No Elle

noelle

No Elle by Chris Green

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head suggests to me I had a fair bit to drink. I remember I got in late from a celebration of my team’s promotion. It was altogether a good night. In order not to wake anyone when I got home, I took the daybed in the downstairs study. Elle has not been sleeping well lately, stress at work and the like, and I thought I might be a little restless. Also, it gave me a chance to be able to look at the photos of the evening on my phone. Probably best not to share all of these with Elle, I thought.

It gradually occurs to me that it has been light for some time. I take a look at my watch. It’s eight o’clock. I wonder why no one is up. It’s Friday, a work day and of course a school day as well, but it certainly seems very quiet upstairs. Thomas is sometimes a little slow in the morning but Maddie is normally bouncing around by now. And Elle herself has to be at the office by nine. She ought to be up and about.

Being self-employed, getting up at a specific time doesn’t matter so much to me. My colleague, Duke is flexible. He doesn’t mind opening up once in a while, so I can roll in when I like, or not at all. Duke is a handy fellow to have around. His main role is that of a fixer. Sometimes a bit of good honest persuasion is needed in my line of work and not many people would argue with Duke.

I’d better get the others up, though.

Anyone about,’ I call up the stairs as I do my ritual morning stretches.

There is no response.

Come on guys, rise and shine,’ I holler, in between my ritual morning yawns.

There is no response.

I decide I’d better go and take a look.

I make my way up the stairs trying to think of a novel way of waking them up, perhaps with a fake phone call or perhaps a sarcastic comment about their laziness. I look in Maddie’s room first. Maddie is the youngest. She’s four, no, wait, she’s five. Thomas is seven. I push the door open slowly waiting for Maddie to ask who is there. She doesn’t. Is she having a sulk about something? I poke my head around the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy. Her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Thomas’s room, the same. Our bedroom, ditto. No Elle.

There must surely be a rational explanation. Have they gone to stay with a friend? Has something just slipped my mind? Was there part of a conversation that I missed before I went out yesterday evening? Just a hint that they might have been going somewhere for the night. This seems unlikely. We are creatures of habit, well, Elle perhaps more than me. In her world, these type of arrangements need to be made weeks in advance.

I didn’t have much contact with any of them yesterday, but they were around at tea time and I didn’t go out until half past seven. They were still here then, weren’t they? I remember now, I did go out a little early to stop off at the betting shop on the way to the pub. But still, this would have been nearly seven. Well, more like six I suppose. But, if something had happened, surely Elle would have phoned me. I had my phone on. I’m sure of that. I got that call from Darius about the new shipment while I was at The Blind Monkey.

It is of course theoretically possible that they’ve all got up, dressed, used the bathroom, had breakfast and that Elle has made the beds and taken the children to school very early, without waking me. Theoretically possible, but unlikely. I am a light sleeper even after a skinful and anyway, Elle’s yellow Fiat is still parked on the drive and all their coats are all still hanging up in the hallway. So whatever has happened, happened before I got home.

So what does this mean? I can’t think of anything that would have made Elle leave me. Quite the reverse. We have been getting on rather well lately. Certainly, as well as you can expect after eight years of marriage. Obviously, there have been one or two ups and downs over the years but surely, that’s all water under the bridge. If Elle had left me, then you would have expected at the very least a note, explaining how she saw things. A list perhaps of unforgivable misdemeanours of which I have been completely unaware. This is what usually happens, isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Elle discovered I was seeing Tracey. But, this is the way it happens in TV dramas.

At a glance, it doesn’t seem that anything is missing. Even Elle’s handbag is still on the kitchen table where she has a habit of leaving it and it weighs about the same as it usually does. About ten kilos. What am I worrying about? I can just phone her. She never goes anywhere without her phone. It’s never out of her reach. I speed-dial the number. It doesn’t even go onto voicemail. ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later,’ is the message.

