Time and Tide Wait for Norman

timeandtidewaitfornormanTime and Tide Wait for Norman by Chris Green

Good Lord! There’s Liz Boa. I haven’t seen Liz since…… Well, since she left Grace and Favour, where we both worked. That must have been, what? Ten years ago? She went off to live in Ireland. Skibareen, I believe. Strange choice, I thought but her partner was a psychologist. Or was it a ventriloquist? Anyway, something like that and he had a job over there. …… No. Wait. He was in shipping and it was a three year contract in Cork. That was it. …….. There was always something simmering beneath the surface between Liz and I. Given different circumstances, who knows what might have happened? We came close on one or two occasions and even met up after work but we held back because we were both married.

What’s Liz doing here in Newton Abbot? She has looked after herself well. She doesn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. She still looks about thirty nine. She’s moving around the platform now. She hasn’t seen me waving. She doesn’t appear to be getting on this train. Should I get off and have a word with her? I could always catch the next train to Plymouth. There are plenty of them going that way and my appointment with the publisher isn’t until eleven thirty.

Before I have chance to act on my impulse, Liz boards the train that has just pulled in on the adjacent platform. She is heading north. I am still speculating what she might be doing in these parts when I hear a familiar voice beside me.

‘Hello Phil,’ the voice says.

It takes me a while to realise that the figure in the crimson Paul Smith suit is Andy Mann. In fact, in the end, he needs to prompt me. Andy and I used to play Sunday league football together many years ago. This, of course, was before I became lazy and my girth started to broaden. And, as you do, Andy and I lost touch. What is he doing here? When I moved down here to Devon, I hadn’t expected to see anyone from back home. After all, Scarborough is three hundred miles away. First Liz and now Andy. What are the odds?

‘Hi Andy,’ I manage to say finally as he sits himself down beside me. ‘I didn’t recognise you for a minute.’

‘I haven’t changed that much, have I, Phil?’ he laughs.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. The thing is, that apart from the Paul Smith suit, Andy still looks the same as he did back then. Not a day older. Well, perhaps a day or two, but he certainly looks trim. He has obviously been eating his five a day and getting to the gym regularly. Ten a day, maybe along with a morning swim and an evening run. Or perhaps he has made a pact with the Devil.

‘No,’ I say. ‘You are looking well, Andy.’

‘Well, I do my best. None of us is getting any younger, Phil. Still working on that newspaper, are you?’

I have to think hard to bring to mind what he might be referring to. I conclude he must mean the Whitby Gazette. I was a sub-editor there for a short while. Now, that was a long time ago. Nineteen eighties, I’d say. Surely I’ve seen Andy more recently than this.

‘I’m a writer now,’ I say. ‘Short stories and novels. My pen name is Philip C. Dark. You may have come across something of mine. Time and Tide Wait for Norman, my last collection of short stories sold well. In fact, I’m just off to see my publisher now to discuss some amendments to my new novel, The Knee of the Idle.

‘Hey! A novelist. That’s fantastic, Phil,’ Andy says. ‘I’m pleased for you. You’re not on holiday down here, then?’

‘No, Andy. Shelley and I moved down earlier this year,’ I say. ‘We live in Topsham. By the river.’

‘Good Lord! That’s just up the road from me. I’m in Exeter. We’ll have to meet up for a drink. I’ve just done some business in Newton Abbot and now I’m just off to Totnes to look at a car. A vintage Apparition. From a fellow from up north, as it happens. Brent Struggler.’

‘Brent Struggler! Do you know what? Brent Struggler was the name of the guy that I bought my Marauder from. Back in Scarborough. It must be the same guy. There can’t be two car salesmen with a name like Brent Struggler.’

‘I wasn’t aware of him until I moved down south. But I’m sure you are right. Brent is definitely from those parts. I’ve spoken to him a few times now. It’s a small world Phil, isn’t it?’

‘How long have you been living down here then, Andy?’

‘I came down about seven or eight years ago. I had a trial with Exeter City.’

‘Seven or eight years ago?’

‘About that, yes. It was just coming up to the General Election. 2010, it would have been.’

I start to do the maths. Andy Mann would have been forty something at the time of the trial. I realise Exeter City are in one of the lower leagues and not able to recruit young talent so easily, but still ……

Perhaps Andy has sold his sold his soul to the Devil after all. I feel suddenly strange being in his company. I avoid his question about whether he is a character in any of my books. I imagine he is joking, but with a writer, the familiar does have a habit of slipping into the narrative now and then. I continue to make superficial conversation with Andy about the issues of the day while I try in vain to come up with a plausible explanation for the apparent slippages in reality. I can’t concentrate on anything he is saying. Words bounce around in my head and rogue thoughts float in and out. I feel light-headed. As we pull into Totnes station, I feel pleased that he is getting off the train. I offer him one of my business cards. With an old friend, it seems like the polite thing to do. He takes it, shakes me firmly by the hand and tells me he will call me. He will take me for a night out, he says, in Exeter.

……………………………………………………

I think the train may have come off the track once or twice between Totnes and Plymouth or taken an unscheduled detour because when I arrive, it is half-past three in the afternoon. Perhaps I fell asleep and have been going backwards and forwards on the same train for several hours. Time is all over the place and no-one at the station seems to be able to explain what might have happened. They just look at me as if I am mad. My brain is certainly doing somersaults, my clothes are a mess and I seem to have lost my phone. I’m not sure what to do but I don’t want to get back on a train so I start walking into the city looking for a place to have a snack and a cup of tea.

I went to Rex Cardiff’s funeral, so I know that he is dead. I listened while his close friends delivered heartfelt eulogies. I watched the pallbearers lower the wooden box into the ground. So, what is he doing here at Costa Coffee in Plymouth? Living and breathing. And by the looks of it enjoying a double espresso. I do a double take but there’s no mistaking Rex. He has looked exactly the same since the first time I met him. He has the same 1970s haircut, the same round glasses and the same brown leather bush hat. Those are probably the same pair of shiny looking skin-tight jeans from back then too. And, of course, he has the ubiquitous Sainsburys carrier bags, three of them inside one another apparently, to carry around his hip flask, his paperback books, his soldering irons and his Tom Waits album. It is Rex Cardiff’s voice, though, as he holds forth about the history of the Isle of Wight Festival, that really gives the game away. That strident articulation of flowery language that he is using to familiarise the unsuspecting stranger in Costa with one of his favourite topics. His BBC voice has the faintest trace of Scouse vowels to dampen it, the legacy of his three years at Liverpool University reading Oceanography, he once explained. Rex was the inspiration for Reuben, a character in my short story, Wolf in Cheap Clothing. I can see the stranger is feigning interest in Rex’s monologue but at the same time seems anxious to get away. I want to get away too.

