LOVE'S A FUNNY THING
They say trouble always comes in threes. It certainly did that night, which just goes to show, there's more to these sayings than you'd think. Maybe that's why people started saying them in the first place.
Anyway, the first sign of trouble was when Tracey came back down the stairs into the front room ten minutes after she'd gone up the stairs.
"Molly?" she said. "That new punter? He's acting odd. I don't like it."
"What do you mean, you don't like it?" I said. "What's liking it got to do with anything?"
"I don't mean like that," said Tracey, after a pause - she's a nice enough kid, but a bit slow on the uptake - "I mean he's weird. He gave me the money up front, and then said I should just leave him alone, he wanted to sleep."
It took me a moment to call Tracey's punter to mind, a little fellow, dripping with rain, all black clothes and colourless features. Hard to read. I've known blokes like that who've been into every perversion known to man, and others who want you to talk to them because they're trying to pretend this is romantic. But I've never known a man who paid for services and then wanted to sleep.
"Where is he?"
"In bed. He just rolled up in the sheets and went out like a light."
Odd, definitely. But I wouldn't have called it trouble, not if Mitzi hadn't come out of the kitchen right then saying "Benny's skedaddled."
"What?!" I said, "What do you mean, skedaddled?"
"Cleared out. Vamoosed. Ain't here. I've looked everywhere. Bert's gone, too."
"They must've sneaked out the back after Benny got that phone call," said Gladys. "I thought Bert was looking a bit peaky, but he said he had a cold coming on."
"Benny said that was his mum on the phone," objected Janice.
"Well, his mum must be one scary cow, is all I can say," said Gladys. "Like a sheet, Bert was."
"All right, all right," I said. "Let's all just stay calm, shall we? I've got to think."
The thing is, I was expecting trouble that night. Not three lots of it, I admit, but trouble. That's why I'd got Bert and Benny over, who are big lads and handy with a cricket bat. I reckoned they could handle Dave easy enough.
Dave is Joanie's boyfriend. Well, she calls him her boyfriend, on account of she doesn't like the word pimp. Joanie's always been a bit of a romantic. I suppose you could call it love if a bloke doesn't mind waiting on the steps while you entertain a punter, and some girls'll see a fist in the face as a mark of affection, but even Joanie couldn't talk herself into believing that Dave threw her down the stairs because he cared so much. She was smart enough to sneak off and come to me, I'll give her that, but it was only a matter of time before he tracked her down. Well, where else was she going to go? And it's not like it's the first time I've had to deal with trouble. Truth to tell, it has its good side, because once you've weathered the odd crisis like that, word gets around. When you're a woman playing a man's game, having a reputation is the best insurance policy you can get.
Didn't make us feel any happier about it, though. Not least because Dave, if you ask me, and you'd be wise to ask me rather than Joanie, is a bit of a cycle path. We heard on the grapevine that he torched Joanie's stuff when he found her gone. Without taking it outside first. There's three kids live in the next door flat, so it's lucky for them they hadn't bunked off school that day, seeing as how the entire first floor burnt out. But that's Dave for you, act first and think later. Joanie says he's "spontaneous". As in spontaneous combustion.
I had good reason to think tonight was going to be the night lover boy caught up with her. You have to keep your ear to the ground in this business, and there'd been hints dropped that it was time to circle the wagons and shut up shop for a week or two till the storm blew over. But I knew better. Dave's the type who can nurse a grudge forever. If he couldn't get in, he'd keep coming back, unless and until he got a good kick in the balls to teach him respect.
Which was why I'd asked Bert and Benny over. Only now someone had put the wind up the pair of them - no prizes for guessing who - and that made me worry that there was more to Tracey's sleepyhead punter than met the eye. I hadn't pegged Dave as the kind of brain who'd think to smuggle a man in behind the wagons, but what with the lads buggering off, I was beginning to think I'd underestimated him.
"Let's have a look at this weirdo, shall we?" I suggested.
There's a shotgun under the floorboards that I keep for emergencies, and since it seemed like the emergency might already be here, I got it out of its hidey-hole and headed upstairs with Gladys and Tracey - Gladys because she once went to a martial arts class, and Tracey because the mystery man wouldn't be put on his guard by seeing her.
Trace pushed the door open carefully and I peered round her. The man was lying on the bed, fast asleep. He hadn't taken his clothes off, not even his shoes, the bastard, and there were muddy smears on the sheet. That meant an extra cleaning bill, and it's not like the overheads on this place aren't bad enough already. But I only noticed that in passing, because what really caught my attention was how his jacket had fallen open and, more to the point, how there was a gun in a holster underneath.
"Shit a brick!" whispered Trace, and I cocked the shutgun, meaning to tiptoe into the room and shove the barrel into his neck. It didn't work out as I planned, though, because when the safety catch snicked, the man on the bed sprang to his feet and had his gun pointed at me before I could even take aim.
It would have been very impressive, except that the sheet was tangled round his legs, so he fell on the floor. He still managed to roll over and aim at me, but by then my nerves were wound so tight, all I could do was laugh. It wasn't quite hysterics, but close enough that I had trouble stopping. After a while, he started grinning too, though he never took the gun off my face.
"Why don't you put that shotgun down?" he said. There was something funny about his accent, posh, but not quite right somehow. "I'd rather you didn't accidentally pull the trigger."
I did as he'd suggested - it wasn't like I had any choice in the matter anyway - and he lowered his own weapon and got to his feet. Somehow he looked a lot less frightening when I wasn't seeing him down the barrel of a gun. He wasn't very tall - no bigger than me - and he had long hair, like he was a musician or something, and it was sticking out all over the place from sleeping on it when it was damp. His eyes had black rings under them and that puffy look they get when you've missed bedtime by a few days, round about the time you have to start propping them open with matchsticks to keep going. If it hadn't been for the gun, I'd have pegged him as a student on his way home from an all-night party. As it was, he was a puzzle. Still, at least the pistol meant he wasn't one of Dave's crew. However young he might look, this bloke was playing in a different league.
