Big Bear - Part One
The lake water was still. In the fresh morning sunlight hardly a fish stirred, and the birds of the air were taking it easy before the heat got to them. From under his beach umbrella, Major Orso gazed out across the water, aware that the lapping at the shore was respectful of his desire for peace. The tree clad mountain opposite was crisp in the clean light. Only one lone fishing boat disturbed the water away in the distance. He lay back on his day bed, thinking hard about doing very little, when a shuffling on the sand behind him caused him to stir. The figure that approached wore impenetrable dark glasses and had a curly wire in his ear.
“News?” enquired the Major.
“Mission accomplished, Senator,” the starched figure reported.
Major Orso sank back on the bed, closing his eyes. For a moment, he was content. In the sky, high above the lake, a black kite stretched her wings, gliding easily, switching her tail, her keen eyes scanning the water.
* * * * *
Big Bear put down the phone with a firm, deliberate action. He turned to the window and looked at the flats across the street. He removed his glasses, and placed them on the oval table adjacent to the phone. A car horn sounded in the rain below, and the gears of a bus meshed with the liquid sound of tires.
“Pooh’s dead,” Big Bear announced, without turning. Behind him, in the gloom of the apartment, Little Bear put his teacup in the saucer with a chink.
For a minute or so, there was only the sound of traffic in the room. Big Bear remained, statuesque, silhouetted against the net curtain flare of the window. Little Bear, a shape on the settee, stared at his tea, watching it cool.
Then the phone rang again. A conventional, old-fashioned ring which seemed urgent, and could not be ignored. Big Bear leaned toward the table and scooped up the receiver. “Yes?” He queried. The voice on the line was sharp, phased slightly. “You’ve heard? You’re ‘au fait’? I don’t know how to deal with this. I’m coming round; I’m on my way. You hear me?”
Big Bear nodded into the phone, his dry mouth chewing out a phrase of acceptance. “We’re here.”
Again, he looked out of the window. Again, he was aware of the noises from the world outside. A siren wailed in and out of the rain and traffic. Behind him, a teacup rattled empty on a saucer. In Big Bear’s imagination, there was a painful emptiness. Nothing was happening. It was a lonely void, populated by images received long times ago. Like an office with faded pin-ups on the walls, the space behind his eyes was ‘to let’. There was nobody home. The screams of the siren failed to arouse him. The telephone failed to affect him. Little Bear’s tetchiness had no effect.
He picked up his spectacles and reinstated them on the bridge of his nose. He looked again at the flats across the street and saw a child at the window, saw the natural wonder as it peered down at the traffic, saw the pane open outward, the child lurch forward and downwards, gathering momentum as it flailed its arms and legs. Big Bear did not see the impact but he watched the reactions of the pedestrians, and then glanced back up at the open window, the tail of a curtain fluttering. A woman appeared, then, clasping her hands to her face, disappeared.
The chime of the doorbell interrupted Big Bear’s thoughts. He went out into the small hallway where his walking stick stood in the elephant’s foot. By the door he spoke into a mouthpiece and then pressed a button. He turned to a green parrot on a stand and stroked its beak, sadly. He caught himself in the mirror and checked his fur. There was a rap at the door, and he opened it. Monks bounded in, wet fur, cloth cap, smelling of beer, chips, and mustard. Monks threw himself into Big Bear’s embrace, sobbing violently. “Thanks, good to see you. Oh crikey! Can’t believe it! Little Bear?”
“Calm down old chap. Calm down. Come through and sit down. Little Bear’s in here.” Big Bear led Monks through to the sitting room, where Monks hurled himself at Little Bear, crushing the newspaper in which Little Bear had been working on the crossword. “Nightmare, nightmare! Not enough that Pooh’s gone! Can’t raise a soul – present company excepted – and there’s been a terrible accident across the street. What is going on?”
Little Bear smoothed out the newspaper and adjusted himself, attempting to rearrange Monks into a sitting position. “It is very disturbing,” he said, “but the causal links between any two events, however simultaneous, may be tenuous, to say the least. We have to deal with our own preoccupations. Whatever happens across the street is beyond our remit, at least for the time being.”
“Bad though it may be,” Big Bear added, shaking his head. “Our loss is that of Pooh Bear.”
“But it’s not just our loss!” Monks jumped up. “It’s bigger than that! This is a major event, and we don’t have details. We don’t know nothing!”