Seeing Liz Boa and Andy Mann, unexpectedly, out of context and untainted by the passing of time was, to say the least, unnerving. Seeing Rex, long since dead and buried, is in all its implications, terrifying. As my tea cup crashes to the floor, I am conscious that my body is making involuntary movements. People are staring at me. How can they know what is wrong? How can they know that the man with the loud voice three tables down is supposed to be dead? His voice is echoing around the walls. The room is spinning. The floor is where the ceiling should be. I feel I am going to pass out.

I find myself on a bench on Plymouth Hoe near the imposing statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out onto the Sound. How long have I been here, staring into the beyond, I wonder? The water in the historic bay, silver against the stacked cumulostratus, seems still as if there is no tide in these parts. The ship on the horizon, moving slowly from side to side, is little more than a dab of battleship grey. There is barely a sound, save for the blackbird’s song from a nearby tree. This situation should be calming but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is very wrong. How can I dismiss the unlikely series of events leading up to this? Is there a common thread that links the sightings of Liz, Andy and Rex? And where does Brent Struggler fit in?

‘You only have yourself to blame for your …….. fragile state of mind,’ says a tall man, who appears out of nowhere. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

I don’t recognise him. Yet, at the same time, something about him is disturbingly familiar. He wears a scuzzy seersucker suit several sizes too small. He has an unsightly scar leading up to his forehead. He walks with a limp and wears an eye-patch over his left eye. Where, I wonder, can I possibly know this reprobate from?

‘You don’t appear to know who I am, do you, Phil?’ he says. ‘But, you should. Oh yes! You definitely should. You should know me very well.’

‘I have the feeling that I ought to recognise you,’ I say. ‘But, I can’t for the life of me work out where from.’

‘You should know me like a father knows a son,’ he continues. ‘I’m practically family. After all, Philip, I am your brainchild.’

‘N n n norman,’ I stammer. ‘You’re Norman? From my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman?

‘Bravo, Philip! You’ve got it at last. Norman Norman. Your very own creation. I’m like flesh and blood and that should have counted for something. But, look how you treated me. Take a good look at me, will you? You made me half-blind. You gave me a limp. You made me wear these ill-fitting clothes. You gave me these hideous features. All in the interest of a story. Not only that but your title, the one that you thought was so clever, was misleading. Time and tide didn’t wait for me, did they, Philip? You subjected me to humiliation after humiliation. You were merciless. Wouldn’t you agree that it is payback time?’

I am scared. What’s written on the page should stay on the page and not leap into the everyday. I look anxiously around me, wondering what is going to happen next. It is then that I spot the brightly coloured Wessex Theatre Company van.

It takes me a few more moments to register that this is the direction that Norman came from. Didn’t I also see the same van earlier on my way to Costa Coffee? And somewhere else too? Might it have been Newton Abbot? Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place. I only wish I had realised at the time that Liz, Andy and Rex were actors too. Surely, I should have picked up on the niggling little things about them that did not add up. The whole business appears to have all been an elaborate set-up. I think I know who is behind it. If you are ever invited to be the guest reviewer of the literary pages of the Wessex Courier, be careful what you say about other writers’ works. Some, it seems, will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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The Rhubarb of Doubt

the-rhubarbofdoubt

The Rhubarb of Doubt by Chris Green

I have nothing scheduled for the day and am just catching up on my Minecraft when Tara Vain pushes open the door to my office. I have my feet up on the desk and a blunt burning down in the ashtray. I was not expecting anyone. Since the downturn, there has been a lamentable drop in business. No-one can afford to hire a private detective any more. Custody battles are no longer pursued. Cuckolded spouses are tolerating greater degrees of infidelity. People are more readily relinquishing their identity to computer fraudsters. Things are so bad I have had to let my assistant, Brody go and have had to auction my prized Mercury GM. If things become any worse I will need to consider downsizing my premises.

The sight of a stunning babe in a summer dress and designer jewellery standing there takes me by surprise but not so much as when she comes out with her request. Not perhaps her request per se. She wants her husband found and tailed. No problem there. This is the kind of thing that Mason Edge Associates do as a bread and butter activity. The bombshell comes when she says that her husband is in Devon in England. We, of course, are based in Los Angeles.

‘This might seem like a stupid question,’ I say, ‘But why not hire a private detective in England? In Devon, perhaps. Surely they must have them over there.’

‘Because, Mr Edge, I live in New York,’ she says.

‘New York?’ I say. ‘This is LA, lady. Or didn’t you notice Sunset Strip on the way in?’

‘I liked the name,’ she says. ‘Mason Edge Associates suggests integrity.’

‘That’s good to know, Mrs …..’

‘Vain,’ she says. Tara Vain.’

‘Well, Mrs Vain. We do have a certain reputation around these parts,’ I say. ‘But I was unaware that this stretched as far as New York.’

‘I have a house in Los Angeles too, Mr Edge,’ she says, sitting herself down and adjusting the hem of her dress – upwards. ‘I mean, who doesn’t? But I no longer live there.’

I slide a leaflet across the desk. Is this to pretend that I have not noticed her long legs or might it be to get a little closer? Perhaps, it is a little of both. Maybe the gesture is unintentional. I can’t say that I’ve completely taken to Tara Vain. Well, apart from the legs. Everything seems to be a bit of a game to her. Perhaps I am missing Belinda more than I thought, at least in the physical sense. Belinda moved out to pastures new at the onset of the downturn. She was not ready for hardship.

‘This will explain my rates,’ I say.

‘No need, Mr Edge,’ says Tara Vain. ‘I’ve been on your website. This gave me the low down on the numbers. I’m sure you will do a fine job. Now, let’s get on.’

