The Black Regent Rooming House.
I peel the bloody dressing off my nose and drop it into the sink. Jesus. My face looks like something out of a fucking horror-show.
I’ve been sticking my nose into other people’s business for longer than I can remember. Usually for money, sometimes out of sheer perversity. My latest injury – caused by deranged Albanian with a box-cutter – feels horribly apt.
“That looks painful, Joe. You should get it looked at.”
I shrug, scratching at the fat cleaver scar across my shoulder. On hot days it itches like a motherfucker. I’ve experienced worse. Far worse.
“You should have seen the other guy…”
Cherry is wearing tan trousers and a knowing smile. Her makeup is immaculate, and her dirty blonde hair has been pulled into a loose ponytail. She almost singes her cream blouse when she tugs it over her head, lit cigarette still in her mouth.
She inhales deeply and drops the dead ciggie into an empty beer bottle, before retrieving a plastic carrier bag from the floor.
“It was all I could find at short notice. You might have to breathe in when you put on the trousers.”
I eye her sceptically, then remove my bloody t-shirt and toss it into the corner.
“How do you want to play it, Joe?”
“Stick to the narrative we agreed. Follow my lead.”
She scratches a fleck of dried blood off my ruined nose and wipes it on the bed sheet.
“I was afraid you were going to say that…”
30 Minutes Later.
The North Atlantic Motor Inn.
“Mrs Stratton, you are in safe hands. My associate Mr Rey and I have many years of experience dealing with this type of case.”
Cherry’s put-on accent is faker than the massive rubber cock in her bedside drawer. Fuck knows where that came from – the accent, I mean.
“Previous clients have received fingers through the post in jiffy bags. Toes in manila envelopes. We once encountered a jam-jar full of blood along with the ransom note.”
She’s gone too far. She is going to fuck it up if she carries on like this.
I shift in my seat and reach under the table, pinching her inner thigh – right where her ex-husband’s name is tattooed.
She takes the hint.
“It is a positive sign that your daughter is as-yet unharmed.”
Cherry leans across the table and strokes Mrs Stratton’s trembling hand.
“If it is of any comfort, the overwhelming majority of reported kidnap incidents in the UK last year were express kidnappings, in which victims were abducted for less than 48 hours. We fully expect to have your daughter back with you by the end of the week.”
We are in the refurbished bar of the North Atlantic Motor Inn. The shabby decor feels as familiar as my own nightmares.
Her husband fidgets in his chair and tuts to himself. Disinterested. Detached.
“Look at the state of this place. It’s hardly the Excelsior, is it?”
I nod my agreement.
The furniture looks – and feels – water-damaged, and the carpet is a threadbare blur of dirty-looking swirls. The artificial pine scent can’t conceal the pungent smell, and the murky hotel air seems to suck up our conversation. This place is so nasty I half-expect to see young children mingling with sex-offenders in the smoky TV lounge.
I fit right in. My shabby suit is tight at the crotch and worn at the elbows. Like the suit, the maroon necktie came from a charity shop and has the logo from a long-defunct building society on it. My off-white shirt still has another man’s sweat on the collar. I feel it mingle with my own every time I tell another barefaced lie.
“It is important to avoid scrutiny, Mr Stratton. The people who have your daughter will be observing your every move – ensuring you are not engaging with law enforcement personnel. Believe me, you do not want to test the patience of these men.”
His wife stifles a sob and Stratton clear his throat.
“Step-daughter. Theresa is Debbie’s daughter from a previous relationship.”
I nod. A teenage girl is missing and this shit-bag is at pains to point out the difference.
I glance across at the barman. He has a vicious quiff and thin eyes, and is sat on a stool on the wrong side of the bar working his way through a stack of old crotch magazines.
I whistle to attract his attention, and he lurches over to us, erection pulsing against his greasy trousers.
I order a Glenmorangie. One ice cube.
Stratton orders the same. The women say nothing.
“Good choice, Mr Rey. We’ll get along just fine.”
He beams at me and I return his queasy smile.
I have an intense dislike of around 85% of the men who have ever hired me, and that percentage is edging upwards. Not that I’m fucking counting.
The barman returns with our drinks.
