‘So you’re a private detective?’ she said.
A woman alone at the bar with a garish cocktail in her hand was either a lush looking for company or a tart looking for trade. This one was, in fact, a fine intelligent woman at play who had intuited my sexual allure from my posture on a stool and my profession from the way I fingered my glass.
‘Well, I might have a job for you.’
As if I hadn’t enough on hand already: the woman trying to work out how much her husband had stashed away; the farmer wanting pics of every other man his Friday night squeeze was seeing through the week — perhaps with a view to shooting them, for all I cared. And … well, if you’ve ever seen a dicks’ portfolio you’ll know.
‘I’m not looking for a client. What are you looking for?’
‘Another detective, maybe. Sometimes a woman just wants to go out and have a drink. But I guessed right about you, so I win.’
‘I didn’t know it was a game.’
‘But you played it anyway.’
‘Why didn’t you just pour yourself a big glass of wine and put your feet up at home?’
‘You could have done something similar. Isn’t there always a bottle of bourbon in a filing cabinet drawer?’
‘Talisker in my case’, I told her. ‘I didn’t have to get dressed up to come here. Most women I know would take all day to look like you do tonight.’
‘You are very astute, Mr Murdo, but what do you deduce from my attire?’
‘That you came here expecting to meet somebody — somebody whom you hope to impress, very likely someone you expect to have a good time with. Perhaps he hasn’t arrived yet. Perhaps you hope he will see you have a drink with another man and feel insecure.’
‘Perhaps you are half right. Can I buy you a drink?’
I nodded to Joe at the taps and he put me up another Talisker and a soapy looking cocktail for the lady. As he moved to mark my tab the lady nodded and he withdrew.
This obliged me to show some willing. ‘What’s your puzzle?’
‘Have you ever had a feeling you were being stalked?’
‘Lady, you’re either being stalked or you are not. I wouldn’t rely on feelings in the matter. Phone calls in the middle of the night from creeps who don’t speak. Taxis that you didn’t order coming to your door. These are real or they are not. Is that the kind of thing –?’
‘That and someone prying in my accounts.’
‘Could be you are being investigated. Are you?’
‘I don’t know. Are you investigating me?’
She said she was Sheila Milliken, the divorced wife of a city industrialist, and she didn’t connect with any cases I was on, as far as I could tell. Just didn’t.
‘Then perhaps you could tell me a bit about how a detective works, what he can find out about me, what he can’t.’
‘Tricks of the trade? We don’t give those away.’
There was still no sign of the guy she was waiting for. She’d gone to a lot of trouble to impress him yet didn’t seem too put out that he was late.
‘I’ll tell you the kind of cases I do’, I said. ‘Divorce.’
‘Setting people up in bedrooms?’
‘No, that’s old hat. There are no guilty parties to a divorce any more. But if you’re cashing in a husband you want to know how much he’s really got — not just the life policy and the current account. Or maybe you don’t want to divorce him but you do want to know who else he is shagging — just for self-respect’s sake. There’s a lot of that.’
‘Well, I don’t have a husband who would be measuring his cut so it must be the other.’
And then it dawned on me, an old trick. You’re getting tailed so you don’t go to your lover; you go to someone else, a decoy. Then everything hinges on what the paying client plans to do with the steer she gets for the money. ‘So you want me to pretend to be your lover, tonight, to cover for someone else?’
‘That’s it, Mr Murdo.’
‘Then I need to see the size of the risk I am taking.’
‘ £1,000 to take me to a hotel room and leave quietly in the early hours.’ This was looking like the best job I had had in some time. ‘Text your wife and tell her you will be late.’
Further down the bar I watched Farmer John’s Friday night squeeze, my original target for tonight, connect with a guy who looked like a rugby player.
‘Okay’, I said. ‘Let’s get a wee pic for the evidence file.’ I took out my phone, stood aside, lined up till I got the rugby player in the frame and said, ‘Smile like you love me,’ and clicked. ‘Now let’s give your tail a run around town. Eaten yet? Sushi?’ And we left.
I liked the way she held her chopsticks. You can tell a lot about a woman by how much of a sushi roll she can get into her mouth and how comfortably she gets it down.
‘Do you think he is here?’ she said.
‘Not unless he is the only Japanese dick in town.’
But I wasn’t inclined to reassure her totally and lose her. ‘He could be watching us now on the web cam. A lot of restaurants have them. He could be outside in the car. If he is really good, he might be tracking your phone. Some people set theirs to broadcast the location all over Facebook, but not people with secrets.’
