Here’s a standalone story about the life saving possibilities of tobacco – in a way. I never have smoked myself, but almost everyone I know has or does, and is seems to me that it’s a habit that’s ridiculously under-represented in recent fiction
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“How about one last cigarette?”
I don’t know where I found the words, or the calm voice that produced them. I can only imagine that the whimsy amused him, but he didn’t let me off the hook too easily, all the same. His light, mocking voice floated back to me from beyond the fan of blinding torches, reminding me that he had done his homework, that he knew I didn’t smoke. There was a polite ripple of amusement from his men. They might be cold, and tired, and bored almost to the point of suicidal stupidity, but they knew when their boss had made a funny.
“Oh, I used to. Gave it up for my health.”
I listened distantly to the nonchalant voice that seemed to answer without my conscious control, and was too grateful to care that my own attempt at humour fell flat. The only answer was the small box that flew out of the brightness, and I believe that if I had fumbled it I would have died there and then, scrabbling for my fix on the muddy cobbles like the lowest addict. That would have amused him, too. But my reflexes were always good; my hand was reaching out for them before I knew what I had seen, and I plucked them out of the air with the graceful flourish of a conjuror.
I still don’t know how.
God, but the first one is good. I must have been half way down it before I came back to my senses. Against all probability, I had snatched myself ten minutes out of the darkness, and what was I doing with it?
Enjoying a smoke.
For a moment I was close to flinging it away from me in the impatient gesture of the serial quitter. But my hand remembered, perhaps, if my head forgot, that the little spark at the end of the cigarette marked out all the time I had.
The moment passed. I settled my shoulders back against the alley wall. So I was filling my stolen moments with tobacco smoke. What else? Of the top ten ways to go, it was the only one that presented itself as a credible option. In the arms of a beautiful woman was clearly right out of contention. In a blaze of glory had never been my style – and anyway, there was no hope of glory in this. They knew exactly what they were doing, even if I had no idea why they were doing it. Four of them, at least – four torches, and by implication four guns, though I had seen only one – and they had got the drop on me neatly, herding me down the alley before I knew how much trouble I was in, hemming me in, cutting me off. And I was just one man, and unarmed.
I took another drag, and watched the smoke coiling up in the torchlight, wondering almost idly who he was, what I’d done to annoy him so badly. I couldn’t see him being connected to any job that I had on – to any job that I was likely to have on. I just don’t have that kind of caseload. I found my mind drifting to the messages I’d listened to that morning, as if any one of them could possibly have led to this.
There had been more on the tape than usual, but I’d been away. An aging trophy wife – almost thirty-five, and not quite the trophy she’d once been – who wanted to know if her husband’s trips to Antwerp were strictly business. Who thought she wanted to know, anyway. Turned out she didn’t, though she might pay my bill one day, once she gets over calling me scurrilous names as if I’d come to her with the pictures of my own accord.
So. A cup of coffee – black, of necessity – a fresh pad, and the baleful red light of the machine. A clutch of messages calculated to make me feel, if possible, even lower than the gutter combing vulture so recently ejected from the beautiful home of the sadly disillusioned Mrs Phillips.
James Powell, crisp and business-like and almost succeeding in hiding his embarrassment that his first choice notice server was an old friend.
That had been two days ago, and he’d said that he’d hold them till ten. But by ten I’d been in Antwerp, though all in all I’m not fond enough of Antwerp not to have preferred the prospect of James’s notices. They may not pay well, but they pay on the nail. Lousy expenses, though, and to be fair to Mrs Phillips she hadn’t been tight with the expenses. Tickets and spending money waiting for me before I’d even accepted the job, and careful instructions on the route I was to take, and the ferries available for my return.
Celia Hines, careful, restrained, an undercurrent of panic threatening to overwhelm her. I hadn’t heard three words before I knew the sort of job she had for me, a job that she begged me to take because the police couldn’t – wouldn’t help her.
I could understand how it would seem that way to her, but I knew how their hands were tied. Her missing husband was a grown man, and there were no suspicious circumstances. I wasn’t confident that I could give her an answer she’d like – some men just get tired of the life they have – but I was confident that I could find some trace of him. It’s surprisingly difficult to disappear without significant forward planning, and if I couldn’t trace him through his bank there was a good chance that he’d made himself memorable paying cash. I realised as I listened to her plea that I’d been a little unfair to Mrs Phillips; she’d really managed a remarkably slick operation for me, though I’d been impatient with her instructions and her detailed account of how she had made her arrangements without any risk of her husband discovering them.
I rang the number without much hope, thinking I could at least persuade Celia Hines that someone in the cold world cared. By the time I got through to her, she didn’t need my services anymore. She’d managed to interest the police in her husband at last. And the press, too. I rang off in a chastened mood; there are worse things to lose than a fee that you’ve worked for.
John, ahem, Smith. Casual and collected and as vague as he could be about the nature of his call, but more than making up for it in the precision of his contact details. Any money it was a blackmail case, and a shame there was no-one to take my bet.
I played phone tag with him amongst my other calls, and then spent a weary half hour persuading him to call the police. At least it was half an hour on his call and I did my civic duty for free; I was getting to have had enough of unpaid work – and Mrs Phillips had looked like a payer. I’d been certain that she only wanted proof, but the proof I’d offered her she’d thrown back at me with imprecations, cursing me for my dirty mind.
James, no longer crisp, or business-like, or even embarrassed.
