Creepy’s logic, while disturbing, was unfortunately impeccable on this occasion. Michael had sounded embarrassed and amused as he sank, then a little worried, then downright frantic. The last thing I’d heard from him, however – a muffled “Lord help me!” – had been some eleven minutes ago.
There seemed little point in theorising that he’d fallen into the body of the couch, banged his head on a support bar, and knocked himself unconscious. And my second-best guess – that he’d been so mortified to fall down between some strangers’ couch pillows and get trapped there that he was just lying in embarrassed silence and hoping the whole situation would blow over – seemed even more farfetched.
It appeared I had little recourse. I took the screwdriver and spanner that Creepy handed me, and stepped towards the couch. I hesitated before pulling off the two huge, lumpy, roughly-rectangular cushions to reveal the couch’s inner workings.
“I suppose we are sure this isn’t, you know,” I said, “the real Ippy-ippy Zignog?”
I should probably explain a little bit about Ippy-ippy Zignog while I have the chance, but I’m actually not going to. It was just another one of those annoying situations that Creepy got me into and which I would prefer to forget. Suffice it to say that Ippy-ippy Zignog was the kind of guy who was easy to confuse with a large, saggy green couch with oranges printed on it.
“Only one way to be sure,” Creepy said, and crossed to our battered old record player. He pulled the Sings for All Sizes album off the shelf, theatrically blew dust off it, swept the LP from its sleeve and set it on the turntable. He dropped the stylus at random and James Darren started crooning approximately two-thirds of the way through I Don’t Wanna Lose Ya.
The couch failed to start dancing.
“Okay then,” I said, and grabbed the cushions.
Michael did not appear to be underneath them and I admitted that it would have been a bit weird if he had been, for all that it would have supported my second-best guess. There was, however, a large rent in the coins-and-chips-and-lollies-scattered grey felt underlay, a rent that would have been right between the two cushions and, therefore, right about where Michael would have disappeared. I parted this, feeling obscurely gynaecological, and peered inside. Darkness peered back at me, and I sighed and straightened.
“Stanley?” Creepy asked.
I used the knife to part the felt from the base of the couch where it met the back, and then peeled it away entirely. Springs and metal bars and wooden cross-braces and more coins and chips and a mummified sandwich and, weirdly, a bowling ball and half a chipboard STOP sign, faced me ingenuously. I reached in, pushed my fingers boldly into the holes, and pulled the bowling ball out. It was black, and had a scuffed red logo on it that was just swirly enough to identify the ball as a piece of Coca-Cola merchandise.
“Oh,” Creepy said, and held out his hands. I dropped the ball into it, and took a moment to quietly enjoy the sight of him almost falling over. “I remember this.”
“I won it, if you must know.”
“You can barely lift it. Are you telling me you won a bowling contest and they gave you a ball so obviously unsuited to you?”
“I never said anything about a bowling contest,” Creepy put the ball down on the spare armchair – the chair I’d tried to invite Michael to sit on, but he’d wanted to get all thigh-to-thigh chummy, the poor fool – and turned back to the couch. He pulled out the battered red piece of chipboard. “It was a battle of wits.”
“You whopped a guy from a bowling alley with a stolen STOP sign,” I summarised, “and took his ball.”
“It wasn’t that simple.”
“And then put them in the couch.”
“To be honest, I put them down and went to get a victory glass,” Creepy said, “and when I came back they were gone. I assumed either you had taken them, or the guy had followed me and stolen the ball back and also took the sign for some reason. It was all a bit embarrassing, so I just moved on.”
“Right,” I said, while Creepy reverently laid the STOP sign against the bowling ball. “And how long ago was this?”
I peered into the innards of the couch. It hardly seemed worth mentioning that there was no sign of Michael. Sure, there were plenty of bars and springs and things – so many I still couldn’t see the bottom of the couch, if it even had a bottom and didn’t just open onto the carpet beneath – but I could see sufficiently deep that I could be sure he wasn’t in there.
“Okay,” I said, “change of plan. Help me flip it over.”