Catching up

Esther was beginning to worry about where Alfie had got to. She’d been standing by the track for ten minutes on her own; it didn’t take Alfie that long to place a bet, even if he was being spectacularly indecisive. Something had got into him: he didn’t usually get grumpy like that when he was drinking. Then again, it had been a year since they’d seen each other – maybe he’d changed. A year? Maybe it was two years. It was hard to keep track. Maybe she’d had too much to drink –

She spotted Alfie coming back out of the stands, next to a Chinese man in a black jacket. Alfie looked like he was about to throw up. The man was guiding him through the crowd, one arm on his back. Esther walked over to see what was going on.

“Alfie?”

“Esther – go. Just go – ”

“I think you’d better come with us, miss” said the Chinese guy. The accent confused her – he sounded like a Brummie, his vowels flat and slightly drawn out. She’d flown to Hong Kong, and ended up in Birmingham. She gave out a little giggle.

“It’s not funny” said Alfie. “Just go -”

“No.” The voice was decisive, quite clear, completely lacking in any humour. “You’ll be coming with us. This is police business. Muck around, and I’ll have you arrested quicker than you can think.” Mutely, she acquiesced.

“Alfie, what have you done?”

“Quiet,” the Chinese man snapped. He ushered them through the crowd, flashed a pass at a security guard, passed through a door, and then moments later they were on the street outside the racecourse, the yells and cheers of the crowd a distant reminder of the fun they were meant to be having.

“Who is she?” Esther was taken aback.

“You can talk to me. I do have a voice of my own.”

“That’s my sishter” Alfie slurred.

“Does she know what you’re up to?”

“Hey! I am here, you know! I can hear what you’re saying.”

“I wasn’t talking to you” the Chinese man said. “So how about you keep your mouth shut for a minute, eh?”

“You can’t talk to me like that.” Esther felt like she was about to start screaming at the man, tried to compose herself. “What do you want with us?”

“Your – your brother here, he’s mixed up in some pretty serious illegal activities, right? I’m just trying to find out if he knew about what he was doing for these other people, and I’d appreciate you not interrupting while I get some answers out of him.”

“Alfie? What the hell have you been doing?”

Alfie was a combination of guilty and confused, like a … well, like a drunk bloke. She sized up the Chinese guy. He didn’t look particularly like a policeman, now she thought about it. Police tended to have big uniforms, and hats … yes, hats. This man didn’t have a hat.

“Are you sure you’re a policeman?”

He shushed her. “Madam, you’re drunk, and I think you and your brother here are in some considerable danger. We need to move you right now.” He raised his arm, flagged down a taxi.

“We’re going in a taxi? Where are we going? Why aren’t we taking a police … car?”

“Ess” said Alfie.

“What?”

“Just get in the taxi. I don’t think we want to start any trouble.”

The Chinese guy spoke to the taxi driver, and the car sped off.

“Where are we going?”

“Ess, it doesn’t matter …”

“No, it does matter. Who the hell are you? Why are we doing what you tell us? How do I even know you’re a policeman?”

“Madam, I assure you that I am a member of the Hong Kong Police Force, and you can trust me.” He looked fairly revolted, stuck up against the two of them in the back of the cab.

“If you’re a Hong Kong policeman, how come you sound like a Brummie?”

“You don’t need to sound so triumphant” he said, wearily. “Just because you can tell that I grew up in Walsall doesn’t mean that you are suddenly some genius and you’re perfectly safe to go.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh.”

They sat there in the taxi, not uttering a word for several minutes. The car drove up and away from the race course, through a street bright with shop lights, and then up a steep hill, the driver pushing the gear stick back and forth as he ground up the incline. Alfie groaned.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“We can’t stop now” said the Chinese guy. He said something to the driver, and the car sped up, taking the next bend at an alarming speed. Alfie made unhealthy noises.

“I’m really … going to be sick.” Alfie clutched the man’s arm.

“Ok, ok.” Something else to the driver, and the car veered to a sudden halt at the side of the road. The left rear door swung open, and Esther fell half-way out of the car.

“What the – Don’t the doors of these cars stay shut?”

Alfie clambered out over the top of her and went down on all fours in the gutter, vomitting hard. The Chinese guy poked his head out of the door, looked around.

“I said, don’t the doors of these cars stay shut?”

“It’s a design feature. The driver opened it for your convenience.”

“Convenience? What, so I can fall out of the taxi and bust myself on the floor?”

He shook his head, rubbed his face with his hand. “Usually, they’re catering to a clientele that aren’t quite as drunk as the pair of you. How much have you had to drink anyway?”

More liquid sounds from Alfie.

“I don’t know” she said. “We’ve been drinking all day. You tend to lose track. Is that any of your business?”

“He didn’t explain?”

“Explain what?”

“Get in the car.” He got out and prodded Alfie with his foot. “Come on, you must be empty now. We need to get going.” Alfie stood up, reluctantly, stooping like a broken-backed old man, and hobbled to the taxi. The Chinese guy put one hand on his shoulder and gently lowered him until he was low enough to get inside, then followed him into the car. The door shut and the taxi sped off again.

“Well?”

The taxi sped over an excuse for a roundabout, veered up the hill, onto a wider road.

“We were called to your brother’s building last night, to find a man who has been missing for the past six months, dead at the bottom of his stairs, in rather suspicious circumstances.”

“What – Alfie? What was happening? Was that why your flat – the police tape – ?”

Alfie shuddered, didn’t say anything.

“Ah. So you really didn’t update your sister on what you’ve been up to?”

“I haven’t been up to anything” he murmured.

“That’s right,” Esther joined in. “Alfie wouldn’t harm a fly. What do you mean, suspicious circumstances?”

“Miss Bruton-Jones, perhaps we shouldn’t say too much at this point. The man we found dead at your brother’s building, he had certain associates. Not good people to know.”

“I called you,” Alfie groaned. “I called you.”

“See,” said Esther. “He called you – why would he do that if he was guilty of anything?”

“Sometimes people just need to confess.”

“But he’s got nothing to confess” she protested.

“Everyone has something to confess. But that’s irrelevant. My boss told me to let your brother go.”

“Well there you are then. If your boss says he’s innocent -”

“He didn’t say anything about innocence. In fact, he had a man follow your brother all day today.”

Esther was nonplussed.

“Ah. I see maybe you’re not sure what to say to that. Well, you were being followed all day today, until the man my boss put on the two of you decided to pick a fight with your brother in the toilets of the race course.”

“Alfie? Is this true?”

“He told me … to go fu-”

“I’m not entirely sure what my boss is thinking of here, but he’s been behaving suspiciously for some time. I could only assume that your brother was involved with him in some way.”

“But then why would they fight?”

“It was about then I began to doubt that your brother and my boss were in cahoots.”

“Well, obviously. But why – what’s Alfie got to do with any of this?”

“I’m not sure. Yet. My partner is out trying to get more evidence right now.”

“So where are we going?”

“I’m going to try to hide you somewhere.”

The taxi reached the top of the hill, began to descend to the south side of the island. The bright lights of the north side were behind them; although the apartment blocks they sped past were still let up, this side of the island was much darker.

“Where are you going to hide us?”

“Somewhere safe.”

“Safe?”

“Trust me, I’m a policeman.”

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