Ever since the world discovered my sensitivity, it's been throwing shit in my general direction. Everything from missing persons to missing keys, it all winds up splattering against my office door. And that would be fine, if that was where it remained—but the faecal matter trickles down the handle, between the cracks in the paint. Doesn't stop there, it seeps into the wood, saturates, builds up and eventually dribbles down into the carpet, soaking and staining, spreading out and stinking the place out.
I should be happier about having work, be in a better mood, should be grateful, and certainly should not be looking so far down this gift-horse's jaws, I can see what it had for lunch. . . But I haven't smoked a cigarette for three weeks, and can't seem to adjust to the damn vape—so I'm not in the best of fucking moods right now.
Dammit, also trying not to swear so—bloody—much. It's hard. Really f'ing hard. Feels like my vocabulary is being stunted by the lack of expletives, as if the simple act of cutting the bad words out means exorcising all the other, longer ones I know. Most people are lucky to get a two-syllable word out of me, three at the most, four once in a blue bastard moon. On top of that, I've stopped biting my nails, and I've stopped getting punched in the face quite so often.
Nobody should be impressed by that, all of it unintentional.
I by no means want to self-improve, it's like my fuc—my damn subconscious has decided to take my body on a bloody joyride through some wellbeing-wormhole, and I'm locked in the boot, trying desperately to claw my way out.
And yet, as with every bloody thing in my life, I don't fight it. . . because I don't care all that much. There's only been one thing I ever really, truly cared about, one person, and the less said about her the better.
Plus, it is technically better and healthier for me, this subconsciously-enforced health and fitness kick, so why should I try to fight it? Whatever is going on behind the scenes is for the best. Probably. Just have to get through this fuc—this damn aggravation from the constant nicotine withdrawal, which in and of itself doesn't make any bloody sense, because I'm vaping the damn stuff.
Take a breath. Calm the hell down. Running out of time to get the job done. This was meant to be a short case, something to while away the hours before I've got to be at the bloody Palm House to meet Robbo and—my wallet is gone. . .
It was weighing me down, full and heavy with an insane amount of loose change that made it bulge right out of my back pocket for one and all to see, even under my coat. This guy is good, didn't even notice it happening. The lift and pull must have been supernaturally smooth, while I was in motion, so I didn't notice the weight differential as it was taken. I'm in awe.
When the excrement-laden case of a pickpocket fell on my desk with a resounding splat, I thought it was going to be the victim's fault, rather than the work of a genuinely cunning and talented perpetrator. Now I'm looking forward to getting a read on the guy, because it's a skill I've yet to master.
'Yet to master' is an exaggeration. I'm the clumsiest pickpocket there's ever been—a guy with only two ectrodactyly fingers could probably snap a wallet or keys smoother than me, so it's got to the point that I've all but given up attempting it. . . But reading the masterful thief responsible for this case is going to decrease my ineptitude a thousand fold.
As much as I don't like to tempt the gods or Fates by using my sensitivity to add to my skill-set, this is one of those rare exceptions to the new rules I live my life by. After last year's pandemonium opening me up and giving me control, I've had to add extensively to the bullet-points that have been carved into mind's eye since day one. All part of the cursed gift of getting a grip on what sensitivity is, and what it's meant for.
Reach into my pocket and casually pull my keys out, dropping them at my feet. I've got better at this, being subtle, and as I drop down to my knees I serriptitiously lay my fingers on the concrete walkway that leads down from the doors of Lime Street station to the street. Take a moment to prepare myself, because focus is key with large objects like this. All this concrete was poured close to ten years previous, there must have been millions of feet that have walked on it—and given that it's all connected, close to three hundred square feet of surface, it could give me a shake-laden overload, even in this newly reborn state of control.
The concrete is cold, rough to the touch. Got to be fast about this or people are going to start to stare. . . When they start to stare, they start to recognise me from the papers and local news, and before too long I'm fielding idiotic questions from strangers, drawing way too much attention to myself.
Only need to go back a minute, maybe two. Only have to concentrate on the area around me—he would have had to get close, quick and subtle, didn't even use a shoulder-barge or 'distracted' walk into me as a diversion. This is going to be easy as pie, so let's let the memories flow. . .
Pie was an exaggeration.
