Episode Three, Part Four

EPISODE THREE: FORTESCUE’S FICTIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY

PART FOUR

          The first thing that was abundantly clear from his expression was that Rico was not accustomed to having strangers boldly deposit themselves at his table. Fortunately, the move equally seemed to flummox his minder who glanced open-mouthed at Rico in the hope of instruction. None being immediately forthcoming I took the opportunity of forestalling any objections by immediately launching into an introduction.

          “Excuse me for interrupting you Senor Rico but we have been authorised to investigate the recent disappearance of the showgirl Lola,” I announced, not entirely truthfully. “And we would just like to ask you a few questions.”

          It was not lost on either myself or my colleague that Rico’s instinctive response was to cast a worried glance in the direction of the bar. “I don’t know who you mean,” he said hastily.

         “Oh please, you can do better than that,” chipped in Michael, who, having overcome his reluctance, slipped quite effortlessly into the role of seasoned investigator. “I think you know very well who we mean.”

          “Yellow feathers in her hair, her dress cut down to there,” I recited, careful to recount the correct version of the song. “She was Tony’s girlfriend. You know Tony, don’t you? Works behind the bar.”

          The proximity of the band and the fact that half a dozen be-feathered girls had just begun their routine close by did not make the casual, insinuating tone that I was aiming for quite practical but it seemed my words hit home nonetheless.

          “What do I care for the affairs of some barman?” replied Rico in a painfully strained attempt to sound indifferent.

          “I think you care very much if he stands between you and the woman you want,” I retorted.

          Rico, to his credit, looked genuinely outraged. “What?”

          It was at this point that the henchman sat alongside Rico finally gathered his wits together sufficiently to interject. “I don’t think Senor Rico is interested in answering any more of your questions,” he said menacingly. “I think it’s time you both left.”

          By this time though I was on something of a roll, the plots of a hundred hastily devoured detective novels coursing through my mind. “What was it Rico?” I asked in a slightly taunting tone. “Did she turn down your advances? You couldn’t accept that she just wasn’t interested?”

          “Didn’t you hear me?” growled Rico’s minder. “Time to go.”

          “I don’t suppose a man like you is used to being refused, are you Rico?” I continued determinedly. “Was that why you had to get rid of her?”

          “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” insisted Rico with a rather sad shake of the head.

          “I think I do.”

          It was at this point that Rico’s minder finally lost patience. He pushed back his chair aggressively and got to his feet, glowering down upon us.

          As the psychological disadvantages of finding your adversary towering over you are well documented it was only a natural reaction for our party to follow suit. Michael instantly drew himself up to make the most of his six foot plus stature. My five feet seven fared rather less impressively but I had faced down burlier bouncers in my time, though admittedly not without a more generous allowance of drink and/or drugs coursing through my system. A Mexican standoff across the table was thus speedily effected.

          Rico waved his hand in a gesture that I presumed was intended to calm the situation. It did not prove particularly effective.

          “Are you going to leave of your own accord or do we have you thrown out?” asked the goon.

          “We’re not going anywhere till we get some answers,” retorted Michael, who I noted had a stubborn resistance to bullying of any kind.

          At this point I noticed Senor Delgado weaving his way in our direction wearing a worried frown. Realising that he might prove something of a fly in the ointment of our argument that we were conducting an ‘official’ investigation, I moved hastily to wrap things up before he could interfere.

          “Just tell us what you’ve done with her Rico,” I demanded.

          Rico remaining tight-lipped, it seemed his minder had run out of patience. With a muttered, “that’s it”, he whipped something dark and shiny out of his jacket pocket and stretched his arm towards us. The move was so smooth and practiced that it was a few moments before it registered that I was now staring directly into the gaping muzzle of a large, very threatening pistol.

          Rather less slow on the uptake was one of the dancers who happened to be cha-cha-ing her way just at that moment past our table. Distracted by the commotion, she paused to see what was happening. Spotting the weapon being brandished by Rico’s henchman she let out an impressively piercing scream that immediately topped the highest note the band were capable of performing. Having thus acquired the attention of every single person in the club, she followed it up with an informative cry of “He’s got a gun!”

