‘So, what sort of things don’t cats like?’ Foxy asked as they walked to the pet shop.
‘They don’t like being stared at.’
‘I can’t look at them all.’
‘Lion droppings are good.’
‘Aren’t lions just enormous cats?’ Foxy scowled. ‘I don’t want a pile of lion shit in my kitchen.’
It was a fair point.
Foxy stopped at the window of a jeweller’s. ‘This is the shop where I sold my pearls. They’ve got some nice stuff.’
The more esoteric shops in the Lanes changed hands frequently. Tim was unsurprised to discover the one that sold life-size wooden giraffes and chairs shaped liked giant hands had turned into one that sold pretty much anything as long as it was pink.
‘You could try sprays and ultrasonic whistles.’
Foxy wrinkled her nose. ‘Sprays make me sneeze.’
‘The whistle thing then.’
‘Won’t it frighten the bats?’
‘I don’t know. What bats?’
‘There might be bats. I just wouldn’t want to upset them. I like things that fly, it’s like they are swimming in the sky.’
Once in the pet shop Foxy was immediately distracted by the fish tanks. ‘Lampreys and catfish, they’re so cute.’
Catfish but not cats. Tim peered into the tank and wondered which fish was which. One was broad-bodied and brown-speckled with jaws fringed with tentacle-like feelers. The other was eel-like, a pallid grey creature with a jawless sucking ‘O’ for a mouth. Neither appealed.
Foxy watched him. ‘You don’t like them.’
‘I– No, not really.’
‘They just don’t look very nice.’
‘Don’t you listen to the nasty man,’ Foxy whispered at the tank. She seized Tim’s elbow and moved him away. ‘That just shows what you know. Lampreys are very loyal. And catfish are… Well, catfish are useful. They eat – most things.’
Today the young shopkeeper wore lilac eye shadow and green hair teased into a wispy ball so light it surrounded her head like a dandelion clock.
‘Wow, I like your hair,’ Foxy said. ‘Can I touch it?’
‘Sure.’ The girl leaned forward. Foxy gently brushed her fingers through wafts of hair.
‘So soft,’ Foxy whispered.
‘I like girls and boys.’
‘Boys grow up into big fat stupid lolloping men with horrible habits and oily skin.’
Tim found renewed interest in the Golden Orfe and Shubunkin. A small boy appeared at his side, stood on tip-toe to peer into the tank and prodded the glass with sticky fingers.
The shop girl gave Foxy a wry smile. ‘Well, they only want one thing.’
‘Ten at a time,’ Foxy growled.
The young shopkeeper drew back from the counter round-eyed. The gentle plip, gurgle and hum of the pumps for a dozen aquaria the only sound in the shop.
Tim met the gaze of the boy’s mother, her arms laden with guinea-pig food and bedding. Simultaneously they looked down at her young son then across to Foxy. The mother dropped her goods on the counter, groped in her purse and stacked a neat pile of coins beside the till. ‘That’s the right money,’ she said in strangulated voice, grasped her son’s wrist and marched him out of the shop. As the door closed the young lad said, ‘Mummy, what did ten men want to do?’
The shop girl blinked at Foxy. ‘What did you want again?’
Tim took his cue. ‘A cat scarer.’
It took a few moments for her to adjust. ‘Battery or mains?’
‘What’s wrong with mains?’ Foxy said.
‘They’re harder to fit,’ Tim said.
‘I just thought–’
‘What?’ Foxy bridled. ‘That I couldn’t fit one?’
‘Actually he’s right,’ the shop girl said. ‘Battery is better.’
‘I want mains.’
‘Do I look unsure?’
The shop assistant handed it over. Foxy paid up.
‘I can always–’ Tim began.
Foxy’s eyes flared. ‘I can do it.’
Tim held up his hands. ‘I never said you couldn’t.’
‘Just because I’m not from round here, just because things are different where I come from you think I’m incapable. Both of you.’