"I don't want to cause any trouble," he said, when he'd got to his feet - he didn't talk like one of Dave's lot either - "but would you mind if I stayed here for a while? I'm in a bit of a fix and it would be very inconvenient if I had to leave this house in the next hour or so. "
"Oh yeah?" I said, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Well it so happens that I'm in a bit of a fix myself, so maybe we can come to some mutually profitable arrangement, Mr...?"
I swear, I couldn't tell you what he said his name was to save my life. It was like trying to understand a foreign language, all weird sounds strung together in a weird order, but it sounded a bit like "illeecurrysomethingorother."
Behind me, Gladys choked with laughter. "Lilian? That's a girl's name!"
"Not Lilian. Eelier." You could tell he was annoyed.
"Well, it still sounds like a girl's name."
"It's Russian. Lots of Russian male names end in -a. I imagine even you have heard of Nikita Khrushchev?"
"Yeah, and he sounds like a girl and all!"
"Cut it out, Gladys!" I said sharply. "If you're not averse to staying here for a few hours, Mr Currywotsit, perhaps I can explain our little difficulty."
So I told him about Joanie, and how Dave and his mates were on their way over. He looked rather surprised and said "Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but don't you have any, er, gentleman friends to help you out?"
"Pimps, you mean?" I said. "No, my girls don't need pimps. I see to that. I make sure they got somewhere clean and dry to work, and they don't need some thug of a Neanderthal to keep them safe. And before you ask, I did arrange for a couple of likely lads to back us up, only they seem to have got windy all of a sudden, so I'm having to make alternative arrangements at very short notice. That would be you, Mr C."
For a moment he looked puzzled, and then he said "K. You spell Kurrymumblemumble with a K. And you would be Mrs...?"
"Smith," I said firmly. "So have we got a deal, Mr Curry-with-a-K?"
"We have a deal," he said, and I think he started to smile, except it turned into a great big yawn. In my job you see a lot of people in the wee small hours of the morning, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone look quite so tired.
"Could someone make me some coffee?" he said apologetically, when the yawn let go of him. "Lots of it?"
"You're better off getting a couple of hours kip," I said, thinking he wouldn't be much use to us if he kept falling asleep on the job. "Dave won't be round till after closing time. He runs on alcohol, that one."
"All right," said the not-a-punter-after-all, and sat down on the bed. You know how they talk about someone falling asleep before their head hits the pillow? Well, that was the only time I've ever seen someone fall asleep in the middle of sitting down. Gladys giggled, and Trace, who's the soft-hearted kind - she takes stray dogs home and cries over drowned kittens - said "Poor thing, he must be exhausted." I daresay they'd have stayed there staring at him till Dave showed up, if I hadn't shooed them back down the stairs, like the silly chickens they are.
I knew I'd upped the ante, of course, making that deal. Yeah, a cricket bat can do a lot of damage if you hit the right spot, but a gun is a different kettle of fish, quite aside from the interest the law would take in us if it actually went off. Not that the neighbours were likely to hear us, because there aren't any. There's houses all right, but this street's due for for demolition, so apart from the squatters on the corner, there's no-one here but us. Even so, I decided I'd better get the punters off the premises and shut up shop for a few hours. The less witnesses the better.
Once we'd got the place clear and bolted the front door, I explained the situation to the girls.
"Who is this bloke anyway?" said Mitzi. Mitzi may look like everyone's baby sister, but she's got her head screwed on right and she don't miss much. "Some kind of copper?"
That got us all thinking.
"Since when do the Plod carry guns?" I said doubtfully. "Anyway, he says he's Russian. How many Russian coppers do you know?"
"Oh my God!" squealed Janice, who likes a spot of drama. "What if he's KGB? Maybe there's bugs all over the rooms!"
"They'll have fun listening in on me," said Mitzi, going off on one of her fits of giggles. "Oooooh! Aaaaah! Oh yes! Harder!"
"All right, knock it off, Mitzi, I think we all know what happens next, it's not like the rooms are sound-proofed," I said. Trying to keep those girls' minds focused is like herding cats. "So maybe he is KGB. Frankly, he can have come straight from the Kremlin for all I care, as long as he gives Dave the fright of his life."
Just before closing time I sent Mitzi into the kitchen to brew up about a gallon of coffee, and Trace to wake up our white knight. He looked a bit better after his kip, not quite so red-eyed and less likely to keel over on the spot, but he drank up the coffee the way other men down pints, and every so often he'd fight back a yawn and then try to pretend he hadn't.
I filled him in on the details of the situation, and he listened carefully, without interrupting, and then looked at the shotgun and said "Put that away."
"What?!" I said. "Seems to me we need all the weapons we can get."
"I can handle it," he said. "We don't want any guns going off. Someone will only get hurt."
"Which is what we want," I said, none too pleased at being talked down to.
"You said a fright." He was looking me straight in the eyes now. "We don't need any shooting to scare the wits out of someone like Dave." He had good eyes for staring people down, like chips of blue ice. They had the same effect as his gun - once you'd noticed them, he looked a lot less harmless.
"What are you gonna do?" I asked, conceding a bit of ground.
"I'll think of something. How many friends will he have with him?"
"Hard to say," I admitted. "What d'you think, Joanie?"
"Joanie?" he asked then, quite sharply. "Are you the ex-girlfriend?"
"That's me," said Joanie, with a wan smile. "I'm sorry to have got you mixed up in this, Mr K."
He made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as if to say that wasn't important. "So how many?"
"Well, Micky Mitts and Phil the Greek for sure," said Joanie. "And maybe a couple of others. He knows Molly ain't no pushover."
He shook his head decisively at that. "Then we can't hold them off in the doorway. I can't cover enough of them at once, and the rest will be able to break away and come in through other entrance points. We're better off letting them in and then trapping them in one room. Is there a back door?"
"Yeah," said Gladys gloomily. She's a quick girl is Gladys, saw at once what he was driving at. "And there's a window in the kitchen and all."
