The first entry in a series about a private investigator in post-war London and Berlin. He's no Philip Marlowe, but what else is a demobbed SOE agent to do now the war is over and the world is struggling back to normality?
1946: The war's over, but there are no medals for Danny McRae. Just amnesia and blackouts; twin handicaps for a private investigator with a filthy rich client on the hook for murder. Danny's blackouts mean that hours, sometimes days, are a complete blank. So when news of a brutal killer stalking London's red light district start to stir grisly memories, Danny is terrified about what he might discover if he delves deeper into his fractured mind. As the two bloody sagas collide and interweave, Danny finds himself running for his life across the bomb-ravaged city. The only escape is through that gap in his memory. Will his past catch up with him before his enemies, and which would be worse?
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Truth Dare Kill
By Gordon Ferris
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2007 Gordon Ferris
All rights reserved.
I stopped typing and listened to the sound of high heels heading my way. They clipped up each rise on the toes, then clacked across the landings, heel first: Morse code for "this could be your lucky day". But who needed my services on New Year's Eve? I hoped they wouldn't stop at any of the two lower floors. There was a long moment's hesitation on the second; I thought I'd lost them to the chain-smoking old woman who lives below. Then they came on.
I stopped pretending I was busy. The only person I was fooling was me. For the past couple of hours I'd been stabbing the keys and banging the return as if I hated the battered Imperial. I'd twice reached into my drawer and fingered the neck of the bottle like a lover. I'd twice closed the drawer without taking a swig. If I started I'd never see midnight: a prospect that had grown more tempting by the minute.
The stairwell is visible through my open door. Her hat appeared first, then she climbed round out of sight and up to the top landing. The tap-dance continued until she stood in the doorway. Her slim shadow flung itself across the lino towards my desk. She was hesitant, as though she'd never done this sort of thing before. Few had; Finders Keepers had only been going for three months.
She could see me at my desk but not clearly enough to make out the details. Her veil wouldn't help, but nor would my lamp. I keep the light low because of my face, and because I don't like being silhouetted: a habit I got into in my previous line of work. But whether I was scared of being laughed at or shot at, it meant that visitors had to get right up close before they could see my expression. Especially on a winter's night with only the dim glow from the street lights drifting in through the window.
"Hello?" she said, not sure what this creature in the shadows would do.
It said, "Come in," in as inviting a voice as it could muster. I stood up, hoping she wasn't lost and looking for directions.
She gathered herself and strode forward like an amateur modelling clothes for the first time. It took her just five strides to arrive in my pool of light. With a practised sweep she pulled the veil up and on to her hat. She might have been a model, but she was no amateur.
I wouldn't have guessed the eyes. They were grey, as though the blue had leached away. Her lips were a perfect red, retouched on the stairs - that was the pause. With the pale eyes came the blonde hair, that special soft gold-white that no bleaching can ever mimic without turning the hair to straw. It was pulled back so tightly from her face it must have hurt. A small blue hat was skewered to her head at the angle of an airman's forage cap. I've known women take an hour in front of a mirror to get all those effects just so.
The rest of the outfit must have cost a year's ration coupons and twice my annual income. Though twice nothing is nothing I reminded myself. And the suit bore the same relation to an off-the-peg Utility dress as men to apes. It was likely a prewar ensemble cut short to the knee. Quality lasts. This woman was top drawer. And what was Philip Marlowe wearing? A worn cardigan with elbow patches.
"Mr McRae?" The vowels matched the classy outfit, soft but beautifully shaped. I wanted to hear her say it again.
"Danny McRae. Can I help you?"
"I hope you can, Mr McRae. I hope you can."
"Take a pew, Miss ...?" I waved grandly, as if she had a choice of seating.
"Graveney. Kate Graveney. How do you do?" She lifted a languid hand towards me. I leaned over my fourth-hand typewriter and took it. It was sheathed in white leather so fine you could have sworn it was her own skin. The handshake was short, almost perfunctory, but it left a sensation, as if I'd been stroked. I imagined her bare fingers touching my face.
She sat down, parked her bag in her lap and crossed her legs. I realised how long it had been since I'd heard the sound of real silk sliding on silk. The everyday stuff rasps, like sandpaper on wood. A faint but distinct perfume reached me. I'm no connoisseur, but I know what I like. I liked this smell of warmth and undiluted femininity. It raised an echo in me, then drifted away tantalisingly, like so many memories since I got back.
I shoved the typewriter out of the way so we had clear space between us. I made a play of ripping out the report I'd been typing: another stray husband. I removed the carbon and slid the thin sheaf into my in-tray. My only tray. I straightened my new phone. Its shiny black curves said I'm here for you, you just have to call. It said commitment, I'm here to stay – for as long as I can pay the rent. I was the pro, busy, tidy and ready for business in my model office.
"Now, what can I do for you? It's a funny time of year and I'm just closing up. Don't you have better things to do?"
