Pretty Little Packages
The first in a series of crime thrillers centered around the life of a ghost-writer and featuring some stolen breasts and a surprising number of filipino girls called Doris.
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The two hand-written envelopes for Joe were almost drowning in the sea of other people’s discarded junk mail. The calling cards of plumbers, taxi firms and carpet cleaning services washed across the hall table, eventually spilling onto the floor like coins in an arcade slot machine. No one ever seemed to clear them up.
His stomach gave a dreadful lurch of recognition at one of the hands, but the other looked less ominous. It was addressed to him, “care of BBC Radio 4″, in a childish scrawl. Some kind producer’s assistant had scribbled a forwarding address on what little space was left so that the small, cheap envelope was almost completely covered in illegible writing. Joe was impressed by the skills of the British postal system in being able to decode and deliver such a mess.
He scuffled back to his room along the worn lino of the long corridor, the heels of his shoes flattened to serve as slippers. Climbing back into the still warm bed he opened the mystery letter first, postponing the other one for as long as possible. Inside was a neatly folded piece of expensive note paper, with an Eaton Square address printed discreetly at the top. The message was ill-written, in capital letters.
DEAR MISTER TYE, I HEARD YOU ON THE RADIO AND YOU SOUND A KIND AMERICAN WHO WILL HELP A GIRL IN TROUBLE. I AM FROM MANILA. I AM A PRISONER IN LONDON AND A VICTIM OF TORTURE. THEY HAVE STOLEN MY BEAUTIFUL NEW BREASTS. PLEASE TELL MY STORY FOR ME AND HELP ME TO ESCAPE FROM THESE BAD PEOPLE. PLEASE DO NOT TELL ANYONE THAT I HAVE SENT THIS LETTER. PLEASE FIND A WAY TO SAVE ME AND WE WILL WRITE MY STORY TOGETHER AND I WILL BE YOUR WILLING SERVANT.
YOURS IN HOPE. DORIS
Joe read it several times. He was used to receiving letters like this, cries for help from people in pain who were desperately searching for some way to pour everything out into a book. It was always hard to tell the genuine ones from the fantasists, the ones who really had something of interest to say from the ones who simply wanted their stories to be heard. This one seemed more interesting than most. There had been a lot of publicity about the smuggling of people across borders into Europe and America, it would be interesting to listen to someone who had actually experienced it. And anyone who had been tortured was worth talking to.
As he read, Joe’s mind had already moved on to the unopened envelope that lay on the bed beside him. He took some deep breaths to try to calm his fears of what might be concealed inside. His ex-wife’s handwriting was instantly recognisable. He’d been receiving a lot of letters from her recently and they never brought good news, always some new legal or financial requirement, some new piece of pain. They reminded him how much he was missing Hugo and how much he still hurt inside. They reminded him of what had been spoiled and could never be repaired. They usually left him with a queasy feeling in his stomach for days after reading them.
Finally accepting that no amount of procrastination would quell the fears now, he sucked in a last lung-full of air, as if preparing himself for a deep dive, and tore it open. The nausea rose up in a wave as a bill for three and half thousand pounds dropped onto the bedclothes, with a brief, breezy letter attached.
Hope all is well with you. This needs to be paid before the start of term. Hugo sends his love – very excited about new school.
Joe stared at the invoice in horror. He’d had no idea Fliss had expected him to pay the bills when she announced that Hugo needed to go to a “decent” school. He’d imagined his ex-father-in-law would have taken care of it from some mysterious trust or other. Surely, that was how old landed families operated in England? Did she imagine Joe could actually conjure up this kind of money from nowhere at the moment? Or did she merely want to shame him into making some sort of contribution?
If shame was Fliss’s intention she was certainly hitting her mark. He felt deeply inadequate for not being able to support his son in the expected manner. This was on top of the feeling of inadequacy he already felt for not having been able to dissuade Fliss from leaving him.
The obvious thing would be to ring and tell her that private education was out of the question until he got himself back on his feet. He simply didn’t have the money for it at the moment. In a year’s time he might be in a better position. But he couldn’t face admitting to failure quite that easily. He’d just have to find the money.
For as long as he could remember there’d always been money in his account and there’d never been that many bills to be met. Suddenly everything had spiralled out of control. He had to stop the rot quickly. He had been making big money in the past few years. There was no reason he couldn’t get his career moving again now that the initial trauma of the divorce was behind him and the lawyers had all been paid. He decided he would ring Adele, his agent, and chase up some work. It was time to re-start his life.
Heading back past the closed doors of his fellow flat-sharers, Joe felt his spirits rise a little. He would get something going with this call, stir Adele into action, take control of the situation like a young boy’s father should. He felt ready to get back to work, to put his mind to a good, meaty project or two.
‘Hi, Adele!’ He felt a comforting surge of warmth at the sound of her New York tones on the other end of the line. Whenever he heard her it reminded him how English his own voice had become over the years. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Great Joe, how are you? So good to hear from you. What’ve you been doing?’
