Saturday 28 November 2009


The Misfortune Teller

It’s funny, the way black and white makes everything look like art.
Miller flipped through the prints for the hundredth time. It was always the same, the more you looked, the less they meant. At first they were shocking, but it never took that long to get used to them. After a while, it would even get boring. He reached the end of another cycle. The glass coffee table was already coated with numerous other pieces of meaningless paper. He dropped the sheaf of photographs on it, holding on to the last one, the one of the brunette.
This one really did have an aesthetic quality beyond the curious artistic effect imparted by black and white photography. The brunette had her head tilted to her right, showing the camera her profile. Her skin was flawless, an almost incandescent white. Her lips were partially open, as though breathing a sigh, or whispering gentle instruction to a lover. Her visible eye was half-closed; giving the impression that she was drowsy, or concentrating intently on a single sensation. She was wearing some kind of translucent fabric, a nightdress, most likely. Across the rise of her left breast, visible through the fabric, was a small black tattoo of an Egyptian symbol. She was quite beautiful.
Had it not been a snapshot of a corpse, it would have been quite at home in the fashion section of a glossy magazine.
Miller dropped this last one on the table with the rest. These black and whites weren’t the originals, of course. Photography at crime scenes was done in colour these days, particularly for the murders. Prosecutors liked it that way; wanted the jury to be able to see how red the blood was. Colour had certain measurable advantages, conveying as it did a more literal impression of the scene, but there were drawbacks. A lot of the time, all the garish wallpaper patterns and the reds and the flesh tones deafen the senses, to the point where it’s easy to miss the important details. That was why Miller always had the shots converted to monochrome.
Miller rubbed his eyes and contemplated the way things never really change. He wasn’t even on the force any more. As with many professions these days, if you can do your job reasonably well, it pays better and generates less hassle to go private. He was looking over these particular snapshots as one more favour in his long-term repayment plan to Bendis. Miller had always been good with the photos; his gift functioned so much more smoothly with a visual aid to get the ball rolling. He always began like this: getting the shots in black and white, then staring at them until the sparks danced and the images were projected onto the backs of his eyelids when he closed them.
Lately it was proving harder than usual. It seemed like everything had been so much easier back in the days when he’d been able to rely on his more commonplace investigative abilities as well as the gift. Back then he really had been the best. But then Eleanor had left him and the booze had taken everything else that was worth a damn, and now he was just a has-been with a party trick. And now it looked like the party trick was on its way out too. All he was getting tonight was the image of a man riffing through a deck of cards more and more urgently. The face was in shadow. No names were coming. The only hint of a place was a glimpse of a high wall shrouded in dead ivy. Miller leaned back on the couch and rubbed his temples with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, listening to the light rain as it fell outside on Argyle Street. Maybe he needed a break. Perhaps he needed a…
Miller looked up and across his unkempt living room to the breakfast bar that demarcated the boundary of the small kitchen.
She was standing behind the bar, wearing a deep red blouse the colour of a fire engine. Strawberry blonde hair swept past her hazel eyes and framed her precise cheekbones before coming to a halt an inch and a half below her jaw. She was removing a bottle of Laphroag from a yellow Oddbins bag, two whisky glasses already on the bar. Miller shook his head amiably. “I’m on the wagon.”
She poured an Irish measure into each glass. “Wagon my arse,” she said, the oath at odds with her clipped west-end consonants. She took a sip of the nearest whisky and carried the other one over to him, putting it down on the coffee table, right on top of the brunette. Miller let it sit there and looked expectantly at her. She didn’t say anything. Finally, he relented. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here because I like it here. And because you like me being here.”
Miller laughed. “And what gives you that idea, Bethany?”
“You haven’t changed your locks yet, have you?”
True enough. Miller lifted the whisky off the dead brunette, put it down on one of the few clear spaces on the table, and sat back on the couch, folding his arms. “You know, your case was closed. We aren’t supposed to meet.”
“Yes,” Bethany said, leaning over the coffee table and craning her neck to see the photos. “I see you’ve moved on to new things. Pretty.”
“Pretty and dead.”
“Can’t have everything. What’s the story?”
“Robbery with murder on the side. Somebody probably met her and her boyfriend on a night out, came back for a drink, stabbed them both. Probably didn’t get anything more worthwhile than a low-spec DVD player, either.”
Bethany clucked her tongue. “No way to treat one’s host, is it?” She picked up one of the other photos: a shot of another glass coffee table, the victim’s. Rorschach patterns of shiny black blood sprayed over crumpled cigarette packs and strewn CD cases. “Left a hell of a mess, too.”
“Yes he did.” Miller glanced at that shot again, and this time something caught his eye. He took the photo out of Bethany’s hand.
“See something you like?” She looked at him over the rim of her glass with eyes that were the colour of varnished rosewood. He held them for a second and looked away. Still a sucker. It was time to break up the party.
“Not likely. As it happens, I was just about to chase up a lead.”
“Good for you.”
“Yeah,” he said, getting up. “So if you’ll excuse me, I have to be going.”
“You’re excused.” Bethany sat down on the couch and picked up Miller’s drink. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
Miller knew she would.

