I’m not a vacation person. Never have been. Vacation people are happy people and that’s not me. Maybe there’s a market in vacations for people bitter at the world. Maybe that’s something I can look into when the detective business really dries up. Really dries up. I know it’s not exactly flowing over right now but that suits me fine. Drip, drip, drip.
I’m not a vacation person but I’ve got no qualms in accepting gratuities and I’ve never been this far south before. It’s warmer and the rain is noticeably absent. I miss the rain. Never thought I’d say that.
This hotel’s called the Hotel Luxurious. If I had to describe it in one word then luxurious is the right one to use. I’ve stayed in hotels in the city from time-to-time. This one doesn’t have the stains, the stickiness, or that smell, and there’s a constant, gentle hum of quiet, happy talking from the men and women dotted around the lounge. Soft, clean chairs. Lots of smiles. Bright, open windows. The clinking of real crystal tumblers. One of them is mine. There’s an inch of dark, smoky malt in the bottom of it. I’m savouring it. It’s the only thing I don’t instinctively hate about this whole place.
"That’s some outfit you have," says the lady in the off-white trouser suit across from me.
She’s not wrong. I didn’t pack for this climate and my fit-in-anywhere clothes from back home are now fit-in-anywhere-but-here.
"I won a vacation," I tell her and then fill in some more details when pressed. It seems the city has some well-off individuals and one of them was seemingly grateful to the tune of some time off at my resolution to the recent simile heist. There’s something you don’t do to gift horses and that’s why I’m here. Just a little unprepared is all.
"How strange and delightful!" she exclaims. Strange, I’ll agree with. "And how are you finding Literalville?" she asks.
I tell her I haven’t left the hotel yet. The plane touched down late last night. I slept and this is my first morning in the vacation spot. Her eyes widen and she smiles a knowing smile to herself. "It takes some getting used to," she continues. "If you want a private tour then give me a call."
She hands me a card. There’s a number but no name on it. I make a show of nodding appreciation and pocket it in my inside jacket pocket. The one with the hole in the bottom. Old, lonely dears are the same the world over.
I don’t like Literalville and I’m beginning to wonder whether my paid-for vacation wasn’t some punishment rather than reward. Maybe it’s because there’s no criminal element obvious to the eye. A guy like me would be lost down here. What could I do? Clean streets, clean air, families strolling around. I haven’t seen a policeman or heard either a scream or a pistol going off since I arrived. But that’s not the worst of it.
Literalville. Strange name, but apt. Very apt. Take that hot dog vendor on the promenade down by the beach for instance. Nobody wants to see a labrador sweltering inside several woollen cardigans on a day like this. On any day even. The vendor looked at me like I was mad when I asked what was going on. Some couple gave me a wide berth and bought a chihuahua sealed in a sleeping bag.
Then there were the posters on the walls down by the college. A spate of lost virginities, apparently. Happy kids and rewards for the unrecoverable. I’m not a parent but that just doesn’t seem right.
And now this: a crowd gathered to watch a boxing match put on for tourists. Two fit men in a ring packaging souvenirs against the clock and each other. This place is a happy nightmare and I’m wondering if I should have had a more substantial breakfast and skipped the malts.
"Truly awful, isn’t it?"
Is she talking about Literalville or the fact that she’s laying across my bed in my hotel room while I’m standing in the doorway?
"Literalville," she says slowly. "I hate it and you seem like the sort of person who’d hate it too. Am I wrong?"
The dame from the lounge this morning isn’t wrong. I just wish she could be not wrong somewhere else. I tell her she’s right and I step into the room fully, leaving the door open behind me. It’s a long shot that she’ll take the hint. There’s a moment of silence while I make my way to the dresser and pour a drink from the decanter on it. I’m thinking.
"You’re the first author I’ve met," I tell her when I turn back. She hasn’t moved but there’s a smile on her face.
"Rick Rake, private detective. I do believe you’re even better than I imagined."
"You had to have been affected by the similes heist. Only so many professions were and you fit the bill of only one that makes sense and enough money to send some poor schmuck down the coast on a private case. So now I’ve had a day of tormented reward at your expense and I guess you think I owe you."
"That I do Mr Rake. We’re business people and you’re certainly not a vacation person so why don’t we skip the verbal fencing and get down to details?"
Maybe it’s the cumulative effects of decent malt whiskey but I’m warming to her. I close the hotel room door and tell her to begin.
Connie’s right about a lot of things. She’s right about me not liking vacations and she’s right about me preferring to earn money doing what I’m good at. She’s right about there being a criminal underworld in Literalville too. I should have known it was literally an underworld.
It’s dark in the sewers and catacombs, as you know. Somehow it feels more appealing than topside. It feels more like the city. There are a lot of bad people down here. That’s the thing about crime; it doesn’t attract a good element.
There’s a man looking for a fight if the placard he’s holding up is to be believed. I don’t want to help him. I’m getting shifty looks from the residents as it is. That’s the thing: I’m an outsider. I’m the only one she knows who might be able to get the job done. Connie explained that she couldn’t approach Double-Crossing Charlie Dodds or Mickey "The Failure" Farmer to get her manuscript back. I can’t imagine why.
"I need a lead to track down a stolen manuscript," I tell the scrawny lowlife in front of me. I hear he’s nicknamed "The Rat" and he doesn’t disappoint me. Much. It’s an old lead. Cracked leather. A collar on the end and a discoloured tag with "Fido" engraved on it. I should have known better. Then again …
The hot dog vendor remembers me. I shake the lead at him and see he remembers it too. I almost tell him to start playing ball but catch myself. I haven’t got the time to wait for some sporting activity to play itself out. I’m thinking about leashing the guy and taking him for a gentle run to see if I can jog his memory enough to let me know what I’m after. I’m getting the hang of this dreadful place.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about!" he cries, gathering up an alsation in a rug distressed by our altercation. I don’t believe him but it doesn’t matter.
"That’s okay Benny," says a quiet voice behind me. "This dick will be leaving soon."
There’s a weedy guy wearing a turtleneck sweater flanked by two gorillas in monkey suits. That’s more nature than I ever wanted to see up close.
"I’m after a manuscript on behalf of its owner," I tell the speaker. He knew who I was so I’ve got a feeling he knows this too already.
"I’m well aware why you think you’re here Mr Rake but I’ve got some bad news in that respect." I don’t like the sound of this. If I lived here all the time then right about now I’d put my fingers in my ears so there could be no mistaking how I felt. It’s a good thing I’m from the city so I can hear the explanation instead.
"I’m Connie’s brother. You, unfortunately, are the victim here. There is no manuscript; there never was. You’re not the first to be dragged down here and you won’t be the last. I’m very sorry but I’m going to have to insist you leave now."
He carries on and tells me about Connie’s life and their family history. It looks like I’m not getting paid. And I’m never going to learn to be a vacation person if they all turn out like this.
Connie. Short for Congenital Liar. Born to the wealthy Mr and Mrs Cruel-Bastards. Brother of Andy Plotpoint. Residents of Literalville, all of them. I hate Literalville.