The bellboy kept me waiting for twenty minutes after his shift was meant to have finished. I had been loitering round the back of the Hotel, tucked up in the corner of the small and dank car park, my mind exclusively dwelling on my nicotine craving. My coat was sodden and I could periodically feel rain water dripping off the back of my hat and running down my neck. I was in a foul mood.
Eventually, when the bellboy finally made his appearance, it was under a small and beaten up black umbrella. He scurried quickly out of the kitchen door like a startled rat and, with the clattering and clanging of the evenings cooking following him out into the dark car park, he headed for the main road. I didn’t move. On the corner of the road he paused and, while gripping his umbrella under his armpit, inexpertly sparked up a cigarette. I jealously looked on as my nicotine pangs expanded in my chest.
The young man set off once more, and this time I followed. I kept around fifty meters behind, carefully keeping my step in time with his, making sure he couldn’t hear an extra set of footsteps. As it turned out, there was no need for me to be so careful as, about half way through our journey, I noticed him pull out an MP3 player and flick a few buttons before shoving it back into his pocket. With music blaring in his ears, he would be oblivious to the world, except for what lay directly in front of him. I could probably walk within touching distance of this idiot and he wouldn’t have had a clue that I was there.
All in all the journey took around twenty minutes. Twenty wet, cold, miserable minutes. Unfortunately, while the bellboy was taking off his wet coat, drying his hair with a warm towel, and having a hot cup of coffee, I was still stuck outside in the rain, waiting for something. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what I was waiting for but I knew from experience that bursting in too early would make things far more difficult and, right now, I was in no mood for difficult.
I was just starting to think that maybe rushing in on the bellboy and beating the answer out of him might in fact be a therapeutic option, regardless of it’s outcome, when the front door opened once more and the young man hurried out. He still carried the same beaten up umbrella, but he was wearing new clothes, dark clothes, with a black woolly hat. Not the sort of clothes people wear for a night out, this was more promising.
I started back on his tail and, as we wended our way through some small back streets, I wondered what exactly I was walking in to. I was confident that, with each step on the wet pavement, we were getting closer to the briefcase, but who was going to be there with it? I was certain that he hadn’t been working alone, but I was also certain that he hadn’t been working for the names on the infamous list.
Finally, the young man paused in front of a closed and boarded up shop front. Graffiti was smeared all over the plywood that covered the windows and the door’s metal shutters. I pressed myself against a wall, nestling my body into the recess of one of the other shop doors just in time before the boy glanced both ways down the street. Then, in an uncharacteristically smooth smart movement, he pulled one of the wooden shutters over the shop window open and disappeared inside.
I waited for a few moments. The rain falling heavily on the street, creating the sound of a thousand tiny pattering feet. My eyes were getting heavy, and the lack of alcohol and nicotine in my body was keeping me on edge, like a pick-up truck half way over a cliff, teetering. Despite the natural movement of the dashing rain and howling wind, it felt, just for a moment, like the world had paused. Holding it’s breath. I let out a large gasp of mine, and pushed myself from the wall and headed to the abandoned shop.
Every law enforcement or security officer has to go through a particular moment. A brief snap shot of danger. It’s a moment when you peak your head around the corner; a moment when you grab a shadowy figures shoulder from behind; or a moment when you raise the stakes and lift up your gun. No matter how experienced you are, no matter how many times you’ve made a capture, you cannot avoid these little moments where it is pure luck if you come out the other side still breathing. Someone could be around that corner waiting for you. The shadowy figure might be holding a knife. Your target might panic and pull a gun himself. You can’t control these moments, and you can’t be paid for them.
I faced one of those moments now as I carefully dragged the wood panel to one side and slide carefully into the dark, head first. If anyone had been looking, I would have been silhouetted in the street light, my head screaming out to be cracked open. If anyone had been looking it would have been the last action of my career. If anyone had been looking, I wouldn’t be telling you this, but these guys were amateurs.
There was just two of them. Two young men stood in the next room. The window I had crawled through had left me on the old shop floor, still laced with empty metal racks and wire-hanger burglar alarms. The only light was coming from a doorway at the back of the shop that led into the smaller office/stockroom area. I carefully slunk between the racks as the young men’s voices echoed around me. I could see their shadows, by the light of an electric lantern, arguing. I crept up to the doorway, pressing my back firmly against the edge, keeping myself concealed as I listened.
“I don’t even know what it all means, half of it is gibberish.” Said an angry voice that I didn’t recognise.
