A collaboration with Gordon Lewis (1922-2007) written in 1998
Being a perfectionist — inquisitive too, has helped me in my profession as a Detective Sergeant in the Police Force. The trouble is I am the same ferretty person off duty. Even a crossword puzzle has to be solved by fair means or foul. This passion of mine has resulted in my walking with a limp — more painful when the weather turns to cold and damp. An unsolved crossword clue was the cause of the injury when a heavy tome of a reference book fell on my foot in the local library. As I was wearing nothing but flimsy open-toed sandals at the time, this resulted in three broken toes and a badly bruised metatarsus — and early retirement from the Police Force.
Too young to retire completely, I decided to set up a private investigation agency; at least I could turn my ferreting nature to some good effect.
By fair means or foul? I should come clean straightaway — or as soon as possible without altering too much of anything I’ve told you already. It is easy to tell lies. Once you have told one, then the rest just follow. Like the fact I broke two toes. Or was it three? You see — telling lies takes concentration, concentration which I damn well can’t maintain. Well maybe the hefty reference book broke my toes. Maybe it didn’t. Whatever the case, I eventually had to plant a stone in my shoe to remind me to limp. After all once you have gained a ‘character’ for yourself — a character that distinguishes you from the otherwise blank backdrop of the rest of humanity — then you’ve got to plug on and be that person. Be that hook upon which to hang a story...
And this story I have to tell is one you’ll never forget. Anyway, not wearing a long dirty mackintosh, and not wielding the rump of a blasted cigar in my mouth, not even with a pair of ill-repaired spectacles perched on my huge nose, I simply had to depend on my limp to mark me out.
The day I first encountered Mrs Carmichael (‘Winnie’ to some) she swayed like a top heavy galleon down the corridor towards my office, a smirk on her over-painted lips, finally arriving at my desk...
“I want you to find my husband,” she simply said, with the tang of a dialect I couldn’t quite place.
“Your husband has a name? And is there a reason for finding one who probably doesn’t deserve you?” I asked in a toneless, tuneless drawl.
“Yes, he has a name, Mr Crosland — it is Richard Carmichael, but I could call him many things — but for now, let’s say ‘Rat’ would be most appropriate. I don’t want him back in my life, I just want to stop him drawing money from our joint bank account. I don’t suppose he has committed any crime in the eyes of the law, so going to the police is not going to do any good. Actually I don’t want to involve them. I don’t want them swarming all over my place, for reasons that should not concern you. I have had a word with my bank manager and he says I can close the account if my husband and I both agree to do so. While there is money in the account he can travel all over the place, living the ‘life of Riley’ until there is nothing left.”
“When did you last see your husband?” I asked, breaking into her flow of words.
“It was a fortnight ago on a Monday morning as I left the house to go to work. He complained of a headache, said he was taking the day off. When I arrived home in the early evening I found he had packed all his personal things and left home.” She paused for breath before I could question her, then carried on with her story.
“He couldn’t take anything other than what was his, since the house and all it contains are in my name.”
“How long have you been married?” I said managing to get a word in.
“He simply walked into my life about two years ago — full of charm,
good looking too. Why I ever listened to him I’ll never know — I know I’ll rue the day I agreed that we should have joint accounts. He put all his own money in — or so I was led to believe — not a substantial amount though. I should have smelled a rat then, but he was too plausible, professing he was happy in our married life.”
I told you how easy it was for me to slip into telling lies — to such an extent that, in the end, they even ceased to seem like lies to myself. Whether this facility allowed me to better judge when other folk were telling lies, I’m not wholly sure. Anyway all this business Winnie Carmichael mentioned about joint accounts didn’t then — and doesn’t now — ring true at all, really. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it...
I suddenly got up from my chair, accidently pushing my desk forward, almost to the extent of its edge hitting the wide belted stomach of her loudly checked coat.
“Oops, sorry, Mrs Carmichael, but..,”
“Call me Winnie, do.”
“Well , Winnie, it just dawned on me... we can kill two birds with one stone here...”
And I winced since, upon getting up so quickly, I had jabbed my foot on the stone in my shoe with rather more vigour than I intended.
“Your husband,” I continued, “works for Regis Insurance, doesn’t he?” Her husband was indeed well known to me... and I noticed that she blushed, self consciously patting the bun of her hair.
Pouring water into a glass that I provided for her from my sideboard (only important clients got anything stronger), I said:- “It is just that I’ve recently been apprised of some undercover work available for the Claims Adjusting department of Regis. They want me to see if any of their staff are bent.., whether they are inflating customer’s claims — for backhanders, you know, that sort of thing.
“How will looking for my husband help?”
“Well, not sure yet, Winnie, but one may help the other… and vice versa. Filters are often two-way. And then I can cut my fees to the bones for you. You see, I like to give my persona1 customers the edge over conglomerates...
She nodded again, having by now regathered herself. Eventually, by the time she left my office, we had fixed the terms of my mission, I looked out of the window and saw that night was aready shrouding the geometrical building-tops with shifting shadows.
