"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
by Matthew Loukes
MATTHEW LOUKES is 44, married for more than 10 years and lives in North London and is a graduate of the inaugural creative writing MA at Birkbeck. In 1998 he was shortlisted for the CWA/Sunday Times New Crime Writers award. His first novel Estrella Damn, featuring investigator Slim Gunter, was published by Soul Bay Press in 2008. Matthew’s second Slim Gunter novel, GOOSE FLESH, will be out in September 2009. Beyond crime fiction, his interests include cookery and tattooing.
Lady’s letter was like her, short and to the point. On the outside of the envelope simple printed characters spelled out my name and, in one corner, the words “By Hand”. I smiled and imagined her kissing the seal. Or something like that. Lady was my girlfriend, in a manner of speaking, and she had left me the thin package, along with a message on my answer-phone. Both of those things made me feel good but only one of them was likely to lead to getting paid. Apart from Lady’s sweet ticket, the white envelope contained two sheets of paper, held together by some sort of non-metallic staples. Save the planet. One was a handwritten note, the other a photocopy of an article from the Camden New Journal, the nearest thing we had to a local newspaper. The note was on a piece of headed paper with a logo showing a hand holding what looked like an artist’s paint brush above the name Prudence Chase and underneath the moniker the words ‘Art Therapist’. I didn’t really know what an art therapist was but I would have bet the definition included something about finding oneself, emotional intelligence and probably involved crystals somewhere. Prudence Chase didn’t say much in her note. Her curly writing, the down stroke on the letter ‘n’ making an almost circular sweep at its end, just gave me a phone number and a request for a call.
The newspaper article had a lot more words, and a picture. The headline read Misadventure Verdict in Camden Death, which made up for in information what it lacked in novelty. Under the headline, off to the left of the body text, was a photo of a man with greasy, curly hair, unfocussed eyes and a lopsided mouth which had more teeth than a sprocket factory. It looked something like a police head shot, which wouldn’t have been a great surprise. I’d seen the face often enough, and spoken to it on occasion. Mostly I’d just listened. I didn’t need to read the accompanying article to recognise Barnaby Chase, although we had never been formally introduced. The newshound gave me the bits I had missed out on by never having dinner with him. He had been found in his flat by his mother, Ms.Prudence Chase. That can’t have been a bunch of fun for her, not least having to sit there and wait for the ambulance and the boys with the large bin-bags while he lay on the floor. Actually, the article didn’t say where the body was, just that she found him. The post-mortem had shown a head wound, abrasions on the face, a load of bruises and enough liver damage to make the Doctor include it in the report. Barnaby Chase was 34. I thought about that for a moment, counting my 36 years, and lit a cigarette. On balance that seemed better than reaching for the office bottle.
My selfishness and bad health was interrupted by the ring on my old black telephone, as loud and insistent as any hangover.
“Are you behaving yourself?” Lady’s voice had a laugh in it.
“I love you too, darling.” I meant it. “And it’s ten in the morning. What would I be up to at that hour?”
“Just checking on you, wee man. I haven’t seen you for a couple of days.” She giggled. “Did you get the envelope and my message? I left it for you last night.”
“Who’s Prudence? She said you were a friend. I know I don’t listen properly but I’ve never heard tell of her before.”
“No you don’t. Listen that is.” Lady clicked her tongue. “She’s a donor, gives money to the refuge and sometimes she does some of that art stuff at the refuge for us. We sometimes share coffee. I wouldn’t call her a friend, like, but she’s in a bad place and I thought it might work for both of you.”
She meant that I might make some money for once which was where Lady and I didn’t always look into each other’s seeing equipment.
“What do you reckon? Is it something you could do?” She didn’t say it but it could have been an order.
“As ever, darling, I’ll do my best.”
Lady left me with something between a snort and a kiss blown down the line. I placed the receiver down gently, like I was holding one of her small hands.
