The second-worst thing about being on a stakeout is that your butt goes numb after a couple of hours. I’d been sitting outside Big Dick’s Floors ‘n’ Beds since lunchtime. The car park had emptied as afternoon turned to evening, and now there was just me. Trying to look inconspicuous in a rusty lemon with no hubcaps. The agency’s stakeout car was a yellow 1975 Honda Civic.
I say that as if we have more than one car. We don’t. And I say ‘we’ as if there is a whole team of detectives working at Donoghue Investigations, but technically the only detective there is Fat Duncan. Have you ever heard of Nero Wolfe? He was a fat guy who sat at home all day and was a genius at solving crimes. Duncan Donoghue’s not like that. Apart from the being fat and sitting around all day parts. He’s an ex-policeman and thinks he’s Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter brother. I think he’s a lump of lard that couldn’t spot a clue if a naked girl was pointing a neon arrow at it and blowing a trumpet. Or a trombonist. The reason I’m better at this than him is that I can move around outside. Get through doors. Little things like that. Qualities an investigator needs. I once helped Fat Duncan solve a case he was working on. I’ve been solving cases for him ever since. He exploits me.
The ideal stakeout car is inconspicuous on the outside and comfortable on the inside. The Honda Civic was neither. The heater didn’t work and it smelled like an old running shoe stuffed with fish ‘n’ chip wrappers. And it wasn’t much bigger than a running shoe inside. Fat Duncan used to drive the Honda Civic, back when he could still squeeze behind the wheel. It was his weight that knackered the suspension. Hit a pothole and your head smacks against the roof. That’s why I wear the knitted hat. That and the fact that Wee Patsy said I was starting to get a bald spot. Going bald at thirty; why is life so cruel? Wee Patsy is Fat Duncan’s girlfriend. You know those seaside postcards with the fat woman and the little skinny bloke? Patsy and Duncan would look like that. If they both got sex changes.
As an investigator, I’m pretty good at understanding people, but I’ve never figured out what Wee Patsy sees in Duncan. And the fact that he has a girlfriend and I don’t? Another mystery I’ve never solved. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with me. Except that I seem to talk to myself a lot.
I sound bitter. I know I shouldn’t. It’s not like I have to do this. I could get a real job. Have a proper social life. But the thing is, I like doing this. I may not be Sam Spade, but I do get to do genuine detective work. I’ve always thought that ‘Joseph A. Lucke: Private Investigator’ would look good painted on an office door. If we had an office. The ‘A’ stands for Arthur, after my Grandad, but people don’t need to know that. It’s not exactly like the movies. Not many femmes fatale in Mansfield. But I did once see a guy who looked exactly like Joel Cairo. I couldn’t resist it: I went up to him and asked if he knew where the ‘black bird’ was. He said: ‘I think she’s just gone in for a kebab.’
The worst thing about stakeouts is having to piss in a McDonald’s paper cup and then get the lid back on. If you ever have to do this, my advice would be not to put the straw back in the lid. It’s too easy to put the cup down and forget. And the next thing you know, you’ve picked it up and put the straw in your mouth and, well, I’m just saying it’s nothing like a thick shake. Especially if it’s still warm. And wear dark jeans, ‘cos it doesn’t matter how good your aim is, there’s going to be splash-back.
Ideally on a stakeout there’d be two of you, then one could nip off for a slash while the other one kept watch. But Fat Duncan has never found another me. And he’d be too tight to pay up even if I did have an equally gullible twin. Oh, and don’t ever get out and piss up against the car. There’s always some old dear gets all hot and flustered and runs away screaming as soon as you get Little Joe out. Worse than that are the ones that come in for a closer look: ‘Ooh, I haven’t seen one of those since before the war!’ Like one of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies.
This particular stakeout was taking place outside the discount carpet place up on the old retail park. Not the one by the railway station, the one on the other side where the big DIY place used to be, before they went bust. According to Wee Patsy, it was called Big Dick’s Floors ‘n’ Beds because that’s where Dick Gorse liked to spend most of his time. Dick’s old lady, Charmaine, had obviously heard the same thing, because she wanted us to find out who Big Dick was sharing his floors and beds with. And she wanted photographic evidence to use against him.
