When the police recovered 100 incomplete packs of playing cards from his house, they knew they had their man.
DCI Stafford liked to reminisce about the old days. The days before DNA tests and psychological profiling. The days when PC was just a rank in the police and nothing to do with minding your Ps and Qs with the birds.
He called them “the bad old days”, but there was a catch in his voice that suggested he regretted their passing. But maybe that was more to do with getting old than any true longing for a return to that particular time. Your past was the only past you had. As your future shrank, it was natural to look back on days gone by with a certain wistful wonder, no matter how awful those days had been to live through. And then, of course, there were the friends lost along the way.
“We might not have always got it right in the bad old days, but we didn’t always get it wrong either,” he had the habit of telling DS Ringer.
Nine times out of ten, Ringer would roll his eyes and zone out. But every tenth time, Stafford would say something that would make his younger colleague sit up and listen.
Like the time he said: “Take the Birmingham Six.”
Ringer spat lager. They were in the saloon bar of their local, The Coopers’ Hoops. Some wag had defaced the pub sign, painting a tail on the second O of Coopers’ and scratching out the first O of Hoops, so that it now read The Coppers’ H ops, which could be read as the local force’s claim on the beer sold within. “Are you saying that the police got it right in the case of the Birmingham Six?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. But what would you know about it? You’re too young to remember. You weren’t even born.”
“I know that they were acquitted on appeal. The confessions were attained under duress and the forensic case against them was a shambles. But that was the way things were done back then.”
“Mistakes were made, it’s true.”
“Anyhow, you never told me you worked the Birmingham Six case.”
“I didn’t. I worked a case that you could say was the opposite of the Birmingham Six. The Clerkenwell One, you could call it. In that there was only one suspect and he lived in Clerkenwell.”
“You don’t say. Go on then. You have my attention.”
“The Clerkenwell One was a failed stage magician by the name of Mr Stupendo. Weirdly enough, it was his real name, sort of. Stuart Philip Endo was his full name, shortened to Stu P. Endo, or Stupendo. He was responsible for planting a number of bombs at conjuring-related sites. The first was at the headquarters of the Magic Circle, which had recently expelled Endo for his erratic and violent behaviour. He had issued death threats against a number of the society’s officers, the President and members of the Inner Circle, after he had become involved in a brawl with another member. Endo accused this illusionist, a certain Mr Astounding – not his real name – of stealing some of Endo’s tricks and claiming them as his own. The Magic Circle had taken the side of Endo’s rival.
“The other bombs were planted at the homes of the men Endo had threatened, and at that of his rival. Fortunately, no one was killed, though there was damage to property and minor injuries.
“It became clear talking to the victims that Endo was our man. He had a grievance and was obviously a few cards short of a full pack. In fact, that turned out to be the evidence that incriminated him. The bombs were home-made devices, lengths of piping stuffed with some kind of nitrocellulose-rich wadding. He disguised himself and posed as an emergency plumber and inserted the pipes within the various heating systems at his target locations. When the pipes got hot, the nitrocellulose exploded.”
“Hang on a second,” interrupted Ringer. “What’s all this got to do with the Birmingham Six?”
“Well, if you know anything about the Birmingham Six you’ll know that a lot hinged on the test that was used to determine whether they had handled explosives. It was shown that the same positive result could have come from shuffling playing cards. Certain brands of playing cards at the time used nitrocellulose in their production. Perhaps the Clerkenwell One had been inspired by this, or perhaps by the case of William Kogut, the Death Row inmate who committed suicide by blowing himself up with a bomb made from red playing cards. It’s the red ink, apparently, that contains the explosive ingredient. Whatever gave him the idea, the symbolism of the weapon undoubtedly appealed to him. It was almost like he was saying to his victims, ‘Pick a card. Any card.’
“We got a warrant, searched his gaff, and found one hundred newly opened packs of playing cards, from which all the red suits had been removed. Samples of the wadding from the pipe bombs used in the attacks was analysed and found to be formed from playing cards that had been soaked in water and compacted. The cards from the bombs matched the brand of cards found in Endo’s flat.”
“Very clever, but it doesn’t quite prove that things were better in the old days. We could have got the same result today.”
“Except we needed a confession and Endo refused to oblige, until a couple of the lads leaned on him.”
“Nice.” Ringer shook his head disapprovingly. “Beat it out of him, did they?”
“Not at all. They were more subtle than that. They just took a large casserole pot into the interview room.”
Ringer’s brow creased.
“We didn’t need to say anything. It all came out after that.” Stafford downed the rest of his pint, smiling to himself as he enjoyed Ringer’s confusion. He looked up at the menu chalked on the board over the bar. “I see rabbit is dish of the day today as well.”