Apparently avocado on toast is last year's thing, or maybe the year's before that. Who cares? I like it, just as I like a flat white to go with it, and sure this place is as hipster as it gets but with everyone working on their laptops or whatever, it's quiet and I can eat in peace. Until a shadow falls across the table, and there she is: Doreen Wallace, all bleached blonde hair and pink sweater dress, the very image of a gangster's wife.
"Hi," she says, "is that what they call breakfast these days?"
"What do you want, Doreen?" I reply as I look back down at my toast.
"Now, is that any way to speak to your oldest friend?" she asks. "How long has it been?"
Now she's sat herself down across from me, leaning forward with her sharp little elbows on the table.
"Three years," I tell her, "Three years since I saw you in the courtroom, lying to save your husband. Perjuring yourself and destroying our case."
She coughs, looks away, and then back at me. "You look well, though. Despite everything."
"Despite leaving the force, you mean. Despite losing my flat and my … my life." I all but throw my knife and fork down in the plate. Some of the other customers raise their heads at the clatter. I repeat, "What do you want, Doreen?"
"Your help. I want … I need your help." She paused. "Lucy's missing, and I'm really worried."
"Police," I tell her. "Real police."
"Oh yeah, they 'noted' her disappearance, but they haven't done a thing. They can't be bothered about some gangster's kid. She's probably just off with her scally mates, holed up in some shitty place doing drugs or whatever … that's what they were thinking."
"What about John?" I ask, "he's got 'resources,' right?"
She sighs before continuing, "Yeah, of course. But he's convinced someone's grabbed her to get at him, so he's off rattling the cage of every crim in the city. 'I'll hang 'em upside down from meat hooks til they tell me' is what he said. And he will. Meanwhile, Lucy's still gone, and I need someone who can find her without starting a war along the way."
So, there's the peace shattered, and part of me is yelling, "Fuck no, don't get involved, stay out of it!" But the rest of me is sending up reminders that Doreen and I were best friends once, and that Lucy seemed a good kid, those few times I met her. Kid? Young woman now, going on eighteen. So I nod, and Doreen all but bursts into tears and hugs me across the table, her hair drooping down into what remains of my avocado.
And now here I am. Standing at a crossroads in Mabgate with old warehouses awaiting gentrification on one side and assorted tyre dealerships and pound shops on the other, a cold wind blowing down my coat collar, wondering if I'm going to get whacked by some joyrider doing sixty in this twenty-mile-an-hour zone. And reconstructing the path I took to get here while I wait …
First order of the day was to check out Lucy's room. Doreen let me in while John was out doing whatever gangster types do when they're not terrorising all and sundry looking for their daughter. "Just regular business," he'd told her apparently, "I'll be back in a few hours." Which gave me time to look around the bedroom and poke about a bit. Doreen handed me Lucy's diary, all pink and spangly and clearly the sort of diary you wouldn't care if your mum read. I gave it the obligatory thumb through, but I suspected there might be a real one tucked away somewhere. As indeed, there was, hidden in a gap under the skirting board, behind her bedside table.
"I had no idea that was there," Doreen exclaimed as I carefully pulled it out.
"Mind if I take it?" I asked, "it might give me a clue where to start looking."
I really didn't want to break Lucy's confidentiality by letting her mum read it, and I thought that I could just give it back once I'd found her. Doreen seemed pretty reluctant to let me have it, however.
"I think I should look at it first, after all, I'm her mum. And then I can tell you if there's anything pertinent in there."
She held out her hand. I glanced at the diary, which was just an old notebook really, and looked back at Doreen.
"If you really want me to help, I think I need to read this unfiltered. And I need to do that now before we lose any more time."
Doreen stood, chewing her lip, then suddenly seemed to deflate.
"Ok, fine," she said, "Just remember it's the diary of a teenager, so, y'know, don't take everything in there as it is."
"Of course I won't," I told her as I tucked the book into my backpack.
