Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank.
I’m on a concrete bed, sleeping off a heavy session. It started with a quiet pint in the Cock & Whistle and ended with a knife-fight in the Dirty Lemon. The other guy had a fucking meat cleaver, so I must have been drunk to try and fight him…
A bulbous bastard named Salvatore ‘Sweaty’ Moretti shakes me awake. He’s a permanently nervous safecracker who went down in local folklore after losing his footing in a pool of his own perspiration and cracking his skull on the wrought iron door of the safe he had just robbed. Surgeons tried to repair his ruptured skull meat with a steel plate, but it got infected, and the back of his head swelled up like a fucking cantaloupe.
I assume that the sweaty old shit-bag wants my ratty grey blanket, so I plant a size 11 on his chest and kick him into the rancid cinderblock wall.
He’s too drunk to talk and barely grunts as his steel plate clatters against the crumbling masonry.
A pair of elderly cops called Benson and Hedges lurk on the other side of the rusty cage, leering at me. Hedges stubs out his cigarette on an egg mayonnaise sandwich and drops it on a stainless steel breakfast tray, which Benson kicks under the bars towards me.
“Something to line the stomach, young man?”
I toss it back through the bars at him. It falls apart at Benson’s feet, but he picks it up and eats it anyway, grinning at me through misshapen, egg-smeared teeth.
“Suit your fucking self, darling.”
Four hours later.
I emerge blinking into the wintry lunchtime glare.
Outside the cop-shop, I’m met by a geriatric named Holder. He’s the hotel detective at the Excelsior. He’s wearing a threadbare electric blue suit and shuffles nervously from foot to foot.
“Mr. Rey? One of our esteemed guests would like a few moments of your time.”
I try to walk past him, but he halts me with a liver-spotted hand.
“Do I have a choice?”
He pats the gun-shaped bulge under his armpit and smiles awkwardly.
“Everyone has a choice, Mr. Rey.”
“Get shot in the front, or get shot in the back, right?”
He shrugs and gestures to a tiny hatchback in the far corner of the car park.
I was heading that way anyway…
The tinsel-strewn Excelsior Hotel lobby throbs with gaudy horror. Whoever was in charge of the Christmas decorations went too far, and the garish decor reminds me of an overly made-up Harbourside whore.
The Excelsior is probably the only hotel in Paignton that stays full in the dead of winter. It’s also the only hotel that offers seven channels of complimentary softcore pornography. Go figure.
Holder steers me towards the service elevator.
“This way. Let’s avoid the crowd.”
Some crowd. The cheap plastic Christmas tree next to the reception desk looks more alive than most of the fucking guests.
Dominic Dominguez stays at the Excelsior every Christmas. Fuck knows why.
When I step inside his suite, he is balanced precariously on the edge of a sturdy barstool, playing on a fruit machine that is on loan from the Greasy Nugget amusement arcade. Holder told me that the mechanism had been rigged, so it pays out every third game.
Dominguez is a big bastard – fatter than a shithouse spider. His enormous bulk gives him a curiously ageless quality, although I notice that his dark hair is now threaded with grey.
He glances at me briefly and wets his lips on a fluorescent umbrella drink.
“You know what I like most about this town, Mr. Rey?”
“Strong beds and even stronger drinks?”
His expression sours.
“Everyone and everything is for sale. Even you.”
He says something else, but the metallic rumble of falling coins blots out his words.
He offers me a coprophagous grin, and I slump onto the oversized bed, suddenly bone-weary.
People say Dominguez accrued his wealth through a lucrative chain of boy-brothels in the Midlands, but really I have no idea.
However he earned his money, he has an awful fucking lot of it. The fat fucker offered me £750 to track down the Sexy Santa costume that Cha Cha Chilkins – ‘Paignton’s premier gender illusionist’ – was wearing when she had a heart attack last Christmas, during the ‘Christmas is a Drag’ seasonal revue at the Palace Avenue Theatre.
Sure, I’ve taken stranger jobs in my time, but I almost changed my mind when Dominguez said that he wanted the outfit for his fucking mother…
It’s too cold to trawl my usual haunts, so I head straight to the Greasy Nugget on Torbay Road.
A local cabaret hack called Louie Drambuie told me that a couple of members of Cha Cha’s old chorus line work out of the amusement arcade, offering punters the old Paignton two-step – a side-street suck-and-fuck – in one of the lock-ups round the back.
