plastic bag that had got punctured, whether by accident or design, Leo didn’t know. It stank of cat pee. He swept up the spillage, leaving the door ajar, and hid the bag under his passenger seat.

     Back at breakfast, the talk focused on the missing bikes. Their father agreed to contact their neighbour, Chief Superintendent Craven. Then the family dispersed: the children to meet their friends; Leo’s brother-in-law to his chambers; and Leo’s sister, Mandy, to a fund-raising meeting.  

     Leo agreed to liaise with the police, despite Mandy’s assurance that Judy would be there. Leo made himself comfortable in the garden, reminding himself that this was meant to be a holiday.

     Some twenty-minutes later, he heard voices: ‘Those bleedin’ kids give us more work than any crook. But Craven’ll have none of it.’

     ‘Middle-class cronyism,’ said the other, before Leo appeared. They were about to apologise when they saw his smile. He escorted them to the ‘crime scene’, nervously wafting his cigarette, just in case.

   Once Leo established his credentials — name-dropping MI5 — PCs Matthews and Summers were only too happy to let him make some enquiries. They provided him with the names and addresses of known, local bad lads, including, on Leo’s request, drug dealers.

     Having enjoyed a chat and a coffee, the PCs were keen to depart before the children returned. They promised to liaise later.


Leo visited the addresses they’d provided, quite enjoying his holiday now. Better than hobnobbing with his sister’s G & T set!

     At his fourth call, Leo struck lucky. When one of the Langley brothers opened the door of their caravan at a nearby park, Leo dropped the bag of meth into a receptive pair of hands. ‘Thought I’d return this.’ 

     ‘How the bleedin’-?’ began Mick, the bigger brother.

     ‘Shut it, kid!’ Jim had yelled.

     Leo pushed his way in, waving his Drug Squad card (one of many) before their eyes. Jim was on the far side of the van, tinkering with some children’s bikes.

     ‘Now lads,’ Leo had said. ‘We can make this simple or difficult. I’ll swap you this stash,’ he pointed to the bag, ‘for those bikes.’

     ‘You mean, you ain’t gonna shop us?’ Mick had queried.

     ‘It’s your lucky day.’

     ‘And where does Craven come into this?’ asked Jim.

     ‘Craven knows nothing about it,’ Leo replied.

     ‘You’re not with Craven?’ Jim asked.

     ‘I’m on holiday, visiting my nephew and niece — Members of the Five Fixers Gang — whose bikes you’ve nicked.’

     ‘Five Flamin’ Fixers!’ Mick exploded. ‘We did time thanks to those little pricks!’

     ‘Shut it!’ hissed his brother.

     ‘So,’ began Leo, ‘is that why you nicked their bikes and planted this stash in their shed?’

     Their shed?’ Jim had looked perplexed. ‘You mean Craven’s shed.’

     Leo laughed. ‘Craven lives next door.’

     Jim started slapping his brother. ‘Dickhead!’

     Leo was still perplexed. ‘But why plant dope in Craven’s shed? Suicidal, isn’t it?’

     After a lengthy chat, it emerged that Craven had been taking backhanders for dealer protection. However, he’d been getting greedy, so the syndicate threatened to shop him. The dope was a warning. The Langley brothers had been the delivery boys. The bikes were simply a surprise perk they couldn’t resist.

     Leo, though, suggested a more fruitful way of dealing with Craven, which quite appealed.

     As for the bikes, despite the Langleys wanting to trash them, it was agreed they’d deposit them at the Old Quarry. Leo followed the brothers, to make sure he knew where the bikes were.

     ‘One more thing,’ Leo asked. ‘How did you know where the shed key was?’

     ‘Lucky guess,’ Jim said.


Back at his brother-in-law’s, Leo found his nephew, niece, and the dog awaiting him. ‘You promised us a ride, Uncle Leo.’

     Leo forced a smile and took them for a drive.

     ‘Look at Rusty,’ Daniel shouted, watching the wind fill Rusty’s jowls and levitate his ears, ‘he’s being swept by the wind, Uncle.’

     ‘Windswept!’ corrected Diana.

     Having reached a long stretch of country road, Leo thought he’d impress them by putting his foot down.

     ‘Oooh!’ shrieked Diana, ‘You’ve broken the speed limit!’

     ‘Chief Superintendent Craven would arrest you!’ added Daniel.

     ‘Little pricks!’ The Langleys’ words echoed in Leo’s head.

     When some clouds started to gather, Leo stopped to put up the hood. But that seemed to make Rusty slobber and snuffle. He became increasingly agitated.

     ‘Car sick?’ Leo asked.

     ‘Not usually,’ said the children, but Leo drove at a more sedate pace with the window flaps wide.


When they got back, the twins went to find the other Fixers. They were in Clara’s treehouse. The twins went up, leaving Rusty down below, given his peculiar behaviour.