A local cop once told me that 30% of all alcohol in Paignton is fake. Bathtub brew-jobs or cheap booze in high-end bottles. Whatever this fucker has served me is likely to contain antifreeze, methanol or something similarly unpleasant. I doubt it will even be whisky – it will probably be carny vodka mixed with flavouring and colouring.
I notice that Stratton is fiddling irritably with his wedding ring. His wife notices too, and he attempts to clasp her hands in a clumsy approximation of a comforting gesture – only for her to bat his hand away.
His face is slick with sweat and shines more than his Conservative Party lapel-pin under the cheap barroom lighting.
There are so many skeletons in this goon’s closet I swear I can hear them rattling.
I open my steel briefcase and make a show of shuffling papers. Junk mail accumulated from the lobby of the Black Regent: penile enlargement offers, erectile dysfunction pamphlets, pro-right-wing literature. Bunch of fucking dicks.
“I don’t wish to seem insensitive, but…”
Stratton hands me the payment and I place it in the briefcase, nodding solemnly.
The case was a birthday present from a man named Malcolm Chung – removed from an Albanian bag-man’s wrist with a bone-saw. And, yeah, he went through the sorry fucker’s flesh and bone, not through the chain.
“My associate, Mrs… Cherry … and I will be in touch.”
Debbie Stratton is already out of her seat, heading towards the gravel car park. Stratton sips his whisky with a grimace and places the tumbler back on table, practically undrunk, before scrambling after her – a distressed look on his hangdog face.
Cherry picks up his abandoned drink and clinks glasses with me.
“So far, so good.”
She takes a deep gulp and places the glass back on the table, slaughterhouse-red lipstick on the rim.
I down the rest of my drink and wipe my lips on my rancid sleeve.
“As long as neither of us go fucking blind…”
One Hour Later.
The Stratton Residence.
I take off my necktie and wrap it around my fist, before smashing the pane of glass above the lock for the conservatory door.
I reach in, catching my wrist on one of the jagged shards, and unlatch the door.
I kick the loose glass aside and step inside, warily. There were no cars on the drive, but there could still be a cleaner or a handyman lurking.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?”
Debbie Stratton is standing in the conservatory, swaying slightly – cigarette in one hand, wine glass in the other – leopard-print silk bathrobe gaping open. She makes no effort to cover her neatly-trimmed pussy hair and takes a clumsy glug of wine.
She jabs the smouldering tip of her cigarette in my direction.
“My husband led me to believe that he had hired a private investigator – not a fucking junkie housebreaker.”
She makes no effort to locate a telephone, but I cut to the chase regardless.
“Your daughter is safe, Mrs Stratton.”
A look of confusion creases her drunken face. The boozy puffiness can’t disguise her prettiness.
“I beg your pardon?”
I remove a polaroid of Theresa – fully-clothed and unharmed, holding a copy of this week’s Herald Express.
“Your husband has been a naughty fucking boy, Mrs Stratton. I am in the process of setting things right.”
“By breaking into my house?”
“Last week your husband committed an indiscretion. The CCTV tape of that incident is currently in his possession. I have been paid to retrieve it.”
“What did he do?”
She slurs – voice ragged with bitterness and confusion:
“No. Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know. Politics corrupted him. Bent him out of shape.”
“You sound like you are trying to convince yourself, Mrs Stratton – not me.”
Either she knows that he uses rent boys, or she is drunk enough not to care right now.
I take a deep breath and consider my options. I won’t mention the fact that Stratton choked a 16-year-old to death last week. Or the fact that the kid is now buried face-down in Occombe Valley Woods – her husband’s semen long since congealed in the boy’s ruptured anal passage. She will find out soon enough.
“Where does my daughter fit into this?”
“It’s complicated, but I’m working on it.”
Stratton offered the brothel-keeper his own fucking step-daughter to compensate him for his loss. The ponce enlisted me to help him run a more lucrative scam on Stratton. I was happy to oblige – as long as he let the girl go.
“Are you really an investigator?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Your associate, Mrs Cherry, is she really an ex-Interpol agent?”
I shake my head.
“She is a single mother with a nine-year-old daughter. She runs a part-time brothel from her elderly mother’s house.”
Debbie Stratton steps towards me.
“Thank you for being honest with me, Mr Rey. My husband hasn’t been honest for a long time.”
She places her empty wine glass on the coffee table, but makes no effort to cover her modesty.
She steps towards me and kisses me on the lips.
“I appreciate it.”
I kiss her back as she unzips my too-tight trousers.
All part of the fucking service.
I leave the house an hour later, the security video of Stratton strangling the teenage sex-worker tucked in my jacket pocket – burning like my sense of shame.
“What took you so long?”
Cherry is lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt of her old one as I climb into her Vauxhall Corsa.
I turn to face her, some shitty lie or other caught in my throat.
She wipes a smudge of Debbie’s lipstick off my lips with her finger and grunts.
“On second thoughts, don’t bother.”
20 Minutes Later.
Henry Rivera is a fat, sloppy piece of shit. His business interests are limited to a few suck-and-fuck emporiums staffed with grey-skinned addicts and wigless transvestites.
When we arrive at his main trick pad, Henry is fiddling absentmindedly with his diamond pinky ring. He is eating Chinese chicken and drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label. He pauses to lick chicken grease off his ring.
“Mr Rey! I hope you didn’t dress up on my account.”
I brush a flake of dead man’s dandruff off the shoulder of my suit jacket and toss him half of the £2,000 fee that Stratton paid me.
He tucks it in the waistband of his tracksuit bottoms and belches.
I pat my pocket.
He belches again.
“I’m afraid there has been a change of plan, young man.”
I feel the counterfeit booze slosh unpleasantly in my gut.
He has close-set, predatory eyes – pupils like bullet-holes.
“The eminent Mr Stratton upped the ante after I explained the nature of our little scam.”
“Why the fuck would you do that?”
“Because I’m a greedy little cunt, Rey, that’s why.”
Stratton’s chauffeur, Tony Tolliver, steps out of the shadows. He’s a squat, hard-faced bastard.
“New deal, motherfucker. Hand me the tape. And the rest of the cash.”
He smiles unpleasantly – showing all of his teeth. Then he fixes me with a look so intense it freezes the piss in my bladder.
He’s ex-military. Left two toes in Fallujah – along with his conscience.
“Fuck off, mate.”
He stomps towards me and hits me in the face – breaking my ravaged nose – and coating my shirtfront in blood.
“Hand it over, shit-heel.”
“You’ll have to hit me a lot harder than that, mate.”
“Poor Mrs Stratton really isn’t coping well with her husband’s breakdown. She is even contemplating suicide.”
He grins nastily and mimes the tightening of a noose around his thick neck.
I think about the knotted condom in her bathroom bin, and my blood on the broken window. That isn’t going to fucking happen.
I dip into my jacket pocket and remove the retractable police baton I bought from a paranoid schizophrenic in the Dirty Lemon toilets over Christmas.
The threats dry up and suddenly it’s quiet enough to hear a junkie piss himself.
Then Tolliver charges me – screaming blue murder.
I side-step him and extend the baton, whipping it across his fat face and destroying his nose.
I lash the weapon across the back of his head until he stops moving and wipe his dark cranial fluid on my trousers.
I glance warily at Rivera. I know that he keeps a sawn-off baseball bat under the counter.
To stop him reaching for it, I shatter his right arm.
“Let’s try that again, shall we, Henry?”
He sneers at me, and I grind his mangled arm into the carpet with my boot heel.
“Where’s the fucking girl, shit-stain?”
Five Minutes Later.
I drift through the waiting room, past the handful of elderly degenerates fidgeting on the battered sofa. None of them left when the screaming started, so they’re not the type of men to let a little casual bloodshed put them off their afternoon delight.
“Don’t get up gentlemen – I’m only passing through.”
I step out of the building and flick the loose viscera off the baton, onto the pavement, and hand it to Cherry, before opening the back door and hustling the girl onto the back seat.
Cherry looks distastefully at my blood-soaked clothing.
“Did you enjoy that?”
“Cherry, I don’t enjoy any of this shit.”
“Is it over?”
I consider the videotape in my pocket – and the man who tried to sell his own daughter like livestock.
“On the contrary. The fun has only just begun.”
Bio: Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK.
He is the author of the Paignton Noir novelettes SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET, SLUG BAIT and SPINE FARM and the short story collections MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES (Close To The Bone Publishing, June 2018) and REPETITION KILLS YOU (All Due Respect, September 2018)
His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk Fiction.