by Michelle Grahame

Alf Butcher’s dream-woman’s gentle caress turned to violent shaking, and he woke with a start. The Evening Standard slid down the curve of his stomach and the agitated voice of his colleague penetrated his sleep-filled mind.

‘For God’s sake, wake up! You dozy so-and-so. That new wotsit they put in gallery 4 yesterday ’as gone missing!

Alf jerked upright and the paper slithered to the floor. ‘Wotcher mean, missing?’ The worst case scenario swam before his eyes. As senior night security officer, any blame would undoubtedly fall on him. His imminent pension, the promised cruise, his daughter’s wedding – OK – it was her second, so not such a big do, nevertheless, everything he’d planned, down the shenanik in an instant. He gulped. ‘Wotcher mean, missing?’ he repeated.

‘I mean, gone, absent, not there, disappeared, vanished, vamoosed…’ His younger colleague enumerated.

‘All right, all right, Kev, I get the message – no need to swallow the dictionary. Show me.’ Alf trotted along beside his lanky assistant. ‘You’ve got the wrong room, mate, that’ll be it. Even after two years you still get lost in this place—’

‘No I ain’t,’ Kevin replied a little huffily. ‘I noticed special, ’cos of all the hoo-ha about it, an’ that.’

‘There weren’t no alarms went off, was there, Kev?’ Alf asked, trying to keep anxiety out of his voice. Surely he couldn’t’ve slept through that racket.

‘Nah, nuffink like that.’ Kevin unlocked the final door. ‘There,’ he pointed to the far end of the room. On the wall was a bracket that was obviously intended to hold something, but now it didn’t. ‘What’d I tell you, Alf – it’s gone.’

‘Gawd, Kevin, what’re we goin’ to do now?’ Alf began to lose his outward cool – his inner having already taken a hike.

‘You’re the boss, Alf, you tell me.’ Kevin, who usually had a ready answer for everything, and was never above telling his senior colleague what was what, suddenly became all deferential.

‘I know.’ The glimmer of a smile passed across Alf’s face as inspiration struck. ‘We’ll just say it wasn’t there when we come on duty – let the day staff sort it out…’

Kevin gave Alf a pitying look. ‘An’ suppose the CCTV says different – then what? Besides, the Guv will probably want to bring all ‘is friends an’ relations to see it, ’e was that pleased with it.’

‘ow would the likes of you know what ’e thought?’ Alf said a little stiffly. In his opinion junior members of staff knowing what the Governor thought or didn’t think, gave them ideas above their station.

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‘Well, Alf, I was there when it was installed – kind of.’

‘Kind of where?’

‘In the next gallery – after my shift was finished—’

‘Doin’ wot, pray? Admiring the works of art, no doubt, such a connersewer as you are – I should coco.’

Kevin, who blushed easily, shuffled his feet and turned away. ‘Not the artwork exactly – I kinda fancy that new bird on the day staff…. It’s difficult getting to know anyone when you’re on nights, so I thought I’d hang about an’ see if I could chat her up a bit, like — she was on duty in the next room when along comes the Guvnor, followed by a ruddy great trolley, with two blokes from the hanging department, an’ two more suits from upstairs. They all congregates in ’ere and a great confabulation takes place as to where they should put it, until eventually the Guv said it should go there, where everyone could see it.’ Kevin pointed to the empty bracket. ‘An’ of course once he’d decided, that was it. The two blokes from “hangin” had to fix the bracket just right. There was a lot of ‘up a bit, down a bit’, afore ’e was satisfied that everyone could see it proper – and read the label. ’e walks all round the room admiring it from every angle. Kevin put on a posh voice. “A masterpiece of contemporary desig n,” ’e called it. E ain’t ’arf goin’ to be upset if it’s been nicked.’

There it was – the word Alf dreaded most, but falling apart in front of his subordinate would never do. The steel, which twelve years in the army had put into Alf’s backbone, although a little rusty by now, was still there. He pulled himself up to his full height of 5’ 6’’. ‘Now, now, my lad – no need to talk like that until we see what’s what.’ To give himself time to decide what was indeed what, he added, ‘Back you go to the office, young Kevin, and check the CCTV tapes. I’ll look in the other galleries, we’ve still got an hour before the day shift comes on.’

