It’s been a while since we’ve had a short story on the website, so I figured it was about time for one (of course, if you’re signed up for the newsletter, you would have received a brand new short story last month, involving very small, Doctor Who-obsessed muggers. Yes, I know. It’s something in the tea. Go sign up anyway.).
As some of you know, Twitter is, for me, quite often the supplier of writing prompts of the unexpected variety, and this time it concerned one of those made-up name type things (you know the ones – your autobiography name is, your stripper name is…). This particular one took the name of your first pet plus the last place you went on holiday to give you your private detective name.
And so Gobbelino London came into being.
It bounced around in my head for quite a while, and took some time to get to the writing, partly because Gobbelino appears to have a bigger story to tell. He’ll have to wait, though. Although patience doesn’t seem to be his forte.
Anyhow – read on, and let me know your private detective name in the comments!
Gobbelino London, P.I.
So you want to know how it started?
How do you think?
It’s not a fairy tale. There’s no once upon a time.
Really? You want the details? Fine. Here’s how it went.
I’ll set the scene, okay?
We don’t live in a good part of town. We live in our office, in fact, which makes sense to me. It’s warm, it’s central, and we’re always available. Callum doesn’t agree, says he wants somewhere with a proper shower so he doesn’t have to wash in the sink, but, picky picky. Wasn’t long ago he was bouncing between his ex-girlfriend’s sofa and the back of his car. And that’s nothing to write home about, I tell you.
She’s a dog person, and that tells you all you need to know.
Anyway. It was one of those grey days the UK does so well, all damp drizzle that wants to freeze but can’t. We were between jobs, me catching up on beauty sleep, Callum reading one of his tatty novels that he gets from charity shops and car boot sales by the boxful, when the door opened on creaky hinges (I’ve told Callum he needs to get them fixed, because the goddamn sound makes the hair on my spine stand up, and that’s not a dignified look for anyone. But he forgets. He always forgets).
I cut my eyes towards the door without raising my head, and he scrambled to his feet, pushing his sleeves up and running a hand back over his rumpled hair, Monster Munch crumbs decorating his jumper.
“Please, ma’am, sit down,” he said to the woman in the door, and I could practically hear him drooling. Fair enough. She had long nails that looked good for scratching and a coat that I wouldn’t have minded bedding into. I caught a whiff of something hairy under her heavy perfume, and eyed her handbag distrustfully.
“Callum London,” Callum added, when she just stared at him, her hands half-raised to her chest as if afraid she might touch something dirty. Rude. It’s old in here, but not dirty. I won’t have it. “Can I get you a tea?” he suggested. “Coffee? Water?”
She shook her head, frowning at him and still not sitting. “Callum London?” she said. “Not Gobbelino? I was told he was the one I should speak to.”
“He’s my partner,” Callum said. He flat out refuses to call me boss, which I feel is unreasonable. But one must allow these small trespasses. Good humans are hard to find. Even half-good ones.
She tapped her long nails on a folder she held against her handbag, looking around our crowded little office. That handbag was definitely big enough for some horrible rat-sized canine, and it was making me twitchy. Or something was. The scent wasn’t right for little yappy dogs, but it was there. “I don’t know about this,” she said. “I haven’t heard of a Callum London.”
I’d have rolled my eyes at her if I could. Typical waffling human, all unsure because things aren’t exactly as she wants them to be. That’s the problem right there with humans. Things are never exactly as they want them to be, but they always think they should be, somehow.
“Gobbelino and I work all the cases together,” Callum said, just as I’d coached him. “However, he’s a private individual. He doesn’t deal with clients in person.”
The woman made an odd little expression, like she’d bitten something sour, and sat down. “It’s a strange way to run a business.”
Callum shrugged and sat down himself, extending long legs under the desk. “It works.”
“If you say so.” She passed him the folder, and he took it without opening it, looking at her with his eyebrows raised. I wish he wouldn’t do that, try to act like he actually knows what he’s doing. It never ends well.
They stared at each other for a moment longer, then she said, “Well? Aren’t you going to look at it?”
“Why don’t you tell me about it first,” he said, putting the folder down on top of a tottering pile of tattered romance paperbacks that were crowned with three bills that all said ‘overdue’. I narrowed my eyes at him from my perch on the filing cabinets (of course everything’s computerised, we’re not archaic, but I feel the grey cabinets give us a touch of authenticity. Plus they’re somewhere to keep Callum’s bedding for the sofa and my souvenirs. I like souvenirs), but he ignored me.
