A short story
Another flake. These Tinder girls are impossible. That’s three out of three now. We said twelve o’clock. I was here at half eleven and it’s now half twelve. I haven’t messaged her yet because that would be a bit desperate but I’m not holding out any hope. At least the first flake told me about it. Granted, it was about fifteen minutes before I got there but it’s the thought that counts. The second one stood me up and then unmatched me. No explanation. I didn’t even get her number, we set it all up on the app, so I had no way of following up. Not that I would have.
I scratch my neck. It keeps itching. Maybe it’s better that she flaked. What if the rash has spread up to my neck now? A lot of these Tinder things are set up with one goal in mind, aren’t they? What if we were getting freaky and then she notices it. That would be a great way to spoil the mood. Like that one time in my early twenties when I threw my back out during sex. Not even doing any Kama Sutra contortions, just classic Leon Carpenter lovemaking. Suddenly a jolt goes through my entire lower back, like an electric shock, and I fall to the floor in agony. My then girlfriend probably thinking wow, this guy has the strangest climax I’ve ever encountered. I was able to stand up after an hour or so. Healing took a few weeks but I made it up to her in the end. I’m nice like that.
It’s hardly too much to ask for a grown woman who has been living on this confusing planet for twenty-four full years to let a fellow adult know that they are not going to make it. I’m in a bloody coffee shop as well, it’s not like we set up an anonymous hook-up. If I’m not as dashing in real life as I look on my pictures and through my witty messages, then say so and we’ll be done with it. You’re not into it anymore, I get it. But don’t think my time is worth less than yours. People are weird. You’re probably weird.
I decide to order another coffee. I have no hopes of her showing up and I have already made my mind up about getting rid of Tinder altogether. Meeting people in real life is the way to go. Have to focus on the positive aspects of myself. That I’m still relatively young, relatively good-looking, working as a private investigator and I lived in London for a few years. Those are all positive and even interesting things.
I’ll leave out the part where I was a bartender for half a decade and how I’ll be a bartender again very soon if my private investigation enterprise has another month like the last one. I won’t mention the fact that I have nearly ten grand in credit card debt and that I don’t have a driver’s licence. I won’t inform them of that weird little rash on my back that’s been bugging me for a few weeks now. I will also hold back on the information that I rent a double room as a lodger in a family home because I’m not able to afford my own flat. That’s Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI, for you. Always focusing on the good things in life.
After finishing the coffee, I walk back to the house. By house, I mean room. The room that also doubles as my office. My office consisting of a tiny desk upon which sits another mobile that I only use for business calls. I really had high hopes for this private investigation business. Suppose I should have realised how much harder it would be to trace people and offer surveillance services on a pushbike. Not exactly inconspicuous. Especially on the motorway.
I’ll just get into more debt if I get a driver’s licence and a car now, so I can’t justify it. More accumulated interest, more headaches, more of that dark loop closing in on me whispering sweet nothings like “You will never be able to pay off your debt” and “They all know you’re a fraud” and “It’s not her, it’s you” and “Nice helmet, dickhead”.
It was the only hands-on career that I could think of that I would be interested in doing. I was a good bartender but at the end of the day, I was a bloody bartender. Drunk on the job every single day for the last six months of that gruelling five-year stretch. No wonder I messed my back up, lifting crates and standing up for twelve hours at a time. Then I finally got my act together, harnessed that entrepreneurial energy and branched out on my own. Working for myself. Sure it’ll work out. I’ll set up on credit in the beginning and then pay it all back once the firm gets going. But it’s been completely dead. I put the ads up online, I took out the advertising space in the Echo, I did the whole thing. A tiny amount of requests for surveillance, some background check requests that I can’t do because I can’t afford the database access and one request to find a missing dog. That last one I actually solved and found the dog. It was dead on the side of the road but the family let me keep my fee.
If I could stomach London, I would have moved back there to set up shop. I guarantee that there are plenty of cases there and getting around on a pushbike wouldn’t be as weird. But alas, I’m in sunny Dorset where very few bad things happen and my limited services are not really needed.