I’m not one to judge people, obviously, but I didn’t reckon Big Dick was much of a looker. He was one of those big skin-head blokes with no neck. From the back it looked like his head was sitting on a pile of pink tyres for a kid’s bike. He wore slim-fit shirts that curved in where he curved out, so that your attention was drawn to the straining buttons. And the sweat stains. His trousers had that baggy, shiny-arse quality that you used to see in bus conductors’ uniforms. And he had a tattoo of the Cookie Monster on the back of his hand. Or maybe it was the Virgin Mary. It looked like he’d done it himself. Despite all of this, there was no shortage of Mansfield women who wanted to roll around with him on the pocket springs or the shag-pile. What did they see in him? Maybe it was something you couldn’t see.
There was a fat bloke called Dick Gorse,
Whose manners were really quite coarse,
But he’d girls by the score
And they came back for more,
He must have been hung like a horse
Not that I’m jealous, you understand. I once heard Wee Patsy telling someone that I was one of those skinny blokes with a big dick. At least I think that’s what she said. Not that I can remember her ever seeing Not-So-Little Joe. Unless she’d seen me pissing against the car one time.
“Oi, what you doing here, you lanky bastard?”
From nowhere, Horse-knob Dick was suddenly standing beside the car, slamming his palm against the side window. I jammed my thumb on the door-lock button and shouted the first thing that came into my head.
“Has my missus got you watching me?” he shouted.
His teeth were yellow and his face was getting redder. He looked like a boil about to burst. His shirt was untucked and there was a smudge of lipstick near the hem. That probably meant he’d got lipstick round his knob as well. Lucky bastard.
I turned the key in the ignition and the Honda lurched and stalled. I slipped it out of gear and tried again. The engine caught, and the usual poisonous blue cloud rolled out from the exhaust. The wind whipped it round and Dick caught a lungful, staggered back coughing. I threw the gear lever into first and let off the handbrake. The front wheels squealed as they spun on the tarmac. They do that when they’re bald. I got a last glimpse of Dick, eyes streaming, shaking his fist at me. It was definitely the Cookie Monster. With a halo.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw Kelly Kenway totter out of the carpet store on drag queen heels. I should have gone back around and snapped a couple of photos with my phone, but I didn’t want to risk getting a punch in the mouth. Kelly had been done for aggravated assault at least once to my knowledge, and Dick would have egged her on. Shame, it would have been a lovely bit of evidence: her red lipstick was smudged and she looked like she would have a sore throat in the morning. Or maybe I imagined that bit.
My flat was above a discount store. The store was basically a pound shop, but they charged more than a pound for some stuff. A door with peeling blue paint next to the shop opened onto a steep, narrow staircase. I pushed the door open, expecting to wade through the heap of free newspapers, takeaway menus and bills that usually lay on the mat inside. There was nothing. I should have taken more notice of this warning sign. The carpet on the stairs was worn through to the hessian backing; at the very edges of the steps you could see that it had once been red. They’d probably put it down to celebrate the founding of the Labour Party. At the top of the stairs was another blue door, its paint slightly less weathered.
I’d moved into the flat when I left school. It was the cheapest place I could find, and at the time I’d told myself that it was only temporary. I’ve been telling myself the same thing ever since. My key, for once, turned smoothly in the Yale lock of the upstairs door, and I pushed it open. There was a faint spicy smell inside, probably seeping up from the shop below. It didn’t completely mask the usual damp smell, but it did make it more bearable. It was better than the bog spray Shelly used to blast around the place: that used to make my eyes run. ‘Summer Meadow’ my arse. But Shelly’s stay had been brief – five-and-a-half weeks, if anyone was counting – and she’d been gone almost six months now. I had the place all to myself again. Except tonight I didn’t.
I spotted the neat stack of junk mail on the hall table and the open living room door at the same moment. I always close the doors when I go out. To stop the spread of fire. Or mice. Or whatever. The living room was dark, but I sensed someone was in there. That spicy smell had been aftershave.
There were knives in the kitchen and a baseball bat under the bed, but I would have to go through the living room to get to either of them. The only other door off the hallway was the bathroom. No weapons in there except shampoo and a plastic loo brush. Not even a bog spray. I was giving the loo brush serious consideration, but figured the only threat it offered was a dose of cryptosporidium, and I’d be at as much risk as the intruder.
