Service please, by Roger A Price
Christine Jones leaned back in her chair as she waited for Vinnie to return with the drinks. They had spent a pleasant afternoon in a wine bar off Deansgate in central Manchester celebrating. The documentary she had done with Vinnie regarding the escaped psychopath Moxley had been career-defining; but her latest collaboration with the police had topped it. Well, according to the viewing figures. She knew as a TV journalist she should not overly worship the figures, but TV was a commercial business; no matter how fine one’s reporting was.
Her latest one being about the disgraced leader of the Northern Irish Assembly – which was now suspended – and his envious terrorist of a brother who longed for the good old, bad old days. She knew that a lot of her peers at North West TV were jealous of her professional relationship with Detective Inspector Vinnie Palmer; she expected that. What she hadn’t expected was to end up in a private relationship too. Though, it was early days.
Her reverie was broken when Vinnie re-took his seat and plonked two more drinks down on the table.
‘Still wallowing in your glory?’ he asked.
She smiled as she answered, ‘One has to wring out the successes for all they’re worth in this business.’
‘Trust me; it’s the same in the cops; as my old detective super used to say, “Success has many fathers, but failure is a bastard”,’ Vinnie said, and then added, ‘Thought any more about my offer?’
It had only been a few weeks since they had started seeing each other, in fact, they hadn’t got past the ‘opening scene’ yet, let alone it being a ‘wrap’. So when Vinnie had suggested a week in the sun it had thrown her a bit; it meant they would have to share a bed. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to; it was more that everything would move on very quickly after that. She wasn’t sure why that bothered her; she fancied the pants off him.
‘It sounds lovely,’ she eventually said, but could hear the wobble in her voice.
‘Look, I get it, it’s a big move up, going away together after only a few weeks, it’s just that with commitments, I either have a week away now or I don’t.’
Christine knew this.
‘So, if you want, I’ll crash on the settee; take away the embarrassment factor.’
Elephant in the room now visible, she thought.
But as soon as he had said that, she changed her mind – lady’s prerogative after all. ‘No, you will not; we’re both single, both know each other, let’s see what happens. I’d love to come, and I’m due some time off too,’ she said, with certainty now, though she was sure her cheeks had gone red.
‘Brilliant, I’ll book that one I showed you earlier, and my mate Jimmy will be over there, so we can meet up for a beer or two if you like?’
Vinnie had mentioned that an old undercover officer friend of his, now retired, worked the Spanish resorts on behalf of the local authorities spotting the ex-pats who were wanted in the UK.
‘Sounds like he has an interesting job,’ she said.
‘Landed on his feet; he gets a thousand euros for each undesirable removed back to the UK. So he can buy the drinks.’
‘Sounds great,’ Christine answered, just as her eye caught movement towards their table. She turned to see a waitress approach.
‘Glasses, no more drink?’ the woman said.
Christine smiled and gestured for her to collect their empties. The woman who was in her late twenties wearing a maid type of outfit, picked up several empties but dropped Christine’s used wine glass. It fell to the floor and broke; but fortunately it landed so just the stem snapped, leaving it in two pieces, rather than a thousand.
‘That’s OK,’ Christine volunteered, and glanced at the woman. But as she reached down to help pick up the glass, she saw the woman look back at the bar. She saw something else; sheer terror in the woman’s eyes. Christine picked up the two pieces and told the woman that it was only a glass and that there was no mess, but she wasn’t listening. She was still staring at the bar. Then she rushed over there with the other empties in her hands.
Christine watched her go and followed the direction of her initial gaze. A burly dark Mediterranean-skinned man was behind the bar and was staring evils at the woman as she approached. He barked something at her in a language Christine didn’t recognise, and as the woman neared the man she flinched. He hadn’t made any move towards her, but she had recoiled nonetheless. An instinctive thing. The woman then grabbed a dustpan and brush and hurried back over to their table.
She still looked frightened as she arrived, and Christine placed the two halves of the glass into the dustpan the woman was holding.
‘Thank you,’ the woman said, in what Christine guessed was a thick central European accent. She also noticed that the black-haired woman had a faint olive complexion; as if she was born in the sun, but hadn’t seen it in a long time.
The woman was about to head back towards the bar and the surly-looking barman, when she touched the woman on the arm. She stopped and looked at Christine, and still appeared scared.
‘Look, just tell your boss I dropped it and if he wants me to pay for the glass, I will.’
‘That is much kind of you, I will, thanking you again,’ the woman replied, before heading back to the bar.
Christine watched closely, and saw the woman speak to the barman who looked past her towards Christine. He smiled and mouthed, ‘No problem.’
Christine smiled and nodded in reply, and then started to turn back to face the TV screen on the far wall which was clearly holding Vinnie’s attention. But she stopped and glanced back at the bar, just in time to see the barman usher the woman through a rear door. He wasn’t smiling any more. Then she swore she heard a yelp. Not loud, not too dramatic, like a noise a puppy might make if you stood on its foot, but managed to stop yourself before you actually hurt it.
A minute later, the woman rushed through the door and continued collecting glasses. She had her head down, but Christine was sure one cheek was slightly redder, and less olive coloured, than the other.
She gave Vinnie a prod, and he turned to face her. ‘Did you see that?’
‘I know, City equalising in the ninety-third minute; brutal.’
‘Only kidding, don’t fret, you’re not going to be a soccer widow. What is it?’
Christine quickly told him, and Vinnie instinctively looked around, until Christine grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t look, if that brute behind the bar sees you looking, you may make it worse for the poor woman.’
Vinnie turned back to face her, ‘You should have been a cop.’
‘What did you make of the barman when he served you?’
