Authors: Peter Helton
âThat's not so bad then; he hasn't completely rejected it.'
âNo, he just thought it
and he said I needed more coherence.'
âIn other words, do more painting. I think you're lucky; you have until the spring and with no pressure. I promised the Salthouse Gallery four canvases
I'm showing in Bath in November.'
âAnd what are we going to do for money until spring? Remember last winter? We were burning the furniture to keep warm.' A slight exaggeration; we burnt broken junk from the outbuildings, but still.
âSomething will turn up. Something always turns up.' Far away in my attic office the phone rang. âThere you go, right on cue. I bet it's business.'
I sprinted up the stairs in record time and snatched up the receiver on the seventh ring.
On the other end was a familiar, pedantic voice. âMr Honeysett, Giles Haarbottle of Griffins.' The insurers. I had done work for them before. Griffins often come to me with the kind of things they can't ask their own staff to handle or don't want to become public knowledge. But most of the time it's just our old friend insurance fraud.
âWhat can I do for you?'
âA little matter we would like you to look into for us. Could we meet in town today?'
I checked my watch; it said half past ten. âHow about the Pump Rooms in one hour?'
Haarbottle was delighted. âHow civilized. The Pump Rooms it is.'
aturally, as a private eye I'm supposed to walk around in moody black & white, drink cheap whisky and live off junk food, but this isn't south London, it's the city of Bath, and the chandeliered Pump Rooms of the Roman Baths with their aproned waiters and the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee are much more my style. I admit I spoiled it a little by arriving in clumpy boots, leather jacket and motorbike helmet. I hadn't found a replacement yet for my beloved CitroÃ«n and was still running around on Annis's ancient Norton. The lanky figure of Giles Haarbottle waved at me from a table near the stage; behind him the famous Pump Room Trio, which for some reason was comprised of four musicians, played Mozart. Some people like to do business via email, I'm not sure why.
I ordered smoked salmon and poached egg on toasted soda bread with a pot of Earl Grey while Haarbottle made do with a Bath bun, cinnamon butter and a cafetiÃ¨re of coffee. Civilization having thus been reaffirmed on this sunny morning the sad business of business took over. Haarbottle fiddled with the combination lock on his faux leather briefcase and extracted a yellow file adorned with the Griffins logo. He pushed it across. I flicked it open. On top lay an A4 colour photograph of a man in his late thirties with a walrus moustache, wearing full motorcycle leathers and standing next to a red Ducati motorcycle. He carried his helmet under his arm like an astronaut and the whole thing was posed in front of a garage door.
âRight down your street, that, I thought,' Haarbottle said.
âNot really. For a start I'm trying to get back on to four wheels. And a 1950s Norton can't keep up with a shiny Italian job like that one.'
âDoesn't need to; he's no longer riding it since someone knocked him off that very motorcycle. He's also on four wheels now. Turn to the next picture.'
I did. Same chap, shorter hair, but no longer smiling proudly below his big moustache. In a wheelchair. The picture was taken somewhere in Bath, probably the Circus. He was on his own, propelling himself along the uneven pavement. âBad accident then.'
âIt was. Three years ago. Head injury, broken this, broken that. His name is Michael Dealey. He claims to be unable to walk as a result of his head injury. No sense of balance, no control over his leg movements.'
âHang on, he
to? You don't just claim these things, there must be doctors involved. What's the medical report say?'
âIt's all in there. They're saying much the same. But we've taken independent advice and he could still be faking it. It isn't that his spine's broken or anything.'
âRight, and because he had the temerity not to break his spine you suspect him of faking it?'
âNo, because of an anonymous tip-off. Received by the police. Turn to the next photograph please.'
The next picture was smaller, incredibly grainy and showed a man getting ready to cross a street. Somewhere. The bloke was wearing some kind of jacket, some kind of trousers and some kind of baseball cap. Judging by the quality of the picture it was taken on a twenty-quid mobile from outer space. âIs that supposed to be him?' Haarbottle nodded. âThat could be absolutely anybody with a big tash. It looks like one of those UFO or Loch Ness pictures; they're always like this too. His own mother wouldn't recognize him from that. Oh, I get it, and that's what the police told you, too, wasn't it?'
