Maxim Jakubowski, Christopher Fowler, Mark Timlin, Liza Cody, Derek Raymond, Chaz Brenchley, Denise Danks, Ian Rankin, Jessica Palmer, Julian Rathbone, Molly Brown, John Harvey, Michael Z. Lewin, Liz Holliday, Andrew Klavan
Like so many of the great cities of the world, London is many things to different people.
For those from abroad and tourists, it conveys images of tarnished royal splendours, faded imperial monuments, the tawdry glamour of Soho and Piccadilly Circus. For the more historically-minded amongst them, visions are conjured of Victorian fog and dread and square-shaped East End gangsters, while for others London is just a gentle panorama of terraced houses with tiled roofs and front gardens in suburbia.
For those who live there, London is alternately a quiet, often boring sprawl of a megalopolis with its myriad villages, parks and greenery, or in the grey light of day, a sordid capital where misery and poverty are inescapable.
While for lovers, London can be a graveyard of sweet memories.
For me, London, a city where I was born but did not return to until my mid-twenties, has a thousand varied faces: Hyde Park and the Serpentine, St Paul’s and the City on which I had to do a book during my publishing years, Camden Town and its increasingly bizarre markets, the hills of Hampstead, the genteel bohemia of Notting Hill and Islington, tennis at Wimbledon, the colour of the Thames near Richmond Bridge, football stadia in Tottenham and Highbury and cricket pitches at the Oval and Lord’s, the unending ascent of the Finchley Road where I had my first London flat, the late Scala cinema near King’s Cross, the West Indian accents in Brixton, pretty women in Clapham and Blackheath, Orthodox Jewish kids ambling down the Golders Green Road with their anachronistic locks, cavernous Victoria Station’s gateways to the South, and so much more.
But then, for you the reader of this anthology, London will mean many other things, all different.
And you there, yes, you the wondrous tall lady standing quietly at the back with her mass of tangled hair, London might well be another set of images and memories altogether. Hotel rooms near Heathrow or West End basements maybe?
I suppose that’s the way of fascinating cities, to grip, charm and inspire us.
* * * *
Somehow, most noir writing automatically brings America and its legendary dark side to mind: the rainy mean streets of night-time California in the pages of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy’s hell-pit of Los Angeles, mafia hoods in New York’s Little Italy, countless road movies or gangster flicks full of fury and despair. But London also enjoys its share of gloom, doom and heart-break. Here, people live, suffer and love in their own idiosyncratic ways too. Think of such eminent London writers as Gerald Kersh, Patrick Hamilton, a certain Dickens and, today, Michael Moorcock, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Derek Raymond.
Well, Whitechapel did spawn Jack the Ripper Esquire after all!
So I thought I would ask several friends and writers each to pen a new story about the darkness they saw at the heart of our contradictory city. The responses, collected here, are both varied and fascinating, and provide us with a patchwork portrait of a London we never knew, a dark London, a London Noir.
Often a very bleak view, I am aware, but then urban nightmares must always have a silver lining, and lancing a boil can have beneficial effects in the long run.
London, this is your other life.
CHRISTOPHER FOWLER is one of the leading British contemporary horror writers. He runs a film promotional company in London’s Soho. Amongst his novels are Roofworld, Red Bride, Darkest Day and Rune (currently being developed for the screen by Basic Instinct’s Paul Verhoeven with a script by Paul Mayersberg of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence).
After a long career in the rock music business, working for The Who and T. Rex, MARK TIMLIN turned to a literary life of crime. He is the creator of South London sleuth Nick Sharman, the protagonist of nine novels and being scripted for television. The latest is Ashes By Now.
LIZA CODY is the foremost British exponent of the female private eye genre, with her Anna Lee adventures and, recently, a new heroine, the doughty wrestler Eva Wylie in Bucket Nut and Monkey Wrench. She has won the John Creasey, the Anthony and the Silver Dagger awards and lives in Somerset.
After a decade overseas, DEREK RAYMOND (better known as Robin Cook to Soho pub regulars) is now back in London where he currently resides in darkest Willesden. His Factory series represents British noir at its best and is soon to make it to the small and large screens. His last novel was Dead Man Upright.
CHAZ BRENCHLEY has written a series of dark novels on the borderlines of crime and horror. They include Mall Time, The Samaritan and The Refuge. In a bid for literary respectability, his publishers will be releasing his next novels as by C.S. Brenchley. He was born in Oxford, lives in Newcastle and is writer in residence in Sunderland.
DENISE DANKS’ novel Frame Grabber featured her heroine Georgina Powers in a case featuring virtual reality, erotic asphyxiation and corporate larceny. A computer journalist by trade, Denise has now written four Georgina Powers novels. She lives in East London with her husband and daughter, and is the winner of the 1994 Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship.
MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI owns London’s Murder One mystery bookshop. Previously a publisher, he was the editor of the Black Box Thrillers and Blue Murder imprints. He has written or edited over thirty-five books and, in 1992, won the Anthony award for One Hundred Great Detectives.
A Scotsman presently living in France with wife and son, IAN RANKIN is the creator of Inspector Rebus, an unconventional Scottish sleuth whose latest appearance was in The Black Book. He was the winner of the 1992 Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in crime and detective fiction.
JESSICA PALMER is an American writer who lives in Harrow, outside London. Her first two novels are in the horror field, Dark Lullaby and Cradle Song. She is currently writing a series of fantasy books for young adults. She was once called Sam, but that was in Texas.
Possibly the only thriller writer ever to have been nominated twice for the Booker Prize, JULIAN RATHBONE is related to that most revered of Sherlock Holmes impersonators, Basil Rathbone. His international thrillers have been translated into several languages; the latest was Sand Blind.
MOLLY BROWN is another American expatriate living outside London. Her short stories have been regularly appearing in some of the leading anthologies and magazines in both the crime and science fiction field, where she won the Best Short Story of the Year BSFA award in 1992. Previously a stand-up comic, she is writing her first crime novel.
After an early career in teaching and western writing, JOHN HARVEY made a much noticed entry into the crime field, with his dour Nottingham policeman Charlie Resnick. The object of a well-received television series, Resnick’s last appearance was in Wasted Years. His appearance in this volume is his first short story.
MICHAEL Z. LEWIN (the Z stands for Zinn) is an American crime writer who lives in Somerset. He is known for his soft-boiled Albert Samson and Leroy Powder mysteries, and his many radio plays. He also co-edits (with Liza Cody) the annual Crime Writers’ Association anthology First Culprit. His new novel is Underdog.
LIZ HOLLIDAY’s story in this volume is her first crime sale. Previously involved in the science fiction field where her stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, she lives in London and is working on her first novel.
ANDREW KLAVAN is the author of three international bestsellers Don’t Say a Word, The Animal Hour and Corruption. An American presently settled in London, he previously wrote a series of thrillers as Keith Peterson, and the screenplay for Michael Caine’s A Shock to the System.
PERFECT CASTING by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER
It was the season of sulphur. The autumn air already held a sharp smell of fireworks. Just beyond the edge of Regent’s Park, the keepers were raking a bonfire. Peter Tipping noticed spirals of sparks above a sore amber glow of dead leaves just before he turned into the north end of Baker Street. Night had fallen before five. For the next few months darkness would achromatize the days. London was a private city in winter. People remained hidden inside, leaving the buildings to come alive in damp air.
The curving cream stone of the apartment block drew close, and then he was standing below the entrance. Reluctantly withdrawing his hand from the warmth of his overcoat pocket, he pressed the brass stud and bent close to the intercom, waiting for the familiar sound of Jonathan’s voice.
‘You’re late, Peter.’ A hurt tone filtered through. The buzzer sounded, and he stepped up into a marble hall. Beyond that, rich crimson carpet and a trellis lift. Chalfont Court was not at home to the twentieth century. There was still a porter’s lodge beside the main entrance, still a mahogany box affixed to the wall for the placement of calling cards. The building lodged liverish retired colonels, ancient widows with tiny hyperactive dogs, a couple of discreet escort agencies and a few old show business types.
Jonathan belonged to the last group. His apartment on the fifth floor had been his combined office and home for the past thirty years, during which time business and leisure had lived in easy symbiosis. It would have been impossible to imagine any other arrangement, as the elderly theatrical agent was attuned to receiving lengthy telephone calls near the midnight hour. At this time he would calm his nervous charges, soothe their fears of thespian inadequacy, listen to their analytical appraisals of the night’s performance, always reassuring, calming and cajoling. He wouldn’t be doing that for Peter tonight. Peter had let him down again.
‘So, you finally made it.’ Jonathan pursed his lips and stepped back in the doorway, allowing him to enter, a balloon-shaped figure balancing on tiny feet. The passage was lined with posters for shows misbegotten and forgotten, the disco Ibsen, the reggae Strindberg, a musical version of Bleak House called ‘Jarndyce!’ starring Noelle Gordon, fading signatures from faded stars. Jonathan’s fat right fist contained a tumbler filled with gin and irregular chunks of ice, and there were telephones trilling in the distance. Peter was always comforted by the changeless disarray of the flat. This was a place where actors were cushioned and cosseted, heard out and then fed with alcohol. Jonathan puffed past, rings glittering in the dim hall, ready to make Peter a drink even though – ‘Even though I’m terribly, terribly angry with you.’ He entered the kitchen, chipped off an ice-chunk and dropped it into a tumbler, pausing to push his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. Jonathan was constantly in a sweat. It leaked from beneath the auburn wig that fooled no one, and trickled beneath his bulging eyes so that his clients were misdirected into believing that news of their backstage woes had moved him to tears. ‘One should always be grateful of an audition, Peter, bitterly grateful, and you do yourself no favours by acting otherwise.’
Peter had thought the job beneath him anyway, but he hadn’t had a decent audition in nearly three months. Playing a jolly dad in a commercial for frozen lasagne wouldn’t have been the zenith of his performing career, but it would at least have brought in steady residuals.
‘The director was a complete arsehole, John.’ He accepted the drink and followed the agent through to his desk. There was parkland below the windows of the semicircular lounge, but even during the day it was barely visible through winter mist and traffic fumes. ‘I was kept waiting for over an hour, and then asked questions about my motivation by some adspeaking agency slimeball,’ Peter complained. ‘I answered him back a little sharply, nothing more, and they told me I wasn’t needed any longer.’
Jonathan waved the explanation aside. ‘I know, I had them on the phone for half an hour warning me never to send you there again. You’re going to be blacklisted by the agency, Peter, the third largest advertising agency in London.’ He pushed back-issues of The Stage from a leather sofa and sat, daintily crossing his legs at the ankle. ‘What have I always said is your biggest stumbling block?’
‘Arrogance,’ Peter admitted, knowing he was about to receive the usual lecture.
‘You’ve been with me for nearly a year now, and you’ve hardly worked. You come back with the same story after every audition. You’ve had three – it is three, isn’t it? – agents before me. You can’t go on blaming your representation. It’s a matter of learning to handle authority.’
He felt the need to explain himself. ‘I couldn’t see that there was much authority coming from -’
‘Authority is anyone who employs you, Peter, and you simply can’t afford to alienate them. At least you could wait until you’ve got the job and you’ve established a working relationship. Christ, even Larry managed to do that.’
‘But you’re sending me along for rubbishy little parts directed by ignorant children.’ He could feel the gin and the heat of the apartment forcing colour into his face. ‘Half of these brats are barely out of film school.’
‘You want me to change the system for you? I can’t help it if the industry is getting younger around you. That’s all there is, you either take it or leave it.’
‘Perhaps if I had some new shots done…’ He had been considering an image change for some time. A new haircut, sharper clothes.
‘Photographs aren’t going to make any difference, Peter. Let’s be honest, you don’t look like a classic leading male. You nose is too long, your eyes are too small and your weight fluctuates. You’d make a good villain, but you’re never going to get juve leads. You won’t take serious theatrical roles -
‘I can’t remember long speeches,’ he admitted. ‘Lots of actors get by without classical theatre.’
‘You’re not prepared to do panto, so what does that leave? There’s no British film industry any more and the network franchises are carving each other up, so you should face the fact that if there’s an audition - any audition – you have to go for it.’ He wiped the sweat from the edge of his wig. ‘That’s if you want to work. You’re too old to have tantrums, and there’s always someone else willing to take the part. As Coward used to sing: “There’s another generation knock-knock-knocking at the door.’”
Even though he realized that Jonathan was trying to help him, he wanted to punch the smug little man squatting opposite with his empty tumbler balanced on his paunch. He knew the agent meant to shock him into better behaviour but he wasn’t prepared to waste his career behaving like a sheep, being pushed about by some snotty MTV kid turned commercials director. Hadn’t Hitchcock said that actors were cattle? Had nothing changed since then? It was fine for the pretty teenagers flitting in and out of the office on casting calls, busy enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame, happy to do what they were told, but he was an adult with opinions of his own. He looked across at Jonathan, who was waving his hands as if acting out part of some wailing chorus. ‘Oh, I don’t know what more I can say to you, Peter. I’ve always had a lot of working people on my books, some of them very successful -’
‘If you’re referring to the little queen you placed in the Channel 4 presenter’s job…’
‘That’s uncharitable and you know it. He got the part because he was young and he looked right. I mean people like Marc Ford.’
Peter knew all about Marc Ford. Among actors, it was a famous success story. The young player hadn’t worked for almost a year. He was down to his last penny, and his wife was pregnant. He’d been offered a small speaking role as a Nazi storm-trooper in a low-budget German film being shot in London. As there was hardly any money left to pay the actors, the producer had offered him points at two and half per cent, and he had accepted. Three weeks’ work, standing in a tank of freezing filthy water, then he’d forgotten about all it. The damned thing had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and subsequently played to packed houses throughout the world. Marc had retired, a millionaire. Marc had been advised to take the part by his agent, Jonathan.
‘Actually, something did come in today. Not terribly interesting, but worth a bit of money.’ Jonathan was a practical man. Having delivered his standard speech he would now attempt to perform some kind of positive deed that would help his boy. They were all his boys and girls. He hadn’t much hope for Peter, though. He’d pegged him as one of the bitter ones, an actor who resented success in others and bore the fatal flaw of being unable to acknowledge his own faults. Actors were supposed to see things more clearly. You couldn’t trip blindly through life always blaming the director.
He moved back to his desk and undipped sheets of fax paper from a chrome letter rack, checking through them. ‘I had a call from a company called VideoArts. They make corporate promos, and they’re looking for featured extras. The first call is Hampstead Heath on Friday morning, early start, dress in your own clothes.’
That means 6.00 a.m., thought Peter, have to book a cab there, stand around freezing in the pitch dark waiting for the director to show up.
Jonathan was watching him, waiting for his reaction. It was a test to see if he would show willing.
‘Well, do you want it?’
Time to be a good boy. Reluctantly, he agreed to go along. ‘Good, now we’re getting somewhere.’ Jonathan’s smile only affected the lower part of his face. He waved the sheet of paper, ineffectually fanning himself. ‘The company produces ten promos for the same client every year, and they like to keep their cast consistent. It’s just extra-work, but they might take you on permanently, which would mean a regular monthly cheque.’
And a regular percentage for you, thought Peter. Another dead-end job that would advance him nowhere. He’d see how it went, but after this perhaps he wouldn’t need an agent at all. He had recently heard of a more interesting proposition, a casting call which hadn’t come through his agent and had far greater possibilities than a god-awful boring sales promo.
At the Fulham Road gym the following morning Peter checked out the details with Fanny, who worked in the coffee bar. As far as she knew, the rumour she had heard a few days ago was true. One of the actors using the free-weight room had told her – she couldn’t remember who. He’d casually mentioned a feature film that was due to start shooting in less than a week. It was being produced by a Dutch, or perhaps a Belgian company, a thriller set in present-day London, but she hadn’t been able to understand the title. Filming would take place in central locations for a minimum six week period, and because of casting problems a number of male speaking roles were still to be cast. She remembered the name of the contact, but had no telephone number. It would take a bit of sleuthing to find that out.
Fanny was happy to pass on a professional tip, partly because she still hoped that Peter might find her attractive. She was an actress, but had been disabled by a childhood illness, and only took roles that allowed her to appear in her wheelchair. The rest of the time she worked at the gym, running the bar, strengthening the upper half of her body with weights and waiting for a man like Peter to ask her out. She had once thought that working here would make her more independent, but the male patrons arrived with inflated egos that pushed her own flimsy sense of courage back into her wheelchair.
Peter tried not to look too excited about the tip. The gym was full of actors who might overhear and get there first. ‘You mean it’s being shot in English?’ he asked, lowering his voice.
‘I suppose so. A lot of these people dub or subtitle according to the territory, don’t they?’
‘Was this guy up for one of the parts? Did he have a script?’
‘God, Peter, I don’t know. I’ve only ever seen him a couple of times before. I imagine they’ll give the script out to anyone who auditions.’ Fanny reached her hand along the counter, hoping he would absently take it. No such luck. She could tell he was already planning his audition piece. She wrote down the name of the production company for him, and Peter headed for the phone booth. At least the kiss of thanks he blew her seemed genuine enough.
Directory enquiries failed to find the name listed, and suggested that he wasn’t looking for a company but a specific building. Had he tried the Yellow Pages? He was surprised to find the address registered to a fruit and vegetable market. The woman who answered the number explained that they were indeed auditioning in rooms above the stores. She had an unplaceable European accent, admitted that the film was soon to start production, and agreed to check out his Spotlight photograph. If she was interested, she would bypass his agent and call him at home to discuss his c.v. before making an appointment.
She rang him at seven o’clock that evening and they talked for a full half-hour. Peter exaggerated a little about his recent work, and was officially invited to audition on Friday afternoon. Fighting to contain his excitement, he wrote down the address and agreed to be there. For the first time, he could feel the spotlight shifting toward him through the darkness.
* * * *
As he entered the southern corner of the park, Peter spotted the other extras. They were standing huddled together in the gloom, like sheep preparing to be attacked. Instantly he wished he hadn’t accepted Jonathan’s proposal. In a few hour’s time he would be auditioning for a real film. He walked over to the nondescript group and stood a little way off. Actors, that is those performers with speaking parts, do not mix easily with extras, whom they consider to be little more than unskilled fans. He knew that they would be forced to speak to each other, though, as there seemed to be no one else around. In the distance bare elms stood on the brow of a hill, thrusting up blackened bones like the spine of some half-buried animal. A sour pink glow edged the sky, the first intimation of dawn.
‘Where is everyone?’ he asked, breath clouding around him.
‘The director’s gone with the first AD to sort out payment with the park-keeper,’ said a small man in a brown raincoat. Shooting on the heath cost two hundred pounds an hour, and had to be paid in advance. ‘They’ve already had us rehearsing. There’s a lot of mud about. I’ve already ruined a pair of trousers. Make sure you put in a dry-cleaning bill.’
This was typical extra conversation. They were obsessed with dry-cleaning. Too bad he’d lost the frozen lasagne commercial. At least he’d have had some national exposure in that. Corporate videos never really saw the light of day. Perhaps that was a good thing, though. He wouldn’t want some embarrassing early performance turning up to hamper a successful film career.
After a few minutes the director appeared and explained how he wanted them to move. Lack of enthusiasm dulled his instructions, as if he was being forced to describe the least interesting part of the day’s filming. He simply wanted them to move this way and that. Peter’s questions were cut short. If actors were cattle, the director made it clear that extras were plants.
Half an hour later, Peter could no longer feel his feet. The temperature was hovering around zero. He and the other extras had been running back and forth along the ridge of the hill while the camera recorded their movements from a hollow two hundred yards below them. He was taller than the rest of the group and deliberately hung back a little, so that he would at least stand out. Occasionally a microphone would crackle and the first AD would warn him to keep up with the others. Apart from commands to go again, there was no other way of telling that they were even being filmed.
‘I hate early starts,’ said one of the extras suddenly, as if Peter had shown signs of valuing his opinion. ‘I live in Barnet, and the travelling does me in. There aren’t many showbiz people where I live. You can’t buy The Stage in Barnet.’ Then they were off again, running up and running back down. No one had told them why they were running, or where they were supposed to be running to. None of the extras had seen a script. Only the main actors were given copies, and they were waiting inside a warm pavilion at the bottom of the hill. Peter could feel resentment building within him. How could the director see them if they couldn’t see him?
‘Could we go again, quickly please,’ called a disembodied voice, as if their movements were being orchestrated by the trees themselves. He broke away from the group as it prepared to run once more, and set off down the hill holding his arms high, like a surrendering Indian.
‘Wait a minute,’ he called, ‘I have a question. Why are we doing this over and over? You can’t possibly see us from down there.’
A bearded man rose from behind the camera and stood with his hands against his thighs. The rest of the crew impatiently dropped their arms to their sides, siding with the director.
‘I’m trying to get you lot silhouetted against the rising sun, Mr Who ever-You-Are. Can you go back up at once please.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘I appreciate that,’ called Peter, continuing nearer, determined to make his reasoning understood. ‘You could bring the camera a lot nearer and still have the sun rising in the background. At least that way you’d be able to see us a bit better, give us a bit of identity.’
‘I don’t want to see you any better.’ The director separated himself from his assistants and walked up to meet him, ready for a fight. ‘You’re just a group of generic running people. You don’t have identities. You could be anyone. That’s the whole point.’
‘Well, nobody explained that
‘Because the sun rises fast and we wanted to get the shot quickly.’ He looked up at the hill. ‘But that was our last possible take, and now the sun is too high. I think you’d better go, don’t you?’
It was humiliating, having to walk away from a group of people who were so obviously angry with him. Upsetting the extras didn’t matter, but he hated falling out with the crew in case he found himself working with them again. Clapper loaders, first assistants and sound men freelanced in each other’s crews, and turned up all over the place. Sound crews were usually men because of the weight of their microphone booms, which had to be constantly held aloft. Peter liked crews and got on well with them. They were professionals, like him. Extras were nothing, starstruck spear-carriers who got paid a tenner a night for standing behind a throne through two acts.
He hoped Jonathan wouldn’t hear of this latest fiasco too quickly. The misunderstanding could jeopardize his film audition. It would be easy for someone to put in a call and spoil his chances. All work was supposed to go through the agent. Peter was expected to call at the end of the morning shoot, so he went to the public library at Hampstead and hung around until lunchtime, then rang from a pub callbox. He assured Jonathan that everything had gone well, and the agent’s replies were relaxed and pleasant, as though the day’s first bottle of gin was already improving his view of the world.
Back out in the street it had begun to rain hard. Shoppers loitered disconsolately beneath shop awnings, waiting for the downpour to ease. Peter kept a beret in his pocket, and pulled it on to keep his hair dry. It would have helped to know something about the role he was going for. He checked the address he had written down, and headed for the tube station.
The afternoon was already darkening when he arrived in the Edgware Road, skirting filthy puddles to locate a small turning between the kebab shops and falafel bars. Walking to the far end of the street, he found himself in the remains of a cobbled road facing an old Victorian warehouse of the kind beloved by film location managers. Heavy steel shutters sealed what had once been entranceways for horses and carts. The base of the graffiti-stained building was steeped in rubbish and chunks of rotting vegetable matter, swept in from the market which operated inside during the day. Several small windows had been shattered, but all were barred and topped with spikes. For any normal job interview, the building would have sparked feelings of anxiety and revulsion. Peter knew better than to be alarmed. He could see the fierce yellow light shining behind the broad first floor windows, light that could only be thrown by the 10K lamps of a film set.
As he searched for a door, he marvelled at the extraordinary manner in which film business was run. A pretty girl could be picked from the pages of Spotlight, her agent called and an appointment made. She could then be sent along to an abandoned farm, a lunatic asylum, a den of rapists, and she would happily go along in the hope of landing a film part. It seemed so obviously dangerous he was surprised no one had put a stop to the practice. But that was the way the system had always run. Casting agents were tucked above tube stations. Rehearsal rooms sat behind strip clubs and chip shops. Dressing rooms were converted toilets. But not for the ones at the top. And not, he hoped, for him.
Peter found the notice pinned across a narrow doorway set in the end wall. It read, simply; AUDITIONS 1ST FL. As he climbed to the top of the unlit stairs, he passed a man of his own age coming down. The other actor threw him a cold smile before passing back into the street, a sure sign that auditions had started. Pushing open the landing door, he found himself in a vast wood-planked room that ran the entire length of the building. At one end the windows had been whitewashed over, and a simple screen-test area had been constructed. Before it, half a dozen people sat in plastic chairs softly questioning a nervous-looking young man. Peter approached, and was waved to a bench against the wall. After a few minutes the actor ahead of him was dismissed, and the team made notes, consulting with each other. Then he was beckoned to the vacated seat, like a patient customer about to receive a haircut. One of the men rose, shook his hand and introduced himself as Mr Ostendorf. Behind him stood a collapsible plywood table with a single sheet of paper on it. He consulted the typed list. ‘You must be Mr Tipping.’ His voice bore the trace of an accent.
‘That’s right.’ Peter beamed a smile at the assembled group and shifted in his chair. It was hard to tell which one was the director. Ostendorf ticked his name on the sheet before reseating himself.
‘Allow me to introduce everyone. Miss Deitch I think spoke to you on the telephone.’ He gestured along the line of chairs, starting first with an attractive young woman who turned out to be the producer’s assistant, then pointing to the director (why did all directors have little beards?), the cinematographer, the writer and an arrestingly beautiful woman of middle years, the costume designer. ‘I myself,’ Ostendorf explained, tapping his chest, ‘am merely the producer.’ Everyone laughed politely. ‘In my own country I have much experience in casting, but here it is more difficult, and you must be patient with me. So -’ He gestured about himself with a friendly shrug. ‘We are casting now only one role, and we shall perhaps tell you a little of this character and his story. Then we have you read a page from the script, yes?’
‘Fine,’ agreed Peter, trying to see how many other names there were on the page Ostendorf had consulted. Christ, it looked like they had seen fifteen people already. All eyes turned to the director. He was an elderly tanned figure in an immaculate Italian suit, and reminded Peter of photographs he had seen featuring Bertolucci’s cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. Could it even be him? But no, the old man introduced himself as Joachim Luserke, and had a strong, almost comic German accent. As he spoke, he paused to draw on a heavy, wet cigar that appeared to have burnt itself out.
‘We are a Netherlands company,’ he began slowly, ‘releasing feature films through Columbia Tri-Star in Europe. This film is a modern-day thriller entitled – in your language – Hour Of The -’ he looked around for help, unable to translate. ‘Jackals’ said the writer, an exhausted-looking man in his late twenties.
‘There is already a film called Day Of The Jackal,’ Peter interrupted, then stopped himself from saying more. Better to take Jonathan’s advice and get the job first before offering his opinions.
‘This was long ago, yes?’ Luserke waved the problem aside with his cigar. ‘It does not concern us. People go to the cinema for only seven years of their lives, that is the average, and the film you mention is more than seven years old I think.’ Peter was impressed. He was not used to having someone listen to what he had to say.
‘I explain the plot to you now because not all of the script is translated to our satisfaction. It concerns a wealthy businessman whose son, Jack, is kidnapped one night while working late in his office. He searches for the young man – here, there – but he does not find him.’
The others were watching the elderly director’s gestures with amusement. They clearly enjoyed seeing him act out the story. It was probably the sixteenth time he had done so this afternoon. ‘Then he discovers the truth. Jack has been taken by -’ He checked with the others for the approved designation of the phrase. ‘Social terrorists – who plan to keep him imprisoned as an example to the complacent business world. They will use his capture as a propaganda weapon that will bring them great power. The police – pooh! they do not believe our hero. He alone must come to the rescue. He finds out where Jack is being held, but it is too late. One of the terrorists argues with the young man about his privileged position in life, secured for him by his father, and kills him in a fit of fury before he can be rescued. Now they will come after our hero’s wife, and he must convince the police of the conspiracy -’
‘Wait, wait.’ Ostendorf raised his hand. ‘I think this part is not necessary to tell. Wait until we have the new translation.’
‘When could I see a fully translated version of the script?’ asked Peter. The project sounded interesting, the plot uncompromising. This was the kind of subject matter European film-makers handled so well. It was probably a metaphor for the human condition, very profound.
‘We will not give you the complete script unless you win the part, but you may read the pages which feature your role.’
‘Which part is on offer?’ he asked. Was it too much to hope for the lead?
‘I hope you won’t be offended when I tell you it is the part of the evil terrorist,’ laughed Ostendorf.
‘Not at all.’ Peter smiled back. Jonathan had thought him perfect for a meaty villainous role. He was handed half a dozen pages on which the character of DR EMIL was scored through with a yellow highlighter. In order to provide him with some interaction the producer’s assistant read the role of Jack, the hero’s captive offspring. The tone of the piece was sombre and oblique, the exchanges awkward, as though English was not the author’s first language. After the read-through, Peter raised his hand. ‘There’s a problem with the English translation,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s very stilted. I could paraphrase my lines and get a better reading out of it.’
‘I think for now it would be better if you stay with the words you have,’ replied Luserke firmly.
He could take a hint. Tidying the pages, he sat back and waited for a response. The group talked quietly amongst themselves. Heads were nodding. Only the art director seemed to be in dissent. Finally Ostendorf rose and turned to him with an outstretched hand. ‘We believe we have found our evil doctor,’ he said, smiling warmly. ‘You are happy?’
Peter thrust his hands in his pockets and beamed his thanks back at the group. ‘I am very happy.’
‘Good. Now we take some test pictures of you to show our backers.’
* * * *
‘What do you mean, they’re shooting before signing your contract?’ asked Fanny. ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing. Your agent certainly wouldn’t allow it.’
‘My agent is never going to find out about it.’ He reached across the counter and emptied a container of apple juice into his cup. The gym was empty and about to close. Rain pattered against the skylight far above them.
‘The guy playing Jack is a big-deal star in Holland and they only have him for four days. It’s not a large part but it’s the key to the film. I’m going to be playing my lines with a stand-in. Obviously I have to do it before the set is struck, so they’ll film my performance at the same time.’
‘Then why not put the two of you together in shot?’
‘For Jack’s scene with me he’s tied to a chair with a bag on his head. He doesn’t need to be there.’
‘Just make sure you get the contract signed as soon as possible.’ Fanny was growing bored with all this talk of Peter’s success. He never asked her how she was doing, why she still spent her evenings serving sandwiches to walking lumps of muscle tissue when she could be pursuing her dream, running a course for disabled actors. She had known all along that she would never be much of a stage success, but she was sure she could teach. She was prepared to settle for something more satisfying than pouring coffee. What she needed now was advice.
‘But you’d advise me to do it even though the contract’s not through, wouldn’t you? I mean, they seem like pretty trustworthy people. It’s a big company. They’re not going to run off without paying me.’ He was looking at her intently, waiting for a opinion. She threw up her hands, knowing that he would only hear what suited him. So many actors were like that. ‘Sure, take the job, it’s what you want.’
‘I knew I could rely on you to steer me to stardom. He reached down and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I’d better go. Big day tomorrow.’ He swung his gym bag onto his shoulder and headed for the door. She could have killed him. It was the forehead kiss that made her most angry, as if he didn’t see her as a woman, or the possessor of any kind of sexual identity. Grunting furiously, she wheeled her way back behind the counter and began turning out the lights. Peter was a typical bloody actor, completely closed to the real needs and purposes of other people. She hadn’t seen it in him before, or perhaps she’d hoped that he would be the one to break the mould, but he was the same as all the rest. She didn’t mind them lying, but it was boring when they lied to themselves. No wonder his girlfriends never stayed around for long. She certainly wouldn’t be there for him after tonight. Far too much acting, she decided grimly.
* * * *
Rain blanketed the city, sheathing the rooftops behind a grey shower-curtain of mist. It flooded the gutters, coarsed over pavements, breached the drains and ruined Peter’s chances of making a decent impression with his new shoes. Filming was about to commence in another old warehouse. This particularly run-down specimen was tucked behind the tube station in Tufnell Park, hidden by a row of shops that were either covered in For Sale signs or were already derelict, and seemed to be spouting water from a thousand broken pipes.
Peter looked for the tell-tale glare of the spotlights, but found none. Studio lighting was always turned off between takes because of the intense heat it generated. Besides, the set was supposed to be low-lit, so he doubted that anything could be seen from the road. He found the producers waiting on the second floor with a small crew (below British union requirements, certainly) and a simple set of rubble and straw, in the centre of which was a single wooden chair. Bound to it with ropes around the torso and legs was a rather unrealistic dummy, intended to represent the young hostage. Luserke came over and greeted him warmly.
‘I hope the late hour does not upset you, Mr Tipping,’ he said apologetically, ‘but we have been having some trouble with the lights.’
‘Nothing serious, I hope?’ Peter looked over at the single cable trailing behind the set. There didn’t seem to be enough lighting here to go wrong. But then, the scene they were about to film was an intense one, and every element had to be exactly right.
‘You will be pleased to know that our “Jack” is so far very good,’ the director continued, anxious to please. ‘He finished his part of the scene today. I would have liked him to stay here for your lines, but he is a big star in his country because of a television show, how you say “sitcom”, and he will not sit with the bag like so.’ He indicated the linen sack gracing the head of the mannequin, whose left leg looked as if it was about to detach itself completely. Wherever the money was being spent on this production, thought Peter, it certainly wasn’t going into the props.
‘The dummy doesn’t look very convincing,’ he complained. ‘Couldn’t you make the scene more realistic by getting someone to take its place while we film?’
‘I think we will not need to do so. Watch please.’ He gestured to one of the crew and the set lights came on, throwing a dingy blue haze across the chair and its occupant. With the figure half buried in indigo shadow, its imperfections were lost to the darkness. ‘I am more concerned with your close-ups tonight, and your speech, which we will do in one take. I think we will not need to feature our Jack in clear focus. If you would like to take your mark on the set -’
‘I haven’t been made up yet.’
‘Made up.’ The phrase seemed new to him. Luserke looked over to his producer, who said something in German. ‘Now I see. This was not made clear to you before I think. No make-up for this scene. The light, the blue light will be on your face.’ Peter looked back at the low glow of the set and hoped it would be bright enough for his facial expressions to register. This was to be an emotionally draining moment. He didn’t want his performance to be lost in the gloom, like it had been with the extras on the hill.
He made his way past the shattered-looking writer who was sitting with his head in his hands, nodded to Ostendorf, who was whispering into his mobile phone, and found the gaffer-taped cross on the floor of the set. Ostendorf had told him that he only needed to learn two pages of dialogue for this first night’s shoot, which involved the end of his scene with the hostage, and the moment of fury in which he kills him. The producer felt that as he would be addressing a plastic dummy rather than a live actor, it would help to start with the least interactive part of the sequence.
Peter studied the lolling strapped-up figure and rolled the handle of the carving knife between his fingers. Although to his eyes the set appeared absurdly unrealistic, he knew that through the camera lens it would take on a strange reality so that even the luminous turquoise lighting would somehow be appropriate. The lengthy scene was divided into sections, the last part involving a ranted monologue from Peter which culminated in him stepping forward and thrusting the knife into the mannequin’s chest.
By the fourth rehearsed take of his ‘fury’ speech, the crew were egging him on and applauding. Encouraged by Luserke, who sat forward on a stool beside the camera studying Peter’s every movement with glittering eyes, he grabbed the chair-back with one hand and with a despairing scream thrust the knife deep into the gut of the dummy, splintering the plastic shell to bury his fist deep within the kapok and foam interior. The director wanted his inner rage to surface, to slam against the floor and walls until it exploded into unstoppable violence.
During the final rehearsal Peter caught himself thinking; this is what it’s really about, to be in the centre and in control, to reach inside and draw emotion from the heart, to feel the sheer naked power of performance. He had reached this point by his own efforts, not through some agent looking to cream off a percentage. This was just the start, the tip of the future making itself clear to him, a fabled city appearing through a calming sea. Enjoy the moment, he told himself. Make it last.
They took a short break and the film magazine was loaded for the first take. Peter returned to his mark and stared across at the battered dummy strapped to its chair, chunks of torn rubber clinging to its cream plastic chest.
‘Peter, could you come here a moment please?’ Luserke called him over to query an inflection at the end of the monologue, tapping the speech with a nicotine-stained finger.
‘I can handle it that way if you like,’ he conceded, ‘but it’s a long speech, and by the time I get to the end my voice has risen so high it’s hard to control.’ Peter promised to try his best, but he knew that he’d do it his way. The matter was out of his control. He could only give his talent full rein and shape the power as it grew within him.
‘Your mark, please. Quiet everybody.’ The crew quickly returned to their places. Peter reached his spot and looked up. Rain still blurred across the skylight. The knife handle was warm in his hands. The lights dimmed even lower than in the rehearsals, and the room fell silent, so that the only sounds came from the rain above and the breath catching in his chest. He could see nothing beyond the shadow of the dummy and the straw-lined edge of the set.
Slowly, carefully, he began the speech.
The anger flowed from him as he accused the captive young man of having all the things he could never have, of squandering his inherited power, of wasting a life that paid service to truth and decency while perpetuating an immoral, divisive society. He felt the bile rise within him, felt real hatred for this golden boy who knew nothing of the real world, who had never tasted the hard lives of working men and women, and forward he ran with the knife at his waist, thrusting it out into the bound ribcage of his captive in an explosion of bare rage.
The first spray of warm liquid jetted into his face, blinding him as the next boiled hotly over the fist which still clutched the knife. He tried to pull his hand free from the dummy’s chest but it was trapped, caught between the flesh and bone of the hostage’s ribcage. There were no lights at all now, only the scuffling of feet and the slamming of a distant door. As he fell to his knees he knew he had cut into a real, living body with the foot-long blade, and that even now the roped-up figure was sinking fast within the coils of death, leather-soled shoes drumming madly on the floorboards until the chair toppled onto its side and the form bound to it lay still and silent, but for the steady decanting of its blood.
The crawl across the room in darkness seemed to last a lifetime. When he finally found a light switch he was frightened to turn it on. Two bare bulbs served to illuminate his blindness. He looked down at his shirt, his hands, his trousers, at the gouts of blood, as if someone had emptied the stuff over him in a bucket. The camera, if that was what it had been, had gone. There was nothing left in the room except the ‘set’, a pile of bricks and straw, a pair of gel-covered standard lamps set on the floor in either corner, a wooden chair and the cooling corpse of a young man, bound at the hands and feet, and taped at the mouth.
It took him a moment to realize that the room wasn’t quite empty. Something else was over everything. His fingerprints – on the body, the chair-back, the floor, the walls, the knife.
And even as his confusion lifted to be replaced with mounting fury, he wanted to know not why but how, how had they come to choose him, of all people? Because even now he could not see the blindness in himself.
And then what hurt most of all, what really cut into his heart and burrowed into the little soul he had, to lie there stinging and burning in a wormcast of purest agony, was the disappearance of the audience who had witnessed his greatest performance, and the knowledge that his moment had not been captured.
It was a pain he had only just begun to nurse when the police broke in the door.
CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME) by MARK TIMLIN
Soho – the capital’s centre of vice. Only minutes from the glittering lights of Piccadilly that shine like the jewels in the crown of Great Britain’s major city, lies this blot on our nation’s conscience.
Blimey, I thought. Where do Channel 4 dig up these funny old short movies to fill the time between the commercial break and The Oprah Winfrey Show? And as the pedantic tones of the narrator droned on, the grainy old black and white film switched from a view of Eros, to Compton Street, where half a dozen elegant-looking women in high heels, pencil skirts and short fur coats patrolled the deserted pavements. Then to the front of the old Windmill Theatre, and inside, where half a hundred geezers in long macs and trilby hats were watching a tableau of naked girls standing so still on stage that you could almost count the goose bumps on their upper arms.
Back here in the real world it was five p.m. four days before Christmas, and rods of almost solid, freezing, black rain beat down onto the window of my office from the dark mass of cloud that seemed to sit only inches above the roof of the boozer opposite, where the warm, golden light that seeped from the front door and the gaps in the curtains seemed to beckon me over.
So that was the deal. An hour of Oprah interviewing a woman who’d hired a killer to shoot her husband, and after the contract had gone sour, had spent four years in prison, and then returned, reconciled, to hubby’s loving arms. After that, an hour in the pub, then off home with a bag of fish and chips for another evening in front of the TV watching the rest of the world get ready for the annual festivities. Me, I wanted none of it. And intended to spend Christmas Day in bed with a good book, a micro-waveable spaghetti bolognaise and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. No cards. No presents. No funny hats.
The narrator’s voice on the soundtrack of the film continued with the story of the Windmill, and just as I was sure he was going on to tell us how the place never closed, the door to my office opened to admit a man and a woman, water dripping from their umbrella, and I’d never know. I switched off the TV and looked up from the chair I was sitting in at my visitors.
‘Is your name Sharman?’ asked the man. He had a northern accent. He was well built with thick, short dark hair.
‘Thank goodness. We thought we’d never find you,’ said the woman. She was blonde and quite nice-looking, though her eyes looked tired. Her accent was northern too. And slightly stronger than the man’s.
‘I’m usually here,’ I said.
‘But this is such a big city and we didn’t have your proper address,’ she went on. She was wearing a red cloth coat, the skirts of which were dark with moisture. The man was dressed in a rich-looking leather jacket and jeans, with a scarf knotted at his throat and leather gloves. They both looked to be about forty.
‘What can I do for you?’ I asked.
‘Find our son,’ said the woman. ‘He’s disappeared.’
‘You’d better sit down,’ I said, and got up, pulled my two clients’ chairs in front of my desk and took her coat. It felt expensive and I noticed that the label was from Lewis’s in Manchester, as I hung it up to dry close to one of the two central heating radiators. Underneath she wore a simple dark blue dress and a cardigan.
‘My name’s Himes,’ said the man as I did it. ‘Douglas Himes. This is my wife, Mona.’
‘Pleased to meet you. Do you want some tea? Coffee?’ I said as they sat.
They both asked for coffee and I went out back and put the kettle on. Whilst it was boiling I spooned coffee powder into three mugs and took the sugar bowl and put it on the edge of my desk. ‘Milk?’ I asked. They both nodded, and I went out back again, splashed milk into the mugs and when the kettle boiled, filled them.
I passed round the drinks and sat back in my own seat and said, ‘Tell me about it.’
Douglas Himes started the story.
‘Jimmy, that’s our son’s name, left school last year. He was sixteen, and he’d been wasting his time there for years. He was never very academic. Not that I cared. Neither was I, and I did all right. I offered him a job in my business. I own a firm that wholesales motor spares around Manchester. Business isn’t bad. It wasn’t what it was a couple of years ago, but what business is? But at least we’re keeping our heads above water. There aren’t many other jobs to be had up there right now. None in fact. This damned recession. But Jimmy didn’t want to know.’
‘He just lay around the house all day. He couldn’t get the dole because he wouldn’t take a training scheme. So we gave him money,’ interrupted Mona Himes.
‘Then one day just after last Christmas, he told us he was going to London,’ Douglas Himes went on. ‘Just like that. We tried to stop him, but what could we do? You know what kids are like these days.’
I do as it happens, if only from a distance, and I nodded and took out my cigarettes. ‘Do you mind?’ I said to Mona. She shook her head and I offered the packet to the pair of them, and Douglas Himes took one. I pushed the ashtray in his direction and flicked my ash into the waste paper basket next to my chair.
When Himes’ cigarette was fired up to his satisfaction with a gold lighter he took from the pocket of his jacket, he continued his story.
‘We begged and pleaded with him not to go. He knew no one down here, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually I gave him a couple of hundred pounds so that at least he could get somewhere decent to stay, and he left. I told him if he was short to let me know. I couldn’t see him down here with no funds. You read such terrible things.’
I nodded. ‘And you haven’t seen him since?’ I asked. You weren’t exactly in a rush to find him, I thought.
‘Oh yes,’ said Mona Himes. ‘He kept in touch. Regularly. He’d phone at least once a week. He even came home in the summer for a couple of weeks. He had money to burn then. But…’
‘But what.’ I asked.