The smell of Winnie’s perfume hung in the air as I sat and reflected on the turn of events. I was still bemused at the coincidence of suddenly having two cases that could be linked in some way. God knows business in my line of work was hard to come by, and here, all of a sudden, I had to find someone’s husband who could well be intricated in my investigation at the Regis organisation. It was not merely the run of the mill case of a man on the run from his wife, but that same man could well be guilty of fraud within the company he worked for.
I shivered as I heard the rattle of cold winter’s rain on my office window but resisted the urge to partake in a nip or two from the whisky bottle in the top drawer of my filing cabinet; remembering that drinking alone was not advisable, I decided to lock up shop to call in at my local bar just a street away. Maybe my old friend Roger Portway would be there. He was another ex-cop struggling on in same profession as myself, someone I worked with at times. He often helped gain information from his younger brother still in the police force.
I switched off the office light and locked the glass panelled door where was emblazoned my name and profession. Ben Crosland... Private Investigator.
Descending to Street level I hunched my shoulders in my raincoat, pulled my hat down firmly ready to meet the elements in my dash to the ‘Old Boar’s Head’ pub around the corner.
The stone in my shoe must have lodged in a niche where it ceased to remind me to limp as I sped along the rain-washed deserted pavements until I burst into the lounge bar of my favourite public house.
“Hi George,” I cried out to the Barman, “not fit for dogs out there.”
Roger was there too, sitting in his usual corner seat near the bar.
“So what’s new Roger,” I said, as I greeted him in my usual manner.
“Nothing’s new Ben,” he answered “Oh forgive me, everything is new. I forgot — I’m getting wed...”
Roger poked one of his fingers at me upon which sat the chunkiest stone I’d ever seen on a man’s hand. It sparkled as he beckoned to the barman for my usual beverage.
“My intended gave me this ring,” he continued, She is richer by far than...”
I waved aside the rest of what he had to say. I’d heard it all before. Not only was I a liar, but I seemed to mix with nothing but liars, too, and Roger Portway was no exception. The slickest liar. A forked tongue, A truth twister.
He laughed, as he knew I’d seen through his silly pub talk. The ring was obviously a present — not from a sweetheart (for who could possibly fancy an ugly lump like him?) — but from a grateful customer for whom he had wielded his ‘private eye’. The fact that he was half-blind always made me admire his skills. On the other hand, perhaps, his enhanced inner sight gave him more analytical ability than some with a full complement of eye-power... like me.
“Roger, I need your help,” I gulped my drink ignoring the dry fizz at the back of my throat which momentarily tickled a chronic cough.
“Yep, what is it this time? And, by the way, Ben, you forgot your limp coming in here. There’s no telling who may be watching...”
I winced. Not often did I drop my guard in such a fashion. My shoes leaked water. I’d need a new pair before long — and a chunkier stone! I laughed… but it was not really a joke. Life in this city was dead serious.
“Anyway, Rodge, you know Carmichael of Regis?”
“Yep, he’s been seen frequenting the Square at night, fingering things I wouldn’t let the Devil see me fingering.”
“You mean he’s into the looser sort of woman this city is duly proud to entertain?”
Roger sneered at my turn of phrase, then came clean with the goods.
“Nope. Carmichael’s into the looser sort of substance that’s passed around the square these days ... and I don’t mean hard cash. More hard...”
I waved Roger to join me on a foray even before he could carry on with his extrapolations. We left the pub separately and headed for the Square... the heavy drizzle infiltrating between collar and skin. The city lights flickered momentarily giving me a vision of Hell. Not another power cut, I hoped. They should stay stable till the small hours at least. They’d never failed me before and I breathed a sigh of relief as they bloomed brighter again. I steadfastly limped in Roger’s wake — into the square. The air round here was pretty dark at the best of times, as if the city authorities simply knew that the black economy was vital to intrinsic City well-being and needed only a modicum of subtle illumination to oil its machinations!
I began to wonder if I was on a wild goose chase. If Carmichael was still in the city, large and sprawling though it may be, his wife Winnie was labouring under a delusion that he was far away by this time. Surely a man of his stature would be frequenting classier areas than the one the city square encompassed, where the dregs of humanity came out of the shadows at night.
Thankfully the rain had stopped as I caught up with Roger.
“What are we doing here Rodge?” I asked in a conspiratorial whisper. Though why I was whispering I don’t really know, for in spite of the weather the square was quite a busy place at this time of evening.
“I’m looking for a particular person, Ben, a character who seems to know everything that goes on hereabouts. She is known by the name of Margie, never knew what her surname is. She has her finger on the pulse of the city square and its environs so to speak. Perhaps because of the weather she is in her favourite pub the ‘Coach and Horses’ down a side street just off the square.”
I was glad I was not alone as I limped along with Roger. I certainly didn’t want to appear to be on the prowl, waiting to be accosted by one of the ladies of the night. I had to go along with Roger’s way of doing things. I had to start somewhere and for the life of me I couldn’t think of any other way to begin my twin investigations.
As I told you before, I am a perfectionist... so understandably, I had become irritated at the number of loose ends that threatened to pile up in this particular investigation. I wished now that I had earlier depended on my own resources, rather than take up with such waifs and strays as Roger Portway and the woman called — what was her name? — Margie. And then there was Carmichael, the one we were meant to be seeking with Margie’s help — not to mention the shadowy figures who ran the Regis conglomerate.
