Truth Dare kill
I stopped typing and listened to the sound of high heels heading my way. They clipped up each rise on the toes, then clacked across the landings, heel first:
Morse code for “this could be your lucky day”. But who needed my services on New Year’s Eve? I hoped they wouldn’t stop at any of the two lower floors. There was a long moment’s hesitation on the second; I thought I’d lost them to the chain-smoking old woman who lives below. Then they came on.
I stopped pretending I was busy. The only person I was fooling was me. For the past couple of hours I’d been stabbing the keys and banging the return as if I hated the battered Imperial. I’d twice reached into my drawer and fingered the neck of the bottle like a lover. I’d twice closed the drawer without taking a swig. If I started I’d never see midnight: a prospect that had grown more tempting by the minute.
The stairwell is visible through my open door. Her hat appeared first, then she climbed round out of sight and up to the top landing. The tap-dance continued until she stood in the doorway. Her slim shadow flung itself across the lino towards my desk. She was hesitant, as though she’d never done this sort of thing before. Few had; Finders Keepers had only been going for three months.
She could see me at my desk but not clearly enough to make out the details. Her veil wouldn’t help, but nor would my lamp. I keep the light low because of my face, and because I don’t like being silhouetted: a habit I got into in my previous line of work. But whether I was scared of being laughed at or shot at, it meant that visitors had to get right up close before they could see my expression. Especially on a winter’s night with only the dim glow from the street lights drifting in through the window.
“Hello?” she said, not sure what this creature in the shadows would do.
It said, “Come in,” in as inviting a voice as it could muster. I stood up, hoping she wasn’t lost and looking for directions.
She gathered herself and strode forward like an amateur modelling clothes for the first time. It took her just five strides to arrive in my pool of light.
With a practised sweep she pulled the veil up and on to her hat. She might have been a model, but she was no amateur.
I wouldn’t have guessed the eyes. They were grey, as though the blue had leached away. Her lips were a perfect red, retouched on the stairs – that was the pause.
With the pale eyes came the blonde hair, that special soft gold-white that no bleaching can ever mimic without turning the hair to straw. It was pulled back so tightly from her face it must have hurt. A small blue hat was skewered to her head at the angle of an airman’s forage cap. I’ve known women take an hour in front of a mirror to get all those effects just so.
The rest of the outfit must have cost a year’s ration coupons and twice my annual income. Though twice nothing is nothing I reminded myself. And the suit bore the same relation to an off-the-peg Utility dress as men to apes. It was likely a prewar ensemble cut short to the knee. Quality lasts. This woman was top drawer. And what was Philip Marlowe wearing? A worn cardigan with elbow patches.
“Mr McRae?” The vowels matched the classy outfit, soft but beautifully shaped. I wanted to hear her say it again.
“Danny McRae. Can I help you?”
“I hope you can, Mr McRae. I hope you can.”
“Take a pew, Miss…?” I waved grandly, as if she had a choice of seating.
“Graveney. Kate Graveney. How do you do?” She lifted a languid hand towards me.
I leaned over my fourth-hand typewriter and took it. It was sheathed in white leather so fine you could have sworn it was her own skin. The handshake was short, almost perfunctory, but it left a sensation, as if I’d been stroked. I imagined her bare fingers touching my face.
She sat down, parked her bag in her lap and crossed her legs. I realised how long it had been since I’d heard the sound of real silk sliding on silk. The everyday stuff rasps, like sandpaper on wood. A faint but distinct perfume reached me. I’m no connoisseur, but I know what I like. I liked this smell of warmth and undiluted femininity. It raised an echo in me, then drifted away tantalisingly, like so many memories since I got back.
I shoved the typewriter out of the way so we had clear space between us. I made a play of ripping out the report I’d been typing: another stray husband. I removed the carbon and slid the thin sheaf into my in-tray. My only tray. I straightened my new phone. Its shiny black curves said I’m here for you, you just have to call. It said commitment, I’m here to stay – for as long as I can pay the rent. I was the pro, busy, tidy and ready for business in my model office.
“Now, what can I do for you? It’s a funny time of year and I’m just closing up.
Don’t you have better things to do?”
“It is a funny time.” She smiled, and that made the time perfect. “Do you mind?”
She was already reaching into the bag and pulling out a silver cigarette case.
She took one out and waited. I got the message and dug out my matches. She pulled off her gloves and leaned forward with the cigarette perched between those red lips. There was a ring, but on her right hand. She drew deeply and pursed her mouth and blew the smoke out in a steady stream. It unfurled and floated out of the cone of light, to add to the tidemarks on the ceiling.
“But I need help now.” There was a petulance; she was used to getting her way. I bet her dainty little heel came off the ground just then, ready to stamp.
“This can’t wait. Not even till tomorrow. I can’t rest until I know I’ve at least got something going. A new year’s resolution, if you like.” She looked down, then up again. She knew how to gain attention. She smiled and gave me a look with her grey eyes that made me realise I hadn’t given up hope of a woman smiling on me again without being paid for it. And how I’d never been with a woman like her.
“Well, I’ve got a party to get to this evening Miss Graveney.” I hadn’t, but I wasn’t going to look any more desperate than I had to. “So why don’t you tell me why you’re here.” I leaned back in my chair and tried to look nonchalant, as though classy women dropped into my hovel every day of the week, including New Year’s Eve.
“May I ask you something first, Mr. McRae?”
“By all means, Miss Graveney.” I realised I was beginning to raise my vocabulary and soften my Glasgow accent to stay level with her precise words and BBC tones.
“Your advertisement. It said you were discreet. That you were a professional and you respected client confidentiality. Is that right?”
She must have seen my ad on the front page of The Times, offering unique experience and guaranteed results. Who says advertising doesn’t work? But it had cost me ten of the hundred and fifty quid the Government gave us heroes for setting up a new business.
“This sort of business depends on discretion.”
What I didn’t say was that she was the most stylish piece of business that had come my way. The others amounted to lost dogs or lost loves. Only the dogs seemed pleased to be found. What had she lost?
She nodded and took another deep pull on her cigarette. “What about the police?”
So it wasn’t a poodle. “Do you mean do I work with the police or that you don’t want whatever you say to be heard by the police?” I knew the answer, but I wanted to see how she responded.
She chose her words with care. “I may need to involve the police. But not yet.
Not till things are… clear.”
I thought about Inspector Herbert Wilson who’d paid me a courtesy call a few weeks back, and how he’d love to be a fly on this wall. And how I’d love to have a fly-swat. But that’s another matter.
“You have my word. Everything you say to me tonight is privileged. It goes no further.”
“Good. That’s good. Because what I have to tell you is… unpleasant.” She stubbed out her cigarette half way