Everyone in my line, whether they admit to it or not, harbours something of a Marlowe fantasy. But I have more: I went to school with Raymond Chandler.
He was educated at Dulwich College, an exclusive school for rich kids, whilst three generations and half a mile away I attended Kingsdale. The sort of school that if league tables had existed back then would have come bottom in everything. Except fighting. We were good at fighting at Kingsdale. Even me. With a name that makes schoolboy rhymes, I had to be.
I saw Frank
Having a wank
His cock looked like a Matchbox tank
Mostly, I got the worst of it. I was small for my age with a weak ankle, but it was a matter of honour, not self-preservation. And things changed in the fifth form. I shot from five three to five eleven and three-quarters. Which is just as well since, in certain situations, a short-arse of a private investigator can be a little vulnerable.
So I’ve a genuine connection. I grew up seeing things that Raymond Chandler saw. We’re united by the Victorian brickwork of SE21.
No surprise then, as I wiped my nose and stepped up onto the tread outside number 36 Campbell Row, the place where this story begins, that I was wondering: goon or dame?
Either side of the front door, Doric pilasters rose to meet the fanlight, creating the ghost of an entry arch. And before that, tucked in hard against the flanking railings, a boot-scraper squatted on lion-like haunches. I stopped to scrape my trainers. It felt the respectful thing to do. Not to the owners – I’d have been happy to deposit dirt all over their carpets – but to that easily overlooked swag of iron that had been offering its services to all who had called there since about the time Wellington met Napoleon across the mud of Waterloo. I reckoned that kind of constancy deserved to be acknowledged.
Having shown respect with both feet, I gave my nose another wipe and rang the doorbell, still wondering: goon or dame? That was the fantasy, the thought that behind the next door may lurk a goon with a gun or a dame with legs. It brought a frisson of sun-baked Californian menace to the wearying trudge down streets as cold and grey and wet as a drowned man’s shadow, between doors that only opened, if they opened at all, on the desperate and despairing.
Sometimes, I dream of an office. It has FBI – Frank Bale Investigations – engraved on a brass plaque beside its door. I put my feet on its desk. I bark down its phone. And I have a bunch of other mugs do all the legwork. But in the waking hours, I work alone in a grim 2-D world of debt and divorce. It’s a world far removed from Los Angeles, from ocean wave or mountain view. It’s a world where failure is all that looms. No wonder my nose is always running. If I had had anywhere to go, I’d have run too.
Campbell Row looked different, though. It even smelled different. The aroma of freshly mown grass, coming from the small public garden across the road, masked any whiff of failure seeping through its Regency walls. As I’d walked along snuffling, the clouds had parted, the sun had shone, and a traffic warden had given me a look – the old fisheye – like he wanted to issue me with a ticket just for being there.
The residents-only parking bays were like presentation boxes, each wide open and displaying a single jewel, as flawless as the Millennium Star with, judging by the flashing car-alarm lights, nearly as much security: a white Mercedes, a gold BMW, a black Range Rover Vogue – undented bodywork glowing with the warm light of wealth.
Across the pavement, behind black railings, sash windows gleamed within foils of white rustication. And higher up, beneath smaller windows and yellow brick, pendants of pink and red busy Lizzies hung from cast-iron balconies too small for human use. It was a fresh, rich, shimmering street. If Heaven existed, it would look a little like Campbell Row, only with angels instead of traffic wardens . . . and doors that were easier to get opened.
There was someone at home. They were watching TV. I could hear it. I rang again. The door remained closed. There was no hurry. I didn’t have any better ways to spend a Friday morning. To keep me amused and to give them encouragement, I leant on the doorbell. I heard more TV. I heard bangs and a bump. Eventually, I heard the latch turning, too.
Goon or dame?
Dame was closest. Only she was standing on a chair, her mouth streaked with chocolate cake.
“Hello, princess. Is your mummy there?”
“My mummy’s not well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, brushing past her.
