Authors: Wilkie Martin
Shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers 2012
The Witcherley Book Company
paused beneath the sodium glare of a streetlight to pull a crumpled Post-it note
from my jeans, for the fifth time in as many minutes I read the fateful words I'd
jotted down earlier:
Meet Inspector Hobbes. 5.30 at 13 Blackdog Street.
ranks of smart Cotswold stone shops flanking the broad avenue known as The
Shambles were funnelling wind down my neck, and rain, or maybe sleet, was spotting
my sweatshirt. I shivered, wishing I'd stayed in the office long enough to pick
up my cagoule, but, having missed deadline with my piece on the senior
citizens' whist drive, the Editorsaurus was on the rampage and a discreet,
rapid withdrawal had been the sensible option.
church clock striking the quarter hour, I took a deep breath, and resumed my
walk, knowing I couldn't afford another screw-up. With fifteen minutes to
spare, though, I would at least be early, which would be no bad thing. Still, I
wished I was heading almost anywhere else.
right past the church tower, I entered Pound Street, where an arthritic yew
tree had survived the centuries and paving slabs. A set of traffic lights shone
red to dam the flow of early evening traffic, so, taking my chance, I crossed
into Blackdog Street.
shambling old man in a shabby raincoat, clutching a paper carrier bag to his
chest, hobbled to the front door of a tall, drab building, struggling with his
keys. Walking past, I hesitated, before turning back, smiling, helpful.
me,' I said. 'You … umm … look like you could do with a hand.'
glared over his shoulder. 'Are you trying to be funny?'
I said, taken aback. 'I just thought you might need a hand.'
turned to face me, the bag slipping to the pavement with an ominous shattering
of glass. Where his left forearm should have been was a hook.
… umm …' My cheeks were heating up, reddening.
… I hadn't noticed.' I'd embarrassed myself again, and it didn't get any easier
with practice. 'I just thought you might need some help with the door.'
the one who needs help, mate.'
he raised his hook and shook it, I, cowed beneath a storm of imaginative and
anatomical abuse, left at an undignified pace. When certain he wasn't in
pursuit, I slowed down, catching my breath, resolving, not for the first time,
to get fit, to spend less time in pubs.
ran my fingers through my damp hair in an effort to make it presentable and
found myself outside a terrace of old stone houses, almost threatening, like
cliffs looming over the narrow street. I counted down to number 13. Three steps
led towards a black door with a brass knocker, glinting beneath the white
streetlights of this ancient part of town.
still had plenty of time, or so I reckoned, being without a watch. Mine had blown
up in the microwave, slipping off when I was bunging in a frozen curry on
return from the pub. The acrid, black, plasticky smoke had completely spoiled
my supper, not to mention killing my microwave. A month later, I was still
living off sandwiches and takeaways.
sharp gust spattered stinging raindrops into my face, goose pimples crawled
across my skin and, since it seemed foolish to hang around outside, I made a
firm decision to ring the doorbell. But, striding up the steps, raising my
ringing finger, I found I couldn't go through with it. Standing outside
Inspector Hobbes's door was as close to him as I wanted to get.
was scared of him, or, rather, of his reputation, yet the Editorsaurus had
decreed we should meet. This, he'd stated, was neither a punishment, nor that
my name had sprung to mind as a competent and reliable reporter. It was because
no one else was available. Such remarks, typical of the man, made me question
why I worked for him. I wouldn't have, had I believed anyone else would employ
me, and had I dared hand in my notice, for the Editorsaurus was a big, scary
man, yet neither as big or scary as Hobbes, if rumours were to be believed … and
I believed them.
rain was beginning to penetrate my sweatshirt so, with a shudder and a muttered
prayer to whatever gods might protect local newspaper reporters, I leaned
forward and jabbed at the bell.
I made contact, the door swung open. Recoiling, I stumbled back down the steps
as a diminutive figure smiled at me, her face, a toothless network of fine
wrinkles and deep ravines, was framed by a green headscarf. Wiping her hands on
a pink pinafore, patterned with red flowers, she stared at me, a pair of
twinkling blue eyes behind thick spectacles.
dear,' she said, her voice high and quavery. 'You must be Mr Donahue. Please,
… I'm not Mr Donahue, actually … he couldn't make it. I'm … umm … Andy from the
Sorenchester and District
.' Fumbling for my card, I realised I'd
left it in my cagoule. She didn't seem to mind.
that case, come in, Andy.' She gestured me inside. 'Get a move on, I've got a
stew on the hob. I wouldn't want it to spoil.'
… right … the hob … which reminds me, is Inspector Hobbes in?'