‘Didn’t take a lot of notice, if I’m honest. Seemed pleasant enough, but he’s a big bloke. I bet he can dish it out.’
‘Hard to say, Serbian, perhaps, or somewhere central like that.’
Christine risked a glance at the woman, and saw her place some empties on the bar. She seemed less tense now, but more importantly, so did the barman, who paid her no attention.
‘Time to drink up, Vinnie, I don’t feel like drinking in here any more.’
‘No probs. What are you thinking, exactly?’
‘I’m not too sure, but sometimes I think we need to all wake up and take notice who is serving us these days.’
‘And who are behind it. That girl was terrified and I’m sure that brute struck her; over a wine glass for God’s sake.’
‘You want me to speak to her, see if she wants to make a complaint?’
‘You’d make it worse; I reckon.’
‘You absolutely sure he hit her?’
‘See, you too; blind to what’s possible, all around us.’
Vinnie threw his hands up submissively and said, ‘When I get back to the office, I’ll ring licensing at the council and see who is behind this place, if you like?’
‘Smoke and mirrors, no doubt?’
‘Probably, but I’ll try,’ Vinnie said, and then drained his glass.
They both threaded their way around the tables to the exit, and once outside, the afternoon sun seemed brighter than when they had gone in. Such was the way with dinner-time drinking, though they’d only had two.
‘You sure you can get time off at such short notice?’ Vinnie asked, as they strolled, arm in arm towards Deansgate – the busy thoroughfare of shops, hotels and bars, which ran through the city centre.
‘No problems. June, my editor owes me large, and it’s only for a week.’
‘No outstanding work issues?’ Vinnie asked.
‘No, but as soon as we are back, I’m going to have a closer look at our service industry; and in particular, those running it. The hirers and firers.’
‘Sounds like a great cause, and good TV,’ Vinnie said.
‘Sod the good TV, I’m just beginning to wonder whether there is something very rotten right under our noses, but we just don’t see it,’ Christine said, as she came to a halt near the busy junction with Deansgate. Vinnie turned to face her and she could see that he was considering what she’d just said.
‘You know, only the other day, I passed a hand carwash with a special offer on. It was advertising a hand wash and leather dry for three quid. I just thought, “Bargain” but didn’t stop,’ she said.
‘I mean, how the hell can that place pay its workers the minimum wage and still make a profit?’
‘Must admit, you see those places everywhere nowadays,’ Vinnie said.
‘Now I think about it, there must have been at least half a dozen guys doing the work there too,’ she added.
‘Some people will think that they’re just illegal immigrants who can’t moan at being paid a pittance,’ Vinnie said.
‘I hope you’re not one of them?’
‘Of course not. But if I’m honest, it’s not really occurred to me before.’
‘Me neither, before I get too far up on my high horse.’
Vinnie smiled, and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got a holiday to book.’
‘But what if it’s far worse than that; far worse?’ Christine said.
‘Like you suggest, it’s well worth a look into on our return from Majorca,’ Vinnie said.
Christine smiled and set off walking again, it would wait a week or so; nothing too drastic would happen in that time, but her journalistic interest was piqued.
Vinnie booked the holiday as soon as he got back home and also made a couple of work calls; one of which was to the council. He rang a number they gave him and then called Christine. He quickly told her that he had booked the holiday, and that he’d also spoken to licensing at the council.
‘What did they say?’ she asked.
‘The bar is owned by a local consortium that has several bars and grills in the city. The licensee himself is an upstanding local businessman.’
‘Upstanding, you say?’
‘I think he is, actually,’ Vinnie said, and then went on to explain what the guy had told him. That a couple of weeks ago, a man – who was obviously the barman – came into the pub offering a service which supplied staff at short-notice to cover emergency situations. That he’d paid little heed until this morning when all three of his scheduled staff went sick at the same time. He’d tried to pull in off-duty staff, but when that failed he gave the guy a call.
‘So, Mr Brute-the-barman comes to the rescue,’ Christine says.
‘About the size of it. The barman turns up with the glass collector and he paid him in cash – as demanded – and left them to it.’
‘Very trusting,’ she said.
‘I know, I mentioned that, but the licensee only wanted cover for the lunchtime period, he arrived back soon after we left.’
‘Did he give you their names and the phone number?’ she asked.
‘He never asked their names, and it gets worse. As soon as they left, a couple of regulars approached him with complaints about the barman, so he rang him on the number he’d used only to discover that it’s no longer in use.’
‘That’s what I thought; then he checked his stock and he’s sure some bottles of vodka are missing.’
‘What about the till?’
‘He’s doing that now; I’ve advised him to ring the local police as soon as he’s finished checking.’
‘So, they were both scammers?’ Christine said.
‘Well, the man was; that was something else the licensee noticed.’
‘He was of the opinion that the glass-collector was under the barman’s duress. Nothing obvious, just a gut feeling.’
‘I knew it,’ Christine said.
‘Looks like you were right.’
‘I’m on it as soon as we get back. I reckon this is only an example of something far more entrenched.’
‘I really hope you’re wrong on this one, but I think you’re right to take a look.’
‘On a lighter note, June’s confirmed my leave, so I’d better start to get organised; we’ve only got three days before we’re off.’
‘Well, at least we can both leave our troubles, and work, behind us for a week,’ Vinnie said.
‘I can’t wait,’ Christine replied. And this time he really believed her.
What could possibly happen, or go wrong for Vinnie and Christine on the sun-kissed isle of Majorca?
Hidden, the third novel in my ‘Badge and the pen’ series, starts as Vinnie and Christine commence their holiday. Find out more as they become involved in the subterranean world where people-traffickers and those who prosper from enforced servitude frequent.
Find out more about Roger A Price here and get a link to Hidden and his other novels.