The Gunman and the Clown
‘Nice and tight, Harry. Pull it nice and tight,’ cried Leo Masters as he surveyed the scene on warm summer Saturday morning in the small market town of Monkhurst.
Leo Masters was one of those people who took pleasure in organising. Although quite short and, at first sight, slightly ridiculous, he made it plain to all concerned that he was in charge and that things would be done his way. Whatever one thought of his gruff manner and his old-fashioned military bearing, backed up with some power and a very strong pair of hands, it could not be denied that he was good at his job.
His team had started work at eight o’clock that morning and now, less than three hours later, they had erected a huge marquee, set up the stage and sound system in the square in front of the Town Hall and put out thirty rows of twenty-five seats, not to mention all the tables and chairs for the refreshments which were due to follow the ceremony. Leo wiped his bald head and, with his straight back and military bearing, prowled around, inspecting the installations. The town hall clock showed ten-to-eleven, so they had finished forty minutes ahead of schedule.
Sporting the same dark blue T-shirt as his helpers, he called them all together on the green just behind the marquee.
‘Well done, everyone!’ he barked, in his alarmingly loud baritone. ‘All right, Harry. That’ll do.’
Harry Robson was a rather nervous seventeen-year old who had been told to check all the guy ropes around the tent. He had been given this task because of his considerable bulk, much of which, to be fair, was muscle, and also because Leo had been keen to find him something to do: something which would not disrupt his well-drilled team too much. Harry’s Dad, Sam, had been a friend of Leo’s in their Territorial Army days and when he moved his family to Monkhurst he had asked Leo a favour.
‘It’s my son Harry. You see, Leo, he’s bright enough but he’s a bit withdrawn, not very sure of himself. I know that you run this business setting up events. Could you find him something to do at weekends? There’s no need to pay him much – or anything at all, really.’
So Leo took Harry around on jobs. He liked the lad but he couldn’t let him do anything too complicated, so he asked him to check the strength of ropes after they had been fixed in place.
‘Well done, Harry,’ he cried, as the boy bounded over enthusiastically.
‘All right, everyone. You did a good job and in a very good time. The caterers will arrive soon. The ceremony starts at twelve-thirty, as you know. Mr Broome says that you are welcome to stay and to enjoy some refreshment afterwards.
‘But go easy,’ he warned, with a glint in his eye. ‘Keep to the soft drinks! This lot has to be dismantled and packed up tonight. It’s the farmers’ market tomorrow.’
‘What’s old Broome doing here anyway?’ asked a bearded member of the team. Leo looked a little irritated by this remark.
‘Mr Broome, otherwise known as the man who is paying us, will be given the freedom of the town of Monkhurst to mark the end of his term as Mayor.’
‘I’m surprised that he’s forking out for anything,’ shouted a woman at the back. ‘The man’s a miser. Everyone hates him. He only got the Mayor’s job because he paid for that horrible statue in the town square. That was just a drop in the ocean to someone with all his money.’
‘Now, now,’ said Leo, trying to keep tempers calm. ‘Mr Broome has been very generous. You will be aware that he’s an eminent banker and entrepreneur. The country needs people like him. Besides, it’s nice for us to have a local job for once, instead driving the length and breadth of the country.’
‘He’s upset a lot of people with his methods,’ yelled the woman. ‘Bankers are bad enough but he’s nothing more than a loan shark. And don’t forget all the little shops he’s put out of business with that big superstore of his. He was ruthless; he targeted them one by one.’
‘He’s made a lot of enemies,’ cried another voice. ‘People will only come today because they are frightened of him.’
‘All right, all right!’ bellowed Leo, now visibly exasperated. ‘Look, we’ve got a job to do. Just you remember that. Now I have some business to attend to. I shall see you later.’
With that he climbed into a van with ‘Leo’s Army’ emblazoned on the side and headed off. The rest of the team dispersed rather grumpily, feeling that his closing remark had not been very friendly.