The door gave straight on to a living room with a large blue sofa, a glass-topped coffee table, a braided rug, and, above the chimneypiece, an oil painting. It showed a maritime view with cliffs, bay, and sea stacks. The day was fine. No wind. No waves. In the middle ground, a yacht was becalmed in smooth turquoise. It was of no particular merit. I hate to be critical of creativity, but I tend to think amateur artists should spurn representational scenes and go with something abstract – less chance of their failings showing through. The television set was playing cartoons, its volume a little too high for comfort, and across the room, opposite the door, a staircase was strewn with toys.
There was movement amongst the toys. It was the dame at last. She looked down from the turn in the stairs. She had no legs, just a man’s dressing gown and bedroom slippers.
My instructions had said thirty. She looked older.
“What are you doing?”
Her voice was barely audible above the sound of the TV. She mustered several extra decibels and screamed, “Poppy Louise, turn that thing off!”
The child darted across the room, took the remote out of a cake tin, and muted the sound.
“What are you doing in my house?” she said, but only just, her voice reverting to a low, pained groan.
“Mrs Madeleine Knights?”
“I’ve got some legal papers for you, love. From your husband.”
I gave the envelope a little wave, and she followed it with her eyes like a creature wary of attack.
“I’ve got some already,” she said, without meeting my gaze.
“Yeah, I know. You were supposed to return the Acknowledgement of Service. They don’t go away if you ignore them. You just get a visit from the likes of me.”
She came down. Her steps heavy but slow as if at every footfall she might find an abyss instead of a solid stair. She avoided the toys, guided by some sixth sense, her eyes always fixed on the envelope. I crossed the room to meet her.
She turned her head and held up a hand, like she was protecting herself from a blast.
“Please go now.”
“I’m on my way, love. I just have to give you this.”
Now she looked at me. She had tired green eyes. She reached for the envelope, and it suddenly seemed like the heaviest thing in the world. She buckled under, brought to her knees by the full weight of a disintegrating marriage, and sobbed at my feet.
“Look, love, like I said, it won’t go away. Take my advice. See a solicitor. And quickly.”
I hurried out into the purifying incense of cut grass. Then I broke the golden rule of leaving a job: I looked back.
Mrs Knights was rocking backwards and forwards whilst her daughter tugged at the sleeve of her dressing gown. A tear was cutting a track through the smear of chocolate cake on the little girl’s cheek. A crying woman I could deal with. I know; there’ve been hundreds. But a crying woman and a crying kid?
I guess you could call it empathy. I’ve never been a woman, but I was a kid myself once.
I have a second golden rule: ignore empathy. It’s nature’s way of playing you for a sucker.
I went back in anyway.
I was breaking the rules the way an inept bare-knuckle bruiser breaks bones in his hands. And, like a bruiser mid-bout, the pain only came on afterwards.
On the silent TV, a cartoon cat was flattening a cartoon mouse with a big hammer.
“Here, love. Take this.”
I held out my handkerchief, remembered I’d been using it all morning, and re-pocketed it faster than a cardsharp with a spare ace. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t tried to take it. She hadn’t even looked.
On the TV, the flattened cartoon mouse popped back into shape and fought back with an oversized stick of dynamite.
“Come on, love. Think of your little girl. She needs you to be strong. She needs her mother.”
She stopped rocking. I placed a hand under her arm, and she stood up without resistance.
“That’s the way. Now, why don’t you give your face a wash and get dressed? I’ll put the kettle on. I know tea won’t solve your problems, but neither will tears. And as my old nan used to say, tea tastes a lot less salty.”
She climbed the stairs without a word.
I spoke to her daughter.
“Hello again there, princess. I’m Frank.”
It was the placatory, friend-making voice I used for people’s pets. It doesn’t always work so well with their children. It certainly didn’t with this child; she was about as talkative as her mother. I should have just thrown some of my chocolate doggy drops at her feet. She spun away from me, dived for the remote control, and restored sound to the television set. The mouse was dancing a jig on the head of the comatose cat. I went in search of tea.