‘And the expenses will of course need to include flights,’ I say. ‘I assume they do have airports in Devon, England.’

‘Very droll, Mr Edge,’ she says. ‘I’ve booked all your flights and hired a car for you. I’ve even found you a comfortable hotel in Exeter.

‘Exeter. Yes, I do believe I’ve heard of Exeter,’ I say. ‘In the south-west, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a little way from London, yes, but I’m sure you’ll manage to find your way around. And they even have electricity there these days.’

‘And you believe this is where your husband is?’

‘Somewhere around there, yes. I’m sure you will find him. Devon is not a big place.’

I have the Google map up on the computer. Devon is a huge space but I let it go. After all, she is paying for my time.

‘Tell me! Why do you want me to tail your husband, Mrs Vain?’ I say. ‘Marital indiscretion?’

‘In a manner of speaking, I suppose,’ she says. ‘But it’s more complicated than that.’

Supremely confident up until now, she seems suddenly uncomfortable. She pulls the hem of her dress back down and leans forward. ‘Look, Mr Edge. I’ll be honest with you. OK? Matty has run off with my lover, Yannis. They are having …… an affair.’

‘Ah! I see,’ I say, not flinching. Deviation in one’s proclivities is becoming more and more commonplace in matrimonial cases.

Tara Vain bluetooths me some photos of her husband along with some of her and Yannis together on a yacht somewhere. She says she is not able to give me much more information on what exactly they might be up to as she has lost touch. They have both changed their phones, she says and she suspects they are both using different names for their social media activities. She suggests that Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos or whatever they are now calling themselves might be embarking on a new business venture together in Devon and this would be a good place to begin my investigation.

‘What line of business is your husband in?’ I ask.

‘Matty’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer,’ she says. ‘He’s done a bit of everything. He doesn’t stay at anything long.’

‘What about Yannis?’ I ask.

‘Yannis’s an entrepreneur too,’ she says. ‘A rather dashing one. Yannis’s full of ……. surprises. That’s why I fell for him, I suppose.’

I am fortunate with the choice of hotel in Exeter as, on arrival, I discover a nearby one burned down the previous week. The oldest hotel in the country, apparently. We don’t have anything like that in LA. Everything is new. My room is quite small but the bed is comfortable and there are some paintings on the wall. Modern stuff, I suppose you might say. A bit like Dalí. There’s one called The Rhubarb of Doubt and another called The Damson of Hope. There are another two in the lobby, The Onion of Despair and The Marrow of Certainty. Lord knows what they mean but they are quite vibrant. Apparently, the manageress’s son is doing joint honours in Horticulture and Fine Art at Dartington College nearby.

I do not have a particular strategy for my investigation but I feel it would be a good idea to start with the gay clubs in Exeter to see if Matty and Yannis might be around. After all, the gay scene in Devon is unlikely to be an extensive one. It’s more of an urban phenomenon. I look in at a gay sauna place near the hotel. This is not at all like the establishments in you find in LA. No razzmatazz here. It is little more than a shed. There is no steam room, no jacuzzi. Just as well as I was not anxious to try these out. I have a quick look upstairs at the relaxation rooms and the so-called cruising area but clearly, Matty and Yannis are not there. I do not feel inclined to linger. In the evening, I do a whistle-stop tour of the two clubs in town that Google lists as gay haunts but again there is no sign.

After a similar foray into the unknown in downtown Torquay the following day, I begin to think that I might be barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps I am just showing my preconceptions of what gay life might entail. Belinda always used to maintain I was homophobic. They are the same as anyone else, she would say. She has one or two gay friends so I’m sure she’s right. There is no reason why they should be any different. There is certainly no reason why two men who have not hitherto come across as gay, at least to Tara Vain, would have habits that are different to two straight men. They might even play soccer or go fishing. They would not necessarily frequent gay haunts. I realise I’m not going to find them by pursuing this line of enquiry. It looks as if I might have to do some real detective work after all.

I wonder why Tara wants me to find her husband at all, especially as she intimated she does not want him back. My understanding is that under New York law, divorce is easy as finding a police officer in a doughnut shop. But, she is paying for the service so why should I complain?

Tara phones me from Chicago to find out how I am getting on.

‘Chicago!’ I say, ‘What are you doing in Chicago?’

She says that her hairdresser is in Chicago, so she has flown out to get her hair restyled. It is clear that while the rest of us are struggling, Tara has money to burn. I don’t pursue it. Instead, I give her an update on my progress, or lack of.

‘Matty and Yannis are probably looking to start some kind of business over there,’ she says. ‘In which case, they will be looking for premises. Why don’t you start looking around the commercial property agents?’

This was more or less what I had planned for the next day but I find it is often best to let the client feel they are in control so I agree with her and tell her I will report back. I take a careful look through the commercial property to let on Rightmove for a twenty mile radius of Exeter and come up with hundreds of selections. On the assumption that the pair would hardly come over to Devon to embark on a small venture, I filter the results by price, top down. This still leaves a sizeable number of choices. No-one seems to be taking up commercial property. The downturn seems to have hit them harder down here in the south-west. Business, it seems, is centred around London and the south-east. I decide to take a drive around the major towns and look at a few of the options. If I engage one or two of the agents in general chat, I might be able to find out something.

The Nissan Micra is smaller than I am used to, but everyone over here seems to drive around in these miniature cars. Something to do with the narrow roads, I suspect. It isn’t so much that they drive on the wrong side of the road over here as they are forced to drive down the middle. They do have something called the Devon Expressway but it’s more like a country lane. No need for my Pacific Coast Highway playlist on these roads. The other thing I miss is a dank-ass burrito. You can’t get one for love or money in these parts.

‘What line of business are you in?’ asks Myles Harman of Travis and Babb in Newton Abbot.

‘Import and Export,’ I tell him.

‘Aha,’ says Myles. ‘I guessed that it might be something like that. You’re not from round here are you?’

‘You noticed the accent, then,’ I say. ‘Look! I don’t suppose a colleague of mine from back home called in recently. A Matthew Vain. Perhaps with his er, partner, Yannis Milos.’

