|Priscilla Masters said that
this will be the only short story she will write. So enjoy as SHOTS
by PRISCILLA MASTERS
I could hear the ska music bouncing along the pavement. A beat so rhythmic my walk became a slow, hippy dance that led me straight to the kicked in door and two bouncers big as orangutangs who looked me up and down as I faced them.
I already knew what the trouble was. I was the wrong colour.
Hey, girl. It was the one with inflated rubber tyres for thighs who spoke. You come to the wrong place lady. We got no white girls in here.
Dont want none either.
The other one could talk too.
My turn now. Didnt you ever hear of race discrimination?
Big thighs answered. Yeah. We know about that. First hand. He patted his dreadlocks, and watched me scan the whitewashed walls. Cascade Club, written in psychedelic, Sergeant Peppers style writing. I dont see a sign banning whites.
The backup thrust his glistening face close to mine, his face tight and hostile. Who says race discrimination is a thing of the past? Theres just black boys in here. He hissed. You still want to go in?
It was the black boys I was after. Black boys who had witnessed Aitken Moseleys cruel fate, out here along this very pavement where he had been thrown. Maybe by these same two bouncers. I eyeballed the chief spokesman. I like the music, I said coolly. I wasnt ready to declare myself. Yet.
Members only. With a palm as pink as a ladies blouse, bouncer number two indicated a battered sign.
Then Ill join. Tonight.
Big thighs shrugged, bared his beautiful white teeth and stood aside.
I could feel the heat of their smile on my back.
Joining was nothing more than signing a white membership card anyway. And the girl didnt notice my colour. She was too spaced out. I clutched my passport to the interior and descended.
Inside was throbbing with voodoo music, dark, smoky and sweet with the scent of pure, Caribbean ganja. Vanishing marijuana if I'd been a cop - but I wasn't. And somehow they sensed it. Maybe someone should have warned Moseley to stick to the soft stuff. If he'd heeded the advice a week ago he might still be gyrating here tonight with the rest of them. Instead of. .
And I would be somewhere else - not here being pounded by the music. Rocksteady, ska, reggae. Bluebeat. I had stepped straight off a Sparkhill pavement into downtown Jamaica. Hot and steamy, writhing with glistening bodies that never stopped moving. Even when they queued at the bar to buy root beer or simply glasses of tap water their hips were not still. Men with Michael Jackson curls, wide trousers, shirts unbuttoned to the waist and girls with thick, straightened hair, bouffanted like Diana Ross, their mahogany bodies barely covered in the scraps of vividly coloured material posing as clothes, their skirts short enough to expose plenty of their long, powerful legs. Black girls' legs are a different shape from white girls'. The ankles are thinner, the calves a less defined, the thighs more powerful. And when the girls pulled the men towards them the couples were swiftly fused into one moving body. Never losing the beat. Black people have a different rhythm. More primitive it courses through their veins giving each
limb separate grace. But even moving they had spotted me. One by one they turned. Still moving in that slow, insolent way. Curious. But still moving. All of them stared. At me. One of them shouted to the others over the music. We got ourselves some pale company tonight. I grimaced and tried to blend with the background by moving in time to the music. But even I knew my timing was wrong.
It was too soon to start asking questions. And too noisy.
A woolly headed youth pulled me towards him. I took in his loosely flared white jeans, ran my eyes up a T-shirt with arms sawn off to expose powerful shoulders and finished at a wide face which wasn't smiling. Now what's you nice girl doin' here?
I tried to mouth. Just making friends.
If he heard he didn't swallow it but pushed me away roughly. You a joumalist?
I shook my head - sadly. Journalists earned money. Real money. The stuff you could spend in shops. Dress shops. Food shops.
I decided to lie. I heard the music. It's better than in the city clubs. The white ones I mean. He put his mouth to my ear. I don't buy it, sister.
Black eyes waited unblinkingly for me. So-o-o? He had a voice like treacle toffee. The sort that pulls your fillings out - painfully.