I had to leave soon after, as John's car came up the drive, so it was out the back door and over the fence into the neighbour's, hoping they didn't have a dog. Back in what I liked to call my "temporary office', but which was really just the back room of a shop for sale in a down at heel shopping centre, I leafed through Lucy's diary. There was a fair bit of mooning over certain love objects, copies of favourite song lyrics, and bad teenage poetry. But there was also something darker, something that suggested that Lucy may have had good reason for running away. If what she hinted at here was true, should I even be trying to bring her back? I decided that I could at least find her and be reassured that she was ok. If she was ok, that is. Of course, that meant running the risk of John deciding he'd have a go at extracting the info from me, but I hoped he'd have the sense to leave well alone, given what had happened in the past.
Towards the end of the entries, there was something else, something that clearly gave Lucy some joy. 'Can't wait to join up with the Underground Crew,' she'd written at one point. And then, a day or two later: 'That was amazing! Like another world.' I had no idea who or what the Underground Crew were, but a few hops across the internet took me to one of those forums about 'Hidden Places' where people post messages about visiting derelict industrial complexes, or abandoned hospitals, or, crucially, underground sites. When it came to that last thread, the name of the Underground Crew was attached to quite a few postings. Some included videos, mostly lit-by-headlamp excursions into old railway tunnels or, dangerously, I thought, abandoned mine workings. But in one, they ventured into a culvert that diverted one of the bigger becks under the city, and, more importantly, as they trooped along the side of the water, there was a figure that I recognised. I paused the video just as she glanced back, and yes, it was definitely Lucy. That was shot just a couple of weeks before she went missing, but it didn't seem to contain much that was useful. Except at one point, Lucy stopped where another, smaller stream fed into the beck and pointed up the secondary tunnel. I couldn't hear what she was saying over the noise of the water, and before long, the group moved on, laughing at one point that they were right under the police station, before emerging where the beck fed into the river that cuts the city in two.
I looked at the name of the person who had posted the video – obviously a pseudonym: DelverDave. Very clever, I don't think. Still, even with so obvious a nickname as that, it might not be so easy to find out who he was. Except it kinda was, actually. I searched under his name in the rest of the forum and discovered that as well as posts tagged with 'the Underground Crew,' there were a number of others involving excursions into old houses and abandoned factories up past one of the outlying suburbs. Maybe that's close to home, I thought to myself. Still, it was a fairly big area to cover and I couldn't just cruise up and down the streets, shouting for 'Delver Dave'! Option One was to hit up some old connections on the force, but that immediately had a pin stuck in it. Option two was based on one of those 'Surely he wouldn't?' assumptions, namely that maybe Dave boy would use the same handle somewhere else in social media world. As indeed he did! Facepalm moment. There he was tweeting his life away, so I sent him a direct message along the lines of "Trying to track down a young girl who joined you on one of your underground jaunts - name of Doreen Wallace. She's missing, and her family is worried." Not only did he not reply, but half an hour later, I discovered he'd blocked me. "For fucks sake," I thought to myself before I remembered that one of his tweets had been about how excited he was about some upcoming gig he was going to with his mates. A long shot, I know, with little chance of success, but it still seemed better than Option One.
As it turned out, it was easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The band was playing in some old but small venue that I had occasionally frequented myself, back in the gig going day. Their support was playing some kind of thrash metal, which was not really my cup of whatever but wasn't that bad. And they weren't so popular that I couldn't get in through the door, and that also meant a smaller crowd that was easier to scan. Easier still when there was a bunch of lads gabbing at the back, pints in hands, some of whom were wearing - I kid you not - Underground Crew T-shirts. Trying not to look too furtive, I sidled up, and when one peeled off to go to the bar, one of his mates yelled, "Make mine a lager, Dave!" I felt pretty sure I had my mark. In the lull between the support band hauling their equipment off the stage and the main event setting up, I squeezed in next to him as he tried to attract the attention of the barmaid.
"The thing is, Dave," I said, as he turned his head in surprise at hearing his name, "Lucy Wallace is the daughter of John Wallace."
