A Christmas Mystery from Aidensfield
"You're selected for turkey patrols, PC Rhea," ordered Sergeant Blaketon. "They're the week before Christmas, with different locations and varying times each night. You'll stop and search all vehicles to check whether they contain stolen turkeys or anything else."
Turkey patrols were cold and boring. You had to stand on isolated roads for two hours and bring oncoming vehicles to a halt by waving a torch, then search them.
On this occasion, however, things were different. Sergeant Blaketon arrived at my first lonely point on the Gelderslack to Stovensby road. I wondered if I should search his car, but decided against it. Some jokes are not appreciated.
"Anything doing, Rhea?" he asked.
"Not a sausage - or turkey, sergeant. Yours is the first car I've seen tonight."
"Well,don't relax, it's not always this quiet. We've had reliable intelligence that Lord Ashfordly's turkey house is going to be raided before Christmas. He's got thousands - they're worth a fortune."
"I don't suppose they'll be coming my way, sergeant. This road doesn't go anywhere except Gelderslack and Stovensby."
"You won't be here every night, Rhea, but, for security reasons, each location will remain secret until the last moment. We'll impose an impenetrable ring around Aidensfield and Ashfordly."
"Top-level security, eh, sergeant? So do we have a suspect?"
"Not surprisingly, Greengrass's name has cropped up so we've got him under observation, but no-one else. And, for your information only, Lord Ashfordly's turkey house will be under secret surveillance. By the Crime Squad. Not even Lord Ashfordly knows that.
"Don't forget, Rhea, lots of farmers and landowners breed turkeys, and they're all vulnerable. Remain alert to any possibility - and you might get yourself a good arrest. We're the experts, remember, far more skilled than the Crime Squad in rural operations.
"And don't forget this is hush-hush and top secret. Not a word to anyone."
I performed several patrols in the final days before Christmas, with no sign of a raid on Lord Ashfordly's turkeys. The intelligence-led rumours suggested it would involve more than one thief and a very large vehicle, and it would occur immediately before they were sent for slaughter. Due to the impending raid, two-man checkpoints were established on roads around Aidensfield. If anyone stole Lord Ashfordly's turkeys - or any other valuables - they would confront our united constabulary strength.
During one of the final turkey patrols that Christmas, Special Constable Clarence Fairweather and I were manning a checkpoint at the Maddleskirk Beacon Crossroads. We had long views down the dale and could see headlights approaching from every direction. This allowed plenty of time to stop them. It was around 9.30 pm on the last Friday before Christmas that we noticed the slow and noisy progress of a very large vehicle with an equally large load.
"It's a cattle truck," I reasoned. "A big one, too."
"Do we stop it?" asked Clarence, an enthusiastic forty-year-old hobby-bobby. His proper job was a clerk in an Ashfordly department store.
"You bet we do," I said. "It might contain stolen livestock."
Flashing our torches, we brought the lumbering truck to a halt. Clarence went to the passenger's side as I opened the driver's door.
"Now then," I said. "Police checkpoint. What are you carrying?"
"Nowt," said the driver, a thick-set man whom I did not recognise.
"Mind if we look?" I asked.
"Yes, I do mind. I'm not a criminal, I've done nowt wrong."
"Out you get," was my next tactic. "And switch off the engine."
As he turned it off and climbed out, I demanded the ignition keys just in case he decided to leave, and then heard the distinctive gobbling of turkeys in the rear. I shone my torch through a gap to confirm it was packed with thousands of them.
I stated the obvious: "You've got live turkeys in there."
"I'm saying nowt.&
"Who are you? Got your driving licence?"
"No I haven't, not on me."
"Clarence," I ordered, "make sure this chap doesn't do a runner. I'm going to radio control."
When I made contact from my van, PC Alf Ventress responded.
"Alf," I said, "I've just stopped a cattle truck full of turkeys." As the lorry bore no operator's name, I read the registration number to Alf so he could carry out a check of its owner. Then I asked, "Do we know if Lord Ashfordly's turkeys are safe? This truck's got thousands on board."
"I'll check," he promised. "We've a secure radio link with the Crime Squad in the grounds of Ashfordly Hall. I'll call you back."
The lorry driver, a grey-haired man in his fifties, stood in moody silence as I awaited the return call. Then it came.
"Delta Alpha Two-Four, are you receiving?"
"Receiving, go ahead."
"Bit of a problem, Nick," Alf said hesitantly. "The sergeant's out but Crime Squad have checked and there's no turkeys in Lord Ashfordly's poultry house - not one! It's empty; every turkey's been nicked. Seems they've been guarding an empty shed."
"You're joking! Empty shed! So chummy got there first. Heads will roll, Alf! Does Lord Ashfordly know?"
"No,he's away till Saturday. An old soldiers' Christmas reunion. I can't check ownership of that lorry because the Vehicle Taxation Office is closed, and it won't open until after Christmas. But you've recovered his lordship's turkeys. That should please somebody, Nick."
"But how can anyone prove they're his?" I asked. "One turkey is just like another. I don't think even he could identify his own."
"Then you'll have to persuade the driver to admit the crime."
"It'll be like drawing blood from a stone," I sighed.
"Well,in the absence of the sergeant, arrest the driver on suspicion of theft, then impound the lorry and turkeys as evidence."
"What can I do with a load of turkeys? They're alive, you know."
"You can't bring them here! I don't want this station full of turkeys. Take it to Eltering Police Station. They've a big car park and you can lock chummy in their cells while you decide what to do. I'll radio to say you and your turkeys are on the way."
I returned to the waiting man.
"Look," I said. "If you won't tell me who you are and where you got those turkeys, I've no option but to arrest you on suspicion of theft. But maybe you'd answer just one question."
His strong face showed real menace but he never said a word.
"Are these turkeys from Lord Ashfordly's estate?"
"Aye," he said with a reluctant sigh. "But I'm saying nowt else."
"Then you're under arrest," I said, and cautioned him. "We're going to Eltering Police Station to get this sorted out. I'll drive the lorry and you'll be passenger. My colleague will follow in the police van, so don't try anything daft."
The journey to Eltering Police Station, our subdivisional headquarters, took about half an hour, during which the prisoner never said a word. I parked the lorry behind the station. As its engine died, I heard the turkeys gobbling in the rear, but the darkness would subdue them. Clarence and I escorted our prisoner into the charge room, where the overnight constable was staffing the desk and official radio. I was relieved to see Sergeant Blaketon too.
"Ventress contacted me, Rhea," beamed Blaketon. "Well done. This is a real coup. Lord Ashfordly will be delighted." Then he turned to my prisoner and asked, "So who are you and where are you from?"
"I'm saying nowt," said the man.
"It's up to you. You can co-operate and make things easy, or we can lock you in the cells until you come to your senses. We've plenty of evidence to prove our case."
"I'm still saying nowt."
"Search him and put him in the cells, Rhea."
I asked the prisoner to turn out his pockets and then searched him for concealed weapons. Other than his personal belongings - cash, a comb and handkerchief - he carried nothing that would identify him. The duty constable placed him in the cells to await a formal charge.
Blaketon was clearly delighted at this turn of events. "Now we must contact Lord Ashfordly. He's away until tomorrow and no-one knows his address. Some hotel in Durham, according to his housekeeper. He usually leaves an address when he goes away, but not on this occasion."
"Doesn't the Crime Squad know where he is?" I asked.
"Don't mention that useless crew to me, Rhea!" snapped Blaketon. "How could they maintain observations on an empty shed? You'd think they would have checked. If it hadn't been for our well-tested procedures, Lord Ashfordly would have lost his turkeys.
"Now we must identify our prisoner - and we start by finding out who owns that lorry."
"The Vehicle Taxation Office is shut until after Christmas," I reminded him. It held records of all vehicles taxed in the North Riding.
"Then we'll have to wait. Our prisoner is secure and the prospect of Christmas in the cells might persuade him to talk... we're in no rush to release him."
"So what happens to the turkeys?"
"They're evidence, Rhea, like the lorry. They're in police custody. You impounded them, remember."
"Yes,but they need food and water... we can't keep them indefinitely. There are rules about the care of livestock."
"So what do you suggest? You arrested them!"
"Well,we could return them to Lord Ashfordly's estate. Put them back where they came from. There'll be food and drink. I know they're evidence, but we can't keep them."
My suggestion was accepted. So before midnight I drove the lorry to Ashfordly Hall and, with help from my colleagues, opened the unlocked turkey house and switched on its lights. In their noisy thousands, the birds rushed in because they recognised home, food and water.
I closed the doors and drove the lorry back to Eltering Police Station, where the prisoner was still refusing to talk. He was charged with theft but bail was refused because no-one knew his identity.
Early on Saturday morning I discovered the name of the lorry owner. I had asked a Northallerton police officer to visit the Vehicle Taxation Office to search its records, a practice we used in emergencies. He rang to say the registered owner was one George William Baxter, with an address in Malton.
After making enquiries, I realised the man in custody was none other than Mr Baxter, a former army sergeant who now ran his own haulage business.
A check revealed he had no previous convictions and his name was not on any 'wanted' or 'suspected' lists. I decided to have another chat with him.
"Good morning, Mr Baxter," I greeted him.
"You know, then?" he frowned and looked relieved when I mentioned his name. Then I wondered - how much did he think I knew?
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
"Well, Lord Ashfordly was worried about losing his turkeys while he was away, so he asked me to look after them - just overnight, like. With the big house empty, he asked me to hide'em from possible thieves. So I did. I was taking 'em to a pal's when you stopped me."
"So you didn't steal them?"
"Course not. I served with Ashfordly in the war. He said it was a top-secret operation and ordered me to say nowt, so that's what I did. Sorry if I caused bother but orders are orders."
"Look,Mr Baxter, I'm sorry about all this..."
"No bother, constable. I've seen worse at war. The main thing is, the turkeys are out there in my lorry, safe on a police car park. I had to return 'em this morning, so now you know why I wasn't worried about a night in a cell. I'd kept his birds safe. Couldn't be safer, could they?" and he laughed at his own ploy.
At that point, a horrifying thought struck me. I had taken the turkeys back to Ashfordly Hall and left them all night in an unguarded, unlocked poultry house during the very time thieves were expected. My heart sank.
"Look, I'll see to your release, Mr Baxter, then I must go, it's urgent."
I raced back to Ashfordly Hall without telling anyone of my deepest concerns. As I drove into the grounds, Lord Ashfordly was striding towards me. I had no alternative but to halt my van and climb out.
"Ah, PC Rhea, just checking on my turkeys, I shouldn't wonder."
"Yes, M'Lord. I thought you were away."
"Got back a couple of hours ago, but you're too late, all the birds have flown. The turkey house is empty."
I felt dreadful. So the raiders had come after all! For a moment or two, I didn't know how to respond.
"Good fellow is Baxter, one of the best. He did a good job, constable. Kept them safe and got them back in time for their final trip."
"Their final trip?"
"To the slaughterer, to be prepared for Christmas. Damned shame really, such fine birds ending up on the dinner table."
"So they were all safe?"
"Safe as can be, constable. I do appreciate all your concern. Dashed good of you. A happy Christmas!"
And so I left, much relieved. I must admit I enjoyed the turkey he sent for our Christmas dinner.
This exclusive new Christmas story from Aidensfield first appeared in the December 2007 edition of Dalesman magazine