A stocky man with cropped greying hair and dressed in dungarees and tough workman’s boots stood at the front door. He held a tray of carpenter’s tools in one hand, a folding workbench leaned on the wall.
‘Mr Tuppence? Come on up.’
‘That’s me, squire. Call me Ralf. Come to fix your door.’
Ralf slung the workbench over his shoulder, hefted his tool box and ran up the stairs. ‘Good bit of exercise, stairs,’ he said reaching the top. ‘Surprising how fit you can keep yourself in your daily life if you keep your eyes open.’
‘Tea?’ Builders lived on tea.
‘Now you’re talking. Earl Grey if you’ve got it. In a mug, three sugars and a splash of milk.’
When Tim returned, Ralf had his workbench set up and was inspecting the broken frame. ‘Your architrave is solid but the side post will have to come out. A bit of plastering and a lick of paint and Bob’s your uncle. Who did this then? Angry customer? I’d have given him what for. Blokes that behave like that deserve a punch on the nose.’
‘Actually, it was a woman,’ Tim said.
‘Crikey, what’s the world coming to?’ Ralf brightened as he noticed the mugs of tea and looked significantly at the filing cabinets. ‘Cheers, mate. I don’t suppose you’ve got anything to put in this have you? It’s just that I’d heard you private dicks always have a bottle in the bottom drawer, for when you get beaten up and so on.’
‘It’s the cheap stuff.’
‘Cor,’ Ralf said. ‘It’s actually true.’
A few minutes later Ralf nipped out for a trip to the timber yard. The room felt very quiet after his incessant stream of chatter. Tim tried to order his thoughts and decided to make a new list:
- Dolores Vogler
- The MK monogrammed handkerchief
- Markus Koponen, owner of Kylma Kala
- An Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight
- Some round lumps of rock, origin and composition unknown
- Pamphlets about crops
He thought for a moment, then added:
- Persistent Smith is missing
- Troy Jarglebaum’s warning
He read it through. Everything on the list was connected. As a generalised statement it cohered with his own philosophy, with this particular list intuition said it was especially true and the connections were direct and explicit.
He had no idea what most of them were.
The car belonged to Markus Koponen, that was obvious. He drew a loop that joined them together. The car was parked where he worked, therefore he knew where it was.
The seductive Dolores Vogler and her scary friends knew who owned the car because they had Koponen’s handkerchief. Dolores might have lied about him being her husband but it was a safe assumption Dolores knew exactly where the car was when she hired him to find it. More loops crossed the page.
This made no sense. Therefore, there had to be another reason. And how did the contents of the boot, Troy’s visit, and Smith’s disappearance fit in?
Tim shivered. “Disappeared” was a word with a wide range of causes and outcomes.
The flies patrolled under the lampshade. Long-distance cruises broken with brief, whirligig dogfights. They fulfilled their destinies with a sense of commitment and purpose. Or were they simply going around in circles?
Tim’s reverie was broken by the sound of voices and footsteps on the staircase.
‘Yes, Miss,’ Ralf said. ‘He’s up in his office. Mind your step as you go. The door’s off and my tools are out. Wouldn’t want to put a ladder in them tights.’
The woman’s voice was east coast American and instantly recognisable. Tim tore off the top sheet of his desk pad, folded it and slipped it into a drawer.
‘Stockings are they, Miss? Yes, oh, I can see they are.’ Ralf appeared at the top of the stairs red-faced.
‘Hello Miss Vogler,’ Tim said. ‘Why don’t you come in?’
Dolores wore her black hair swept over to one side under a wide-brimmed summer hat. The hat, like her open-collared jacket and panelled skirt, was midnight blue.
She stalked across the room like it was a catwalk, deposited her small triangular handbag beside the chair, and sat down. Tim was disconcerted to see Imelda follow Dolores into the room, a carrier bag in her hand. Behind them, speechless, Ralf stood holding his spirit level.
Imelda ran her finger along the level. ‘Do you know how to use that? Or would you like me to show you where it goes?’
‘I, er… I got some more stuff in the van.’ Ralf hurried away down the stairs.
Dolores crossed her legs.
Tim put his back to the desk. ‘I’ve found the car.’
‘Excellent. Where is it?’
Tim told her. Dolores and Imelda exchanged looks of exaggerated surprise.
‘I have a question,’ Tim said.
Hands folded in her lap, Dolores studied Tim with her dark eyes.
‘Why pay me to find a car when you already know where it is?’
‘Is that what we did, Mr Wassiter?’
‘I think so.’
‘Why would we do that?’
‘That’s my question.’
Imelda pushed herself off the wall. ‘Perhaps it was a test to find out how good Tim Wassiter is at his job. Little Tim. Timmy.’
‘How did I do?’
‘So many questions, Mr Wassiter. I’ve got one of my own.’ Imelda tossed him the bag.
Inside was the jacket Foxy had left in the car park.
‘You had some help,’ Imelda said. ‘We want to meet.’
Tim felt very cold. He folded his arms to stop his hands shaking. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible.’
‘Don’t be afraid,’ Imelda said.
‘And anything’s possible,’ Dolores said. ‘Show him.’
Imelda rolled her shoulders and cracked her knuckles. ‘My pleasure.’
Tim backed round the desk. ‘Hang on, it doesn’t have to come to this.’
‘I meant show him the money,’ Dolores said.
Dolores left her chair and perched on the edge of Tim’s desk, one leg swinging, her shoe dangling from her toes.
