You’ve probably heard that the vast majority of private investigation work literally just involves sitting around and doing nothing. People often say this like it’s a bad thing. I’ll never understand people.
Stakeouts are, by far, the best part of the job – even if it is supposedly frowned upon to call them “stakeouts”. The proper term is “surveillance”, but where’s the fun in that?
But, despite it being the season of joy and goodwill to all, fun had been in short supply recently. Ever since my slick new competitor Prest Investigative Services had set up shop in one of the least fancy corners of the local shopping centre, I hadn’t had a single client in over a week.
This probably explains why I was slumped on an icy bench outside the centre’s immaculately tinsel-strewn windows, glancing at the P.I.S shopfront between sips of homebrewed tea cunningly concealed in a posh cardboard coffee cup.
Combined with a designer greatcoat I’d picked up in a charity shop last year, a newspaper from the train station dustbin and a pair of pound-shop earbuds, the posh cup meant that no-one was likely to mistake me for a beggar.
Don’t get me wrong, extra coins are always a bonus. But, within sight of the centre, beggars don’t seem to last long. The centre had cut some dodgy deal with the mayor, who had cut an even dodgier deal with the police commissioner or something like that. I’m not a journalist. But, the upshot of it was that begging was more of an arrestable offence than mugging around here.
Even the carol singers near the centre’s doors had to put up some kind of sign telling people not to give them money. A direct debit was fine though. Still, as they launched into another turgid rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, I couldn’t help but wish I’d actually bothered to connect my earbuds to something.
So far, the P.I.S shopfront had been unusually quiet. It reminded me of one of those estate agents who were always empty when you walked past, but who had been there even longer than you had. I’d expected to see all of my usual clients forming an orderly line outside, but even old Mr Griggs had just shuffled past it without even a glance.
With a weary sigh, I finished my tea and fished around in my coat pockets for my e-cigarette. It was almost out of juice. Dropping it back into my coat pocket, I carefully placed the empty cup on top of it and folded the newspaper under my arm.
Although I hadn’t planned to do any undercover work, posing as a client seemed to be the only way I’d get any in-depth information. At the very least, I’d make myself feel better by sending them on a wild goose chase.
As the centre’s well-oiled glass doors swooshed open, the carol singers groaned out “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy“. Trying not to smile too much, I casually dropped a few pennies at their feet and kept walking. A wave of stuffy heat and cinnamon hit me almost immediately. Garish advertising hoardings glared at me and a bright orange sign cheerfully informed me that I was on CCTV. Like I’d forgotten.
When I reached the shiny new “Prest Investigative Services – Results or your money back!” shopfront, I could feel the beginnings of a scowl cross my face. A glance over my shoulder at the carol singers frantically kicking the pennies away from them helped me to regain my composure. Taking a deep breath, I reached for the shiny door handle and gave it a firm tug.
A blonde woman in a sharp blue suit raised her eyebrows and almost gasped. This was followed by a stare of utter disbelief from the handsome twentysomething guy standing behind her. Had I been made already? Were they really that good?
But, before I could stutter out an excuse, the woman said: ‘Welcome to Prest Investigative Services! As our first customer, you are entitled to a ten percent…‘
‘First customer?‘ I muttered.
‘We’ve all got to start somewhere.‘ The handsome guy said, a pained smile crossing his perfect face.
‘You’ve been open for a week and a half.‘ I sighed. ‘Surely you must have had other clients. People always need detectives at Christmas.‘
‘How did you…‘ The woman stuttered. I just reached into my coat pocket and handed her a business card. Honesty wasn’t usually the best policy but, if this was a ruse on their part, then I had to give them credit for ingenuity.
‘I thought you were poaching my clients.‘ I said. ‘It seemed worth investigating.‘
‘No need for that.‘ The guy grumbled, as he fished a smartphone out of his pocket. Jabbing it a couple of times, he held it up to me. Against a bright orange background, a stylised cartoon drawing of a trilby-wearing gumshoe stared back at me. Below it, an elaborately-designed logo read “GUMS4U“.
The woman rolled her eyes: ‘It’s an American start-up. Zero hours, surge-priced, “gig economy” detectives. You don’t even need a licence or anything. It launched two days before we opened.‘