Chapter 4 – Warning Signs (cont.)
Why do they do that? he wondered. Come to that, how do they make right-angle turns in mid-air? Maybe they stop flapping one wing for a split second. Maybe they can just grab hold of the air and swing round like a kid on a lamppost.
It had been a strange and disappointing day. He’d found a lead and lost it, and the woman who had been that lead was someone he’d really have liked to have seen again. Worst of all Troy Jarglebaum had turned up like a bad penny and worked his energy-sapping black magic on Tim’s self-esteem. Every encounter with Jarglebaum left him feeling useless, with a long fight back into the light.
Despite Jarglebaum’s offer it was unlikely he could help. Stolen car reports were logged, filed and generally forgotten. Nobody actually went looking for them because there were more important things to do. Patrol cars had computerised license-recognition cameras, the cameras scanned passing vehicles and sounded an alarm when they made a match.
Then Tim remembered Dolores Vogler hadn’t actually said the car was stolen, she had said it was missing. No wonder she had to come to him, the police would be interested in a missing person, never a missing car. Not only that, the car was not even UK registered.
Which meant that Troy actually had nothing to offer at all. He couldn’t even find the registered owner. Tim sat up straight, filled with renewed energy and determination. ‘Beaten you, Troy Jarglebaum,’ he said to himself. ‘I don’t need you, and I never will.’
But how could a car go missing? It wasn’t as if they had minds of their own or could drive themselves. Not yet anyway, and certainly not one made in 1934. Was Dolores Vogler a scatterbrain who had simply forgotten where she’d parked? She hadn’t given the impression she was that sort of person. More likely she’d let someone borrow it and he – it would have to be a he – had not brought it back.
Everything was connected. Philosophers, shaman, and mystics had known it for hundreds of years before physicists discovered it in new and scientific ways few people genuinely understood. Tim believed both ways were true, but how to make the connections himself?
Up on the roof the chickens lived out their days, but the moment lacked true significance and this was not the moment for their blood and their lives. Perhaps the patterns the flies flew could be measured and overlaid on a map of Brighton. An intriguing idea but connections didn’t work like that, there had to be a true link, something emotional, something physical. A piece of rust from the car’s wing, a fleck of paint or chrome from the bumper. Even the police realised the value of these things except in Tim’s opinion they were never used to their full potential and often just filed away in bags and boxes labelled ‘Evidence’.
Under the lampshade the flies still flew their geometric designs.
‘You poor things,’ Tim told them. ‘You don’t even know what a car is, unless for you it’s some kind of terrible monster to frighten your children at bedtimes.’
He imagined a row of tiny cots, each one occupied by a young fly, their blankets tucked up to their chins while they listened to stories of a metal nemesis roaring out of nowhere and squashing little flies across an invisible surface.
That was no good. Any empathic link he had was with the flies, not the car. Perhaps if he suspended a model of the Imperial under the lampshade…
Tim had no idea what a 1934 Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight looked like, let alone Finnish registration plates. Now would be an excellent time to find out.
A few minutes searching the internet told Tim more than he ever needed or wanted to know about:
The manufacturing history of vintage Imperials.
The current availability of spares.
The history of individual cars.
Their current condition.
Their previous owners, where they lived, and reason for sale.
Their current owners and their partners (or former thereof).
Their state of health and where they liked to holiday.
The precocious achievements of their children.
The breed and temperament of their dogs. (Collectors of Imperials did not appear to be cat lovers).
How their dogs had ascended to doggy heaven, a place where the more intellectually challenged canines could presumably continue to chase large cars without resultant tragedy requiring the onwards sale of a much-loved Imperial the owner could no longer drive due to lingering memories of That Tragic Day.
All things considered, it was strangely fascinating.
Tim became lost in close-up pictures of the gloriously extravagant Virgil Exner designed tailfins from a ’59 MY1 Convertible.