The DJ changed the record. Not the beat. 'We got barbwire in his underpants. Barb wire yeah yeah yeah.
Impossible not to enjoy the music. Impossible Or maybe possible. He had me in an armlock. Police?
It had been too soon for full frontal attack.
Polly Moseley had been waiting for me when I had sauntered into my office at nine oclock on Monday morning. I had been nursing a hangover and a bruised ego. And for once the ego hurt more. Thirty something and not looking young for my years I had been dumped by a not-even-steady boyfriend early the night before and spent the rest of the evening drowning my sorrows in cheap Spanish wine bought by the pop bottle from the Paki shop at the end of my road. It wasn't even good enough to cook with. And it hadn't done the trick either. Even with the tingling head and fingers and inevitable nausea I had still been aware of a frightener thundering through my mind. My last four boyfriends had all dumped me citing my acid tongue as the reason. Maybe I should invest in a scold's bridle and then I would have someone for keeps. As it was I was left with a flat without a cat. I couldn't even say I had my career to console me. What career? Spying on errant wives and cheating husbands doing nothing worse than getting a bit of sexual sustenance in the back of a car or a cheap rent-by-the-hour B with no B? All of my cases had been like this. Until I met Polly Moseley.
She had been waiting on the landing, watching me wearily climb the stairs, a young black girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen, her eyes huge with appeal.
She spoke first. You the detective?
I shoved both my ego and my hangover to one side to give a chummy, watery grin.
That's right. I shook her hand. It felt clammy with sweat. This girl was nervous.
I'm Polly Moseley.
I know. She gave me a flash of coconut teeth. It's on the door.
Are you very expensive?
As an opening gambit it was a little blunt.
One pound an hour, I said, plus expenses.
OK, she said.
My interest was aroused. She looked too young and attractive to have a playing-around husband. I hardened my heart. Maybe she was also too young to pay for finding out - anything. And I wasn't a charity.
Polly Moseley squared her shoulders and answered my unasked question. 'We'll pay, she said. 'The family. We want to know only one thing. It shouldn't be too hard for you to find out. We've tried but they all clam up.
I gave a fake, confident smile.
My brother died outside a night club in Sparkhill last Saturday night, she said. After someone
supplied him with a drug.
I looked interested.
All we want to know is - who supplied him with the drugs?
How do you know he was supplied?
Because of the way it happened, she said.
Why me, was my next question. The police. .
I got no further.
'The police, she said with a grimace, they don't care about my brother. He is just a black boy to them. He was drunken and been enjoyin' himself with some weed. It wasn't weed what killed him. It was somethin'else. They say they got no evidence. I say they not looking. And he dead.
I smiled at her. It sounded like a bona fide hiring. 'Let's go in my office. Have some coffee. Then you can start at the beginning.
She waited patiently as I fiddled with the lock. Sometimes I wished someone would break in, leave the door swinging and save me the trouble of picking my own keyhole. It never worked always stuck. One day I would fail to gain entry at all. I turned around and gave the girl a reinforcing smile of mock confidence, fiddled again and we were in.
Some day I was going to give this office a lickover. Not decorating, you understand. Just a clean up - empty the bins, put some books back on the shelf, pick up some of the papers. Maybe do some filing. That sort of thing. The girl gave a little cud of the lip to show she thought it needed attention too. She shoved a pile of letters aside with her foot - coincidentally the only part of my anatomy ever to make contact with those nasty little brown envelopes too. I filled the kettle, rinsed two mouldy mugs, shovelled coffee and Marvel in and turned to face her.
It was time for the introductions.
All we want to know is who supplied Aitken. We can take care of the rest.
I scrutinised her guileless young face. What was she? Sixteen? Seventeen? And she would take care of the rest? They were tough words. I was intrigued.
She was watching me expectantly as though she thought I should recognise the name. But I didn't.
