3rd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)
Graham Longshaw lived with his mother; though he was not thinking of her as he sat on the bench by the bus stop. He was waiting for his latest subject to arrive, and if she didn’t come soon she would miss the bus. They would have to wait for the next one. She might notice him. Not that any of his subjects ever had. A man who lived with his mother was not the sort people noticed.
Ah, here she came, trotting along on her high heels, her bag clutched to her chest like a shield. Graham boarded the bus after her and took the seat behind. He wrote the time in his notebook, under the entry for Subject 13: woman, early thirties, medium height, brown hair. She had dragged her hair back into a pony tail today. It needed washing.
He pulled his hat down over his forehead. This was a battered black object which had belonged to his father, and had hung on the hall stand ever since his death. Graham wore it for luck, not that his father had ever had much. As a disguise it was a bit feeble, but it made him feel like a different person.
The subject was speaking on her phone. ‘No, I haven’t, not for ages . . . well, of course I’d tell you.’ She glanced round, as if checking for enemies. It was her habitual air of mild paranoia which had first attracted Graham’s attention. A woman with a secret, he’d thought.
‘If he bothers you again let me know ... don’t worry, I’m all right ... yes, really. Look, I’ve got to go.’
She rose and made for the exit, Graham close behind. When the bus had gone he followed her, being careful to hang back. Never shadow the suspect too closely, the manual had said, in case they rumble you. He had found the book in a charity shop, and thought, why not? Why shouldn’t he? More future in it than filling shelves at the Pound Shop, and that only part time. Not that he could have worked longer hours, with mother the way she was. She’d been worse lately. You didn’t need any qualifications, as long as you were observant. Of course he wasn’t ready yet, he needed more practice, but maybe one day, when mother –
He halted abruptly at a corner. She had stopped halfway down a cul-de-sac, key in hand, by a door that opened straight off the street. The key turned, the door opened, she vanished.
Now what? Graham ambled down the street. At the end he stopped to write the house number down in his book. He had her address now. He could knock on her door - no, too soon for that. This was just a preliminary reconnaissance. He started back, paused at her window. It was shrouded in dingy net. He sensed rather than saw a hint of movement inside.
The door opened. ‘Who the hell are you?’
Graham stood, slack-jawed.
‘Selling something? If it’s double-glazing I don’t want it.’ She seemed bigger close to. ‘Hang on, you’ve been following me. Don’t say you haven’t, I spotted you at the bus stop. And yesterday, in the shop.’
‘I – ’
‘So what are you playing at?’
Graham swallowed. ‘I’m a detective,’ he said.
Her hand came up to cup her mouth. ‘Police? Has something happened?’ She glanced down the street. ‘Here, you’d better come in. They’ll all be looking.’
Inside, she lifted a tangle of tights and a slipper off the end of the sofa. ‘Sit down.’
He lowered himself into the space. Every flat surface in the room was covered with stuff. There was a faint smell of dirty clothes stashed in cupboards.
She picked up a mug half full of a murky liquid. ‘Want a coffee?’
‘So what’s he been up to now?
‘I suppose he’s still giving this as his address. Well, for your information, he hasn’t lived here for six months, nearly. I’m not having you tearing the place apart either, not without a warrant. And shouldn’t you have a badge or something?’
‘I’ve got a card.’ He had, too, with more at home, courtesy of a free offer on the Internet. All printed with his professional name and everything.
‘Daniel Hunter, Private Investigator,’ she read. ‘The sneaky bastard! He put you onto me, didn’t he? What does he think you’ll find – that I’ve got another bloke? Chance would be a fine thing. And what’s it got to do with him anyway? Tell him he can mind his own business.’
Her face twisted. Was she going to cry? Please don’t let her cry.
‘He’s got no right. I put up with enough while he was here, now he’s buggered off he can leave me alone.’
He felt her spittle on his face. Talk about a lion’s den. Though she was more stray cat than lioness. She had a spot coming on the side of her nose.
‘Harassment, this is, there’s a law against it.’
She waved the mug dangerously close. Oh God, she was going to throw coffee all over him, how would he explain that to mother?
‘And you can piss off as well, Mr Daniel Private Dick. Tell that creep to stay away from me. I don’t want to see him or hear him again, ever. You tell him!’
The door slammed behind him. He took off his hat to wipe his forehead. It was time he got home anyway, mother would be fretting. He walked back along the street, Daniel slipping away from him with every step. By the time he reached the main road he was Graham again. Only he smiled, as he waited for the bus. She believed I was a proper detective, he thought. She really did. And in his chest there uncoiled a thin small worm of hope.