The house had a basement kitchen. There was a large pine table scattered with magazines and a sink full of washing-up. Crumbs were everywhere. It looked like the cleaning lady had left with the husband. I hooked a couple of mugs out of the sink and rinsed them under the tap. There was a nearly empty tea caddy lying behind a completely empty breadbin, a leaking bag of sugar in the cupboard above, and some milk in the fridge. The milk had turned, but I found a lemon in the fruit rack, still only in a very early stage of decay. I picked up a magazine and waited for the kettle to boil. I was feeling quite at home. It must have been the mess.
The magazine wasn’t worth a riffle, but there was something interesting inside: the original divorce papers, lodged between the pages of an article on how to revitalise a room using pattern and texture. I pressed the corners of the envelope and peeped at what I could through the resultant gape. It wasn’t much. I slipped it all out and had a skim through the particulars, just to remind me.
They read like he was really planning to hammer her, impugning her mental stability. He was after a divorce and the kid, too. I stuffed everything back without lingering over details. Not that I have any qualms about prying into the sad and salacious intimacies of other people’s broken lives. In this job, that would be silly. I just didn’t want Mrs Knights to catch me at it. Though I needn’t have worried; it was another fifteen minutes before she made her reappearance.
‘Reappearance’ was the apposite word. She’d worked that voodoo thing women do. A splash of this and a dab of that, and they’re suddenly younger and sexier than you ever imagined. Her face had a bloom. Her eyes were verdant. Her hair was burnished. She’d even sprouted legs. If we’d been out on the street, I would have whistled. Instead, I nodded towards the kettle and said: “Tea’s up. Well, it will be soon. The water’s already boiled. Three times.”
“I’m sorry about before,” she said from the bottom of the kitchen stairs. She had a new voice, too. It was soft and effortless, all overtone of pain vanquished. “I don’t know what came over me. You must think me terrible. I’m not a bad person. I’m a good mother. It’s just that . . .”
“I know, love. Forget it. Black or lemon?”
She didn’t answer. She smoothed a stray tress back from her face and asked, “Did your grandmother really say that?”
“That thing about tea and tears.”
“Sure. My nan used to say that. All the time. She also used to say, ‘Hot water may cleanse the pot, but a good cry will cleanse the heart.’ That was my nan – a nan for all seasons, a saying for all reasons.”
I’m not sure if she smiled. She might have done, a little, but I wouldn’t put it in an affidavit.
“So, how do you take it, love?”
This time she frowned, unmistakably. I thought she must have spotted the white discolouration, like an old man’s five o’clock shadow on the lemon’s pitted chin, but she said, “Do you call every woman ‘love’?”
Her voice had acquired an edge, like a schoolteacher about to issue a detention.
“Not the ones I do love.”
“And what do you call them?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a long time.”
“You’re lucky,” she said and sounded like she meant it. The teacher was back in the staff room. Pity, detention might have been fun.
“Not as lucky as they are.”
She came fully into the kitchen and sat down.
“Lemon, no sugar,” she said. “He wants this house, you know. And Poppy Louise.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, without saying how.
“Well, he can’t have them. I won’t let him. You tell him I won’t let him.”
“Not my job, love. I’m just the delivery boy.”
And the tea-maker. I filled the mugs, added a slice of lemon for her, sugar for me, and sat down. She finished fumbling with a battered cigarette packet and slid it across the table.
“Do you smoke?”
“Only before and after sex.”
I took one out. She didn’t offer me a light.
She smoked and talked. The usual sort of thing about what a bastard her old man was. How she’d come to London from Dorset to study, met him straight from college, given up any idea of her own career to throw her lot in with his, and then, as time passed, discovered him to be a swine of the first order.
I fiddled with the cigarette for a while and then tucked it behind my ear.
“Maybe later, then,” I said.
She didn’t break from her diatribe. She didn’t need me there. She just needed someone to talk at. I switched off and counted the cork tiles on the kitchen floor.
“. . . and he has the gall to accuse me of unreasonable behaviour.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I’d counted the floor tiles, the wall tiles, the handles on the drawers and cupboards, and was listening again. I was worried. She seemed to be working herself up into another crisis.
“Well, I’m not going to stand for it. He’s got a bloody nerve, and I’m not going to stand for it. You tell him that. You tell him from me. Tell him I’m not going to bloody stand for it.”