……………………………………

Twenty five minutes on hold, listening to Suspicious Minds, waiting to speak to an officer does nothing to instil confidence in police procedure. Once I’m put through to a real policeman, Sergeant Filcher does nothing to restore my confidence either. He sounds as if he is on diazepam medication and at the end of a twelve hour shift. I give him an account of the sequence of events since I last saw my family, but his interest in their disappearance is slight. Perhaps families go missing in Norcastle every day.

It’s only been a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘Perhaps your wife went to Asda on the way to school or something. Have you thought of that?’

Of course. But she never shops at Asda.’ To be honest, I’m not sure where she shops.

Have you checked the school? They have breakfast clubs and things these days.’

I haven’t checked the school, but to save time, I tell him that I have.

Look, Mr Black. If we investigated every family that changes its arrangements then there would be no officers available to catch the real criminals. Anyway, they’ll be down again next year.’

What are you talking about?’ I say.

Your team, they’ll be relegated again next year,’ he says. Sergeant Filcher must be a Blues supporter. The Reds beat the Blues with a goal in the very last minute of the very last game to secure promotion, at the Blues expense. I am anxious to not let Sergeant Filcher’s animosity get in the way of our conversation.

You’ll get on to looking for my family then, will you Sergeant?’ I say.

If your wife hasn’t turned up by, let us say, tomorrow evening, then call us again,’ he says. ‘Meanwhile, phone round your friends and relatives, will you! Goodbye, Mr Black.’

It can be difficult to convey the gravity of a desperate situation to others when you are the only one who realises it, so I sit down and think about how I am going to handle it. It may be wishful thinking but it is eminently possible that Elle might walk in through the door at any time with an explanation that I have not hitherto considered. Or that she might phone. ‘Sorry,’ she might say. ‘I had no way of letting you know, but ……..’ I have no way of telling if such a scenario is a long-shot or not. Sergeant Filcher is probably right. It has only been a matter of hours. Perhaps I should leave it for a bit. There’s no point in treating it as an abduction or a murder investigation just yet. Perhaps Elle’s just having a sulk. There again, he might be wrong. Uncertainty is often the worst. Given time, I could probably come to terms with the despair, but isn’t it the hope that is the problem? There again, perhaps I don’t care as much as I once did.

I don’t think Elle ever puts her phone on silent, so, as I did not hear it ring when I dialled it earlier, I can assume that it is not in the house. In which case, she probably still has it with her. I try ringing again, but get the same message, ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later.’ I decide to make my way through the contact numbers that Elle has written down in the pad by the phone over the years. Friends, relatives, extended family, hairdresser, former hairdresser, former hairdresser’s friend’s cat-sitter. I keep the conversations as casual as I can. It is important to find out if anyone has seen Elle but, at the same time, I don’t want everyone knowing our business. I don’t want people to think that I’m losing control. Reactions to the news of my family’s disappearance range from, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.’ to ‘Oh dear, what have you been up to, now?’ No-one seems to take it seriously. You would think that there would at least be some concern for Thomas and Maddie’s welfare. The closest I get to concern is from Elle’s friend, Shannon, who is worried that I may have buried them in the back garden. Shannon has always disapproved of me.

Around midday, as I am coming to the end of the list, the house phone rings. It doesn’t often ring. We only use our mobiles these days. I am on it like a shot but it is a call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Carl begins to tell me how the service works. I swear at him and slam the phone down. No sooner have I sat down, than the house phone rings again. Once again, I am on it like a shot but it is another call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Craig begins to tell me how the service works.

I’m going up the wall, trying to think back over the last few days. Have there been any signs of restlessness, excitement, anxiety? Have the children been behaving in a secretive way or doing anything unusual? I suppose I have been out quite a lot lately but it seemed that everything was as it always was, work, school, mealtimes, staggered bedtimes.