“Who’s there?” I called.
“I am.” A deep voice. Male. Familiar.
“Shit!” I whispered.
“Been waiting so long I fell asleep,” the voice said.
I walked towards the living room door, reached in and snapped on the lights. The weak yellowish light shone on my uninvited guest. He was sitting in my favourite armchair, making it look like a child’s seat. He seemed even bigger than when I’d last seen him. Wide shoulders, broad chest, and thick arms. He stayed in the chair looking up at me, and I still felt small. He had curly black hair that was glossy with oil, big black eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and the kind of brown eyes that women call ‘melted chocolate’ and I call ‘shifty.’ His pencil-line moustache arched over thick lips and joined up with a little beard that was pointed like the Devil’s. He claimed that his name was Santiago Rodrigo Zambrano Hernandez de Salamanca. It looked terrible on my sister’s marriage certificate. It looked better on the decree absolute. His friends called him Tiago Zambrano or ‘Tee.’ I didn’t count myself as one of his friends. To me he was ‘Zorro’ or ‘Sandy.’ Or, if I was in a bad mood, ‘That Spanish Twat My Sister Married.’ His biceps were huge and there were tattoos on both of them: a burning skull with a rose in its teeth on one; a crucified Christ on the other. When a kid gets his first tattoo, it usually says ‘Mum.’ What mother could object to such a permanent display of affection? Though in Catholic families, the first tattoo is just as likely to be Christ or the Virgin Mary. Again, what mother could object? Tiago wore a tight blue tee-shirt, the little square pocket stretched across the curve of his pectoral, and the sleeves rolled to better display the muscles and the tattoos on them. The images were crisp and the colours vivid: no home-inked Muppets for El Zorro.
“You look pale,” I said.
“Prison does that to a man.”
I nodded. Was that why he was here? I had provided some of the evidence that helped put him behind bars. Tiago knew this. His voice was deep, like one of those old stage actors. Or Barry White. His Spanish accent was more pronounced when he was speaking to ‘the ladies.’ They thought it made him sound sexy. Or he must have thought they thought that. It made him sound like he had a short tongue.
“You got out early,” I said.
“The priest put in a good word with the parole board.”
“You have to suck his cock for that?”
“No!” He seemed genuinely shocked. Then: “I let him suck mine!”
He laughed out loud, a big joyful sound. I couldn’t help but smile. I quickly smothered it.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
I wanted to get this over with: get to A & E before it got crowded with Friday night drunks with pint glasses embedded in their faces.
Tiago tilted his head, looking up at me. I couldn’t read his expression: his eyes were dead, like a shark’s. I noticed, not for the first time, that one of the brown eyes had a very slight squint in it.
“Are you afraid of me, Joseph?” he asked.
“Am I meant to be?” It would have sounded better if my voice hadn’t cracked.
He raised one of his big black eyebrows.
“I know what you did,” he said.
“And you know why I did it,” I said.
I wasn’t about to apologise, and I don’t think he expected me to.
“I would have done the same for my sister,” he said.
I felt like my big brother was telling me I’d done something right for once, and it felt good. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have a big brother. That I shouldn’t allow myself to warm to this creep.
“Elise’s better off without you,” I said.
“How’s my boy?”
“Jack’s doing fine.”
“He’s seven now,” Tiago said: to himself more than to me.
“We told him you died in a plane crash,” I said.
This wasn’t true: we’d never tell him that.
Tiago’s brow creased, and I wondered if I’d pushed too far.
“Jack’s better off without me,” he said. “I would be a lousy father.”
When he said it, it sounded like ‘louse-ee.’
“Is this just a social call, Tiago?”
“You got somewhere to be?” he asked.
I had no answer to that. I was still standing there, waiting for him to get up out of the armchair and hit me.
“When I went away,” he said, “the police didn’t recover all of my cash. But it is gone.”
“I took it,” I said. He still didn’t move. “It’s in a trust fund – for Jack’s education.”
“That will buy some education,” he said.
“Jack’s a smart boy,” I said.
I was still watching Tiago closely, anticipating his first move. He seemed to be considering what I had said. Finally, there was the slightest nod.
“It is the right thing. The money is his.”
I let go of a breath I didn’t realise I was holding.
