Tiny footprints in the gravel led up to the broken window. The burly lover pointed the finger at the dead man’s business rival, a midget.
The world of competitive bonsai growing was often described as cut-throat. But no one expected that its intense rivalries would one day result in murder.
Richard “Rich” Grounds was one of the best in the business. UK Champion in the Formal and Informal styles for five years running, he was also the current UK and European Champion in the Chari Style and a former World Champion in the Literati Style.
As far as other serious bonsai growers were concerned, he was quite simply the man to beat.
In addition, he ran a successful commercial bonsai nursery from the grounds of the home he shared with his business and life partner, David Fox, or “Big Davy” as he was known.
As the nickname suggests, Rich Grounds’ taste in men bore no relation to his taste in trees, or so it must be assumed.
Grounds’ main competitor was a man who embodied in his own physique all the aesthetic virtues of a champion bonsai tree. That is not simply to say that Tom Quixote was small; he was also perfectly formed. He had the matinee idol good looks of a Golden Age Hollywood actor. His body was perfectly proportioned and, always, elegantly turned out. Tom Quixote kept himself in good shape, swimming 40 lengths a day and working out regularly at the gym. He may have been small, but he was buff.
If Tom Quixote could have entered himself into a human bonsai competition, there is every chance he would have walked away with top honours. But he couldn’t. He could, however, put his bonsai trees into competition. And invariably he lost out to none other than Rich Grounds.
At the last show in which they had both competed, Quixote’s frustration had come to a head. Unable to accept that Grounds (who it has to be said was an uncouth and unkempt individual) could possibly be a better bonsai-culturist than he, Quixote had rounded on him at the rosette-bestowing ceremony. (Grounds had picked up the winner’s red rosette, Quixote taking the blue for second place.)
Quixote accused his rival of cheating. Precisely how Grounds was supposed to have cheated, he didn’t make clear. It was obvious he didn’t even believe the charge himself but was simply giving vent to bitter feelings of envy and failure.
According to witnesses, Grounds’ reaction was unexpected. Instead of taking umbrage, he seemed fascinated by his rival’s tirade. His face lit up with wondrous delight as he looked Quixote up and down while being berated by him. At last he clapped his hands together and cried, “He’s like a little bonsai man! So cute! I want to take him home with me!” To Big Davy, he added sourly, “Not like you, you big ugly brute.”
For the next several weeks, all Grounds could talk about was the little bonsai man.
It’s fair to say that he became obsessed by Quixote, to the extent of neglecting his beloved trees. He bombarded Quixote with affectionate emails, requesting meetings and even offering a partnership. Whether that was to be of the business or emotional variety was not made clear.
About this time, a curious and seemingly unrelated incident occurred. Tom Quixote reported to the police that his house had been broken into and burgled. As far as Quixote could tell, all that was taken were a few items of clothing.
The PC who answered the call didn’t even attempt to hide his sniggers. He assured an indignant Quixote that he wasn’t laughing at his diminutive size, which – improbably – he claimed not to have noticed. No, it was the sheer bizarreness of the crime that tickled him. “I mean,” he said, “Who’d want to steal your clothes?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they’re not going to fit everyone, are they?”
“I thought you said you hadn’t noticed my size?”
“I hadn’t. But you pointed it out to me.”
“You were sniggering before I pointed it out.”
“Nobody likes a short arse,” said the PC.
“Don’t you mean a smart arse?”
Needless to say, nothing came of the “investigation”.
And now, three days after that strange, almost meaningless crime, Rich Grounds lay dead.
He had been struck down from behind in his office, which looked out on to the Karesansui-style garden. The gravel was immaculately raked as always, except for a set of diminutive footprints leading up to and away from the French windows. A broken pane suggested this was the point of entry.
DCI Stafford and DS Ringer were on their way back to the station from their last case when they got the call.
“Busy day,” said Ringer.
“It happens,” said Stafford.
The first thing they noticed about Big Davy was his eagerness to pin the blame on Tom Quixote. “That poisoned dwarf,” he said. “He did it.”
“Yes, we’ll pick up this Mr Quixote,” said Stafford, distractedly, as he scrutinised the footprints in the gravel.
“That won’t be hard,” said Big Davy.
A car was sent round to fetch Quixote so that they could get a look at his feet. It turned out they matched the size of the footprints exactly.
Quixote protested his innocence.
DCI Stafford reassured him that he had not yet been accused of anything and asked him to wait in a second Karesansui garden, on the other side of the house.
Big Davy shifted nervously. “Why don’t you arrest him? He killed Rich. Ask anyone. The way he lost it at the Regionals. Mad little bugger.”
“But doesn’t it seem strange that he made no attempt to disguise his footprints?” Stafford asked. “I mean, a man with such little feet could quite easily put on shoes that were too large. Whereas someone like you…” Stafford let the thought trail off.
“Why do you say someone like me?”
“Would you excuse me for a moment? I have to talk to Mr Quixote.”
As it happened, Stafford didn’t want to talk to Quixote, so much as examine the gravel where he had been pacing. He found that although Quixote had left footprints that were the same size as those in the other Karesansui garden, there were three key points of difference. First, Quixote’s stride was longer here than in the other garden; second, the footprints were more widely placed in the other garden; third, the first set of prints were deeper at the heel, as if whoever had left them had the habit of leaning back as they walked.
“He didn’t do it,” was Stafford’s view. “His shoes made those prints, but he wasn’t wearing them.”
“Who was?” asked Ringer.
“I suspect the victim’s partner.”
“Big Davy! He could never squeeze his feet into those shoes!”
“His feet, no. I’ve got a feeling I’ve seen this guy before. Either he’s got form or he was mixed up in one of our earlier cases. Let’s go and talk to him.”
They found Big Davy doing pull-up on a bar across the hallway.
Big Davy dropped to the floor with an acrobatic flourish.
“Any relation to the Flying Foxes, the circus trapeze act?”
“Arno Fox is my brother.”
“Thought you looked familiar. So, brought up in the circus, were you?”
“Might have been.”
“Trained as an acrobat, perhaps?”
“What you getting at?”
“It’s true that you couldn’t get your feet in the shoes that you stole from Mr Quixote’s house. But you weren’t walking on your feet, were you? You were walking on stilts. Stilts to the ends of which you had first attached a pair of Mr Quixote’s shoes. The pressure from the stilts accounts for the fact that the footprints in the gravel are deeper at the heel.”
For a moment, it looked like Big Davy might make a dash for it.
Then his shoulders slumped and tears stood in his eyes. “I couldn’t bear it. All he ever talked about was the little bonsai man. How perfect he was. It got to me, I admit it.” Big Davy held his hands out in front of him, wrists together. “It’s a fair cop, guv.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Detective Sergeant Ringer, as Big Davy was handled into the back of a police car. “To appear as small as Tom Quixote he had to make himself bigger by walking on stilts.”
“Deep that,” said Stafford. “Very deep.”