I check our paperwork box files. Nothing seems to be missing. The passports are still in the safety deposit box and no money is gone from the joint account. I cannot get into Elle’s account as I do not know the password, so I have no way of finding out if she has made a large cash withdrawal. I go round opening drawers and take a look in cupboards and under cushions. I do not know what I might be looking for. Am I really expecting to find a nicely typed page of A4 that will explain the disappearance, or even a scribbled note? I unearth some of the things that Elle has kept to remind her perhaps of the good times; the programme for the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup (I’d forgotten she came along to that),both the Happy Anniversary cards I sent her when I was away, the postcards and letters I sent her from before we were married. I begin to feel a little guilt-ridden. Could I have been more caring? Should I have taken more notice?

In terms of solving the mystery, though, I am getting nowhere. Is abduction a possibility? What should I be looking for? There are no signs of forced entry. There are no obvious signs of a struggle, no furniture out of place, no scuff marks on the carpet. Everything seems as it always has been. I really don’t feel I’m going to come up with anything meaningful staying around the house.

……………………………………

As I’m locking up, I see Frank Fargo at number 66 is mowing his lawn. Since his retirement, Frank is home all day and he’s always looking out of the front window. He must see everything that goes on around here. Some sort of writer now, I believe. Spy stories or something, I think he said.’

Hi Frank,’ I say. ‘Sorry to bother you, mate, but I wonder if you happened to see anything last night. For instance, Elle going off with Thomas and Maddie.’

Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And your wife is looking, uh, very fit. Yesterday evening, you say. No. I don’t think I did. I saw you go off in your cab. That must have been about seven thirty three, and then nothing. Of course, I do go to bed quite early. I like to turn in about nine.’

What about your CCTV cameras?’ I say. ‘Do you think they might have caught something?’

No. I’m afraid the device that records the footage has died,’ he says. ‘Went down a couple of days ago, as it happens. I’m waiting for SlowTech or whatever they are called to come out and fix it. I thought when the doorbell rang that it might be them.’

So, you haven’t seen anything suspicious?’

Well. Now you come to mention it. Tony Demarco from number 72 has been unloading a lot of stuff into his lock up garage lately.’

Tony Demarco. Is he the one with the big yellow van?’

That’s the one. I’ve never quite been able to work out quite what he does, But I think he’s some kind of wheeler-dealer.’

It’s a strange phenomenon, but when there is a mystery like this, everyone suddenly seems to be acting suspiciously. All the people I spoke to earlier about Elle’s disappearance are probably hiding something. Even Sergeant Filcher. Especially Sergeant Filcher. He is hiding something. Frank Fargo is definitely hiding something. He must have seen what happened. And Tony Demarco must have had something to do with it. The guy who comes round to clean the windows is probably in on it too. Even the lad who delivers the flyers for the community centre events is a suspect, and certainly, the Avon lady is a bit dodgy. The whole thing is a conspiracy. Everyone knows what is going on but me. I don’t like being in this position. I have a reputation to maintain.

……………………………………

I leave it for forty eight hours then call the police again and after I have badgered them for a bit, they agree to come round and have a look. After I’ve cleared a few things away, a detective with a forensics man comes along and spends an hour or so going over the place. They ask a few questions but I can tell their hearts aren’t in it. It is just a job to them. They don’t say much about what they are doing or whether they have found anything but as I hear nothing more, I assume they haven’t found anything.

I call the station just in case and when Sergeant Filcher says as far as he knows they’ve turned up nothing, I suggest they might put out a newspaper plea. He tells me he doesn’t make those kind of decisions but he will run it past Inspector Boss, but he thinks he knows what the answer will be. They have their reasons for keeping cases like mine out of the press.

And what might those be?’ I ask. His low-key approach does not do it for me. Does he not know that I have a certain standing in the community? If my family have been abducted, I want every officer out combing the streets looking for them.

You clearly do not understand police procedure, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘You’ve been watching too many crime dramas, on TV, I expect. For the time being at least, this is being treated as a matrimonial dispute.’

You think that we had a row in the middle of the night and Elle walked out and took the two children without even taking her handbag, do you?’ I say.

Look, Mr Black! There is no reason to suppose that Elle and the children have been abducted. There is absolutely no evidence to support this. Or any other line of enquiry that might constitute a serious crime.’