“Anything,” said Little Bear, drily.
“Would you like some tea?” asked Big Bear, his voice kind and honey-toned. “I always find a cup of tea very soothing, and we’ve so much thinking to do.”
“Does Huge Bear know?” Monks demanded, pushing himself against Big Bear.
Big Bear did not answer. He glanced towards Little Bear, who coughed and then spoke solemnly. “We must not be precipitate. Tea first.”
Monks sank back into the sofa, his arms crossed, his face tight in a scowl. Big Bear moved ponderously to the tiny kitchen, chinking, clattering and humming to himself. Monks jumped forward and grabbed the remote TV control and started flicking through the channels, pausing long enough to catch the 4.15 at Kempton Park and to lose himself in a flurry of excitement as Beau Savoir and Carefree Dude duelled to a photo finish.
Big Bear brought in the tea, Darjeeling, with a touch of milk, in china cups, Garibaldi biscuits on a side plate. He lit the standard lamp, throwing a pool of light over Little Bear’s head, darkening the outside world, concentrating their thoughts inside the illuminated space.
“Logically,” said Little Bear, “We have nothing to start with. A ‘phone call…”
“Two ‘phone calls,” interrupted Monks.
“Telephone calls, possibly more than one,” continued Little Bear, and he paused to sip his tea. “And these calls passed information concerning a mutual friend of ours. We must compare notes. Who called whom?”
“Rabbit!” snapped Monks.
“Piglet,” suggested Big Bear, his nose glistening with tea.
“And what proof of authenticity might we have of these identities? How can we be sure of their veracity?” queried Little Bear. “At what precise time were these calls made? What details were provided to support their information? And what can presently be done to ascertain the real condition of Pooh Bear?”
Big Bear put his cup and saucer back on the table. “I’ll call him.”
“And what’s the point of that?” demanded Monks. “He’s dead!” And he started to cry, his eyes glazed.
“But Little Bear is right. We do not have proof of that, and perhaps he isn’t. Perhaps he’ll answer the ‘phone and everything will be just like yesterday.”
“And if he doesn’t answer?” probed Monks, his voice quivering.
“Then he will be out.”
“Well that’s to be seen.” Big Bear paused. Not quite sure whether to carry out his intention.
“Try it,” authorised Little Bear. “There is really nothing to lose.”
Big Bear moved to the telephone and dialled Pooh Bear’s home number. He visualised Pooh rising from his deep armchair, padding to the hall, lifting the receiver. But, if Pooh Bear were capable of those actions, he did not carry them out on this occasion. And if anyone else were present in that cluttered and untidy house, they too chose to ignore the persistent ringing. Big Bear sorrowfully replaced the receiver. “Perhaps it is true,” he said sadly, shaking his heavy head.
“Ring Rabbit,” Little Bear spoke with a touch of command.
This time Big Bear received the engaged tone. “At least he’s in,” he said, with some relief. “But knowing him he could be engaged for some time.”
The same response. Perhaps they were talking to each other, thought Big Bear.
Monks could not stay in the flat any longer. He insisted that the three of them go over to Pooh’s to see if they could find him. He fidgeted as Little Bear slowly put on his coat and scarf and as Big Bear cleared away the tea service. He jumped up and down in anguish as Big Bear turned off the TV and checked the lights were extinguished in the lounge.
They waited for the lift, and Monks was about to fly down the stairs when it arrived. On the ground floor, he tore ahead to the main door, knocking against the loaded shopping bags of Mrs Cheese from flat six, while Big Bear apologised for his friend.
Outside on the pavement, Monks hesitated for an instant. The street seemed to be full of police cars and ambulances, and there were sirens in the air. For a moment, he turned to Little Bear for assistance, and then he realised that the focus of interest was not his shiny red car parked on the double yellow lines, but something that had happened on the opposite pavement. Big Bear peered at the crowd, but could not see quite what was going on. He hoped that the little boy had fallen on something soft, but before he could think of anything else he found himself being tugged into the car by a very nervous and impatient Monks.
“Come on!” he shouted. “We’ve got to get out of here.” And before Big Bear could take in more of the scene, they were in motion, with a squeal of tyres and a crash of gears, only one of the bright-jacketed police officers taking any interest in the departure.