Instead of the classic dim office filled with smoke, I’m sitting at the tiny desk in the room I’m renting. Instead of the striking looking blond secretary wearing pearls who has a secret crush on me, I have the landlady saying she might put the rent up next month. Instead of a leggy dame stepping into the frame asking for a light, I have three Tinder chicks abandoning me in public. Instead of the wise guy in a fedora giving me a clue about the missing girl’s whereabouts, I have the Indian shopkeeper staring at me suspiciously as I’m deciding which protein bar to buy. Things have not gone according to plan for Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI.
Sitting there at my tiny desk in the little room I rent with my feet up to feel like the boss of at least my micro-empire if nothing else, I notice the white little flicker on my work mobile. I have a new message or a missed call. Shocked, I grab it and key in my code that’s the same as it is for my private phone, which is pretty stupid now that I think about it. Not one, not two but three missed calls from a London number I don’t recognise. Immediately suspicious of this being some guy calling himself Travis with a weird accent telling me I’ve been involved in an accident, I search for the number online but it doesn’t come up with anything. The plot thickens.
The thing I do like about my lodgings is that I have my own bathroom and shower. I couldn’t bear sharing that with a randomer. It’s embarrassing enough to share everything else when I’m a few years away from thirty. I go into said bathroom, take my shirt off and turn my back towards the mirror. The rash is strange. It was just a red patch before. Now it seems to have taken on a yellowish tint with the shape of it remaining the same. Not yellow as in filled with pus, more like a brighter sunshine yellow on the skin, with a few black bits surrounding it. I should probably see the GP.
First things first. I call the number back. A woman picks up on the third ring saying a sultry hello. Feeling legitimate for the first time in who knows how long, I say: “This is Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI. I had three missed calls from you.”
“Thank you for getting back to me,” she says.
“Sorry I missed your call, I was on a Tinder date but I forgot my other phone back at the room. I mean the office,” I say.
“Oh. I see,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“How did it go?” she asks.
“She didn’t turn up,” I say.
“What a bitch,” she says.
“I know, right?”
“Didn’t even tell you beforehand?”
“Nope, left me sitting there with a cup of coffee in one hand and my dick in the other,” I say.
“Unbelievable. Grown adults acting like that,” she says.
“That’s exactly what I said!”
“That’s tough, Mister Carpenter. I hope you’re okay.”
“I’m fine, thanks. So what’s this call about?” I ask.
“I want to hire you to find my sister. She has gone missing,” she says.
“I notice you’re on a London number,” I say.
“She goes to uni in Bournemouth,” she says.
“The plot thickens,” I say.
“How’s that?” she asks.
“How’s what?” I ask.
“How did the plot thicken? I gave you an extra piece of information, so surely the plot thins?” she asks.
“You have me there. You can have me anywhere,” I say.
“What?” she asks.
“Sorry, wrong film. When’s the last time you saw her?” I ask, reaching for a notepad and a pen.
“On her birthday, two days ago,” she says.
I write that down in my notepad, big enough to take up the entire page. Two days ago. I turn to the next one. Always have to take notes to make sure you cover every base. I turn back and circle the “two” just in case.
“How old did she turn?” I ask.
“Twenty,” she says.
“Actually, why are we doing this over the phone? Are you able to meet?”
“Yes, I’m staying at the Hilton in Bournemouth,” she says.
“Why don’t I meet you there in two hours?” I say.
“That will work fine. How will I know you?” she asks.
“I’m really fucking pretty,” I say.
“I look forward to it, Mister Carpenter,” she says.
“See you there, Miss . . .”
And she hangs up. Interesting. A local mystery. I can navigate this thing on my pushbike easily. I was going to go to the beach today but I suppose that can wait. This is a potentially paying customer. Maybe I can make myself look more experienced than I am and get a grand out of her, enough to delay my return to barmanhood by another month or so.