“Like I said, love, that’s not my job. You need to get yourself some legal advice. Fast.”
“And what exactly is your job, Mr . . .?”
“Bale. Frank Bale. Private Investigator.”
That’s how I always introduce myself. I never add the ‘and Process Server’ bit, though, at times, that would give a truer representation of the facts.
I held out a hand. She didn’t take it.
“Are you investigating me, Mr Bale?”
I shook my head.
“I know a bloke at Quayles. He puts a little work my way. Every now and then. Just process serving, but it helps to keep the wolf from the woodchopper’s axe. It’s either that or the sperm bank. And I’ve always reckoned that if a woman wants my seed, she can have the decency to suck it out of me herself.”
Occasionally, I speak without thinking. If I went to a psychologist, they’d probably say it’s compensation for all the time I spend the other way round. I didn’t think Mrs Knights would have understood, though. She was giving me a look that made me glad the block of knives was positioned on the worktop my side of the kitchen table.
“Every time I think I might be starting to like you,” she said, weaponless – apart from the suddenly ballistic-looking mug on the table before her – “you go and say something vile.”
She gripped the mug’s handle. I got ready to take evasive action. I’m not without experience in dodging crockery thrown in anger; my ducking reflex is second to none.
“Usually” – I kept on talking – “I find a little humour helps ease the tension.”
“Are you tense, Mr Bale? Do I make you tense?” she asked, in a manner that did rather, and began flexing her wrist, rotating the mug-shaped missile backwards and forwards on the tabletop.
“Not me, love. I was just worried that . . .” I cut myself off mid-sentence. An expression of concern for her mental well-being wasn’t going to help much. I offered her an apology instead. “Look, sometimes my mouth gets a little bigger than my brain, I’m sorry. Let’s forget about it, shall we?”
In my experience, apologies, sincerely meant or not, frequently do help. And this one seemed to nudge her back into equanimity. She raised the mug, took a sip from the tea it still held, and returned it to the table, unlaunched.
“Yes, let’s do that.” She paused for a moment, still gripping the mug’s handle, and then said: “So, you know someone who works at my husband’s solicitors?”
“Yeah, I worked there myself. For a while.”
“But not any more?”
She released the handle and put her palm lightly down on the table, deactivating the mug-missile. She had beautiful fingers. I didn’t tell her that, not then, but I stood my ducking instinct at ease. In retrospect, a foolhardy move.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I found another source of income.”
“No choice. I got the elbow. Unprofessional conduct – that’s what they called it.”
I didn’t expand. Telling her the whole sorry story wouldn’t have done either of us much good:
Newly ex-wives, pumped up by the legal victories I’d won for them over their newly ex-husbands, had re-channelled their newly found enthusiasm for vengeance at the next man to incur their displeasure: me. I’d enjoyed more than just fiduciary relationships – it was a perk of the job – but after I’d denied each exclusivity, they’d turned feral and brought me down in a pack.
An apology on a cushion in a platinum box wouldn’t have helped me out of that one.
“Unprofessional conduct? You do surprise me, Mr Bale. Please, do go on.”
“What can I say? I guess libido and professionalism just don’t mix.”
Her brow puckered. It was an ugly sight, like disease marks on a lush green leaf. But the mug remained, safely disarmed, on the table in front of her.
“Are all men complete and utter bastards?”
“Not all. Some are bastards. Some are just fools.”
“And which are you, Mr Bale? Are you a bastard or a fool?”
“I guess you could file me away under ‘foolish bastard’.”
She laughed. I’d made her. It was good to see. Her legs even grew a bit.
“I guess I probably could.”
At that point, the whole atmosphere changed. We talked in a sociable manner. It had been a long time since I’d talked to a woman in a sociable manner. Even longer since I’d sat and talked to a woman in her kitchen in a sociable manner. I liked it. We had more tea, from mugs that merely looked like drinking vessels, whilst I explained the fundamentals of divorce law, and Mrs Knights shared more of her life story, her legs growing longer all the time.
An hour and a half later, satiated with black, sugary tea, but feeling peckish and figuring an offer of lunch wasn’t going to be on Mrs Knights’ agenda for today, I stood up.