My old friend furious because a client of mine had called his office for a reference – as if I’d ever give anyone his number for that. I’m on thin enough ice with his senior partner Cravens as it is. It was a shame, but I could shrug it off and wait for the storm to pass. He’d work out for himself, once he calmed down, that it’s not hard to find out I have a retainer to the firm, or that they sometimes redirect the odd job my way. Sometimes I’d rather they didn’t. They generally turn out to be the ones that come back to haunt me, or, like the estimable Mrs Phillips, have me traipsing interminably round trading estates in the rain.
Dylan Maguire, tired and bored and ticking off an easy job to make his day feel more productive.
He had a nice little electronic surveillance job for me, but that was never my field. I was always a leg man, and returned his call only to pass on the number of an old friend with more sense than me – you’ll never catch Toby traipsing round with a camera, though if he tried it, you would catch him. Each to his own. It happens I’m good that way, and even with all the lens I need to get a good shot from a reasonable distance, there’s not one job in ten goes sour on me.
Mary Sanders, young and brash but under it all closer to tears than the widow Hines.
Another faithless husband, another job that’s hardly worth the grief. It’s bad enough when the man turns out to be a genuine workaholic, because it’s dull as all Hell tailing them and impossible to satisfactorily prove a negative, but worse when they’re guilty as charged and the girl blows up in your face because what she really wanted was to be proved wrong. Mr Phillips was the worst of all possible worlds, a workaholic with a bit on the side; a dozen dreary business meetings, and his wife spitting venom at me: that’s not what you were supposed to find.
Mr Soane. I should be fairer to Mr Soane than I am. I should call him Greg, as he has repeatedly asked me to. I should make it easier for him to do a job I’d hate. But Mr Soane still works for John Company, and perhaps I can’t forgive him that.
I had a lot of fun out of John Company, before an injury to my hip put me out on the street. I’m probably about as fit now as I ever was, but they’ll never trust my nerve again, and I can’t say I blame them. So, an annuity and Gregory Soane. Officially he’s my welfare officer. Their touching concern for my on-going wellbeing might give me more of a warm fuzzy feeling if I didn’t know they keep tabs on us for fear of what we might be tempted to if we fell on hard times.
He mentioned a job, so I swallowed my pride and called him back. A customs job, not exactly what the doctor ordered for my wounded pride. I let him describe the hooky cigarettes they were looking for, then turned him down flat on anything more. It was childish, but I’d seen enough bonded warehouses to last me a while, and had enough messages left on the tape to think that something might come from them.
Kal Dhaliwal. Another bored suit marking off an easy item on his list, but I was a little more interested in this one. He’s put a few things my way before, security audits that are right up my alley, and I rang him back like a shot.
I was too late. He’d held it as long as he could, but he needed an answer. If I hadn’t stayed in Antwerp for just one more meeting I might have called him back in time – and boy do I wish I’d come home on that earlier boat. Up till then I’d got a dozen good shots of our Mr Phillips and his business contacts. They were uniformly well fed, well dressed, anonymous men in suits; after the first three I was so bored of them that I’d even stopped wondering why they all looked vaguely familiar. They were of a type, and it wasn’t impossible that they’d smiled back at me from the business pages with the same tight false smiles they were sharing with my mark. But no, I had to stay, I had to be conscientious, I had to tail him to one last meeting . . . and that one was certainly not a business meeting.
Mrs Phillips, sharper and more anxious than I could readily account for, asking where I was, why I wasn’t spot on time with the evidence she’d paid for.
I was at the foot of her drive, as it happened, when she called, and I’m not sure how she thought I’d make it any faster. I’d dashed back and printed the two shots I needed, dropped off my camera without taking the time to wipe the card, damn near broken my neck getting there a measly five minutes late . . . and she’d hated me for giving her the proof she’d demanded, thrown me out with no payment, and I’d slunk home and fallen into bed, and here we are, back at the beginning.
A cup of coffee – black, of necessity – another clean page, and the baleful red light of the machine. One last message calculated to make me feel, if possible, even lower than the gutter combing vulture so recently ejected from the beautiful home of the sadly disillusioned Mrs Phillips.
James Powell, exasperated but no longer angry, warning me I’d be getting a bill for storage, this time, because Cravens had seen the camera before he could put it away. Telling me I was lucky, but this time that was all I’d get. Softening enough to ask why I never told them what the junior, skimming through my memory card in the hopes of salacious titillation, had discovered about the good work I’d been doing for our friends in blue.
And he cut off abruptly, as he tends to if he thinks Cravens might catch him being approximately human, and left me wondering what criminal activity he thought I’d photographed, unless the long stay parking fees were visible in the background of a shot.
And I’d put it out of mind, and spent my day trudging round, watching potential work evaporate, until it had come to this. A dark alley, a fan of torch light, the comfort and clarity of one last cigarette.
The glow worm hadn’t reached the gold band at the filter’s tip, but it didn’t seem wise to push my luck – or his patience. He hadn’t struck me, over our short acquaintance, as a patient man. I looked straight out into the brightness, and this time when I spoke I knew exactly where the words came from
“Thank you, Mr Phillips; I knew I’d appreciate your brand. Now, before we do anything rash, let’s talk about how I’m the only person who can get my flash card out of my solicitor’s safe, shall we? You do want me to fetch you that flash card, don’t you, Mr Phillips? You wouldn’t want my solicitor looking at all those nice clear photos of you shaking hands with your business partners, now, would you?”