‘To be honest, Mr Edge, we don’t get a lot of Americans here in Devon.’

‘How many square feet of floorspace do you think you might need for your operation?’ asks Richie Lunsford of Creamer and Vest in their Dartmouth branch.

‘I was thinking we might need a large premises and perhaps one or two smaller units as well,’ I say, hoping that this might perhaps remind him of a recent enquiry by other Americans. It doesn’t. I broach the subject directly but he all but ignores it. There seems to be some kind of language barrier. I’ve noticed it once or twice since I’ve been here. It’s as if my accent masks the fact that I want a normal conversation. It’s as if I am speaking to them from behind a TV screen and they don’t know how to respond.

‘Are you OK with premises on an industrial estate or do you need to be in town?’ asks Ben Shaver of Sadler Betts in Paignton.

‘I’d need to consult with my clients, Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos,’ I say. ‘I don’t suppose they’ve called in themselves, only I know they’re in the area.’

‘No. I don’t recall the names,’ says Ben. ‘In fact, you are the first one to enquire about commercial property for some time. There’s been a bit of a slump in the market, recently.’

‘The south coast of Devon has a rich history of smuggling,’ says Kieran Wagstaff in the Salcombe branch of Sadler Betts. He clearly does not get a lot of opportunities to chat and sees himself as something of a local historian. As I am a visiting American, he sees it as his duty to educate me.

‘And there’s talk that on dark nights it still goes on today in these waters with all the remote coves and no coastguard patrols. Contraband, drugs and lately even people come into the country this way. When Sadler Betts took on those units you are looking at the particulars of, I did wonder if this was what they had once been used for or perhaps what they would be used for in the future.’

‘But you have had no enquiries,’ I say.

‘No I’m afraid not,’ he says. ‘Not even from a developer. And we’ve had them on our books for several months now. The market is a little weak at the moment.’

Kieran Wagstaff’s words set me thinking, though. What greater entrepreneurial opportunity for two American wheeler-dealers could there be in these parts than a bit of good honest smuggling? Granted, Matty and Yannis had not taken up any of the Sadler Betts units but they could well be based somewhere around here. I decide to concentrate my search on this particular stretch of coast.

YMCA is an odd name for a juice bar, I think to myself. A juice bar? A brightly-coloured juice bar surrounded by lush vegetation, screaming out its presence, here in the otherwise sleepy village of Wembury? Could this be it? Y.M.CA? Of course. Yannis and Matty from California, with the underlying tongue in cheek gay connotations? It has to be. Perhaps it is the start of a chain of juice bars they are setting up all around the south coast. And beyond. I peer inside. There, amongst the palms and yuccas that decorate the place, are several young people sitting at tables, sipping smoothies. I can just make out the two figures behind the counter. These match the pictures I have of Matty and Yannis.

I call Tara Vain, half expecting she will be in Miami buying a crystal chandelier or in Denver buying chocolate confections, or something. How would she like me to proceed? But, her cell is switched off. I discover I don’t have another number for her.

I take another look inside YMCA, my eyes right up to the glass. This could easily be a tourist stop-off in L.A. The walls are bedecked with pictures of Malibu and Venice beaches, the Hollywood Sign, The Beach Boys, orange groves and all things California. It looks as is if Matty and Yannis might be trying to establish a brand. This is probably how Burger King, KFC, Subway, Papa John’s all got started. Begin with a small outlet somewhere by the coast where rents are cheaper than in the capital and slowly but surely expand the franchise worldwide.

I’m thinking, it won’t do any harm to go in and have a healthy smoothie, avocado and strawberry or kiwi and almond, or perhaps a purple power smoothie with mixed berries and vanilla extract. I step inside. West Coast singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit is playing softly. I quietly sit myself down at a table near the window. To my surprise, Matty and Yannis come straight over to greet me. In his striped apron, Matty looks taller than I imagined and Yannis seems to have filled out a little since the photos of him were taken.

‘Ha! A fellow American,’ says Matty, even before I have spoken. How can he tell, I wonder? Is it the way I carry myself, the way I dress, my haircut?

‘From downtown L.A.’ says Yannis. How does he know? Has he seen me around the city, perhaps?

‘The game’s up, dude,’ Matty continues. ‘It’s over. We know Tara sent you.’

‘You were quicker than the last guy,’ says Yannis, smiling. ‘The last one took nearly two weeks.’

‘What! ………. ‘ I say, trying to take aboard what he is saying. ‘Why?’

‘I agree,’ says Matty. ‘You’d think she could find something more worthwhile to spend her inheritance on, wouldn’t you?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

INVISIBLE

invisible

INVISIBLE by Chris Green

‘You can call me ….. Neumann,’ he says. Why Neumann? I wonder. He does not look German. He is skinny, dark skinned and has crusty dreadlocks. He has a scar running the length of his cheek. He looks menacing and clearly has no intention of engaging in unnecessary conversation. I had become accustomed to Zoot. Zoot was friendly, amenable, chatty and we had a mutual interest in 1950s West Coast jazz. Stan Kenton, Chet Baker, that sort of thing. Zoot had even burned me a CD of a rare Shorty Rogers recording to play in the car. I can’t imagine the new fellow doing this. While I appreciate that secrecy is part and parcel of the deal, at the same time, I have to form an association with the new man but, without ceremony, he thrusts the small package into my hand and is gone.

Anyway, this is no time to wonder what might have happened to Zoot. It isn’t the courier that is important, it is what is inside the package. I’ve no idea what this might be. Each package contains a completely unique set of instructions. There seems to be no pattern. FIX might be sending me on a mission to infiltrate an organisation, rescue someone, act as a minder, possibly even terminate someone. I haven’t had to do this yet but I never know what is going to come up. Whatever it is I because of my training I find it easy to get into role.

FIX operates in the margins. I am unable to divulge too many details here because there aren’t many. However I do have access to firearms, should they be needed. All of the assignments seem to be a little strange. Once I had to fabricate an historical event, by creating convincing bogus archives about a coup in a country I had not even heard of. Another time, I had to become a circus performer to infiltrate an Armenian circus to bring in someone called Kardashian. Until you’ve tried it, you’ve no idea how difficult it is being a clown. The instructions for my mission come as a file on a thumb drive. I’m told that this is a more secure way of delivering data than sending it over the internet, where it can be easily intercepted.

