The Drowning Detective
A Malloy Adventure
by David Cox


......She entered my life through a pub door, setting herself down on the barstool next to mine, a lunchtime curry lingering high and rancid on her breath.

......She sits and stares, and doesn't say a word. Don't get me wrong; I'm not the impatient type, but I do happen to believe a man has the right to drink in peace. And this little minx, with her laser eyes and rank breath, is beginning to curdle my beer. "Can I help you?"

......"I'm looking for Malloy."

...... "What do you want?"

...... "A vodka and tonic would be nice."

...... "Is that supposed to be funny?"

...... "I thought private detectives liked wisecracks."

...... "I thought girls your age had more sense than to come to places like this?"

...... "You mean pubs?"

...... "I mean elephant's graveyards masquerading as pubs."

...... "It's not that bad."

...... "You should see us on a quiet afternoon."

...... She screws her eyes to the size of a couple of melon seeds, and gives my ravaged old body the once over. "You are Malloy, aren't you?"

...... "What were you expecting tweeds and a deerstalker?"

...... "You're even bigger than I thought. My dad said you were huge, but I didn't realise"

...... "Your dad? Would I know him?"

...... "You should. His name's John Griggs."

...... "Johnny the Horse?"

...... She nods, inclining her head in the same curious puppy fashion that Johnny sometimes does. Now that she mentions it, perhaps there is a familiar equine quality to her jaw-line.

...... "I didn't even know Johnny had a daughter."

...... "He likes to keep it quiet."

...... "Johnny the Dark Horse, eh? What's he up to these days? Still flogging dodgy motors for a living?"

...... "He's gone missing."

...... "Missing? how do you mean?"

...... "I mean he left for work last Wednesday and hasn't been seen since."

...... The last quarter pint slips down in a single gulp. I raise the forefinger on my right hand and signal Mehmet for a refill. My old mate, Johnny, on the run. It's about time my luck changed.

...... Let me put this into perspective: ordinarily a chancer like Johnny going missing would register on a similar scale as a masked man toe-ending a cockroach over the edge of a balcony. It'd be like the case of the stamped-on dung beetle, or the mystery of the poisoned mosquito -- not the kind of conundrum worth getting off your barstool to investigate.

...... But this isn't an ordinary situation. Just because I sit in The Three Feathers all day doesn't mean I don't get to know what's happening in the world beyond. The barroom telly told me about last Wednesday's jewellery shop smash and grab in St. Martin's Square; a gang of stocking-faced heavies, a shitload of stolen goodies, and one 19 year old shop assistant with a bullet-wound in his right shoulder. Thanks to Larry the bookie, a lunchtime regular, I know for a fact that only yesterday the elusive Johnny was out and about attempting to fence a couple of too-good-to-be-true necklaces. I also happen to know - through perusing the evening paper over a teatime pint - that there's a £5000 reward on offer for information leading to the recovery of the above-mentioned jewels.

...... "How old are you?"

...... "Seventeen."

...... "You look about fifteen."

...... "I wouldn't be driving my own car if I was fifteen, would I?"

...... "Fair enough. What's your name?

...... "Tina."

...... I'm sitting in the passenger seat in Tina's whining Mini Metro. She's driving me to her dad's lockup. My own car is out of commission, getting its brakes overhauled in a garage over in St. Martins Street. I'm coming to the conclusion, or rather the conclusion is coming head-on to meet me, that there's something not quite right about Tina. Too wound-up, too intense especially for a 17 year old. Those eyes clicking from off to on without so much as a moment's notice. Back in the pub, I was the one who got the laser treatment. Now she's dishing it out to any driver or pedestrian who gets in her way. If looks could slit throats, we'd have been in the record books after the first half-mile.

...... "Tell me something, Tina."

...... "What?"

...... "Do you always drive like this?"

...... "Only when I'm not in a hurry."

...... "That's a joke, is it?"

...... She's got a wicked grin too. "What's up, Malloy scared?" And she snorts when she laughs. I wonder what Johnny's been feeding her on. Come to think of it, she doesn't seem too upset by the disappearance of her old dad. Not exactly the grieving daughter.

...... "When was the last time you saw Johnny?"

...... "I've told you that already, last Wednesday morning."

...... "Where?"

...... "At home."

...... "Did he say anything?"

...... "He said he'd see me later."

...... "Anything else."

...... "Nothing special."

...... "What time was that?

...... "About eight o'clock."

...... "Is he still driving that old red Mercedes?"

...... "Yeah."

...... "What's the registration number?"

...... "Don't know."

...... "Where was he going?"

...... "To his lockup."

...... She swings the screaming Metro into Blackfriar's Lane, cutting in front of a motorcyclist, barging him up onto the pavement. The motorcyclist; tall and wiry, eyes bulging; gives chase and catches up with us at the next set of lights. Getting off his bike, he pulls up the visor on his helmet, and bangs on Tina's window. I tell her not to open it. She ignores me, winds the window down, and crunches a straight right arm jab into the poor bloke's face. It's only as she withdraws her hand from inside the helmet that I notice her fingers are locked in a v-shape. The lights change. We howl away through the gears, leaving the motorcyclist lying on the road clutching his face.

...... "You could have poked that poor bastard's eyes out."

...... Tina tosses her head back and drums her fingers against the steering wheel. It seems Johnny's got himself a fruitcake for a daughter.

...... I pass the time fiddling with the heater controls, trying to get a bit of cold air into the car. "What are you expecting me to do anyway?"

...... "Find my dad."

...... "I mean how?"

...... "You're the detective."

...... "Why me in the first place?"

...... "Dad recommended you. Malloy this. Malloy that. He thinks you're good. He said you're a hard man -- a brawler -- a man who gets things done."

...... "Maybe I used to be once, but..."

...... "But what?"

...... I shrug. And try and fail to summon a self-deprecating smile. A waste of time and effort since she's not watching anyway. "Let's just say I've mellowed with age."

...... Tina emits a mirthful snort. "Pickled more like."

...... A few seconds later, she swings the Metro out into the centre of the road, widening the turning angle, and guns the car through a narrow gateway. We judder along an uneven concrete road for 50 yards or so before finally parking next to a prefabricated building with a paved yard to the rear. The sign over the padlocked door reads "J. Griggs. Secondhand Cars For Sale".

***

...... "Can I borrow one of these, just for a day or two?"

...... We're standing, Tina and I, in the yard behind the lockup, among fifteen or so of Johnny the Horse's unsold motors. Most are straight-from-the-auctions hatchbacks and family saloons. The odd one out, whose loose wing mirror I'm leaning against, is a twenty-five year old lime-green Ford Capri.

...... "Sorry?"

...... "You don't mind if I borrow the Capri for a couple of days, do you? I'll need something to run around in if I'm going to find Johnny." The truth of the matter is there's no way I'm shoehorning myself back into that bloody Metro again with psychotic little Tina at the wheel.

...... "I suppose so. The keys'll be in the office somewhere."

...... We look at each other, neither knowing quite what to say next; both, I suspect, wanting to be free of the other. A spot of rain splats on my forehead. Scanning the grey clouds, I sink my hands a bit deeper in my trouser pockets. "Aye, well. Better be getting on, I suppose."

...... "Hey, Malloy."

...... "What?"

...... "How come you haven't asked about money?"

...... "What money?"

...... "Your fee, stupid how much I'm going to pay you."

...... She's got a point. A little negligent of me. I almost forgot that Tina doesn't realise I know her old man's been fencing jewels with a £5000 reward tag on them. I wonder how much she does know about Johnny's extra-curricular activities. I somehow doubt she's naïve enough to believe that he makes all his money selling second-hand motors.

...... "Don't worry about it. Your dad's an old mate of mine. We can square things up later."

...... "Suit yourself."

...... We walk back into the office. Tina scoops the Metro's keys up from the top of a filing cabinet. "I'm off now. Lock the place up when you've finished." She writes down a number on a fluorescent yellow notepad. "That's my mobile. Call me if you find something."

***

...... It wasn't always like this; fumbling blindly through filing cabinets and desk drawers. There was a time when I knew what I was doing. Seems like a thousand years ago now, as I leaf among second-hand car log books and MOT certificates. What am I looking for? What's the point?

...... Heaving a toolbox off one of the bookshelves, I come across a three-quarter full bottle of whisky. Good old Johnny. I take a swig. And another for good luck. Something tells me I'm going to need it.

...... It's a poky office. Just the kind of lair you'd associate with a skunk like Johnny; cobwebs and tobacco stains on the ceiling, and pornographic calendars on the walls. The two filing cabinets give up nothing but car documents, receipt books, insurance claim forms, and customer name and address lists.

...... Emptying the contents of the desk drawer on top of the desk turns up the keys to all the cars in the yard and an unopened packet of extra strong mints. Separating the Capri's keys from the rest, I slip them, and the mints and whisky, into my greatcoat pockets. (First rule of being a detective - big pockets.) There's probably some item among all this paperwork that means something, some clue that would lead me to Johnny and the reward money. Then again, there probably isn't. To tell the truth, I'm not in the mood. Back in the old days, I used to operate on hunches. I used to solve crimes on a whim. The only thinking I ever did was with my fists. I'll tell you something else - nobody ever out-thought me. Perhaps it wasn't quite like that. Who knows who knows anything anymore?

...... A hunch would be good. Haven't had one of those in years, except in the shoulders. A tot of whisky wouldn't hurt either. I take the bottle out of my pocket and slam another shot down my throat. And then suddenly, I notice it

...... The picture. Stuck to the wall with bits of masking tape, half-hidden by a stack of telephone directories. Five inches by six inches; Johnny, shirtless and looking like a beer-bellied Ghandi, posing with his family. The whole troupe of them, sitting together on a picnic blanket, arms around one another, grinning like monkeys.

...... I rip the picture off the wall and flip it round. A couple of scribbled lines identify the place as Yarmouth beach, and the date as June 1989. Still no hunch. But at least I'm feeling warmer now.

...... Slipping the picture in another of my coat pockets, I duck down below the window as a pick-up truck, wipers flapping side to side across its windscreen, enters the gateway and lollops like a fat old goose up the potholed driveway. A door slams. I peep through a chink in the blinds at a gangly man in overalls with untidy grey hair and sleep in his eyes.

They call him Blinky after a nervous disposition he suffers from. I don't know his real name. I've heard he runs a one-man scrapyard and secondhand car parts business over by the Eastfield Estate. An ally of Johnny's, they help each other out from time to time.

...... He fiddles with a key in the already unlocked door, eventually sussing he doesn't need the key, and blunders on into the office. I, meantime, conceal myself as best I can in the corner behind the open door. Blinky heads directly for the two filing cabinet on the far side of the room, searching where I myself searched a few minutes ago. He finds the same hand-written address lists I found, except that he takes them out and closes the filing cabinet door. The whole scene lasts less than a minute. Head down, address lists tucked under his arm, a leer of success across his almost lipless mouth, he makes for the doorway.

...... "All right, Blinky?"

...... The leer turns to mush. "Malloy, what are you doing here?"

...... "You know me, then?"

...... "Heard of you."

...... "How's Johnny?"

...... "Johnny who?"

...... "Johnny Griggs. Johnny the Horse. Johnny your cohort. Johnny whose office this is. Johnny whose bidding you are doing, picking up punters addresses, because he's too afraid to come and get them himself. Johnny whose current whereabouts you're going to reveal to me."

...... Looking at him now, it's easy to see how poor old Blinky got his nickname. The only difficulty is in fathoming how a human eyelid is able to move so fast. "F-Fuck off, Malloy."

...... He tries to push past me. No chance. Weakness of resolve is written into the line of his mouth. It'd be there to read in his eyes too, if he'd keep the buggers still for a second. We're about the same height, Blinky and I, but that's where the similarity ends. He's lanky and stooped and full of shit while I'm beginning to feel like the same roaring bull of a man I ever was. Getting in close, I feint with my left shoulder and sink my right fist into his guts, half as a warning for him not to try anything and half for my own sake to see if the old magic's still there.

...... The follow-up with my boot into his teeth is perhaps a little gratuitous. As for the one in the balls that comes next that's just me starting to enjoy myself.

***

Caught in the thick of one of those malevolent storms in which the rain comes down as if wanting to hurt you, I head towards Johnny's hidey-hole. Only one of the Capri's wipers is working naturally enough, on the passenger side. And, of course, the sunroof is leaking as Capri sunroofs always have and seemingly always will. So what? Let it rain. Let the sunroof leak. I'm back.

...... Malloy, the roaring bull, has returned. Letting his fists do the talking, out-philosophising your man Blinky with the old one-two of force and reason. Didn't take long - a few shards of teeth, a mouthful or two of blood and lies, before he got round to spitting out the address I was after: 92 Airedale Road. Guess what? I'm even working on a hunch.

...... I've always liked Capris. Back in the late seventies, I used to own one of those big old 3 litre Mark Ones. Cost a small fortune in petrol and repair bills. I remember it had a vinyl rollup sunroof in which water would collect in great puddles and then wait for the most inopportune moment before spilling into the interior of the car -- usually in the passenger's lap. I'm setting off on a recollection of how one particular drenching probably cost me my first marriage, when the lights on the hill leading to the town bridge switch to red. Stopping and wrenching up the handbrake, I catch a glimpse of something familiar in the offside wing mirror. About six cars back, halfway round a corner. A psychotic-looking sunburst red Mini Metro. Why am I not surprised?

...... Tina manages to stick to my tail for the next ten minutes or so. Not exactly a difficult feat as we crawl along at about two miles an hour over the bridge and through two more sets of lights. After which I swing into Market Street, and take a sharp left and right, coming back onto the main road about six cars behind the Metro. I watch her neck vainly straining out of the side window, looking for a lime green Capri that isn't there anymore. Who says Malloy isn't th man he used to be?

...... Hopelessly lost, she turns off into North Street; probably to backtrack. Meantime, the rain keeps on coming. And so do I.

Airedale Road is a dead end residential street, backing onto open fields. The kind of place in which a fencer of bloodstained jewellery could quite comfortably lie low for a while.

...... I park the Capri in front of number 92. No sign of Johnny's Mercedes. He's probably hidden it away in a rented garage. Ringing the bell or knocking on the door would be too easy. It would also give the bugger a chance to climb out a back window and make a run for it across the fields. And we're both too old and long in the tooth for that kind of bollocks.

...... Pushing a pane of glass through with my elbow, I reach in with my hand and slip the door-latch. The first thing I'm struck by in the kitchen is an aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. The second is a bony fist that reaches out of the shadows and slaps into the side of my chin.

...... "Ow! That tickled."

...... "Hello, Malloy." Same old Johnny sly as a stoat, weak as a kitten.

...... "Johnny, mate. I was hoping I'd find you."

...... He rubs his knuckles ruefully. "Want a cup of coffee?"

"Go on, then."

...... "You didn't hurt Blinky, did you?"

...... "Depends what you mean by hurt."

...... "What exactly did you do to him?"

...... "If you mean did I offend his feelings no, I was very polite."

...... "I remember what you used to be like, Molloy."

...... "If you're enquiring, on the other hand, whether I kicked seven shades of shit out of the scrawny old sod then, yes, I did."

...... Johnny sips his coffee, and shakes his head. "You're a bloody animal sometimes." We're sitting on the floor in a sparsely-furnished living room. There are no chairs, just a mattress with a folded sleeping bag on top leaning against one of the walls. The only other item of furniture is a large flat-screened TV in a corner away from the window.

"You didn't have to do that. He's a good bloke, old Blinky. Wouldn't hurt a fly. He was just helping me out."

...... "Perhaps I did get a little carried away but I was hired to find you."

...... "Who by?"

...... "We'll come to that in a minute. First I want know what you're doing running around with a gang of armed thieves. Not your usual style."

...... "You've got it wrong, Molloy. The telly and newspapers got it wrong too."

...... "Got what wrong?"

...... "There's no gang."

...... "What are you saying? Those diamond rings and necklaces didn't shoot the spotty-faced shop assistant on their own, did they?"

...... He gets up, swirling the coffee round in his mug. "How about a drop of brandy or is it too late in the day?"

...... I stand up and give the bugger one of my winks. "You know me, Johnny-boy. Never too early, and never too late. And make it more than a drop while you're at it."

...... I notice there's something slightly effeminate about the way he sidles off into the kitchen and returns a few seconds later with a bottle of five star Napoleon Brandy. He pops the stopper out and hands the bottle to me. "You'd better pour your own." Which I do, to the tune of refilling to the brim my half-empty mug.

...... Positioning himself by the window, staring out at the night and the pissing rain, Johnny takes the bottle from me and pours a tot of brandy into his own mug. He gives it another swirl. His mood seems on the pensive side, as well it should with a £5000 tag on his head and a mercenary old bruiser called Malloy standing over him. "I've forgotten what I was talking about."

...... A likely story. I remind him anyway. "The jewellery job. We - the newspapers, the telly, the cops and me - all got it wrong apparently. The jewels weren't stolen, they went for a stroll round the block. And the shop assistant got careless with a ketchup bottle."

...... "Shut up, Malloy."

...... "So how about telling me what really happened.?"

...... "There wasn't a gang. There were just two of us." He sips his coffee, and wrinkles his nose as if in disgust, though at what I can't be sure. "And only one of us had a gun."

...... "Is that right?"

...... "Yeh."

...... "Let me guess. You were just the driver. You're partner did all the talking and shooting."

...... He shrugs. "Believe what you like, Malloy."

...... "I'll tell you what I do believe, Johnny, my old mate. I believe my own eyes."

'Jesus, where'd you find that?"

...... "In your lock-up, stuck to the wall."

...... "I'd forgotten all about it." He's talking about the Yarmouth beach holiday snap, which I've just pulled from my greatcoat pocket.

...... The rain, meantime, continues ratatating against the window chiselling away at my already frayed nerves.

...... We stand now, Johnny and I, on opposite sides of the room like a pair of bashful lovers letting our eyes, and the rain, and the awkwardness of the situation do the speaking for us. Which is all very well, but I'm supposed to be a detective and I need some cold hard answers.

...... "I heard you got divorced. That's right, isn't it?"

...... He nods.

...... "How many kids?"

...... "Three."

...... "See much of them?"

...... "Not much. They all buggered off to Australia with their mum."

...... "Names?"

...... "Huh?"

...... "What are your kids" names?"

...... "Nick, Andrew and Simon."

...... "No daughters, then?"

...... "What?"

...... "Have you got a daughter?"

...... "N-no." Something is dawning at the back of Johnny's eyes; the same thing that has already seen the light of day in mine -- something petite and laser-eyed and curry-breathed. "What are you on about, Malloy?"

...... "I was just wondering who it was that hired me to find you."

...... "That's what I'd like to know too."

...... "She said she was your daughter. Five foot five. Slim build. Curly, shoulder-length, blonde hair. Full lips. Eyes like the inside of a welding torch. Drives a 1995 sunburst red Mini Metro. Sound familiar? Oh, yes, I almost forgot, she calls herself"

...... "Ah, Jesus."

***

...... Tina has joined us in the living room of 92 Airedale Road, replete with wraparound sunglasses, a sneer sharp enough to slice through a side of beef, and a revolver whose barrel is almost bigger than she is. She stands just inside the doorway, pointing the gun in Johnny's general direction.

...... "Hello, Johnny."

...... "Tina I was just going to"

...... "What? Run to another hideout; is that what you were just going to do, Johnny?"

...... "No I-I" Poor Johnny, who's made a living out of telling lies, seems to have finally run out. "I-I"

...... "As for you, Malloy" Tina turns the gun on me. Her face, sunglasses and all, a hundred years older and crueller than when she entered my life through a pub door earlier this afternoon.

...... I put my hands up without having to be asked. "Me. What have I done?"

...... "Exactly what I'd expect of a tame ape in a trenchcoat. You've led me straight to my double-crossing partner."

...... I suppose she must have followed me, after all. That right turn up Vine Street was probably just a decoy to get back behind me again. Damn it. I used to be better than this. I used to be good. Nothing to do for the time being but slap on a false smile and wait and hope. "Glad to have been of help."

...... The gun moves away from me and points back at Johnny for a second or two, before coming to rest somewhere between the two of us.

...... Tina is loving this. The pent-up energy in her body, almost wetting herself; holding Johnny and me at gunpoint: she's like a little girl getting all her Christmas presents at once. "Look at you pair of trembling old farts." She almost spits the words in our faces. "Clinging like drowning men to the lifebelt of your youth. Allow me to enlighten the pair of you. You're pathetic. The reason you're no good now is because you never were any good. You want to know why I shot that snotnose in the jeweller's, Johnny? Not because I had to, or he tried to jump me, or anything like that, but because I had a gun and he didn't and because it made me feel alive. You probably wouldn't understand that, would you? Me; a 17 year old girl ­ more alive, and with more balls, than you two shrivelled old codgers put together."

...... The triumphant edge to Tina's voice is accompanied by a straightening of the shoulders and a slight lowering of the gun to knee level.

...... Now's the time to stop thinking and start acting. Now's the time, I tell myself. NOW! I rush her, leaping as high as I can, keeping my upper body above the level of the revolver's barrel.

...... Tina's reaction is a neat sidestep, leaving me to sprawl through the doorway and come down chin-first on the kitchen floor behind her.

...... "Too slow, Malloy. Next time, why don't you send me a telegram."

...... "Ah, Christ, I think I've broken my jaw."

...... A sound like tiny jangling bells, which I first assume to be inside my head and then the doorbell, turns out instead to be Tina laughing at me.

...... The gun is -- shit -- I can't even see the gun anymore. It must be somewhere around -- perhaps on the floor.

...... The tingling laughter is interrupted by a thud as Johnny succeeds in achieving what I failed to do, and he and Tina come crashing through the doorway and land on top of me.

...... What comes next, with the revolverless Tina sandwiched between Johnny and me, isn't pretty or brave or even especially clever or fair. Let's just say that we; the shrivelled old codgers; finish up feeling more alive than Tina by the end of it all.

***

'Will you have another pint, Johnny?"

...... "My turn this time, Malloy. I insist." He hails Mehmet with a rolled-up £20 note, to which Mehmet dutifully trots across like dog to a bone. "Same again for the big fella and me, and one for yourself while you're at it."

...... We've got the reward; £2500 each. In truth, it's all mine as Johnny's role in committing the crime -- even though he was freed for giving evidence against Tina -- rendered him ineligible to make a claim. In fairness, however, I feel morally obliged to split the money with him. After all, the old sod did save my life.

...... He passes me my pint. I give him a spontaneous pat on the shoulder. It's that kind of night.

...... "Ah, what's that for?"

...... "You did well yesterday, Johnny, jumping her like that. Like a gazelle you were."

...... "A gazelle, was I? Well, Malloy. Let me tell you something. You weren't so bad yourself; knocking that pistol of her hand with your bare chin."

...... "Is that what I did?"

...... Johnny places his lying hand over his cheating heart. "Bravest thing I ever saw."

...... We drink our pints, and retell our stories. And the night goes on. And the rain comes down.

Copyright (c) 2002 by David Cox.


David Cox is a teacher from Stamford, Lincolnshire in the UK, who does a bit of freelance journalism and short story writing on the side.

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