“My name Is Reginald, Reginald Charvis.” He fought against his voice as it tried to falter again. The large man closed his eyes slowly and exhaled like a ball with a slow puncture. Finally his eyes flicked back open and, with them firmly trained on my desk once more, he continued. “I work for the foreign office.” I looked him up and down wondering what such an unfit man could do at the foreign office. I doubted very much that he’d have the stamina to rush around delegates at foreign diplomat gatherings. He glanced up at me and seemed to catch my trail of thought. “I work as a clerk,” his eyes quivered slightly before he added, “in connection with the Serious Crimes Unit. We have been working on a drug smugglers case, the details which, naturally, I cannot give you. We had recently obtained a list. Names, addresses, known hang outs and known associates. We had been given the list by another department, but were under strict orders not to act upon it before this Friday, tomorrow. This is not an unusual occurrence, given that we are often dealing with sensitive material that has knock on effects across many departments and many countries, so I was entrusted to lock the list up in our document safe.”
As Reginald spoke I stubbed my cigarette out and locked a steely gaze upon him. He really was grotesquely overweight and symbolised a lot of what I loathed about the city. The excesses that this man must have taken to achieve his monumental size were nothing but a symbol of the inequality that man breeds. I’m no politician, nor do I harbour any serious convictions about man’s responsibility to his fellow man or to any notions that the common man is more noble than the wealthy minority. Everyone is pretty much as corrupt as each other; usually it’s just a matter of scale. Yet, I still can’t help, when faced with such a paragon of indulgence as was sat before me, to see the injustice. That one man could live so successfully with little effort, while others struggled to claw enough money together for a bed every night just felt immoral.
I could forgive you for wondering why, in my line of work, I would be concerned with morality. It is a common misconception, though, that men who are faced with the horrible and wicked on a regular basis, become sceptical of the existence of moral laws. Even if this were the case for criminals, which I don’t think it can be, it certainly is not the case for private detectives. The very fact that we see all the horrible things in the world, forces us to believe that some things must just be wrong. It’s not a rational argument, just a feeling. When you stand over a dying man with a bullet hole in his chest and hear the spluttering gurgles of his final breath; when you see a man bankrupt another’s family by threatening vengeance on the debtors daughter; or when you see a man cave in another’s face with their fist over the smallest of slights, you can’t help but feel that it is wrong. A sensation deep down in the pit of your stomach tells you that these things shouldn’t happen or, at least, those who make them happy deserve to be punished. Once you’ve accepted this, you start to see immorality everywhere, and it’s effects are no less apparent. If anything, the man who is faced with immorality on a daily basis becomes more adept at spotting it and feeling it than those who live in a world of puppy dogs and theatre trips.
Reginald’s chins waltzed together as he continued. “Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until this Monday. I had a call from…” Reginald paused and his eyes sprang to mine, “I can’t tell you his name.” I raised my eyebrow slightly, but offered him a courteous nod. I was on my best behaviour, I needed this client, I needed his money. “Well he phoned me, this Mr er… X, and said it was a matter of urgency that he retrieve the list. I told him I would have to ask my superior, but he claimed there was no time and national security depended on him getting the documents as soon as possible. I was nervous, but I reasoned to myself that as this Mr X was the one who provided us with the list, there seemed little wrong with him having it back, for a short time at least. He claimed, anyway, that I would have it back well before Friday, which would be the first time anyone might go looking for it.
“I did as I was bid and I packed the documents into a small briefcase. I took the precaution of changing the combination lock.” He smiled weakly, the first sign that he might have a few pockets of humour within him. “I was nervous and paranoid, I guess I thought if I changed the lock code to one only I knew then it would help keep my peace of mind.
“I took a taxi from my offices to the Hilton in Kensington,where we had arranged to meet,”
“The Bentley Hotel,” I added with a slight smirk. Reginald gave me a look of surprise.
“Yeah, right,” He added after a short pause. “I kept the case on my lap the whole time. Once I got to the hotel I was sat in the lounge, drinking a sherry to help keep my nerves, for sometime. I suppose it must have been half an hour or so, but my colleague didn’t show. I was just considering returning to the office when a porter rushed up to me. He called me by name and, half out of breath just kept wheezing ‘he’s dead, he’s dead. At the end of the street, he’s dead’.
“I took to my feet immediately and was about to dash out the door, when I remembered my charge. I could not wander the streets with the list. It might be a trap. Even if it wasn’t, there was a high probability the men who killed Mr X were after the list and they could still be around. I feared not for myself, but only for the list. I had to go, I had a duty to my colleague but I also had a duty to my charge. I finally decided to lodge the list in the hotel’s valuables safe.”