“This puts me in a difficult situation,” he said. “I have nothing left. And I may end up owing money to people. Dangerous people.”
“You shouldn’t gamble unless you can afford to lose,” I said.
Tiago nodded slowly.
“You are correct. Though not in the way that you think. Perhaps there is a way for you to help me…”
“I’ve got nothing to give you,” I said.
Tiago looked around my flat and nodded some more. He could see I wasn’t lying.
“But perhaps you can do a favour for me. Will you do that? For old times?”
There was a line that was approaching rapidly, and I had to decide whether I was going to cross it. The smart thing would be to say ‘No,’ and to say it now.
“Depends what it is,” I said.
Tiago smiled, thinking he had already snared me. His teeth were large and unnaturally white against his dark skin.
“It is nothing dangerous,” he said. “I was taking care of something for someone. I lost it. I need you to find it for me.”
He spread his open hands before him and shrugged: in the half-light, his palms looked pale. He looked up at me with his big doe eyes and his hands dropped back into his lap. He hadn’t stood up since I had come in. He wasn’t trying to dominate. He was almost pleading for my help. Whether this was genuine, or carefully play-acted, I didn’t know.
“This ‘something’ that you lost,” I said, “is it an illegal something?”
He raised a hand, palm down, and waggled it by way of answer.
“Not drugs?” I asked.
“Not drugs. Not for me anymore,” he said.
I knew that someone else had moved into his territory while he was away: drugs were no longer an option for him.
“It is just something that fell off the back of a lorry,” Tiago said.
“How big is this thing?” I asked.
“If the Rathbanians find it before I do, they will kill me.”
“I meant the thing you want me to find.”
“Oh. You know how big a shipping container is, for a truck?”
“That big,” Tiago said.
“That’s pretty big. What is it?”
“It is a container off a truck,” he said.
“This thing that fell off the back of a lorry…?”
“… is the trailer off the back of a lorry!” He flashed his white grin at me again.
“How do you lose something that big?” I asked.
“Is not easy,” he said. He was frowning again. “I was to take the trailer from place A to place B. Someone else was to collect it from place B. But when they arrived…” He spread his white palms in front of him again and shrugged.
“Someone stole your container full of stolen goods?”
He nodded solemnly.
“I know. What is the world coming to?”
“No respect,” I found myself saying. “Fat Duncan will never agree to help you.”
“I am not asking Fat Duncan.”
“I don’t do jobs on the side.”
“I’m not offering to pay you.”
“Because I took all of your cash?” I said.
“Because you would not take my money even if I offered it to you.”
Apparently Tiago had more faith in my code of honour than I did.
“I am asking for a favour,” he said, “as a family friend.”
“We are not friends.”
“No, we are closer than that. Aren’t we?”
“And if I say ‘no’?”
“If I do not have the container back before Monday, then I am a dead man.”
Tiago nodded. The Rathbanians had taken over the local drug franchise that he used to run. They had also taken over a lot of other things. Including the corner shop that used to belong to Mr. Patel.
“I can’t be involved in this,” I said.
“I wouldn’t ask if I had anyone else to go to, Joseph.”
He took out his phone and poked a finger at the screen, giving me time to think over the consequences of turning him away. On the one hand he was the Spanish twat who knocked-up my sister. On the other he was my nephew’s father.
“This container,” I said, “do I get to know what’s in it?”
“Do you want to?”
I thought about that for a moment. Maybe Tiago knew my code of honour better than me.
“No,” I said. “As long as it’s not drugs or people.”
“It is neither, I give you my word of honour.” He placed a hand over his heart, as if this was something I ought to take seriously.
I pretended that I did. “If Fat Duncan finds out about this, he’ll turn us both in to the police,” I said.
“That is a risk we will both have to take, eh?” He looked up at me. Again with the doe eyes.
“I will need some details about the missing container,” I said. “Colour, markings, where it disappeared from…”
My phone beeped loudly in my pocket and I jumped. Tiago laughed. I was worried the text was from Fat Duncan, demanding to know what I was doing conspiring with a known criminal. I pulled the phone out of my pocket.
“It is from Natasha in Russia,” Tiago said. “She wants to be friends, and perhaps more. There is a link to her social media page: she has some photographs for you to look at. Outdoor shots, very sexy.”
