The Mundane Adventures of Philip D Mallow, Private Investigator
I stared at the razor-sharp crease down the front of his trousers, a pristinely pressed pleat that ran from 150cm below the pocket-line all the way to the neatly sown hem that stopped millimetres from the upper of his perfectly shined shoes. I was not in the habit of staring at men’s trousers but to see the level of precision that is normally only seen in a military dress uniform applied to a pair of denim blue jeans isn’t an everyday occurrence. Once I had noticed the incongruity, staring was inevitable, as was the subsequent observation that every item of clothing he wore had been carefully selected to be non-descript. Unfortunately the meticulous attention to detail had achieved the opposite effect to anyone attentive enough to notice. This, I thought to myself, is a man who has to work hard to be casual.
He’d introduced himself as Archibald Nathaniel Tompkins and by way of confirmation presented me with a crisp white business card that he’d withdrawn from a highly polished silver holder that vanished back into his jacket pocket as quickly as it came. The card at least diverted my attention from his clothing. I glanced over the long series of post-nominal initials that followed his name but none of the designatory letters meant anything to me, if they were intended to impress they had failed. Evidently he had several qualifications and was a member of a number of professional bodies, but I didn’t recognise any of them, they were to all appearances just a string of random letters; I’d had better sets of scrabble letters and still lost the game. The two other lines of text on the card contained information that was equally meaningless: Principal Collator I presumed was his job title and ECoS his place of work, but I’d never heard of either before so the nature of his business remained a mystery. The only scrap of background intelligence I could deduce from reading the card was more a feeling than a fact: I got the distinct impression that he was not in the habit of being called Archie or Natt, I imagined that even his parents called him Tompkins. Placing the card in front of me on my desk, I gestured to the chair and smiled. He did that little ‘hitch-up’ of his trouser legs as he sat down that you don’t see now-a-days and perched on the seat rather than just allow himself to relax into it, he fixed his gaze on me and quietly cleared his throat.
‘Mr Mallow’, he began then hesitated and cleared his throat again before continuing, ‘I require your assistance in a delicate matter of extreme importance that I am directed to believe is your particular area of expertise…’ His accent was the obligatory pan-European of a professional bureaucrat but his mode of speaking made it obvious that English was his birth language and the accent was the product of re-education and expensive elocution lessons. I gave him a nod of assent to indicate he should continue. ‘I’m looking for…’ A facial twitch betrayed his embarrassment, ‘…I’m trying to find…’ He stopped speaking and fidgeted slightly as he re-thought what he was attempting to say, after a brief pause his body stiffened and he lent forward a few degrees. ‘There’s this woman’ he said in a hush tones.
‘Ah’ I said raising my eyebrows, ‘Cherchez la femme.’ I winked knowingly at him, causing a disapproving reaction in his face and body posture, that I countered with my best serious face ‘my name is Discretion.’ I nodded.
‘The sign on the door says Flip Mallow.’ He joked in a failed attempt to assuage his discomfort. I glanced at the door, even viewed in reverse the painted gold lettering on the frosted glass clearly said “Flip Mallow ~ Pirate Instigator” and one day when I’ve enough cash to pay the sign-writer I’ll have all three spelling errors corrected. I smiled and shrugged.
‘So, this woman. Your wife?’ He flinched. ‘Someone else’s wife?’ He shook his head. I leant forward, resting my arms on the desk as I looked him square in the face. ‘We can play this guessing game all morning but I charge by the hour whether I find the person you’re looking for or not and the clock has already started.’ His shoulders slumped and he reluctantly nodded. I sat back and gestured for him to continue.
‘Her name is Elin Oväder, though sometimes she goes by the name of Åska Kvinna.’ From an inside pocket of his jacket he pulled a photograph that he pushed across the desk towards me, I picked it up and studied it closely. I could feel a sigh building up that I tried to suppress, the image was of a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, her face and appearance was so average and characterless finding her would be like the proverbial needle in a haystack. The sigh escaped as I dropped the photograph onto the desk. ‘They never have missing ears or distinguishing birthmarks do they?’ Tompkins stiffened again.
‘They?’ He asked curtly.
‘Missing people.’ I replied. ‘They always look so ordinary; there must be hundreds of women in this city who look like her. Average hair, average face, average eyes, average mouth, average clothes… Little Miss Average.’ He relaxed again, and that puzzled me more. He was hiding something, or rather his body-language was telling me something, I was itching to press him further. However, Discretion wasn’t my first name but, thanks to my parents’ twisted sense of humour, it was my middle name, and it always served to remind myself not to scare off the clients with intrusive questions.
‘Yes. I suppose they are.’ He produced a scrap of paper from another inside pocket and placed it on the desk next to the photograph. ‘That’s all we know of her, where she lived, where she last worked. The information is out of date and she is no longer at either of those locations. W- I’ve checked. Is this enough?’ It wasn’t, but if he, (or should I say ‘they’ since he inadvertently dropped the ‘we’ word), were willing to pay me by the hour and not by results I wasn’t going to complain.
‘It will have to do won’t it.’ I replied, scooping up all three pieces of paper in one sweep of my hand like the seasoned poker-player that I always believe I am, (sadly my empty bank account says I’m not).
‘Good.’ He said, rising from the chair, absently smoothing the creases from his jeans as he rose. ‘The telephone number on the back of my card…’ I flipped it over in my hand, ‘Call me frequently whether you have something to report or not. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you locate Ms Oväder. And sooner rather than later Mr Mallow.’ He turned and walked to the door, as his hand reached for the doorknob I blurted out the one intrusive question that as a Private Investigator I felt duty bound ask.
‘Can I ask why?’ Without looking back at me, he snapped-out a single word reply,
‘No’, and left the office.