‘He’d changed. He was always a very private boy, but when he came home he was worse. He wouldn’t let me into his room, and even though it was hot, he always wore a long-sleeved shirt. Then one day I walked in on him whilst he was having a wash in the bathroom. I was looking for dirty towels. He went mad. And his arms…’
She hesitated. ‘What about them?’ I asked, although I thought I could guess.
‘They were bruised. Badly. And worse than that they were covered in little bloody holes. It was horrible.’
Track marks. Just as I had thought.
‘Did he take drugs before he left home?’ I asked.
‘Not that we knew of,’ said Himes. ‘Though he might have.’
‘And you said he had a lot of money?’ I asked.
They both nodded. ‘Hundreds,’ said Himes. ‘He even tried to give us back the money we’d lent him, although we wouldn’t take it.’
‘He said he had a job in a restaurant as a waiter and got lots of tips,’ said his wife.
‘Any idea which restaurant?’ I asked.
‘No. He didn’t say.’
‘And why are you worried about him now?’
‘He said he’d come home for Christmas. He told us he’d come up last weekend. When we hadn’t heard from him by Monday we started to get worried. We’d never had a phone number for him. He always called us. We kept asking, but he told us he didn’t want us phoning him. He rang us last, last Thursday. Said he’d be up on Sunday at the very latest. That the restaurant was very busy.’
But not so busy that they’d let one of their staff have a protracted Christmas holiday. I thought not.
‘Did you have an address for him down here?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said Himes. ‘He said he had a room at a house in King’s Cross. At least he gave us his address. We went round there today but it was awful. Full of the strangest people having a party.’
‘A rave they called it,’ said Mona.
‘And he wasn’t there?’
‘We couldn’t get any sense out of any of them,’ said Himes. ‘They were all drugged up.’
‘It was a horrible place,’ said Mona. ‘Filthy. No curtains. No carpets. Nothing. Just a lot of children running wild.’
I nodded again.
‘Will you try and find him?’ said Mona. ‘We’ve read about you in the papers. They say you always do your best.’
My fame had obviously spread far and wide. ‘What about the police?’ I asked. ‘Have you been to them?’
‘They took down his name and that was about all. They suggested we tried the Salvation Army. No. I’m sorry. The police were no use at all.’
‘They’re busy people,’ I said. ‘Especially at this time of the year.’
‘But he’s our son,’ said Mona. ‘Please say you’ll help.’
I didn’t want the job. The last thing I wanted to do was schlepp around London during Christmas week looking for some seventeen-year-old junkie. Not with all the once-a-year drinkers out. The half pint and small sherry merchants in their dodgy suits pretending to be full of good cheer. Taking a break from the missus and trying to get some half-pissed secretary to give them a blow job in a back alley. Oh l’amour.
‘Please,’ she said again, and reached into her handbag for a tissue. I looked into her tear-filled eyes and relented. ‘I’ll try,’ I said. ‘Do you have a photograph of him?’
She reached into her handbag again and brought out one of those Kodak paper folders that bulged with photographs. She handled it as if it was a religious object. Maybe it was to her. I know that if my daughter went missing, photos of her would be to me. She opened it and passed me the top photograph.
‘That was taken on holiday in Ibiza two years ago when Jimmy was fifteen,’ she said. ‘It’s a very good likeness.’
I put the photo on the desk in front of me and looked at it closely.
It was a study of a boy from the waist upwards dressed in a green vest holding a can of Lucozade. He was handsome, tanned, had shaggy blonde hair and looked no more than twelve years old. The flash had reflected in his eyes and gave them a reddish tint.
‘Fifteen,’ I said. ‘He looks younger.’
‘He always has,’ said his father.
‘Can I look at the rest?’ I asked.
Mona Himes passed over the packet, somewhat reluctantly I thought.
I flipped through them. It was a microcosm of Jimmy Himes’ life from day one. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen some.
I pulled out another couple of more recent pictures and carefully returned the rest to the folder and passed it back.
‘I’d like to keep these,’ I said. ‘For now. I’ll make sure you get them back.’
Her sense of relief was almost palpable.
‘How much do you charge?’ asked Douglas Himes.
‘Two hundred a day plus expenses.’
It didn’t seem to worry him. The motor spares business must have been better than he’d let on. He pulled a cheque book and pen from inside his leather jacket. ‘I’ll give you a cheque for five hundred to be going on with,’ he said. ‘Is that OK?’
I nodded. ‘Are you staying in London?’ I asked as he wrote.
Mona Himes nodded. ‘At Selfridge’s Hotel.’
‘Have you got a car with you?’ It was just something to break the silence really.
She nodded again. ‘But we left it parked. We don’t know our way round London. We’ve been taking buses and cabs. ‘We walked around for hours looking for you. That’s why we got so wet.’
‘There’s a minicab firm next door,’ I told her. ‘They’re all right. They’ll get you back up West. How long do you plan on staying?’
‘Until you find Jimmy,’ said Douglas Himes as he tore the cheque out of the book.
‘I’ll do my best,’ I said. ‘Will you write down the address in King’s Cross?’ and I pushed a notepad in front of him. He scribbled down the information and pushed the notepad back.
That seemed to be about it for then. I helped Mona Himes back into her expensive coat and the pair of them went to get a taxi.
I passed on the pub and took a bottle of white plonk home to drink with my fish and chips. I watched TV for a bit then went to bed. I intended to be up early the next morning to begin my search for Jimmy Himes.
* * * *
I reached King’s Cross at ten. If this place was a squat like I guessed, any earlier would have been a waste of time. Squatters aren’t exactly noted for early rising. I was dressed in my battered old leather jacket, jeans, artfully worn at the knees, and a pair of DMs with steel toe caps. Before I’d left home I’d stripped, cleaned and loaded my illegal.38 special Colt Cobra revolver and dropped it into one of my jacket pockets. You never know who you’re going to meet in that part of town. Especially if you’re asking questions that people don’t want to answer. And besides, not everyone in the rave culture was all loved up. Just the opposite as I’d discovered before.
In the other pocket I put the photos of Jimmy Himes in a white envelope. I didn’t want to crease them before I gave them back to his mother. And finally in the back pocket of my jeans I put two hundred and fifty quid in ten pound notes from a secret stash that I keep at home in case of emergencies. I figured that before the day was out I might have to grease some palms.
The previous night’s rain had stopped, but the clouds were still dark and angry and hung over London like they’d never let go.
I parked my E-type on a meter just round the corner from the address that Douglas Himes had given me and finished the journey on foot.
The house I was looking for was a tall, mid-terraced monstrosity round the back of the station. It had seen far better days, but then who hadn’t?
The bay window on the ground floor front was half boarded up, and the door that stood at the top of three filthy stone steps was no stranger to blunt instruments. I listened carefully and there was no sound from inside. Obviously yesterday’s rave had reached its logical conclusion. There was no bell push by the splintered frame, just two old bare wires that did nothing when I touched them together. I gave the door a hammer with my fist and felt it give almost an inch in the jamb. There was no answer, and I hammered again. Once again no one paid the slightest bit of attention, and I pulled my credit card case from my pocket and chose one of the cards that was out of date and loaded the door. It took less than ten seconds. I slowly eased the door open and peered into the dark and deserted hall. Inside all was serene and I slipped in and pulled the door closed behind me. The hall was freezing and smelt of cat’s piss. There was a door on the right. I tried it. The room with the bay window was empty except for about three hundred beer and soft drink cans, cigarette ends, roaches, and two big, battered hi-fi speakers in one corner.
I went further down the hall and came to another door. I tried that one too and it opened into a bedroom. Not the honeymoon suite at the Savoy, but a bedroom nevertheless.
The walls and window were hung with old tapestry curtains, in one corner was a battered chest of drawers that held an ancient black and white TV and a tray covered with loose cigarette papers, shreds of tobacco, stripped cigarettes, small lumps of dope, and minicab firms’ advertising cards, some whole, some torn. Beside the tray was a packet of clean hypodermic needles amongst a litter of used spikes, burnt spoons, night light candles, silver foil, and an empty glassine packet with just a trace of golden brown powder sticking to the sides. Against one wall was an old radiogram that looked as if it had come from a skip, next to a pile of records. Clothes were scattered everywhere. On a double mattress with no box springs, under a pile of dirty blankets and a stained duvet two people were asleep.
I went over and looked down at them. On the bare pillows I could just make out that one was male, the other female, although their hair was of equal length. I went to the window and pulled the curtain that covered it across the piece of string that held it up, then went back to the bed and kicked the edge of the mattress hard.
The female opened her eyes and looked up into mine. ‘Morning,’ I said. ‘Full English or continental?’
Her eyes were glazed and I might as well have not bothered. She focused on my face and looked around as if she wasn’t sure where she was.
‘Who are you?’ she said.
I ignored the question. What was the point? She was probably on re-entry from orbit and my name would mean nothing to her. Often it meant nothing to me.
‘I’m looking for Jimmy Himes,’ I said.
‘Who? What the fuck are you doing here?’
I told her again, and she shook the still form next to her until he grunted into life. ‘Matt,’ she said, ‘there’s someone here.’
I just knew this day was going to end in tears.
The man sat up, pulling the blankets off his girlfriend’s bare breasts. They were thin and long with puckered brown nipples and she didn’t try to cover them. I wished that she would. He was about twenty-five, skinny, with tracks on both arms.
‘I don’t want any trouble,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to burst in, but the front door was open.’
A white lie. But forgivable under the circumstances, I thought. Although I might as well have saved my breath.
‘Are you the filth?’ demanded Matt, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
People are always asking me that. ‘No.’ I said.
‘Then what the fuck do you want?’ He said.
I repeated myself for the second time.
‘Never heard of him,’ he said. ‘Fuck off.’
I ignored him. He was probably used to it. ‘I’ve got some photos,’ I said, and took out the envelope, opened it and pulled out one. I hunkered down on my heels, and showed it to them.
‘Don’t know him,’ said Matt. ‘Now fuck off or…’
‘Don’t Matt,’ I said tiredly. ‘You’re out of your class.’ Which was probably the wrong thing to say in front of his inamorata.
‘I’ll…’ he said, beginning to push back the covers and get at me.
I didn’t want to see any more of his skinny body and shoved him back flat on the mattress. ‘I said don’t,’ I said.
He lay there and I could smell his breath. I’ve smelled more pleasant things, believe me. I held up the photo again and said. ‘Are you sure you haven’t seen this boy? His name’s Jimmy. Think about it.’
‘Maybe,’ said the woman.
‘That’s better,’ I said, and eased the pressure off Matt’s narrow chest. ‘Where? Here?’
‘He used to score sometimes.’
‘Where we do.’
‘Jill,’ said Matt, and I increased the pressure on his chest again, until he shut up.
‘What does he supply?’
‘Everything. Dope. Smack. Coke. Uppers. Downers. Es. Speed. The lot.’
‘Where is he?’ I asked.
‘How much is it worth?’
Now we were getting there.
‘Jill,’ said Matt again. ‘You don’t know who this geezer is.’
‘What does it matter?’ said Jill. ‘That cunt’s always shorting us. Serves him right if this bloke does him. How much?’ to me again.
I wasn’t going to argue. If she was lying I could always come back. And do what? Shit. It wasn’t my money. If she was lying I’d just tell Himes and let him put a bit extra on the price of his spark plugs.
I stood up and took out my money. I wasn’t worried about letting them see it. I peeled off five tens and held them up. ‘Give.’ I said.
‘He lives upstairs. Handy like,’ said Jill. ‘First floor at the front. His name’s Derek. White bloke with dreads. He’s probably there now.’
‘Thanks Jill,’ I said, and dropped the money onto the bed where she grabbed it and stuffed it under her pillow.
‘Don’t tell him it was us told you,’ said Matt. ‘We’ve got to live here.’
‘Fair enough,’ I said, and turned to leave.
‘You can have this for another fifty,’ said Jill, and flipped the covers off her body. She was like something out of Belsen. Emaciated. With tracks up her arms and legs and even in her crotch.
Fifty what? I thought. Pence?
‘No thanks love,’ I said. ‘Another time maybe.’ And I left the room quickly. Closing the door behind me. I didn’t wait to hear her reply. I’ve discovered in my little life that saying no to a woman’s offer of sex is like asking for credit in a pub. A refusal often offends. I’d leave Matt to catch the flak. I’m sure he was used to that too.
* * * *
I climbed the stairs to the first floor and found the door of the room at the front and knocked hard. There was no answer, so I tried again and heard a male voice call out, ‘Who is it?’
‘Jimmy sent me,’ I called back.
There was silence again and then from just the other side of the door the voice said, ‘Jimmy who?’
There was a further pause before I heard the sounds of locks disengaging, and the door opened six inches on a security chain and a white face half hidden by lank blond curls appeared in the gap. ‘Who are you?’ The face asked.
‘Nick. Are you Derek?’
‘Whaddya want?’ He said again.
‘Can I come in. It’s a bit public out here.’
‘Bollocks. Whaddya want?’
‘I’m looking for Jimmy.’
‘He ain’t here.’
‘Do you know where he is?’
‘You Old Bill?’ That question again.
‘Then fuck off.’ And the door began to close.
I lashed out with my right foot and the steel toe of my DM slammed into the door pushing it back to the full extent of the chain, and the face vanished. I slammed my left shoulder against the door, the chain snapped and I was inside. The owner of the voice was on the other side of the room. He turned and I saw he was holding a small baseball bat. A miniature version of a Louisville Slugger, but still plenty weapon enough to crush my skull if he got a good shot in.
I stood inside the doorway as he came at me. He was of medium height and build, but his arms were thick and muscular. He pulled back the bat to give me a good whack and I moved inside his arm and took the blow on my left shoulder, and let him have a good whack of my own with my clenched fist into his solar plexus. He let out his breath with a gasp, all the strength seemed to go out of his body, the baseball bat fell to the uncarpeted floorboards with a clatter and he doubled up. That sort of punch hurts and disorientates. I allowed him to drop to his knees, took hold of his left hand and bent the little finger back until I felt the ligaments at breaking-point and the boy screamed a high pitched scream. That hurts too. Much worse than a punch in the stomach. A bladder-emptying kind of hurt that fills your whole head with pain.
‘You going to be good?’ I hissed.
He nodded and looked at me through eyes dulled with agony and I eased the pressure, pulled him to his feet and propelled him across to an unmade bed. I threw him on top, rescued the Slugger and stood over him slapping it into my palm.
‘Are you Derek?’ I asked.
‘What of it?’
‘Jimmy Himes,’ I said,
‘What about him?’ I could tell it hurt him to speak.
‘You know him?’
‘He scores off you?’
‘Seen him lately?’
A shake of the head.
‘How long ago?’
‘Where’s he stay?’
I slapped my palm again with the bat. Harder.
‘Upstairs,’ said Derek. ‘With Wayne and Duane.’
He repeated the names.
‘Thanks,’ I said, put the bat carefully on the mantelpiece above the dead gas fire and left the room.
* * * *
I went further upstairs. All the way, until I came to yet another door and I wondered what I’d find behind this one. I rapped on it with my knuckles and heard movement, and it was opened by a huge young guy dressed in a white singlet and blue and white checked trousers like the ones chefs wear. Around his head covered with long dark hair was tied a white bandanna. He had a lot of upper body development, and his skin gleamed with oil.
‘Wayne?’ I said ‘Duane?’
‘Duane. And who might you be?’ His voice was surprisingly high for one of his stature.
I got the picture.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘My name’s Nick Sharman. I’m looking for Jimmy Himes.’
‘Who isn’t? Come right on in. Be my guest.’
He pulled the door right back and I went inside. There was a short hall interrupted by three doors, and he pointed me to the one at the end. Inside was another massive young bloke dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. ‘Well hello,’ he said in a deep, masculine voice. ‘Who have we here?’
‘Someone looking for Jimmy,’ trilled Duane. ‘This is Wayne by the way. Wayne, this is Nick.’
‘Welcome to our abode,’ said Wayne. ‘Be it ever so humble.’
I looked round. It was a living room cum gymnasium. One side was furnished with rugs on the floor, curtains at the window, two matching armchairs and a daybed covered with cushions to make a sofa. One wall was lined with shelves holding a TV, video, stereo, albums, cassettes and books. The other side was jammed with what looked like a full Nautilus rig and a whole lot of other weight lifting shit. Now I knew where Wayne and Duane’s muscles came from, and I pulled back my shoulders. The walls of the room that weren’t covered with shelves were adorned with posters of gay icons: James Dean in Giants Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones; Boy George in full drag; Jimmy Sommerville in nothing much. Par for the course.
‘And you’re looking for young James,’ said Wayne. ‘Or just a little romance?’
‘Nothing like that,’ I replied. ‘His mother and father have hired me to find him. I’m a private detective.’
‘A private dick,’ said Duane, with emphasis on the word ‘dick’, and flexed his biceps at me.
I smiled at him. ‘That’s right,’ I said.
‘What if he doesn’t want to be found?’
‘If I could see him and he tells me that…’ I shrugged and didn’t finish the sentence.
‘We’d like to see him too,’ said Wayne. ‘He owes us some rent.’
‘If you know where he is…’ I said.
‘Probably,’ said Duane. ‘But why should we tell you?’
‘To put his mother and father’s minds at rest that he’s all right. That’s all. I don’t intend him any harm.’
‘Sez you.’ Wayne this time. I was getting tired of the double act.
‘Anyway,’ said Duane ‘We can’t possibly talk now. We’re due at work soon.’
‘What do you do?’ I asked for something to say.
‘We work in a restaurant in Covent Garden. Duane cooks, I serve,’ said Wayne.
Jesus. The fucking salmonella sisters, I thought. Perfect.
‘So if you’d like to leave,’ he went on.
‘No.’ I said. ‘I’d like you to tell me where Jimmy Himes is.’
‘Duane,’ said Wayne, and Duane flexed his biceps at me again, and moved closer.
I was getting nothing but aggro at this house and I was getting sick of it, and what I did next was probably an over reaction, but I did it anyway.
I pulled the Colt out from my jacket pocket and stuck the two inch barrel into Duane’s face. On his forehead. Right where his third eye should be if you believe all that mystic bollocks. I cocked it with a loud click. Loud enough to scare the shit out of Duane anyway. ‘Relax Shirley,’ I said. ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ Then to Wayne. ‘And as for you, Dorothy. Lie face down on the sofa there and spread your arms. You must be used to that.’
If they thought I was a homophobic fascist all the better. It wouldn’t be the first time. I used to wear a blue uniform, remember.
I didn’t want to pull the trigger and splatter Duane’s brains all over Marlon Brando, but I hoped he’d think that was exactly what I did want to do, and not get physical and try to be a hero. It worked. He stood stock still whilst Wayne made a high pitched sound at the back of his throat, turned, and fell forward onto the mattress of the daybed.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Now we’ve got that sorted. How about telling me where Jimmy is. Duane?’
Duane squinted along the length of the gun I was holding, and swallowed. When he spoke his voice was even higher pitched than before. ‘He works the meat rack,’ he said.
‘The Dilly,’ said Wayne, his voice muffled by the mattress he was lying on. ‘Piccadilly, Coventry Street, Leicester Square. The cafes and arcades. He’s a rent boy. Didn’t you know?’
‘No,’ I said. “
‘It pays for his habit,’ Wayne went on. ‘He works there most evenings. We assumed he’d met a rich punter who took him away for a few days.’
‘So why didn’t you just tell me?’ I said disgustedly. ‘Instead of giving me the old queen act.’
‘We didn’t know who you were,’ piped Duane. ‘You won’t hurt me, will you?’
I shook my head. ‘No Duane. I won’t hurt you.’ and I put up my gun, and let the hammer down gently. ‘I’m off now,’ I said. ‘Thanks for the information. And next time don’t be so aggressive. You never know if it’s a pistol in my pocket or if I’m just glad to see you. Have a nice day, girls,’ and I backed out into the hall, through the door, down the stairs and outside, back to my car.
I didn’t see a soul as I went.
* * * *
I took the photo of Jimmy and drove up to Piccadilly to try and find him.
I parked the Jaguar in the NCP at the back of Leicester Square and started my search. By two that afternoon I’d shown the photo round most of the cafes and arcades in the area, and I think I’d been told to fuck off in fifteen different languages. I went into Gerrard Street and found a pub full of Chinese and bought a pint of lager. At least in that boozer there were no happy Christmas revellers. I was sitting at a table, smoking my second cigarette when a kid sidled up to me. He was young and looked like he was auditioning for a place in The Jam. He was wearing a skinny two-piece suit of silver tonik mohair, black and white shoes, a pale blue button down shirt and a narrow black leather tie. He had blond hair cut into a pudding basin, and down his left cheek, from his eye to his chin he had a nasty looking thin scar.
‘I hear you’re looking for someone?’ he said.
I nodded. Any port in a storm.
I nodded again.
‘I know where he is.’
He grinned. ‘Buy us a drink first.’
I was probably being conned, but what the hell. ‘What do you want?’ I asked him.
‘Scotch and coke.’
I went up to the bar and bought what he asked for and another pint for myself. When I got back and he had downed half the drink, I said, ‘You know Jimmy?’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,’ he retorted.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Rick. Slick Rick they call me.’
Sure they do, I thought. ‘And you know where Jimmy is?’
‘I know where he was.’
‘It’ll cost ya?’
I wasn’t exactly amazed at that. ‘How much?’
‘How do I know you’re telling me the truth?’
‘I wouldn’t lie mister.’
‘You would say that.’
He looked injured at the thought. ‘He’s my mate,’ he said. ‘We work the Dilly together.’
‘You’re on the rent?’
He nodded and felt the scar.
‘A dangerous game,’ I said.
‘What, this? Not half as dangerous as HIV. You can’t get plastic surgery for that.’
I couldn’t argue with him on that score.
‘So where is he?’ I asked.
He held out his hand.
‘No son,’ I said. ‘You got a drink for your sauce. A hundred nicker and I want some proof.’
‘I can’t prove it. But it’s the truth.’
So he did. According to him, Jimmy was with the same old queen who’d given Rick the stripe down his face. Rick would do a lot for money, but not everything, if the everything included grievous bodily harm, which was what the old queen wanted to inflict upon him.
‘Has the old queen got a name?’ I asked.
‘Daddy,’ said Rick. ‘When I wouldn’t do what he wanted, he did this.’ He felt the scar again. ‘The old cunt.’
‘Did you go to the police?’
Rick laughed fit to burst. ‘Are you fuckin’ joking?’ He said. ‘They’d bang me up if I did.’
He was probably right.
‘So where does Daddy hang out?’ I asked.
‘Shepherd’s Market. He’s got a place down there.’
‘Not now. It’s too early. He sleeps in. Tonight’s favourite.’
‘Eight. Meet me outside the Shepherd’s pub. Know it?’
I nodded. ‘I’ll be in my car,’ I said. ‘A red Jaguar E-Type.’
‘It’s all right for some. I’ll show you his place, then split. OK?’
‘OK,’ I agreed.
‘And bring the dosh.’ And with that, Rick swallowed his drink and left.
* * * *
I was parked where he said just before eight. The rain had started again and was slanting through the light of the street lamps, raising a mist of steam from the long bonnet of the car and obscuring my view through the windscreen like tears. The radio was playing Phil Spector’s Christmas album, and a couple of whores were eyeing up the car from the other side of the road.
I was still wearing my leather jacket and jeans, and I could feel the reassuring weight of the Colt in my right pocket. Rick ducked round the corner in front of me as the clock in the car said 8:05. He wasn’t wearing a coat and had the thin lapels of his jacket turned up against the weather. I leaned over, slipped the lock on the passenger door, he climbed in, and the whores walked off in disgust.
‘Excellent motor,’ he said, and he was just a boy again. Not a rent boy.
‘Take me for a drive one day?’
‘One day,’ I replied. ‘Now where does this bloke Daddy live?’
‘Just round the corner. Number seven. Over the pottery shop. There’s an entryphone by the door at the side. Got my dough?’
‘And he’s just going to let me in?’
I saw his face stiffen in the light from the dashboard. ‘You promised.’
‘Not exactly. You get me in and I find that Jimmy’s been there and you get your hundred.’
Take it or leave it. You could still be lying. Like I said. If I find Jimmy’s been there you get your money.’
‘He’ll kill me.’
‘I’ll make sure you’re all right.’
‘You don’t know him.’
‘I don’t even know that he exists.’
‘How do I know you’ll pay me?’
I took fifty nicker in tens, rolled up tightly out of my shirt pocket. ‘Half now. Half later. How about that?’
‘He was there,’ said Rick. ‘I promise you Jimmy went there.’
‘So you’ve got nothing to worry about.’
‘All right. But watch the fat bastard. You don’t know him.’ And he touched the scar on his face again.
We got out of the car and walked round the corner. Just as Rick had described it, there was a door next to the pottery shop, with an entryphone attached to the frame. I looked up. Dim light escaped from the edges of the curtains at the two windows above us.
Rick pushed the buzzer and waited. After half a minute a voice said, ‘Yes.’
Rick looked at me. ‘Is that Daddy?’ He asked. His voice was softer than the one he used to me, and he put on a slight lisp.
‘My name’s Steve. Ronnie sent me. He said I could stay.’
There was silence. Then the voice said. ‘Come on up Steve,’ and the entryphone’s buzzer sounded and the door clicked open half an inch.
Rick grabbed the roll of notes I was still holding and said. ‘See you back at the motor.’ And he turned and vanished into the thickening rain. I pushed open the door and was faced by a flight of stairs leading upwards, faintly lit from a bare bulb screwed into a fixture in the ceiling.
I walked slowly up the flight until it dog-legged and I could see an open door with a figure standing in the doorway.
The figure was huge. Bigger than huge. Humungous in fact. A great fat man in a white shirt and a pair of strides that would have made enough suits to dress a quartet. I stopped about four steps below him and looked up. I didn’t like being at a disadvantage, but I didn’t want to get close enough for him to aim a kick at my head with the big, black shoes he was wearing.
‘Daddy?’ I said.
He looked down at me in puzzlement. ‘It wasn’t you that buzzed though.’
‘No.’ I said. ‘It was someone I met who told me that Jimmy Himes had been here.’
I saw the fat man’s face pale and he licked his lips.
‘Who told you that?’ He asked.
‘It doesn’t matter. Is Jimmy here?’
‘Who are you?’
‘Nick Sharman. I’m a detective. Private. I was hired by Jimmy’s mum and dad to find him.’
‘I don’t know any Jimmy… What did you say his name was? Himes?’
‘That’s right. And I’ve been told different.’
‘Then you’ve been told wrong.’
‘Would you mind if I came in and had a look round?’
‘I certainly would. You could be anyone. A man alone in my condition…’
I wasn’t interested in a diagnosis. I took one of my cards from inside my jacket and climbed the last few stairs until I was on a level with him, and put it in his tiny, fat paw.
He glanced at it and said. ‘This means nothing.’
I pulled out the photo I’d been showing around all day. ‘This is Jimmy. Are you sure you don’t know him?’
Daddy’s eyes flicked to the photo, then away. ‘Never seen him before in my life.’
I shrugged. ‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘How would it be if I came back with the police?’
His manner changed, and he gave me a smarmy grin, but I saw sweat break out on his forehead like tiny blisters of clear varnish.
‘I don’t think that will be necessary,’ he said.
‘Can I come in then?’
He moved his massive bulk backwards into the flat and admitted me. I pushed the door closed behind me. It was warm, and the hall was freshly decorated, with a thick blue carpet on the floor and a tiny table just inside, underneath the flat’s entryphone, with a glass vase of fresh flowers on it. Home sweet home. But the smell of the flowers didn’t disguise the sour smell coming from Daddy, and another smell from somewhere inside. Sweet but rank. Faint enough not to be noticeable unless you knew what it was.
I knew. And I was glad I’d bought my gun.
There were five doors leading off the hall. The flat was bigger than it looked from in the street. All the doors were closed.
Daddy threw open the first one on the left, reached in and switched on the light. It was the kitchen. It was spartanly neat and the appliances and utensils reflected like mirrors. It was empty.
Next door: Bathroom and toilet. Once again everything shone. Once again, it was empty.
End door: A bedroom, simply furnished with a single divan and a bedside table. The sweet smell was stronger there. The room was in darkness except for the light that entered from outside, between the undrawn curtains at the window that looked onto a bare brick wall opposite. Daddy stepped in and fumbled with the light switch. A dim bulb came on and I saw the door to a cupboard in the far wall. I pushed Daddy towards the divan and went over and yanked the cupboard door open. As I did so, the smell hit me like a muffled hammer. Human decay in its early to middling stages. Inside the cupboard, dressed in a puffa jacket and jeans was the body of Jimmy Himes. His face was bloodless, and his lips were drawn back over yellow teeth, but he was instantly recognizable from the photo I had shown Daddy. There was no visible sign of injury. Jimmy’s body was propped up against the back of the cupboard, whether by rigor, or because the collar of his jacket had been caught on a hook, I didn’t know, and didn’t stop to find out.
I looked at the fat man and he grimaced. ‘You fucker,’ I said.
‘There’s no need to get personal,’ he replied. ‘I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.’
‘No arrangement,’ I said, and drew the Colt from my pocket and pointed it at him.
‘And you won’t need that either.’
‘We’ll see. Where’s your phone?’
‘In the living room,’ he said. ‘The door opposite the kitchen.’
I backed out of the room, gestured with the revolver, and he followed me. ‘Why have you kept him here?’ I asked as we went.
‘I like him. He doesn’t talk back.’
I could have shot the bastard there and then for saying that. I should have. It was all going too easily. I walked backwards into the hallway, Daddy following me all the while, and when he reached the doorway, he looked over my shoulder along the length of the hall and said. ‘Sonny. Deal with him.’
‘Not that old one,’ I said. ‘You’ve been watching too much TV.’ And then I felt a slight displacement of air by my ear, before the doorway and Daddy exploded in a galaxy of white lights, and I tumbled down into a deep well of blackness where there was no light at all.
* * * *
I came to for a moment as I was picked up by a pair of strong arms and carried back into the bedroom. I opened my eyes and saw that I was being held by a massive lump of meat in a pale blue, hooded sweatshirt. It had to be Sonny. ‘Yesterday my life was full of rain.’ I was so out of it, that I started to hum the tune, and he crashed my head against the door frame as we went, and the black hole opened again and I dropped into its embrace for a second time.
I came to once more lying on the divan bed with my arms and legs tied tightly and some kind of tape over my mouth. I was on my side, my hands were behind my back, and both they and my feet were numb and cramped, they were bound so tightly. The light had been switched off and the room was dark except for the reflected glow coming through my window, and someone was bending over me. For a second I didn’t know where the hell I was, until I was pulled roughly onto my back and I looked up into Rick’s face.
Then I remembered.
‘And you were going to make sure everything was all right,’ he whispered. ‘You’re fucking useless.’ He ripped the tape from my mouth, taking a few square centimetres of skin with it.
‘How did you get here?’ I said through dry lips, in a voice that I didn’t recognize as my own.
‘Up the fire escape and through the window. I thought you’d run out on me.’
I shook my head and nearly passed out again.
‘Did you find Jimmy?’ he asked.
I almost nodded, then thought better of it. ‘Yes, I did’.
‘Where is he?’
‘He’s dead. Murdered. In the cupboard over there.’
‘What?’ Rick looked at the cupboard door. ‘Christ. I wondered what that stink was.’
‘Can you unite me?’ I said. ‘We can talk about it later.’
‘Better than that,’ said Rick, and he reached into his jacket pocket and produced a flick-knife. He touched the button on the handle and a six-inch blade popped out, reflecting the dim light in the room.
As he slashed at the cords that bound my wrists we both heard movement in the hall outside the room.
‘Quick. It’s one of them,’ I said, urgently trying to rub some life back into my hands. ‘And they’ve got my gun.’
Rick stood up and went towards the door. ‘My legs,’ I said desperately, but before he could cut those ropes too, we both heard the movement get louder as someone approached the room. Rick ran across the carpet, opened the cupboard where Jimmy’s body was hidden, slid in, and pulled the door closed behind him. I lay on the bed, put my arms behind me as if they were still tied and squinted at the door through half closed eyes. It began to open and a shaft of light from the hall crept across the carpet before it was obscured by Daddy’s huge bulk. He stood in the doorway, the light behind him, my gun in his hand. I hoped he’d come close enough so’s I could grab him because my feet were useless, my hands weren’t much better, and I knew I’d only get one chance.
He entered the room slowly and I wondered what was on his mind, when there was a noise from the cupboard and I knew the game was up. Daddy switched on the light, looked at me, then turned in the direction of the cupboard door and raised the gun he was holding. The look on his face was half puzzlement, half fear. Slowly the cupboard door began to swing open and Daddy’s eyes widened in astonishment. I knew that with my legs tied the way they were I couldn’t reach him before he could shoot me, and I knew that Rick and I were done for.
The door opened further. Daddy was frozen to the spot and Jimmy’s body appeared in the opening.
Daddy screamed and fired twice at Jimmy. Rick who was holding the corpse as a shield let it drop and ran across the carpet, open flick knife in his hand, and his arm outstretched. Daddy stepped back and Rick plunged the blade upwards into his throat, and blood spouted like a fountain over his gun hand. Daddy fired once more, point blank into Rick’s stomach and the heavy bullet smeared a chunk of his back across the floor.
The fat man fell to his knees like a tower block being demolished, and with much the same racket, one hand clawing at the knife that protruded from his quadruple chins. I threw myself off the bed and crashed to the floor, cursing my useless legs, pulled myself up, using his fat as handholds, tore at the gun he was still clutching, and hitting at his face and neck with the side of my clenched left fist, hammered the knife further into his flesh. The Colt was sticky with both Rick’s and his blood, but I managed to tear it out of his grasp as the door at the far end of the hall opened and Sonny appeared, and ran towards us. I fell flat on the floor and fired upwards, emptying the gun into Sonny’s torso as he came. The pale blue of his shirt blossomed red, and he stumbled and fell, and his body slid along the carpet until his head rested in the doorway just a few feet from where I was lying. He opened his mouth and breathed his last with a rattle, and a gout of hot blood.
I looked at the carnage. At Sonny’s corpse, at Daddy bubbling his last around the amateur tracheotomy that Rick had performed on his throat, and at Rick himself, doubled up on the floor, still breathing but with a sound that was anything but healthy.
Fuck me, I thought. How am I going to explain all this?
* * * *
I managed. Just about.
Rick was still alive, but bleeding badly from the.38 special exit wound in his back, and not so badly from the entrance from his belly. I dropped the Colt, ripped the ropes from around my ankles, took off my jacket, then my shirt, and ripped it in two. I wadded up one half and stuffed it in the hole in his back and covered the hole in his front with the other half. Then I stepped over Daddy’s and Sonny’s bodies and went to find the phone.
I needn’t have bothered. Some concerned citizen had heard the shots and called the police. As I picked up the receiver I heard the scream of a siren in the street outside, followed by the slamming of doors and a buzz from the entryphone. I went into the hall and buzzed back and met the coppers at the flat door with the gun dangling from my left forefinger by its trigger guard. The first copper took the empty Colt gingerly from me, and I told them to call an ambulance. They did.
The first copper went on into the flat whilst the second put me against the wall and searched me.
The ambulance arrived within minutes, which was a minor miracle, closely followed by a couple of detectives who took me down to West End Central to get my story.
I told it pretty well as it had happened. I just left out one part, and told only one lie.
I left out the part about going to King’s Cross that morning, and started my story with my tour of the Dilly where I met Rick. And I said that the gun belonged to Daddy and was at the flat when I arrived, and he’d pulled it on me. Like I said, I’d stripped and cleaned it that morning and I always wear a pair of cotton gloves when I do, so’s I leave no prints on the mechanism inside or on the cartridges. My fingerprints were on the outside, but so what? You’d expect them to be if I’d used the gun to shoot Daddy and Sonny, and there was so much blood on the weapon by the time we’d finished wrestling for it, that I doubt if forensics could get decent impressions anyway.
I reckoned the squatters at the house at the Cross wouldn’t be big on reading newspapers or watching TV news and only Wayne and Duane had seen me with it earlier. And if they did tell, it was just my word against theirs.
The police called up Douglas Himes at the hotel and he confirmed hiring me, and Rick lasted long enough in ICU to tell his part of the story, before he died the next day.
The police seemed to be quite happy about getting two chicken hawks off the streets. And as for Jimmy and Rick. There’s plenty more like them arriving every day at London’s mainline stations, for the cops to worry about them overmuch.
Well, I assume I explained everything. It’s over three months now since Christmas and everyone seems to have forgotten about the incident.
Mona Himes called me up a couple of weeks back to thank me for my help. She was crying before she’d said a dozen words.
Whilst I listened to her sobbing, someone put the phone back on the hook.
I don’t think it was her.
RECONSTRUCTION by LIZA CODY
Josie Farraday wore a brown leather jacket with a green silky lining. They gave me one just like it. It wasn’t hers. I didn’t want to wear hers. I don’t like other girls’ clothes. I like mine to be brand new. Other girls’ clothes smell like other girls. I don’t want to smell like Josie Farraday. Not tonight. Not ever.
So I was glad when they told me I didn’t have to wear Josie’s clothes. I had to wear clothes just like hers but they didn’t have to be hers.
Caro is jealous of me. She says she isn’t, but she is. She said, ‘You’ll be on telly. Everyone will see your face. You’ll have to do your hair like Josie. Ugh.’
I was worried at first. Caro said, ‘You’ll be wearing dead girl’s clothes, Miss Show-off. The clothes she died in. Bet you hope they washed the blood off.’
Then Caro said, ‘Blood never comes off. You can scrub and scrub but it never comes off. Not completely. You’ll be wearing it next to your skin and some of it will rub off onto you and then it’ll be on you forever. You’ll be tainted with a dead girl’s blood for ever and ever.’
So, when the lady policeman came to see me, I said, ‘Will I have to wear Josie Farraday’s clothes? Her actual clothes?’
And she said, ‘No no, not her actual clothes. Her actual clothes are still at the forensic lab. Besides they were badly damaged.’
And my mum said, ‘Please, officer, do you mind?’
And the lady policeman said sorry.
I wonder if they’ll let me keep the leather jacket. It’s quite nice. It looked horrible on Josie, but that was because Josie wore it with a blue skirt and black porkpie shoes. Josie was a terrible dresser. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a brown jacket and a blue skirt. Except that’s what I’m wearing now.
Caro couldn’t come. Her dad wouldn’t let her. She’s furious.
She said, ‘You have all the luck.’
I said, ‘Being like Josie Farraday? I wouldn’t call that lucky. She was boring. A nothing.’
Caro giggled. She said, ‘Well, she’s certainly a nothing now.’
But when we ran into those reporters by the school gate, Caro said, ‘We’re all ever so sad. Josie Farraday never did anyone any harm. We’ll all miss her.’ And the reporters wrote it down. Every word. They didn’t ask me anything.
But I’m here and she isn’t. I’m going to be on TV and she isn’t. That’s why she’s jealous.
She said, ‘You’ll fall over and make a fool of yourself. You always do something silly. I could be a better Josie Farraday than you could.’
I said, ‘But you’re fair.’
She said, ‘I’m blonde actually. I could dye my hair.’
‘You’re too short.’
‘I’m petite. I could wear high heels.’ And Caro stood on her toes to bring herself up to Josie Farraday’s height – my height – and she tiptoed across Cleaver Square trying to look like Josie Farraday.
I said, ‘Don’t, stupid! Josie’s mum’s looking at you out of the window.’ She wasn’t, but I wanted to shut Caro up, and immediately she put on a sorrowful expression and started to walk properly.
There were three reporters outside Mrs Farraday’s door.
Caro said, ‘Don’t stare.’ Then she said, ‘Shall I tell them you’re going to be the new improved Josie Farraday? Shall I?’
‘Don’t you dare! I’ll kill you.’
‘Shall I tell Mrs Farraday? Maybe she’ll have you in for tea. Maybe she’ll put you to bed in Josie’s bed, and never let you out again. She’ll cry and slobber all over you. And she’ll say, “Here’s my little girl back from the grave. I’ll never let you out of my sight again.’”
I said, ‘Shut up, Caro. You can be so immature – it’s unbelievable.’ And I walked off quickly.
The Farradays have a pink front door with a brass door knocker like a dolphin.
At night, even with all the TV lights, the door looks grey and the brass knocker looks like iron and the dolphin looks like a shark. In fact, it’s worse with the TV lights, because although the light bits are bright and clear, the dark bits go solid black. They disappear altogether.
The shadows from the trees are so black they look like great long cracks in the paving. You could imagine walking into one, falling and tumbling like a diver, all the way down to the core of the earth.
I stand with my back to the TV van. The lady policeman gave me some hot chocolate in a plastic cup. It burned my hands, but my feet are cold.
She said, ‘Don’t be nervous.’ And she went away.
I’m not nervous, or I wasn’t before I saw Mrs Farraday.
My mum said, ‘Oh dear, there’s Mrs Farraday.’
I said, ‘Pretend you haven’t seen her.’
But Mum said, ‘I can’t. I’ll have to go and talk to her, poor thing.’
I said, ‘Don’t go. You can’t leave me by myself.’ But she went. She never thinks how I feel.
So I stood all alone with everyone watching, like the first time I went to a school disco and none of the boys asked me to dance.
Caro said, ‘Come and dance with us.’ But I wouldn’t. It looks stupid, two girls dancing with one boy.
Caro said, ‘She’s too stuck-up to dance with us. She’d rather be a wallflower.’
I said, ‘What’s a wallflower?’ I was only eleven then.
But I would have danced if a boy asked me to. Most of the boys stood around jeering and didn’t ask anyone to dance. It wasn’t just me.
It was just me who stood by the TV van, though. Nobody came to talk to me. The police and the TV people were busy. Everyone else was outside the police cordon, outside the light. I could just see them. A lot of the girls from school were there. But none of them said anything to me. It was as if I really was Josie Farraday. Everyone could see me but I didn’t exist. Like I was Josie Farraday’s ghost.
And then this really excruciating thing happened. Mum brought Mrs Farraday over. How could she?
Mrs Farraday was crying, just like Caro said she would.
Mrs Farraday said, ‘I wanted to thank you. It’s so kind of you to do this for Josephine.’
I looked at Josie’s horrible black shoes because I didn’t want to see her mother’s crying face. I wished she’d go away. She was spoiling everything.
And Mum said, ‘It’s the least we could do. We were all so terribly sorry.’
I don’t know why she said that. She never said she was sorry before. She just kept walking round the house saying, ‘My God. Oh my God.’ But she never cried or anything, like you do when you’re sorry. She didn’t know Josie Farraday because Josie never came to my house.
Mrs Farraday said, ‘Josephine told me about you. She said you always got good marks in History and English.’ And that was a big surprise. I never knew Josie cared any more about me than I cared about Josie.
Then Mrs Farraday said, ‘This must be awfully upsetting for you. I’m so very sorry.’ And she walked away.
Mum said, ‘What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you say something?’ Her voice sort of slithered like a snake. She does that when she’s angry. She ran off after Mrs Farraday.
It’s her own fault, bringing Mrs Farraday over. What did she want? Seeing people cry always makes me want to cry too, even if I’m not upset. And I’m not upset. I’m going to be on TV. This is the best day of my life.
Then I thought, maybe I ought to look upset for TV. Like you always have to look serious in school assembly. And when the Head stood up after the Lord’s Prayer and said, ‘Now, I’m afraid I have some tragic news for you all…’You could see everyone standing straighter and arranging their faces. But you just knew they were dying of excitement and curiosity.
That afternoon we were all given envelopes to take home to our parents. And a teacher came to stand at the gate. Another stood at the entrance to the park.
Caro said it was too little too late, and now all they wanted to do was to stop us talking to reporters. But she still managed to say that thing about all of us missing Josie Farraday. Then we dashed across Kennington Park Road to the newsagent to buy the Evening Standard. Because although the Head told us Josie was murdered we still didn’t know what we wanted to know about it – when, where and how. And why? That’s when we saw the headline – ‘Schoolgirl Killed in Brutal Sex Attack’. We saw that in the shop. I wanted to giggle. Because of the ‘Sex’ word.