"Board it up," said Mr K. "One of you, get in there and do it now," - Mitzi took off - "Has the front door got strong bolts? Good. I want the front windows to be the only possible entrance. Someone open them an inch or two, so they look inviting."
At the word "inviting" Gladys draped her arm round his shoulder. "I do like a man who knows how to give orders," she said huskily. "You can tell me what to do any time."
You should of seen the look on his face. All that icy self-confidence dropped away and he had to clear his throat before he could speak. "That's very kind of you - er, Gladys, isn't it?" he said. "Um, I'll just open that window," and he wriggled out from under her arm and skipped across the room like he couldn't get away from her fast enough.
Janice giggled, and Gladys said, half-angry, half winding him up, "What's up with you? You some kind of pansy or what?"
His face didn't change at all, but you don't last long in my job if you don't look at more than people's faces, and the tips of his ears went bright pink. "No offence," he said coldly, "but I've had a very tiring couple of days and I can't afford any distractions right now."
"You didn't have no distractions when you were upstairs with Trace," persisted Gladys. "Maybe you just didn't have the inclination."
Tracey shot her a killer look, like she was ready to start a fight, but right then this funny warbling sound came from his jacket, and he said "Excuse me," and took out a silver pen. The sound got louder then, and I'd just figured out that it must be coming from the pen, when a voice said "Illier? Are you there?"
"Yes," said Mr K, holding the pen to his lips like he was talking to it.
"Are you okay? We've been trying to make contact for two days."
"I know. I had Thrush after me - I don't think I stopped running for twenty four hours - but I've managed to throw them off now, and I've taken shelter with some, ah, ladies of the night."
There was a moment's silence and then the voice from the pen - it was American, deep and velvety, and it sounded amused - said "I trust you're behaving yourself?"
"And where is this, ahem, establishment?"
"I'm not sure. Somewhere in Soho, but I had no time to check street names. Look, I'll be holed up here for a few hours - I owe someone a favour - but if you can have transport waiting at Soho underground, I'll be there at around 7am."
"Mind they aren't watching the area," said the voice.
"I'm sure they will be, but don't worry Napoleon, I can lay my hands on a brilliant disguise."
"All right, but call in before you leave. We don't want to lose track of you again. Be good. And if you can't be good, be careful."
I have to say, that pen put the wind up me. It was one thing to make cracks about our little helper working for the KGB, but finding out he really was some kind of agent put things in a different light. And knowing he could report in to his boss without having to leave the house didn't lay easy on my mind. I had a few questions to ask him, but before I could begin, Gladys chipped in.
"Was that your boyfriend?"
You couldn't overlook the sneer in her voice. Gladys is a right little stirrer, and sometimes I've been this close to kicking her out, because if there's one thing I can't stand, it's everyone being at sixes and sevens. It makes for a poisonous atmosphere. I've always ended up keeping her, though, because she's the only one of the girls with any real brains. Trouble is, she uses those brains to needle people she's pissed off with, and right now she was getting back at the KGB man for not fancying her. Not that he showed any signs of rising to the bait. Instead he gave her an amused look and said "Napoleon is a colleague."
"Sounded awfully friendly for a colleague," persisted Gladys.
"That's because he's a friend as well."
"A good friend?"
"A really good friend?"
You could see the KGB man recognised he was getting into deep water now, but wasn't sure exactly how it had happened. Probably came from being foreign, because the words sounded innocent enough by themselves. But even a foreigner couldn't mistake the little bursts of suppressed giggles coming from the other girls, nor the way they'd closed in round the conversation like a crowd watching a dog fight.
"Is he a really good friend?"
"I would say so, yes," said Mr K, looking slightly flustered. It was rather sweet really. Janice snorted, and Joanie and Mitzi sniggered.
"A confirmed bachelor is he, your friend?"
The audience held their breath, apart from Mitzi who couldn't repress a titter and had to turn it into a cough. Mr K. glanced around him warily, trying to work out exactly where the trap lay, and then said, "He's not exactly the marrying kind, no."
"Ooh, get him!" crowed Gladys, to general hilarity. "Not the marrying kind! Lilian and Napoleon, what a lovely couple!"
The trap had sprung, but to my surprise Mr K. suddenly burst out laughing. "It's obvious you've never met Napoleon," he said. "He's the most heterosexual man you'll ever meet. And I know you're all experts in the field."
That triggered a lively discussion among the girls about what this Napoleon must be like, and what "the most heterosexual man you'll ever meet" actually meant, and whether his voice as heard on the talking pen sounded like he was a fairy or not. The only one who didn't join in was Trace, who gave Mr K. a sympathetic look and said nothing.
For my part I thought Gladys might be onto something - like I said, that girl's got brains, and it's not often a bloke finds himself in a roomful of tarts and doesn't eye up even one of them - but I didn't see that it mattered, since even if he was a fairy, he certainly wasn't limp-wristed. The memory of his gun pointed straight between my eyes, never wavering from its target even when he tripped onto the floor, wasn't one I was going get out of my mind in a hurry. And since it wasn't his custom I was interested in, who gives a toss what his preferences were? So I bunged in the question that had been gnawing at me ever since I saw that bloody talking pen.
"You some kind of copper, Mr K?"
That brought him up short. He gave me a shrewd look, like someone who's used to sizing people up, and then said, "Only if you stretch the definition a long way. But I'm not interested in immoral earnings, if that's what you're worried about."
"There's no immoral earning goes on here. This is all above board and legit. We're a respectable establishment, and I'd thank you to remember it. So perhaps you'd care to tell me about these fellows what you mentioned to your friend, the ones chasing you? They gonna show up here?"
He shook his head at that. "I'm sure I threw them off. As for who they are, I'm afraid I can't tell you. But don't worry about it, I'll be gone in a few hours and there won't be any repercussions."
For a foreigner, he certainly liked throwing long words about, but I'm not one to be dazzled by walking dictionaries.