That's what I get for being so damn cocky. There's a pressure on my spine—hundreds of pressures—all the footsteps that everyone around have taken, walking over me at various hurried paces. It's not pain, not yet, and as long as I concentrate on the task at hand it won't become pain. Got to narrow it down, focus harder.
I'm picking up. . . disgust.
Not real disgust, inanimate objects obviously can't harbour emotions. But it's almost like the concrete is disappointed in itself, or jealous of the station for its legacy, its history. Damn thing is the oldest train terminal of its size still in use anywhere in the world, it has heritage that this new addition out front can't contend with. The dull monotone of its composite materials bonded by cement, they pale in comparison to the beauty of the vast, spectacular ironwork and glass roof that date back to the 19th century. This walkway is an eyesore in comparison.
But this isn't how sensitivity works, I shouldn't be able to pick this up—hell, these memories shouldn't be here at all!
They're not the concrete's memories. . .
I can feel that now. They're peripheral, there are other thoughts in the mix, human ones. Boredom, a malaise at having to churn out the same facts four times a day, every day. Sometimes I—it—they—make things up, slot in a swift “the Cafe Nero booth was added in 1888,” or “The rail lines were initially installed by Midorian dwarves who were sold into slavery by the Dark Elves,” to spice thing up.
This isn't the concrete's memories at all—I'm picking this up off a person, a tour guide, somewhere on the other side of the station. . .
That's been happening every so often, ever since my sensitivity was opened up. Can't control it, not yet, not while I don't understand it. If my intent isn't 100% set on the moment of skin contact, other things connected to whatever I'm touching have started bleed in. Something to experiment with at another time—need to focus on the damn job. I know my shoes, so I'll search for them, feel their imprints and follow that thread of memories. . .
I walked up from Lime Street to the doors of the station, where I stopped, vaped, did a bit of a pace back and forth—which I regret a little now, as I feel each of those steps on my back. Turned on the spot a few times with a flourish of my open coat, trying to show off that heavy back pocket. Made it look like I was enjoying the vape way too much, closing my eyes, relishing the hint of nicotine I allowed myself.
Must have looked like a moron, enjoying the faux-smoke that much. . . But only one set of feet come particularly close to me in those minutes. They practically veer off their previous course to head in my direction.
Has to be the guy, I made myself a cartoonishly easy target.
Can't identify them from the concrete's perspective, hoodie over their face, shrouding it in shadows. But I can see the move to reach into my pocket. It's swift, elegant, the fingers tease at the fold, barely slip more than a centimetre or two in, and come out clutching the wallet.
Reach to my back pocket, doubling-down on my read, to see the whole movement from its perspective—and it truly is masterful. They have their nails grown long, with a curtain hook taped to one of them. That hook is used to loop the inner seam of the wallet for the pull. But that's not all. . . I didn't feel it because they waited for me to turn on the spot before they approached for the pick, heading in for it as my leg was ahead, jeans tight against me, going for the grab as the leg went behind and the fabric was looser. Smart. As far as my arse would know, it had just felt the wallet being there, so I wouldn't notice it until I turned again on the other side of my pace back and forth—giving him fifteen to twenty seconds to get away.
Back to the read of the concrete, I see the underside of the shoes. Trainers, size seven, with more grip than any of my boots have ever had. . . As soon as they did the pull, they veer away from the station at an increasing pace, going faster the further they get from me, down the stairs and on to the street.
Smart move, only gets them caught on a single camera by the doors, even then it'd only be side-on of the hoodie.
There was more intent than that though. . . Their upper body was twisted, side-on to me, intentionally blocking the view of the pull. No way the camera would have caught any of the action, and it was so quick, bystanders wouldn't have noticed it either.
Looks like it's down to sensitivity to save the day.
There's a shiver down my spine that ripples out across my body as I pull out of the read and pick my keys back up. The tingles settle in my fingertips and will remain for five or so minutes. Definitely shouldn't complain, it's nowhere near as awful as the crippling pain and skull-shagging seizures that used to be an innate part of the job. . .
As I shuffle down the stairs to street level, there's a nagging weight on my shoulders. Paranoia. Feels like I'm being watched. Take a quick look around back to the station. Don't see anyone specifically looking in my direction. There's a man on the phone staring in to the station, youngish from his reflection in the glass doors. An old woman is next to him, unconnected, having a smoke and staring at the ground. Neither seem interested in me. . . and yet the feeling persists.
