“Sooner or later,” Pete said, leaning across the table with a rueful smile, “you are going to get yourself in big trouble.”
As usual, when he tried to be the dad I never had, instead of my boss, I laughed in his face and skulled the rest of my pint. “See you later, loser.” I said it in jest but I couldn’t get out of the pub fast enough. He spent half the time telling me I was wasting my brains on what was really a piddly, trivial little job and then, when an interesting case actually did cross the threshold of our crummy little office, he panicked at the thought I might encounter danger.
Most of the stuff we deal with is nonsense, to be fair, but it suits me better than being in an office. Drinking coffee in an old car and people-watching for hours on end is much more up my street. I mean, not completely up my street – it’s just at the beginning of the street, where there’s a dodgy betting shop, a blocked drain and bedsits with cracked windows, before it gets more well-to do up the other end – but better than anything else on offer.
Pete gets annoyed sometimes because he likes me and thinks I could really go far, but he can’t afford to pay me much and, while he’ll never admit it, most of the work we get in is honey-trapping, and boy do I not have the face to set a honey trap. I’ve got a snub old nose, reddish curly hair that won’t stay still and I’m hardly what you’d call sophisticated. Unless your idea of seductive elegance is slightly chubby, wearing a pair of scruffy DMs and swearing like a docker.
Still, I am shit-hot at deduction, following leads and stalking my targets undetected. This week’s job is blackmail. A woman came in to see us, very distressed, saying that her dear old dad was being blackmailed. He was terrified, apparently, and living in a constant state of fear of having to sell his house after 40 years to pay this unscrupulous person off. And him a war hero!
She showed us the letters he’d been receiving. They piqued my interest straightaway. Beautifully done – copperplate writing, faded, sepia paper that cracked where it had been folded. Looked old as the hills but that’s easily achieved by dunking the paper in a little cold tea and stringing it out over a radiator. The content of the letter itself was less impressive: I know what you did…your sins will find you out…revenge is a dish best served cold…blah blah blah cliché blah. The only remarkable thing was that the letter writer had signed with his or her initials – RJ – and included a return address.
The old man didn’t want the police involved – which is why his anxious daughter had resorted to us – and claimed to have no idea what ‘old sin’ the letter writer was alluding too. I tried to keep my eyebrows level; I’ve never known a blackmail case where the victim hadn’t done something horrendous or deeply embarrassing.
So here I am, dispatched into the field with only a map and my toolkit. The address of the blackmailer is very unremarkable; pure London suburbia, tall, semi-detached Victorian townhouses that have seen slightly better days. It’s number 32 but, weirdly, there’s a gap where number 32 should be. Number 30 is standing, but it’s alone, not in a neat pair like the others, and its west wall is jagged and messy, like it’s had a limb roughly removed. There’s a huge space of scrubby ground next to it and then number 34.
I break cover to go and take a closer look. No doubt about it, number 32 has been pulled down. I peer down the side of number 30 to see if they flogged off part of their garden to a developer to build a new number 32, but there’s nothing there. And now I’ve managed to attract the attention of the man who lives in number 30.
“Can I help?”
“I was looking for number 32…but it doesn’t seem to be here.”
“No indeed,” he said dryly, “definitely gone. They pulled it down years ago. Something nasty happened there – very nasty – and they never caught whoever did it. No-one would buy the house after that; the council couldn’t give the place away. So they ripped it down, best thing really – the wife hated living next door, said she used to hear funny noises all the time. Matter of fact, I thought you was one of those ghosthunters – we still get ’em sometimes. People convinced there must be spirits knocking about if someone’s met a violent death. What was it you wanted there?”