Ursula Flynne’s Terrible Sin
This story is taken from a compilation titled, Jacqueline & Other Stories.
The trouble with Tom Blackman was he had been breaking rules all his life. Even after joining the police force nothing changed. He listened but did whatever he pleased. Several formal warnings about going out on investigations alone didn’t stop him. He was still alive to talk about it and that was all that mattered. So, when his partner called in sick, and the case of Graham Everton landed on his desk, he took a chance and went out to investigate, alone.
Graham Everton’s family hadn’t heard from him for a week. None of his bank accounts had been touched and the work van he used was still parked in front of the house where he was last seen. It was almost as if he had disappeared off the face of the earth.
The neighbourhood was decent and the home owner was some old lady, so Tom didn’t feel at all intimidated. As he walked along the path towards the address, his imagination conjured the old people smell he knew that he was about to encounter. It was a given, especially with cottage like this one. What was it with old ladies and lavender? The cottage seemed too commonplace. It took him back twenty years to his gran’s. The same white picket fence and the same bloody flowers. He checked out the van that was still parked on the street. It matched the description alright.
Tom opened the gate and closed it behind him. The scent of the roses wafted in the air and the lavender that grew out over the pathway brushed against the blue trousers of the uniform he wore. A police officer for almost three years, he was ready to move up the ladder and if he could locate this missing guy, a promotion would be in the bag.
Taking one last deep breath of the cool fresh air, he pressed a white button embedded in the wall of the veranda and a faint chime similar to Big Ben sounded inside the house. Tom tapped his foot impatiently and wondered what was keeping the old biddy. After what seemed like hours, the door opened just a fraction and he could see a metal security chain and the white hair of the occupant.
“Who is it?” asked a voice with a soft warm grandma tone.
“I’m police officer Tom Blackman Mrs. Flynne, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about the van that’s parked in front of your house. I can show you my badge,” he said, flashing the police badge in the small opening.
The door closed, and Tom could hear the elderly hands fumbling with the chain after which the door reopened slowly to reveal the elderly woman who owned the voice. She instantly reminded Tom of his gran and he smiled at her kindly.
“Would you like to come in?” she asked and beckoned with a trembling hand for him to enter the house.
Tom stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him. Instantly the smell of freshly baked biscuits filled his nostrils and he inhaled deeply.
“Follow me,” she instructed and slowly she hobbled into a room just off the hallway.
If Tom had been asked to imagine the living room, he could have done so easily. The floral wallpaper, the white ceiling, the crystal light fitting, the furniture with strategically placed doilies, the round mat in the center of the room, the old-fashioned fireplace, and the lacey curtains which crisscrossed and were fastened at the side of the window frame with frilly tiebacks. Some of the small china vases and figurines were the same as those in his gran’s house. It was typical of the woman’s era.
“If you would like to sit down, I’ll go and make us a nice cup of tea, and then I’ll show you my birds.”
The bird thing had him puzzled. He needed information on the missing man, not birds. But Tom knew better than to argue. If the old woman was anything like his grey-haired gran, she would insist. He sat on the sofa without hesitation and hoped the tea would be accompanied with some of those delicious smelling biscuits.
Ursula Flynne came hobbling back into the room and the silence was eerie. A strange atmosphere lurked, and the only sound Tom could hear was the solid tick of a small gold carriage clock on the mantle.
“I’ve got the tea made so while it’s drawing a little, why don’t we go and look at my birds?” she suggested. “I’m sorry, my memory is getting so bad, did you say your name was Bobby?”
“No, it’s Tom, Tom Blackman. I’d like to talk to you about the van that’s parked outside your house if I may.”
“Yes, yes, we’ll get to that later. Right now, you need to come and see my birds.”
Obligingly, Tom followed Ursula’s stooped frame through the house to the back door. Before they stepped outside he could hear the twittering of the birds and as the door opened it became more distinguishable. The round wire birdcage was approximately seven feet tall and there must have been at least 15 birds in it. They were all different colours and sizes and the noise was tremendous. Tom wondered if it were legal to have that many birds in the one cage. As they approached the cage the birds became calm and quiet and just the odd twitter was heard.
“Hello my darlings,” she said. “How are we all today?”
Tom looked at them all, there was something strange about the way they were all just so quiet, almost hypnotized by their keeper.
“Do you like my birds?” she asked turning to Tom. “I’ve been collecting them for quite some time. They’re such a pleasure to look at. My family has been doing this for generations you know.”
“They’re lovely,” he lied. Tom had never been one for birds, there was just something about them that unnerved him, probably the smell of bird shit and the beady little eyes. “Where did they all come from?”
“Oh, just around. You know how it is with us old folks, we don’t quite remember everything. That’s my latest addition to my family,” she said pointing to a plump grey and white bird huddled in the back corner of the cage.
“He’s very nice. Is he frightened of the others?” Tom asked her.
“They’re all like that at first, but after a while they become accustomed to what they are and then they join the crowd.”
“I see,” said Tom but didn’t quite understand what the old woman was talking about. They were birds, and birds are just birds. Maybe she had meant to say where they are, but she seemed a bit nutty anyway, so he just ignored it. As a police officer, he had learned to try not to offend anybody until he got the information required and in the case of Ursula Flynne, she probably wouldn’t remember what she had said five minutes ago.
“Shall we go and have the tea? I’m sure it will be just right by now.”