The woman huffed air and folded her arms. “I’d rather not go into the tawdry details.”
“It’s somewhat unavoidable when you’re hiring a P.I,” Callum pointed out.
Her leg set up an irritated metronome swing. “Fine. My husband and I split up.”
Callum made a small carry on gesture, and I could tell he was as confused as me. Usually people come to us before the split, wanting to know if their partner’s cheating, or if they have secret bank accounts, that sort of thing. The answer’s pretty much always to the first, and pretty much never to the second.
“And?” he said, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to carry on.
She huffed, as if he was being unreasonable, making her spell it out, but for once I think he had it right. I didn’t know where she was going with it all either. “And he has something of mine,” she said.
Callum nodded, and steepled his fingers under his chin. I think he was trying to look thoughtful, but he just looked like he was about to play that kiddie game – here’s the church, here’s the steeple, etc, etc. Not that they probably even play that anymore. You lose track over a few lifetimes. “So you need us to get it back?”
“Yes, Mr London. It’s an old book. A family heirloom. Brown leather, you can’t miss it. That folder has his photograph, address, details of his schedule, his cars, all the rest. I don’t care how you get the book, just get it.”
Callum nodded, and announced a fee. The woman shrugged, and handed him another envelope.
“I expect a detailed list of expenses,” she said.
His forehead puckered, his first genuine expression since she walked in. “I assure you, we do not defraud our clients. We’re a reputable firm.”
She looked around, taking in the comfortably tattered carpet, the unshaded fluorescents (one missing over the door, where an unimpressed client had smashed it with a cricket bat last week. Did I mention that Callum’s surprisingly quick in a tight situation? Not as quick as me, of course, but he’d had the man on the floor before I could do more than bare my teeth), the dying spider plant on the bookshelves (filled with romances and Westerns. Callum’s tastes do not run to the highbrow), and the missing door to the tiny kitchenette. “Well,” she said, “it certainly doesn’t look like you’re padding the accounts.”
And with that she got up and left, leaving in her wake the scent of small rabid dogs and some perfume that made me sneeze and Callum grin.
I led the way down the stairs and onto the street, wrinkling my nose at the smell of some other tom who had been around spraying the place. Uncouth feline. Most of these street cats are nothing but brawlers – out hunting mice or, gods forbid, rats, to show how tough they are. I’m not some rat-dog. Or a mouser. How cute they make that sound, the propensity for destroying things smaller than yourself. How very human to come up with it. Thing is, rats and mice are a good source of information, you know how to talk to them right. They’ll even get stuff for you, like keys or documents you can’t reach. They’re handy to have around for the enterprising P.I. And, you know, when the cases are slow – they can get you other stuff, too. Just takes the right word and some judicious sharing of Callum’s sandwich meat and bourbon.
Yeah, bourbon. Rodents have a real taste for that stuff, I tell you. Don’t like it myself, although a little cream liquor never goes amiss. Bailey’s, if we’re flush.
Well, if we’re living high. We’re never flush. Sometimes I think hooking up with Callum was one of my worse ideas. But he was this lost human with a good heart. Lot of bad people out there, who get their kicks doing bad things to small kittens. So, you know, when he got me out of that, I returned the favour. Cats can be very persuasive. More so that you think you know.
So now he’s got a purpose, we’re both fed (most of the time anyway), and if he’d just give up on the idea of being so straight all the time we’d be living pretty good. But he’s stubborn. Which is why keeping in with the rodents comes in handy when the funds get low. I am not a supermarket own brand type of cat.
“Well?” Callum asked, as he opened the car door to let me in.
“Was she for real? A book?”
“What do you think?” I settled myself in as he tucked himself into the driver’s seat – the man really is abnormally large – and got his coat tangled around the gearstick. He found this ridiculous trench coat in a charity shop six months ago, and I’m going to have to pee on it if he keeps wearing it. It’s foolish, and smells of wet dog.
He frowned, and ground the starter a couple of times before the engine caught. “She seemed alright. You know, like she was telling the truth about it.”
“And was it her legs or her decolletage that told you that?”
He poked me in the side without looking at me. “It was more the fact that she seemed properly upset under all that cool. Like it was precious, this book.”
“Which could just be good acting.”
“Well, tell me then, oh oracle of all things human. Was she telling the truth?”
I yawned, and put my paws on the door handle so I could peer out at the dreary day. “Hard to tell. I couldn’t smell anything through the stink of perfume.” And whatever the hairy stench had been. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She gave us money, so we’ll go take a look. Then she’ll give us more money.”
“Mercenary,” he said, as if that was a bad thing.
We went to the man’s office first, which was easy enough. He worked out of some little collection of shops in a suburb on the outskirts of town. Easy parking, and even the monstrously ancient Rover didn’t stand out too badly among the rather more presentable but still elderly Fiats and VWs. There were some fancier cars too, including a BMW SUV that matched the description and plates of the one our perfumed lady said her ex-husband drove.
“Guess he’s in,” Callum said, and took a cigarette packet from his coat.
“Unless he’s gone somewhere on foot,” I pointed out. “Or has a sneaky little second car parked somewhere. Use your head.”
Callum shook the packet without looking at me. “I can see him though the window.”
“What?” I clambered onto his lap and peered at the office building. My night vision may be great, but details in the distance aren’t my thing.
“Are you sure it’s him?” I couldn’t even see the window except as a suggestion of different coloured wall. “Can’t we park closer?”
“It’s him,” Callum said, pushing me off. “It’s a dentist’s office, just like in the notes, and I can see him in the reception.
“So you say,” I grumbled, and glared at him as he found a lighter in one of his stinky coat’s pockets. “You’re not lighting that thing in here.”
“So? Go give yourself cancer somewhere else.”
He returned my glare and put the cigarettes away, mumbling something about vets and euthanasia. I ignored him. I was used to it.
We were both quiet for a moment, then he said, “He’s left the reception with a patient.”
“We should go check out the house,” I said, and he sighed, but started the engine again. See why he should just call me boss?
The man’s name was Walker, so either our morning visitor had kept her maiden name (it was printed in neat, slightly slanting handwriting inside the folder, Ms Jones, with a phone number), or she hadn’t wanted to give us her real name. I didn’t care. As anyone will tell you, cats have more than one name. We don’t judge. We can tell you by your smell, anyway.
We pulled up in front of Walker’s house and Callum turned the engine off before we could asphyxiate in the leaky exhaust (it made winter stake-outs problematic, not being able to run the engine. I was all for liberating another car, but he wouldn’t hear of it). We stared at it, a big detached house inside a high wall, Edwardian or Victorian or what-have-you. You know the type. Tall windows, high ceilings, dark stone. Spires and all that. It was divided into apartments, but even the trees lining the street looked expensive. Business was evidently good for Mr Walker.
Callum opened his door. “Off you go.”
I sighed. This was the least fun part of being the feline partner. I got to do the dirty work to get him into the places we needed to go. And it was still raining. Heavily.
I jumped over him and ran for the gate.
Everyone says cats hate getting wet, like it’s weird or something. Tell me, if you were wearing your favourite, most comfortable clothes, would you like to get drenched and then have to walk around dripping for the rest of the day? Honestly, now?
Yeah. I didn’t think so.
I slipped through the bars of the gate and ran up the drive, raindrops rebounding from the tarmac and into my face, making me sneeze and shake my ears out. It wasn’t far to the house, but my fur felt sticky and unpleasant by the time I got there, and I stopped in the overhang of the porch to shake myself dry before I investigated further.
The intercom panels indicated that Walker was in a third floor apartment, which was promising. People like leaving bathroom windows open when they think no one can reach them. I slipped back out into the rain and found a windowsill that gave me an easy jump onto the roof of the porch. I scrambled up its slope to the ridge, and stood there getting steadily wetter for a few moments, weighing up my options. There weren’t many. It was ivy or nothing.
Ivy is not strong. I mean, I’m not a big cat. I’d refer to myself as svelte, although Callum has been known to call me scrawny. It comes in handy, though. I have a lot of floof that makes me look bigger than I am, and it means I can fit through gaps smaller than you’d expect. But it still doesn’t make me an ideal candidate for ivy-climbing.
I bolted up the wall as fast as I could, ivy tearing loose in my wake, scratching wildly at the brickwork when the roots gave way too quickly. I rested on windowsills on the first floor, then the second, taking my time on that one. There was a nice little overhang that kept the worst of the rain off me there, and I could see that the ivy was getting thinner. Just because we get nine lives doesn’t mean I’m in a rush to waste any. The wind was sneakier up here too, ruffling my wet fur and making me shiver. I leaned out and peered up the wall, spying a window sitting ajar on its latch. No telling if it was actually Walker’s or not, of course, but one could only hope.