‘Bye, Harry!’ shouted Leo, cheerfully, as he drove by, winking at the young lad.
By half-past twelve a large crowd had turned up and all the seats were taken. They were a mixed bunch, including some local dignitaries and councillors, the town’s MP accompanied by a few hangers-on, a couple of minor celebrities (one of whom was doubling as a yawningly dreadful warm-up act), plus a few hundred ordinary townsfolk who were either curious or just waiting for the free food and drink which nestled enticingly under plastic sheets in the marquee.
The only person who showed no sign of appearing was Broome. Since he was the star of the show he might have turned up on time, thought Harry, who was standing at the back of the gathering. And yet, although he had never seen Broome, he had the feeling that he was the kind of man who did not mind keeping people waiting. In fact, he probably expected everyone else to wait him, seeing this as the natural order of things.
After about a quarter of an hour, the public was getting restless. The warm-up act had run out of material, to the extent that he ever had any, and in the June sunshine, some rather overdressed participants were shuffling impatiently in their seats.
Then, without warning, a Rolls Royce pulled up next to the stage and a man who Harry presumed to be Broome leapt out of the back door. He was tall, well-groomed, a sixty-is-the-new-forty type. Accompanied by a blonde woman tottering on mountainous heels, who was presumably his wife, he climbed the steps up to his place of honour. After greeting the assembled dignitaries, he waved to the crowd, which by now had burst into applause, mainly out of relief.
And in the next instant he was down: flat on his back, clutching his chest. Within a few seconds, his arms had slumped to his sides and he lay quite still, with his eyes wide open. He was dead.
The whole scene was frozen in time. Nobody moved. Harry Robson looked round at the Town Hall behind him. He could see an open window on the third floor and realised that there was a rifle perched on top of a stand just behind it. That must have been where the shot came from. Without thinking rationally, he ran the fifty or so yards towards the front entrance, which was closed, and then he made his way around to the back, where he found an open door. He hesitated for a moment, thinking that the assassin may still be inside, but then ventured up the staircase towards the third floor.
The room he entered served as a dance studio, part of the arts centre which was located in the upper part of the building. It was largely empty, except for the training bars and floor mats. Harry’s eye was first caught by the rifle, behind which there was a chair. Then, looking to his right, he spied the only piece of furniture in the room: a cupboard. The door was closed but there was a key in it.
Harry Robson now had to make the most important decision of his life so far. For reasons he could not explain, he suspected that there was someone in the cupboard. In fact, he knew that there was. Voices could be heard at the bottom of the stairs; he had arrived first because he was the closest to the Town Hall and was young and fit, but others would join him in a matter of moments.
As he took hold of the key, he was tempted to open the door but decided not to. Instead, he locked it and put the key in his pocket. At that moment, a couple of men raced it. They were both gasping for breath after their climb. The clock on the wall said ten-to-one.
‘Is that the gun?’ one of them enquired, looking at the rifle near the window.
‘It looks that way,’ replied Harry.
‘We had better get downstairs,’ said the other one. ‘The police are coming.’
The police were on the scene within minutes and had called for armed back-up.
‘Did you see the gunman? Is he still inside?’ Inspector Anna Harris asked Harry, as he and several of his companions emerged from the Town Hall.
‘I didn’t see anyone,’ replied a breathless Harry, conscious of the key to the cupboard rattling around in his pocket.
‘What on earth were you up to?’ cried her colleague, Sergeant Carol Fernandez. ‘Fancy running up there, completely unarmed. You could have got yourselves killed!’
‘Bloody civilians,’ remarked a nearby constable.
‘The gun is still there,’ said Harry, a little shakily, ‘mounted on a sort of tripod. But whoever fired the shot has gone.’
‘Alright, son,’ said the inspector. ‘Take it easy for a moment and then you can give your statement. We’ll go up and take a look’.
Within twenty minutes, the Town Hall was surrounded and the area cordoned off.
Inspector Harris led her three colleagues up the stairs, towards the room on the third floor, retracing the route taken by Harry and his friends. They stopped at the entrance.