"I don't know who the fuck you're talking about. Fuck off and leave me alone."
Rude! I leaned in closer.
"And John Wallace is a gangster and all-round bad man. So, if he were to discover you'd had dealings with his Lucy … well, I just dread to think Dave, I really do."
I have to be honest, I took some satisfaction in seeing him blanch. Ignoring the barmaid, he hissed, "Look, I don't know anything about her going missing. She only joined us for a couple of excursions. Seemed nice, but that's all I know."
"How about we go outside, and you fill in the details?" I replied and looped my arm in his, just in case.
Outside with the smokers and flirters, I looked Delver Dave straight in the eye and told him: "I'm not working for Wallace, honest. Well, not John, anyway. But Lucy's mum is worried sick, and I promised I'd try and find her. So far, you're the best lead I have."
He sighed and scuffed the gravel a bit, then looked up.
"She was alright, Lucy was. I mean, I think we all fancied her, at least a bit. But really, there was nothing like that going on. She became one of the lads pretty quickly."
"How'd she get in with you?" I asked, pulling my jacket a bit closer round me as a breeze picked up.
"Mate of a mate's of Paul's. Who's been told time and again not to bring some newbie along, but actually, she was alright, from the word go. Didn't ask too many questions, didn't wander off, didn't do anything stupid …"
He paused, and I took the opportunity to ask another question:
"There's a video of the crew with Lucy, following some stream under the city centre …" "Yeah, yeah," he replied, apparently eager to be more forthcoming, "The Ladybeck run. That was a good one."
He saw my quizzical look and explained.
"Ladybeck is one of those streams that have been bricked up and covered over. But it's still there, under the city, running down from the hills to the river. It even passes under the police station!"
"I know, I saw that on the video," I told him, "But at one point, Lucy points up some side culvert or something. Do you remember that?"
I don't really know what prompted me to ask that. Maybe something to do with the passing look on her face as she stared up the tunnel, or maybe simply because I really had nothing else to go on.
Dave thought for a moment, then said that it was as if she'd seen something in the tunnel but that he'd told her there was nothing interesting up there.
"It's just an old culvert that runs underneath Mabgate. But something about it seemed to grab her attention, so I told her she should talk to Lizzie at the Library."
"Lizzie at the library?" I asked, "Really?!"
"Yeah, Library Liz. She's kind of a friend and really good on local legends and stuff. Maybe Lucy went to see her. I don't know, she didn't tell me if she did."
Then he frowned and looked down at the grubby tarmac.
"Look, I'm really sorry to hear she's missing, but I don't want that John Wallace coming after me. What do you think I should do?"
"Honestly?", I said, "Stay off social media for a start! And maybe go away for a bit. Stay with someone who's not too close, not family or such a good friend that they can easily be tracked down."
"Lay low, you mean?"
"If you want to call it that", I replied, "But seriously, I've known Wallace to do horrible things to people for much less reason than trying to find his little girl. So, you should do whatever you have to if you want to stay out of his way."
Back in the venue, the band was starting up, and as I walked off, I saw Dave look towards the door, obviously wondering if he should head back in and tell his mates, maybe even catch the rest of the set, or whether he should just do a sharp scarper. I left him to his dilemma.
Finding Lizzie was even easier than tracking down Dave, of course. There she was on the library staff webpage, her thumbnail photo showing the face of a middle-aged woman with short black hair and a welcoming smile. I hesitated before sending an email as it was already quite late, but then I reckoned it was warranted under the circs, and hopefully, she'd reply first thing. So, I was apologetic but emphasised her expertise and suggested I might buy her a coffee in exchange for it. And with that, it was time for bed and the sleep of someone who had done pretty much all they could be expected to that particular day. Again, under the circs. But then, just as I was flossing, there was a knock at the front door. Now, I live in a nice little house, tucked away up a cul-de-sac where the neighbours all keep themselves to themselves, and there's not much in the way of foot traffic. As a result, I opened the door with a degree of caution and my right hand tightly gripping my old police baton, which I'd kept as a 'memento.'
