A Serious Offence

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Short Short Stories!
An allegation of theft is no laughing matter in this short story.

Submitted: February 10, 2017

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Submitted: February 10, 2017



Mr Fitzwilliam, a respectable and upright man about town, minding his own business in the corner of the public-house, was savouring the last few gulps of his pint of ale when he heard some laughter from the table behind him. He thought he might have been mistaken, but there it was again: a sound so distinctive and familiar to him that he was embarrassed to have been in any doubt in the first place. He rose angrily from his seat and marched over to the table in question.

“How dare you?” Mr Fitzwilliam said, “Where do you even find the nerve to do such a thing?  And right under my nose as well. Shame on you, sir.”

The gentleman, the target of this outrage, apparently perplexed and a little baffled, replied with a nervous, “Excuse Me?”

“Don’t you ‘excuse me’ me. You know perfectly well what you’ve done. You’re a thief; a common criminal. Return it to me immediately or I shall summon the police”. Mr Fitzwilliam, with his forefinger extended, was pointing aggressively in the direction of the gentleman’s confused face.

“I really don’t have the first idea of what I am being accused. What is it that I am supposed to have done? I’ve never even seen you before. I’m just enjoying a drink and a joke with my friends here. May I say, you really are making yourself look rather foolish”.

Apoplectic with rage, Mr Fitzwilliam indignantly cried, ”My laugh, sir! You’ve stolen my laugh! Don’t even think about denying it. I heard it for myself only two minutes ago.”

“But that’s quite ridiculous,” the gentleman replied, ”I’ve already got a perfectly good laugh of my own, thank you very much. I’ve had it for years and I’m very happy with it. The notion that I would want to steal somebody else’s, least of all yours — well, it’s preposterous. Now why don’t you go on your way and we’ll say no more about it.”

Mr Fitzwilliam, a stickler for justice at the best of times, was not about to ‘go on his way’. He had been the victim of a heinous crime and he had the culprit sitting right there in front of him. It was perfectly obvious to Mr Fitzwilliam what had happened. A few minutes earlier he had been drinking with his colleagues from the court following what had been a long, hard week of work. This unsavoury character must have overheard him laughing at a rather fine joke his acquaintance, Mr Dimbleby, had made, and then proceeded to take the laugh for himself while no-one was looking. It wasn’t surprising that such a thing might happen. Mr Fitzwilliam had always been very proud of his laugh, a cross between a chuckle and a guffaw, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that other people might covet it. But for this gentleman to steal it from him and to then use it within earshot moments later — he couldn’t let him get away with that.

“Right,” Mr Fitzwilliam began to assert some control on the situation, “you’ve had your chance. If you had admitted what you had done and returned the laugh to me, I wouldn’t have taken it any further. The fact of the matter is, you are not only a thief but also a liar and I have no alternative but to report you to the authorities.” With the gentleman in question looking on with what Mr Fitzwilliam would describe as guilt but with what others in the room might have taken for bewilderment, Mr Fitzwilliam stormed out of the public-house and across the road to the police station.

“My name is Mr Fitzwilliam and I have been the victim of a robbery. You must come at once. I haven’t time to explain for I fear the criminal may be getting away…” Mr Fitzwilliam's instructions were directed at the first policeman he had seen on entering the door. Inspector Sharpe, an officer with numerous years of experience behind him and knowing instinctively when time was of the essence, adjusted his hat and promptly followed Mr Fitzwilliam back across the road. The accused, despite Mr Fitzwilliam’s suspicions that he might have already fled the scene, remained seated at his table and continued to drink with his friends as though nothing had happened.

“Here he is,” Mr Fitzwilliam formally introduced the suspect to Inspector Sharpe, “here is the man who has broken the law. You must arrest him immediately”.

“Let’s all just calm down for a moment,” Inspector Sharpe interjected, “would someone please explain to me what has happened here”.

“I am being accused,” the gentleman began, ”hard though it is to believe, I am being accused of theft; of stealing this ridiculous man’s laugh of all things. I deny it of course and my friends here will back me up. I have never stolen anything in my life and I am not about to embark on any would-be criminal career by stealing something I neither need nor desire.” His friends nodded in agreement and a couple of them tutted.

“Lies, Inspector. More lies. He has stolen my laugh and he has used my laugh. These people here have heard him use my laugh and the fact that they deny it means they are just as crooked as he is”. Mr Fitzwilliam, growing red in the face and waving his accusatory finger around the table of suspected accomplices, was determined to prove this man’s guilt.