For all you know, I could have killed them and dumped the bodies in the canal,’ I say.

Now you are just being facetious, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘We will monitor the case, and if anything develops we will, of course, let you know. Oh! By the way, I see your team has had to sell its star players.’

Half-heartedly I take it to the Gazette. Everyone is saying that it is an avenue that should be explored. Well, when I say everyone, I suppose I mostly mean Majid at the off-licence. His family had a similar experience. The editor of the Gazette, Burford Quigley decides that it warrants no more than a few column inches on page five. Not even a picture. Perhaps I forgot to let them have a photo.

……………………………………

As the days pass and weeks turn into months, I become less and less hopeful. Occasionally there is an alleged sighting but none of these comes to anything. Friends of mine sometimes drop by to take advantage of my hospitality and from time to time friends of Elle’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.

Elle’s best friend, Lois is the only one who phones regularly.

Hi Matt,’ she will say. ‘Any news?’

No,’ I tell her.

I can’t understand it,’ she will say. ‘Elle used to tell me everything and she never once said anything about leaving.’

I tell her that she is very kind, but there’s probably nothing she can do.

But, you must get very lonely there all by yourself,’ she will say. ‘Why don’t you come round and I will cook you dinner? Or I could come over.’

Lois is the most attractive of Elle’s friends and she is recently divorced. Although the offer is tempting, it wouldn’t seem right, would it?

Maybe another time,’ I say.

No-one would need to know if that’s what you are worried about,’ she says.

The letter that arrives contains five random six by four photos. There is no message to accompany the photos and the address on the front of the envelope is printed on a sticky label in the anonymous Times New Roman font. The communication does not actually suggest that it is from Elle, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Elle in front of The Bell in Tanworth in Arden in Warwickshire. Although I cannot remember the specific shot, I could have easily taken this photo. I can recall Elle and I going there about ten years ago to see the singer, Nick Drake’s grave. Northern Sky was always one of her favourites. I like Pink Moon. There is a photo of Elle with Thomas and Maddie in a rowing boat on the lake in the local park. I presumably took this one.

Who took the other photos is less clear-cut. They are of me and Suzie. I had almost forgotten about Suzie. It must have been the year before last. Who could have sent these random pics and what exactly are they trying to say? There is not even a blackmail note. Come to think of it what use would that be anyway. All in all the communication makes no sense. It is difficult to make out the postmark on the envelope. I think about it for a while and then decide to call the police. I decide to hold the three of me and Suzie back. A plainclothes policewoman comes over to collect. She looks about thirteen.

I’ll get the forensics team to examine these closely,’ she says. She writes a receipt, to my surprise in joined-up writing, and takes the envelope and photos away.

I hear nothing more from the police regarding the matter. When I enquire it appears that the package has gone missing. I begin to wonder if the youngster that came round was a real policewoman. Perhaps, in my confusion, I called the wrong number or something and someone is playing a joke on me.

Isn’t it unusual for evidence on a case to go missing?’ I say.

The duty officer, whose name I don’t manage to catch, says that he has had a good look but can find no reference to the case I am speaking about.

The disappearance of my wife and children,’ I say, angrily.

He puts me on hold again. I am subjected to ten minutes of Suspicious Minds and when he comes back on he says he has no record of this.

Would you like to go over it again?’ he says.

I would like to speak to Sergeant Filcher,’ I say.

He tells me that Sergeant Filcher is currently on sick leave.

……………………………………

I cannot say for sure that I am being followed, and it’s only occasionally that it happens, but once or twice lately when I’m driving out to see clients, I notice there is a dark blue Tiguan with obscured registration plates on my tail. It appears out of nowhere a couple of blocks from where I live. On the occasions that I go a roundabout route, the Tiguan does the same. Duke tells me I am being paranoid.

It’s not the bizzies, Matt,’ he says. ‘They mostly drive Fords.’

