Fragments of voices and noises from the road bled into Johnny’s awareness, occasionally picking up rogue sounds from a distant radio as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Johnny eventually awoke and immediately expected to be tied to a chair, or perhaps strapped to a bed surrounded with bright lights. Clearly he had been watching too many horror films and reading too many detective novels as he found himself in a beige room that was sparsely furnished, with only a large glass dining table surrounded by chairs populating the keep. He couldn’t yet decide if this was a better situation than the one he had imagined, but he figured that lack of hand cuffs and torture devices combined with the near spotlessness of the room suggested a much nicer alternative. Johnny then thought it might be a good idea to attempt standing, perhaps followed by some slight pacing and/or exploration of his surroundings, an experience that soon proved to be slightly painful given the size of the lump on his forehead. I’ll never look at a ski mask in the same way again, Johnny reckoned as he walking across the room. Any unease about the nature of his location was cleared when he noticed the room possessed a barless window, and the sight of a clean table banished any torturous fears. He had to admit, however, that deep down there was a kind of nervous excitement building.
Glancing out of the window he could see nothing but rows of partially built flats and construction equipment. Johnny tried to open the window only to find it wouldn’t budge, before turning to explore the rest of his strange chamber: the glass table was framed in steel, with a bare light hanging above it, the chairs were all metal and torturously upright; they were clearly not made for comfort, the walls were stark and bare and off-white as they met with empty, uncovered floorboards. Walking over to the door in the south facing wall, Johnny tried the handle but found the door locked. If this place was supposed to be a prison, he thought, it’s certainly one of the better ones. There was a knock on the door and a grey haired man, possibly in his late 40s and impeccably turned out in a black suit, black shirt and grey tie, entered with a briefcase and sat down at the table without a word. Slightly startled by this gentleman’s sudden intrusion, an introduction was necessary.
“Mr. Hammitt” the man said in the politest Glaswegian accent as Johnny walked around the table. “How are we this evening? I’m sorry for the excessive force earlier.”
“How considerate of ye. So who are ye yerself, then?”
“I’m glad you asked. My name, to you, is Mr. Keller and I’m…interested in you.” Replied the man.
“Aye, well, does your interest extend to the lump in ma heed that your thug gave me, assuming that it was indeed you whose phone call lead me to this place?”
Keller smiled and spread his hands out on the table,
“Occupational hazard, I’m sure.” his wolfish grin failing to move.
Johnny took a seat at the other end of the table,
“Now,” Keller reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a mobile phone “you’ll be wanting this back, I assume.” and slid it across the table. Johnny snatched it up and attempted to turn it on but the battery was dead,
“Great” he muttered to himself.
“So, I suspect you have questions?” Keller enquired.
“Yer right there, pal.”,
“Well, I have ten minutes before I must leave for a prior engagement. To pre-empt a question; you’re not being held prisoner and are free to leave after our discussion.”
“Right, right…” Johnny mused, as he pondered a number of questions about his current faux incarceration.
Finally, feeling defensive given the events that lead to this place, he said, “I’m not in the habit of following instructions from random guys, y’know. Ye just caught me in a tight spot. It’s not every day a guy finds his flat torn apart and a body dumped in a bath.”
“That’s not a particularly compelling reason for running away at my command though, wouldn’t you say?”
“Mebbe so, but given the situation, did I have little choice?”
“Perhaps. Did you check the body to see the cause of death? Look for any evidence of who broke in?”
“Well, tae me it looked like…”
“Not very smart for a ‘private investigator’ is it?” Keller exaggerated the words ‘private investigator’, seeming to pause over them as if it were a pun. Johnny put forward his defence,
“It’s a bit difficult tae keep calm an’ composed when some mysterious voice seems tae know exactly what’s went down before ye’ve even had time to sit down an’ think about it.” He shifted uneasily in his chair “As I said, it’s no every day a man finds a body dumped in his bathtub.”
“Oh, I certainly agree that it’s not something the average gent might come across on a daily basis. But surely, given your supposed occupation, once you’ve seen one dead body, you’ve seen them all right?” Keller flashed a knowing smile.
Johnny’s discomfort increased, ‘supposed occupation’? What does he mean by that? He thought,
“Well, aye, in my game it’s par for the course innit? Any private investigator is bound tae come across the odd dead body now and then. I’ve seen a fair few, aye.” Johnny attempted to keep his cool. This Keller character couldn’t possibly know all about him, could he? If he did, he must be connected in some way to the events of the day, thought Johnny, his mind racing.
“Yes, yes. Quite. A more pedestrian occupation, say, a night porter for example, would perhaps lead to the sight of very little dead bodies. Particularly if said night porter worked in an educational establishment…” Keller left his sentence hanging out there like bait on the end of a fishing line.
Johnny took it. “Just what are ye implying here, Mr. Keller?”
Keller said nothing.
“What I’m implying, John, is that you’re not entirely who you say you are, isn’t that right?”
“That depends on who you think I am.”
“Let me see” Keller placed his briefcase on the table and opened it.
“John Hammitt. Originally John McCann. Born July 17th 1979, you attended St Roch’s Primary School in Robroyston and later attended the high school of the same name. You left school at the age of sixteen with average standard grade results. You have worked a variety of security jobs ever since, and gained your SIA licence in 2001. Your current employment is as a night porter in Strathclyde University Students Union, where you work night shift after hours. You changed your name by deed poll in 1999 for reasons unknown to me. Is this who you are?”