I’m early again as per usual, drinking more coffee, excited and nervous. Perplexed about why she would pick me instead of going to an agency or someone established but here we are. I don’t think there’s a single woman in this restaurant right now, so when this small brunette stunner in an expensive looking black dress walks in, I clench my fists because I’m so wishing that that’s my client. She notices me from afar and makes a beeline towards the table. Jackpot. I stand up and offer my hand.
“Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI,” I say.
“Siobhan Hastings,” she says and grips my hand much tighter than I expected.
“Epic,” I say and sit back down.
I haven’t even blinked and there’s a waiter standing next to me, making me flinch and knock my half-full cup of coffee over with my elbow.
“Where the hell did you come from?” I demand.
“From the kitchen, sir,” he says.
“I’m watching you,” I say.
“I’ll get you another coffee, free of charge,” he says.
“Yeah, you will,” I say.
“Anything for the lady?” he asks.
“No, thank you,” she says.
“Go on, my treat,” I say.
“Really, I’m fine,” she says.
“Come on, I have to use these vouchers eventually,” I joke.
“Still no,” she insists.
“Nothing for the lady,” I tell the waiter and shoo him away.
I’m staring at this perfectly modelled beauty in front of me and not thinking of anything even remotely wholesome, romantic, relevant or profound.
“Why me?” I ask.
“You came highly recommended,” she says.
“Did I fuck,” I say.
“Yes. I saw a review on your website about how you found a family’s dog,” she says.
“You don’t want the outcome with your sister to be the same it was with that dog,” I say.
“All the same,” she says.
“Reckon we should keep it honest,” I say.
“Okay. I don’t want any kind of registering or paper trail, which is what I would get with an agency. I need someone unknown and low-key,” she says.
“And why is that?” I ask, noticing that there’s a hot cup of coffee in front of me. That slimy bugger.
“Rebecca is my younger sister and she disappeared on my watch. My family doesn’t know. I need her found before they start asking questions,” she says.
I ask her about the last time she saw Rebecca and she gives me an overview of the entire evening. It’s Monday now.
Siobhan got into town early on Friday morning and checked into the hotel. This hotel. She met Rebecca for lunch at this very restaurant. They went on a shopping spree in Bournemouth and then came back here to have dinner and a few drinks. They decided to go out.
Siobhan got in touch with an old flame of hers named Dylan Jennings who lives in town. Rebecca is currently not seeing anybody, so Siobhan asked Dylan if he had a friend he could introduce Rebecca to. Dylan said he did. Guy went by Nick, she doesn’t know his surname. Siobhan confirms that she has already checked Dylan’s social media profiles but not found anybody on his list of friends or followers named Nick.
The four of them first met at Yates for drinks and food. After I ask, Siobhan confirms that the girls did not actually have two dinners but the lads hadn’t eaten, so that’s why they went. Dylan and Nick filled up on pub grub and beers while the girls enjoyed a cheeky vino. Then it was onto Vodka Revs for cocktails and some dancing.
After midnight, having gotten proper sloshed, they made their way to Cameo. Got in fine, danced and drank some more. Nick had an altercation with somebody on the dance floor and was kicked out — the trio followed him. They took a taxi back to the Hilton. They all got back into the room and started getting frisky. Siobhan agrees with me when I point out that this is some kinky shit right there. Siobhan isn’t sure what time they all passed out but it would likely have been around five o’clock in the morning. Saturday morning.
When she opened her eyes at around three in the afternoon on the Saturday, everyone was gone. And what’s even stranger, the room had been done up while she’d been asleep. It was fresh, clean, immaculate, with absolutely no signs of anyone having been there the night before. She was naked under the covers, with her party clothes from the night before perfectly folded on the nightstand and, strangest of all, her makeup taken off.
There was a missed call from Rebecca that had come in at around nine in the morning, hours after she had passed out. She tried calling back but the phone was switched off. She called Dylan — also switched off. She did not have Nick’s number. She texted both of them and messaged them on Facebook to ask if everything was okay. She kept trying to call them throughout Saturday but the phones never switched on.
There was no reply to the texts or the Facebook messages. However, both of the initial Facebook messages had been read by the recipients mere minutes after they were sent. Siobhan sent follow-ups that have still not been read as of this Monday.