…………………………………………….

Scott Walker! I have to find Scott Walker and bring him in. Not the singer, Scott Walker, a different one. But, this one is apparently every bit as reclusive as his more famous namesake. All the bio I am given to go on is that he has connections with Invisible Men, an organisation so secret, there is no reference to it anywhere online. FIX Central give no reason why they want Scott Walker. Everything is on a need to know basis and they must deem I don’t need to know. Perhaps he is a FIX agent who has overstepped his brief. Perhaps he is a FOX agent, who they want to interrogate. Or even a FAX agent. They’ve been rather quiet lately. Perhaps he is a tinker or a tailor. Who knows? The only photo of the man on the encrypted word document is a grainy shot of him in profile, taken ten years ago outside a farrier’s in Totnes, Devon. The farrier’s, I quickly discover, has since closed. Even in rural Devon, horses are on the way out.

I trawl through dozens of pages of Google images. To my surprise, there is an American politician called Scott Walker, who is even more famous than the sixties singer. But, not a single image matches the guy that I am looking for. Nor is there any reference to him on a Google word search. I try Scott Waller, Scott Walter and even Scott Wanker, in case there has been a typo. Amazingly, there is a Scott Wanker on Facebook, from Illinois. I come up with nothing on our Scott Walker. My targets usually enjoy a higher profile. Finding this fellow looks like it might be a bit of a challenge.

Having little to go on, the place to start looking seems to be Devon. This is the only lead I have. But, as the internet seems to have completely bypassed our Scott Walker, it is time for some leg work. Newton Abbot might not be the obvious place to look for someone connected to a secret society but as all roads in Devon appear to lead there, it seems a convenient place to start. Also, Newton Abbot has a racecourse. It must have some horsey connections. I drive in past the racecourse and make my way to the library without a particular plan, except that libraries are the places to find out information. I go up to the desk and a shapely librarian with a flirtatious smile hands me an envelope. Suzy Somerset says her name badge.

‘This is for you, Mr Fixer,’ Suzy says.

‘Not Fixer,’ I say. ‘Temple. Sebastian Temple.’ This is one of many names I go under.

‘Sorry, Mr Temple,’ she says, bending forward a little to reveal an abundance of cleavage. ‘My mistake.’

Inside the envelope, I find a handwritten note offering instructions. I am to log on to machine number 1 in Newton Abbot Library where I will find a message waiting for me on the screen. I log in and as promised, there is a message waiting for me. It reads, ‘access the document, scottwalker1.docx.’ The document is password protected. I do not know the password. I try abracadabra. To my amazement, this works. It opens up a story called The Invisible Man by Dario Benitez.

In the story, the protagonist, Logan Daley accidentally renders himself invisible by drinking too much Honey Orchid tea and, realising the power of his unintended gift, goes on a killing spree in Belstone, Sticklepath and Sourton, far-flung villages of north Dartmoor, before being hunted down by a posse of left-handed fiddlers sent from the Highwayman Inn on the night of the harvest moon, the only time that Daley casts a shadow. Other than the Devon connection, I cannot see what relevance this has to the task at hand. However, I’m always ready to be corrected. My life is full of surprises. If you are looking for a straightforward, run of the mill life, it is best not to be a FIX agent.

Suzy comes over and asks me how I am getting on. Clearly, I cannot disclose details of my mission so I tell her that I am looking for a brass instrument for my daughter on eBay. I thank her for being helpful.

‘I finish work soon,’ she purrs, flashing an amatory smile. ‘Perhaps you would like to keep me company. We could maybe go for a bite to eat in Lemon Jelli and then go back to my place to chill out and listen to some music. Do you like West Coast jazz?’

In my line of work you need to be a little suspicious of women that come on to you strongly but at my time of life, pushing fifty, and in my situation, divorced and lonely, you are entitled to a little diversion now and again. I was not expecting that women in Devon would be so forward. But, what have I got to lose? In fact, Suzy might have been recruited to help me find Scott Walker. I mean, why did she address me as Mr Fixer, and in a lighthearted way, if she wasn’t on board? I don’t think I misheard her.

‘That would be pretty much perfect,’ I say, looking her up and down. ‘And yes, I love West Coast jazz.’

…………………………………………….

I can’t recall much about the night with Suzy, but I have the feeling in my loins that something must have taken place between us. I also have a hangover, suggesting I may have drunk a lot of wine. I can vaguely remember the Pinot Noir being opened but I can’t piece together the rest of the evening. I definitely have no recollection of how I come to be on a train to Barnstaple. This is strange because I normally have total recall, no matter how drunk I was the night before. Being able to handle one’s liquor is important in my line of work. Perhaps Suzy put Rohypnol in the wine and topped it up with a large dose of Benzodiazepine before putting me on the train from Newton Abbot. But wait! Wouldn’t a manoeuvre like this have attracted too much attention at a provincial railway station like Newton Abbot? Besides, if I was unconscious, how would I have changed trains at Exeter? Surely any untoward activity would have raised suspicions in this quiet neck of the woods. Why am I on a train anyway? What has happened to my car?

I am still busy trying to figure all this out when I notice that the woman in the aisle seat in front of me and opposite has her laptop open and is typing a report. She is using a large font, 14 point bold or larger even and to my alarm, I can make out the name, Neumann. No, I’m not imagining it. It says, Neumann. I surreptitiously scan down the page and see there is a reference to The Invisible Men. Plural. As in the secret society. My head is spinning. Things seem once again to be getting out of control. Like they did when ……. Back then. …. How? Who? What? I struggle to regain my composure. My breakdown was a long time ago. Before I became a …… It’s the here and now that counts, not something that happened in the past. But, what is going on? Who is this woman? Am I now drawing attention to myself by leaning over? By staring at her? She is not easy on the eye, that’s for sure. She is built like a Russian hammer thrower. She has severe cropped auburn hair and is wearing a thick tweedy suit. I lean over a little more, as much as I dare, to read the name badge pinned onto her lapel. It says Sasha Ivanov but I can’t make sense of the organisation lettering printed beneath her name. Is it in Cyrillic script or something? What on earth am I mixed up in?