          The words instantly rippled round the room, passing over the lips of dancers, waiters, patrons and musicians, like an ever increasing tidal wave. It seemed to travel a full circuit before anyone reacted but then, as if a starter pistol had just been fired, the room erupted into pandemonium. Everyone immediately made for the nearest exit, not caring over whom or what they were forced to scramble or how much of their dignity they left behind in the rush. If I hadn’t been quite distracted by the gun that was pointing directly at my head, I might have rather enjoyed the spectacle.

          Within two minutes the population of what had been a full and bustling nightclub was reduced to just seven. There was Rico’s minder who, being in possession of the weapon in question, had presumably less cause than everyone else to be spooked by it. There was Rico himself, who remained rooted to the spot throughout. There was myself, finding that having a gun pointed at you is something of an inhibitor of rash movements. There was Michael, who was either displaying a touching fidelity to me and my cause or had noticed that he too was in the immediate vicinity of the gun and considered that perhaps sudden movements were not advisable. There was Senor Delgado, jigging this way and that about the dance floor in a distracted attempt to reverse the exodus. And by the bar there were Tony and Sid. Sid wore his customary baffled expression while Tony was regarding the little stand off around our table with a grim determination.

          Michael was the first to break the silence. “So I have to put my sword in the cloakroom but he’s allowed to bring that into the club,” he murmured, to my mind not quite focusing on the relevant issue.

          To my surprise though it was Tony who made the first move. Stepping calmly out from behind the bar he walked steadily across the dance floor towards our table. In response Rico, utterly ignoring his gun wielding companion, walked out to meet him.

          “Please, no bloodshed,” pleaded Senor Delgado upon unexpectedly finding himself stood between them like some reluctant referee.

          “Why wouldn’t you respond to my messages?” Rico began in an unexpectedly wounded tone.

          “After what you had done?” responded Tony disbelievingly.

          “I only did what I did for you,” complained Rico. “You said you liked me to take care of things for you.”

          I was beginning to sense that my initial theory might have been slightly inaccurate. “Sorry, let me get this straight,” I piped up, sufficiently intrigued to almost forget for a moment the close proximity of the henchman and his gun. “You and Tony…”

          Rico nodded sadly. “We were happy together. Weren’t we?” He added this last appeal to Tony who remained thoughtfully silent.

          “But for Lola I suppose,” interjected Michael.

          “She didn’t really understand,” admitted Tony awkwardly.

          “So Rico arranged to get rid of her for you,” I said, filling in the blanks.

          “I didn’t really think he would do it,” protested Tony. “She may have been a bit difficult but I never wanted her dead.”

          “Dead?” spluttered Rico. “What makes you think she is dead?”

          Tony looked momentarily confused. “But she disappeared. I assumed you had her killed.”

          “What kind of a person do you think I am?” complained Rico, sounding genuinely hurt.

          “Well, someone in your line of work…,” put in Senor Delgado helpfully. “I imagine you know some people.”

          “My line of work? What’s that supposed to mean?”

          “You know,” said Tony meaningfully. “Gangsters.”

          “I’m a respectable businessman,” retorted Rico. “Why does everyone assume I’m a gangster?”

          I gave a discreet cough in order to draw attention to what I thought was the rather irrefutable evidence of his hulking minder, who was still pointing a gun uncomfortably close to my head.

         Rico glanced back at his colleague with an exasperated glare. “Oh, for heavens sake Raul, will you stop waving that toy around. You’re not fooling anybody.” He glanced apologetically around at the rest of us. “Raul watches too many films for his own good. He’s just my driver.”

          A suddenly rather sheepish looking Raul hastily slipped his pistol back into his pocket. Trying not to breathe too obvious a sigh of relief, I endeavoured to give the impression that I had remained utterly cool all along.

          “So you didn’t kill Lola then?” asked Tony warily.

          “No, of course I didn’t kill Lola.”

