FIRST CHAPTER - GREG ARIES PRIVATE DICK
I guess these things usually start with the outline of a woman in the frosted glass panel of an office door. An office door with my name stencilled on it in fine gold leaf. Maybe she’s wearing a beret, and maybe she’s not. Her torso tapers nicely down from her shoulders and breasts to her wasp-like waist. She hesitates for a moment, then taps gently on the glass with her painted fingernails.
I call her in, and my feet are up on the desk. My hat is tilted forward, putting my face in shadow. I’ve recently lit a cigarette, and it’s maybe halfway down by the time our eyes meet. I can see she’s got trouble and vulnerability running through her like seams of coal and diamond. I tell her to take a seat, and squash out my cigarette so I can go through the seductive routine of lighting another.
She accepts my offer of a smoke, and I lean across and light it for her with a match I strike off the sole of my shoe. She takes the first drag in like she’s sucking on a bullet wound, and blows out the smoke in a wavering stream. Slightly flustered, she loosens the top buttons of her blouse and her cleavage is milk and honey. Her lips begin to quiver as she spills her story.
The problem is, I don’t have an office, and I don’t have a desk. I do have several doors though. There’s the main door downstairs, with a row of buzzer buttons and a name beside each in biro. There’s the door at the top of the second flight of stairs, which goes into my flat. Inside the flat there are several doors connecting the lounge, bedroom, kitchen, hall, and bathroom. I’ve even got a back door leading out to a spiral iron fire escape and a weedy backyard. The backyard opens straight into the lane, and has no door. I guess what I mean to say is, we’ve all got doors, and I’ve got just as many as the next man.
It was Wednesday morning, and I had all the curtains drawn as usual. From the look of the light coming through them, it was wet and grey outside. I’d taken too much scotch the night before, and my head was full of boulders. The buzzer went just as I was about to take a shower. I would have sent her away, but she was my first ever case. Plus she had the voice of an angel. She introduced herself as Ms Ruby Jewel, and I made her a cup of Java and asked her to wait in the lounge while I washed and dressed.
The shower heat woke me up a little, but I still looked like death in the shaving mirror. The bags beneath my eyes were the colour of dirty concrete, and my eyeballs were screaming in their sockets. I worked up a lather with the soap and brush, and cut myself to ribbons with a rusty razor. By the time I got dressed and went into the lounge, my face looked like a piece of damaged fruit.
She’d opened the curtains and cleared a space for herself on the sofa. Her musky perfume filled the air with sex and chocolate. The lounge hadn’t seen daylight since Lily did a Houdini on me, and my poster girls were shrieking in horror at the brightness. I crossed to the curtains and drew them quickly shut. The last thing I needed was a real life woman lighting up my darkness.
‘I prefer the shadows, Ms Jewel,’ I told her. ‘Shadows always tell the truth.’
‘I hadn’t realised,’ she said. ‘I suppose you know a lot about truth.’
‘Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t. Sure as hell know a lot about shadows, though.’
‘What I’d like to know is, can you help me with my shadows, Mr Aries?’
‘That depends,’ I said, pulling up a chair and sitting opposite her. In the gloomy light, I took a long, hard look at her face and figure. She was slim, dark, and mysterious, in a Rita Hayworth kind of way. Her hair was as black as coal tar, and she’d pinned it up so I could see her creamy neck. There was a lot of mascara around those eyes, and they looked like two blackbirds that had crashed into the white cliffs of Dover. I didn’t know if I could trust her. I offered her a cigarette, and she took it with a trembling hand.
‘A couple of weeks ago, I lost my brother,’ she said.
‘Missing persons case huh? Where did you last see him?’
‘I mean he passed away, Mr Aries’ she said, looking for somewhere to flick her ash. ‘I believe he was murdered.’
‘Interesting,’ I said, indicating that she could use the floor. Ash is good for carpets. ‘So, what makes you think he was murdered?’
‘It’s a long story. Maybe I should start from the beginning.’
‘That’s as good a place as any,’ I said, and I meant it. I wanted to be honest with her from the offset.
Her brother was down on his luck, living in a run down three-storey terrace on the seedier side of town. Over by the ferry terminal. He used to be a big shot in the offshore industry, and bought the place to do it up and sell it on. Had a wife and kid, a place in the country, and it was like a dream until he found out she was cheating on him. I could see the situation clear as daylight. Long trips away are hard on a marriage, and she was obviously in need of a sugar daddy.
‘Actually, it was just a guy from the local farmers market,’ she told me. ‘As far as I know, it wasn’t really going anywhere.’
When the brother found out what was going on, he confronted the wife. They went at it hammer and tongs, apparently, and he stormed out and got into his car. The thing was, he pulled away so damn quick, he didn’t see his kid playing in the driveway. Squashed the poor boy flat, and couldn’t forgive himself. The wife couldn’t either, and that was the beginning of the end for them.
‘That’s rough,’ I said, appalled by what she’d told me. I mean, having your old lady do the dirty on you is bad enough, but accidentally killing your own kid is the icing on a cake made out of dog dirt.
‘That’s when the boozing started,’ she continued. ‘Pete just couldn’t face up to what had happened. The authorities cleared him of any wrongdoing, but Gwen wouldn’t let him forget it. I mean, how could she? I don’t think any mother could carry that burden.’
‘If I was a mother, I sure as hell couldn’t,’ I said, reaching across and taking the dregs of her cigarette. I squashed it out on the palm of my hand.
‘Still, it didn’t stop her taking him for everything he had. The house, the savings, the brand new Mercedes. By the time she threw him out, all he was left with was the place in Stonehouse and a knackered old works van.’