The waiter topped up our glasses. Sheila clipped something wriggly and fed it to me and laughed. ‘Don’t swallow it whole’, she said. ‘Chew it.’
If someone was to mistake us for lovers we were going to have to look frisky and intimate. I squeezed her knee. ‘That’s the way’, she laughed.
Sheila Milliken was a lovely looking woman. And since I was going to be spending the next few hours acting like her lover, I felt entitled to relax into the part. She had eyes like emeralds and the framing of her milky cleavage by her dress presented flesh in a form that seemed to naturally invite a man not just to look but to bury his face there.
‘I suppose the guy we’re protecting tonight deserves a woman like you, does he?’
‘We are not protecting anyone’, she said. ‘I had a boyfriend, until he got obsessed with the fear that he didn’t own me. I haven’t replaced him. One gets wary.’
‘Okay, but I wonder what sort of woman has a grand to spare on taunting paranoids.’
‘Where shall we go from here? A show?’
‘Dancing’, I said. I needed the exercise.
Just then my target and the rugby player came in. So predictable. ‘Shall we get another pic of ourselves living it up?’ We smiled up into my phone at arm’s length again and I got the two of them into the picture and snapped.
In the Odessa club Sheila snuggled close to me. ‘That couple in the sushi bar — they were in the cocktail lounge too. Do you think it’s them?’
‘No’, I said. ‘They are not a tail on you; I’m tailing them.’
‘But we arrived before them.’
‘That’s a pro for you.’
‘And what sort of job is it — his wife paying you?’
‘Naw, HMRC. They’re going to bust him. They just want to make an assessment first of how much he’s spending.’
The Odessa was one of those clubs that hardly livens up at all. A few pairs of women on the floor danced around their handbags while the men of the type who reckon their money entitles them to sit and watch and take their pick later nursed whiskeys at the tables.
‘And will they turn up here too?’ said Sheila.
‘If true to form.’
‘I’d rather your mind was on the one job I had hired you for.’
‘Let’s take to the floor then.’
The song was Lady in Red. It didn’t matter to me that she was in blue. I held her close, one arm round her waist, the other a little lower. She put both hers around my neck so that I had nowhere to look but at those gorgeous breasts. I kissed her neck. It was a little acrid from something she’d sprayed on it. I kissed it again. I could get used to it.
‘That’s more like it’, she said.
She pressed closer, hips touching me and when the serpent stirred she noticed and was pleased. ‘Are you paying him too?’ I asked.
‘He was bound to turn up.’
‘If he gets too cheeky, I will deal with him.’
‘Don’t worry’, she said. ‘ A girl takes that as a compliment.’
The music changed to something with a quicker tempo and I suggested a drink.
From a wee bar in the corner I scanned the room for our tail but couldn’t see anyone who might be a dick. If we were being followed it was by someone who was good. I didn’t like that thought. It made me suspect that I was up against one of the real pros in this game, or that Sheila wasn’t being straight with me.
She nibbled my ear and said, ‘You’re starting to wonder what? That I’m working for your wife?’ I’d have been surprised if it were true, but had certainly seen other men caught out before. ‘Don’t worry’, she said. ‘You’ll get the chance to earn your money.’
Out on the dance floor, the rugby player was giving farmer John’s Friday night squeeze a twirl and she was lifting her gaze to his eyes as if she had never before seen a man who might want her.
We walked through the hotel lobby supporting each other. She had her heeled shoes in one hand, a little overnight bag on her shoulder and her other hand on my shoulder, taking the weight. I had an arm round her waist to look like a man who is carrying his woman to the bed in which he will feast himself on her.
The transaction was brief. The deal was that we’d use my card and I’d claim on expenses. It was either that or pull out of the job not knowing where the story ends. A dick tailing us and seeing the room booked under her card would have wondered if he was being toyed with.
In the room, she unzipped the back of her dress and stepped out of it. ‘I need a shower.’
She was wearing only a thong and a strapless support bra and stockings that held themselves up. She was trim and fit if a little creased from the night.
I draped my jacket over a chair wondering if the acting stopped there. She moved as unselfconsciously as a wife, dropping the rest of her clothes and then closing the bathroom door behind her.
I switched on the television. It offered me a choice of 52 channels, 17 movies and straight or gay porn. I flicked to the news and got bored. I lay on the bed and mulled over her story.
