This is an excerpt from the notebooks of Anastasia Throbb, ace reporter, and presenter of the prime-time magazine show The Throbbing City.
Sam Nero didn’t want to meet with me. It took six months of poking and prodding, and outright bribery before I found a man who was both willing and able to lean on this most archetypal of private investigators and make him talk to me. In the end, a friend of a friend introduced me to a man who goes by the name of O’Halleran, who promised me an hour of Sam’s time. Rather to my surprise, it even seemed as if he was going to deliver.
He sent two huge mutes to my office and they escorted me to a back-street diner where a sullen-faced waitress stuck me in a booth and stopped chewing gum for long enough to mouth “sit”. I sat and waited, concealing my growing impatience as best as possible. I was just about to make as dignified an exit as I could when a shadow fell across the table.
“Miss Throbb, I presume.” The voice was lazily amused.
I turned and got my first look at Sam Nero in the flesh. He was about six three, maybe six four, wide at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, and his face looked as if it had been designed to meet the expectations of every pre-pubescent female in the city. It was hard, and sculpted, and sported what I could only assume was a permanent five o’clock shadow. I turned my attention to his companion, a lush-bodied bottle blonde who looked at me as if she could discern my innermost secrets. I think I hated her on sight.
They slipped into the booth opposite me, and something about the pair of them set the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. For a moment I was floundering, then I realised what had spooked me. There were two of them, but only one shadow. While my flesh was still crawling, the waitress appeared with a pot of coffee and two tall mugs. She put a mug in front of Nero and one in front of me before favouring me with a sneer and sloping off.
“Doesn’t your lady friend get coffee?”
The voice that responded was feminine and breathy and sounded to me as if it had been honed over a lot of years of practice.
“I never touch the stuff. Ruins the complexion.”
Then Nero laughed. It was a deep sound that sent little shivers running around all sorts of inappropriate parts of my anatomy.
“I was being nice, Sam. You should know that.”
She laid a red-nailed and possessive paw on his forearm and he smiled.
“Sure you were being nice, Sugar. I’d just like to keep it that way.”
“Sugar?” I think my voice went up an octave, I mean what sort of a prehistoric monster calls his woman sugar?
“It’s my name. Sugar Kane. That’s Miss Kane to you.”
Mentally cursing my luck I turned my most winsome smile on Mister Nero.
“Sam,” I said. “May I call you Sam?”
He raised a lazy eyebrow and looked me up and down for a moment before laughing that damnably sexy laugh again.
“I guess so. It’s what Ma Nero named her little boy.”
“Is it really? I mean I can find no record of a family called Nero, let alone a male child called. Samuel?”
“Nah. Just Sam. And where I was born nobody keeps records.”
“And Miss Kane. Where and when was your sidekick born?”
“That ain’t the sort of question a gentleman asks a lady. Not if he wants to keep wearing his face. You can ask if you are that stupid.”
I looked into his companion’s icy eyes and quickly framed another question.
“The first record I can find of a Sam Nero is about four decades ago when a licence to operate as a private detective was granted. Would that be you?”
“The age of the applicant is stated as being forty-two.”
“Sounds a responsible sort of age to me. What say you Sugar?”
They exchanged a look of such naked trust that for a second even I felt de trop. But I pressed on.
“But that can’t be you, Mister Nero. If it was you would be in your eighties by now. And you don’t look like an eighty-year-old man to me.”
“Neither he does.” The blonde seemed to be laughing at me, and I didn’t like the sensation one little bit.
I made my voice hard and assertive.
“In my book, Mister Nero, that makes you an impostor. I’m sure the authorities would love to look at my findings and throw you into jail for a good long time.” I leaned forward and slapped the palms of my hands on the table hard enough to sting.
“Think again, sweetheart. The authorities as you so sweetly call them know precisely who I am. Next question.”
He took a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes out of his pocket and lit up.
“I do not care for tobacco smoke,” I said icily.
Nero sneered at me.
“Door’s over there. Make sure it doesn’t hit your ass on the way out.”
I was incensed, but some vestige of intelligence stopped me leaving. This was my only chance to persuade an icon of old-school cops and robbers violence onto my show so I swallowed my bile and tried for a forgiving smile. The obnoxious Sugar shrugged her shoulders and her rather overblown assets jiggled.
“I think the lady has decided to forgive you.”
He grinned lazily, and twitched a mobile eyebrow, sending my hormone count soaring yet again. This man was hot, hot and dangerous. I needed him to boost my flagging ratings, and maybe for the odd other job or two.
I set myself to charm him, sipping my coffee and running my tongue along my lower lip. He watched with what I can only describe as detached amusement, and I felt my anger begin to rise up once more.
“What’s with you Nero?” I snapped. “You come here sneering, and looking down your nose at me…”
He leaned back and crossed his long long legs.
“Wasn’t me asked for this meet. Suck it up.”
I drew in a breath and tried for calm.
“Fair point Mister Nero. I asked to meet you.”
The blonde bombshell laughed huskily.
“I think the lady is after your body, Sam.”
“Why’d that be Sugar?”
“As if you didn’t know, big boy.”
“And as if you didn’t know old Sam’s heart is yours alone.”
It seemed to me as if they had completely forgotten my existence and I rapped my nails against the crazed china of my mug.
“I’m still here,” I grated.
“Why so you are.” Nero looked me up and down a bit more, and the silent insult in his stare had the blood rushing to my face and I blushed for possibly the first time in two decades.
“Why are you being like this? You have been chauvinistic, unpleasant and downright rude. Why? What have I ever done to you?”
He got up from his seat and looked down at me with a most peculiar expression on his face.
“It’s not always about you. I am what I am. How I was made…”
Then he was gone, and the woman went with him. Two entities with one shadow…