WIP: The Flame – Chapter 5

The office wasn’t really an office. It was a partitioned corner of a floor in an old Victorian building that used to be a department store. The store was popular back in the days when people actually went to shops. The shops come to us these days. Except that they aren’t shops, they’re corporations, big businesses that can reach out and touch you where you sit. The little traders, the traditional shops, they’ve got no chance against all that corporate muscle, all that infrastructure and advertising and buying power. The little boys just have themselves. They can’t match prices, they can’t even offer a convenient location now that everything is delivered to your door. All they can offer is that smile, that friendly word, that how-are-you. That humanity. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone.

P&L Wilson (Investigations) were small-time. Small-time players in a small stud-walled office at the back of a department store that had become too small to survive in the modern world. Outside the walls of this building, that modern world just kept getting bigger. In here, in this place of badly fitted doors and uneven floorboards and ornate ceilings masked by a century of overpainting, in here were a handful of small businesses; little people and their customers; people who know each other and speak to each other and care about each other. It’s their last defence, caring, the one thing, the one last thing that the big boys will never be able to do, because they can never know you, know that you’ve got a cold or that your mum’s poorly or that you’re in a good mood, so what they give us, what they call customer service, it can only ever be falseness and fakery and we know it. We know it. That’s our last defence.

Pat and Les must have rented the office for next to nothing, because that was what it was worth. The partition walls didn’t even reach up to the high Victorian ceiling, so every conversation that took place in their office could be overheard by anyone just standing outside it. The fact that all the other office spaces on this floor were unoccupied meant that this was unlikely to happen but, still, I was more than a little incredulous that a company of private investigators was based in an office where privacy was impossible.

The door to the office was set with a one-way mirrored pane so that you couldn’t see into the office but anyone inside could see out. The privacy glass was useless though. The backlight from the external windows meant that I could see through it from outside the office, could see a figure sitting there, the silhouette of a man. The figure was unmoving and I could tell that he was watching me as I approached. I didn’t see any point in knocking.

“Mr Wilson?” I said. The sound of my voice rattled around the room. There was no reply from the figure in the office. I tried again. “Hello? Mr Wilson?” Still no reply. I knocked on the door.

This struck me as an odd way to greet someone who might be a potential customer but what did I know? Maybe this was how private investigators behaved. Oddly.

Pat Wilson was sitting at his desk. There was a tall window behind him, and when Pat got up to greet me the height of the window had the effect of making him seem even shorter than he was. He was, I don’t know, five feet two or thereabouts, and round with it. He looked like one of those toy figures that you can’t knock over. And he had the saddest face I’d ever seen.

“Mr Wilson?” I said. “My name’s John Macintosh.”

“Hello, Mr Macintosh,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Call me Mac, please. Everyone does.”

“Okay, Mac,” he said, waving me towards a chair as he sat back down at his desk. “How can I help you?”

“I need you to help me find someone you’ve already found once before.”

Pat’s expression didn’t alter. He had a way of looking at you but not looking at you. His eyes seemed to be focused on a point just to the right of my head. I turned round to see what he was looking at but the only thing there was the door with the one-way glass panel. I turned back to face him. I couldn’t tell if he was waiting for me to say more or he wasn’t interested. So I said more.

“I was speaking to Ken yesterday,” I said. “Ken Harding. Pam and Ken. A few years ago you found their daughter for them.”

I hadn’t seen Pat’s eyes move but they were now fixed on me. 

“Penny,” I said. I waited this time. I didn’t say any more.

Pat had that deep breathing motion of the overweight, his chest rising, shoulders hunching slightly with each breath, sucking air into his lungs, powering his heart so that it could push blood all the way around his body. It looked like hard work. I watched it work for a while, waited for him to say something. But he didn’t. He didn’t say anything. He just got up and walked to the door and opened it.

“Can’t help you,” he said. “Sorry.”

I just sat there. I wasn’t expecting this. 

“You can’t help me?” I said.

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid not.”

“Can’t or won’t?” I said.

He stood by the still open door, holding the handle. He wasn’t looking at me, he was just staring across the office at a blank wall. He was thinking.

“Probably a bit of both,” he said. “I don’t do that kind of work any more. I just do matrimonial stuff nowadays. Cheating wives, jealous husbands, that kind of thing. I don’t do trace work any more.”

“So that’s the won’t bit,” I said. “I didn’t hear any can’t in there.”

