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Ratcatcher: Chapter 23

...'Mr Hussy?'

'That's me.'

'I have something for you,' she said, and reached out with a child-sized hand to stroke the side of my face. I stood as still as a tickled trout.

'What?' I croaked.

'This,' she said.

Before I knew it, she'd pulled back her soft feminine little hand and given me a hell of a smack across the head...

Undercover man Jim Hussy finds he has an awful lot of explaining to do.

Colin Dunne continues his intriguing novel.

Right then my career needed a lot of things, like work and money. What it didn't need was a session caring for an oversized aristocratic dimwit with a weakness for car-bashing and cowboys.

I didn't put it quite like that. I liked the old Colonel. So I muttered something about being over-extended and under-staffed. He looked disappointed, but alongside all the disappointments in his life mine was one of the minor ones.

On the way out I heard Charles laughing at a video. He sounded like a well-bred horse.

My car clock said it was twelve-twenty, and I suddenly thought I'd like to pay my last respects to Striker. He was another one who'd modelled his life philosophy on that of the late Errol Flynn, only without his income. Perhaps I should've taken that as a warning, but the chances were I'd regard it as an example.

I didn't think I merited a seat in the stalls - anyway it would be almost over by now — so I slunk around the back of the crematorium looking for a vantage point. The best place was a school building. Although it was school holidays, there was a black Bentley in the yard, and I thought maybe there was a governors' meeting or something.

So I dumped my car at the roadside and tramped round a hayfield to get where I could see.

I was only just in time. The mourners were coming out, standing about and putting up umbrellas against the intermittent rain. All I had to put up was a collar.

I could see young Pickles with a notebook the size of a gravestone writing down people's names. Tom Hands kept checking his watch and tapping his foot. There was Arthur Ramsden and Andrew Kentish and at least a couple of dozen other citizens.

The fat clouds over the hills were an incandescent purple now and the raindrops were about the size of cricket balls. Thunder boomed around the sky, and I gave in to the sentimental thought that it was the old gods saluting Striker, the big man with the hammer in his hand. It was a nice idea and I clung to it. So far it hadn't been a good week for romantics.
I didn't see them until I turned to go. Two figures standing on the far side of the school yard. There was no doubt they were there for the funeral. There was nothing else to see from there, and one of them, a woman, was wearing a black coat and a low-brimmed black hat.

The other was a man. Tidy.

At that minute, in accordance with the law that governs mutual recognition, he saw me.

He grabbed the woman by the elbow and began to drag her off across the yard. She seemed to protest, then give in, and she snatched at her hat as it blew backwards.

But I'd seen her. It was the girl in Striker's photograph.

Tidy's urgency hit me. I ran straight across the hayfield, tripping and stumbling and praying for London's flat pavements beneath my feet, but when I got back to the road, the black Bentley had gone.

I got in my car out of the rain and wondered what all the excitement had been about. If it was the girl - one blurred photograph and a rapid glimpse in the flesh hardly made good evidence — then presumably she'd want to be at his funeral. She didn't want to go in through the front door, but then neither did I.

And Tidy? Well, it was well recorded what even nice girls would do for a ride in a Bentley.

Anyway my business here was over. I suppose Cringle was right. It had been a failure. And all I had to show for it was a sore eye.

I went back to the hotel. Little Eileen made me a last drink—a champagne cocktail based on a hefty slug of Remy Martin, topped up with a half bottle of Krug, and just the merest hint of Cointreau to sharpen it up a bit.

'Here's to stationery,' I said, as Eileen marked it appropriately on the bill.

'It's a terrible man you are, Mr Hussy,' she giggled. 'But I'll miss you.'

Westlake said he was sad to see me go when I paid the bill, but the telly fan on reception somehow managed to conceal her grief.

All I had to do then was to fling my spare razor blade and socks into my grip. I'd done that, and was standing in my room wondering if I ought to call on Tiger to say goodbye, when I saw her.

I say saw her, but for a second I thought I'd dreamed her, she materialised so soundlessly in the doorway, and stood there so still.

I stood and stared back. I'd seen her before, of course. On those long nights when the whisky didn't work and I lay and looked into a future as bleak as a desert, sometimes I set my imagination the task of building me a woman. She was tall and short, plump and thin, dark and fair: it didn't much matter which. But always she had that inner glow that lights up the eyes and the hair, and pulls in men like lost mariners, the last flicker of animal instinct that has defied centuries of sophistication. You don't often find it in women. Come to that, you don't often find it in dreams either.
Beneath hair that was a burst of black bubbles, I saw a fine-boned face with the skin drawn tight over clean jawline and cheekbones. She had a long thin mouth, and narrow grey eyes that looked like slits of sky.

'Mr Hussy?'

'That's me.'

'I have something for you,' she said, and reached out with a child-sized hand to stroke the side of my face. I stood as still as a tickled trout.

'What?' I croaked.

'This,' she said.

Before I knew it, she'd pulled back her soft feminine little hand and given me a hell of a smack across the head.

My eye was still sore and I thought she'd detonated it. Lights flashed and when they faded I looked into her eyes and saw a long cold winter.

'I am Victoria Finch,' she said, framing every word with the care of rage. 'I was a friend of Striker Nightingale. How dare you tell people that you were working for me? And how dare you let them cremate him? And now I see you're packing your little winceyettes and sneaking off home. Well, you can just unpack them because you have a lot of explaining to do. An awful lot of explaining.'


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