"You mean like the Old Bill?"
"This has got nothing to do with the police."
"And you ain't KGB, so we haven't got to worry about MI5 showing up?"
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? I didn't push the issue. It was enough to have let him know we weren't so green as we were cabbage-looking. Now we both knew where we stood. He wasn't a spy and I wasn't running a brothel, and we'd neither of us any reason not to want the police involved in our troubles.
I don't know what sort of training they give you in the KGB, but it felt really strange watching him size up a perfectly ordinary terraced house like it was some kind of military target. Once he'd had a good look round, he gave us all instructions about where to go and what to do when Dave showed up, and then there was nothing left to do but sit around and wait. Mr K. started to yawn again, so Janice made another jug of coffee, and then we sat around and waited some more. After a while, it really started getting to me. The combination of thumb-twiddling boredom and nervousness about what would happen once the boredom stopped was driving me up the wall. The girls seemed just as twitchy, but judging by Mr K. it's something spies get used to, which I suppose is logical. It can't all be action and sex scenes, like in the films, there must be a lot of times when all you can do it sit and wait and bugger-all happens for hours and hours. But even if he could cope with it, I couldn't.
"Give us a tinkle on the piano, Trace," I said at last, desperate for some kind of distraction.
Tracey didn't need to be asked twice. She hopped over to the piano, cracked open the book of tunes and started playing something. God knows what it was - I'm not musical, and even if I was, Tracey isn't - but it got Mr K.'s attention. His eyes swiveled round to the piano like he was seeing one for the first time in his life, and then he frowned a bit, like he was thinking. Tracey threw him a smile, but it was the piano he was looking at, not her, and presently he went over and opened the lid. Tracey stopped playing and stood up to peer inside with him, and pretty soon they had the whole front off, like a surgeon operating on a patient. Inside, it was full of wires, and Mr K. reached inside and fiddled with one of the longest until it came loose. Then he fiddled with the other end, and presently he took out the whole wire and stood pulling it between his hands.
"Werewolves," he said.
"You what?" I asked.
"Werewolves. It was a branch of the Waffen SS responsible for guerilla warfare. One of their tricks was stringing wire like this across the road to disrupt motorcycle convoys."
I blinked. It wasn't a pretty thought, careering into a wire like that at top speed. It'd cut your head right off your neck. I was just shaking myself, trying to get the picture out of my mind, when I heard Mr K. say, "Is there anywhere I can hang this from?"
For a moment I didn't understand the question. Then I looked at the wire in his hands, and remembered me saying how Dave needed to be taught a lesson, and I got it.
"There's the banisters on the upstairs landing," I said. "You could tie it on there and it'd dangle into the hall."
He nodded, and the two of us went out to investigate the possibilities. I could hear Trace start up on the piano again, and then Mitzi joining in with gusto, "My old man's a dustman, he wears a dustman's hat, he wears gor blimey trousers, and he lives in a council flat!"
She's got a good voice, actually, has Mitz. Not that I'd ever tell her, because a compliment like that goes straight to her head and she's all airs and graces for the next few days, but she's nice to listen to. I could hear her warbling away all the time Mr K. was getting things set up.
He twisted the wire into a loop, using some kind of clever boy scout knot that let the loop tighten when you pulled on it - he probably had a penknife in his pocket that could take stones out of horses' hooves as well - and then he said "How tall is he?"
"Dave? About six foot," I said.
"Then it's going to be a short drop. Can you get me a chair, please?"
"You bet," I said, and hollered through to the front room, "Joanie! Bring us a chair, will you?"
The music stopped for a moment, and Joanie came out into the hall carrying a kitchen chair. Her face went white as chalk when she saw Mr K. up by the banisters, lowering the noose, but she didn't say anything, just scuttled back into the front room. A second later a new tune started up, with Joanie joining in loudest of all, "Come, come, come and make eyes at me down at the old Bull and Bush..."
I hopped up on the chair, and pretty soon we'd worked out roughly how far down the noose needed to dangle. Then Mr K. tied the wire to one of the banisters. It must have been another clever knot, because when he tested it - he wrapped his jacket round his hand, so it didn't hurt - the wire stretched a bit, but the knot didn't give an inch. The whole time he didn't say anything, and neither did I. I kept thinking about werewolves, and Lord knows what he was thinking about, but we got the job done, and then we went back into the front room, where the girls were just finishing off "My old man said 'Follow the van'."
"What's next, Trace?" said Joanie, sounding a bit desperate, as we came into the room. "'Roll out the barrel' again?"
"I've had enough," said Tracey, giving Mr K. a shy smile. "Do you play, Mr K?"
"A bit," he admitted, making no move to cross to the piano.
"Oh, go on then, give us a tinkle!" said Joanie hastily, and seeing him still hesitate Trace suggested "Play something Russian."
That tipped it. He plonked himself down beside Tracey and started playing something like you might hear on the radio, with lots of notes, and a beat that made you think of Cossacks waving their swords and kicking out their legs. I think he made a few mistakes, because he paused sometimes and frowned before picking up the tune again, but it was still bloody impressive. And long. There's something about piano music, no matter how clever it is, after a while it gets me yawning, and I think the girls felt the same, because after a bit Gladys went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and Tracey went over to sit by Mitzi, and they soon put their heads together and started whispering and giggling. I leaned my head back and lowered my eyelids, not so that I couldn't see anything at all, but just enough to rest my eyes a bit.
All this time Joanie had been watching Mr K. with a frown on her face, as if for once in her life she was thinking hard and finding the experience painful, and now, seeing how everyone else was occupied, she sidled up to him and leaned against the piano, tapping her fingers in time to the beat and nodding her head to show how she was getting into the music. When he finally came to the end of the piece she leant forward and said something in a low voice. She didn't want anyone to hear, but it's easy to interpret a whisper when you've got a pretty good idea what someone's saying.
"You won't work him over too badly, will you?"
"Dave. I know you've got to give him a fright, but you won't do anything... permanent, will you?"
