I sprang into action the moment the call came through from Customer Services and had reached Aisle eight, (tinned meat and fish) where I was stopped by a young lady in a fishmonger’s perforated trilby hat, and with a face as miserable as a balloon at a hedgehog party.
She was standing behind a taster cart loaded with small glass pots. I saw the Waitburys staff badge pinned on her burgundy and fuchsia uniform. It read: Anthea Trainee.
‘Maybe you can help me, Miss Trainee.’ I said.
The look on her face did not change. ‘Perhaps. But only if you taste this Pishams’ Blenny and Bloater Parfait. Only £1.99 per pot or £6.49 for 3. It’s the ideal tea-time treat.’ She recited her spiel with the enthusiasm of a diabetic at a marzipan rally.
‘No thank you.’ I’d wondered what the awful smell was since I entered Aisle Four, (savoury bakes and pies).
‘But I’ve broken up these crackers especially.’ She splattered some Parfait on a piece and offered it to me.
I looked at the foul grey dollop. ‘Cracker? I can’t. I’m gluten intolerant,’ I lied.
‘I’ll just stick some on your finger then.’
‘And I’m a vegetarian,’ I lied again.
‘Then buy a pot and you can give it to your mum.’
‘No bother: it’s suitable for all star-signs.
‘Look, I don’t want any fish paste.’
‘Parfait.’ She corrected me. ‘I’ll cry if you don’t buy any,’ and she stuck out her lower lip.
‘Or I’ll scream.’ She let out a scream.
I looked around. Shoppers started to stare at us. ‘OK, OK, I’ll take a pot.’
She stopped screaming. ‘Three pots.’
I put my foot down. ‘Two pots.’
She screamed again, louder if anything.
‘Ok, Ok. Three pots.’ I was annoyed by her behaviour, but seen as she’d been there a while she might have valuable information for me. Maybe she’d seen a shopper acting suspiciously. I told her I was a plain clothes security man.
‘Plain? In that shirt?
‘Are you going to help me solve a crime, or criticize my appearance?’
‘I was just saying.’
‘Look, the alarm’s been raised. Seems we’ve got a switcher in the store.’
‘Yep. I’ve checked it out for myself. In Aisle two, Fresh fruit and veg, there have been Conference pears thrown in with the Comices, and in ‘Herbs and Salad’, the plastic sleeves wrapped around some pots of fresh herbs have been swapped with others.’
‘I know we get our share of sickos in here, but is that a crime?’
‘Think about it,’ I said. ‘The scale of public outcry would be massive if customers make their Poires Belle Helene with the wrong pear, or their Carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym frais tastes soapy through the cynical inclusion of rosemary.’
Her eyes widened, ‘Did you say Carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym?’
‘Yes, Carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym,’ I confirmed.
‘I’m pretty sure…’ She looked down at the big pile of recipe cards that she was meant to have been handing out to indifferent shoppers along with their blob of fish paste. ‘Yes. I thought so. Look here. Carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym – it’s the recipe on this month’s ‘Pay the Difference’ range promotion cards.
‘Hmm, I wonder…’ I turned the recipe card over. I was right – there was also a recipe for Poires Belle Helene, including a warning in small print which read that ‘under no circumstances are Conference pears to be used in this recipe. Waitburys accept no responsibility for any incident, illness or fatality that may occur as a result do doing so.’
I turned to Miss Trainee. ‘I think we’re looking at a 49 scenario being escalated to a 53.’
‘This is no longer a simple case of a casual switcher, a 49-er, with tomfoolery and japery as his goal, but someone with an altogether more immoral motive. This is a category 53 scenario, a strategy funded by our competitors to make our customers disgruntled enough to abandon Waitburys, and shop at Asco instead. This, Miss Trainee, is commercial sabotage.’
‘You’re pulling my leg, or else you’re losing the plot. You should buy some more fish paste. It’s brain food.’
‘I’m being deadly serious. Scream all you like, but I’m buying nothing, not while there’s a lawless corporate infiltrator in this store, who even as I speak could be planning anything.’ I scrutinized the recipe card further. ‘It says here that post meal: ‘the used dishes should be washed with Pixie Liquid’. Lord knows what he is swapping that for even as we speak: Gravy browning – anything. Quick, we’ve got to get to Aisle twelve.’
I looked at her incredulously. ‘That’s Aisle ten. We’re going to Household Products.’
‘I daren’t leave my fish paste cart.’
