by Trevor Hopkins

I pushed open the flimsy wooden door to my office and guided my unexpected visitor inside, directing her towards the better of the two worn chairs that populate the client's side of the desk.

"Okay sister, take a seat," I said briskly, making my way to the other side of the desk and flopping inelegantly in the squeaky swivel chair that lurks there, "What's your name?"

She sat delicately in the chair I had indicated, looking unexpectedly demure with her eyes downcast. I smiled wryly, recognising this ploy, then tugged off my hat and scooted it onto the desk.

"Tillyfor," she said softly, adding, "I've been waiting for you for hours."

I shrugged, then opened the bottom drawer, pulled out the office bottle and a couple of clean shot glasses, and dumped them on the ink-stained blotter which notionally protects the worn leather surface of the desk. I uncorked the cheap whiskey, poured myself a couple of fingers into one of the glasses, then held up the bottle.

"Lady," I told her, "I've had a tough day so far. Dodging fireballs, that kind of thing. I need a drink. Care to join me?"

She looked up at me strangely for a long moment, then sighed.

"Yeah, why not," she breathed, unwinding slightly, "It's not been so easy for me recently either."

I shrugged again, then poured an equal measure into the other glass. She leaned forward suddenly, grasped the shot glass as if her life depended on it and put about half of it down her throat in one lump. To her credit, she barely winched as the fiery liquid drowned her tonsils.

"Your health," I said politely, raising my own glass in a toast.

I sipped cautiously, then carefully put the liquor back on the blotter. Keeping my eyes on the dame opposite, I opened the top desk drawer, which rattled slightly with the usual random collection of pens, pencils and all the miscellanea of offices and workplaces everywhere, and pulled out a notepad and a biro I thought likely to work at the first attempt.

"You want to tell me what's on your mind?" I asked, not unkindly. A doll that needs a drink that badly has something to get off her chest.

"It's my sister," she said sadly, "She's gone missing."

"Okay, I can see that would upset you," I said cautiously, then added, "Maybe she wanted to go missing? Get some time on her own. New boyfriend, perhaps?"

"No!" she almost shouted, than added more calmly, "No. I'm sure there's something wrong."

I stared at her levelly for a few seconds. Despite her flirtatious demeanour on the stairs, she suddenly seemed nervous, vulnerable, even frightened. It was a better look for her, more natural and highly convincing. She was somebody in over her head, in affairs out of her control and probably beyond her understanding. She needed help. My help.

"All right," I said, flourishing my pen, "Start at the beginning."

Part 4 Part 6