I’m not sure what struck me as more odd: that he had given the missing container a name, or that he had a social media account as ‘Natasha.’
“I don’t promise anything,” I said, “but I’ll look around.”
“That is all I ask.”
“How do I get in touch with you?”
“Send Natasha a private message – she’d like that.”
Tiago reached down beside the chair and then stood up. He was holding a litre bottle of rioja.
“Only from Tesco,” he said, “but we beggars cannot be choosers, eh? I was going to ask you to have a drink with me, but…” He shrugged and held out the bottle towards me. “For you and your lady to enjoy.”
“Sit down, I’ll find some glasses,” I said. “Shelly moved out.”
“Forgive me, I had not heard this.”
I glanced at him, but his concern seemed genuine.
“Tumblers okay?” I held up two Coca-Cola glasses.
“But of course, we are men.”
“Screw top?” I asked.
“Oh. No, it is a proper cork.”
“Fuck,” I said.
I wasn’t sure I even owned a corkscrew. Then I remembered that Shelly had left a Swiss Army knife in the hall drawer. I looked down at the penknife in my hand and wondered if I might not end up in A & E after all. I was relieved when Tiago took it from me and opened the wine.
If you’re shadowing someone and they spot your car, you use a different vehicle the next time you go out. This makes perfect sense. But it assumes that you have access to more than one car. The only other vehicle I had access to was a push-bike with no front wheel. Compared to that, the banana-yellow Honda Civic is an ideal stakeout vehicle. I had decided to park it in the supermarket car park across the road from Big Dick’s Floors ‘n’ Beds. I’d reversed the car up to the barrier overlooking the road, and was now kneeling on the back seat, peering out of the rear window through a pair of mini binoculars that Fat Duncan had probably stolen from the back of a theatre seat.
As far as I knew, Dick had kept his fly zipped since I’d spotted him with Kelly Kenway. This meant that, according to his usual schedule, he was three leg-overs down on the week. He had to be blue-balled and fit to burst by now. I felt sure that today I would see some action. So to speak. I’d charged up my phone and it was primed and ready to run the ‘catching a cheating spouse’ app. I’d bought lunch from the drive-thru McDonald’s, having agonised over the choice of cup size for my Coke. A ‘large’ offered greater storage capacity, but that much cola meant greater likelihood of needing to use it before I’d even finished the drink. I’d stuck with a ‘medium,’ a large fries, and a quarter pounder with cheese. I’d been tempted by an apple pie, but Fat Duncan always insisted that ‘dessert’ wasn’t claimable on expenses. Nor was going large. Tight bastard.
Lunch was a lingering whiff of grease and I was just thinking of peeing over the remaining ice in my cup, when I spotted movement at the side of the carpet store across the road. One of the red Transit vans was backing out and, as it turned, I could see that Dick was behind the wheel. He was obviously heading off for an away-game. I wondered what exotic location he’d selected for his afternoon’s nookie. I scrambled out of the back of the Honda and slid into the driver’s seat. The car coughed into life at the second attempt and blew out a cloud of smoke like a flatulent dragon. I drove the wrong way around the supermarket car park and out past a No Exit sign, cutting into the queue of traffic that had just started to move as the lights changed. I saw Dick’s dark red van disappearing northwards past the church, and set off after him.
I stayed as far back as I dared, half-a-dozen cars between me and the Transit, not wanting Dick to catch a glimpse of the yellow car in his mirror. He turned left at the Superbowl and headed up the hill. At the junction by the Sir John Cockle he was in the right-turn lane, and I thought he might be meeting Kelly for a pub lunch beforehand. But no, he kept going. He was in too much of a hurry for wining and dining. He headed north, and then took a left before he got as far as Chesterfield Road.
We drove along a road I didn’t recognise, past quiet little cul-de-sacs of big new-build houses with tiny gardens, and then we were out of suburbia and had fields and trees on either side of us. And still Dick kept going. Perhaps he was trying to make sure he wasn’t being followed to his illicit rendezvous. If so, he was doing a crap job of it. I kept a knackered Citroen people-carrier and a parcel truck between us, and he never knew I was there. He turned off right onto a little winding road with tall hedges on either side, and I turned in after him. I hung back: there were no other vehicles here to hide behind.