He took his hands off the keyboard then, and looked straight at her. "Why should that worry you? I thought he tried to kill you."
Joanie shrugged. "I know, but he didn't mean it."
I couldn't see his face, but I could imagine the expression. I get the same sort of look myself, when Joanie talks about Dave. Sooner or later, most people do. From Joanie's reaction I knew my imagination had hit the bull's eye. You could hear the tears in her voice when she said, "He can't help his temper. It's because he loves me."
"He has a strange way of showing it," said Mr K.
"Yeah, well, love's a funny thing, isn't it?" said Joanie bitterly. "No-one ever understands. They always say 'Why don't you just leave? He'll never make you happy, he'll never give you what you want, he'll end up killing you.' But I'll tell you something, if it was that easy, I'd have left long ago. Dave's the only good thing in my life. Without him everything's grey and nothing tastes of anything. You've got to take the rough with the smooth. Do you see?"
There was a long silence, then Mr K. started tinkering softly with the piano keys. "Not really," he said at last. "I don't think it can really be love. Not if he hurts you."
"And you know all about love, do you?" said Joanie fiercely. "Anyway, it don't matter if he don't love me. All that matters is that I love him."
He didn't say anything to that, just sat staring at the keyboard, until Joanie shook her head, like she despaired of human nature, and moved off. Then he started to play again, very slow and sad. It sounded like someone weeping a long way off, like the way you might feel if someone you loved died, or if you came to the end of your life and realised you'd lived it all wrong. I don't think he even knew what he was playing, because he suddenly broke off, gave his head a shake, and launched into something completely different. His fingers jumped about about over the keys like he was a speed typist, and he kept crossing his wrists over to get to the notes, and what came out was like nothing that's ever been played on that old piano before or since. It sounded American somehow, sort of jazzy, but not, if you know what I mean. Not something you could dance to, but it had a tune that wound its way into your brain and set your feet tapping and your fingers fidgeting. I heard it again a few years later, in that film with Robert Redford - and that brought back memories, I can tell you, a screenful of blue eyes and that music dancing through my head - but at the time I'd never heard anything like it.
And right in the middle of it there was an almighty crash against the front door and a voice hollering at us to let him in. It was Dave. He hadn't waited till closing time after all.
Mr K. jumped to his feet and put out the lights. It wasn't completely dark, because there's a streetlight right outside the window, but we could see Dave and his mates moving around outside, instead of them being able to see us pratting about inside, all lit up like we were on stage.
They might not have waited till the pubs had closed, but you could tell they were one over the eight, because when the lights went out one of them said "Hey, Dave, the lights have gone out!" With obbo skills like that he should have applied to join the secret service - probably not the KGB, though, because if Mr K. was anything to go by, they have higher standards. You could tell that by the way he moved across the room to the window. Like I said, there was light coming in from outside, enough so that you could make out shadows, and patches of white that were people's faces, but I swear, if I hadn't known where he was and what he was heading for, I'd never have seen him move. He had a way of melting into the shadows like he was part of them, and though that floor is riddled with creaky boards, none of them even so much as squeaked.
While he was creeping across the room, the blokes outside were flinging themselves against the door. At least that's what it sounded like. There was a series of thumps and bumps, and someone said "Oof!" and someone else swore, and once there was such a bang that I thought there was no way the bolt was going to hold, but at last they gave up, and that was when our lad with the sharp eyes spotted the open window.
I don't mind telling you my heart was in my mouth as they shoved the window up. I couldn't see their faces with the light behind them, but I recognised Dave from his silhouette. Well, that and the fact that he was shouting, "Joanie, you little bitch, I know you're in there! Come out or I'll smash your bloody face in!"
He was first in through the window - say what you like about Dave, he believes in leading from the front, won't take second place to no-one - and as he swung his legs over the sill I got a feeling inside like I was going to wet myself, but I got a good grip on my cosh and told myself he couldn't see me yet. And that was when I realised I couldn't see Mr K. either. I'd lost sight of him when I started staring at Dave, like a bloody rabbit in car headlights, and now he'd vanished completely. So I took a deep breath and pushed a chair over, like he'd told me, when he was handing out the jobs.
Dave's head swung up and he stopped halfway into the room, trying to find where the noise had come from. And at that moment a dark shape came away from the wall beside the window and flung its arms round his neck. Dave let out a kind of gurgling cry and staggered sideways, as if he was being pulled over. Like I said, he's a big bloke, and Mr K. wasn't, not exactly, but I guess if you've got a length of piano wire cutting into your windpipe, it don't matter how big the bloke on the other end is.
"Call the others off," hissed Mr K. "Send them home."
Dave choked a bit, and then jerked, like the wire had been suddenly tightened. He managed a tiny nod, and Mr K. must have loosened his grip, because Dave said hoarsely "Piss off, lads, I'll handle this."
"What?" said one of them from outside, and Dave jerked again and shrieked, "I said piss off! Get the fuck out of here before I rip your sodding heads off!"
"All right, all right. Fucking prima donna," said one of the voices, and then we heard them heading off down the street, yelling obscenities, clearly frustrated at the way the evening had turned out. I skipped over to the window and slammed it shut, then drew the curtains and snapped, "Someone switch the bleeding light on!"
Someone did, and there was Dave, half crouching, half bent over backwards, with Mr K. hanging grimly on round his neck, like a terrier with his teeth sunk into a badger. Dave's eyes roamed wildly round the room, and when they found Joanie they locked on hers for a second. Joanie let out a little choking gasp, like the sound Dave had made when Mr K. first got his garotte round his throat, and took a step forward, and Mr K. yanked Dave backwards and hauled him out of the room into the hall.
I wouldn't let the others come out there with us, but I went and pointed the shotgun at Dave while Mr K. got him up on the chair and tightened that noose around his neck. Then he stepped back and left the floor to me.
