Michael Fitzalan copy

No 12 The Clapham Common Caper

Chapter One, The Man, Mars the Bringer of War

“Are you coming in?” asked the handsome, young man as the heavy main door of No 1, Wetherby Gardens, swung open.

He was always willing to help a beautiful blonde woman, well-dressed and her hair coiffured exquisitely. If he had not been running five minutes late to meet friends for supper, he might have stayed to flirt with her, perhaps, but he was going to meet a young girl who was new to the group.

It was only down the road at the Hereford Arms, pre-dinner drinks, but he could not afford to be too late, making a good impression was normally a guarantee of a later date.

‘A brunette in the hand was worth a blonde on the steps,’ he mused.

Jo had been studying the buzzers for each flat. She smiled, her disarming smile, acknowledging his gallantry and good looks. He was fair-haired and handsome, perhaps a Guardsman, tall, elegant and thin, dressed in a light grey, single-breasted, suit, Jo reckoned it was from Gieves and Hawkes with a red and blue striped tie and white shirt hid behind a navy blue cashmere jumper.

“Yes, please, I’m visiting the top flat, worse luck,” she explained, giving him eye contact, hoping he would believe her.

“Be my guest,” he announced, stepping backwards and drawing the door open.

He gave her an appreciative smile as she was very good looking, stunning in fact, and the camel skirt and jacket ensemble looked reassuringly expensive. She was a bit older than his usual type but definitely attractive. With the endearing hopefulness of youth, he thought he might well see her again.

Perhaps, he conjectured, he might get to know her better if things did not work out with the girl at the pub. At his age, life was full of infinite possibilities.
“Thank you,” she replied, slipping past him with ease, a rush of joy ran through her, she could not believe her good fortune. A closed gate had swung open.

As Jo started to shuffle up the carpeted staircase, she heard the door slam shut behind him, which meant she could increase her pace. There was no longer any need for pretence. She wondered why Jenny Strong should buy the top floor flat, it was not for the views; the other stucco apartment buildings blocked any vista of the capital. The brass runners and wine red carpet became a blur as she bounded up the four flights. There was no room for a lift in the stairwell.

Jenny had good legs and Jo could see why if she was trundling up and down these stairs every day.

Grabbing the bannister, she hauled herself up, taking two steps at a time. Jo was tall and athletic, which stood her in good stead for the climb.

She had no idea how she would get into Jenny’s apartment or what she would find there. All she knew was that Jenny Strong had secrets hidden in there. Her train was at this moment hurtling towards King’s Cross St Pancras. Jo had very little time to search the flat for answers. She had to act fast.

For some strange reason, she thought of her brother at the monastery in Nunraw. Thoughts of stations triggered memories. It was from St. Pancras Station that Father Stephen had left to join the silent Cistercian order at Sancta Maria Abbey.

It was a fleeting thought.

Silence was also required at Wetherby Gardens; she did not want to alert the neighbours to her presence. Jo rested half way up the stairs; already she was glowing, her heart thumping in her chest. Cigarette smoking had shrunk her lung capacity so she was panting. She was tall, a size ten, statuesque but she was not used to exercise. Then she ‘caught her breath’.

She simply had to give up smoking, she told herself.

Taking a deep breath, she walked up the two remaining floors to the flat. At the top, she rested. Her heart rate was returning to normal but adrenaline kept her pulse rate racing. She wanted to remain calm and she tried her best to quell her panting.

Discipline was needed.

Pulling herself together on the landing at the top of the stairs, she looked down. It was a very, very long way down. Wondering how she might pick the lock, she suddenly thought that the neighbour might have a spare key. Just as she was turning to ask, she noticed the door was ever so slightly ajar; it was not flush with the wall. Not only that, but the lock looked like it had been forced open.

‘Burglars,’ she immediately thought.

There were scars on the white gloss paintwork, which she might have dismissed as carelessness with keys, if the door had been closed. Her heart stopped. This was a complication she had not foreseen.

Hesitating, only briefly, Jo determined to approach them with her charm. There was no going back, she had to be brave, she decided. Perhaps, a woman might be able to talk her way out of a situation.

Hopefully, her Irish charm would help to diffuse any charged atmosphere she might encounter.

On second thoughts, it would perhaps be better to call the police and let them deal with it. There were already two detectives in hospital, she remembered so she dismissed the idea. Leaving it up to the police might complicate things; the burglar might get away before they arrived. It was time for action, ‘time and tide, wait for no man,’ she intoned in her head. There was no choice; she had to go in alone. Jenny would be home soon. Jo steeled herself to open the door.

Not for the first time, in this caper, she was unaware of what lay behind the door.

One thing she did know; she had to find out who was there, how they got in and what they were doing there in the first place. It was clearly not Jenny. Why would anyone break into her flat?

Her heart hammering, she pushed the door open, conscious that she should do it slowly and gently so the hinges did not creak, she stepped through the doorway and only half closed the door behind her, making sure the door would not blow shut and give her away.

She had been expecting to be greeted by a large room overlooking the street.

Instead, she was confronted by a blank wall and, to her right, yet another staircase leading up from this second landing.

Inwardly sighing, she tiptoed up the stairs. As Jo emerged out of the stairwell, she froze. Her head was only just visible above the last step but she could see that the burglar had drawn the heavy claret drapes and he had turned on all the lights and lamps in the room.

Her heart was pounding now, she felt sick, she had come so far and now there was yet another obstacle. She realised she had no choice but to go on.

It was definitely a man, big, broad and fighting fit.

Her luck, it seemed, had changed. Fortune’s fickle wheel had turned full circle. He had removed his gloves and his head was bowed as he shuffled some papers, skimming each leaf as he searched for something. His hands worked frantically through the piles of letters. Clapham

Next to his pigskin gloves, was a heavy handled commando knife, which Jo immediately realised was not for letter opening.