Johnny was taken aback as this judge read his personal details like a rap sheet.
“In a manner of speaking, aye. I see you’ve neglected to mention my work on the side though.”
“Ah, the ‘private investigator’. Indeed, indeed. Being doing this long, have you?”
“As a matter of fact, aye a few years n-“
Keller slammed his briefcase shut and leapt to his feet.
“John Hammitt. Aren’t you sick of this charade? I’ve barely known you ten minutes and already I can see that you are a liar. How many cases have you worked? Do you have a licence? Are you aware of the mess you have gotten yourself into? The game you are playing, son, is not like it is in the films. What are you trying to do, live in some kind of noir fantasy?”
Johnny laughed, “ Mebbe. It’s not like the films. ‘n for the record, Mr. Keller, I’ve done a few cases and yer damn right about that too – it’s nothing like the pictures, nothing like the books. Even Marlowe got his hole from time to time. Me? Fuck all. ”
“Yes, well” said Keller, regaining his almost regal composure “I’m afraid that is one aspect of your life I do not know much about. But I can say that for you – any work you’ve done as this ‘private investigator’ has either been done so quietly, or has been so mundane that you haven’t ruffled a single feather. Not even the police have heard of you, my friend.”
“Well, as I say. It’s no like the movies. So far all I’ve done I find missing pets and take some photos of cheating partners and dodgy lawyers. The most exciting thing I’ve done is pretend to be a plumber to plant a bug in some mad shaggers hoose.”
Keller laughed and sat back down. Johnny, still agitated, got out of his chair and crossed the room to look out of the window.
“You come yerself? Where’s yer man in the ski mask?” observing a black Mercedes parked alongside the house.
Ringing his hands, Johnny started pacing. Keller sat in silence. He felt like he’d just be caught committing some horrific act, and even though he wasn’t being interrogated he felt an overwhelming need to confess something, everything. As his paranoia grew, he began to feel a little stupid, as if Keller had just uncovered a dirty secret about him and he felt he needed to justify it. Keller sat there completely wordless, his eyes trailing Johnny as he paced from wall to wall.
“Y’know” said Johnny “I tried writing a novel once. Something like a thriller. But there’s only so much Chandler, Banks, Rankin n aw that, that you can read. I got so far and ditched it. I thought about it for a while and realised all I wanted tae dae was remove maself from ma dreary day to day existence.”
“Ah, don’t we all?”
“Aye. A suppose. Dunno why I’m telling you this. I don’t even have a licence or anything for the P.I. thing. Do you even need a licence? A dunno. I just put a few ads oot here n there, y’know? ‘P.I. for Hire. Reasonable rates.’ A thought that I’d end up helping oot the police n that but the fact is, I’d never really ‘detected’ or ‘investigated’ a thing in ma life. Nothing of any consequence anyway.”
The overwhelming urge to justify himself continued to grow as he padded up and down his temporary cage and the excitement he felt earlier was starting to turn to a strange emptiness in his stomach.
“Quite a predicament there, John.” Keller got out of his seat, “Everyone thinks that their life is a bit mundane, but some of us have other things to attend to and distract us, and right now, I’m running dangerously late for one of those things. Is there a point to this story? I’m not interested in your existential angst, Johnny. I’m not a therapist.”
“I’m getting there! Haud yer horses!” he snapped, continuing “I’d put an ad on gumtree, I figured it was worth a punt, and waited a few days but nothing came. So I got back to my life and doing ma usual day to day stuff. Working, shopping n that. About a week an a half later – a few days ago in fact – A get this voicemail message from some lassie named Helen Wilkes. Ring any bells?”
A flash of recollection shot across Keller’s face as he sat back down, but he responded “Means nothing to me”.
Johnny caught this but decided not to press the issue and continued,
“Anyway, aye. She tried ringing me in the middle of the night, like 4am or something but I never caught it. Her message said that she had a job that might require my skills, but it was a pretty delicate matter, and that she needed someone pretty anonymous. So I called her up the next day n she explained that she was after a guy whose no had has face seen about town by some of the more established crime syndicates.”
Johnny turned to look at Keller who, by this point, had taken out a notepad from his briefcase and was scribbling down everything Johnny said, doing nothing to expel the lawyer-like vibe he was getting from Keller.
“Here, here, haud on a second. I thought ye never knew this lassie?”
Keller looked up “I don’t, but this might be important. Please go on.”
“Why? Fuck. I shouldn’t even be telling you this anyway. You’ve still no explained a single thing to me. Why the secrecy? I have nae idea why I’m telling you any of this. I feel like I’ve been caught doing something stupid.”
“All in due course, John. Please, trust me.”
“I’m no making that mistake again. I’ve no idea where I am, I’ve got a lump on the side of ma heed the size of a tenny baw and apparently you know something about dead bodies and polis coming to my house.”
Keller stood up, pocketed the piece of paper he had been writing on and closed the briefcase again.
“Well, I think that’s enough anyway. I can piece together the rest of it myself.”
“Oh aye?” Johnny croaked, watching as Keller exited the room. A moment later he returned with the ski masked friend. This time, however, he was sans baseball bat, instead holding a pair of pliers and a blow torch. He was then followed by two other balaclava clad men, dressed in what appeared to be identical red track suits. Johnny started to feel that emptiness in his stomach turn to dread, as he wondered if his attempt at being a P.I. was indeed a noir fantasy gone horribly wrong.