Monks was the world’s greatest driver. He knew he was since he had beaten Toad in a road race over fifty miles, and had beaten him with an hour to spare. Of course, Toad had claimed that he had been booked for speeding and that that had lost him time, but Monks told him that that was all part of the game. The police would never catch him.
In the meantime, not everyone shared Monk’s opinion of his driving and, on the way over to Pooh’s, both Big and Little Bear clung to their seats and exchanged looks of fear and alarm at each corner. Occasionally, one of them would say, “Hang on, old chap, we want to get there, you know.” Or, “I think this is quite a sharp corner.” But Monks was in a tearing hurry, as usual, and all his furry concentration was thrown into leaving the squalid outskirts of the city behind, and getting to Pooh’s country home. And apart from that, it was in his nature to be the first, the fastest and the best.
They very nearly didn’t make it. Two cyclists out for a peaceful ride would testify against Monks, if they’d been quick enough to note the number plate, but for the moment, we’ll pass over that particular incident.
It was getting dark when they finally lurched to a halt outside Pooh’s. The rain had blown over and the sky was a ragged field of torn cloud and purple patches. The ground was wet and there were signs of many footsteps up to the front door, which was partly open.
“Good Heavens!” exclaimed Big Bear, but he was pushed aside by Monks, desperate to be the first on the scene. “Oh my gosh!” he screamed, stopping in his tracks. Little Bear, feeling quite unwell after the journey, caught up with his companions at the doorway and looked cautiously past them. He peered into the gloom, half expecting to see a scene of violent crime, with a dismembered corpse and certain devious clues. But he too was astonished by what he did see. The home of Pooh Bear, so familiar to each of them, was void. There was nothing but the physical shell of a memory. Everything but the simple light and shade of an empty room had been removed.
The three friends stood there, aghast. Then, with typical impetuosity, Monks started to rush about, manically examining everything, every nook and cranny, desperate to find anything, but anything, which could tell them a story or part of one. But there really appeared to be nothing. No clues at all, with the exception of a wisp of horsehair, perhaps a trace of stuffing.
“It’s amazing they left the house,” commented Monks, sourly. “That is, presuming as I am, that this is the house.”
“No doubt about that,” said Big Bear. “Many’s the time I sat outside here admiring the view. And that’s still here.”
“Small comfort, though,” said Little Bear. “It’s quite perplexing. Truly mystifying.”
They left the car where it was and they walked disconsolately towards Piglet’s place, hoping that he might be able to throw some light on the puzzling events of the day. To their dismay, however, Piglet was not at home, and to further disconcert them the house was open and it appeared to have been ransacked, despite the fact, as Big Bear remarked, it usually looked that way.
“At least his stuff is here,” said Monks, with a touch of optimism, “And there’s no sign of a struggle.”
They walked on, following the well-trodden path to Rabbit’s. There, in the grassy bank, was the familiar entrance, a perpetual reminder of Pooh’s fondness for honey. Not all was the same, however, as, most confusingly, a strange rabbit poked his head out, shyly, at their approach and then withdrew, whiskers twitching.
Monks called out urgently that they were searching for their friend Rabbit, who should be living there. The unknown occupant timidly called back that no one of that name lived there. Assuming, for a moment, that this might be one of Rabbit’s traditional attempts to avoid giving hospitality, Little Bear spoke up in a commanding tone. “Look here, Rabbit, this is no laughing matter. Pooh has been reported as dead, Piglet’s disappeared, and now we need to speak to our old friend, Rabbit, to find out more. Show yourself!”
The strange rabbit showed his nose, and looked at the friends inquisitively. “I’m really sorry,” he stammered, “but I know no one called Pooh, nor Piglet, nor Rabbit, and, though I am fairly new around here, I can’t say I’ve ever heard them mentioned before. I am awfully sorry, but I really can’t help.”
This was getting to be quite unfunny, and Monks could hardly contain his frustration. It was getting dark now, and the mystery was becoming sinister.
“We’ll have to try and find Owl, then,” said Little Bear uncomfortably. “If he cannot help, then we really are stuck. Come on.” And so, with a sad thank you to the new rabbit, they plodded on.
