I used to be a real detective, back before what I’d euphemistically come to know as ‘the disgrace.’ Top brass had wanted me disciplined, a payoff with a public flogging attached. I saved them the job and quit. Three trains later I’d ended up at the Earl, out on a peninsula, as far away as I could get without money or a boat.
The Earl Hotel (which Earl was never clear) had thrived in the fifties when the beachfront and pier brought the holidaymakers from London. The function room names betrayed The Earl’s heyday. The Atlee Room. The Coronation Suite. By 2019, straw hats and leather suitcases had been replaced by lost souls seeking refuge from wars both foreign and domestic. The postcards and ‘wish you were here’ sticks of rock did slow trade at the front desk and I was the Earl’s de-facto hotel detective.
The job didn’t resemble Hammett or Chandler’s private dicks. My role was less about smart suits and martinis and more about thick socks and brown paper bags. I chased down people who skipped out on their rent and kicked out folks who stood between the residents and getting clean. My fees covered my rent. I did my business at the breakfast table. In a place like that, I was never short of work. It filled the frequent gaps between meals, or the less frequent gaps between women.
At that time ‘women’ meant Carla. Her husband Don worked on a North Sea rig, which was lucrative but distant. Three weeks on, one week off. I guess it got lonely in that big house. She said she knew he messed around on her anyway, knew about the women they brought to the rig most Friday nights. She didn’t see why she shouldn’t get hers too. Their house bore her stamp, not his. I could tell myself he didn’t exist, provided I turned their holiday photos face down. Don was red as a lobster in each one, all Brits abroad chic, rictus grins and novelty leis.
Lou, one of the Earl’s other residents, approached me one evening in late autumn. It must have been November because there were dogs on the beach and night fishermen sat on the shore, rods in the water, more in hope than expectation. Lou was a friend; an importer who drank, then a drinker who imported, then just a drinker. He did the occasional shift at the oil union’s social club, cash in hand.
Lou wasn’t his real name, nobody used real names at the Earl. I went by Art because it was short. Lou had explained the Earl’s quirks when I first arrived; how to up the water pressure, which rooms had working locks. He said he was worried about his daughter.
“Daughters. You know how it is, Art,” he said.
I nodded. I didn’t.
“Kim’s got this new fella, see?”
I nodded to say, ‘go on.’
Lou didn’t, just picked at a damp beer mat. Awkward.
“Name?” I prompted.
“Marco,” said Lou, finding his thread again. “He sells legal highs. Harder stuff too, so I heard. Course, in my day, it was just drink that ruined a man.”
I looked at Lou. It looked like drink still did a good enough job.
“Where can I find Marco?” I asked.
“Bookies. He’s a gambling man. Nothing fancy. The machines mostly. Sometimes the horses.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Put the frighteners on him. Warn him off.”
Lou took a ball of socks. Stuffed inside the socks was an envelope, a depressing Russian nesting doll. “Money to start over” he said. “I’m nearly there.” He offered me the money. I refused, told him that’s what friends are for.
I set about finding Marco the next day. He was at the third bookmakers I tried. I watched him from across the street. He was as Lou had described. A slip of man, rail thin, too-tight jeans above bright white trainers on small feet. Big teeth in a lumpy skull. He looked unsteady on his bowed legs, like Bambi, if Bambi sucked cigarettes.
His fingers probed a coin bag, checking for the fifth time that the well had run dry. It had. Marco looked both ways and left. I followed.
Sand blew across the road in waves, like salt thrown over too many shoulders to ward off too many devils. The area was more grit than oyster. A top-heavy woman with bright red curls took stock of the panorama from behind a rusty gate.