Midnight. New Year’s Day.
I was pulling an all-nighter on the night of all nights, doing nothing more exciting or important than making sure the dots all lined up on that grid of numbers my accountant wants to see each year before he tells me how doomed I am. The fireworks were popping and flashing, and the shadows they threw up on the wall reminded me that it had been six months since I’d last splashed out on the services of a window cleaner. From down the hall at the agency who rented the rest of the floor, keeping the river view for themselves, I could hear the cheers and the kisses and the corks popping, but it wasn’t a party I’d been invited to, and I wouldn’t have gone if I had. There was no one I wanted to be with tonight, and no one who would have wanted me with them if they knew what was good for them.
I had just pressed ‘Shut Down’ and seen the screen go dead, and I was going to get my coat and take the free tube back to the hole I called home, when I looked up and saw that I had a visitor. Who visits a private dick in the early minutes of the new year you might be thinking, and sure as hell so was I. But when she stepped through the door, and the light of a fizzbang lit up her face, I suddenly stopped caring. Looking like that she could have an appointment any time of the day or night, and she would have my full attention for as long as she wanted.
‘I saw the light. I thought maybe you were open.’
She had a voice like she’d gone to Roedean in the 1920s, but for the last five minutes this was 2016, and I was looking for the time machine. She was five foot ten of finest British aristocrat, hair like the river of fire that had just ignited on the Thames, and eyes like topaz jewels set in 18 carat gold and painted with a sadness that was all her own.
‘We are,’ I said, the first person plural a trick I’d learnt years ago to make it seem like my one man band was more than just me. ‘Why don’t you have a seat, Ms…’
‘I’d prefer to stand. And it’s Wade. Henrietta Wade. And it’s Mrs.’
This was a girl who didn’t mess with politically correct pronouns, and wherever Mr Wade was, it was clear that he was a very lucky guy indeed. Then she burst into tears.
It turns out that wasn’t such a sharp assessment. Wade wasn’t lucky at all. He was dead. Once I’d got her sat down on that folding two bit chair I promise myself every year I’m going to replace, and handed her the box of tissues that had only been used to mop up blood and ink, she soon stopped sobbing and started to speak.
‘He was a good man. A kind man. To me, anyway. How could they do that to him?’
Oh, this didn’t sound good at all. This was the kind of story that was going to stink by the end of the first page. It had those short words that seem so little and say so much. ‘To me’. ‘They’. My figuring was that Mr Wade was a man who knew who to keep sweet, and knew who he could pick a fight with. Until now, that was.
‘What did they do?’
Jeez, if there was ever a dumb question. I’ve got to say that in my line of work, I don’t spend a whole load of time talking to the fairer sex. I need to get answers quick before I can even begin, and this was my first question. It took another five minutes before I could get her to calm down enough to speak again, and 2016 was starting to look old. It turns out that whoever ‘they’ were, they had some fun with poor Mr Wade before they sent him on his way, so that he left this life without at least one of the things – or maybe three, she wasn’t really clear about it – that he had come into it with.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said, but I think she knew that what I meant was that I was glad it hadn’t been me.
‘He was such a good man,’ she said, ‘and so kind. Who did this to him? Why would anyone want to do that? What does it mean?’
I’m paid to answer questions like that. At least, I’m sometimes paid. Lot of the people who get me to answer them aren’t too good at doing the paying, which was part of the reason for the state I was in, not to mention the state – and street – my office was in. But if she wanted all those questions answering it was going to be an expensive job.
‘When did this happen?’ I asked. The way she was dressed, it didn’t look like she’d hot-footed it here straight from the discovery of his bloody corpse.
‘Three months ago,’ she said.
‘Did you go to the Police?’
She scowled, and she looked nearly as good doing it as she did when she was crying.
‘The Police are no good. They acted like they weren’t even interested. Almost like they weren’t surprised.’ That alarm bell that rang in my head when she said ‘To me’ clanged again.
‘So why did it take you so long? Why now?’ Yes, why now, in the first minutes of the new year?
‘It was a resolution.’
‘A resolution?’ Seriously?
‘It was kind of like I was glad the Police weren’t involved. I could tell that they weren’t going to investigate it, and if they did, they’d turn up nothing. They didn’t even try.’
‘Why were you glad?’
‘Because I didn’t want to know. I was scared of what they’d discover.’
‘And you’re not scared of what I will?’
She looked at me and slowly shook her head. ‘I have to know. I’ve told myself all through this feeble winter that I can’t hide from it any longer. I need to steel myself and go get proper help. It was kind of like giving up smoking. I told myself that from at the moment the clock chimed midnight, I’d do something about it. Then I saw you. Will you help me, Mr Flint?’