'Billy boy", I exclaimed when I saw the tall, shaven-headed figure on my doorstep, "What brings you to these parts at …" and here I made a show of looking at the watch, which most definitely was not on my wrist, "… time-for-all-decent-people-to-be-in-their-beds o'clock? And no, before you ask, you may not come in."
'Billy boy' or Bill McPherson was one of Wallace's 'enforcers,' built like a brick shithouse, as the saying goes, but not without a degree of intelligence in my experience. I'd known him since he was a grubby little kid, giving older lads a right good slapping if they messed with him and his mates. He looked down at me and shook his head sadly as if what I'd said had any bearing whatsoever on his decision whether to enter or not.
"I'm not here for John," he clarified. "Doreen wants to know if you've made any progress."
I reflected for a moment. What did it mean that Doreen had persuaded one of her husband's top men to come and ask me on her behalf, presumably without John's knowing? Perhaps all was even less well than I had thought in Wallaceland. My contemplation was interrupted by a polite cough, and I looked up into Billy's face and a pair of raised eyebrows.
"In your own time, eh?" he said, making it clear whose time I was wasting.
"You can tell her I've definitely got a lead, and I'll be following it up in …" Again, I looked ostentatiously at my watchless wrist. "… however many hours count as a good night's sleep these days."
Billy looked distinctly unimpressed. Then he looked to his right and left, as if checking that no one was listening, before leaning forward and saying, in what passed for his 'indoor' voice: "She says I'm to give you whatever assistance you might need."
Now, that's not an offer to turn down lightly, so I really did think about it for a minute or two.
"No, that's alright Bill. Much appreciated and all that, but to be honest, having you tag along at this stage might be more of a hindrance than a help. I will keep the offer in mind, though."
Billy nodded thoughtfully and then handed me a small card.
"Here's my mobile number, just in case."
Jeez, I thought, thugs with business cards …! With a last nod in my direction, Billy boy turned and left. I watched him walk down the street to his car, thinking some sort of innate 'Spidey-sense' would tell me if he was being followed by another of Wallace's guys. Then, realising how ridiculous I was being, I shut the door and went up to bed.
The next morning there was a reply from Library Lizzy, offering to meet me during her break at 11. What used to be part of the old library had been converted into a coffee shop, keeping the old glossy brown and green Victorian tiles and selling quite an impressive range of baked goods. I was there early and waved Lizzy over when she came in.
"What can I get you?" I asked.
"Oh, a cappuccino and a slice of that good-looking carrot cake, if you don't mind."
The carrot cake did look good, but dietary guilt pushed me towards some sort of flapjack creation for myself, even though I suspected the calorie count was just as bad, if not worse.
Back at the table, I waited until we'd each had our first bite of cake/flapjack and swig of coffee, but Lizzy got in first.
"So, Mabgate. You know what the '-gate' part refers to, don't you?"
I felt as if I was being tested.
"I think so.", I answered. "It doesn't mean an actual gate. The word comes from the old Norse for street."
She nodded as if she were encouraging a bright young pupil.
"That's right. And 'Mab' is an old word for prostitute, so 'Mabgate' was the name given to the street where you'd go to have sex with a whore. Like Gropecunt Street in York."
I spluttered into my cup of Americano, and the middle-aged man at the table across the aisle glared at us. Lizzy just laughed before continuing.
"It used to be on the edge of town, a bit out of the way, which made sense, of course."
"But wasn't Mab also Queen of the faeries or something?" I asked.
"Aha," she replied, "You've been reading your Shakespeare, I see."
"Well, not so much reading as dimly recalling ploughing through Romeo and Juliet at school," I admitted. And then blushed as I realised I'd just used the word 'ploughing' in that context. Lizzy just smiled and had another drink of her coffee.
"Lots of people seem to think that Shakespeare was drawing on Celtic mythology there, but that play is the first time she appears in literature. And it's from good ol' Will and the others who came after that we get the Tinkerbell image of faeries, flitting about or riding in their little hazelnut carriages …"
"So, the name might have nothing to do with faeries then?" I asked.