So we rushed out of the shop, and I said, ‘What’s a sex attack? I mean what is it really?’
And Caro said, ‘Shut up. I’m reading.’
So I read too, but the more I read the more mysterious it became. Of course I know what an attack is. And of course I know what sex is – we did reproduction in biology last year, and anyway you see it all the time on TV. People kissing and rolling around on beds undressed. And you see sex attacks on TV too – girls in beautiful clothes being dragged into bushes screaming before the man comes and saves them. The man is strong and beautiful, and he says something like, ‘Don’t worry. I’m here. Everything’s going to be all right.’ He has blue eyes and dark straight eyebrows.
But sometimes the man doesn’t save the beautiful girl, and then you see a body and lots of blood, but the girl still looks beautiful, and it seems to me that sex only happens to pretty girls on TV. It doesn’t happen to plain girls like Josie in the borough of Lambeth at six o’clock at night in the middle of January.
It’s very annoying. If only Josie had been prettier. I could feel sorrier for her if she’d been pretty. And I wouldn’t have to stand here with my hair parted in the middle and no styling mousse. I wouldn’t have to look like a freak and a frump for my first TV appearance. It’s very annoying, not being allowed to be pretty on TV.
Even Mum thinks so. She came back from talking to Mrs Farraday and said, ‘Oh dear, your hair. Well, never mind, at least it’s clean.’
I said, ‘I wish they’d let me wear some make-up.’
And she said, ‘Josephine didn’t wear any. Besides you know I don’t like you in make-up. You’re too young.’
A lot she knows. Even girls in the lower third wear make-up. But Mum is always trying to spoil things for me.
Then she said, ‘Listen dear, the man from London Tonight wants a word with you.’
I was so excited I couldn’t speak. So she said, ‘For goodness sake behave yourself and be sensible. Stand up straight. Take your hands out of your pockets. Stop looking at your feet. Just answer his questions quietly and politely. Don’t squirm and look sullen like you did with poor Mrs Farraday. That was very rude and unkind. It’s not like you to be unkind.’
I took my hands out of my pockets – out of Josie’s pockets – but they dangled by my sides and felt lost. I was looking at the man from London Tonight. I hoped he wouldn’t shake my hand, because I knew it was clammy. I wiped it on the back of the ugly blue skirt.
The man from London Tonight is very good-looking even if he’s rather old. He’s tall and he’s got a lovely tan. His eyes are blue and his eyebrows are straight.
When he came over to me, he smiled and looked into my eyes. And even though I couldn’t breathe I found myself smiling back. I couldn’t believe I was actually with him. He is so tall, and his eyes are so blue, no wonder he fills the screen when he’s on TV. You can’t look at anyone else.
He said, ‘You have agreed to help out with tonight’s police reconstruction. You must be a little bit nervous.’
Why does everyone say that? I didn’t want him to say what everyone else said. I wanted him to look into my soul and say something different. Just to me. I waited, but he said, ‘You must be just a little bit apprehensive.’
So I said, ‘I am a little bit.’ Because that seemed to be what he wanted.
Then he said, ‘It must have been an awful shock for you and the other girls at your school to hear about Josie Farraday,’ and he looked at me like he wanted some more.
So I said, ‘We were all very sad. Josie Farraday never did anyone any harm.’ But I still couldn’t breathe properly, and I knew I was blushing. All I could think of to say was what Caro said to the reporters.
He said, ‘So now you are helping the police track down your friend’s killer.’
And I said, ‘Well, it was the least I could do.’ Which is exactly what my mum said to Mrs Farraday.
Then he said, ‘I know the police are anxious to begin, and we don’t want to keep them waiting. So thank you very much for talking to us tonight.’
And he turned away and started to say something else into the camera.
My mum pulled me back, away from the TV van.
I was ever so upset. It was my big moment and I couldn’t find my own words to talk with. And my hands had crept back into my pockets – Josie’s pockets – of their own accord.
Mum said, ‘You were fine, dear. But I do wish you hadn’t grinned at him like that. Anyone might have thought you were enjoying yourself.’
But I was thinking, ‘Is that all? Is that all there is?’ I thought it was going to be wonderful and special. But it wasn’t. And the man from London Tonight talked as if it was just another item of news. Not as if it was special and I was special.
The lady policeman came over and said, ‘We’ll be ready to go in five minutes. Now, you know what to do, don’t you?’
My mum said yes, I knew what to do.
The lady policeman said, ‘Right, good, because we’ve been over the route, haven’t we? So all you have to do is follow it, not too fast, and do what we know Josie did. All right?’
My mum said it was all right.
So the lady policeman said, ‘Don’t be nervous. We’ll all be close by. But don’t look at us and don’t look at the cameras. Pretend you’re out on your own.’
And Mum said thank you very much.
Then, when we were standing by ourselves again, she said, ‘You know, what I don’t understand is, why did Josephine go the long way round? If she was going to her friend in Methley Street, why did she leave the square by the art school? Why didn’t she go up Bowden Street?’
My mum doesn’t understand anything. I know why Josie Farraday went the long way round. It’s because she didn’t want to walk past Broadgate Estate. None of us likes walking past Broadgate Estate because the white boys shout at us, and the black boys stare at us. The square is safe, but from where I live you have to pass Broadgate Estate to get there. Usually I run. And so does Caro.
You can hear people fighting in Broadgate Estate. The women scream with the windows open. And the men and boys hang over the balconies and shout at us when we go past.
Once when Caro and I went past, someone shouted, ‘Does your friend fuck?’ And we started to run. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, which one of us was he talking to? And which one was the friend? Caro and I discussed it for ages, but we never could decide. It was very, very mysterious. Caro said he was on drugs. She says they all take drugs in Broadgate Estate. They must be very funny drugs if they make you lean over a balcony and shout, ‘Does your friend fuck?’
I can remember when no one shouted anything. No one seemed to see us. But that’s all changed. Caro says it’s because nowadays we wear bras. She calls our bosoms ‘chesticles’. And she calls Cornwall Court, where we live, ‘Castle Cornwall’ because of the iron gates and the security locks. She says we’re like princesses locked in a tower. But I said, ‘If I were a princess I wouldn’t have to do the washing up.’
And she said, ‘Or homework.’
I am excused homework tonight because of the reconstruction. Which is another reason why this is the most special day of my life.
My mum said, ‘I think they’re ready for you, dear. Now, do what you’ve been told, and don’t worry, I won’t be far away.’
My mother treats me like a child. I wish she’d go home and let me enjoy myself. No one can enjoy themselves with their mother looking on.
I started from the steps of Josie Farraday’s house. The lights were blinding. Everyone was watching. I wanted to toss my hair out of my eyes so I could see everyone watching. But it wasn’t my hair, it was Josie’s, and Josie’s always flopped in her eyes.
I come down the steps, sort of clumping on my heels. It isn’t my fault. It’s because of the horrid black shoes. Clumping on my heels made me feel as if I actually looked like Josie. And Josie’s socks started slipping down my legs. So I pulled them up. Which is what Josie was always doing. It was one of the things that made her a nerd. And I am furious. Josie is making me look like a nerd on TV.
All the lights were on in the art school because they have evening classes there.
Caro and I tried to get in once, to see what they got up to, but they turned us out. One of the students told us strangers weren’t allowed in. She said it was because some dirty old men were always trying to get a peep at the nude models. I wish we could have seen a nude model but we only saw the entrance hall which was dark and dusty.
After you walk past the art school, you get to Kennington Park Road. I turn right, because that’s what Josie did.
Cleaver Square is like a small dark room in a house. When you leave it, it’s like going outside. Life begins outside Cleaver Square. On the main road it’s never dark, and lorries and buses rush past at all hours of the day or night.
People were crowded at the windows of the White Bear pub to see me walk by. And just then, a number 33 bus went past and everyone stared out. The lady policeman told me they would stop the buses down by the tube station and give all the passengers leaflets with a number to ring if anyone remembered me – I mean Josie.
Why would anyone remember Josie? She was just a nerdy girl who clumped on her heels. She didn’t look like anyone in particular. And how could anything happen on Kennington Park Road? It’s so public and ordinary.
A policeman was standing in front of me to remind me to go down Ravendon Road. So I turned right again. Out of the light and into the dark. Ravendon Road is a creepy black corridor and I felt like a rabbit going into a hole. If Josie met a man it must have been somewhere like this. Where she couldn’t see him properly, and he couldn’t see her. If he could’ve seen her properly he’d have seen the clumpy shoes, and the socks.
She’d have seen… Well she wouldn’t have seen a strong beautiful man with blue eyes. Sex attackers aren’t like that. You can always recognize a sex attacker on TV because he has piercing eyes and he stares. And while he’s staring he smiles. But it isn’t a nice smile. It’s a crocodile smile. Sometimes he has a scar on his cheek. If Josie could’ve seen him properly she’d have known he was a sex attacker. Except Josie was too stupid to know anything.
This must have been where they met. Because, if Josie didn’t meet someone in Ravendon Road she would have gone to her friend’s house which is just round the corner in Methley Street. And they would have spent all evening watching TV and doing French irregular verbs. I know they would, because that’s what Caro and I were doing at Caro’s place.
Anyway the police know she turned into Ravendon Road because someone saw her. And they know she came out again the same way because the next time she was seen it was in the newsagent opposite Kennington Park where she bought a packet of smokey bacon flavoured crisps. And that is very mysterious because her mother told the police Josie didn’t like smokey bacon flavour. So I think she bought them for the man. And that is very peculiar too. Because when she went into the newsagent there wasn’t a man. She went in alone.
Caro and I have talked about this a lot. Caro said, ‘A sex attacker has to be a grown-up man, doesn’t he?’
I said, ‘Yes. Except, what about some of those boys from Broadgate Estate?’
And she said, ‘They wouldn’t be strong enough.’
I said, ‘But it’s very weird, Josie Farraday buying smokey bacon flavour crisps for a grown-up man.’
Caro said, ‘Maybe he hadn’t paid his paper bill, and he didn’t want to go into the shop in case Mr Dessai shouted at him for the money.’
I thought that was a very good idea. But I said, ‘Yes, except can you imagine him, out on the main road with everyone going by, saying to Josie Farraday, “Would you mind going in there and buying me a packet of crisps?” I wonder if he gave her the money?’
Caro said she didn’t think sex attackers had any money.
So I said, ‘Suppose he had already decided to do a sex attack on Josie Farraday? When they were outside the shop. So he sent her in alone so that Mr and Mrs Dessai wouldn’t see him. He wouldn’t want anyone to see him and Josie together.’
But Caro said, ‘If he’d already decided to do a sex attack he wouldn’t want any smoky bacon flavour crisps either.’
And I really couldn’t argue with that.
Actually, that’s one thing Josie Farraday and I have in common. I don’t like smokey bacon crisps either. Outside the shop I wondered if I really had to buy them. I had some money, but I wondered if I was supposed to pay for crisps I didn’t want to eat. And what was I supposed to do with them when I had them? Josie gave them to a sex attacker. I don’t have anyone to give them to.
I went inside, and there was Mr Dessai in his grungy old suit and Mrs Dessai with that hand-knitted cardigan she always wears over her sari.
The last time I was in there was when Caro and I bought the Evening Standard to find out what really happened to Josie. That time, Mr Dessai hardly looked up. He just said, ‘Thirty p.,’ and that was that. This time he looked all nervy and jumpy and he didn’t say anything. But a lady in a brown woolly hat did. It was awful.
She said, ‘Don’t you go telling no one it was a black man did it.’
I said, ‘Pardon?’
And she said, ‘You folks’ shit stink too, y’know.’
And Mr Dessai handed me a packet of salt and vinegar flavoured crisps. But his hand was shaking so much he dropped it.
The lady in the woolly hat said, ‘You, little girl.’
‘You little girl know nothing, get yourself in trouble, firs’ thing happen you blame one of us.’
I left the salt and vinegar flavoured crisps on the floor and got out as fast as I could. I mean, what a thing to say! It was incredible. Fancy telling a total stranger her shit stank. In public.
My face burned, and I wondered if the cameras could see how red I’d gone. Josie Farraday has a lot to answer for, getting me humiliated like that.
And then I almost turned back into the newsagent. I wanted to tell the lady that I hadn’t got into any trouble and I wasn’t blaming anyone. And I wanted to pick up the crisps and tell Mr Dessai he’d got the wrong flavour. But I couldn’t go back in. I just couldn’t. It’s all too horrible. And it isn’t my fault. It’s Josie’s.
So I pulled up Josie’s socks again. It was funny, because this time I was quite glad she wore loopy old socks and flopped her hair all over her face. It meant the cameras couldn’t see me blushing. And I was glad the cameras hadn’t been inside Mr Dessai’s shop.
It’s bad enough when horrid things happen, but it’s even worse when other people know about it. When horrid things happen to me I never tell anyone any more.
Once I went to the Tate Gallery with a boy called Mark. It was sort of like a date except that our parents arranged it. I liked Mark and I was quite excited I’d been allowed to go out alone with him. We caught a bus down to Millbank and we sat right at the front on the top deck. We were sitting so close together our legs touched and I wondered what I’d do if he held my hand. Just thinking about it made my hands sweat so I hoped he wouldn’t. But on the way back, he did. He picked up the hand closest to him in both of his. And my heart kicked the inside of my chest and I thought I was going to be sick.
He said, ‘You know what really hurts?’
I said, ‘What?’
So he said, ‘What, what?’
And I said, ‘What really hurts?’ I wasn’t thinking about anything except him holding my hand.
And he folded my hand into a fist. Then he squashed down really hard on my bent little finger. Really hard. I couldn’t get my hand away because he was holding on so tight. And it hurt. It really hurt. I had tears running down my face. I screamed. And he let go.
I said, ‘What did you do that for?’
And he said, ‘You asked me to.’
I said I didn’t. But he said, ‘Yes you did. You asked, “What really hurts?” And I showed you.’
So it wasn’t much of a date. But when I got home, Caro said, ‘What happened? Does he like you? Did he kiss you?’
I said, ‘We just held hands.’
And she said, ‘Is that all?’ But I could see she was jealous because she kept going on about Mark being my boyfriend. I got pretty fed up, so in the end I told her about how he squashed my finger.
And she said, ‘That would never have happened to me. I don’t have sweaty hands. Your hands sweat. Yeugh! Boys only like cool dry hands, like mine. You should have dusted your palms with talcum powder before going out. It isn’t romantic to have sweaty hands.’
I shouldn’t have told Caro about it because she made it seem like it was all my fault when it wasn’t.
From then on, I always dusted my hands with Mum’s talcum powder. Until one day when I dropped the tin in the basin and it all spilled out.
Mum said, ‘What on earth were you doing with my powder?’
So I told her what Caro said. And she said, ‘I don’t know why you waste your time with Caroline. She’s a profoundly ignorant little madam.’
I didn’t tell Caro that because it isn’t true. Caro isn’t ignorant. She knows a lot more about what boys like than Mum does.
I always keep my hands in my pockets so no one will see them. That’s where they are now – in the pockets of the brown leather jacket just like the one Josie Farraday wore. If this really was Josie Farraday’s jacket I bet the pockets would be all wet and soggy. Her hands sweat too. But nobody knows this except me, because even the police and TV cameras can’t see into people’s pockets. Which is just as well, because the lights from the Esso Station and car-wash are very bright and everyone is staring at me.
The lady policeman said, ‘Slow down. Don’t run.’ She made me jump. I’d almost forgotten about her.
She said, ‘We want everyone to get a good look at you.’
Then she said, ‘Are you all right?’
And I said, ‘Where’s Mum?’ But I regretted it immediately. I don’t want her. Only little girls want their mothers. Mothers spoil everything.
The lady policeman told me to keep my mind on what I was doing, and walk slowly to the Social Security office on the corner.
It isn’t so bad at this time of night, but usually the Social Security office is a place to avoid. It’s a huge, dark grey building and in the daytime it’s always busy. People just hang around and sit on the steps smoking cigarettes and drinking things. Even now the pavement is filthy with cigarette ends, drink cans and broken glass.
If I have to come this way, I always go on the park side of the road. But that is where all the bus-stops are. So even if I’m on the other side of the road to the Social Security office there are still lots of people, and there’s always the risk someone might stop me.
They ask me for money and they say things like, ‘The bastards wouldn’t give me no emergency payment.’ And then they ask for the bus fare home, or a cup of tea. And sometimes they say, ‘Ain’t you lucky to have such lovely shoes?’ And that makes me feel awful. So usually when I come this way I run.
I haven’t got any money either. Why can’t they see that? Mum is very mean with my allowance.
You don’t see many girls from my school here, and I can’t think why Josie Farraday came this way. If, all the time, she was planning to go into Kennington Park, why wasn’t she walking on the park side of the road? There are a lot of things I don’t understand, and now that I’m actually walking in Josie’s footsteps they seem even more mysterious. I keep looking towards the park, even though it’s so dark and I don’t want to. I am going to walk in there later. But there are other things to do first.
If you don’t look at the park, but instead you look across the big junction where Kennington Road meets Kennington Park Road you see the bank, the cafe and the Post Office. And you see Ashton’s, the funeral parlour.
I stood for a long time waiting for the lights to change so that I could cross the road. Lots of police people stood around handing out leaflets with my photo on them. I mean Josie’s photo. But I didn’t see a single hearse.
When Josie Farraday crossed Kennington Road she walked right up to the funeral parlour. She could have touched the window. She might have seen one of the hearses. She might even have seen her own hearse. Because, as Caro said, it was awfully convenient Josie getting herself murdered so close to a funeral parlour.
What Josie Farraday did next was very peculiar. She dithered outside the Parma Café for several minutes. The Parma has windows from top to bottom, and the lady behind the counter saw her dithering before she went in. So I tried to dither a bit although it’s difficult when there’s nothing to dither for.
And then I went in. I went over to the counter and I asked the lady how much a cup of tea was. Even though the price is written on a board right in front of me.
The lady behind the counter said, ‘Big cup or little cup?’ And I said little cup. The lady told me how much. But I didn’t ask for a cup of tea. I asked her what the time was. Even though Josie and I are wearing watches.
This watch does not do anything clever, such as stopping at exactly the time of the murder, like watches do on TV. It was still working when they found Josie in Kennington Park at four-thirty the next morning.
After the lady told me the time I said thank you, and left the café. The lady told the police she thought Josie was waiting for someone who didn’t come. She said she thought Josie was too embarrassed to wait inside by herself.
I said, ‘How awful to wait and wait in a public place with everyone staring and thinking you’ve been stood up.’
Caro said, ‘That might happen to someone like Josie, but it’ll never happen to me. I won’t wait for anyone.’
And I said, ‘It all depends.’ Because I can imagine waiting and waiting until my heart breaks. Not for any old boy like Mark. But I’d wait for someone tall and strong.
He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be there, and then everything will be all right.’ He has blue eyes which look at me and see beauty. There is a special me which only his blue eyes can see.
Josie waits outside the Parma. I’m not waiting for someone. No one is coming. I’m waiting till the police say it’s time to cross the road and go into the park.
My mother says, ‘Don’t ever go into the park at night.’
There are so many things I mustn’t do – like hang around the skateboard rink, walk home alone, pet strange dogs. And if it was bad before, Josie has made it much much worse. Mum even started to meet me outside school but I soon put a stop to that. I don’t want to look like a nerd. But I had to promise to stay with Caro, and Caro had to promise to stay with me. Since Josie, Caro and I have been like Siamese twins.
We both had to promise to keep out of the park. But we broke that promise the very next day because we just had to see where it happened.
I said, ‘No, no we promised.’ But Caro said two promises didn’t count. She said two minuses made a plus in algebra. So two promises not to do something made a promise to go out and do it.
There is a little walled flower garden in the corner of the park.
That’s where it happened. At least, that’s where they found Josie Farraday. But we didn’t get to see it, because the police wouldn’t let us in to look. They told us to go home and not be so morbid.
Caro said, ‘But it isn’t morbid. It’s educational. The whole school was taken to the Tower to see where Anne Boleyn got her head cut off.’
And I said, ‘I don’t have to see. I know exactly where it happened.’
I said, ‘Near the shelter, with the bench and the one-eyed cat.’ Because Caro and I had been there before. Before Josie.
I said, ‘Remember the L-shaped hedge?’
And she said, ‘Ooohh yes!’ Because, one time, we found some very funny things under the yew hedge. We found some donner kebabs, three plastic forks and a syringe.
‘And a condom!’ I might have known Caro would remember the condom.
Caro said, ‘Well, of course. That’s where everyone goes to do rude things. And afterwards he rolled Josie’s body under the hedge with all the Chinese takeaways and polythene bags.’
And I said, ‘After what?’ Because that was the biggest mystery of all. What did he do, and why did Josie let him?
Caro said, ‘Shut up. I’m thinking. After that maybe he ate the smokey bacon flavour crisps.’ And we laughed a lot because it was so ridiculous. But that night I dreamed about hundreds of snakes writhing around under my bed. The snakes all shed their skins and the skins were made of milky white rubber.
What I can’t understand is why a nerd like Josie Farraday was so brave. She went into the park alone in the dark. Or she went into the park with a strange man. Which is very brave and very stupid. I always knew Josie Farraday was stupid but even stupid girls are frightened in the dark.
I have never been into the park after nightfall. It wasn’t me. It was Josie. But I have to go into the park. The police told me to. Even Mum gave her permission. Everyone says it’s all right tonight. Nothing bad will happen.
Nothing bad can happen because this is going to be on TV. People watching TV will see me being brave, walking through the gate into the dark. Like watching the diving on TV. Maybe if there was no one watching, the divers wouldn’t have the nerve to go off the high board and fall headfirst, tumbling, into the water.
So who was watching Josie? Who said it was all right? Someone gave her permission or I wouldn’t have the nerve to go into the park at night.
He says, ‘Don’t be frightened. I’m here. Nothing bad will happen.’
I cross the road, and it’s like crossing a river. It’s wide and deep and full of snakes and crocodiles.
Josie crossed the road and walked into the park. All the gates are locked after dark but there is a path which is always open. There are railings on either side, and trees which hold their bare arms out over the path. The path is wet and shiny. The path says yes, yes. The trees say no, no. They cross their bare arms over the path, and say, ‘Don’t ever go into the park at night.’
I wait at the entrance where everyone can see Josie.
The policeman says, ‘Go on. It’s all right.’
Josie walks into the park. He says, ‘Come on. It’s all right.’
I look up at him. He is much taller than me and his shoulders are broad. He fills the screen. He has blue eyes and straight, dark eyebrows. He is strong and beautiful. He looks down at me and I am small and beautiful. My hands do not sweat. I am not a nerd.
He says, ‘I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Ever.’
He is so strong, he will protect me from everything. I would never go into the park alone. Without him.
He says, ‘Don’t worry. You’re with me.’
So I go into the park. And he is by my side. We are all alone and it’s dark. He takes my hand, and my heart kicks me.
And he says, ‘You know what really hurts?’
‘What really hurts?’
And he half throws, half drags me over the railings onto the grass. There are tears running down my face and I scream but he doesn’t let go. No one comes to rescue me.
My ugly black shoe is wrenched off, and I say, ‘What did you do that for?’
And he says, ‘Because you asked me to.’
They found my shoe in the morning. It was what led them to Josie.
I walk into the park. There is no one tall and strong beside me, so I’m frightened.
No one says, ‘Don’t be frightened. You’re with me.’
I walk into the park with the TV cameras watching. Tomorrow I will watch TV and I will see myself walk into the park alone. Caro will be jealous, and she’ll say, ‘You look like a nerd. You look just like Josie Farraday.’
I walk into the park.
He says, ‘Are you nervous?’ He has a scar on his cheek and he stares at me, smiling.
I say, ‘Yes, I’m nervous.’
I walk into the park alone. He isn’t there. I waited and waited but he didn’t come. I’ll wait until my heart breaks but I don’t think he will ever come.
But I walk into the park because he puts his arm around me and Josie Farraday feels warm and safe.
BRAND NEW DEAD by DEREK RAYMOND
At about midnight two men suddenly came up and stood right beside Gust at the bar in Marly’s club, pressing against him as close as they could get. The place was packed out and after a while both of them started looking at him sidelong, nudging each other in a snide sort of way and laughing half in his direction as if his cock was hanging out or something. Only it happened to be a night when Gust didn’t want any interruptions; he had a lot to think about and so he paid no attention to the men which seemed to get them choked, because finally one of them, suppressing his laughter, gave him a good shove. Whether that was intentional or not Gust couldn’t say, it could have been just the domino effect of various drunken dancers, but Gust took a hard look at the man all the same whereupon they both turned away, but not in a manner to indicate they were bothered.
Gust reckoned that in their place he would have been bothered on the whole, even though they both looked heavy. One of them was taller than the other with red hair, a rash and love/hate tattoos across his knuckles; the other had straight brown hair and eyebrows that met across the bridge of his nose like Hess. They both wore tired blue jeans, their boots were on their second lap round the clock and Gust had never seen either of them before; the only thing he was certain of was that they had both done bird.
The taller man nudged Gust again and this time he actually said something. He said: ‘Is your name Gust?’
‘Yes that’s me all right,’ said Gust pleasantly, ‘what about it?’
‘Well it’s this,’ said the man. ‘We’d like to let you live if we could, we’ve no personal grudge, see, only we can’t, so instead we’re going to give you a terrific beating and then you’re going to die outside round the back would you believe?’
‘Sounds great,’ said Gust, ‘cheaper than going down to the gym for a work-out anyway.’ He didn’t move except to set down his glass; he always liked to see what other people did first in case what they did was a mistake. Anyway there was no room for him to move yet; a dozen bottoms were squeezing hotly into the three of them and everyone was drinking and looking at the dancers and the music. The music was blasting out in a way fit to rupture an eardrum; you couldn’t have heard a lion roar six inches away.
The shorter man put his lips to Gust’s ear. ‘Pain,’ he whispered. ‘You got any idea what pain is?’
‘You bet,’ said Gust. ‘It’s like bad breath or an old pouf, and it hangs around too long the same way you do.’
The taller man stared at Gust. ‘You’ve just asked to be taken apart,’ he whispered. A reverent look came over him. ‘Massacred.’ He had large dark eyes like pits with a lot of shit floating at the bottom of them.
Around them, meantime, life in the place was cheerfully continuing the way it does. Marly was singing, and two travelos up on the stage were having a cuddle against the gold tinsel curtain behind the piano, one of them with the seams of his net stockings askew. Someone photographed them from the floor; the flash and a champagne cork popped together. Marly was drunk; the crazy song he was singing chain-sawed through the crowd, and the minute he finished it he sat down with a bump by the piano. Someone got barred on the door and burst into tears on a gorilla’s chest; outside in Brewer Street a squad car screamed its way through a siren and a set of tyres and a Colombian crack dealer left suddenly with his driver. The scene was set; the music was turned all the way up for trouble.
The phone on the bar rang. One of the naked waiters scooped it up and stood on tiptoe, looking inquiringly over two hundred or so heads. ‘Chris?’ he trilled in a high contralto. ‘Is there anybody here called Chris? Phone call for Chris.’ No one wanted to know, so he banged the phone down. He said to an old queen: ‘My poor voice, this sort of work is agony for it, my voice is the same as it was when I was ten, did you know, it’s simply never broken.’
‘Working in here’ll break your fucking heart, darling,’ said the old has-been, ‘never mind your voice.’
‘Are you doing this for money?’ Gust was asking the taller man meanwhile, ‘because if you are I’d charge a great deal of money if I were you. I hope your insurance policy’s up to date with a clause for funeral expenses too; your widow will find it was money well spent.’
‘Yes it’s for money,’ said the beetle-browed man, ‘money and fun, have to think of my jollies, and this is a knife, see?’ It certainly was. It was a flick-knife, Gust saw. He could hardly help seeing it, really; the point had just gone through the skin that covered his liver.
‘OK,’ said Gust, ‘well I’ll just go to the karzi first, I read the other day in the paper it was unhealthy, dying with a full bladder.’
‘No,’ said the red-haired man. ‘No.’ He shook his head, smiling.
‘Is all this scenario anything to do with a certain delivery?’ said Gust.
They didn’t say no.
‘I can’t see what all the fuss is about, it was all delivered.’
‘No,’ said the man with the knife again, ‘no, that’s the point, it wasn’t.’
‘Well why fix on me anyway?’ said Gust. ‘It was a long chain.’
‘Because the gear vanished after you had it.’
The other man joined in and said: ‘And besides, why bother? We’re here to do a job.’ He said to Gust: ‘This is pay-day, there’s no explaining necessary.’
His mate said: ‘At least you’ll die with money on you. You won’t mind if we whizz it afterwards, will you, because you’ll be brown bread.’
‘So your wages are in my pocket,’ said Gust, ‘is that it?’ A girl from the Tiara Club patted his shoulder as she went by and said: ‘Hi, Pete. You OK?’
‘You bet,’ said Gust, ‘I’m going like a bomb, I feel terrific.’
Now, even though there were fewer people jammed round them than before because the place was slowly starting to empty, the bar was still much too crowded for the man with the knife to jump as far as he wished he had when Gust stamped on his feet. He brought his heel down on each of the man’s arches twice with all the strength he had behind it; Gust wore steel heels, and wasn’t it lucky the man enjoyed pain so much, because here he was getting as much of it as he could possibly want. He went over like a badly felled tree, squealing, across a lot of sweating backs, dropped the knife which Gust kicked across the dance floor, and fell on the floor bent double and clutching his feet.
‘Now you can’t get away, can you?’ said Gust.
The beetle-browed man tried a right to Gust’s head; Gust blocked it easily and kicked him on the tibia where it was sure to break, and indeed he heard the crunch as it did break. The victim dropped to one knee like a suitor in a Jacobean play, his lips parted adoringly as he gazed up at Gust; then, as the pain hit him, his expression changed to a sneer like a poisoner inquiring at the post office about his victim’s mail.
‘You’re not very good at it, are you?’ said Gust, ‘they ought to have sent heavies in.’ He thought the man very likely could have got a job playing Hess in this new TV series they were doing on the war, and he would have had a word with a few directors he knew in Soho if he had been a mate of his. But, as he wasn’t, Gust kicked him in the stomach as he tried to drag himself up on one leg with the help of the bar-rail, then turned back to the other man.
‘You all right?’ he said. ‘How are you feeling now? Chipper?’ He took one of the man’s ears in his thumb and forefinger; the ear was tiny, considering the size of his head, and it had little hairs inside it. Gust picked up a cocktail stick out of a dirty glass on the bar and jabbed it down into the eardrum as far as he could; when he pulled it out the stick was half-way red, and there was some grey stuff in it as well. He shouted down his ear: ‘I think I just broke your foot!’ but the man wasn’t making sense any more; he was wailing with his hand clapped to the side of his head, swaying up and down from the waist like a bereaved widow, or else perhaps he just didn’t hear, or maybe the music was too loud. Gust realised then that he had pushed the stick in too far and that the man would probably die.
Dirty cocktail-stick in the brain? What a bleeding way to go!
Now the man with the broken leg tried another naughty stroke; although he only had one hand free because he was using the other one to hold onto the rail, he still managed to smash a glass and try putting it in Gust’s face.
‘This is just self-defence after all,’ Gust said to himself. He stamped on the man’s feet again; this time he definitely felt bones go and the man screamed, dropped the glass and let go of the rail; but instead of letting him fall Gust took him round the waist, ripped his fly open and searched inside his pants till he found his testicles, which he yanked right out into his hand. Their owner can’t have been much into baths because they smelled like something tepid from a canteen counter. Gust wrung them like the devil having a go at a set of wedding bells with all the grip he had, until the man was shrieking on the same D minor as the music.
‘It’s nothing personal,’ said Gust, ‘but I’m afraid you’re going to have to learn to fuck all over again.’ He wiped the blood off the man’s prick down his face, then pulled the face towards him and drove his nose into his brain with his head. The music boosted into E major on a key change, and the man doubled up under a bar-stool, leaving a lot of blood behind him while Gust receded into the half darkness towards the black drapes on the walls.
The waiter who had taken the call for Chris, naked except for a frilly apron which he was holding to his mouth, rushed up and stooped horrified over the casualties, squashed between five or six ranks of uncaring people. ‘Oh!’ he kept shrieking, ‘Oh! Oh my God!’ His voice still didn’t break and he didn’t do anything else much, like calling for help; he had already found out that Marly’s wasn’t a place where people ever showed any interest in the police, no matter what was going on.
Gust stood for a moment on the fringe of what had been the action. ‘It’s all right,’ he said to the young man who passed him wringing his hands, ’looks like they won’t be wanting the other half after all, just a minicab.’
’A hearse more like,’ he sobbed. He felt for his friend’s hand, and they disappeared together, making for the staff door.
The short man had managed to get one of his boots off somehow and was holding one of his feet in his hands wondering what to do about it. Gust could have told him that taking the boot off was a silly thing to do; if he was going to try and hobble home he would never get it back on again. The foot was fractured; it was twice its normal size already and turning black, blue and lemon-yellow.
The manager appeared and said: ‘There any bother here? I don’t want no trouble.’
‘I don’t think you’re going to get any,’ said Gust, ‘doesn’t look likely, does it, anyway not from them.’
‘You see what happened?’
‘Me? No,’ said Gust, ‘I wish I had.’
‘Oh well, as long as it’s just a fight,’ said the manager.
‘Yeah,’ said Gust, looking dispassionately at the bodies on the floor, ‘that’s all it looks like, they must have really had it in for each other.’
‘That’s OK then,’ said the manager, ‘no sweat.’ He returned to his friends at a table at the back where they were drinking iced Guinness and playing hi-low.
As somebody behind Gust said, there were always fights in Marly’s club.
The law arrived and Gust made for the exit, pushing his way without ceremony through the dancing couples. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered into their indignant faces, ‘I’m a bit pushed suddenly, just need some fresh air, feeling a bit sickish.’ That parted them fast. Marly waved at him across his vodka: ‘You going, Gusty? Stay for a drink!’
‘No thanks, Marly.’ He nodded towards the law. ‘You’ve got visitors, and besides I’ve got to be up early.’
‘OK, night, then!’
‘Night,’ said Gust, ‘Night all.’
It was 2.30 when he got outside. The rain was dying out, foxtrotting away from him round into Wardour Street, the north wind that carried it making the leaves patter like your last friend running for a cab.
He ended up at a bus-stop in Regent Street but the night bus didn’t come – nor did a taxi, even if he had known where he wanted it to go; he couldn’t go to his own place. It was bitterly cold, the end of October, and an old lady in two overcoats beside him snoozed and stirred, surrounded by Waitrose bags. His knuckles felt sore and he sucked them, leaning against the bus-stop and watching the deserted street bend away like a frozen scimitar towards Oxford Circus, its cutting edge blunted by to let and for sale signs.
He knew no night bus would ever arrive in time to get him away. The sound of running steps coming towards him from the Soho side echoed in the silence; a man shouted, there was a pause, then a woman screamed abuse. Presently it began to rain again, scattered drops with the tart sting of ice in them; he couldn’t stay there.
In any case, besides his other problems, he remembered that all he had on him were half ton notes, seventeen thousand quid in all, and he didn’t see how, even if the bus did come, he could pay the fare and expect change for one of those from an empty vehicle. He hadn’t anything small on him except for a single pound coin; he had knocked all his change out at Marly’s. He had a fifty separated out from the rest in their rubber band in his pocket all the same; but offering the note might make the driver remember him anyway.
That was the last thing Gust wanted; what he wanted most right then was to be forgotten, ignored, to go unnoticed somehow, anyhow, as if he had never lived, never been seen, never existed.
SCOUTING FOR BOYS by CHAZ BRENCHLEY
The kid in the alley has been dead two days.
I know, I checked her myself last night after watching all day from my window, never seeing her move.
It’s a good window for watching. Not too high, not too far above the street. No radical views, no panorama; but who needs panorama? I’ve got life.
And death, of course, death too. Death’s a fine substitute for panorama.
* * * *
It was last week she turned up, Wednesday morning. I was tilting my chair, talking numbers down the phone, eyes on the street as ever and here she came: crop-haired and dirty, wrapped in coats, all she had and all she knew clutched in her arms. Two carriers and a sleeping-bag, home sweet home.
At first sight I wasn’t honestly sure which she was, boy or girl. No clues in her clothes, and she was young enough that she could have been either, her body not declaring itself one way or the other. That was a teaser, a constant tickle in my mind; you expect to know, first glance, it throws you if you don’t.
Throws me, at least.
So I watched more carefully than I might have otherwise, gave her more attention than she deserved.
Sexed her in the end by the way she moved, something feminine about it even in these circumstances, even in extremis, as she slumped in a doorway and spread her bags about her.
And lost interest straight away, what little interest I’d had. Turned my mind back to work, back to making money; and when I tired of that I turned to the other thing, the morning’s papers on my desk, news bulletins I’d caught at home, flyers I’d seen shrieking in the streets.
Someone is killing the rent boys of London, the leader said in The Guardian. A fine, resonant sentence, and utterly untrue. That made it sound universal, as though renting were the only qualification, extinction the ultimate goal.
Not so. Surely, not so. Yes, three lads had died -three out of five best mates, a pack who ran together, worked together, lived and ate and for all I knew slept together. They’d died individually, died alone; but I wouldn’t light a candle for coincidence. Nothing random here, no casual series for this killer. Those lads were sighted, beaded, blown away.
Alfred Kirk was number three, was that morning’s catch, hauled out of the river at low tide by one of the lower bridges. Pale under his skin of mud he must have been, no blood left to colour him lively. A frenzied attack, the papers said. Multiple stab wounds or slashed to rags, depending on your preference. Me, I prefer a choice, I like the rounded picture.
I liked the next bit, too. All the reports came together for once, even the tabloids’ prurience turning oblique now, all quoting the same source: clear signs of repeated sexual abuse, they all said.
Abuse, they called it.
With Alfie, I’d have called it nothing more than right and proper use; but perhaps you had to know him.
Or perhaps not. Flesh is flesh, and it’s a market economy. What you’ve got, you sell. Alfie did, they all do. That’s not abuse, it’s exploiting a resource.
Alfie Kirk. Dark, stocky, willing little Alfie. Take the boy out of the valleys, and you can sure as hell kick the valleys out of the boy.
Fresh meat he’d been when I met him, newly run from the Rhondda. Alfie ‘I’m sixteen’ Kirk, at least two years ahead of himself there; but he was hungry, he learned quick. Joined the Crew, sharpened up and settled in.
Now he was sliced meat, someone had been sharpening their blade on his bones. The Crew was disbanding fast, was being dissected.
Three down, two to go.
And I knew where to find them.
* * * *
Or thought I did.
At half six I left the office, heading for the tube. Passed the girl in her doorway, heard her inevitable croak, ‘Spare some change, please?’
Didn’t check, didn’t even turn to smile at her, to say no. I do that sometimes, tease them with a little humanity, remind them of just how far they’ve gone.
Today, not. Today I was buzzing, my mind was crowded, I was almost in a hurry; I couldn’t make the space for a sideshow.
There was a milling crowd at the entrance to the tube station, mobbing a man in a peaked cap, going nowhere. Over their heads I glimpsed steel grilles pulled half shut, empty passageways beyond.
The man was gesturing, trying to speak; stress lifted his voice an octave so that I could hear something above the crowd’s murmur. No words, nothing useful – just the harassed tone of it, the swearing he could barely manage to suppress.
I didn’t stay to find out what had happened, didn’t join the crush. No point. There weren’t any trains, that was all I needed to know. A bomb, a strike, a suicide – who cared?
* * * *
Piccadilly was maybe twenty minutes’ walk from where I worked. Head down and moving fast, I might even have done it in fifteen that day; but only because of the chill in the wind, no other reason. I was keen, yes, but I wasn’t urgent. Two lads, they weren’t worth that much. They weren’t actually going to make me hurry.
Walking, I wondered if the police had made any connections yet, whether anyone had told them they were dealing with a single unit here. If not, they’d be lucky to work it out for themselves. The Crew had been a rare bunch, almost a phenomenon.
If the police weren’t on to that yet, it left me still one step ahead.
I could hope, at least. I wasn’t going to hurry, but I allowed a little hope.
* * * *
No sign of the boys down the Dilly, but I wasn’t expecting that. They had to be pretty sussed or they wouldn’t have it this good, they wouldn’t have me out looking for them. They’d be keeping off the streets for sure, keeping their heads well down.
I’d only come this way to hear what the word was, how many understood what was happening; and I read my answer in the silence, and on the faces of frustrated punters. No one was working tonight. Universally, it seemed, heads were being kept down this hunting season.
No major surprise, with a crazy on the loose. I was a little disappointed, perhaps, some lads at least should have worked out that they weren’t in any danger – Christ, a child of six could have worked that out, counting on the fingers of one hand – but better safe than sorry, that was always the rule. Low profiles and don’t take risks. Touting for trade with a knifeman out and about definitely counted as risk, as sticking your head above the parapet. Even if you knew the Crew, seemingly. Maybe five won’t be enough for him, maybe he’s got them already and he’s hungry for more…
I could do that no trouble, I could think their thoughts for them, these lads. Transparent as glass, even in their absence.
Him, too. The crazy, the killer. He was bright like a target in my head. I could make him dance when I wanted, whenever I chose.
What I wanted now was food. I might be going on to Mickey’s but I wouldn’t pay Mickey’s prices and he wouldn’t feed me at cost, never mind the amount of trade I put his way; so I ate at Burger King, reading whatever book it was I had in my jacket pocket that day. Spent a while longer in a pub, washing the taste of what I’d eaten out of my teeth; and then up to Oxford Street and just a little further.
* * * *
Mickey’s is in the basement, and where the hell else would you expect to find it? Low, low life.
Hard to find it at all, mind, if you don’t know where to look. No neon signs to light this club, no flashing arrows pointing. Just go down the area steps into purpose-built sinister shadows, knock and smile nicely at the peephole.
Or don’t bother with the smile, it won’t help. Strictly members only, at Mickey’s. If they don’t know you, you don’t get in. They won’t even open the door, they’ll just leave you standing. Knocking till your knuckles bleed.
Do them a courtesy, wipe the blood off the door before you go.
* * * *
I took the steps three at a time, pounded the door with my fist, shuffle-danced impatiently on the spot until Gordy opened up. Not in a hurry, of course; only to get out of the cold.
‘Jonty. Hi, how’ve you been?’
‘Busy. The man in, is he?’
Nothing more certain, actually. If the club was open, the man was in.
Matter of fact, the man was in his corner already, though the night was too young yet for his clientele. Coming through into the complex nest that was Mickey’s – half a dozen small rooms with doorways knocked through, whole walls knocked out to link them into a single multi-cornered, many-pillared space – I glanced down to the bar at the end and saw him slumped on his stool, hands folded across his belly. The faintest movement of his head acknowledged me; if there’d been anyone else in, or anyone that counted, they might have envied me so much recognition.
The place wasn’t exactly empty, but it might as well have been. A few unfamiliar faces, sitting quietly in twos and threes, talking in whispers: I checked them off as I passed, decided none was worth even being curious about.
There was a new lad serving, didn’t know me; I had to ask for a Dos Equis, instead of it being already opened and waiting for me when I reached the bar. I even had to tell him not to bother with a glass.
A polite tilt of the bottle towards Mickey, and then the cold bite of beer in my throat, welcome even in this coldest of weather. Half the bottle, chug-a-lug, and I stopped purely for its own sake, because I could.
And hitched myself onto a stool at the bar and beckoned the boy over, told him what I wanted. A saucer of salt, here; quarters of lime, here. A shot-glass of the good tequila, refilled when I tapped; and the Dos Equis replaced whenever it was empty. And all of it down on my tab, of course, no tedious fumbling for cash.
The boy looked for Mickey’s nod, and got it. Of course, he got it. Mickey and I, we’re like that. Go back too far, know each other too well.
It’s what you need when you’re young, when you’re starting: someone older, someone who’s been around. Someone to drop a word in season, lend a bit of knowledge here, a bit of money there, take it back with interest later. And after a while you don’t need them any more but they’re still there, they’re embedded, you can’t shift them.