Lady had been born in Ireland but trained as a nurse in London, before moving to Australia, New Zealand and Malyasia. Her work now was not nursing in the sense of wearing a uniform and working the wards but helping women who had seen too many fists, boots and casualty departments. The people Lady worked for had a house somewhere off the Mile End Road. It contained about fifteen or so women residents and had double locks on all the door and windows. Both the address and telephone numbers were a secret, especially if you were male, and they had a panic button by the door that linked to the local police station. The only men that ever got in wore uniforms, or dog collars. Lady didn’t talk much to me about her work, but I had seen her sobbing into the Cabernet Sauvignon on more than one occasion. I would just hold her small hand and keep my mouth shut. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Lady was no more than five feet tall, had almost black hair cut in a messed-up bob and very pale skin. Like Porcelain, I had said to her once. You mean like the bogs, she’d replied, showing me her teeth.
The coroner hadn’t found any evidence of anything you could turn into a drama. Barnaby Chase had died from a sub-dural haemorrhage which may have been attributable to a recent head injury. But Barnaby was the sort of man that might have tended to bang his head now and again, something that goes with sitting in pubs or on park benches for long periods. It was more than a decent probability that sometimes other people banged his head for him but the medical man with the big scissors and the green apron didn’t feel able to say whether or not the death was inflicted by Chase’s own clumsiness or someone else’s. Despite this uncertainty there wasn’t any evidence of anyone else have been present in the flat and the police had been unable to find any witnesses to any type of assault. Detective Inspector White of Kings Cross police station dismissed the notion of any crime. The newspaper referred to the deceased as a freelance photographer but I had never seen him with anything other than a glass, a bottle or can in his hand. The piece ended with two pieces of reported speech. Sombre coroner’s words of remorse, modified by the usual stern warnings about the dangers of drinking and tripping over one’s furniture. The other quote was from the mother, Prudence, who had just sent me the article. It was quite an odd thing to have said, in the circumstances.
“I can’t forget his face.” She was reported to have said. “I can’t forget his face.”
Across the office from my small desk, Eddie Scarborough lit a cigar that was no bigger than a French stick and leant back in his leather office chair. A suit jacket draped from a teak hanger on a hat stand behind his head. The cuffs on his pink shirt were doubled back on themselves and fastened with plain silver cufflinks. His tie was a knitted cotton affair with modest stripes in soft blues and reds. If I’d crawled under Eddie’s desk I could have run my hands down some knife-edge creases and seen brogues that shone with more polish than the deck-rail on an ocean liner. The only thing that stopped him looking like the poster boy for Businessman of The Year was an eighteen inch neck that meant getting his shirts run up by a tailor and hands which seemed more suited to wrapping round a throat than a fountain pen. Eddie blew a cloud of blue smoke straight up above his head and smiled. He was probably thinking about thumping someone.
I shared the office with Eddie, or rather he allowed me to occupy a gloomy corner where I had a small desk, a computer that made more noise than a combine harvester and easy access to the kitchenette, the kettle and Eddie’s large box of Assam teabags. The room itself was about forty feet deep and made up for in space what it lacked in civil amenities. Eddie’s desk, which was about the size of a tennis court, ran across the room, in front of some floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto Grays Inn Road where buses struggled up and down all day, taking people to and from Kings Cross railway station. The office sat in the eaves of a ratty building which had an off-license and general store on the ground floor with a store-room above that. A man called Ashish ran the shop downstairs with a mixture of good humour, security cameras and a ceremonial sword hidden under the counter. Most of his trade was in plastic bottles of rocket-propelled beer and cider sold by companies who ought to have known better to people that had long since forgotten the question. I’d never asked Eddie about the arrangement. I just came in, made the tea, and was glad to have somewhere to work, should any ever turn up.
Eddied interrupted his cigar, leaving a hog-leg sticking out of a copper urn that he kept on his desk. He peered into his mug with an expression somewhere between hope and expectation. I didn’t need some hoop earrings and a tent on Blackpool Pier to know the future and got up to put the kettle on.
“What’s up, Slim? You’re looking thoughtful.” Eddie handed me the empty mug. “Either that or you need a dump.”
I ignored him and made the tea. I went back to my desk and fired up the computer while reading the news article once more.
“Did you know Barnaby Chase? No. “I waved a hand, then stopped and started again. “What I meant to say is do you remember the bloke with the eighty-eight teeth and the stammer that used to sit at the bar in the Norfolk Arms? One of the professionals.”
