Grape and Barley Don't Mix
the opening to a novel by
Thursday didn't start right at all.
I winced as Mr Consultant Whatever-his-name-was withdrew what felt like his whole hand from my butt. Then came the slap of rubber gloves being snapped off. “I've popped them back in, but you'd better get them seen to. These are ripe, Mr Crane.”
Ripe? My haemorrhoids were just another routine bunch of grapes to this white-coated bozo. Bloody misery to me – a literal pain in the ass. Make you grumpy as hell. And death to any sex life. Can't say I blame Marcia for seeking pastures new. She took the house proceeds – and the kids. I miss them. Her too. All for a bunch of grapes.
I bent to retrieve my pants from the floor. Bet he'd trod on them. Bastard. “Seen to? You mean chopped. Great. When?”
He ran a podgy finger down the diary. “Three weeks. Twenty-fourth. Check in twenty-third. You'll be out in two days.”
“Don't suppose you do a free one every so often?”
Talk about a joke falling flat. Piggy eyes peered at me over horn-rimmed glasses. “Five hundred should cover it, Mr Crane. Health Insurance?”
I shook my head. Health Insurance? I didn't even have Death Insurance. As for five hundred, I had fifty in my pocket, zippo in the bank, and credit cards knocking maximum. Unless someone wanted a Private Investigator fast, rent, lunches, beer money and fags meant all I would have by the twenty-fourth would be an even riper bunch. Ah, what the hell. Maybe something will turn up. My fingers curled round my half-empty packet of cigarettes. Crushed. Bastard. I headed for the door. “Put me down. See you twenty-third.”
It was raining. If there was one thing that could be depended on in this shitty dump it was rain. It always rained in Lanchester. Something to do with the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Industrial smog made even the rain shitty.
What was left of the creases in my pants vanished in the few minutes it took to cross the street. Well, surprise, surprise – a parking ticket wedged under the wiper. At least all four wheels were still there. Merc wheels and hubcaps, even old second-hand ones, were attractive to sticky-fingered yobs. Think positive, Bradley, I told myself – no punctures.
Rush hour past, it only took minutes to get to the office. That's what I call it if anyone asks. “Office” sounds better than “grotty room”. A twelve-by-twelve hole two flights up from a side-alley entrance. Bed in one corner. Desk in the other. In between, a smoke-stained partition salvaged from the Clover Insurance Company renovations below. Microwave, portable TV, coffee percolator and an ashtray plus ironing board and shoe-cleaning stuff. I got everything I need to exist – if I can find it. And by turning my chair around and squinting sideways out the window I can watch the world go by in the main street. From the corner of my desk, the photograph of Marcia and the kids looks towards the window.
I turned the radiator to maximum, lobbed my pants over it, flipped on the percolator and then teased the meagre morning mail from under the draught excluder.
Wonder how your day's going? I asked, glancing at Marcia as I lit a squashed fag.
Five hundred. Where the hell was I going to get five hundred?
That's when the phone rang.
I pushed the winking button. “Bradley Crane Investigations.” That last word just popped into my head.
I recognised the tinny voice on the speaker. My buddy, Ken Parks. Claims Assessor for Clover. If it wasn't for the routine stuff he passed my way, I would have even less cash, if that were possible. “Yes, this is Mr Crane. I don't normally answer the phone but my staff's all in a training meeting just now.”
Silence. Another joke fallen flat. “Got something might interest you, Mr Crane. Can you pop down?”
“Sure, Ken.” I scented a whiff of coffee. “Give me half an hour.”
“That's fine, Mr Crane. We'll look for you in five minutes. Fourth floor.” He hung up.
The dead speakerphone stared at me. I looked at Marcia and the kids. What's with the Mr Crane stuff? And who's “we”?
Five minutes later, I threaded my way through a maze of high-rise scaffolding across the dust spattered marble foyer of Clover Insurance Company. A uniformed security guard hovered by the elevators. Only his eyes moved as he looked down his nose at my tubular pants. Wouldn't have cost him his job to say “Good morning, Mr Crane”. Bastard.
The elevator was empty except for a dozen other me's stretching into infinity in the mirrors. My hair looked okay. Not receding yet and not a grey hair in sight. Must get my teeth whitened. Old school tie was straight. As was the edge of the handkerchief that teeted out the top pocket of my M & S pin-stripe. Pity about the pants. Shoes? Clean as a whistle – rain always runs off polished shoes.
