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coupling - Chapter 1

gum shoed

I am about to make my first kill of the day.

Correction: the first kill I notice.

The bug crawling along the pavement has less than five seconds to live, but, in the way of bugs, does not move aside, does not switch from his path until it is too late. My black boot slams down firmly upon him, and I hear the crunch that signals I have left a thousand larvae without a daddy.

I wipe Mr. Roach's gloop across the concrete without breaking pace. My life is full of such ungracious beasts. I have more important things on my mind this afternoon than the fate of things insect. The fate of things bright, boyish and beautiful, to be exact. I've been on the Nick-hunt three weeks now, and I'm closing in. Following his spores. Another 48 hours, max. He will not crack my will, my perfect record, my arc of silver stars.

Things sure have changed since Hammett's time. It's not treasure maps and wiretapping and cut-up newspaper headlines any more. Now, the Internet does most of the work. People's vanity always leads them to leave an electronic trail. You can log on from pretty much anywhere, 24/7, and that's when I'll grab you. Make my move. He's a sly one, though, hiding behind emoticons, cruising the bars for night traffic, never staying past morning coffee. Skimmed milk, no sugar. Doesn’t like it sweet. Me, I'm a four lump man. But I do the brewing.

In case you haven't twigged yet, I'm a Magnum. Private investigator. On the track of a recalcitrant boy.

Here's the backstory. Three weeks ago, this arriviste couple come into my office. Well, I call it an office. Even an estate agent would have trouble with that description. "Compact," I guess he'd have to say. Three foot by six (though this bothers me less than most, of course…). It's on the second floor of a former Triad lockup which can only be reached through the fabric store downstairs, run by a pair of creaky Far Eastern immigrants specialising in crochet prints of Vishnu. Mrs. Shah, who's been seventy for at least five years, thinks my "affliction" is a clear mark of devilry in a past life, which I show no sign of atoning for in the current one. Even in a slow month she has three times as many customers. More trade in carpets than wife watching. People'd rather fix a frayed rug than a frayed marriage.

At least I have no rent trouble. My absent parents pay the lease. My very absent parents. Car crash. Eight years ago. Nought to zero in sixty seconds. Two urns and half a room. A great bequest…Anyways, this pair of nouveaus - Mr. Fisher, £400 briefcase, "self-made" written all over him, Mrs. Fisher already garbed for the cocktail party they will undoubtedly vanish to once this unpleasant business is concluded - come into my little euphemism. I'm sat behind the desk as they enter. The usual "oh-we-didn’t-realise's" as I stand up.

"Happens," I say. Hustle Mrs. into the only other chair, the one with the broken backslat and wonky leg I got "as seen" from Oxfam Furniture. Can still take up to boxerweight, not that Mrs. is exactly in the Tyson league. Nine stone, tops, skinny as a heroin chick.

"Thank you." She doesn’t want to crease her dress, but sits to be polite. Mr. attempts a Fawlty march and bangs into the door. It's pretty hard to goosestep in my space.

"We have a situation we need assistance with." (Naturally he does the talking). "We hear you are discreet."

"Uh-huh," I reply. Trying to work out if that lofty fringe of his is a toupee. "How can I help?"

"It's our son."

"Right. Only child?"

"How did -"

"Call it intuition," I say. I'm one myself. If they had any spare heirs left they wouldn’t be here.

He launches into his tale of woe. Seems Junior is supposed to be studying for his A levels at a private college but has absconded with some unsuitable friends (italics theirs) to places unknown. "They - they take drugs, they don’t go to lessons. We even think some may be" - dramatic pause - "homosexuals."

"Really," I deadpan. "Homosexuals? How decadent."

"So you see why we can't involve the police," says Mr. "I'm on the Board of Governors at Nicholas's old school, for Chr -"

"We just want to make sure he's eating well," adds the mother.

I debate whether to enlighten them about the wonders of fellatio. "You have a photo?"

Maybe Mr. already knows. They hand over the ubiquitous brown envelope, containing nothing more sinister on this occasion than a shiny snapshot of the Fisher threesome - chosen more for the Happy Family atmosphere it conveys than as an accurate record of Nicky II in present form. The boy looks barely thirteen here, his teeth still in wire.

"That's the best picture you've got? I can't work with this."

"Oh…of course." Mr. reaches into his flashy case and passes me a three-by-five of Nick alone. Tougher. Sleeker. Sullen. Best Little Boy comes of age. And how. I feel a stirring, and not in my heart. Outline my terms, my conditions for the safe return of their child. Don't often get to pitch my Rolex rate, the big wads preferring an agency of more than uno. They nod, gravely, (both) sign the papers, but I sense the wife will soon crack. I've seen this before. Her life will seem unbalanced, off-kilter, without the boy. The son who has forced her to climb two storeys to a draughty room smaller than the closet where she keeps her ballgowns  - ah, a twisted lad indeed.

"I hope this proves a - successful venture," Mr. tells me, pumping my hand. Yup, definitely a toup.