‘Don’t take any chances,’ the inspector whispered. ‘It’s almost certain that whoever did this has gone, but let’s keep our eyes open.’
They fanned out to each corner of the room and after a few seconds everyone relaxed. The rifle was poised triumphantly on top of its stand, pointing towards the stage in the square.
‘He must have got out this way,’ said the sergeant, pointing to a corridor at the back from which a flight of stairs led down to the garden at the back.
‘Isn’t there any security, for God’s sake?’ yelled the inspector.
‘Not really. The place should have been locked but quite a few people have keys to various doors.’
‘Let’s get a list of them. In the meantime, let’s get the forensics people in. There’s nothing much to do in here.’
At that moment, there was a knocking sound. It started quietly but gradually became louder and began to speed up, sounding like an excited woodpecker.
‘What’s that?’ inquired Sergeant Fernandez. ‘Where is it coming from?’
‘The cupboard!’ exclaimed the constable, pointing to the same structure from which Harry had removed the key.
As they approached the cupboard, they could hear stifled grunts coming from the inside.
‘There’s someone in there,’ said the inspector. ‘Be careful, everyone.’ She then pressed against the cupboard and shouted:
‘We are armed police. We are going to break the doors open. Please stay still and do not be alarmed.’
The constable forced the lock and pulled open the cupboard. No one was prepared for what they saw.
Inside the cupboard was a full-dressed clown, with oversized baggy checked trousers held up by braces, huge, flapping shoes, a ginger wig and his face painted with red and white make-up. He was bounded and gagged and sitting sideways behind the doors. The constable untied him.
‘Please stand up and give your name,’ requested the inspector.
‘Leo Masters,’ came the reply.
An hour later, Leo Masters, washed, changed and recognisably himself, sat opposite Inspector Harris and her sergeant in the local police station.
‘I sometimes do turns as a clown, for children’s parties, charity events, that sort of thing. I was booked at an event today, at half-past one. Oh, it’s after two now. Did anyone tell them?’
‘I’m sure they will understand,’ said the inspector.
‘Oh, yes. Well, that’s why I was in the Town Hall. It’s where I change and get myself ready. I often use it at weekends.’
‘Do you have a key?’ asked Fernandez.
‘Yes, I do. To the side door.’
‘Is it widely known that you are a clown?’
‘I think most people know.’
‘Tell us what happened, after you entered the Town Hall.’
‘I got there at about twelve-fifteen. You know that we had been putting up the tent for the ceremony this morning. Poor Mr Broome, I can’t believe it. Anyway I had a quick sandwich and then went up to the third floor to get changed.’
‘And then?’ asked the inspector, a little impatiently.
‘It must have been about a quarter to one. I had just finishing changing and was about to leave the building. I stopped in front of the mirror for a couple of minutes to practise a few tricks. Suddenly, I felt something cold and metallic pressed against the back of my neck. I was about to turn round to see who it was but he told me, in a firm, loud voice, not to do that. However, I caught a glimpse of him in the mirror; I don’t think he realised that I had seen anything. He was tall and slim with dark hair and his face was covered with a mask.’
‘Is that all you can tell us?’ exclaimed Fernandez.
‘Pretty much,’ replied Leo, in a calm manner. ‘His voice was deep and quite resonant but I never saw his face. I do remember he was wearing gloves: white gloves.’
‘He pushed me into the cupboard. For a few minutes, everything went quiet. Then the gunshot rang out and I heard him running away. After a short while, I tried to get out of the cupboard but the door was locked; I couldn’t open it.’
‘Did you know Mr Broome?’ asked the inspector.
‘Hardly at all. He had given my firm the contract to organise the reception but I never spoke to him. Wait a minute; am I a suspect? That’s absurd. I’m the victim here. I was threatened and locked in the cupboard.’
‘No need to alarmed, sir. It’s just routine questioning. In my experience, clowns tend not to be murderers.’