I remembered to bend my knees before I pressed the fourth-floor button. It was normally bad enough getting to Ken's office on the first. Still haven't worked out what to do to keep my stomach on arrival. Whoever builds these high-speed yo-yos ought to be forced to live in one for a week.
The doors glided open to a welcome mat of red Axminster and a tunnel of mahogany, plastered with paintings way beyond my means. No buff partitions and magnolia up here.
Ken was waiting.
“Hi, Ken. Almost as classy as mine.”
He ignored that, grabbed my arm and ushered me towards mahogany double-doors at the far end. “Sorry about the rush, Brad, but this is big,” he said, leaning closer, dragging a nose-stinging cloud of aftershave with him. “Big. Can't tell you much right now. But there's money in it. Take your lead from me, and whatever he asks just say you're the best –”
“The best at what? And who's ‘he'?”
“Who? That's a joke, isn't it?”
“No joke.” Ken stopped with his hands on the brass doorknobs. He wasn't smiling. Come to think of it, I did notice he was sweating, but I assumed it was the executive-suite central heating. He pushed his bifocals back up the bridge of his nose. “Don't joke, Brad.”
Then he opened the doors.
I did a quick grape check and followed him in.
I knew I was in the Clover Boardroom. My feet told me as they sank into a green and gold swamp. My eyes told me as I tried to remember the art galleries and museums where I had last seen such baffling paint splotches and mangled lumps of marble. Heaven knows how many watts of gold chandelier hung from the blue and white ceiling. The smell of cigar smoke, sherry and financial skulduggery lingered in the air, although anyone sitting at the oval mahogany table would need a megaphone to talk to other than his immediate neighbours.
I did like the chairs. Not the uprights, but the crinkled black leather ones clustered around the double bay windows like basking seals. The top of an oil-slicked head of black hair peeked above the nearest headrest.
Ken nudged me forward. “Mr Tulip, I'd like to introduce Mr Crane.”
The head twitched, like an alerted bird. Thin fingers clawed into the leather. Mr Tulip pushed himself deeper into the seat, patent leather shoes up in the air. Then he rocked forward out of the chair's embrace. I'm batting six foot, but as he unwound, I felt like the incredible shrinking man.
Tulip had more corners than a stick insect. He extended a dead trout of a hand. “Mr Crane! Delighted to meet you, dear chap. Do have a seat.”
“Mr Tulip.” I slid out of the wet grasp and sat in the offered chair. It damned near swallowed me. At least the soft leather was grape-friendly.
The trout slapped my knee. “Ken's told me so much about you, Bradley, I feel I know you already. What? Eh?”
“That puts me at a disadvantage, Mr Tu—”
“Call me Arnold.” The red lips gave a fleeting purse.
I slotted Tulip into the daffodil brigade pigeonhole. Thanks a lot, Ken.
“Mr Tulip,” said Ken, “I haven't had a chance to brief him fully, but he is aware of the rough picture and—”
“Excellent. Can I take it you accept my proposition, Bradley?”
Thanks even more, Ken. What flaming proposition? I fumbled for my cigarettes. “I've been turning it over, and it's certainly interesting—”
A gold lighter appeared under my nose. “Excellent. I've an urgent appointment across town, but if you have any questions…?”
I sucked as hard as one can on a flattened joint. “I have a little reservation about the fee and expenses, Arnold.”
I glanced at the trout's Rolex Oyster as the gold lighter returned to a waistcoat pocket. Expenses are expenses in anybody's language. I blew a pathetic smoke ring. “The fees. The advance.”
Tulip smacked his forehead. “Of course!” Trout fished a pink envelope out of an inside pocket, holding it by one corner. “Here. Two hundred. I assume ten per cent is acceptable?”
Mental arithmetic isn't my strongest point but in a millisecond I'd added a zero to two hundred. For two thousand I'd sell my mother – if she were still alive, rest her soul. A faint lavender aroma rose from the envelope. “Oh, most certainly, Arnold. Thank you.”