“Well, can’t hang around like last summer’s postcards. I’ve an affidavit of service to swear.” She may have looked disappointed, though it was probably just my ego. “But here’s my business card.”
I like giving out my card. I do it at every opportunity.
Frank Bale. Private Investigator. If I can ever be of service . . .
But I needed to get a new batch printed.
I dropped the card onto the table. Mrs Knights picked it up and read it out loud, like she was proving that she possessed literacy skills.
“Frank Bale. Private Investigator and Process Server.”
“Are you any good?”
“I always say I am.”
“You’ve crossed out your mobile number.”
“Yeah, in this job a mobile’s just a liability. I learnt that one the hard way.”
“Oh. How so?”
“Well, picture this if you can. I’m crouching behind a big oak tree on Tooting Bec Common. About to take photos of an errant husband getting his jollies from one of the Common whores. My phone goes off. The husband flees the scene like he had a green chilli pepper up his rectum. The whore proves herself a better man. She flies at me with a branch. Smashes me right in the face. Bang. Then chases me all the way back to the car park, hurling foul-mouthed curses at the top of her voice.”
“Too right, ‘Oh dear’. She broke my camera. Cut my head, too. See?”
I pushed back my hair to show her the scar at the top of my forehead.
“Must have been a big branch,” she said through what appeared to be a suppressed smile.
“It was more like a small tree, really. With thorns.”
“I’ve never carried a mobile since.”
“I can quite see why. You’re obviously not a man who can switch things off,” she said and led the way back up the kitchen stairs to the front door.
“Pops, say goodbye to Mr Bale.”
Poppy Louise looked up and sucked her lips. It could have meant goodbye. It could have meant good riddance. It could have meant anything. She turned back to her playthings.
Mrs Knights opened the front door and said: “You must forgive Pops. It’s a stressful time for her, too.”
“Sure, I understand.”
“You’re a strange man, Mr Bale. I don’t know if I like you or not.”
“Probably best not, eh?”
Then before closing the door, she added: “I’d like to thank you, all the same.”
“For listening. You’re a good listener, Mr Bale.”
“Yeah, I’m going to be reincarnated as a social worker. That’s bad karma for you.”
She laughed again. Not for long, but it stayed with me right to the end of the street.
Back on the main road, I caught my reflection in the plate glass of a Turkish restaurant. It came as a surprise. There was an inane grin on my face. I felt it accompany me into the station and down the escalator, only disappearing once I was standing on the train with a fat-man’s belly in the small of my back and an Aussie’s rucksack pressed against my jaw. The grin was lucky; I couldn’t disappear. But at least, six stations later, I was able to sit down – for all of three stops.
I bought a sandwich from the kiosk at Stockwell Station. It was only then, as I turned from the counter, that I realised I’d been followed. A goon was standing by the phones in the middle of the vestibule. His shoulders were as broad as a milkmaid’s yoke, his hands hanging off the ends like the staves from a pair of broken pails. He had a head like an egg. Hard-boiled. Not easily cracked.
Milkmaid? Egg? The goon was a walking farmyard.
His face was a bit wonky, like it had been painted on by children. It was a face that I recognised. Its reflection had been right behind mine in the restaurant window. Now it looked straight at me, as though it was trying to start a fight in a bar. There might have been a bull in the farmyard, or just a chicken. I wasn’t prepared to find out. I put lunch on hold and headed back to the trains. I paused before the head of the escalator. The goon hadn’t followed. He’d stayed behind the ticket barrier and was making a call.
I rode the Victoria Line south and served the statutory demands and bankruptcy petition that I’d been saving for later. I remained vigilant, but the only tails were on the hindquarters of bow-legged mongrels, nosing over damp patches on the pavement or rooting through the insides of torn bin bags. It must have been like this all day. I had, just for a minute, let the fantasy run away with me.
There were no ructions that afternoon. Each debtor received my call with a quiet acceptance of the inevitable, like I was the grim-reaper and they no longer cared. Then, when that was done, I took my sandwich to Brockwell Park and shared it with the ducks.