“Maybe it’s in some kind of code?” retorted the familiar whine of the bellboy.
“Code? Why would it be in a code? Anyway, it would be useless even if it wasn’t. You said he had money. You said he always had money. Not pointless gibberish that’s no good to no one.”
“He does. He always did before. I don’t know, there was something odd about this week, he moved out the day before the switch this time and then came back.“ I edged a tiny little bit closer to the door frame and desperately tried to force my ears to prick up a little more. Charvis had regularly carried a briefcase full of money around. That explains why these guys had targeted him, but why did he do it? Who was the money for or from? With every answer, I seemed to be getting two fresh questions.
“Well what do we do? Is he going to complain? Should we leave? Or do you think we’ve got time for one more go? One more case?”
“I think we should go.” whined the bellboy, “There was a private detective asking questions today, he knew what we’d done, I’m sure of it. He was asking all these questions about the storage room and about Mr Charvis.” I smiled at my mention, it’s always nice to be remembered, but the bell boys caution had also given me more faith in my theory.
They had had a case identical to Charvis’. One of them had lodged their case in the Hotel’s storage as a guest. Then Charvis lodges his in the storage too but, when he came back to collect it they gave him back the empty one instead of his own. Their plan was probably, while the case is in the storage, to try to crack the locks code. Turning one number at a time. A thousand combinations, at three seconds a guess. That was an absolute maximum of fifty minutes, plenty of time during a lunch. Even if they hadn’t cracked it, it didn’t matter anyway because he probably wouldn’t check the lock till he got home anyway. If he does it’s just a ‘sorry Mr Charvis, we gave you the wrong case, here is yours. No harm done’. If they did crack it, they change the lock of the empty case and it looks like, magically, all his stuff is missing. Then, the other man checks out his case and there is no record. The boy never handles the papers, doesn’t need to smuggle them out or anything.” I sighed, it would have been an easy two grand, it really would have been.
“Ok, so we go? We just dump this suitcase somewhere and leave?”
“Yeah, problem solved.” Both of them let out hollow nervous laughs. They’d toed the line, but they had made it. They had broken the law just enough to get some money, but not enough to get caught. I couldn’t help wondering how long they’d been running this little scam, how many case had they picked up? Maybe if they’d just stopped one earlier they would have been all in the clear.
What fools they were not to be watching the entrance. They’d pushed it as far as they could. They’d realised they may have just gone a little over their heads and were pulling out. Yet, they didn’t seem to have become any more cautious. If they’d just watched the entrance they may have been fine, but as it was, I was here and I’d… I felt a familiar cold sensation. The hard metal kiss of a gun barrel pressed against my neck. I froze.
“Easy does it son, move out and join your comrades.” Came a deep grunt behind me. The gun pressed firmly into my flesh and I edged through the doorway, with my hands up. I stumbled towards the pale faces of the two young men. The bellboy was several shades whiter than when I had seen him earlier in the day but his companion, for all his earlier bravado, was almost translucent in fear. I gave them both a weak smile and then turned to see our captors.
There were three of them. Two guns, one suit. The suit grinned at us like a magician who was about to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The other two bulky men just stared blankly at us, no emotion, no thought, just an itchy trigger finger.
“Hello gentleman.” said the suit, his grin broadening even more. “I believe you have something that belongs to me.” My body shuddered as I tried to suppress the laugh at such a clichéd line. The man caught sight of my quivering shoulders and his smile dropped for a second as he took me in for the first time. He then swung his eyes back to the room in general, his teeth glistening in the artificial light.
“If you give it to me now, we’ll make this all as pleasant as possible. No sense in making this any more regrettable than it already is, is there?”
“I- i- don’t know what you are talk-k-king about” stammered the bellboy’s accomplice in one of the most ill advised displays of defiance that I had seen. Bloody amateurs. The suited man looked at him and smiled.
“Perhaps you should have paid more attention then, my friend.” On queue, and with no discernible signal between him and his goons, one of the guns fired and hit the poor young man square in the chest. The crack of sound bounced around the room as the man collapsed to the floor, a hot spring of blood gushing out of his shirt. He gurgled a little to himself and let out a hollow, weak cough.
The bellboy backed away a little, his whole body shaking and his eyes streaming with tears of panic. I stood my ground, carefully lowering my arms to my side, making sure to hold them in a non-threatening manner.
