Thursday, 25 August 2011

Girls by David Lewis

I killed the call, crumpled the betting slip into a tight ball and let it drop to the ground.

Another bastardyin horse that might as well have been running on three legs.

I ordered up a coffee from the support workers' van and, when it came, placed it on a low brick wall. Found my skoosh bottle and turned my brew Irish.

With a track record like ours, that seemed an unfair slight on our Celtic cousins. I mean, did they turn their coffee Scottish? I conjured up an old piece of wisdom from the Emerald Isle: The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man.

Got stuck into the coffee. Needed it big time on a night like this. I was on Salamander Street. The heart of Edinburgh's red light district.

I’d been hired by a pimp. But I wouldn't be bending over backwards, or any which way. I was the night watchman. On a job that paid cold, hard cash.

And, fuck, how I needed that.

Home was a bedsit over an abandoned shop in the heart of old Leith. I had no furniture. Not so much as a bed or a kitchen chair. I kipped on a sleeping bag on a hard, wooden floor.

My wife, estranged of course, had a fuck-off sized, five-bedroom place in millionaires’ row, Morningside. Room enough for a dinosaur. A gift in death from her parents. It had never been for me.

Work was slow and unsteady. Since I'd left the force, I'd tried my hand at private investigating.

That's me, a real Dick Tracy. Only, here in Scotland, it's not so glamorous as it looks on American telly. First few jobs were chipping apart insurance rackets. Felt guilty about those gigs, but if I was wanting paid - and I needed paid - I had to catch these guys at the razz. So I did.

Then came along a couple of divorce briefs. An extra couple of hundred quid in the brown envelope if I got a good snap of Mister Jones enthusiastically necking Missus Robinson.

Now I had a job that paid real good. Half up front, half when the job was done. The two halves made a very tidy whole, and with a wad of crisp twenty-pound notes already weighing me down,

I wasn't going to fuck it up.

Some working girls had ended up in hospital. Brutal assaults. Three times in as many weeks. All bossed by the same pimp, who, unsurprisingly, wasn't best pleased.

My former esteemed colleagues on the blue line had come up with all the usual pish. Our enquiries are ongoing.

Like fuck. I was a cop once. I knew.

Two long-legged skinny women tried desperately to keep their balance as they tottered on ridiculous spikes towards me. See them from a distance, you'd want to know more. At as close quarters as I was, I wanted no more.

Dressed in skirts so short they might as well come out in their skants, and tattered black tights, the smiles on their faces and cackling laughter echoing through their lips couldn't fool me.

I placed the polystyrene cup back on the wall. Pulled my fags out, lit one, and offered the pack towards the girls. They knew who I was, but had tried to stay clear. Doubted I was good for business.

"Takes a bit more than that tae get ma pants roond ma ankles," one said. They both laughed.

I brushed that off. Heard their heels scrape against the concrete as they made past me. They headed to the van for free condoms and coffee.

Let an old funny run through my head, the one about the dyslexic vice cop and the warehouse ...

Street brassers were few and far between. Business was slow. Prostitution, like drugs, booze and gambling, was changing. When it came to this industry, the internet was now king. Jeez, was there anything you couldn't do online? Was waiting for a laptop to come complete with flushing pan.

The local paper was in hysterics. The attacks had led to a series of stories; Sex In Our City or some shite like that. The game was being split by a class war, for fuck’s sake.

Sure, your average Joe still wanted sucked off in the back of his Astra for a tenner. But, I'd read, four hundred now got you a perky, how-to-do student for the night, complete with the comfort of the Balmoral. Or the Immoral, as the lags at the paper had rebranded it.

My client catered for all tastes.

When it came to the case, truth was I hadn't made much progress. A few questions here and there had uncovered nothing. Old cop pals I could trust, a journo I'd traded favour with a thousand times ... nothing. Hee-fucking-haw.

My pimp pal remained calm, but I doubted that would last. Wasn't in his nature. Guys like that, they always get what they want. Especially when they've paid for a service. Paid up front even.

If I didn't deliver results, I'd find myself in some serious shit.

I was rusty and wasn't getting far. I'd left the force in a hasty haze. Threw a tantrum and ripped up my warrant card on the spot. Did fuck all for a while, except gamble away everything I had.

When I came to, everything had gone. My wife, my home, my career. Was barely left with a pot to piss in.

Long as there was one to drink out of, I was happy.

Heard the girls walking back out on to the main road, cups clenched in hand. I nodded as they past. "Going down well?" I said.

I meant the fucking coffee, but it was too late. I was suddenly centre stage at an end of the pier show.

“Why don’t we go find out, darlin’? one of the girls said. “Tell ye what – I’ll dae ye half price …’

Mustered a smile. “You’re all right … thanks anyway.”

“Ah, come on, I can see yer dick twitching fae here.”

I shuddered.

Heels scraped as the girls headed away along Salamander Street, laughing to themselves.

Headlights appeared in the distance. As the car got near the girls, it started to slow. I retreated into the shadows to watch.

A roar came from the engine and my heart lurched. There was a screech and the car was on the pavement. I heard a scream. And then another. The car bounced back on to the road and charged past me.