In my life, that’s Mickey. Other people have their own, but not like Mickey. There isn’t anyone like Mickey.
Every night he sits in his club, in his corner, squat and heavy on his stood, his flesh overflowing. Doesn’t stir, unless there’s trouble. He’ll be charming if he needs to be, or else he’ll be offensive; but mostly he’s neither, mostly he just sits. And drinks tonic water, and Lord only knows where he gets his weight from, I’ve never seen him eat.
Never known him sleep, either. Daytime, if you want him, he’s upstairs. In his charity shop, looking after his boys.
* * * *
I was there for a reason that night; but no hurry. I sat at the bar till the bar got busy, and for a while after that. Testing the service, see if I still got the lad’s quick attention even with half a dozen queuing. Letting Mickey see. He’d want to see me looked after.
Eventually, though, I pushed myself to my feet and walked around the bar.
Peeled a twenty from my back pocket, handed in it to Mickey. No special favours, that was how we ran it; and entrance fees never went on the tab.
He took the note, held it up to the light, pursed his lips; for a second I thought he might run it through the machine he keeps by the till, to check for bad paper. But he nodded, tucked it away, tilted his head in permission. I went through the door he sits beside.
It’s a heavy door, with a safety light glowing dimly above and ‘EMERGENCY EXIT’ in big letters; but it’s not an exit, except in an emergency. It’s just a way upstairs.
* * * *
His charity shop, he calls it. Police, social services, everyone else calls it a hostel for runaway boys. Bed, meals, no questions asked; and no one ever asks Mickey any questions.
Actually, he runs it straight. If a lad wants to doss, if he wants to use the bed and eat the meals and nothing more, that’s fine. No pressure. Mickey’s not losing out, he gets funding from all over.
If a lad wants to work, that’s fine too. Mickey doesn’t even take a cut, the entrance fee is his percentage.
* * * *
This was the Crew’s home base, the roof they always came back to. And this was crisis time; I expected to find them here.
What was left of them.
Up the stairs, cold and dimly-lit, just a fire exit, officer, no one uses it; through the door at the top, and into a different world. The club is soft shadows and carpet, alcohol and smoke, all the fringe activities of sex. The hostel has lino underfoot and fluorescent tubes overhead, the music’s cheap and loud and confrontational and so are the kids. No fringe activities, no skirting, no seduction.
No conversation, either. You come up from the club, you mean business. So do they.
In the common room that night, as every night, there was a group of lads clustered around the pool table. Others perched on the radiators. Some were talking, some were very much alone; but I walked in and they all looked round, looked interested.
Ready to trade, they were. They might not be working the Dilly just now, but here they were under Mickey’s eye. In the common room, that time of night, anything I saw would be for sale.
If I’d been wanting to buy. The boys knew me, though, most of them. They looked, nodded recognition, turned away. Pool balls clicked, voices rose against the thudding beat from a ghetto-blaster on the window-sill.
The faces I was looking for weren’t there, the Crew not on duty tonight. No surprise. I thought they’d be up in the attics, sharing a room, sharing a bed perhaps for comfort and security, and the door wedged shut. No locks on the boys’ rooms, but they’d improvise, they’d shut the world out somehow.
Shut out the world, maybe, but they’d open up for me.
I made my way over to the pool table, and goosed a lad just as he was bending to take a shot. He jerked, screwed the shot, glared furiously over his shoulder as his audience giggled – and blinked, and smoothed the glare into an effortful smile, swallowed what he’d been going to say. Said, ‘Skip, hi. Want me?’
Hiding his surprise, playing it cool for the sake of the other lads watching, listening in. See how easy I turn a trick? he was saying. Even Skip, that you’re all scared of. No worries, he was saying. I’m a class act, me.
They call me Skip sometimes, picked it up from Mickey. They don’t know what it means, but they like it.
‘No,’ I said, ruining his evening for him, wrecking him for the night. ‘I’m looking for Dex and Tony. They in, are they?’
He shook his head, ‘Not seen’em, Skip, not for a couple of days,’ but I was ready for that. They’d be primed, they’d be ready for the question, and even these kids had a kind of pack loyalty. With a knifeman out in the world, they were going to need it.
I wouldn’t want them overdoing it, though. Not to the point of misleading me. So I knuckled that young blood’s skull for him, made him yelp, really hurt his credibility; and said, ‘Try again. Which room?’
‘Straight up, Jonty,’ he whined, squirming against the grip I had on his elbow. ‘They’re not here, ask anyone. Ask Mickey.’
This time I believed him, let him go. He rubbed his arm, aggrieved; I tipped him a crisp new fiver and said, ‘Where else would they be, then?’
‘Word is, someone’s after them,’ a breathy voice from behind me. Everyone was watching now, tuned in to this.
‘I know that. Where would they go?’ Where would they feel safer than here? It was a question I couldn’t answer; and neither could the kids, apparently. At any rate, none of them did.
Then a man came in, a customer. I didn’t know him, nor did they; but no danger, if he’d got past Mickey. The lads lost interest in me and the pool both, offered him a beer, turned on a vulnerable, electric charm.
They’re good, Mickey’s boys. Two minutes later I was still killing balls on the abandoned table when the newcomer left with a boy leading him, taking him out the other way. Deal concluded, trick duly turned. The boy would come back in an hour, perhaps, or else in the morning; in the man’s car, or else in a taxi. That was one of Mickey’s rules, that they always got a lift back. It made the boys feel good, it let everyone know they were safe; and, of course, it meant they were back in the shop, back on the shelf for another customer. The lads came and went as they pleased, or thought they did, but Mickey had the system well rigged.
I slammed the black off three cushions and into a middle pocket, heard someone whistle and applaud at my back, walked out without looking round.
On my way back down I heard sounds that weren’t music, from behind a closed door. Remembered the television room, and put my head inside.
There were a couple of youngsters slumped on separate sofas: newcomers, nervous, flushing under my gaze, their eyes jumping between me and the TV screen. I didn’t think they were that interested in a news bulletin. Waiting for what came next, perhaps; or more likely just watching telly because they were numb and scared and at least it was something familiar, something they knew how to do.
I was on my way out again when I caught something, Alfie’s name mentioned.
Suddenly there was at least one interested viewer in that room, there was me coming right inside now, pushing the door to behind me and never mind the way those kids jumped, never mind what they thought.
News conference on the screen: long table, microphones, policemen and women and one nervous civilian between them. Alfie’s older brother, they said, and a lot older too, he looked thirty at least. And short and dark and very Welsh, twisting his hands together and making the usual useless appeals. ‘Whoever did this, for God’s sake give yourself up, isn’t three dead boys enough?’
To which the answer was obviously no, and I didn’t know why he was wasting his breath. Five had to be a minimum here, there was no getting away with anything less.
The brother was going on, pleading for information now, for any information. ‘You don’t have to go to the police. You can come to me, I’ll be an intermediary. I came to London to find my brother; I’ll stay as long as I have to, to find his killer. I’m staying at the Prince Consort Hotel on Church Street, contact me there if there’s anything you can tell us, anything at all…’
Nothing I could tell him; nothing Mickey could tell me either, or nothing he admitted to. No, he didn’t know where Dex and Tony had buggered off to; he didn’t know they’d gone till just that morning, when he checked their rooms. And no, they’d left nothing behind, obviously nothing with him for safe-keeping. Usually they did that, so probably they’d gone for a while, wherever it was they’d gone. Out of the city, even, maybe…?
But I didn’t believe that, and neither did he. You don’t do that; you don’t leave London so easily, a snap of the fingers, one fright and you’re gone.
No, the city grips tighter than that. They were still around, those boys. And I’d find them.
If there were luck or justice in this world, I’d find them first.
* * * *
Shaved and showered, smartly dressed, I was into work before eight next morning. The girl in the doorway was awake too, only her eyes showing between sleeping-bag and woolly hat. Thin, tight eyes, weary and distrustful.
After a couple of hours’ intensive working, I glanced out of the window and saw a policeman. Saw him stop, question the girl for a minute or two, finally nod and move away.
That didn’t impress me at all.
So I phoned downstairs to the security guard. He’d been on duty since seven, he’d be getting bored by now, he’d be into a change of routine,
‘Tell her to move, Carl. The law can’t shift her, maybe, but we can. Tell her that.’
And he did, he told her. I watched from my window, saw her gesture stiffly, saw her spit. No trouble guessing what she was saying down there, the message she was sending. They get vicious on the streets, these kids do. Not hard, not as hard as they like to think, but vicious for sure.
Vicious isn’t always wise, though, it isn’t always protective. Carl came back, and we had another little chat on the phone while I sat in my chair and watched the street, thinking how cold it was out there. How cold she must be already, cold all the time, despite the sleeping-bag and so many layers of clothing…
So I talked to Carl, and heard him laugh; and watched him carry a bucket over the road, watched him tip a gallon of cold, cold water over the girl.
Even through the double glazing, I could hear her shriek.
Hear her swear, too, see her come scrambling out of the sodden bag in a fighting fury; but Carl was already half-way back, strolling contemptuously across the street with a big grin on his face, not even looking. She snatched up a handful of frozen dog-shit, hurled it at him, missed. Cast around for a stone, a can, anything else; but the services are good around here, the streets are swept. She was all the trash there was.
And she was wet and freezing cold, and he was twice her size. She didn’t come after him, just slumped back into her doorway. Rummaged desultorily in a carrier bag, pulled a few clothes out, dropped them again; wrapped her arms around her knees, rocked to and fro, head down and shoulders shaking.
When I left the office an hour later, she was back in the bag. I wasn’t sure that was such a good idea, better to keep dry, I would have thought; but I didn’t stop to say so. She was curled up small, back to the street, no begging now. And Carl had his game-plan all worked out.
From the look of her she wasn’t going anywhere; but if she didn’t move, twice more today she was going to get a wetting.
It was going to be a hard cold day for the kid and a harder colder night to follow, with wet bedding and a sharp frost forecast even here, even in the heart of the city.
It’s a tough life, when you’re not welcome in other people’s doorways.
* * * *
The tube was on again, so I took the Northern line out to a small hotel at a frugal distance, and asked at reception for Mr Kirk.
The girl behind the counter nodded over my shoulder; I turned, saw him in a corner, watching me. Watching everyone that came in, I guessed, and probably praying, good Chapel background that he had. Probably praying even now, that I should prove an answer to his prayer.
Maybe I was, at that.
I asked the girl to bring us a pot of coffee, two cups. She said he drank tea. One of each, then, I said. No hurry, I said. When you’ve got the time.
She nodded, promised. I made my way between chairs; he stood up as I reached him, met my extended hand with his, ready presumably to shake with any stranger in his need.
‘Mr Kirk, I’m glad to catch you. I saw you on the news last night, and I thought perhaps we ought to talk. Oh, I’m sorry, my name’s Jonathan, my friends call me Jonty…’ And some people called me Skip, but he didn’t need to know that, it wouldn’t mean a thing.
‘David,’ he said, reciprocating, politely not asking for a surname. More sussed than he seemed, perhaps; or else just learning fast. He’d have to be, if he’d been hunting for Alfie in any of the right places. ‘Please, sit down, I’ll order some tea…’
‘No need, I’ve done that.’
‘Well, then.’ He sat down himself, fidgeted his clothes into neatness, and got straight to the point. ‘How is it that you can help me, then, ah, Jonty?’
‘Only that I knew Alfie quite well, I know the people he mixed with, some of the places he hung out. These kids, they wouldn’t talk to the police, they might not talk to you – but they’ll talk to me. Specifically,’ laying plenty of cards on the table, honest as they come, ‘there are two boys we need to find, because they’re next on the hit-list, they’ve got to be. I don’t know if you’ve realized this, I don’t know if the police are aware, even; but Alfie was one of a team, five good friends,’ really working on that Chapel mentality here: all good buddies together, all looking out for each other and don’t mention what they did for cash. ‘Three of them are dead now, and it’s too much for coincidence. Whoever this madman is, he’s not killing at random…’
And so I talked, and drank coffee, and painted what picture I liked of Alfie’s life, what picture I thought David ought to see. He sipped at his insipid milky tea, and nodded, and tried to understand.
I was still talking when the girl interrupted me, beckoning David over to the desk to take a phone call.
I sat back and watched him, trying to read lips at this distance and failing but feeling lucky regardless, guessing who the call was from as David scribbled frantically on a message-pad.
Guessing right, because he came back to me wide-eyed, almost trembling with excitement.
‘That was, that was this Tony you were just telling me about,’ he said, stammering over it. ‘Alfie’s friend Tony, he said he was. And they’ve been hiding out, see, him and the other boy Dex, because they know someone’s after them. They wouldn’t go to the police, well, obvious reasons, really; but he says he’ll talk to me. He says he’d like to meet me, he’s given me an address, meet him there this evening, he says…’
That was Tony, all right. That was more or less what I’d expected, why I was here. Tony was a TV freak, and you couldn’t tell him, he wouldn’t listen. Anything he saw on TV had to be right. If he’d seen the news last night, I knew, he’d have to be in touch.
‘Do you know where this is, then, do you?’ David asked, thrusting the address at me, already assuming a partnership signed and sealed. ‘I’ve got an A-Z, I could find it, but I don’t know London, see, I don’t know how to get about…’
‘Sure,’ I said easily, one glance at the street name and a big smile for David. ‘I can get you there, no trouble.’
‘Oh, that’s good. That’s wonderful. Only, he did say I was to come alone, see, I don’t know what’s best to do about that, he might think you were police, and not come out…’
Well, no. That much I could guarantee: Tony wouldn’t think I was the police.
He might not come out if he saw me, that much was true, but he’d have very different reasons.
‘No problem,’ I said, still easy, still utterly laid back. ‘I’ll wait outside, you can go in alone. Don’t want to scare the boy. What is it, anyway, what sort of place, did he say? Not a house, I guess, not down there.’
‘No, it’s a car-park,’ David said. ‘A multi-storey car-park.’
Of course, a car-park. What else? And he’d be waiting at the very top, no doubt, and only wishing he had a car to wait in. If he hadn’t pinched one, just for the occasion. Too, too television…
* * * *
So I collected David that evening, and we caught a bus. He wasn’t happy on the tube, he said, so far underground, so tight and dark in the tunnels. A farming family, he said, not mining.
Rural Wales, where sheep are sheep and men are careful.
Alfie hadn’t been like that. Alfie didn’t know careful from common sense, and had no truck with either. He’d learned to love the night and the crowds and the rush of London – but then, he’d had good teachers. Mickey and me and the Crew – between us, we’d made Alfie what he was.
What he was now, of course, was dead. Tony might know who or he might know why, might even have answers to both; and Tony was coming out of hiding, to talk to David.
I was curious, I was very curious to know what he wanted to say.
* * * *
Eight o’clock and long since dark, the car-park long since emptied. This was dead ground any time after six, the gates locked and the workers gone, only the guard dogs restless behind wire.
David went in alone, as instructed. He walked slowly up and out of my sight, preferring the broad ramps and the open decks to the stinking and constricted stairway. He’d brought a torch, cautious man that he was: ‘It’ll be lit, I know that, but it’ll not be lit well, now, will it?’
And he was right, it wasn’t lit well. He shone the beam into every shadowed corner before he walked inside, sent it ahead of him up the ramp like a herald of his coming, almost like a weapon. Staying obediently on the pavement, pacing to keep myself warm this savage night, I saw sudden flashes and occasional fingers of light thrust out above me to mark how far he’d climbed.
After he’d reached the top deck, the light died; or else David was simply looking the other way now, his back turned to the street. Had found what he was looking for, perhaps was looking at Tony.
I waited, patient as the night to see what the night would bring. A train rattled on its tracks, somewhere between me and the invisible river; a fox barked, high and sharp and sudden, setting off the dogs. No one passed me, on foot or in a car.
And then there was David running down, the torch not shining now: uncareful David, careering down the ramp, running almost full-tilt into a concrete pillar, caroming off with a gasp and stumbling towards me.
‘Easy, man,’ I said, catching him. Holding him still, feeling how he trembled. ‘What, then, what is it, what’s up?’
He shook his head, far past talking; for a minute there he could only breathe, and shake. But then he straightened slowly, slowly took control. At last he pulled away, lifted his head to meet me eye to eye, and said, ‘Come. You come and see…
He didn’t take me very far, only into the carpark and straight past the ramp, over to the other side. A low wall ran between the massive pillars supporting the decks above; beyond was rough ground, crumbled tarmac and weeds.
And a body, a boy, face down and too obviously broken.
David played his torch up and down the lad’s length, held the beam still on bleached-blond hair and the glint of gold in his ear.
‘Will that be Tony, then, will it?’
Unquestionably, that would be Tony; and so I told him.
‘No mistake, you don’t need to see his face?’
‘No.’ Didn’t need to, certainly didn’t want to. I looked up instead, counted six separate decks. From the top, it would have been a long way to fall. Time enough to know that you were falling; maybe even time enough to think about it, briefly.
‘There’s no one here,’ David said needlessly, ‘no one else. He’s gone, that did this. What should we do, should we call the police, would you think?’
‘No,’ I said again. ‘We should get you back to your hotel, is what we should do. Forget about Tony, he’s gone too; no harm if he has to lie there till morning. We just get the hell out of here, nice and quiet and don’t get involved.’ I saw him back to the Prince Consort. Saw him settled with the aid of a couple of large brandies and an hour’s soft talking; and finally went home by tube and train, thinking that a farmer should be tougher than this, a farmer should be old friends with death.
Perhaps it’s different when people die, perhaps it cuts more deeply.
I wouldn’t know.
* * * *
Friday morning: and the girl not in her doorway, only the glaze of ice on the pavement to remember her by, where Carl’s water had flowed and frozen before it even reached the gutters.
He’d be satisfied, he’d be pleased with that. I saw no need to tell him where she was, that I could find her from my window. She hadn’t moved far at all, only twenty yards into an alley; but she was out of sight of the street there, hidden behind piled bags of rubbish.
Huddled in her bag, not even her head showing now, she moved as little as she had to; but sometimes she did, she had to. Sometimes her whole body jerked and spasmed under cover, sometimes for minutes on end. And sometimes afterwards her face would appear, and she’d spit a mouthful of phlegm as far as she had strength to send it.
Not far, not far at all.
* * * *
The weekend I spent at home, watching telly mostly, only filling in time: sure that the phone would ring soon, that someone would have something to tell me. I didn’t try to second-guess what that would be, it was only the call I was sure of. Someone and something, useful information.
It came at last on the Sunday evening, almost too late to count, I’d almost been wrong there.
‘Jonty, this is Alan Tadman…’
Alan. Good to hear from you.’ My neighbour on the water, he had the mooring next to mine; and already I was way ahead of him, I knew what he was going to say, I could have written his script.
‘Well, I hope so,’ he said. ‘But there may be trouble, this may not be good news…’
‘Tell me anyway and let’s see, shall we?’ I thought it was good news. I thought it was the best.
‘It’s just, there’s been someone on your boat the last couple of days. At least that long. We came down on Friday, and I thought I saw a light; but it wasn’t much, and your car wasn’t there, I assumed I’d imagined it. Just a reflection on the window, something like that. But then I saw her shifting yesterday, as if someone was moving around inside. I knocked, but there wasn’t an answer. I would have phoned then, only I didn’t want to sound neurotic; so I watched her today, and I’m sure there’s someone aboard. Maybe they’re friends of yours; but they don’t answer my knocking, so I thought someone should tell you. Not the police, I didn’t want to tell the police without checking first…’
‘No,’ I said kindly, ‘you wouldn’t want to trouble the police. Thanks, Alan, I know who that’ll be. I’ll come down and have a chat with him.’
‘OK, fine.’ His voice huffed with relief; he’d done the right thing. ‘You don’t want me to stay around till you get here, do you? Only we’ve both got work in the morning, and the wife’s keen to get off…’
‘No, you go. Don’t worry about it. And thanks again, I’m very grateful.’
Being the man he was, Alan would probably still hang around for another hour or so, expecting me to dash down, wanting to be there when I did.
So I waited, I gave Linda an hour and a half to drag him away; and even then I didn’t go directly to the canal. I drove into the city first, to pick up David.
‘I’ve found Dex,’ I told him. ‘Come on, I’ll take you there.’
* * * *
You pay through the nose, for a permanent mooring in London; but it’s worth it, to me. I wouldn’t be without my boat.
She’s a proper narrowboat, sixty-eight foot of steel hull and wooden upperworks. I bought her from a broke commodities broker, paying cash strictly under the counter, no comebacks. She wasn’t called the Screw Archimedes then, but she is now.
Every couple of months I take off for a week or two, but I was only a fortnight back from the last trip. I wouldn’t normally have been near the Screw this weekend.
Maybe I should have thought of checking it over, just in case; this wasn’t the first time Dex had lain low for a while on my boat. He’d always asked permission before, though. Presumably he’d had a spare set of keys cut on the quiet, and decided this was the time to use them.
Not bad, for a kid in a panic. Not the world’s greatest idea, maybe, but not bad. He couldn’t have reckoned on a nosy neighbour watching how the boat rocked at her moorings.
I parked behind the pub as always, then led David a hundred yards along the cinder towpath. Here was the Screw, tied bow and stern to mooring-rings; fifty yards further on were the black gates of the lock, with the river flowing darkly beyond.
And yes, there was a light aboard my boat. Thin and flickering, a torch with its battery dying, perhaps, just bright enough to show around the curtain’s edge.
‘That’ll be him,’ I murmured. ‘You wait here, David, leave this with me.’
‘I want to see him,’ David said, unaccustomedly forceful.
‘You will. I promise. Just let me speak to him first, OK? He’ll be nervous enough as it is, he’s hiding here, you’ve got to remember that; it’ll be worse if two of us bust in on him at once. Especially with you being a stranger.
He nodded, stood back, let me go. I stepped lightly aboard, slipped my key into the Yale on the door and ducked inside.
* * * *
Down the steps, past the rear bunks, past the head, through the kitchen – and there was Dex in the lounge, stretched on a banquette and barely reacting, barely lifting his head.
The reason for that was on the table between us. The light came from a spirit lamp, its pale flame turned low; and scattered around it were all the makings, spoon and syringe and a length of inner tube, and his sweet sweet smack in a cellophane pack. And yes, Dex really was running away this time, running everywhere he knew to hide. Two years since I’d kicked this habit out of him, kicked him clean.
I wasn’t going to do that again.
He knew it, too. Looked at me and knew it, even in the state he was in; and tried to smile even so, tried to be easy. As he would, as anyone would.
Sure, he called me Skip. They all did that, all five of them. What else would a crew call their captain?
‘You owe me money, Dex.’ Large amounts of money; and I had an idea I was looking at a lot of it, right there on the table, what was left of my money.
I’d made that money, and the Crew had spent it. I wasn’t happy at all.
They’d been a loyal and obedient band, my Crew, my little group of workers. It was a clever gig, too, a sweet project. I ran the money off, fives and tens and twenties; they spend it around their clients. Half a dozen ways they had, to persuade a man to change his notes for mine. And of course no comebacks, even if he found out they were dud. The kids might lose a customer, but no more than that, no worse. Certainly no police.
So I trusted them, I gave them a thousand at a time and only took eight hundred back. Easy money for them, easy for me.
But then they blew it, they didn’t keep up the payments. Someone started picking them off, and they ran for cover. With my money in their pockets.
‘Christ, be fair, Skip,’ Dex stammered, as I’d known that he would. ‘We had to, some bugger’s after us…’
‘That’s right,’ I agreed calmly. ‘I’m after you.’ His dealer too, by now, if he’d been paid with my clever money; but that was no concern of mine.
‘They’re dead, Skip. They’re all dead…’
‘That’s right,’ again. I fetched water, busied myself with the makings on the table, fixing up a good strong jolt: not so much a trip, more a retirement. Using all he had in that little packet, enough to give a horse a hefty kick.
‘Let’s put it this way,’ I said, tapping the syringe lightly, expertly, watching the bubbles rise. ‘You spend my money on smack, I want to see you get a proper high out of it. Don’t I? I want to see you get your money’s worth. I made that money, I wouldn’t want to see it wasted.’
‘That’ll, that’ll kill me…’ No resistance, but I hadn’t expected any. If I wanted to do this, he’d just lie back and let me. Even if he’d been fit and well fed, he’d let me do it. That’s how I’d trained him. I was skipper, he was only crew.
‘Yes, I expect so. Two choices, Dex,’ still smiling, still sweet and reasonable. ‘Either I put you down with a needleful of dreams, or you get up off your pretty arse, go outside and talk to Alfie’s brother. He’s waiting for you.
‘Alfie’s…?’ Oh, he was slow tonight, he was well detached. He frowned, almost had to think who Alfie was before he got onto the notion of a brother. Finally, ‘That’s where Tony went. To talk to Alfie’s brother.’
‘He never come back, didn’t Tony.’
‘I know. He died.’
He looked at me, crew looked at skipper. Skipper tapped needle.
He shuffled slowly aft, banged his head on the hatchway getting out. I emptied the needle into the sink and gathered all the makings together in a bag, for ditching later.
Briefly, I heard David’s distant voice; then nothing.
* * * *
When I went outside to look for them, I found David pretty much where I’d left him, in the shadow of a warehouse wall, Dex at his feet not even bleeding any more.
David’s knife was still in his hand but unconsciously so now, only loosely held, no threat in the world.
‘They fouled my brother,’ he said, ‘these foul boys. And Alfie fouled us all, he fouled the family…’
I shrugged vaguely, not interested in his justifications. I had a lock key in my hand; I gave that to David and explained how to flush Dex out through the system, how to send him away down the river.
Then I locked up and left David to it, drove away.
* * * *
Next morning, when I phoned the hotel and asked for Mr Kirk, they said he’d checked out already. Given up hope of helping, they said, gone home: gone back to his happy valleys and his sudden hills.
I need a new network, new distribution; but that’s not a problem. There are always boys, and boys are always hungry.
And the word will get around, will do me good. The Crew fucked with Skip, the boys will tell each other, and they’re all dead now, the Crew, all fucked over…
That’ll keep them sweet, my new crew, when I sign them up.
* * * *
Meantime the girl over the way has coughed herself to bones and nothing, she’s dead in the alley there, stiff and gone.
Wonder how long it’ll be, before they find her?
RIGHT ARM MAN by DENISE DANKS
Crew had to steady himself, keep cool. It was his man talking to him, telling him how it had gone down, telling him what the kid had done. He didn’t have to shoot the messenger. He tried to focus, to look at the dark man facing him, in the right light, the right frame of mind.
‘Tell me again Baz. Slow. Tell it slow,’ he said and the man rested his skinny gold-ringed fingers on his lead hips and began again.
‘Like I told you. The kid asked for credit.’
‘So you told him, yeh?’
‘I told him cash and he said it was too risky making three trips and bringing the money every time.’
‘So you told him that was the deal.’
‘I told him that was the deal, or nothing. I told him the terms and conditions. Told him there was an easy way and a hard way.’
‘He said he weren’t making the deal.’
Crew’s right leg began to tremble.
‘He have a vest on?’ he said.
Baz nodded. ‘And his ragamuffin posse all round,’ he added, the perspiration there under his arms. He ran a finger around the polo-neck of his smooth black all-cotton sweatshirt. It was seven o’clock on a midsummer’s night and too warm in the rank artificially lit room. Crew’s crack works lay on a pine table that was pushed up against a cold white radiator. If Crew had chosen to pull open the blue velvet curtains and the dull drapes of grey net, he would have looked out on a sky the colour of cinders, hanging low and heavy on the bunkered blocks of the estate and its demolition car parks, and still have found it too bright for his eyes. It was hardly worth the trouble. Below he’d see a scrubby grass verge edging a flat stretch of discoloured tarmac. Every flat opposite was the same as his, like every other one on the estate. Doors lined up along a communal landing, each grazed red with a scab of bare hardboard or wooden planks where frosted glass had been. Like his, most were reinforced steel behind with six bar locks, three up, three down. Some of the square windows were boarded too, but not his. His windows were never broken, never ever.
Even so, his wife and kids didn’t live there, nor did he any more – he’d got three storeys near the Park with a view of the lake and the biggest lushest spread of green in the city. This place was where he came to spread perforated foil tight across a whisky tumbler and smoke, and to arm himself for work.
Baz pulled back a chair and sat down at the table, flicking his long manicured fingers against Crew’s glass of rock ash,
‘He said you come near’im, he’ll shoot you, chop you up.’
‘Yeh? Yeh? Where were you, man?’ The words boomed as Crew stiffed his fist against his chest and brought it down on the table. Baz looked up with angry eyes.
‘Hey chill. I was there taking a message instead of doing business while you were fucking ghost-busting in here. What d’you think? I told you before the kids’re losing respect. They got money now. They’re making money out of us, cutting brown and taking fifteen hundred a night. They don’t see no reason to stand still, wait for what they want. Crew, they want a whack. A smack. You got to clean their wet noses out with your gun.’
Crew looked at him, angry still but calmer, and pulled out a chair for himself. He leaned an elbow on the table and with fluttering fingers touched the scar that troubled him on the right temple.
‘What they call him again?’
And he’s fifteen.’
‘Going on thirty.’
Baz could see himself in the wide black pupils of Crew’s soulless eyes, dark as crows’ heads. He could see his brown shaven head, smooth as a nut and the fire of the diamond in his ear, could see what Crew could see, he hoped.
‘You should have done him, Baz’
‘If I thought I could have done. I would have done,’ he replied, holding the man’s junky gaze. He had to. Crew blinked and grinned.
‘You should have done him no matter what. Done him and watched the others just f.. f.. f.. fade away.’
‘If I thought I could have done, I would. All right? You shoulda been there.’
Crew’s hand was back twitching at his temple and Baz could see him sweat, smell him. There was no breeze tonight. The window was open but no air troubled the heavy curtains. Crew could feel the moisture filming over his face too, the sweat trickling down like something crawling through his hair, feeling so bad that he had to clamp his jaw together to stop himself screaming, stop himself jumping up and tearing at his scalp. Baz was right. He hadn’t been taking care of business. He’d let them think he was going soft, let them imagine that he didn’t have it in him any more. Just because he talked reasonable, they thought they could take from the pie, his pie. Take the bread from his table, the food from his children’s mouths. They worked for him but they’d forgotten that, because of the money they’d made out of him. Because of the money they could arm themselves, buy a pump with a cartridge up the spout and do a raid. That’s all he did. They’d get a car, any one they wanted, here and now, steal it, drive it fast where they wanted. They were thinking big time, starting to pester people they should be leaving alone. They were moving in on his toms and going around the manor like they were immortal. Immortal. Living free and fast because business was booming. His business.
It was summertime, that’s when the money came in, yeh? When would business boom, if not in the summer? And how could it boom-boom if not for Crew? If not for him? Crew brought it in. He did. He was the motherload. And now they were coming round him, like half-grown jackals with wet toothy grins. They smelled blood so rich and thick they couldn’t see the deep line in the sand. Jackals they were, pock marked scavengers, nipping at heels and blowing in ears, making a racket so loud the Other Firm would start to come around, cruise his streets. They’d know he wasn’t holding on here. And if he wasn’t holding on, then no one was and there would be big trouble for him, and for them. He’d lose face. Lose respect.
Respect was all. It was the stand off. These bandana posses weren’t bothered about that, about respect, they didn’t know what it meant and couldn’t care less. It was worth earning, but it took time and they couldn’t wait. There was no need they could see because there was no future better than now. Crew closed his eyes tight and then stared up at the ceiling.
‘I’m nearly thirty, Baz.’
‘This year. What about you?’
‘This kid is fifteen.’
‘He’s a nutcase. You got to take him out.’
‘I know what I got to do.’
‘Take the little shit out, Crew.’
‘You should’ve done him, then and there. Broke his fucking neck. Why didn’t you? You my right arm man.’
‘Crew. Who am I? It’s got to be you. You got to do it. You got to make the point.’
Crew brushed at his dripping nose and bit his lips. He could feel the blood flushing through his veins, hear it rushing in his ears. Baz stood up and opened the fridge.
‘You know where he lives?’
‘I know where he lives but you want to do it outside, don’t you?’ Baz put the question and took a good quick swallow of cold Pepsi, wiping the creamy foam from his brown lips. For a moment, doubt shimmered in Crew’s black hole eyes before they sucked it in.
‘I’ll do it outside. ‘Course. I want to do it outside but it’s got to look right, if we do it outside. The punters will be watching. It’s got to be the business.’
Baz crushed the can in his hand.
‘OK. Half an hour and he’ll be in the chippy, playing the machines,’ he said and Crew began to giggle, a high-pitched sort of snort and sniff, clapping his white sinewy hands together.
‘Take away in a take away. Let’s do it. Yeh, let’s do it,’ he said, jumping up.
Baz drew a line of powder on a spare piece of foil while Crew pulled on his waistcoat, a black chunky life jacket with pockets everywhere, inside, in front, at the side, at the back, at least one for the Browning 380 automatic, another for the cartridges. When he’d finished, Baz turned around bits of white powder clinging to the nostrils of his flat nose. Crew took the foil and breathed in deeply, sucking up the drug until the words snapped out of him like hot popcorn.
‘YES, YES. Oooooh YES. Let’s go. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Go get the little fucker. YES.’
Baz followed him and side-stepped in front, handing Crew his black sunglasses before opening the door to let the blazing light of that dull evening shaft the corneas of the man’s blinded eyes. He took his place a little behind Crew, all down around the dirty stairwell, the walls moulded with dark stains and barbed wire graffiti, boom box signatures that said ‘Canning Town Kingsnakes Kick Yow Ass’ and ‘Get BoY’. Baz made sure he kept talking, geeing the man up.
‘You know him don’t you? You’ll know him. He’s cut his dreads. You know that. He got a sort of picture cut into the back and those little Hula Hoops on top.’
‘What sort of design?’
‘The Ace of Clubs.’
‘The Ace of Spades?’
Baz kept on until they got to the row of garages. Crew unlocked theirs and Baz took out the Kawasaki and the masks.
‘You gonna wear one?’ Baz asked as Crew worked the slide of the Browning to push the cartridge in the chamber. Crew turned his clammy face to look at Baz pulling on his paper bag with the holes for his eyes and tear for a mouth, and his black soft leather gloves. The gun was ready to fire.
‘My eyes. I need the glasses. You know how it is,’ Crew said. Baz knew, but it wasn’t his problem, not then. He saw the dull summer evening for what it was because only Crew had snorted the cocaine deep into damaged sinuses and rushed the soft polygons of his honeycomb brain. Baz had merely rubbed a little powder under his nose with his finger. He didn’t have to squint into the half light. He felt anxious, but not three-quarters paranoid like Crew. For Baz, it was just tension building like hunger in his belly. This had to go right now or he was a dead man.
‘You want people to see your face?’ he said.
Crew thought for a moment and tucked the Browning into a pocket.
‘So they see my face? They want some? Who’s going to fucking tell? Who’d they think they’re looking at?’
Baz didn’t reply. He mounted the Kawasaki, jumped the pedal and when Crew was at his back, they were gone.
All the boys looked around when they heard the bike roar in and Crew fired once at the one that didn’t, the one with the short worm wool hair and the three bags of chips. The Ace of Clubs now the Ace of Bleeding Hearts. He could hear a girl screaming, and a woman. Crew got off the bike, picked the spent cartridge from the floor and put it in the top pocket of his vest.
’What you looking at?’ he screamed at the muddled black faces with their wide white eyes. He shouted his name loud, head back towards the laughing gods and raised his finger to write number one in the bright face of heaven. He didn’t make it. The pain entered his head like fire, his arms turned like windmills, and the last sound he heard was the Kawasaki fading away into the summer night.
71-73 CHARING CROSS ROAD by MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI
Dear Mr Jakubowski,
I feel compelled to write to let you know how much I enjoyed that book you selected for me. I didn’t know that one could possibly laugh so much at the spectacle of someone else’s pain, but the sequence where the hood was attacked by the dog, and his later flight with its head still attached to his arm and the ensuing gangrenous folly was just too much. Hilarious.
I look forward to your next recommendation.
* * * *
Dear Ms Macher,
I hope you enjoy the enclosed. Another dark story of dogs but this time taking place in a hellish version of New York, rather than the semi-comic sleaze of Miami (which I actually visited recently on the occasion of a book fair).
It’s a well-known fact that I’m no great animal lover, but I assure you that dogs are not at the top of my hit-parade of least lovable pets. Cats are. But sadly, cats in crime fiction are always endearing, cuddly and engagingly cosy. Maybe one day I should write a tale where unwelcome members of the feline species come to all sorts of grim and deadly exits.
* * * *
Dear Mr Jakubowski,
You’ve hit the right nerve or funny bone again. I didn’t realize there were so many uses for a dead dog!
I’m no cat lover either. Once, when I must have been seven or eight and temporarily living with my aunt, I developed a strong antipathy to her cat (I don’t recall its name all these years later – why must pets always be given names, stupid ones at that? An absurd habit), and one evening fiendishly poured some turpentine into its milk bowl (I used to spend many of my leisure hours painting by numbers and was given a small bottle of turpentine to clean my brushes). Naturally, the next morning the cat was found belly up in the garden. My aunt, who lavished all her affection on the horrible thing, became madly emotional but I never came under suspicion. Thus, you might say, began my career in crime…
Yes, you should write a story where cats come to all sorts of horrible ends. It would be fun. I’d heard you wrote in addition to owning the bookshop, but have never read anything of yours. Do send me something. I’d love to read what another sworn enemy of the animal kingdom might conjure up.
* * * *
Thanks for your letter.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written any fiction I’m really satisfied with. And, fortunately, past mistakes are now out of print, so I shall have to disappoint you. Also, most of my past work has not been in the crime and mystery field. Mostly fantasy, doomed tales of love and death in other dimensions or imaginary worlds that were too often rather close for comfort and reminiscent of the all-too-realistic world that surrounds us, or rather me. All very self-centred, I must say in retrospect.
I do a lot of non-fiction, though. Writing on film, rock music and of course crime. Here’s a remaindered copy of a recent critical effort, which won a prize in Canada of all places. It should be useful. Not all the books mentioned in it are still available, but do let me know if any sound interesting to you, and we can try and provide you with them.
* * * *
I was shopping in Bellevue the other day (it’s on the other side of the lake from Seattle; they have some good shopping malls there) and was browsing through this large bookstore full of old and used books. Somehow I’d remembered you telling me you had written fantasy. Lo and behold, on the first shelf I look at, there you were. A paperback copy of Beyond Lands of Never!
Your story touched me in strange ways.
Tell me about yourself, about London.
* * * *
What is there to say? I’m a book junkie through and through, I live surrounded by books both at the shop and home. They mean so much to me, and I collect madly, even when there is no longer space on my shelves and floors. There’s no logic to it, even though I sadly know that I shall never get around to reading even a quarter of the books I hoard.
London is London.
The Charing Cross Road is a bookworm’s paradise still, though some of the smaller, quainter bookstores have long moved on because of costs. I’m lucky these particular premises became available. Outside, it’s spring already and the weather and the women outside are in bloom, which puts joy in my heart, but tramps who reek of drink and piss at night on the doorstep darken the view. It’s like another world, hidden behind the facade of the books, one where life and the recession act out their depressing charade, and so many people are out of work and pester you for money for booze, and gypsy women with round-faced children on the underground beg or pretend to be refugees from Bosnia, and pitiful buskers strum out-of-tune guitars and nasally serenade crowds with chainsaw massacre versions of ‘Norwegian Wood’. Sometimes, I wonder.
I’ve asked Thalia in mail order to send you those John Dickson Carr locked room novels you’d enquired about some time ago. They’ve now come back into stock.
What about you?
* * * *
London sure sounds interesting. Like all nice places, it has I see a dark side. Here, we have Capitol Hill, once bohemian and flowery, now grunge capital of the world, with men and women looking pale and miserable and proud to be ugly. It’s the young men in their silly shorts and unattractive hairy legs even in the deep of winter who get to me. I can take the hair, the greyness of their clothes, but it’s the legs, I can’t help from giggling.
There certainly is a weird fascination about locked room mysteries. Surely lessons in how to commit the perfect murder and get away with it. Though some of Carr’s plots are fiendishly complicated and unwieldy, to say the least.
Last weekend I went to visit friends who live three hours south in Portland, Oregon. I’d been to State University there with Lisa, we even shared an apartment for two years; now she’s married to this French photographer who she swears is cheating on her. Jean-Paul had to go on some fashion assignment on Sunday morning, so Lisa suggested we go to this nude beach in the Willamette Valley. I was somewhat taken aback, it’s something I’d never thought about doing ever before. But I was reminded of that character in that short story of yours who dreams of topless women on foreign beaches and the thousands of breasts on display in all shapes and sizes. So I said yes, why not? It was a weird experience, but pleasurable. There weren’t that many people around. The beach was down in a deep canyon and the river level was very low. At first I felt self-conscious and remained topless, but close by there was a family with some young kids and it all looked so natural, so after an hour or so, I took my bottom off. A day to remember.
You’re to blame, of course.
I want to know more about your London.
* * * *
I feel pleased and confused that you’re telling me so much of yourself.
Yes, I can imagine you on the nude beach, with green hills and mountains surrounding the river bed canyon. I close my eyes and turn to crime. A criminal voyeur of the imagination. I try to conjure up the image of your hair in the wind (long? Dark auburn shades?), the shape of your body, the curve of your breasts, the roundness of your buttocks. Yes, you must have looked quite beautiful and I accept the blame, all responsibility. It would have been nice to have been there, but then again I’ve been putting on weight these last years, and the spectacle might not have been as edifying, I fear…
It’s really unlike any other city. More like a collection of most diverse villages scattered together, with various focal points, the City for business, the West End for shopping and entertainment, Soho for food and now much neutered vice, parks and gardens galore, not many skyscrapers like American cities, all low-key, neutral, like a curtain that conceals shadowy truths. People often think of London as foggy, Dickensian, old. Not any more. It’s a city with octopus-like extensions in all green directions, suburban, dull, exotic, safe, sordid, but for me still full of secrets.
And when the sun comes out the women are in bloom like nowhere else. Objects of fantasy, bodies of reality, voices, flesh.
I could imagine you here, you know.
But enough of my digressions…
I hope I haven’t shocked you. Sometimes words escape and trap me. But it’s better to be honest about it, I suppose. I get carried away on the waves of writing, letters, words take on a life of their own, move from brain to typewriter with too much ease. This is how I betray myself.
* * * *
No, you didn’t shock me. Perhaps in a way I was secretly hoping you would be so direct. I understand. Really. Honesty can have its own rewards.
Listen. Or whatever one does when reading. I told you about my girlfriend Lisa, the one I went nude sunbathing with in Portland. You remember? Well, I’d told her that I was having this correspondence with you, that you wrote really sweet letters, so I suppose she remembered your name. So, the other morning, the post is dumped on the outside porch and I open the door and there was this thick envelope there. She’d found this book of yours for a few cents at Goodwill (it’s a giant thrift warehouse, where you can find all sorts of crazy things), it’s one you’d never told me about. She’d read it and said it was absolutely weird and disgusting, that I had to see it for myself.
Gee, my mind is still in a whirl. I’d never come across something that made me so randy before. Lisa says it’s the bit about the cystitis and pissing all blue that grossed her out, but I didn’t mind so much; well, it’s sometimes a fact of-life, isn’t it, even if it’s somewhat unpalatable? What got to me, though, was the bit about the ice. I’d never heard about anything like that before, for sure. I’ve got a healthy fascination and interest in all things sexual, well I’ve read a lot, put it that way, but wow! the ice sure freaked me out. And made me feel all funny. I’m horribly fascinated. Whenever I’m in the kitchen, I give the refrigerator strange looks, you know. In a perverse way, it’s something I’d like to try just to judge what must be a curious mixture of pleasure and pain, but I’m sure it would be better with another, rather than alone, talk about solitary pleasures!
Did it ever happen to you, or as with all things bizarre did you read about it in a book and put it in your story?
I realize this correspondence is moving in strange directions. Forgive me.
Eager and curious for more.