She came back from the shower with a towel wrapped round her and a smaller one worn like a turban. ‘You might as well undress and get into bed. Stay till about four. Okay?’ She dropped her towels and stood watching me, apparently indifferent to what I made of her nudity, and only faintly curious about mine. She might have been waiting to see if I was wearing boxers or briefs. She stepped closer to me and then rested her hands on my shoulders and looked down the length of my body, studying the belly hair for signs of greying perhaps, stroking my chest. Testing the muscles? ‘You’re fit. ”
‘I need to be.’
She kissed me just softly but as if she meant it.
‘There’ll still be a bill for you, whatever happens now’, I said.
‘Do you know what it’s like to have an ex who would kill you for doing this?’
‘No’, she said. ‘Kill you.’
Her body was the finest I had ever had naked in front of me. I guessed that she was about 35 years old, an age at which a woman has recovered from the hang-ups of youth and is still young enough to enjoy her flesh and senses. She was trim and smooth. Her breasts sat out, still with curvature below, and the nipples on the equator. Her belly was soft and unlined, her pubic hair black and trimmed but not shaved. I looked into her face. She was smiling. I had wondered all night if she was a professional scamming me but if she was pretending, she was pretending well.
I supposed she could argue afterwards that the night had turned into a real date and she owed me nothing. I suppose she’d be right.
She stepped forward to kiss me again.
‘Why this?’ I said.
‘I think you are so brave.’
That should have scared me.
She kissed me this time as if she was sampling my tongue, drawing it in over and over again, as if trying to think of a word that would describe its texture and firmness. Those breasts were squeezed against me so I couldn’t get my hands on them. I reached for her buttocks, squeezed them, drew them apart to let her feel the air.
Perhaps her jealous man had been frightened by her competence and what it said of past experience. There was nothing explorative about this for her, nothing new.
‘How would you like it?’ We were still working on the basis that this was her treat for me.
‘You on top’, I said. I was thinking about getting best access to those breasts.
I lay on the bed at her invitation and she sat astride my thighs. I had everything: her flesh around me, her breasts in my hands, her arse within reach and her tongue for kissing, her nipples to kiss too if I wanted variety, her soft hair draped over my face. I was in heaven. She rocked a little to perfect the fit then settled into a rhythm. Now she was involved and committed.
When she came, it was not with a shriek but with a gasp and a few tremors, and after they passed she slumped forward over me to savour the restfulness that followed, which left me pinioned by her weight and unable to move very freely to finish after her. But I managed with a few quick shuffles up into her, felt the hot tip melting and Ah, Ah, Ah, it was lovely.
And wrapped round each other and exhausted we fell asleep, though I reminded myself firmly before I passed out that I had two hours here and then should be gone. The last thing I heard was a couple in the next room banging vigorously at each other the way you only get with the man on top or behind.
At four I towelled myself down in the bathroom and dressed quietly. It had been an interesting night but I still didn’t know what sense to make of it.
There was one other person in the lobby when I was slipping out. It was the rugby player. He was whispering on his mobile phone and though instantly curious about me quickly shifted his eyes to the more interesting knob on the wooden bannister. So what was that all about?
I let myself into the house quietly and crept up to bed. Herself was breathing softly in deep sleep but rolled over to hug me when I slipped in beside her. ‘Busy night?’
I had Sheila Milliken’s card and sent her a bill from my office the next day. The day after that I got a cheque for my grand and £300 extra to cover the room and ‘related expenses’. Fine. She seemed to think it was money worth spending.
I filed a report for Farmer John with a pic of the rugby player and information on other men she had been with on other nights. I got a commission from a city solicitor to help track down the next of kin of a rich client who had died and business was looking good.
Then one night, working late, after a short break for a drink and a nosey round town I was heading back to the office on foot when a big man in a leather jacket stepped out and blocked my path. Leather always worried me; it was too much like armour.
‘Yes, friend, can I help you?’
He grimaced and lunged, his right too low for that to be a punch. I guessed right but the blade scraped my forearm. I cursed myself for not having prepared myself. She had warned me and the money she paid should have been proof of how serious she was.
I swung round with the momentum of his movement and got him on the chin with a back kick, hoping to win a little time and space to concentrate on how to finish him. I was lucky. He tumbled back over with no arm positioned in a way that would break his fall and his head hit the pavement with a wallop. He was still and looking at deep sky. The blood was seeping from him in seconds.
There might have been witnesses so I called the police and the ambulance. The medics could do nothing for him. I could do nothing for the police. ‘No idea at all why this happened. He came at me with a knife; I hit him once and he went down at a bad angle.’
I guessed Sheila would read it in the newspaper and trust she had got value for money.