I like parks. They’re where I go to think. Sometimes, to not think. Campbell Row had spared some of its sunshine. Early autumn sun. The best kind of sun; you can bask without burning. I had a clear diary for the rest of the day, so claimed a bench beneath a pergola hung with unripe passion fruit and sat, not thinking, whilst I made some vitamin D.
Vitamin C is what I really needed. At first, the fresh air encouraged my nose to drip. Then, as I played statues with a heron and lost, every time, I felt the sniffles slow and thicken, preparing to block my nostrils as thoroughly as a jack-knifed tanker blocks the Dartford Tunnel.
After a couple of hours, the heron, tiring of our game, rose from the floating pallet in the middle of the pond and flew off into a sky as pale and blue as the eyes of a dream lover. With my handkerchief at the limits of its useful capacity, I left nature for my place and a box of four-ply tissues. Mansize.
I was renting the basement of a converted early-Victorian end-of-terrace, converted from house to flats to dump. I passed the stinging nettles and ragwort, hopped across the Michaelmas daisies, dodged the crumbling, but still proud, front steps, and rounded the dustbins to where five almost-hidden steps dropped to the area outside my peeling window and matching door.
For much of the summer, the white jasmine I’d planted in a sawn-down plastic water butt had spread up its trellis and around the front door to create a scented force field, keeping the outside world from following me in. But now the plant looked bare and broken, like it was waiting for the bin men to come and take it away, and the outside world had cut its own latchkey.
I couldn’t say any more if I worked from home or slept in the office. It was just my place. It was all I had – that and my beat-up Fiesta. And if I didn’t make next month’s rent, I’d be working and sleeping in the car.
There was a flyer in the letterbox. I plucked it out. It was from the Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, advising of a spate of break-ins in the area. Local youths were suspected. All concerned residents were invited to attend the next meeting. I wasn’t one of them. Having nothing of value was all the security against theft I needed. I scrunched up the flyer and threw it across the room, aiming for the wastepaper basket in the alcove. It was close.
I kicked off my trainers. Mrs Knights’ cigarette was still behind my ear, a touch bent but perfectly smokeable. I straightened it up and placed it in the old cigar box where I keep unfranked stamps, elastic bands, paperclips, pins, and other odds and sods that I might want to use one day. I returned the cigar box to the kitchen drawer. Then I plugged in the kettle and turned on the radio.
A politician, Orlando Lyons, was expounding his belief in family values. I’d seen him in the newspaper before now. He was only my age – give or take – but he spoke with the smarmy tones of someone who thinks he’s schooled to be a leader, the way my lot thought they were schooled to stand in fortnightly dole queues.
He’d been expounding his belief last week, too. And the week before that. He’d probably be expounding it in the papers again tomorrow. The silly season ended last month. Somebody really ought to tell him.
“Yeah,” I said. “The Mafia are big on family values.”
I felt like some music. Something classical. I retuned to Radio 3.
I was leaning over a bowl of steaming water and menthol eucalyptus, a towel draped over my head and a Tchaikovsky violin solo wringing pain out of the air all around me, when the telephone rang. The answering machine took it, but on hearing the voice, I sloughed the towel, killed the radio, and picked up.
“Yeah,” I replied, wiping down my face.
“Oh good, I thought you were out.”
“I’m sorry. Is it inconvenient?”
“I can cope.”
“Good. Listen. It’s Maddy.”
“Who?” I said, unnecessarily.
“Maddy. Madeleine Knights. From this morning. Nicholas Knights’ wife.”
“Ah! Hello again, Mrs Knights.”
“Please, call me Maddy.”
“Hello again, Maddy.”
“You sound different. Are you all right?”
“Telephones – they distort your voice.”
I blew my nose and spat into the towel. I couldn’t help it.
“You don’t sound well.”
“Just a cold. I’m fine.”
“Good, I’m glad. Listen to me. Please. I want to employ you.”
“I want you to follow my husband. Take some photographs.”
“Because he’s not fit to be Poppy Louise’s father.”