          “Where is she then?” I asked, getting to what I considered the nub of the matter.

          Now it was Rico’s turn to look sheepish. “I don’t exactly know,” he admitted. “It wasn’t my doing.”

          “What wasn’t your doing?”

          “I just wanted her out of our hair. And I heard there were people who could arrange such things for you.”

          “Gangsters!” exclaimed Tony. “So you did have her killed.”

          “No, no – there was to be no violence,” protested Rico. “But for a fee they said they could arrange to have her removed from the city. They are good at organising such things.”

          “Who are they?” I asked curiously.

          Rico shrugged. “I don’t really know. It was all arranged in an office above a tobacco shop.”

          I could sense an alarm bell ringing somewhere inside my head. “This wouldn’t happen to be in the Calle San Miguel, would it?”

          “That’s right. Number thirty-three. The whole operation is run by an English senora.”

          “Wait just a second,” burst out Sid, finally joining in the debate. “But that’s home to…”

          “Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency,” filled in Michael. “I think somebody has been playing both ends off against the other.”

          Senor Delgado looked at us in confusion. “So you know where Lola is?”

          “No but we know just the person to ask,” I told him. “I think Felicity Fortescue has some explaining to do.”

****************************************

          It was hard not to admit to a certain sneaking admiration for Felicity Fortescue who had apparently set herself up simultaneously in both the criminal and detective ends of the market. It took a certain amount of cool to arrange the kidnapping of a nightclub dancer and then promptly accept the commission to investigate that dancer’s disappearance. Whatever the morality, it had to be admired as a very smoothly planned operation.

          We left the deserted Copacabana, where Rico and Tony were busy making up while Senor Delgado berated Raul for frightening away all his customers, and wound our way back through the streets to Calle San Miguel for a confrontation with Felicity Fortescue. It was after 10pm by the time we got there but I had a hunch we might still find her at her desk. After all, working both ends of the law surely required a degree of overtime. Based on their last encounter Michael diplomatically (or cowardly depending on your point of view) suggested that his presence might not be entirely helpful and so it was left to just Sid and I to climb the stairs to her office.

          She managed to hide her surprise at our unexpected entrance rather well, though this may have had something to do with the half empty bottle of tequila that stood on her desk next to the paperwork she was scanning. She listened to our accusations with equanimity and when we had finished calmly reached into a desk drawer and took out a key which she pushed across the desk.

          “Container 43, Warehouse B at the National Shipping Company,” she announced matter-of-factly. “That is, of course, providing she hasn’t been loaded up already. I believe the ship is due to leave first thing in the morning.”

          “And that’s all you have to say on the matter?” I asked, a little taken aback by her sangfroid.

          “What do you want me to do? Apologise?” retorted Felicity Fortescue. “A woman has to earn her living.”

          “By kidnapping showgirls?”

          “Don’t expect me to shed any tears over that frivolous creature. She should know better than to expect decent treatment from a man.”

          “What I can’t figure is how you ever imagined you’d get away with it?” said Sid with a shake of his head.

          “I consider it to be a most efficiently worked out scheme,” insisted Felicity Fortescue haughtily. “The only hitch one couldn’t possibly foresee was that you might actually solve the case before the girl was despatched. In fact I was rather counting on this little problem keeping you absorbed for a good few weeks Sid Hitchins.”

          My heart twisted at the crushed expression on Sid’s face. “Actually Sid proved himself a very worthy detective,” I lied.

          “Oh please, we both know Sid would have trouble investigating which pair of pants he was wearing on any given day,” retorted Felicity Fortescue. “You, on the other hand Miss Everingham, have proved yourself most impressively underhand. Do call on me if you find yourself looking for work, won’t you?”

          There seemed nothing for it but to leave  Felicity Fortescue to her notes and files and the rest of her tequila. It was clearly a futile effort to attempt to extract any shred of remorse for what she had done and, perhaps more importantly, there was a showgirl about to be shipped off to God knows where if we didn’t catch her in time.

