Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 11

I walked down Mount Pleasant towards the city centre. On the opposite side of the road what had once been a Victorian poorhouse was now part of the John Moore's University. The red brick structure had been recently cleaned and re-pointed and a corporate logo had been placed over every entrance way. The sandstone lintels beneath the Victorian Gothic window frames were newly painted a pale contrasting cream, as were the bars on the ground floor windows. Each time I saw them, I wondered if they were an original feature of the poorhouse or a later addition designed to keep people out rather than in.

Mount Pleasant had always been one of my favourite streets in the city. When I first came here as an adolescent, one side of the street had been populated almost entirely by cheap boarding houses with names redolent of the city's seafaring culture. Named after ports or places across water dear to their owners, from Antrim to Recifé, from Dublin to Valparaiso. As a kid when I came across these names in the atlas, they reminded me of the familiar rather than the foreign. Their clientele was more varied but less redolent of the romance of the sea. Walking along Mount Pleasant when those lads berthed after closing time could be as adventurous as anything encountered on the high seas. Walking the plank meant fewer bruises.

There were a few still of the old ones left, but merchant seamen no longer formed their clientele. It was football supporters over from Scandinavia or Ireland for a Liverpool game or backpackers doing a Beatles pilgrimage who filled their berths these days. It was Ryanair not Cunards and the White Star line who transported trade to their door steps these days.

I crossed the road and walked along Rodney Street. A continuous terrace of houses originally built for Georgian merchants now housed orthodontists and architects. The beauty and dignity of so much of the city never failed to strike me. The terrace was broken up on the left by the derelict site of St Andrew's Church of Scotland, a reminder of another aspect of the city's inheritance. The Celts who kicked with the other foot. Its gardens and graveyard were overgrown and its roofless interior was filled with a jungle of overgrown shrubs and bushes. A large sign near a rusting, padlocked gate signified the Orange retreat. ' Sunday services are now held in the Cathedral at eleven o' clock.' Needless to say, whoever had posted it didn't mean Paddy's wigwam.

After pubs, Liverpool probably has more churches and abandoned churches than any other form of public structure. Turn any corner and chances are you'll find pub or a place of worship. In some parts of the city they amounted to much the same thing, particularly on a Sunday.

At the end of Rodney St I turned down Upper Duke St heading toward Chinatown. It was the long way to the office, but I had chosen this route so I wouldn't have to pass the spot where Tom died. I turned right at the junction of Duke Street and Berry Street and walked the few hundred yards past the Chinese restaurants, takeaways and supermarkets to the top of Seel Street.

The offices of Open Eye lay about half way down in a squat three story nineteenth century commercial building. Above the lintel the name of its original occupants had been built into the red brick in foot high Roman letters; Thos. Atkinson & Sons General Merchants 1876'. With the confidence of the Victorian bourgeoisie they had clearly expected their occupancy to last for the life of the building. They were wrong, but the conceit provided a lasting memorial. A fading sign and a rusting burglar alarm housing above the entrance ensured the present tenants that they were being vigilantly guarded. I stepped up to the main door.

Darkness had set in as I had walked down from the Irish Centre and the street lights had come on outside. The foyer I entered was poorly lit in the winter afternoon. The original brass gas mantles had been converted to electricity but did little to dispel the gloom of a winter twilight. It was as if the brown glazed bricks which ran up the walls absorbed their low wattage light. The air was still and warm, fragranced with the antiseptic smell of industrial cleaner.

There was neither sight nor sound of human habitation. The free-standing wooden cubicle to the left of the entrance which doubled as a reception desk was unoccupied. The security man had clearly opted for an early dart. I looked inside. A peaked cap bearing the same logo as that on the alarm outside stood on a small table next to an ashtray overflowing with dog-ends and a roughly folded tabloid newspaper. There was an old-fashioned black baekelite wall phone. The wall lights reflected in its chromium dial. A yellowing, hand-written list of current tenants was taped to the glass of the sliding window.