We were out in the wilderness now. Or as close to it as Mansfield could manage. We were driving past an old colliery site that the council and its waste contractors had wanted to turn into a landfill site, and that the local people wanted to turn into a nature reserve. Or at least somewhere they could take their dogs where they wouldn’t have to pick up the poo. For all I knew, the legal battles were still going on. One day, all of this could be covered in bin-bags. Or dog shit. For now, Nature was reclaiming what she could, and the only visible signs of human occupation were some faded yellow notices nailed to a low wooden fence that said things like ‘Not on My Doorstep!’ and ‘F**k Off BinCo!’ or whatever the waste contractors had been called.
This was our district’s green and pleasant land, and Dick Gorse was out in search of the wildlife. He turned off onto an unpaved road that was just two tracks of mud and flattened rubble with grass growing between them. The hedges on either side were overgrown and scratched the sides of the van is it made its way deeper into the jungle. I watched it disappear, and decided not to risk the little Honda on the track. I drove on to the next corner and pulled up onto the grass verge. I would follow the van on foot: he couldn’t be going far along that track: we can’t have been far from the edge of the world at that point.
If I had known I would be hiking through the Amazon, I wouldn’t have worn my good trousers and my best trainers. But a professional shamus had to deal with the unexpected on a daily basis, and so did I. I made sure my phone was zipped safely in my inside jacket pocket, in case I suddenly had to run from a pack of wolves, or a big rat, and set off after the departed carpet van.
As an experienced investigator, I knew I’d have no problem following the smears of black oil on the grass down the middle of the track. I’d catch up with the van, snap a few pictures of Dick and Kelly rolling around among the tussocks (or was it hassocks?), and then head home for an early tea. Or so I thought. I stopped to take a pee up against a coconut tree, or whatever it was, and was reminded of some advice my nephew had given me when he was three years old: Uncle Joe, when you have a wee up against a tree, you mustn’t touch it with your willy or you might get splinters in it. Jack was a smart kid even then. I wish he’d also said: Don’t stand too close, or it will splash back onto your good trousers. But as I walked further along the track, the damp spots soon dried in the dappled sunshine.
The oil smears on the grass had disappeared and there was no sign of the carpet van. I stopped, wondering if I’d missed a turn-off somewhere back along the track. I listened, but all I could hear was the twittering of birds and something making a loud ack-ack-ack sound. I half-expected to see a velociraptor break through the hedge further along the track. But all I saw was a black and white flash of something that might have been a magpie, but could equally have been a dodo.
I looked backwards and forwards along the track, trying to decide whether to go on or turn back. I’d got as far as “…if he squeals, let him go,” when I saw a movement up ahead. Someone walked across the track and disappeared into the hedge. It was like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland. If Alice had been a big girl in black Lycra leggings, a baggy white shirt, and high-heels. Whoever it was, was also wearing a headscarf and huge dark glasses, like mutant bug eyes.
I say ‘whoever it was,’ but it was obviously Kelly Kenway. A word to the wise, a headscarf and dark glasses does not constitute a disguise; instead they say ‘Look at me!’
I hurried along the track to where Kelly had disappeared, and found a footpath crossing the track at right-angles. I turned in the direction Kelly had gone: she was already out of sight around the next curve in the hedge-lined path. I hurried along, not wanting to get so far behind that I lost her too. Then I heard her voice up ahead.
“You are out of your fucking gourd!”
Then she started laughing. It was a smoker’s laugh, ending in a coughing fit. I scurried towards the sound, keeping down below the level of the hedge, and peered around the corner.
The red van was pulled up in a gateway, the back doors wide open. Dick had obviously just unveiled it like a cheap conjuror opening his magic cabinet. From his expression, he was disappointed with Kelly’s reaction. She was still bent over, gasping for breath.
“The back of a van?” She wheezed. “Seriously?”
The floor of the van appeared to have been covered with off-cuts of carpet. Cheapskate Dick hadn’t even thrown a mattress in there. I pulled out my phone and snapped a couple of pictures of them standing there. This might be as far as their tryst went today.