Things just went downhill from thereon in. It seems he got himself in such a bad way, he was drinking twenty-five hours a day. Ms Jewel went to see him on the off chance, and found him at the foot of the stairs, his head smashed open on the hallway cabinet.
‘He was reeking of booze,’ she said, her eyes welling up like melted glass. ‘Honestly, I didn’t know he’d let himself go so badly. I tried to help him, but it was like he’d given up. He wouldn’t even leave the house most days.’
‘Do you think the wife could have something to do with it?’ I asked. They say most people are murdered by someone they’re close to. Not that they were close any more. In fact, judging by what I’d heard, they were anything but close. They were farther apart than England and France, and the waters that ran between them were colder and darker than the channel at nighttime. In the winter. During a lunar eclipse.
‘Well, I suppose you could say she’s got a motive, but it’s hardly her style.’
‘To be honest, Ms Jewel, I’m having difficulty seeing why you think he was murdered.’
‘Just call it intuition, Mr Aries. Before he died, he was desperately trying to tell me something. Something about the Three Stooges coming up.’
‘Sounds like a drug gang to me. Did your brother owe money, Ms Jewel?’
‘I don’t think it was anything like that, Mr Aries. Pete was always anti-drugs.’
‘So what do you think he meant?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she said, putting her face in her hands. ‘For all I know, it might be nothing. It just doesn’t feel like nothing.’
‘Nothing’s nothing,’ I said. ‘Think hard Ms Jewel. This could be very important.’ I didn’t want to push her, but I had to. My book always said that the little details were the most important. Those dying words could hold the key to unlocking the mystery.
‘All I can think of is the actual Three Stooges. We were both massive fans. We used to go and watch them at the Saturday morning pictures.’
‘It’s a pity he’s not here,’ I said. ‘Then we could just ask him straight.’
She broke down then, and my heart wanted to reach out and comfort her. I wanted her to bury her face in my chest and cry until the rivers of her eyes ran dry. But I couldn’t let that happen. It wasn’t professional, and I didn’t want her falling in love with me. It would be so easy for us to give in to our desires on the sofa there, and sure enough, with her flimsy blouse and her tight fitting jeans, she was as fine a woman as I’d ever laid eyes on. But I had to stay focused.
I passed her a tissue that had attached itself to the heel of my shoe, and went to the kitchen to make her another cup of Java. I made myself one too, dark and strong like a galloping stallion. I never took milk, as it made me hyperactive and liable to do something unspeakably ferocious. Thinking maybe she’d like a biscuit, I ransacked the cupboards and found half a packet of chocolate digestives. They’d gone a bit soft, but I figured softness was what she needed right then. A big soft fluffy teddy bear of a biscuit.
Instead of lifting her cup by the handle, I wrapped my hand around it and winced in sudden pain. There was a blister on my hand the size of a penny piece, where I had squashed out her dying cigarette. I knew I’d have to get some spirit on it as soon as she left. The very first day of my very first case, and I was already wounded. I took the Java and biscuits into the lounge, and Ms Jewel was standing at the mantelpiece looking at a picture of Lily. I felt a snag of pain go through my heart.
‘She’s gorgeous, Mr Aries. She looks so elegant.’
‘That’s a shadow too far, Ms Jewel,’ I said. ‘Let’s stick with what happened to your brother, shall we?’
‘Of course,’ she said, all innocence. ‘I didn’t mean to pry.’
Since when has a woman not meant to pry? I thought. I asked her what the authorities had said, and she told me there was a verdict of death by misadventure. I asked if I could take a look around his place, and she handed me a fob of keys. I asked her a fistful of minor questions, and she gave me a fistful of minor answers. We discussed my fees, and she admitted she was almost stony broke.
‘Of course, there will be the sale of the house, and Pete left me as the sole beneficiary. It’s just a matter of getting it on the market, then I can pay whatever you’re asking.’ Something in her eyes made me believe her.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll just ask you to cover my expenses for now. I’ll give you my receipts at the end of each week.’
‘Each week?’ she said. ‘Are you expecting it to take that long?’
‘I only expect the unexpected,’ I told her. ‘Take your visit, for instance. It was so unexpected, that I expected it to happen. It was just a matter of time. Do you see what I mean, Ms Jewel?’
She seemed a little confused, but grief can do that to a woman.
‘Out of interest,’ I said. ‘There are a lot of detectives in this town. What made you choose me?’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘One, it’s a murder case, and most of the agencies only deal with missing persons and adultery. They don’t want to touch anything that might actually be unlawful. And two, they want more money than I can afford.’
‘So you saw my name in the free ads, and thought you’d try your luck?’
‘Well, I did look in the free ads, but I didn’t find you there.’
Damn, I thought. Three weeks now, and they still haven’t posted it. Dealing with those free ad people was like trying to milk a chicken. Whenever I called them, they made a lot of noise and flapped about, but I still wasn’t getting my chicken milk. I’d have to get onto them again when I had some credit.
‘So how did you find me then?’
‘Well, that’s the thing,’ she said. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been in this part of town, Mr Aries. And the only reason I’m over this way is to visit the cemetery.’
‘You’ve lost me Ms Jewel.’
‘Your card,’ she said. ‘It’s in the window of the newsagent down the road there. It was such a coincidence, I just couldn’t let it pass.’
As I saw her out to the street, I told her I’d be in touch. In the daylight, her beauty had reached another level, and suddenly I knew that I would do anything for her. I would do anything, and everything, to crack the case and help to fix her broken heart.
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