I turned from the cubicle. Directly in front of me a wide stone staircase ascended to the first floor. Its steps were made of some grey aggregate into which a band of one inch squares of black and white tiling had been inlaid. The banister was polished mahogany and the wrought iron rods supporting it had been painted a dirty eau-de-nil matching the upper part of the walls. It was like stepping into another century.

I put my hand on the varnished wood and climbed two flights. At the top a narrow corridor opened up at right angles to the stairwell. I turned right and almost immediately right again and stood facing the doorway of Open Eye. We shared the corridor with three other enterprises. The office facing us at the back of the building was occupied by a Jewish furriers. The currently fashionable unpopularity of their trade had led to a change of door-sign I noticed. There was no longer anything to indicate what went on behind the office door. The two offices at the other side of the stairwell were tenanted by a Chinese import-export firm whose business was far more inscrutable than its owners and an escort and model agency of the dubious kind.

I had dated the latter's receptionist for a short while. She had dumped me when she realised I wasn't ready for a trip down to H. Samuels for the diamond solitaire. I remembered afterwards she had taken up with one of our clients. A rotund businessman in his late forties. I used to see him collecting her from the office some nights. He wore loud silk ties, too much expensive aftershave and drove a five year old Jaguar. All of which suggested that he was a better prospect in the diamond ring market than meself. I wondered if they were still together or if he'd traded her for a newer model..

I inserted my key into the lock midway up the outer door. In detective fiction, this is the point when I would to find the office ransacked or Tom's chair occupied by a lugubrious fat man smoking a cigar while a henchman lurked behind the door, blackjack ready to put out my lights. I stepped across the threshold.

In the light from the corridor I could see that the waiting room was empty, but at once I knew someone had been in there since Tom's death and prior to me. Two or three days' mail lay in an untidy heap where it had been pushed back by the door opening at sometime earlier. I had not done that. I bent and picked up a letter from the pile. It had come from Manchester and had been posted the previous day. Whoever Tom's caller had been, he or she had visited earlier today.

I stepped back up and examined the lock and frame of the door. I could see nothing which indicated a forced entry. The orange sodium glow of the street lights shone through the glass panel of the door into the inner office. The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle. I stood facing the inner door breathing quietly through my nose. The air was warm and still. I could hear the cycling of water through the antiquated central heating pipes and vague noises of traffic passing down Seel Street. Apart from those sounds, there was nothing else. I sniffed the air like an animal and caught a hint of something vaguely familiar but also out of place. It took the vestigial part of my brain some seconds to place it; lavender.

I relaxed as soon as I had identified the odour. I knew who Tom's visitor had been and it wasn't Joel Cairo or Caspar Gutman, only Elsie the cleaning lady. She would drop in once a week for a quick spin round with dyson and duster. The lavender smell was the scent of the polish she used. I felt relieved that I wasn't going to be called on to play Sam Spade, or worse still, Miles Archer. I'd left my gat at home anyway.

I turned on the waiting room light and unlocked the inner door. The smell of lavender was stronger in here, almost sickly in a sweet cloying way. There were more wooden surfaces than in the other room and Elsie had been liberal with the aerosol. I groped for the light switch to the left of the door frame. A fluorescent tube hummed into life and illuminated a room about twenty feet square.

The office was furnished functionally. Both desks were made of mahogany-veneered chipboard bolted together around a steel frame and stood on a floor carpeted with neutral grey tiles. There were no pictures or prints on the walls. A calendar was pinned to the wall behind my old desk. Its pages had not been turned since my departure. The only concession to anti-minimalism was a brightly coloured hand-woven carpet in the centre of the floor. It was a souvenir of one of Tom's Cretan holidays.