****************************************

          From the first hand account he later gave us I was extremely glad that I had allowed Sid to handle the delicate operation of locating and releasing Lola the showgirl. I swear I intended it as a generous gesture to enable him to scoop up any official thanks on offer for the solving of the case. But it turned out that hell hath no fury like a showgirl who has been locked up in a shipping container for the past forty-eight hours. Strapping stevedores had run screaming from the whirling ball of fury that had steamed out of the container when it was opened, scattering a trail of mouldy yellow feathers from one end of the docks to the other.

          We got to enjoy Sid’s rather colourful description of the incident as we sat having lunch in a waterfront café the following day. Michael and I had been pouring over what little travel information we could gather from around the docks in the hope of picking up some clue as to the best direction to take in search of Sturridge. Not progressing very well we had been extremely grateful for the diversion when Sid had turned up.

         “So what will you do now?” I asked when Sid had finished his tale.

          “Get back to what I know best. This detecting lark was never really for me, was it?”

          “What about going legit?”

          “Hogwash,” announced Sid confidently. “I’m a crook. Always have been, always will be. I was daft to even think of going straight.”

          “Will you leave Havana?” asked Michael.

          “Nah, why should I? I’m onto a good thing here. I reckon me and Felicity could really go places.”

          “You and Felicity Fortescue?”

          “Yeah. What with her organisational skills and my contacts I reckon we could really make a go of this agency. That is, of course, providing we ditch the detecting lark, concentrate on the proper work.”

          “I don’t want to stick a spanner in your works,” I said. “But I didn’t really get the impression that you and Felicity Fortescue got on all that well.”

          “Oh, she’ll warm to me,” insisted Sid cheerfully. “She may be a bit of an old stick in the mud but I’ll wear her down.”

          I opened my mouth to make further objection but then promptly shut it again. After all, I’d known odder couples than those two in my time. Not by much, granted, and not many of them but I’ll swear that they exist.

          “I reckon she’ll liven up a treat once she puts this detective stuff behind her,” continued Sid. “It’s too methodical and logical for anyone’s tastes. You need a bit more fun in your life.”

          “Well, as GK Chesterton said, it’s the criminal who is the creative artist, the detective is only the critic,” remarked Michael.

          “Eh?” said Sid.

          “Never mind.”

          “But anyway, this all acts as a reminder that I owe you a piece of detecting work,” said Sid. “You helped me with my problem, it’s only fair I should I have a go at your case.”

          “Oh, no, that’s really not necessary,” said Michael hastily.

          “No, you don’t owe us anything,” I added just as quickly. I didn’t much fancy the idea of getting stuck in Havana while Sid blundered around trying to pick up some clues on Sturridge. We might never get out of the place.

          “Look I know I ain’t much of a detective but I do have one or two contacts,” said Sid, waving away our protests. “I heard from Felicity that you was looking for some author by the name of CJ Sturridge and so I put out one or two feelers.”

          Sid paused. I found myself leaning forward in spite of myself, scarcely daring to hope.

          “I have to say though it is a big landscape this and I didn’t have a lot to go on,” cautioned Sid.

          I tried not to look too disappointed.

          “Well, you shouldn’t feel too badly…” began Michael.

          Ignoring him, Sid took out of his pocket a folded sheet of paper which he smoothed out on the table in front of us. “Is that your boy?” he asked with a broadly triumphant smile.

          The paper contained a grainy image which seemed to be a blow up of a small section from a much larger photograph. It showed a man standing on a short flight of steps leading up to a darkened doorway. His features were not entirely clear but I would have bet my last tin of Edward’s out of date salmon that the man staring off into some unknowable distance was none other than CJ Sturridge.

          “That’s him!” I exclaimed. “But where did you get this?”

          “An old pal of mine moved up country not so long ago,” explained Sid. “It just so happens he’s been working some surveillance in preparation for a couple of blags. And, well, he owes me a favour.”

          “Do you know where the photograph was taken?” asked Michael eagerly.