Why do you think we’re being followed then, Duke?’ I say, squinting to try and make out who is driving the Tiguan, but it has tinted windows and the sun shade is down.

Is it the same one?’ he says. ‘There are a lot of them about and they are nearly all dark blue?’

It looks like the same one,’ I say. ‘Tinted windows and sun shade down.’

It’s just one of those things,’ he says. ‘Tiguans have a tendency to tail you. I’ve noticed that before. And they all have tinted windows but still the drivers drive with the sun shade down.’

Is he serious or is he just having me on? Perhaps they are tailing Duke.

Later, in The Blind Monkey, Lois asks me what is wrong. She says I seem worried about something. I tell her about the Tiguan tailing me. She echoes Duke’s thoughts. She has noticed it too, she says. Tiguan drivers have a habit of tailing you. Like red sky at night, shepherd’s delight or the grass is greener on the other side, it is one of those commonplace assertions that despite you wanting to think otherwise, keep proving to be right. Where on earth did she get that from? Is she in collusion with Duke?

Oh! Did I not say? I have started seeing Lois. Two or three times a week, and perhaps the occasional weekend. And she has started to stop over. Well, I can’t be expected to live like a monk, can I? Besides, what would people think if Matt Black couldn’t get a girl? They might think I was batting for the other side.

……………………………………

I think that the Tiguan driver might be a private detective. I read on the internet that the car of choice for private detectives is a VW Tiguan. Apparently, nearly all private eyes in the UK drive a Tiguan and their favourite colour is dark blue. A survey has shown that this is the least conspicuous car on the road, followed by a grey Tiguan and a grey Ford Focus. Why would a private detective be following me? Might it be because of Lois? Or for that matter, Duke?

Something else has been bothering me. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I can’t help but be a little concerned with the speed with which Lois has dispatched the children’s things to the garage and the amount of Elle’s things she took to the tip last week.

Elle won’t need this,’ she kept saying.

Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Elle’s clothes and, it seemed, quite a lot of her personal papers. It is one thing Lois making room to move some of her things in so that she can stay over but another her taking over the house. I mentioned that this might be happening to Duke but he just laughed.

Now, you really are becoming paranoid,’ he said. ‘Why can’t you ever enjoy something for what it is?’

……………………………………

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I watched the match on Sky. It was a tense affair with a lot at stake. The Reds were finally beaten by a last minute goal by ex-Blues striker, Joe Turner and are now relegated. To make matters worse the Blues are promoted. I think that Lois was a bit shocked at the level of my support for the Reds, but she did manage to stop me before I actually put the hammer through the TV screen at the end of the match. I don’t think she likes football a lot. This doesn’t bode well.

The phone rings. It is an ebullient Inspector Filcher. He has the air of a man who is on ecstasy and has just been told he will live forever. He reminds me in great detail about the match last night, what the result means for my team and what he said a year ago. Surely he has not phoned up to tell me this. Surely he cannot get so much pleasure at another’s misfortune.

And, what about the Blues?’ he adds. ‘Ironic or what!’

I am about to put the phone down when he says that he too has been promoted. He asks me if I will come down to the station but says he is not going what it is about over the phone. Has he been handed back the case? Have there been developments?

Who was that?’ says Lois. She is already dressed.

It was Filcher,’ I say.

I thought that you said he was….. off the case,’ she says.

He was. But he’s back. There may have been developments. He wants me to come down at the station.’ Lois seems suddenly nervous.

That’s …… great news,’ she says, although her body language tells a different story. Her muscles tense and the colour drains out of her face.

I think I’ll phone Duke,’ I say. ‘Get him to look into it.’

No! Don’t do that,’ she says.

Why not?’

I can’t really say.’

But I’m bound to find out.’

All right. ……… Are you ready? It was Duke that helped Elle move her things out that night, a year ago. While you were at your football do.’

Duke? Never. He wouldn’t do that.’

Well, he did. You are so unobservant you didn’t even realise that Elle was seeing Duke’s brother, Earl. Didn’t you think it was suspicious the way she used to dress to go to Pilates?’