I take a walk along the central aisle to the toilet, turning around a couple of times to see what reaction I might get from her. Will she come after me in case I get off at one of the little Halts along the line that the train stops at? She doesn’t. I take a few moments in the toilet to calm myself. When I return to my seat, Sasha Ivanov is gone. There is no sign of her. No bags, nothing. She can’t have got off. The train has not even slowed down yet, let alone stopped.

There is no sense in taking the train all the way to Barnstaple. Breathtaking though the scenery might be with its tors and river valleys, it will only take me further from my car, assuming this is still in Newton Abbot. I decide I’ll get off at the next station. Copplestone, I think it is, sandwiched between Dartmoor and Exmoor. I should be able to get a cab from the station. It would be handy to make some calls but my phone has no signal out here in the sticks. They probably haven’t even got television out here yet.

To my consternation, the cab driver seems to know who I am and be expecting me.

‘Alright or wha Mr Temple?’ he says.

‘Newton Abbot, please,’ I say.

‘Thought so,’ he says. ‘Lovely day, isn’t it, boyo?’

He breaks into a lengthy report on the sorry progress of Merthyr Tydfil Rugby Football Club followed by a list all the things you can buy at the new Merthyr Tydfil branch of Trago Mills. I assume he is Welsh, but gradually I form the opinion that he could be from the Moon. He talks as if this is the first chance he’s had to talk to someone for months. He tells in great detail me about his hots for Suzy Somerset, the librarian. How does he know her, I want to ask? But, seemingly without pausing for breath he breaks into a potted history of The Invisible Man. Why?

‘The original The Invisible Man was a novella by H. G. Wells, see,’ he says, in his sing-song delivery. ‘Not being funny, but written in 1897, it was. They made it into a film in 1933, starring Claude Rains. Then, in the fifties, they made a TV series called The Invisible Man. I’m only saying, but they were not looking for authenticity, like. They changed Dr Griffin who was the character in the book to Peter Brady. This Peter Brady is a scientist who becomes invisible when an experiment goes wrong. He is initially declared a state secret and is locked up, like, but he manages to convince the British government to allow him to return to his laboratory so he can search for an antidote.’

I keep trying to interrupt his narrative flow, but he I can’t shut him up. Perhaps he is on amphetamines or something.

‘Anyway, MI5 recruits him for an assignment, see,’ he continues. ‘But, Brady’s security is breached and he becomes a celebrity and uses his invisibility to solve crimes and help people in trouble. Then there is the 2,000 TV series called The Invisible Man about Darien Fawkes, a thief facing life imprisonment who is recruited by a down-at-heel spy agency and given the power of invisibility via an implant of a special Quicksilver gland in his head. The gland, alas, also makes Fawkes’s behaviour unpredictable, so the agency is unable to control his growing psychotic tendencies. But, look you! I wouldn’t want you to confuse any of these with Invisible Man, which was a civil rights novel by Ralph Ellison. This is about an Afro-American man whose colour renders him invisible, see.’

‘What about the secret society, Invisible Men?’ I manage to ask, ‘Who are they?’ But he is not listening. Instead, he goes on to tell me about his friend, Dafydd’s pet parrot and before we know it we have arrived back in Newton Abbot. Ninety four pounds seems a bit steep for the fare but I’m getting nowhere with Lunar Lewis. I just want to be shot of him and get on with my life. Get back to finding Scott Walker. Ar least my car is still where I left it but has a parking ticket on the front windscreen. I rip it off and bin it.

…………………………………………….

It is time to take stock, once more. Time to dust off the old grey matter and get back to work. What have I got to go on? There is not so much as a sniff of Scott Walker and to date, I have encountered a surly fellow FIX agent, a femme fatale, a possible Russian spy, and a spaceman, all of which seem to be, in their various ways, untrustworthy and in some unlikely way connected. There would need to have been an orchestra of collusion to explain the connections. Not having had a wi-fi signal on my phone, I have not had a chance to use the BugU app to check if Suzy, or indeed any of the others, has planted a tracking device on me. I do so now. They haven’t. I’m surprised. I check the car too. Clean.

I call in at the library but Suzy is not there and predictably I suppose, with the way things are shaping up, no-one has even heard of her. I’m once more back to square one. There’s something of a pattern forming here. I need a new approach. I could pursue the equine angle and phone around all the vets in Devon. And, perhaps get acquainted with the racing fraternity. A long-shot, perhaps. There again, there might be a simple explanation for Scott Walker’s absence. He might be …..well, dead. But, if he were dead, wouldn’t FIX know about it. They would hardly be paying me to find a dead man. Unless he somehow still presented a danger.

I phone my friend, Quinn. It is strictly against protocol as he is not with the agency but sometimes you have to ditch protocol. Quinn knows about zombies, ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

‘Good to hear from you, Ambrose,’ he says. ‘Long time.’ Ambrose Dove is another name that I use.

‘We’ll have to catch up soon, Quinn,’ I say. Tell me! Is it true that some people are less substantial and harder to see than others?’

‘Ah! I think I see what you are up to, Ambrose,’ he says. ‘You’re in Devon, aren’t you?’

How does he know this, I wonder. My location would not show up from my mobile.

‘Devon is the home of the paranormal,’ he continues, perhaps answering my question. ‘And, you want to know if all that folklore about ghosts and the like is true, don’t you?’

‘Something like that, I suppose,’ I say.

‘Well some of it is and some of it isn’t,’ he says. ‘It all depends on your point of view. And of course how susceptible you are.’

‘I was thinking specifically about invisibility,’ I say.

‘I don’t think that it is me you need to be talking to. You want a scientist. Probably one working with the US military. I believe they are experimenting with invisibility,’ he says. ‘They are trying to come up with an ultra-thin skin to cloak certain wavelengths of light around an object to render it invisible.’

‘I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

…………………………………………….

I hear the mellow sound of Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone drifting on the wind. It is the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Slow and Easy.

I turn around and see that the heavenly music is coming from Zoot’s red Pontiac convertible. Never one to undersell his presence, Zoot.