On Sunday, Siobhan turned up at Dylan’s house. At least she thought it was Dylan’s house until the new resident informed her that Dylan had moved out months ago and not left a forwarding address. Siobhan spent the rest of the Sunday wandering about town, aimlessly searching for them. Then she realised she had to inform somebody. Not wanting to alert the police and have her family find out, she looked through the local ads for a private investigator. Leon Carpenter’s name stood out. The endearingly clunky website sealed the deal. This guy is eager and low-key, she thought.
This guy is confused as hell about this story.
“I will pay you ten thousand pounds if you return her to me safely,” she says.
My jaw becomes loose from my skull and drops to the floor when I hear that number. It’s very heavy once it detaches, so it pops out of the skin quite easily and lands with a thump. I swiftly grab it, place it back into its socket and lock it up, swallowing, gulping, making sure I’m not slurring my words now.
Ten thousand pounds. Is this real life or is this just fantasy? For ten grand, I could pay off all of my debt and get to live a little longer as a Dorset PI instead of having to worry about lifting crates of Jack Daniel’s over my head and listening to people’s fantastic explanations about why their debit card didn’t work to pay for the shots.
“In cash,” she adds.
“Did you hear that?” I ask the waiter who is standing next to me again for some reason.
“Yeah,” he says and picks up my now empty cup of coffee.
“Ten thousand!” I say.
“I’d definitely take the job if I were you,” he says and leaves.
“The waiter’s right, Siobhan,” I say.
“You’ll take the case?” she asks.
“I will take the case,” I confirm.
I ask Siobhan to forward me the phone numbers and social media profiles of both Rebecca and Dylan. I also have her send me photos of everyone. They took plenty of pictures during the night out, which is handy. Rebecca is almost as beautiful as Siobhan, very similar looking, just taller. Dylan has dark curly hair, thick eyebrows and somewhat Mediterranean features. Nick is lighter featured, almost blond, with a prominent straight nose and a devious grin that contrasts oddly with his muscular build. I confirm the address of Rebecca’s student accommodation and tell Siobhan I will be in touch as soon as I discover something.
I make my way over to Mercury House student accommodation to see what the buzz is. Siobhan didn’t know Rebecca’s room number and wasn’t even sure that that’s where she lived anymore but she remembered helping her move in when she had first started uni. There’s a tired looking old lady with short grey hair at the reception. I make sure my back is straight, turn the charm up to one hundred and walk on over. I lean one elbow on the counter, smile, and look at her. She slowly looks up from her crossword puzzle.
“Sup,” I say.
She stares at me without a single expression on her face and no signs of turning her eyes away. I was always bad at these things as a kid. My eyes would immediately get weird and watery if the challenge was not to blink and I would laugh like a deranged lizard if the challenge was not to smile.
My smile slowly disappears, my eyes water up and sure enough, I start laughing. Her chunky pasty face is too much to handle right now. I have to put both arms on the counter and fully lean into them, in complete hysterics, trying to get over this woman’s stupid, stupid face.
“Oh god, you’re good!” I say.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Listen, I’m looking for a girl,” I say.
“Have you tried Tinder?” she asks.
“As a matter of fact, I have but it’s not what you think,” I say.
“Oh, I see. Have you tried Grindr?” she asks.
“Dickhead, I just said I’m looking for a girl.”
“Well, one of you ends up being the girl, right?”
“Christ alive, are you going to help me or not?” I ask.
“I don’t think I’m your type of girl,” she says.
“Motherf — “
“I also don’t want to get an STI. You look like you might have a few.”
Exasperated at this wet bag of clam chowder, I wave my arms around and see if there’s anybody nearby who speaks her damn language but I’m all alone, unable to get the words out, which inspires her to keep going.
“I know a lot about STIs. It’s really disturbing how many of you young people have them,” she says.
“I don’t have an STI!” I yell.
“Are you sure? Because if you’ve been experiencing a burning sensation while urinating, then it’s most likely gonorrhoea.”
