By Tom Leins
Cherry is 45, but in the half-light she looks 20. She dresses slowly, putting on a Tartan miniskirt and transparent bra. She has an eclectic wardrobe. Back when she used to work as an escort she specialised in dressing like a schoolgirl. Beauty can get away with almost anything. I don’t like to ask what she does for a living, and she tends not to ask me. Believe me – it’s better that way.
When I arrive at my office there is a girl leaning on the skip outside, smoking a high-tar cigarette. The skip pre-dates me, and I’ve worked here for a while. It has been full for years, but I guess no one wants to pay to have it removed. That’s the problem with this town: the rot has set in, but no one wants to do anything about it.
I nod, vaguely in the girl’s direction, but more to myself.
She has auburn curls and ruby-red lips. High cheekbones and smooth skin. I jam my key in the battered green front door and leave it open behind me.
She follows me up the rickety staircase.
“Mr Rey, have you heard of a man called Frank Bascombe?”
I don’t turn around.
I pause at the top of the stairs.
“I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good man by all accounts. Please come in.”
I offer her a seat and slide into my own worn-out swivel chair.
“How can I help, Miss …?”
“He was found hanged yesterday. The police told me it was suicide, but I disagree. When I discovered his body he was strung from the rafters, but his jaw was clearly broken. He had been punched repeatedly in the face by someone wearing a pinky ring.”
Now she has my attention. A few dirty cops have been picked off over the last decade, but no one has ever taken out a good guy like Bascombe. In most towns that would be headline news. In Paignton it is the punchline to a sick joke.
“Mr Rey, I would like to hire you to find out who killed Frank.”
I nod. I can’t afford to turn down work, no matter how dirty the job seems.
“Can I ask: what is your interest in Bascombe?”
“I was his mistress.”
The Polsham has been a cop pub since before I was born. The lounge bar is scattered with relics – decrepit old men obsessed with their own bad memories.
I search for a familiar face, but come up empty.
I consider talking to the barman, Crawford, but it would be a waste of energy. He’s a bloodsucker, who soaks up the tawdriest scraps of information for his own misuse.
Eventually I spot a guy named Jerry Connelly. He retired from the force last year. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just slightly boring. Either way, he has a reputation as a straight-arrow.
I raise my glass in his direction and he threads his way through the predominantly elderly crowd. He was one of the arresting officers in the Plastician case, and I was the man who tracked him down.
We shake hands, and his eyes exude genuine warmth.
“Need I ask, what brings you down to this snakepit on a weekday morning?”
I eye him curiously. His orange satin shirt seems to shimmer under the sickly pub lights.
“Alright, Joe – I’ll come clean with you. Bascombe was my ex-partner. I gave Helen Jones your details.”
I nod, but don’t thank him. I’m entering a world of shit, and he knows it.
“Did you see the body?”
“No, but I’ve seen the photos. I figure that the guy who did it must have been a trained boxer – hit Frank with the bottom three knuckles. Bust his face up pretty good.”
“Can you think of anyone on the force who wears a pinky ring?”
He holds his own fist up for inspection.
“It’s a long list.”
“What about chatter?”
“I’m out of the loop, Joe. No one trusts an ex-cop in this town.”
“When they started to bulldoze the old cop-shop a lot of old skeletons started to tumble out of the closet. I heard that Bascombe saw some cops smuggling garbage bags full of hash out of the evidence locker and into their patrol cars. Punches were thrown and hot blood was spilled.”
Jerry looks over his shoulder. He looks nervous.
“Listen, Joe – I’ve got to go. But, stay in touch, right?”
“Sure. I owe you a drink, Jerry.”
He shrugs, and offers a weak Bacardi-flavoured burp as he drifts towards the backdoor.
I finish my pint and make another lap of the pub. It’s filling up rapidly as lunchtime approaches. Not that the place sells food – unless you include stale sandwiches and rancid-looking pickled eggs. Beer is the definitely the most nutritious option.
As I head back to the lounge bar I notice a skinny, tubercular-looking man lurking outside the toilets. His cheap suit is littered with cigarette ash, and he has quick, dark eyes.
He makes no effort to get out of my way, and I try to edge past him. He grips my wrist – surprisingly firmly.
“Listen to me, Mr Rey. The department doesn’t want an unstable officer on the street any more than you do.”
His breath feels hot and sour on my cheek. If I wasn’t in a cop bar I would unspool his guts with my switchblade.
“Leave the investigation to the professionals, son. Otherwise somebody might get hurt.”
His dark eyes linger on my face, and a sick feeling washes over me.
I head to the bar for another drink, but when I turn around he has vanished.
Crawford glares at me from behind the bar. He was never a cop, but he has an irrational hatred of private investigators regardless. The guy seems like a loose cannon to me.
I drink quickly, in silence, sorting through the options in my head. Two choices: I do the right thing, or I do the easy thing.
It’s no choice at all.
I head outside, into the afternoon gloom, and after a few paces I start to feel queasy. I grab the pub wall for support, but my legs turn to jelly. Shit. Crawford must have spiked my drink. My veins start to churn with whatever he drugged me with.
I grab my face and it feels rubbery. I drop to my knees, and my vision goes translucent. I cough up a mouthful of sour bile – barely enough to fill a shot glass – and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Then I pass out.
When I come round, I’m propped up on an unmade bed in a grim-looking room that I don’t recognise. I roll over and dry heave, guts trembling.
Jerry Connelly is sat in front of me. There is blood on his knuckles and booze on his breath. He must have been mixing his drinks, because his breath smells like the slop-bucket at Paignton police station.
“The man who threatened you: his name is Randall Clay. He’s not a cop, but he has serious police connections. No one really knows who he is, or what he does, but he is into shit so deep you could stir it with a stick. He works with a man called Vincent Marsh. An ex-boxer with a mean streak. Marsh is dangerous, possibly mentally defective. He does whatever Clay tells him.”
“And these guys killed Bascombe over a garbage bag full of hash?”
“That was just the tip of the iceberg. Frank knew that and so did they.”
“Where can I find Clay?”
“Kick over enough rocks and he will crawl out eventually.”
Two days later.
It’s a raw November evening. The sky looks inky black. It seems to sag under the weight of the dark clouds.
Jerry has managed to trace Clay to a high-stakes poker game that takes place in a shitty flat behind the Baptist Church on Winner Street.
The alleyway I’m lurking in is unlit and smells of human waste. Grey smoke bleeds out of the air vent behind me and hangs overhead. I’m so bored I’m seriously considering taking up smoking, when Randall Clay emerges from the fire exit. Next to him is an obscenely fat man with a hangdog expression. His pinky ring glints as he casually lights a cigarillo.
I clear my throat.
“Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?”
Clay smirks and Marsh smiles lazily, eyes twinkling.
“Mr Rey. In case you didn’t get the message: dead meat is the best that you can aspire to. Walk away, while you still can.”
I have no past to speak of, and a future that generally keeps me awake at night. I drag Jerry’s pump-action shotgun out from under my coat.
“Everyone needs something to look forward to, right Randall?”