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Fiction

Child's play: the continuing adventures of Nick Richards

From the LabLit short story series

Richard P. Grant 6 March 2015

www.lablit.com/article/860

I’m a private dick. You give me something to look after, stands to reason some cat wants to steal it

A lot of my cases start like this.

Broad walks into my office (fifth floor, 39 Botolph Lane); has a case and an attitude. And good legs. I know she’s got good legs because I’m on the fifth floor and there’s no lift.

This broad was different. Case – check. Attitude – check. Nice ahems – check. Good legs – check. And check again.

“Nick Richards?” she said.

“That’s what it says on the door,” I said. “And ‘Push’. But I don’t know who he is.”

Not a flicker. I thought she looked worried. She looked at me. I looked at her. She looked at me looking at her as I looked at her looking at me.

We looked at each other. Something unspoken passed between us. I hoped it was a whisky bottle but no, it was just looks.

I shivered. It was like there was another person in the room, some kind of presence.

“Mr Richards? My mother has a proposal for you.”

The voice came from a mouth attached to a head standing just behind the broad. The head belonged to a kid about my age, when I was 20 years younger. Cropped dark hair, square chin, grey eyes. He was good-looking too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Couldn’t tell if he was a toy boy or a relative. Or both. This was Cambridge, after all.

I frowned. “A proposal? But we hardly know each other.”

The broad smiled.

“My son,” she said, “means that I’d like to hire your services.”

Suddenly I was all ears. That made it difficult to see who I was talking to – not to mention her legs. It made it difficult to talk, too, so I kept quiet.

“I don’t think it’s your usual gig, Mr Richards.”

I nodded. Then I shook my head.

My usual gig usually involved labs, bicycle chases, Gilson shootouts over PCR machines, and the occasional mad scientist. What do I mean ‘occasional’? They’re all mad.

Yes, whatever it was, it wasn’t likely to be anything like my usual legs. I mean gigs.

“I want you to look after something for me, Mr Richards.”

I looked at the kid. “There’s a kindergarten across the street…”

“Stop playing with me, Mr Richards.” She reached into her case and brought out a roll of greenbacks, put them on my desk. A big roll. More bread than I’d seen in a Polish bakery.

I desperately wanted to find a book of matches, but I found my tongue instead. I put it to work with my lips and my vocal cord.

“Usual fee, plus expenses,” I said. “How long do you want me to keep it for?”

“As long as it takes.”

“Is it valuable?”

“Sentimental only.”

“Who wants to steal it?”

She blinked.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a private dick. You give me something to look after, stands to reason some cat wants to steal it. I need to know who.”

She sighed.

“The Cat.”

“What cat?”

“The Cat who wants to steal it.”

“A cat wants to steal it?”

“Yes. The Cat.”

“Look lady, if you’re worried about a cat stealing it maybe you should get a dog.”

“No, the guy who wants to steal it – “

“Is a cat?”

“They call him the Cat.”

“On account of liking milk?”

“No, on account of being so quiet.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“No, I’m all ears.”

“What?

We looked at each other. She looked at the kid. The kid looked at me. I looked at him and she looked at me. We both looked at her and then they looked at me.

“Start over,” I said. “There’s this cat – “

“Who’s called Nigel – ”

“The cat’s called Nigel? Funny name for a cat.”

“He’s my uncle,” said the kid.

“Your uncle’s a cat? Look, I’ve got Battersea’s number in my Rolodex – ”

“Stop!”

We looked at each other again. I hated this case already and I hadn’t even started it.

“My son’s uncle, Nigel, is called the Cat.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“Depends what he’s got to do with anything.”

“He wants to steal it.”

“What?”

“What?”

“What does he want to steal?”

She opened her case again and brought out what looked like a spoon.

“That looks like a spoon.”

“It is a spoon.”

“Do you want a coffee? I’ve got some sugar.”

“No, this is what he wants to steal,” she said.

“The Cat?”

“Nigel.”