I searched through the darkest depths of my mind, found nothing and surfaced again. Your brother'?
He was at the Cascade night club in Sparkhill. She put her coffee down on top of the pile of papers and placed her hand on top of my own. It still felt clammy. I am not trying to deny he smoke ganja that night. She shrugged. He often smoked dope. A couple of times a week. Dope never had that effect on him. Someone gave him something else that made him go wild. Maybe it was some cocaine. Maybe LSD. I am not sure what. The bouncers wish to keep the club clean. Free from drugs. They throw him outside into the street. He's shouting. Still out of it. He run into the road and . She used her other hand to brush some tears from her cheek. A car hit him. And now A long pink tongue flicked across her lips. Her eyes flickered. Then she drew breath.
I know plenty of people who dance at that club. The police they spent time on the road accident. The easy bit. They have charged the person who was driving the car. By the time they find out he was even inside the Cascade Club everyone has a chance to empty My pockets. And my brother.
How is he? I asked politely.
Polly's face became a mask. He is in a coma. The doctors say he might never recover. I believe them. Every day he lies there and stares up at the ceiling. All his bodily functions are taken care of by machines. He is not able to communicate. You understand?
I nodded vigorously.
But Polly, I said. Surely you must have
Arksed around? I did. But no-one wants to tell me because they know the person who supplied my brother is his moral killer. I need that name, Carlotta.
I had a sudden wary flash. There was an undercurrent of viciousness in this sweet little black girl. Too much chilli pepper. Could it be that the reason no-one had leaked the name was that they knew what would happen to the guy who had supplied her brother?
She gave me one of her nice little twinkles. It would be nice if you would help us.
But I'll stick out like an uncooked sausage at a black night club.
You are a detective.
I acted confident. Sure.
Then we put our trust in you.
Like the words of a Christian hymn K was misplaced faith but I had no intention of enlightening her. I see. It was a nice, non committal phrase. Lawyer-like.
'We think it was an hallucinogenic drug to have made him act so wild - so careless. We will pay your fees. She shook her beaded dreadlocks. Aitken was a nice quiet boy. He liked to dance...
And now I was liking to dance too against the sweating, muscular body which moved as though the music rippled right through him. He hummed too. In a deep, jerky, melodic voice, rich in tone. Like Paul Robeson.
I had never had a white boy sing into my ear and enjoyed it so much.
You can have my private number.
He stopped singing abruptly. So what made you come here tonight?
I told you, I said. I like the music.
He moved away to hold me at arm's length. Get this straight, sister. I may be black but I don't have the intelligence of an ape.
OK then, I said, throwing caution straight into this hot, African wind. Bite this. I'm a friend of Polly Moseley's.
His eyes didn't even flicker. Sorry, sister, he said politely.
'What about this then? I'd like to get hold of something to make the evening go with - I gave him my most lascivious grin, - a swing.
It was too soon.
He said nothing but continued to hold me at arm's length, swaying, saying nothing.
The music stopped. The dancers stopped.
And what makes you think you can obtain substances here?
The time for politeness was well past.
I can bloody well smell it, I said.
Another record started. Desmond Dekker and the Aces.
My partner licked his lips with a pink tongue that looked like a snail missing its shell. Then he threw back his head and gave a great big belly laugh. 'That's fight, he said. You can. So was it ganja you was after? I eyed him steadily. Something with a bit more kick?
His eyebrows lifted. Cocaine?
Something with a bit of - colour?''
He moved in then. LSD, he whispered.
He looked around nervously. Not here, sister. Anythin' here has to come from the tight sources. You get my drift?
I didn't but I shrugged anyway.
She'd even taken me to the hospital to take a look at Aitken Moseley for myself. It was a bit of a shock.