Which was kind of him, except now it came down to it I hadn't a clue what to say. My mind went blank - it was like trying to make withdrawals on my bank account. When there's nothing to hand over, it don't matter how much you beg. I looked Dave in the eye, hoping he might give me an idea, and when I saw his expression my throat went so dry, I couldn't have got a word out even if I'd been able to think of one. He looked like an animal. His lips were drawn back, the way a dog does when it's snarling, and his eyes were like two little slits. All that hatred aimed straight at me, and I knew if ever he got out of that noose, the first thing he'd do was kill me.
Unless I scared him enough.
Knowing it was him or me helped me to find the words somehow. I mean, you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, so if I was going to have to kill him, or else spend the rest of my life terrified of going to sleep in case he turned up, I might as well get some satisfaction out of it beforehand.
"Deary me, Dave," I said. "Looks like you're in a bit of a tight spot. Comfortable is it, with that noose around your neck?"
I swear to God he growled at me at that point. But funnily enough, that made me less scared.
"You're a hard man, Dave," I said. "Beating up helpless women. A real tough guy. But you know what? This time you've met your match. I'm going to make sure you never lay a finger on a girl ever again."
Dave snarled, and I decided talking was useless. I took aim with the shotgun, trying to make up my mind whether I was just going to shoot his stupid head off, or blast his bollocks all over the room and let him bleed to death. Dave saw the barrel of the gun hesitate as this thought crossed my mind, and he went white as a sheet.
At that point Mr K. broke in.
"Do you know what it's like to be hanged by piano wire?" he said, like this was a friendly conversation down the pub. "It's not like a rope. You won't die instantly - the drop isn't big enough to break your neck - but your weight will make the knot tighten. The more you struggle, the tighter it gets, and because it's so thin, it will cut through your skin, and then through your windpipe. It will stop when it reaches your spinal column, because you're not heavy enough for it to cut through bone, but by then of course, you'll be dead. I recommend struggling, then it will be over more quickly."
By the time he finished his little speech, Dave had taken his eyes off of me and was staring at him like he was a devil risen from hell. I could see his point. I'd had to swallow, myself, when he said that about the windpipe, and I didn't have six inches of piano wire digging into my Adam's apple.
"Now Molly here could shoot you," Mr K. went on calmly. "You can see she'd like to. But I think that would be too quick a death for a piece of scum like you. So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to pull this chair out from under your feet, very slowly, so it doesn't jerk you too much. And then I'm going to watch your face as the wire starts to bite into your throat. I'm going to watch your eyes bulge out of your head, and your tongue swell up, and your face go blue. And all the time I'm going to think 'That'll teach that piece of filth to lay hands on a woman'."
Mr K. certainly had a way with words. Dave's whole face changed. He couldn't of gone any paler, but his eyes were round as two buttons and you could smell the fear rolling off him in waves.
"Please," he managed to say, the words coming out with difficulty because of the wire round his throat. "You don't have to do that. I promise I won't touch her ever again."
"No, you won't," said Mr K, and there was no emotion in his voice whatsoever, no satisfaction, no anger, no nothing. "You'll never touch any woman again."
"Please," Dave begged, and now his eyes were like saucers. "I promise! I promise!"
At that moment the door from the front room opened a crack and Joanie peeped round. I guess she'd been listening, because her face was as white as Dave's. She gave one quick glance at him, stretched up on tiptoe, begging for his life, and then looked at Mr K. He didn't look back at her, but I think he must have known she was there, because that was the moment when he stepped forward and hooked his leg under the chair. Joanie gasped, and Mr K. flicked his foot, and the chair shot out from underneath Dave. I heard him gurgle as the wire took his full weight, but he only dangled there for a split second, because Mr K. had flicked the chair in Joanie's direction, and she had it pushed back under Dave's feet before you could say Jack Robinson.
"That's enough," she said.
Mr K. looked at her, and his expression was completely unreadable.
"Please," she added, and at last he nodded.
"You're a lucky man, Dave," he said, never taking his eyes off Joanie. "It appears you get a second chance after all. But be warned. If ever you lay a finger on this girl - on any of these girls - you'll have me to deal with."
Dave couldn't speak, not now the knot had tightened, and he certainly couldn't nod, but his eyes said everything. Mr K. made no move to untie him, and I certainly wasn't going to, so Joanie ran and got a second chair and a pair of pliers. It took her a while, because the wire was digging so deep into Dave's neck, and by the time she got him down he was half suffocated, and rolled onto the floor gasping and choking. Mr K. didn't say anything, he just watched, with that blank face, like he really didn't care whether Dave lived or died. And maybe he didn't. He'd done what I'd asked him to, what happened next was none of his business.
So I took over again.
"You heard what the man said, Dave. Now get out of here."
He flashed me a terrified look and struggled to get up. It was a fantastic feeling, like he was an ant that I could crush under my feet. Joanie opened the door and he lurched down the steps like he couldn't get out of there fast enough. It all went to my head a bit.
"Get a move on!" I said, and put the shotgun to my shoulder and fired a blast after him. I wasn't aiming to hit or anything, but he didn't know that, and it wasn't half funny to watch him leap forward like a greyhound going after a hare. I was laughing so hard I didn't notice Mr K. coming up behind me until he pulled the shotgun out of my hand.
"I told you not to use that," he said, sounding really pissed off.
"Sod you," I said. "There's no harm done." I didn't see why he should treat me like a kid, not when I'd done half the work of putting the frighteners on Dave.
He didn't say anything, just went back inside the house with the gun.
"What did you say those SS blokes were called?" asked Janice, handing round celebratory glasses of wine. "Werewolves? Imaginative lot, weren't they. Who'd have thought you could turn a piano into an instrument of torture?"
"Trace can," said Gladys, to a burst of relieved laughter.
"They copied most of their techniques from Russian guerillas," said Mr K.