He looked at me. I noticed his little blue eyes were watery. Is that an old man thing, I wondered? Or is he getting wound up about something? 

“She’s in danger. You know that, don’t you?”

He just stood there, looking at me. The rhythm of his breathing hadn’t changed. I tried to guess how old he was. Late fifties, early sixties maybe. His face was full, unlined, like an under-inflated balloon, so it was hard to be sure. I wondered what his life was like now, without his wife. I wondered if he missed her.

“You don’t have to do anything, you know,” I said. “I just need to know how you found her last time. I’ll take it from there. You wouldn’t be involved at all. Nobody would know that you’d helped me.”

He looked towards the blank wall again. I noticed that there were marks in the carpet, dints in the pile. A desk had been positioned there at some time, and a chair. He must have had them removed. It must have been too painful to see them every day. I got up and walked over to where the chair had been and stood facing Pat. Shit or bust, I thought.

“Only you, Pat. You’d be the only one who’d know that you helped me to rescue her from the man who killed your wife.”

Pat walked towards me and grabbed my arm and pulled me to the door.

“Come on, Pat. Don’t be like this. I can’t do this without you.”

I didn’t fight against him. His hands were small, almost child-like, and there was no power in his grip. It would have felt wrong to muscle him around. I let him guide me through the door and out of the office. He let go of my arm and stood facing me. His breathing had become heavier. He turned round and pulled the door shut and locked it with a key from his pocket and then he grabbed my arm again and steered me through a fire door to some stairs. 

“Up there,” he said, giving me a gentle push. “We can talk up there.”

I walked up the echoey old stairs. There was a small landing at the top with a door at the far end. Pat unlocked the door and we stepped out on to a roof space. He shut the door behind us and walked around the corner. An old garden chair had been leaned up against the wall of the landing to stop rain from settling on the seat. He righted it and sat down on it and took out a packet of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter. 

“Smoke?” he said, offering me the packet.

I shook my head. “No thanks. Gave ’em up a couple of years ago. Filthy things.”

He nodded. “Les was always on at me to give up,” he said. “I’d manage it for a while, a month or so, but then I’d think, bugger it, one every now and again won’t hurt. A few weeks later I’d be back on a packet a day.” 

He lit one and dragged in the smoke and let it out slowly. He looked at the lit end of the cigarette.

“How did you know?” he said.

“I wasn’t certain,” I said. “It was just a feeling. It was just too – convenient. For him, I mean. That one of the people tailing him should die.”

Pat closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. “There’s only one thing more certain to kill me than these,” he said, waving the cigarette at me. “And that’s him, if I do anything to help you.”

I leaned against the wall beside him. It was sunny and the bricks felt warm against my back. The building stood at the junction of two busy roads but up here, just a few flights from street level, hardly a sound could be heard. It was quiet and peaceful. I could understand why Pat came up here. 

“That’s why you’ve had the panel put into the door, isn’t it? So that you can see who’s coming.”

Pat nodded again. “Yes. Pointless though, isn’t it? All it means is that I’d be able to see who was coming to kill me.”

“You think he would?”

“He said he would. He told me. After Lesley.” Pat took another drag of his cigarette, a big one. “After he killed my wife.”

“What did he say?”

“Don’t ever come looking for me again, that’s what he said. He said, if you come looking for me again, I’ll come looking for you. But first I’ll come looking for Jean. And for Mason, and for Claire. And when I find them I’ll give them a little push, too. All of them. One at a time.” He sucked hard on his cigarette. His hand was shaking. He looked up at me, shading his eyes from the sun with his free hand. “Jean’s our daughter. Mason and Claire are our grandchildren. I don’t know how he found out about them but I won’t do anything that might put them in danger. I won’t. I can’t.”

“You didn’t report any of this to the police?”

“What was there to report?” said Pat. “Les had already been cremated when he came round to our house to warn me off. It’d already been written off as an accident. What could I say to the police? And if I had said anything, what would he have done? It was too much of a risk. Like helping you would be.”

“I understand, Pat,” I said. “I’d feel exactly the same if I were you. But that’s like letting him get away with it, isn’t it? Letting him off. As if you’re wife didn’t matter. As if murdering your wife, pushing her off that platform, didn’t matter. You can’t want that, Pat.”

