Dear reader, here is a story for you. It was born out of wanting to entertain and delight a friend, as well as the discussion of fedoras and the strange things I buy when I put together a Sainsbury’s order late at night. Enough nervous prevaricating. Here is a vaguely noir-ish story, with hints of silliness and a good serving of the supernatural.
It was an easy job, one of those ones that come when you’re between something more interesting and something more dangerous. Her code name was ‘Sweet Potato’. One look at her and I knew she was sweeter than any potato I’d encountered. My code name was ‘Rookie’, which I’d objected to until my client had reminded me of how accurate it was.
I walked into the supermarket and found her by the freezer aisle second from the left. I recognised her immediately, without needing to look for the stick of celery in her lapel. She looked out of place to a trained eye like mine, with legs that went up above the price labels on the chicken kievs. I knew she’d spotted me, too, but I was a professional. I knew the drill.
Going up to her, I said, quietly, ‘Excuse me, but do you know where I can find the turkey steaks?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘but I hear this joint has a shipment of beef at six tonight.’
‘I tipped my fedora at her and she nodded, flashing bright white teeth in a brief smile.’
‘Just between you and me, our mutual employer is a turkey himself. Nobody uses coded sentences any more.’
I nodded, not wanting to reveal that I was getting used to the new way of things. ‘Do you know of somewhere more private we can talk?’
Besides the potential for being overheard or seen, there was a chill coming off the cabinets that my trench coat couldn’t compete with. She didn’t seem to feel it, but she probably wasn’t living so frugally as I was.
‘Sure. We should pick up a few things first, though. So we just look like we’re shopping.’
I wasn’t certain that a woman would’ve put on lipstick that red and matched her gloves to her handbag (both in black velvet) just to go shopping, but I agreed. Neither of us were used to shopping. The sweet potatoes weighed my pockets down as we queued for tea in a local, busy cafe, but that little discomfort was far from my mind.
She insisted on paying for the tea. I had objected, but she gave me a look – one of those ones that burns through to the part of your brain that reminds you that you’re descended from something smaller and furrier. ‘You paid for the shopping. We’ll go Dutch,’ she’d said. I’ve never been to Holland in my life but was hardly about to admit that – and, of course, I didn’t want to upset her. She seemed friendly enough, but I knew what she was.
The tea smelt of burnt pears and tasted like rubber. She seemed to have no problem drinking it, so I sat there and wetted my lips with it and tried not to grimace while she talked.
‘Mr Artichoke told me you know some of the basic facts already?’
I nodded. She sipped her tea, giving every evidence of finding it palatable, before continuing. ‘I’ve just flown back from Berlin. That seems to be where all the exports are going, but I couldn’t find a warehouse, storage facility, anything. The trail went cold. And I mean cold.’
She looked annoyed and I could sympathise; for someone of her calibre to lose a trail was almost unthinkable. She went on.
‘Then of course there’s Nedrick. I’ve not heard from him in a month – I take it you haven’t either?’
I shook my head, glad to have an excuse to not drink any more tea. ‘No. Six weeks for me.’
Her crimson lips thinned. ‘I’m going to show you something. Something I’ve not yet shared with Artichoke.’ She rummaged in her handbag – my hand strayed to my pocket, just in case, but it encountered one of the sweet potatoes. For a handbag that small, I could spy the two large parsnips she’d also picked up.
I hadn’t needed to worry, however. She was taking out a small, brown envelope, unsealed but held closed with a shiny paperclip. ‘Better than glue or string,’ she said wryly, flicking it off the envelope with the end of her teaspoon. ‘Here.’ She was passing me a set of photographs. They were of Nedrick, but a different Nedrick to the one I knew – or, given my suspicions, had known. He looked sleeker. Shinier. Not like he’d ever drop a file or spill a coffee. The photographs had all been taken at night. Damn.
I looked up to find her watching me. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and meant it. ‘I only met him a few times, but I liked him.’
I slid the photographs back towards her, my throat dry. Unthinkingly, I took a gulp of the lukewarm tea. I couldn’t help but splutter a little, but she was gingerly sliding the paperclip back onto the envelope and didn’t seem to notice.
‘When were those taken?’ I asked, once I trusted myself to speak.
‘The night before last. About thirty-six hours ago. It was him all right, and you know as well as I do it’s too late to do anything about it.’
‘I know.’ I cast around for something else to discuss other than the thing that had once been my friend. ‘So. The shipments?’
‘The next one’s tomorrow. You’re supposed to tag along, although with respect I’m not sure what good it’ll do.’
I shrugged, finding it difficult with the potatoes weighing my coat down. ‘A fresh pair of eyes, maybe.’
She laughed at that. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, leaning across the table, ‘my eyes may be old, but they’re as fresh as the day I was reborn.’ She gazed at me; I tried to stare back, but after a few seconds I looked down at a stain on the table. I wasn’t ready to look at things like that, not so soon after seeing the photographs.
We walked in silence down to the riverside – she had a boat waiting, she’d said, and I felt like walking home anyway. She stopped near the steps down to the river and I could hear the gentle slap of water against wood. ‘So,’ she said, sounding for all the world like she hadn’t a care in it, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. Eight o’clock, remember.’
I tipped my fedora. Despite the loss of my friend and a couple of pounds of root vegetables in my pockets, I could still remember my manners – needed to, with people like her. ‘I’ll see you then.’
She nodded, then, to my surprise, leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. It burned just a little, as if she’d coated her lips in chilli, and I instinctively flinched. She smiled sadly. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve had my dinner for this evening. And you’re one of the more useful ones, anyway.’ She turned away from me and walked down the stairs, speaking to someone before there was a gentle splashing noise and the sound of a small motor.
I decided to go home, put away the damn potatoes and have at least one glass of gin before bed. After all, it wasn’t every day that you lost your best friend and got a kiss from a werewolf.