"Oh, I didn't say that. Don't you remember Mercutio's speech?"
I struggled to recall anything of it. Something about Mab galloping about in her tiny coach at night …
"Errrr … it goes on about driving over a soldier's neck and causing him to dream of cutting throats ..."
Lizzy nodded enthusiastically.
"That's right," she said. "It starts off all light and cutesy, with Mab riding about in her carriage with its wheel spokes made of spiders' legs and a cover from grasshoppers' wings. Well, maybe that's not so light and cutesy. But then it takes even more of a dark turn as Mab pulls people's dreams out of their heads, and by the end, she's the 'hag' who teaches virgins how to lie on their backs and bear the weight of men. Basically, how to have sex."
The man at the other table looked at us disapprovingly again.
"Yeah, I got that," I muttered, finishing off the last of my flapjack.
"In a sense, the speech mirrors the play as a whole in the way it begins in such a light-hearted manner before descending into something quite nightmarish and violent." She looked over at the man and gave him a wide smile.
"So, Mab, Mabgate … it's all to do with sex?" I ventured.
"Well, not all," she replied, 'but yes, that's the connection. Speaking of which, I get the feeling you didn't ask to meet me just to hear some local history."
"I'm looking for someone," I told her before adding, "On behalf of her mum, who's really worried. And I was told she'd got interested in Mabgate and had come to talk to you about it. To be honest, it's the only lead I have right now."
Liz looked at me long and hard before continuing.
"Ok, I think I know who you mean. Nice girl. And yes, very keen to know all about Mabgate. But she had the wit to ask me a question you haven't yet."
I raised my hands, puzzled.
"Why did our local ladies of the night decide to set up operations in that particular spot?"
"Well, you said it yourself, it was out on the edge of town. Presumably well away from wives' eyes or those of the local constabulary," I answered.
"Ah yes," she said, "but there are lots of tucked away places round here. Why there, especially? Think of the connection." She smiled, and again I felt as if I was back in the classroom.
I sighed. "Maybe because Mab offered protection somehow?"
Liz leant back in her chair and gave me the thumbs up.
"We have an old book in the archives, of local stories about faeries and boggarts and the like, collected towards the end of the nineteenth century. There's a short one about some local alderman who decides to 'clean up' Mabgate. So, off he goes with a bunch of his guys, no doubt including some who were themselves customers of the women, and of course, they do as men have always done … But that very night, he has such a bad dream, a real nightmare in fact, that he wakes up in terror, raving that Mab had come to get him and jumps head first out the bedroom window. Which was on the second floor, so, y'know, he breaks his neck …" She gave me a look.
"Let me guess," I said. "And then it was decided to leave Mabgate alone, for some reason …"
Liz started to collect her things.
"My break's over," she told me, "But y'know, some people who are looked for might not want to be found."
I nodded. "Ok, thanks, you've been very helpful," I replied.
She smiled in acknowledgement, then, as we were getting up to leave, she took my arm.
"Of course, I don't know what this is all about, but I get the sense you're tangled up in something, and I just wanted to say … well, right before the final lines of his speech, Mercutio talks of Mab tangling women's hair in 'elflocks,' boding much misfortune. Mabgate's a very different place these days, but still, perhaps you should be careful."
Before I could thank her, she looked away as if embarrassed and then hurried out of the café.