‘Oh, this and that, you know. Listen, Adele, have you had any news on the Marion Ray book?’
‘Yeah.’ He couldn’t tell from her tone what might be coming next. ‘Marion really likes you. She truly wants to do the project. It’s just a question of her finding the time.’
‘Has she given any idea when she might be free?’ Joe groped desperately for some straws of hope.
‘Last time I spoke to her people on the Coast they said she was just going into production on a new project. But once that’s out of the way she really wants to do the book with you. So what are you working on in the meantime?’
Adele was obviously trying to change the subject and he couldn’t blame her. They’d had roughly the same conversation about Marion Ray every month for a year now. It was inevitable. The woman was one of the most enduring stars in the world. Her name might not be above the title on her movies these days, but she could still fill a stadium when she gave one of her rare concerts. Persuading such a notoriously temperamental star to write an autobiography was bound to be an uphill struggle. Doing the actual job would be hard too, it always was with the big names, but it would be worth it.
‘Did any more money come through from the SAS book?’ Joe changed the subject himself.
‘I don’t know. I’ll check it out with accounts and get them to send through whatever’s owing. You got money troubles?’
‘Divorce is never cheap.’
‘Tell me about it.’
He wanted to keep the conversation going to avoid going back to being alone with his morning post, to keep the illusion of busyness up for a little longer. He remembered the letter he’d received that morning.
‘I got a letter this morning from a Filipino girl who reckons she’s been white slaved over here and wants me to save her.’ He gave a hollow laugh, as if expecting Adele to dismiss the idea.
‘Could be good,’ Adele said , her mind already wandering onto another call she had to make as soon as she got Joe off the line.
‘She says they’ve stolen her breasts,’ he added, focusing his mind more fully on the subject.
‘Yeah? This sex slave trade is pretty topical at the moment. Maybe you should at least meet her.’
‘Sure, why not? It could be a good article if not a book.’
‘Right.’ Joe didn’t like the idea of going back to selling articles. He couldn’t envisage keeping a boy at a British prep school on the scrapings of freelance journalism. He decided to end the conversation before his spirits sank any lower. ‘Well, if you could chase up any money for me,’ he ended lamely. ‘And I’d be happy to meet Marion Ray again if you think it would help.’
‘Let me put it to her people. I’m due to go over to the States in a week or two.
Drop in for a cup of coffee if you’re in the West End.’
‘Okay.’ He hung up, wondering how Adele managed to be so successful in a country that wasn’t even her own. She had only been in England five years and she seemed more at home and confident than most of the London agents who’d been there all their lives.
Joe sat slumped in the chair, staring at the communal ashtray on top of the out-of-date directories. It was piled high with the discarded tea-bags and cigarette ends of a hundred futile calls. His reverie was broken sharply by the phone ringing at his elbow.
‘Yes?’ He snatched it up with a start.
‘Joe-boy?’ He recognised the East London rasp immediately.
‘Hi, Len.’ He was pleased to hear from the old gangster and enjoyed the frisson of intimidation Len’s voice still sent through him, even after all this time.
‘Having some friends round for a barbecue at the house this evening,’ Len wheezed. ‘Cordelia would like you to come.’
‘That would be great.’
‘There’ll be some interesting people for you to meet too, people with good stories to tell – and celebrities. You might pick up a bit of business.’
‘Okay.’ Joe felt his spirits lift again.
Going to Len’s for the evening was just the sort of distraction he needed. Meeting some new people would take his mind off his troubles, stop him sitting around in the flat brooding, and any chance to meet potential new subjects was worth it.
Len’s house was in a spotless, genteel suburb at the far eastern end of the London underground system. Joe had grown to know the route well in the weeks that he’d spent going out there to listen to Len’s memories when they were writing the book. He’d always looked forward to the meetings with a mixture of enjoyment and trepidation. With Len you could never quite tell whether you’d be treated with a smile or a snarl. That was what gave him the edge, and had made him successful, both as a gangster and as a minor media celebrity.
When he arrived at the house Joe could hear music coming from the garden. The front door was open and the two Dobermans followed his progress across the wide open spaces of the sitting room towards the patio without raising their heads. They weren’t going to waste their energy unnecessarily on a hot evening.
Cordelia danced, bare footed and mini-skirted, across the patio when she saw Joe arriving. He was clutching a six-pack and feeling self-conscious. His discomfort increased as she snuggled her body, which only a year before had seemed innocently childlike, against his and pulled him into the crowd of guests on the lawn. One or two of the faces wore the strange familiarity of the television screen; a chat show host here, a comedian turned quiz show master there, all of them smiling promiscuously around in stark contrast to the dead-pan faces of Len and his closer associates.
Len’s intimate friends might once have been animated young men but now they wore impenetrable masks. Many of them had been constructed by surgeons’ knives and stitching techniques, then perfected at all-night poker games in smoky spielers. Cordelia moved amongst the gnarled and battered old men and carefully painted women like a shimmering reaffirmation of life.