They both smiled. Leo noticed that Sergeant Fernandez remained stony-faced.
‘I suppose,’ said Leo, rather relieved, ‘that I didn’t have the opportunity.’
‘You may have had a motive,’ replied the inspector, gently.
‘No,’ snapped Leo. ‘Broome was paying me a lot of money to do this job, for heaven’s sake! Why should I want to kill him?’
‘Broome wasn’t universally popular in the town, was he?’ interjected Fernandez. ‘Had he ever upset you, or someone in your family?’
‘No! Why are you asking all these questions? You should be out there looking for the killer – the man in the mask.’
When he had gone, Fernandez turned to her inspector.
‘There is no man in the mask,’ she declared. ‘He did it.’
‘You may be right,’ mused Angela Harris. ‘But how did he lock himself in the cupboard? We searched everywhere, including all his costume, but we never found the key. Without that, we’re short of proof.’
Fernandez suddenly leapt up.
‘He swallowed it!’ she said.
‘I thought of that,’ replied the inspector. ‘But keys for that type of lock are big! It would have been too much of a risk. And anyway, the lock is only on the outside, not the inside. His defence will be that the man in the mask took the key.’
‘Man in the mask!’ sneered Fernandez. ‘I’ll be amazed if there is evidence of anyone else being present. Wait a minute! What if he had an accomplice? Someone who raced up the stairs, locked the door and took the key.’
‘Harry Robson!’ they both said in unison.
‘That makes sense,’ said the inspector. ‘He was the first up and he ran straight into a potentially dangerous situation. For all he knew, the gunman might have still been there. Why would anyone do that? Let’s get him in. Mind you, if he’s got any sense, he will have thrown the key away.’
Three months later, Sergeant Carol Fernandez was clearing her desk. It was her last day at Monkhurst before taking up a job in the Metropolitan Police. She had been born in London and all her family were there, so getting into the Met had been one of her main ambitions for years. After several unsuccessful applications, her name had finally come up.
‘All done?’ enquired Anna Harris, putting her head round the door.
‘Pretty much,’ mumbled the Sergeant.
‘You don’t seem that cheerful for someone who is going to her dream job,’ said the inspector.
‘I just wish we could have nailed that bloody clown; you know, the Broome case, before I left.’
‘I think we both do, Carol,’ sighed the Inspector, dropping formalities. ‘We know that Masters is a real clown and that he had a booking that afternoon, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t commit murder as well. There were no traces of clown make-up on or near the gun but he would have been careful to avoid that. The trouble was that we couldn’t crack young Harry Robson. I must admit that I thought of him as a soft touch and I’m sure he knows something. But we couldn’t break him, could we? Perhaps he did take the key, although we couldn’t find it.’
‘I think he probably took it,’ replied Sergeant Fernandez, dejectedly. ‘I had all these theories about Masters hiding the key on various bits of his person, but in the end none of them made sense. What I’m not sure about is whether Harry Robson planned it with Masters or whether he just blundered into the situation and grabbed the key without thinking.’
‘Hmmm, but then Masters must have left the key in the door outside. Why would he do that?’
‘I can’t imagine.’
‘There’s no real motive either, it seems. We know that Masters’ father committed suicide some years ago but there doesn’t appear to be any connection with Broome.’
‘And yet, we both know that Masters did it, don’t we, Anna? We both know it. And what did we get from the Chief? Keep looking for the man in the mask? How many times do I have to tell her? There is no man in the mask.’
Fernandez flopped down in the chair behind her empty desk and put her head in her hands.
Inspector Harris put a consoling hand on her shoulder.
‘I know how much it hurts.’ she said. It’s all about justice for police officers like us. Broome might not have been the most admirable person in this town but he had just as much right to life as anyone else. We thought we had his murderer and somehow he slipped through our fingers. There’s no worse feeling than to know a guilty person is a walking around free. But don’t worry, Carol; we won’t give up on this one. And once we nail him, you will be the first to know.’