The shop girl turned to look at Tim. Governed by the laws of inertia and drag, her nimbus of green hair slowly followed. ‘No we don’t,’ they said together.
‘Fine.’ Foxy backed away.
‘Right,’ Tim said.
Foxy flared her nostrils, turned, and marched from the shop. Tim and the shop girl admired Foxy’s retreating form.
‘Are you two…?’ the girl began.
Tim’s mouth twisted into an expression of equal parts relief and regret. ‘No.’
Self-consciously casual, the girl fluffed up her hair. ‘Women, eh?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘You can call me Gabby. This is my shop. Most people think I’m just the assistant, but actually I own it.’
‘That’s great,’ Tim took a step towards the door.
Gabby jerked her thumb towards the door behind the counter. ‘I, ah, need to get a new cat-scarer. Would you like a tour of the stock room? The light’s faulty, but you don’t look like you’re scared of the dark.’
Tim stared at her. ‘Excuse me,’ he said and ran out of the shop.
The narrow lane was packed with students in jeans and flower-patterned shirts, dreadlocked skateboarders in death-metal tees, lanky street vendors, middle-aged tourists all in beige, ageing punks with purple mohicans, tattooed pamphleteers and Boho refugees. Despite her height and golden hair Foxy was nowhere to be seen.
‘Who is she, kid?’ Troy Jarglebaum’s familiar and unwelcome voice came from behind Tim. ‘What’s her name?’
Spinning on his heel, Tim confronted Jarglebaum. ‘Are you following me?’
As always, Jarglebaum stood too close. A button on his too tight and half-untucked shirt gaped under a houndstooth jacket. Despite his dishevelled appearance his black lace-up shoes were clean and polished.
‘Course not, kiddo.’ Jarglebaum’s meaty face split into a broad grin, displaying pearly white blunt teeth with a wad of gum clenched between them. ‘Deduction, plain and simple. Here comes old TJ perambulating in a northerly direction and minding his own business when a good-looking blonde with a superbly mobile derriere runs out the pet shop. Moments later a man comes out even faster, head swivelling like it’s on gimbals. Common sense says they know each other. I suspect a mild altercation, perhaps even a lovers’ tiff. Then I see it’s my buddy Tim from the good old days.’
Buffeted, pushed and shoved by the milling crowd, Tim moved into Jarglebaum’s lee. The big detective stood athwart the pavement yet somehow the crowd flowed around him.
Jarglebaum’s teeth reminded Tim of gravestones. He doubted the man had ever considered his partnership with Tim to be the good old days.
Troy punched Tim’s shoulder a little too hard to be playful. ‘What did you say to her, kid? That girl of yours put on some turn of speed, tight skirt and all.’
‘She’s not my girl,’ Tim realised the truth of it as he spoke. ‘I was helping her out. She’s another new client.’ He may as well just say it, Jarglebaum would find out anyway. ‘She has a problem with cats.’
Jarglebaum’s leering expression softened to something approaching pity. Before Tim could react, Jarglebaum’s arm draped itself over Tim’s shoulder like a yoke.
‘Timmy boy, you’re a PI for Chrissakes. Give up helping out women with their cats. There’s no mileage in it and no money. Missing cars, maybe, but get yourself back to basics. Divorce cases, follow some people around, maybe some business fraud. Put some of those little cameras and microphones inside some lampshades. You’ve got bills to pay and a reputation to think of.’
Jarglebaum’s robust advice cut Tim’s dreams down to size, his hopes of being a radically different sort of Private Investigator.
‘Come on, son. Let me buy you a drink.’
Tim’s shoulders dropped, his head hung low, the day was not living up to its promise. ‘Tea,’ he said. ‘Tea would be nice.’
For once Jarglebaum let their different preferences for restorative drinks pass without comment. His heavy arm still across Tim’s shoulder he steered them both up the narrow street using his bulk like an ice-breaker to open a path through the milling crowds to the nearest cafe.