‘Well, bring it with you.’ We ran through the store, stepping nimbly between shoppers, with the wheels of Miss Trainee’s fish paste cart clacking wildly at a speed far greater than it was designed for. At the end of Aisle twelve, (Household Products), we stopped and peered round. Always the most unpopular Aisle in the store (apart from twenty-three, Ambient fruit), there was just one shopper – a man walking slowly away from us, hunched over his shopping trolley for support, probably in his 80’s, wearing slippers and a cowboy hat which he probably first wore in the 1950’s. More distressing than this, he was whistling, piercingly, ‘The Ugly Bug Ball’.
‘There he is,’ I whispered.
‘Him? No, that’s whistling Walter,’ whispered back Miss Trainee. He comes in every day.
‘What? He’s sabotaging us every day?’
‘Don’t be daft. He always stops by my taster cart. He even tasted some Pishams’ Blenny and Bloater parfait today. It made his jaw shudder.
‘There you go,’ I said. ‘He does that to check the latest trends, so he can railroad every promotion we put on.
‘I always thought he was just a lonely old man. Bless him, he always buys what I’m pushing. Although I thought it was because he’d taken a bit of a shine to me.
‘OK then, if he’s not a trouble maker, explain why if he’s retired and has all day to come to the supermarket, he’s here at lunchtimes, blocking the middle of the aisles when office workers are desperate to buy their crayfish sandwiches and coconut water as quickly as possible.’
‘But all old people do that,’ she said. ‘Apart from the ones who start queuing outside an hour before we open, of course.’
‘Hmm.’ I wasn’t convinced – I’d met his sort before, and was glad I had a cosh in my jacket pocket.
‘If he’s so sweet, then why’s he whistling so loudly? Judging by the way he keeps switching to 76 Trombones mid-tune and back, I suspect it’s some kind of coded message to an accomplice, or else he’s trying to block out our security eavesdropping microphones.’
Whistling Walter turned to pick up a packet of scouring pads and turned to see us.
‘Oh hello again, Anthea. Your fish paste isn’t ‘arf playing up with me ‘eartburn. Maybe I’ll put them back.’
‘Sorry about that, Walter. I’m sure if you bought another pot your stomach would start to build up an immunity.
I broke in to the conversation. ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m part of the security team here at Waitburys. I’d like to check your trolley please.’ I looked in and fiddled with his groceries. ‘Let’s see. A can of salmon, dried prunes, a tin of pork luncheon meat, six pots of Bishams’ Blenny and Bloater Parfait…’
‘She made me,’ said Walter.
I continued. ‘… Rich tea biscuits, Fisherman’s Friends, Extra-Strong Mints and five bags of Werthers Originals. I think we both know what’s going on here.’
‘Going on? I don’t know what you mean? Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got bran flakes to buy,’ he said, but I could see the look of concern on his face.
‘Everyone knows what you have in the trolley are the components for a so-called dirty bomb. You’d have destroyed the place should the bran have combusted, blasting shards of tin can and solid caramel-flavoured butter candies across the store. The next time you whistle, it will be with the other jail birds.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, young man,’ he said, dropping the scourers and turning away, slowly, so as not to dislodge a hip.
‘Not so fast … old man’ I said, wondering if this was the appropriate demand given Walter’s unsteady shuffle. ‘You’re nicked.’
‘Oh, dear. Oh, deary dear,’ he said and overbalanced as he held his hands out to be cuffed.
‘Resisting arrest, eh? You’re witness to this, Miss Trainee.’
She looked up at me. ‘But how do you know he’s a terrorist? Every geriatric’s shopping trolley in the country contains exactly the same items.’
‘Ah, it’s my training. It’s not so much what is in his trolley, but what isn’t that proves his guilt.’
She thought for a few moments, considering the contents of wicked Walter’s trolley. ‘Of course! No copy of the Daily Express. If he’d really planned to eat those items he would have done so muttering over articles about the collapse of modern day Britain under Brexit, how two apples per day can kill you, and the latest heatwave/hurricane/snow storm to be advancing on us.’
‘But I buy my Daily Express at the newsagents. I stop and have a chat with nice Mrs Chowdhury,’ said Walter.
‘Save it for the magistrate,’ I told him, and winked at Miss Trainee.
‘Oh, but you’re good,’ she said.
‘You ain’t so bad yourself Miss Trainee, or can I call you Anthea – seeing as we’re now crime-fighting buddies?’
She giggled as I handcuffed Walter to her tasting cart. ‘You can call me what you like – if you buy another pot of Bishams’ Blenny and Bloater Parfait.’
I didn’t. But as I wheeled Whisting Walter through the checkouts to the cells behind the in-store bakery, I bought her a bouquet of roses, using my staff card, gaining a 5% discount and double Nectar points.