This is a commission for my patron Sarah, who sent me this prompt:
‘So you’re saying that you want me, a villain, to help you catch another villain? That makes no sense.’
Two colleagues met in the second-worst greasy spoon in the downtown area. The other customers were an alcoholic ex-radio DJ and a family with two sets of twins, respectively. If either party had been looking, they might have noticed something familiar about her mouth, or his eyebrows. Something in the cadence of her voice, or in the way he stood. But they were looking at their divorce papers and their menus, respectively, so the couple went unnoticed.
‘Thanks for meeting me,’ he began. He stirred his cup of tea unnecessarily and tried not to stare at the bright neon nail polish she was wearing. There was a neat white scar on her left index finger, running from her hand to her nail.
‘Don’t thank me until you’ve said what you have to say.’ He was aware that she was studying him as closely as he was her: had she noticed the bruise on his eyebrow? The acid burn on his right wrist? Probably. She had given him both.
‘Well, um—what do I call you?’
She considered. ‘You can call me Sonia.’
‘Is that your actual name?’ Her mouth quirked.
‘Probably not. What’s yours?’
They both smirked.
‘So, Peter Parker, what do you want?’
‘I, erm, I…’ Now it had come to it, he wasn’t sure if he could really go through with his request. With requesting his request.
‘I don’t have all day, Peter.’
‘I need to ask your help.’
Sonia’s eyebrows bypassed raised and went straight to ‘making an escape to her hairline’. Peter vaguely considered walking into the café’s kitchen, climbing into the freezer and shutting the lid.
Peter leant in closer; she leant back. ‘It’s about the owner of Home Food Stores.’
‘Clifford Bifford? I know him.’
Her mouth quirked again. ‘Maybe. What do you want with him?’
‘I’ve come across intelligence that he’s embezzling the pension fund he set up for his employees.’
Sonia sipped her coffee. ‘There are, what, three hundred people working for Home Food Stores?’
‘Five hundred when you include the distribution warehouse, shop support staff and delivery fleet. Probably five times that relying on the fund when you work out the families who benefit. It’s been going on for decades.’
‘That’s not the worst thing a person could be doing with company funds.’ Sonia’s eyebrows were exasperated that Peter had asked her to the second-worst greasy spoon in the downtown area just to talk about pensions.
‘He’s also been using his import-export process to smuggle arms. Last week a box of AK-47s came right through the city on the back of a produce truck.’
Sonia swore gently. She made it quite musical.
‘Remember the Christmas Fayre?’
He did. Sonia, letting a box of rats loose in the food market, her minions sneaking up on stallholders and taking their petty cash. Himself, swooping in with a clowder of very hungry cats and chasing every minion across the city until he’d recovered all the money.
‘What did Clifford Bifford have to do with the Christmas Fayre?’
‘Home Food Stores sponsored it. When I was setting up with the rats, I noticed a van parked in a no-go zone. I’d paid Clifford good money to look the other way, so I had a nose at the van.’ She winced. ‘The driver tasered me before I had even had a chance to break in. That’s why the rats went out at the wrong time.’
The rats had gone out at the wrong time? One of the twins at the next table glanced over at them, gaze snagging on Sonia’s perfectly straight brown bob. She did look a little like a L’Oréal model. The child blinked and Peter tensed—had they been recognised—?
The child turned back to their milkshake. Peter turned back to Sonia.
‘Do you think there were weapons in that van?’
‘It was 18th December, wasn’t it? The next day was—’
‘The City Mall bombing.’
Peter sat back in his seat.
For a minute or more, neither of them spoke. Sonia went up to the counter and ordered more drinks and a cheese sandwich. When they arrived, she shredded the sandwich neatly and ate it in four bites.
‘So what’s the plan?’
‘Well, this is really your area of expertise more than it is—’
‘Don’t humble brag, Peter Parker. What would you do to bring down Clifford Bifford?’
‘Sneak into his offices, hack his computer system, uncover the paper trail, have him arrested.’
‘And this is why you’ve never successfully detained me. Clifford Bifford will not have invoices for his suicide vests or an email thread leading to the pension fund.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
Sonia smiled and so did her eyebrows. ‘We get him to confess.’
‘I’ll take him on a date.’
‘Have you never taken a guy on a date?’
‘It’s simple, Peter. Cliff knows I enjoy working with him. I’ll invite him for drinks over the Bank Holiday weekend. We have one of those coming up, right? Drinks and a stroll along the harbour. We’ll chat. He’ll chat a lot, because I have some banging truth serum that I stole from a lab in Washington DC a few years ago. Should still be in date. I’ll be wearing a recorder. Then we go to the police. Or rather, you do. I’m not going anywhere near that den of iniquity.’
‘And what do I do while you’re on this date?’
‘I dunno, man, go home to your husband and kids. Catch the new DiCaprio film. Keep watch on the harbour in case Clifford cottons on and tasers me, or in case he tries to cop a feel and I throw him into the harbour. Be ready to head to the rozzers when I say goodbye at my car.’
Peter went up to the counter and ordered more drinks and a ham roll. He ate it in eight bites and counted seventeen more scars on Sonia’s face and forearms. For some reason, he’d thought she was white and middle class; her voice always felt very boarding-school-femme-fatale as it echoed over buildings and along corridors. He had been too busy chasing to notice that she was east Asian and that she had a very slight Birmingham accent, mostly on her A’s. He wondered how she’d discovered he was married. He hadn’t thought to look into her background. He always liked to leave his job at the door and afford his colleagues some privacy.
‘I think your idea might work. But…’
‘But what, Peter Parker? Either you trust me to get it done or you don’t.’
‘I do trust you. But only with this job. Once Clifford’s in custody, we go back to the status quo. Agreed?’
‘The status quo in which I am a fabulous evil genius and you can’t find your way out of an empty room?’ Sonia smiled, properly. ‘Sounds good to me.’
They shook hands and stood up. Sonia threw a pound coin on the table as a tip. Peter threw down a two-pound coin. Sonia rolled her eyes. ‘Come on then, Peter Parker. Let’s catch a criminal.’
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