I gathered my hindquarters under me and launched myself up the wall. No pause, no hesitation, go, and go, and keep going, don’t give physics a chance to catch up to you. I scampered off the ivy and onto bare brick, and launched myself at the window. I hooked my paws over the sill, and for one moment was sliding backwards, claws finding no purchase on the the slick paint while my hind legs pedalled frantically. I took a final convulsive leap, found some tiny imperfection that I could get one claw into, and flung myself snarling upward, cursing Callum and the job and fragrant women with her doggy stink. Then I was in, ears back and heart pounding, finding myself perched on the top of a toilet cistern. I spat a few more choice curses – it’s a great stress-reliever – then jumped down, nosed my way around the door, and headed off to find the intercom.
It’s easy once you’re in. Even if Callum can’t see me, he gives me ten minutes then hits the buzzer for the apartment we’re after. This time he’d watched me scale the wall like a sodden black spider, and the phone for the gate was buzzing by the time I got into the open plan living/dining/kitchen etc etc. There was no whiff of other pets in here – probably the sort of place that didn’t allow them. I jumped to the kitchen counter, stood on my hind legs to press the talk button, and said, “You rang?”
“Deep Cleaners,” Callum said, in case anyone was listening in. “You booked us for an assessment at twelve?”
“Come on in,” I said. “Make sure you wipe your feet.” I pawed the little key button, ignoring his snort, then settled to cleaning a little of the excess rain off until the intercom went again for the main door. I repeated the whole performance, then investigated the door itself. Callum’s pretty adept at locks, but it’s not an ideal thing to be messing around with in the middle of the day. Luckily these ones weren’t too complicated. One of those twisty types with handy grooves in the knob that took half a dozen jump and holds to roll it open, then the main lock that Walker (if it was his apartment) hadn’t even bothered with. Callum just turned the handle from the outside on that one and let himself in.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I replied.
“Oddly enough, I’ve been a little busy to look.”
He pushed the door shut behind him and strolled over to the kitchen, checking a pile of mail on the end of the counter. “It’s him.”
“I’d’ve checked that eventually.” I stalked into the living room part of the big room, leaving small wet paw prints behind me. “Scaling three stories of sheer brick requires a mite of recovery time.”
“I said nothing.” He wandered after me, passed me a couple of Dreamies, then stared around the room. “Should be easy enough to find.”
You’d think so. The man had no books. None. There weren’t even shelves. Just a big TV, and some pretty poorly done paintings. No photos, no magazines, no newspapers. The only reading material was the pile of post. “Do you reckon he’s illiterate?” I asked Callum.
He snorted. “Nah. Probably he reads ebooks or something.” But he sounded dubious, and headed to the bedroom. “Maybe he keeps it in here.”
I followed him. “Maybe he sold it. Or chucked it. Doesn’t seem like he’d want to hold onto a book, even for spite.”
“Hmm.” The bedroom did have shelves, but they were in the wardrobe and full of shoes and belts and things. Callum rooted through the dresser drawers and checked under the mattress, and I took a stroll under the bed, finding nothing more interesting than a missing cuff link and a condom wrapper. The place didn’t feel like somewhere you lived. It was a place moved into, then moved out of. It had had no time to collect the detritus of life.
“Nothing,” Callum said, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe he’s keeping it at the office.”
“Kitchen?” I suggested. “Maybe it’s a cookbook.”
“I’m sure he stole his ex’s family heirloom cookbook.”
“Hey, when a breakup goes bad, it goes bad.”
He rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything. We both knew I was right.
The kitchen cupboards were clean and poorly stocked. A stack of takeout menus in the drawer most people use for cooking utensils suggested he didn’t need to keep it stocked. There were a couple of cheap pans, some decent glasses and some okay plates. I think our little office is better set up.
Callum checked the cupboards, the drawers, even the fridge and the freezer, but no book, and we both stood there frowning at the frozen meals for one and microwave soups as if they could tell us where the thing was. I’d even checked under the sofa and nosed through the cushions, and there was nothing.
“Office?” he suggested to me again.
I scratched my chin. “I guess.” It seemed unlikely, though. Too easy for his ex to march in and demand it back.
“We can check it tonight. We should get out of here in case he comes home for lunch.”
“Mmm.” I was looking at the takeout menus. The fridge and freezer would be damaging for a book. The microwave would be used for his frozen dinners and soups. The oven … The oven. No frozen pizzas, no oven chips, none of that stuff.
