When Effie Coulston drops dead on the floor of her bar in a small Spanish town mid-business meeting, her daughter Daniella feels it’s her duty to return for the funeral. But Daniella has been estranged from her mother for over twenty years, and Effie’s life in Spain harbours many secrets . Daniella is soon confronted by a hostile group of ex-pat misfits who frequent the bar and who, along with Effie, are involved in a multi-million-pound property scam. But the money has vanished, and the ex-pats are threatening to implicate Daniella to save themselves.
Meanwhile, a Spanish detective is investigating Effie’s death. He’s convinced Daniella knows more than she is telling. And now a terrifying enforcer has heard about the missing cash. With no idea where the money is and threats coming from all sides, Daniella is up against a seemingly impossible deadline to find the cash. She’s a stranger in a strange town – and she’s seriously out of her depth.
Elephant in the Room
(Prequel to Thirty-One Bones)
‘Let me get this straight, Mr. Calderwood,’ I say, the noise of the insurance claim floor fading as I stare at the computer screen in front of me. ‘You are claiming that all your furniture in your flat has been destroyed by an elephant?’
‘That’s correct,’ say the voice at the other end of the telephone.
‘And,’ I add. ‘You live on the eleventh floor of a multi-storey flat in Glasgow?’
‘An elephant, Mr. Calderwood?’
‘I have pictures.’
‘Of the elephant?’
‘You have pictures of an elephant in your home?’
‘What size of elephant, Mr. Calderwood?’
‘A big swine.’
‘And you have pictures of it wrecking your stuff?’
‘Actually, the photo is of the elephant after it trashed the place. It’s sitting on my telly.’
‘Sitting on your TV, Mr. Calderwood? You have a picture of a real elephant sitting on your TV?’
‘A real elephant.’
I struggle with the next question but it has to be asked.
‘Are we talking a baby elephant or a fully grown one?’
‘And how did this elephant get into your home, Mr. Calderwood?’
‘Good question. I’d guess through the front door.’
I lean back in my chair and press mute on my head mike. My name is Daniella Coulstoun. I’m a thirty-six year old insurance claims assistant that has spent the best part of a decade hard-wired to a computer screen fielding claim calls for Just You Insurance. I quickly scan the room to see if anyone is watching me. To see if someone is taking the piss. But not one of my near-on fifty claims assistant co-workers are looking in my direction. I glance at my manager, currently hunched over Tom Rattle’s desk, lost in conversation. No interest in me to be seen from there either.
I flip on the mike on again.
‘Eh, Mr. Calderwood,’ I say. ‘Could you just give me one minute?’
I kill the mike once more, subjecting Mr. Calderwood to the specially composed hold music that all our clients seem to hate. I punch up the help menu on the screen. I know there’s a section on animal damage. Dogs and cats are a regular feature in my life. It always amazes me how much damage a deranged pooch or hyper moggie can do if left alone. But I’m sure that if I type in the word elephant into the help-bar that nothing useful will appear. More likely this is one giant wind-up and typing in the word elephant on the screen will be met with a massive round of applause, a gale of laughter and a message on my computer to the effect that I’ve been had. That’s the way that the Just You team members fly. Practical jokes to break the monotony and drudgery of relentless claim handling are all too frequent.
I decide not to give the prankster the satisfaction quite yet and elect to try and catch out the hoaxer.
‘Mr. Calderwood,’ I say, after flipping the mike back on. ‘I’m back. Sorry about that. Could you take me through your story again?’
‘Why? Do you think I’m making it all up?’
‘It’s not that, Mr. Calderwood. It’s just that I need all the details.’
Of course, it is entirely possible that Mr. Calderwood could be telling the truth. Or his version of it. He had, by his own admission, been drunk as a skunk when he had come home last night and found the elephant.
‘I told you,’ he says. ‘I’d been out at the pub and when I got home, I noticed that the hall was a mess. When I entered the living room it was also trashed and there was an elephant sitting on my telly.’
‘And you say you have photographic evidence of this elephant?’
‘I can send you it.’
I give him my work email address and a few seconds later his email appears. I click on the attachment and the photo opens. It’s dark but it’s clearly of a living room. A living room that looks fairly wrecked to me. Chairs broken, china smashed, a dining table cracked down the middle. And, right in the middle of the photo, back to me, sits what looks a lot like an elephant. I study the picture and can’t help but eyeball the floor to see if I’m being watched. Certain that I’m not, I zoom in on the photo but the low light it was shot in has given the whole picture a grainy wash when enlarged. Judging by the size of the dining table the elephant is a good eight feet high. With its back to me, I can see its trunk swung out to the left and two flappy ears sit high on its head. The only disconcerting thing, if having an elephant in your front room isn’t disconcerting enough, is that the elephant looks very, and it could be the poor quality of the picture, hairy.
‘Did you get the photo?’ asks Mr. Calderwood.
‘Yes,’ I reply.
‘Well will my policy pay out? The damn thing has done no end of damage.’
I have no idea if elephant damage is contained within any of our policies, let alone Mr. Calderwood’s cut price version.
