Noir [1/7] Fiction)

North Melbourne

The Private Investigator cradled his precious cargo on his lap as the green and white tram rattled along the wet road.

Hot, warm, protein and carbs heavy, the cheap Chinese meal was a luxury that his bank protested. But the P.I. was sick of living off board-like pasta and failed disasters in his kitchen. 

He needed this meal, like an addict needed his fix. It would keep him sane enough to function for a few more days, before he would relapse again. To hell with financial consequences when there were a lot more pressing matters at hand like his growling stomach. 

The P.I. was readjusting the meal on his lap, finding a spot where it wouldn’t burn him, when a woman sat next to him. 

He shuffled inwards towards the window, the Melbournian in him eager to get away and establish some personal space.  

Briefly checking her over, he noted the expensive cut of her coat, the thigh high boots that were slightly splattered by rain and the heady scent of her perfume. 

The face was angular, with sharp cheekbones, gaunt cheeks and heavy kohl applied across her piercing blue eyes. Dark raven hair cascaded down her long neck and buried itself deep into the collar of her coat. 

Blocking out the attraction that stirred his heart, the P.I. turned up the music on his phone and looked out the window, the jazz accompanying the rain drops that splattered the glass and casting the world in hues of blurry grey. 

The rhythm of the tram’s movement was sleep-inducing, the slow acceleration that would briefly propel the wheels, creating a soothing mechanical cacophony that dulled the senses. 

Then a bell would chime, as one of the weary, cold and self-occupied passengers would pull the string that ran along the upper handrail and indicate their stop was next. 

The tram driver would gently apply the brakes, letting the tram slow to a strangely abrupt stop that would make everyone lurch forward a little. The doors would issue their strange rattle and vibrate as they shook open in their hinges and passengers would shuffle off and more would waddle on, their faces a similar moue of quiet isolation to everyone else. 

Occasionally the P.I. would hear a muffled curse, as a passenger door refused to open, courtesy of an older model tram, and the driver would begrudgingly unlock the door to his cabin, straggle down to the door, undo a latch and force it open with a twist of a key. 

The P.I. ignored most of this, a familiar routine on the 59 Airport West route, and instead watched the suburban landscape roll past, the classic houses with their brick roofs and square windows slowly being encroached by tall eucalyptus trees and vines that crept ever upwards. 

As the tram climbed the hill, the P.I. sensed, rather than felt, the woman next to him, begin to shift a little uneasily. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, and deduced that this tram ride was alien to her. She was peering out his window more, checking the number of the stop, and slowly counting down. 

To his concern, as the 59 tram slowly came to a stop, near the Church where it would turn past the Royal Children Hospital, it seemed like she was getting off at the same stop as he was. 

The P.I., suspicious and paranoid, decided that he would get off one stop early, even if it risked getting his precious dinner cold.

The tram rattled onwards, oblivious to the tension that was being ratcheted inside of it. 

As it serenely passed another tram, a long number 57 to Flinders Street Station, emblazoned with advertisements for a new Marvel film, the P.I. saw the iconic highway that stretched overhead, it’s circular frame illuminated by thousands of LED lights that shone red and yellow.

As the lights passed over his head, he wondered whether he was being overly paranoid. The woman might just be lost. She might not have any relation to him. Hell, he should ask her, where she was going. Be polite and offer her guidance.

But the P.I. did none of those things. He had been burned too many times now, to afford to make any mistakes.

The amber and crimson glow awashed over both of them and he waited for the tram to roll to a stop at the Flemington Community Centre, near Debney’s Park. 

Getting off a stop early, but knowing that he could cut through the park and make it to his small home on Princes St Street, the P.I. waited for traffic to pass, before running through and jumping the low fence that separated the park and the footpath.

He instantly regretted it, as the grass turned to slush and mud under his foot, and began to kick up flecks of mud on his pants. Scowling at the laundry disaster that awaited him, he kept running anyway, his dress shoes squelching with every step. 

The rain only grew stronger, as a wind berated him for being outdoor and paranoid, nearly sweeping the dinner out of his hands. But he held on tight and was grateful when his feet finally hit pavement.

Rushing up High Street that adjoined his home’s street, he took out his house keys from his peacoat and ran left of the first roundabout, trying to ignore the sensation of water running down his neck, as the rain intensified. 

Undoing the latch at his small red and white picket fence, he held the dinner plastic bag between his teeth as he ducked under overgrown trees and opened the door, before setting down the bag on the hall-table and starting to shrug out of his wet shoes. 

Kicking them off, he stripped off the wet black chinos he had on and threw it in a washing machine, before wriggling out of his peacoat and dress shirt.

Now nearly naked, he grabbed a towel and began to dry his hair, before slipping on a fresh polo shirt and chinos and addressing his dinner.

He kept a paranoid eye on his front door, afraid that, at any second, the woman would come through and ruin his life with her problems.

Plating the combination noodles, he had just gotten through 4 bites, when he heard the dreaded bell at the front door ring.

The P.I. looked forlornly at his dinner, the habit that kept him sane every week, and sighed, before pushing it aside and walking to the front door.

There, standing in the doorway of his home, with an umbrella over her dark hair, was the woman from the tram.

Her eyes widened in shock, as she recognised him. He was the man sitting next to her on the tram, who kept glancing over at her in suspicion. The gaunt guy who, in another lifetime, would be considered handsome, but instead was unhealthily skinny and tired, his sharp cheekbones a knife’s edge across his face and his thin mouth more of a slash than anything attractive.

