The door opened and a big man in a bad suit came out.
“Hello Leo,” I said to him.
“Well, well,” he said back. “Joe Malone. I thought I told you not to come round here no more. Beat it! You lowlife Department pig!”
Ch 33 – The Sapphire Mermaid.
I didn’t say or do anything. Just stared back at the bouncer for the establishment. This was a private club, whose bell I had just pressed. And although the neon sign wasn’t illuminated at this early time in the morning, the place would be open. It never closed.
The Sapphire Mermaid
the unlit sign said. And below it, in smaller lettering,
Adult Nightclub and Burlesque venue. Couple’s welcome.
“Well? You gonna bug off, Malone? Or What?” He had quite a strong American accent. He was a heavy built type. Like a security guard. Or a fitness instructor who had a problem saying no to Greggs.
“Why don’t you make me?” I answered him. Though I feared my weary voice sounded too weak to be very threatening.
“Listen Malone. The Boss don’t like no good lowlife in her fine establishment.”
“How did you get in then? Asshole!”
Got a bit more anger into the response that time. Which made me feel a bit better.
The suit glared at me. The he took a few paces forward until he was well within my personal space. I straightened. Coming away from the wall I had been leaning on.
He raised an arm and jabbed a thick finger into my chest.
“You know what your problem is?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
He pushed his face really close to mine. I could smell his aftershave.
“You don’t come see your old pals, nearly often enough.”
And he raised his arms and grabbed me in a bear hug. Hard enough to hurt.
Especially my damaged wrist.
“How you doing, Malone, you old crook?” he asked happily. “You haven’t been down here in months? You don’t need no help with your cases no more? You so smart you figure them all out by your own stupid self, eh?”
“Let go of me, you idiot,” I chided him gently. And he released me and slapped me hard on the back. Which was much worse. He almost knocked me over. The big cretin.
“Joe Malone! Early in the morning for you, isn’t it, eh buddy? I was just about to knock off. Almost empty in there now. You here to see Nina?”
“Not especially. I just needed a place to get a drink. And meet with someone.”
“Sure, sure..No problem. Come on in,” he beamed at me. “Say, how’s Dacey? She still on your payroll?”
Leo had had his Dacia obsession for years. Ever since we had all been involved in a fake electric car charging scam, years ago. Before cars became almost too expensive to own in this city.
Some criminal had put all these rapid electric chargers at various supermarket sites across town. People plugged and paid. But all the chargers actually charged, via a very clever bit of software, was the charging meter in the vehicle. So although the car’s dial said battery full, they were actually only 5% charged up at best when the owner returned.
And, insult to injury for them, all their credit card and pin details had been scammed when they first entered their details to pay for the charging point.
It was a clever caper.
Leo had been an Inspector too. Working the case for the British Transport Police. Just before they were taken over by Transport for London and became part of the Mayor’s private police force. I’d worked The Department’s end.
Leo was originally from New York. Though he’d left there thirty years before, he still kept a bit of Bronx in his accent.
Dacia had already been one of my informers, and she knew the student kid who had done the software work on the chargers.
Leo met us in some club like this one, long ago now. And he had lusted after her, with everyone hormone in his body. She had been only a teen then, and dressed as such. Dacia took feminism to mean the right to wear only a bra and belt as appropriate work wear.
These days, she still wore the skimpiest of outfits, and the shortest of skirts. But she had matured. Back then, she wasn’t so prudish.
That day Leo, was out of luck with Dacia. She hooked up with the college kid. But he still had a thing for her, even all these years later.
He’d left TFL at the magic fifty years old retirement. And being a big guy, with a fistful of contacts, on both sides of the law, and having an eye for the ladies, he’d ended up here. Bouncer/Manager for the Sapphire Mermaid. Which wasn’t a bad way to supplement a pension at all.
I came here to meet informers. It was an excellent neutral venue. Private. Discreet.
And no questions asked of anyone, by anyone, about their business. As long as overpriced drinks were bought , all were welcome.
“Dacey is just fine, Leo.” I told him.
“Great. She coming here too?”
“Not today,” I said to him. And saw the disappointment briefly in his eyes, before he pushed those thoughts of her aside and gave me a playful shove in the back, that felt like a whack from a bear.