Kelly took another look at Dick’s crestfallen expression, and started laughing again, shaking her head. Dick was a bloke, with a capital ‘B,’ and so totally incapable of seeing this from Kelly’s point of view. Another bloke would have looked at his improvised shag-mobile and judged it ‘Genius!’ – so why was Kelly laughing herself hoarse? She must have seen the brick-red colour slowly rising in his face as his anger boiled, because she said: “Oh, what the fuck?” and crawled into the back of the van. With her bum in there, I wasn’t sure there was room for Dick as well, but he managed to clamber in after her. I took a picture of him pulling the doors shut, as Kelly pulled off her shirt behind him. Not quite all the evidence I needed, but we were getting there.
Not for the first time, I wondered how Dick managed it: winning them over despite a total absence of charm of any kind. Maybe he was wearing lucky trousers. Or one of those pheromone sprays off the internet. If he wasn’t, then you could bottle whatever he had and make a fortune. I’d even be tempted to try it myself.
I poked at my phone, making sure that the automatic flash was enabled. I didn’t think Dick could lock the van doors from the inside, and he wouldn’t even have thought it a necessary precaution. I planned to wait until the van started rocking, then pull open the back door and snap some pictures. And then leg it. I knew I could outrun Dick. Especially if he had his trousers round his ankles. At school, running away was one of the few things I was good at.
As the van began to creak on its suspension, I crept towards the back doors. Phone poised, I reached for the door handle. Deep breath. Trying to keep my hands steady. And steeling myself to face what I knew I would glimpse inside. Just the thought of it had the burger rising in the back of my throat. I turned the handle slowly, and the door mechanism gave a heavy metallic click.
Kelly’s voice: “What was that?”
I yanked open the back door and thrust the camera inside, my thumb stabbing the on-screen button to capture as many images as possible. I averted my eyes, not wanting to see the conjoined mounds of flesh within.
“Who’s that?” Kelly screeched.
“It’s that lanky bastard again!” Dick roared.
The van lurched as Dick shifted inside. I took this as my cue to leave. I ran away from the van, then stopped and turned to snap off a couple of shots of Dick emerging from the van. He appeared to be wearing only a tiny black lace g-string. Behind him, Kelly had her arms wrapped across her breasts, looking like a startled hippo.
“You bastard!” Dick ran towards me, barefoot and almost bare-arsed.
I ducked through a gate and ran across a field littered with bits of rusty ironwork. I thought the waist-high thistles would deter Dick from following, but he blundered after me, bellowing like a bull. If bulls bellowed curse words. I risked a glance over my shoulder: Dick was ploughing straight towards me, a thundering mass of red, sweaty flesh. I put on an extra spurt of speed: there was no way I wanted to come into contact with any part of that lump of nakedness.
I broke through another hedge on to a path that ran along the top of a hill that had once been a pit tip. Down at the bottom of the hill I could see an expanse of water that glistened in an oily rainbow sort of way in the afternoon sunlight. I vaguely remembered a news story about two kids drowning there. I ran along the hilltop path. I was still confident I could outpace Dick: I had longer legs, and had less weight to heave around. Still gripping my phone, I lengthened my stride, imagining I was a long-distance runner. Then I was hit from behind by a train. Or that’s what it felt like. I fell forwards, the locomotive on top of me.
“Give me that phone, you bastard!”
Dick’s voice in my ear, his breath rasping in and out like a steam engine. I held the phone as far away from me as I could, out of his reach.
“Give it here!”
He rolled me over on to my back and sat on my legs. Then he grabbed the sleeve of my jacket, trying to pull the phone towards him. I jerked my arm free and, in an attempt to protect it, shoved the phone down the front of my y-fronts. Dick leaned back and considered the situation for a moment, then reached forward and grabbed the fabric of my trousers with both hands and pulled, tearing the front open over my crotch. He thrust his hand into the ragged hole and began rummaging around for the phone.
“Give it to me!” He yelled. “Give it to me, you skinny fucker!”
At which moment, a little white-haired woman in a yellow anorak appeared on the path beside us, with her poodle on a red tartan leash. She picked up the poodle, covering its eyes.
“Don’t look, Trixie,” she said. “Oh, my goodness! I’ve never seen anyone dogging before.”
“What are you gawping at, you old bat?” Dick yelled up at her, his fingers still trying to find their way inside my underpants.
“Isn’t someone supposed to watch?” the old woman asked. “I thought that’s why you young people did it in the open.”
“We are not having sex!” I gasped.