He lay in a sort of open plan ward, something like the inside of the Tardis. High tech. Naked under the sheet, tubes coming from everywhere, leading to bottles, some dripping in, others dripping out, one leading to an object which looked like a vacuum pump which rose and fell in time with his chest. Some sort of breathing machine. His eyes weren't quite closed but what I could see of them appeared to be staring at the ceiling. Incognizant. I moved myself into his line of vision.
Aitken, I said.
There was absolutely no reaction. Polly was watching me with some surprise. He doesn't respond, she said. He just lies there. There's no point your talkin' at him.
Yes there is. Unnoticed by us a nurse must have entered and was fiddling with the IV line. She gave me an amused glance. Only relatives are allowed here. And, excuse me, but you don't.
Was she kidding? Did she seriously think black could turn to white? Then I understood. She was asking whether I was Aitken Moseley's wife. Swift appraisal of the contents of the bed. It was conceivable. He was young, still looked fit, handsome. I shook my head.
Polly put in for me. This is Miss Lamprey, she was a very good friend of my brother.
As for me I was intrigued by something the nurse had said. You say there is point in talking to
Hearing is the last sense to go, the nurse said briskly. No-one is ever sure how much a person can hear when they're unconscious. People who have recovered from vegetative states have been known to repeat stories they heard while they were unconscious.
Even when there's been no response?
Cool blue eyes met my own. Yes.
I followed the nurse out of the room. The family. I began.
The family believe Aitken is like this because.
And I think the doctors in charge would agree with you, she said. The car hit him. But his injuries were slight and there was no evidence of a head injury at all. The damage was done by something he took in the club.
He tested positive for LSD, she said. It didn't agree with him. That's all.
She put her head to one side and gave me a long, considering look. The longer he lies there, she said, the slimmer his chances. It seems such a waste.
I was struck by how terribly easy it was to destroy. Just give anyone who wants it some stuff and you have the opportunity to watch them react - randomly. Some have good trips; some bad. Some live; some die. The point to the dealer is that it doesn't matter. Money is what matters.
As I bent back over Aitken urgency made my voice strong and loud. Aitken. My name is Carlotta. I'm a private detective. Your sister. Your family, I corrected, they want to know. What happened?
I could have s worn the eyelids flickered I wanted to point this out to Polly but I didn't want to raise her hopes.
She stood up impatiently. He don't hear you. He don't hear nothin'. The glance she shot me held pure venom. But where it was directed I wasn't sure.
I could only guess.
All this was with me as I faced my partner for the reggae reggae.
So lady, he said with the same, careless gestures. If you want my advice stick to the soft stuff.
I prefer .
But my companion pressed a finger to my lips. Careful, he said. Jus' be careful what you say. It's not just the walls that have the ears in this club. The people too. The owners don't like anyone else musclin' in on their patch. Stops them fixin' the prices. He grinned. A white slash of teeth flashing through the darkness. 'They got a word for it in business. Cartel.
I glanced around and knew however loud the music was it wouldn't be loud enough to drown out my questions.
I learned little that night about Aitken Moseley but a deal more about dancing to a ska beat. My companion was a good mover and adept at translating his movements to my body. At two am the music stopped abruptly and a few lights were switched on. The place looked tawdry, shabby, the people tired and sweaty. My companion moved away. I suppose I better introduce myself, he said. I am Mark. Can I take you for a coffee?
The Rum Runner was down the road, a few miles quickly covered in a yellow Triumph Vitesse with its roof off. Too fast even for the raindrops to catch us up. We sped along the Bristol Road, taking the ska music with us on a tinny, mono car radio until we reached the all night cafe. Breakfast was served from four am.
The tables were mostly taken with tired-eyed couples draped towards each other, coffees steaming between them. The music was softer, top twenty stuff mainly, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Beatles.
I hated to admit it but I felt more at home here.
Once sat with a greasy bacon sandwich and a chipped mug of steaming coffee my friend gave me a hard stare. So tell me again. Who are you? What were you doing at the club? Are you really after something to help your mind to see things?
I thought he had an honest face. And so I decided to trust him.