The man paused his recounting of his troubles and took a small sip of his whisky, grimacing. The room was filled with the dense atmosphere of depression and it felt, just at that moment, like there was no other movement in the world save for the fat man’s laboured and irregular breathing.
“I took to the street” continued the man suddenly, with a big sigh, his voice speeding up slightly as he neared the end of his tale. “And hurried to the bar which the porter had described to me. Upon arriving there I found it cordoned off by the Police and a figure on the floor with a blanket over his head. I must have spent about an hour and a half there, talking to the police and trying to get what information I could. They were characteristically tight lipped, though, and apart from the fact that someone had been shot, I didn’t get much more information.”
“I didn’t hear about a shooting down on Harrington Gardens” I interrupted suddenly, my brain racing through the small number of headlines I’d bothered to read since the start of the week.
“It was down near Gloucester Road but I guess it has been hushed up pretty quick. I daresay there is a bit of gossip about but the press were probably banned from printing anything due to national security.”
“So what, you want me to find the killer?” I asked, my heart jumping a little at the thought of a government sized pay check.
“No, you don’t understand” groaned the man, like a whining teenager, his hands strating to fidget with his hat again. “I went back to the Hotel after speaking to the police and picked up the case from the safe. I took a taxi back to the office and once again kept the case firmly in my hands. When I got to the office I opened the case to return the list to our own secured storage area and…” his flushed red cheeks went pale and his voice quavered slightly again, “It was gone.”
“Yes, the list. The case was empty. Completely empty. It had had other papers in it, other than the list. Dummy documents to stop someone stumbling across the list by accident, but everything was gone.”
I let a rye smile escape my lips and sparked up another cigarette. “Tricky, “ I said slowly. “you said you’d spoken to the police about it.”
“I told them I had lost a case, not what was in it. They made a few brief enquiries but turned up nothing.”
“Why not tell them its contents? You’d then have half the yard looking for it.”
“I can’t. No one knows it’s gone, no one knows it’s even out of the office. If I tell the police, my superiors will find out and that would be my job. I’m desperate, I need to have it back by tomorrow. If I have it back by tomorrow then everything will be fine, I’ll be fine. It will be like it never happened. That’s why I’ve come to you. I need someone to get the list by any means necessary.”
“It’s amazing how often ‘any means necessary’ comes hand in hand with my name.” I growled softly. “What’s in it for me?”
“Two thousand pounds, cash.” I let out a whistle.
“That’s a lot of money for one days work.”
“You only get it if you get the list.”
“Still, it’s a lot of money.” I stubbed out my smoke and lit another in celebration, coughing slightly as I inhaled deeply.
“My job is worth more than that to me,”
“Funny, mine isn’t.” I let out a hollow laugh and leant forward. “Ok Reggie darling, I’ll take your case. Two grand on delivery of the list by tomorrow morning?”
“By two pm”
“Fine. Perfect. Ok, so tell me,” I paused for a moment; this case was going to be so simple, easy money. I had better make a show of it to earn my keep. “Was the briefcase out of your sight at any other time other than when it was in the hotel safe?”
“No, I had it permanently in my hands or on my lap.”
“Was the lock forced?”
“Hmmm interesting. All right, Mr Charvis, I ‘ll take the case. Where should I bring the list once it is recovered. I assume you don’t want me at your office, so maybe your house?”
“No, I’m staying at the Britannia Hotel, room 489. You can bring the list there.” I raised my eyebrow once more, and gave Reginald Charvis a long hard stare. He tried to face me down for a moment but then his chins jiggled in defeat and he blurted out. “I had some other business to attend to that I thought I best not to trouble my wife about, so I’ve been lodging in the Hotel for the week.”
“I See, OK Mr Charvis, Nine pm room 489. I would suspect, if I don’t have your list by then, I will at least know who does.”
“Thank you Mr Creak,” he said emphatically, “thank you very much” he heaved himself out of the chair with great effort, “Good day.” I silently watched the large man squeeze himself through my door, and then sourly glanced at his half drunk whisky. I cursed myself for not asking for half my fee up front, my normal practice, but I had been so shocked by the sum of money for such a simple matter that the insurance of a down payment had seemed pointless.
My theory went along these lines: If the case had only been out of our lumbering Mr Charvis’s sight when it was put in the Hotel safe, then it was there where the theft must have taken place. The most likely suspect was the man on the front desk, or maybe someone who had paid him off. He was the link either way. A quick little chat with him and the matter should be cleared up within an hour. I stood up and reached for my hat with one hand, my other darting out of its own free will and grabbed at Reginald’s half drunk whisky. I drained the rank liquid with a grimace and, picking up my full length dishevelled coat, headed out the door towards the Hilton.