Slattery stands in my doorway. He’s wearing a raincoat and, under a tangle of uncombed hair, a troubled expression. Not much else. Beneath his coat I can see the collars, sleeves and ankles of flannelette pyjamas which, even for Slattery, is not a good sign.
‘I’m getting too old for this,’ he mutters. ‘Let me in.’
He pushes past me and heads into the lounge where he drops heavily onto the new sofa. It’s so new, it feels like an affront to sit on it, and I wince as Slattery, who has no such qualms, drops there like an insanitary sack of something which causes permanent stains to expensive fabric. He also leaves a trail of muddy footprints on the carpet.
He interrupts me before I’ve managed more than a strangled gasp.
‘I’m worried, Phil. I’m really worried.’ He draws the back of an anxious hand across his brow.
This isn’t like Slattery at all. “Worried” isn’t part of his emotional vocabulary. If there’s a problem, he has one solution, and it never varies. He lowers his head, bellows and charges straight at it. In the UK’s Like a Bull at a Gate rankings, Slattery is number one. Anxiety and worry are more my province. I can feel them surging as we speak.
‘I didn’t wake you, did I?’ he asks.
‘It’s three in the morning, and I’m wearing shorts and T-shirt,’ I remind him. ‘Take a wild guess.’
He looks at the vacant space on his wrist where his watch should be and then stares at me as if there’s no sensible reason I should be asleep in bed when he isn’t.
I’m surprised that I’m not surprised to find him here in the morning and in a state of undress. I’ve not seen him in a couple of months, but already it feels kind of normal that he should arrive at my door like a landslip.
‘I hope you didn’t disturb the neighbours.’ My anxiety breaks through for a moment. ‘We’ve only been here a couple of months, and this isn’t an area where anything happens after midnight. It’s a newly built suburban estate full of aspiring young professionals and the conservative old, where even the cats keep civilised hours.’
He gives me a look. ‘I was discretion itself,’ he assures me, laying a hand where a heart should reside, and grinning. ‘Though I had to pee on your neighbour’s gate. Prostate trouble, you know. There’s nothing good about getting older.’
I decide not to ask – not at this time of the morning – and then I spend a moment trying to recall whether our neighbours have a security camera. I think not.
Slattery has obviously got something on his mind, and it’s buzzing like a wasp in a jar, so I figure I’d better sit down and hear what he has to say. It’s the only chance I’ve got of making it back to that cosy warm hollow beside Wendy, which I left in order to answer the door.
I yearn for that hollow, and I yawn and stretch my arms.
‘To what do I owe the pleasure?’ I ask him.
‘First things first,’ he says, glancing round towards the door to the kitchen. ‘I could kill for a coffee – black, three sugars.’ He stands up, slips the raincoat off, and throws it over the back of the chair. It’s as if he isn’t aware of the incongruity of sitting on someone’s new sofa at three in the morning wearing nothing but his pyjamas. ‘And a couple of chocolate biscuits if you’ve got any,’ he adds. ‘Funny how, if you are awake late you want to eat all the time.’
‘A single biscuit is as good as it’s going to get,’ I interrupt before he gets ideas about a full English breakfast.
He slips his shoes off – no socks – to reveal two white, wrinkled feet. He wiggles the toes and sighs.
‘Thirty years in the force have taken their toll. I should get compensation. Look at those bunions and corns.’
It’s way too early in the day to be studying Slattery’s malformed feet, so I go to the kitchen to make coffee and open a packet of biscuits. They’re chocolate digestives, which is probably a good thing because if they don’t have chocolate, they don’t count as biscuits to Slattery – just like food doesn’t qualify as nutritious if it doesn’t sport a layer of grease.
By the time I return, he’s turned on the gas fire and is warming his feet and hands, and he’s laid a creased photograph on the coffee table.
‘How’s Wendy?’ he asks, without taking his eyes from the artificial flames.
‘Asleep in bed last time I looked; where I should be.’
‘I hear she’s expecting.’
For the first time since he arrived, I rouse a smile.
‘Yeah,’ I tell him. ‘September.’
‘I’m surprised you knew how. Did you buy a book?’
His sarcasm is the consequence of decades on the police force, from which he retired a couple of years back, having reached the heady heights of Detective Inspector. He went out in a blaze of glory, too, which was remarkable for the contrast it provided with the rest of his career. I muster an appropriate gesture and he feigns shock.
‘Such ingratitude. After all I’ve done for you, all the exclusives I’ve brought you. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be working on that free sheet where I found you.’
‘I enjoyed working there. It suited me.’
‘Until it got burnt down.’
‘Not my fault.’
‘And then The Evening Post. Remind me, how did that end?’
He yawns and a mouthful of multicoloured teeth lurch into view. He rests his arm across the sofa back, and tilts his head to one side, awaiting a response. He doesn’t get one. He knows full well what happened. The Evening Post got bought out and I was fired. Not my fault. I was just unlucky. A big story came my way, bringing trouble with it.
‘’What do you want, Slattery? I take it this isn’t a social call.’
He points at the photograph, so I pick it up. It’s a round faced woman – late fifties, early sixties – with a circle of hair which looks like something you might buy at a fairground, made of spun sugar. She has matching round eyes and a bewildered look.
‘That’s the missus,’ Slattery says.
My jaw drops.
