When you’re the new reporter in town, it’s a lonely place to be.
I remember it well. I’d just joined the Brighton Evening Chronicle from a weekly newspaper as crime correspondent. My news editor Frank Figgis expected me to land exclusive crime stories. But I knew no-one.
What made it tougher for me was that the crime reporter on the Evening Argus, Jim Houghton, was an old pro who’d been in the town for years. He was a shambling bloke with a lank of greasy hair which fell across his face when he got angry. He wore an old grey suit which looked as though it had become a habitat for wild life. But he was a sharp journalist. And because he’d been around for so long, he had all the contacts. Especially among senior police officers who were not averse to giving him a tip-off when a big story was about to break.
I desperately needed my own tame contact at the cop shop. But it wasn’t going to be easy to find one as Jim seemed to have the place sewn up as tight as a tenor’s trousers.
And then a curious sequence of events enabled me to meet Detective Inspector Edward Wilson – Ted to everyone at the cop shop. He’s sitting next to me now in Prinny’s Pleasure, a kind of drinkers’ doss-house which passes itself off as a pub.
So, as it’s my round, I’ll get the drinks in while Ted takes up the story.
As Colin has mentioned, I’m Ted Wilson. Colin’s sloped off to the bar to get me a scotch. We have this running joke where he asks me whether I’d like anything with it and I say: “Another scotch.” Well, I guess it loses its novelty after a couple of years.
Anyway, I first ran into Colin Crampton when I was trying to collar a notorious drug dealer in town. He was an Italian guy called Marco Petrocelli and he ran an ice-cream parlour just off Brighton seafront. Great Italian ice-cream, too. I never minded sticking my snout into a cone-full.
But, as I say, that’s when I first ran into Colin. And when I say ran into, I mean right into.
I’d just stepped out of the place after interrogating Petrocelli. He’d been in town for a couple of years. He’d moved south from Glasgow where the rumour-mill had it he’d been involved in the ice-cream van wars. Vans tooled up like armoured cars staked out their territory. And woe betides any rival who ventured onto their turf. I’d heard that Petrocelli was a tough operator but that the war of the Whippys was becoming too hot even for him.
Petrocelli abandoned the mobile van business when he moved south and set himself up in smart premises. But I believed he hadn’t abandoned his criminal nature. I was convinced he was peddling pills to teenagers who bought his ices. But I couldn’t prove it. We’d stopped youngsters coming out with their ice-cream cones and searched them, but never found anything more potent than an aspirin.
So I have to admit that I stormed out of the place feeling like giving the giant plastic ice-cream cone, which Petrocelli kept on the pavement outside, a good kicking.
I climbed into my car feeling angry, pulled away from the kerb, and hit Crampton. He’d just stepped off the pavement, his nose stuck in the Evening Chronicle night final.
I guess I was distracted by the case. Things hadn’t been going well at the police station either. I hadn’t felt a decent collar for weeks. In those days, I had to deal with all kinds of low life. Chancers on the make. Scumbags who would stab you in the back as soon as look at you.
And it was just as bad outside the police station.
I tell you, it wasn’t easy being an honest cop in Brighton in those days.
So there I was, with no case against Petrocelli and now a body on the street in front of my motor. Of course, I got out, picked him up, dusted him down and asked if he had a pain anywhere.
He was leaning on the side of my car but he looked all right to me.
He said: “You’re a cop.”
I said: “How do you know?”
“There are three old copies of the Police Gazette on the back seat. Anyone might have one copy, but only a cop would have three.”
“You some kind of detective, too?”
“No. But why were you in Petrocelli’s? You haven’t come out with an ice-cream.”
“I’ve been investigating reports of drug dealing at the place.”
Well, I certainly shouldn’t have said that. Normally wouldn’t. But the combination of frustration at not being able to nail Petrocelli and the risk that Crampton would report me for driving without due care and attention had loosened my tongue.