The office door creaked, a shadow passed in front of the desk. Tim looked up and saw a tall slim woman with a bun of platinum blonde hair and eyes of palest blue. Strikingly glamorous, she wore lipstick and nail varnish of nude pink, and a high-collared sleeveless cheongsam embroidered with blue green and gold sea-serpents.
Behind her, a crop-headed brunette in a halter-necked red leather mini-dress, knee-high white boots and black fish-nets leaned nonchalantly against the doorway.
‘Mr Wassiter.’ The platinum blonde spoke with a clipped east-coast American accent. ‘We’ve come about the car.’
These were the two other women in the Mercedes, and clearly the sort who would only be impressed by confidence and achievement. Tim knew if he let himself be distracted by their stunning, if slightly trashy get-up, he would never gain their respect or find out what they really wanted. He was being played again.
‘1934 Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight,’ Tim said smoothly, keeping one eye on the computer screen. ‘With aerodynamic styling, full steel body construction and custom bodywork by LeBaron, it is considered by many to be the most radically styled production car ever built.’ He hazarded a knowing grin. ‘After all, the single-piece curved windshield was an industry first.’
The platinum blonde returned a look of unsmiling appraisal. ‘You’re very well informed, Mr Wassiter.’
‘That’s not the half of it. The CW eight-seater weighed in at over 5,900 pounds, twenty feet from bumper to bumper with a wheelbase of 146.5’.’ Tim strolled round to the front of his desk, his smile was easy, his step confident. ‘They were magnificent vehicles. In fact, I’d like one myself.’
‘An unlikely ambition. Less than 2,500 Airflows were built, only a handful remain.’
‘No matter. The ’55 Newport is more my style.’
‘The one we have employed you to find is still missing.
‘It’s only been a day.’ Tim thrust out his hand. ‘Call me Tim.’
Her grip was dry, cold, and like a vice. Tim was forced to squeeze back and for a full ten seconds they smiled politely at each other and tried to crush each other’s hands. Tim was losing, and just as his smile began to slide into a grimace of agony she laughed humourlessly and let go.
‘I am Electra Vaughan.’ She gestured to the woman standing in the doorway. ‘This is Imelda Marchpane. We are good friends of Dolores Vogler.’
‘Very good friends,’ Imelda said, her accent harder than Electra’s. ‘Great mansplaining just then.’
Tim surreptitiously massaged his aching hand. ‘I saw you in the Mercedes.’
‘Imelda likes to drive.’
‘I love it.’ Imelda bared her teeth in a silent snarl. ‘Fast and hard.’
Disconcerted, Tim turned back to Electra. ‘Your Imperial–’
Electra held Tim with her ice-cold gaze. ‘Where is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s not that straightforward, Ms Vaughan.’
Electra took a step forward. ‘Explain?’
‘Well, for one thing Dolores said her husband’s car was missing, not stolen.’
Electra and Imelda exchanged looks of cagey surprise.
‘Dolores said that?’ Electra said.
‘Yes, she did. Having Finnish plates makes it harder–’
Electra spoke very slowly. ‘Her husband’s car?’
‘Selfish, greedy,’ Imelda hissed under her breath.
Tim cleared his throat. ‘An ordinary car might simply have been dumped after a joy-ride, but a car like the Imperial has probably been stolen to order. And this car is a valuable machine, isn’t it?’
Electra and Imelda glared at Tim. He retreated behind his desk. ‘It’s not a case of putting up pictures on lampposts like you do for a missing cat.’
‘Do you have a missing cat, Mr Wassiter?’ Electra said sharply.
‘I, ah– Yes, I do.’
‘Missing but not stolen?’
Tim felt deeply confused. Electra swept forwards like a beautiful ghost. ‘We want you to concentrate, Mr Wassiter. Focus exclusively on our case. No more cats. No more lampposts.’
Imelda unfolded her arms to reveal hands encased in fingerless black leather gloves. She gripped one side of the doorframe, tore it from the wall and tossed it onto the carpet in a scatter of plaster fragments. ‘Exclusively.’