“You’re not? Oh.”
She wandered away, looking quite disappointed. She would have been one of those coming in for a closer look when you peed up against your car, I felt sure.
“Got it!” Dick said, triumphantly.
“That’s not my phone!” I squeaked.
“Have you got a hard-on, you dirty bastard?” Dick pulled his hand away like he’s been scalded.
“I’ve never been groped before,” I said.
Then I heard Kelly’s voice: “I’m looking for two men. One of them’s wearing a g-string.”
“Up that way,” the old woman said. “But they’ve decided not to have sex after all.”
“What?” Kelly asked, incredulous.
“I know: all mouth and no action,” the old woman muttered.
I relaxed under Dick as he looked over his shoulder towards Kelly, then I suddenly heaved my whole body to the left, hoping to throw him off. As we started to roll over, Dick turned back and wrapped his arms around my body. Our combined momentum took us over, and I felt us drop as we tumbled over the edge of the path and began rolling down the hill, Dick still clinging to me. He was on top, then I was, then he was, over and over as we rolled down. I got glimpses of grass and sky, grass and sky. And all the time, Dick’s bared yellow teeth close to my nose. Then I saw what we were rolling towards: a lake of rust coloured water in the bottom of a stony crater that had once been part of the colliery.
“Look out!” I screamed.
Dick looked round, seeing what I had seen. He pushed himself away from me, our clinch broken. We rolled to a stop, a few yards from each other, and only a stone’s throw from the edge of the chemical lake. We were surrounded by a lunar landscape of broken rocks and lumps of concrete. Dick sat up, a triumphant look on his face. He was holding my phone. It could have been worse, I suppose: he could have been clutching a piece of my anatomy.
“Not my phone, please,” I said. “I’ll give you the PIN, you can delete the photos.”
Dick wasn’t in the mood for an acceptable compromise. He picked up a lump of concrete the size of his head. Placing my phone on the ground, he hit it with the lump of concrete. He did it again and again.
“No!” I wailed. I was still eighteen months away from being able to get a new phone on my contract.
Dick picked up the smashed phone and hurled it into the middle of the lake of rust-coloured water. Then he turned his attention to me, the lump of concrete still clutched in his hand. I scrambled to my feet. I had a brief mental image of police divers trying to find my body in the Irn-Bru lake. I needn’t have worried: Kelly Kenway came to my rescue. Sort of.
“What is your fucking problem?” she yelled into my face.
“I was only…”
She shut me up by punching me in the mouth. Blood ran down from my busted lip and dripped off my chin. Kelly swung another punch at my head, knocking me back down onto the ground. I could feel my eye beginning to swell as I tried to scramble backwards away from her.
Dick dropped the lump of concrete and reached for Kelly’s arm. She turned on him, and for a moment I thought she was going to punch him. From the look on Dick’s face, he did too. Then the red cloud must have lifted: Kelly stepped back, her hands relaxing out of their bare-knuckle boxer form.
“Come on, Kel,” Dick said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“You look a right twat in my underwear,” she said.
“You want me to take it off?” Dick waggled his eyebrows like Groucho Marx.
Please, god, no! I thought.
“If you think we’re playing hide the helmet after this, you’re dumber than you look.” Kelly turned and stomped away. She’d worn all-terrain heels for the occasion: they were only four-inches at most.
“Kelly!” Dick looked from her to me to the lump of concrete, the picture of a man with a dilemma. In the end, luckily for me, libido won out and he hurried after Kelly. The image of his jiggling buttocks still haunts my nightmares.
If I’d had a phone, I’d have called Wee Patsy to come and help me. As it was, I had to drag myself to my feet; adjust my torn flies as best I could, and stagger off in the direction I thought my car lay. Stumbling along, dirty, clothes torn, face caked with blood, I must have looked like an extra from a zombie movie.
It was an hour before I dragged myself behind the wheel of the yellow Honda, but it seemed longer. Never had I been more pleased to see the little car. I managed to drive home; though having one eye swollen shut made judging distances a bit tricky. But the only thing I hit was the kerb when I parked the car near my flat.
As I trudged my way painfully up the stairs, I looked back on my day and tried to figure out where it had started to go wrong. Philip Marlowe never got punched by a woman. And he never got his dangly bits pawed by a man in a g-string.