‘Joe-boy!’ Len held out his arms, his face immobile despite a smile that made his lips disappear around his shiny white false teeth. He wore a butcher’s apron over his shorts and held a vicious, blood stained fork in his hand. ‘Glad you could make it. Everyone!’ His voice grew no louder but still silenced the chatter of the crowd. ‘Meet Joe Tye, my ghost writer. The man who took my words and spun them into pure gold. You’re a bleedin’ alchemist, Joe-boy, that’s what you are.’ There was a chorus of greetings. ‘I’m glad you could come,’ Len said again, leading him to the drinks table. ‘It’s nice for Cordelia to have someone her own age here.’
Joe smiled awkwardly and decided not to point out that he was twenty years older than the girl who was pouring him a Pimm’s and pressing it into his hand. He felt absurdly flattered, both by Len’s words and by Cordelia’s attentions. Just at that moment he was hungry for flattery and didn’t intend to do anything to risk ending it. The drink rattled with ice and fruit and he drank it thirstily.
The food seemed to take forever to cook and Joe was on his third Pimm’s by the time he sat down with a plate full of charred meat and salad. He was beginning to feel more at home. Cordelia was helping to serve other guests and the table around him filled up with expressionless faces.
‘So, you’re the ghost writer then,’ a man tearing into a spare rib said. ‘Who you writing for now you’ve finished Len?’
‘Well,’ Joe hated these sorts of conversations. He preferred asking questions to answering them. ‘I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline.’
‘Like who?’ His interrogator obviously didn’t intend to let him off the hook.
‘Well, Marion Ray is thinking of doing a book…’
‘Oh yeah? I like her. She’s what I call a real star,’ another face announced, biting into a hamburger, the bloody sauce dripping, unwiped, down the parched river-beds of his scarred chin.
‘And I’ve been approached by a Filipino girl who seems to have been brought over here as some kind of sex slave.’
‘You want to watch those oriental birds,’ another set of masticating jaws announced.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ Len joined them with a plate-load of food for himself, having handed the barbecue over to a well-known television chef who was happily showing off his skills to a group of admirers. ‘I heard they know a few tricks.’
‘Never trust a man who has to go over there to find a woman,’ the first man growled.
‘What you talking about?’ Len sounded aggressive but the other man seemed unconcerned.
‘Look at that Mike Martin and his bird,’ he replied, as if that proved his case.
‘What about them?’
‘Cold piece of work she is. Wouldn’t want to turn my back on her.’
‘Should make a good couple then,’ Len grumbled, gnawing on a rib.
‘He’s something to do with the Government isn’t he?’ Joe asked innocently. ‘Raises money for them or something.’
There was a rumble of laughter around him as if he’d said something risibly naïve.
‘You should do a book on him,’ Len told Joe and they all wheezed with laughter again.
‘End up face down in a canal if you tried,’ one of them chuckled. ‘I doubt he wants his fancy new friends to have their noses rubbed in his past.’
‘How’s he made so much money, then?’ someone else asked.
‘In the City,’ Len said. ‘All legit now.’
‘They’re a bunch of bleeding crooks in that City,’ the scarred chin said and there were mutters of agreement.
‘Where does he operate from?’ Joe asked.
‘Down south somewhere,’ Len said.
‘Wimbledon,’ another added. ‘House like a fortress overlooking the Common.’
‘Handy for the tennis,’ someone said.
‘And he has an oriental wife?’ Joe asked.
‘Maisie’s her name’ one of them said. ‘I think she comes from Manila or Hong Kong or Bangkok or somewhere. He found her in a massage parlour or something.’
‘They all have such English names,’ Joe said, more to himself than anyone else. ‘It’s kind of bizarre.’
‘She’s as dangerous as him,’ the scarred chin added, as if Joe hadn’t spoken.
‘I heard that,’ Len agreed. ‘Rumour has it she killed several men on the job in the East, just for their passports.’
They all laughed and the conversation changed as Cordelia slipped onto Joe’s lap and put her arms round his neck. She’d obviously been at the Pimm’s jug herself. Joe could smell the fruit on her sweetly scented breath. He felt his colour rising again and an overwhelming urge to hug her. Len appeared not to notice his daughter’s behaviour.
‘That agent of yours,’ Len said. ‘Adele is it?’
‘When’s she going to be parting with some more money then?’
‘It takes a while to earn out an advance as big as that one,’ Joe said. ‘And we’ve had all the serialisation money from the newspapers. There may not be any more money for a year or more. There may not be any more at all if we don’t sell enough copies.’
‘What about film rights?’ another man asked. ‘Old Len’s life would make a great movie.’
‘That would be good,’ Joe agreed, aware of uncomfortable stirrings in his lap where Cordelia was squirming around.
‘Shouldn’t she get off her arse and do some selling?’ Len enquired without a smile. ‘Isn’t that what we pay her a percentage for?’
‘I’m sure she’s doing all she can,’ Joe said weakly. ‘She’s a very good agent.’
Len looked unconvinced as he picked stubborn chunks of meat from between his teeth.