|Posted by Mark Cantrell on August 21, 2013 at 3:55 PM|
The Man Who Dreamed
Short Fiction By Mark Cantrell
OUT of all the offices in all of the city, she just had to walk into mine.
She wasn't what you'd call the standard classy dame; more phlegm then femme, if you catch my drift, but in this town a man's got to roll with the dice and take whatever comes along.
If I was honest with the lady, I'm not your typical gumshoe. But tell it straight and I'd be out of this business quicker than a dime vanishing inside a miser's purse. I'm no Cary Grant, barely a Philip Marlow, but I've got an NVQ and an ear for the Sin[k] City so I figured the least I could do was hear her out.
Hey, I'm that kind of guy, always a sucker for a sob story. If they've got the dough, I've got the case. So come on in, lady, I don't bite.
"Yerdicksweeney," she accused. It got 'em every time; it was getting tired, but I'll be damned if I'm ever going to be a full-on Richard.
"That's Rick," I said, just a hint of annoyance to my tone "You know, like in Casablanca?"
"What's in Casablanca?"
Trust me, rolling the eyes is never a good look, so I settled for a suitably world-weary sigh. "Lady, it's a movie. With Humphrey Bogart. You know?"
"Oh. I don't watch much telly."
The lady's voice wasn't what you'd call husky, more saw-toothed from the cheap cigarettes she smoked. The stink clung to her clothes. I recognised the brand as she slunk into my office; I'd stubbed my last an hour ago, and it was a real test not to cadge a smoke. We'd already got off to a bad start.
Time to try again. I offered her a seat. She looked at the chair as though it might collapse under her weight. She was stick thin beneath her baggy clothes, but she might have had a point. The chair was somebody's fire sale cast-off. And old. A furnishing I'd kind of inherited when I set up shop in this Cheapside office.
She sat. More careful than comfortable, but she didn't look back at me, just stared down at my desk as if the light from the grimy windows was too bright. In truth, she seemed physically incapable of looking people in the eyes. You get a lot of that in this City of Lost Souls; I tried to set her at ease by getting down to business.
"What can I do for you, Miss... ?"
"Chlamydia. Chlamydia Scratchett. Me friends call me Clammy."
Okay. That's fine, I mentally shrugged. "So what can I do for you... Clammy?"
"It's me brother. Ridley. He's vanished. Nobody's seen him for weeks."
Missing persons. In my experience, such cases tended to be dull; some poor sap who just didn't want to be found, but they were the 'tec's staple diet. What they lacked in glamour, they made up for in a steady paycheque. Then a thought scratched my head. The name was familiar.
"Not the Ridley Scratchett?"
"Me brother, yes."
Everybody knew of Ridley Scratchett. He was part of the city's local colour, a character straight out of a bad novel but real life flesh and blood. Ridley Scratchett. Failed womaniser, poet of little repute, drunkard and - so he liked claim to anyone drunk enough to listen - an international porn star and super-spy.
"Not the guy who's spent years looking for the mythical Lost City of Bradford?"
"That's him," she said, a wan smile flitting across her face.
"I never knew he had a sister."
"Most people don't."
"So what do you think has happened to him, Miss Scratchett?"
I knew Ridley. Kind of. Many an hour had passed in a drunken blur, Ridley's voice echoing in my ears. He was a melancholic kind of figure, but mostly harmless. It was difficult to think of anyone who might want to do him damage, other than the usual city lowlife. But that was impersonal catastrophe; a daily hazard, like tripping over your shoelaces.
"I think he found it."
She only nodded.
"Lady, it's just a myth. The place doesn't exist."
Miss Scratchett didn't reply. I felt bad. Here she was, reaching out for help, her brother missing, and all I'd thrown at her was petty scorn. That kind of thing doesn't help the beer tab, and when I thought about it, I did owe Ridley more than few jars. Not bad going from a man who was little more than an acquaintance.
I tried to recollect Ridley. He wasn't much, maybe, but if he was all she had I suppose he was better than nothing. There were worse bums out there in this city.
But if the lady expected me to validate her brother's obsessions, find him in some world of make-believe, then I figured a gumshoe like me just wasn't the trade she needed. I deal in hard knocks and down-at-heal reality, not dreams of life beyond the rainbow. Then again a cheque's a cheque, so long as it doesn't bounce. I had to consider the ethics of the case as much as the practicalities, that was plain, so I let Miss Scratchett fidget while I mulled the pros and cons of her cash.
Ridley. Bradford. He'd told me something about it once. Well, many times if truth be told, but usually I was too inebriated to care. Except that one time, when he told me all about it before the watered-down beer had managed to take effect.
"Bradford! It's out there you know. It's a real place. Not like this shit 'ole." Ridley's arm swiped in an arc, almost dislodging somebody's beer. I looked across at the scowling meatface at the next table and offered an apology, but Ridley was away with his obsession and oblivious to any danger.
"Bradford. No it's not like this place," he said. "They got real bars there. Cafes, theatres; it's a dead exciting, multicultural city. Good place for me. I could really be meself there."
"So where is it, then?"
"It got lost. See? Misplaced. A whole city. But I can find it. I am going to find it." His eyes gleamed lusty; he winked and stroked his greying goatee beard. "They say in Bradford the women is even friendlier than the beer. I aim to find it!"
Now that was pure fantasy. I just laughed and sipped my drink. "It doesn't exist," I said, in almost the same scathing tone I used with his sister just now in my office.
Ridley had narrowed his eyes. "It exists all right. And I'm close to finding it. I can feel it in me knob!"
"Yeah? Well feel your knob somewhere else - you'll sour the beer."
It was a haze after that, but Ridley has that kind of effect on people; when was it, a month, two months ago? The memory was timed out, that's all I could recollect.
So, his sister thinks he found the place. I was sceptical, but if I laid my cards down on the table, I needed the work. Bradford or bust, wherever he'd gone, I'd find the man and bring him home.
"I don't know about Bradford, Clammy, but if anyone can find Ridley, then I'm your man."
So there you go. That's how it began. Rick Sweeney, P.I., was on the case.
18 August 2013
Copyright (c) January 2003/August 2013. All Rights Reserved.
BACK in August 2002, I got an idea for a darkly comical story featuring gross caricatures of some of my friends.
It didn't remain that way for long. As the characters took on a life of their own, they ceased to have any reflection on their supposed 'real world' counterparts. The seeds of a novel were sown.
Here we are years later, and perhaps I should say the idea was stillborn. All the same, in 2003 I knocked out a quick draft that would make the beginnings of said novel; a noirish pastiche on the detective novel, but retaining the black (okay, crap) humour I originally envisaged.
The story remains just an idea, but I decided to return to the introduction I'd originally written and give it a brief makeover for publication on this blog. This is the resulting text. Still raw in many respects, maybe one day it will finally blossom into a full-blown novel.