Tulip ejected himself from the seat. “We have a deal. Excellent. I have to leave now. No, don't get up.” He bent over me like a hungry praying mantis. I smelt Saville Row tailoring. The eyes narrowed, and he lowered his voice. This was no daffodil talking. “I always get my money's worth, Bradley. Even if I have to resort to Shylockian means of getting it.” He straightened. “Good day, gentlemen.”
Before I could see sense and toss his envelope back, he'd gone, Ken in tow.
The envelope begged to be opened. I stubbed my fag and obliged. Inside, ten used twenties, and a couple of plain envelopes marked “hand delivery”.
Names meant nothing, but the addresses were in the posh area of town. Would take around an hour to deliver both. Two thousand an hour – Donald Trump can't make much more than that. I pocketed the advance and made an airplane dart out of the pink envelope. Aimed it at the corner wastebasket. Stupid thing looped a loop and vanished somewhere.
I drummed my fingers. Come on, Ken. Minutes ticked away. What the hell, I'll catch him when I come back. I left the same way I'd entered and headed for my car.
Several fags later I pulled into Peachtree Close. As I kerb-crawled, I tried to pick out the numbers but most of the set-back mansions just had fancy names. I did a three-pointer at number twenty-one and counted back to nine. ‘Benbecula'. Walter Welsh must be a Scots git.
Despite the dog warning sign, nothing moved as I unlatched the gates and scrunched up the gravel. The house was arse backwards. Couldn't see the entrance till I was round the back. No one in sight on the bowling green of a lawn. I yanked the flimsy chain bell-pull. Heard nothing – who would?
No letter box. I squinted through the stained-glass side windows. Waste of time. I knuckled the studded door, then sucked my knuckles. Bastard. The envelope said “hand delivery”, so I squeezed it under the door and left.
Thirty Marilyn Drive was ten minutes away. An even posher pile, but again no letter box. Didn't Garfield Strobel, Esq. get any mail? I stuffed his under the door too.
On the way back to the office, I treated myself to a fresh pack of cigarettes and some microwave goodies.
My feelings of contentment disappeared as soon as I saw the uniformed policeman lounging by my ajar door. He pushed it open. “He's here, Inspector.”
The blotched face of Detective Inspector Harness stopped leering at Marcia. He eyed me up and down as if he'd never seen a human being before. “Where you been, Crane? Apart from shopping.”
I dumped my plastic bags on the ironing board. “No wonder you're a detective. How on earth did you deduce I'd been shopping?”
“Very funny.” He replaced Marcia on the desk. “When'd you last see Ken Parks?”
None of his damned business. “Couple of days ago. Why?”
“Just wondered. Spoken to him lately?”
“Hey, this is my office, and I didn't let you in. How'd you like to be charged with breaking and entering?”
“Door was open.”
“Was it, shit!”
“Sergeant! Was this door open when you arrived?”
Harness spread his even blotchier hands.
I faced the sergeant. “Were you the first arsehole to arrive at my door?”
His pale face reddened.
I turned back to Blotcho. “I thought so. You only had to make an appointment. I'm sure I could fit you in somewhere.”
“Okay, smart ass. I'm asking the questions, Crane. Now, where you been all day?”
The phone rang. Blotcho punched the speaker button.
“Brad? Is that you, Brad? It's Marcia.”
My heart beat a tad faster. Her velvety voice always had that effect on me. She sounded on edge. “Marcia. It's me. What's up?”
“I just heard on the news and felt I should call you. I'm so sorry.”
“Sorry? About what? What are you talking about?”
She hesitated. “You don't know? Ken.”
My heart beat even faster. Nothing to do with Marcia, this time. “Marcia. Get to the point. What about him?”
Oh, shit! In a split second I could see it sprayed everywhere. “I'll have to call you back. I'm tied up, as you can imagine. Thanks for phoning. I appreciate it. Love you.”
“I'm sorry, Brad.”
Blotcho smirked as he fiddled with the phone buttons. “I believe you said you last saw Ken Parks two days ago.”
The speakerphone bleeped twice. I knew what was coming.
“Got something might interest you, Mr Crane. Can you pop down?”
“Sure, Ken. Give me half an hour.”
“That's fine, Mr Crane. We'll look for you in five minutes. Fourth floor.”
Nope – Thursday didn't start at all right and I'd a hunch it was going to get worse.
©2005 William Minty
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