For a second or two, there was nothing but silence. Then another cry pierced the air. My blood froze. I knew instantly I’d never forget that sound. It would wake me from my sleep, haunt my days.

I started to run. One of the girls was sparked out on the cold concrete. The other was crouching over her, crying. There was blood on the pavement. I stood over them, my mouth hanging open.

The conscious girl looked up at me, her eyes wild and sharp. “Fuckin’ dae sumfing … yer just fuckin’ standin’ there … fuckin’ dae sumfing.”

I fumbled desperately through my pockets, hunting for my mobi. Dropped it on the ground. Thing was so outdated, it just about bounced back. Picked it up, brushed it off, and with a shaky hand punched in 999.

I did what I could until flashing blue lights were charging towards us. I told the first uniforms on the scene everything I knew. They didn’t recognise my face or my name when I told them I was a hired snout. When I heard one of their radios crackle into life with the words CID on the way, I slipped unnoticed from the scene. Jumped in my Mondeo and eased out on to the street.

Had no idea where I was going as I drove around the city, but I had a vague memory of the car I was looking for and figured that would do.

Circled the city for a couple of hours before I saw it. Badly parked outside a Chinese restaurant in Stockbridge.

I pulled up and headed inside. A bell chimed above the door as I entered. Two young Chinese women scuttled towards me. I raised a hand, said: “Just looking for someone.”

He wouldn’t be hard to find. The restaurant’s sole customer was a middle-aged guy. Thin and balding. He sat in the corner, staring into a dish.

I moved slowly towards him. His eyes darted in my direction, but only for a fleeting second. He shovelled a pile of food on to his fork and flung it down his trap.

I pulled out a seat across from him. He looked up.

“Can I help you?’” he said.

“Yeah, I think you probably can.”

He checked over both shoulders. Guessed he expected the cavalry.

“You were there, weren’t you?” he said.

“Uh-huh.”

“Is she okay?”

“You care?”

He shrugged and returned to his dinner. Wasn’t much left on his plate. He scraped a few bits of rice together. I reached out and grabbed his wrist. He moaned but didn't fight me.

“Are you a cop?” he said. Kept his head down.

“I was.”

He lifted his eyes. “What does that mean?”

“It means I’m not any more. I’m working privately, for the guy who looks after those girls. He’s not a very nice man, and it’s fair to say he’s not very happy.”

“Like I care about him.”

I released his arm. There was a clatter as his fork dropped to the ground. He made to pick it up.

“Leave it,” I said.

Staff were gathering to watch. They were muttering what I supposed was Mandarin to each other.

I flashed them a look I hoped said you even think of calling the cops there’ll be a staff special on tomorrow’s menu.

“You better tell me a story,” I said. “Or there’s no hope for you – do you understand that?”

“I’ll go to jail … I don’t care.”

“Believe me, your arse being used as a train tunnel is the least of your concerns right now.”

He looked up and we held an impromptu staring contest. His eyes dropped first and with it, I guessed, his heart. “Ok, I’ll talk,” he said.

Then: “Do you have kids?”

I shook my head, whispered that I didn't and tried to block out the reasons why.

“You’ll probably not understand then.”

“Try me.”

He sighed and spoke slowly. “A few weeks ago, I was through in Glasgow, at a conference for work. I’d had a lot to drink, couldn’t drive home so decided to stay at the hotel. Just as I was going upstairs, one of the guys handed me a business card. He said, if you get lonely.”

I didn’t need to ask. Prompted him to keep talking.

He did.

“Look, I’d never done it before. I’m happily … well, I’m married. Sex isn’t … it isn’t an issue. You have to understand that.”

I didn’t.

Said: “I do.”

“So I phoned this number, asked for ...” He lowered his head. The shame had turned his cheeks red and he was on the verge of tears. “I … asked for a girl. When she came … Jesus, I can barely say it … when she came, it was … it was my fucking daughter.”

“Christ on a bike,” I said.

Shit like that, it’s enough to make a man slice his own knob off and flush it down the fucking toilet.

He looked into my eyes and said: “Yeah.”

“You didn’t know she was …”

He hammered a fist down on the table. Plates and cutlery bounced. “No, I fucking didn’t.”

“So, what?” I said. “This is your revenge?”

His eyes fixed on me. I could have sworn they flashed red. “Those girls are better off dead than
whores.”

I contemplated that for a moment, and then said: “They’re all somebody’s daughters.”

“What’s your name?’” he said.

“Blair … Blair Gilchrist.”

“What happens now, Blair?”

“Where’s your daughter?”

“At home. She hasn’t been out since – I’ve made sure of that.”

“Does your wife know?”

“No!” He couldn’t have been more emphatic.

I ran things through my mind. “What I want you to do,” I said, “is go home, hug your daughter, tell her you love her, and then … and then, do nothing.”

“What – that’s it?”

I stood up, placed a hand on his shoulder, said: “That’s not my call.”

Outside, in my car, I counted out the cash burning a hole in my pocket.

Money had caused a great deal of pain in my life.

I wondered if this would prove the wad that hurt me most of all.