I first heard Sleaford called Sleazeford in a mock Tudor gastropub out on the A15 highway. The woman had iron-grey hair and had come straight from the golf course. At first I thought the woman was joking me. Then I thought I'd misheard her. Although not drunk she and her friends had sipped on a few gins already that afternoon and had reached the stage of laughing too loudly. Much later I realised she'd hit the nail dead centre on the head.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. How could this sleepy little Lincolnshire town deserve to be called Sleazeford? The mean streets of Gunchester, Shottingham or even Londonistan it isn't. That's what I thought then.
Full from my dinner, I walked out of the gastropub and saw two youths right next to my white Audi A5 coupé. They straddled two BMX bikes; their low riser jeans showing the white band of their Calvins. I gripped my car key with the serrated teeth sticking out through my knuckles. But I kept my hand in my pocket.
"You Hennessy?" the taller youth asked with a grunt. His face was half masked by his hoodie but the roll-up dangling from his lower lip gave him the look of a much older man.
"Might be. Who wants to know?"
"Turn your car round and go home. We don't want you here." He pushed away from my Audi. As he did so, a pocket knife appeared in his hand. Before I could stop him, the yobbo ran the blade down the side of my car in a jagged line. The blade made a terrible screeching sound on the metalwork that set my teeth on edge. His skinhead mate followed and gobbed in my direction – the phlegm landing centimetres from my shoes.
I shouted and ran towards them but they were already out the car park and pedalling down the road. So much for arriving under the radar.
No way was I having that. I ran to my disfigured Audi. The scratch looked like a scar on a lover's face. I turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the car park. The two youths were cycling down the A15 like they were coming down the Champs Elysée on the final sprint stage of the Tour de France with the Yellow Jersey still up for grabs. I gunned the engine and pressed the pedal to the metal. The two litre turbo howled and the rev counter needle swung over into the red. But the Audi's protesting engine hurled the car forward.
The rear yobbo looked back and shouted something to his mate. I had almost reached their bikes but they knew the local area better than me. They looped off the highway and into a little public park. I turned to follow them but couldn't. A double-line of concrete bollards guarded the park from joyriders. Instantly, I slammed on the brakes and my Audi slewed round to a dead stop.
The two youths spun their BMXs round on the concrete under a rusting swing frame. The swings had gone, as had the rubber matting, and the bare frame looked like a gallows waiting for the execution party. The yobs saw I'd pulled up hard by the bollards. They both flipped me the finger. The taller one, the scumbag who'd scarred my Audi, grabbed his crotch and thrust his groin in my direction. I wondered if they'd have done that if they knew I had a Beretta 92 semi-automatic pistol hidden in a custom made secret compartment in my car. Somehow, I didn't think they would.
So I didn't bother getting out my coupé but instead reversed into the traffic on the A15 and a minute later I'd left the park behind me and was heading into Sleaford. I thought about calling my boss, McTeague, on my BlackBerry to let him know that someone in his organisation had been talking to Wheelan's mob. But in the end, I didn't bother. McTeague trusted me to get the job done and I wasn't about to let him down. It just added an extra layer of complication. That's all.
If it was late at night, if there was no traffic on the A15 and if I put my foot down; I'd have blown through Sleaford in five minutes flat. It's a one horse town built just south-east of the crossroads of the north-south A15 highway and the east-west A17, where the two join at the Holdingham roundabout. It took me longer than that but not by much.
My SatNav directed me to an upmarket Close on the other side of Sleaford. Now Wheelan's mob knew I'd hit town, I had no reason to waste time. I turned into a sweeping brick paviour driveway laid in a herringbone pattern that drew the eye to a large 1930s mock Tudor mansion. They seemed to like their mock Tudor in Sleaford.
The detached house had been extended since then with a wing over the double garage and dormer windows high in the roof following a loft conversion. I pulled up before a large entrance porch making sure the Audi's scratch was on the opposite side so it couldn't be seen from the house. I got out and rang the bell.
Nothing happened. So I pressed the bell again, longer this time; letting the tune ring through the house. Eventually a light came on in the hall and the door was opened by a schoolgirl. The girl was sensible enough to keep the door on the chain.
She was maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. She had dyed her hair red with pink streaks running through it and had long, cow-like fake eyelashes. We wouldn't have got away with that at school in my day. Apart from that she was quite pretty despite having the prominent Wheelan ears. The crest of her private school took up her blazer pocket. The girl gazed impassively at me.
I searched my memory for Wheelan's daughter's name. Alice? No, it wasn't who the F is Alice. Alexandra? No that wasn't quite right. Alexa – that was it.
"Is Claire McTeague in?" I asked.
The girl shook her head. "No," she said around a mouthful of gum.
I waited for a moment. The girl leaned on the door frame. I heard music in the background – probably something from the current top ten. Not that I'd know.
"Do you know where she is, Alexa?"
I felt like kicking open the door and slapping her. That would knock the sullen expression off Alexa's face. But I don't agree with hitting girls or women so I kept my hands to myself. But what was Claire McTeague to this girl? Nobody. Except Claire McTeague was a woman who could bring down her father's petty empire crashing down around her Wheelan ears.
"Thanks for your help," I said. The girl didn't reply but started closing the heavy oak door. I stuck out my foot, blocking it. Alexa looked up, surprised. For a moment she stopped chewing.
"If you see Claire before I find her, tell her Hennessy's looking for her. Okay?"
The girl nodded and this time I let her shut the door.
I walked back to my Audi deep in thought. I knew Claire McTeague but I didn't know Sleaford that well. But as it was a town with only one timetable, I thought I'd find her fairly quickly. So I drove back along the brick driveway, made a right and within a few minutes was back in Sleaford's town centre.
Claire McTeague was a woman who always took a great deal of pride in her appearance. That was how she'd snared McTeague himself in the first place. I'd tried to warn my boss the woman was no good but at that point the man was thinking with his what he kept between his legs and I was wasting my breath. So I shut up before he became angry with me, knowing he'd find out the hard way.
Of course, it wouldn't be the first time he'd fallen for the wrong woman after the marriage to his first wife broke up. But he fell further for this Claire McTeague than he'd fallen for any of his other bimbos or floozies. He actually married her. Unbelievable, I know.
The first salon I drove past was completely unsuitable. The exterior was scruffy, there was a tacky poster of a bikini-babe and there were signs in Polish in the window. However, even I knew that above the salon was a massage parlour that offered all the 'extras' a desperate man might need. Every town has a place like that if you know where to look. Claire might not be bothered about sharing with Polish farm workers but there was no way she'd enter a place also offering those sorts of services.
The next place seemed more up-market and also advertised itself as a Beauticians. I remembered it was also controlled by Wheelan making it a much better bet. Ignoring the parking restrictions outside I pulled up behind a buttercup yellow Porsche 911. I pressed the bell and a receptionist released the electronic door lock. As soon as the buzzing sound started, I was inside.
There was a smell of acetone from nail polish remover. A young manicurist was sitting at a nail table filing and polishing the nails of a woman in her mid-twenties who had elegant hands. Hands that had never done a day's hard work in their life. Ms. Elegant Hands was chatting about her holidays in the Seychelles. I thought soon she'd start on about the Porsche which I guessed was hers.
Ignoring them, I crossed to the reception desk and the girl greeted me with a professional smile. Those teeth had to be capped – they weren't a product of British National Health dentistry.
"Good afternoon. Do you want to book an appointment?" she asked.
"Is Claire McTeague here? Or she might be using the name Wheelan now?"
The girl closed the leather bound appointment book and looked up at me with a worried expression. That told me all I needed to know. I walked past the reception desk and along to a corridor running behind it. The receptionist laid a hand on my arm but I shook it off. The corridor was lined with numbered white painted doors behind which were the sunbeds or spray tan booths.
"Which one?" I said, turning back to the receptionist who was following me. Her worried look had been replaced by scared. Good. Showed she was brighter than she looked at first sight.
I pushed her against the first door. The flimsy panels shook and it echoed with a hollow sound.
"Which one?" I repeated, my face only centimetres from hers.
Her pretty face screwed up. Scared now upgraded to terror. "S... s... six," she stammered.
I pushed the girl away. She staggered back and one of her flatties fell off her feet. I walked down to door six. For a moment, I thought of a game show on the TV that I used to enjoy when the winning contestant had to choose which door to open. The doors all hid different prizes; some worth having like a holiday to Majorca but behind others were just a cheap Biro or something. There was only one prize I wanted today. The jackpot.
I turned the handle and pulled open the door. Claire McTeague was standing there naked except for a pair of white paper panties and a paper hat covering her hair. Their whiteness stood out bright against her tanned skin. Her arms were spread out wide as if she was making a semaphore signal whilst the beautician coated her underarms. The sweet, biscuity smell of the spray tan filled the air.
Immediately Claire squealed and flung an arm across her boobs. The woman needn't have bothered – she had a trim, almost boyish figure. I knew Claire had wanted a boob job but McTeague wouldn't allow her that. He preferred his women natural. The girl operating the spray turned to look at me open mouthed with astonishment. I stepped back to avoid the spray until her finger released the trigger.
"Oh, it's you, Hennessy. Should've expected you'd show up," Claire McTeague said, dropping her arm to her side.
For a moment we all stood there at the points of a triangle – Claire McTeague, the beautician and myself. Until I snatched down a fluffy white bathrobe that was hanging up behind the door and tossed it over to Claire McTeague.
"Get dressed and come with me," I said.
"But I haven't finished here – the spray's not dry yet," she said, not really grasping the situation.
In response I stepped forwards and pulled her forwards. My hand felt sticky from the spray still covering her skin.
"Okay, don't bother getting dressed. I don't care, you can come as you are." That grabbed the woman's attention. She jerked her arm out of my grasp and shrugged on the robe, belting it around her waist.
The tanning lady stared at us as I half led, half dragged Claire McTeague back down the corridor. Back out in the reception area, the manicurist and her client stared at us as we passed. This afternoon's action would give Ms. Elegant Hands something to talk about with her middle-class book club friends. However, the receptionist was speaking quietly on the phone. I crossed to her desk, took the receiver from her hand and set it down.
"Naughty, naughty, very naughty," I said. She flinched.
I pushed Claire McTeague out of the salon door and an instant later I'd unlocked my Audi.
"Who's keyed your car?" Claire McTeague asked with a little smile on her face. It's just as well I don't hold with hitting women or I'd have knocked that smirk right off her face.
"Get in," I contented myself with saying. As Claire swung into the passenger seat, being careful to keep her knees together, I ran round the front bonnet and dropped into the driver's seat. As I pulled away from the kerb I noticed the women in the Beauticians parlour all standing and peering out the window at us.
I hadn't arrived in Sleaford under the radar and I wasn't leaving under it neither.