It was in the month of April, some five years after the exclusion from school of the one and the expulsion of the other, that Al and Bruce first met at the age of 20. The venue was a young offenders’ institution. In their first encounter, Al was being threatened by one of the inmates, a slightly smaller weaker version of Bruce. Bruce intervened, not to protect Al but to make sure everyone knew that ‘Righty’ Hook was top man. “If you want a fight, how about fighting me?” he’d said. The other bully looked at Bruce and decided to withdraw but that wasn’t what Bruce wanted. “That wasn’t a question,” Bruce said, staring hard into the man’s eyes. The man made the mistake of pointing out that it was indeed a question, as indicated by the ‘how about..”. To Bruce, this man, like erstwhile classmate Peter, appeared to be mocking his intellectual capacity. “No, it wasn’t,” Bruce insisted as a red mist crept across his eyes.
The damage that Bruce did to his reluctant opponent meant that, although he and Al had been sentenced to three months at the same time, Bruce had to serve an additional three months. Al was released in the July; Bruce in October. Even so, they shared almost three months together before Al was released and, in that time, an improbable friendship developed between the two of them. Al had noticed the rage that Bruce had felt when corrected by Al’s erstwhile tormentor and realised that book learning was probably not Bruce’s strongest suit. He also correctly surmised that Bruce was particularly sensitive to any suggestion that he might be a little dim. Therefore, applying his highly developed low cunning faculty, he resolved to compliment Bruce on his mental acuity whenever possible and to avoid at all costs any remarks that Bruce might construe as condescending. It worked like a charm and, in return for such sensitivity, Al acquired the services of a considerable bundle of muscle.
It would be going too far to suggest that their friendship was a match made in heaven. After all, for Al at least, it was really a match of convenience - and no one could confuse a young offenders’ institution with heaven - but it worked. Al would come up with the criminal schemes; Bruce provided the back up. Some of Al’s schemes worked but some didn’t or, even if they worked, some generated undesirable consequences. If Al borrowed money from someone who wanted the money back and who was prepared to insist on repayment, Bruce was a powerful argument in support of Al’s advice to his creditor that he should move on, let bygones be bygones, no use in crying over spilt milk, etc. If an insurance investigator suggested that one of Al’s insurance scams was less than genuine, a home visit by Bruce could often persuade the inspector or his wife to adopt a less cynical attitude.
Now given that the introduction to this story was pretty much dog-centred, you must be wondering why you needed to meet Messrs Crook and Hook. The answer is simple. After a spell in prison for insurance fraud Alvin Crook set his mind to devising a scheme that would generate cash, involve little or no risk and obviate any possible undesirable repercussions initiated by the victim or the law.
In his boyhood, Crook had discovered he was allergic to dogs. The scheme he had devised was therefore doubly appealing to his mean and spiteful soul in that it not only promised easy money but offered some degree of revenge on the canine species for, both literally and metaphorically, getting up his large hooked nose and under his sallow, wrinkled skin.
What was the scheme? you ask. It was simple and risk free, two qualities which every criminal mind agrees are highly desirable attributes for any illegal enterprise.
At its core was the concept of dognapping. I’m not sure such a word exists but, if it does not, I’m happy to coin it. Analogous to kidnapping, it means the seizing and holding of a dog for ransom. (In passing, if any one ever thought of applying such a scheme to the young of goats, they would have no need to coin a neologism.)
I can see some of you are puzzled. “How is dognapping going to work?” you ask. Are people going to pay substantial sums of money to ransom a dog? And how does dognapping avoid the risks of legal prosecution.
Well any dog owner will give you an answer to the first question. Indeed, only someone who had never owned a dog would ask such a question. A dog quickly becomes a member of the family, except that, unlike other members of the family, a dog is always pleased to see you, is infinitely forgiving, eternally grateful and an all round good egg. It is more likely a person would refuse to ransom a fractious and ungrateful child than a dearly beloved dog. (Not that any parent would abandon a child to a kidnapper unless the parent/child relationship had already deteriorated to an irrevocable degree.)
“OK,” you concede “but what about avoiding legal sanctions. Stealing anything is illegal. Stealing an animal, especially one which means so much to its owners, is certainly against the law.”
Well you’re right of course but, as I mentioned, Crook was a cunning miscreant. When Hook asked him how the scheme would work, this is what Crook said:
“First we identify the owner. We need someone who loves their dog. That’s easy. But we also need a dog lover with deep pockets. We should also aim to take only pure breeds. That ensures the dog itself is worth close to £1,000 in terms of replacement value alone. Then we grab the dog. I’ll leave that to you. When the dog is safely stored somewhere close, like at the camp site I use at Barton or, if need be, in the back of my camper van, we make an anonymous phone call to the owner, in a disguised voice using my electronic voice changer, and suggest he or she puts an ad in the local paper or on the internet saying “Substantial reward for the return of Fido”. The disguised voice tells him or her to have two thousand in cash as the reward and promises them that, if they do what they’re told, they will get Fido back in one piece. And if they don’t, they will still get Fido back – but one piece at a time.”