"Buddha, give me strength," I say.
"Unusual lower stomach pain is probably chlamydia," she says.
"I haven't had sex in three months!" I scream.
"So? HIV has an incubation period of thirty days and symptoms may not appear for much longer than that," she says.
"Which room does Rebecca Hastings live in!?" I roar.
"Oh. Fifty-nine," she says.
"Thank you!" I scream.
"But—" she says.
"But what!?" I scream.
"She moved out a year ago," she says.
This is Ground Control to Uncle Tom. Things are going South. Delirious from my experience with dealing with this creature, I ask my final question: "Did she leave a forwarding address?" to which she answers: "No."
Suddenly dizzy and experiencing serious fever chills, I get a taxi back to the room, thinking I'll nap for a little while and continue with my investigation later in the evening. When I get through the door, the landlady says she needs to talk to me about something. I wave her away and make my way towards the room, already taking my clothes off, getting fully naked and crawling under the covers.
Sweating like a slag in church, I keep thinking about how my mind and body need to be connected to get me through this nightmarish onset of illness because I have very important work to do and a young girl is missing. I'm telling my mind to relax and work together with my immune system.
I tell both sides of myself that they need to be like a can of baked beans, the beans working smoothly in unison with the tomato sauce, becoming one inseparable unit that will be able to conquer all challenges. Not like those selfish red kidney beans in water, just sitting there as proud individuals, refusing to do any teamwork. Don't be like red kidney beans, I tell my mind and body. Then I pass out.
I come to and check my phone. Two hours have passed. Yet I feel much better. I go into the bathroom to wash my hands and face. I turn around to see how the rash is doing. The yellow has gotten more intense and there are more black bits around it. This must be connected to the fever somehow. I call the GP practice.
"The practice you are calling is now closed. Please call back between eight-fifteen and eight-seventeen on the third Thursday of the month to book an appointment."
I shower, put on a fresh set of clothes and throw the scattered pile I left behind into my snazzy laundry basket that has a picture of a fish on it. I take my notepad and head for Bournemouth town, on foot, deciding against the bike this time around.
My first stop is Yates. I go right on over to the bar, order a pint of Guinness and pull out my phone. I contemplate whether drinking Guinness while I’m ill is such a good idea as soon as I've downed the pint. I shrug and order another one, then ask the purple-haired barmaid whether she was working Friday afternoon and evening. She says that she was. I pull out the pictures of the fantastic foursome and show them to her.
"Yeah, I remember," she says.
"What do you remember?" I ask and slurp on more Guinness, making sure it covers my entire upper lip, purposefully not wiping it off, wanting the barmaid to point it out to me.
"Creepy blond man tipped me fifty for a hundred quid tab," she says.
"I take it that's unusual," I say and lick my luscious lips.
"Yes, a fifty per cent tip is unusual," she says with all of her teenage sass.
"What else do you remember?" I ask.
"Not much. They sat at the back and didn't stay that long. I think. Maybe the guy had a bit of an accent but I'm not sure."
"What kind of accent?" I ask, still licking.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"With your tongue. It's weird."
"Sorry," I say and wipe the Guinness remains off with my sleeve.
"Maybe Scottish. Really not sure, though."
"Nice one!" I say and hold my hand up for a high five. She leaves me hanging for a few seconds before rolling her eyes and submitting to my playful nature.
"Attagirl," I say.
"Okay," she says.
"Why was he creepy?" I ask.
"Just an intense way about him. One of those people that looks through you."
"I know just what you mean. Thanks, Jennifer."
"How did you kn—"
I'm already out of the door before she manages to finish her useless question. I'm at Vodka Revs within sixty seconds, kicking the door open and screaming: "Where the blonde women at?" at the top of my lungs. Everyone stares at me for some reason and I notice a burly bouncer making his way towards me. So this is how it all ends for Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI.
"Can I help you, buddy?" he asks, instead of just killing me.
"Damn, you're tall!" I say.
"My cousin's six foot six and I think you're taller," I say.
"I'm six foot seven."