But she didn’t take anything. Not even her car.’

She took lots of things. As I said, you are really not very observant. And, let’s face it, the Fiat was a wreck. You know she kept on at you to get her a new one.’

But, why did she do it? I mean, go off with Duke’s brother like that behind my back. We were getting along fine.’

She said she was fed up with your lies and deceit. And the sordid little affairs. And the football. Constant football. Day and night.’

What about the children? What about Thomas and Maddie?’

Elle says that you never took any notice of the children. She said she was surprised you could even remember their names.’

What about you, Lois? If I’m so terrible, why did you keep chasing after me?’

Chasing after you? That’s a laugh. Well, you’re so stupid, perhaps I’d better explain. I started phoning you, initially to report back to Elle. It was amusing, playing with you like that. Then, a month ago, out of the blue, I was given notice to move out of my flat, so moving some things in here seemed the easy option. You weren’t exactly resistant to the idea. You didn’t think this was a permanent arrangement, did you? But that business last night with the match on the TV. Well, that was the final straw.’

I believe that it is time I got a word in to present my side of the case, but Lois’s tirade is not yet finished.

And the thing is,’ she continues, ‘you just don’t see it. You always think you are right. You bend the truth to suit you. Black is white. Up is down. You are the most self-absorbed person I’ve met. Your way of seeing things is so far removed from the way things are that it might as well be a parallel universe.’

OK! OK! You’ve made your point. So, how does Filcher fit into all this? What is it he wants to tell me?’

I’ve no idea,’ says Lois. ‘It wouldn’t have been that hard to find your family. It’s not going to have taken the police a year. Anyway, I imagine Filcher knew that Elle had gone off with Earl, or something like that. That’s why he fobbed you off. If you had been a bit more resourceful then you could have found them yourself.’

But Filcher went off sick. What was that all about?’

Probably just overwork. Rising crime rates and all that. Sometimes they have to deal with proper crimes, you know. Well. You do know. You’ve been on the wrong side of them yourself once or twice in the past. In fact, what you and Duke are doing now isn’t exactly legal, is it? Perhaps Filcher wants to catch up on what is happening there.’

I am slowly running out of places to take the discussion.

What about the photos?’ I say. ‘Who sent the photos and what happened to them?’

I don’t know who sent the photos,’ she says, ‘or what happened to them. For all I know, it might have been Elle having a laugh. ….. And, before you ask, I don’t know who has been following you either. Perhaps that’s just something else that you’ve made up.’

But you agreed with Duke about the Tiguan. You said that ……’

Ah, Duke! We are back to Duke. Your trusted right-hand man, who would never double-cross you. Get a life, will you! Do you think that you can trust anyone in your line of work.’

I’m going out now,’ I tell her. ‘When I get back, I want you gone.’

No problem. I couldn’t stay a minute longer.’

As I slam the front door, I see that Frank Fargo is painting his picket fence.

Hello,’ he calls out. ‘Nice morning!’

Morning Frank,’ I say. I’m not in the mood for Frank. It’s a pity I parked the car on the street and not the drive.

Your new ….. girlfriend is very pretty,’ he says. ‘Lois, isn’t it?’

What!’ I say.

Very nice. Your new girlfriend.’ He has put down the brush now and is coming over.

I expect you saw her yourself,’ he says, ‘but I noticed your wife, uh, Elle, round here yesterday.’

No. I didn’t see her.’

She was in a dark blue Tiguan. With a big burly black fellow. He looked a bit like your man, Count. I think they might be moving into number 96. …….. You’ll be able to see a bit more of the children then, I expect. Lovely children.’

What!’ I say again. I am dumbstruck.

He is not finished yet. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but what is it that you and Count do exactly?’ he says. ‘It’s just that I’m writing a new story. It’s a bit of a departure from my spy novels and it has a pair of small-time underworld characters in it, so I was curious as to what type of activities bring in the money.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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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