I guess, as a true patriot, he couldn't let that one slide, but it's a funny sort of thing to be proud of. Looking at him, standing there bent over the piano, quietly fitting the wires back into place, I felt a sudden chill. The truth is, I simply didn't know what to make of the bloke. One minute he looked as harmless as they come, yawning and rubbing his eyes like an exhausted kid, and the next minute he was kicking a chair out from under a man dangling from a piano wire noose, all without batting an eyelid. Made you wonder how many other werewolf techniques he knew. Made you wonder if he ever used any of them on our own men. He did work for the KGB, after all. Suddenly I couldn't wait to have him out of the house.
That doesn't mean I wanted what happened next to happen, though.
I told you trouble comes in threes. If you'd said to me at the start of the evening that Dave was the least of our worries, I would have laughed in your face. I was laughing when the explosion went off. If you lived through the Blitz, if you've laid curled up in an air raid shelter coffined under three feet of earth, while the bombs fell on London, you'll have a rough idea what it sounded like. If you've run through the streets during a raid, with the search lights slicing the sky into a mosaic and the ground shaking beneath your feet, you'll know exactly what it sounded like. The room was full of bits of flying glass as the window blew in - we found out afterwards they'd blown the door right off its hinges as well - and everything went dark as the light bulb shattered.
We all flung ourselves to the floor, and into the silence a voice said, "Come out with your hands up, Kuryakin, or we'll blow this place sky high."
It was a very calm voice. It didn't sound like someone who'd just nearly had their eardrums burst from standing five feet away from an explosion. It didn't sound like someone who was bluffing, either. Not far from me, one of the girls started to cry, but very softly.
From somewhere behind the piano Mr K. shouted "Not a chance, Harper. Blow me up and you lose the microdot."
His voice didn't sound calm. It sounded ragged. It also sounded like he was bluffing. At least I hoped he was.
"That's a risk we'll just have to take," said Mr Calm. "A shame to lose so many civilian lives, but there you have it. The choice is yours."
I swear you could have heard a pin drop. You couldn't hear even a single breath, not from any of the girls, and certainly not from me. Whoever it was had been crying had stopped, swallowing it all down, and apart from my heart thumping, there wasn't a sound in the room. And then Mr K. got to his feet. He didn't say anything, but I could see his outline from the streetlight coming in through what had been the window. He put his hands above his head and swung his legs rather awkwardly over the window sill, and then he was gone.
In the silence that followed, we stared at each other, the girls' white faces just visible in the glimmer of the streetlight. Then we heard the roar of a car engine, and Gladys tore out of the room like a woman who's left her baby on the bus. The rest of us came back to life as well. Janice said "Oh my God, who was that?"
"How the hell should I know?" I snapped. "Maybe it was James bloody Bond. He's KGB, ain't he? One of the bad guys!"
"They're who he was hiding from," said Trace, giving me the kind of look she gives people who kick puppies. "They must have heard the gun. He told us not to use it!"
"Yeah, well I couldn't help that," I said. Sometimes you have to be willing to get your hands dirty in this business, and if I wasn't prepared to do it, they'd all be out on the streets, so I wasn't going to put up with any reproachful looks, thank you very much.
Gladys came back in then, panting rather heavily - when horizontal jogging's all the exercise you get, a dash like that'll take the wind out of you - and said, "I got the registration number."
"What good'll that do you?" I said. "Gonna ring the Old Bill, are you? And what'll you tell them?"
At that moment Trace let out a kind of shriek and clapped her hands to her mouth.
"What's bitten you?" I snapped, and she pointed at the piano and said, "His jacket!"
Okay, so he'd left his jacket behind in all the excitement. There was still no reason to act like she'd just seen a ghost.
"No, the pen, the pen's still in there!" Trace stammered, and suddenly I got what she meant. Didn't take a minute to whip it out of his pocket - I may have passed his wallet over to Gladys to investigate while doing so, but I'm sure she didn't take nothing - but it took a lot longer to work out how to switch the bloody thing on. I twiddled and turned and pressed and poked, and exactly which of those actions finally did the trick I couldn't say, but suddenly there was a lady on the line, saying in a voice like she was sucking lemons, "Which channel do you require?"
"I don't know nothing about channels," I said. "I want to talk to Napoleon."
I felt a right twit saying that, I can tell you, like I was applying for admission to the nearest mental hospital, but the lady just said "Mr Solo? That will be Channel D." There was a kind of hiss, like when you can't get the radio tuned in right, and then that voice came out of the pen, the velvety one we'd heard earlier.
"No, it's not Illier, Mr Solo," I said, "It's Molly here. I'm the one what Illier was doing the favour for."
"Hello, Molly," he said, pleasantly enough, though he sounded sort of impatient underneath. "What can I do for you? Where's Illya?"
"Well, that's just it, Mr Solo, I don't know where he is. These men took him. But we got the registration number of their car, so we reckoned maybe you could trace it or something?"
Then I handed the pen over to Gladys - and believe me, it was a relief to let someone else look stupid for a change - and she told him what the car's number was, and he thanked her very politely, and then switched off at his end. Which left us all staring at the silent pen.
I don't know what I thought this Mr Solo could do. I didn't even know where he was - maybe he was in Russia, or something. Or maybe in America, since he spoke like a Yank. The KGB must have men all over the world, after all. I don't see how you can trace a car in London from an office in America, or in Moscow, come to that, but I'm not a spy, so what do I know?
I didn't particularly want to think about it, because I didn't want to think about what would happen to Mr K. if his friends couldn't find him. And as we were never going to know, one way or the other, it seemed like the best thing to do was to get on with the tidying up and not worry about it. Life goes on. That's another of those sayings. No point dwelling on the bad things that might, or might not, have happened. Not if you can't change them either way. I bought a newspaper the next day, though, just to see if any unidentified bodies had turned up in mysterious circumstances, but I didn't know if the fact that there were no reports meant nothing had happened or if it had been hushed up.
About half an hour before the first punters usually show up, we were all in the front room, playing cards and carefully not mentioning last night, when there was a knock on the door.
