by Trevor Hopkins

My visitor stared back at me with those haunted eyes for a moment. Suddenly, he leaned forward, dropping his smouldering pipe into the ashtray and placing his large hands on the edge of the desk.

"This goes no further, understand."

I swivelled about in my chair to bring myself closer to the desk.

"You're the boss," I replied, looking at him across the wide green surface, "I've heard of client confidentiality, know what it means, even. You level with me, I'd do the job and keep my trap shut. You hold out on me, I'll walk away, and I'll still keep my trap shut. Just don't expect to hear from me again."

He regarded me for a long moment, then tossed a business card - a much more finely-made one that I could afford - across the desk. I picked it up and read: "Merton Vale, Senior Partner, Vale, Madderfy and Logan, Accountants." Good guess, I thought, but said nothing. I tossed the card back onto the desk.

"So what's your problem?".

"I'm being blackmailed," he said simply.

"How so?" I replied, my best professional detachment coming to the fore, "What have they got on you?"

Merton Vale looked moderately embarrassed, a tinge of puce suffusing the brown skin of his face. He looked away for a moment, then took his wallet from his pocket again. He pulled out a small photo and looked at it, then placed it carefully in front of me. It showed an elegant female of middle years, with the polished looks of one who has the time and money and inclination to indulge in the finest health and beauty regimes.

"Look, I'm a married guy," he said, returning his full attention to me, "Happily married. Nearly seventy years. I love my wife but a guy has temptations, you know, a desire for the taste of unfamiliar and forbidden fruit."

"So you cheat on your wife," I replied, shrugging, "Who's the floozy?"

"Her name's Clunie - don't know her last name," he said carefully, "She's a hostess at the Starfield Club. Do you know it?"

I did. It was a sleazy nightclub just off one of the upper caverns, so close to the surface - and its associated frisson of risk and excitement - that natural starlight provided much of the interior illumination. It was a Gentleman's Club and Casino, a place where a guy could go to lose his shirt in at least two different senses. While he had been speaking, I had reached for my own pipe and pouch, filled the one with the contents of the other carefully and lit the bowl with the desk lighter. I nodded through the smoke.

"Go on," I said non-committally.

"This appeared on my desk at work yesterday."

He drew a large brown envelope from his inside pocket and put it carefully on the desk next to his business card. I picked it up, pulled back the flap and withdrew a handful of photographs and a scrawled note. The note read: "Be in touch soon."

The pictures showed two figures, one of which was a striking female goblin. I looked over the photos, admiring the smoothly polished dome of her head and her shapely ears. She had other shapely and polished parts, too, and it was perfectly clear that she was entirely naked. The other figure was Merton Vale, equally naked. In truth, there was not much detail to be seen, although of course it was evident exactly what was going on. Her face was turned away or obscured by other body parts - mainly his - in all of the pictures, although his face was clear enough. A classic photography shoot for the divorce courts.

"Okay," I said, slipping the pictures and note back into their brown paper container and returning them to the desk, "So you've been stupid. I can understand that. What do they want, these blackmailers?"

"I got a second note, pushed through the door at home, yesterday evening," he said, "Mercifully, my wife didn't take it into her head to open it."

He put a second envelope, this one small and white, on the desk. I picked it up. The envelope was addressed to Vale in a neat, old-fashioned style, completely different from the scrawl on the other envelope. I opened it and pulled out a single sheet of white paper, on which was written in the same careful hand: "You will provide us with a copy of these accounts. No police." It was followed by a short list of ten digit account numbers.

"Who owns these accounts?" I asked.

"I can't tell you that," he exclaimed, "Professional confidences."

"Then I can't help you," I said, a hint of a snarl in my voice, tossing down both letter and envelope, "Like I said, you level with me and I'll keep your secrets safe enough. But I can't do my job, doing your dirty work, without it."

He nodded morosely, rubbing his forehead as if his skull pained him.

"Ever heard the name Monzie Hosh?"

I nodded. Vale's client was someone who has been investigated by the police, although never been arrested. He was reputed to be a racketeer, and was definitely the owner of the Starfield Club.

"I've not met him," I said, "You know this Monzie Hosh personally?"

"Sure. He's one of our best customers," Vale replied, adding, "It was at his invitation that I was at the club in the first place."

"So how are you supposed to deliver these details?" I enquired, picking up the letter again and waving it at him, "It's sure to be a big stack of paper."

"I got a call on the phone, yesterday morning. It was put through by my secretary," he said, "They said I should wrap the papers well, in a stout parcel and await delivery instructions. And said again, no police. He said he's got contacts inside the force, bent coppers."

"Have you spoken to anyone about this?" I demanded, "Hosh? The floozy herself?"

"No!" he exclaimed, surprisingly loudly, then continued softly, "I know I've been foolish and I just want it to go away, to get back to a normal life."

"Okay, okay" I said, sweeping up the two bills that still lay on the desktop, "I'll drift over to this Starfield Club later on this evening, and interview this Clunie. Find out what she knows. Maybe I can shake a few leads loose."

He nodded.

"You've got no more than forty-eight hours," Vale said, "Probably less. I'm stalling at the moment. I told the voice on the phone that the details for some accounts aren't available yet, that they're being worked on others in the office. But I don't think I can hold out much longer."

"Okay, I get it, it's urgent" I replied, "Now run along and let me do my job."

He nodded again, wordlessly, picked up the envelopes and stuffed them back into his pockets, stood up and left the office. I sat smoking my pipe and looking at the business card on the desktop for a long time.

Part 2 Part 4