“Come on in,” he said. And led me through the door into the darkness of the club’s interior. The walls were a deep red colour and there was a small payment counter booth by the door.
E-register, and Auto-coat check desk just inside the door, too. A staircase lead down to two closed double doors at the basement level.
“You going to need a private booth?” Leo asked me.
“OK. But you’ll need to pay for company. Even if you are bringing your own.”
“That’s fine. I have a tab here still, right?”
I damn well hoped so. Almost all of my electronic readable cards I had just dumped into the river. I only had one emergency, unlinked account card on me. Bank of Armenia. Not the most acceptable.
In hindsight, using my office to stash emergency supplies of cash and equipment and clothes hadn’t been too bright an idea. I couldn’t go back there. And whatever was in there would be in the hands of the whoever was investigating Bixby’s murder.
But in my defence, I had never planned to have been the subject of a police manhunt.
“Tab?” He pressed a button on the E-register and read numbers off the screen.
“Yeah, sure. You’re good for about one more visit. But pay up soon, OK? Nina don’t like outstanding debts. You’re lucky she likes you.”
“She does?” This was news to me. She hardly ever spoke to me when I was here.
Just passing nods of acquaintanceship.
“Sure she does, you old dog!”
I saw he put the E-register, a legal requirement for all public places, on a glass topped panel on the reception desk and pressed the scramble button.
That would generate a random name and address and e-signature for my visit. The cameras would show me entering. And they would log numbers of visitors. But those cameras had ‘a technical fault’ every night and lost all their stored images. Unless Nina wanted them kept for use at a later date.
All sorts of people showed up here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the communities minister and Luiza and girls from The Reform Club had gotten themselves a booth here last night. We were only a few streets away.
Leo smiled at me and then led the way down the stairs.
I asked him, “How’s…” I couldn’t remember her name. I only met her the once.
“..How’s the wife?” I finished, a little lamely. But Leo didn’t notice that. He was still smiling. Genuinely pleased to see a fellow ex-cop.
“Tracey? She’s fine. Just fine. Is into Psychic Fairs now. Drives me nuts with the crap she buys. Tarot tables. Dream closets. Magic Beans of the Cosmos. But she appreciates the extra money my working brings in. I tell her I work nights delivering for Ocado. ‘Coz..You know….” he said, as he pushed open the double doors and we entered the gentleman’s club. “…Sometimes, women…they can get a little funny ‘bout places like this.”
“Can’t imagine why,” I said to Leo, as I looked the room. Raising my voice only slightly as the music was at an early hour low.
We went to the bar and I ordered a Scotch. Which, with the excessive alcohol taxation, plus the excessive mark-up of the Mermaid, would cost the average worker a day’s pay.
Ordinarily, that big bill, would be passed on to my client. With a little bit of extra mark-up added by myself. Somehow, I didn’t think Lady Bixby would picking up the cost of this drink. Or the one I got for Leo.
I didn’t mind. I needed it. And I took a long gulp. Delicious.
There were about ten people in the club, which could hold many more than that. But it was early in the morning. Commuter and work time.
The patrons were gathered around the floor show. Working men coming off a night shift, by the looks of them. A couple of trader types who might have been here all night, watching the pole-dancers. A cowgirl was on now. Attracting just one low Yeee-Haaww from an elderly man. The music was still loud enough to dance to, if anyone wanted. No one did. Only the girl danced to the rhythm. Sliding up and down the pole and riding it as if it were a pony. I struggled to hear what Leo was saying. Though it might be my damaged ear that was causing the problem.
“What?” I called out to him, as we watched the dancer swing around and lift her legs clear from the floor.
“I said, what time you want the booth?”
“Oh..Now is good Leo. My ‘informer’ is already here.”
They weren’t. I wasn’t going to be meeting anyone. But I didn’t want Leo waiting for someone who wasn’t coming. And if he took me to the booth now, he would leave. He said he was finishing up for the night himself. Was probably as tired as I was. Though I doubt he had run as far that night.
“Okay, Joe. Zuzanna, the girl over there. I’ll send her in to dance for you, OK?”
He pointed to a girl on the other stage. She too was doing a pole dance. Though without the crowd around her. And with far less enthusiasm. More just shifting her feet, which must be pinching in those heels.
Must be the end of her shift too.
