April showers for April fools. I was standing on the riverbank that miserable day, hands thrust deep in the pockets of a leather jacket, waiting for a client. The fallen rain streamed in miniature rivulets, insinuating its way through the cobblestones to drain into the murky waters of the Ouse. At least it’s been a lot cleaner since the Glassworks closed; salmon had even been seen swimming up from Hull and leaping over the Naburn weir. Still, I wouldn’t eat anything that came out of that river – too many bloated corpses have floated in it. It’s a river that has a hypnotic effect on the suicidal; I should know, I’ve often thought of weighting my pockets and jumping in. Which all makes me wonder why William Etty felt the need to paint a body floating beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice? But then, who would want to look at a painting of Ouse Bridge?
The rain was running down the back of my neck, despite the upturned collar. It made me cringe. I cursed myself for being too macho to take a brolly.
Then I saw her coming - it had to be her - a young, dark-eyed brunette sauntering gracefully across the cobbles despite the high heels. She had nice ankles, that’s the first thing I notice about a woman; back in the day, a man wouldn’t buy a woman unless he could wrap one hand around her ankle. Luckily, I’ve got long fingers.
Trust her to have had the sense to bring an umbrella. Quite a looker, and tidily put together as well. The full length, tight-fitting white coat didn’t hide the fact that her figure represented a perfect balance between slimness and curvaceous. She halted before me, languidly resting her weight on her left leg to accentuate the exquisite curve of her right thigh. Her brolly was half covering me, just enough to channel more water down my neck. I hated her already.
She was tall, but I was taller. I enjoyed looking down on her, but why the hell did she have to be so good-looking? I could tell by the way she held my gaze that she’d never been told what to do by a man. First time for everything, though - or so I thought.
“Warren Blake?” It sounded accusing.
I played the strong, silent type and gave her a curt nod. She smirked.
“What can I do for you, Miss Devlin?”
“I do beg your pardon… Mrs Devlin, but why the hell couldn’t you just come to my office?”
“Office…” another smirk. “Don’t you mean junk yard?”
“Ex scrap metal merchants, actually. Anyway, I’m wet and cold, so let’s get on with it.”
I could tell by the way she’d set her jaw that she wasn’t used to straight talk.
“Come on!” She gave me a crocodile smile. “Let’s walk. We must not be seen together and there must be no record of our… liaison. Do you understand? ”
We moved back to the path and followed it downriver, away from The King’s Staith, her heels clicking rhythmically on the flags, my rubber soles squeaking. It’s all designed to make us feel sexually inferior, you see - but at least the ducks seemed to be having fun.
We walked in awkward silence until we reached Skeldergate Bridge, then took shelter beneath the arch. I don’t know what perfume she was wearing, but it was overpowering. So I lit up a dampened Hamlet, to Mrs Devlin’s obvious disgust. Needless to say, I blew some smoke in her face.
She grimaced, and then stooped to rest the briefcase against her knees. “Well, Mr Blake, it’s all here.”
“Just Blake will do, it’s not like I’m a gentleman, or anything.”
“So I noticed.” She handed me a vanilla, A4 envelope full of documents. “I’m Annabel. I want you to follow this man, find the skeletons in his closet, so to speak.”
“Why did you pick me?” I took the envelope. “Did someone recommend me?”
“No, I chose you because I know you’re desperate.”
I bristled and gave her another face full of smoke. “It won’t be cheap, you know.”
“Mr Blake, everybody’s cheap, to me.” She reached in her pocket and produced a smaller envelope. “Fifteen hundred, for expenses. Another five thousand if you come up with the goods within a week.”
“It all seems a bit cloak and dagger, to me. What if I don’t fancy working for you?”
“Take the money… Blake, I know you need it.”
Even beneath the veneer of her expensive waterproof makeup, I could tell that she really was a looker - about as good as it gets, in my humble opinion - and yet, there was a kind of harshness about her beauty that was off-putting. I so much wanted to turn her down and walk away, but she had me, and she knew it. So I took the envelope and thrust it inside my jacket.
“Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” She swung round on one heel, dismissing me.
Like a fool, I stood and watched her trim but peachy derriere roll away into the distance, before turning to head in the opposite direction. Although I had given a good account of myself, I still felt as though I’d been pussy-whipped.
At least the downpour had receded to a light drizzle. I took a right and climbed the hill, wishing that the rain and damp didn’t make me feel so goddamn miserable. Reluctantly, I popped in the bank and deposited a thousand of the expenses money, just to cover my direct debits.
Afterwards, I negotiated the crowd in the square, dodging being poked in the eye by tourists’ umbrellas and feeling like I could kick an old lady. The problem with this city is that it makes you feel like a relic in a living museum. Still, the Japanese like coming here, but I bet they’re glad to go home again.
I popped in The Golden Fleece, to down a medicinal triple brandy, just to remind myself that I was still alive.
A few minutes later, my soles were squeaking down the alley. Rom and Rem started barking a chorus of welcome before I even reached the double gates. Junkyard – cheeky witch. I gazed proudly at the new sign screwed to one of the gates: WARREN BLAKE INVESTIGATIONS. I’d show Miss Devlin who the best PI in the north was. I swiped my card past the magic eye and entered the yard.
“Whoa, down boys!” I just managed to halt them in their tracks before they covered my clothes in huge muddy paw prints. They sat on their haunches, obediently, so I gave their heads a pat before pointing them back to the rubber mattress in the carport.
I thought I’d better shovel up some dog shit, in case a client came round. After preparing some chopped mutton breast, barley, Eukanuba and Japanese seaweed, in the freezer shed, I fed the lads, just so they could make some more mess. Then it was time to feed myself.
After unlocking the sheet metal-coated office door, I walked in out of the cold – home sweet home at last. When the Calorgas heater was lit, and I’d dried the mop with a tea towel, I threw the envelopes on the desk and poured a glass of rum, as a prelude to sitting down and picking at the cold doner kebab meat left over from the previous night’s feast.
Then the old phone rang. Why the hell does it always ring when you’re having your dinner?
“Blake Investigations. Oh, no, not again. Listen… Listen, Mr Crowley; private detectives can’t ruin relationships that were already broken. What…? Well you shouldn’t have dabbled with the cuddly cleaning lady – should you? I never touched your soon to be ex wife, it was purely professional. You what? There’s nothing wrong with my photography skills, those were perfectly good snaps. You can’t blame me for that; you should’ve kept your toupee on. And in future, close the curtains if you want privacy. Yeah… same to you an’ all.” Slam! “Sweet Jesus, what a moron.”
So, I finished the choice lamb and emptied the large envelope. He looked lie a real smarmy git, far too good-looking to be honest. Nathan Carvell: twenty-eight years old. Annabel had provided me with his home address and a list of his favourite haunts, but not much information on acquaintances. There was quite a detailed rough itinerary, as well. Carvell was just the type I liked to investigate, a creature of habit. He had a couple of bodyguards to chauffer him about, ex paratroopers; presumably, Carvell had made a lot of enemies. Annabel had provided a description of his Bentley, with the registration number.
I was about to DuckDuckGo his name when I decided to make a call to the press office first.
“Hi, Jen, it’s me. Yeah… Listen, what do you know about a Nathan Carvell and the Devlin’s. Yeah, really. Yeah, I know the place, where the helicopter’s always coming and going. Righto, go on. I know how many favours I owe you. Yeah, take care.”
So Annabel Devlin was actually Mrs Carvell. The plot thickened, but I couldn’t think why she wouldn’t have just told me that. The Devlin’s lived downriver in a large mansion, no wonder she said everybody was cheap to her. But Carvell was across the river in an apartment block. The honeymoon period must have ended acrimoniously and Annabel was now looking for a divorce, on her terms. Carvell was a Cambridge dropout from a riches to rags background, who had managed to marry back into money - he was a notorious gambler and womaniser. It seemed strange that Jen had warned me to stay away from him; maybe the bodyguards had given reporters a rough time.
I searched the internet and found some Hello magazine photos of the wedding, and blow me if Annabel didn’t have a twin sister – double trouble. It did occur to me that Annabel might have actually been her sister, Tara, but then, I am suspicious by nature. If they were playing some kind of game, this could get confusing.
Carvell had narrowly escaped a kidnap plot, before he fell on hard times. No wonder he employed minders, the experience must have left him paranoid. Old man Devlin had given him a position in the company, though I couldn’t be sure if it was genuine or simply honorary, and designed to give the son-in-law a respectable income.
Then I looked up daddy and mummy Devlin, and what I was dealing with was an Anglo-French dynasty; not exactly aristocrats in the blue-blooded sense, but nouveau riche - or rather, middle-upper-class whose not too distant ancestors made good. They had their sticky fingers into everything, including oil, gas and telecommunications. What puzzled me was why the hell they lived on the Viking Riviera instead of the French.
Looking out of the grimy window pain and wire grill, I could see that the rain had finally relented and the light was fading fast. I thought about testing the information Annabel had provided and trying to pick up Carvell’s trail – let the dog see the rabbit straight away, sort of thing. Carvell would become something of an obsession until I had put the job to rest, but I decided to get some decent food and start the hunt on the morrow. What the hell, I still had five hundred quid left, might as well get a proper meal for a change.
So, I took a short stroll round to General Wolfe’s mother’s birth place – allegedly.
The Black Swan was busy as usual. It was still a bit early for food, so I had to work up an appetite on a few pints of Copper Dragon. I was just starting to feel a little less miserable when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Now then, Blakey?”
I hate being called that, and hated the voice even more.Turning around, I forced a smile. It was none other than my nemesis, Detective Sergeant Harris, booted and suited, with his long, blond fringe combed back over his bald patch.
“Now then, Varney? Still a DS after all these years?”
His beady blue eyes flashed resentment, but he managed to maintain the sarcastic grin. “So would you be, if you’d been any good at your job, Blakey. You wouldn’t have needed to go private. How’s it going, anyway, still struggling to make a living? Thought you might have gone back to dog walking in the RAF, by now.”
“Oh, I’m doing all right, Varney, not having to brown nose a DI or DCI - know what I mean?”
“Listen, Blakey,” his face loomed so close to mine that I thought he was going to give me an Eskimo kiss with his Roman nose, “you’d better stop calling Linda and asking her to check the DVLA database for you – she’ll lose her job over you.”
“What’s wrong, Varney, still can’t get her to date you?”
His face had reddened. “You’re one of the little people now, Blakey. You just remember that, or I’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks.”
With that, he swaggered off back to his comrades and soon had them all elbowing each other while smirking in my direction.
The mixed grill was indeed famous, with some particularly gorgeous black pudding. Fortified with meat and ale, I headed back to the yard and took the lads for a stroll along the banks of the Foss, contemplating the futility of life. Rom and Rem kept halting and turning around to growl at the shadows, hackles bristling. I had a feeling that I was being followed. Carvell couldn’t have been on to me yet. Maybe Annabel had someone keeping tabs on me.
Back at the office, I took a couple of vitamin C pastilles and mixed up a glass of Fybogel, to compensate for the carnivorous diet. Fortified with roughage, I brushed my teeth and retired to the storeroom come makeshift bedroom, changed into a track suit and got in the camp bed to watch some recordings of Futurama.
Eventually, I switched off the light and hugged a pillow, wondering if Annabel and Tara were actually identical - right down to their pinkies.