The Fishers clack down the stairs to Fabrique. I listen to Mrs. Shah's bell announcing their departure, then for the Mercedes roar that follows it. All yours, Eddie. Problem solved.

So, that's how I got five grand richer. The rest payable on delivery of the brat, intact or nearly so (surely those homosexuals won't have munched more than one limb?). The Net having yielded nothing, I check the world outside the Web. Round up the usual suspects, list the Bars Most Likely. Revert to Humphrey's Spadesque probing - sans gun, of course. Ah, I sometimes hanker for that golden time, those noirish faces flickering across the patchy screen at a Saturday matinee. Bogart. Robinson. Cagney. Muni. Sydney Greenstreet as the big bad faggot they outsmarted. Those guys knew the meaning of class.

Unlike Bruce and Lance, proud owners of The Pink Pistol, the next dive on my rota. Yes, it is as bad as the name suggests. The Seventies arrived - and stayed for good in this place. The canny lads just OD'd on Abba and Mud and waited for shagpile and flock wallpaper to make a comeback so it would look retro instead of cheap.

Bruce and Lance were wrong.

I enter the bar to the sounds of Super Trouper, doing my best Bogie. All the charm of my cheery English father and the poise of my icy Stateside ma.

Or not. Try Dad's poise and Mom's charm. Even trenchcoats are strictly the preserve of paedos these days. Some of the queens snigger when they see me, mocking mouths hidden behind their freshly-moisturised hands.

I don’t care. Got used to it a long time ago. Better than that creep at The Randy Rimmer last night. He acted like I'd just offered him no-ob trial on the AIDS virus. Free protease inhibitors when you introduce a friend…

"I'm looking for a boy," I say.

The trannie at the counter gives me a leer, or as close as you can get to one after six shots of Botox. "Aren't we all, sweetheart?"

I force a smile and show the picture. "Ooh, he's a cutie. You find him, give Zelda a call, huh? Much obliged…"

"Zelda" takes a small compact from between false breasts and studies the reflection within, as if not able to bear being away from the image for more than a minute. Maybe hoping it will change to an unplastic lady. Pout, smack, jiggle, flutter, pout, and pout. Every move a parody of what a real girl would do. Well, I'm told implants can sometimes poison the brain.

I try to be patient with these creatures. But even my toleration has limits. Ten TV bars in two days does that to a man. You would be screaming long before I.

I think I'm all kitsched out. I step away from the counter and let Zelda get back to the business of loving her(?)self. This seems like a dead end.

"Hey," a voice says. "Hey."

A rumble from the corner booth. "I saw him. Made him breakfast. Little shit didn’t eat it, mind."

I take a closer look at this new speaker. Hitler 'tache, sunken cheekbones and the eyes of Garfield (John, not the cat). The strobe lights are giving him blue pox. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. French toast, the works. He was going to that Burger King on Wells Plaza and eating out of the bins. But he wouldn’t touch my food."

"Kids, huh?" Men who think with their bellies are a rare asset. I follow the breadcrumbs he lays before me. Leave as Agnetha and Anni-Frid Thank You For The Music. For once, it's true.

I make the Plaza in twenty minutes. Ignore the pointing kiddies scoffing bits of dead cow (at least they're open about what they feel…). Resist the temptation to Go Large and slip through to the back.


Really. The rear door leads onto a dank little alley with a bingo hall behind. Beyond that's the wasteground where the county tip used to be. There's still the odd pile of biodegradables that haven't quite biodegraded yet dotted randomly about, stinking of talc and Persil and leaky nappies. Guess Brents Council figured a few tons of used Pampers weren't a health hazard, or not to the folks who mattered anyways. Several zombie-like youths dotted randomly about too.

I check out the old foreman's office, where a fat guy in a boiler suit used to issue 20p tickets to eager nine-year-olds so's they could rout about in the rubble for pram wheels to fit their go-carts with. Once upon a time, including yours truly. Still have Hot Rod's horn. Not so hot now, but it works.

The office, ditto. It's crumbling, but serviceable. There's a wispy-bearded jock with blond plaits and bad acne parked in front, pulling moodily on a hand-rolled joint and his hair. The common-law guard, I guess. "Hello," I say, holding out a fiver.

Six more "hello's" and half my wallet later, I finally get his attention. "Whatdya want?"

"You know Nick? Nicholas Fisher?"

He snatches the notes and jerks a thumb behind him. "In there."

Bingo bingo. So this is his own private Idaho, the land of blitzed teens. No River running through here, just a bunch of public school kids trying to play tramp. Tiny moustaches forming on those stiff upper lips, pupils spiralled from marijuana, manicured nails caking over with grit. If you called your dad he could stop it all. Two more weeks and they will. Hey, maybe I could blag some commission on the mobile bills.

I step past the youth and bang on the peeling door. No catatonic college boys appear to demand a password. Still, the worn lock doesn’t take much jimmying. Several more of these baby bohemians mill about inside, swapping grunts, huddled over their lighter-fluid fires like tranked-up cavemen. Wonder what they'd trade for some real heat.