“You see,” said the suit, “you have to pay more attention to the situation. Now your friend is lying on the floor, bleeding all over the place. He’s still alive you know. If he had co-operated he’d still be lying on the floor, of course, but the hole would have been in his head and he wouldn’t…” the man paused as he pulled out and carefully lit a cigar. My eyes watched it flare up jealously. “…Be in the most excruciating agony right now.” The man slowly stepped forward a few places and pressed his well dressed hoof carefully onto the stricken boy’s chest. The boy gurgled loudly. “See, horrible things bullet wounds. It feels like your insides are burning while your body is getting cold. Very odd sensation.”
He paused letting a cloud of smoke billow up to the ceiling. “Very painful. I’ve been told the only death more horrible is being burned alive. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to volunteer to test this, would you?” He directed this last right at the young bellboy who had, as the suit had been talking, relieved himself inside his trousers. The wet patch was slowly spreading from his crotch all the way down his legs, and a small puddle had collected on the floor.
“p-p-please” he managed. I couldn’t watch this go on for much longer. The boy had broken the law, he had committed a crime, but he didn’t deserve this, this wasn’t fair. Then again, I hadn’t even broken the law and I was being subjected to the same horrible scene and the same disturbing threats. It was even less fair on me, I hadn’t even had a cigarette since this morning.
“Could I just ask,” I interjected in a calm and inoffensive voice, the suit spun round to me and cocked his head to one side. “You are the gentleman named on the list right? I’d just like to have everything sorted in my head first, before” I nodded towards one of the guns, “you know.” The suit smiled softly.
“Doesn’t seem much point in cleaning the kitchen when you know someone is just about to piss all over it.” he said. His voice had a deeper more gravelly tone to it now, but his eyes still sparkled like a young boy’s at the circus.
“Peace of mind?” I offered, trying to weaken my voice. They had fired a shot, they should have killed the rest of us by now and got out of here. We were in a residential area, someone would have heard it, someone must have called the cops. It generally took, I knew from experience, around eight minutes for the cops to get woken up in their nice warm patrol cars and to find their way to the scene of a crime. I just needed to keep this man talking for eight minutes, probably closer to seven now.
“Who are you?”
“Creak, private detective.” I said. There was no sense in lying. The odds were that I was going to die here, if they knew who I was already I was going to die much quicker if I lied. The only way out was to keep them relaxed. “Off duty of course, ever since you killed Reginald I’ve not had much reason to continue my case.”
“Mr Charvis is dead?” came the trembling voice of the bellboy from somewhere near the back of the room. He was somehow still managing to become more shocked, despite his friends death rattles providing a soundtrack to the whole scene.
“Ah so he hired you to protect him? Bang up job there son.”
“Actually no,” I replied slowly, taking time over my words. I flashed a soft smile. “I was hired to find the list. Turns out he didn’t know these guys were half inching stuff from the Hotel and had their eyes on the regular case of money he used to get them to look after.” The suit stared at me for a moment.
“So, Reginald was telling the truth? He really had lost the list.” He let out a light, hollow, humourless laugh and glanced at the two goons either side of him. “Probably shouldn’t have got these lads to send him to sleep.” He grinned a little more. “I’ll chalk that one down to experience.” He took a long slow drag on his cigar, the end glowing a bright orange. The inside of room fell silent for a moment, the only sound coming from the rain hammering on the roof outside. I was happy to let the gap be as long as they would allow it, but a cough from the stricken boy woke everyone up, and I felt a sudden need to talk.
“Seriously” I said, like a petulant teenager, “could you put him out of his misery? I don’t think they meant to steal the list, sounded like they didn’t even know what it was earlier.”
“A private dick with a conscience ey? Well there is a novelty. Who am I to turn down such a magnanimous request.” He took the gun off the goon who had fired earlier and, standing over the man like someone surveying a piece of street art, shot him in the forehead. Smoke twisted out of the hole for a moment before deep brown blood gurgled out of it and trickled down his face.
The sound of the gunshot drilled through the room and, upon the back of it’s wave, I made a lunge for the goon still holding the gun. I managed to take it from his hand in one swift movement and then twist round and lodge a piece of lead in his companion. The suited man spun round and shot, clipping his other goon in the arm and spinning him to the floor. I stamped my foot to make sure he went out cold and then I levelled the gun at the suited man. He did the same in my direction.
“Now that wasn’t very gentlemanly, was it?” He said softly. “Those goons don’t come cheap.”
“Pay packets higher than their IQ’s I bet.” I sneered. I knew I should have just waited and just played it cool, but I needed answers, and the only way this man was going to tell me all I needed to know was If I made him feel I was worth telling. “Tell me, how did you know Charvis had taken the list out of his office?”
The man blinked at me as if I were an idiot. He lowered his gun a little, but made sure he was still pointing it at my body.
“You really have no idea do you?” He asked, his grin was gone, his act exhausted. He was just a regular crook in a shiny suit now. He dropped the cigar on the floor and twisted his shoe over it slowly. I stared at the tobacco leaves getting destroyed, my stomach was aching now and my head was becoming light. “He was selling it to us. He was selling a lot of things to us. Usually we would meet him at the Hilton, where he would have a room. We would have a short dinner, during which time we would both lodge cases in storage. I would lodge mine under his room number, he would lodge mine under my name. We would time it so the boy on the front desk would go off shift during our lunch, so when we went to pick up our cases after, we could take each others instead of our own. I would have Mr Charivs’ most interesting papers, far more interesting than his conversation I can tell you, and he would have a modest amount of money for his trouble.”
“Unfortunately, being the lumbering moron that he was, Mr Charvis would sometimes pop the case open a little way in the lobby to check we were not swindling him. Making the whole charade a waste of time. We might as well have just handed the cash over in bundles during lunch.” He sighed a little, and I watched the barrel of his gun wander about in front of me. “It was around this point, I believe, that our friends here spotted the cash and started watching our actions. “
“We were always very particular about the order of the numbers when the case is locked, it means you can tell if someone had been tampering with the lock. After the week before lasts drop, we noticed that the code on case had been twisted. The numbers had been changed, so we knew something was up. We sent a message to Mr Charvis, to change hotels, in the understanding that the idiot would wait for us at his hotel to make the drop. But, what did the fool do?” The suited man raised his voice, his face reddening slightly. “He took a fucking taxi back over to the Hilton to make the drop. He sat there, in the fucking lobby, while these little shits stole the list.” The man’s anger rose in him like a volcano and his gun swivelled from my body to the poor bellboy’s leg, cracking off one round before levelling back on me before I knew what was happening. The young man screamed in the corner, nursing his leg.
“We assumed he could not have been that stupid, and so killed him when he said he didn’t know where the list was. A necessary action, but we still needed the list. After we searched the room and couldn’t find it, we decided to give Mr Charvis’ story a little more credence. If it were true, the only people who could have got to it were the people behind the desk. So we followed them. Or rather, we followed you, following them. You should probably check a car park more thoroughly when you are waiting to tail someone. We did have a nice laugh watching you get wet from our car.”
I winced, the howls of pain from the young man was making my soul quiver, but the pain in my chest was coming from the complete buckets of self hatred that were brewing inside of me. I could not believe I hadn’t noticed them following me, I could not believe I had been so stupid throughout this whole case. I didn’t mind being made look a fool or treated like scum when it led to a pay cheque, but not when I wasn’t getting paid. My pride might be for sale, but it wasn’t a free gift.
“What about the other murder? Charvis told me you had killed someone he called “Mr X”. I said, trying to keep my voice steady. Just on the edge of hearing I swore I heard the distant wail of a police car. The man appeared not to notice. I just needed another minute or so, then I’d be out of this place.
“First I’ve heard of it.” replied the man calmly. I frowned and then let my mind drift back. A murder in a public place, nothing mentioned in the news, no name, no killers.
“For fucks sake” I shouted and spun to the young man whimpering in the corner, anger bubbling out of me, forgetting that I still had a gun pinned to my chest. “There was no fucking murder was there?” I slapped the boy across the face with the back of my hand that was holding the gun. “Did you tell him there had been? Or was the whole damn thing made up? You needed him to lodge the case in the storage didn’t you. You had the spare in there, you needed him to lodge his case in there so you could switch them. You knew he was meant to be meeting someone so you told him they had been killed.” The boy didn’t reply he just quivered and shook, his mind no longer in that room with us.
I raised my hand again but my conscience grabbed my arm. Charvis had talked of a body and the police, surely he wouldn’t have made that up? Just to save face? Maybe he’d just put the case in storage straight away? I glanced down at the broken boy. I was never going to find out now.
I turned back to my captor, only to see a goons fist with blood trickling down the knuckles, smack me in the face. I slumped backwards, my head slamming on the floor, and felt a gun being thrown on top of me. As the world drifted into black I heard the suit say “let’s get out of here, that’s seven minutes.”