Can't concentrate on that now. Keep going down the stairs and come to a stop. The pavement isn't part of the concrete's read-zone, different composite material, which means I'm going to have to go old school, touching paving slabs to get a read on where the pickpocket was heading.
These days I can technically read the whole street from one slab, it's all the same kind of concrete, all connected. However, this street it's pretty long, pavement goes round the block for maybe a half-mile or more, and I want to be quick about it, not linger on the read. To focus on those footsteps across the whole thing will take time, digging for those soles out of so many. Better to go slab by slab and be sure not to lose them—or give myself one hell of a headache from the weight of millions of feet.
Only problem with a pavement read like this is that subtlety is going to go out the window, just have to hope I don't draw a crowd. . . This is what I get for hubris before going in for the read and getting the lay of the land—thief didn't even leave any intent of their eventual destination on the concrete or my pocket, which either means they were so focussed on the task at hand that they didn't worry about exit strategy, or they're so well-practised that they didn't have to even so much as mull how they were going to get clear of the scene of the crime.
As I get to the bottom of the stairs, I lean down and lay a hand on the first paving stone. Their feet land after taking the stairs two-at-a-time and they head right. No sign of arcing towards the road, they went straight up the block. The rest of this street is one long building, and I eye up the cameras perched on the side of it. They're smart, know not to get caught on them—but as I get closer, the cameras are obviously of no concern to anyone with crime in mind. First has stray wires coming out of the base, the second is pointing at the damn sky, and the last one at the corner of the street was improperly installed, and has swung down under the weight of its own lens to point straight to ground. . . It's almost like the station want crimes to be committed right on their doorstep.
I veer left, out of the limited point-of-view of the third camera and take another feel of the pavement. No sign of the shoes on the slab closest to the road—reach for the second one, and that's got nothing either. Grumble to myself as I continue to look like a lunatic to passers-by, reaching for the third paving stone. That one in has them, the shoes with the perfect damn tread. They stopped there for a moment as a car passed, then took off across the road.
Take a quick read of the tarmac, trying to ignore the pressure as wheels all roll over my skin. They didn't just cross, they veered right, diagonally up the street. They're going past the back entrance of the station, on the opposite side of the street so they're out of view of the cameras. . . But this time, in the midst of the hasty stride, there's a small modicum of intent. A destination pictured in mind's eye.
I know exactly where they're headed.
Turn the corner on the second left, and there it is, The Lord Nelson pub. Hardly a hive of scum and villainy, just an average drinking establishment that's kept running solely on its proximity to the O2 Academy that sits directly next to it. They sporadically have sniffer dogs going up and down the line at the venue, but never at the pub, which makes it the perfect place for the goths and clubbers to do their pre-show coke and pill combinations.
As I sidle up to the doors, I take a read of them. Might have to be subtle when I'm inside, so best to get the overt use of sensitivity out the way right now. The door has swung open hundreds of thousands of times, but only once in the last minute, and once I've picked out their fingers on the door handle, I can 'Google' it for the other times he's been there. And he's quite the regular—this is where he always comes to go through his spoils.
Except I've been wrong all this time. . . Or not wrong, but my preconceived notions were getting in the way of paying proper attention to the read. Idiot.
Push through the doors and head straight to the table occupied by the pickpocket, who's now shed the hoodie to reveal delicate features: a young face with heavy bags under bright blue eyes, long blonde hair that's got a natural waviness to it, upper body encased in a low cut black top that's so tight it looks as though it constricts blood flow to her sizeable assets. No wonder she hasn't been caught. . . Statistically, most pickpockets are men—plus, the client referred to the criminal as 'he'. If I hadn't been using my sensitivity to get this far, even if I had tracked them down to the pub, I would have totally overlooked her.
She's trying to be as subtle as possible whilst going through my wallet—although she's less successful at being subtle about how annoyed she is to discover it's only full of change and has no cards or notes to make it worth the effort.
“Can I have that back?” I ask as I take a seat opposite. There's a wry undercurrent to the words that seems to go unnoticed amidst her shock at my presence.
“The wallet. Cheap as it is, kinda need it with the dumb plastic notes. . . With so many robot checkouts at stores the days, can't just keep them in a pocket, they get messed up when they're folded, and get rejected—“
“But. . . ”
“How did I find you?”
A nod is the only response I get to the question, accompanied by wide, confused eyes, and a quick glance to the door for impending police presence.
“Detective, got hired to track you down.”
She shifts in the booth, gaze darting to the door. This time it's not about fear of police, she's considering a hasty exit.
I shake my head. “No point running. I'll only follow you home, and if it comes to that, I'll bring the police in tow.”
“You're not police?”
I point to the wallet and checks through the inner pockets, finding a business card tucked away in the deepest one.
“Ballard Investigations,” she reads. “Private detective?”
I put my hand out gesturing for the wallet and she stretches her arm to pass it over, the motion underscored with by a barely-suppressed groan.
As I reach for it, I let my fingers meet hers. It's a violation, I know. Rule one is to never read anyone without their permission—but I'm not going to read, not really. I just want to borrow that talent for picking a pocket. Of course, nothing is ever so bloody simple. And it's not just the skill that I garner. . .
Marnie, that's her name. She's a mother, a single mother. Her partner left when she found out she was pregnant. I hate myself for having accidentally stolen that information.
She's always been smart, and always been nimble. Between the pickpocketing and some CraigsList scams, she's earning more than she ever did in her last job—but she's not some career criminal mastermind, and certainly isn't doing this because she's too lazy to get another job. Life has pushed her on this path because of events out of her control.
All the jobs she's been offered at agencies and the Job Centre pale in comparison to her previous salary, let alone what she makes now. And having twins is expensive. . . Way more expensive than I had ever thought. Always knew kids were a financial burden—one of the myriad reasons I've come to the conclusion that I should never have them. But even with benefits, she'd be on the damn breadline if it wasn't for stepping outside of the legal realm of employment.
Worse still, she can never go back to her old career, not at her previous workplace, nor anywhere else that does similar activities in the city—she's been informally blacklisted. It wasn't her fault, it was retribution, all because she called her old boss out for sexual harassment, with many examples of unwanted advances and inappropriate touching in the workplace.
And I'm familiar with her boss all too well. . .
“You worked in the mayor's office,” I say, as I take it from her and return the now-annoyingly-folded notes from my pocket, before slipping the wallet into my jeans.
Her lips part, but she has no words.
Nor should she. That's a fact I shouldn't have.
“He. . . Well, 'harassed' covers it. And when you called him out on his gross actions, he did everything within his power to make you suffer. It wasn't just firing you or blacklisting you, he implied trumped-up charges of you stealing council funds—even though that's a crime he's been responsible for ever since he got his fat arse into office.”
She swallows hard, but still doesn't have the capacity to reply.
“I'm not here to get you arrested, you don't deserve that, not by a long shot. You're only trying to look after your girls. . . “
“So,” she croaks over a lump in her throat, “why are you here?”
“You took my client's wallet a day ago, had a picture in it.“
She's breathless, eyes heavy with regret. Her lip quivers and she chokes up two words: “the kid.”
I nod. “Died of leukaemia four years ago, but he carries it with him, sees it every time he opens his wallet. It's the happiest his little boy ever was, just before the disease began to take hold and ravage him, taken just after he said his first word. It's the only copy he had, and—”
Before I can explain further, she's pulling something out, sliding it across the table. It's the photo, edges crudely cut years previous to make it fit in the wallet's clear inner sleeve.
“I couldn't throw it out.” Her eyes are glassy now. This could all be an act, trying to gain sympathy or something, but it doesn't feel like an act. “I just couldn't. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was important, that it meant something. I was going to take it to the station, hand it in at the lost and found, but I didn't want to do it myself—“
“In case they caught you on camera, linked you to the litany of pickpocketing.”
She sniffs and muffles a sound in the affirmative.
“Are you going to. . . ” she trails off and tilts her head, pushing her shoulders back and chest out as she does so. The genuine emotion is sidelined in an instant, and now her body language is all business, reluctantly trying to use feminine wiles convince me to let her go. This isn't her, not how she'd normally act. This is what the situation has turned her into.
“I'm not going to call the cops on you, no. You don't need to convince me of that. But I. . . “ Not sure how to phrase my request, I suck at this stuff. “I need you to express more judgement when picking your victims. Keep to anyone that looks like an elite human ballbag, anyone that sounds like they went to Eton, you know the sort. Avoid parents, avoid anyone that doesn't look like they have a six-figure salary. Personally, I'd use the cut of suits and shine of shoes as a guide.”
She raises an eyebrow at my request. Think I've thrown her for a loop by encouraging her criminal endeavours to be more targeted.
“I know you're not going to change your ways based on this conversation. . . Not with the situation being what it is. They'll have more cash on them anyway, so you know it makes more sense based on the risk involved—and to be honest, no other detective in the city is going to be able to track you down like I did. You're really good at covering your tracks, but you might want to alter your destinations, switch up the routes, wear gloves when you touch door handles, have a change of clothes beyond the one hoodie.” That puts a smile on her lips which seems to skirt the line between embarrassment and pride. “And the guys you scam on CraigsList, they totally deserve it, given that they think they're talking to some amorous teenager. You're smart enough to use Tor and a VPN to hide your location from them, not to mention your activities from your ISP, so there's little to no chance of it coming back to bite you. Frankly, I'm all for it. But in exchange for letting you go, I want you to do me one favour. . .”
“What? What kind of favour?”
Here's the big pitch. Done this enough times that hopefully I can't screw up the wording and freak her out.
“I'm slowly putting a case together against the mayor. Not just for the rampant sexual harassment, but the bribes and misuse or misplacement of funds too. It might take a little while, but he's going to go down for all of it. . . All I ask is that when the time comes, I need you to answer my call, put your testimony on the record, and together we'll see the bastard go down.”
Once again, she's stunned to silence.
“In the meantime, I'm going to do what I can to try to find you work that's a little more on the legal side of the fence. . . You need at least thirty-five grand to keep a roof over your kids head and keep them fed and clothed—God knows how you managed to pickpocket and scam that much—but I'll aim for that, okay? Mayor's influence only stretches so far, and people from all over the city owe me. . . ”
She breaks off eye contact, scanning the table as she tries to form a response. Totally get where she's coming from. Don't think I'd be this eloquent if it wasn't for the adrenaline boost of pure rage I've got for the mayor's misdeeds.
“Why would you do this?” she finally says, practically muttering the words under her breath.
I shrug, which is as honest a response as it gets. When I sat down I was all ready to call Robbo and get her locked up. It's not just the mayor stuff, something changed when I read her. I changed.
Her emotions were transferred to me when my fingers met her. I understand the love she has for her children, the lengths she would go to for them. They're lengths I'd be willing to go for them. I know what it felt like to have the grotesque toad of a mayor leering at her, what it was like to have his fat, callused fingers grate across her skin as he touched her. In that moment—more so than any other previous—I understand the MeToo movement all too well. Sure, I've seen this kind of thing a hundred times over, a thousand even, but this is the first time I've read a woman who suffered under male abuse of power since that whole thing kicked off.
“It's the right thing to do,” I say, hoping it doesn't come off as a complete and utter lie.
“Are you. . . How is your case going, the one for the mayor?”
I scoff at the use of the word 'case'. She's using the word I chose, and even then it was an exaggeration. I've got a couple of people lined up that have similar experiences to her, a couple that have seen the council's real accounts before they've been doctored, but no concrete proof, not yet. Only reads, and sensitivity doesn't hold up in court.
But one day soon, I'm going to hit pay-dirt. And when I do, the fat bastard is going down once and for all.
Bought Marnie a drink to calm her nerves, and one drink turned into four. As much as I'm in a cycle of accidental self-improvement, drinking is the one vice I just can't shake for more than a few days—and those few days are only sober because I literally forget to drink—and I only forget because, at that point, I've managed to empty the bottles and decanters in the house and office, and I'm too lazy to replace or refill them.
By the time I left, she was calmer, in a better mood, and those four drinks were the Dutch courage she needed to agree wholeheartedly to give her testimony when necessary. Of course, whether she'll feel that way when it comes to the day itself is another thing entirely. . .
Didn't mean to spend that damn long on this case, and because it turned into an attempt to get another witness involved in my peripheral 'mission', that screwed up my plans for the rest of the day.
Managed to run to the office, change into the suit I had left there, knowing I'd inevitably be running late. By the time I got my clothes off, the Uber was outside, charging me by the minute as my star rating dwindled with every passing second—but then again, Uber is another thing I need to quit, so eventually being barred from using them isn't necessarily a bad thing. . .
Finally dressed, I run down the stairs, knowing that the creaking deathtrap of an elevator would probably take longer than the damn car ride to get up to my floor, let alone the time it would take to get back down to the ground level. Just as I get to the doors, do a quick check of my fly and discover that it's wide open, shirt corners hanging out like a two-dimensional, bifurcated ghost penis. Already running late, decide to deal with it in the car, along with the myriad dings and pings that underscored my costume change.
There are a myriad texts and WhatsApp messages that are awaiting my attention over the twelve-minute journey to the Palm House. Each of them inquiring where the hell I am in increasingly colourful language. Try to suppress the envy that everyone else gets to use curse words, whilst I've relegated myself to PG-13 dialogue. . .
Only forty-five minutes late by the time the car pulls in. Run up to the doors, muttering my name to the security behemoths, and then again concierge. Both look at me with a furrowed brow that implies I don't belong there, unshaven and stinking of whisky-breath—but I'm on the list, so they can't object. Smile sarcastically as they welcome me with reluctance, and I take a look at the seating chart as I step into the venue, trying to work out where the hell everything is in relation to the crudely-drawn diagram.
My timing, as always, is perfect, and I step into the fray just as the first course being taken away, a flock of waiters insistent on pirouetting in front of me as I approach the table occupied by Robbo and the others.
“Sorry I'm late, been on important PI business” he says, mocking my accent as he knocks back a mime-glass of booze.
“It's not all drinking on the job. . . ” I grunt, as I take my seat.
“It's just mostly drinking on the job.”
“Prefer to think of it as a perk of self-employment.”
“That's not what your liver will say in a few years.”
“Oh hush!” Sali barks, grabbing my arm. “His liver is sturdier than you give it credit for—“
“You're a bad influence on him,” Robbo chuckles, as she pours me a glass of wine that ends up full to the brim.
“I'm the best influence. . . And I haven't tried to skin him alive, so in the grand scheme I'm much better than his previous partners!”
Robbo's gaze shoots to me before he lets out a forced laugh, and I do the same. In our relatively short time together, Sali hasn't quite understood the scope of that whole affair. . . It's not like it comes up all that often, but when it does, I honestly don't know what to say. Tried to be honest at first and explain it to her—but I'm not sure I can even explain it to myself, let alone anyone else.
There's still a part of me that's still in love with her, a big part—but we can't be together, leas of all because she's locked away. Plus, she wants me to date, to have relationships, to experience life in full. . . and so here I am, in public, with a date. Doing what I'm told more than actually being in the moment.
As I begin to down the wine, it became apparent that my stomach is raw and empty of food—but full of butterflies. Not used to this kind of thing, nerves are coming over me in a most unusual fashion. Need to get over this, especially given what's to come.
Decide to lay my hand on the tablecloth. It will have been through this kind of thing more times than me—hell, even once will be more times than I've ever been in this damn situation. And there'll have been an untold number of people that have touched it, that will have left sense memories of their confidence. Hopefully, I'll be able to borrow that swagger and wear as my own. . .
Searing water scalds my skin, soaking me through to the bone, boiling me from the inside out. I'm rolling and tumbling, going round and round, intertwined with hundreds of others, each of us thrashing desperately.
Damn wine, made me totally miss-focus the read because I noticed a stain on the tablecloth as I let the memories wash over me. . . Got to get back on track.
I've been used for so many shows like this, years of them, and every time I try to jump from one to the next, I get a glimpse of the washes in-between, or feel the searing pressure of an iron on my hide.
Turns out I was wrong on so many levels.
All those uses, with thousands of people that have sat down around me and laid their sweaty palms on my body, there's not a single one of them in my position that's chilled out. Seems that most folk facing this kind of thing are anxious, even if we all know there's nothing to be anxious about, even if some of us love public speaking. . .
Try, and try again to trawl through the memories imprinted into the cotton, but other than being folded up all too often for a not-too-subtle cocaine-aided ego boost, there was always some form of nerves floating around.
Pull out of the read, with barely a gasp emanating from my lips. Pretty sure I got away with it, nobody around me seems any the wiser that I vanished for a moment.