His desk faced me. It stood in front of the large window and at right angles to my own. His presence lingered in the room as if he had marked it with a pheromone. Through the window I could see the unlit neon sign of a jazz club across the street. To the left, the wall was lined with four-drawer filing cabinets the colour of gunmetal. Each drawer was labelled with a pink cardboard slip. Immediately to the right of the door against the dividing wall there was a plain office table on which stood a computer, a printer and half a dozen diskette boxes. Had it not been for the ministrations of Elsie, I mused, the machine would have been shrouded in dust. Tom had hated it and refused even to go near it. I picked up the nearest diskette box. It was locked.

I walked behind Tom's desk and tried the drawer where he kept his notebooks. Like the disk box, it too was locked. Even without his key it was easy enough to open. I inserted the narrow auger of my Swiss Army knife into the lock pushed hard and twisted slowly. I felt the tumblers give, withdrew the blade and pulled the drawer carefully out. The drawer looked like it was full of giant liquorice allsorts. Small, black policeman's pocket notebooks were stacked neatly in four rows on their side, each about half an inch thick.

Tom averaged about a dozen per year. Had he lived another year, he would have needed a new drawer. I knew exactly how far they went back. The very first one dealt with the events of October 1984. What I needed to know was when they stopped. I picked up the notebook at the end of the shortest row and opened it with a flick of my wrist. The first began in September 1998. It recorded a telephone interview with a client who wanted surveillance carried out on his factory in a trading estate in Warrington.

I flicked through the pages speed-reading Tom's crabbed personal shorthand. I saw names I recognised from cases I had worked on and the odd abbreviations he used when he was hurried. The last entry was dated at the start of the second week in October. His notes on that day referred to the same job as the first page. He had identified the source of his client's losses and reported the names of those involved for the client to take action.

Either business had dropped off rapidly since October or one or more notebooks were missing from the drawer in addition to the one which should have been with his personal effects. I checked back up the row, just in case they had been replaced out of sequence. They hadn't. Each notebook followed on in perfect chronology from its predecessor.

I knew the other drawers would contain nothing of interest. Neither would the contents of the filing cabinets help much. Case files were held alphabetically not chronologically. I would have to search almost every one to establish if anything was missing and even then I wouldn't be sure if whole folders had been removed. It might have to be done, but it wasn't a task I fancied overmuch.

Then I remembered the computer. Open Eye billed by the hour and invoiced by the month. At the end of each week unpaid fees and expenses were entered into a customer file which formed the basis of the monthly invoice. Copies of all the invoices were held on the floppy disks which lay in boxes on the table behind me. Each disc held one quarter's invoices. I could check the invoices and go from there back to the hard copy in the filing cabinets to find out what Tom was working on at the time he was killed.

I crossed to the table and turned the machine on. The hard disc ground into life with a dull whine, the screen flickered blue and then grey as the software booted up. I ran my finger along the top of the boxes following its course with my eyes until I came to the one labelled 'invoices'. It was locked. I used the knife to open it and scanned through the labels on the diskettes.

Our business year had run from April to April. I looked for the disk labelled October-December, the quarter in which I was interested. I noticed that the handwriting on their labels was not Tom's. He must have brought someone in to handle the office administration in my absence.

When I had set the system up I had been very careful to make sure that it was foolproof. Tom had put up so much resistance to the idea of using a computer that I wanted nothing to give him the excuse to say I told you so. There were two back-up systems; a manual one to floppy disk and an automatic one to a sub-directory on the hard disk. I had used the machine for correspondence and reports but its main purpose was for customer accounts and records. It had only partly superseded the Remington manual on which Tom hammered out his letters and reports. The typewriter stood under a dust-cover on its own small table to the left of his desk.

Using the mouse I started our accounts software and double-clicked on the directory command and scanned down the list of files which appeared a second later. They were held in alphabetical order. Another click of the mouse and the directory re-appeared in chronological sequence. There were no transactions recorded later than the third week of October that year.