"Epic," I say.
"So can I help you?" he asks.
"Yeah, I can't reach the top cupboard, so I figured, you know," I say.
"I'm about to throw you out,” he says.
"Okay, okay. Can you take a look at these pictures and tell me if you remember them from a few nights ago?" I say, pull my phone out and scroll through all the images Siobhan sent me.
"Vaguely familiar. Can't be sure. See too many people," he says.
"You were definitely working Friday night?" I confirm.
"I work here every night," he says.
"Words cannot express how depressing that is," I say.
"Yes," he says.
"I don't think it's too late for a basketball scholarship," I say.
"I hope not," he says.
"Hey or even volleyball. I've heard it recommended that athletic people try a bunch of different sports before committing to one. You never know what you might be good at," I say.
"Hey, Bill!" he yells over his shoulder to a guy in a cheap suit, presumably a manager.
"Yeah?" asks Bill.
"I quit," says the bouncer and we walk out together and shake hands before going our separate ways.
I have two more hours to kill until Cameo opens, so I text Siobhan to ask her if anyone's been in touch. Unfortunately not, she quickly responds. I scratch the weird thing on my back again, making a mental note to call the GP practice again at some point.
Touching it this time triggers something strange in my mind, however. A memory. An ex-girlfriend. A discussion we had. Perhaps when I was ill. Are illnesses connected like that? Is there some big bubbling ball of fever somewhere in outer space that connects to the previous times you've been suffering?
Not the ex-girlfriend who was into witchcraft but the one after that. The beautiful innocent one whose goodness I consumed while offering nothing back. That brief period in my life where I accepted that I'll probably be a bartender forever and blamed everyone else for my failures.
Didn't I tell myself I would come up with an idea for a children's book after she dumped my negative ass, so others could benefit by learning from my mistakes? Yes. I did. That's what I think about now, scratching that mysterious rash, standing in the middle of Bournemouth town, feeling stranger than I've ever felt in my entire life.
I wake up in my bed, sweating, feverish again. My second pillow has been ripped to pieces. I wipe my dripping face with the pillowcase and take a deep breath. Another stupid nightmare. Or was it?
Wait. Wait. Wait. Hang the fuck on.
I was standing in the middle of Bournemouth town, speaking to Siobhan when I remembered my children’s story. I closed my eyes. Then what? Now I’m here. Afraid of sounding like a complete nutcase if I call her to check, I try to focus really hard on the events of the past few hours.
As I’m trying to focus, I’m rubbing my temples. My eyes are closed for a while and the little massage is rather soothing. Until I open them and scream at the top of my lungs when I notice my arms. They’re yellow. Bright screaming yellow with dark coarse black hairs popping out. I always had hairy arms but this is on another level. The landlady rushes in without knocking.
“What was that screaming?” she screams, unaware of the irony.
“Look at my arms,” I manage to squeal.
She does and screams again, way louder than I did. We’re a merry band of screamers up in this bitch. Her yelling physically pierces my head. This must be what a migraine feels like. Like my ex-girlfriend used to have. Not the innocent one. The one who practised witchcraft.
I’m suddenly somewhere else. Floating in dark space with nothing but scattered stars around me. I still have my pillow. My pillow came with me on this trip. “Take my dick but don’t take my pillow!” as I used to yell at my parents when they insisted I had to go to school every morning when I was in my mid-teens.
Why these sudden visions and flashbacks of ex-girlfriends? Because I finally started dating again? Because the fevers are connected like I suspected? I’ve had many fevers before — why are these particular ones being shown to me now? I’m in pain and I want out.
Fuck Dorset, fuck Tinder and fuck Rebecca Hastings. May she rot in pieces wherever that Nick bastard left her after cutting her up. I solved your case, Siobhan. Keep your ten stinking grand. Just let me sleep. Please let me sleep.
I open my eyes and I’m standing outside Cameo, just where my investigation left off. What is happening to me? Have I been insane for a long time instead of eccentric like everybody always assumed I was?