* * * *
Well, Rites of Seduction is not a story I advertise too widely. You can understand why, can’t you?
Sometimes I write things that I know are going to shock, even repulse people but I can’t help it. It’s part of me. You have a story you wish to tell, emotions you want to put across, feelings that call for a scream rather than a whisper, and it pours out because it’s the thing to do, the way it is.
I write this, thinking of you in distant Seattle, half a world apart, excited in a million familiar ways because I realize I’ve established some form of connection with you, and I don’t know where it’s taking me.
All around, London is switching the sun off as summer nears its natural end, stronger grey winds building up, drizzly shards of rain cooling the temperature so that all the pretty unattainable women no longer display generous acres of flesh, bare backs, tan lines like necklaces above their shoulders, nipples almost bursting through their thin T-shirts, legs with no end peering out from the shortest of skirts or dresses. Enough. I obsess too easily. Control.
Imagine the newspaper headline:
LONDON BOOKSELLER GOES ON SEX CRIME SPREE
The owner of a specialist bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road was arrested today after making passes at every woman under the age of sixty that entered his shop. He says ‘I just couldn’t help it. They were all too pretty.’
You wouldn’t forgive me, would you, Kate?
P.S. A waste of a letter really, this. Maybe you should ignore it altogether. I seem to have rambled on in a most silly fashion.
* * * *
Maybe you should come to Seattle. After all, the World Mystery Convention is taking place here next year. Should you need an excuse? I want to meet you, and no, I don’t know what will happen when we meet. I feel I know you so well already. Something about you scares me a little, but I’m ready, more than I will ever be. Yes, I too invent newspaper stories:
MAD SEATTLE WOMAN SLAYS BRITISH AUTHOR
A Kirkland librarian who had been corresponding for some time with a British author was discovered yesterday by a neighbour in a catatonic state. The body of English bookseller and writer Maxim Jakubowski, 48, was found in her bedroom. He had been sexually mutilated.
Katherine Macher, 28, when interrogated later, after recovering from her state of shock, confessed ‘his sexual demands were too bizarre’.
A Seattle Times reporter later contacted mystery critic Marvin Lachman about the deceased, ‘His crime stories were so violent they were like the literary equivalent of a snuff movie’.
Seriously, though, it’d be great if you could visit (I’d defrost the fridge beforehand to avoid temptation!).
Some time back, you recommended James Crumley to me, but I never did get around to him. Here’s a cutting (a real one) from our local paper; he’s reading at the Elliott Bay Bookshop next month. Do you know Crumley personally?
* * * *
Yes, I did meet Crumley some years back at a crime festival in the French Alps. He’s a terrific guy, drinks mightily, a bit like a Hemingway of the crime world. A rather frantic life, so The Mexican Tree Duck is his first novel in a decade. A genuine event. You must attend the reading, and if you have the opportunity give Jim my best regards.
Sexually mutilated? Tell me more. Morbid, moi? Not at all. Well, in London we’re used to that sort of thing, you know. After all, Jack the Ripper, shrouded in his Dickensian fog, was the first modern serial killer of note. In the shop, we also sell a lot of true crime books, not by personal choice I assure you, but there are bills to pay. The interesting thing is that so many of the more gruesome volumes, those with all the gory details about the killings and mutilations inflicted on women by psychos (mostly American) are bought by women. And don’t ask me why. I don’t think I wish to know.
By the way, I want a photograph of you. My imagination is running out.
Yours, stoically impatient.
* * * *
Here you are.
Is this what you expected? Is this what you want?
* * * *
So this is you.
I don’t know what I truly expected. Really.
Allow me to imagine the shape of your body under the long skirt of many colours that you are wearing (is that Seattle in the background, or Portland?), daringly guess the pallor of your breasts, the feel of your skin under my fingers skipping a gentle light fandango, how your body would feel naked against mine, flesh pressed against flesh, the smell of your skin, my tongue tasting you, the ineffable sensation of entering you for the first time.
I read in a book the other day that it rains in Seattle nine days out of ten.
Oh, how your wet cascading hair falls over your shoulders. A mental movie against the screen of my mind, raging images of bodies aflame as the storm invades my teacup of a brain and heart. Soft, invisible to the eye, blonde down in the small of your back. A dark beauty spot just below the lower curve of your right buttock. A brown mole where your small breasts take birth. Not opulent is the way you describe them.
If you were right now in London, we would be having an affair. Sneaking into cheap hotels, hunting for lies and excuses to the deception. Stealing brief evenings, weekends in search of always more forbidden joy. Would the sex be good? Impossible to say. Feverish, sweaty, shockingly intimate.
Come to think of it, there must also be a London of lovers. A London most of us know little about. A city where the geography is human as well as physical, where I should discover bars which are quiet and discreet, and I could take your hand in mine, without acquaintances spying. Where there are dark streets where I might slip my hand under your shirt and caress your shadowy nipples to hardness, alleys where our crotches might rub against each other with impunity.
Strange how the vision, the topology of a city can change according to circumstances, like a parallel world that exists contiguous to the one we know as normal, invisible but so close. In this one I sell books and write you foolish letters where I reveal the worst of my hidden self, in the other London, we fuck wondrously, mingle juices and sweat in unknown beds and awake blearily in the grey morning with my cock still embedded in you, a familiar geometry of desire and lazy friction binding our bodies together in adulterous ardour (you are married, aren’t you? Somehow I guess you must be, and of course you know I am too).
Kate, sweet sweet Kate, what are we to do?
With much affection.
* * * *
We meet in London. Certainly it must be London, the dark London of my imagination, the one from all the books full of fog and dread, the city of a thousand chimneys and unending parks where all policemen are polite like in a novel by Agatha Christie, where all the freaks fix you with mad, staring eyes like in the Factory books of Derek Raymond.
So we come together at last.
Six o’clock in a private club in Soho. We order drinks, make small talk and barely hear each other over the din of the regulars. Drinks over, you suggest we eat. We find a nearby Indian restaurant. The food is truly delicious. Then, a million things still unsaid, we move on to a pub. I imagine it’s in a basement. Clumsily, we try to explain our feelings, how we arrived at this crazy situation. Fleetingly you touch my thigh through the fabric of my dress. I buy the next round. What I don’t say is that you’re not quite the man I expected. Your hair is flecked with grey, you readily admit you’re slightly overweight. You’re probably thinking, she never said she was so tall, and your eyes can’t keep away from the small brown mole there at the onset of her cleavage.
‘I’ll drive you back to your hotel,’ he suggests as closing time approaches. ‘My car’s in a car park just round the corner.’
‘Yeah,’ she answers. ‘That’s no problem.’
The West End theatre crowds were in the midst of their daily exodus and it took another fifteen minutes to climb the serpentine path up the concrete bunker. At one stage, she gently put her hand on his, but the vehicle in front moved a yard or two, and he had to move his hand to disengage the handbrake.
Strange how odd moments live forever in your memory.
A touch of affection.
The blinding sound of yearning, of longing.
Outside the hotel, she kissed him lightly, between lips and cheek.
‘We’ll have to talk again,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he agreed.
And here my imagination fails me. How do we end the story, Maxim? Does Kate pull a knife from her handbag and stab him to death, blood spurting in all directions over the wet, shiny London street? Or, in a fit of despair, knowing they have nowhere else to go from here, does Maxim gently put his fingers around Kate’s neck and strangle her? It’s what characters in his stories would do, isn’t it?
We both know too well there can be no happy ending, no desperate thrashing of bodies in hotel beds, sheets strewn to all poles, shrieks of orgasm equalling cries of death, no postcoital tenderness as fingers now explore opposite orfices with gentle care rather than brutal passion.
Tell me. Write me another ending.
Send me a mystery book where you don’t come to Seattle to camp on my doorstep, quarrel with my jealous husband and end up badly beaten up by the younger man. Where I arrive in London to see you and learn you were killed when two black armed robbers attacked the store on a Monday morning, looking for the Saturday takings.
No, you will not come to Seattle and I will not go to London.
And delete my name and address from the shop’s mail order records (and thank Thalia and the staff for the excellent service this past year).
So be it.
* * * *
So farewell then. By the way, I never did find out what colour were your eyes.
* * * *
A cool morning in the American Northwest. Kate moves lazily from bedroom to bathroom, her long white nightdress trailing behind her on the wooden floor. Somehow, she senses that her state of mind is at last serene, appeased. She looks up at the small, square mirror of the medicine cabinet. She appears tired, she thinks. Her mind wanders, aimlessly. Her husband is away on a business trip; he is a financial journalist. She has the whole apartment to herself. She can’t remember the last time this happened. Today is a day off from the library. There are pale, darker shadows under her eyes, she peers closer into the cabinet mirror. Her eyes are dark brown. Soon, she and her husband (who often sleeps on the sofa at night after they have pointless rows) will move into their new house.
In London, eight hours time difference, Maxim wearily moves from bathroom to study, sighing, more flecks of grey in his daily growth of beard. The hell with it, today he doesn’t want to shave. Downstairs, the sounds of the kids readying for school. He pulls the old red Atlas out from one of the bulging shelves. America. Washington State. Oh yes, north of Oregon. Seattle, there it is. He gazes absently at the colours on the map, the blue of the Pacific, immense all the way to Russia, the brown and white of the mountains, the green of the Montana open country. Christ, it’s so far, he thinks. Far, much too far from London.
A DEEP HOLE by IAN RANKIN
I used to be a road digger, which is to say I dug up roads for a living. These days I’m a Repair Effecter for the council’s Highways Department. I still dig up roads – sorry, highways - only now it sounds better, doesn’t it? They tell me there’s some guy in an office somewhere whose job is thinking up posh names for people like me, for the rubbish collectors and street sweepers and toilet attendants. (Usually they manage to stick in the word ‘environmental’ somewhere.) This way, we’re made to feel important. Must be some job that, thinking up posh names. I wonder what job title he’s given himself. Environmental Title Coordination Executive, eh?
They call me Sam the Spade. There’s supposed to be a joke there, but I don’t get it. I got the name because after Robbie’s got to work with the pneumatic drill, I get in about things with the spade and clear out everything he’s broken up. Robbie’s called ‘The Driller Killer’. That was the name of an old horror video. I never saw it myself. I tried working with the pneumatic drill a few times. There’s more pay if you operate the drill. You become skilled rather than unskilled labour. But after fifteen seconds I could feel the fillings popping out of my teeth. Even now my spine aches in bed at night. Too much sex, the boys say. Ha ha.
Now Daintry, his title would be something like Last Hope Cash Dispensation Executive. Or, in the old parlance, a plain money lender. Nobody remembers Daintry’s first name. He shrugged it off some time back when he was a teenager, and he hasn’t been a teenager for a few years and some. He’s the guy you go to on a Friday or Saturday for a few quid to see you through the weekend. And come the following week’s dole cheque (or, if you’re one of the fortunate few, pay packet) Daintry’ll be waiting while you cash it, his hand out for the money he loaned plus a whack of interest.
While you’re only too happy to see Daintry before the weekend, you’re not so happy about him still being around after the weekend. You don’t want to pay him back, certainly not the interest. But you do, inevitably. You do pay him back. Because he’s a persistent sort of fellow with a good line in colourful threats and a ready abundance of Physical Persuasion Techniques.
I think the chief reason people didn’t like Daintry was that he never made anything of himself. I mean, he still lived on the same estate as his clients, albeit in one of the two-storey houses rather than the blocks of flats. His front garden was a jungle, his window panes filthy, and the inside of his house a thing of horror. He dressed in cheap clothes, which hung off him. He wouldn’t shave for days, his hair always needed washing… You’re getting the picture, eh? Me, when I’m not working I’m a neat and tidy sort of guy. My mum’s friends, the women she gossips with, they’re always shaking their heads and asking how come I never found myself a girl. They speak about me in the past tense like that, like I’m not going to find one now. On the contrary. I’m thirty-eight, and all my friends have split up with their wives by now. So there are more and more single women my age appearing around the estate. It’s only a question of time. Soon it’ll be Brenda’s turn. She’ll leave Harry, or he’ll kick her out. No kids, so that’s not a problem. I hear gossip that their arguments are getting louder and louder and more frequent. There are threats too, late at night after a good drink down at the club. I’m leaving you, no you’re not, yes I am, well get the hell out then, I’ll be back for my stuff, on you go, I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction, well stay if you like.
Just like a ballet, eh? Well, I think so anyway. I’ve been waiting for Brenda for a long time. I can wait a little longer. I’m certainly a more attractive prospect than Daintry. Who’d move in with him? Nobody, I can tell you. He’s a loner. No friends, just people he might drink with. He’ll sometimes buy a few drinks for a few of the harder cases, then get them to put the frighteners on some late-payer who’s either getting cocky or else talking about going to the police. Not that the police would do anything. What? Around here? If they’re not in Daintry’s pocket, they either don’t care about the place anyway or else are scared to come near. Daintry did a guy in once inside the club. A Sunday afternoon too, stabbed him in the toilets. Police came, talked to everyone in the club – nobody’d seen anything. Daintry may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard. Besides, there’s always a reason. If you haven’t crossed him, you’re none of his business… and he’d better not be any of yours.
I knew him of course. Oh yeah, we went to school together, same class all the way from five to sixteen years old. He was never quite as good as me at the subjects, but he was quiet and pretty well behaved. Until about fifteen. A switch flipped in his brain at fifteen. Actually, I’m lying: he was always better than me at arithmetic. So I suppose he was cut out for a career as a money lender. Or, as he once described himself, ‘a bank manager with menaces’.
God knows how many people he’s murdered. Can’t be that many, or we’d all have noticed. That’s why I thought all the information I used to give him was just part of his act. He knew word would get around about what he was asking me for, and those whispers and rumours would strengthen his reputation. That’s what I always thought. I never took it seriously. As a result, I tapped him for a loan once or twice and he never charged me a penny. He also bought me a few drinks, and once provided a van when I wanted to sell the piano. See, he wasn’t all bad. He had his good side. If it hadn’t been for him, we’d never have shifted that piano, and it’d still be sitting there in the living room reminding my mother of the tunes dad used to play on it, tunes she’d hum late into the night and then again at the crack of dawn.
It seemed strange at first that he’d want to see me. He would come over to me in pubs and sling his arm around my neck, asking if I was all right, patting me and ordering the same again. We’d hardly spoken more than a sentence at a time to one another since leaving school, but now he was smiles and reminiscences and all interested in my job of work.
‘I just dig holes.’
He nodded. ‘And that’s important work, believe me. Without the likes of you, my car’s suspension would be shot to hell.’
Of course, his car’s suspension was shot to hell. It was a 1973 Ford Capri with tinted windows, an air duct and a spoiler. It was a loser’s car, with dark green nylon fur on the dashboard and the door panels. The wheel arches were history, long since eaten by rust. Yet every year without fail it passed its MOT. The coincidence was, the garage mechanic was a regular client of Daintry’s.
‘I could get a new car,’ Daintry said, ‘but it gets me from A back to A again, so what’s the point?’
There was something in this. He seldom left the estate. He lived there, shopped there, he’d been born there and he’d die there. He never took a holiday, not even a weekend away, and he never ever ventured south of the river. He spent all his free time watching videos. The guy who runs the video shop reckoned Daintry had seen every film in the shop a dozen times over.
‘He knows their numbers off by heart.’
He did know lots about movies: running time, director, writer, supporting actor. He was always a hot contender when the club ran its trivia quiz. He sat in that smelly house of his with the curtains shut and a blue light flickering. He was a film junkie. And somehow, he managed to spend all his money on them. He must have done, or what else did he do with it? His Rolex was a fake, lighter than air when you picked it up, and probably his gold jewellery was fake too. Maybe somewhere there’s a secret bank account with thousands salted away, but I don’t think so. Don’t ask me why, I just don’t think so.
Roadworks. That’s the information I passed on to Daintry. That’s what he wanted to talk to me about. Roadworks. Major roadworks.
‘You know the sort of thing,’ he’d say, ‘anywhere where you’re digging a big hole. Maybe building a flyover or improving drainage. Major roadworks.’
Sure enough, I had access to this sort of information. I just had to listen to the various crews talking about what they were working on and where they were doing the work. Over tea and biscuits in the canteen, I could earn myself a few drinks and a pint glass of goodwill.
‘How deep does that need to be?’ Daintry would ask.
‘I don’t know, eight maybe ten feet.’
‘Maybe three long, the same wide.’
And he’d nod. This was early in the game, and I was slow catching on. You’re probably much faster, right? So you know why he was asking. But I was puzzled the first couple of times. I mean, I thought maybe he was interested in the… what’s it, the infrastructure. He wanted to see improvements. Then it dawned on me: no, what he wanted to see were big holes. Holes that would be filled in with concrete and covered over with huge immovable objects, like bridge supports for example. Holes where bodies could be hidden. I didn’t say anything, but I knew that’s what we were talking about. We were talking about Human Resource Disposal.
And Daintry knew that I knew. He’d wink from behind his cigarette smoke, using those creased stinging eyes of his. Managing to look a little like his idol Robert de Niro. In Goodfellas. That’s what Daintry would say. He’d always be making physical comparisons like that. Me, I thought he was much more of a Joe Pesci. But I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t even tell him that Pesci isn’t pronounced pesky.
He knew I’d blab about our little dialogues, and I did, casually like. And word spread. And suddenly Daintry was a man to be feared. But he wasn’t really. He was just stupid, with a low flashpoint. And if you wanted to know what sort of mood he was going to be in, you only had to visit the video shop.
‘He’s taken out Goodfellas and Godfather 3.’ So you knew there was trouble coming. Now you really didn’t want to cross him. But if he’d taken out soft core or a Steve Martin or even some early Brando, everything was going to be all right. He must have been on a gangster high the night he went round to speak with Mr and Mrs McAndrew. In his time, Mr McAndrew had been a bit of a lad himself, but he was in his late-seventies with a wife ten years younger. They lived in one of the estate’s nicer houses. They’d bought it from the council and had installed a fancy front door, double-glazed windows, you name it, and all the glass was that leaded criss-cross stuff. It wasn’t cheap. These days, Mr McAndrew spent all his time in the garden. At the front of the house he had some beautiful flower beds, with the back garden given over to vegetables. In the summer, you saw him playing football with his grandchildren.
‘Just like,’ as somebody pointed out, ‘Marlon Brando in The Godfather.’ This was apt in its way since, like I say, despite the gardening Mr McAndrew’s hands were probably cleaner these days than they had been in the past.
How he got to owe Daintry money I do not know. But Daintry, believe me, would have been only too happy to lend. There was McAndrew’s reputation for a start. Plus the McAndrews seemed prosperous enough, he was sure to see his money and interest returned. But not so. Whether out of sheer cussedness or because he really couldn’t pay, McAndrew had been holding out on Daintry. I saw it as a struggle between the old gangster and the new. Maybe Daintry did too. Whatever, one night he walked into the McAndrews’ house and beat up Mrs McAndrew in front of her husband. He had two heavies with him, one to hold Mr McAndrew, one to hold Mrs McAndrew. Either one of them could have dropped dead of a heart attack right then and there.
There were murmurs in the street the next day, and for days afterwards. Daintry, it was felt, had overstepped the mark. He was out of order. To him it was merely business, and he’d gotten the money from McAndrew so the case was closed. But he now found himself shorter of friends than ever before. Which is probably why he turned to me when he wanted the favour done. Simply, he couldn’t get anyone else to do it.
‘You want me to what?’
He’d told me to meet him in the children’s play-park. We walked around the path. There was no one else in the park. It was a battlefield, all broken glass and rocks. Dog shit was smeared up and down the chute, the swings had been wrapped around themselves until they couldn’t be reached. The roundabout had disappeared one night, leaving only a metal stump in place. You’d be safer sending your kids to play on the North Circular.
‘It’s quite simple,’ Daintry said. ‘I want you to get rid of a package for me. There’s good money in it.’
‘How much money?’
I paused at that. A hundred pounds, just to dispose of a package…
‘But you’ll need a deep hole,’ said Daintry.
Yeah, of course. It was that kind of package. I wondered who it was. There was a story going around that Daintry had set up a nice little disposal operation which dealt with Human Resource Waste from miles around. Villains as far away as Watford and Luton were bringing ‘packages’ for him to dispose of. But it was just a story, just one of many.
‘A hundred,’ I said, nodding.
‘All right, one twenty-five. But it’s got to be tonight.’
* * * *
I knew just the hole.
They were building a new footbridge over the North Circular, over to the west near Wembley. I knew the gang wouldn’t be working night-shift: the job wasn’t that urgent and who could afford the shift bonus these days? There’d be a few deep holes there all right. And while the gang might notice a big black bin-bag at the bottom of one of them, they wouldn’t do anything about it. People were always dumping rubbish down the holes. It all got covered over with concrete, gone and quite forgotten. I hadn’t seen a dead body before, and I didn’t intend seeing one now. So I insisted it was all wrapped up before I’d stick it in the car-boot.
Daintry and I stood in the lock-up he rented and looked down at the black bin liner.
‘It’s not so big, is it?’ I said.
‘I broke the rigor mortis,’ he explained. ‘That way you can get it into the car.
I nodded and went outside to throw up. I felt better after that. Curried chicken never did agree with me.
‘I’m not sure I can do it,’ I said, wiping my mouth.
Daintry was ready for me. ‘Ah, that’s a pity.’ He stuck his hands in his pockets, studying the tips of his shoes. ‘How’s your old mum by the way? Keeping well is she?’
‘She’s fine, yeah…’ I stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing, nothing. Let’s hope her good health continues.’ He looked up at me, a glint in his eye. ‘Still fancy Brenda?’
‘Who says I do?’
He laughed. ‘Common knowledge. Must be the way your trousers bulge whenever you see her shadow.’
‘She seems well enough, too. The marriage is a bit shaky, but what can you expect? That Harry of hers is a monster.’ Daintry paused, fingering his thin gold neck-chain. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he took a tap to the skull one of these dark nights.’
He shrugged. ‘Just a guess. Pity you can’t…’ He touched the bin-bag with his shoe. ‘You know.’ And he smiled.
We loaded the bag together. It wasn’t heavy, and was easy enough to manoeuvre. I could feel a foot and a leg, or maybe a hand and arm. I tried not to think about it. Imagine him threatening my old mum! He was lucky I’m not quick to ignite, not like him, or it’d’ve been broken nose city and hospital cuisine. But what he said about Brenda’s husband put thought of my mum right out of my head.
We closed the boot and I went to lock it.
‘He’s not going to make a run for it,’ Daintry said.
‘I suppose not,’ I admitted. But I locked the boot anyway.
Then the car wouldn’t start, and when it did start it kept cutting out, like the engine was flooding or something. Maybe a block in the fuel line. I’d let it get very low before the last fill of petrol. There might be a lot of rubbish swilling around in the tank. After a couple of miles it cut out on me at some traffic lights in Dalston. I rolled down my window and waved for the cars behind me to pass. I was content to sit for a few moments and let everything settle, my stomach included. One car stopped alongside me. And Jesus, wouldn’t you know it: it was a cop car.
‘Everything all right?’ the cop in the passenger seat called. ‘Yeah, just stalled.’
‘You can’t sit there forever.’
‘If it doesn’t start next go, push your car to the side of the road.’
‘Yeah, sure.’ He made no move to leave. Now the driver was looking at me too, and traffic was building up behind us. Nobody sounded their horn. Everyone could see that a cop car was talking with the driver of another vehicle. Sweat tickled my ears. I turned the ignition, resisting the temptation to pump the accelerator. The engine rumbled, then came to life. I grinned at the cops and started forwards, going through an amber light.
They could probably arrest me for that. It was five minutes before I stopped staring in the rearview mirror. But I couldn’t see them. They’d turned off somewhere. I let all my fear and tension out in a rasping scream, then remembered the window was still rolled down. I wound it back up again. I decided not to go straight to the bridge-site, but to drive around a bit, let all the traffic clear along with my head.
I pulled into a bus-stop just before the North Circular and changed into my work clothes. That way I wouldn’t look suspicious. Good thinking, eh? It was my own idea, one Daintry had appreciated. I had a question for him now, and the question was: why wasn’t he doing this himself? But he wasn’t around to answer it. And I knew the answer anyway: he’d rather pay someone else to do dangerous jobs. Oh yes, it was dangerous; I knew that now. Worth a lot more than a hundred and twenty-five nicker, sixty of which were already in my pocket in the shape of dirty old pound notes. Repayments, doubtless, from Daintry’s punters. Grubby money, but still money. I hoped it hadn’t come from the McAndrews.
I sat at the bus-stop for a while. A car pulled in behind me. Not a police car this time, just an ordinary car. I heard the driver’s door slam shut. Footsteps, a tap at my window. I looked out. The man was bald and middle-aged, dressed in suit and tie. A lower executive look, a sales rep maybe, that sort of person. He was smiling in a friendly enough sort of fashion. And if he wanted to steal my car and jemmy open the boot, well that was fine too.
I wound down my window. Yeah?’
‘I think I missed my turning,’ he said. ‘Can you tell me where we are, roughly?’
‘Roughly,’ I said, ‘roughly we’re about a mile north of Wembley.’
‘And that’s west London?’ His accent wasn’t quite English, not southern English. Welsh or a Geordie or a Scouser maybe.
‘About as west as you can get,’ I told him. Yeah, the wild west.
‘I can’t be too far away then. I want St John’s Wood. That’s west too, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, not far at all.’ These poor sods, you came across them a lot in my line of work. New to the city and pleading directions, getting hot and a bit crazy as the signposts and one-ways led them further into the maze. I felt sorry for them a lot of the time. It wasn’t their fault. So I took my time as I directed him towards Harlesden, miles away from where he wanted to be.
‘It’s a short cut,’ I told him. He seemed pleased to have some local knowledge. He went back to his car and sounded his horn in thank you as he drove off. I know, that was a bit naughty of me, wasn’t it? Well, there you go. That was my spot of devilry for the night. I started my own car and headed back onto the road.
There was a sign off saying ‘Works Access Only’, so I signalled and drove between two rows of striped traffic cones. Then I stopped the car. There were no other cars around, just the dark shapes of earth-moving equipment and cement mixers. Fine and dandy. Cars and lorries roared past, but they didn’t give me a second’s notice. They weren’t about to slow down enough to take in any of the scene. The existing overpass and built-up verges hid me pretty well from civilization. Before unloading the package, I went for a recce, taking my torch with me.
And of course there were no decent holes to be found. They’d been filled in already. The concrete was hard, long metal rods poking out of it like the prongs on a fork. There were a few shallow cuts in the earth, but nothing like deep enough for the purpose. Hell’s teeth and gums. I went back to the car, thinking suddenly how useful a car-phone would be. I wanted to speak to Daintry. I wanted to ask him what to do. A police car went past. I saw its brake lights glow. They’d noticed my car, but they didn’t stop. No, but they might come back round again. I started the car and headed out onto the carriageway.
Only a few minutes later, there was a police car behind me. He sat on my tail for a while, then signalled to overtake, drawing level with me and staying there. The passenger checked me out. They were almost certainly the ones who’d seen me parked back at the bridge-site. The passenger saw that I was wearing overalls and a standard issue work-jacket. I sort of waved at him. He spoke to the driver, and the patrol car accelerated away.
Lucky for me he hadn’t seen the tears in my eyes. I was terrified and bursting for a piss. I knew that I had to get off this road. My brain was numb. I couldn’t think of another place to dump the body. I didn’t want to think about it at all. I just wanted rid of it. I think I saw the travelling salesman hurtle past, fleeing Harlesden. He was heading out of town.
I came off the North Circular and just drove around, crawling eastwards until I knew the streets so well it was like remote control. I knew exactly where I’d effected repairs, and where repairs were still waiting to be carried out. There was one pot-hole on a sharp bend that could buckle a wheel. That was down as a priority, and would probably be started on tomorrow. I calmed myself a little with memories of holes dug and holes filled in, the rich aroma of hot tarmac, the jokes yelled out by the Driller Killer. I’d never worked out why he’d try telling jokes to someone wearing industrial ear protectors beside a pneumatic drill.
Seeking safety, I came back into the estate. I felt better immediately, my head clearing. I knew what I had to do. I had to face up to Daintry. I’d give him back the money of course, less a quid or two for petrol, and I’d explain that nowhere was safe. Mission impossible. I didn’t know what he’d do. It depended on whether tonight was a Goodfellas night or not. He might slap me about a bit. He might stop buying me drinks.
He might do something to my mum.
Or to Brenda.
I’d have to talk to him. Maybe we could do a deal. Maybe I’d have to kill him. Yeah, then I’d just have the two bodies to worry about. In order to stop worrying about the first, I stopped by the lock-up. This was one of a cul-de-sac of identical garages next to some wasteland which had been planted with trees and was now termed a Conservation Area. The man in the High Street had certainly conserved his energy thinking up that one.
There were no kids about, so I used a rock to break the lock, then hauled the door open with my crowbar. I stopped for a moment and wondered what I was going to do now. I’d meant to leave the body in the garage, but I’d had to break the locks to get in, so now if I left the body there anybody at all could wander along and find it. But then I thought, this is Daintry’s garage. Everybody knows it, and nobody in their right mind would dare trespass. So I hauled the package inside, closed the door again, and left a rock in front of it. I was confident I’d done my best.
So now it was time to go talk with Daintry. The easy part of the evening was past. But first I went home. I don’t know why, I just wanted to see my mum. We used to be on the eleventh floor, but they’d moved us eventually to the third because the lifts kept breaking and mum couldn’t climb eleven flights. I took the stairs tonight, relieved not to find any of the local kids shooting up or shagging between floors. Mum was sitting with Mrs Gregg from along the hall. They were talking about Mrs McAndrew.
‘Story she gave her doctor was she fell down the stairs.’
‘Well I think it’s a shame.’
Mum looked up and saw me. ‘I thought you’d be down the club.’
‘Not tonight, mum.’
‘Well that makes a change.’
‘Hallo, Mrs Gregg.’
‘Hallo, love. There’s a band on tonight, you know.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘At the club. Plenty of lovely girls too, I’ll bet.’
They wanted rid of me. I nodded. ‘Just going to my room. Won’t be long.’
I lay on my bed, the same bed I’d slept in since I was… well, since before I could remember. The room had been painted and papered in the last year. I stared at the wallpaper, lying on one side and then on the other. This room, it occurred to me, was probably the size of a prison cell. It might even be a bit smaller. What was it, eight feet square? But I’d always felt comfortable enough here. I heard my mum laughing at something Mrs Gregg said, and pop music from the flat downstairs. These weren’t very solid flats, thin walls and floors. They’d knock our block down one of these days. I liked it well enough though. I didn’t want to lose it. I didn’t want to lose my mum.
I decided that I was probably going to have to kill Daintry.
I packed some clothes into a black holdall, just holding back the tears. What would I say to my mum? I’ve got to go away for a while? I’ll phone you when I can? I recalled all the stories I’d heard about Daintry. How some guy from Trading Standards had been tailing him and was sitting in his car at the side of the road by the shops when a sawn-off shotgun appeared in the window and a voice told him to get the hell out of there pronto. Guns and knives, knuckle-dusters and a machete. Just stories… just stories.
I knew he wouldn’t be expecting me to try anything. He’d open his door, he’d let me in, he’d turn his back to lead me through to the living room. That’s when I’d do it. When his back was turned. It was the only safe and certain time I could think of. Anything else and I reckoned I’d lose my bottle. I left the holdall on my bed and went through to the kitchen. I took time at the open drawer, choosing my knife. Nothing too grand, just a simple four-inch blade at the end of a wooden handle. I stuck it in my pocket.
‘Just nipping out for some fresh air, mum.’
And that was that. I walked back down the echoing stairwell with my mind set on murder. It wasn’t like the films. It was just… well, ordinary. Like I was going to fetch fish and chips or something. I kept my hand on the knife handle. I wanted to feel comfortable with it. But my legs were a bit shaky. I had to keep locking them at the knees, holding onto a wall or a lamppost and taking deep breaths. It was a five minute walk to Daintry’s, but I managed to stretch it to ten. I passed a couple of people I vaguely knew, but didn’t stop to talk. I didn’t trust my teeth not to chatter, my jaw not to lock.
And to tell you the truth, I was relieved to see that there was someone standing on the doorstep, another visitor. I felt my whole body relax. The man crouched to peer through the letter box, then knocked again. As I walked down the path towards him, I saw that he was tall and well-built with a black leather jacket and short black hair.
‘Isn’t he in?’
The man turned his head slowly towards me. I didn’t like the look of his face. It was grey and hard like the side of a house.
‘Doesn’t look like it,’ he said. ‘Any idea where he’d be?’
He was standing up straight now, his head handing down over mine. Police, I thought for a second. But he wasn’t police. I swallowed. I started to shake my head, but then I had an idea. I released my grip on the knife.
‘If he’s not in he’s probably down the club,’ I said. ‘Do you know where it is?’
‘Go back down to the bottom of the road, take a left, and when you come to the shops it’s up a side road between the laundrette and the chip shop.’
He studied me. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘You know what he looks like?’
He nodded in perfect slow motion. He never took his eyes off me.
‘Right then,’ I said. ‘Oh, and you might have to park outside the shops. The car-park’s usually full when there’s a band on.’
‘There’s a band?’
‘In the club.’ I smiled. ‘It gets noisy, you can hardly hear a word that’s said to you, even in the toilets.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that is so.’
Then I walked back down the path and gave him a slight wave as I headed for home. I made sure I walked home too. I didn’t want him thinking I was on my way to the club ahead of him.
‘Short walk,’ mum said. She was pouring tea for Mrs Gregg.
‘Cold?’ squeaked Mrs Gregg. ‘A lad your age shouldn’t feel the cold.’
‘Have you seen my knife?’ mum asked. She was looking down at the cake she’d made. It was on one of the better plates and hadn’t been cut yet. I brought the knife out of my pocket.
‘Here you are, mum.’
‘What’s it doing in your pocket?’
‘The lock on the car-boot’s not working. I’d to cut some string to tie it shut.’
‘Do you want some tea?’
I shook my head. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ I said. ‘I’m off to bed.’
* * * *
It was the talk of the estate the next morning, how Daintry had been knifed to death in a toilet cubicle, just as the band were finishing their encore. They were some Sixties four-piece, still performing long past their sell-by. That’s what people said who were there. And they’d compensated for a lack of ability by cranking the sound system all the way up. You not only couldn’t hear yourself think, you couldn’t think.
I suppose they have to make a living as best they can. We all do.
It was the assistant manager who found Daintry. He was doing his nightly check of the club to see how many drunks had managed to fall asleep in how many hidden places. Nobody used the end cubicle of the gents’ much; it didn’t have any toilet seat. But there sat Daintry, not caring any more about the lack of amenities. Police were called, staff and clientele interviewed, but no one had anything much to say.
Well, not to the police at any rate. But there was plenty of gossip on the streets and in the shops and in the lifts between neighbours. And slowly a story emerged. Mr McAndrew, remember, had been a lad at one time. He was rumoured still to have a few contacts, a few friends who owed him. Or maybe he just stumped up cash. Whatever, everyone knew Mr McAndrew had put out the contract on Daintry. And, as also agreed, good riddance to him. On a Friday night too. So anyone who’d tapped him for a loan could see the sun rise on Monday morning with a big wide smile.
Meantime, the body was found in Daintry’s lock-up. Well, the police knew who was responsible for that, didn’t they? Though they did wonder about the broken locks. Kids most likely, intent on burglary but doing a runner when they saw the corpse. Seemed feasible to me too.
Mr McAndrew, eh? I watched him more closely after that. He still looked to me like a nice old man. But then it was only a story after all, only one of many. Me, I had other things to think about. I knew I could do it now. I could take Brenda away from Harry. Don’t ask me why I feel so sure, I just do.
FULL MOON RISING by JESSICA PALMER
The tiny coffin stood, a silent indictment against society and man. About two feet long and a foot wide, it was about the same size as a shipping carton. Certainly, it did not need the two pallbearers who now carried it. A single man could have lifted it easily and tucked it underneath his arm, without even raising a sweat.
Outside the chapel life went on as usual. Tourist boats chugged up and down the Thames. Cars sped through the Blackwall Tunnel and the Woolwich Ferry did its slow relentless glide back and forth across the waters. Children played and people went about their business oblivious to this small life that had ended too soon.
The men moved the coffin gently into position upon the upraised dais and centred it before the discreetly-curtained doors to the crematorium. Detective Superintendent Mark Noble grimaced as he heard the whisper of metal coasters on a belt that was meant to accommodate far greater weights.
The detective didn’t normally attend the funerals of victims, but this case had touched his heart as few others had. Some would say he was getting soft, but the emotion he felt was anything but malleable. Rather he felt the hard knot of fury and rage. No, outrage. Outrage against a legal system that perpetuated crime. A system that paralysed by protocols. A system that saw the habitual criminal turned loose ‘on a technicality’ and society’s victims on trial.
The government’s recent White Paper proposed to change the system even more, centralizing it here in London, as if the police didn’t have enough to keep them busy. And introducing a quota system. All in the name of efficiency. Noble snorted. Police work was dehumanizing enough without concocting a scheme where crimes were numbers on a rating scale and victims were seen through the haze of statistics and the spectacles of distance.
The officer eyed the coffin. Perhaps that was why he was here because the clear line that had once divided right and wrong had shifted, getting slippery in his grasp. Even his concept of victim and criminal had blurred, as the social welfare system in London disintegrated and the economy worsened. Noble could no longer look at hookers – whether they plied their trade in Piccadilly, Soho, Kensington or near the docks – as anything other than casualties in a war where there were no winners. Once, when he had still been in uniform, Noble had been able to regard the homeless of cardboard city as vagrants, nothing more. Now that they cluttered all of London’s streets, the officer found he couldn’t even make that simple distinction without a great deal of soul-searching.
Since Noble had transferred to London’s eastern Area Two some three years ago, the quality of crime had changed. Its ferocity and brutality had increased. Battery and violence within the home were up, as families instead of pulling together were being pulled apart. Since Noble had been moved to the Major Investigative Team, or AMIT, he only saw it when it reached its ultimate conclusion – death. He coped by carefully closeting his emotions and keeping them under lock and key, or so he thought. He would have liked to believe that he was immune to most things, but not this, not this tiny casket and its sad burden.
The victim had been less than six weeks old. If he remembered correctly with his own children, not even old enough to lift its head and flip from back to tummy unassisted. At that age an infant was a bundle of reflexes. It was like a tiny toy or a marionette, who would be manipulated by touch, movement or sound. Brush something lightly against the bottom of the foot, and the tiny toes curled. Turn its head and watch the arms extend or contract, much like the adult reaction when a doctor tapped upon the lax knee.
A long time ago when his children were young, Noble could have listed the reflexes by name. Hadn’t his wife made him read enough books before the birth of their first? As though parenting was something you could learn like French or Latin. The detective smiled at the memory. Someone next to him coughed, and he hid his smile behind his hand.
But every time the officer recalled the fragile head encased in a bin liner, its base clamped shut with a string, his blood would boil. What crime could the child commit to deserve this punishment? Had it cried too loud and too long? Although the death was not an ungentle one. The child had been sleeping, for the expression was one of repose and not one contorted by fear or infantile rage. The constricting band had been barely tight enough to leave an impression upon soft skin. Just enough pressure had been applied to ensure no air would reach it. In all likelihood, the child had not even been aware of what was happening. The very affection of the act confused him.
That the deed required a certain measure of premeditation, he had no doubt. Who would keep string or bin liners at a baby’s bedside? Both, if they somehow managed to make it into the infant’s cot, could be quite lethal even if there had been no ill-intent.
At this point the Detective Superintendent looked around the small assembly. Only a few people dotted the pews. They clustered in the groups – each leaning into others for support, their weeping muffled – well away from the police and their solitary prisoner. The father was conspicuously absent, but Noble couldn’t blame him for not wanting to confront this sad bundle or to gaze upon his wife’s face. It was said that he had something of a drink problem, and Noble could well imagine the man – his face slack with drink sitting in a darkened living room, marking this occasion in his own way.
There would be little love lost between estranged husband and wife. The husband had reported the crime, and his behaviour had been cold and distant – not with horror and shock – but rather as though his wife and her actions were beneath contempt. Although it couldn’t always have been so, for the woman was covered in bruises. He had beat her. Noble had not questioned it – then. What man would after such a discovery? Now Noble wondered how much time had lapsed between discovery and the call. Long enough to give the wife a sound thrashing, or had the beating preceded the crime?
At first, Noble thought the father’s callous demeanour was a natural reaction, a barrier he erected between himself and the incident. The officer believed that grief would come in its own time, and most likely in solitude, but since then he had seen little to indicate mourning. The husband was indifferent to the child and wife alike – as though even his daughter’s death was not worthy of comment – and the wife had already been supplanted, another woman moving in to take her place.
Knowing this, Noble found he could sympathize with the wife. The woman said not a word in her own defence. She sat mute through interrogation, staring at her feet. Not even flinching to questions shouted within inches of her ear. Unwilling to give by breath or sign any information that would either deny or edify. As if she accepted what was coming to her as her due. In fact, Noble surmised that if she had been willing to speak, she would have probably advocated the reinstatement of hanging just for her benefit, as though she longed to join her child.
And the detective was learning to admire the woman’s reticence. Her silence wasn’t sullen, recalcitrant, or stubbornly belligerent as often observed in criminals. It was acquiescent, even stoic. She simply had nothing to say. She had done the deed and that was all that need to be said. She would neither justify it nor rationalize it to anyone, not even the lawyer who would speak for the defence.
This case seemed to underscore the already distorted demarcation between offender and victim, for Noble sensed more than one victim. He couldn’t help but believe that there was something more here. Something more than what was immediately apparent. Perhaps, he didn’t like a case where the culprit was handed to them on a plate. It was a little too simple, a little too pat, and he had learned that life didn’t come in neat little packages, with crisp clean edges like the coffin that sat forlornly on the altar. It came with raged rim and overlapping lines where nothing was clear-cut or defined.
He examined the woman out of the corner of his eye. The purple bruises had faded to a greenish-yellow. Had the husband killed the child and then beaten the mother into accepting the guilt? No, Noble did not believe the father would have been so tender in the act if he had. Moreover, it seemed unlikely that she would compliantly accept guilt once the threat of violence was removed. Perhaps the beating had preceded the crime, but he couldn’t know for sure. The best medical science had to offer, besides the diagnosis of concussion, was: ‘recent’. And neither husband nor wife were willing to clarify. The husband mumbled vaguely about a fall, and the woman said nothing to contradict him.
Despite the enormity of the crime, the detective found himself wanting to excuse her behaviour. To locate some extenuating circumstance that would have absolved her. She could not plead poverty – it was strange the things a man can do in an economy both depressed and depressing but the couple were not one of the down-and-out who huddled in cramped bedsits throughout London’s east side. Neither were they one of the many whose bread-winner suddenly found himself out of work and their homes under siege from banks and creditors.
The husband had some high-pressure job in the City. Each day he passed into an area cordoned off from the rest of London by checkpoints, past the shattered remains of the building destroyed in the latest IRA attack. His offices were all chromium and glass where men in charcoal grey suits, sitting in front of high tech equipment that linked them to the economies of the world, behaved like children, shouting to one another as the market fluctuated erratically. Robert Simon must have been good at his job if he was still employed. His colleagues spoke highly of his skill, if not of him. He was, they said, one of the movers and the shakers in the City, and Noble detected the note of envy in their voices when they spoke of him. Simon seemed to have an instinct for which stocks to unload when, and which flagging stock might be bought for a fraction of its worth – right before its upsurge. He was like a wolf scenting blood. He capitalized on other people’s pain.
The Simons’ Docklands flat was spacious. Huge! So large that only the living areas were furnished. ‘Flat’ was probably not the right term to describe it – too down market. In one of the many new constructions, it was more like a penthouse and probably wouldn’t have been affordable even to Robert Simon except in this economic climate. The plate glass windows in every room gave panoramic views of London that took Noble’s breath away. Still, the officer didn’t like the place. More like a mausoleum than a home, the Docklands flat with its stark white walls left him feeling cold. The officer definitely preferred his own little mansionette in Greenwich. Right down to the fence that needed mending and the furniture that was worn by too many years’ use.