"It is a funny time." She smiled, and that made the time perfect. "Do you mind?" She was already reaching into the bag and pulling out a silver cigarette case. She took one out and waited. I got the message and dug out my matches. She pulled off her gloves and leaned forward with the cigarette perched between those red lips. There was a ring, but on her right hand. She drew deeply and pursed her mouth and blew the smoke out in a steady stream. It unfurled and floated out of the cone of light, to add to the tidemarks on the ceiling.
"But I need help now." There was a petulance; she was used to getting her way. I bet her dainty little heel came off the ground just then, ready to stamp.
"This can't wait. Not even till tomorrow. I can't rest until I know I've at least got something going. A new year's resolution, if you like." She looked down, then up again. She knew how to gain attention. She smiled and gave me a look with her grey eyes that made me realise I hadn't given up hope of a woman smiling on me again without being paid for it. And how I'd never been with a woman like her.
"Well, I've got a party to get to this evening Miss Graveney." I hadn't, but I wasn't going to look any more desperate than I had to. "So why don't you tell me why you're here." I leaned back in my chair and tried to look nonchalant, as though classy women dropped into my hovel every day of the week, including New Year's Eve.
"May I ask you something first, Mr. McRae?"
"By all means, Miss Graveney." I realised I was beginning to raise my vocabulary and soften my Glasgow accent to stay level with her precise words and BBC tones.
"Your advertisement. It said you were discreet. That you were a professional and you respected client confidentiality. Is that right?"
She must have seen my ad on the front page of The Times, offering unique experience and guaranteed results. Who says advertising doesn't work? But it had cost me ten of the hundred and fifty quid the Government gave us heroes for setting up a new business.
"This sort of business depends on discretion."
What I didn't say was that she was the most stylish piece of business that had come my way. The others amounted to lost dogs or lost loves. Only the dogs seemed pleased to be found. What had she lost?
She nodded and took another deep pull on her cigarette. "What about the police?"
So it wasn't a poodle. "Do you mean do I work with the police or that you don't want whatever you say to be heard by the police?" I knew the answer, but I wanted to see how she responded.
She chose her words with care. "I may need to involve the police. But not yet. Not till things are ... clear."
I thought about Inspector Herbert Wilson who'd paid me a courtesy call a few weeks back, and how he'd love to be a fly on this wall. And how I'd love to have a fly-swat. But that's another matter.
"You have my word. Everything you say to me tonight is privileged. It goes no further."
"Good. That's good. Because what I have to tell you is ... unpleasant." She stubbed out her cigarette half way through and lit another one – herself – using a silver lighter with the power of a flame-thrower. I could see her hand tremble a little this time. Her eyes stopped meeting mine. Unpleasant didn't sound nearly enough.
"I think I've killed a man."CHAPTER 2
It was a bad start to a new year. Not that I could say '45 had been much of a year either. Not for me. Or maybe that's being ungrateful. They gave me a medal and said I was a hero, that I nearly died for my country. I don't know; literally I don't know. All I want is a year of my life back. Some days I wake and don't hurt too much and then it doesn't matter. Like a scratch on a record. The needle jumps and I miss a word or a beat. Then I catch up with the song, and I'm back with the melody as if nothing has happened.
Other days, bad days, when the ache wakes me, and it takes till midday and a big shot of scotch to make it go, it feels like the song will never be right, not with that missing piece, and I can't bear it to go on. They've done all they can, but I'm left with just the bass line, not knowing if the singer has paused or gone.
In the meantime I have to live. Heroes don't get paid any more than cowards. And jobs don't come any easier if your trade is subterfuge and you can only ply it on good days. I'm a copper. Was a copper. Now I'm a thief. I steal people's cover from them. I pull them blinking into the light and nick their happiness, those libertine days and nights that the war permitted. I hand them back to their loved ones to exact their revenge in small cuts every day until they've had their pound of wayward flesh. Which explains why I was sitting here, flustered by a pretty girl's smile, on this night of all nights.
At least I was alive. Sort of. A lot of blokes like me didn't make it. I should have been out there rejoicing with the rest of the world. The war was over, it was New Year's Eve, and though London wasn't much more than a pile of rubble, there were enough pubs still standing to make for one helluva party. And like VE day (I was otherwise engaged for that, but I'd seen the newspaper photos of folk hanging off lamp-posts) the streets would be jammed with hugging and kissing strangers.
There was a sense out there that the world had changed forever. For the better of course, was the official view. And in truth, it had to be an improvement over the Blitz. But we'd lost something too: an identity, a purpose. Like a really good party that had gone on too long and we were all creeping home in the cold daylight, embarrassed at how we'd let our hair down. Days of reckoning when we had to stomach the hangover and explain the inexplicable pregnancies and challenge the evasive eyes until our infidelities were soaked from us in great confessional homecomings.
Maybe tonight of all nights, I should have gone home after all. Caught the overnight sleeper back to Glasgow, then the branch line down to Kilpatrick. Tracked down my old pals and got blind roaring drunk like we used to. Three days of parties, everyone your friend. No doors closed. Maudlin tears for the old year and Celtic fear for the new one.
I remembered the last time, just as we turned into the year when our lives jumped the rails. Me and Archie and Big Tam rolling a barrel of beer down the Foregate. We mowed down other drunks in high good humour. And we got to Kilpatrick Cross and set up our barrel and tapped it and toasted 1939 in with a singing, dancing bedlam of new friends. I was twenty-four. I'd wangled leave for Ne'erday by doing the Christmas roster at Castlemilk police station in Glasgow. The youngest detective sergeant in the force. On target for inspector and then who knew?
But I couldn't go back. Not yet. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to lose every recollection of a whole year of your life? To wake up and be told you were a year older, with nothing to show for it except some startling scars and blinding headaches?
It's not an unbroken gap; occasionally a flake of memory from the missing time floats to the surface. I grab at it, straining to hold on to it and lodge it in some mental archive, like portraits in a grisly art gallery. I feel if I can get enough pictures, and in the right order, then I have a story. Doc Thompson tells me not to expect too much. There's no saying where these images are coming from. They might even be false. That scares the shit out of me. I've got a loose enough grip on reality thank you very much.
I came back from my own particular war in pretty bad shape. I'd lost every single reference point after leaving England for France in May 1944. All I remember is a round man called Gregor with a huge moustache, and his hard-handed compatriots. And how I briefly led these faction-riven amateurs and melded them into a fighting force. Then there was a huge hole in my head until the moment when I stuttered back into life in April this year, on a bunk bed in a small town called Dachau in southern Germany.
"Is this one dead?"
"Cain't hardly tell. Help me lift him."
Somewhere in my head I realised the voices were American. I thought that was nice. Americans always sounded hopeful. Heaven should have slow Southern accents. But I didn't want them to disturb me. I was quite happy being dead. It was ... comfortable. And being alive recently hadn't been. Not for a while. So when I felt rough hands on me and my body being hauled out of my little wooden coffin I rebelled. That is, I did the only thing that my body was capable of; I groaned.
"He's alive. Get the medics. Christ, he smells!"
What did they expect? From somewhere a shard from my broken memory surfaced and I remembered being appalled at how my bunk mates stank when I first arrived. Then the smell went away. There were other things to worry about. Like the beatings. I can't recall much about the people doing it – they all looked like wolves -but I know it was me on the receiving end. I guess the Americans hurt me when they pulled me out because I don't remember any more of that bit either. Later, the pain came back, with the light.
I tried to explain this to my mother when she came to visit me in the hospital in Hatfield, four hundred miles from home and her first time south of the border. She looked old and bewildered when she came through the door of the ward. She'd always been small, but now her best coat sat too big and too long on her tiny frame. I hadn't noticed how white her hair had got and how lined her skin was, despite the make-up. She never wore make-up. It made her look like my Aunt Jeannie, last seen in her plush-lined box, victim of the undertaker's embalming arts.
Mum was rooted to the floor, twisting the handle off her handbag. She scanned the faces on the beds looking for mine. Her scared eyes slid over me, not once but twice. The bandage round my head didn't help, but neither did the sunken cheeks and rictus grin, my feeble effort to smile at her. Then she found me and through the greetin – no English word has quite the sense of heartfelt sobbing – she told me about my pals and how lucky I was.
Big Tam hadn't made it. He died on Gold beach with half his regiment during the landings. And Archie was missing presumed dead according to the telegram to his mum. Somewhere over Germany. His plane falling out of the sky into the cauldron they'd stirred up. I wondered how he'd felt, the air shrieking over the fuselage and the tracers coming up, diving into their self-made funeral pyres. Was it like our boyhood suicide runs, free-wheeling and screaming like banshees down the forty-five-degree slope in Burns' Park? Archie and Tam and me on bone-shakers with no brakes? Death or glory? Seems I got the glory, but it didn't feel like it. Not with a steel plate in my head.
And now I'm scared to go home to Scotland. Scared of what I'd find and who I wouldn't find. Scared of how they'll look at me now, those glad girls from my boyhood. Scared that I'll see in their eyes what my own don't want to tell me. That the head wound goes deep. That I'm no a' there, as they'd put it. So, I'm here in London, prowling my last haunts, looking for clues to my lost time, asking the folks round about who I was. Seeing in their eyes the wariness of the sane for the demented.
"I think I've killed a man." The words sat between us like a newly dealt card in a game of poker. Call or raise. But the blonde had said it as though she was reporting a broken nail.
Excerpted from Truth Dare Kill by Gordon Ferris. Copyright © 2007 Gordon Ferris. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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