The Big Chill – Extract
I was in my office, sorting through the mail, mainly of the junk variety, replying to messages left on my answering machine, filing documents in my filing cabinet, when a feline face appeared at the window. Marlowe. I opened the window and the cat, complete with a split ear – fighting again, Marlowe, I hope she was worth it – entered and rubbed himself against my arm. Marlowe purred, a deep, throaty purr, then he leapt on to my desk and licked the space where my computer should be. After months of aggravation, I’d dropped my old computer out of the window – not a wise, but a cathartic gesture – and ordered a new one. The new computer lasted two weeks before it started to play up. After some haggling, I managed to negotiate a replacement and now I was waiting for that replacement to arrive.
The weekend with Alan was still fresh in my mind and I was in a joyful mood. In fact, I was singing Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’, swinging my head, really getting into it, allowing my long hair to sway all over my face, about to play some air guitar when someone entered my office, a young girl, around seven years old. She had fair, collar length hair, thick and shaped into a basin cut. Her eyes were blue and wide, as though staring in wonder, while her face was innocent and cherubic. Dressed in blue jeans, she wore a ragged woollen jumper, which was short-sleeved despite the cold December weather, and small stud earrings in her ears.
“Hi,” the girl said while eyeing me with some suspicion, “I’m Rosie.”
“Hi, I’m Sam.”
Her eyes narrowed and her suspicion deepened. “Sam…that’s a man’s name.”
“My full name is Samantha.”
“My full name is Rosie Appleyard. People make fun of my name.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Rosie Apple,” she explained. “They call me pipsqueak or apple face. Do you think it’s wrong for people to call you names?”
“Yes, I do,” I smiled.
Rosie’s cherubic face mirrored my smile and, gaining in confidence, she took a step towards my desk. “Have you got a middle name?” she asked, her hands clasped in front of her midriff, her body swaying gently from side to side.
“Yes, I have.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a secret,” I replied mysteriously.
Rosie frowned and suspicion returned. “Do you keep lots of secrets?”
“Sometimes I have to. Sometimes I discover things and only my client must know about them.”
She nodded, trusting me, accepting my word. “You’re the lady private detective,” she said while glancing around my spartan office, her eyes finally alighting on a small bookcase crammed with reference books.
“I am. Do you want to hire me?”
“I do,” Rosie grinned. She had a mischievous grin, the preserve of the young and innocent. Her hand wandered towards my client’s chair, a wicker affair with a padded seat. “Can I sit on your chair?”
“Of course you can.”
She jumped on to the chair and proceeded to swing, gyrating from side to side. “It’s not very comfortable,” she complained, her face adopting a scowl.
“I’m saving up to buy a new one.”
“Ah, right.” Rosie viewed me through bright, blue, appraising eyes, eyes that were all knowing, eyes that had seen the rough and tumble of our local streets. “You’ve got very long hair,” she observed.
On cue, I flicked my hair from the collar of my blouse. Then I sat on my faux-leather chair, at my desk, opposite Rosie. “I think long hair suits me. What do you think?”
“My dad says you’ve got hair that shimmers like silk. He says the angels spun your hair from the finest gossamer.”
My lips twitched into a smile. “Is your dad a poet?”
“Nah.” Rosie shook her head while gyrating in my client’s chair. “Long distance lorry driver.”
I sat forward in my chair, placed my elbows on my desk then eased my chin on to a bridge made by my fingers. “Where do you live?” I asked.
Rosie pointed, with her chin, towards my office window. “Across the road.”
I nodded. “I thought your face was familiar.”
Her eyes wandered from me, on to Marlowe. The cat, no doubt exhausted by his nefarious night-time activities, had curled into a ball and was asleep on my desk. “Is that your cat?” she asked.
“Does he bite?”
“Only people he doesn’t like.”
“Do you think he’ll like me?”
“If you’re kind to him, I’m sure he will.”
“I’m always kind to animals.”
“Do you have a cat?” I asked.
“A dog,” Rosie replied. “Bugle. He’s a beagle. I took him for a walk and he ran away. I want you to find him.”
“Sorry,” I shook my head, “I don’t do pets.”
Rosie’s bottom lip started to quiver. She stopped swinging in my client’s chair. Her blue eyes filled with tears. “I can pay you,” she insisted producing a handful of coins from her jeans pocket and placing them on my desk.
“Where did you get that money from?” I asked.
“My money box.” Rosie gave me an up from under, sad, manipulative look. “My dad says my mum will kill me if I don’t find Bugle before she comes home from shopping. My dad says my mum loves the dog more than she loves him.”
Call me a soft touch, but the threat of waterworks, combined with Rosie’s pitiful look, convinced me that I should spend some time helping her.
“I tell you what,” I said, ‘it’s your lucky day. I have a special offer on today – the first person who walks into my office gets an hour of my time, free. So put your money in your pocket and let’s go look for Bugle.”
Cheered, Rosie scooped up her money and returned the coins to her jeans pocket. Then she stroked Marlowe, who barely batted a whisker, before following me out of the office into the street.
I glanced up and down the row of crumbling Victorian tenements; buildings that had seen better days, yet still retained a certain charm. Children, off school although it was term-time, played in the street, kicking a football between parked cars. A curtain twitched – that would be Mrs Hodges, who lived on her nerves and local gossip – while a boy ran past, poking his tongue out at Rosie.
“I’ll get you, Joel!” Rosie screamed at the boy who turned briefly to offer a “na-na-na-na-na-na.”
While guiding Rosie along the street, I asked, “Where were you walking when Bugle ran away?”