Owl, who had for years resisted the temptation to be nocturnal, was just going to bed when Monks rapped on his door. It was almost odd that he was there and Big Bear hugged him embarrassingly fondly just because this was not another nasty shock. There is nothing so comforting as the familiar when all else is going wrong, and Big Bear needed to return to the realm of the familiar. Owl, however, was not at all sure what all this visitation was about and he ruffled his feathers in a cross way, especially when Monks settled down in his arm chair and demanded to know what was going on.
At the top of a mature beech tree, the way the world appears is not quite what you would expect at ground level, and Big Bear was beginning to find the day rather too long. Monks had no idea what the time was and Little Bear was beginning to see himself as a distinguished sleuth, so the concept of time was alien to him as well.
However, pieces of the picture began to take shape when the friends managed to communicate their versions of what they had been discovering. Owl, who everyone knew to be a little aloof, had recently had very little to do with terrestrial creatures and he was as surprised as they were that Pooh and Piglet were not to be found. He could only suggest that perhaps after all these years of being sought out by fans and tourists they had decided to take a holiday. “Perhaps they’ve gone to the seaside?”
Monks immediately swallowed the idea and proposed a mad search of the Caribbean, but Little Bear suggested caution on this particular front. “Pooh may well be lazing on a tropical beach, sipping Grenadine,” he said, “But that does not mean that we have to go too. What if he is not there and he is in trouble here? What if he were there, but we simply couldn’t find him? And,” he concluded with a smile that marked him out as a complete genius, "do you not think he might have told us if he were going away?"
Monks and Big Bear thought about that, and, with a quick glance at each other, had already decided that that would be a risk they could cope with, when Little Bear fired another shaft at them. “And who’s going to pay for it? It has to be possible that Pooh has sold everything to make a break, although I don’t really think he would have done that without letting us in on the plans, but do you really want to sell everything we own – including your car, Monks – in order to carry out some sort of private Interpol tour of the West Indies?”
Big Bear had that feeling he always had when Little Bear took charge. He felt, he imagined, like a little boy who had been ticked off for being just marginally more immature than was acceptable to adults.
Monks was seeing red. He hated Little Bear with a serious hatred. That stuffy, dry and clever way he had of stalling for time, and that smart way he had with words, all that made Monks want to drive his car into a wall, or off the end of a pier.
Owl proposed that they should have something to eat, and that they should sleep on the problem. He offered them hospitality in his humble home, but Little Bear felt they would be more comfortable at their home, and declined the offer. Big Bear, who was sleepy, would have been quite happy to have had some toast and to have snuggled down in a corner, but Little Bear was the one who made decisions. Monks, who didn’t care much what happened, agreed to drive them back.
They were all tired and damp as they got into the car, and the smell of wet fur further dampened their spirits. Monks drove without that reckless flair that he prided himself on, and even stopped at junctions. Not even a red light spurred him on.
Back at the flat they just settled down, making up a bed for Monks in front of the TV. They all had some hot milk and honey as a nightcap and turned in. Monks turned on the TV and watched a bit of an old movie, with men in hats pushing each other about and smoking, and then he too settled down.
The doorbell woke them. Big Bear padded to the hall and opened the door, his head muzzy and unfocused. A short man dressed in a grey suit with a pale blue shirt and a red tie confronted him. “Mr Bear, is it?”
Big Bear nodded, his thoughts converging on Pooh.
“I wonder if you could help at all with our enquiries? My name is DCI MacFlee.” He flashed a badge at Big Bear.
“Is it about Pooh?” Monks pushed himself in front of Big Bear.
“This concerns an accident which occurred yesterday afternoon, across the street. I wondered if you had seen anything?”
Big Bear thought hard for a moment. Monks had already lost interest and went into the kitchen. “I did see something, yes. You mean about the boy who fell?”
“Well all I saw was him lean forward and then he just toppled down. That is all. I was just gazing out of our window.”
“Mind if I look?” And he passed Big Bear without waiting for permission.
Big Bear followed him through to the lounge, and Monks bounded through from the kitchen, his mouth full of banana. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with missing persons, would you?” He asked, hopping alongside of the police officer.
“Not really. Why? Lost someone? Is this the window?”
“That’s it. I was just standing there, dreaming. We have lost someone actually.”
“What time was it?”
“When he went missing? We don’t know. He just isn’t there.”
“No. When the boy fell.”
“Oh, must have been about four. A bit before, perhaps. I only saw….”
“And then what did you do?”
“Nothing. I mean I could see that others had seen. And then Monks arrived.”
