With apologies to Raymond Chandler…..
Business was slow. Slower than the LAA Portal when you need to process a CRM 14, whatever that means. But for me it meant no new cases to investigate, no philandering husbands to catch at it and no dough coming through the the bank accounts. I needed a change in fortune. I had rent to pay at the end of the month and the bank were threatening to foreclose on me.
Let me introduce myself. I am Thomas Dix, Private Invesitgator. There, you can see me, feet up on my desk, watching Harriet the office cat give herself the once over, licking herself clean like a hitman removing his prints from the smoking gun. But that’s the only action there was in the office , no clients, no phonecalls, no new files, no old files, just me and the cat, just Tom Dix and Harry.
My office is on a typical street in Midtown. First floor above one of those coffee and deli places that are on every street corner. A real mom and pop outfit. The two of them had been doling out food to the heaving masses ever since they came here from Poland. Mr and Mrs Gregowicz, although that wasn’t a catchy name for a business. And my stomach gurgled like a slow draining bath as I caught a sniff of the signature dish wafting up the stairs. It was hard to beat one of the steak slices from Greg’s.
Right at that moment I heard the outer office door go. Then silence. The type of silence that tells you something bad is about to walk into your life. The sort of silence that fills the room in the moment before the Doc tells you how long you got left to live.
“Marcie!?!” I hollered, forgetting that I had to let the receptionist go when business got scarce.
I dropped my feet from the desk as I heard a hand turn the handle on the door to my office. I thought I could smell fear in the air, then saw Harriet shoot me a guilty look before slinking off and I realised that wasn’t fear I could smell…..there was a reason Marcie called the cat “Dirty Harry”.
The door opened and in walked a woman. A woman who had legs all the way up to her ears, which briefly made me wonder where all her internal organs were at. She flashed me a smile that told me more about cosmetic dentistry than nature.
“Tom Dix?” she asked, not waiting for an answer, “my name is Katie Rocquet. I’m a lawyer”… (that explained the pantsuit, I thought to myself)…”and I have case for you, if it is something you are interested in….”
I was interested the moment she said she had a case. A case meant money and I found money more interesting than Lord Harley’s ribbon collection.
So Miss Rocquet explained that she wanted me to track something down for her. I made notes as she told me that some papers had gone missing. Her firm had been due to receive them last month from the prosecutor’s office but had never turned up. She had done what she could but couldn’t get her hands on them. And now she wanted my help.
And help I could.
Before the scent of her perfume had left my office I had my hat and my coat on and I was out of the door. This was going to be easy. You see, she had been able to give me the name of one of the police officers involved and I knew him back from my days on the job, before I left the force.
As I stepped onto the street I pulled the collar of my mac up to my ears, the weather having turned colder than the inside of Mad Freddies’s heart. Mad Freddie had been the case that led me to leave behind my badge and become the freelancer I am now. Not many survived Mad Freddie, but that’s a different story.
Right now I just needed to head down to the Precinct, have a word with my old buddy Kowalski and send Miss Rocquet the bill for my services. He was the officer in charge of the case. He would just give me a copy of the file and I could say “case closed” faster than well behaved boys and girls are made Judges.
Of course, when I had been in the force I wasn’t based at this Precinct. We had a proper police station, not a portacabin in a shopping centre. But, you know, times change and austerity was what ran the show now.
Unfortunately austerity turned out to be a cheap son of a bitch because when I walked up the ramp to the prefab police station and put my hand on the door handle I found it locked. I swore under my breath and looked around for some clue as to what to do next.
I am not a religious man but I don’t mind telling you that I asked the big fella for some help right then. I needed a dead end this early in the case like South Korea needed a nuclear armed meglomaniac neighbour.
“Just give me a sign” was my whispered prayer.
And there it was, next to the door. A sign. An actual sign
“This police station is open on the third Wednesday of every month (except April, May, July and February and/or October should it be a leap year and any Wednesday which happens to be a national holiday. Anywhere.) between the hours of 2.45 and 3.45 am/pm (delete as appropriate) and subject to daylight saving and weather permitting. In the unlikely event that you need our assistance outside of these hours, please lift the handset next to this sign and tell the operator the nature of your emergency, the number of this lift and its approximate location. An engineer will be with you shortly.”