Mab, Mabgate, nightmares … it really didn't add up to much. If anything, at all. But it was all I had to go on, and since the day was warm and sunny, I decided to walk across town and poke about a bit, just to see what I could stir up. Back in the day, as the cliché goes, Mabgate was rough as a badger's bum. But now, the pub where I'd gleefully collared one of Wallace's underlings for some misdemeanour or other had been 'redeveloped' as a set of desirable apartments. And the warehouse in which I'd chased some scally in the dark and twisted my ankle on dodgy floorboards, much to the amusement of my then sergeant, had been turned into a boutique art hotel. Nevertheless, just a street or two further away from the city centre, you could find the bones of Mabgate as it was – the 'light industrial' buildings with rusty corrugated roofs and broken windows, interspersed with tyre dealerships and sad-looking strips of shops, crisp packets, and sweet wrappers pushed up against the doors as if begging to be let back in. And across from the pub-now-flats was a small patch of grass that – and I was willing to bet the new to the area residents didn't know this – covered an old cholera burial ground. To the side, as if marking the border between the new and the old, stood a hawthorn tree, twisted and black, looking half-dead but with small, white flowers beginning to show on some of its spindly branches. I've never been a fan of hawthorn, to be honest – the blossom smells of death and decay to me, and here, on this spot, I could well imagine the tree channeling the rot from the communal grave below. Behind me, I heard footsteps, and turning my head, I saw two figures ambling across the grass toward me. Before I could turn to face them, I heard a polite cough, and looking back towards the tree, I was surprised to see a young man, who seemed almost as tall and spindly as the tree itself, standing beside it.
"Good day Mr. Policeman."
He had what my mum would call a 'sharp' face, with cheekbones you could cut cheese with, thin lips, currently curled into a half-smile, and jet black hair cut into a style that was fashionable due to some tv show – short to non-existent on the sides, long and floppy on top.
"We understand that you have been making … enquiries," he continued.
I turned my head to see where the others were and realised they'd taken up positions behind me and to each side, forming a triangle with tree-boy.
I shrugged and held my hands out to the side, palms up, in the universal sign for 'I want no trouble here' and told him,
"I'm trying to track down Lucy Wallace."
The young man appeared to consider this for a moment or two as if it were a claim worth scrutinising.
"Track down, y'say? Are you then some kind of police dog?" And he sniffed the air between us.
Behind me, I could sense the other two coming closer.
"I'm not some kind of police anything …" I started to say.
"Oh, you're definitely some kind of police something," the young man interrupted, "We just need to determine what."
I sighed and held my arms out again.
"Her mum is worried. She asked me to look for her."
"Her mum is worried, is she? Tearing her pretty blonde hair out, no doubt."
He paused, before continuing, "Did you ever think Lucy might have had a reason for stepping away?"
I thought that was a little bit of an odd phrase to use, as if Lucy had gone outside for a breath of fresh air. But then I realised the question wasn't rhetorical and that it might be a good idea for me to answer it.
"No, I have to be honest, I didn't. I don't know the circumstances. I was just asked to find her so … if you know where she is, maybe you could just ask her to get in touch, just let her parents, or me if she'd prefer, know that she's ok."
He nodded slowly as if considering my request carefully.
"Maybe I will, Mr. Policesomething. But in the meantime, you understand that I can't just let you go on your merry way. There's always an entry fee when you step on to such …" And here he gestured expansively, "… hallowed ground."
Before I had a chance to say anything further, I caught sight of movement to my right and moved my head just in time to avoid the punch. Swinging my whole body round, I slammed my left fist into the guy's ribs and heard a satisfying 'whoosh!' as the air left his lungs. But it was always going to be one-sided, from beginning to end. The other minion hit me in the kidneys hard, and as I arched my back in pain, I saw the black-haired young man stride across from the tree faster than I expected and clip me one under the chin. And that was that.
I came to with Billy boy McPherson looming over me.
"Up you come, my son," he said, one meaty hand under my arm. "Looks like you've taken a little bit of a beating there. Not for the first time, though, eh?" he added.
I struggled to put some coherent thoughts together.
"As you well know, it's not like on tv," he continued, half supporting me, half dragging me to his car. "So, I'll drop you off at A&E just to be sure. I figure it's the least I can do, for old times' sake."
Slumped across the back seat, I didn't have the strength to point out that if he took me to the hospital, I'd have to wait twenty hours or more, only for some junior doctor to shine a light in my eyes and tell me to rest, avoid drink and take some paracetamol.