Pat lit another cigarette from the end of the one he was smoking and then stubbed out the old one and flipped it over the edge of the roof, careless of where it landed. He shook his head.

“I can’t, Mac. I can’t get involved.”

“I don’t want you to be involved, Pat. I just need to know how you did it. How did you track them down? Just give me the instructions and I’ll do the rest.”

“There’s nothing left,” he said. “I burned it all that night, when he warned me off. The whole file, everything.”

“Okay,” I said. “But you gathered the data for those files from somewhere. Where was that? Where did you get it from?”

He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He was thinking. 

“I suppose I could do that,” he said. “Teach a man to fish sort of thing.”

“Anything, Pat. Anything you could do to help would be great. Because right now I’m nowhere. I’ve got nothing.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I can do that much. Yes. So, the first thing you need to know is that this man doesn’t exist.”

“Well, his fist does,” I said, pointing to my bruised face. “I can vouch for that.”

“Is that what happened to you? I was going to ask.”

“That and a trip,” I said, waving my blue arm at him. “Down Memory Lane. Down Penny Lane.” He gave me a blank look. “Doesn’t matter. What do you mean, he doesn’t exist?”

“I mean that, as far as any public records are concerned, there is no Mario Lucca. No birth records, no school records, no driving license records, nothing.”

“Isn’t that just a reflection on how the Italians keep records?”

“Beware of the stereotype. Italians are good at food, wine, living well and record keeping. I don’t believe he’s Italian, though.”

“Really?” I said. “What makes you say that?”

“Just a feeling. I’ve got a few Italian friends and he didn’t behave or even sound like any of them, so I asked these friends to do a bit of digging back home and they couldn’t find a thing. He’d just appeared in Milan sometime in the late nineties saying he came from Trieste. Nobody knows how he earned his money or where he lived. They said he’d just turn up at the smart cafes now and then, pick up a girl and they’d wander off together. I think this is how he met Penny. Apparently he was a good looking boy back then. There were a couple of incidents with jealous boyfriends but nothing that registered on any official radar.”

“How about a wedding certificate? Penny said she was married.”

“Yes, we found that. It’s the only thing we did find. His ticket to England.”

Is that it, I wondered? Is that why he married her? To get into the UK? But why would she want to marry him? Everything I knew about Penny told me that she would never marry someone like Mario. They were oil and water. They would never mix.

“So if she was his ticket to the UK, there must be records of him at this end, here, in England.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” said Pat. “But there aren’t. Apart from the travel details, their flight into the UK, there’s nothing.”

“How can he do this, Pat? People can’t just step out of every system in every country they pass through.”

Pat lit yet another cigarette and shook his head. “Buggered if I know,” he said. “The only thing I can think is that he pays his way around everything. He seems to have access to as much money as he needs whenever he needs it. The house he abandoned when we found them the first time, it was rented. He paid the rent for twelve months at a time, in cash, in advance. They upped sticks two months into a renewal and the landlord said he’d heard nothing from them since then. If Mario does that with everything they need, he’ll leave no trace anywhere. The only reason we found them the last time was because they weren’t on guard like they are now. We traced a land-line call that Penny made to her parents from the rented house. She’s never done that again.”

“Give us a fag, Pat,” I said.

Pat seemed surprised but handed one over. He seemed more surprised when I ground it up between my hands and scattered the shredded remnants on the floor. 

“I’m pissed off, Pat,” I said. “I had to do something.”

He nodded. “I know how you feel,” he said. “Should do something myself, I suppose. Like you said, he’s got away with murder.” He put a hand across his eyes and was quiet for a moment. “But I can’t take the risk, Mac. So I think I’m going to have to leave it there.” 

He got up and dropped the cigarette to the floor and stood on it. He straightened his back and drew himself up to his full height, which was short. He looked at me and shrugged.

“I’m no further on, Pat,” I said. “I still don’t know what to do.”

Pat turned away and looked towards the city centre. The roofs and chimneys of the city spread out all around us, a patchwork of slate and stone that shimmered out to a built horizon. The heat coming off the roof was rising now, warming us from bottom up. 

“If it was me,” he said, “If I was the one who had to pick this up, I’d go back to the last point of contact and work from there.”

“The last point of contact?” I said. “You mean the cafe?”

He nodded. “You have to wonder why she was there, don’t you? What she was doing in the town centre. Maybe it wasn’t just a one-off?”

I stood beside him and looked towards the city centre too. 

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