Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn’t be too late. The bus driver was keeping the bus at a steady 15 mph, braking at every approaching green light until it turned red. She closed her eyes and continued the journey in her head as slowly as she could. She opened them, but still the bus lagged far behind her worst projection. Pedestrians overtook them; the driver whistled.
She looked at the other passengers and tried to deduce their activities for the day. Most were pensioners; she counted four instances of the same huge blue-checked shopping bag. She made a note of this occurrence in her pad; she knew better than to believe in coincidences.
She read the adverts on the bus. Most were seeking advertisers: If you’re reading this, then so could your customers. She wondered if any of the passengers ever took out advertising space on the bus, and what they would advertise if they did.
Come and enjoy my big blue-checked shopping bag; it is filled with cat food.
I will talk to anyone about anything. I also eat biscuits.
Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, officially recognized brewers of the world’s strongest tea. "We squeeze the bag."
I smell strange, but not unpleasantly.
Kate thought she would like to take out an advert for the agency. The image would be a silhouette of her and Mickey within the lens of a magnifying glass. Below, it would say:
Clues found. Suspects trailed. Crimes detected.
Visit our office equipped with the latest surveillance equipment.
She made another note in her pad of the phone number on the advert, to be rung at some later date when the office was fully operational.
Eventually the bus reached the landscaped lawns and forlorn, fluttering flags of the light-industrial park that surrounded the newly opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. She paid particular attention to Unit 15 on the Langsdale Industrial Estate, where she had once witnessed what seemed to be an argument between two men. One man had a large mustache, the other wore sunglasses and no jacket on what had been a cold day; she’d thought they both looked of criminal character. After some deliberation and subsequent sightings of a large white van outside the unit, she had come to the conclusion that the two men were trafficking in diamonds. Today all was quiet at the unit.
She opened her pad at a page with Unit 15 Surveillance written at the top. Next to that day’s date she wrote, in the slightly jerky bus writing that dominated the page: No sighting. Collecting another shipment from Holland?
Fifteen minutes later, Kate was walking through the processed air of the Market Place of Green Oaks. Market Place wasn’t a marketplace. It was the subterranean part of the shopping center, next to the bus terminals, reserved for the inexpensive low-end stores: fancy goods, cheap chemists, fake perfume sellers, stinking butchers, flammable-clothes vendors. Their smells mingled with the smell of burnt dust from the over-door heaters and made her feel sick. This was as far as most of Kate’s fellow passengers ventured into the center. It was the closest approximation of the tatty old High Street, which had suffered a rapid decline since the center had opened. Now when the bus drove up the High Street, no one liked to look at the reproachful boarded-up doorways filled with fast-food debris and leaves.
She realized it was Wednesday and she’d forgotten to buy that week’s copy of the Beano from her usual newsagent. She had no choice but to go to the dingy kiosk in the center to get it. Afterward she stood and looked again at a current True Detective magazine on the shelf. The woman on the front didn’t look like a detective. She was wearing a fedora and a raincoat . . . but nothing else. She looked like someone from a Benny Hill sketch. Kate didn’t like it.
She rode the escalator up to the ground floor, where the proper shops, fountains, and plastic palms began. It was the school holidays, but too early to be busy. None of her classmates was allowed to go to the center without their parents. Sometimes she’d bump into a family group with one of her peers in tow and would exchange awkward greetings. She had picked up a sense that adults tended to be uncomfortable with her solo trips out and about, so now whenever questioned by shop assistant, security guard, or parent she would always imply that an unspecified adult relative was nearby in another store. Largely, though, no one questioned her; in fact, no one ever really seemed to see her at all. Sometimes Kate thought she was invisible.
It was 9:30 a.m. She retrieved her laboriously typewritten agenda from her back pocket:
9:30–10:45 Tandy: research walkie-talkies and microphones
10:45–12:00 General center surveillance
12:00–12:45 Lunch at Vanezi’s
12:45–1:30 Midland Educational: look at ink pads for fingerprinting
1:30–3:30 Surveillance near banks
3:30 Bus home
Kate hurried on to Tandy.
She was flustered to arrive at Vanezi’s restaurant a good twenty minutes past noon. This was not the way a professional operated. This was sloppy. She waited by the door to be seated, though she could see her table was still free. The usual lady took her to the usual place and Kate slid into the orange plastic booth, which offered a view out over the main atrium of the center.
"Do you need to see the menu today?" asked the waitress.
"No, thanks. Can I have the Children’s Special please with a banana float? And can I not have any cucumber on the beefburger, please?"
"It’s not cucumber, it’s gherkin, love."
Kate made a note of this in her pad: Gherkins/cucumbers— not same thing: research difference. She’d hate to blow her cover on a stateside mission with a stupid error like that.
Kate looked at the big plastic tomato-shaped ketchup dispenser on her table. It was one of her favorite things; it made total sense.
At school last term, Paul Roberts had read out his essay, "The Best Birthday Ever," which culminated in his grandparents and parents taking him out to Vanezi’s for dinner. He spoke of eating spaghetti with meatballs, which for some reason he and everyone else in the class had found funny. He was still excited as he rushed through his story of drinking ice-cream floats and ordering a Knickerbocker Glory. He said it was brilliant.
Kate couldn’t understand why he didn’t just go there himself on a Saturday lunchtime if he liked it so much. She could even take him the first time and tell him the best place to sit. She could show him the little panel on the wall that you could slide back to reveal all the dirty plates passing by on a conveyor belt. She could tell him how one day she hoped to place some kind of auto-shutter-action camera on the belt, which could travel around the entire restaurant taking surveillance shots unseen, before returning to Kate. She could point out the washing-up man who she thought might be murderous, and perhaps Paul could help her stake him out. She could maybe invite him to join the agency (if Mickey approved). But she didn’t say anything. She just wondered.
She glanced around to check that no one could see; then she reached into her bag and pulled out Mickey. She sat him next to her by the window, so the waitress wouldn’t notice, and where he had a good view of the people below. She was training Mickey up to be her partner in the agency. Generally Mickey just did surveillance work. He was small enough to be unobtrusive despite his rather outlandish getup. Kate liked Mickey’s outfit, even though it meant he didn’t blend in as well as he might. He wore a pin-striped gangster suit with spats. The spats slightly spoiled the Sam Spade effect, but Kate liked them anyway; in fact she wanted a pair herself.
Mickey had been made from a craft kit called Sew Your Own Charlie Chimp the Gangster, given to Kate by an auntie. Charlie had languished along with all of Kate’s other soft toys throughout most of her childhood, but when she’d started up the detective agency last year she thought he looked the part. The name Charlie Chimp was no good, though. Instead he became Mickey the Monkey. Kate would run through their agenda with him each morning, and he always traveled with her in the canvas army-surplus bag.
The waitress brought the order. Kate ate the burger and perused the first Beano of the new year, while Mickey kept a steady eye on some suspicious teenagers below.
Excerpted from What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
Copyright © 2007 by Catherine O’Flynn
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Catherine O'Flynn's is the author of The News Where You Are and What Was Lost, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2007, was short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award, and was long-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Birmingham, England.