It had a blackened steel blade and a ribbed handle. It was about a foot long, the blade being six inches. The sight of it made Jo’s heart stop. Opening another draw, he took out another pile of papers and scanned each of those.

The burglar was wearing a balaclava, not one of those open faced woollen ones that everyone used to wear to keep warm in winter, but a menacing black mask with two holes for the eyes and a slit for the mouth.

Jo wished she had been dressed for flying; her camel Pierre Balmain skirt-suit was not ideal for fight or flight.

She noticed her green silk blouse was clinging to her skin. If there had been time, she would have taken off her jacket, and it would restrict her movement, being pursued down the stairs with that drop worried her and she wanted to keep cool physically as well as mentally. Clapham

She drank in the situation.

On the desk there were piles of papers a green shaded desk lamp burning brightly and a black Bakelite telephone. The phone might be of use, the lamp might make a weapon, or the paper might offer a distraction if she showered him in it, she might be able to escape or maybe she could pretend that she could find the document for him.

Thoughts flooded her head.

It was as if he smelt her approach, despite her soft tread on the carpeted stairs, he sensed her presence. There was no escape at that stage. Jo continued up the stairs. The burglar appraised her as she entered the large drawing room. They were matched in height, he was six foot; Jo was tall, too, five foot nine. Clapham

She was strong and her fencing gave her agility and stamina but she doubted that she could match him in strength, not with his bulging muscles and boxer’s pose.

Being on the fifth floor of number one Wetherby Gardens meant the window could not provide escape. She could bolt down the stairs but he would follow, hurling himself on top her, she did not doubt that for a second. Even worse, he could bundle her over the bannisters and she would not survive the plunge to the bottom.
He put down the papers.

Jo was ready for a fight.

She had two brothers; she had fought with them enough times, physically and mentally. The knife was a worry. At first, Jo thought he was reaching for the black leather gloves. Then, she saw his left hand grasp the black, ribbed, handle of a knife. Suddenly, the odds were not so even. Clapham

She flicked, her long blonde hair away from her face, trying to see what colour her assailant’s eyes were, trying to see if she recognised them.

They stared at her, ice blue like her own, but his burned with anger while hers darted left and right, desperately searching the room for something with which she could defend herself. A knife-wielding thug threatened her on the other side of the desktop.

Talking was no longer an option, yet that was her forte. He wanted her out of the way and she wanted to have answers.

Their eyes locked over the sea of the desk for a full minute. He had the power and he also had the strength.  Clapham

Perhaps, he was a former soldier or a physical training instructor.

He was all muscle. That was clear. We all knew that he could crush her easily with his strength. There had to be a way for her to save the situation, she reasoned. She was right; he was might. She had to prevail.

“One of the Tweed twins?” she announced from the relative safety of the other side of the room. “Breaking and entering is hardly your forte, I thought that was extortion and murder.”

He was surprised to hear her posh voice, cut glass Kensington. Clapham

“Doctor Nora Josephine Murphy, I presume,” the man hissed, his lips curled into a grotesque smile behind the mask.

“My friends call me Jo but you can call me Doctor Murphy,” she replied dryly, taking a step towards the desk.

The mouth became a pair of pouting lips twisting into a bigger smile, he was finding all this entertaining. Jo was just another problem that he had to solve.

He had been successful so far that night.

She heard a snort. Jo knew he was evaluating the situation, deciding when to pounce. It was like being in the room with a cobra. Clapham

“I don’t see any of your friends here, I dealt with Regan outside and you sent Stephens to take him to hospital. How did you get in here anyway?” he drawled in his south London accent, his eyes never leaving her face.

Jo smiled knowingly, provoking him.

“I recognise the voice and you’re left handed, Derek Tweed, I assume.” Jo asserted proudly, moving a step towards him, playing grandmother’s footsteps. Then, she had only met Tweed once before but she had managed to pierce his disguise.

“You should have stuck to doctoring love,” he advised; the mouth forming itself into a dismissive smile that showed his teeth, “no one asked you to stick your nose in.” Clapham

“Doctoring those files seems to be your purpose.

What are you doing, destroying evidence?” she asked, taking another pace closer to the desk.
“Mind your own business,” he warned, the mouth was, now, a sneer.

“Jenny wanted some incriminating information destroyed before we could get a warrant and so she sent for her tame assassin,” she goaded him, moving yet another step towards the desk that she hoped would form a protective barrier against her attacker.

“That’s my twin,” he explained.

“I’m not falling for that one. I just clear up after him, normally,” he said and, then, paused, “but this time I’m prepared to make an exception, on medical grounds.” Clapham

“Oh really, what medical grounds are they?”

“I don’t like doctors who think they are detectives.”

He lifted up the receiver. Then, Jo thought he was going to call someone for instructions and was about to tease him about that fact and his inability to make up his own mind, but he smashed the receiver down on the desk.

The earpiece split, the cover flew into the air, landing on the floor, and a silver disk fell out like a dislocated eye, the internal receiver, hanging from coloured electrical wires. He tore it off.

Again, the Bakelite cracked, splitting open like a walnut, the microphone cover flew off, joining its double on the floor. Tweed tore that grey disk from the electrical flex. Again, he stared at her with his cold blue eyes. Again, Jo stared back at him. Clapham

She hoped that his anger would be his Achilles heel.


A well respected author

Michael Fitzalan was born in Clapham, South London where his mother had established a doctor’s surgery in a house which she filled with children.

With three sisters, two brothers and a library full of books, a love of literature was imbued in him from an early age.

Michael Fitzalan comes from Irish parents were doctors and they settled on the West Side of Clapham Common and had six children in quick succession.

A story by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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