Imelda planted her booted foot on the edge of the desk. Her short, red leather dress rode high on her thigh revealing a money roll in her stocking top. Imelda removed it, peeled off fifty pound notes one after the other and let them fall to the floor.
Dolores stroked the edge of the desk with her fingers. ‘Come around here, Mr Wassiter. We don’t bite.’
Imelda laughed. ‘She doesn’t.’
‘Blimey!’ Ralf stood at the top of the stairs with gobstopper eyes on Imelda’s barely concealed posterior. He hurriedly looked away. ‘Excuse me.’
Imelda tucked the money roll back into her stocking, crossed the room and pressed her heel down on the steel toecap of Ralf’s boot. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?’
‘Ow.’ Ralf clutched his booted foot.
Dolores slid off the desk and smoothed her skirt. ‘Arrange a meeting with your associate. If you’re right about the car you’ll know how to contact us. If you’re wrong, then, oh dear, Imelda will have to visit again.’
Imelda casually bent one of Ralf’s screwdrivers into a ‘U’ shape.
‘Do you mind?’ Ralf said through gritted teeth. ‘They’re vintage Pozidrives.’
Dolores and Imelda left. Ralf sat on the floor and unlaced his boot.
Tim watched through the windows as the cream Mercedes drove away and let out a sigh of relief. Once more Dolores Vogler had sat on his desk and left a pile of high denomination banknotes. On her first visit she had been beautiful and seductive, her narrow-waisted, full hipped figure summoned up rarely used words like pulchritude as she approached and callipygous as she departed. Now that seduction had been replaced with crude threats.
Tim steadied his shaking hand. All things considered they were very effective threats, though when he thought about it neither Dolores or Imelda had actually threatened anything at all. It the way they didn’t say things that was so effective, the way Imelda had casually bent Ralf’s screwdriver in half.
‘I can’t get me boot off!’ Ralf said. ‘I got a run tonight.’
‘Heavy people,’ Tim said, half to himself.
‘You’re telling me.’ Ralf finally wrenched his foot free and massaging his toes.
And there was Foxy’s green jacket. Thank all the gods they didn’t know where she was. He had to warn her. He reached for the phone then decided he didn’t want to make the call with Ralf in the room.
‘I’m sorry about your screwdriver, Mr Tuppence,’ Tim said.
‘That’s not really the problem, it’s me foot. I can’t work without proper safety equipment. I promised the missus.’
Ralf and Tim regarded the dented steel toecap and Ralf’s surprisingly clean sock.
Ralf wiggled his toes. ‘I’ll have to come back tomorrow.’
Tim gathered up the money and gave two notes to Ralf. ‘For the boots.’
‘Thanks.’ Ralf looked Tim up and down. ‘No way I could do your job. You must be a lot tougher than you look.’
As soon as Ralf had left Tim picked up the phone. He let it ring. Finally Foxy answered.
‘It’s me, Tim. Foxy, listen. Some people came here with the jacket you lost in the car park. They want to talk to you.’
‘Well, that’s good. I can say thank you.’
‘I don’t think so. They’re not nice people.’ His heart was in his mouth. ‘It’s my fault you’re caught up in this. I’m sorry–’
Dolores had sat on his desk again. The same edge, the same place, something she seemed to make a habit of. The way she ran her fingers under the edge of the desk…
They had played him for the fool he was. All the seduction and threats and stocking-tops had been moves so obvious he hadn’t seen them for what they were. Damn it.
Foxy’s voice came down the line: ‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘I’ve just realised something. I can’t say any more now. It’s important that we meet.’
‘OK. Why don’t you come over?’
‘Yes, but don’t tell me your address now, send me a text.’
The line went quiet. She’s processing all this, Tim thought. She’s smart and she’s fast.
‘All right,’ Foxy said. ‘I’ll do that now.’
Tim ended the call then knelt in front of the desk. It didn’t take long before his fingers found a flat, pea-sized object set in the angle between the desktop and the leg.
He prised the little metallic disk free. Anger filled him. Troy Jarglebaum would not have fallen for this.
Tim checked the rest of the desk, the chairs and under the rug. He dismantled the phone. There was nothing. If there was another bug he wouldn’t find it without a scanner.
His email pinged as Foxy’s note arrived. He memorised her address then deleted and erased the email.
It was time to go. A few hundred pounds still lay on the carpet. Tim grabbed the money and distributed it through the pockets of his old leather jacket.
He froze. Slowly he extracted the handkerchief with the heavily embroidered MK monogram and spread it on the desk. He stared at it sourly. So he was a fool, but a bigger fool didn’t learn from past mistakes.
He fetched a craft knife and a pair of fine-nosed pliers from his tool drawer and carefully scratched through the embroidery thread with the knife tip. Then he teased the cut threads apart with the pliers. Set into the pillar of the letter K was a narrow metal tube. A delicate aerial connected to it curled through the M. Tim smiled with grim satisfaction. Those women knew where he’d been all the time, it was how they had known he’d found the car.
He removed the tracker from the handkerchief and put it in an old envelope. For a long moment he thought about what to do with the desk bug, then snatched it up and flushed it down the toilet.
He picked up Foxy’s green jacket and went out. A few minutes later he was on the local bus. He took out the envelope holding the transmitter and pushed it down the side of the seat. After riding the bus for two more stops he disembarked, crossed the road and caught the bus going in the other direction.
To be continued…