“That’s what I said. Why does he want to steal a spoon?”

“Not just any spoon: this spoon.”

“That spoon?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s been in my family for three hundred years, and whoever holds the spoon inherits the family fortune.”

“But you said it was sentimental value only.”

The broad stared at me. “Mr Richards.”

“That’s what it says on the door.”

“I’d get very sentimental indeed if anybody else were to get hold of this spoon.” She put her finger on the greenbacks.

I swallowed. That was a whole shedful of consumables I didn’t want to lose. “And you don’t want your brother to get hold of it?”

“My brother?”

“Your son’s uncle. Not your brother?”

“My brother! Yes, of course. Uncle Nigel.”

“The Cat.”

“What cat?”

“Not again,” the kid interrupted. Shame. I thought we were building a rapport.

**********

Eventually, the kid, the broad, her legs, the case and half the greenbacks left my office. The other half were already on the way to Campbell McGregor’s All-Night Whisky Emporium, and the spoon was in my desk drawer, while I wondered where would be a safe place to keep it.

I figured the broad was right. She knew me well enough to know this wasn’t my usual case. Looking after the family jewels, sure, done that, got the bruises. Family silver’s different. Odd sort of get-up, too. Who makes cutlery a deed of probate?

I sniffed. There was something fishy going on, and I was determined to get to the bottom of whichever phylum or class was making the smell.

Suddenly the lights in my office went out. I fumbled in my pocket. My fingers closed round something. I pulled it out – luckily it turned out to be a book of matches. I lit one. I’m a slow reader, but by the light of the match I could see the net curtains billowing in the breeze from the open window. Something wasn’t right. My office didn’t have windows.

The match went out, and closed the door behind it.

I tried to light another match, but a gloved hand stopped me. I could tell it was a gloved hand because the lights had come back on, and there was a figure dressed in black standing in front of me. The figure had its hands full; one hand held mine, but the other was holding something small: small but I knew it to be lethal.

I whistled softly. “A 10 microlitre glass capillary. You don’t see many of those these days. Slow to reload, hard to aim, but just as deadly as a P1000 in the right hands – and in the wrong hand, as likely to hurt the operator as much as the target. Now me, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I find the motorized electronic Gilsons too persnickety, liable to fail in a firefight. I prefer a manual repeating pipette – maybe not as accurate as a positive displacement pipette, but more precise than a multichannel. Now, your micro capillary… I always thought they were a woman’s pipette – but in the right hands you could kill a man.”

The figure let go of my hand, and spoke. A woman’s voice. “You’d better believe it, Nick Richards.”

“That’s what it says on the door.”

“I didn’t come through the door. I came in the window.”

“I don’t have a window.”

Didn’t, Richards. You have one now. Consider it a gesture of goodwill.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I left you the wall.” The figure sighed. “Look, I’m not very good at this sort of talk. Can I sit down?”

I indicated the only other chair in the room. “Help yourself. It’s my evening for visitors. But they usually introduce themselves before they remodel my office.”

With a sweep of her arm the figure pulled off the black hood she was wearing, and shook her hair free in slow motion. She looked up at me, her red hair gently falling into place around her shoulders.

“They call me the Cat,” she said.

I looked at her. “The cat? Again?”

“The Cat. On account of – ”

“ – Liking milk?” I interrupted.

“ – Of being so quiet,” she hissed. “You were visited by the woman with the nice ahems earlier.”

“I didn’t notice her ahems.”

“More of a leg man then?”

“Leg man, leg work. It’s all the same in this business. Ahem.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Why are you here?”

She leaned back in my chair and slowly crossed her legs. Her hair waved gently in the breeze from the window.

“Mind if I shut that?”

“Not at all,” she said. “But there’s something you need to know.”

For the second time that night I was all ears.

“The woman, and her son – it’s a scam,” she said.

“A scam?”

“An insurance scam. They want you to keep the spoon from me.”

