The return of Phil Harrass Private HMI

10th January 1997 at 00:00
I was eight hours out of a migraine and still feeling the aftershocks. The black Rapid was getting on a bit and I'd hoped to replace her. But the cheques weren't coming in. I ate two portions of pakora as a scientific check that it wasn't a trigger food and settled back to play "spot the stiff" in the medical drama that was showing.

I was trying to decide whether the geek with the Range Rover who was having an affair was going to get it before the ballet dancer with the pushy parents when the phone rang. It was Mickey, the man I never knew whether to call Ferret or Braveheart. "I'm sorry to disturb you on a Saturday," he said, so I decided he was in Braveheart mode.

"That's OK, I was just playing 'spot the stiff'."

"My money's on the builder who's taking short cuts to save money," said Mickey.

"I hadn't thought of him," I admitted, shuddering slightly at the thought that we had something in common.

"To business," Mickey said curtly. Perhaps he'd been shuddering too. "I've got some work for you. Call this number if you're interested in 70 a day plus expenses."

Mickey had told me to wait until Monday before calling. When I dialled up I was answered by a coldly efficient secretarial voice. "Please state your business and reveal how you got this number," it said.

"The name's Phil Harrass, Private HMI. I got this number from Mickey the Braveheart. How about you revealing how you got the charisma of an icebox?" The dame ignored me and put me through to an unidentified man. "Thank you for calling," he said, his tone reminding me of Vincent Price on a bad day. "I am the head of what will be Scotland's first selective state school. I've been told you might be of some use in helping us get the right sort of pupil. "

I'd known this sort of thing was bound to happen sometime but I had no idea it was already here. "Sorry, Bub," I said, "I can't see how I would be any good at setting tests for 11-year-old brats."

"Oh, you won't be asked to do anything like that. This is strictly a surveillance job."

"Surveillance on kids? You want me in the slammer on the wing where they wear dresses?" "Not at all. The surveillance is on their parents. There are certain sorts we know will have troublesome offspring. Ones who wear football tops in public, for example."

"You don't think Bhoys Against Bigotry will sort that type of thing out?" "Bhoys Against Bigotry, Mr Harrass? You'll be telling me next there's an organisation called Physics Teachers Against Boring Haircuts or Classicists Against Making Extravagant Claims About The Subject's Usefulness. No, it's nothing to do with religion. They're just the wrong sort of people, like those with lava lamps, bull bars on their four-wheel drives or pictures of crying gypsy girls above their fireplaces."

"Daniel O'Donnell concerts. Lovers' Guide Videos. Signed photos of soap stars other than Racquel, Jack Duckworth or Percy Sugden. That sort of thing?" "Mr Harrass, I can see you're just the man for the job!" the head enthused. "Whatever you were told I was paying, add 10 per cent. You know exactly what I'm after. I reckon you could spot the sort of person whose idea of fun is to sit down in front of Casualty and play 'spot the stiff' from a hundred yards."

I told him I'd get back to him. I probably would. It was time to throw my pride out along with my lava lamp.

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