I can't see Nicky II in the Stone Age hordes. Suspect he's off cajoling omelettes from another barhound, until I remember Fat Guy had a secret room he used to snatch ad hoc fag breaks in when the gaffer wasn’t looking. Right next to the can it was.

I follow my nose to the fragrant latrine and the recess behind the privy wall. Must be my lucky day. Another butane fire blazing, one lone figure stood in its glow. He holds out his cigarette and drops it in the flames, then turns round so I get the whole picture. Even filthy he is gorgeous, a sulky god. The photos don’t do him justice.

"So, you're my - salvation." He shows no surprise at being confronted with me. No sign that my appearance unsettles him.

"You could call me that," I say.

"My folks finally realise I'm missing, huh? The milkman remind 'em they were down a pint?"

"They're very worried about you. Your mother -"

"What, needs a caddy for her tennis party? Couldn’t get one of her fuckwit boyfriends to make up the numbers?" Almost a smile there. "They fool you with their double act? Blind you with their wallets?"

Ouch, kid. But I let it pass. Go over my head, as it were. "Well, I guess everyone has a price," he says. The trite line I eschewed in the bar.

I match him, cliché for cliché. "And you could give me more?"

"Oh yes. A lot more." He squats down so our faces are level. A cool hand on my crotch. The magician, plucking a Rampant Rabbit from a hat. "Did they offer to do this?"

Now I remember why I stick to cheating spouses and wandering geriatrics. Ain't nothing more alluring than a teenage boy in trouble. The lazy excitement, the casual exhibitionism that is as natural to them as breathing. He slips off his grubby shirt, displaying sleek cookie-cutter nipples that remind me just how long it's been.

What would Sam Spade do if he were homo? But I already know the answer. I do share one trait with my monochrome heroes. The lone wolf part. The lone wolf - who can be tempted by the right sort of lamb. Being immune to femme fatales has got me out of a lot of holes. Not this time. I could be ten feet tall, and still be stuck here. Climb the rope. Or let him tie me down.

He kicks away his torn jeans and KKK hood, a line of dark hairs sprouting from the top of his low-slung boxer shorts. Then they go too and he's in his birthday suit, gloriously unencumbered…When was the last time he didn’t get something he wanted? Do all say "yes" to him?

Ah, the drooling dog lust makes of me. Roll over Fido, I've got a nice meaty bone for you. Pitch. Throw. Go fetch.

"You'll be needing this," he says. Hands me the tiny foil package, pink teat already exposed. So sure I'd comply he slit it at "tennis party."

Nicholas Fisher Junior stretches out, belly-down, on the grimy ground, his skin tangerine in the firelight. Warm to the touch, taboo. I check outhis peach-fuzz butt, his wicked little pucker.

Visions of him in braces again. I move up, past the clefts of his torso, his downy neck, to the shavings of gold in his hair. Strip less erotically than he did. Much less.

I spit on my palm. Roll on the rubber and take to the floor. Grind one knee against the soft crack of his ass, then limpet-crab myself to his back and slide inside. Too smoothly for this to be anything like virgin territory.

I'm probably not even the first intruder today. A colony of horny teenage boys with no women and many drugs. Frequency must exceed duration in this place. And so, when in Rome…

It doesn’t take me long to cum. A few clammy moments of pleasure before we part again. Sure my quick exit will be appreciated by that wannabe Rastafarian on sentry duty. He'd probably return the moolah to be next in line.

I like to think I'd turn him down. I rise, remove the condom. Ball it in a tissue and toss it on the pyre.

Gold beats silver. My star sizzles to ash in front of me. A blip, a stain on my previously untarnished résumé. I have never before been bribed.

I scoop up my clothes. Begin to dress, face off the perp and his deadly MO. His picture is in my jacket still. Red-hot, burning a hole through the leather to that patch on my chest where the hair never grows, where I got clipped once by a bullet during a recce in Kraytown. Perhaps Mr. will let me keep it. A souvenir, an aide memoire. Eddie's genie, to rub in tribute to my first quashed contract until they hire some robotic CID mole to strong-arm their son home the hard way. Shot again. Does he know he cannot win?

I take a last glance at the boy. "You still gonna collect the bounty, Boba?" he says. "Give them my regards."

He flicks a delicate hand, the thousand-pound ring betraying his origins. I wonder how he looked before anger hardened his eyes, and if I would have abandoned him then.

I do not wave back. I walk out of the alcoved room, through the decaying front door. Watch more paint flake to emulsion as it slams shut behind me. The next visitor will have it off the hinges, leave this fool's gathering without a portal. All the better to see Mummy and Daddy when they roll up in their Rollers to reclaim their little darlings. You're grounded, sonny. No caviar or polo lessons for a week.

I emerge into the sunshine. Spot the bug this time. Raise my foot. Mission ended, another tiny life erased.

Leaving is easy.

Being left behind is not.

Was this my greatest failure, or my most terrible success?


Robin Tamblyn (author)