“Professional drinkers?” Eddie pushed a flick of hair back over his head. “I might do. Is he in bother?”
“You could say that.” I waved the article at him and then read out loud to him, just the opening paragraph that gave the name and the bare facts.
Eddie shook his head and pursed his lips.
“Forget the name in here,” I pointed at the piece of paper, “We never knew his real name. We knew him as Goose. Which makes sense, now that I think of it.”
Eddie lifted himself out of the chair and came over to me. He was sniggering to himself. I lifted an eyebrow to enquire at the source of his hilarity.
“Here.” He was laughing as he spoke and reached out a paw for the article. “Let’s have a gander.”
While Eddie scanned the newsprint and smirked at his own drollery I looked online for any other stories about Goose’s last minutes. It didn’t make any of the nationals and the local radio station website had a more or less verbatim copy of what ran in the Journal. I didn’t read the local paper, but I knew a woman who did. Lady kept piles of old newspapers in the kitchen of her small flat. All I had to do was get an invitation and I might find the original news of his death, if they had found space for it among the pictures of the Mayor and articles on parking restrictions. I wasn’t surprised that Goose had not got into The Times or made the Nine O’Clock News. Drinkers died every day in London, just like they did everywhere else. If the Coroner had found any cause to suggest skulduggery then a few of the stringers from the big papers might have picked it up, but his solemn words of sober regret weren’t about to set the presses rolling. Unless perhaps your name was Prudence Chase.
Eddie handed back the sheets of paper and shook his head. The six inches of unsmoked cigar were back between his fingers. I held a light under it until the end glowed red.
“I never spoke to him, but I remember him from the Norfolk. Sat at the bar, tipping it away like there was no tomorrow. I guess he was right about that.” Eddie looked at me with a neutral expression, as though he didn’t much care whether Goose was cooked or raw.
“He had a terrible stammer when he was lashed up,” I said, “and I could never understand what he was on about. The last time I saw him he was waving a picture of a baby around and shouting. I never did find out what that was about. I wonder if he had any kids – hard to imagine.”
“You going to look into this?” Eddie exhaled smoke while he spoke, keeping one eye closed.
“I’ll call her.” I nodded. “But this isn’t exactly my thing. Usually they want me to stop someone doing something stupid. Bit late for that. For him, anyway. It depends what she wants, I suppose.”
Eddie looked at his shirt cuff as though he could see a pulled thread or a mote of dirt. It was his turn to raise a brow. I laughed and took the plank out of my eye.
“Yeah, Ed, I know. I need the work, the money. Any money would do. But I have to keep some sense of.” I struggled for the word. “Self-respect. Or something.”
Eddie nodded several times, through the smoke.
“Pru Chase.” Her voice sounded brisk and cheerful enough. It’s important to make a good first impression. I wondered how I would sound if I had a son in the ground. Or a son anywhere.
“Good morning, Miss Chase.” I mumbled the word ‘Miss’ as something indeterminate. “My name is Gunter. Slim Gunter.”
She started talking before I could say anything more, like offering my sympathy or giving her my hourly rates. I had my pen poised but she went too fast for me to get it all down. I listened and scribbled with the phone tucked between shoulder and double chin. After a couple of minutes I had a pad covered in scrawl that I wouldn’t be able to read the next day and a pair of sore arms. When she had finished I put the receiver back in the cradle, lit another cigarette and looked at the words. One of them kept appearing in my notes, as though I could write it more legibly than the others. I did a totting up with the pen-nib and got to five plus a maybe that might have said something else. I took a fresh sheet from the pad and wrote an address, phone number and an appointment time. Underneath that I wrote out Goose’s proper name and the word again. I couldn’t see why that word should be so easy to write down. Eddie looked over across his huge desk.
“What’s the deal?”
“I’m making some notes. Then I’m going to see Pru.” We were on familiar terms already. “To ask her why she thinks old Goose was murdered.”
Eddie’s large head moved slowly from side to side.
Sandwich House stood in a quiet road, tucked between some university buildings and the spires of Saint Pancras railway station. I walked round the solidly red-brick building which covered the sides of three streets. A crumbling foundation stone that told me it had gone up in 1906. There were six entrances to the building and it took me four attempts to get the right one. She had told me to come to number 73. I pushed two buttons and put my ear close to some small holes in a metal plate next to the door. The same bright voice I had heard on the phone asked my name and buzzed me in. The door opened onto a flight of polished stone steps that led through to a large open courtyard. I was surprised to see four or five trees, one of which was a spruce or whatever version the Christmas one is, rising out of the cobbled floor. The building rose up on three sides of the courtyard with the other being a huge set of iron gates. I looked up at the sound of a voice calling my name. A woman stood on a walkway built around four storeys up, that ran right across from one side of the yard to the other. She leant over the railings and pointed me towards a lift. The lift groaned up four floors and when it sighed to a stop the door opened and Pru Chase smiled at me.
“Mr Gunter. Please come with me.”
She wasn’t wearing a bra. It wasn’t the first thing I’d expected to notice. Pru wore a white tee-shirt and a pair of jeans. The shirt wasn’t skin tight or gaping but her breasts were clearly visible through the fabric. I didn’t notice what sort of shoes she was wearing.
“Tea, Mr Gunter.” Her voice had a hint of an American accent that I had missed on the phone. “Would you like a cup of tea? Or something else.”
“No. No Thanks, nothing for me.”
I had taken a wooden chair next to a fold-down dining table while she sat on the edge of a sofa that was covered in a paisley throw. We were in the living room of a small flat at the top of the building, one level up from the walkway. The room was long and narrow and there wasn’t much natural light coming in from the one window that overlooked the courtyard. I could just see the tops of one of the trees moving slowly in a soft breeze. Pru was in her early fifties, as far as I could guess, and looking well on it. She must have been a young mother to Goose, seventeen or eighteen at most. I looked straight at eyes which had no make-up with only faint lines round them. The silence stretched between us. Her confidence, the urgency of the phone call, seemed to have gone, replaced by something else. Like a dead body on the carpet between us.
“Mr Gunter. Can I ask you something?” She leant forward on the edge of the sofa while I looked at a space above her head. “How does, er, how did someone like you become a, whatever you are, an investigator?”
“I’m not really an investigator, more like a freelance social worker, really. What did Lady tell you?”
“That you could help people.” She gave me an encouraging smile. “That you had a good heart and knew your way around the police and those kind of things”.
She didn’t say what kind of things but I knew what she meant. We would have enough unpleasant avenues to go down together without reading aloud all the signs on the way.
“That’s a reasonable summary, if a little flattering.”
“Well.” Prudence had both of her hands on her knees. “Tell me how you started.”
“Several years ago.” I moved my thumb backwards in the air. “I had a friend, a woman, who was being beaten up by her husband. Badly beaten up.”
Pru had both hands in front of her mouth, halfway to the praying set-up. Rapt.
“I helped her to get away to somewhere, somewhere safe. Somewhere safer.” I played with the band round my hat. “When it was done she gave me some money for my trouble. I needed the money at the time and she passed on my name to some other women and things moved on, like they do.”
“Wasn’t it dangerous?” That eager-to-hear you tone made must have come in handy in her work.
“If I’d got found out it might have been. I was lucky, I guess.”
What I didn’t tell Pru was that my friend had a son with her, who was maybe nine or ten at the time. By the time he was twelve he was drinking cider and smoking cigarettes. By fourteen he had a speed habit and a set of photos in the local police station. I had tried to help him, too, but it didn’t work out. Aged fifteen and with most of a bottle of vodka inside him he’d stepped in front of a southbound Bakerloo line train at Lambeth North station. There was no evidence of foul play in that case either.
“And now, Mr Gunter?” She looked expectant, “Do you do a lot of work?”
I hadn’t expected the full job interview. Lady would have loved to see me wriggling on the pin. Seventeen years before I had worked in a trendy private school in Sussex, the sort that takes the emotional register in the morning. I wasn’t a teacher but a classroom assistant where I’d fill in for absent staff, reading improving works, helping the students put on plays and even taking games lessons where we would play non-competitive volleyball or do yoga. In those days I could approach the lotus position with something like optimism. The school was so liberal the headmaster wore a poncho and drove a VW camper van while the curriculum was decided by a vote among the pupils. Their liberality sailed out of the window when I was caught with my head between the legs one of the senior girls, a bottle of Old Granddad and a bag of blue pills that made my hair stand on end. At the time, I’d been thinking of getting a proper qualification but that went the same way as the court case. Suspended, they called the sentence. If I tried hard I could still see the tight lips of the steel-haired magistrate spitting words of reproach. Illegal drugs. Breach of trust. Perversion, which I thought was on the strong side. Debauchery, she’d said like a brimstone preacher secretly fancying a go herself. I’d left the court feeling light-headed and with enough stains on my character to make most jobs as out of reach as the sympathetic heart of English morality.
It was when I was signing on, and keeping myself outside tins of strong beer that I met the woman with the small child, the big husband and the generous nature. I didn’t know it at the time but there was a way to earn something hailing a living that didn’t mean swinging a pick or listening to a prick in an off-the-peg suit. The first job I had after leaving my friend in Lady’s refuge was talking a sixteen year-old out of a keen interest in injecting vodka into a vein. I followed that by making someone’s respectable Grandmother give up her habit of nicking the smoked salmon from Selfridges Food Hall and later on I stopped the Daddy from pulling down the edifice of the same family by banging an Eastern European seventeen year old with a loud mouth. I’d called myself a freelance social worker and that was probably as good a term as any. A real social worker might have something to say but in the vernacular it worked well enough. The problems people brought to me, by word of nervous mouth, were ones that lay outside normal respectable channels. My clients wanted above all else to maintain their sense of themselves and you couldn’t get that from the law or the headshrinkers. And that was something you could say I had an interest in.
“Yes,” I said, “I do a fair bit.”
“Mr Gunter. Slim.” She settled back onto the sofa. “My turn. I don’t know where to begin.”
She did. And so did I, but it didn’t need saying. I decided to start for her. “I knew Barnaby. Not well, but I saw him around. Spoke to him a few times. Sorry seems useless but I’ll say it anyway.”
“Thank you. I probably only knew him only a little, too. I spoke to him, but I was never sure if he listened.”
I thought she might start to cry and had a hanky ready in the top pocket of my jacket but she never got to the wobbly chin stage. I pushed the knife in with some extra intent.
“Are you married, Ms Chase?”
I waited. I had all day. The pubs didn’t shut until eleven and Ashish could always be relied on for an after-hours bottle if needed.
“Twenty years ago. He left us. I believe he died in the early 1990’s.” I doubted if she bought Mass cards for him.
“You American? Canadian?” I gave her an easier one.
“British. I was in the States when I was a child.” She smiled thinly. “I thought the accent was all but gone. You’ve got a good ear.”
“Not everyone thinks so. You said ‘us’. That mean just you and Barnaby?”
“No. He had a younger sister, Abigail.” It was a strange way to put it.
“Is she, ah, in London?”
“I don’t know.” Prudence Chase had a determined cast to her features but that didn’t mean she was telling the truth. I wrote the name in my book.
“I don’t want to be rude, Ms Chase.” First names sometimes weren’t appropriate. “But there is a point to all these questions.” I took a breath and patted my pocket where the cigarettes called my name like a mother telling a boy to come inside and eat his beans on toast. “The same father?”
“Yes.” The flush spread from the neck of her white t-shirt.
“And do you have any other living relatives?”
“No. No, I don’t.” I wrote that down, too, as much as anything to put off the moment when we talked about more recent events.
“He was a drinker. A drunk. An alcoholic, I guess.”
Pru had stood up and was looking at a picture on the wall. It was a landscape painted in a naturalistic way but all the colours were off. The sky was yellow, the ground blue and so on. I didn’t know if she had done it and I didn’t ask. I knew what I didn’t like.
“I certainly saw him in the pub often enough,” I said, wondering what that said about me.
“Not a street drinker, Slim. Not a bum. He had a job, taking photos for the local council. Office buildings that kind of thing. He was here just before.” She trailed off.
I didn’t say anything. I had seen Chase in the park on occasion, and he wasn’t taking pictures.