‘Mr. Calderwood,’ I say, trying to think of a logical flow to my questioning. ‘If you came in last night and found an elephant in your home, did you not report it to the police?’
‘Not last night,’ he says. ‘I went to the bog. I needed to throw up and I fell asleep on the pan. It happens.’
‘And when you woke up where was the elephant?’
‘And did you look for it?’
‘Yes. I had a gander at the landing and a peek down the stairs but saw nothing.’
‘And your neighbours?’
‘What about them?’
‘Did any of them see the elephant?’
‘I haven’t asked. Why? Do you think one of them might have been keeping it as a pet?’
I ignore the question. ‘Mr. Calderwood how big is the lift in your block?’
‘Could the elephant have fitted in it?’
‘Nah. The beast was way too big.’
Can elephants climb stairs?
It’s the next question waiting to be asked. Or specifically can they climb eleven flights of stairs.
‘Mr. Calderwood was your front door damaged?’
‘So someone let the elephant in?’
I can’t believe I’m saying this. I thought I’d heard it all. But not this.
It has to be a wind-up.
‘Well it didn’t get in by itself,’ he points out.
‘And you are sure it’s gone?’
‘How the hell would I miss it, if it was still here?’
He has a good point.
‘Mr. Calderwood,’ I say, again looking around. ‘It does seem a little odd that an elephant wrecked your home.’
‘You think? And here’s me figuring it was just another Friday night in Partick.’
‘And have you phoned the police this morning?’
‘And what did they say?’
‘That they would send someone round.’
‘And have they?’
It’s at times like this that I wish myself away from here. My mother lives in Spain and owns a bar in El Descaro, a small coastal town on the Costa Blanca. I’ve been all but estranged from her since she walked out on me when I was sixteen but, of late, I’ve been thinking of trying to patch things up. Not that mum seems to want to talk but then again what would be better – a row with mum in the sun or an elephant in a multi-storey flat in Glasgow?
‘So, will you pay out?’ Mr. Calderwood asks.
‘It’s not that easy,’ I say. ‘I would need a police report.’
‘Why? If it was my dog would you need a police report?’
‘So what’s the difference?’
About two tonnes.
I have two choices here. Proceed through the automated menu that will pop up as soon as I start processing the claim or I can call for help. If this is a wind-up then whoever is behind it is stringing it out. The norm around here is more along the lines of taping a week-old kipper under someone’s desk or a quick call from a pay-as-you-go mobile asking if we can provide insurance against premature ejaculation. Elephants are a whole new level.
‘Mr. Calderwood, can I phone you back?’
‘I need to check your policy and don’t want to keep you hanging on the line,’ I lie. ‘I’ll not be long. I have your number here on my screen.’
I read it out to him, he agrees to me calling back and I hang up.
I run through his details on screen. He’s a bona fide client of ours. Six years and this is his first claim. His phone number checks out, as did the password he gave me when we were first connected. As wind-ups go this is getting on the sophisticated side.
I take a chance and Google ‘elephant’ and ‘Partick’. Nothing. I try ‘Glasgow’ and ‘missing elephant’ – there is still nothing.
How the hell did a fully-grown elephant appear in a flat in the west end of Glasgow, wreck the place and then vanish?
I call Mr. Calderwood back.
‘Can I get back to you,’ he says as soon as he answers. ‘The police are at the door.’
‘Would I be able to talk to them?’ I ask.
‘I need to check if there have been any reports of a missing elephant.’
I really just said that.
‘Well, okay,’ he replies.
I hear the rustle of the phone being passed on.
‘Hello, can I help you?’ says a new voice.
‘Hi. My name’s Daniella Coulstoun. I’m a claims assistant with Just You Insurance and I’m dealing with Mr. Calderwood’s claim. Am I right in saying he reported an elephant was in his home?’
‘You say you’re the insurance company?’ the voice says.
‘And Mr. Calderwood is phoning to claim on his insurance?’
‘Will you pay out?’
‘I can’t say. I need to establish the facts first. He says the elephant was in his front room.’
‘The place is a mess but there’s no sign of any elephant.’
‘He said it vanished.’
‘Not easy for an elephant to do.’
‘I hate to ask but what do you think of his story?’
‘Bollocks would be the technical term.’
‘So you think he’s making it up?’
‘No,’ he finally says.
‘You think it’s for real?’
‘We had a couple of reports of an elephant in the neighbourhood late last night.’
‘On a street near here.’
‘Is there a circus in town?’
‘Not that I know of and anyway I’m not sure circuses keep elephants anymore.’
‘Did the reports mention if it was hairy?’
‘What was hairy?’
‘Forget that,’ I say. ‘It’s nothing. So there could have been an elephant in Mr. Calderwood’s house.’
Again, he pauses.
‘Hell knows. If it was, how did it get in? The reports from last night said it was a big swine but the lift here is tiny. And I’m damned if I know if elephants can climb stairs.’
And break into homes before leaving unnoticed.
‘I need to go,’ says the policeman. ‘I’ll ask Mr. Calderwood to call you back when I’m finished.’
