Janet was more settled when he got back home. Ralph had gone out and the house was quiet for the rest of the day. In the afternoon they took Echo for a walk around the university grounds, and in the early evening while Janet was getting her ready for bed, Geordie went to talk to a neighbour who had asked to see him.
Mrs Cuddon lived two doors away in a house with lacy curtains and window boxes. ‘It’s about Felicity,’ she said. Felicity was eleven years old, Geordie saw her coming and going in her school uniform. ‘I thought with you being in the detective business, you might be able to help.’
‘If I can.’
‘Felicity’s been having some trouble with the penguin.’
Geordie felt his mouth drop open. He wanted to ask her to say it again, but he was worried that he’d heard it right the first time.
OK, he said to himself, maybe they’ve got a penguin in the back yard, or they’ve got a relative who runs a zoo? There’s got to be some explanation. Some reasonable explanation. It’d been a hard day, what with Ralph and Janet and all that had gone down, but the last few hours had been quiet. Now, here he was scrambling his brains trying to work out how a penguin comes into the equation. How Felicity comes across a penguin at all. Because Geordie’d seen her in the neighbourhood and sometimes she had a dog with her, or her school-friends. But he’d never seen her with a penguin, not even a doll penguin. He’d have remembered that.
He didn’t jump in straight away. Sam always said just to sit back and listen, suss the situation out, keep quiet and let the thing unfold.
She said, ‘I don’t know why he wants to hassle an eleven-year-old girl. D’you think you could investigate? Get him to stop?’
‘I’ll do my best, Mrs Cuddon,’ Geordie said slowly. ‘Somebody’s hassling your daughter, which’s a serious offence. Can you give me a description of the man?’
Mrs Cuddon laughed. It was a weird laugh. It didn’t last long but it was high pitched and loud, kind of startling. Geordie had heard a laugh like that before, but whenever he heard it he did a double-take because that kind of laugh doesn’t come from the right place. ‘It’s The Penguin,’ she said. ‘Everybody knows what he looks like.’
Fuck, Geordie thought, she’s talking about Batman and Robin.
‘You know who I mean don’t you?’ said Mrs Cuddon.
Geordie nodded. ‘That’s not here,’ he said. ‘That’s in a comic about New York. The Penguin, he lives in Gotham City, and this is York, England, and they’re different places.’
Mrs Cuddon narrowed her eyes. She nodded to herself. ‘I want you to come round again tomorrow,’ she said. ‘You can explain to me what has happened to the Dark Knight.’
Janet was in the kitchen making cocoa. Ralph was still out hitting the booze.
‘What is it when people are out of it?’ he said. ‘Y’know what I mean, they seem normal, but when you start to dig you find they’re coming from somewhere nobody’s ever been before?’
‘You’ve lost me,’ she said.
‘No, I’ve heard you talk about it, you and Marie. It’s like they’re aliens.’
Janet laughed. ‘Alienated,’ she said. ‘The condition of the western persona.’
‘Yeah, alienated,’ echoed Geordie. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It’s when someone turns away from the world, from reality, because they can’t face it any more.’
‘In a way, yeah. But the society we live in drives us all nutty. We’re all alienated, some more than others.’
‘Is it when somebody’s an onlooker? Because it’s like that, isn’t it; there are people who are onlookers and people who are partakers?’
‘Yeah, but alienated people are in flight. We’re all onlookers and partakers at the same time. Especially you and Sam, in the business you do. Sam’s watching Angeles Falco’s back at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s running away from reality. He doesn’t exactly go searching it out, but it seems to be always somewhere close at hand.’
‘Mrs Cuddon’s gone nutty,’ Geordie said. He told her what had happened.
‘What about her husband? Was he there? And Felicity?’
‘She seemed to be on her own. She wants to see me again tomorrow, Janet. What the hell am I gonna do about her. I’ve got enough worries of my own.’