“Fine..She looks fine,” I told Leo. I really didn’t care. I was only going to rest. She could go to sleep too, for all I cared.
“Ok, pal. Let me set it up. I’ll get you some drinks too.”
He finished his drink and went off over to the pole dancing Zuzanna.
She stopped her desultory dancing and listened to his words. Then followed him up a small flight of steps and through a curtain, into the back area.
That was where I met my informers. There were private rooms back there. With chairs, and tables. It was good place to do some informing. No one took any notice of people coming and going. People went to those rooms for any length of time. A lap dance can take a while. Can take until the money is all gone.
The drink wasn’t really helping, though it did fortify my spirit a bit. But I was too tired to be drinking alcohol. Even this watered down stuff they served in here. But it was dark enough in here that it was actually quite restful on my eyes, despite the light display on the cowgirl.
She had a pistol out now. A six-shooter. Was caressing the barrel up against the very top of her inner thigh. If the Mayor knew about this he’d do his nut. He wasn’t very keen on sexual representation or Americana.
“Come on Joe.” It was Leo. He was tapping my shoulder. I realised I must have dozed off for a bit. But the adrenaline from the sudden wake up was welcome. I slid off the bar stool and followed him up the back steps, through the curtain, and out to a corridor of pale blue carpet with rooms leading off of it.
“Number three.” Leo said, And held the door open for me.
I went in. There was a bottle of very expensively cheap champagne and two glasses on the table. And some snacks. Olives, crisps and peanuts. A bottle of water too.
“I thought you looked hungry,” Leo said, brightly.
“I thought you looked like shit too.” he said, more coldly.
I turned to him and he looked me in the eyes, and he continued, “What with being all unkempt, and unshaven. And red eyed. And not paying in cash, like normals, and all. And your ear all cut up, and blood on your shoes and trousers.”
I didn’t say anything.
“And your shirt is all bloodied on your upper arm, here, Joe.”
He tapped my left arm above the elbow. That now caused a yelp of pain that took all my will power not to show. It might have been a bullet graze. Or a cut from climbing out of the basement. I had whacked into a lot of things. And I had heard the glass crack under my hands as I scrambled over the bin bags. A piece might have caught me. Or some random bit of metal.
“Nina says two hours, Joe. Then you got to go, OK? Whatever it is you is involved with, she don’t want no part of. You understand? You were never here, okay?”
“Two hours,” I said back to him. “That’s fine. I just need some rest.”
“Rest. Sure. You do that. I sent the girl home, ‘coz..” he just raised a hand and waved it a bit. I took that to mean I wasn’t in any state to do anything but sleep.
“ But you still got to pay for her, OK? I put her on the tab. She’s a very nice girl.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Don’t. because I mean it. Two hours. Then you go. Nina will send someone to remind you. I will be gone. Shift is over, see.” He looked at me to make sure he was being understood.
“OK.” And he brightened again. Happy his official message had been given, and received without hostility. “You want anything else while you are here?
“How much for your phone? I need to call some people.”
“You can’t call from here on the land line, Joe. You know that.”
“I meant for YOUR phone. How much do you want?”
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a smart phone. It was a SamSapple Plus. A good one.
He pressed his thumb on the button to fingerprint unlock it then tossed it to me, and I caught it.
“How much do you want for it?” I asked Leo again. I hope it wasn’t a lot. I wasn’t cash rich right now.
“Nothing. I’m reporting it stolen in two hours,” Leo told me. “Lost last night. The network will scan for its location right after that. And shut down all calls after another three hours. But you already know all that, don’t you, Inspector?”
“Yes. I do… Inspector.”
And we looked at each other. Two former cops who were now just on the twilight side of the law.
He smiled at me, “Don’t forget to change the setting security to max. Or if it screen locks, you’ll need a vendor to sort it. There’s a dozen phone case and screen shops up the road.”
“Have something to eat, then get some sleep, Joe. I’ll see you around soon, OK?
When you sort whatever this is, out. Maybe you can bring Dacia next time, huh? Like old times?”
“Thank you, Leo,” I said again.
“Don’t thank me, Joe. I haven’t seen you in months” And he went out and shut the door.
I set the screen lock to ‘none’ and the phone’s timer to two hours. Ate a handful of peanuts and curled up on the chair with the red velvet cushions.
And fell asleep.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file