Everything about this case bothered him. The wife was not young enough to be ruled by passion, but then the act did not appear to be one of passion. Neither was she one of the uneducated. Margaret Simon had an advanced degree in economics and had also held a lucrative job in the City before leaving it for the fairy-tale image of home and family. Theirs should have been a marriage blessed.
With that thought, Noble swung to scrutinize the prisoner. He had asked for leave from remand, contacting the Prison Service at Holloway and obtaining permission which would allow her to attend the service. He had hoped that they would pierce the armour behind which she hid. Bracketed by guards, Margaret Simon moved as if one dead, unaware of her surroundings as they herded her into the pews. She sat where and when they told her. Her head turned neither left nor right. Only as the casket was carried up the short aisle did a cry escape her lips and a shiver run throughout her body, and again Noble wondered what had motivated her…
* * * *
Pain exploded across her face as the fist plunged. The clenched hand rose to a wicked crescent that hovered above her head. And it fell, gaining width and girth as it dropped, growing fat like the pregnant moon. Rising and falling until it filled her horizon. And her world had grown so small, the instant so frozen, that she had time to observe the texture of his skin, to contemplate the tiny cracks and crevices, the soft down of hair, and bony prominence of knuckles. Like the mountains of the moon. Large and then small, the waxing and waning moon, it descended over and over again to clip her about the head, neck and shoulders.
She felt warm blood spill, as his ring tore her skin from cheek to chin. The hand that moved away was tinged the colour of blood. A harvest moon. Had enough of the Margaret Simon who graduated with honours from Pembroke College, Oxford remained, she might have noted the irony in the fact it was his wedding band, symbol of their union and her bondage, that sliced into her flesh. But all that was left her under the weighty hand of castigation was the primeval part which crawled and whimpered, and blindly hoped to survive.
The fist glancing off her cheek caused her head to rebound against the wall, and set the room to whirling about her, and strange voices slithered into her head.
Margaret crept from the rain of blows. Down the long hall and into the bedroom, he followed her. And she stopped short, realizing belatedly that their argument might wake the baby.
A foot in the ribs. Oomph! And she bit her tongue, lest the moan or sob should escape from her lips. The flat of his hand alongside her head crying retribution for some transgression, she didn’t know what.
All comprehension of time had vanished, vacated with the human forebrain. All that was left was mammalian reflex, and this moment, this battery of blows was eternal, as if her mind at this minimal level could understand what her conscious mind could not. That this sort of behaviour, once started, would not stop but could only dissolve into bigger and worse violence. In some dim small part of her mind she could see this happening, year in and year out, until one of them died.
Bang! Crash! A lamp fell over, and she held her breath waiting for Ruth’s thready wail. The fist swung decisively, and she realized it was no time to wait. No time to wonder why. No time to reflect on what had set him off. If she endured the attack, there would be enough time to ponder the events immediately prior, worrying at it like a dog with a bone. Time enough later to question. In extremis, she was beyond blaming. She could neither reprove nor accuse. All she could do was react, holding hands over her head instinctively to ward off the repeated blows.
Later she could recall their whirlwind romance and regret the love that had died under his savagery. The fantasy match, which her friends had all envied, come to this. She had waited long to find the right man. So long, that her mother had started to despair, dropping none-too-veiled hints about grandchildren as yet unborn. Hints, which Margaret chose to ignore. She had been cautious, and she thought that she had chosen wisely.
Nothing in her experience could have prepared her for this. Little had she known of the black seed that grew within. Neither could she comprehend the demon that powered this evil. Although she had been forewarned, witnessing a hair-trigger temper on their second date as he cursed, kicked and spat at a flat tyre. But she had dismissed it, even found the childish display somehow endearing. Laughable, as an adult sniggers at a child who, arising after a spill, hits the offending bicycle in a fit of pique. And she swore then that she would never draw that ire upon herself.
The moon rose and fell. Upraised sickle and plummeting full. No longer a hand, but the colliding of planets inside her skull. Not content to pummel this heap of human flesh, Bob pulled her to her feet, holding her limp body against the wall by her throat. The hand arched round, and sound ceased as the impact caused the tympanic membrane to explode. It left behind a ringing. A high-pitched skreigh that was enough to drive her mad.
Another stroke. Something in her face gave, and if felt like her nose was being driven into her skull. Just as his words, punctuating his passion, drove shards into her brain that she could only understand in context. A king in his castle, man had the right to chastise an unrepentant wife.
His attention waned. Her mewling compliance sickened him and he turned his back – the dark side of the moon – withdrawing in disgust and returning to the living room and his drink. Back to the television where he had been before his attention was drawn away by the growl of the dishwasher.
With his harsh attentions gone, there was time suddenly to rue her marriage. Often she thought, perhaps, her decision to wed had been based on hormones and the silent ticking of the biological clock. The woman shook her head, still unwilling to believe, and the very motion set it to throbbing so that her temples kept time with her heart.
Margaret pulled herself into the bedroom. Inside her head, voices shrieked recrimination for unknown sins, not quite obliterated by the tinnitus of the shattered eardrum. Deserved and deserving, she endured it. For the baby, she would endure it silently.
She dragged herself upright to gaze into the cot. The sounds of London traffic receded beyond the pale of pain, and she sagged flaccidly against the wall, wondering what had gone wrong. When their marriage, so optimistically begun, had changed. And what she had done to deserve it.
The chittering voices supplied the answer in an echoing word: Sin…
Her ears rang and rang, and the voices that seem to have insulated themselves inside her head shrieked derision. T’was a woman’s lot.
Society condoned punishment and pain as retribution for sin. The teachings of the church, unheeded for years, whispered in the back of her brain. For the sins of Eve; the sins of woman ever loving man. The serpent smiles, and a woman dies a thousand tiny deaths each and every day. The moon waxes and wanes, cartilage crunches against bone. Small loss, small pain3 small sacrifice against the millennium of blame. Eden lost.
Margaret gazed out the picture window, her eye drawn away from her immediate surroundings. She hated it here. The Docklands reminded her of some futuristic ghost town, devoid of life and human heart. Their building was virtually empty. It emphasized her isolation. For here, there was no one to hear her cries, and it seemed as though Robert understood this, for his violence had increased lately. And to whom could she turn for help? Not a neighbour. Margaret had none.
She had paid for this home, dearly – her husband taking his ire out upon her person when he learned that the extension to the tube was cancelled and realized his astute investment had gone suddenly awry – and they were trapped in this soulless place.
The wages of sin…
Outside the summer sun sank into the west in a blaze of carnelian and topaz. The Thames below turned to bright crimson and lay like a bloody plaster across the capital. From here, Margaret could see the London skyline beyond the bristle of cranes. On a clear day, she thought she could spot the domed top of St Paul’s. The sight had inspired her once. This evening it left her unmoved.
The baby breathed softly, and Margaret gulped audibly.
Poor child! No daughter should be forced to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Already Margaret knew that the fury must inevitably spill upon the child. Twice, the mother had been beaten as she interposed herself between father and child when the baby’s wails rang too loud. Once she had had to pull Robert off before he had done any real harm.
Margaret levered herself from the wall on shaky feet and turned to face the mirror. Her eyes were swollen and red. One was closed. The crimson flush was starting to darken to magenta. Her nose, it seemed, was skewed as though someone had slapped it on her face as an afterthought. She made a strangulated noise in the back throat as mocking laughter reverberated inside her mind.
And then she turned again to the sleeping infant and breathed her name, Ruth. The baby opened her eyes and Margaret saw herself reflected therein. And the woman trembled, with fear and poignant pain.
Let not the sins of the mother be visited upon the child. And what greater sin could she think of than marriage to this man? Margaret would not, could not, let her daughter suffer at his hands.
The voices whispered on, reverberating inside her skull, filling the hushed room.
Her gaze drifted to the empty bin liner. It lay where she had left it on the bedside table. Her husband’s tirade calling halt to her activities as she tidied up Ruth’s room for the night. On top of the bag, the cord and the mobile she had brought that day lay, ready to be hung over the cot.
Let not the sins…
The tiny face screwed up to bellow, and Margaret felt a stab of panic, fearful should the baby’s howls bring the avenging angel of Robert in upon them. She lifted her hands before her and waved them from side to side before the child’s face, in negation, as though she could silence Ruth with the gesture. The infant’s small pupils focused fuzzily on the motion and tried to follow their movement. Ruth sighed and drifted back into slumber.
Let not the sins of the father… and before Margaret fully realized what she was doing she picked up the bin liner and the string. Then she lifted the baby, cradling Ruth in her arms, crooned to her through cracked and split lips, and slipped the sack over the tiny head. The woman froze, waiting for the child to cry out, or wake in fear, but the opposite happened. Finding comfort in her mother’s arms, the breathing deepened and the little body relaxed.
Margaret returned her daughter to the cot, grabbed the short length of string, and then threaded it under the tiny neck. Crossing the loop, end over end, and drawing the string closed in barely perceptible stages, still humming a sweet lullaby. Until the bag began to bunch at the neck. Biodegradable plastic grazed the skin, and again her movement was arrested as she anticipated the child’s cry.
Aspel quipped, and in the living room Robert chuckled on cue, his wife forgotten.
Margaret’s daughter would never know agony and such pain.
The soft susurration of breath, the bag expanding like a balloon.
The child’s hopes would never be raised only to be dashed upon the rocks of reality.
The balloon deflated, and a tiny hand clenched at the blanket.
Her daughter would never feel the fire of her father’s fist upon her face.
The bag drew in further, showing an imprint of nose and lips upon white. Satisfied that no oxygen could reach her, Margaret gently tied the cord.
OF MICE, MEN AND TWO WOMEN by JULIAN RATHBONE
Ranjit Singh owned a tiny corner shop in Walthamstow, one of the more run down suburbs of north-east London. Since he was some distance behind the high street and a good half mile from the nearest superstore and another good mile from the nearest street market it was a handy little business. His shop closed for eight hours in every twenty-four and during the other sixteen sold bread, milk, cakes, biscuits, crisps, newspapers, pork pies and sausage rolls, condoms, aspirin, and from a cold cabinet with a steel grill which was meant to be kept locked, Lambrusco wines, halfs of scotch and vodka, blue thunderbird wine, strong lagers and Kinder eggs.
Through a variety of means, including extortion with menaces, bribery, and other malpractices, a property firm called Casby, Casby, Casby and Sun, had acquired ninety-nine year leases on the three terraced properties next to the shop and planning permission to convert them not just into the usual six flats but, through cunning exploitation of the fact they owned three linked shells rather than three separate buildings, ten. There were actually no Casbys extant in the firm and Sun was Kai Won Sun late of Victoria Island, Hong Kong.
When he read the request for planning permission Ranjit had been delighted: ten families instead of six would mean that much more custom. He had been far less pleased though when the first skip arrived on his doorstep and the banging and crashing got under way as the dwellings were gutted, and planks and piles of wet cement appeared on the pavement. Worst of all the progress of his regular customers to his shop-door was impeded by trundling wheel-barrows and a startlingly beautiful Afro-Caribbean male who stood in the pocket handkerchief gardens of the houses and heaved into the skips the timber and plaster his mates chucked down to him. His name was Lennie Enfield.
Not that Ranjit was much bothered personally. He was rarely in the shop these days, leaving the work to his wife Amirya, and a succession of ill-paid school-leavers. A thin, dried-up man, prematurely aged at sixty, he was now deeply into study of the seven gurus of his religion and confined his shopkeeping to examining the accounts less attentively than he did the scriptures.
About Lennie Enfield’s beauty let’s just say it reminded elderly white females of Harry Belafonte in Island in the Sun, and while we’re at it we might add that Amirya’s recalled in the hearts of elderly white males the transcendent loveliness of Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, but a Gardner with an all-over tan. Amirya herself came from Trinidad and was well-westernized in her ways. However her parents maintained the formalities of Sikh culture, and her marriage to Ranjit, who did indeed hail from the Punjab, had been arranged.
Lennie was twenty, she was thirty and the oldest of the three children of her loveless marriage was already fourteen years old. All right, we all know that most arranged marriages are not loveless, but hers was. She was unlikely to have any more children since Ranjit had given up on sex as well as commerce.
Lennie fell in love at first sight. There was nothing romantic about it in the Mills and Boon sense of the word though Byron might not have found the cosmic energy of his lust alien to the Romantic Imagination. Nor would elderly white males who still remember Ava Gardner.
He waited though, after his first sight of her, not for seven centuries nor for seven years but seven minutes, until the shop was empty: then he swung through the chiming door and stood in front of the low glass-topped counter and looked across at her. His thumbs were hooked in the wide belt of his tight jeans, his biceps stretched the short sleeves of his green sweatshirt. Outside the late April sunshine danced through the motes above his skip and made an aureole round his bronze head, silvered the sweat, glanced off his shining skin, glittered in his single earring.
He flexed his pectorals and said: ‘Twenty Embassy, and please, woman, would you fuck with me?’
Since this precisely fitted the fantasy she had been working on ever since she clapped eyes on his torso through the shop window above the video poster for Basic Instinct just six minutes earlier, a fantasy that had caused her to give change for a placido when the customer had tended her a fiver, she was not surprised, or frightened. Indeed the fact that he had said ‘would you’ and ‘with me’, and ‘please’, though that probably related to the cigarettes, added tenderness to passion.
She smiled, those teeth, those full, plum-coloured lips, and sighed – that large heavy but well-shaped bosom – leant across the counter and, in a gesture that was almost maternal, brushed white plaster dust from his chest, letting her hand discover the hardness of the muscle beneath.
‘That would be nice, man. But where?’
‘Woman,’ he said, and she fancied it was more a growl, the sort of growl a tom-cat makes prior to the moment of truth, than any noise Belafonte ever emitted, ‘next door we have twenty-eight empty rooms. An’ some of thems still ’as beds in.’
* * * *
The affair was brazen. Ranjit was not popular in the neighbourhood: he gave tick to no one, not to Afros finding themselves out of bread of both sorts on a Sunday morning, nor to old cockney ladies who claimed they had been mugged on his very doorstep. When the children of BBC (Radio) producers came for adult videos he sent them back and made their parents collect the videos in person. Moreover, there was no Sikh community in the area: Ranjit had picked the shop from an Evening Standard advertisement and had not minded moving the five miles or so from Tower Hamlets. So no one in the near neighbourhood was going to tell him his wife was having it away with an Afro stud ten years her junior.
She found plenty of excuses to get out while the teenagers and school-leavers minded the shop: down the cash and carry for something he had forgotten, an open afternoon at the primary school, aromatherapy and reflexology classes, and the Asian Women for Peace Association were already on her list for calls in the few hours he allowed her to be out each afternoon. Once clear of the shop she had only to duck down a service entry and into the tiny alley that ran behind the terrace to where Lennie would be waiting for her at one of three gates, alone.
The old biddies told her: ‘Go on ducks, get it while yer can, they won’t look at yer’n ten years’ time, we won’t tell, and I think I’ll’ave a packet of the Belgian meat paste while I’m at it, my good-ness’e can’t really want 87p for a sliver like that can’e?’ And she sold the Afro kiddies ciggies, but still whacked them over the earhole if they tried to steal, which they respected her for, and when Ben, from opposite, wrapped a copy of Penthouse inside his Independent just as his wife came in to remind him to get some green lentils, she didn’t let on at all. She charged him though, of course. And in return for these little favours everyone kept quiet about her.
Lennie’s mates really were mates, even the foreman was only twenty-five and had not yet turned class traitor: when the contractor came round at an inopportune moment he always said that Lennie was the reliable one, the one he sent out for a kilo of nails or a five litre can of paint-stripper if they’d run short, when actually he was bonking Amirya in the upstairs back of number eight. And once, when the contractor, a podgy grey man whose car component business in the north Midlands had gone into liquidation two years earlier questioned the rhythmic beat on the ceiling above, the foreman explained that it was a minor plumbing problem they were getting on the top of, indeed Lennie was down B and Q looking for some washers right now.
And so in upstairs rooms, filled with dust, lit from open curtainless windows, often with only a bare mattress considerately left for them to lie on, they made rapturous sunlit love in just about every way you can think of. The air around them was laden with the perfume of narcissi, then lilac and finally roses; outside lascivious sparrows chirped rhythmically while the blackbirds sang smugly of territory held and eggs hatched in the depths of untended privet. Occasionally Lennie would bring a joint of best Colombian red, and once or twice, knowing her husband would be out way beyond when Lennie would have to go, and breath fresheners would have time to remove the evidence, she brought up a half of Bell’s with nan bread and a wedge of dolcelatte, These extra delights were not there to stimulate exhausted desire but rather to celebrate its happy satiation. No one had ever told them that sadness follows copulation, so for them it did not.
But one by one the mattresses went, new doorways smaller even than before were made good, and the heavy smell of modern gloss paints poisoned air that had been redolent with the sour sharpness of fresh wood shavings. Amirya longed for decent comfort. And so one Sunday evening late in May she told Lennie that since nine o’clock next morning Ranjit would be out, she expected Lennie to be in, and dammit, she’d close the shop. He, for his part, had come to tell her that since the full skips could not be collected until the late morning he and his mates would be down Hackney Marshes on another job until one o’clock, but he agreed they’d cover for him.
* * * *
Among the shop’s most faithful customers were Ben and Amanda who lived across the road on the ground floor of a terrace house just like all the rest apart from its lilac door. Amanda was a social worker who moonlighted counselling the terminally ill. She could spot an abused child from fifty paces, inoperable cancer from forty. Ben was an assistant producer for BBC Radio Five. They had many friends, gave small barbecue parties on Sundays in summer when they could use the strip of lawn at the back, and attended various action groups supporting the more obviously deprived or endangered human sub-species, but drawing the line at the elderly who are difficult, depressing, and live next door. And occasionally, when she had a manuscript to deliver to her publisher, Amanda’s sister Beatrice came to stay.
Beatrice, whose given name was Veronica, wrote detective stories set in mid-Victorian London and against the background of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement which she had researched to the bone and beyond. Her publisher, who ran a small but flourishing business with a cheerful efficiency quite alien to the industry in general, and all from a couple of rooms just two stops down the Victoria Line, believed that if only she would settle on the one detective, Thomas Carlyle say or Ford Madox Ford, he’d have the next Ellis Peters on his hands.
And on that Sunday evening Beatrice walked into Ranjit Singh’s shop and asked for a bottle of wine. Always she forgot, until the very last minute, to bring a bottle. Amirya remembered that it was Sunday, checked that it was past seven, unlocked the cabinet. Beatrice, fumbling inside found a Lambrusco medium white; Amirya gave her change for a five pound note, and watched the thin rather drab middle-aged lady cross the road. Beatrice bumped into the skip and coming out from behind it she was almost knocked down by a pick-up truck that swung into the kerb and parked between the skip and Ranjit’s Transit van.
‘Daft bat,’ Amirya said to herself, but already her heart was beating faster, for the pick-up was Lennie’s.
* * * *
Monday mornings are the deadest part of the week for corner shops. Consequently when his fellow students (themselves mostly shopkeepers in the same mould) proposed to him they should meet Monday mornings in the Sikh temple in Tower Hamlets to attempt to fathom their fathomless scriptures, Ranjit willingly agreed. Thus Amirya was able at last to compound the last betrayal: she took Lennie into the matrimonial bed.
It did not suit him. It was too soft and it creaked. The room was dark and cluttered with furniture Lennie stumbled over, it was filled with smells more alien than those of paint. For the first time in his life, the organ they had nicknamed ‘Marley’ refused to perform. Poor Lennie. He was upset.
‘Every little thing goin’ to be all right,’ Amirya murmured as she gently but ineffectually caressed it. It stirred, thickened, but as soon as she pulled him in towards her, or attempted to mount him, flop it went again.
Lennie was humiliated, hurt, deeply bothered, and finally, as macho men do (and really he was not much more than a lad) when something they can’t explain interferes with their manhood, became very angry. He smashed his fist in the bedhead, stormed round the room shaking and scolding the recalcitrant member, and let out a howl of frustrated pain as inadvertently he hurt himself.
Neither heard the return of Ranjit’s Transit, the click of the multiple locks, the dull rattle of a chain, the squeak of his foot on the stair, but Lennie saw the door handle turn and got in behind it just as it opened.
Amirya sat up in bed holding the sheet in front of her breasts.
‘Ranjit, why have you come back so soon, my dear?’
‘I forgot to take with me my copy of the holy writings of the sixth guru. But Amirya, what are you doing in bed, my dear, and why is the shop below closed?’
A heavy brass vase presented itself to Lennie’s hand, or so it seemed to him, and he used it to hit Ranjit on the head. Ranjit sank to his knees, shook his head, attempted to get up. Lennie lifted off Ranjit’s turban and hit him again, this time from above and with more conviction.
* * * *
The night before, at supper, with the Lambrusco safely in the fridge and the single candle glowing sweetly over a bottle of Tesco’s Corbieres, Ben had asked Beatrice one of the three questions authors always get asked: ‘And what’s the next one going to be about?’
(The other two are: And what name do you write under? to which I always answer: Frederick Forsyth, and Where do you get your ideas from?)
Now the other two are boring, but this one touches a chord: you’ve just finished what you knew was going to be a masterpiece, but now you’re not so sure, while the idea that lies behind the next one is a surefire all the way winner. Beatrice expounded, attempting to sling wholewheat spaghetti with green lentil bolognese on to her fork:
‘I have cats, you know that… No, don’t laugh. And what has always of course made me sad about them, is the way they play with mice.’ She spoke in the clipped, controlled way she usually adopted after two glasses of wine. ‘So like prolonged torture, although of course they don’t know that. Now the other day Molly, my silver tabby, brought in a mouse. I intervened of course and as a result the mouse escaped and hid under the piano. I can’t move the piano, and Molly can’t get under it. The mouse was safe. But it did not stay there. It came out and allowed itself to be caught again… In short, and this is what my book will be about, the mouse was a willing victim. Seeking to renew the pleasure of being hunted and toyed with, out it came again.’
‘You mean, some species are willingly preyed on because they enjoy it?’ asked Ben. ‘And you are going to write a detective story about someone who wills her or himself to be a victim? Because they enjoy it.’
‘Something like that. It goes like this, I think. The mouse gets a huge adrenalin rush, then it’s caught, and carried, the way a cat carries a kitten, and at that time I think it probably feels secure, loved. Then the cat puts it down and tries to make it run again, and when the cat at last hurts it, it does run. Then the whole pleasurable sequence all through again. But if the mouse does get away to a spot where the cat can’t get it, it has to come out again…’
‘You may have something here,’ said her sister. ‘It makes evolutionary sense too. The lemming impulse. Rodents are terribly successful survivors. Pleasurable death at the hands of the hunter eases their overcrowding problem… and on the other side it helps to keep the not too successful predators fed, who in turn play their part in keeping rodent numbers down to a viable level…’
Clearly she was not going to stop if no one made the effort: that’s a training in social sciences for you. Ben made it with the wine, but not too much, they might be forced back on to the Lambrusco, and asked what was for dessert.
‘Rhubarb crumble: our first picking of the year. I’ll go and get it. But really Vron, I think that’s a jolly good idea.’ [So do I, and it’s mine! J.R.]
As they were going to bed Beatrice overheard Amanda say: ‘It’ll be autobiographical you know. Vron was born a victim, such a wimp.’
The following morning Ben and Amanda, already dressed for work (he in check shirt and jeans, she in business suit, high heels and frothy blouse), cleared away the muesli bowls and instructed Beatrice on how she should let herself out when the time came for her to leave. Unpressured by clocks she sat at the table, dressed in a long cotton dressing-gown over Viyella pyjamas, nursing a mug of Sainsbury’s Keemun.
‘When do you have to be at your publisher?’ Amanda asked.
‘Lucky for some,’ she glanced at her watch. ‘Oh come on Ben.’
‘Please leave the dishes. I’ve got plenty of time,’ Veronica murmured.
But Ben had no intention of leaving any unnecessary opportunity for his sister-in-law to break anything. Whenever she came to stay she broke something: last time it had been an art-deco teacup, quite rare, a wedding present.
‘Now, I’ll leave the spare keys on the table by the front door just in case you want to go out and come back in again…’
‘But you may,’ said Amanda with uncalled for sharpness.
‘But if you don’t, then you don’t have to touch them. Simply pull our front door to behind you, and then the outer front door, making sure that in both cases they are properly latched. All right?’
‘Of course. I’m not an idiot, and I have done it twice before.’
‘Come on, Ben, don’t just stand there. Vron, have a bath if you want, make yourself coffee or whatever if you feel up to it, we must dash.’
Swift kisses all round, and the double closing of outer doors. Even from the tiny kitchen at the back Beatrice (who hated to be called Vron or Veronica, even by her sister) could hear the repeated chugging of the Lada, but at last it fired, and they were gone. Yes, she thought, a bath would be nice. But first she must attempt to reconstruct a large armchair out of the put-u-up she had slept on. It was the sort of task she found particularly difficult.
* * * *
Amirya was shocked and frightened, but the contemplation of her husband’s brains sharpened her very capable intellect and in twenty minutes she had worked out a plan. Lennie of course, once he had washed human tissue, some of it still palpitating, from his naked torso, could do nothing but sit on the edge of the bed and, head in his hands, rock and moan.
‘Lennie love, here’s what you must do. Lenn-ee, kill that row or I call the police right now, all right? Listen. I’m going to take the van down to near Tower Hamlets and dump it, then I’ll go to my sister’s in Leyton, where she’ll tell the pigs when they come I’ve been there since nine o’clock. While I’m gone you bag the ol’ man up in plastic bin liners an’ put him in one of those skips. Then you clear off right out of here… No, no. You stay until the skip’s been took, then you clear off out…’
Lennie was not devoid of imagination and various unwelcome scenarios scrolled down his inner eye. ‘But what if when they get to the dump the plastic tears, or… or anything.’
‘Listen love. It’ll be on the top of the skip, so when they tip it off, first in the pit, first to be covered. Anyway once the skip’s gone you buzz me at my sister’s and then you sod off.’
‘What’ll you do?’
‘I’ll come back here and clean up so no forensic scientist in the world will get the least littlest clue as to what happened. One thing I do know is cleaning. One good thing… you were naked when you did it, nothing on your clothes.’
‘An’ after that?’
‘I stay at my sister’s an’ from there I sell the shop: it’s half in my name anyway. Then I move up north, with the kiddies, buy another shop and then I ask you to come, like if you still want to. All you got to do, lover, is get that on the top of a skip. OK? Now I’m gwine to get dressed and you should do too. No, honey, I’m not interested in Marley right now. You shot the sheriff and it’s a question of first things first. Oh, oh… oh. All right.’
Later she murmured: ‘Honey, I reckon you just shot the deputy too. Now. Get dressed.’
* * * *
Time flew for Beatrice. She pottered unsteadily about the ground floor flat, reconstructed the armchair, folded the duvet, had a bath, made herself a coffee and by the time she had done all that it was a quarter past ten. She checked her overnight bag for her washing things, her pyjamas and dressing gown, and above all for the manuscript she was about to deliver (Murder on Denmark Hill by Beatrice Burne-Jones), picked up the keys, remembered what she had been told, and put them down again. She let herself out into the tiny lobby, paused for a moment, thought really hard: had she left anything behind? No she had not, and she pulled the inner front door to, made the latch click, then leant against it to make doubly sure it was properly locked. Then she turned to the outer door, put up the catch, turned the knob of the yale lock, and pulled. Nothing. She pulled again. It must be stuck. No. She bent down and found by the doorknob a second brassy key hole: writers of detective stories know a thing or two about locks – she recognized a mortice. She turned, hammered on the second front door, the one that led to stairs and the upstairs flatlet, but knew it was useless. The occupant had left shortly after Ben and Amanda for the primary school where she taught, and against all her usual habits, had double locked the outer door.
Writers of detective stories also know a thing or two about locked room mysteries, but for the life of her Beatrice could not see how she was going to get out of this one.
* * * *
Lennie was strong, and after the initial shock had worn off, not naturally squeamish. Ranjit was small and slight of build and it was not much of a problem to get his legs and lower torso into one big black bin liner. The top half was messy, but he got over that by pulling a white swing-bin liner over the old man’s crushed skull. Then he found some parcel tape, and used it clumsily and in large amounts to fasten the two bin liners together. This was the worst part really: the tape stuck to itself, and to the wrong bits of the bags, to his fingers. He found it almost impossible to hold the edges of the plastic where he wanted them to be, and manipulate the tape at the same time. But he managed.
Then he humped his five-foot-long parcel over his shoulder and got it down into the shop. The next problem was getting it on to the top of the nearest skip without anyone seeing him: Amirya had been adamant about that. He went back upstairs, and peeping round the lace curtain waited until the coast was clear, the street empty. He did not have to wait long. Monday morning, half-past ten, everyone was at work or school, or almost everyone. Only a young woman, part ethnic, was across the road and for some reason bending down over the letter-box of the house opposite. It did not occur to Lennie to wonder why. The young woman straightened and walked briskly away, round the corner, was gone, leaving the street to a large and ugly ginger tom who sidled along the low garden walls opposite.
* * * *
‘Help! I say help! I need help.’
Five minutes earlier the young part ethnic lady who worked flexitime as a cashier and shelf filler at Tesco’s half a mile away, had heard the plaintive cry. But she could not work out where it was coming from.
‘Over here. I’m behind the front door of number five, speaking through the letter box.’ The flap was sprung and very difficult to lift from inside and keep open. But Beatrice had managed using her Parker pen which she had now wedged in the gap so it kept the flap open. ‘I’m locked in the lobby and I can’t get out.’
‘How did that happen then?’
‘The upstairs tenant must have double-locked, using the mortice. She never has before. And I’d already pulled my sister’s front door shut, leaving the key inside. It’s what they told me to do.’
‘I don’t see how I can help.’
‘Well I think you can. This is my address book. It has my brother-in-law’s work number at the BBC, Broadcasting House, and I am sure if you could get through to him they’ll let him come home to release me…’
‘No miss. I can’t do that. I’m late for work already, you keep calling and I’m sure you’ll find someone soon.’ And she hurried away. Damn, thought Beatrice.
* * * *
On the other side of the road Lennie opened the shop door and was in and out with his awful black parcel in ten seconds flat, draping it across the high pile of rubble that more than filled the skip. He locked the doors behind him again and went back to the upstairs bedroom to wait for the skip truck to come.
Presently the large ginger tom leapt up on to the skip and began scratching round what Lennie knew very well was the head end of the parcel. Presently he could see the white of the inner bag, then hair and…
‘Oh shit!’ cried Lennie, aloud, and grabbing up the parcel tape again he shot back out into the street. The cat hissed and scatted, and he hurled lumps of cement after it trying desperately for the sort of accuracy that might make it reluctant to come back. Then he got to work again with the tape that seemed more unbiddable than ever and absolutely refused to stick to anything wet… And apart from the blood, it had begun to rain…
‘Help. I say. Help. Please.’
He looked all round, up and down the empty street. Even the cat had gone.
‘Over here. I’m locked in behind the front door of number five.’
Heart thudding now, Lennie came between the skip and the back of his pick-up, crossed the road. He stooped, looked beneath the wedged letter flap. He couldn’t believe it. He could not believe it. There was a woman behind the door, a grey thin middle-aged biddy, just the sort that spies on everything that happens. Peering through the slit, she must have seen everything.
‘How long you bin ‘ere?’
‘Oh, about twenty minutes I think, not more…’ Lennie groaned inwardly: she had, he thought, she had seen everything. ‘Listen, here’s what I want you to do…’
But Lennie was not listening. He ran back into the shop, setting the bell jangling behind him, locking himself in again. What to do, what could he do? He was done for unless… he’d killed once, could he kill again? Yes. He’d have to, it was the only way, but how? How? He paced about the shop, banging his forehead, wringing his big black hands, wracking his brains, then, Sunny Jim, it came to him.
* * * *
Beatrice could not believe her bad luck. Only two passers-by in twenty minutes had appeared to hear her, and neither seemed prepared to help. She was beginning to feel desperate, claustrophobic, it was after all a tiny space she was in, little more than a metre square and two metres high, trapped between three locked doors. She tried bracing her back against the wall and her feet against her sister’s door, but soon realized it was quite useless. She was nowhere near strong enough. Every time she heard footsteps she got back on her knees and cried out through the slit again, help, help. She could hear the footsteps stop, she could guess how they looked around for her, and then hurried on from the ghost-like cry before she could tell them where she was.
But now, at last, someone seemed to be coming, was it the man who had come from the other side of the road? She rather thought it was. And what’s this, has he thought of some ingenious way of getting her out, a black plastic spout through the letter box, fluid from a red plastic can splashed about her feet, the smell of petrol, and what’s he doing now? A packet of Sunny Jim firelighters? Is he mad, am I mad?
‘Stop it, please stop it,’ she cried, as he fed the white waxy rectangles one by one through the slit, each one burning on a corner. She managed to extinguish the first three, but on the fourth the petrol exploded with a dull whumph. Bracing her feet against her sister’s door once more and her back against the wall opposite, she forced herself up, foot by foot, inch by inch above the flames, but into the smoke. She realized she was not shouting, screaming, and she wondered why not. She realized that she had never been so excited in her whole life, that never before had she felt so alive, so at one with an elemental universe whose existence she had suspected but never before experienced. The fumes drugged her, she breathed them in with a welcoming abandon, fell dizzy, and dropped fainting into the tiny inferno three feet below. Almost her fall was enough to put out the flames, almost… Never had she felt so happy and her last thought was: I’m right about mice.
* * * *
‘Why, I don’t understand why?’ her sister wailed later that evening.
The policeman tried to explain.
‘We think she must have seen something she shouldn’t have seen out in the street. A mugging maybe, something like that.’
‘But that’s not possible. She had terrible eyesight, tunnel vision, could only see properly with glasses that made her eyes look like oysters. She only wore them to read. She can’t have seen anything…’
ANGEL’S DAY by MOLLY BROWN
Angel woke, shivering, in a cheap hotel room littered with condom packets. She stepped into her clothes: a wrinkled pink summer dress with a white lace collar, and a leather jacket, much too big. (She knew this guy once; his name was Ricky. She woke up shivering and hurting and needing on a morning just like this one. Ricky was gone and the dope was gone and all the money she’d made the night before was gone, but the bastard left his jacket.)
She paused in front of King’s Cross Station, clutching the money in her hand, holding her breath, looking for the Italian. Then she saw him, outside the post office in Euston Road. He was leaning against the wall, dressed in expensive jeans and a black leather jacket, standing motionless. Hands in pockets, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, ignored by passers-by.
The light changed and Angel crossed a road filled with cars and taxis and buses. The night before – in the dark – she was pretty, with long brown centre-parted hair, big round eyes, and a tiny cupid’s bow of a mouth, but now it was morning and she was ill. Trembling, shoulders hunched, face ashen and glistening with sweat, she stumbled on legs that were stick-insect thin, fragile as glass.
The Italian took his hands out of his pockets and stepped away from the wall, walking very slowly. Angel wiped her dripping nose on her jacket sleeve and slipped a damp, crumpled note into the man’s outstretched hand. He spat, and a small foil-covered pellet landed on the pavement. (‘Cops can’t look in your mouth,’ Ricky once told her, ‘that counts as an intimate body search. If they grab you, swallow. If they put you in a cell, just make damn sure you don’t shit for twenty-four hours, then they’ve gotta let you go; it’s the fuckin’ law.’)
The Italian moved away, disappearing into crowds of morning people. He never once spoke, never even looked at her.
Angel bent down briefly, then stumbled back the way she came, fighting back waves of nausea.
* * * *
In her tiny room near the station, she removes the wrapping from a chocolate bar and lets the chocolate fall to the floor; it is the silver paper she wants. She tears the cellophane from a fresh needle and lifts her dress, exposing the marks on her thigh.
* * * *
Angel was out working when it started to rain. She headed towards a place she knew, a tunnel underneath a railway bridge north of the station, alongside some waste ground and a depot. She stepped into the tunnel and three women blocked her path. She didn’t know them; she’d never seen them before. They were older than Angel, and big, with wide shoulders and muscular arms. ‘Where do you think you’re going, little one?’ asked the largest, stepping forward. She had shoulder-length black hair, parted on the side, and little piggy eyes smeared with blue make-up. Her face and arms were dotted with moles. She wore tight, ripped jeans and heavy, lace-up boots. She had a northern accent. ‘I asked you where the fuck you think you’re going, bitch.’
Angel stared at the ground. ‘Nowhere.’ Her voice sounded high and thin and faraway.
‘Nowhere,’ the woman repeated in a tinny falsetto, mocking Angel’s strained little-girl voice. The other two laughed. ‘Well, nowhere ain’t around’ere, love, is it?’ She grabbed Angel by the hair and slammed her against the tunnel wall. The other two leapt forward, holding her there.
Angel looked around in desperation. There was no one around that she knew, none of the regulars – these three must have scared them all away. Now the bridge belonged to them and there was no one who would help her.
A car drove under the bridge, lights on, window open, hugging the curb. It pulled to a stop, distracting the women’s attention. Angel bolted forward. ‘Get me outta here. I’ll do anything you want.’
The driver told her to get in.
* * * *
The man drove a short way, then parked behind a derelict building with boarded-up windows and rainbow splashes of graffiti. He was blond, in his late twenties. He wore a flashy suit – pure silk – and several rings: gold. ‘Well?’ he said.
Angel’s eyes went blank; something inside her switched off. She bent forward, reaching for the man’s zipper, but he stopped her, grabbing her hand and pushing it away. ‘You gonna tell me what that was about?’
Angel looked up, confused. ‘What?’
‘All that bother under the bridge, what was it about, eh? If I’m gonna play a knight in shining armour, I want to know the reason why.’
Angel shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Dispute over territory, was it?’
Angel turned away, biting her lip.
‘How long you been on the game?’
‘You’re a cute girl. How long you plan to stay that way?’
Angel was confused. Men in cars didn’t talk; they never talked, unless they wanted something extra.
‘How old are you?’
‘Bollocks. But if that’s what you want to tell me, I’ll believe you.’
‘I am. I’m nineteen. Do you want me to prove it or something?’
‘Nineteen,’ the man repeated, his eyes moving up and down her body, appraising her. He lifted a hand to her face. Angel tensed, ready to run. He wouldn’t be the first man she’d met who got his kicks from slapping women around, but all he did was push her hair back from her eyes, ever so gently, and begin to stroke her cheek. Then he smiled, tracing the outline of her lips with the tip of one finger. ‘You don’t even look fifteen, do you? You’re cute; you’ve got a voice like a little girl. Men like that, you know. Or some do, anyway. Enough to make it worthwhile.’ He leaned back in his seat, staring straight ahead. The tone of his voice changed, became harder. ‘So how much does it take a day, huh?’
‘I don’t understand.’
He sighed and rubbed his temples. Suddenly he looked very tired. ‘Please don’t play games with me,’ he said. ‘You think I can’t see you’ve got a habit? Honey, look at that thigh.’
Angel tugged at her dress.
‘So how much you need to make in a day? Minimum.’
Angel looked down at her feet, making a face. ‘About a hundred.’
He laughed and told her she could make twice that, easy, in just a few hours a night and all she had to do was sip orange juice and make small talk in that baby-doll voice of hers, and it was all completely legal. Then he asked her if she was interested.
* * * *
His name is Brian and he treats Angel differently than anyone has treated her in a long time. He buys her a cup of coffee in a cafe, he talks to her. He asks her questions, he wants to know everything about her. He offers to buy her dinner, but all Angel wants is a bag of crisps and she can’t even finish those. He eats and she watches.
When the time comes, he gets her what she needs. He follows her into her squalid room without comment, and at the sight of the needle, he averts his eyes. He raises a hand to his face for just a moment, and for that moment, Angel allows herself to imagine that he is brushing away a tear.
She stabs herself in the thigh. Squeezes. Angel leans back on the mattress, veins flowing with golden honey. Warm – the room is so warm. Alive with Brian‘s presence.
She feels Brian breathing, feels the beating of his heart. The air around him crackles with electricity; she can see the sparks, feel them explode against her skin. Even a blink of the man’s eyelids sends shock waves across the room, making Angel shudder.
‘We should be going,’ Brian said, looking at his watch.
* * * *
Two men walked down a Soho street, past nightclubs and restaurants, past neon signs promising food and liquor. But they’d had their fill of both and now they were looking for something more. Something that smelled of sweat and cheap perfume.
They turned down a narrow, badly-lit passage. A woman called to them from a doorway – the only doorway in that particular passage – and after a moment’s discussion, the men headed down a steep flight of steps. The ceiling and walls above the stairway were painted a garish shade of yellow with the words ‘Exotic Women’ and ‘Live Strip’ printed at intervals, in large black letters. A redhead in black hotpants sat behind a counter at the bottom, smoking a cigarette. ‘You here for the show? Three pounds each.’
The men paid her and went inside, through a beaded archway.
A dark-haired woman in a short red dress greeted them with, ‘Have a seat, the show will start in just a few minutes, aw’right?’ Beside her stood the bouncer: a shaven-headed giant in a tight black suit. He crossed his arms and grunted.
The men sat at a candle-lit table, noting the tiny stage in one corner, dark and empty, and the pale-faced man with thinning hair who stood behind the bar, slicing a lemon. There didn’t seem to be any other customers.
A girl approached them for their drink orders. She was small and painfully thin, dressed in pink. She didn’t look a day over fifteen. Her long hair hung from a centre-parting, nearly obscuring her face. ‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ she breathed in a little-girl, Marilyn-Monroe sexy voice. ‘What can I get you?’
She came back with two beers and something that looked like a glass of orange juice. She placed the drinks on the table and sat down, uninvited. The men exchanged amused glances. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked them.
‘Germany,’ they replied in unison, heavily accented.
‘Are you here on holiday? Or on business?’
They told her they were in London on business. She asked a series of polite, general questions. The men answered distractedly, looking towards the empty stage.
A woman, tall and angular, with short-cropped hair bleached almost white and dark red fingernails like talons, appeared out of the shadows, brandishing a square of white cardboard. ‘Pardon me, gentlemen, but I have to collect for the drinks.’
They nodded and reached for their wallets.
‘That’s two hundred and thirty-seven pounds, please.’
‘What?’ the Germans shouted in unison.
‘Two hundred and thirty-seven pounds,’ the woman repeated, adding firmly, ‘You’ll have to pay that now. We collect by the round.’
‘But this is crazy!’ one of the Germans shouted. ‘We have only two beers.’
The giant in black moved closer; he was at least six foot six and must have weighed nearly twenty stone. ‘You raising your voice to the lady?’
‘There is some mistake,’ said the other German.
‘No mistake.’ The woman held the cardboard square up to the flickering light of the candle. It was a printed list of prices, and it was the first time that either man had seen it. ‘You had two low-alcohol lagers, at fifteen pounds each.’ She tapped the appropriate line on the menu. ‘That’s thirty pounds. Plus one Satin Duvet,’ she tapped again, further down, ‘at fifty-two pounds fifty…’
‘Wait!’ one of the Germans interrupted. ‘What is this Satin Duvet?’
She raised one eyebrow. ‘That’s the lady’s drink.’ She made a point of emphasizing the word ‘lady’.
‘But we didn’t order…’
‘You pay for the lady’s drink,’ the giant informed them, cracking his knuckles.
‘Plus one hundred and twenty pounds hostess fee,’ the woman continued briskly, tapping a line of small print across the bottom.
‘But we never asked…’
‘This is a hostess bar,’ she explained in a voice of patient indulgence, as if she was talking to a pair of not-too-bright children. ‘It says so quite clearly,’ she tapped the cardboard menu again, ‘here. And then there’s VAT. Altogether it comes to two hundred thirty-seven ninety-four, but I’m dropping the ninety-four p.’ She spread her hands in a gesture of magnanimity, smiling sweetly. ‘Now you do have enough money, gentlemen, don’t you?’
‘We’re not paying.’