     ‘Anything to report?’ Barney asked.

     ‘Yes,’ said Daniel. ‘Uncle Leo was out in his car early this morning. It came back with muddy tyres.’ Daniel passed across a piece of paper with ‘18,308’ written on it. ‘This is his milometer reading before our ride.’

     ‘That’s very good,’ said Barney, ‘but not much use unless we know what the figure was before he went out this morning.’

     ‘But we do,’ beamed Daniel. ‘I sat in his car before breakfast. It then said 18,300 miles exactly.’

      ‘Brilliant!’ said Clara. ‘So, he’d driven eight miles, which means that it was somewhere no more than four miles away.’ She circled a four-mile radius with her compasses on a tattered OS map.

     ‘The mud on his tyres was an orangey colour,’ added Daniel.

     Clara immediately poked a finger within the pencilled circle. ‘The Old Quarry,’ she announced.

     ‘Great work, twins,’ said Barney.

     Their conversation was halted by Rusty’s barking. ‘I’d forgotten about him!’ said Diana.

     The dog was running around the base of the tree, shaking his head, and sneezing.

     ‘I think he needs another drink,’ said Diana. They fetched him a fresh bowl of water, his third since the car ride.

     After drinking, he looked up at the twins, seeming to say, ‘No more sports cars, thank you!’


The Fixers didn’t reconvene until the following day, having regained possession of the garden shed. As customary, they started their meeting with their favourite refreshments — ginger beer and fruitcake — an idea borrowed from their fictional counterparts.

     Then Diana noticed a piece of paper wedged between two door panels. She pulled it free and read it: ‘Yor biks are in a shed at the Old Quarry.’     

     ‘The place where Uncle Leo’s car was, with the mud!’ exclaimed Diana.

     ‘Although,’ said Clara, ‘his tyres weren’t muddy first thing, were they?’ She looked at Daniel, but he couldn’t remember. ‘So, Uncle Leo couldn’t have taken the bikes.’

     ‘They wouldn’t fit in that car, anyway,’ added Diana.

     ‘Perhaps he had an accomplice,’ suggested Daniel.

      ‘Someone who can’t spell very well,’ said Clara.

     ‘Or someone who wants us to think that,’ said Barney. ‘I mean, ‘yor’ and ‘biks’ are misspelled, but ‘Quarry’ – a more difficult word – is correct.’

     ‘Let’s go to the Quarry!’ said Diana, a gleam in her eye.

     ‘Yes,’ said Barney. ‘Another adventure for the Five Fixers!’

     They were interrupted by Chief Superintendent Craven knocking at the shed door. He looked unusually serious. They told him about their stolen bikes but were reluctant to share all their intelligence at this stage. However, they had no compunction about pointing the finger at Uncle Leo.

     ‘He made Rusty car-sick,’ said Diana.

     ‘He doesn’t like dogs at all,’ said Daniel.

     ‘And he broke the speed limit in his car,’ said Diana.

     ‘Very interesting,’ responded Craven. ‘What does your uncle do, anyway?’

     ‘He works for MFI,’ the twins declared.


Laden with one of Judy’s picnics, the Fixers set off for the quarry, the two older ones wheeling their bikes.

     To their delight, the bikes were there, as the message had said. Before the twins could touch their machines, however, Barney pulled out his detection kit and ordered everyone to stand clear. He inspected each cycle with his magnifying glass, looking in vain for prints.

     ‘They’re clean,’ he announced.

     ‘Apart from this mud,’ Daniel pointed out.

     Outside, they followed the snaking tyre treads, along with three sets of footprints, which led to some larger tyre tracks, from two different vehicles.

     Once again, Barney deployed his magnifying glass. ‘I think this tread pattern is from Uncle Leo’s MG.’

     ‘It doesn’t make sense,’ said Clara. ‘Why move bikes from one shed to another?’  

     ‘And send the owners a note,’ added Diana.

     They discussed this over their picnic, then enjoyed a leisurely ride home. Rusty appreciated taking turns in the baskets of the girls’ cycles.

     At home, there was no sign of Leo’s MG. They’d wanted to examine its tyre treads. They also wanted to monitor his reaction when he saw their bikes. But he didn’t reappear all day.

     Clara, deciding that ‘The Strange Case of the Missing Bikes’ was almost solved, spent the evening writing up their adventure. It was their eighth, she noted, gazing at the neat row of exercise books on her bookshelf.


Leo was also working hard at resolving things, only returning to his sister’s early the following morning. As he parked his car, he was relishing the thought of Judy’s cooked breakfast, with lashings of black coffee. He greeted her before going upstairs to freshen up.

     What he didn’t know was that the Fixers had also been busy. In his absence, the twins had searched his room and discovered, in his bin, some sheets of paper from the pad on which he’d made the note about the missing bikes, one sheet of which bore the imprint of that anonymous note.

