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Ratcatcher: Chapter 2

...'The way things are,' I said, 'I might be bankrupt and I might be bored, but at least I'm fairly free of rigor mortis.'

'Don't worry,' he said, dropping into sneer gear, 'there won't be any shooting or muscle stuff.'

I winced at that. No one likes to be called a coward, however obliquely...

Joe Hussy is compelled to do another undercover investigative job.

Ace thriller writer Colin Dunne continues his tale involving an agent summoned back to the ranks.

Yet all the way down to England I didn't make him laugh once. That's what we always used to say about headquarters staff: they had their sense of humour removed with their hearts. A grinectomy.

'So,' he said, looking at me for the first time. 'You're still the great romantic, eh Hussy?'

'Can you hear my little heart pit-pattering from there?'

'You know what I mean. Walking out on the pop star back there.'

'How did you know?'

How did you know? Jesus, what a question, even though I'd been out of the business for three years. They probably had teams of psychologists who'd worked out the optimum time for me walking out on the job - and got within one-tenth of a second.

'We'd been keeping an eye on you, seeing how you shaped up and so on, and we were going to pick you up when the job finished. This simply saved us three days.'

'Great! What shall we do with it? I know a quiet little place on the Ionian, just the two of us ...'

He sliced that one off. 'We have a job for you.'

'I've got one.'

'Not much of one, by all accounts.'

'Is that in the report too?'

He leaned back his head and closed his eyes. 'Three jobs in the last twelve months. One bodyguard, one industrial security on a North London factory, one picking up debts for a bookie.'

Put like that, I didn't sound like a frontrunner for businessman of the year.

He continued in a droning voice: 'Hussy will not take shady work, and at the same time is too perverse to build up the public relations aspect of his situation.'

'So that's what the boys are saying behind my back?'

'That's it,' he said. Then, with a new mocking note, 'High-risk Hussy indeed!'

'High-risk Hussy,' I repeated. It was my joke in the old days, and I wasn't ashamed of it. 'High-risk Hussy, Death Delivered Daily, Takeaway Mayhem, Bullets Caught in Teeth, Dogs Walked and Windows Cleaned.'

'This job ' he said, lighting another cigarette.


He never even paused. ' Chap died in a car accident, only we think maybe it wasn't an accident. It's not a police job. In the first place, they seem to be happy about it. Secondly, we think there may be some security aspects to it. Maybe a foreign connection. Maybe political.'

England was sliding past now, green fields burnt a little brown by a hot August.

'No,' I said.

'Man's name, Striker Nightingale.'

'Striker?' He knew I'd have to ask that.

'A blacksmith's striker, the fellow who swings the hammer. So I'm told.'

'What was he up to - starting a peasants' uprising?'

'We don't know that he was up to anything particularly. It's simply that that seems as good a point as any for you to start.'

'Why me?' He knew I'd have to ask that too.

'Because of what you are. What is it now? A Cockney Dago Mick.'

He was quoting me back at myself. I used to say Cockney because I was born in Camden Town, Mick because my family were all Irish, and Dago because Hussy is a corruption of Jose. We were the leftovers of the Spanish Armada, washed up on the west coast of Ireland. Hence the black hair and the blue eyes, one of history's trickier colour schemes.

'Do you mean there's a link with the business over the water?' I asked, tipping my headtowards where I thought the Irish Sea might be.

'Possibly. There is a connection.'

'Do you think it might be an idea if you told me about all these possibilities and connections and foreign stuff and political stufFso that I might have just the vaguest idea what the hell it is you're talking about? Not, I might add, that I'd take the job anyway.'

'You will,' he said. 'And frankly we're not telling you any more than this. We're putting you in to find out for yourself, so there's no point in muddying the water first.'

I let that sink in for a bit. I tried the car radio. Cricket. He leaned forward to hear, so I switched it off.

'The way things are,' I said, 'I might be bankrupt and I might be bored, but at least I'm fairly free of rigor mortis.'

'Don't worry,' he said, dropping into sneer gear, 'there won't be any shooting or muscle stuff.'

I winced at that. No one likes to be called a coward, however obliquely.

'I suppose that's in the report too.'

'Everything's in the report, Hussy, you know that. As a matter of interest, do you still have a shooter?'

'Now what would I want with one after that Derry farce?'

'I suppose. Well, as I say, this isn't a bang-bang job at all. Eyes and ears and a few discreet inquiries should do it. Shouldn't put too much strain on your nerves.'

There it was again. The needle. The reminder. I chewed my fillings. I slowed down so I could drive one-handed, all relaxed.

'No. I told you. I left all that three years ago.'

Out of the corner of my eye I could see him shaking his head. Or perhaps I just knew that he would be.

'Nobody leaves, you know that. You can drop me at the next roundabout. Go straight into town, check in at the Drawbridge Hotel. You might as well get Room Four if you can. That's where Nightingale stayed he was on a visit from London. See what you can come up with.'

He switched on the radio again and listened to the cricket for a few minutes. David Gower was playing a blinder, he said. I managed to hold down the cheering.

'I'll keep in touch,' he said, as I began to pull in. 'Or you can get me at the old Unit number in Whitehall. I rather envy you. Gorgeous weather, and it's a lovely town, you know. A lot of good Tudor stuff, I'm told.'

I pulled in and jerked on the handbrake. Then I turned sideways and looked at his young, certain face.

'No,'I said.'I won't do it.'

He leaned his head back and managed a lame smile.

'All it takes is one call to Dublin or Belfast. Guess where Joe Hussy is living these days? You'll do it. Send on the bill. Except the bar bill, of course - you buy your own booze, but we'll pick up the tab for the rest.'

From the moment he got in the car, I knew I'd have to do what he told me. So did he. So why was I squeaking 'No!' every one hundred yards, like a born-again virgin?

'What name do I ask for?' I said, as he heaved his backpack out into the fading sunlight.

'Cringle,' he said. 'Ask for Cringle.'

He didn't acknowledge my surrender.


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