âPretty much,' Haarbottle admitted. âBut why would someone make it up? Turn the picture over.'
On the other side, written in ink and capital letters, it said: MIKE DEALEY. IS HE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN A WHEELCHAIR?
â“Supposed to be” sounds a bit harsh.' I turned the photograph over again. âThis is the original then,' I said. âIf they let you have it that means the police are definitely not interested.'
âYou're right, they're not. It could be malicious or a hoax. But if this is a hoax it's a strange kind of hoax, isn't it? It's enough for us to investigate, anyway, even if the police can't be bothered. To them it's just work, but to us it's money. A lot of money. I can offer you one per cent.'
âWhat was the payout?'
âThree-quarters of a million.'
expenses â no need to check into the Queensberry.'
âOnly if Mr Dealey does. Where does he live?'
âWe've no current address.'
âIn that case I'll work on my standard rate until I find him, and on percentage after that.'
I preferred working for a daily rate but a percentage deal could sometimes work out very well, especially if it only took you a couple of days to get a result. Of course if you came up empty-handed then you had worked for nothing. Over the years I'd become a reluctant expert in that.
âI thought you might say that. And that's all I'm authorized to offer you. All the details of the case are there. Find him quickly and nail him. Of course if it was me I'd just tip him out of that chair and see what happens,' Haarbottle said sweetly.
I looked up from the photograph. Haarbottle was a tall thin man in a pale blue M&S suit and looked totally harmless, but he was an insurance man through and through â suspicious, vicious and stingy. âHe'll claim a sudden improvement brought on by the shock,' I told him. âThat's not the way to get your money back.'
Haarbottle grunted contemptuously and jabbed a moistened index finger at the crumbs on his plate. âJust make sure he's not booking himself on a flight to Lourdes so he can come back miraculously cured. I tell you, these people stop at nothing.'
âAnyway, onwards and upwards. Call me personally; my numbers are on the file.' He grabbed his briefcase and strode out of the Pump Rooms without paying for his bun. No matter, I was now on expenses, so I ordered a fresh pot of tea and some crumpets. While I piled blackcurrant jam on to those I went through the file. It made depressing reading.
Mike Dealey had been minding his own business one sunny day, riding his Ducati along the A4 towards Bristol when a builder's van pulled out in front of him. It was a classic T-bone sorry-didn't-see-you-mate accident. Dealey was lucky to survive. He spent three months at the Royal United and left it in a wheelchair. According to the file he was a broken man in more ways than one. He had been a heating engineer yet the head injury had left him unable to walk, with painful spasms in his legs and a host of other ailments, like a fear of loud noises and bouts of depression. His fiancÃ©e left him while he was still in hospital, which might not have helped.
Three-quarters of a million pounds didn't seem much money, considering, and I was beginning to hope, for his sake as much as mine, that he
only faking it. But how did you fake a girlfriend dumping you?
It did occur to me as I left the Pump Rooms that we didn't exactly have a sworn statement to that effect â it was only hearsay, things the Griffins people had perhaps picked up at the hospital. Who was to say that she was the dumper? Mike Dealey could easily have decided to make a fresh start by himself with the aid of all that money. Not that these days three-quarters of a million set you up for life but it did give you a certain head start.
I had parked the bike opposite the Pig & Fiddle and while I walked there the sun disappeared behind dark rain clouds. I didn't see it as an omen since at that moment I still felt at one with the world, something that new expense accounts and fresh assignments often do to me. My first task was to find Dealey and that was a job for Tim. Not that I was incapable of finding people without him, but Tim was so much better (and quicker) at it that I had come to rely on him a lot. And since he often worked for no more than a few beers and food I called him at work, told him what I wanted and invited him up for a barbecue after work. Then I popped into the nearest supermarket and bought stuff Tim could incinerate and then drown in barbecue sauce.