She pointed towards an area of green space, an area of common land where four streets converged. “Over there, in the park.”
I smiled and took hold of Rosie’s hand. “Okay, let’s go to the park.”
The park, like the district, had seen better days. Rusty swings swayed in the breeze, a roundabout stood motionless with paint peeling, looking forlorn, while the slide shimmered after a light shower of rain.
“Which direction did Bugle run in?” I asked while looking around, though catching no sight of the hound.
“Over there.” Rosie extended her right arm and pointed towards an area of wasteland. “Bugle!” “Bugle!” she screeched as we walked towards a demolition site, a district scheduled for renovation. “Beagles have got two hundred million scent receptors on their noses, did you know that?” Rosie announced with justifiable pride.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied.
I was about to ask where she had gleaned that information when she extended her right arm again and yelled, “There he is!”
A white and brown head popped up, then peered over a slab of demolished concrete. The nose on his square muzzle twitched and I gazed into a pair of soulful brown eyes.
“Bugle!” Rosie screamed while running towards the dog. Job done, task complete…but no, we’re talking about a beagle. Bugle took one look at Rosie, barked, then turned tail. He scampered into a partially demolished building, with yours truly in pursuit.
“Come here you naughty boy, you’ve got Rosie into big trouble,” I muttered while climbing over an old garden wall. Fortunately, I was wearing slacks and so could scramble over the blocks and bricks without losing my dignity. “Come here, Bugle,” I repeated, my voice soft and light, friendly and enticing. The dog’s lead was still attached to its collar and was just out of reach. While picking my way through a tumble of masonry, I smiled and murmured, “Good boy…good boy…” Then, “Bad boy!” as I lunged for the lead, missed and the dog ran deeper into the building. “Bugle!” I ground out through clenched teeth. I followed the dog into the building, wary of conditions underfoot and the amount of loose masonry, directly overhead. “Come here,” I enticed, “I’ve got a treat…”
The dog barked and simultaneously I was showered with dust as the breeze disturbed the debris above my head. I turned my head, spied the tip of a white tail then, stealthily made my way towards Bugle.
In all probability, our game of dog and human would have continued into the next millennium, save for the fact that Bugle had retreated into the bathroom of the house and I had him cornered. With a smile and a sigh of relief, I took hold of Bugle’s lead and guided him towards Rosie.
“Bugle!” Rosie gushed as we emerged from the demolition site. “Oh, I love him!” she announced while squatting beside the dog, her arms offering an affectionate embrace.
I was dusting myself down, smiling at Rosie and her jaunty dog when something appeared in the corner of my eye. I turned and stared towards a line of old garages. The garages were all empty and in various states of disrepair. From one of the garages, a man stepped forward. He had a handsome face, the face of a male model, yet that face was lined with suspicion and apprehension, and covered in blotches, hinting at malnourishment. Standing around six foot tall, he was very thin, to the point of emaciation. His clothes were dirty and unkempt. He had long, wavy hair, jet-black in colour, hair that touched the epaulettes on his navy blue jacket. However, for all his strange looks, his eyes captured your attention. They were dark, intense, staring, vacant, like two black holes seeking to suck you into an endless void.
Rosie glanced at the man and took fright. With a nervous shuffle, she snuggled at my side, where I placed an arm around her shoulders. Bugle barked at the man, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he continued to fix us with his intense, unyielding stare.
“Come on, Rosie,” I took hold of the girl’s hand while adjusting my grip on Bugle’s lead, “time to take Bugle home before your dad hires a private detective to look for you.”
* * *
With Rosie and Bugle safe in their home, I returned to my office to find Marlowe sitting on my client’s chair licking his privates.
“Off there!” I admonished, tilting the chair, and the cat jumped on to my desk. He meowed then purred as he rubbed against the back of my hand, to show that there were no hard feelings.
I brushed the cat hairs off my client’s chair before flicking through the local newspaper. Another prostitute had disappeared, only to be found brutally murdered. That made two gruesome murders in two months. I clipped the article from the newspaper and placed it in my archive, a habit I’d cultivated since the dawn of my agency.
I was wondering what the local women, many of whom were prostitutes, were thinking of the murders when a man knocked on my office door.
“Delivery for a Miss Smith,” he announced cheerily.
“That’s me,” I replied, standing as the man entered my office.
He placed the package on my desk, then produced a hand-held gizmo. “Sign there, love,” he instructed, offering me a plastic stylus. I signed my name on his gizmo – where have all the pens and paper gone? – then turned to face my new computer.
“Have fun,” the delivery man grinned as he closed my office door.
“We will,” I replied, reflecting that yours truly and modern technology were not the best of bedfellows.
“Look, Marlowe, our new computer,” I said while picking up the scissors to attack the packaging.
I swear that it’s easier to climb Mount Everest than to open a twenty-first century package – do they really have to make them so secure? – but eventually, I did break the seal and reveal the contents of the parcel.
All silver and shiny, I removed the computer from its bondage and placed it on my desk. I was singing, ‘Softly Whispering I Love You’, bending the lyrics to suit my gender, murdering the song by remaining true to my one, natural note – B very flat, when Marlowe knocked a ribbon of plastic packaging on to the floor.
“Don’t do that, Marlowe,” I admonished. “Our office is our shop window to our clients; we must present a sense of order and decorum, not chaos.”
I tickled Marlowe under his chin, then stooped to retrieve the plastic ribbon. At that moment, someone entered my office. I was about to straighten and ask, “Do you want to hire me?” when the gun went off and I fell to the floor, dead to the world.
The Big Chill extract Copyright © 2015 Hannah Howe. All rights reserved.