Half an hour later, Sergeant Carol Fernandez left Monkhurst police station for the last time. In spite of her fighting talk, Inspector Anna Harris strongly suspected that the case would never be solved.
A few weeks after the departure of Sergeant Fernandez, on a Sunday afternoon, Harry Robson knocked on the door of Leo Masters’ house.
‘Harry. This is a surprise.’
‘I won’t tell anyone.’
Harry’s opening gambit took Leo by surprise as he invited the clearly nervous youth into his living room.
‘I thought you’d be here at some stage. Cup of tea?’ he asked, disarmingly.
‘No,’ replied Harry, ‘I mean, yes. With milk please, no sugar’.
There was a hiatus in the conversation as Leo poured tea in two China cups. After adding a few drops from the milk jug, he handed one to Harry. Amidst these pleasantries, the atmosphere was tense.
‘You never knew my Dad, did you?’ remarked Leo. Harry shook his head.
‘He was a good man, and a good father to me, especially after my mum died so suddenly. I was only ten. I remember that Dad was in shock for a few days, but then he picked himself up and did everything for me. He brought me up and made sure I wanted for nothing. What with me and his business to run, I don’t think he ever had a moment for himself. Wherever we went – football, cricket, museums – it was all for me.’
‘He sounds a fine man,’ murmured Harry, but Leo was not listening. He was staring into space and his eyes were reddening.
‘He had built up a good little business. He was a travel agent – this was the nineteen eighties and such things were still viable then. Dad wasn’t a great traveller but he spent ages getting to know all the travel firms, hotels and resorts in the UK and Europe. People valued his advice. Then, in the summer of 1988, he hit a bit of a cash flow problem. He had been ill and sales were down. But he knew how to make the business work; he just needed a loan to tide him over. The banks wouldn’t help him, so he went to some loan sharks. They lent Dad the money, with his house as collateral. But much as Dad tried, he couldn’t pay the loan back. He pleaded for more time but the bastards wouldn’t help him. We lost the house. It was a lovely house. We had to rent a stupid little flat on the main road; Dad was declared bankrupt. I was eighteen at the time; I was selfish and didn’t understand what had happened. I lost patience and just let rip at Dad. I told him he was a loser who had ruined my life. I walked out and, as it turned out, I would never speak to him again. The next day he hung himself.’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ said Harry. ‘Did you blame yourself?’
A flash of anger seemed to cross Leo’s face.
‘I blamed everyone. I blamed myself, of course I did, but at first I blamed family, friends, even the bloody complaining customers. Then, as I learned more, I blamed the people who lent him the money. They could have done something to help Dad. They could have shown a bit of common decency. But all they were interested in was his money. They just hung him out to dry, so to speak.
‘It’s awfully sad, Leo. I feel so sorry for you. But what does it…?’
‘I’m coming to that.’ Leo stood up, his face turning an alarming shade of red. ‘I borrowed money from some mates to hire a private detective. He started investigating the loan sharks. They were a shady bunch, as you might expect, charging swingeing rates of interest to desperate people. But when we looked at their company’s structure, we found the name of the man who owned and was behind the operation.’
‘That’s right, Dear Harry. As a respectable banker, he couldn’t be seen to be involved in this kind of nasty but very, very profitable operation. So he got someone else to do his dirty work.’
‘So that’s it. Did you go and confront Broome?’
‘No. What good would that have done? But, as the years went by, I plotted my revenge. You see, Harry, I was playing the long game. I didn’t mind waiting. And then I was told about this ceremony where they would give him the freedom of the town. That was bad enough but then I saw that it was scheduled for the eleventh of June, thirty years to the day that my dad took his own life. I made a ridiculously low bid to get the contract to set up the stage and I put it right bang opposite the Town Hall window. And then, on that day, I got my revenge, with a single shot. And you know the best part, Harry, no one will ever find out. Nobody will ever know.’
‘I know,’ said Harry, quietly, after a pause.
Leo leaned forward in his chair, with an air of avuncular menace.