Alf searched diligently throughout the building, but nothing else was missing, no doors or alarms had been tampered with – no windows broken or unlatched. He went back and stared at the empty bracket, then gave it a good shake, but it was clear that the hanging department had done a good job – it remained firmly attached to the wall, but he did notice a little pile of plaster dust on the floor. What was it the Governor had called it? “A masterpiece of something or other design.” Certainly the room was full of other examples, hung on the walls, dotted about the floor or standing on plinths, not one of which, in his opinion, was worth stealing. He flicked one with his finger as he left, and its metal responded with an echoing doinggggg.

Alf found Kevin gloomily reviewing the night’s tapes on the screen. The system was old, with only two monitors one of which was always on the blink. ‘See anything, Kev?’

‘Nah, but that don’t mean much – I saw that rat in gallery 3 again. Maintenance still ain’t done nothing about it, but then they don’t do much about anything, just come up with a bucket an’ mop if the roof leaks, or—’ Kevin broke off in mid-sentence. ‘Hey, Alf, quick, look at this!’ He pointed to the other monitor. Alf could just make out a shadowy figure, with a bulky shape clasped under one arm, before the image hissed into a snow storm.

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‘Did you catch which camera that was on?’

‘Yeah, just. Could be gallery 4.’

Alf suddenly saw himself go from zero to hero. He grabbed his communicator off the table. ‘Now then, lad, time for action. You watch the screens. I’ll go down and see what’s what.’ At least he now knew what was what. ‘The moment I say, press the red button—’

‘The red button, Alf – you sure?’

‘Yes of course, the red button.’ Alf was already halfway through the door. ‘You follow my orders exactly, see.’ With an outward show of calm, but with rapidly ebbing confidence, Alf hurried through the galleries. In the dim blue light that illuminated the rooms by night he could see a figure crouched near the corner of Gallery 4. He took a deep breath and launched himself at it, at the same time shouting into his mic, ‘Now!’ Simultaneously every light in the building came on and an ear-splitting siren penetrated every corner, above which Alf’s ‘Gotcher, you bastard!’ was barely audible.

The villain struggling in Alf’s arms let out a string of expletives and dropped what he was holding, which landed on the floor with a thump. ‘What the bloody hell d’you think you’re doing, Alf Butcher…’

‘Oh my Gawd! Barry! What the bloody hell are you doing?’ Alf let go of his captive.

‘Get someone to shut that flaming row off, Alf, an’ I’ll tell you.’

‘Turn the alarm off now, Kevin.’ Alf shouted into his mic. ‘It’s Barry from maintenance.’ Then he remembered that the police would have been automatically alerted, ’an’ phone the cops to say it’s a false alarm before…’ But it was already too late. He could hear the wail of sirens and blues and twos approaching from all sides. Alf pulled down his rumpled uniform blouson and said in a stern tone. ‘Now then, Barry, p’raps you’d better explain what maintenance is doing in the gallery at this hour, creeping about all suspicious. An’ carryin’ that.’ He pointed to the blanket-covered article which had rolled a few feet away.

‘Now just one flipping minute, Alf, no need to take that tone with me. I said in my note what I was going to do…’

‘What note? I didn’t get no note.’

‘You was sleeping like a baby, apart from the snores, that is, when I called in – Kevin was on his rounds, so I stuck the note on your newspaper, where you was bound to find it.’

‘Well I didn’t, so what did it say?’

’That I ’ad permission to come in at night to trap that rat you’ve been on about, an’ when I got to gallery 4 that thing was hanging half off the wall. Dodgy bit of plasterwork there. Well, I couldn’t ’ardly leave it to fall down now, could I? God knows what damage that might do. So I took it down to the workshop to check if all its fittings was OK, then I put the bracket up, proper like. I just come back to re-hang the thing when you jumps on me an’ all hell breaks loose….’

Through the windows Alf could see the flashing blue lights of assembling police vehicles; time was running out. ‘Well, I’d better put it back where it belongs. He handed his colleague the blanket, ‘Now, you scuttle off to maintenance and say nothing about this. It never happened. Capisch? I’ll deal with the cops. After all nothing’s missing, and when they ask about the alarm I’ll say the rat must’ve set it off. They can’t argue with that, can they? It’s in the reports.’ Alf grinned, knowing his pension and his future plans were safe. He spread the little pile of plaster dust with his toe, and after carefully reinstalling the ‘masterpiece of contemporary design’ – or fire extinguisher, as most normal people would describe it, he gave it a final pat and, head held high, marched off to face the law.

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© Michelle Grahame, 2013