“G, let’s go.”
“The oven doesn’t work,” I said. “Look, nothing on the display. No clock, nothing.”
He grabbed the oven door and pulled it open. No book, just clean walls and the faint smell of cleaning products.
“Drawer,” I said, and he pulled out the drawer below the door to reveal a stack of unused pans. He rattled through them, and there it was, wrapped in heavy sheets of foil, and the hair on my back shot to attention, damp or no. “Don’t—” I started, but Callum had already pulled the foil aside to make sure of what we had. Dark, slick leather peered out between the silvery sheets, and as he reached out to unwrap it fully I snarled, “Don’t touch it!”
He stared at me, startled.
“Wrap it up, wrap it up quick!”
“G, what the hell?”
I could smell it, smell the sickly stench of it, sweet and stomach churning and hideous, and I knew exactly why it had been wrapped in foil. That cow of a woman, not to warn us! If I hadn’t been here, Callum would never have known, he’d have touched it—
“G, what’s going on?” He hadn’t covered it, but he hadn’t moved to unwrap it further, either.
I eyed him and said, “What’s going on is you can be damn glad you have a cat for a partner. And I know why she was wearing so much perfume. Wrap it up and let’s get out of here.” He looked at me for a long moment, and I added, “He could come home for lunch.”
Callum nodded, re-wrapped the wretched thing, and without being told found a paper takeaway sack beneath the sink and put the book in that. Then we let ourselves out the door and left.
We passed an elderly woman on the stairs, but Callum just smiled at her, called her ma’am, and helped her carry her bags to her door. He was good at that. He had the sort of dimples and smile that certain women and men like, and as big as he was he came over as harmless to the ones the dimples didn’t work on. He was a handyman, fixing a leaky tap, and completely forgettable. She gave him a chocolate from a selection box and we left. She never even noticed me.
In the car, he said, “Talk.”
I set to cleaning myself, worrying scraps of brickwork out from between my toes. “When we get back.”
“No. And don’t talk while you’re doing that. I can’t understand you with a tongue full of fur.”
I sat back and looked at him. “You want to know why he took it?”
“I want to know what it is.”
“Same difference. There are books of power, and creatures who wield them. To steal one you’ve got to be desperate to destroy that creature’s power – maybe to destroy them. If you touch the book, it has you. It’ll eat you alive, fill your mind with nightmares and desire, make you do terrible things, ride you like a demon until it forces you to return it to the original holder, who will then make everything the book did seem like playtime. These books can’t be destroyed, whether you’ve touched them or not. They’re eternal, at least in this dimension. If you take one, you have to be able to bend it to your will, break the original holder’s bond. Otherwise you’re going to be one sorry puppy.”
He’d been watching the road, and now he looked at me. “You’re saying Walker stole it, and she was actually being nice by asking us to get it back, rather than letting the book do its thing?”
“Even creatures of power can have soft spots.” There was a pause, and we pulled up at a set of traffic lights. As we waited for them to change, I said, “We need to charge more for jobs like this.”
He made the sort of noise he makes every time I suggest stretching ourselves a little. “We’re not holding the book to ransom. Don’t you remember the cricket bat incident? Last week?”
I did, but I also remembered something else. The dog-like stench, ratty under the perfume. The sick-sweet scent not quite covering the reek of might and decay. Not all books of power are created equal, and not all their holders are human. And some things a good cat can’t just let go.
Particularly when a book like that can fetch a hell of a price on the black market.
“We really need to re-evaluate our business plan,” I said, and Callum pulled away from the traffic lights a little more urgently than he needed to.
“She’s a witch. Are you seriously suggesting messing with her?”
“Witch is just a word for women who have power.”
“She has a magic book that can steal your soul. Witch is close enough.”
I shrugged, and watched the dull day outside. “What’s that human thing about horses bearing gifts?”
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth? Or beware Greeks bearing gifts?”
“The first one.” I thought about it for a minute, then added, “What’s wrong with Greek gifts? Do they give you socks all the time or something?”
He glared at me, and started fishing in his coat pockets. “I’m having a smoke,” he said. “And we’re not talking about this. The book’s going back.”
I didn’t argue with the smoking. A good boss knows what things to let go. And I had a lot to think about.
Tell me your PI name below, lovely people – your first pet’s name, plus the place you last went to on holiday. And let me know what you think Gobbelino should do with the book!