Joe had finished his second beer when he remembered his meeting with Rachel. “Shit!” He checked his watch. “Okay, not so bad.”
“I’ve got to get to Piccadilly by seven.”
“You can do that. Just about. Meeting Rachel?”
“Well go then. I’ll just sit here and drink the beer by myself.”
He was only five minutes late. The Kro bar on Piccadilly wrapped most of the way around the ground floor of its building. Rachel was in the dining area, all the way around from the main door. She was sat at the window, watching traffic go by.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Not that much”
Joe slumped into his chair, but quickly straightened up and leaned forward. “So, do you have a brother called Hugh?”
Rachel smiled. “I thought you didn’t recognise me.”
“I did. But I had to consult external memory before I got your brother’s name.”
“My mate Pete. He’s always been better with names. What’s Hugh doing these days?”
“Working in Surrey.”
“Hey. I work in Surrey too.”
Joe shrugged. “Guess it could be worse. Could be Essex.”
“My step-dad’s from Essex.”
“I’ll just shut up, shall I?”
Rachel hid her smirk behind a beer. A waitress came over and Joe ordered a pint of Theakstons XB for himself. “When were you last in Manchester?”
“Hugh’s graduation, I think.”
“Long time ago.”
“Yes. It’s changed. Didn’t this used to be some sort of sunken garden?”
Joe nodded. “Full of drunks and children bunking off school.”
“And there’s been a lot of regeneration since the bomb.”
“Can you help me with something?”
“I can try.”
“You’ll know where all the little galleries are. I want to check them all out. We try to have good relations with them because they nurture so many of our future artists.”
“Yeah. I can do that. When?”
“Tomorrow. I’ve seen all the people I was scheduled to. The next few weeks are all about finding new talent and liaising with shop fitters and leasing agents.
“As you’re going to help I guess I can buy you dinner and put it on expenses.” She slid a menu to Joe.
When they had ordered they seemed to have nothing to talk about. “I hope you had a productive day.” Rachel said eventually.
“No. Afraid I didn’t.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“Stuff. And….. I had to identify a body.” Rachel’s glass stopped on the way to her mouth. The beer didn’t, and sloshed onto the table. “Spillage.” Joe pointed at the puddle.
“A dead body?” Joe nodded. “Who?”
“Someone I used to know. Police figured I was the only person in town who could confirm his identity.”
“That must have been horrible.”
“Not nice. I only knew the guy because he stole some money from me.”
“That’s terrible. How…? I mean…. No, no. Forget I was going to ask anything. How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I guess. Hadn’t seen him in years and, like I said, he stole my money. So I wasn’t close to the guy.”
They were silent again for a while. The starters arrived and they tucked in. Rachel decided to change subjects. “I took up climbing. After all those times you threw me at trees I kind of got hooked.”
“I didn’t throw you at trees.”
“Up them then.” And the floodgates were opened. They filled in, in broad strokes, the last decade and a half of their lives. Mostly they marked it out in terms of places visited, where they had been on momentous days. “I was so hungover on the day Diana died. The day it was reported, anyway.” Joe remembered, “I came downstairs feeling rough as….. rough as fuck and turned on the TV. They were telling me that something terrible had happened. But I didn’t care, so I changed the channel. And they were telling me something terrible had happened. And so were the other three channels. But none of them were telling me what it was. I swear it was half an hour at least before they told me what had happened.”
“I was really quite sad, but I was going through a goth phase and had to pretend not to care.”
“You were never a goth!”
“What? Why not?”
“Well, you’re too…. blonde.”
“Hair dye, my dear, hair dye.”
They left the pub a few pints later. “You know where you’re going?”
“Yeah. Up there,” Rachel waved her hand vaguely, “and turn left before the railway station.” She moved in close, kissed him quickly on the lips and stepped away. “See you tomorrow. About ten? At the garage?”
“Okay.” He watched her sway slightly as she walked away, then headed for the bus.
Hunched up by the window of a number 43 Magic Bus, shifting occasionally because it was so hard to get comfortable on the centimetre of foam left in it, conflicting thoughts fought for attention.
Hill was dead. But even as a stiff he could still get the Police sniffing around and causing problems. Plus, he had probably told his partners in whatever deal he was into that Joe was involved. Hill being Hill, he had likely promised Joe’s participation before even meeting him the first time. The sort of low quality gangster Hill had hung out with previously would be too stupid to not believe the bullshit.
But he couldn’t find the energy to worry about it too much, because there was a chance he was going to get laid.
The bus crawled its way through Rusholme, and Platt Fields came up on the right. For a while they’d called Rachel the Squirrel because of the way she’d go up trees finding foot and finger holds in the wrinkled bark. It was astonishing she’d never fallen out of one and and done herself an injury. A cold feeling came over him. He was having very bad thoughts about a kid.
Except she wasn’t a kid any more. She was well over the age of consent, able to make her own decisions and very attractive. He grinned. It was possible he was misinterpreting all of this and she was just flirting with him to help get her job done. But he preferred to think otherwise.
He got off in Withington and started winding his way home. He was only one turn away from his house when his phone beeped. A text from Pete, “Are you in yet?”
“Cheeky bastard.” Joe started to reply, turned the corner, and walked into something solid.
Recoiling from the blow, Joe began to fall backwards. Until something grabbed him and stood him up again. Only to punch him in the gut and again in the face.
At this point everything went black.
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