I frowned. She frowned. I peered at her. She leaned back.

“You don’t look like a Nigel,” I said.

“What?” she said.

“They said you were his Uncle.”

“They lied.”

“How do I know they lied and not you?”

She looked at me. I looked at her. There was no one else to look at, and it was beginning to look bad.

“How do you know they lied?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“And not me?”

“Yes.”

“About me being a woman?”

“Yes.”

Slowly, she unzipped her skirt.

I swallowed.

“OK,” I said. “They lied. Why?”

“To put you off the scent. It’s an insurance scam. She’s got the spoon insured. So when it goes missing, she claims on the insurance.”

“If she doesn’t have the spoon, how can she claim the inheritance?”

“That’s the big secret. There is no inheritance. She just has to make people believe there is, so it can be insured – and what better way than hiring a private detective to look after the spoon?”

“So you don’t want the spoon?”

She laughed? “What would I want with a spoon? I’ve got a drawer full of them.”

That reminded me. “You can probably zip that back up now.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. Happens all the time.”

She stood up and walked towards the door. “I’ve got to go now. But remember – it’s not me you have to keep the spoon from. It’s the son.”

“Her son?”

“Yeah. The dishy one. Be careful. He’ll find the spoon, and you won’t be able to stop him. He’s pretty mean with a Gilson too.”

Then she was gone, leaving me with a headache and even more questions than before. But there was no time to think. I had to get the spoon to somewhere safe, and it was obvious that my office wasn’t that place.

I opened the desk drawer and was reaching for the spoon when a flicker in the corridor alerted my sixth, seventh and eighth senses. I hit the floor just as my chair explodes into splinters. I roll and come up with my Gilson in hand. The shadow in the corridor is taking aim again but I squeeze off a shot that leaves a hole in the door. I hear footsteps running down the corridor. Stopping only to tie my shoes, put on my coat, and grab the spoon, car keys, whisky bottle and a spare rack of tips I burst out of the office.

The shadow is already disappearing round the corner. I run after it, leaping down the stairs two at a time. On the second floor I flatten myself against the wall as two tips in rapid succession thud into the brickwork by my ear. Down to the ground floor and I’m just in time to see the front door swing shut, and a shadowy figure dodging traffic as it crosses the road. I take aim with my Gilson but the shadow has merged into the darkness, and there are too many civilians in the street.

But the chase has cleared my head and I know exactly what to do with the spoon.

**********

Fifteen minutes later I’m driving along the A10 to Littleport. A source of mine runs a moonshine business out here, and I figure the spoon will be safe in his barley mash.

I pull up alongside his barn on the Hale Fen Road. I turn off the engine and listen to the cooling ticks of the engine. In the moonlight I can see his gangly figure approaching my car. I get out.

“Nick Richards!”

“That’s what it says,” I say, pointing a thumb at my car. “Trev, I’m calling in a favour.”

Trev beams at me. “Anything!” he cries, throwing his arms wide. “The moonshine’s jumped the cow!”

I blink.

“You mean the shark? It’s jumped the shark?”

“Yeah. Cow, shark. Same thing, right?”

“No, Trev. They’re completely different classes. Am I going to have to teach you taxonomy again?”

There is something wrong with the way he’s standing there, arms wide open, fixed grin across his face. Slowly, he topples forward, and I make out the unmistakable shape of a P1000 tip in his back.

“Oh no…”

Then there’s a flash, a pain in my head, and the moonlight goes out.

**********

I was woken by a dog. I opened my eyes. Looked like a hyena. Small one. Barked like one too. I felt for the spoon, but I knew it wasn’t there. I heard singing as well. I propped myself up on my elbow, fireworks going off inside my head. My car – the broad’s son was standing by it, a flash of light as he slashed the tyres. Then he was off, running down the road.

**********

I never saw him, the broad, or the spoon, again. But the song he was singing will stay with me for a long, long time:

Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon

The little dog laughed to see such fun

And the dish ran away with the spoon