But despite his emaciated appearance, the emerald eyes were still alert, sharp and intelligent. They pierced hers like a spotlight shining on a stage.   

The P.I. on his part, acted as if all his dreams were turning into boring hellish realities, and motioned her in.

“How did you … I’m sorry, I …” she started, confused and surprised.

“It’s OK. My name is Alex. Come on in to my office.”

The woman nodded silently, and placed her umbrella off to the side of the door, and began to take off her shoes. 

Alex nodding, walked through the tiny hallway that led to his kitchen at the rear and instead opened a door off to the right, which had a tiny study room.

Bare and clean, with a simple desk, notepads and a laptop, the office was Alex’s domain, where he ran his P.I.’s business, a venture that had seen very little clients.

The jobs were scarce, but there was just enough money to ensure that bills were paid.

It was fortunate that the house was already paid off. If it weren’t for that happenstance, he would be homeless.

Pulling out a chair for the woman, Alex sat down on the other side of the desk and powered up the laptop and arranged the notepad. He turned on the nearby CD player, and inserted a custom CD that had mellow songs to induce better memory recall.

Whether it worked, was up to debate, but it was a tip given to him by a friend who was no longer around, and he was doing it out of habit and remembrance now.

The woman from the tram peered around the door and sat down gratefully when Alex gestured.

Sparing one last thought for his Chinese dinner, Alex pushed the regret away and looked attentively at the attractive woman who, in the span of less than 20 minutes had steered his life in another direction. 

“So, what’s your name?” started Alex. 

“I’m Eveline Winston. I work as a lawyer at the local magistrate court. I need your help with a case of mine. “

“A lawyer huh?” said Alex dismissively. “Don’t you guys usually have your own in-house investigators for these sort of situations?”

“We do, but this case is … different.” replied Eveline coolly. 

Alex raised an eyebrow and raised his pen in anticipation. 

“My client has gone missing. He’s been away for 2 weeks and we suspect he’s on the run. But the evidence all suggest that he’s innocent of the crime he’s supposedly guilty of. So we’re not sure why he’s disappeared.”

“I’m going to need a name Ms Winston.”

“Call me Eveline. I’ll give you the name once you agreed.”

Eveline reaches into her coat and hands him a piece of paper. 

Alex, looking down at it, scans it quickly and finds his heart racing a bit quicker. It’s a sizeable amount of money. At least 9 months worth of bills paid off here. He could eat out more often. Afford better clothes. Live like a person with a stable income. 

But the fine print says a voice in Alex’s head. Reading further, Alex isn’t allowed to market this case if things go well. He’ll have to make this case a first priority. 

At first, Alex refuses to accept the job. He hates conditions and stipulations and strings attached to a job. And there are many on this contract. But … he was poor and when would be the next time he would see this amount ever again? 

Alex gritted his teeth and took out a pen and signed the dotted line on the bottom. To hell with financial consequences. He also provided the bank details for his account. 

Handing it back, he watched as Eveline kept the carbon copy and handed him back the original. 

“Thank you, Alex. Here, this is my dossier on the case. Read through this and it’ll explain everything.” Eveline passed him a manilla folder and made to get up. 

“Hold on”, said Alex, raising his hand in a stop gesture, “I want to hear it from you first.”

Eveline sigh. She’s a busy woman. She would rather be elsewhere than here, in a stranger’s office. But Alex’s green eyes compel her to stay. 

“Fine. What do you want to know?” said Eveline with exasperation. 

“Tell me your client’s name. I also want his stats. The usual like, height, weight, eye colour, hair colour.”

“It’s all in the bio I gave you.” said Eveline coldly. 

“I want to hear it from you. You’re a lawyer aren’t you? Surely your memory is as good as they say.”

Eveline rolls her eyes and recites mechanically “His name is Joel McNamara. He is 176cm tall, with blue eyes and sandy coloured hair. He weighs around 80 kilograms and his main distinguishing feature are a pair of winged tattoos on his arms.” 

Alex scanned Eveline’s blue eyes. She was acting like every other professional doing their job. But the way how she answered, seemed to hint at something more. 

He didn’t like it. 

“What’s Joel like?”

“What do you mean, what’s Joel like?” 

“As in, he’s a nervous kind of guy? A funny larrikin? A sarcastic prick? That’s what I mean by what’s he like?” 

Eveline pauses for a second and Alex continues to scan her eyes. He senses there’s something more to this. 

“He’s sweet. But also shy and awkward. He’s an innocent man accused of doing something he didn’t do.” 

Alex grunts, his suspicions confirmed. But now that he has deduced it, it’s of no more interest to him. 

“Where was he last seen? I’m also going to need his address.” 

Eveline skips a beat again. Alex doodles a small love heart next to her name. She’s fed up with this interrogation. 

“He was last seen at the courthouse. His address is in the dossier. Read it. Give me a call when you got something.”

Standing up, she glares at Alex and walks out, pausing only to put on her shoes and collect her umbrella. 

The sound of rain pitter-patter and the smell of petrichor wafts through the open door, before being punctuated by the front fence’s gate being slammed shut.

Alex, watching her from the doorway, made no mental apology for his paranoid questioning. No courthouse would offer the sum he had just signed just to get some random Joel back. They would let the police handle it. This was Eveline’s doing and she was doing it out of love. 

Scoffing slightly, Alex closed the door and remembered his cold Chinese meal. Grimacing at the taste, he endured for 5 bites before tossing the rest of it into a bin, his appetite gone. 

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