He escorted her back into the house and through a small kitchen. The black and white tiles on the floor were worn from the back door to the hallway from foot traffic. Tom carried the tray which held a teapot covered with a brightly knitted cozy, two cups and saucers, a small jug filled with what looked like milk, and a sugar basin overflowing with sweet white cubes. He placed it carefully on a small oval table that was polished in such a way that you could see your own reflection.
“Would you like to pour my dear?” she asked sitting in a chair and nodding towards the tea tray.
“Sure. How do you like your tea Mrs. Flynne?” Tom asked, joining the game.
“I like my tea with a little milk and two lumps and my name is Ursula. You can call me Ursula. Mrs. Flynne is just so formal. You’re quite young aren’t you and different to the bobbies that were around when I was a lass. They all had grey hair and moustaches.”
“I’m in my mid-twenties twenties,” he informed her. “Now I wanted to ask you about the van parked outside of your home.”
“Oh, my goodness, I’ve forgotten the biscuits.” Ursula struggled out of the chair and made a beeline for the kitchen returning with a plate of freshly baked biscuits and placed it on the table urging him to take one. “I remember the young man who owns that van. He came here to fix some wiring. These old places are renowned for loose wiring and I think it was Monday. I remember him though. He had that nice grey uniform on, not a bit like yours, it’s black isn’t it? He was plump too and rather short.”
“So, he was here on Monday. Do you know what he did when he left?” he asked her. She looked tired, her brown eyes watery, like she was almost about to cry. Age spots dotted her wrinkled skin. “Did he say where he was going when he left here?”
“I’m not sure. You haven’t touched your tea. It will be getting cold. Would you like a biscuit?” Ursula offered him the plate with the biscuits on. They did smell delicious. He took one and had a taste. Nice.
“Do you like them? My birds like them.”
“They’re very nice, thank you.” The biscuits were like nothing anything he had ever tasted before. There were all types of dried fruit and grain in them and they had sort of a nutty flavour.
“Please have another,” she insisted.
Tom reached for another biscuit before he had finished his last swallow. The taste lingered in his mouth. He took a bite of the second biscuit. Delicious.
“Now,” she said. “Back to that nice young electrician that you’re looking for, his car is still outside of my house. When did you say he was going to come and get it?”
“I didn’t,” he replied with a mouth full of biscuit. Tom swallowed and took a sip of tea. His heart began beating faster. Maybe he was eating too quickly. “That’s why I’m here. Nobody knows what happened to him and this was the last place he was seen. Do you know where he went after leaving here? Did he say anything about any other work that he had to do in the area?”
“Now, let me think.” Ursula paused and gazed at the officer. He was a very handsome young man. His dark hair was shiny and neat, and his eyes were a nice cornflower blue. He would do just nicely. “That young man was here for quite some time you know. I liked him very much. He had tea and biscuits with me just like you. He didn’t mention that he had any work to do after my loose wiring. He liked my biscuits. I don’t remember his name though.”
“His name was Graham Everton, but that isn’t important. What we need to establish is whether he met with an accident. Did you notice anybody prowling around outside on Monday?” Tom asked taking a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his brow. It was quite warm in the room. The old woman must have the bloody heater on. Typical.
“I certainly did not, young man. This isn’t the type of area where people prowl. Our neighbourhood is very respectable and there’s nothing untoward going on around here. Where did you say you were from Bobby?”
“My name’s Tom and I’m from the other side of town,” he explained between bites of a third biscuit. “What’s in these biscuits?”
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that. The recipe’s been in my family for generations. It’s a secret. If I gave it out to everybody who asked, nobody would come and visit now would they Bobby?”
Tom finished the biscuit and grabbed another. He didn’t care what Ursula called him now, he just couldn’t get enough of her biscuits. If he could just get the recipe. He wondered if she had it written down somewhere. Maybe they could issue a search warrant and he could look until he found it. No, that was silly. Nobody would issue a search warrant for a biscuit recipe. Tom’s skin began to itch.
“Would you like more tea?” she asked him, as he finished the biscuit and took another from the plate.
“Yes please,” he nodded. Tom ate the biscuit greedily. He took another and then another and kept on this way until there were none left on the plate.
“I’m afraid you’ve eaten the last of them and I won’t be baking anymore until tomorrow,” she explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry. How greedy of me,” Tom apologized scratching his arm. “It’s funny you know, I almost feel as though I could take a nap right now.”
“That’s my biscuits for you. They have that effect on people. It won’t be long now, and you’ll be just right.”
Tom felt the room start to spin slowly. He tried to get up but couldn’t. Every muscle started aching and when he tried to ask what the hell was going on, the noise that escaped his lips was squeaky and peculiar. The blue flowers on the wallpaper looked as though they were melting and running down the walls. Nice old Ursula Flynne must have poisoned him with her delicious biscuits. He closed his eyes slowly and lost consciousness.
When Tom Blackman awoke he felt strange. A foul but familiar smell and the sound of twittering filled the air. He remembered talking to Ursula Flynne and eating her biscuits and then something weird had happened. It was all coming back to him now. The room had melted. He opened his eyes slowly and everything looked fuzzy. He tried to focus. Vertical stripes that resembled bars had replaced the blue flowers of the wallpaper, like he was in a prison cell. He heard footsteps and two people approached, but they were on the other side of what looked like a cage door. Terror suddenly took over when he realised exactly where he was.