Private detective Jack Devlin has been hired by a man in a panda suit to find his missing wife. Now he is off to the pub.
Devlin's office was on Capel Street, but whenever he felt the call of an early pint he made the trip over to the Palace on Fleet Street. He had tried the Capel Street pubs, but they were not to his taste – they were all either full of skangers or trend people. The Palace was somewhere he found far more congenial. As he came in, he spotted one of his associates drinking on his own at the bar.
"Joe! Story? Pint?" he said, by way of greeting.
"Pint, yeah sure", came the morose reply. "Why not live while we can".
"So, Joe", said Devlin, after placing the order, what has you in the pub so early? Shouldn't you be at work, looking after the administration of the country?"
"Ah, it's all gone to shit, I might as well be here as there".
"Jesus Jack, don't you watch the news? The rebels are attacking Athlone. If they take there we're all fucked".
"Athlone? That's a shithole, they're welcome to it".
"That's not really the point – if they take Athlone, there's nowhere else to stop them. They'll be here within the week, and then – ". He made a gesture indicative of a man being hung by his neck until dead.
"Ah now, maybe it won't be that bad. I mean," he continued in an undertone, "they might even be an improvement on the current lot".
"Oh come on, you've seen the pictures from Limerick!"
"Well, yeah, but that's another shithole".
"Well they might think Dublin is another shithole and do the same here! Then we're all fucked! Or at least I am!"
"Well, yeah. So what are you going to do about? Sit here moaning? Wouldn't you be better off, I don't know, signing up with the FCA to do your bit or something?"
Joe paused to take a sip from his newly arrived pint before continuing. "No way, Jack, those poor fuckers won't last a minute, and they'll be the first up against the wall if the rebels get here. No, if Athlone falls, I'm getting the fuck out of here – first train to Belfast".
"I doubt you'll be the only one".
"Jesus, I hadn't thought of it like that! What the fuck am I going to do?"
"Ah, you'll sort something out. Anyway, I've got bigger fish to fry. An interesting case came my way today, you might be able to give me a dig out with it. It all started when this guy in a panda-suit came into my office, and – "
"What's this got to do with me?" interrupted Joe, suspiciously.
"Nothing! Jesus, I just thought that as a man of the world you might have heard something about this kind of thing".
"Well okay, as long as we're clear on one thing, I'm not one of those freaks who dress up in animal costumes. Those people make me sick!"
"I wasn't saying you were".
"Well it sounded to me like you were implying it, and I couldn't let you get away with that. I'm a man, not some perv who likes to dress up as a dog and go round sniffing other people's arses".
"Let it go, Joe, you're protesting too much".
Joe shuffled uncomfortably on his stool. "OK Jack, this Panda, what did he want?"
"His wife had left him. Seemed like she was another panda-suit weirdo too, but she had turned her back on all that. Left her suit behind and everything. He wants me to track her down, so he can give her the big speech, make her come back to him and all that shite".
"So, Joe, you are something of a man of the world, and have heard about all kinds of things. I am not for a second suggesting that you are one of these animal suit fruits, but have you ever heard anything about this lot? It's all new to me".
"Well… from what I have heard, they are typically people who live a normal life – what society calls normal anyway – by day, but by night they seize any opportunity to get together with other people who, like them, like to dress up as animals and do animal stuff together".
"What is this all about, Joe? Not that you would have any personal experience, obviously, but from what you have heard, is it all some kind of sex thing? I am having unpleasant visions of a lot of fat middle aged people in animal suits porking away at each other". He shuddered.
"Bring everything down to smut, that's always your way. No, Joe, it's not like that. Or so I have heard. It's a total lifestyle. They engage in the full gamut of interaction with each other. Now, that might include sex, but it's not like it's the central part of what they do, any more than it is in normal life".
"Speak for yourself!", Jack responded, and then wondered if something a bit less flippant would have worked better. "Anyway, from what you are saying, this animal-suit stuff seems to be like, I don't know, fancy dress or something. But this panda-suit guy, he seemed to be living it twenty four seven".
"That, Jack, is the dream of every Furry – that's what they call themselves. Many would live the furry life at home, especially if their spouse is another Furry – it makes it all so much more of a way of life, not just something that people do out in clubs or at parties".
"A pretty weird way of life", retorted Jack, his pint glass now heading for empty.
"Ah yes, of course," replied Joe, before nodding to the bar man for two more pints. "But who are we to judge? Anyway, this Panda fellow you had in your office, he has achieved what so many of his furry friends would dream of – he has the guts to wear his skin wherever he goes, to say to everyone he meets 'I'm a Panda! Have you got a problem with that?'. That would be the greatest thing imaginable… to another Furry, of course".
"Though his wife left him, so maybe it's not that all that great".
"Feh", said Joe, dismissively, "She sounds like a false Furry, some gold digging slut who put on a panda-skin just to leech money off a vulnerable man! Such people are the lowest of the low, Jack. Don't you forget it!"
"Sure, but if it weren't for people like that I'd be out of a job. Anyway, these furry people, where do they get together? Would you have heard this?"
"Well, a lot of it would be at parties in people's houses, but there are some clubs that cater to people of that persuasion. The Pet Shop, the Zoo, Reynard's, they'd be the big ones, and I suppose the Cage would also count. It's for Furries who are into, you know, S & M".
"Bondage Furries, now I've heard it all".
"Oh come on Jack, don't be so narrow-minded! Just as there are normal people who like to be tied over a barrel and mercilessly flogged by women dressed as Ann Doyle, so there are Furries who enjoy being forced to run around mazes or to take part in strange medical experiments. Don't let the minority colour your perception of the whole community!"
"No way, that's not my style Joe, you know it", he replied. And then, in an undertone: "Joe, keep your voice down, walls have ears, you know? This isn't the kind of thing you want too many people to hear you talking about". Jack had started to wonder if the guy in the corner with the sweaty face was only pretending to read his Irish Times. He had the air of someone who liked to earwig on pub conversations, and he seemed to be nursing his pint a bit too much to be the kind of serious drinker you find in a pub in the later part of the afternoon.
"Sure Jack, I get you", Joe responded, in what passed for a whisper.
"One more thing, Joe. From what you're saying, this animal-suit scene seems to be pretty big. From talking to the Panda, I thought it was only a dozen or so fruits getting together once a month or something".
"No Jack, you're wrong. The scene is huge! Furries are everywhere. Anyone you look at, they could be one too! That's the thing with the suits, you never know who that dog or squirrel you're talking to might be in 'real' life. And you never know who might have a furry suit hidden at home".
Jack glanced around the bar, looking at the barmen, the other patrons, and at Mr Sweatyface, imagining them all as people who might like to put on animal suits and secretly get together to do whatever the furry people did. It was a most disturbing thought, and one that made him suddenly feel the need to get out and clear his head.
"Cheers Joe", he said, before knocking back his pint. "Thanks for filling me in on all these furry freaks. I've got to go now, but I'll see you again soon. If you haven't run away to Belfast, obviously".
With that hurried goodbye, he made his way out into the street and started moving through the crowds. It was late on Friday afternoon now, and Temple Bar was already filling up with wankers. He pushed his way through them, determined to punch the face in of any fool who tried to start something. No one was obliging enough to give him an excuse. Devlin continued drifting through the crowds, not really going anywhere in particular. But then that alertness that goes with his profession kicked in, and he realised with a start that the sweaty-faced guy from the Palace was following him. Or at least, he seemed to be following him. It could just be coincidence, of course. Time to check this guy out, thought Devlin.
Trying to look as though he was unaware of his tail, Jack took a roundabout route up to Dame Street and then crossed over and made his way into the maze of side-streets that fill the space between Grafton Street and George's Street. Sweatface was still coming along afterwards, trying far too obviously to look as unobtrusive as possible. Maybe he's the one I'm meant to see, thought Devlin, wondering if maybe there were more subtle tails marking his course through the city. Somewhat unlikely, he reckoned, but there was only one way to find out. Devlin ducked up Andrew's Lane, and past the theatre and hid in the bend of the roadway there. No one around, good. He pretended to fiddle with his mobile phone, so he would look that bit less suspicious to anyone who spotted him.
Soon enough he heard footsteps coming along the way he had just travelled, and then Sweatface came round the corner, his faux nonchalance turning into dismay when he realised that his target was right there in front of him. His dismay multiplied when Devlin grabbed his jacket and slammed him roughly against the theatre's wall.
"Right, fucko, what's going on here? Why are you following me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about – ow!"
Devlin had slammed him against the wall again. "Cut the crap! Don't try to play me for a fool!" He shook Sweatface roughly one more time, realising that this guy was plainly not used to rough stuff.
"Ow! Stop hurting me! Alright, I was following you… I wanted to warn you! I heard you in the Palace, and you need to be careful – you are getting involved with things you don't understand!"
"Stop giving me the conspiracy theory bollocks and tell me what you're on about!" Devlin slammed the increasingly sweat-faced man against the wall, one more time, not so much because he reckoned it would make him talk, but because it was fun.
"Ow! It's the Furries! I heard you talking about them. They're dangerous – they don't like outsiders poking around in their business, and they'll do anything to stop their secrets getting out. Be careful, for the love of God!"
"So you're saying I should watch out for a load of freaks in bunny costumes?"
"Yes! yes! Believe me – I know what I'm talking about!"
"And how would that be?" said Devlin, getting ready to slam the sweat-faced sap against the wall again. But before he could do so, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps from around the corner and a distinctive broad accent calling out:
"What's goin' on there now?"
The Guards! The last thing Devlin needed was trouble from those clowns. He flung the snivelling wretch down to the ground and sprinted off as fast as he could, hoping that the man he had been questioning would not feel like telling tales, and that if he did he hadn't caught his name in the Palace.
There is an art to running away, especially from people who have not seen you and do not know what you look like. Devlin was practiced in that art. Once he had rounded another corner he ducked down into another alleyway, came out onto another street, and then assumed the kind of ambling pace that someone out for an after-work stroll might adopt. He became the very picture of innocence. He walked around aimlessly for a bit, stopping in a shop for a packet of crisps, and then when the coast seemed definitely clear he made his way home.
There was a thick, hand-delivered envelope waiting for him in his post-box. He opened it up, to find a couple of wads of money – €50 bills, no less – and a note.
"Dear Mr Devlin. Today you can expect a man in a panda-suit to visit your office, attempting to engage your services. He is not what he seems. Do not take him on as a client. Let Laura have her freedom. As compensation for losing this business, please accept the enclosed monies as a token of our appreciation."
Devlin had not checked the post-box on the way out, so the note could have been there this morning. Reflecting that they had not left a return address, Devlin scrunched the note into his pocket and trousered the cash. He did not count the money, but it had to be a couple of grand's worth. The case was becoming even more bizarre than it had appeared when Mr Chubbytail walked into his office, but whatever happened, he had taken on the case and was bound to the Panda by a commercial relationship. He could not back out now.