Whilst the interior of the ‘Coach’and Horses’ was stuffily warm, its atmosphere was cold and strange, with stern faces rubber-necking in our direction as Roger and I sidled into the bar. Notwithstanding my self-conciousness, I laughed out loud as I heard that the music on the old juke¬box happened to be ‘Gotta pebble in my shoe’ by Ella Fitzgerald. Margie herself was found wearing a floral head scarf and poring over a crossword puzzle in the lounge bar; the puzzle was a useful ice-breaker as I proceeded to help her with some of the knottier teasers. One solution, I recall, was ‘bounty hunter’, But I forget the exact nature of the clue.
“Where’s Carmichael?” Roger suddenly asked, without preamble, amid the otherwise self-perpetuating tussle with words and meanings.
I looked up — startled. I had momentarily felt my mind elsewhere. Why were we here at all? My brain, even at the best of times, was never acute enough to retain a single purpose nor to distinguish between various goals. One moment I was supposed to be chasing tails in the murky world of Insurance claims, the next moment closing in on an aberrant husband whose imputed dabblings with joint bank accounts had never made much sense in the first place.
In any event, I soon quit the disabling claustrophobia of the ‘Coach and Horses’ — on my own now, refreshingly controlling my own single-minded
— if diffuse — destiny. Roger and Margie themselves seem to have other geese to fry and probably nothing to do with crossword puzzles!
The Square — like a crossword itself the way the lighting worked — now seemed a more restrictive world as if the small hours diminished everything in their path. I forgot whether I’ve told you that a City like this one has more than its fair share of coincidences. Whatever the case one gets used to coincidences around here, almost becoming disappointed if one doesn’t duly turn up. As Margie had instinctively pointed me in the general right direction for full exposure to night’s serendipity, I was not suprised when I found the hunched shape of a threesome near the arches of the vegetable market. One of them was Carmichael. I dodged nearer between the brighter segments of the Square’s acrostic — but I was soon spotted. It was as if they actually expected me.
They fell silent as I approached; I decided to bluff it out as I thought there was no way Carmichael would recognise me. He couldn’t possibly know that I was employed by both his firm and his wife. I tried not to limp as I staggered towards the three men: pretending that I was a little the worse for drink. I wasn’t ready to confront Carmichael, but the fact that I stumbled upon him and the two murky characters confirmed that he had not left the city.
“Can you tell me where the Coach and Horses is?” I asked in a feigned alcoholic drawl. “Seem to be going round in circles, and I have lost my bearings.
“You are heading in the wrong direction,” said one of the men. “It’s off the other side of the square, in a side street called Mason’s Lane.”
I must have played the part of a drunk very well for the one that spoke turned me round and gave me a push in the right direction to start me meandering away from them.
When I thought I was out of sight I dodged down an alley-way, one that would take me back to the three men without being observed.
They had been joined by another man by the time I was near enough to see without being seen. Of course I was interested in the bulkier one of the quartet. Eventually they broke up. Two of them walked North in the direction I had wobbled, whilst Carmichael and the fourth man moved away to the South of the square, with me following at a discreet distance — until they suddenly stopped at the entrance to a car park that providentially was but a few yards away from the building where my office was situated. Carmichael moved off on his own into the car park after saying goodbye to his companion. I hurried to my own car, parked conveniently in a spare bit of ground next to my office building, then waited a few minutes until I saw Carmichael emerge from the exit of the car park in his Mercedes. All ready with my car’s engine warming up, I was able to drive behind him still heading south away from the city centre.
Abruptly, I recalled something I had noticed but not consciously dwelt upon. I drove — interminably it seemed — a drizzly route at which neither vehicle (followed or follower) seemed to be able to make rhyme or reason — and, then it came to me. Carmichael had been limping! This realisation, in turn, caused me to weave backwards in my thoughts. Those human shapes I had automatically assumed to be unknown strangers caught up in a web of deceit with which this city was so rife were probably none other than the half-blind Portway with his latest bit of stuff (Margie?) — and two faced Winnie Carmichael, no doubt. The women were muffled up to look like men... there were pieces of the jigsaw floating towards each other, even as I pondered in automatic free-wheel. It was all to come together with a crash.
Yes, Yes, why had one of the shapes taken off its shoe, taken something out of it and passed this something surreptitiously to another shape — who had scuttled off like a rat. Why this? Why that? Carmichael was just another mean and dirty drug runner. And, yes, all bank accounts were joint ones in this city — leading even to those rubber accounts to which the highest boardroom of Regis turned a blind eye. Money laundering was not a clean business, at the best of times...
I shuddered. It had all come together… with a crash! My car — due to the inattention of its driver — had collided, almost in slow motion, with the Mercedes it followed. Several shapes had, by now, surrounded my car, pulled me from the driver’s seat — and I was sure it must have been my own face (or a remarkable likeness) that leered at me as a gun barrel was jammed between my teeth with a blood-curdling screech. After all, lies were selfish. After that, any clue was merely duplicitous — no other word for it.