It’s Christmas Eve and the strip joints are full of pouting jailbait.
I’m looking for a 19-year-old runaway called Marisol Lopez, but the trail is colder than her dead father’s body.
Heaven’s Basement is the only strip club in Paignton that still employs pregnant dancers. I doubt she is here, but it’s cold outside, and I have to drink somewhere.
The bar is busy, and as usual it is a hard liquor crowd. Luckily I brought my own. I scan the dancers onstage, but I struggle to focus: too much booze, too little sleep.
I remove the photo of Marisol from my jacket pocket. It has been mangled by my vodka bottle. It is the only photo her mother offered me when she hired me. Legs splayed, back arched. Dressed in nothing but pearls. Frankly, I wouldn’t recognise her if she started sucking my cock.
I’m still studying the photo when a skinny hoodrat with a pissy look in his eyes spills my drink. I eyeball him and he blinks first, melting into crowd. The older man standing behind him has a thin grin stitched across his leathery face. He leans in towards me.
“I’m afraid my friend is a little bit old-fashioned. A little bit Old Testament. He doesn’t like to apologise.”
His suit is the colour of muddy water. He is missing three fingers on his right hand. He looks like the kind of guy who always makes a point of asking whore their real name. I hit him so hard that I get a tooth embedded in my knuckle.
He crawls into the crowd and I sip more bootleg vodka.
I had until noon to find Marisol. Then the money ran out. Her baby was due today, but the chances of finding the pair of them alive are disappearing faster than my booze.
After Marisol’s father died her mother hired me to find her and bring her home. That was a month ago.
As the lunchtime rush starts to subside I disappear to the toilet, and lock the door behind me. I wipe the greasy mirror with my shirt. The bruises to my torso have faded, but the scar tissue looks raw and agitated. My joints looks inflamed, and my knuckles are misshapen. I’m getting too old for this shit.
Outside the club the cold eats into my bones. The pink glow of dusk fades behind the multi-storey car-park and the low winter sun sinks into the Wetlands.
The freezing cold air makes my ruined lungs ache and I head down to the beach. The sea is a churning grey maelstrom. It reminds me of my past.
I’ve tracked down my fair share of runaways over the last couple of years, but most searches begin and end at Paignton bus station.
Either that, or Harold King’s drinking club, the Blind Pig. Three months ago I beat a man called Farrelly after I caught him trying to lure a 13 year-old into a hatchback. I later found out that he worked for Harold King.
I walk up Torbay Road and buy two claw hammers in the99p shop. I drop them into the pockets of my overcoat and turn up my collar. I try to avoid Winner Street at Christmas time, but this year I’m willing to make an exception.
The woman who opens the door has arms that are shrivelled like a junkie’s tits. I’ve never met her, but I think that it is Harold King’s half-sister, Wendy.
“Club’s closed, darling. Try the Kirkham Social. They let any fucker in.”
She is sloppy with drink and offers me a gummy smile.
“I’m not here for a drink.”
I drop my shoulder into the door and knock her sideways, spilling her Pina Colada.
I finger the rubberised grip of one of the claw hammers in my pocket.
“I’m here to spread a little festive cheer.”
The Blind Pig is a subterranean scum-hole. Today it’s hotter than hell, and twice as busy.
In the back room Harold King offers me a queasy smile.
“Joe Rey. I heard you were dead.”
“You hoped I was dead. Big difference.”
His smile gets even queasier.
He has breath like spoiled milk and a voice like my older sister.
“I’m looking for a girl.”
“I’ve got girls of all shapes and sizes here Mr Rey. Try one. Call it a Christmas treat.”
Harold is a rubbery-looking beast of a man. He’s so fat that when he walks it looks like he is moving in several different directions at once.
He manages two steps towards me before I hit him in the face with one of the hammers.
In the chamber behind his office Marisol is stone-cold. I feel for a pulse, but all I get is dead skin.
Under her robe she is wearing nothing except a rhinestone encrusted G-string.
She has blood on her legs and a tattoo of Jesus on her thigh.
I hear the feint cries of a baby in the next room. It’s tiny: a little boy. He has been lazily wrapped in a blanket and placed on the linoleum floor, but everything is splattered in black, tar-like shit.
The door opens behind me. It’s that slack motherfucker Farrelly. He is carrying a blade, but he looks drunker than I feel.
I reach for my hammers.
This won’t take long.
The cold, empty evening hangs around me like a ghost. The icy air I’m breathing is all that keeps me on my feet.
As I reach Torbay Road a hooker with a Santa hat and a knee brace falls into step beside me. She has bloodshot slits for eyes.
I vaguely recognise her. I forget her name, but they call her ‘the mouth of the south’.
“Fancy a party, big man.”
I pass her my vodka bottle and clutch the baby tighter to my chest.
“Have a drink on me.”
She offers me a curious look.
“Merry fucking Christmas.”