Loss by Miles Woolcock

Lila met Mr Hocking by the steps of Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common and they walked along Rectory Grove to the Sultan Cafe and sat in a booth at the back. The cafe was warm inside and the windows were clouded with steam, the wooden sill beneath swollen and blistered from the damp. An elderly man at a table by the window looked up when they came in and regarded them with mild curiosity. He rubbed his sleeve on the glass and peered out into the morning cold like some grizzled watchman sentineled over the empty street.

Lila removed her scarf and hat and placed them on the seat beside her. She kept her coat on and when she caught him staring she told him that she felt the cold more than most people did.

‘Bad circulation,’ she said, almost apologetically.

They ordered tea and eggs and toast. The waitress didn't write down the order, she nodded when they were done and disappeared through the saloon doors into the kitchen. Mr Hocking slid the menu back between the bottle of ketchup and napkin dispenser. His hand tremoring as he did so.

‘It’s the medication,’ he said.

‘You sound embarrassed.’

‘Well, I am. That stuff gets to me.’

‘Okay.’

Two workmen came in and sat at a table across from theirs. Mr Hocking watched them. One of the men nodded to him politely as he drew out his chair to sit down and he nodded back. Both men sat forward, resting their elbows on the table. Staring at their mobile phones, wordlessly.

The waitress brought their mugs of tea and set down two spoons beside them. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ she said, glancing at Lila.

‘Can we get some more milk?’

‘Sure.’

Mr Hocking smiled and nodded to her as she left.

Lila stirred the black tea, thinking. It was only after a while that she realised he was murmuring under his breath. She said, ‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine. I’m just collecting my thoughts. It’s been a long time, you see.’ He folded his hands over the tabletop. Watching her. After a while he spoke, ‘I suppose I should start at the beginning.’ And so Mr Hocking, the frail and unassuming elderly man she had been visiting and reading to for eight months now, began regaling the story of the time he had a shot and killed a woman outside the Flamingo nightclub on Carnaby Street in 1952.

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Sherlock of the West

The stagecoach pulled up in a cloud of dust, the coachman reining in the steaming horses with an oath. He jumped down, spat into the conveniently placed spittoon, and opened the stagecoach door.

“Help you down, Ma’am,” he said, his moustaches quivering appreciatively.

“Thank you.” Clara Belle descended into the arid atmosphere of Gorey Creek, looking like a dewy rose in a desert.

A young lady of some twenty-five summers, her glossy chestnut hair was swept back into a knot at the nape of her slender white neck. She lifted her long skirt slightly as she climbed down, to reveal starched white petticoats and buttoned boots.

Clara waited patiently as the driver swung down her trunk from the luggage rack on the roof, and then extracted a dollar from the purse attached to her slim wrist as a tip.

Her fine blue eyes surveyed the town. On the whole, she decided she liked what she saw.

Gorey Creek was an up-and-coming township in America’s mid-west. There were several similar settlements dotted around the county, becoming prosperous by the region’s rich gold seams and enormous cattle ranches. Yes, Clara thought, Gorey Creek would suit her and her business very well indeed.

She left her trunk in situ, and crossed the road to a large and noisy saloon bar.

Pushing open the swinging doors, she walked in. The noise was turned off, as if by a tap. Unperturbed, Clara walked briskly to the bar.

“Good day, bartender. Can you tell me where to find Mr Walter Stoner, please?”

Cowboys, ranch-hands and saloon girls turned and looked at each other in astonishment, but it seemed the bartender was used to out-of-the-way questions.

“Large house on the edge of town,” he replied, laconically. He nodded the direction. “Name of Star Creek Ranch. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you. May I rent a room here for a few days, please? My trunk is across the road.”

“Sure.” He reached behind the bar and brought out a register and a key. “Name and address?”

“Miss Clara Belle, England.” There was a hum of excitement and interest behind her, like someone had stirred a hornet’s nest.

The bartender passed her a key. “Room 8. I’ll have your trunk brought up.”

Clara, smiling sweetly at a couple of cowboys who were regarding her with open mouths, ascended the stairs. She was followed by the bartender’s assistant carrying her trunk. After testing her bed, she re-powdered her face, and set off to explore the town.

Outside, she located the Sheriff’s office and marched in. The Sheriff was talking to his deputy, and both men jumped to their feet when they saw Clara.

She quickly sized them up. Mmm, yes. The tall, good-looking one is the Sheriff. His deputy looks keen – might be after his job. Aloud, she said,

“My name is Clara Belle. I intend to set up business in this town as a private investigator. I thought it only fair to warn you. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes!”

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