The bouncer shook his head. ‘You’re paying,’ he told them. ‘Turn out your fucking pockets.’
Angel stood up and moved away. Brian appeared from a room behind the stage.
The Germans remained defiant. ‘We’ll call the police.’
‘You won’t call nobody if you don’t get out of here alive,’ the bouncer reminded them.
The Germans looked up at the giant standing over them, looked at Brian looming behind him, the bartender moving in their direction. ‘OK, OK,’ one finally said, ‘I have a Visa card.’
Brian shook his head. ‘No cards. Cash.’
The Germans paid and left, shouting threats, as a party of seven Japanese descended the stairs, chattering excitedly. ‘Three pounds each,’ the redhead told them.
* * * *
It was late and the dark-haired woman in the red dress was taking her turn at the counter while the redhead sat with two men at a table, sipping orange juice and assuring them that the show would start in just a few minutes.
Angel was in the office with Brian. He opened his wallet and she saw that it was crammed with notes, more money than she had ever seen in her life. He counted out two hundred pounds, and handed it to her. He muttered that they’d be closing soon, and she didn’t have to stick around if she didn’t want to. She told him she wanted to stay a while longer, it wasn’t like she had any other plans. He shrugged and handed her an empty glass coffee pot. ‘If you want to hang around, then make yourself useful.’ Angel hesitated, staring at the pot in her hand. ‘Just fill it with water,’ he told her.
Angel giggled. ‘Oh yeah. Sure.’
‘Ta,’ Brian said a minute later. Then he smiled at her, and Angel felt her mind begin to spin. She started thinking, ‘What if?’
What if someone – someone with a smile like Brian’s – wrapped her in his arms and never let go. Would it be enough to drive the demons out of her head? Would it be enough to make her forget all the things she needed so desperately to forget, the things that drove her to seek oblivion from the jab of a needle. She looked into Brian’s eyes and imagined herself sinking into a different kind of oblivion.
‘You all right?’ he asked her, touching her arm.
‘Yeah, sure.’ Angel trembled. His hand was still on her arm. She tried to pull herself together, tried to act as though nothing was happening, even though he was sending an electric current right through her. She wondered if he knew what he had done to her, what he was still doing. (Ricky used to tell her a junkie couldn’t fall in love, but she always knew he was wrong.)
‘Well, back to work,’ she said brightly, wanting Brian to notice how energetic she was, how eager to please, how quickly she had become indispensable.
* * * *
Cold raindrops splattered the pavement. A man staggered around the corner into the narrow passageway where Angel stood waiting in a doorway. ‘If I were you,’ said Angel, ‘I’d want to come in out of the rain.’
The man stopped in his tracks, swaying slightly. He was about forty-five, with bloodshot eyes, a large red nose, and puffy cheeks threaded with broken veins. He wore a crumpled beige raincoat over jeans and a polo-neck jumper. ‘I’ll come in if you will,’ he told her.
* * * *
Angel and the man sat down at a candle-lit table. He didn’t seem to care that there was no sign of a show; he never once looked at the stage. He was sliding a calloused hand up Angel’s thigh when the taloned manageress appeared with the bill, demanding two hundred pounds. ‘Wha’?’ he asked, dazed, no different from any customer that night. The manageress repeated her demand, and he jumped up, roaring like a lion, knocking her back with a swipe of his hand.
The bouncer was on him in a flash; they rolled on the floor, knocking over chairs and tables and candles. The bartender leapt across the bar and into the melee. Angel ran towards the office, screaming for Brian. He opened the office door, shoving past her.
The bouncer and the barman got back on their feet, pulling the man up with them. They held him still while Brian punched him in the stomach, over and over.
He slumped forward; they let him go and he dropped to the ground. Brian went through the man’s pockets, finding less than fifty pounds. ‘Get the son of a bitch out of here, then lock the doors and bugger off home.’ He yawned, smiling ruefully, ‘I don’t know about you lot, but I’ve had it for tonight.’
* * * *
Brian and Angel stayed for an hour after the others had left. Brian counted up the night’s receipts while Angel swept up broken glass, emptied ashtrays, wiped down tables. ‘What are you doing, Angel?’ he finally asked her. ‘What the hell do you want from me?’
‘Nothing. I’m just trying to help, that’s all.’
‘What do you mean why? You said yourself you were my knight in shining armour, didn’t you?’
‘Let’s get out of here, OK?’
* * * *
Angel stood outside waiting, watching the neon lights of Soho wink out, one by one, while Brian pulled a set of metal gates across the doorway. The rain had finally stopped and the air smelled clean and scrubbed and full of promise. There was a pink glow on the eastern horizon; Angel imagined herself absorbing that glow. She felt beautiful and alive, like that first rush of liquid sky, when you feel like kissing God full on the lips. She wondered if it was possible to feel this way forever, feel this way watching a thousand sunrises with Brian by her side, feel this way without drugs. And then she thought, I’d like to try. She heard a padlock click into place, and turned to see Brian signal her to follow.
They turned the corner and were confronted by the leering face of menace. A man, his clothes torn, his face savaged, was waiting. Angel knew him at once; it was only an hour since his rough hand had worked its way up her thigh. He lunged at her, twisting her thin arms behind her back, and raised a steak knife to her throat. ‘I want my money.’ Angel couldn’t believe this was happening; the man didn’t have a knife an hour ago, he must have stolen it from a restaurant.
‘You what?’ said Brian.
‘You robbed me! I want my money back.’
‘Piss off,’ said Brian.
Angel tried to say Brian’s name, but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe; the serrated edge of the blade was pressed close against her windpipe.
‘I’ll slice her fuckin’ head off.’
Brian shrugged. ‘Be my guest.’
‘Do you think I care what you do to her? She’s just some piece of shit from the streets of King’s Cross, does blow jobs in cars for a tenner. I only used her tonight ‘cause I was desperate. I mean, look at her!’
‘All I want is my money,’ said the man, ‘I had forty-nine pounds. That was all I had in the world.’ His grip loosened. Angel could finally breathe again. She gasped for air, scalding tears streaming into her open mouth. Brian’s words hung in the air, solid and tangible, and something inside her died forever.
‘Forty-nine pounds!’ Brian nearly doubled over laughing. ‘For her? Well, she’s all yours now mate, do what you want with her.’ He backed away, palms up. ‘I’m off.’
An ugly sound pierced Angel’s ears, a cry that didn’t sound human. Angel fell to the ground, hitting her head. Everything went dark for a moment, then there was another sound, the scraping of blade against bone. Her eyes slowly came back into focus; she saw Brian clutching at his chest. She watched him crumple.
The man in the raincoat turned towards her, the restaurant knife in his hand dripping blood. ‘I didn’t want to. I never meant…’ And then he was gone.
Angel’s eyes darted from side to side; she was in a narrow alley, just before dawn, and there was no one around. No one anywhere. She looked up, saw empty windows. No faces, no prying eyes.
She crawled towards Brian on all fours. A puddle of blood formed beneath him, growing larger. She gently brushed the hair back from his eyes before stroking his cheek and tracing the outline of his lips with one finger, exactly the way he had touched her once – when was it? Only a few hours ago? It seemed like a thousand years – back when he was a knight in shining armour and she, a beautiful damsel in distress. He made a horrible noise: a kind of gurgling. Then he didn’t seem to breathe any more.
Angel reached into his jacket pocket and carefully removed his wallet.
NOW’S THE TIME by JOHN HARVEY
They’re all dying, Charlie’
They had been in the kitchen, burnished tones of Clifford Brown’s trumpet, soft like smoke from down the hall. Dark rye bread sliced and ready, coffee bubbling, Resnick had tilted the omelette pan and let the whisked eggs swirl around before forking the green beans and chopped red pepper into their midst. The smell of garlic and butter permeated the room.
Ed Silver stood watching, trying to ignore the cats that nudged, variously, around his feet. Through wisps of grey hair, a fresh scab showed clearly among the lattice-work of scars. The hand which held his glass was swollen at the knuckles and it shook.
‘S’pose you think I owe you one, Charlie? That it?’
Earlier that evening, Resnick had talked Silver out of swinging a butcher’s cleaver through his own bare foot. ‘What I thought, Charlie, start at the bottom and work your way up, eh?’ Resnick had bundled him into a cab and brought him home, stuck a beer in his hand and set to making them both something to eat. He hadn’t seen Ed Silver in ten years or more, a drinking club in Carlton whose owner liked his jazz; Silver had set out his stall early, two choruses of ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ solo, breakneck tempo, bass and drums both dropping out and the pianist grinning, open-mouthed. The speed of thought: those fingers then.
Resnick divided the omelette on to two plates. ‘You want to bring that bread?’ he said. ‘We’ll eat in the other room.’
The boldest of the cats, Dizzy, followed them hopefully through. The Clifford Brown Memorial album was still playing. ‘Theme of No Repeat’.
‘They’re all dying} Charlie.’
* * * *
And now it was true.
SILVER Edward Victor Suddenly at home, on February 16, 1993. Acclaimed jazz musician of the be-bop era. Funeral service and memorial meeting, Friday, February 19 at Golders Green Crematorium at 11.45 am. Inquiries to Mason Funeral and Monumental Services, High Lanes, Finchley.
Resnick was not a Guardian reader; not much of a reader at all, truth to tell. Police Review, the local paper, Home Office circulars and misspelt incident reports, Jazz Journal - that was about it. But Frank Delaney had called him Tuesday morning; Frank, who had continued booking Ed Silver into his pub long after most others had turned their backs, left Ed’s calls unanswered on their answer-phones. ‘Seen the Guardian today, Charlie?’ Resnick had taken it for a joke.
Now he was on the train as it approached St Pancras, that copy of the newspaper folded on the seat beside him, the debris of his journey – plastic cups, assorted wrappings from his egg mayonnaise sandwich, bacon and tomato roll, lemon iced gingerbread – pushed to one side of the table. There was the Regent’s canal and as they passed the gas holders at King’s Cross, Resnick got to his feet, lifted his coat down from the rack and shrugged his way inside it. He would have to walk the short distance from one terminal to another and catch the underground.
* * * *
Even at that hour, King’s Cross seemed jaded, sour, down at heel, broad corners and black cabs; bare-legged girls whose pallid skin was already beginning to sweat; men who leaned against walls and railings and glanced up at you as you passed, ready to sell you anything that wasn’t theirs. Ageless and sexless, serious alcoholics sat or squatted, clutching brown bottles of cider, cans of Special Brew. High above the entrances, inside the wide concourse, security cameras turned slowly with remote-control eyes.
The automatic doors slid back at Resnick’s approach and beyond the lights of the computerized arrivals board, the Leeds train spilled several hundred soccer fans across the shiny floor. Enlivened by the possibility of business, two girls who had been sharing a breakfast of chips outside Casey Jones, began to move towards the edges of the throng. One of them was tall, with badly hennaed hair that hung low over the fake fur collar of her coat; the other, younger, smudging a splash of red sauce like crazy lipstick across her cheek, called for her to wait. ‘Fuck’s sake, Brenda.’ Brenda bent low to pull up the strap of her shoe, lit a cigarette.
‘We are the champions!’ chanted a dozen or more youths, trailing blue and white scarves from their belts.
In your dreams, Resnick thought.
A couple of hapless West Ham fans, on their way to catch an away special north, found themselves shunted up against the glass front of W.H. Smith. Half a dozen British Rail staff busied themselves looking the other way.
‘Come on, love,’ the tall girl said to one of the men, an ex-squaddie with regimental colours and a death’s head tattooed along his arms, ‘me and my mate here. We’ve got a place.’
‘Fuck off!’ the man said. ‘Just fucking fuck off!’
‘Fuck you too!’ Turning away from the tide of abuse, she saw Resnick watching. ‘And you. What the hell d’you think you’re staring at, eh? Wanker!’
Loud jeers and Resnick moved away between the supporters but now that her attention had been drawn to him, Brenda had him in her sights. Middle-aged man, visitor, not local, not exactly smart but bound to be carrying a quid or two.
The hand that spread itself against him was a young girl’s hand. ‘Don’t go.’
‘How old are you?’ Resnick said. The eyes that looked back at him from between badly-applied make-up had not so long since been a child’s eyes.
‘Whatever age you want,’ Brenda said.
A harassed woman with one kiddie in a pushchair and another clinging to one hand, banged her suitcase inadvertently against the back of Brenda’s legs and, even as she swore at her, Brenda took the opportunity to lose her balance and stumble forwards. ‘Oops, sorry,’ she giggled, pressing herself against Resnick’s chest.
‘That’s all right,’ Resnick said, taking hold of her arms and moving her, not roughly, away. Beneath the thin wool there was precious little flesh on her bones.
‘Don’t want the goods,’ her friend said tartly, ‘don’t mess them about.’
‘Lorraine,’ Brenda said, ‘mind your own fucking business, right?’
Lorraine pouted a B-movie pout and turned away.
‘Well?’ Brenda asked, head cocked.
Resnick shook his head. ‘I’m a police officer,’ he said.
‘Right,’ said Brenda, ‘and I’m fucking Julia Roberts!’ And she wandered off to join her friend.
* * * *
The undertaker led Resnick into a side room and unlocked a drawer; from the drawer he took a medium size manila envelope and from this he slid onto the plain table Ed Silver’s possessions. A watch with a cracked face that had stopped at seven minutes past eleven; an address book with more than half the names crossed through; a passport four years out of date; dog-eared at the edges: a packet of saxophone reeds; one pound, thirteen pence in change. In a second envelope there were two photographs. One, in colour, shows Silver in front of a poster for the North Sea Jazz Festival, his name, partly obscured, behind him in small print. He is wearing dark glasses but, even so, it is clear from the shape of his face he is squinting up his eyes against the sun. His grey hair is cut in a once-fashionable crew cut and the sports coat he is wearing is bright dog-tooth check and over-large. His alto sax is cradled across his arms. If that picture were ten, fifteen years old, the other is far older – black and white faded almost to sepia. Ed Silver on the deck of the Queen Mary, the New York skyline rising behind him. Docking or departing, Resnick couldn’t tell. Like many a would-be bopper, he had been part of Geraldo’s navy, happy to play foxtrots and waltzes in exchange for a fervid forty-eight hours in the clubs on 52nd Street, listening to Monk and Bird. Silver had bumped into Charlie Parker once, almost literally, on a midtown street and been too dumbstruck to speak.
Resnick slid the photographs back from sight. ‘Is that all?’ he asked.
Almost as an afterthought, the undertaker asked him to wait while he fetched the saxophone case, with its scuffed leather coating and tarnished clasps; stuck to the lid was a slogan: Keep Music Live! Of course, the case was empty, sax long gone to buy more scotch when Ed Silver had needed it most. Resnick hoped it had tasted good.
In the small chapel there were dried flowers and the wreath that Frank Delaney had sent. The coffin sat, cheap, before grey curtains and Resnick stood in the second row, glancing round through the vicar’s perfunctory sermon to see if anyone else was going to come in. Nobody did. ‘He was a man, who in his life, brought pleasure to many,’ the vicar said. Amen, thought Resnick, to that. Then the curtains slowly parted and the coffin slid forward, rocking just a little, just enough, towards the flames.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
If the women don‘t get you, the whisky must.
While the taped organ music wobbled through ‘Abide With Me’, inside his head Resnick was hearing Ed Silver in that small club off Carlton
Hill, stilling the drinking and the chatter with an elegiac ‘Parker’s Mood’.
‘No family, then?’ the vicar said outside, anxious to find time for a cigarette and a pee before the next service.
‘Not as far as I know.’
The vicar nodded sagely. ‘If you’ve nothing else in mind for them, we’ll see to it the ashes are scattered here, on the rose garden. Blooms are a picture, let me tell you, later in the year. We have one or two visitors, find time to lend a hand keeping it in order, but of course there’s no funding as such. We’re dependent upon donations.’
Resnick reached into his pocket for his wallet and realized it was gone.
* * * *
The ‘meat rack’ stretched back either side of the station, roads lined by lock-up garages and hole-in-the-wall businesses offering third-hand office furniture and auto parts. Resnick walked the gauntlet, hands in pockets, head down, the best part of three blocks and neither girl in sight. Finally, he stopped by a woman in a red coat, sitting on an upturned dustbin and using a discarded plastic fork to scrape dog shit from the sole of her shoe. There were bruises on her neck, yellow and violet, fading under the soiled white blouse which was all she was wearing above the waist.
‘Ought to be locked up,’ the woman said, scarcely glancing up, ‘letting their animals do their business anywhere. Fall arse over tit and get your hand in this, God knows what kind of disease you could pick up.’ And then, flicking the contents of the fork out towards the street, ‘Twenty-five, short time.’
‘No,’ Resnick said, ‘I don’t…’
She shook her head and swore as the fork snapped in two. ‘Fifteen, then, standing up.’
‘I’m looking for someone,’ Resnick said.
‘Oh, are you? Right, well,’ she stood straight and barely came level with his elbows, ‘as long as it’s not Jesus.’
He assured her it was not.
‘You’d be amazed, the number we get round here, looking to find Jesus. Mind you, they’re not above copping a good feel while they’re about it. Took me, one of them, dog collar an’ all, round that bit of waste ground there. Mary, he says, get down on your knees and pray. Father, I says, I doubt you’ll find the Lord up there, one hand on his rosary beads, the other way up my skirt. Mind you, it’s my mother I blame, causing me to be christened Mary. On account of that Mary Magdalene, you know, in the Bible. Right horny twat, and no mistake.’ Resnick had the impression that even if he walked away she would carry on talking just the same. ‘This person you’re looking for,’ she said, ‘does she have a name or what?’
* * * *
The hotel was in a row of similar hotels, cream paint flaking from its walls and a sign that advertised all modern conveniences in every room. And then a few, Resnick thought. The manager was in Cyprus and the youth behind the desk was an archaeology student from King’s, working his way, none too laboriously, through college. ‘Brenda?’ he said, slipping an unwrapped condom into the pages of his book to keep his place. ‘Is that the one from Glasgow or the one from Kirkby-in-Ashfield?’
‘Kirkby. It’s near…’
‘I know where it’s near.’
‘Yes? Don’t sound as though you’re from round there.’
‘Neither do you.’
‘Langwith,’ the student said. ‘It’s the posh side of Mansfield.’
Resnick had heard it called some things in his time, but never that. ‘That Brenda,’ he said. ‘Is she here?’
‘Look, you’re not her father, are you?’
Resnick shook his head.
‘Just old enough to be.’ When Resnick failed to crack a smile, he apologized. ‘She’s busy.’ He took a quick look at his watch. ‘Not for so very much longer.’
Resnick sighed and stepped away. The lobby was airless and smelt of… he didn’t like to think what it smelt of. Whoever had blu-tacked the print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers to the wall had managed to get it upside down. Perhaps it was the student, Resnick thought, perhaps it was a statement. A – what was it called? – a metaphor.
If Brenda was as young as she looked and from Kirkby, chances were she’d done a runner from home. As soon as this was over, he’d place a call, have her checked out. He was still thinking that when he heard the door slam and then the scream.
* * * *
Resnick’s shoulder spun the door wide, shredding wood from around its hinges. At first the man’s back was all he could see, arm raised high and set to come thrashing down, a woman’s heeled shoe reversed in his hand. Hidden behind him, Brenda shrieked in anticipation. Resnick seized the man’s arm as he turned and stepped inside his swing. The shoe flew high and landed on top of the plywood wardrobe in the corner of the room. Resnick released his grip and the man hit the door jamb with a smack and fell to his knees. His round face flushed around startled eyes and a swathe of hair hung sideways from his head. His pale blue shirt was hanging out over dark striped trousers and at one side his braces were undone. Resnick didn’t need to see the briefcase in the corner to know it was there.
From just beyond the doorway the student stood thinking, there, I was right, he is her father.
‘She was asking…’ the man began.
‘Shut it!’ said Resnick. ‘I don’t want to hear.’
Brenda was crying, short sobs that shook her body. Blood was meandering from a cut below one eye. ‘Bastard wanted to do it without a rubber. Bastard! I wouldn’t let him. Not unless he give me another twenty pound.’
Resnick leaned over and lifted her carefully to her feet, held her there. ‘I don’t suppose,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘you’ve got anything like first-aid.’
The man snatched up his briefcase and ran, careening between the banister and the wall. ‘I think there’s plasters or something,’ the student said.
* * * *
Resnick had gone to the hospital with her and waited while they put seven stitches in her cheek. His wallet had been in her bag, warrant card, return ticket and, astonishingly, the credit card he almost never used were still there; the cash, of course, was gone. He used the card to withdraw money from the change kiosk in the station. Now they were sitting in the Burger King opposite St Pancras and Resnick was tucking into a double cheese-burger with bacon, while Brenda picked at chicken pieces and chain-smoked Rothmans King Size.
Without her make-up, she looked absurdly young.
‘I’m eighteen,’ she’d said, when Resnick had informed her he was contacting her family. ‘I can go wherever I like.’
She was eleven weeks past her fifteenth birthday; she hadn’t been to school since September, had been in London a little over a month. She had palled up with Lorraine the second or third night she was down. Half of her takings went to Lorraine’s pimp boyfriend, who spent it on crack; almost half the rest went on renting out the room.
‘You can’t make me go back,’ she said.
Resnick asked if she wanted tea or coffee and she opted for a milk shake instead. The female police officer waiting patiently outside would escort her home on the last train.
‘You know you’re wasting your fucking time, don’t you?’ she called at Resnick across the pavement. ‘I’ll only run off again. I’ll be back down here inside a fucking week!’
The officer raised an eyebrow towards Resnick, who nodded, and the last he saw was the two of them crossing against the traffic, Brenda keeping one clear step ahead.
* * * *
The maitre’d. at Ronnie Scott’s had trouble seating Resnick because he was stubbornly on his own; finally he slipped him in to one of the raised tables at the side, next to a woman who was drinking copious amounts of mineral water and doing her knitting. Spike Robinson was on the stand, stooped and somewhat fragile-looking, Ed Silver’s contemporary, more or less. A little bit of Stan Getz, a lot of Lester Young, Robinson had been one of Resnick’s favourite tenor players for quite a while. There was an album of Gershwin tunes that found its way onto his record player an awful lot.
Now Resnick ate spaghetti and measured out his beer and listened as Robinson took the tune of ‘I Should Care’ between his teeth and worried at it like a terrier with a favourite ball. At the end of the number, he stepped back to the microphone. ‘I’d like to dedicate this final tune of the set to the memory of Ed Silver, a very fine jazz musician who this week passed away. Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time”.’
And when it was over and the musicians had departed backstage and Ronnie Scott himself was standing there encouraging the applause – ‘Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson.’ – Resnick blew his nose and raised his glass and continued to sit there with the tears drying on his face. Seven minutes past eleven, near as made no difference.
CORMORANTS by MICHAEL Z. LEWIN
At the top of the dark stairs leading up from Balham High Road Charlie paused with only one foot on the landing. He bent and rubbed his elevated knee. The bandage beneath the jeans felt sticky and the leg ached. The deep cut beneath the bandage must have begun to bleed yet again.
The cut had scabbed tight while Charlie slept through the morning and into the afternoon. But he was so tired he had slept without moving, so when he got up the knee felt like it had a plaster cap. Charlie managed to keep the leg straight by limping as he walked, but it had probably opened when he ran to catch the waiting train. You don’t miss a waiting train on the Northern Line if you can help it. You run by instinct, without thinking about knees cut in the night on broken glass.
As Charlie massaged his knee the door on the landing opened. Immediately he straightened. The man who came out was a stranger, a large frowning man. Maybe he was only tall because Charlie was looking up, but he was wide too, and jowly, and his waistcoated belly pushed out between the wings of a dark suit jacket and the flaps of a heavy overcoat. The man wore a tie pulled tight to the neck. He wore a fedora. And while his eyes took Charlie in, his mouth was speaking back into the room. ‘I need a body, Lennie.’
‘I said I fix it, didn’t I?’ Leonard Slaughter answered from within the room.
‘It’s essential. It’s not optional.’
‘All right!” Slaughter said.
Then the fat man said, ‘There’s a dosser out here. You want me to do something about him?’
Slaughter appeared in the doorway. He said, ‘Na. That’s just Charlie.’
The fat man looked down again. ‘You’re expecting him?’
‘Yeah, why not.’
‘The people you do business with!’ the fat man said. He strode down the stairs, pushing Charlie flat against the wall as he passed.
When the street door closed behind the fat man Slaughter said, ‘Fuckin’ arse-wipe.’
Charlie looked down the stairwell at the closed door.
‘You coming in or what?’ Slaughter said. He withdrew into the room. Limping, Charlie followed.
Inside, the first thing Charlie saw was Lorna sitting in an easy chair with her legs crossed. Charlie didn’t know where to look, didn’t know whether what she was wearing was a dressing gown or a puzzling dress. Lorna’s thigh showed all the way up to a button.
Slaughter said, ‘Did you get that, Lorn? He wants a body. Did you get the message? Did you take in that it’s important? Did that come through clear enough?’
‘Arse-wipe,’ Lorna said.
From where he had stopped just inside the door Charlie said, ‘Hello, Miss Lorna.’
‘Put your tongue back in your mouth,’ Slaughter said. ‘You look disgusting. And close the bloody door. You want the whole world to know our business?’
Charlie closed the door and then, without being bidden further, he walked to the coffee table Slaughter was now seated behind.
Slaughter said, ‘I hope you got something decent today. You been bringing me nothing but crap for weeks.’
Charlie emptied the pockets of his anorak. On the table he spread out five credit cards, two gold bracelets, several silver earrings, a cheque-book and seventy pounds in notes.
Slaughter said, ‘That it?’
‘What, just the one place?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘Two.’
Slaughter picked up the bracelets and examined them. He wrinkled his nose. ‘These ain’t going to do much for Beverley, are they?’
‘Ain’t they gold?’
‘Nine carat, tops.’
Slaughter picked out two tenners from the pile of money and held them out to Charlie. But before Charlie could take them Slaughter pulled them back. ‘You wouldn’t hold out on me, would you, Charlie?’
‘No sir,’ Charlie said. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’
‘I must be getting soft,’ Slaughter said. ‘Cos I bloody believe you.’ He turned to Lorna. ‘I bloody believe him. What do you reckon? Has my brain leaked out or what?’
‘He knows what would happen,’ Lorna said.
‘I suppose he does,’ Slaughter said. He faced Charlie again. ‘You know what would happen, don’t you, Charlie?’
Slaughter laughed. ‘I wouldn’t harm a hair on your scruffy little head, would I? Even I catch you holding a grand in fifties I wouldn’t touch you, would I, Charlie boy?’
‘No sir. I don’t never hold out on you, Mr Slaughter.’
‘I don’t suppose you do.’ Slaughter picked up the jewellery again. ‘But you better go out again tonight. Cos we’re only just managing to hang onto Beverley as it is. And you keep turning up stuff like this and it’s all over for her. Won’t be nothing I can do.’
‘I’ll go again tonight,’ Charlie said.
Slaughter held the twenty pounds out again and Charlie took them but he didn’t fold the notes and pack them away. He looked at the two tenners in his hand.
Slaughter said, ‘Oh don’t you start going septic on me, because I ain’t in the mood for it. You get twenty because that’s what I can afford and because the jewellery ain’t no good.’
Charlie said nothing.
Angrily Slaughter said, ‘You know that fat geezer? The one made wallpaper out of you on the stairs, do you know who he is?’
‘You want to guess? You want to guess who he is, what he does?’
Slaughter was insisting. Charlie said, ‘Does he buy the jewellery?’
Slaughter laughed without humour. Lorna smiled. Slaughter said, ‘He’s only bloody CID.’
Charlie turned to look at the closed door. He turned back to Slaughter. He said, ‘A copper? Him?’
‘Him,’ Slaughter said. ‘And he’s not the only one. Course, you never see it, because I protect you from all that, don’t I? You get it? I got expenses, Charlie. I got problems. I gotta look after everything. You think your bit is the hard part, but what you do is pissing down a steep hill, Charlie. Big piddle or little, it all goes the right way. Everything’s simple for you, as long as you’re careful. You pick your house. You’re in and out. As long you don’t get greedy, you’re bloody laughing compared to me. I not only fence your stuff, I protect you. I do! And that’s not easy this day and age. And on top of all that I take care of your goddamn Beverley. I take care of her. You couldn’t do that for yourself, could you? No, you couldn’t. So I look after her and I look after you, Charlie. I look after mine. I’m known for it. Ain’t I, Lorn? And you want to go elsewhere, you go. You do it. You want go, go. I don’t know what would happen to poor little Beverley, who’s being cured in a style of luxury you and I would only dream of, but that’s up to you. And it would be only one of the problems you’d have to take on if you don’t like things the way they bloody fucking are. If you’re not happy.’
‘I’m happy,’ Charlie said. He folded the money and put it in his shirt pocket.
‘I should bloody well hope so,’ Slaughter said. ‘Now get the fuck out of here. You’re stinking the place up.’
Charlie turned toward the door.
‘Tomorrow then,’ Slaughter said. ‘Usual time.’
‘Yes sir,’ Charlie said, and he limped out.
* * * *
Because he was working that night, Charlie did not return to his room. Instead he made his way by tube to High Street Ken and from there he turned south because last time he’d gone north. He walked the streets and eventually he found two places that looked like they would be all right. One was a lush basement with a path round the side and the other had scaffolding. Neither had too-small windows. The only problem was the knee.
Charlie found a pub, had a meal and a drink. Then he made a decision and a phone call, and began the wait for the early hours.
* * * *
The next afternoon Charlie made his way to Balham High Road. To protect the knee he left early so he had a few minutes to spare. He was about to pass the time in the betting shop across the street from Slaughter’s door when he noticed the man himself leave and walk down the street.
Charlie didn’t know what to do. He was too far away to call out, and Slaughter was walking too fast to be caught. But it was unlike Slaughter not to keep an appointment. It had never happened before.
Charlie stood thinking until it was the time he was due. All he could think of was go to the top of the stairs and wait.
But when he got to the top of the stairs, Slaughter’s door opened before him. Standing in the doorway was Lorna. Her skirt was short, way up over her knees. She said, ‘I heard you on the stairs, Charlie. You ain’t half clumpy. Come on in.’
‘I don’t bite,’ Lorna said. ‘Honest.’ She turned her back and walked into the room.
Charlie could do nothing but follow but he stood and waited by the door as he watched Lorna take Slaughter’s seat behind the coffee table.
‘Close the bloody door. I’ll catch my death.’
Charlie closed the door.
Lorna said, ‘Well what did you get?’
Charlie limped to the table and emptied his pockets. As he did so Lorna said, ‘You hurt yourself? I saw you was limping yesterday. You OK?’
‘It’s nothing,’ Charlie said.
Lorna moved to stand. ‘Let me see.’
‘No!’ Charlie said.
Lorna sat back again and her skirt rose farther up her legs. ‘Suit yourself.’
‘It’s all right,’ Charlie said. ‘It’s all right.’
On the coffee table Lorna sifted through two credit cards, three cheque-books, and a big handful of jewellery including two gold rings, but no cash. ‘I’m not having a good run,’ Charlie said.
‘I know,’ Lorna said. ‘Your luck ain’t been so good. But that’s OK.’ From her cleavage she took a roll of notes and offered them.
Again Charlie hesitated.
‘What’s the matter with you today?’ she said. ‘Don’t you like me or something? Because I always thought you did, only now you act like I got the bloody plague.’
‘I… I like you,’ Charlie said.
‘Well take the bleeding money then,’ she said, ‘cos you and me has got to have a little talk.’
‘We do?’ Charlie said. He took the money. It was five new twenty-pound notes. After he counted them out he said, ‘This is too much, Miss Lorna. This stuff ain’t that good.’
‘Sit down, Charlie,’ Lorna said. ‘Here, by me.’
Charlie didn’t know what to do.
‘What the fuck’s the matter!’ Lorna said. ‘I’m trying to do you a favour, but everything I say I gotta say six times before you do what I want. Jesus, I used to think Lennie treated you like shit, but I’m getting sick and tired myself. You going to sit down, or what?’
‘Thing is,’ Lorna said, ‘I been hoping one day I’d have a chance to say something with Lennie not around and today’s the day cos Lennie decided to go to the races.’ She patted her skirt flat.
Charlie watched her carefully.
‘Thing is, Charlie, Lennie is ripping you off.’
‘Making a mug out of you. That’s the tall and the short of it. I could see all along you was a straight enough guy, and I hated to see Lennie take advantage, but there wasn’t nothing I could do about it till now.’
Charlie stared at her hard.
Lorna said, ‘You’re thinking about Beverley, ain’t you?’
‘Well that’s exactly where he’s doing you, Charlie. He takes most of your share of what you bring him, don’t he? And that’s cos he’s supposed to have Beverley fixed up in a hospital place and it’s getting her off the stuff, right?’
Charlie nodded, his eyes open wide and focused unblinkingly on Lorna.
‘Well he’s ripping you off right, left and centre. He’s putting everything in his own pocket and he’s laughing all the way.’
‘You want to know where Lennie’s got your Beverley? You really want to know? He’s got her working up the Cross. She’s working for him, Charlie. She’s hooked up to her eyeballs and she’s buying it on her back. So he’s got you both, Charlie, and he’s bloody laughing.’
Charlie continued to stare, motionless. But his breathing became more rapid.
‘I know it’s rotten,’ Lorna said. ‘And I only tell you cos I want to help you. I know he’s my old man, and that ain’t going to change and nothing I can say could change him anyway. If I told him, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that,” the only thing that would happen is I’d be back working alongside your Bev. He likes me well enough, does Lennie, but I ain’t so stupid as to think there ain’t plenty of others would do. I may look it, but I ain’t stupid.’
Charlie still said nothing.
Lorna said, ‘But fair’s fair, Charlie. And he ain’t being fair with you, so I thought when I got the chance I’d help you get some of your own back. What do you think?’
Charlie thought. He said, ‘How?’
‘By ripping him off,’ Lorna said. ‘By ripping him off good and proper.’
Again Charlie said, ‘How?’
‘He’s got a house. We live there, Lennie and me. And it ain’t half bad. So I thought the best way for you to get your own back was for you to do your business at Lennie’s own gaff. I can tell you where he keeps all his cash, and he’s got securities. And you can take my jewellery too – he’d never let me keep it anyhow if we split up. You’ll make more money in one night than you ever seen before, and you can use it to get Bev back, and try to do her some real good if it ain’t too late. How’s that sound?’
Charlie stared at her.
‘Bleedin’ hell, Charlie, say something. I’m risking my bloody neck here. There ain’t nothing in it for me. If you do Lennie’s place like I say, it may not cost me money, but he’ll be like an orang-utan with a sore areshole for a month and that won’t be fun, believe me. So, you on for it, or not?’
Slowly Charlie nodded.
‘The best thing is for you to pull the job tonight, cos him and me is going to be at a party. You can do it early, between ten and eleven, cos you’ll know we’re out. It’s got to be the chance of a lifetime to get your own back. So what do you say? You want the address?’
* * * *
When he left Lorna, the first thing Charlie did was take the tube to Camden Town. In the kitchen of a scruffy flat ten minutes walk from the station he gave three of the new twenties to a woman named Sally. Sally was surprised that Charlie gave her so much. ‘You did good last night, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ Charlie said.
Although Sally had a ten-month-old daughter, Amanda, at her breast she said, ‘There something I can do for you, Charlie?’ and she nodded toward the bedroom.
Charlie shook his head. ‘The knee’s still bad. But I’m hungry.’
Sally lifted Amanda slightly. ‘When’s she’s done I’ll cook you something.’
‘Na,’ Charlie said. ‘I’ll go down the chipper. I’ll take Tommy. Get some for him too.’
‘Suit yourself. You know where to find him.’
Charlie made his way into the living room where Tommy, Sally’s eleven-year-old son, sat lolling on a couch in front of a television set.
‘Wakey wakey,’ Charlie said as he sat down.
Tommy looked up sleepily. Charlie took a chocolate bar from his pocket and passed it to the boy. Tommy accepted the chocolate wordlessly and began to unwrap it. As he did so, Charlie turned to the television set and tried to work out what was happening to the cartoon figures who were dashing about on the screen.
After a few minutes Charlie said, ‘I’m going for fish and chips. You coming?’
Tommy said nothing, but he rose from the couch and followed Charlie back to the kitchen where Sally was laying Amanda in her cot. Charlie said, ‘Heard from Stinger?’
‘Na,’ Sally said.
‘Only another twenty-seven months,’ Charlie said.
‘With good behaviour,’ Sally said, ‘and when was that fucker’s behaviour any bloody good, eh?’
* * * *
After leaving Tommy, Charlie went to King’s Cross. The first few girls he asked said they’d never heard of Beverley and that cheered Charlie up. But as he moved closer to Gray’s Inn Road a black-haired woman in a leopard-skin T-shirt said, ‘I saw her over there half an hour ago,’ and pointed. As Charlie’s eyes followed the woman’s finger he saw Beverley for himself, leaning against cast iron railings and looking unsteady.
He watched as two men walked towards her and slowed down. She, in turn, straightened and spoke to them. The men laughed and walked past. Beverley called them names that Charlie could hear all the way to where he was standing with the leopard-skin woman. Behind the men’s backs Beverley gave them the finger, but neither of them turned to see it.
Then, as the two men approached the leopard-skin woman said, ‘On your way, Dad.’
Charlie left, leaving both Beverley and the leopard-skin woman to business.
* * * *
The robbery at Leonard Slaughter’s did not go as planned. For a start, nothing inside the house at the address Lorna had given was where it was supposed to be. And when it came to details, like the cash in the screw-off top on the corner of the wooden bedstead, not only did none of the bedstead’s corners screw off, they weren’t even wooden.
Another thing was that the house did not belong to Leonard Slaughter.
And the last thing was that waiting inside the house was the fat policeman and he was carrying a truncheon. When he revealed himself the fat policeman said, ‘I hope you’re going to make a run for it. I really hope you will, because I love the sound this thing makes when it hits a head. Go on, son, run. Make my day.’
* * * *
The next morning Leonard Slaughter was in a very good mood. After a leisurely breakfast in his sumptuous flat, he went to the Balham High Road office and waited for the expected visit from the fat policeman. The fat man was due at two but even when he hadn’t arrived by three, Slaughter was not unhappy. He poured himself and Lorna another drink and he decided to have her tell again the story of what she had said to Charlie.
‘The old scum,’ Slaughter said. ‘He hadn’t brought anything worth having for weeks. Definitely losing his touch. Definitely expendable.’
‘You should have seen his face,’ Lorna said.
‘You said you was an out of work actress when we met,’ Slaughter said, ‘but I never believed it until now.’
Lorna had just about got through the story when the fat man finally arrived. He looked grave.
* * * *
The fat man needed only ten minutes to tell the story of the arrest and subsequent events. His anger increased each minute. “I know I said any body,’ he said with fury, ‘But I meant a body I could count. Someone I could point to and say, “Look that clears up twenty or thirty burglaries, so we can concentrate on something else again.” I did not mean an eleven-year-old kid, even if he did look sixteen. And I certainly did not mean an eleven-year-old kid who had a thin skull.’
Before the ten minutes were up the fat policeman made it clear that when he’d sorted his own problems out he would return. He made it clear that his past arrangement with Leonard Slaughter was at an end. That what should have continued as a simple and secure arrangement was now a fucking mess and anything that came out of it was no more than Lennie Fucking Slaughter fucking deserved.
Neither Slaughter nor Lorna knew what the fat policeman was talking about, and made attempts to say so. But the fat policeman’s ten minutes didn’t run to it. When he was finished he stormed out of the room because he was due back at the station to begin the internal investigation procedure.
But the fat policeman did not get to tell his side of the story to the internal investigators. He barely got as far as the stairs.
From the shadows on the landing Charlie stepped out as the fat policeman left Slaughter’s office. With a tyre iron he broke the fat policeman’s head open with a single blow, just as the fat policeman had done to Tommy. Like Tommy, the fat policeman was dead before he hit the floor. Unlike tommy for the fat policeman the floor was at the bottom of the flight of stairs.
The noise of the fall was loud enough to be heard inside Slaughter’s office. Lennie Slaughter opened the door and came out onto the landing to see what had happened.
In a matter of moments he followed the fat policeman in all particulars except that at the bottom of the stairs his body did not land on the floor. It landed on the fat policeman. Neither Slaughter nor the fat policeman knew who had hit him. Or, of course, why.
Inside the office Lorna’s fate was different. She, at least, knew who. She was even able to protest, to scream. But of course nobody came to her assistance and in any case they would have been too late.
* * * *
Back at the nick the senior officers waiting to interview the fat policeman grew angry when he did not arrive and they thought he was being obstructive. Colleagues who knew him better thought chances were he’d done a runner. Both, of course, were wrong, but it was not until a down-and-out tried the handle of the dirty, unlabelled door on
Balham High Road that anybody found out what had actually happened to the fat policeman. As soon as he saw the bodies inside the unlocked door the down-and-out ran away. Three people passing on the pavement saw him run. All three went to investigate.
Later one said he had heard the fleeing man scream. But none of the three witnesses could describe the down-and-out in any detail.
AND SHE LAUGHED by LIZ HOLLIDAY
I reckon it took all the luck in the world to get me this flat,’ Jane Martin said. ‘Probably means I’ll never get another job, or win the pools, or anything.’
She was sitting in the darkness in the hall, with the telephone receiver cradled on her shoulder. She took a piece of meat from the kebab open on the floor in front of her. ‘I mean,’ she went on, ‘how many other single people do you know who have council flats to themselves, Paula?’
Her friend’s voice crackled down the line at her, saying something congratulatory, but Jane’s attention was on the cans of paint she had bought that morning: painting the whole flat white wasn’t really cheap, just cheaper than any other idea she had been able to come up with.
‘I’ll see you about noon then?’ Paula said. ‘You provide the lunch and I’ll provide the labour.’
‘Greater love hath no woman than that she paint her best friend’s new flat,’ Jane said. By the time she put the phone down, they were both giggling. She picked a chilli out of the kebab and munched on it. Something made her turn towards the door.
A pair of blue eyes was staring at her through the letter-box.
Her heart thumped once. She shouted, ‘What are you doing, you bastard?’
The letter-box swung silently shut. She thought she heard a single footstep. Then there was silence. Her whole body was rigid, and her breath was unsteady. She stared into the darkness with her hand on the phone. After a few moments, when she was calmer, she thought: I should phone the police. But it was too late. By the time they arrived, he would be gone.
She stood near to the door, listening, but heard nothing. Curious, she touched the letter-box. It was slightly open, but shut easily beneath her fingers. If she hadn’t known better she might have thought the wind had opened it. But she did know better. She imagined him standing on the other side. He was probably laughing at her, laughing at her fear.
She went into the living room. The room was almost empty, but moonlight illuminated the floor cushions and the sofa, her one decent piece of furniture. She went and looked out of the bare windows. I ought to get some curtains, she thought; but she didn’t really want to. She loved the way the spring sunlight flooded into the room, and the sense the openness gave her of being part of a living community. What’s the point of living near Portobello Road if you’re going to shut yourself away? That was what she had said to Paula, when they had been making a list of essentials. Sometimes Paula was just too practical for her own good.
A car door slammed somewhere. Jane’s head jerked round. She realized she had been listening for… something the whole time.
Before she went to bed that night she jammed a chair up against the front door, but as she lay sleepless in her bed she was still listening, listening.
* * * *
‘You should have shoved a knife in the guy’s face.’ Paula stabbed at the door with a brushful of white gloss.
‘And get done for manslaughter, knowing my luck? Yeah, right.’ Jane pulled the roller down the wall with more vigour than was strictly necessary. Paint splattered everywhere. ‘He was probably just looking for a flat to squat. Now he knows someone’s here, he won’t be back.’
‘Well at least call the police. What do you think they’re there for?’
‘Oh sure. He ran off the second I shouted at him. He could have been at Marble Arch by the time they arrived.’
‘For God’s sake… you have to stop thinking like a victim.’ Paula started to fill in around the doorhandle.