‘We’ve got him,’ Zoot calls out. A strange greeting I feel, after so long.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Neumann,’ he says.

‘What are you talking about, Zoot?’ I say.

‘Neumann. The bogus agent,’ says Zoot. ‘Except his name is not Neumann. It’s Tyson Dark. Dark is not one of our agents, Nick.’ Nicholas Spain is another of my aliases.

‘He must be FOX, then. One of theirs. That makes sense,’ I say.

‘That’s right Nick. FOX. And he definitely tried to take you out. We intercepted some intel and discovered that the package he handed to you contained a fast acting poison that would kill you within a matter of hours.’

‘But I opened the package. There were just some instructions on a memory card.’

‘That was all just a bluff. There was ricin in the package too.’

‘So, what about Suzy Somerset, the librarian at Newton Abbot?’

‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘I guess you just got lucky there. By rights, you should have been reeling from the effects of the poison, stumbling about, not knowing where you were, with just minutes to live.’

‘I suppose that might help to explain the rest of my weird adventure then,’ I say. ‘The unexplained train journey into the back of beyond with the vanishing Russian spy and the cab ride with the urban spaceman. I was delusional.’

‘Probably even more delusional than you normally are, Nick,’ laughs Zoot. ‘I guess you were just too tough to be killed.’

‘And there never was a Scott Walker.’

‘Who?’

‘Scott Walker. The instructions that Tyson Dark gave me said I had to find someone called Scott Walker.’

‘Aha! I see No. Your Scott Walker doesn’t exist.’

‘So, where were you, Zoot?’ I ask. ‘Why wasn’t it you at the meet to hand over the package?’

‘That’s the thing, Nick,’ he says. ‘Just as I was getting into my car to drive to meet you, a FOX agent sprayed me with something that made me temporarily invisible. I was informed that an invisible man driving an open topped Pontiac would draw too much attention. And you can’t imagine how difficult it is to hail a cab when you are invisible. Twenty four hours it took to wear off. But, I’m here now. What do you say we take it that new jazz club?’

…………………………………………….

‘Cut!’ says Dylan Song. Song is new. I’ve only seen him once or twice. He’s part of our second line support team. He turned up last week with a spare set of keys to open up that warehouse so we could reclaim the hard drives that FOX had stolen. Perhaps he should have come along yesterday when Zoot became invisible. Instead of ….. Neumann. Why is Song fooling around with a movie camera? What we are doing here is supposed to be covert. He shouldn’t be drawing attention to us. In the wrong hands, this could be interpreted as breaking and entering. Who are all those people in the dark clothes with sound equipment? Do they think we’re making a movie or something?

‘That was great, guys,’ Song calls out. ‘I think that’s a wrap. I’ll run these over to Dario Benitez to see what he thinks.’

Zoot takes Dylan Song aside, but I have very good hearing and I can still make out what he is saying.

‘You’re supposed to stay out of sight,’ he says.

‘You mean be ….. invisible?’ says Song, laughing.

‘Absolutely!’ says Zoot. ‘I’m not sure Nick knows about any of this. He thinks that we’re all real agents or something.’

‘What? You mean he hasn’t seen any of the movies,’ says Song.

‘Well! They don’t get around the multiplexes or anything like that, do they?’ says Zoot.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

You Never Can Tell

younevercantell4

You Never Can Tell by Chris Green

Annie and I are sitting in a café called Lemon Jelli sipping peppermint tea. The space it is laid out to look like a continental bar with comfortable seating and 1930s French travel posters on the wall. We have come to Newton Abbot for the market. Annie is shopping for shoes. The flimsy ones she bought last week have not lasted well.

How old do you think I am?’ says a swarthy stranger sitting on the table next to us. ‘Go on! have a guess!’

We have not registered his presence up now. We exchange glances. We assume by the tone of the question that he is probably older than he thinks he looks. In truth, with his hair greased back like a fifties icon and his short-sleeved plaid checked shirt, he looks about seventy four.

Sixty?’ Annie says, diplomatically.

No,’ he says, smiling. ‘I’m seventy four. I don’t look it, do I?’

No, you don’t. You must live a healthy life,’ I say, turning away and hoping to end the conversation.

It transpires that he lives in Torquay, but he comes from Somerset, Taunton to be precise. Taunton is about sixty miles north of Torquay. He used to be married but is not anymore. He says he doesn’t want to talk about this. He has an eighteen year old daughter, but he doesn’t see her very often except on birthdays and Christmas. She lives in Somerset somewhere, but he doesn’t specify where. He used to be an electrical engineer with a company that makes microwave ovens, but he retired early at sixty four after his triple heart by-pass.

What’s Torquay like?’ Annie asks, before I can stop her. ‘We were thinking of going there, one day while we’re down here.’

Torquay is great,’ he says. ‘I like living in Torquay. A lot of people say bad things about it, but really its very nice. I know there are lots of druggies, hanging around the streets, but you get that everywhere now, don’t you? I don’t take drugs. I never have, well, only prescription drugs for my heart condition. I’m on twelve different sorts. That’s why I don’t drive anymore. I nearly crashed the car and thought, sod this for a game of soldiers, so I sold the car. That was nine years ago. I’ve got my bus pass of course. I can get around with my bus pass. That’s how I got here today. On the bus. It’s a good service from Torquay to Newton Abbot. And I can get to Exeter and Teignmouth. I can even get back to Taunton, but I don’t like to that often. You can’t live in the past, can you? You’ve got to move on.’

I start to realise the conversation is going to be a more of a monologue.

Torquay Man doesn’t like gambling either.

It’s another addiction, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You can bet on anything, these days, can’t you?’

Anything,’ I agree. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the Pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship…..’

My humour is lost on him. He is not listening. He begins to talk over me.

I still bet on horses,’ he says. ‘But I don’t stay in the bookies anymore, I put my bet on and then leave. If I stayed and the horse won, I would probably put the money on another horse and it would probably lose. Sometimes I come here to go to the races. I do like to see the horses running around the track and Newton Abbot is one of the best summer jumps courses.’

I didn’t know there was a racecourse,’ Annie says.

It’s just up the road. Are you staying around here?’