Now Tim was a little scared. Dolores had been exotic and alluring. Her two friends might be beautiful, Electra might radiate an aura of otherness, but being in the same room as Imelda felt like being in a cage with a tiger. She moved like a trained fighter and looked like someone who enjoyed hurting people.
‘I’ll talk to my other clients,’ Tim said.
Imelda reached up and swung from the architrave. Wood shrieked and splintered as her weight tore it down. ‘You do that. Or I will.’
The idea of Imelda Marchpane confronting little old Mrs Woosencraft sent shivers down Tim’s spine.
‘Money is not an issue, Mr Wassiter.’ Electra placed another tight roll of notes on Tim’s desk. ‘What else do you need?’
Right now, Tim thought, I’d either like you out the office or a shotgun in my hands. Good grief, even Troy Jarglebaum would be a welcome sight. ‘It would help if you had something that belongs to the owner, Mr…?’
‘Dolores’ husband?’ Electra’s face froze in a hard, white smile. ‘Yes, I think we can provide you with that.’
Imelda lifted the hem of her red leather dress. A triangular fold of white material came into sight, held against her thigh by her stocking top.
Electra removed the fold of material and placed it in Tim’s hand, the fabric still warm from Imelda’s thigh.
‘Don’t let this out of your sight,’ Electra said. She picked up one of Tim’s flyers from the box on the desk, glanced at it and slipped it into her purse. ‘We’re interested in your methods, Mr Wassiter. You’re out on the edge, we like that. Interesting things don’t happen in the middle, they happen at edges, where things collide. You’ve got an open mind, we like that too. Frankly, it’s what you’re going to need.’
Imelda slipped her arm around Electra’s slender waist, her fingers splayed across her hip. ‘In fact the more open your mind the better it will be for us all.’
Alone again, Tim placed the fold of material on the desk and sat down. He needed to. He wiped his brow, his heartbeat slowed, his breathing steadied. Insight often comes in moments of crisis. This is why PIs have a fifth of bourbon and two chipped glasses in the filing cabinet, he realised. It’s for when your doorframe has just been hauled off the wall by a beautiful crazy girl in a red leather mini-dress and nothing but the sensation of raw spirits at the back of the throat will settle the brain.
He unfolded the material, an expensive silk handkerchief with a plain, over-sewn border. In one corner the monogram ‘MK’ had been embroidered in fine aquamarine thread. There was nothing else, no notes, ink stains or folds of paper tucked inside.
Tim rolled the new wad of money back and forth across the desk. At least his cash pile had grown bigger. He took off the rubber band, counted it, then added it to the other roll. Used tens and twenties, no sequence. Another thousand pounds. Those three women really wanted that car back.
He’d need to spend some of that getting the door fixed straight away. And, he decided, on a couple of shot glasses and some half-way decent scotch.
The rest would help compensate for the knowledge that once again Jarglebaum had been right. His ex-partner had only been in his office for a few minutes before pointing out a major flaw in Tim’s lifestyle. Perhaps the overweight but highly observant detective really had just been looking for a drink all along.
And that’s just what I need now, Tim decided. A couple of pints of decent beer in the Bat and Ball would help restore a sense of perspective.
Tim’s ancient leather jacket hung on the hook on the wall. Wearing it to the pub had become a kind of ritual. He slipped it on and turned up the collar. He looked at the money roll on the desk. It was a lot of cash to carry around but it would be reckless to leave it in a room with an unlockable door and people like Troy Jarglebaum at large.
The monogrammed handkerchief still lay on his desk. Electra had warned him not to let it out of his sight and somehow Tim thought that she would know if he did. He carefully folded it into the jacket’s inside pocket and distributed the money around the other pockets of both his jacket and jeans. Then he wedged the door shut as best he could, went downstairs, out the front door and up along Cheapside towards Ditchling Road and the pub.
To be continued…