I entered, she closed the door with a crash.
yet, dear but he'll be back shortly. Please take a seat.'
down on a worn, if surprisingly comfortable, red-velour sofa as the strange old
woman left via a door in the corner, I surveyed my surroundings. I was in a
small, plain, yet neat, sitting room, containing a pair of old oak chairs and a
coffee table with a copy of
magazine on top. An
incongruous widescreen television stood in one corner and an old-fashioned
standard lamp in another. The walls were papered in a faded yellow pattern,
depicting various exotic plants. I experienced an odd twinge of disappointment:
from the rumours, I'd expected something out of the Addams Family. Still,
beneath the sweet scent of lavender and wax polish, the room held a faint,
feral taint, reminiscent of the wildlife park, and which topped up my
myself to relax into the softness, I sighed, for it had already been a
difficult day. The Editorsaurus had made some caustic, not to say brutal,
remarks on realising my article wasn't finished and his language had
deteriorated further when I'd confessed to having not actually started it. He
hadn't been impressed by my argument that no one really wanted to read about
least Ingrid had been a comfort, and a vision of her lovely face beneath its thicket
of blondish hair proved life at the
wasn't all bad. She had a
bright, sympathetic smile, was neat and efficient, smelled of soap, and would
often make time for a chat. After the Editorsaurus had, temporarily I feared, exhausted
his ranting, she'd made me a mug of coffee, sharing her packet of Bourbon
Creams. I never felt guilty about taking her biscuits, feeling, in fact, that I
was doing her a favour: losing a little weight would not hurt her.
, I flicked through its heavy, glossy pages until reaching
a section devoted to Colonel Squire's latest charity ball at the Manor. My
suspicion that it might merely have been an excuse for a bunch of rich blokes
and their toffee-nosed wives to flaunt their wealth and feel good about
themselves was confirmed by the magazine's failure to mention the charity the
extravaganza had supposedly been aiding. In the midst of sneering at the
hypocrisy, my attention was caught by a familiar figure. Before me, in full
colour, magnificent in a crisp dinner jacket, stood Editorsaurus Rex, barrel
gut precariously restrained by a crimson cummerbund, an expensive-looking
blonde woman leaning on the arm not occupied by holding a drink. 'Mr Rex
Witcherley and wife, Narcisa, enjoy a joke', claimed the caption. I wondered
whether wife, Narcisa, would be entirely happy with the photograph, which
showed her baring her teeth like a wolf.
high, quavering voice rang in my ear. 'I've got all my own teeth, you know.'
couldn't have leaped up any faster had I sat on a pin. As I landed and turned
around, the magazine fluttering to the carpet like a dying pigeon, the blood
pounding through my skull, my shin bruised from a sharp encounter with the
table, the old lady, standing by the sofa, gave me a gummy smile. Though I
could have sworn she did not have a single tooth left in her head, I thought a positive
response was appropriate.
I said. 'All your own teeth? How wonderful.'
it?' Reaching into the pocket of her pinafore, she pulled out a jar, rattling
took a step back as the horror hit. It was full of teeth. Lots of teeth.
Hundreds of human teeth.
gummy grin broadened. 'I collect them. Aren't they beautiful?'
queasily, humouring the crazy woman, I looked around for an exit.
course,' she said, 'they do take such a lot of polishing but they're worth it.'
excellent,' I said, with what I hoped would develop into a reassuring, calming
smile. 'Everybody should have a hobby.'
stepped towards me. 'Do you keep teeth, dear?'
the ones in my mouth.' My smile grew more alarmed.
peered up. 'Ooh yes! Aren't they beautiful? I can see you've really looked
… yes, my father's a dentist,' I said, attempting to put the coffee table
between us. 'He's always been a great believer in looking after one's teeth.'
I have 'em?' Her bright little eyes widening, she took another step towards me.
'When you've finished with them, of course.' She laughed.
did too, for panic was not far off. 'Why, certainly, you can have them all,
when I've done with them. Please, help yourself.'
you're a lovely young man. I got these beauties the other night.' Upending the
jar, she poured a pile of discoloured teeth into her hand. 'Mr Binks at the pub
lets me have the ones that come out on his premises. He's a very nice man. Do
you know him?'
Binks? At the Feathers on Mosse Lane?'
the one, dear. I often get teeth from the Feathers.'
nodded, knowing the place rather too well. It was a disreputable dive full of
seedy low-lifes, while Featherlight, its landlord, not at all a nice man in my
opinion, was a surly brute who never showed reluctance when it came to fisticuffs.
I could guess to whose head those teeth had belonged. A customer, not a regular
who would have known better, had complained about the head on his beer. When
Featherlight, purple-faced and twitching, had asked what was wrong with having
a head on beer, the customer had retorted, not unreasonably, that everything
was wrong when the head had once belonged to a mouse. I'd slipped away on
hearing him demand a fresh pint in a clean glass. Featherlight doesn't like
that sort of thing and the heaviness of his brow and the stormy tinge of his
skin had led me to forecast imminent violence.
the crazy woman held out the teeth, some still showing traces of blood, for
inspection. I swallowed the hot taste of vomit and, on the verge of flight,
glanced towards the front door.
vast figure in well-polished black boots, baggy brown trousers and a flapping gabardine
raincoat, stood framed in the doorway. As he pulled the door behind him, his
blood-red eyes scrutinised me from beneath a tangle of dark, bristly eyebrows.
'I'm Inspector Hobbes. You must be Mr Caplet?'
voice rumbled through my chest, as if a heavy lorry was passing. I nodded and
he stepped towards me, holding out his hand, which I shook with trepidation, mine
feeling tiny, soft and feeble, like a baby's, compared to his, as hard and as
hairy as a coconut.