Crampton grinned. “I guess to nail an ice-cream seller you need to catch them cold.”
Naturally I laughed. I had to. I was still hoping he wouldn’t take the accident any further.
Crampton pointed to the board outside the shop and said: “Which of those flavours would you go for normally?”
I took a look down the list. Petrocelli offered twenty flavours and said: “Chocolate chip.”
Crampton walked over and took a closer look at the board. A couple of cocky youngsters came out of the place licking giant raspberry ripples.
I ignored them and said to Crampton: “You seem alright to me but does anything hurt?”
He lifted his left leg up and down. Put it to the ground a couple of times. Decided that his foot hurt. So I agreed to run him to the Royal Sussex County Hospital for an X-ray.
We climbed into the car and set off. On the way there, Crampton said he’d heard the rumours that there’d been drug dealing from the place. He asked me – all casual and conversational like – whether I’d made any progress in the case.
To keep the talk away from the accident, I told him. “Not much progress,” I said.
When we reached the Royal Sussex, Crampton climbed out of the car and walked around a bit. He decided the foot was feeling better and he didn’t need an X-ray. He jumped back into the passenger seat and said: “Run me back to Petrocelli’s and I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
I was about to say “I’m not a free taxi”, but then I thought again about the accident, so it might be better to do as he suggested.
When we got back into town, he asked me to park out of sight just around the corner from Petrocelli’s. He jumped out of the car and disappeared. Five minutes later he was back with a giant raspberry ripple in a cone.
He shoved it at me and said: “Break the bottom off the cone.”
I did. There was a little pink pill nestling in it.
“It came to me as we were driving to the hospital,” he said. “There were several kids with raspberry ripples – but that’s the one ice Petrocelli doesn’t advertise on the board outside his parlour. Had to be the way he was passing the pills. If you were in the know, you asked for the ripple and got the pill in the cone. Impossible for the cops to search when the kids came out of the parlour.”
I looked at him with some astonishment, but he didn’t seem surprised by the turn of events.
“You’ve got a collar. I’ve got a story. Everyone’s happy. Except Petrocelli,” he said.
I said: “What do you mean – you’ve got a story?”
“Didn’t I mention I’m a journalist? How very careful of me. I’m the new crime correspondent of the Evening Chronicle.”
“So you’ll only be writing about Petrocelli?” I asked warily. “Not about any minor traffic accidents that may have happened?”
“I think that bump will be filed away in my notebook and soon forgotten. But how about we celebrate the fact I’m not injured with a drink later?”
I was cautious. I said: “I can’t be seen talking off the record with a journalist.”
“I know just the place,” he said. “Prinny’s Pleasure. It’s a pub in the North Laine part of town which is so grim nobody goes there.”
I nodded. I’d heard of the place. And so we met there later that evening after I’d booked Petrocelli into the cells at the police station.
And it’s where Colin has just put a fresh scotch in front of me. But I must drink up and go – I’m expected back at the station. As the song writer put it: “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”
Well, Ted has now gone, and this is Colin speaking again.
I’m pleased he’s not around because it means I can tell you about something which happened around the time of the Petrocelli incident.
Two days before Ted knocked me down in the street, I’d been covering a fraud trial at Lewes Assizes. A con-man was accused of extorting money from motorists using a trick known as “the flop”. He’d eye up a likely driver – usually a woman or elderly person – then wait by their parked car until they were about to pull out into the traffic. Then he’d step in front of the car before it had picked up speed. He’d flop onto the car’s bonnet, then when it had stopped, slide to the ground. According to evidence in court, the manoeuvre was generally safe providing the car wasn’t travelling too fast.
But the driver would be shocked. The con-man would pretend to be injured but agree not to inform the police or pursue an insurance claim as long as the driver handed over cash. In court, we heard how this particular con-man had tricked nine drivers. He was found guilty and sent to prison for five years.
I’ve always thought it a strange coincidence that I’d covered that case just before Ted knocked me down.