Forget this stupid case and forget looking like a psycho. I call Siobhan again. She picks up the phone within a second, as if she was waiting for my call. I’m onto you. I’m onto all of you.
“Hey, Leon, I’ve just transferred the money!” she says happily.
“You what,” I say.
“Your fee. I was literally pressing the thing when you rang. Such a weird coincidence, isn’t it?”
“There are no such things as coincidences,” I say.
“I guess you’re right. Thanks again!” she says.
“Thanks for what?” I ask.
“For getting her back, silly. What do you think?”
“Don’t clown with me, bitch.”
“Leon? What’s wrong?” she asks.
“What isn’t?” I ask.
“Listen, you should come out with us tonight. You know, to celebrate her safe return!” she says, still keeping up the act.
“When and where?” I ask, fully intending to go. There’s a power drawing me to it. I need to see this through.
“I’ll text you the address. Bye for now!” she says and hangs up.
I stare at my phone waiting for the text to come through. It takes a few minutes. Saint Peter’s Road. That’s a residential street somewhere in Poole. Parkstone area. She was staying at the Hilton in Bournemouth. It doesn’t add up. Nothing adds up. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. I just want to sleep. But I can’t sleep until I get to the bottom of this.
Whoa. My arms.
I walk away from Cameo and go into the nearby park next to the church, using the little hidden staircase by the kebab shop. I take my jacket off. My arms are fine. Skin-coloured, with my own brown hairs covering them. Nothing yellow, nothing black. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about?
I use my app to book a taxi from the kebab shop and I wait outside calmly, breathing the fresh air, trying to focus my mind for a little bit longer. This is more than a fever, I’m sure of it. I’ve heard of delirium. This is not delirium. This is a conspiracy. And I’m going to get to the bottom of it.
I step out of the taxi, still feverish. What has changed is that I have a strange determination within me now that’s overriding the symptoms of whatever the hell it is that I’m suffering from. I take a deep breath. Let’s do this. Leon Carpenter. Dorset PI. Let’s solve the case.
This house is stupidly big. I get to the front door and ring the doorbell. Rebecca answers it. Even more striking in real life. Without saying a word, she hugs me. Not one of those lazy hugs you give your buddy’s wife when you arrive at a barbecue. A proper two-armed hug that’s sustained for a good ten seconds. Any other time, I’d have a perfect innuendo ready but I’m too busy dying to think of anything clever to say. She finishes the hug, takes a step back and smiles at me, the brightness of her teeth blinding me for a moment.
“My hero,” she purrs.
“My ass,” I say.
She leads me through the hallway into a lounge area that is roughly eight times the size of my double bedroom. Siobhan is sitting on a massive cream-coloured sofa with her legs crossed. The thought of a threesome with the sisters crosses my mind and I’m instantly healed, the fever gone, the shivers gone, the fear gone. Does it really even matter that I don’t remember how I got here? Think of having both of them like—
Nope, it’s all fucked. Before I can even finish the thought, I see Dylan Jennings and Nick Psychoface appear from the other room. A second lounge? Whatever. Nick is wearing a white apron. Neither of them say a word. They size me up, top to bottom, then look at each other and smile.
Oddly enough, I still feel decent. Physically bueno. Only curious about what the meaning of this weird—
Nope, it’s all fucked. My ex-girlfriend appears from the second lounge wearing some ridiculous little red cocktail dress, her lips matching the colour, her eyes as crazy as ever. This is the ex-girlfriend that liked witchcraft, not the innocent one that I was planning the children’s book for.
My knees are shaking. I clench my butt and my fists, forcing myself to stand as still as possible, not letting them know that I’m petrified, the butterflies in my stomach flying around so viciously, you’d think they’re on MDMA. I think the surprises I’m going to experience are over now that a blast from the past has appeared. I get enough courage to open my mouth and ask—
Nope, it’s all fucked. My other ex-girlfriend walks in from the second lounge, wearing tight blue jeans and an indigo top that is criminally low cut. Not you, too. The innocent one. The beautiful one. The sane one. How did they corrupt you? Did I corrupt you? Did you . . . Did you two know each other before?