“Because he gambles, and he consorts with loose women, ladies of the night. Every night. What kind of example is that to set a small child? Just imagine the sort of unhealthy home environment she’ll be brought up in if the judge grants him a residency order. I can’t allow it. I can’t permit him to have parental care. I have to show the judge exactly what sort of a man my husband is. That’s why I need your help. I need you to get the evidence I need. Something to show the court.”
“You want me to be your stick of dynamite.”
“Forget it. I’ve seen one too many kids’ cartoons.”
“So will you do it, Mr Bale? Will you help me? And Poppy Louise?”
“Look, Mrs Knights, Maddy, I’d like to, sure. But I don’t work for peanuts. I’m not a social worker. Yet.”
“No, Mr Bale, of course not. I have money. I sold some earrings this afternoon. I’ll pay you five hundred pounds.”
I thought for a moment. Taking a few pics? It should be a snap. Probably only a hundred, tops.
“Three hundred should do it,” I said. I’d never negotiated down my fees before, but I’d never had a client volunteering to pay me way over the odds before. Besides, two hundred quid would buy her and the kid a whole float load of fresh milk. “Take the rest grocery shopping.”
“Three hundred it is, then. Thank you.”
“Half up front, half on delivery, expenses on top. I’ll need his photo, too.”
“I’ll look one out.”
“A recent one’s best.”
“Of course. I’ll see you have everything you need. Come tomorrow. Can you? I know it’s Saturday but . . .”
“Tomorrow? Yeah, I can do that. About twelve o’clock, say.” I could have been there at nine, but I didn’t want to appear needy.
“Thank you, Mr Bale. Poppy Louise thanks you, too.”
“Sure,” I said and, with uncharacteristic generosity, added, “And don’t worry about the expenses.” I was feeling light headed. It must have been the effect of all that steam and eucalyptus.
I was also feeling tired. I hit the sack early but happy. Three ton from Mrs Knights added to my latest work for Quayles, and I was snug in my palace for another calendar month.
I blinked the sting of shampoo out of my eyes, dried off my hair with a towel smelling of menthol, and went to the wardrobe. A good suit never goes out of style – which is just as well since my two good ones were both survivals from my days in the matrimonial department at Quayles when I earned a salary and shopped bespoke. Neither of them really went that well with scuffed trainers, but I decided a dame like Mrs Knights would favour the navy with red pinstripe. The moths had favoured it, too. So I turned up in the steel-grey glen check with strawberry daiquiri lining.
I didn’t have any problems with the door this time. It opened before I could ring the bell. Overnight, Mrs Knights’ legs had continued to grow. They went all the way from the ground to her hips and back again, just the way they should. Behind her, Poppy Louise ran about with a space-age gun that made a noise like an amusement arcade every time she pulled the trigger. She stuck it through her mother’s legs and shot at me. I staggered like I’d been hit, and she shot at me again.
“Best I don’t come in,” I said to her mother and waggled a finger in the direction of my nose. “Wouldn’t want the kid to get my germs.”
“Are you quite sure you are all right?”
“Just a common cold.”
“I have the distinct feeling that there’s nothing very common about you at all, Mr Bale.”
I didn’t flirt back. I was feeling too rough.
“I’m a bit chesty, too,” I said and gave a little cough to prove it.
I left ten minutes later with fifteen £10 notes, three photographs of Mr Knights – he was older than me but with a better tan – the address of a hotel in Bloomsbury, and half a blister pack of aspirin.
I had nothing on for the rest of the day, so went back to my place and crashed. It wasn’t a restful sleep. I woke up in a cold sweat, struggling for breath and shivering.
I’d had a dream. I was walking in the park with Mrs Knights, holding her hand, whilst Poppy Louise ran amongst the trees, protecting us from aliens. Happy families. I pressed out a couple of aspirin, swallowed them with a glass of tap water, and didn’t stir again till seven.
My breathing was a little easier. I dined on cream of tomato cup-a-soup with croutons of stale bread, washed, dressed, and drove to Bloomsbury with my camera. That was the difference between Marlowe and me. He never touched divorce work. But then people in my world never got murdered. At least, that’s what I thought back then.