I reached over, took a disk from the front of the box marked 'back-ups' and inserted it in the drive. Its files covered an even earlier period. I changed directories and scanned those held in the computer's memory. The result was the same. None of the files in memory had been created or modified after October. Only two possibilities presented themselves to me. Either Tom had all but retired two months earlier or the computer had not been used in that time.

Leaving the computer I walked back across the room to Tom's desk and leaned against its front. I pulled on the nail of my left hand little finger and wished I had my tobacco with me. I walked absently from the desk to the filing cabinets lining the wall and pulled open the top drawer of the nearest cabinet. It was locked. I took the key ring from my pocket inserted a small steel key and turned. The drawer slid open noiselessly.

I ran my index finger along the green metal-braced hanging folders. They reminded me of an accordion bellows. I stopped at a client's name which was unfamiliar to me and pushed the folder open. I suppose you could call it the luck of the Irish. Right at the front of the folder was an invoice dated December, two weeks ago. Moreover it had been prepared using the office computer. I hissed a yes through my teeth and almost punched the air.

I walked back to Tom's desk and seated myself in his revolving chair. I rotated it through one hundred and eighty degrees until I was facing the large window overlooking Seel Street. Traffic and pedestrians moved up and down the street at their different rhythms. I leaned forward, rested my elbows on my knees and cradled my chin and cheeks in my open hands. The neon sign outside the jazz club was still switched off.

I was now sure that the notebooks and disks had been taken and that files had been deleted from the computer. I didn't know why, I didn't know when, and I didn't know by whom. For some reason I was sure that they had been removed since Tom's death, but I couldn't say why. It seemed a fair assumption that someone had been at pains to ensure that the knowledge of whatever case Tom was working became a mystery that went with him to the grave. A further search of the filing cabinet would be useless. Whoever had gone to so much trouble to make the notebooks and the computer files disappear would not have overlooked any hard copies.

Then the light bulb went on in my head. What people usually didn't realise about computers was that when you deleted a file, it wasn't actually physically removed. It stayed where it was until it was overwritten at a later date. The third component of my foolproof system had been the purchase of a utility programme that included file recovery. My paranoia and Tom's obdurate technophobia had had some value after all. Gambling on the hope that no-one had written anything to memory since the back-up files had been deleted. I went back to the computer and ran the programme.

The screen dissolved from grey to a bright royal blue and a menu of options appeared. I clicked on undelete. A series of prompts guided me through the process of recovery. In a few minutes I had a restored every file deleted since the second week of October. There were over fifty. The puzzle-solver in me was now sucking diesel. I switched on the printer and paced back and forth across the Cretan carpet impatiently as the machine clunked out a list of the deleted files.

Once the list had printed, finding the missing information was plain sailing. Working alphabetically, I crossed checked the customer names on the list with folders in the filing cabinets. I had reached the Ms before I failed to find a matching folder in the cabinets. I marked the name 'P McGann' with a pen taken from the desk and continued to work down the list. There were no other folders missing.

I returned to the computer and opened the McGann file. The client was a Mrs P McGann with an address in Liverpool 1 just around the corner from where I now sat. The Panopticon Gallery. I didn't know it, but I smiled at the thought of old Tom immersed in the Liverpool art scene. I scribbled the address on the list of deleted files.

The information on the invoices was sparse but sufficient to tell me what kind of job it had been and when it had started. Mrs McGann had employed Tom to undertake some kind of surveillance work based in Liverpool in the middle of November. That was about all. Any other information would have to come from the client herself. I noted down her telephone number and glanced at my watch. It was nearly five o'clock. I decided to chance a phone call. I walked to the desk and dialled the number.

The phone at the other end rang four times. As soon as it stopped, there was the echoing rumble of an answering machine on the line and a woman's voice told me there was no one to take my call. I replaced the receiver before the beep. The words were spoken in a clipped received pronunciation English. The accent of a class not a place and it brought out the recalcitrant Paddy in me. If that was her voice, I didn't think I was going to like Mrs McGann.