In Competition No. 3088 you were invited to submit a short story in the style of hard-boiled crime fiction set in the corridors of power. Raymond Chandler cast a long shadow over an entry bristling with stinging one-liners, dames, black humour and grandstanding similes laid on with a trowel. The mean streets of Westminster were the most popular setting, though there were glimpses of Brussels and the Oval Office too. Commiserations to unlucky losers Bill Greenwell, D.A. Prince and Alan Millard. High fives to the winners, printed below, who trouser £25 each.
Down these dull corridors a man must go who is not himself dull. Besides, I was expected in Committee Room 4 where the usual suspects were taking evidence on the Universal Credit income taper, a topic dryer than August in a Death Valley temperance house. As I entered, they were comparing and disputing figures like contestants backstage at a beauty pageant. As a self-employed gumshoe getting work less often than a submarine receives junk mail, I had evidence all right. What I didn’t have was words; these wise guys had all of those and they were losing value faster than Weimar currency. Unable to return fire their way, I did it mine, drawing my pistol to make my point. For a second their mouths gaped like upturned hobo caps down Skid Row, then they found something they agreed on. Security goons ejected me with the speed of a bilious attack.
I had one job. Everyone knew that Killer-Heels Tess was completely batshit and Boris the Johnson had a radioactive ego that incinerated all moral feeling and Crazy Jake had dropped in from a parallel universe where time went backwards. Take all that as read, but what the hell went on in the mind of Islington Jezza? It was the nation’s biggest secret, and I was the muggins picked to find it.
The direct approach was a no-no. Big Johnny Mac and Famous Seumas guarded him like centurions. They’d eat an investigator for breakfast. Anyone close to Jezza would clam up and pass the word I was snooping, a serious health hazard. Whatever I did could be treading on landmines.
So I faked a report that said he was ‘biding his time’. The client wasn’t happy, but I could still walk.
Like I said, I had one job…
So I’m sitting in my office, which is way beyond the back of beyond, when in walks this broad, well turned out, good shoes — I always notice shoes. She’s kinda familiar, I seen her in the place, at the front shouting at the old bearded guy, but my bench is so far back that I don’t get her name. She says she got a commission for me. It’s a backstop, she tells me, and right off I’m thinking: no way, I’m not gonna cross that Irish dame with the face. But she tells me no, she wants me to rub out the opposition. I think she means old beardy, but she laughs and says he’s just a — well, I didn’t know dames used that word. She wants rid of a coupla toffs, blond guy and one with a top hat. Payoff’s a knighthood and no questions asked, so I’m in.
They always came to me, the flakes, the basket cases, the geniuses who followed every stupid idea for a scam, who couldn’t zip their fly without risking circumcision.
This one even looked a flake, a boiled ham of a face and blond hair, if it was hair, you could use to stuff a mattress. Worse, he had political ambitions. He gave me the name Potus, and didn’t wait to be believed before outlining his plans for eminence. They amounted to the usual know-nothing grievance list and his sentences knotted up like rattlesnakes in a pit. There was some craziness about a wall in it. It wasn’t my line of business, so I kidded him he’d be better off asking the Kremlin.
That got rid of him fast. A sure loser, I figured, as I watched him lumber off, but hell, no one can be smart all the time.
I woke with a hangover like a political memoir —dull, heavy, impossible to shift. I stank of sweat, treachery, and subsidised booze. That must have been some party. But which party? And who had I got into bed with? All I had was a scrap of blue paper with some pencilled words — Hard Border, Norwegian Option, Backstop Provision. Then this broad burst into my office, wearing a power suit that could light a city. Sure as Pedro’s donkey, I was about to get whipped.
‘Johnny,’ she spat, ‘you coulda been somebody. You coulda been a PPS. Maybe even a junior minister.’ So it was true — a man could be a winner and a loser at the same time. ‘But you gotta work out whose side you’re on. You heard about Rick, who thought he was a wise guy?’
‘Yeah. Kinda dead now. He got…’
‘Deselected. Watch your back, Johnny.’
The liquor laws don’t apply there. That’s my kind of place, except it has too many wise guys and not enough dames. I was corralled in the officials’ box because of a vote. A floozie sat at the clerks’ table, in wig and gown like she was performing in some cheapskate strip joint. Her eyes said fire and ice, a simultaneous welcome into both oven and fridge. Beyond her, I noticed the mace was missing.
‘… the Ayes have it. Unlock!’
Then came another yell, more real than Speaks Bercow’s theatrics. I pushed past the others, leapt the stairs and raced round the corner. There was a guy on the carpet, and he wasn’t going to vote any more. He’d been slugged with the mace. These MPs were capable of plenty — bad manners and stupidity, mainly — but not murder. The broad at the table, though… Maybe the eyes had it?
No. 3091: cringe benefits
It’s bad analogy time: you are invited to submit your most toe-curling (up to five each), by email (wherever possible), to lucy@spectator.-co.uk by midday on 20 March.