A little while later, Miller ascended the stairs from the subway at West Street. The earlier light rain had gained weight, and the few pedestrians bold or guilty enough to be out for an evening stroll this side of the river hugged the buildings, taking meagre shelter where they could. The warehouse at the bottom end of the street had been torn down recently, revealing an unobstructed view across the Clyde to the new casino, casting its flickering neon shadows into the black water.
A century ago, the Clyde had been the main artery of the city. Ships from all over the globe traversed it, carrying tea from India and spices from the Orient, boosting Glasgow’s status to second city of the British Empire. Here, today, the river was more of a dividing line, separating two eras. The bustling commerce of the early 21st century represented by casinos and plush IT offices on the north bank contrasted with the dilapidated warehouses and piers on the south, decaying memorials to the city’s shipbuilding and manufacturing past.
Sometimes, Miller had an idea that if he could just find the right spot at the right time, he could read the Clyde like a lifeline and divine the city’s fate. But this was neither the right spot nor the right time, and in any case, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
It was a two minute walk to Singer’s, but Miller was soaked by the time he arrived. Running a hand through his hair to shake out the excess water, he descended the cracked stone steps and opened the door, onto which was taped a sign saying ‘No Football Colours’ in no-nonsense black marker.
Singer’s was a shithole. The kind of dive no one in his right mind would enter. A guy had to have developed an almost religious devotion to alcoholism to put up with the bargain basement spirits, the smell of vomit, and the selection of eighties cheese on the jukebox. The place was almost deserted. Business as usual for a Monday night, or any night for that matter. It was a mystery to Miller how the place managed to stay open, although he suspected it probably wouldn’t remain a mystery long if he was to investigate the owner’s sidelines. The barman looked up from the back page of the Record as Miller walked in.
“All right, Jack! Long time no see… where you been?”
“I lost my faith, Freddy.”
“I need to ask you about something.”
“Anything for a former customer,” Freddy broke into a grin. “Pint of heavy?”
Miller shook his head “No thanks. You remember the fella with the red leather jacket used to drink in here? The one with those porno playing cards?”
“Flip? Aye, he still comes in a couple times a week… why? You looking to complete a four for bridge or something?” Freddy chuckled.
Miller rolled his eyes inwardly and forced a smile on the outside “Got it in one. Where can I find him?”
Freddy shrugged noncommittally and turned to the only other customer sitting at the bar, a small, hollow-eyed man wearing a navy blue t shirt that exposed forearms like skin and bone pincushions. The man looked like he’d ducked in here for one last drink on his journey from the drug shelter to the grave.
“You see this guy?” Freddy said to the man, putting a hand on Miller’s shoulder and drawing him closer, like they were posing for a photo. “He’s got a talent. He can tell you about people if you give him a picture or something that belongs to them.”
“Yeah?” said the man, before launching into a fit of coughing at the exertion of having to speak. When he recovered, he grinned at Miller, revealing a mouth like a graveyard in disrepair. “Can you tell me next Saturday’s lottery numbers?”
“Never heard that one before,” said Miller, as he picked Freddy’s hand off his shoulder. “But I’m afraid I cannot. I can only see bad things.” Miller looked the junkie in the eye until he shivered and turned back to his drink.
Freddie cleared his throat. “That’s right. What was it they called you again?”
“Lots of things. Most of them unrepeatable.” Miller hated that nickname, the one Freddy was referring to.
Freddy smiled thinly and reached under the bar. He brought out a woman’s purse; black leather with a gold clasp. He gave the surface of the bar a wipe before placing it carefully in front of Miller. Miller sighed and picked the purse up, weighing it in his hand. It was much easier dealing with people who didn’t know him or didn’t believe in him, but at least this would be cheaper than a cash incentive. Miller closed his eyes and blocked out the sensory distractions of the bar. A full minute later, he opened them again. Freddy was staring at him intently, the corner of his bottom lip clenched between his teeth.
“Carole,” Miller said, waiting for the name to prompt the always-verbose barman. It didn’t. “Who is she to you?”
Freddy looked down at the bar. “Just someone…”
Miller popped the clasp and had a look at the contents: a couple of credit cards and a driving licence, all bearing the name Carole Waters; some loose change; a photo of two smiling children, a boy and a girl. He closed his eyes again. When he opened them, he saw the junkie had moved to a table at the far end of the bar, but Freddy was still there.
“Did you see anything?” Freddy asked.
Miller shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Does that mean…”
“It means I don’t know where she is, but I know nothing’s happened to her.”
Freddy released a sigh that sounded like it had been confined in his chest for a month. He took the purse back and placed it back under the bar. When his hands reappeared, they were holding a notepad and pen. He scribbled down an address. “Flip’s place. Of course, you didn’t get this from me.”