“Mr Fitzwilliam, please calm down. I must first attain all the facts of the case before taking this any further”. Inspector Sharpe had been in this kind of situation countless times before. “Now, the gentleman denies the charge of theft and there appear to be no witnesses other than yourself to corroborate your story. Therefore, we must find some evidence of the offence to begin with”.

“Well, then, ask him to laugh,” Mr Fitzwilliam said, resolutely, “Ask him to laugh and there you will find all the evidence you need”.

“Very well. Would you mind laughing for me please, sir?” Inspector Sharpe enquired, “It would really help speed up my investigation”.

“No, I will not laugh for you, Inspector.” The gentleman responded.

“And why-ever not?” Inspector Sharpe probed, thinking he might be on to something.

“Because, Inspector — and I’m sure anyone else would feel the same in my situation — because I don’t find being accused of a crime of which I am innocent in any way amusing”.

Inspector Sharpe, with pen and notebook in hand but as yet not finding anything substantial to write down, pondered the situation for a moment and then concluded, “You make a good point, sir. I cannot force a man to laugh when mirth is the last thing on his mind. Perhaps, Mr Fitzwilliam, you might be able to provide me with a sample of the laugh first. I suggest you might not find it so hard to produce it for us in these trying circumstances — like anyone, I’m sure you know your own laugh like the back of your hand. Once we have your laugh as reference, we might be able to compare it to the gentleman’s at a later date, when the atmosphere is more conducive to laughter”.

Mr Fitzwilliam, his eyes widening in disbelief, blustered, “Inspector, this is scandalous and outrageous. There is nothing more I would like to do than to laugh for you at this point in time. However, you seem to be forgetting the minor detail that I cannot laugh. I cannot laugh because I don’t have a laugh to laugh with. Because this man — this man who you appear to be on the verge of letting get away scot-free — has brazenly stolen my laugh from me and yet there he sits, making a fool of us all.”

A smirk had appeared on the face of the gentleman. Whether this was due to the comical sight of Mr Fitzwilliam's growing agitation — which had caused him to become even more red in the face and to jump up and down on the spot like an angry tomato — or whether it was due to the fact that he knew that he was very likely going to get away with his crime, there was no way of knowing. However, the smirk soon turned into a grin and, soon after that, the grin turned into a titter and before anyone knew it the gentleman was laughing heartily and without inhibition for all to see and hear.

“There it is!” Mr Fitzwilliam exclaimed, “There is my laugh! There’s no denying it now. You have been caught red handed, sir. I’d like to see you talk your way out of this one. Thank you, Inspector. You can now arrest this thief and have him return my laugh to me post-haste.”

“But, Mr Fitzwilliam,” the gentleman said between chuckles, “you have made a terrible mistake .This is not your laugh. This is my laugh. Ask my friends here to confirm it if you like.” His friends all nodded and verified that the laugh was, and always had been the gentleman's for as long as they could remember. “Now, Mr Fitzwilliam, might I trouble you for an apology regarding these unfounded and false allegations?”

“Come now, sir,” Inspector Sharpe intervened, “I’m sure there was no malice on Mr Fitzwilliam’s part. It seems to me there has just been a simple misunderstanding. Might I suggest, Mr Fitzwilliam, that because this gentleman’s laugh is so very similar to your own and, perhaps, having your judgement impaired by alcohol, you have wrongly deduced that he has stolen the laugh from you?”

Mr Fitzwilliam, shaking his head in disbelief, defiantly said, “No, no, no! You have been hoodwinked, Inspector! There is no ‘similar’ about it. That laugh is exactly the same as my own laugh because, and I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, because it is mine. Alcohol or no alcohol, I know my own laugh when I hear it. Perhaps you can explain to me where my laugh is then, if this swindler hasn’t got it. Because I am certainly not in possession of it, I am sure of that.”

“I don’t know where your laugh is, Mr Fitzwilliam.” Inspector Sharpe shrugged, “But there is nothing to suggest to me that this gentleman has stolen it. I think it would be best for those concerned to go home and forget all about it. I’m sure your laugh will turn up eventually. Perhaps you will find it when you’re in a more cheerful mood. Goodnight, sir”. And with that, Inspector Sharpe followed the gentleman and his friends, who had already made their way to the door, out of the public-house, leaving Mr Fitzwilliam — a despondent, unsmiling and humourless figure — behind.





Later that night, Inspector Sharpe was woken up by the sound of laughter being carried on the breeze. He recognised it as the laugh of the gentleman he had encountered earlier, perhaps recalling the unusual events of the day with his friends. He could not know it was the laugh of a master thief who had managed to commit the perfect crime. Mr Fitzwilliam’s laugh was heard long into the night. But Mr Fitzwilliam was not laughing.

© Copyright 2018 E. G. Harris. All rights reserved.

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