The first man hits me across the ribs with an aluminium baseball bat, and the second pulls an industrial-strength plastic bag over my head. It’s 11am.
The Pier Inn is a thieves’ paradise. You can buy anything from transsexual autopsy photos to banned animal tranquilisers on any given weekday. Last year a man I know managed to get ten guns and a three hand grenades in less than a fortnight. The cops were dragging bodies out of the harbour for weeks afterwards.
I’m a private investigator. The murder business in this town has kept me in gainful employment for almost five years. It is rarely pretty, but it generally pays well. The first man removes the plastic bag and nudges me towards a corner booth. My ribs ache like a motherfucker and I try to sit down as gently as possible. I’m just glad I didn’t have a bottle of vodka in my pocket. That really would have ruined my morning.
“My associates tell me that you are good at finding people.”
His accent is thicker than day-old blood.
I nod. Last year I tracked down a man the press called the Plastician. He was responsible for the murder of six girls – four of them prostitutes. One of them was only eleven.
“I need you to find me a girl.”
His name is Wojtek Jaworski. We have never met, but I am well aware of his reputation. I think that it is fair to say that the influx of eastern European criminals has changed the balance of power in Paignton in recent years. At first they were content to take over the flesh trade, and then they moved into drugs and guns. They are cold-hearted fuckers and they have caused a lot of damage.
Despite his rumoured wealth Wojtek is wearing cheap grey slacks and an open-necked sports shirt – the kind you could buy on Torbay Road for £5. His skin is waxy and yellow and he has deep-set brown eyes. People say he stopped caring about the money a long time ago – all he cares about now is hurting people and preserving his sick reputation.
“Last week a Polish sailor on shore leave was found wedged into an oil drum with half his skin ripped off.”
I nod. I’ve heard the story. Everyone has heard the story. The Herald had pictures of some of the flaps of leftover skin – complete with intricate underworld tattoos.
“This is the girl who did it.”
He slides a photograph across the table. It is creased and faded. It has to be at least 40 years old.
“Two days ago a Polish shipping container sunk off the Torbay coast. The coast guard said that it was oozing black liquid by the time they arrived. That was my boat. They were my men.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“No one outside of this room knows that.”
He sighs and points a stubby, yellow finger at the photograph.
“She did this.”
I pick up the photo and study it.
“Are you serious?”
“Do you need proof of my seriousness?”
The thickset guy fondles his baseball bat, lovingly, and offers me a horrible smile.
“If she is even alive, the woman in this picture has to be at least 75 years old. Somehow I don’t see her skinning sailors and sinking boats.”
“I never figured you for a small-minded man, Mr Rey. The kind of things a man in your line of work must have seen… I suspect they drive you to question man’s inhumanity to man.”
I nod. He’s lost me, but I don’t let on. I sense a pay-day is looming and I don’t want to dissuade the old soak.
“This woman – she is different. You will see.”
Most of my dealings in this town are with greedy husbands and bored wives. This is a new one on me.
“Do you like music, Mr Rey?”
I shrug. I have a few tapes. Who doesn’t?
“I used to like music, Mr Rey. It was one of the main pleasures in my life… apart from killing, obviously.”
His stooges laugh, but he looks sullen.
“This girl – her name is Wila. She will be working as a singer. Of that, I am certain. That is where you should look.”
He hands me a carrier bag full of banknotes. It looks like a lot of money through the cheap orange plastic.
“You think we are bad men, Mr Rey?”
I shrug again. No worse than most of the men who hire me.
“You should try doing business with the fucking Albanians.”
This time Wojtek laughs and it sounds positively guttural. I tuck the photograph and the cash into my jacket pocket and start to walk away. His mad laughter follows me out into the queasy afternoon sunlight.
It’s drag night in the Dirty Lemon. Cha Cha Chilkins is in the disabled toilet, slipping into her gladrags. Her backing band, the Southern Sulphuric Soul Revue are tuning up on stage. For seven elderly men in frayed tuxedos they sure make a swell noise.
This is the fourth venue I have tried this evening. I order a beer and grab a bar stool. The pub is empty. The stage looks more crowded from where I am sitting.
A girl drifts onto the stage wearing a feathered headdress and a tight black dress. She has a lopsided face. Not pretty, but sexy. She plucks the microphone from the stand and starts to sing. The band looks confused, but start to improvise. I move closer and withdraw the crumpled photograph from my pocket. It’s Wojtek’s girl. Jesus. How is that even possible?
She sounds gorgeous and spaced-out – her wordless melodies floating above the stale cigarette smoke. The band grind away helplessly and the song degenerates into a layer of static and fuzz. The vocals hover above the white noise like an apparition, before fading into the ether, leaving me trembling. When the song ends the bass player drops to his knees and the lead guitarist is sick all over his tuxedo.
I lurch towards the stage but she has disappeared as quickly as she arrived. I glance around quickly, but the bar is emptier than a plundered grave.
I finish my beer and take a piss. The drummer is fixing up in one of the cubicles. He has a raw-boned face and a lazy eye.