"Someone can't wait," said Gladys, raising an eyebrow, and went to let him in. I could hear her out in the corridor, having what seemed like an unnecessarily long conversation with our eager customer, and was about to shout to her to get on with it, when she came back into the room followed by a bloke with very shiny hair and an expensive suit.
"This is Napoleon," she said, with insolent familiarity. "He's here about Lilian."
I gave her a freezing look and got to my feet. "How do you do, Mr Solo? I'm Molly, ah, Smith. Did you manage to find our mutual friend?"
"I did, thanks to your timely assistance. As a matter of fact, that's why I'm here."
As if that was some kind of signal, the rest of the girls came pressing round Mr Solo, gabbling out questions and eyeing him up.
"How did you find him?"
"Who were those people?"
"Is he coming to visit us as well?"
"Is he all right, then, Mr Solo?"
That was Tracey, imagining the worst as always. It was a good question though, and she got the first answer. In fact, I couldn't help noticing she got the only answer. Seems like Mr Solo wasn't too keen on talking about his work.
"He's fine. Well, he will be. He's a little incoherent at the moment, but we're very grateful to you ladies for helping us to find him so quickly. There is one thing he mentioned that we couldn't make heads or tails of. Do you keep barrels in this house?"
"Barrels?" I said, not sure if I'd heard right, what with the funny accent and all. "We ain't a pub, Mr Solo. This is a respectable establishment, I'll have you know."
"I'm sorry, any aspersions cast were purely unintentional," he said, with the kind of smile that's meant to make you trust the smiler. "It's just that Illya left something behind here, and we need to find it."
"You mean his pen thing?" Tracey piped up.
Solo had noticed her before, of course - he was the kind of man that notices everything - but for the first time he really looked at her, and you didn't need to be an expert in human behaviour to tell that he liked what he saw.
"The communicator?" he said, and suddenly there was only Tracey in the room, and the rest of us were just wallpaper. "I'd like that back as well. Thank you for taking care of it." He smiled again, a very different smile, full of rainbows and moonlight and long, slow dances. Trace wasn't having none of it, though.
"Molly's got it," she said, and if words were actions, there'd have been a red handprint on Mr Solo's cheek. It didn't put him off, though.
"You spent some time with Illya, I take it?" he said to Tracey, and - when she nodded reluctantly - "Lucky him. I hope he appreciated it. He didn't say anything about barrels to you?"
"We didn't hardly talk at all," said Tracey severely, and then, seeing Mr Solo's face, blushed unexpectedly. It's one of the things blokes like about Trace, that she still gets embarrassed enough by things to blush. "He played the piano, that's all. He was a gentleman."
"I'm sure he was," mumured Mr Solo, but you could see that his mind was no longer on the conversation, for all his appreciation of Tracey's charms. "This one here?"
He strolled over to the piano and pressed a few keys. You could tell he couldn't play. Except maybe Chopsticks, but we were spared that, because his eye fell on the songbook propped against the front, and he picked it up and flicked through it.
"Did Illya play any of these?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Not that I can recall," I said. "He played a load of tunes off by heart."
"Trace did, though!" said Gladys suddenly. "That's what made him think of the piano wire - she was playing 'Roll out the Barrel'."
Mr Solo's face lit up with interest, and he turned to the index, then opened the book carefully at the right page. I thought maybe he'd want Trace to play the song for him, but instead he ran his finger very carefully over the notes, like he was a blind musician and they were in braille, and then suddenly he said "Aha!" and held up his finger. There was a black dot on the end of it.
"Is that what you were looking for?" said Mitzi in astonishment, and Gladys said, "Holy cow, it's a microdot! He really is a spy!"
Mr Solo laughed at that, but he didn't say anything. He looked around for Trace, but she'd gone. She said afterwards that she couldn't bear to stay in the same room as him, but don't ask me why. He was a very attractive man, and a right charmer, so why she took against him so, I really couldn't say. He left after he'd found the microdot, but not before he'd made a date with Mitzi for later on, and she came in the next day looking like the cat that got the cream, and saying that Mr K. got it bang to rights when he said Mr Solo was the most heterosexual man you'd ever meet.
The story still ain't quite over, though.
The next day I came back to the house after a really lousy day, for reasons which I won't go into, and found the whole place filled with flowers. There were roses everywhere, and hyacinths, and great big glads, and all sorts of other kinds I didn't recognise. There were vases full stacked on the piano and along the bar, and when the vases ran out someone had fetched a load of tin buckets and stuffed the kitchen and the hall with them. The place looked like a jungle.
"Bloody hell, what's this?" I demanded. "It smells like a funeral parlour in here!"
"Oh, don't take on so, Molly," said Janice. "I think it's lovely. No-one's ever sent me flowers like this before."
"They for you?" I said in amazement.
"Course not," said Gladys scornfully. "They're for all of us, from that Napoleon fellow, because we rescued his boyfriend."
"You're winding me up!" I said, so she showed me the note that came with flowers, a very nice note, very polite, thanking us for helping out his colleague and providing UNCLE with invaluable information. I dunno what UNCLE is, must be a different branch of the Russian secret service, like OGPU or SMERSH, or something, but whoever they are, they've got very nice manners. And a great big flower budget.
There was a parcel from Mr K. as well. There weren't any flowers in this one, just a set of really strong bolts, along with a handwritten note. I assume it said thank you, but I swear to God, I've never seen worse handwriting, not even on my doctor's prescriptions, so I'm not entirely sure. I couldn't even read his signature, so I still don't know what he was really called. I'm glad they got there in time, though. I still reckon we owe him, not least for teaching me that trick with the piano wire. You never know when that'll come in handy in my line of work.
Joanie went back to Dave. We all knew she would. She said now Mr K. had scared him witless, she didn't have to worry anymore, but she's the only one who believes that. The rest of us know it's only a matter of time. But what can you do? There's none so blind as those that will not see. And maybe that's what love is. I don't know that there's any rule anywhere that says if you love someone, they have to love you back. Maybe Joanie's right, and half a loaf is better than no bread.
Love's a funny thing.