A few hours later the barbecue was sizzling with lamb kebabs. Ever since our return from Corfu we had been eating
Ã la Greque
. The earlier rain clouds hadn't come to much and late evening sunshine gilded the valley. Tim eased his broad shoulders into a wicker chair on the Mill House verandah and shook his woolly head. âDrew a blank. Couldn't find him on the register or anywhere else. He's keeping a low profile. We'll find him though.' Tim had been gesturing with his closed bottle of Pilsner and when he opened it he sprayed himself and surroundings with beer froth.
âCheers, Tim.' Annis mopped at her jeans with a napkin.
Tim's chrome, leather and hardwood flat in Northampton Street was stuffed with computer gear and he kept it to laboratory standards of cleanliness by eating out and drinking in the pub next door. He liked to leave his mess elsewhere, like at my place.
âSo how are we going to go about it? If I don't know where he lives then the job's a non-starter and at the moment I need all the work I can get.'
Annis gave the kebabs a last quarter turn on the barbecue. âWhat else do you know about him?'
âHang on, the file's still in the kitchen.' I fetched it and flipped it open. âHe used to live in a third-floor flat behind the Circus somewhere, which he can't now because of his legs, but where he eventually moved to it doesn't say.'
âHow come Griffins don't know?' Tim asked.
âBecause he doesn't want them to know?'
Annis doused the kebabs with lemon juice and handed them around. âIt does look a bit suspicious. On the other hand he could simply have moved away.'
âThe anonymous tip-off came in a letter that was posted in Bath. If they had seen him in Majorca they probably would have said so.'
âIs that him there?' Tim pointed with the end of his kebab and dribbled meat juice over the photograph.
I held the pics up in turn. âYup, that's him in a wheelchair; that's him supposedly walking on his own two feet; and that's him taking possession of his car, a Honda modified for wheelchair use.'
âCan you read the number plate on it?'
I squinted. âI can, just. Oh good, we're sorted, then.'
âWe'll ask PC Whatsisname to find out for us.'
âThat means wine labels,' I reminded Tim.
âNo probs. I'll print some out on your computer later, if you've got the bottles.'
We call him PC Whatsisname because Watt's his name, Police Constable Nick Watt. Doubts about the precise wattage of Nick's brain have long been dogging his career. We got quite friendly a few years back and he can sometimes be bribed to find out things for us. It saves Tim trying to hack into police computers and risk a lengthy jail term, but then bribing a police officer isn't popular with the courts either. Five years earlier Nick had won a competition in the Police Gazette. His prize: a week in France. The
time of his life. While there he fell in love with an unapproachable waitress and discovered French wine; he had even brought an empty bottle of his favourite tipple back as a souvenir but had been unable to lay his hands on any more of the plonk, for the simple reason that it was rubbish and didn't travel. It was simply called JM Blanchard, probably after the chap who made it in his garage. We scanned the label, stuck them on a half-decent Merlot and Nick, suffering badly from nostalgia for his untouchable French waitress, swore it was the very vintage he had been drinking on holiday while adoring her from afar. Naturally these bottles were
to get hold of and Nick appreciated all my efforts on his behalf.
âThe DVLA will have a record of the registered keeper,' Tim said, spraying feta crumbs over his jeans. âThey'll even have the name of his last MOT garage. By this time tomorrow we'll have Mr Dealey pinned down.'
It was to this end that at noon the next day I was sitting in the CafÃ© Retro drinking cappuccino opposite Constable Watt. Unlike most of his colleagues he shunned the current fashion for extreme crew cuts and looked uncommonly cuddly for an officer of the law. He was out of uniform, on his way to clock on at Manvers Street nick around the corner, but looked shiftily around him as though fearful of spies. Nick loved a bit of conspiracy. I saw he had brought an optimistically large bag with him to carry off the plonk.
âI could only get hold of four bottles this time,' I told him. âIt's getting very hard to find.' I simply didn't have any more of the Merlot at the house and while he had convinced himself that it tasted exactly how he remembered the original, he might well notice if I changed over to yet another substitute.