“Do they know him in there?” I asked, thinking that a plum pie wasn’t all that much to go on.
“Yes,” she said, her lips twisting thinly in an approximation of a smile that only a physicist could accept. “He’s the guy who buys their plum pies.”
I left Mother Hubbard to her heeling, which neither Damned Simon or the little ferrety man looked much enthusiastic about, and walked back into the main bar of the Cow and Spoon. Tom was still waving his pint glass of slops at me like he thought I’d come to heel if he tried it for long enough, so I walked over to the bar and just stood there. About fifteen seconds later he recoiled, dropping the pint glass on the black rubber mats that covered the floor behind the bar.
“Jesus Mac! What have you been rolling around in this time?” He was coughing and tears were running from his eyes. I watched his enviously for a moment – Mad Frankie had my tear ducts cauterised a few years back as the easiest way to not have to see a grown man cry – and then I told him.
“Holy…. They’re still running the Blue Swan? I thought that got closed down after it got flooded.”
“Nah,” I said, remembering the first couple of days after the flood when you had to wade through waist-deep water to get to the bar and push the occasional dying swimmer out of the way. “It’s still going. It’s a bit drier than it was of course. And I bumped into Jackie outside, though she’s calling herself something else now.”
“Mad Jackie? Jackie “they’ll steal your prayers” Jackie? I heard she was a bit of a looker in her day.”
“Depends on where you were looking, I guess,” I said. I could remember Jackie back when she started, a chubby girl with a big smile, frightened eyes and rat-tailed hair. The smile disappeared with her first scar, a beauty that ran from her collar-bone to her hip that she eventually got covered up with a tattoo of a shopping trolley. The weight just disappeared; it’s hard not to be hungry in her line of work, whether it’s aspirational hunger or just plain starvation. The hair was now hidden under her tin-foil rollers I supposed, but I doubted that it had changed all that much.
“I’d have done her,” said Tom, going a little dreamy-eyed on me. I snorted, and he blinked, took a step backward, trod on the fallen pint-glass and went arse-over-tit onto the floor. He groaned, the patrons took a moment out from beating up the poor wretch now curled up foetally on the pool-table to laugh, and I left with someone else’s bottle of WKD.
The drink tasted like bubble-gum but I knocked it back anyway for the sugar. It seemed like a long time since I’d last eaten as well, and the memory of Miss Sapphire’s pasta was starting to seem more edible by the minute. I spat the dregs out into the gutter and abandoned the bottle, and then strolled down the street towards the Corner Pie House. Mother Hubbard had nothing against me at the moment – nothing more than the general animosity I generate from everyone – so I was only watching the street like a paranoiac, checking the shadows, anything that moved, most things that didn’t. Nothing seemed too unusual, and when I stopped at the Pie House it seemed like the kind of place I wouldn’t get kicked straight out of. There was no doorman, and the shop was in a building that looked like it had been a chemicals warehouse once. I racked my brains, trying to remember what this part of the city had looked like fifteen years ago but all that came to mind was a nightclub that had its own abortionist on the premises.
Inside it smelled like an abattoir and I had another flashback to the nightclub abortionist. There were lots of scrubbed wooden tables with four chairs arranged at each as you’d expect. They were laid out in a rectangular pattern like a child-labour sweat shop, and against the left-hand side of the shop was the counter where you ordered your pies and got served. A blackboard on the wall behind it listed the pies and sides that were available and their prices, all of which struck me as rather more reasonable than I was expecting. A woman wearing a maternity dress and an ivory apron was stood at the counter watching me with little piggy eyes and a nose so smashed it might well have been a snout.
“Yers?” she said, her words slurred and only one side of her mouth working.
“Plum Pie,” I said. There were no customers in here yet, so I’d have to ask about Jack Horner and find out when he was likely to be in.
“Yers,” she said. “‘Ow many plumsh der yet want?”
“No,” I said getting close enough to the counter for my stench to repel her. She stayed put, and didn’t even look like she’d smelled me. “No, you’ve got a customer who buys your plum pies. I want to meet him.”
“‘Ow many plumsh der yet want?”
“I want to know who buys your plum pies.”
“I’ll give yer six.”
“I’m not paying.” That was enough to break her chain of thought (a very small, circular chain that clearly went round and round a lot without ever stopping) and her eyes lit up like little furnaces and she huffed and snorted through her mashed-up nose.
For a moment I thought she was going to charge at me like an enraged wild boar, and I instinctively checked her for tusks, hooves, sharp teeth and anything else that might cause injury. But she didn’t move, and my body stepped down from Defcon I and went back to aching painfully. I watched her still, wondering what she’d do next, but then a young boy appeared through a curtained doorway behind her, took in the scene, and walked steadily over to us.
“Are you upsetting my aunt, Mister?” he said. He couldn’t have been older than twelve, and given how thin he was he clearly wasn’t eating any of the pies. His eyes were grey and slightly misty, and I suspected he had the onset of cataracts.
“She’s upsetting me,” I said. “I thought she was going to try and eat me a moment ago.”
“What do you want?” He sounded like a man twenty years older.
“I want to know who buys your plum pies.”
“Customers, Mister. We don’t do wholesale.” His aunt growled to herself again and lumbered off along the counter to pick up a dirty cloth and start rubbing the tables down with it.
“You’ve got a man who comes in on Thursdays just for the plum pies. I want to know who he is.”
“Sounds like nothing I’d know about, Mister. That’s gotta be covered by the Data Protection Act.”
I eyed him up again, noticing that it took him a couple of seconds to realise what I was doing and start eyeballing me back.
“I come in on Thursdays and order a plum pie,” I said. “I’d like to see the data you keep on me.”