My name is Carlotta Lamprey, I said. I'm a private investigator. I've been hired by Aitken Moseley's sister to find out who gave her brother the dose of - whatever - which contributed to his - condition.
Mark didn't move a muscle except the ones necessary to indicate surprise and speak the one word, Really?
It gave me the feeling something was wrong. Very wrong. I tried something else. 'Tell me about the club. Who owns it?
Raymond, he said. Raymond Glaster and his girlfriend Sandra. They both Barbadians. We ate in silence. Something I had said. (And I'd said very little) must have set him thinking. Or else he was tired.
He didn't ask to see me again but as he dropped me off near my flat on the Bristol road he left me still with that same puzzled, expression ploughing furrows across his brow. It was as I climbed out of the car that he partly explained it. Lady, he said. You sure need to sort out some facts before you stick your neck into black clubs and start asking white questions.
Aitken Moseley got no sister.
Easy. I thought quickly. Then a girlfriend?
So why the lie? More importantly Who was going to pay my bill? Anyone? Who the hell was 'Folly Moseley? Or was the simplest explanation correct? Aitken Moseley did have a sister which Mark Richie had not known about. The last thing he did that night was press something small into the palm of my hand. You can get me any time, he said. But best away from the club. He scribbled his number on a scrap of paper I found in my pocket and vanished into the night. I didn't need to have the powder analysed or sprinkle some on the end of my tongue to pick up that familiar tingling, metallic taste. I knew exactly what it was.
There was no reason why I should read the Birmingham Post two nights later. I bought it most evenings there was a headline of interest. But Mark Richie didn't make headlines. Black youth found drowned in Gas Street Canal Basin wasn't half as interesting to the population of Birmingham as the laying of the first stone of the New Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Mark wasn't even an unusual name. Hardly headline worthy. He didn't appear to have grieving parents worthy of photographs or a TV Central News team. But it was one of those unusual evenings when I was bored enough to read the Birmingham Post right through from page one. And stop at page fifteen. Body dragged from canal.
So I did see the name. Mark Richie. Found drowned in the canal. Police were investigating.
Like most Pls I have a pet cop. WPC Katie Armstrong, a girl who lived up to her name her surname at least. Five eleven in stockinged feet, weighing in at seventeen stone. With stunning pectorals she was a formidable member of the Birmingham police force.
As usual she listened without comment to my preamble before answering in few words of one syllable. I know the case, she said briskly.
Was it foul play?
What do you think?
Not paid to think.
Are you investigating it as a case of hom. .? I got no further.
Not investigating it at all, she said. He was a black boy, into drugs, with a weakness for white girls. And she put the phone down.
Now I was intrigued. Two black youths dead - or one as good as - and the other indisputably so. No meaningful police investigation.
I was still pondering the point a day later when a cheque arrived. A cheque for which I had posted no invoice. A cheque for eighty pounds which would have been about right if I'd done a week's work.
But I hadn't. I'd just been to a black night club for one night.
Now I was really intrigued. And the questions I was asking myself were as follows. What had I been paid for? What exactly had I achieved? And for whom precisely?
I returned to the Cascade Club. By day this time. The grubby white walls, kicked in door and Sergeant Pepper's writing looked as uninviting as before. But today a black Lotus was sacred across the pavement.
Door swings open. Patent leather dressed feet step out. He must be the owner. Flash suit. Huge red tie. Wide flares. And his arm round the cutest little black girl. Whoever she was Mark Richie was right. She wasn't Aitken Moseley's sister.
So why had they recruited me?
To do their dirty little job for them? For fun? To use me as a honey trap for a boy they knew would be tempted by a white girl?
To identify a rogue dealer.
And Aitken Moseley?
So I sat in my car, pondering long after the black Lotus had roared away into the dusty Birmingham afternoon.
Maybe Chandler should have warned me.
Never underestimate an innocent looking broad - or a guy with an honest face..