          Sid glanced around him as though he were afraid of being overheard then he tapped confidentially on the doorway in the picture. “That, my friends, is one of the offices of the Explorer’s Club.”

          “What’s the Explorer’s Club?” I asked.

          “Well, that’s the question, ain’t it?” replied Sid. “The story goes that way back in the mists of time there was an organisation set up that was dedicated to the idea of mapping the landscape of the imagination. It went by the name of the Explorer’s Club. It seems there were folk who reckoned there were some valuable secrets to be discovered within this world.”

          “So, did they discover any secrets?” I asked, intrigued.

          Sid shrugged. “Who knows? As an organisation they sure act like they’ve got some secrets to hide. But that might be all bluff and nonsense. There’s some folk who will swear they ain’t people to be messed with but others reckon they ain’t no more than a bunch of old men sitting round telling each other tall stories.”

          I glanced again at the picture. It gave the impression that Sturridge had been caught in a moment of distraction but it was impossible to say whether he had been in the process of entering or leaving the building in question.

          “So, how do we find this office of theirs?” I asked, nodding at the image.

          “Ah, well that’s hard to say,” replied Sid enigmatically. “One of the secrets the Explorers are said to have uncovered is that of travelling in a more – how would you say? – metaphysical manner. It’s rumoured that their offices can appear and disappear anywhere in the landscape in the blink of an eye.”

          “Well, that’s helpful,” muttered Michael with a sigh of disappointment.

         “Of course, that may just be cobblers,” continued Sid with a grin. “But I can tell you where this picture was taken. A place called Stafford Harcourt.”

          “Stafford Harcourt? I’ve never heard of it,” I said. Michael looked equally blank.

          “It’s a large-ish town about three days journey from here. Take a ship from the docks and then you’ll have a trek over the hills. I’ll write you some instructions.”

          “Thanks Sid,” I said with a heartfelt smile.

          Sid settled back in his seat and allowed himself a broad smile of triumph. “All I can say is good luck to the pair of you,” he replied. “I reckon you might well need it.”

*********************************

          So the following morning Michael and I found ourselves heading up the gangplank to take up our places on a slightly rickety old steamship sailing out of the docks. As I joined the queue slowly winding its way onboard I was scarcely even aware that I was singing away beneath my breath. “At the Copa, Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana” I glanced up to find Michael staring at me with a frown.

          “I’m sorry, it’s stuck in my head now,” I protested.

          “No, it’s not that,” said Michael thoughtfully. “I was just wondering how the Copacabana can be the hottest spot north of Havana when we found it actually in Havana.”

          “Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.” I considered for a moment. “Perhaps this wasn’t the Copacabana from the song after all.”

          “Just a coincidence you think?” said Michael dubiously.

          I shrugged. “I guess things just tend to get a little twisted here in the landscape.”

          While we waited for the ship to sail we took a turn about the deck and amused ourselves with trying to pick out which of the passengers might be Lola. To everyone’s surprise she had decided to leave Havana after all, although with the proviso that she were allowed to travel as passenger and not cargo. I imagine any happy memories of Havana Lola may have harboured had been slightly obscured by the view of the inside of a storage container. I couldn’t really blame her for wanting to move on.

          “At least that means Rico and Tony get to live happily ever after,” I said cheerfully, leaning over the rail.

          As the ship sounded its horn to mark departure Michael pulled a face.

          “What? Why shouldn’t they be happy?” I demanded.

          Michael took from his jacket pocket a folded napkin with a string of numbers jotted on it. “Tony’s phone number,” he explained. “I don’t think he finds Rico quite as exciting now he’s discovered he’s not really a gangster.”

          “Oh,” I said, somewhat deflated.

          Michael shrugged and carefully tucked the napkin back away into his pocket.

          “You’re keeping hold of that then, are you?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

          Michael smiled enigmatically and gazed out towards the horizon.

          “Actors,” I muttered. I turned away and watched as the docks began to gradually recede from view. Now, perhaps, this quest of ours might finally be getting us somewhere.

To be continued…

Episode Four Coming Soon

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