Tim knew this was not Troy’s kind of place. Not only was the open-fronted café staffed by art students and punk teenagers, it was also dry.
Three young waitresses stood in a lethargic clot behind the counter. Eventually one of them dragged herself over, jeans hanging from her pelvis, a tight black tee-shirt ridden up to expose a pale midriff with a pierced navel. ‘Hi guys, what’s it going to be?’
Tim ordered his tea. Troy scowled at the menu, sighed, and dropped it on the table. ‘Coffee, black.’
The waitress stood back, hand on hip. ‘You want decaff?’
‘No love, I do not.’
The drinks arrived. Troy sipped his with grudging approval and studied the other customers: Bicycle couriers with long dreadlocks, skinny musicians, Goth girls, middle-aged vegetarians in red and blue anoraks.
Tim considered his ex-partner. Perhaps it was nothing more than coincidence that they had met but Jarglebaum had never been one to socialise without good cause and here he was doing it for the second time in a few days.
‘So, then,’ Jarglebaum said. ‘What’s the deal with this new client?’
Prepared for more criticism, Tim said, ‘She’s got some kind of plague of cats. Anyway, she says she doesn’t own any and they keep bothering her.’
‘Interesting. Your little old lady doesn’t have enough cats, this girl’s got too much pussy. Where does she live?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tim confessed.
Jarglebaum shook his head in despair. ‘Her name, kid. You must at least know her name.’
‘Foxy. Foxy Bolivia.’
Jarglebaum’s slabby cheeks quivered with emotion. ‘You are shitting me.’
‘That’s her name.’
‘You know that? I mean, you can prove it?’
Once again Tim felt outmanoeuvred. ‘It’s what she said.’
Jarglebaum’s face twisted into a grotesque leer. ‘Foxy Bolivia. As in the Bolivian Foxtrot, allegedly the most erotic thing a man and woman can do fully clothed, standing up in public, and not get arrested.’
‘She’s just a client.’
‘Nuns have fainted.’
‘I don’t know her that well.’
‘Illegal in Paraguay.’
‘It’s just her name, Troy.’
‘I’ve talked to her twice.’
Troy reached across the table and whacked Tim in the chest. ‘You sly old dog!’
All at once Tim realised what was going on. This was why Jarglebaum had broken into his office. Not only could he not bear to know what Tim was up to, Jarglebaum couldn’t stand the idea that Tim was better off without him, that he was making a go of it. That he was happy.
Tim leaned back in his seat with new confidence. ‘You’re jealous.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Jarglebaum watched the waitresses as they moved between the counter and tables. ‘How are you getting on with that missing car?’
Tim described his encounters with Dolores Vogler, Electra Vaughan and Imelda Marchpane. Jarglebaum’s face grew slack, his mouth unpleasantly moist.
‘Where’s that handkerchief now?’ Jarglebaum said.
‘In my pocket.’
Jarglebaum wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. ‘Let’s have a look.’
Troy unfolded the linen square, rubbed the embroidered border between his fingers, then lifted it to his face and breathed in. For one horrified moment Tim thought he was going to blow his nose. Then, with a flourish, Jarglebaum tucked it into his sleeve. ‘M.K.’ he said thoughtfully. ‘You know who that is?’
Now it was Jarglebaum’s turn to smile. ‘Want some help?’
‘Are you going to give that handkerchief back to me?’
Jarglebaum pushed back his chair and heaved himself up. Bent-legged, he winced and tugged at his groin.
Tim looked away. ‘Do you have to do that?’
‘It’s not what you think,’ Jarglebaum puffed. ‘Damned thing rides up.’
‘See you later, pal.’
Tim held out his hand. ‘The handkerchief, Troy.’
‘Sorry, chum. Old habits.’ Jarglebaum winked and dropped the handkerchief onto the table. ‘Take my advice – get your pussy problems out of the way. That car job is where the real action is, take my word.’
To be continued…