     Before breakfast, the twins had run round to let Clara and Barney know. Barney had used a special powder to make the hidden message stand out. Although it was legible without this, they were impressed at his forensic skills — apart from Rusty, that is, who started sneezing again. He wasn’t enjoying this adventure.

     Rusty and the twins then ran home for breakfast, having assured Clara that they’d inform Chief Inspector Craven about their Uncle’s guilt.


      ‘Where’s your uncle?’ asked Barney when they met after breakfast.

     ‘Upstairs,’ the twins answered.

     ‘Did you let Chief Superintendent Craven know?’ asked Clara.

     ‘He wasn’t at home,’ said Diana.

     ‘Well, we mustn’t let your uncle escape,’ Barney emphasised.

     ‘He won’t,’ Daniel piped up. ‘We let his tyres down.’

     ‘The ones with the same tread pattern!’ added Diana.

     The twins led the others to Leo’s car, which was standing forlornly in the gravel.

     ‘Well done twins!’ said Barney.

     As if keen to contribute, Rusty cocked a leg against one of the MG’s wheels. They giggled.

     ‘And Rusty!’ added Clara.

     Suddenly, they spotted Uncle Leo. He was peering into the shed. Barney launched himself at the man, shouldering Leo inside and slamming the door. Fortunately, the key was still in the lock. Barney secured it.

     ‘We’d better phone the police,’ said Clara. ‘Perhaps Chief Superintendent Craven is at the station.’

     They went into the kitchen, surprised to see their mother there.

     ‘Having a busy morning?’ she asked. ‘Have you seen Uncle Leo, by the way? I heard his car.’


     Barney, alert to Leo’s banging, turned up the radio. ‘Sorry,’ he apologised to the twins’ mother. ‘Just wanted to hear the, er, music.’

     Before anything else was said, another car arrived, quickly followed by a rap at the door. Chief Superintendent Craven, thought the children.

     They ran to greet him, but two other men stood there. One was PC Matthews, who’d called about the stolen bikes. The other was a plain clothes man. ‘Inspector Hanson,’ as he introduced himself, shaking hands with each of them, even accepting Rusty’s paw.

     ‘Is Mr Leo Peters in?’

     ‘He’s somewhere around…,’ began the twin’s mother, only to have the twins interrupt.

     ‘He’s locked in the shed,’ they beamed.

     ‘What?’ She turned to Barney. ‘Will you turn that radio down?’

     But Judy, returning, pre-empted him. The banging became more audible.

     ‘He’s ready for handcuffing!’ announced the twins.

     The inspector followed the Fixers to the shed, where Barney unlocked the door and stood to one side, though remaining vigilant. They were all hoping Uncle Leo would attempt to make a getaway in his car. However, the wind was taken out of their sails.

     ‘Good morning, gents,’ said Leo. ‘I’d invite you in, but it’s a bit cramped!’

     ‘What’s all this about?’ asked Hanson, as they gathered in the back garden, Judy having supplied some home-made lemonade.

     The story emerged, albeit slightly edited. The children listened in surprise as Uncle Leo explained how he’d traced the bike thieves and made them write a confession.

     The Fixers were dumbfounded. Not what they’d expected. Where was Chief Superintendent Craven, they wanted to know.

     ‘Busy,’ said the Inspector, ‘helping us follow some leads.’


The children were dispirited the rest of the day. Clara, the Fixers’ chronicler, was particularly downhearted, especially when she came to write the conclusion to their adventure. For she’d already detailed Uncle Leo’s suspicious character: his dislike of dogs, upsetting Rusty, his disregard for speed limits, his heavy smoking, his lack of a wife, etc.

     And what they’d subsequently learned only seemed to confirm the Fixers’ suspicions: that tell-tale note, the quarry mud on his tyres, staying out all night before breaking into their clubhouse.

     He just had to be guilty, Clara decided, ending her story in the traditional manner, with Chief Super Craven praising The Fixers (‘And that includes you, Rusty!’).


Leo, back in the city, was also busy writing, and also having difficulties. It was a brief report about his ‘unofficial’ involvement in a drug-smuggling racket in Little Baddercombe and surrounding villages. Central to it were details of Craven’s backhanders — which, this time, had involved some marked notes.

     Leo was also aware that his report would probably never see the light of day, let alone The Little Baddercombe Courier. If anyone was at risk, he feared it might be the Langley brothers.

     Leo sighed. “Give me the honest and open world of national espionage any day!’ he muttered.


About the author

Dr David Rudd is an emeritus professor who, after 40 years, turned from academic prose to creative writing and found fulfilment. Recent stories have appeared in 'Aphelion', 'Bandit Fiction', 'The Blotter', 'Corner Bar Magazine', 'Dribble Drabble Review', 'Jerry Jazz Musician', and 'Literally Stories'. 


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