“So where is this Fido and how do we get someone to make the phone call?” Hook asked.
“I’m sure we will find a Fido somewhere,” Crook replied, careful not to put his partner down, “but I haven’t actually chosen our first target yet. When we do, he may well be a Fido, or perhaps a mut with some other common dog-type name. As for the voice, well I thought I might take that on myself. I have this amazing electronic voice changer. Only cost £24 and, if we ever have to pay tax which obviously is pretty unlikely, it’s totally tax deductible.”
Hook nodded, and then, still puzzled by Crook’s scheme, his enthusiasm for electronic devices and interest in tax deductible expenses, asked, “How do we get the money?”
Crook laughed. “We put the dog back in the van, drive the van back to the owner’s house and, if the owners have the money, they get the dog back.”
“Right,” said Righty. “Isn’t that just straightforward extortion?” he added uncertainly.
“Of course not.” Al sniggered. “We’re just responding to an advertisement and receiving a financial reward as offered by the dog owner. We saw the advertisement, found the dog and, as decent, caring citizens, decided to reunite owner and dog, for which trouble and time we are being willingly rewarded by a grateful dog owner. The owners can’t complain because they made the offer. And if the police become suspicious or involved, we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Wouldn’t we get more money if we kidnapped people?” Hook asked uncertainly.
“That wouldn’t work,” said Crook with studied patience. “People can talk so they would tell the police we had kidnapped them. Dogs can’t talk so there’s no way anyone can prove we grabbed them. We just happened to find them, lost and lonely. We’re the good guys. Do you see? And no one can prove otherwise.”
“Right,” said Righty, although, truth to tell, he was still far from clear how the scam would work.
The following week, Crook and Hook snatched their first dog, a Chihuahua named Pickles, from a town house in Chelsea. Crook had identified the target. Hook had done the snatching when the owner , Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe, had let the dog off its lead for its morning exercise. Crook made the phone call from a public payphone, disguising his voice using his portable electronic voice changer. To make sure he delivered the message in full, with suitable gravitas and the required menace, Crook had written out what he had to say and simply read the words to the appalled and distraught owner. Within 24 hours of the appearance of the advertisement offering the reward, the recently widowed Mrs Ponsonby-Smythe and Pickles were reunited, and Crook and Hook were £2,000 better off. Not only were they better off but the victim of the scam had been incredibly grateful to the miscreants who had explained that they had found the Chihuahua wandering in a nearby park, recognised it from the description they had seen in the local paper and had immediately done the decent thing.
It was only after they had left that Mrs Ponsonby Smythe wondered why they had so readily accepted the offered £2,000 if they were primarily motivated by decency. But then, what did it matter? £2,000 was a paltry sum compared to the relief of finding Pickles, her dearest friend and devoted companion, alive and well.
After a couple more trial runs, Crook and Hook managed to achieve a hit rate of two victims a week. The cunning Crook realised that victim selection was crucial. “Owners must be carefully vetted,” he had quipped. They not only must love their dogs and have deep pockets, they also had to be vulnerable. Emotional instability, sentimentalism, bereavement were all positive attributes when selecting an owner. And, of course, stupidity was a winner. As Crook mused happily, inspired by the Ponsonby-Smythe experience; “What we’re looking for is a mentally challenged, sentimental, dog-besotted widow”.
Crook’s assessment of the ideal target was correct in every respect which sadly meant that, while Crook and Hook were happily dognapping, nearly all their victims were the most emotionally vulnerable people you could find.
At a hit rate of two a week, allowing for four weeks holiday per annum, the malign duo were coining a cool £192,000 a year tax free. For the record that is the equivalent of a salary before tax of more than £120,000 each. Not at all bad, it’s fair to say, for a couple of scumbags!
“Any chance we could actually tell the story,” Luke intervened. “When I handed over to you, I expected you to get on with it. Did we really need all that background? I mean basically the story is how Jade was kidnapped and how I was called to the rescue. My guess is half the readers can’t remember who Jade is by now.”
“You underestimate our readers,” the Storyteller soothed.
“And there’s something else,” Luke ignored the Storyteller’s gentle rebuke. This is one story in which no one is going to tell the tale, give credit to everyone else and then say right at the end, “not forgetting Luke”. I’m the main player in this one.”
“Don’t worry, Luke. You’ll be given all the credit you could possibly want but you must allow me to tell the tale in my own way.
Luke reluctantly conceded and the Storyteller began his tale in earnest.