The flat was located in a minor street off Govan Road, around twenty minutes walk from the pub. The rain showed no signs of abating. Miller stopped at the door to the close and ran his finger down the nametags next to the buzzers. Phillip Rodden: 3C was the tag he was looking for. He let his index finger hover over the buzzer for a moment before changing his mind. He walked around to the alley at the side of the tenement block. A rusted steel fire escape snaked up the sandstone wall like dirty brown ivy.
Miller scaled the dripping, creaking stairway until he reached the third floor. The C flats were all at this side of the building; their windows accessed the fire escape. The window for 3C was open a couple of inches for air. Despite the deluge, the city was unseasonably warm tonight.
Miller pulled the window up the rest of the way and stepped into the living room. It was even more deserted than Singer’s had been, but the TV was on. A graveyard-slot sitcom spewed its canned laughter out at an unoccupied threadbare couch. On the couch lay several items: a woman’s handbag, a leather wallet, a decent-looking watch, a comb in need of dental treatment. Miller was betting that only one of these items rightfully belonged to the flat’s occupant. He scanned the rest of the room, eyes alighting on a novelty telephone moulded to look like a bowling ball. He put in a call to Bendis, giving him the address and telling him to be here in ten minutes.
Miller heard a toilet flush behind a door and moved silently to the blind side. The door opened and a skinny, balding man wearing a tattered black t shirt and boxer shorts stepped out.
“Flip, how’s your girlfriend?”
Flip spun around, his mouth open to say something. Miller broke his nose and put him on the ground. Miller pulled out his ID and dangled it over him. Flip eyeballed it, then shifted his gaze to take in the purse, wallet and watch on the couch. His next furtive glance was in the direction of a charity shop chest of drawers in the corner. He looked from there to Miller’s bulky frame. His shoulders tensed, then relaxed in submission. Miller smiled and replaced the licence in the pocket of his coat. “You want to know what it was?”
Flip looked around, resignation breaking out on his face like a skin condition. He shrugged.
“That deck of cards you used to flash around in Singer’s. You know, the one you had custom made with your ex-girlfriend on them. Snapshots of her in all kinds of athletic poses. Know where those are by any chance?”
Flip leaned back against the wall. Drained and ready for the cuffs. “Naw, man.”
“Well, I can’t account for the other fifty one. But the queen of hearts is currently lying on a coffee table on the other side of town, covered with blood. Combine that with the fact you’re in possession of stolen goods from the crime scene…” Miller pointedly looked at the chest of drawers in the corner “…and I’m assuming you are in fact thick enough to be keeping the murder weapon here…” Miller shook his head sadly “Doesn’t look good, does it Flip?”
Flip looked up from the floor and shook his head. Miller walked over to the couch, picked up the comb and tossed it in his direction. “They’ll be here in a minute. Better pretty-up for the mug shot.”

Back in his flat above Argyle Street, Miller was towelling off his wet hair.
“Playing cards, huh?” Bethany said.
“Playing cards.”
“Good to see you still have the gift, Jack.” She smiled.
Miller sat down on the couch beside her. “Actually, I ought to thank you for that. I didn’t need the party trick this time. I just needed someone to make me see what was right in front of my nose.” He turned his head to face her, gazing into the hazel eyes, and returned the smile. A real one this time. Bethany leaned in and kissed him softly on the lips. The kiss felt good. As good as it felt to be a real detective again for a night. As good as it felt to use his more prosaic gifts again.
“I have to go now,” she said.
He sighed “I know.”
Miller lay back and closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was gone. He got up and collected the crime scene photographs into a bundle, tapping it square on the glass coffee table. He walked over to his desk and pulled a folder out of the file drawer. He put the most recent black and whites in at the top, and then flicked back through the folder, pulling out the section dated 1997.
He ran a delicate finger over the first photograph. This one was monochrome too, of course, but he knew the girl in the picture was wearing a deep red blouse the colour of a fire engine.
Bethany looked good in black and white. Better than most.

Gavin was born in Glasgow in 1979. He has worked as a petrol station attendant, taxman, salesman, research manager and pizza boy. His story ‘A Living’ was shortlisted for the 2007 Get Britain Reading prize, and published in the Sun Book of Short Stories, and his other stories have been published in Scribble magazine and First Edition.He currently lives in Hamilton with a wife, a daughter and a growing pack of bunnies, and is at work on his first novel, a thriller entitled Halfway to Hell.


  1. Hi Gavin,
    Great title and particularly liked the sense of place you created.
    I feel another seris character here!

  2. For the record: I can spell 'series'.

  3. Fantastic title!

    This was a great read, perfect noir. I could imagine this on TV.

  4. Good stuff. John Constantine eat your heart out!

  5. Forgot to mention...I think the title is awesome as well. Would make a brilliant title for a novel.

  6. Thanks, guys! The title actually came to me pretty late, can't remember what it was originally called... Matt, if I ever get a chance to write Hellblazer, I thought this guy would make an interesting antagonist for John C!

  7. A great piece of writing, Gavin. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Will be catching up on your previous stories asap.
    Best wishes, David.