by Trevor Hopkins

It was late by the time I left the Stalactite Saloon, and there was nothing else I could usefully achieve that evening. I made my usual circuitous way back to my small and not very stylish apartment in one of the rather less fashionable caverns. It's just somewhere to sleep, hang up my clothes, make early-morning coffee, and to display more than a few little mementos of entirely sentimental value.

The following morning, I was up and about early - at least, by my standards - much fortified by a good dose of strong black coffee. I trudged up the four flights of stairs in the block which contained a small office with my name painted in flaking gold leaf on the glass of the door. The office is a single room, furnished with worn furniture bought cheap from the thrift store or rescued from the dumpster. I advertise the office address and phone number in the Yellow Pages, so most of the junk mail and itinerant clients find their way to me there. The door is never locked - those flimsy locks wouldn't slow down a determined visitor in a significant way in any case - so that anyone who wanted to see me in person could wait in not particularly comfortable surroundings for my return, if they had nothing better to do.

As I arrived, I found I had got a letter. Letters - or at least bills and advertising circulars - are not so unusual in their arrival and, as this morning, I generally collect them from the letter box on the ground floor. Nor is their disposal so uncommon: most of them go unopened into the round waste paper in the corner. No, what was unusual was the manner in which this particular letter was delivered.

Some time ago, I recalled that I had put my name down for an apprenticeship scheme; you know, one of those arrangements which sponsors a young person to take up a specific vocation, and gives the older and more experienced individual - that would be me, in this case - the opportunity to hand on the fruits of centuries of experience and the wisdom of the ages.

Not that I was sure why anybody would want to become a private detective as an actual, active choice. I only took up the trade when I left the police force so abruptly; it was the only job I could think of that I was qualified for. Besides, private eyes are generally solitary types who don't really go for teamwork in a big way - with a few notable exceptions in my case. But there was a modest payment involved - I can always use the money - and it didn't seem much like hard work. Anyway, I had signed the forms and sent them off in the mail, and I hadn't heard anything in response - until today.

If I had thought about it at all, I guess I was expected some spotty, wet-behind-the ears youth to turn up, clutching a virgin notebook and asking a lot of damn-fool questions. Or maybe some gun-toting meatball, ready to get drunk on adrenaline and machismo.

The person holding the letter of introduction and sitting demurely in the better of my guest chairs on the visitors side of the desk was obviously young, but was definitely not spotty nor evidently a meatball, and the intelligently appraising look I got when I opened my own office door suggested that the level of dampness behind the lobes was distinctly lower than average.

"PI Gask?" she asked, standing up politely as I staggered over the threshold.

I grunted my confirmation as I hung my battered hat on the stand by the door. I tossed the other letters onto the worn leather and threw myself into the squeaky swivel chair on my side of the desk.

"So who are you?" I asked, although a suspicion had already lodged itself in the back of my head.

"Campsie Burnside," she said calmly, proffering the letter she held in her hand, "I'm your apprentice."

Part 8 Part 10