As I walk in, ‘Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas’ by Gary Glitter is being played over the Tannoy. The volume has been turned up to drown out the coin-op cacophony.
It is so loud that I swear I can hear the sound of stack-heeled youngsters being dragged across linoleum and hauled into an untaxed transit van during the fadeout…
The Greasy Nugget is awash with stretched red fabric and sick-stained synthetic beards. People are passing bottles of rot-gut between them – drunken faces congealed with pleasure. I grab an unmarked bottle off a passed-out man in a badly soiled Santa suit and take a glug.
He’s face down next to the cashier’s cage, and people are treading on him as they try to get past. I notice that the backside of his suit is slick with anal mucus, and I really wish I hadn’t stolen his drink.
The black-market booze hits me like a sledgehammer, and I press deeper into the crowd. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m sweating bullets.
I pick my way through the throng and walk the perimeter of the building, where the nooks and crannies are darker than God’s fucking pockets. Paignton sure hides its secrets well. There is a bit of rough trade loitering at the back of the building, but no one who could convincingly perform in a drag act – even in Paignton.
I have almost completed my circuit, when I see the outfit. It has a fur-lined hood and ‘Cha Cha’ written across the back in diamante studs.
I tap the girl on the shoulder, and she turns around sharply. I’m shocked to see deep purple bruising down the left side of her face.
I try to clear my throat, but only succeed in coughing up a phlegmy string of liquor. I spit it on the floor.
“My boyfriend won it in a card game. On Winner Street. Gave it to me to say sorry.”
She gestures absentmindedly at the hideous bruise, and then her arms drop to her side like those of a drunken rag-doll.
“Early Christmas present…”
She has narrow hips and a flat stomach, and Cha Cha’s voluminous outfit looks baggy on her.
“I’m going to need you to take the dress off, sweetheart.”
I pat my pockets, but Dominguez said cash on delivery, and I let it slide because I knew that the fat motherfucker was good for it.
“£100 if you want to do it yourself with your big strong hands.”
She removes her bubble-gum and presses it against the fruit machine she has been leaning against.
“£150 if you want me to blow you afterward… my boyfriend won’t mind – honest.”
“Who’s your boyfriend?”
I turn around slowly.
The man in front of me smells like a piss-soaked lift. His name is ‘Ten Tonne’ Teddy Tucker. He used to do strong-arm work for the self-styled Foxhole Mafia, but his body has long since failed him, and now he has to travel between pubs and drinking clubs using a fucking mobility scooter.
Straight away I wish he weren’t wearing a Santa suit, as I know I’m going to feel awfully conflicted when I hit him in a minute.
He struggles to clamber out of his scooter and throws a lazy punch in my direction. It travels so slowly I probably have time to pop out for a quick pint before it arrives…
I side-step the blow and hammer a hard right hook into his ear. I’m working up to another shot when he tries to grab me by the throat.
He lets out a weird, sickly little laugh.
“I’m gonna ruin you, cunt.”
He has three fingers missing on his left hand – removed by a former employer after a ‘workplace dispute’ – and I easily wriggle free of his grasp.
I slam a punch into his enormous gut and he doubles over, hot vomit splattering on his rented Santa suit. I bounce his skull off the nearest fruit machine, hard, and he drops to his knees, eyes the colour of tainted milk. I bounce him off the machine a second time, and this time it pays out, coughing up its grubby, coppery loot.
I cram a handful of spilled coins in his mouth and kick his rotten jaw shut. It closes with a sick crunch.
I turn back to the girl, but the dress is already around her ankles, like a puddle of old piss.
She shrugs, shivering in her tattered underwear.
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
When I arrive back at the Excelsior, an elderly woman I assume to be Dominguez’s mother is reclining on a chaise-longue, wearing nothing except a flimsy, cellophane-like nightgown. She has to be at least 80 and has a heavily-medicated care-in-the-community expression.
“Good evening, Mrs. Dominguez…”
She glances at me, then cackles, toothlessly.
I ball up the outfit and throw it to Dominguez for inspection. Then I wipe my bloody hands on his pastel Camberwick bedspread.
He waddles across the room towards me, wonky grin etched across his fat face, and stuffs the grubby banknotes down the front of my jeans with his podgy fingers – like I’m a fucking carnival stripper. I can feel his hot breath on my cheek as his ragged fingernail snags my pubic hair.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Rey. Don’t spend it all at once.”
I take a parting look at his mother, and she is still chuckling to herself. At least someone around here has something to laugh about…