“So you were down there, were you sir? And what did you see?”
“Nothing at all,” said Monks, defensively. “I just arrived, worried sick about our friend. You see, we heard that he was dead….”
“And have you reported this?”
“Not yet. We went looking for him, Officer.” Little Bear spoke from the gloom of the sitting room. “But perhaps you can help us now. What is the correct procedure?”
“Perhaps you should come down the station and file a report. Then you can also sign a statement about the boy opposite.”
“But I didn’t see anything. What is this all about?”
“At the moment, it is merely routine. We have to follow up such accidents. Insurance for one thing.”
“I understand,” said Little Bear. “But I have not yet had breakfast. Would it be all right if I call by later?”
“Very good, sir. I’ll give you my card.” And DCI MacFlee handed Little Bear his card. “Thank you gentlemen. We’ll be seeing you later. I’ll find the way out.” And with that, he left, leaving Monks and Big Bear near the window, not quite sure what was going on.
* * * * *
When the three entered the police station, the waiting room was empty. A notice invited them to ring a bell, which they did. They heard the shrill electric sound and then, after a pause, the frosted glass window slid open. A young woman police officer asked, with a flat, disinterested tone, what they wanted.
Little Bear explained that they had been asked to meet with DCI MacFlee. The window was closed. After several minutes a door opened and another police officer, this time a man, beckoned to them. They entered a dark corridor and then were ushered into a room with a table and four chairs. The walls were smooth and greyish-blue. The light was bright. There was one window, but that was dark glass.
“I don’t like this, said Monks, who was pacing the floor. Big Bear shook his head and looked uncomfortable.
“It’s not exactly first class treatment,” said Little Bear,” But don’t worry. We haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no point in having a guilty conscience.”
The door opened, and DCI MacFlee entered, carrying a thin file. “Do sit down,” he said. “Thank you for coming. So, tell me all.”
“Pooh has disappeared,” Monks started. “He’s our friend and we heard that he was dead so we went to go and see him at his home but when we got there his house was empty – completely empty, everything had gone. Then we went to look for Piglet and he wasn’t there either, though his things were, and then we went to find Rabbit and someone else was living in his place and he didn’t know Rabbit…”
“And it’s all a bit strange,” added Big Bear, sadly.
“It certainly is,” said MacFlee, making notes. Perhaps you should fill out these forms, and he passed some papers to Little Bear. Then we can make some official enquiries. “In the meantime, however, could I just ask you for a statement of what you saw over the road?”
“I told you already,” said Big Bear. “I was thinking about Pooh and then I just noticed the window open and a child fell. I couldn’t see the ground, and then Monks arrived, so that’s all I know.”
“Had you seen the child before? Do you often look out of the window?”
“I suppose I do. But I’ve not noticed that window especially before.”
“What do you see, then?”
“Buildings. Windows. Curtains. Chimneys. Bricks. I sometimes count the bricks.” As Big Bear spoke, he stared at the detective’s face, trying to see what was wanted. But there was nothing. The face itself was so plain and featureless that after a while Big Bear could not even see the police officer in front of him. All that was registering in his mind was the repeated image of a child falling from a window. Nothing more. Nothing less.
After they left the police station, Monks drove them to his home. He had a small flat south of the river, in a busy urban street. His rooms were cluttered and untidy. There was a small kitchen, a dark opening that led to his bedroom, and a fair sized lounge, which looked out over the docks.
* * * * *
Curling spume under the bows, the taxi swished down the Grand Canal. No one spoke. A touch of cigarette ash joined the waves and disappeared and the night continued to fall.
Major Orso was helped ashore at the Casino. His aide brought his briefcase, his wife her luggage. It was a chilly night and the moon glimmered across the dark waves. Moments later the Major sat at a glossy walnut table, a glass of prosecco hissing before him.
“There is something wrong, isn’t there, Major?”
“Not really, “the Major responded. “Nothing serious.”
“Have you a contingency plan?”
“All I need is another forty-eight hours.”
“And if that isn’t enough?”
“It will be.”
Outside the night gathered strength. As the weight of darkness pressed down, the Grand Canal grew quiet and still. Then, as the light began to filter in from the East, and the early birds began to sheer and rise, a taxi slipped away from the Casino, then up the Canale di Cannaregio, and across towards the airport.
* * * * *
To be continued (perhaps.....)