Teignmouth,’ I say, giving Annie a conspiratorial wink. We are actually staying in Dawlish, a few miles north of Teignmouth, but do not want Swarthy Stranger to get wind of this, just in case he finds out where we are and decides to call in.

Ah Teignmouth!’ he says. ‘I lived in Teignmouth for a while. In the 1980s. It was a nice place back then. Clean white beaches. Trips around the bay. But now it’s all street drinkers. In the bus shelters. On the prom. On the pier. Everywhere, they are. It’s all right to have a drink, but some people don’t know when to stop, do they? My Uncle Albert was one who liked a drink. I would say to him when he’d had a few, like, Albert, I’d say, I can’t understand a bloody word you’re saying. ……. I used to drink too, mind you, back in the day, when I came back from Aden. Saw some terrible things out there, I did. Make your hair curl. I was a Scammel driver in the Sappers, you know. You don’t hear them called Sappers anymore do you? You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? But all those years ago I was in the Royal Engineers.’

I don’t think it can be anything we say, because Annie and I aren’t been given the opportunity to say very much, but something seems to darken his narrative. A free-floating malice creeps into the monologue. What we took as the friendly banter of a lonely old man becomes a platform for his intolerance and bigotry. The idle youths that hang around the shopping centre ought to be rounded up and sent to boot camps in the Bristol Channel. Benefits scroungers should be put to work cleaning out the sewers, and immigrants should be turned back at Dover or shipped to concentration camps in the Channel. Prisoners should all be put on treadmills and the treadmills linked to the National Grid. It is if he has just read a year’s worth of Daily Mail headlines.

I am now hurrying to finish my peppermint tea and Annie is putting on a few of her scarves and cardigans. Torquay Man can see we are getting ready to leave.

Just one more story before you go,’ he says. ‘You’ll want to hear this one.’

Another time,’ I say, and with this we are out of the door and walking along Queen Street in the direction of the car.

What an awful man!’ I say to Annie. ‘You didn’t have to encourage him so much.’

I thought, at first, he just needed someone to talk to,’ Annie says. ‘It’s not easy being old and lonely with nothing to look forward to and time slipping away.’

But he didn’t even seem to have time for his family,’ I say. ‘Anyway, let’s get out of here.’

We are parked in the multi-storey car park, a few streets away. We normally avoid these, but when we arrived in Newton Abbot this morning we found ourselves corralled into it. We cannot get near it now. The streets on the approach to the car park are cordoned off. Ahead of us, there is a carnival of flashing blue lights, as police cars, fire engines and ambulances line the streets. People meander this way and that in confusion. No one seems able to tell us what is going on. Rumours are circulating about a there being a bomb and some local residents have been evacuated.

The first I knew about it was these two men in flak jackets in my back yard,’ the lady in the unseasonable raincoat with the black and white cat on her shoulder says. ‘They said I had to leave right away. I asked them what was going on and all they could tell me was that they had their orders.’

East Street and Tudor Road are closed off, bloody pigs everywhere.’ the man in the orange boiler suit and the Jesus beard says.

They’re shutting down the market,’ the man with the Sticky Fingers t-shirt and the battery of nasal jewellery says. ‘Can you imagine. The market never shuts. This is Newton Abbot.’

We can’t get anywhere near the multi-storey,’ I say.

There’ll be a few hundred cars in there at a guess,’ the corpulent traffic warden with the limp says. ‘God help us if that goes up.’

Probably another suicide bomber, like the one in Plymouth last week,’ the thick-set man with the bull terrier says.

I didn’t hear an explosion,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

You don’t always hear them these days,’ Jesus Beard says. ‘They have silent bombs.’

A new task force in army fatigues arrives to move us back further.

Could you tell us what’s going on, please?’ I say.

What about my market stall?’ Sticky Fingers says. ‘I didn’t lock it up. I got thousands of pounds worth of rare albums there.’

I think I may have left the iron on,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

All comments are greeted with a taciturn silence from the surly militia. Methodically they kettle us like protesters at an anti-capitalist rally.

Get your hands off me,’ Jesus Beard yells.

He is forced into a doorway and handcuffed.

This provides the incentive for rest of us move back behind the barricades. These guys are serious about security.

You might imagine that emergency situations like would be tense, but in reality very little happens. Soon, because they can do nothing about it, people accept the situation and start drifting away. Dog Walking Man is probably miles away with his bull terrier and Sticky Fingers Man has probably found a welcoming pub, somewhere where he can tell his tales of the glory days with the blues band that never quite made it.

I expect Lemon Jelli is full up now,’ I say to Annie. ‘They’re probably all going there.’

Do you want to go back?’ Annie asks.

We take a look at each other and decide to give it a miss. We listen to the busker making his way through the Paul Simon songbook instead.

Shame about the shoes,’ I say.

‘We can get some in Exeter tomorrow,’ Annie says.

Eventually, without any explanation, we are given the all clear. It takes half an hour or so to get out of the car park and then we find ourselves in a formidable queue of traffic. Everybody is trying to get out of Newton Abbot. Annie is on her iPhone, trawling the news sites to find information about the incident.

It says here that explosives experts were called to two suspect packages found in the town centre,’ she reads from the Exeter Express and Echo website. ‘This prompted a large area to be evacuated. Both devices were detonated safely in controlled explosions. Police are looking for an elderly man with a swarthy complexion and slicked-back hair who was seen acting suspiciously near in the vicinity earlier today. There are reports of a man fitting this description at both of the crime scenes. More details will follow as the information comes in.’

You think it was him?’ Annie says.

It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’ I say.

Shouldn’t we let the police know?’

Let them know what? That we had a conversation with a seventy four year old man from Torquay. Besides, he’s not still going to be at Lemon Jelli now, is he,’ I say. ‘He’s long gone.’

Do you think that this was the one more story that he was going to tell us?’ Annie asks.

You mean like he might have wanted us to turn him in?’ I say. ‘I guess we’ll never know.’

Who would have thought?’ Annie says. ‘He’s not what you think of when you think of terrorists.’

It goes to show that you never can tell,’ I say. ‘Terrorists don’t all have big beards and unpronounceable names.’

He never did say his name, did he?’

But he was definitely clean shaven.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved