Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Puss in Boots

Dick Whittington lay dead on a grimy blue mattress that reeked of cat's piss. His arms were flung out over his head as though he'd tried to stop himself falling, and the sleeves of his ragged shirt were rolled up, revealing track marks down the length of his arms. His plump, pale face was turned slightly to the side, and a trickle of dried blood, burgundy like the port I'd been drinking before being called out here, ran from a nostril down to his chin. His feet were bare and the soles of his feet had been slashed with something sharp. I suspected a razor blade.

"It's murder, isn't it?" said the woman stood in the doorway to the room. Silhouetted against the neon lights outside, her figure curved like an ecstatic scoliosis sufferer and her thigh-high burgundy leather boots glistening wetly she leaned one arm against the doorframe and bowed her head slightly. Thick blonde hair cascaded over her face and her shoulder trembled ever so slightly as though she were crying. If she sobbed I couldn't hear it for the howl of the night-time wind that very nearly drowned out the wail of the sirens: in this neighbourhood the ambulances were often attending to the fallen police and fire brigades. I shrugged my shoulders, and kicked Dick's feet.

"Miss Bootes," I spat, and then started coughing, heavy, wracking gasps for air like a volcano god with indigestion. I doubled over, feeling my cracked ribs grating against each other as I did so and a hot sensation in my eyes that would have been tears if Mad Frankie hadn't had my tear ducts cauterised last week as a precaution against me giving him the Evil Eye. Slowly I recovered and pulled myself upright, and looked to the doorway. She had come a couple of paces into the room, keeping her distance like most people do, and was looking at me with something less than loathing.

"Call me Pussy," she said. "Dick always liked that."

I bit my tongue hard to stop myself from laughing; with my fragile physical state I'd've ended up on the mattress with Dick, and corpses don't get paid. I tasted iron and remembered a night with a sadistic acupunturist when the wind had howled like this and I'd howled like the wind, and the laughter died.

"Seriously, McArthur," said Pussy, "It's murder isn't it? They've murdered the former Lord Mayor."

"You seem very certain of that," I growled, wishing I had enough lungs left to smoke. My voice grated like gravel in a washing machine. "So far I'm seeing a junkie with a bastinado fetish, and that's not a crime. Hell, dying in a one-room shit-hole like this is just a cliche."

"But what about the stiletto?" said Pussy. She frowned at me, and for an instant I felt like was six again, standing in front of my mother who would frown in exactly the same way wondering why I hadn't run away from home yet.

"What stiletto?" I said, and frowned back at her. She recoiled as though I'd shoved a 3-day old fish under her nose.

"The one in his chest," she said, and her voice was now flat and calm. She crossed her arms, threw her head back and shook her hair out like a sudden blaze of sunlight in the depths of the night.

I kicked Dick again, and rolled him over with one aching foot, and there it was, just as she said. A red stiletto-heeled shoe embedded a good three inches deep in his chest.

"So the question is," I mused aloud, "where's the other one?"

"Does it matter?" said Pussy.

"Of course," I said. "When someone is shot you ask where the gun is that goes with the bullet. When someone is knifed, you ask where the hand is that wielded the knife. And when someone stamps on your chest so hard that they leave their shoe behind, you ask where the other shoe is. But tell me, Puss, how did you know where to find Dick?"

"The mayoral elections are in two months time," she said, her eyes going wide. "Dick keeps me up to date with his whereabouts, in case we can find a PR opportunity."

I looked around the room, ill-lit with a 40 watt bare bulb hanging from frayed flex. There was the mattress and the corpse, some floorboards ripped up from the floor and stacked in a corner, and some writing on one of the walls, but otherwise the room was empty of everything but dirt. I checked the writing on the wall; it was a shopping list.

Pussy glared at me, her eyes sparkling defiantly. "Even here," she said. "I can turn this into PR about the poor housing conditions that still plague the city, and make the mayor a martyr for spending time here to get a feel for how the people who slip through the cracks in the system live."

"People like me?"

"There are no people like you McArthur! If you have membership of the human race then it's with a forged birth certificate."

I shrugged, my doctor had been telling me the same thing for years, and my mother had always been elusive when I'd asked her about my father.

"I'll take your case, Puss," I said. "I'll find out who did for Dick."

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