"As for your obligation to Mrs. Wallace," I hadn't realised Billy was still talking. "You may consider that discharged."
Back at home, after spending the proverbial twenty-four hours in A&E, I reflected on Billy boy's final words and took some mean pleasure in speculating on the thorough kicking the black-haired young man and his accomplices were no doubt getting at that very moment. So, I was somewhat taken aback when I heard a hard volley of knocks on my front and opened it to find that very raven-haired gangly little shit standing on my doorstep. This time I was better prepared, but he didn't seem fazed in the least by my police baton.
"Ooh, Mr. Policeman, I didn't know you cared!" he laughed.
"What do you want?" I grunted.
With a strangely formal bow and a flick of his wrist, he handed me a neatly folded square of paper. I frowned, took it, and opened it up to find a time and place written in elegant cursive.
"What is this?" I asked, "An invitation to another smacking?"
The young man held a hand to his chest and looked affronted.
"You have Her word," he said, "that you will not be harmed."
And with that, he skipped back down the path, jumped smoothly over my gate, and, with a wave, sauntered away down the road.
And so, here I am, back at the border of Mabgate, under a three-quarter moon, wondering …. a whole bunch of things with 'Am I being taken for a ride?' currently sitting in pole position. I felt, or thought I felt, something pass overhead and looked up only to see a band of ragged clouds moving across the moon. When I looked back down, there she was, stepping out of the shadows. Behind her, I could just see the outline of the young man with jet-black hair as he raised his hand in some kind of salute.
"Hello, Lucy," I said, "Are you ok?"
"Better than," she replied. "You can stop looking for me now."
"I think your mum would like to see you. She's really worried."
"My mum!" she laughed scornfully. She hugged herself, and in the flickering light from the nearest streetlamp, I could see that she looked clean and healthy – she even seemed to glow as the clouds passed and the moon cast its eye over the proceedings.
"You know," she continued, "everyone's so scared of my dad. John Wallace, the Big Man. But he's old and tired and smart enough to realise it's time to step away."
That phrase again.
"Not my mum, though. She just doesn't want to let go. Thinks we can be some kind of criminal dynasty. So, she's been showing me the ropes. Or some of 'em, anyway. Trying to, at least. But I'm not having it!" she ended defiantly, looking me in the eye, chin up. "I'm not having it," she repeated more quietly. "But I couldn't see how I could get away without them finding me and dragging me back. Until I heard about … well," she stopped and gestured vaguely behind her, towards the shadows.
"So now, what?" I asked her, "You're under the protection of Queen Mab, is that it?!"
I tried not to let the incredulity creep into my voice.
She nodded, quite seriously.
"Something like that," she said. "I've stepped away somewhere not even my mum can get to. And if I were you, I'd cut all ties as well."
As she finished, I heard the car pull up behind me, but in the time it took for me to glance over my shoulder and look back again, she was gone, with just a glimpse of a wave from the black-haired young man as they both vanished into the shadows. I was almost bowled over as Billy boy charged past, but I knew he had no chance of catching them. A few seconds later, I heard the clicking-clacking of high heels behind me but didn't bother to turn around.
"Well, at least you found her for me."
"So, John was never really looking for her?" I asked.
"Nah," she replied, "He's grown old and soft. In more ways than one."
She came up beside me and looped her arm in mine. Pulling away, I turned and faced her.
"It's no use Doreen," I said, "she's gone. Well beyond your reach anyway."
"We'll see about that," she sniffed. "You men …" She looked me up and down. "Useless, the lot of yer ... Maybe I should have a little chat to this Mab person, woman to woman."
"You do that," I told her, walking away. "Let me know how that goes."
I turned down a side street, where the warehouses were being turned into 'city living' apartments, and found a coffee shop still open.
"Flat white, please," I ordered.
"Traditional, or would you like to try this new blend we've got that has a chocolatey mouth-feel …"
I cut the barista off mid-sentence.
"I've had enough of 'traditional' for now, so let's give the 'new blend' a try."