My Australian girlfriend Shirley took a luscious lick of her ice-cream and said: “Why is that man wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year?”
Shirley flicked her gaze towards the man sitting three tables away. We were on the terrace of the Black Rock café, looking out over Brighton beach. The sun was shining from a sky as blue as Max Miller’s jokes. It was August 1963 and a long hot summer was drawing to a close.
I resisted the temptation to swivel my head and stare. In my line of work, it’s not wise to show too much interest in the wrong sort of people. I’m Colin Crampton, crime correspondent on the Evening Chronicle. The kind of characters I peek at on the sly would give you a punch on the snout if they caught you gawping.
And that’s just the cops.
So without moving my head, I swivelled my eyeballs left until they felt they were about to fall out of their sockets. I squinted at the bloke through a grey mist.
I said: “One thing’s for sure. He’s not come for a fun day by the seaside.”
I shifted my chair a little so that I could eyeball the mystery man more discreetly. He was a thin wiry bloke who looked like he hadn’t spent his forty-odd years on earth wisely. He had a swarthy complexion, a small scar above his upper lip, and a penumbra of five-o’clock shadow around his jaw. Central casting wouldn’t have thought twice about handing him a role as one of the black hats in a spaghetti western.
He was wearing a grey three-piece suit which would have been perfect for Sunday morning church or a meeting with his bank manager. On Brighton beach he looked out of place – like a smile on a traffic warden’s face.
A small fawn attaché case lay on the table in front of him. Beside the case was a thick white envelope. His gloved fingers drummed impatiently on the case. His flinty eyes glowered at the envelope and then surveyed the bustling activity around him.
The café throbbed with life as more people arrived. They’d come from a train that had just pulled into Black Rock station on the Volk’s Railway, a few yards from the café.
The fresh crowd irritated Glove Man. He glanced anxiously around.
At the table behind him, a spotty boy, watched by a stern-faced nanny, dug his spoon deep into a giant knickerbocker glory. To his right, a pensioner couple smeared strawberry jam on their buttered scones. To his left, a pair of young lovers took turns to snap pictures of one another with a fancy camera.
A perky waitress in black skirt and white pinafore swung her hips as she weaved between the tables.
Glove Man glared at her as she wiggled by.
Shirley slurped her ice-cream cone. “I bet those gloves set him back a few saucepan lids,” she said.
I grinned. “Could be as much as a Lady Godiva.”
I focused in on the gloves while Shirley sucked her chocolate flake. It stuck out of the ice-cream like a telegraph pole in a swamp.
The mystery man’s gloves were as different from the mitts I wore when I drove my MGB on a cold day as a beach pebble from the Kohinoor diamond. They’d been tailored from some fancy brown leather. Probably by some ancient craftsman with white hair and hunched shoulders who agonised over every stitch. They fitted Glove Man’s hands like a second skin. He could have sat at the upright Joanna in my mum’s old parlour and tinkled Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto note perfect without taking them off.
And then knocked out My Old Man’s a Dustman as an encore.
I switched my attention back to Shirley. A summer tan had gently bronzed her perfect skin. The fringes of her blonde hair ruffled in a gentle breeze. She was wearing a stylish pair of Gucci shades which made her look like a film star. Perhaps dodging the paparazzi at the Cannes film festival. Or sneaking into Cinecittà in Rome to act in a new Visconti movie. She was wearing a lemon yellow dress that seemed to have given up any hope of covering her legs shortly after it had left her bum.
Not that I’m complaining.
I’d been dating Shirley since last summer when she’d pitched up in Brighton. She was working her way around the world and had found a job in a seafront café to earn the money for the next leg of her trip. She was still putting money by, but I hoped it would be a long time before she bought her next ticket.
Shirley crunched on the last of the ice-cream cone and said: “Perhaps old Glove Man is on his way to a business meeting.”
“That explains the suit and attaché case but not the gloves,” I said.
“Perhaps the guy’s got sensitive hands.”
“So why’s he drumming his fingers on the case like he wants to beat a hole in it?”
“He’s impatient. He’s waiting for someone.”
“I don’t think so. The person he came to meet has already left.”
“How do you know that, clever clogs?”
“Because whoever it was left him the envelope. They would have been and gone before we arrived. If he were waiting to meet someone and give them the envelope he’d keep it in the case.”
“Why the impatience?”
“He wants to put the envelope in the case. But he doesn’t want to open the case with everyone around – some nosey-parker might see what’s inside.”
“So what’s inside?”
“It must be something a casual passer-by would immediately recognise as important at a glance. Perhaps something suspicious.”
Shirley’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You can’t know that.”
“True. I don’t know it for certain. But he keeps looking at the case and the people moving around him. He’s choosing his moment when he can sneak the envelope in the case with no risk of anyone peeking inside.”
“We’ll never know,” Shirley said.
She leaned forward and kissed me. Her lips tasted of ice-cream. Vanilla. Personally, I prefer chocolate. But when ice-cream comes served on Shirl’s lips I’m prepared to compromise. Her lips felt cold and hot at the same time. I tried to figure out which I liked best. Decided it depended on what I was going to do next. And as we were sitting in the middle of a crowded café the options were limited.
I wrenched my mind back to Glove Man and said: “When he leaves, why don’t we follow him?”
Shirley’s eyebrows arched over the top of her sunglasses like the loops of the Loch Ness monster breaking the surface. “Nuts,” she said. “We can’t follow an innocent man.”
“We don’t know that he’s innocent.”
“Listen up, whacker. I believe a man is innocent until he’s proven guilty.”
“We’re not pointing the finger of guilt at the bloke. We just want to find out why his fingers are in those fancy gloves while the temperature is over eighty.”
“There could be a story in it.”
“Man in glove sensation! Give me a break.”
“I’ve known big stories begin from more trivial beginnings. Besides, you’re the one who wanted to know why he’s wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year.”
“And I guess we’ll never know.”
I grinned. “Perhaps not.”
Perhaps Glove Man was as innocent as a baby sleeping in a crib. But I’ve got a reporter’s mind. Suspicious.
And I could think of at least one guilty reason for wearing gloves on a sweltering day.
Murder in the Morning Edition, Book 1 in the Morning, Noon & Night trilogy, is published in July 2017.
It is available on Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iBooks