“We had dinner. He didn’t eat much. I could never get him to eat vegetables. I never told him that I hated them too.” She laughed but it had less humour than the motto in a Christmas cracker.
She wasn’t talking to me and I wasn’t about to interrupt.
“But he wouldn’t have died like that.” Pru turned to me, her eyes wide and shining. “He didn’t stagger about the place and fall down. He would just drink and lie down quietly and carefully.”
Everyone gets unlucky sooner or later. I knew that but kept it to myself. Her voice was getting louder.
“I don’t believe it. He just wouldn’t have fallen and hit his head. He wouldn’t.”
If she had a smoking gun she was keeping it to herself. Just saying it ain’t so was not evidence of anything at all, except grief and recrimination. I had planned to ask her about what she said about his face but the words kept slipping away from me like memories from a dream.
“Ms Chase,” I waved away her attempt to make me more informal, “I’m not going to pretend. The law says this is over and done with. Whatever you and I think doesn’t bother them now, any of them, from the police to the coroner.”
She didn’t like it much. In her position I probably wouldn’t either but I wasn’t in her flip-flops and if I could do anything for her, being honest was the only place to start.
“On the face of it.” I talked to a tight pout. “They have done the right things. You, we, can’t point to any evidence that says this was anything but a man going out without his drinking helmet on.”
For a moment I thought she was going to show me the door or start a crying jag but the face moved quickly through the gears from anger to grief and then back to the pout. She opened her mouth but I wasn’t finished being unpleasant. I told myself it was for her benefit.
“Even if there is more to this than meets the eyes of law and medicine, I doubt if any of it will amount to more than speculation. I might find something but it will be more or less complete conjecture. It won’t make a court case, or an apology or provide.” I hated the term but she probably knew it well enough. “Closure”.
“But.” I turned myself back into someone helpful. “That’s not to say I won’t try. I can talk to people that the police wouldn’t know or wouldn’t bother with and they might come up with something. If they can remember.”
“Thank you.” Her face looked determined, as far as I could make out.
Pru and I talked some more, and I got the address of Barnaby’s flat, a set of keys and a mild headache. She kept repeating that it couldn’t have happened the way the Coroner said. Pru had resumed her seat on the sofa and wore the same tight look that she had when she lied about her daughter. Maybe the art therapy would work that one out for her. The daughter didn’t seem relevant to Barnaby’s demise. I was almost done with Pru Chase but there were a couple of issues to sort out. She had the good manners to bring one of them up first.
“You’ll want money.” It wasn’t a question and I didn’t have an argument.
“I don’t have a set fee. And I don’t give receipts. Say you give me five hundred pounds and I’ll let you know what I can find out. If there’s nothing I can do you’ll get a refund of some sort.”
She left the room and came back with the money in an envelope. That made a pleasant change. Most of the people I dealt with tried to offer me cheques, excuses and advice on competitive pricing. I showed as much class by not counting it.
“Tell me about your work.” I brought up the other thing that had been niggling at me.
“Is it relevant?” She looked surprised.
“I don’t know. I doubt it. But it’s better to know than not.” I could do untruths, too.
A change came over Pru, as though she had put on a mask. Her face assumed a look of great earnestness, like a curate or a zealous vegetarian.
“People face things in their lives, Slim. I have, I am sure you have too. Sometimes those things are too difficult, too painful to face head on. Art therapy lets the feelings flow in a non-verbal way, lets the expression out onto the paper, into the clay or whatever medium works best.”
She had a slight smile, as though I were a child struggling with the seven-times-table. I kept my face in neutral and nodded.
“You would be amazed.” She was right about that. “I have helped a great many people face themselves, achieve closure, or self-actualise. It’s a really powerful therapeutic tool.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, doubtfully.
We were done, at least for the time being. I had a few people to talk to. My watch told me that we had used up an hour and a half. I stood up, pocketed my notebook and pen and stuck out a hand. Her grasp was hard and her hand cold. As she held the living room door open I pointed at the landscape painting.
“Is that one of yours? It’s very interesting.” The faintly damning phrase.
“Yes, yes. It might sound odd but it helped me. A lot.”
She wore the earnest look again, a middle-class kabuki.
Copyright © Matthew Loukes, 2009