“Hey, pal. Who’s the singer?”
“What, Cha Cha?”
“No. The girl on stage.”
He shrugs. He’s old and strung out – like last year’s Christmas lights. His eyes close as the heroin bubbles in his veins and he slides contentedly onto the piss-splattered toilet floor.
Back in the bar the silence is depressing – like an unravelled tape or a cracked skull. I see her sat at the bar, back to the stage. Her headdress looks like a dead animal on the scarred bar-top.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
She turns to face me. Her lipstick is the colour of blood.
She nods and signals to the barman.
I place the photograph on the bar.
She exhales cigarette smoke over her shoulder and drops the butt in her empty glass. I stare at the lipsticked filter.
“Wojtek. He sent you.”
“You are some kind of bounty hunter?”
“Do you intend to hurt me?”
“Does Wojtek intend to hurt me?”
I keep quiet, as I don’t want to contemplate what plans he might have for her.
She grunts again.
“All I want is to sing.”
As I look into her bloodshot eyes she stabs me through the hand with a stiletto switchblade.
My howls fill the room and she darts out of the fire exit.
The black sky looks uglier than my mood, and my mood is fucking rotten.
That usually means that it is time to visit Winner Street. I bang on Mama Theobold’s door with my bandaged hand, and the dressing ends up spotted with blood. Most people in this town think that Mama Theobold is stone-cold crazy. They are probably right.
When she answers the door it looks like her hair has been chopped off with scissors or a knife. She greets me with a warm embrace and leads me wordlessly up the stairs towards her parlour. As I climb the stairs I find myself humming Wila’s song. My vision goes blurry around the edges and I grip the bamboo rail for support. Jesus.
I tracked down one of Mama’s ex-husbands several years ago – I forget which one – and she still has a soft spot for me. She pours me a shot from an unlabelled bottle. It looks roughly the same colour as my piss did this morning.
“What happened to your hand?”
I drain the shot glass and it burns all the way down. The song playing in my head goes temporarily fuzzy.
“It’s a long story.”
“In Polish mythology, the Wiła are believed to be female spirits who live in the wilderness. They were said to be women who had been frivolous in their lifetimes and now float between here and the afterlife. According to Polish folklore a human may gain the control of a Vila by stealing a piece of her skin. However, the only way to actually make one of them disappear is to burn here.”
“Shit. You think Wojtek wants to burn this girl?”
“I cannot say. I have heard stories about him. Stories that make my blood run cold.”
“Should I try to warn her?”
“Warn her? From what you have told me it sounds like she can take care of herself. She has already lured more than one man to his death. Make sure you are not next.”
I drink another shot of Mama’s liquor. This time it goes down easier than a Paignton Yards hooker.
Later. Three drinks later.
I head to the Pier Inn to return nearly all of Wojtek’s money. I have brass knuckles in one pocket and a hand grenade in the other. I try to never walk into a room that I can’t talk my way out of. The grenade is my insurance policy.
When I arrive there is a pool of blood inside the doorway. The first stooge, Stanislaw, has had his arm broken at the elbow. He has the kind of face that gets worse with age, and it looks even more hideous contorted into a scream. The second, Lukasz, is writhing on the grey plastic floor tiles clutching at his ragged throat. He is opening and closing his mouth helplessly, neck ripped into a permanently bloody yawn. He is giving off a meaty stink and I start to pity him. He looks up at me helplessly as I retrieve his baseball bat. I swing it into his ribs, pointlessly. It feels good to hear them crack.
I edge cautiously into the back-bar. I find myself sweating despite the chill.
Wila has her knife at Wojtek’s throat. When she sees me her laugh is hard and bitter. She flashes me a small, enigmatic smile. Her face looks slightly more crooked, but her lipstick still looks like blood.
“Mr bounty hunter. Welcome to the party. Help yourself to a drink. It’s Wojtek’s treat.”
I don’t move an inch.
“Tell me. Wila, how does this play out?”
The hand grenade feels cold in my clammy hand.
She presses the blade closer to Wojtek’s scrawny throat. Blood drips onto the collar of his £5 shirt. I can see tears in his rheumy eyes.
I nod and place the baseball bat on the bar. I cast one last look in her direction and then I walk away, leaving a trail of bloody footprints through the pub.
In Paignton, February is the coldest month of the year.
The early morning sky is the colour of a bruised jaw. From the roof of the Excelsior Hotel the town looks ugly and complicated. I can see the sea from here. It is churning and grey and gives off a feint rotten stench.
I take a drink from my hip flask. It tastes like poison, but I like it. I place the flask back in my jacket pocket and try to clench my fist. The knife wound has scabbed over, but I can no longer feel my pinky finger.
Above the wind I can hear music. It sounds quiet, like an old tape. It sounds like Wila’s song.
Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Sein und Werden and Saturday Night Reader. He is currently working on his first novel: Thirsty & Miserable. Get your pound of flesh at Things To Do In Devon When You’re Dead.