‘Another one? Jeez, Slattery, you must have the full set now. When did this happen?’
‘In 1983,’ he tells me. ‘She’s Mrs Slattery number one. It didn’t last. The photo’s a few years old, but she looks pretty much the same, except the hair. It’s green now.’
I don’t ask.
‘Nice to know you kept in touch. It’s kind of heart-warming.’
I try to picture the woman in the photograph with green candyfloss hair, but fail.
‘Christmas Cards and court appearances, mainly – and the occasional coffee – but yeah, we keep in touch. We share a chequered history.’
He pauses to sip coffee and take a bite of a chocolate digestive.
‘Okay, we’ve established who she is. Do you want to tell me why you brought her photo round here at three in the morning? What is it? Nostalgia? A sudden urge to share the details of your sad life? Dementia?’
‘It’s so you’ll recognise her. I gave her your address. She’s in terrible trouble, Phil, even by her standards.’
I feel a trickle of sweat forming on my neck. When Slattery says “bad trouble”, I think of broken bones, bruising, and days in hospital. Anything less than near-death is routine for Slattery. Not for me; faced with violence, I favour a quick exit, howling like a girl. I have a natural antipathy to pain.
‘Define “bad trouble” for me, would you? Isn’t this more your line of business than mine?’
He shakes his head. ‘I can’t do this on my own. Besides, when we get to arguing, we’re cat and dog, me and Matty. Can’t spend five minutes in the same room – unless it was for sex. Mind you, in the early days, the sex was something else…’
I raise a hand.
‘Enough, Slattery. There are some images I don’t want lodged in my brain. What about your police colleagues?’
‘She doesn’t trust the police.’
‘That seems like a sound basis for a marriage, given your profession.’
‘Yeah, it was.’
‘So, what’s the trouble she’s in?’
‘I don’t know. I could hardly hear her. She was in a bar somewhere, and she was crying. She mentioned a name – Carl Reuben.’
‘He’s the new guy at The Lucky Seven, isn’t he? I read it in my paper, I think.’
I have a history with The Lucky Seven, but not a good one. It’s a notorious Sefton nightclub and I was partly responsible for bringing down a previous owner, a guy called George Mackie. Pure gangster. I don’t like hearing the words “trouble” and “The Lucky Seven” in the same sentence, especially if it involves me.
‘I wouldn’t bother you but…’ He shrugs. ‘I wouldn’t want to see Matty get hurt, you know?’
I can’t resist a smile. ‘Are you telling me that the sardonic, cold-hearted tough guy I’ve known all this time has a soft centre, after all?’
‘I’ve got a soft spot for Matty,’ he confesses, and then, to re-establish his ice-cold, cynical image, he adds, ‘It’s the quicksand on Morecambe Bay – softest spot in the north.’
It’s too early in the morning to laugh, so I change the subject.
‘I’ve not heard anything much about Carl Reuben. Is he legitimate?’
‘At The Lucky Seven? He’ll be as legitimate as a square snooker ball.’
‘So, why are you dropping my name into this cauldron?’
‘Matty liked the idea of talking to a journalist. She thought you’d be better than me.’
‘Better at what?’
I swallow. This conversation is taking a bad turn.
‘As a go-between, a negotiator, a middle man. That’s right up your street, I’d have thought.’
‘With Carl Reuben?’
‘Hell, Slattery, I’ve got a wife, and a baby on the way. Death would be mighty inconvenient at the moment. And I still don’t know why you had to turn up at three o’clock in the morning to tell me this. And why are you dressed for a pyjama party?’
‘I couldn’t sleep – worried, you know – and then I thought, “To hell with this. I’ll go and see Phil. Maybe then I’ll get some sleep.”’
‘I’m flattered – truly, I am – that in the absence of a sleeping tablet, you come to me.’
I glimpse something unexpected in Slattery’s eyes. It flickers for a moment, then fades.
‘We stayed friends, Matty and me,’ he says. ‘Always there for each other in a weird kind of way, and we’ve got closer as the years have passed. I guess we’ve mellowed.’
The concept of a mellowed Slattery is too much for me. Thoughts like that running around your mind can cause insomnia.
‘I feel better now I’ve spoken to you,’ he says.
‘I don’t. I feel a lot worse.’
He’s not listening. He stands up, dons the raincoat, and turns the collar up. He looks like a private detective on a case, except for the pyjama legs and the bare feet emerging beneath.
‘Just listen to her, Phil. See what she has to say.’ He hands me a piece of card torn from a cereal packet. ‘That’s her address, in case she doesn’t phone.’
I glance at the card. It’s on the coast, south of the Sefton Road Bridge. Quite select – all bungalows, old people, small dogs, and funeral parlours.
I guess I owe Slattery enough to speak to her, so I nod.
‘No promises,’ I tell him. ‘And at the first hint of bloodshed, I’m out of there. Okay?’
He nods, and rests a large, coarse hand on my shoulder while he slips on his shoes.
‘Say hello to Wendy,’ he says. ‘If you’re looking for a Godfather…’ He winks.
‘Wrong sort of Godfather.’ I grunt under his weight.
At the door, he glances up and down the street.
‘I had a feeling someone was following me,’ he murmurs. ‘But I think I lost them.’
He slips out and disappears into the darkness, leaving me with my mouth open, and in a darkness of my own.