The fear inside me has taken on a form of its own — a ghostlike entity gripping my insides and not letting go. It whispers to me that it’ll allow me to say four words, so I better choose them wisely. I try to take a deep breath first but the ghost does the Heimlich on me. I squeal out my word ration.
“I want some answers.”
Nick Psychoface steps forward and says: “Moreover, the Lord, your God, will send the hornet against them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you perish. Deuteronomy seven twenty.”
Dylan Jennings steps forward and says: “Then I sent the hornet before you and it drove out the two kings of the Amorites from before you but not by your sword or your bow. Joshua twenty-four twelve.”
My witch bitch ex steps forward and says: “I will send hornets ahead of you, so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. Exodus twenty-three twenty-eight.”
The wrestling ghost has released me, so I’m able to speak again.
“Thanks. That’s exactly what I meant,” I say.
“How’s your rash?” asks the formerly sweet ex.
Good question. I take my jacket and my shirt off. There is no rash. I’m looking completely normal. I keep staring to make sure. I’m fine.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“It’s my job to know, babes,” she says.
“I hate it when you call me babes,” I say.
“I know, babes,” she says.
“Are you going to tell me what’s happening?” I demand.
“What do you think is happening?” asks Siobhan from the sofa.
“I think you’re all part of some fucked up cult and Sabrina over there put a hex on me while we were dating. For some reason, it took this long for it to be activated. Like a—“
I remember the stupid grey-haired lady from the student accommodation. What was that term she used?
“Like a what?” asks Rebecca.
“Like an incubation period,” I say.
“Bravo,” says the witch.
“And the rash is turning me into something. A yellowjacket. Like a—“
“Like a what?” asks Nick.
“Like a hornet,” I say.
“Top marks,” says Siobhan.
“Except—“ says Rebecca.
“Except what?” I ask.
“The rash is all in your head. Part of the process. Nothing physical has actually been happening to you. Common side effect. Nothing to worry about,” says Dylan.
“More stalling and I’ll give you something to worry about,” I snap.
“Nick,” says Rebecca.
Nick Psychoface goes back into the second lounge and I hear the revving of a chainsaw. Sure enough, he has one in his hand as soon as he walks back through the majestic doors, his eyes locked on me.
“Metamorphosis isn’t real, silly,” says Siobhan.
“So silly,” says the witch.
“We’ll have to create our deity ourselves,” says the formerly sweet ex.
“From scratch,” says Dylan.
“Using only what we can work with,” says Rebecca.
“Raw materials,” says Nick and runs at me with the chainsaw.
I’ve never been quick to react to such situations and I’ve nearly gotten hit by a car dozens of times. However, in this particular moment, I am somehow able to snap out of my daze and dodge well enough that Nick Psychoface only manages to cut off my right arm instead of splitting me open from the middle like he intended.
It takes half a minute for the pain to register. As soon as it does, I pass out. Only for a few seconds.
I keep going in and out of a trance for the next few hours as they saw bits off me and put them back together to make what is presumably the most grotesque sculpture anyone has ever seen.
What’s strangest about all of this is that I am fully conscious despite being dead. Perhaps the incubation period referred to a process that made my spirit eternal. Perhaps I will genuinely become their deity.
Once they have completed their hideous handiwork, they place me on a high base that looks like one of those Italian pillars. They each spend nearly half an hour praying to me, thanking me for being their lord and asking me for favours.
While all of the physical sensations have disappeared and my mental state feels very dreamy, some kind of muscle memory is still in place and I know there’s a leg where it shouldn’t be. A wrongly placed finger. Other bits and body parts that should never touch one another touching one another.
I’m an abomination.
Yet to them, I am a god. I suppose it could be worse. At least I won’t have to put up with any more girls flaking on me. At least I don’t have to pay off that debt. At least I live in a mansion now instead of a double bedroom. There’s always a bright side. Mystery solved.
Mystery solved by Leon Carpenter, Dorset PI.
Mystery solved by Leon Carpenter, Hornet God.