by Trevor Hopkins

"Ah, Findo," Nether said smoothly, hardly slurring his words at all, "That would be quite a tale. And one I'm sure you'll want to hear. I need your help. Sit down and let me tell you all about it."

He raised his glass - actually my glass, containing my whiskey - in a semblance of a toast, then knocked back the contents in one gulp. In a single smooth movement, he swept up the whiskey bottle, which stood open on the worn dragon-hide of my desk, and poured another large measure into the shot-glass without spilling a single drop. He returned the bottle to the desktop and, with a supreme effort of will, managed to not pick up the refilled glass immediately.

He didn't pour me a drink, though. Or even offer to do so. Drunks rarely do. They resent anybody else drinking any alcohol in preference to themselves. They want to keep it all for their own consumption.

Annoyed, I snatched the bottle from the desk and placed it on top of the filing cabinets, well away from Nether's reach. Then, and only then, did I walk around the desk, open the deep bottom drawer and pull out another shot-glass. I kicked the drawer closed, returned to the client's side of the desk, put the glass on the cabinet next to the bottle, and poured myself a stiff one.

"Look, if you want a loan, well, you're out of luck," I growled, "My overdraft is at the limit."

Nether glared at me, willing me to return the whiskey to within his grasp.

"That's not it," he said, not taking his eyes off the bottle in my hand, "You really ought to listen to what I have to say."

I ignored his unspoken pleas and left the bottle - already close to empty - well out of the way. Clutching my own glass, I slumped in the better of my guest chairs and sipped at the whiskey. It wasn't a patch on the scotch I had drunk in the Deepest Joy. The office bottle is intended to be medicine, drunk out of necessity rather than pleasure.

"Okay, I'll bite," I said, once I had recovered my composure after the affront so thoughtlessly delivered by my brother, "You've got something to tell me. So spit it out."

Nether picked up the shot-glass from the desk in front of him and held it at eye level, twisting the glass first this way and that in the meagre light from the air shaft outside the window. He looked for all the world like a connoisseur inspecting the clarity of a fine vintage.

"Well, yes," he smirked, "But first, I need to establish our arrangement. I want to hire you, in your professional capacity as a private eye, to investigate on my behalf."

"Hire me! Pah!" I snorted, "What the hells for? And what exactly are you planning on using to pay me with?"

Nether drank about half of the contents of his shot-glass, not draining it immediately this time; another triumph for his own willpower, I assumed.

"Findo, Findo," he murmered, barely wincing as the fiery spirits burned their way down his throat, "Always such a cynic. Have you no trust in your brother?"

"Frankly, no," I snarled, "And I'm sure as hell not going to work for free."

He put down the half-empty glass and sat back in my chair, looking very much as if he belonged there.

"That won't be necessary at all," he said airily.

He reached inside the greasy green tweed suit jacket he wore and pulled out a fat bundle of notes, held together by an eclectic arrangement of elastic bands, paperclips and those gummed lengths of paper used by the banks to gather together bills of a common value. The wad contained a mixture of bills in all denominations, with no sense of order. All were well-thumbed and dirty, and gave the distinct impression of having been accumulated haphazardly over a considerable period but, at least as far as I could tell at a distance, all the notes were the genuine article.

"Still charging twenty-five bucks a day?" Nether asked casually, obviously already knowing the answer.

I nodded wordlessly, astonished by the sudden appearance of considerable wealth, at least by my recent standards. Nether peeled off a random fraction of the bundle and threw it down on the desk. I had no idea how much money was there but, as the bundle clearly contained at least fifty bills, there must be more than enough to pay for my very valuable services for more than a few days.

By his standards, Nether was hardly drunk at all. He was articulate, practically clear-thinking, in that happy intermediate state where he had drunk enough to remediate last night's hangover but he had not yet reached the state of falling-down incompetence expected later in the day. It was quite a success for an alcoholic in the late afternoon. Even so, he was extremely dishevelled and unwashed. He gave every impression that he has gotten out of the habit of bathing, that he simply couldn't be bothered to change his clothes.

I looked at the money on the desk, then slowly looked back at my brother. I was, of course, immediately suspicious, and there could be only one reason why Nether was prepared to squander what money he had on engaging my services.

"Okay, Neth," I said slowly, calmly, "I'll admit you've got my entire attention. And can I assume you want to pay me to ensure you have my professional confidence, so that I won't spill the beans should somebody ask me about your affairs?"

"Of course," he replied, again lifting the shot-glass and studying the contents as if he expected the contents to have mutated from mediocre whiskey to the finest cognac, "Perhaps you'd care to write me a receipt?"

I snorted, then my sense of professional etiquette came to the fore. I reached over and extracted a carbon-copy receipt book from the top drawer of the desk, together with a cheap plastic biro featuring the name of some hotel on the surface I visited once and have now completely forgotten. I counted out the bills from the scruffy bundle, sorting them into denominations and arranging the notes so that they were all face-up and aligned. The total was three hundred and seventy-seven dollars, enough to cover a couple of weeks of work and a few modest expenses. I scribbled one of those "...received the sum of ..." notes in the duplicate book, noted that it was an advance on my investigative service, then signed and dated it. I tore out the original sheet and presented it with a flourish to Nether, who had watched me closely throughout the entire process.

Neth picked up the receipt and studied it closely for a few moments. Apparently satisfied that the legal situation was unequivocal, he then stashed the receipt and the remainder of his wad in an inside jacket pocket. He drained the little tumbler in his hand, smacked his lips appreciatively and slid the empty glass onto the desk.

"Well then," he said reflectively, "Time for a little story."

Part 4 Part 6