And next to the sign was a yellow phone. The old kind of phone. Like they had in the movies. Like the Bat-phone. But yellow. I picked up the handset.
“Hello,” said a voice at the other end “this is the generic call handling centre, please state the nature of your enquiry and whether you require the police, ambulance, coast guard, lift engineer, gas engineer, nuclear fission engineer, duty solicitor or whether you want to register on the phone for our range of online services?”
“Look pal,” I said, “I’m ex-job and just need to speak to my old buddy Kowalski, now be a stand up kind of guy and put me through to him why dontcha?”
“How do I know that?” the voice at the other end of the line said.
I screwed my face up. This was not turning out to be as easy as I thought it would.
“Just get me Kowalski and he’ll vouch for me,” I said, struggling to keep my voice the right side of gruff.
“But I don’t know that he will, and then what?” the anonymous voice continued to argue, “I mean you could be any old Tom, Dick or……”
“Don’t even go there,” I snapped and something in my voice seemed to have the desired effect.
“Okay, okay. I’ll just see if I can put you through,” the guy on the other end said before my ear was filled with the relentless noisy silence of an unused phone line. After what seemed like an eternity he spoke again.
“No sorry, you can’t speak to him today.”
“Why not?” I asked, my voice as tight as a Determining Officer looking at a special prep claim.
“He’s on leave today,” came my answer.
“If I leave you my number, can you get him to give me a call tomorrow? Please.” I asked, politely. Sometimes it was nice to be nice, sometimes you had to be nice.
“No” came the answer. He was about as helpful as a rollerskate on a frozen lake.
“Oh for crying out loud, man,” I hollered into the handset, “stop having a stick up your ass and help me out here before I reach down this phone and grab you by the larynx.”
I had gone from good cop to bad cop in the beat of a butterfly’s heart. It was good to be back.
“There’s no need to be like that, I can’t ask him to call you tomorrow because tomorrow he’s on a rest day,” the voice sounded a little wounded.
Time for me to dial it back a little.
“Sorry buddy, it is just kind of important I speak to him. Is a rest day different to leave?” I asked. Things had changed in even the short time since I had become just a citizen.
“Yes. It is. But either way, he won’t be ringing you.”
I could tell by the sound of his voice that my window of cooperation was rapidly closing.
“Ok, ok. How about you do me a massive favour and just ask my friend and yours, Kowalski, to give me a call the day after his rest day. I mean, we are all on the same team here, you know what I mean?”
This case had a definite time limit. And I could hear the clock ticking.
“No can do,” his voice seemed tinged with pleasure, “because after his rest day he is on a course. And after the course he is on nights. And then rest days. And, well, the next time Officer Kowalski is available to respond to my message to give you a call will be three weeks this Friday. Subject to operational matters.”
“Look you jobsworth, you snivelling little…..” And I did not get to speak my mind as at that exact moment I heard the unmistakable electronic click that was as fatal for a telephone conversation as the guillotine was for a French aristocrat. He hung up on me.
And this is where I began to wish I had not taken the job. You see there was a deadline. Miss Rocquet had been vague about the details. But the missing papers had to be with her in time for something she only referred to as the PTPH. I did not know much about this so-called PTPH. But I did know that it had something to do with Mad Freddie. And the wrong side of Mad Freddie is a painful place to be.
I had to solve this case. I had to get those papers. I pulled my fedora down to shield my eyes from the wind and the rain. This had just gotten serious. Time for me to make like one of those security arches at the airport and detect….
I regretted telling Katie Rocquet that I would take her case more than Dave regretted uttering the words “Chris, how do you fancy giving Lord Chancellor a go?”
It was going to be easy money, you know, like the easy money junior doctors make patching up the human carnage of a Saturday night in the ER. And quick money too. And it would have been, if I could have gotten my hands on Kowalski.
Back at the office Harry was shooting me the sort of looks that said she hadn’t been fed in days. There was nothing else to do, if curiosity didn’t kill the cat, starvation was going to. I had no choice but to head into the horse’s den and get the answer straight from the lion’s mouth.
I picked up the phone and punched in the number for the Prosecutor’s office. This was a decision I instantly regretted. iPhone screens did not react well to punching.
It was a couple of rings before a female voice started telling me that I had contacted the Prosecution and that it was real swell that I had done. She seemed very pleased. I decided to box off the niceties and get straight to the point.
“Look lady, I need to talk to someone about some papers. Stat. Pronto. Stat and pronto. You know what I mean?”
If she knew what I meant she had a funny way of showing it. It would have helped if she had stopped smacking her own gums. This lady could talk. I got the feeling she knew exactly how to push my buttons. I tried again.
“Sweetheart, if you can just stop yapping over me we might get somewhere, do you get me?”
If she got me, or even heard me, she had a funny way of showing it. She was relentless and remorseless. More relentless and remorseless than Philip Davies opposing something that would make someone’s life better or nicer in some small way. The kind of grinding determination to carry on regardless that put the “illib” in fillibuster. Or something. She was scrambling my brain.
“If your enquiry is related to a Crown Court matter, please press 1,” she said for the eleventeenth time, “if you wish to speak to the Magistrates section, please press 2. If you want to speak to witness care, press 3. If you actually want to speak to a real life lawyer please press 18 and 1/2 whilst standing on your head reciting the Owl and the Pussycat. Your call is important to us. Goodbye.”
The line went dead.
“Hello?” I said into the void, “Hello?” Either she had gone or I was about to launch into a Lionel Ritchie tribute number. Either way, I wasn’t dancing on the ceiling.
First Kowalski and now this broad. It seemed like nobody wanted to talk to me. And when no one wants to talk to you then you begin to wonder what they had to hide. I smelled a rat.
My thoughts were disturbed by Harry snaking herself around my ankles and heading for the door. Seems like she was registering her displeasure at the absence of food in purely olfactory ways. It was no rat that I could smell.
Still, there was something fishy going on. With the case, not the cat. I was being given the cold shoulder and was no nearer to discovering where Rocquet’s papers were at. It was time to hit the streets again.
In every town there is always a guy. It could be a girl. But whether a guy or a girl they were always the guy. The guy who knew everything and everyone. Knew where everyone was at. Had the ear of enough of the right kind of people to be a mine of useful information. And always had enough of the smarts to know that sharing some of that information with the right people could prove to be very mutually beneficial in a mutual kind of way.
I knew such a guy. He had helped me out plenty of times, on plenty of cases. In turn I had always come running when he needed me. All he had to do was holler.
The funny thing is, I never knew his name. Not his real name. Guess it just never came up much in conversation. We knew what we had going on was business, not real friendship. We would never just grab a beer together. It was always business. And I just knew him as “The Usher”.
So fifteen minutes after my unsuccessful call to the Prosecutor I pulled out the bar stool next to my number one stool pigeon.
“Mr Dix,” The Usher addressed me without looking up from his crossword, “what can I do for you today?”
“Ush, I got a problem that I am hoping you can fix….” I began.
“What seems to be the problem, Mr Dix?”
I liked that about The Usher. He was always full of old school politeness. Right until you crossed him. Then he wasn’t so polite. Then he was about as polite as .44 slug that had “excuse me” scrawled on it just before it popped into your skull. And he would always make sure those that crossed him got what was coming their way. Not at his hand, you understand, but when you knew the people who The Usher knew, when you had the sort of people who relied on you like they relied on The Usher, settling scores was easy.
So I explained my problem to The Usher. And as I did so his face darkened. He put his pen down. His crossword remained unsolved.
“You do know Mad Freddie is going to be involved in that?” His voice was half warning, half concerned enquiry and half threat. “And that means I can’t help you, not this time.” It would be fair to say that what he had to say was less than the sum total of its parts.
The Usher got up to leave. I laid a heavy hand on his arm.
“Look Ush, throw me a bone here, I am running out of places to turn,” my voice sounded as desperate as my bank balance.
The Usher folded his paper and tucked it under his elbow. He looked about him, checking no one was about to overhear what he had to say. He then lent towards me and in a voice as soft as that really good quality quilted toilet paper that koala bears use, whispered a few words to me.
“All I can say, my old friend, is that it has something to do with a packing and logistics firm. I think they operate out of the docks. It is probably just a front for the real stuff that’s going down. It’s a ‘pile em high and sell em cheap’ kinda outfit. They go by the name “Better Case Management”, but I warn you now, I don’t think you’re invited to the party.”
And with that The Usher straightened up and gave me half a smile.
“See you soon, Mr Dix, and I hope it’s not as I throw a handful of dirt on to your coffin.”
Before I could say goodbye he was gone. But at least he had given me a lead. I had some information, now it was time to make like Steven Seagal on a stage and act on it.
Like a middle class kid on a gap year in Thailand, I found myself back in the office.
For the first time in this case I had a concrete lead. Based on the information given to me by The Usher, I only really had one option and that was to pay a visit to this “Better Case Management” outfit. What awaited me there was anyone’s guess but I reckon I would get pretty good odds from the guys at the track on it being something to do with Mad Freddie. I could hear fate rumbling towards me.
Seconds after I heard the rumble of fate, the whiff of a flatulent cat assaulted my nostrils. If any money came in for this case that damned cat was having a visit to the vets to get some charcoal pills.
I needed to prepare myself. There was a yard arm somewhere in the world that had the sun over it. I opened the desk drawer to my left and fished out a bottle of something strong and Scottish. I reached back into the drawer and found a heavy glass. I bolted down a shot and poured myself another.
Irn Bru always brought me comfort.
I opened the right hand desk drawer. I reached deep into its recesses and my fingers wrapped felt the cold metal of what I was looking for. As I took hold of it I could feel the snub nose nestle into my palm. I knew it was loaded with a full clip in the slide, ready to go. I did not ordinarily carry this with me but going after these papers could get messy and a stapler could come in very handy.
If I wasn’t desperate for the cash there was no way my weary feet would have carried me down to the port. Just off the harbour was a square of grass with a few benches dotted around. It crossed my mind that no one knew where I was. I had better leave a bit of a trail, in case I needed finding. I got my iPhone out, took a selfie and quickly posted it to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with the caption “Dix on Off Dock Green”. If anyone could be bothered to look for me they may know where to start.
It wasn’t difficult to find “Better Case Management”, they had clearly spent a lot of money on making this look the part. It was draped in a banner – “Grand Opening 6th January”. I avoided the front door and headed round the back to see if there was a window where I could get a look inside.
And this is where I was at the receiving end of the old one-two, known locally as the Danczuk-Benn. As I tried to peer through the window I had no chance of being able to see the repeated low blows that came from my right and out of the sun. That was the Danczuk. That was quickly followed by a heavy blow from behind with a blunt instrument that gave me no chance at all. And that was the Benn. I was out for a standing count, if it had been a boxing match my corner would have thrown in the towel.
I was carried by my two assailants through a door and into the building. As these two thugs dragged me my mind was dragging itself through a fug of semi-consciousness like a drowning man, drowning in a thick soup but just about managing to tread water. Or soup.
Anyways, my mind finally grabbed hold of a passing crouton of clarity and I realised I had company. And plenty of it. Of course, front and centre was Mad Freddie.
I don’t know whether you have ever had the pleasure of Mad Freddie’s company? In my experience those that rise to the top of the game in crime are either egotistical, megalomaniac pyscopaths or egotistical, megalomaniac pyscopaths who are also a bit weird. Mad Freddie feel into the last category.
Most grown men cannot get away with wearing a purple dressing gown everywhere they go. But Mad Freddie could. And nobody gave it a second thought. Like nobody gave the hair a second glance either, not if they knew what was good for them. Mad Freddie had a toupee that made Donald Trump and that Wogan fella look like an advert for Timotei.
And he wasn’t alone. In the room he seemed to have his whole crew with him. My welcoming party I now recognised. It was the Greek hitman, Stare Decisis and the Queen of the switchblade “Razor” Judy Carter.
Standing next to Mad Freddie was his current squeeze. I seem to recall that she was French Creole or somesuch. I also recall that she had ways of torturing you that could have a grown man cry. She also had a network of snitches that fed information back to old Mad Freddie. So she was part gangster’s moll and part out and out gangster. Kaci Progreçion was a piece of work, I don’t mind telling you.
There is nothing worse than a turncoat. Except, I guess, murderers. And I guess it depends on the way your coat has been turned. If you change your allegiance from one soccer team to another, I guess that ain’t a capital crime. But there were not many things worse than a cop gone bad. And that cop gone bad was Smollenski.
Smollenski used to be a stand up kind of guy. Until he got knocked down. But I am getting ahead of myself. He was a cops’ cop. Busting balls and cracking heads. But they were bad guys’ balls. And heads. We were in the force together for years. Things went wrong one day when he was out on a regular collar for some traffic violations. The perp got angsty and tried to run. Sadly Smollenski got in the way and the perp ran right over him in his low riding, pimped up Fiat Cinquecento.
He was in a pretty bad way afterwards. Most of his injuries healed. They gave him a desk job for a while, to give him time to get back on active duty. But it wasn’t gonna happen. His leg had been bust up pretty bad, leaving it shorter than the other. And I knows we shouldn’t have done it, but we gave him a nickname, on account of him having one leg shorter than its partner. And it was when he heard what we were calling him that he flipped. I reckon that was the moment he crossed from good cop to being a bad cop, and not the kind of bad cop we all have to be from time to time in order to be a good cop. That was the moment Smollenski turned his back on the force and embraced crime.
We should never have called him the Listing Officer.
It wasn’t just Mad Freddie’s crew that were in the room. There were some serious out of town players here too. Guys even further up the food chain than Freddie. Men like Lincoln “Cool” Johnson, or LCJ to his friends, who ran the Strand crew. His enforcer was also here, Phil Ford. There were others I didn’t recognise, private contractors just here to make a fast, mercenary buck out of whatever was going down.
And what was going down? I needed to find that out like a man needs to know what the inside of his coffin is going to look like.
“It’s Dix, isn’t it,” Mad Freddie asked. “I thought I’d told you I never wanted to see you again, not after you kept me waiting that time. You know I don’t like being kept waiting, boy. What brings you here?”
Like my Equitable Life Pension, I decided honesty was the best policy. So I explained about Katie Rocquet and the missing papers. Freddie viewed me with murderous contempt.
“Look Dix, my friends here and me, we got something new hitting the streets. PTPH is going to be the only show in town. And we don’t need complications, which is what you have just become.”
I looked around for Harry the office cat. She wasn’t there. Then I realised, this time, I was really smelling fear. My fear.
“So here is what we going to do, boy. I am going to give you and Rocquet a break. The papers you want are downtown, in a speakeasy called Case Lines. I’m gonna give you a password, just knock on the door, give em the password and you’ll get your papers.”
I tried to thank Mad Freddie but my words came out of my mouth with all the order and sense of the early doors customers of Argos on Black Friday.
“Dix, don’t speak. Don’t even breathe. Just take a message back to Rocquet. She is either with me or she is out of business. And on this deal her cut has gone down from 33% to 25%. And the clock is running. I don’t do credit. I am old school in a new world. Do we understand each other?”
I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. That didn’t stop me nodding. It was time to make like a celebrity and get out of there. I nodded my way right out of the room and away from the assembled assembley of assholes and assassins.
The papers were exactly where Freddie said they would be. Case solved. Invoice sent to Miss Rocquet. Cheque in the post. Or so she kept saying. Every time I called.