‘It really would be better if you didn’t, my boy. You may think you know, but you don’t. It was a perfect plan. It’s this clown business, you see. It gave me a perfect reason to be in the Town Hall at that time. I started doing it as a side-line, just to entertain the kids. But then I realised that everyone loves a clown; no one would suspect a clown of doing anything like this. Even the police would never work it out.’
‘I think they have,’ replied Harry.
‘Yes, they had theories. But there was no proof. For one thing, I had no motive. They couldn’t link me to Broome in any way. There is no trace of him having lent that money to my dad.’
They think that you and I planned it together. You know that they questioned me hours. I didn’t tell them anything but it wasn’t nice, Leo; my Dad was very upset. It was nothing to do with me. You know it wasn’t.’
‘Why did they question you, my boy? And what’s all this about you and me planning it? What rubbish! They never mentioned that to me.’
‘I’ve got the key,’ declared Harry. ‘You left it in the door of the cupboard you hid in. When you pretended that you had been tied up. I got there before the police arrived.’
Leo rose to his full and imposing height. Harry remained in his chair.
‘So it was you,’ he sighed. ‘I had forgotten all about that. When I heard you from inside the cupboard, I was worried that you would open the door.’
‘But it was open! I locked it.’
‘No, you didn’t, Harry. What you did was to give it a second twist; it was already locked. I had worked out a clever trick. It left the key in the lock and blocked the bolt with a bit of tape. Then, when I got into the cupboard, I pulled away the tape as I shut the door and the lock clicked into place. So even though I was inside, I locked the door from the outside! The idea was that when the police arrived, they would find me in a locked cupboard. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether the key would stay in the lock or fall to the ground when I slammed the door. But the fact that the key was still there didn’t matter, because, being inside the cupboard, I could never have opened it. Ah, so you were the one who took the key. I heard voices but it wasn’t clear to me who it was. Why did you do that?’
‘I don’t know. It just seemed….’
Leo took another sip of tea. ‘We have a problem here. We can be sensible about this, Harry, and I hope you will be. Because if you are not, I may have to take action. That would be very unpleasant for both of us, but especially, I fear, for you.’
He cracked the knuckles in his oversized hands.
‘Could I have the key, please?’
‘I saved you,’ said Harry. ‘If the police had seen that key in the door, they would have asked more questions. It would have been difficult to explain it away.’
‘No,’ replied Leo. ‘Don’t labour under the illusion that you helped me. In fact, you rather messed things up. You have ruined my alibi. You see, I wanted the police to find the key. That’s why I didn’t throw it away myself! If you had left the key, the police would have found it and I could have proved, with total conviction, that someone had locked me in the cupboard. As I explained, the door was already locked. Unfortunately, if the police were now to find the key, they would have no way of knowing that. They seem to think that I had locked the door myself and somehow concealed the key, which shows that I could have shot Broome and then climbed into the cupboard and locked it from the inside. Of course, without the key, they had no proof. So I am afraid that I need the key, I really must insist. I need to get rid of it, once and for all.’
‘It’s not here,’ whispered Harry, who was trying to keep calm while inwardly tingling with fear.
‘Where is it, then?’ inquired Leo, moving a little closer.
‘It’s at the bank, Leo, in a safe deposit box. What’s more, at the solicitor’s is an envelope containing a signed statement of what I know and what I suspected at the time. You should be aware that if anything happens to me, it will be given to the police. And then your goose would be cooked.’
Leo stood silently for a few moments, perhaps a little bemused by this old-fashioned expression. He realised that that his young guest’s action had put him in some danger.
‘What do you want, Harry?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ replied Harry. ‘I just want you to know. To know that I know. From now on, you will just have to trust me. Perhaps even take me a little more seriously.’
Leo poured himself another cup of tea.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it looks as though I will.’
The case has yet to be solved. The key still remains in Harry Robson’s safe deposit box. Leo Masters has never dressed up as a clown since the day of the shooting.
The man in the mask is still at large.