I’d like to take time to think on this but I’m driven by the computer and as soon as I hang up I’m allocated another call and say, ‘Hello, Just You Insurance can I help…’
‘Daniella,’ says the voice in my ear. ‘I have a Mr. Calderwood on the line. He says he won’t talk to me about his claim. He wants you. Very insistent. It’s not policy to do that. You know you’ll get into trouble.’
‘Thanks, Colin,’ I say. ‘I’ll take the heat if this goes south.’
The rule in here is simple. Whoever answers the call, deals with the call. If a claimant hangs up and re-dials they don’t get the option to talk to the original contact. That way the company maxes our time. Once you give a punter a dedicated handler you can lengthen the process no end trying to get back in touch with each other.
‘Hi Mr. Calderwood,’ I say.
‘I think about twenty grand will cover it.’
‘The damage the elephant did.’
‘Twenty thousand pounds?’
‘Aye. I added it up. Now that the police have said there was an elephant on the loose, you lot can pay me quickly and maybe claim off the owner.’
This is way, way past any practical joke my work colleagues could invent. And it’s starting to smell like an out-there fraud case. I’m beginning to wonder if Mr. Calderwood brought an elephant home with him last night. After all you can buy most things in a Glasgow pub if you know the right people.
But why an elephant? I’ve had my fair share of insurance frauds in my time and sometimes they’re a little eccentric, but an elephant. Who would use an elephant? And where in the hell would you get one. I need to escalate this now. Call in my manager. I should have done it before now.
‘Shit,’ says Mr. Calderwood. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Sorry?’ I say.
‘I’m not talking to you,’ he replies. ‘The police are back and they have my daft idiot of a son with them.’
His voice fades and I hear, ‘What have you done now you wee bugger.’ Then the line goes dead.
I hit the system pause button to let me contact my manager. This will be interesting.
‘Miss Coulstoun?’ the voice says on my head phones.
‘This is PC Adam, we talked earlier.’
‘About the elephant?’
‘PC Adam, do you know that my manager thinks I’m on drugs.’
That was the polite summation of my talk with him.
‘So does my sergeant,’ PC Adam replies.
‘What happened?’ I ask. ‘Did you get to the bottom of it all?’
‘Have you heard of the film Caveman?’
It’s the years biggest hit. A real surprise at the box office. It tells the story of one day in a caveman’s life. No dialogue. A roller coaster of a film. I saw it a week ago and thought it was great fun.
‘Well we found the elephant,’ the PC says.
‘Except it’s not an elephant.’
‘What is it?’
‘A woolly mammoth.’
‘A what?’ I say.
‘A woolly mammoth.’
‘Hang on, are you telling me you found a woolly mammoth in Glasgow?’
‘It’s what Mr. Calderwood saw in his living room.’
I look around the call floor again, just in case.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘But am I to believe that a woolly mammoth trashed Mr. Calderwood’s flat?’
‘No it didn’t. I’m telling you that Mr. Calderwood saw a woolly mammoth in his flat.’
Is it me I wonder, or do I need a break from all of this?
‘I’m lost, PC Adam.’
‘It turns out that Mr. Calderwood’s son decided to have a small party in his dad’s house last night. It all got a bit out of hand. Some local neds got in and played smash and trash before running off. It seems they have some history with Mr. Calderwood. Payback would appear to be the motive for the trashing.’
‘And the woolly mammoth?’
‘The local cinema has been using it to promote the Caveman film. It was situated on top of the cinema’s entrance canopy with a caveman next to it. It’s a half fibre glass, half blow up thing. Mobile if you let the air out. The neds nicked it and dragged it to Mr. Calderwood’s place for a laugh. The son hid when his dad came in from the pub and got rid of it when Mr. Calderwood fell asleep on the toilet. We found it floating in the River Clyde this morning. It caused a major incident. People thought an elephant had fallen into the river and needed help. Did you not see the news? It’s all over it.’
‘No. I’ve not had my break yet. So you’re saying Mr. Calderwood saw this woolly mammoth in his living room, fell asleep in the toilet, the son dumped it in the river and what? The son let his dad believe that an elephant, or a woolly mammoth, had trashed his house?’
‘That’s about the size of it.’
I really need out of here.
‘Thanks for calling PC Adam.’
‘That’ll be one for the Christmas show’n’tell,’ he says.
‘I’m so gubbed,’ I say to him. ‘I’ll never, ever hear the end of this. I’ll have bloody elephants and woolly mammoths coming out of my ears.’
I hang up and I’m fed another call thinking there really is an elephant in the room and it’s not the daft prop from the Caveman film. It’s the fact that I’ve hated this job for years and should have quit long, long ago.
‘Daniella,’ says the voice on my mobile. ‘This is George Laidlaw. In Spain. We’ve met a few times. I knew your mum.’
I’m back at home and already have two copies of Dumbo on DVD in my handbag courtesy of the humour merchants at my work.
‘George,’ I say. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘I’m sorry to tell you this, Daniella – but your mother died this morning.’
‘A heart attack they think. In the pub. And I need you to come out here and attend to things.’
My world spins.
‘And when I mean come out. I mean come out right now. There are things we really need to talk about.’
Elephant in the Room by Morgan Cry.
Copyright © by Morgan Cry.
All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission.