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Walking After Midnight
A Cal Innes Story

by Ray Banks


....."I never see you," she says.

.....She's shifting her weight from one foot to the other, looking at me with flashing eyes. Her lips are pursed and stained from the wine.

.....It's one of those nights when I can't do anything right. I'd say she was pre-menstrual, but that'd lead to me carrying my balls around in a paper sack. Donna gets like this, and I can't think of a single way to calm her down.

....."You knew this when you met me," I say. It's weak, I know.

....."So?" she says.

....."So you know what I do for a living," I say.

....."Yeah, right." She snorts and downs the rest of her wine, reaching for the bottle.

....."What's that supposed to mean?"

....."Nothing."

.....She shimmies a little on her way to the sofa, sits primly, and looks at me over the rim of her glass. Her eyes have that drunken sheen to them, even though I know she's only half-cocked.

.....We're sitting there in silence, so I stare at her legs. She catches me and pulls her skirt down over her knees, glares.

....."We're supposed to talk about this."

....."What's to talk about, Donna?"

....."This, us. I have a bad day and I've got no one to talk to about it. We never see each other; we don't talk. It's not what I'd call a relationship, Cal."

....."What happened at work?" I ask.

.....She waves her hand at me and pulls a sour face. "It's too late now. I've moved on."

.....And that's the sound of a door closing. I won't find out what's happened, whatever's pissed her off. She'll sit there fuming. So I stand and grab my coat.

....."Where you going?"

....."I have work to do."

.....Her upper lip curls, and she takes another drink. "Who you stalking now?"

....."It's not stalking."

....."Don't fool yourself, Cal. You're a fuckin' peeper."

....."I don't want to talk about this, Donna."

.....I pull my jacket on, struggle getting my arm in the sleeve and try not to look at her.

....."Who is it?" she says.

....."You don't know him."

....."Tell me anyway."

....."It doesn't matter," I say, and turn for the door.

.....That's when she pitches her glass at me. It smashes into the doorframe and I blink furiously. I lick wine from the back of my hand.

....."Careful, Donna. That could've hit me."

.....I hear her shift on the sofa behind me as I open the door and head down the stairs.

****

.....I was coming off the back of a stinking hangover when he knocked on my office door. I didn't hear him at first; my head throbbing so hard my ears were ringing. But he kept tapping politely until I got the point.

.....When I opened up, there was a little Asian guy, a grin tucked into a gold embroidered waistcoat. He grabbed my hand just as soon as he saw me and pumped it hard, his fingers gripped tight against my clammy skin.

....."Mr Innes?"

....."Mm," I said. My throat felt too sticky to speak.

....."May I come in?"

.....I nodded and made my way round to the window. I'd managed to crack it open a little. A chill breeze was the only thing that stood between me and a nap.

....."Are you feeling okay?"

.....I nodded, slumped into my chair and my gut flipped. "I'm okay."

....."You look pale."

....."Sorry, I didn't catch your name," I said.

.....He flashed me a grin. "Choudrey."

....."What can I do for you, Mr Choudrey?"

.....He looked around my office. He took it as an extension of me, I suppose. "I have a friend. He has a problem."

....."So why isn't your friend telling me all this?" I said.

.....Choudrey bristled, that grin wavering for a second. "He is well-respected, Mr Innes."

....."And he doesn't want to be seen round here."

....."He is extremely busy. He doesn't have time to take care of this himself."

.....I tapped the top of my desk. "You're not telling me much, Mr Choudrey."

.....Choudrey watched my finger. I stopped tapping.

....."I'd heard you were discreet," he said, a little Manc slipping into that pitch-perfect accent of his.

.....If discreet meant nobody wanted to give me a job, then that was pretty much spot on. More than likely, though, he'd heard that I was cheap. That's the overriding factor in most cases.

.....I got the feeling I was close to losing this job. And I needed it, no matter how badly it paid.

....."What sort of problem?" I said.

.....Choudrey took a deep breath while he thought of what to say, then: "My friend, he has a daughter. She's something of a wild child, Mr Innes. She has friends who are not suitable."

....."I don't do muscle work, Mr Choudrey."

....."All he wants you to do is follow his daughter. My friend is a very proud man and he has a reputation to keep up. The man his daughter is seeing does not fit with his image."

....."Then that's his problem."

....."Precisely. And he would like you to solve it."

****

.....Precisely. And that's why I'm here, my head still spinning from my spat with Donna. Choudrey gave me the girl's address and a photo cribbed from his mate. I haven't seen her in the flesh yet, but if this picture is anything to go by, the father has every reason to be worried. She looks like Bollywood jailbait. The twinkle in her eye says she's seen far more than she should have at her age. And she'll see a lot more before the wrinkles start to show.

.....I gaze out my car window at her house, a nondescript terrace that looks like it might be student digs. In the front window of the downstairs, there's a flag hanging from the curtain rail. The inside is probably cluttered with candles and movie posters, all with Blue in the title.

.....It's a little after nine o'clock when a soft top Mazda pulls up. I can hear loud trance playing from inside the car, so I'm guessing the Asian guy with half a beard is Gina's driver for the night. Sure enough, he honks the horn and her front door opens, Gina scrape-clicking up the path in high heels. Gabbing on a mobile phone, she raises a hand to wave at the Mazda driver. She looks a lot older than her picture, closer to thirty.

.....Gina gets into the Mazda and the car pulls away. I give it a few moments before starting the engine. From what Choudrey's told me, they'll be heading into town to see her big bad boyfriend. I don't need to hurry, but I do need to keep them in sight.

.....Trying to tail a car in this heap isn't easy, especially when the driver of the Mazda has a boy racer mentality. He revs up at lights, shoots across roundabouts, nearly takes his wing mirrors off squeezing down roads that don't want him. I'm about to give up when he pulls into a multi-storey car park. I carry on up the street and pull over, watch in the rear view.

.....They're in the car park about twenty minutes by my watch. I hear Gina's heels before I see them. The driver's holding onto her arm to stop her from keeling over. She's giggling a little. I get the feeling she's stoned.

.....When they're just about out of sight, I get out of the car and follow them. I know where they're going. Ballantines. A club for those media execs who were at the second summer of love, a pretty high-class place for those who want to knock back guarana alcopops and go at it like knives. It's exclusive. I know that because no matter what I do, the monkeys on the front door don't let me in.

....."I'm on the list," I say.

.....The bigger one with the military moustache looks down his nose at me. One bushy eyebrow slowly rises. "Take it elsewhere," he says.

....."Look on the list. I'm definitely on there."

.....The smaller one leans over to me, almost nose-to-nose. His breath smells like oxtail soup. "Fuck. Off."

.....So I do. Walking across the road, I nearly smack into a drunk guy dressed in a polo shirt with half his dinner splashed down the front. A woman is trying to support him, but she's not strong enough. Looks like they're heading for a cab rank.

.....I check my watch. It's ten. The night is still young.

****

.....I spend three hours smoking cigarettes and trying not to stray too far from the club. From Canal Street, I hear Patsy Cline wailing about her search for long lost love, thumping with the bass coming from Ballantines. That's the great thing about the Manchester nightlife. Banging drum and bass mixes with heartfelt country. And normally I'd appreciate it, but right now the whole thing's battering my head.

.....I'm busy trying to keep my mind on the job. It's difficult. I'll be weighing up the situation and Donna'll swim in there, tell me I'm nothing but a sleaze.

.....You call this going straight, Cal? You're a gnat's dick away from running errands for Uncle Morris.

.....I dump a smoking filter; grind it out with my shoe. I take a deep breath that plumes out of me when I exhale. My stomach feels empty, knotted.

.....She's right. All this, there's no reason for it. I get paid to stalk people and report back to a bunch of lazy voyeurs who have nothing better to do. I could be earning a decent living instead of playing detective.

.....I look across at Ballantines. The bouncers have their hands full with a small crowd of guys who look like they're on a stag night. There's no way they're getting in, but some people are difficult to persuade. The smaller bouncer digs his heels in and pushes against the wave of beered-up Hilfiger shirts. They stutter back a little, a wave of drunken indignation polluting the air.

.....Up the road, I can hear the screams of two women playing Prisoner Cell Block H. I move out of the shadows a little to watch. There's nothing more nasty than a cat fight, fur flying and nails digging into scalps. Two more Hilfigers are standing on the corner, pissed out of their brains. They know it's not worth trying to break them up, not if they want to keep their eyes. It'd be like trying to stop a car crash.

.....One of the women snaps a heel and jerks to one side. Her boyfriend makes a move to stop her, but she's already sprawled on the ground, screeching curses, spit flying out of her mouth. The fight's officially broken up and, from the sounds of it, the stag party is already on its way to another club.

.....Yeah, I could earn a decent living, spend five days going brain dead in an office, then get pissed up on a Saturday night. Civilisation in action.

.....I'm about to light up again when I see Gina.

.....Something's wrong. She barrels past the bouncers and skids down the steps, her ankle buckling. Grabbing at air, her bag falls out of her grip and her mobile phone goes skittering across the road. She's on her knees in front of the club, looks like she's drunk, but it could be something else. She pushes her hair out of her eyes and sniffs. Then she gets to her feet, unsteady, and walks towards her phone.

.....I stay where I am. My brief is to watch and report what happens. I'm not supposed to get involved.

.....She picks up her phone and checks it for damage. The way she's staring at it, I know she's taken something. Her shoulders hunched, that concentrated frown; she's oblivious to the bass beats that make the ground quiver. She chews her lip, breathing heavily. Then she looks up and the light catches a bruise on her face.

.....What she's taken is a beating.

.....The Mazda driver steps into the doorway. He stops, looks over the street, has a word with the bigger bouncer. Gina disappears into a crowd of Gap khakis for a second, then emerges near me. She runs a hand over her face, smears her mascara. It looks like she's been crying.

.....The Mazda driver sees her. He jogs down the steps and pushes past a large woman wearing a boob tube. She ripples her fat and snarls at him. He shrugs her off and ducks through.

.....Gina looks up and down the street, tries to get her bearings. I get this urge to shout out to her, but then what's that going to look like? Another pisshead yelling in the street.

.....Coward.

.....The driver grabs Gina's arm and she flinches, twists round. He says something to her I can't make out, starts pulling her back towards the club. She digs her heels in, leans back. Then she slaps him hard in the face and spits at him, pulls away. If I didn't know better, I'd say it looks like a drunk couple fighting. Nothing really to worry about.

.....Except I do know better.

.....Coward. You want to play detective, you're going to have to get your hands dirty. And maybe take a kicking for it.

.....The driver's shorter than me, a little flabby round the midriff. I think I could take him if I had to. And before I know it my legs are working, I'm striding towards them. The driver recoils from Gina, who's giving it her best.

.....Then he grabs her flailing wrist and smacks her hard across the face.

.....My patience bolts for the door.

.....I push past a couple of Hilfigers and slam the heel of my hand in the side of the driver's face. It's a stupid move, but he wasn't expecting it. He stumbles off to the side, eyes wide, lets go of Gina. She crumples, holds her face.

.....The driver stands looking at me. He's not hurt, but he feels stupid. "Fuck are you?"

....."None of your business," I say.

.....He makes a move towards Gina. I step in front of her.

....."This is nowt to do with you, mate."

....."It's everything to do with me, mate," I say. Proper tough bollocks now, getting psyched up at the thought. And this guy's got a rattle in his throat that means he wants to rip me up.

.....His left foot scuffs the ground. He makes out like he's going to jump at me. The weight on him, he's not going to get far.

....."Take a step back, mate. She's coming with me."

.....The driver's lips flicker apart and he shakes his head. "You're fuckin' kidding."

.....Gina stares at me through tears. I might be lying, but I'm a sure thing compared to the Mazda driver.

....."Gina, get in the fuckin' club," the driver says.

....."Gina, stay here."

....."Gina, I'm fuckin' warning you."

....."Gina, you don't have to go anywhere."

.....She looks like her head's battered; she doesn't know what to do. So she does the right thing and doesn't move. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. My main focus is this driver. He's looking from me to her, then back. If he's got any common sense, he'll step down.

....."Gina--"

....."Fuck off, Jamesy."

.....He makes a move, but I see him coming. I cover her, grab him round the neck and we go flailing to the ground. Something hits me hard in the chest. I can hear a drunken roar from up the way as the breath splutters out of me. This Jamesy bloke fights like he drives. He's a reckless bastard and he's not going to stop until one of us is down for good.

.....He digs in, flips me across the concrete and I land on one knee, hear a dull crack and feel a shooting pain straight through my leg. I fall onto my side, resist the urge to curl.

.....There's the low buzz of people starting to gather, my heart thumping in my ears. I open my eyes, blink back water. Across the road, Jamesy's on his hands and knees looking like a cat with a hairball. I wipe my nose with the back of my hand. The blood on my knuckles looks black in the streetlight. Pulling myself to my feet, the leg gives way for a second and I'm about to go face first into the concrete again before I right myself.

....."C'mon," I say, hand out to Gina.

.....She just stands there. Doped up, smacked up, confused. Trying to work it all out, but her mind's moving too slow to comprehend.

....."Gina, for Christ's sake. Your dad hired me to find you and take you home."

.....She shakes her head slowly, cheeks wet with tears. Jamesy snorts and gobs at the pavement. He lets out a low growl, something clicking in his throat.

....."My car's just up the way. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." All these drunks and suddenly I turn into a pub landlord. "Look, I'll drop you off anywhere you want."

....."Who are you?"

....."Cal Innes," I say. Then, because I can and even though I don't feel like it right now: "I'm a private detective."

.....And she smiles a little.

****

.....The night streams into a grey dawn as I drive her home. Morrissey's telling us to Hang The DJ while Gina gazes out of the passenger window. She doesn't want to see her father. They haven't talked in a while, about three years.

....."He's traditional," she says.

....."Some dads are like that."

....."He had me arranged, did you know that?"

.....I keep my eyes on the road. "No."

....."You've never met him, have you?"

....."No. A friend of his came to see me on his behalf."

....."Little guy? Looks like a mini Omar Sharif?"

....."Choudrey, yeah," I say.

....."My husband-to-be." She bites her fingernail, blinks a few times.

....."I see."

.....The Smiths becomes the radio, some dance station she picks but seems oblivious to once it starts playing. Her hand keeps straying over the bruise on her cheek and I notice she's shivering. I'd give her my jacket, but I don't want us to crash. Besides, it's not far now.

....."What are you going to do?" I ask.

....."About what?"

....."About your boyfriend."

....."I don't know. He's got a temper."

....."That much I know."

.....She looks at me. "Jamesy's not my boyfriend, Mr Innes. Rhys was too busy on the decks to come after me himself." She smiles. "Jamesy. Christ, I have taste, y'know."

....."Yeah, I can see that."

.....She glares at me for a second, then looks out of the window again. "I bet you got the perfect fuckin' relationship, haven't you? All little wife at home and roast beef on Sundays. Me and Rhys, it's not good, but it's alright for right now, d'you get me?"

....."I get you."

....."What do you care, anyway?" She looks like she wants to spit. "You kept an eye on me, you can tell Dad exactly what happened. Then you can both feel superior as you like."

.....I nod, despite myself. We're pulling into her street and a slow drizzle is misting up the windscreen. Up ahead, a Mazda is parked outside her house. She sees it when I do, and her eyes become dead in her skull.

....."Just let me out here."

....."We can go somewhere else, y'know. You have any friends who can help?"

....."It's nobody's else's business," she says, and gets out of the car before I can stop her.

.....Gina struts across the road, suddenly in control. As she reaches her front door, a skinny white guy with a shaved head gets out of the Mazda.

.....This must be the DJ boyfriend. This must be Rhys. He's got the look of someone who mourns the Hacienda's closure, not because of the music but because he had too many deals going on. Ecstasy'll give you worse mood swings than puberty, but that's no excuse for what he's been up to.

..... She stops. He's saying something to her, but I can't make it out. She looks at the ground and shakes her head.

.....Rhys keeps talking; she keeps listening. The control starts seeping out of her.

.....I want her to hit him. I want her to lash out suddenly and stick one manicured thumb into his eye socket. Grind it deep until he's screaming on his knees. Make him screech out apologies and beat the ground until she's satisfied. But I know she won't. I can see that just as the tears start running silently down her face and his arms snake around her waist. She lets her head fall against his shoulder as Jamesy watches my car from the Mazda.

.....He's itching for me to get out, play the white knight. The look on his face tells me he's got another couple of beatings left in him.

.....I light an Embassy and pull away, turning off the radio and letting early morning silence do the talking.

****

.....As I hobble up the stairs to Donna's flat, I pull my jacket tighter against the cold. I've got this grimy feeling and I'm sure I smell like booze even though I've sniffed myself and I'm clean. A sober hangover and the film of a drunken night out without the fun of drinking. Footsteps muffled by neutral carpet, that whisper sound you get only in the more upmarket blocks. When I first met Donna, I didn't realise she had money. Now it's not an open issue, but it bothers me sometimes. They say women need to be provided for.

.....That fight we had, it's usual but not serious. It feels serious sometimes, but it's not. Things just come to a head, and I know to leave the room.

.....I want another cigarette, but the communal areas are non-smoking.

.....My leg aches. My back decides to join in. When I finally get to Donna's flat, the door's open a crack and I'm thankful. I go in, close the door quietly behind me and dump my jacket on the sofa.

.....It's not good, but it's alright for right now.

.....I go into the bedroom and Donna's splayed across the bed, fast asleep. The duvet's bunched up in her fist. Hair in a mess, make-up smeared across her face, that smell of perfume in the air that'll always remind me of her even when this is over and done with. On the bedside table, there's a glass of stale wine. I drain it and my stomach growls.

.....She's still the most beautiful thing in my life.

.....I lay on the bed next to her, and she groans softly, an arm sliding back to pat my shoulder. I kiss her hand and settle my head on the pillow. Get lost in the smell of her and the warmth of the bed. I'm forgiven for now.

.....I'll deal with Choudrey tomorrow, but I'll make sure he hands over the cash first.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Ray Banks.



"Walking After Midnight" is Ray Banks' first appearance in Thrilling Detective. Previous Cal Innes stories have appeared in Handheld Crime and Hardluck Stories, with two more appearing in Shred Of Evidence and Plots With Guns early next year. Ray can be contacted through his website.

How's that? Not as good as being born up a tree, but there you go.

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...... ."And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

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