‘Great. Now it’s my fault.’
‘I’m not saying that. I’m just saying you have to do something. Don’t let the bastard win, you know?’ She laid the brush across the top of the can. ‘Hell with this. I’m going to make a cup of tea.’
Jane watched Paula’s retreating back. Damn, she thought. Now she’s pissed off with me. ‘Milk, no sugar,’ she called, just to keep the conversation going. ‘I’ll get a chain for the door tomorrow, OK?’
‘And report last night to the police?’
‘OK, OK.’ Jane took another swipe at the wall. It was almost finished.
After a moment Paula came back out of the kitchen. ‘And promise you’ll phone them the instant he comes back?’
* * * *
Nothing that night. Nothing the night after. Jane started to think it had been a one off. The night after that she was putting a poster up by the front door when she heard the noise again.
She turned and saw his eyes. Blue eyes in a strip of white skin. She got an impression of thick eyebrows, heavy cheekbones. The moment dragged on. I’m out of his line of sight, she thought. The chain, purchased the day before, lay on the kitchen table; despite her promise to Paula, she had forgotten to fit it. Idiot, she thought fiercely at herself.
She heard him say something, but the door muffled the sound. It was enough to break the spell, though.
‘Fuck off, you bastard!’ she shouted, and was pleased at how strong her voice sounded.
The letter-box swung shut. She reached for the phone and punched 999, was appalled at how long it took first to get an answer, then to be put through. What do I say, she wondered as she waited. Please, someone just came and looked through my letter-box, but he’s gone now, so it’s all right?
‘I think someone is trying to break into my flat,’ she said when they would let her. She listened numbly as the police telephonist told her someone would be there soon, that she must not let anyone in.
She stood by the door until the police arrived: three of them, two men and a woman, not much older than she was.
‘Not much we can do without a description, love,’ one of the men said.
‘Once you’ve got the chain fitted, you could try opening the door to get a look at him,’ said the other.
Sure, Jane thought. Sure.
‘If you could keep him talking for a while, we might have a chance to get here before he goes,’ said the first man. ‘The main thing is to keep calm and not do anything that might make him angry. I don’t want to frighten you, but if he decides to hang about…’
Christ, that never even occurred to me… Jane made a conscious effort to unclench her fists, noting the sharp look the woman gave him.
‘We’ll catch him sooner or later, love,’ the woman said. ‘We’ve got a very strong presence on this estate. Just give us time.’
* * * *
That night she dreamed of him. His eyes, caught by the moonlight, stared out of the darkness at her. Giant shadows jumped on the green walls behind him as he came towards her. Light glinted on the knife he carried…
Her foot slid on the stair and she fell, twisting, towards him. His mouth opened, and he started to speak, but she knew she must not listen. Her scream cut the night. She woke, trembling and sweating, and did not sleep again.
* * * *
Jane slept late the next day. When she did get up she was gritty-eyed and irritable. She wandered from room to room in the flat as if it were a cage. She couldn’t bring herself to do any more painting or unpacking, and she knew she ought to fit the chain on the door. She ended up slumped in the sofa drinking cup after cup of tea. All her energy had gone. A job application stared up at her from the coffee table. There were vacancies for assistants at the local library. She had been really excited when she saw the advert. Now she felt that even trying to fill out the form was tantamount to asking for a kick in the teeth.
She was supposed to meet Paula in the pub at seven. She thought about calling her to cancel, but she knew it would lead to an argument. Paula would ask about the chain. She knew it. She hauled herself up and forced herself to fit it. It took far longer than she had expected, what with trying to line the two halves of it up and sorting out the right screws.
‘Oh sod this,’ she muttered; then wondered if he were on the other side of the door listening.
She did get it done in the end, and immediately felt much more secure. At least the door was the only way into the flat. She grinned: she’d make it a fortress if she had to.
The hallway outside was empty. Jane shivered as she fumbled to double lock her door. The fluorescent light cast harsh, multiple shadows on the institutional green walls. It’s like a prison corridor, she thought; and then: If I screamed for help, I wonder if anyone would come. A vision flashed through her mind. She was lying on the floor, T-shirt stained with blood. But then her eyes opened, turned from brown to blue: blue eyes set in a wide-cheekboned face. In her dream he had tried to speak to her. Now his mouth hung slackly open. She bit her lip and the vision passed.
Determinedly, she set off down the corridor. Her footsteps rang around the hall as if it were an echo chamber. Bloody prison, she thought.
The dog in the flat opposite started to bark; by the sound of it, a Doberman or a Rottweiler, maybe even a pitbull. Jane was out in the stairwell before she realized just how used to that sound she had become in a short space of time. The damned dog barked every time anyone walked past. But when her visitor came, it had made no sound at all.
She tried not to think about it as she got outside, as she pushed past the two old men sharing a bottle of cider on the steps, as she crossed the road to avoid the knot of kids outside the chip shop.
The others were already in the pub. She got herself a half of bitter and a stool in that order.
‘Hi Paula. Kath… Dave.’ She never had liked him. She turned to talk to some of the others. She felt much more secure now she was surrounded by friends. ‘How you doing, Phil? Anita?’
‘Hi, Jane,’ Dave said from behind her. ‘How’s your midnight crawler, then?’
Sensitive as a brick wall, as always Jane thought. ‘You’d probably have more idea than I do,’ she said, wishing she could come up with a wittier put-down. ‘I’ve been thinking. Maybe he lives in the block.’
‘Oh surely not.’ That was Kath. She always had been too innocent for her own good.
‘Well, the dog opposite didn’t bark, and I didn’t hear the stair doors slam, so -’
‘This dog, does it bark at everyone?’ It was Phil, being as reasonable as ever.’
‘I told you it does -’ Jane snapped.
‘What, the postman, the caretaker -’
‘Yes,’ she said irritably. She sipped her beer. He had a point, she decided after a moment. He usually did. ‘No,’ she conceded. ‘Actually, it doesn’t.’
‘So maybe it isn’t one of your neighbours. Maybe the dog only barks at you because it isn’t used to you yet… Get you another?’ He pointed at her drink.
She shook her head. Phil went up to the bar.
‘Still, this creep must have hung around for a while, if the dog’s used to him,’ Dave said as soon as Phil had gone. Jane scowled. ‘Sorry. Just trying to cover all the bases.’ He took a pull at his lager before he went on, ‘But he must be a genuine weirdo, I mean, what the hell’s he getting out of it? It isn’t like he’s watching your bedroom or anything…’
‘Thanks a million, Dave,’ Jane said. She turned away from him deliberately.
‘I reckon you ought to squirt an aerosol in the bastard’s face. That’d convince him to look for easier pickings,’ Anita said.
‘The police told me not to -’ Jane began, but her voice was drowned out by all the others chipping in.
‘I still think jabbing a knife at his eyes…’
‘Wire a battery up, give the so and so a good jolt.’
‘We could ambush him -’
‘- If there was somewhere to wait.’
‘You ought to tell the police.’
‘…Or indelible ink…’
In the end she just sat there and let it all roll over her. A spontaneous silence fell, in which she became aware that her hands were clenched round her glass, that she was frowning.
‘C’mon, Janie. Tell us what you’re going to do about the son of a bitch.’ It was Dave. It would be Dave.
‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to live my life. He’ll get bored and go away eventually, I’m sure.’ She looked hard at Dave. ‘And I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to panic. I’m not going to let him scare me away. And I’m not going to let you lot hype me into doing something stupid that would end up with me in trouble.’ She slammed her glass down. Beer slopped over her hand.
‘Jane, for God’s sake listen. We’re just worried about you -’ Paula put her hand out toward Jane.
‘No, you listen. Maybe you think I ought to be afraid, and maybe you’re right. But all I know is as long as there’s a solid door between him and me – and he runs off if I shout at him – I’m not as bothered as you all appear to want me to be. And that’s just tough.’ She stood up. ‘Night everyone. See you around.’
‘Jane -’ It was Paula. Jane ignored her. ‘Look, I’ve been thinking. Maybe you should ask your neighbours if they’ve seen anyone hanging around.’
‘No.’ The very thought appalled Jane, though she couldn’t have explained why. ‘Supposing he does live there? I wouldn’t want him to think he’s got me rattled. That would probably just turn him on.’
‘And if you do nothing, that’s playing into his hands too. But go ahead, be a victim. See if I care.’
She always has known how to press my buttons, Jane thought. ‘Be a victim? You just don’t ever listen, do you Paula? Letting him think I’m running scared – now that would be giving in to him, and that would be being a victim.’
‘But you can’t just let this go on. You have to do something -’
‘Cause if I don’t, you’re going to nag me to death?’
‘If I have to,’ Paula said. Her eyes glinted dangerously. Jane knew she wasn’t joking.
‘OK, mama. Anything for a quiet life.’ I can always plead self-defence, Jane thought.
‘Good. I’ll come with you, if you like.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Tomorrow,’ Jane said. She turned and walked away.
‘Don’t you want me to see you home?’ Paula called.
‘I’m all grown up. I’ll manage,’ Jane said over her shoulder, then immediately wished she hadn’t.
She stayed furious all the way home. Furious that they couldn’t see that she was doing everything she could; furious at herself for not being certain of herself.
As she climbed the stairs, it occurred to her that he might be there – that she might catch him in the act. The way the corridor was arranged she could be almost on top of him before he noticed her. But there was only the echoing silence, the rasp of her own breathing. She went on, slowly at first. She came out into the hallway and made sure the stair door banged loudly: she wanted to give him time to get away. The dog began to bark. She almost ran to her flat. The letter-box was firmly shut.
She got inside and checked the locks. The chain too. She made a pot of tea and took it into the front room, intending to meditate before bed. Perhaps then she wouldn’t dream. It seemed such a shame when getting the flat at all had been such a piece of luck. She stared at the bare windows. Curtains. In the circumstances maybe she ought to get some after all. Or perhaps blinds would be better…
A few moments later she came to with a start, realizing she had drifted off. Something was moving on the balcony. Shadows made by car headlights, she told herself firmly. That’s a very busy road out there. But no sound broke the silence. She did not move; realized she was scarcely breathing.
But something was out there. She was sure now: there was the outline of a head, an arm. A hand, surely holding something – a brick? – coming towards the pane of glass. A mouth, wide open to shout, indistinct through the glass. ‘Pah… seh…’ Prostitute? she wondered. Does he think I’m one? She had heard of serial killers who had fixated on them.
She heard herself scream, then launched herself towards the balcony door. There was nothing there except the weeds in the window box, swaying gently in the night.
She slumped against the door for a long while, knowing she was crying and hating herself for it.
Eventually she dragged herself to bed. She did not undress. She kept thinking she would wake up to find him standing over her, with his blue eyes illuminated by the moonlight. She dozed, fitfully; confused dreams of the man – in the alley, with his mouth open to shout, and his hand coming towards her – and of something moving on the balcony. The last dream was the worst, and she woke knowing she had smelled blood, that it had covered her face and hands and T-shirt.
On her way to the bathroom she touched the letter-box – just out of curiosity, of course. It was open. It’s nothing, she thought. Nothing the wind couldn’t have done. But it wasn’t the wind, and she knew it.
* * * *
That evening Paula came round and they went knocking on doors. Jane hung back at first, but so few people answered that she stopped worrying.
As they got closer to her flat, she started to get nervous again. The Rottweiler started to bark. It didn’t help. There were six doors left; then four; then only the one opposite Jane’s, where the dog was.
‘Might as well get it over with,’ Paula said cheerfully as she went up to the door. Inside, they could hear the dog going wild. ‘Bet it bites my hand off.’
Jane realized Paula was watching her. To hell with her thinking I’m a wimp, Jane thought. She pushed past Paula and knocked on the last door herself.
Nothing happened for a moment. Then a harsh male voice shouted something. Claws scrabbled on a hard surface, and the barking died away. The door opened. The man that stood there was six feet plus. His sleeveless T-shirt did nothing to conceal his body-builder’s muscles.
Jane stared up at him, at the wild hank of greying hair and thick moustache; at the wide cheekbones. And he stared back out of blue, blue eyes.
With a jolt Jane realized he had spoken to her moments before. Paula answered, but it was as if she were in slow motion. The sounds were dragged out and unintelligible. The man replied. Jane saw his lips stretch out around the words. Then it was as if he split in two: the person she could see, and the figure from her dream, with blood splattered over him, and his mouth opening wide. ‘Prostitute,’ he called out. ‘Prostitute.’ The light glinted on his knife blade. She understood with sudden clarity that she was seeing the future: that she was bound to it, to the moment when he would come towards her, unavoidably come towards her with that knife, and that after that there would be no more future for her…
… but it wasn’t his knife, it was his belt buckle, and already the door was closing, hiding his eyes from her. She stepped back, realized she was going to fall and put her hand out to stop herself.
‘Well that’s that, I guess.’ Paula’s voice was shockingly normal. Jane couldn’t speak. She stared at Paula, who frowned. ‘What’s up? You look terrible.’
‘That was him.’ The wall was cool against Jane’s back. She let herself rest against it. Her mouth had gone dry, and she felt as if she were floating three feet above her own skull.
‘Don’t be daft. You’re letting this get to you.’
‘Inside,’ Jane said, suddenly realizing that he might be listening to every word they said. She pushed herself off from the wall, and by concentrating very hard, was able to get into her own flat without too much trouble.
Paula followed. ‘Tea,’ she said. It was a command, not a question, and without waiting for an answer she filled the kettle. Jane sat on the sofa with her head in her hands. She wondered if she was about to be sick; no doubt Paula would clean up very efficiently after her. Sometimes Paula was just too wonderful to be true.
‘I’m telling you, that was him,’ she said a little later. ‘I know.’
‘You said you never got a good look at him.’
‘Not when he looked through the letter-box, no.’
‘Well for God’s – if you saw him some other time, why didn’t you tell me? You’ll have to phone the police you know.’
‘I can’t,’ Jane said. She stared at Paula over her tea, then took a sip to steady herself. ‘I only saw him in a dream.’
‘A dream? Oh for pity’s sake. Next you’ll tell me your horoscope said to beware of a tall dark stranger -’
‘Don’t laugh at me. Don’t. He was in my dream. Not just anyone. Him. Waiting for me on the stairs. He had a knife and there was blood everywhere. He called me a prostitute. It’s going to happen, Paula. I know it. And there won’t be anything you or I can do to stop it.’
Paula put her hand on Jane’s. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I can see you’re strung out. You should -’
Jane shrugged her hand away. ‘You can piss off if you’re going to be so condescending. Anyway, maybe I’ll go to the police tomorrow.’
‘Sorry,’ Paula repeated. ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’
‘I won’t mention my dream then. Satisfied?’
* * * *
Jane woke next morning drenched in sweat and muggy from the echoes of fast fading dreams. She got up intending to go straight to the police station, but somehow the morning slipped by. It was only when she found herself sorting her books alphabetically that she admitted that she did not want to go out. Suppose he was watching out for her? Suppose he followed her?
Straight to the police station, you daft cow? she thought; and with that she put her coat on and left. There was no one around.
The police were politely dismissive. She would need more evidence, because it was such a serious charge, they said; phone them if anything happened. The duty officer had pale skin and spots. He looked about fifteen. Jane nodded at him, quite unable to speak. Then she turned and stumbled out of the claustrophobic reception, into the hazy sunshine.
Panic took her. She knew she couldn’t go home. Not yet, when he might be waiting for her. Instead she went to a burger bar and nursed a cup of tea through a full hour.
She was calmer after that. The thought of climbing the stairs to her flat no longer made her pulse race. She went home by way of Portobello Road, where she found some old velveteen curtains on one of the stalls. They were pricey but worth it. A stall selling kitchen equipment caught her eye next. They had knives there. Big knives, little knives, all very sharp and very cheap: so the stallholder told her. She stood in the middle of the road with her arms crossed over her body and her head down, trying to think.
A knife would be good protection, but carrying one about with her didn’t seem like a good idea. Perhaps she had been standing there too long, because suddenly the stallholder held a knife in a blister pack out to her. For a moment she thought of taking it; she could almost feel the extra confidence it would give her. But the moment passed quickly. Didn’t they say attackers often turned knives on their owners? Maybe that’s what would happen. Besides, there were probably laws against carrying a knife around in your pocket. She shook her head, ignoring the stallholder’s scowl.
She went instead to the chemist, where she bought a can of hairspray. You can’t get arrested for owning a can of hairspray.
* * * *
She hung the curtains as soon as she got in. There was enough material to cover the front door as well as the windows. When she had finished, she went outside and looked through the letter-box. She could see nothing but a few square inches of lining material.
‘Let’s see you get your jollies now, you bastard,’ she said aloud, then looked around almost guiltily, convinced someone had heard.
When she went back inside she made sure she closed the flap again. That’s better, she thought, as she looked at it. She wondered if she would hear him at all through it. The thought of him wondering around outside without her knowing made her feel quite ill.
She had plenty to do. There was the bathroom to paint and some boxes of books that needed unpacking; and she still hadn’t filled out the application form for the library job. Nevertheless, she found herself mooching around, trying to read, failing to do the crossword, staring out of the window. And listening. All the time listening.
He’s won, she thought. I can’t live my life like this. Determinedly she picked up the application form. With a job she would be out of the flat in the day, and the money would mean she could go out at night. She worked at the form like nothing she she had done in a long time. First she made a rough draft, then set about copying everything over. Between trying to remember her exact O-level grades and all the casual jobs she had done since here she graduated, it took a long time.
She heard a faint metallic scraping. Her whole body jerked. The pen scrawled across the form, ruining it. She stared down at it and could have cried. All that work, all those dreams, all for nothing.
The noise came again. She ran to the door. The curtain billowed out, as if there were a breeze behind it; or perhaps as if he were trying to push it aside with a stick.
It took all her courage, but she grabbed hold of it and pulled it aside. Nothing. Gingerly, she touched the letter-box. It was firmly shut. Just the wind, blowing through the cracks around the door. Just the wind, and maybe she never had seen him in the first place. I’m not crazy, she thought. I did see him. I did. She slammed her hand against the door, once and then again and again. There had been no one there. How dare there be no one there when she had been so afraid?
* * * *
The nights that followed were sleepless. She kept the hairspray on the bed beside her. She would lie in the dark, every muscle tense, not quite touching it, straining to hear: and if she heard something, she would fight against the urge to get up and go and stand by the door, or perhaps to touch the letter-box.
In the mornings, sometimes she would find he had been, sometimes not: it did not matter anymore, for just the act of passing the door on the way to the bathroom was enough to start her shaking.
She spent her days half-asleep. Sometimes she dreamed of him: moonlight on his eyes, on his bright knife (she was sure now that he carried a knife), blood on her T-shirt; and always, his mouth opening around a word: puh… puh… Not prostitute, she realized. Please. He was begging her. Begging her to give in to him, perhaps, or to stop him.
After that she started to take the spray with her whenever she had to go out. It was only small, and it fitted easily into the deep side pocket of her jacket. She kept her hand on it as she passed his flat; in fact she never let go of it until she was out on the street.
She knew she ought to phone the police when he came, if only she could be certain he was really there. But it seemed pointless, and she could not bring herself to do it, any more than she could make herself ring Paula, but instead she disconnected the phone so she could not be contacted. The weight of the other woman’s concern would drag her down, she was sure. It would make what was happening more real, and if it was real she would have to be afraid of it. There would be no living with that fear.
There came a day when she was asleep on the sofa, and she woke to find him there. He was sprawled half over her, but his weight was nothing at all. His breath, strained through those big white teeth of his, was hot on her face. His hand pinioned her wrist, gripped it so hard she was sure the bones would grate together. There was something wet on her breasts. She twisted her head and saw that her shirt was covered in blood. She stared at it, stared at him. He was drenched in it. It covered his chest and arms and, she realized now, his hands. The spray was in the bedroom, where it could do her no good at all.
He opened his mouth, but before he could speak she began to scream. Her only chance was if she could scare him off. It didn’t work. She could still hear him. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please don’t.’ He held a knife in his free hand, and it was covered in gore. He brought it up in front of her face as if to show it off to her. His eyes were wide and staring, filled with anger. Or was that terror? He was a crazy, impossible to read. Maybe he was scared of women. That would fit the pattern. She shoved hard, flailed with her legs to get some purchase on the cushions. If she could kick him in the groin -
Her eyes flicked open. Someone was banging on the door. No blood. There was no blood. So she was awake now, and that other had been a dream. She looked at her wrist. There were no marks. The banging came again.
She pulled herself up and staggered to the door. ‘Who is it?’ she called. ‘Who is it?’ They would have to tell her their name. She wouldn’t open the door unless they did. She didn’t have to.
‘Jane? It’s me. Paula.’
Jane started to unchain the door, when suddenly she realized that she had no way of being certain it really was Paula. Suppose it was him? Suppose he’d said, ‘It’s Paul,’ not ‘It’s Paula.’ Or he might have heard her call Paula by name. While he was watching her.
‘Jane, for Christ’s sake open the door.’
Jane did so, reluctantly. She peered out of the two inch slit the chain allowed her. Paula was standing there, arms folded, looking impatient. She opened her mouth to speak, but then her face twisted, became his. His lips stretching round the words she could not understand, his blue eyes hot with anger. Blood blossomed on his shirt. He fell forwards and slid down the door with his hand clawing out towards her… and then he had gone, and there was only Paula.
‘God, you look awful girl,’ Paula said. ‘Come on, let me in.’ Jane fumbled with the chain. She led Paula into the living room and sat down on the sofa.
‘When was the last time you ate properly?’ Paula stared down at Jane. She sounded angry. Jane didn’t think she had a right to be angry.
‘Couldn’t be bothered,’ she muttered.
‘You should have rung me -’
‘I couldn’t -’
‘You should have told me -’
‘You didn’t believe me.’ Jane rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. It didn’t help.
‘What?’ Paula sounded genuinely puzzled.
‘I tried to tell you. About my dream. That it’s him, over there.’
‘This is my fault,’ Paula said. ‘I should have seen this coming. I think maybe you should see someone. Someone who can help you -’
‘The police said -’
‘Not the police. A counsellor. Something like that. I could ask at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Would you let me do that, Jane?’
‘You think I’m nuts.’ Flat statement. What else was there to say. ‘But I’m not. It’s him. Lurking around. He won’t even leave me alone when I’m asleep, did you know that?’ It was too much. The horror of it broke over her, and her tears exploded outwards so that there was no holding them back.
Paula held her hands while she cried, and rubbed her back and whispered to her as if she were a child.
* * * *
Paula stayed that night. She slept on the sofa. It made no difference. Jane lay staring into darkness illuminated only by the LED display on her clock. She saw his face, but she no longer knew what was dream and what was imagination. Had she ever seen that mole high up on his cheekbone before? She didn’t know. In her dream, or vision, he tried to speak to her. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please don’t -’
‘Please don’t what?’ she thought, as she woke to daylight and the sound of Paula moving around in the living room. ‘Please don’t come near me and make me murder you.’ That made sense. She would be happy to oblige. She got up, shrugged herself into a T-shirt and jeans.
‘Place was a pig-sty,’ Paula said. ‘I’ve tidied up a bit. Made some soup for lunch. You are going to eat, aren’t you?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Paula could be so unreasonable.
‘Also, I made free with your phone. We’re meeting the others at the pub at seven, so dig out your gladrags, girl.’
‘No.’ That was too much.
‘Yes. No arguments. I’ll be with you on the way, and we’ll all walk you back.’
‘No, I said.’ She tried and failed to stare Paula down.
‘You were the one that wasn’t going to let this thing beat you.’ The words were as effective as a slap in the face. Jane went to find a fresh T-shirt. The night was cool enough that her jacket would not seem out of place; and Paula didn’t need to know that she had slipped the can of hairspray in her pocket.
At the pub, no one mentioned the man, not even Dave. Jane hardly spoke. She just sat sipping diet Coke. She wished it were whisky, but she knew if she started on alcohol she wouldn’t stop.
Half way through the evening he walked in. Jane noticed him immediately. She tracked him as he went up to the bar and ordered a pint. The barman obviously knew him. He picked up his bitter and turned to find a seat. Even in the dim pub lighting his eyes were clear blue; and yes, he had a mole on his cheek, just where she had dreamed it. He noticed her. Looking away was impossible.
‘Evening,’ he said, cool as you might like, and smiled. How could he smile at her, knowing what he knew? Then he disappeared off into the shadows around the pool table.
Jane sat, as if frozen. She wanted to tell them -to tell Paula – that he was there. But they would think she was being stupid. Besides, she might break down again, and that would be intolerable in public. But when it was time for the next round, she asked for a whisky, and got it. And a couple more after that, too.
They left the pub a little after last orders. She felt warm and cheerful, and though she knew it was the whisky, she didn’t care. It was a beautiful night, cool enough for comfort with a sickle moon riding high in a clear sky, and she was with her friends. Maybe there was a problem, but she could solve it. She said as much as they walked home, and was surprised when Kath shushed her, telling her it was late and people would be sleeping.
When they got to the flats Paula wanted to go upstairs with her, but that was just stupid. What could happen to her so close to home? Besides, they had left him behind at the pub. What did Paula think he was, a magician?
She shrugged Paula’s hand away from her arm and went inside. As she closed the double doors she could see them drifting slowly away down the road. They were probably waiting for her to start yelling for help. Damn them.
There was something odd about the inner stairs. Something about the moonlight. She heard the door bang outside. She paused. There were footsteps on the steps below. Instantly she was dead sober. An old statistic flashed through her mind: eighty per cent of all rape occurs close to the victims’ homes; she wondered what the rate for murder was and cursed herself for a fool all at the same time as her hand clutched the hairspray in her jacket pocket.
She started to run up the stairs, and as the footsteps came closer, began to take them two at a time.
‘Wait,’ a male voice called out. His voice. She would have known it anywhere.
She was out of breath. There were too many stairs. Maybe Paula was right, and she should have been eating better. She grabbed the bannister to try and haul herself up. He touched her. She thought he did.
She had to see. She turned, and he was right behind her, staring at her out of blue eyes made bright by moonlight. He stretched his hand towards her and said something. Then it was as if the world split in two. She was both herself, and a shadow-Jane. Shadow-Jane pulled a knife out of her pocket. Jane felt the textured plastic of the handle superimposed on the cold smoothness of the can of hairspray as she took it out of her pocket, felt her heart thunder in double time, shadow-heart and real-heart slightly syncopated. Two men stood before her now, both holding out her purse like a peace-offering, both plainly caught in that moment before understanding turns to terror. She saw her hand holding the can of hair-spray, and another, translucent as a ghost, holding the knife.
’Christ,’ she thought. ‘This is what was supposed to happen…’
But the man – the men – were speaking. ‘Please don’t -’
And Jane thought, He doesn’t want to hurt me. My dream – I’m supposed to kill him, not the other way around - She felt shadow-Jane lunge forward with the knife extended, felt her own finger press down on the button of the can, all in the same instant that she thought, I don’t have to do this -
She jerked the can up, away from the man’s eyes. Hairspray hissed harmlessly into the dark, leaving the air pungent behind it. But the shadow-knife slid into the man’s chest.
Blood spurted everywhere. Shadow blood. On her T-shirt, on her hands. She felt shadow-Jane bite back hysteria; staring down at his blue dying eyes with mingled terror and exultation -
But he’s dying Jane thought. No matter what he was going to do, that can’t please you.
– at what she had escaped. Jane felt her shadow think, You can’t hurt me now, felt the laughter that was beginning to bubble out of her throat. She felt herself beginning to laugh too. I don’t have to, she thought desperately. I don’t want to be a murderer -
But she could have been. She felt that darkness within herself, and she knew it. The man – the real man – was coming towards her, hands holding out her purse, saying words she couldn’t understand.
‘Don’t come near me,’ she said in panic. If he came near her, she would hurt him. Hadn’t all the others said she should hurt him? She could do it. Shadow-Jane had. Shadow-Jane was laughing in delight about it. But Shadow-Jane wasn’t there any more, she had slipped away into the darkness; the shadow-man too, and all his blood. Only the laughter remained, coming out of Jane’s throat, harsh and echoing, squeezing out sanity, leaving no room for thought.
Yet she thought, I could have done it I could I could I could. There was no way to deny it. She was still laughing as he came over to her. She looked at him, but it was the shadow-man’s blue, dying eyes that she saw. She knew that she would be seeing those eyes forever. And she laughed.
THE LOOK ON HER FACE by ANDREW KLAVAN
She was a beauty, all right, but that’s not what started it. It was the resemblance -wildly exact – to his long-imagined creature. He stopped cold the first time he saw her. She was fiddling with gew-gaws in a costume jewelry shop on Fulham Road. He stopped and gasped and stared through the window like some clown doing a pantomime of Cupid’s Target. Then he began to follow her. All the way home through the autumn evening. Through mist, past mansions, under haloed street lamps: the whole South Kensington shebang.
* * * *
He’d done this maybe a dozen times over the past five years. More and more often during his dreamy, Luciferian tumble from station to station. At first, there had been no need for it. That first year in London, he had been someone, a recognizable member of the human race: Benjamin Westlake, an American art student finishing up his Grand Tour before returning to the States. He had had promise, and a certain frantic intensity that made his scrawny frame thrum. He could sit in pubs and cafes and talk to other students with a mesmerizing energy: about the Pre-Raphaelites in relation to the New Realism, about injecting realism with the Vital Romance of the Past. He could find models; he could find lovers too sometimes. At first – but somehow, he had stayed on, he had not gone home. And he had begun to paint less, hardly at all finally. Nothing he did was good enough for him, He had begun to theorize when he should have been working, and his cafe philosophies became charged with unappealing panic as he watched, in secret, the slow paralysis of his talent through fear. For a while, he managed to hold onto his few admirers. He lived off his sensitive appearance, his nervous charm and money from home. But they had all dried up eventually.
And so he began to do this more and more. As he became more and more unkempt, more and more frantic and bizarre and unpresentable, as he festered in his Marylebone basement, scrounged for odd jobs, lived without friends, without a work permit, with even his police papers obsolete -more and more often, as he metamorphosed into this hollow-eyed wanderer through the higher-toned city streets, he began to pick out women. Women who reminded him of something; of someone. Of his dream model, that is. The fantasy girl who would become his inspiration, the muse of his resurgence – and his lover, of course; or so the tired fantasy went. He would pick them out, and he would follow them. For a day, for a few days. Until the resemblance inexplicably faded.
But this one – oh, he told himself, she was the best of them, no question. Yes, yes, he did believe she was his Lizzie Siddal to the life.
* * * *
He tailed her for four days. Trailed her to her home. Lurked outside by the iron gates of the overgrown garden at Thurloe Square. He watched her figure through the privacy curtains on the ground floor. He yearned with raw eyes. He scratched at his ragged beard as if there were lice in it – maybe there were. Or he stood as if breathless, his hands in the pockets of his stained trench coat or tugging now and then at the shiny slacks that had become too large for his spindly frame. And she – she passed in and out beneath the white columns of the house’s portico. She kissed her husband in the doorway when the limousine came to collect him. She walked her little boy to school. Had tea with friends. She visited the shops on Walton Street and Beauchamp Place. It thrilled him to watch her through the shop windows, cosseted and sedate, serious in her consideration of fine clothes and bangles. He thought of Lizzie Siddal, indeed, in her modest bonnet shop, where Deverell had discovered her, and whence he brought her to his studio to model for him. And how she’d modeled then for Hunt, and for Millais, who painted her as the drowned Ophelia, making her pose clothed in an ill-warmed bath until she came down with a fever. That picture was in the Tate now, among the other Pre-Raphaelites. He visited it often and stood before it, staring, bouncing on his toes. He considered her to have been – Siddal – the very image of Men’s Longing for the Lost Thing. And in the end, he thought, in the end, she belonged to Rossetti only. She was his model alone. His Beatrice, his Delia, his muse, his wife at last. ‘One face looks out from all his canvases, one selfsame figure sits or walks or leans…’
He learned the woman’s name one morning when her husband’s Financial Times jammed the letter slot. Jane Abbot: he read it off the letters stuck half-way.
What pictures he could make of her, he thought grandly, breathing hoarsely, as he stood so close to her, just outside her front door. What a world he too could make of myth and of remembrance.
* * * *
Of course, he’d thought all this before, about other women, while following other women. That’s what he did these days, after all, hang around shadowing girls and thinking such things. It was easier than actually painting, wasn’t it? – a fact which sat heavily even on him now, even as he tagged after this latest.
But then, on the Thursday – on Thursday night – there came the added element. He recognized the moment as if he had been waiting for it. And the whole hankering, romantic operation was transformed into this other business.
* * * *
It was late. It was drizzling, chilly. He pushed his hands together in his pockets to draw the trench coat closed: its belt was lost and two of its three buttons had fallen off long ago. He was at his post by the iron fence, gazing at her windows still though she’d drawn the curtains at darkfall as the English do. He was shivering. He was ready to go home.
It surprised him when she came out – it was nearly ten. But she stepped across the threshold briskly, in all innocence it seemed. She smiled back over her shoulder, waved goodbye as she shut the door. He expected her to head for the brown Mercedes she’d left parked down the street, or to walk over to Brompton and hail a cab. He figured he was going to lose her right away like that. But the moment the door was closed, she paused where she was, her face alert. Standing under the portico, she scanned the area. He had to turn away before she spotted him. He pretended to walk off toward the end of the road where the V and A loomed against the broken clouds. By the time he turned back, she was going in the opposite direction, had passed the Mercedes. Was hurrying round the corner, her heels clicking on the pavement, to Pelham Street, which led to the South Kensignton tube station. He turned back and went after her, taking long strides. His decaying tennis shoes made no noise at all.
* * * *
He still couldn’t believe she would take the underground until he trailed her into the station and saw her start down the stairs. He’d never seen her use the tube before. The first thought that occurred to him – naturally enough – was that she didn’t want to leave a record of her movements; she didn’t want anyone to find out where she’d gone, or to follow her. It was a thrilling thought, almost too thrilling to believe: that she was thinking about someone following her. It added a sudden value to his position, a telepathic intimacy.
She wore a long, brown raincoat, and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low. The way she waited at the far end of the platform, the way she kept her face turned away, toward the tracks – yes, he was convinced she was trying to go unnoticed.
On the train, seated in a corner, she read a paperback novel, her head down. He watched her cautiously from the other end of the car. Already, he couldn’t believe his luck.
* * * *
It rained harder, grew colder, he warmed himself by a bonfire of the mind. They had built one – a bonfire – by the Siddal grave in Highgate. He thought of that, shivering, standing inside the phone booth, watching through the rain-streaked glass, watching the cafe across the street, waiting for her.
The cafe was off Piccadilly Circus, in that tangle of lanes that’s not quite Soho; a no-man’s land. At this hour, the place went clubby, and it drew freaks. Even now, a line of them was forming at the door, shaved head after dyed hair after ringed nose after tattooed cheek; leather bodies hunkered under black umbrellas. It was a hell of a crowd for her to mix with. He could hear the bass of the music in there thumping. He could see film-light and video-glow flickering on the windows. She had been inside about twenty minutes now.
His teeth began to chatter. He imagined the bonfire against the night sky, above the cemetery. When Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal died – a laudanum overdose – February, 1862 – Rossetti, her painter, her husband, had laid his unpublished poems in her coffin. A calf-bound packet of them; they were buried with her; placed between her consumptive cheek and her rich hair. Her red-gold hair. They say it keeps growing after you die, your hair. They say that Lizzie Siddal’s hair spilled out of her coffin and was still luxurious, still red-gold some seven years later, when they dug her up. Rossetti needed money by then. He needed to publish the poems he’d buried with her. Two of his friends were on hand to watch the exhumation by bonfirelight, and to pry the packet of poems from what had been her face, to draw inspiration one more time from that singular face…
The image did seem to warm him there in his phone booth.
Jane Abbot had red hair too.
* * * *
She came out with a man. Well, he’d already guessed that would happen – her in a dive like this – that had to be the explanation. He was a young slime, sizeable and slick. Black hair casually damp on his forehead. Trench coat by Armani with that slanting cut you saw on the cover of magazines. He had no umbrella, no hat. He walked through the rain quickly. He gripped Jane Abbot’s elbow, as if to drag her with him, but she kept pace, she seemed to walk beside him willingly enough.
Benjamin left his phone booth and his imagined bonfires and trailed after them at a distance. He was excited now – so excited his throat felt tight – but he was vaguely angry too. He was disappointed to have his guess confirmed, to see her with a slick punk like that. It made him think less of this model of his, and he considered her quite sternly.
The couple reached the slick man’s car near the next corner. It was a low sporty model, hard to tell which in the shadows there, away from the street lamps. Benjamin stopped and watched them. He stood on the sidewalk openly, didn’t try to hide himself. The two weren’t paying any attention to him, that was for sure.
The slick man opened the passenger door. Only then, did the woman shy – suddenly. Like a dumb animal she was, like a dog who suddenly realizes she’s heading for the vet’s: she pulled back against his grip as if terrified all at once. She braced her heels against the pavement.
‘What the hell’s this then? the slick man said.
He let her elbow go, and she stumbled backwards. She cowered – actually cowered – against the wall of the building behind her. In a spasm, she shook her head: no.
Benjamin’s heart sped up, his breathing went shallow. The slick man was on top of the woman at once. He had something in his hand. Something white: an envelope, it looked like. He waved it in her face fiercely.
‘Don’t you play the fancy cat with me,’ he said.
Benjamin was wide-eyed. He wished he were a hero. He could see himself rushing forward into the fray, rescuing her. He could imagine it even as he watched what actually happened. The slick man kept waving the envelope in Jane Abbot’s face. He was big, and he looked tough.
He grinned at her, all teeth. Jane Abbot’s features contorted in pain. With a convulsive gesture and a muted cry, she snatched the paper from him. She tore it into small pieces, dashed the shreds to the ground, crying out again as she did. The slick man just stood there, just grinned at her. She hung her head, finally, under the weight of his self-assurance.
The slick man made an expansive gesture toward his car. ‘If her majesty pleases,’ he said.
Jane Abbot hesitated. She made a motion, as if to retrieve the torn envelope. But now, the slick man took her by the arm more roughly. He pulled her to the car, shoved her down into the passenger seat. Shaking his head, he walked around to the driver’s side.
When the car had moved off, Benjamin came forward through the rain. He was trembling as he crouched down over the torn envelope. He had to use his fingernails to peel the bits of paper off the wet sidewalk. But at last, he managed to get them all.
She came through the door, past the white columns, down the white stairs – and suddenly, he stepped up to her and grabbed her wrist. It was Monday now. The weekend – the fever, the fever of obsession, the fevered drawings that he began in fits and threw away – all this had left its scars on his sallow cheeks and brow; and his eyes were blazing.
So, of course, she was terrified. She tried to pull free. ‘What is this? Let go of me!’
‘No, no, it’s all right,’ he whispered.
‘I said let go,’ said Jane Abbot quickly. ‘I haven’t got any money with me. What do you want?’
Benjamin licked his dry lips. He forced them into something like a smile, but it only seemed to frighten her more. He released her wrist.
‘I know,’ he told her. ‘I know everything.’
That made her hesitate a moment, but only a moment. Then she spun away from him, she hurried away. He went after her, the tails of his trench coat flying in the cool wind.
‘I saw the photograph,’ he said to her back. That stopped her. She pulled up short. She looked over her shoulder at him. Even full of fear, her eyes seemed other-worldly to him. He nodded at her slowly. ‘The one you tore up. I taped it together,’ he said. ‘I saw. I know everything.’
She took this hard, her lips compressing, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Who are you?’
‘I want to help you,’ he said. ‘I can help you. I will.’
She gave that little spasm, that little shake of the head: No. He stepped toward her.
‘Really,’ he said.
Jane Abbot stared at him. She swallowed hard. ‘What do you want?’
He lifted his hand to touch her cheek, to touch her tenderly. But she recoiled. His hand hung in the air, trembling.
He whispered: ‘I want to paint your picture.’
* * * *
He wasn’t sure she would come. He couldn’t believe she would. Still, he did his best with the place. It was a basement bed-sitter off Baker Street. There were two other rooms just like it crammed together down there, each with its own toilet and a common bath in the hall. The shit in each room stank in the others, and the slobs in the others ignored the landlord’s notices and stacked their garbage outside their doors. It was pretty awful. Benjamin did what he could. He dragged the smelly hefty bags from the hallway and tossed them into the bins outside. He opened his one window, hoping to cover the room’s stench with the smell of exhaust. He made his narrow bed, and picked the clothes and discarded sketches off the floor. When he was done, he sat on the bed’s edge and waited, wringing his hands, staring at nothing. His head felt thick and feverish.
At noon, she rang at the outside door. He jumped up, wiped the sweat from his face. He rubbed his cold palms together as he stepped out into the hall. He brushed his hair back with his fingers.
But she hardly looked at him when he let her in. She walked past him slowly, with a stately tread: a queen going to her execution. Well, he tried not to be too offended by that. Even he, who was thinking none too clearly now, had an inkling of how desperate she must’ve been to come.
She stood in his room, stood like a fortress, looking neither left nor right. Oh, oh, oh, he was thinking as he scrabbled around her like a roach; oh, she’s the exact reflection of the Thing… Tall and substantial, with her long straight hair tied back with a black ribbon. Her features were not so blunt as Siddal’s. They were more delicate, her face narrower, but the effect, to him at least, was just as mournful and ethereal. She barely moved to help him as he took her coat from her shoulders. She wore a navy dress belted with a chain. She had a figure full at breast and hip. Oh, oh: the breath caught in his throat, tremulous.
‘Do you want anything? A glass of water?’
She shook her head once. ‘No, thank you.’
He folded her coat carefully. He draped it over the back of his only chair. ‘I… I’ll need you to lie down. On the bed.’ She turned her head and looked down at him. He said quickly: ‘It’s the pose. It’s all I need. Really.’
After a few seconds, taking a deep breath, she did it. She arranged her dress close to her calves and lay stiffly, her legs together, her hands clasped on her middle.
He sat on the chair, on the edge of the chair. ‘I’m… I’m going to make a drawing first… a few drawings. It won’t take too long.’
She didn’t answer. He pulled his pad from the small table under the window. He crossed his legs and braced the pad against his knee. When he lifted his pencil, he laughed nervously at his hand. It was shaking violently. When she didn’t notice, all the same, he began.
* * * *
It had been years since there’d been genius in his fingers, if there ever was. But now it came. He felt it anyway. And he was amazed by it. He sketched her quickly, with the photographic realism he had practiced in school, with more assurance than he’d had since then, than he’d ever had. Yes, he was going to make a Lizzie Siddal of her: Siddal in her coffin, in the bonfire light. But he would make her like Ophelia too, lying in the Highgate tomb, a sort of rudely resurrected Ophelia, because he felt as if he and the old painters were wrestling in the open grave for the right to portray her. He wove the lines of Rossetti’s poems into the background, into the flames, the trees, the shadow-streaked stones.
’Beautiful!’ he breathed aloud. ‘You have such a special look… you have this haunting… reminiscent look…’
But when he glanced up at her, her expression was convulsed in disgust. She turned to him angrily.
’Don’t move,’ he said.
Her expression did not change, but she shifted her head back into position. There was a moment’s silence while he drew. And then she burst out, quietly, bitterly: ‘Believe me, I didn’t ask to look like this.’
At once, his hand started to shake again. He grimaced. What did she have to talk for? But he heard himself say: ‘So why don’t you… you know. Why don’t you tell me how it happened.’
’I thought you already knew everything.’
He didn’t answer. If he had he would have told her to shut the hell up before she ruined everything. He steadied his hand and brought the pencil point back to the paper. Yes, it was still there. He drew.
Jane Abbot sighed. ‘I was an idiot. That’s how it happened.’
The flame-painted face, more alive than in life, the living muse overpowering the decaying flesh… He drew rapidly, nauseous with the fever now and with excitement.
‘I wanted to get away,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to put it. From my world, from my husband’s world. I wanted to escape a little. I felt like a stopped kettle. I thought I would explode.’
‘So you mean you went to that club,’ he said hoarsely, drawing.
‘Yes. That’s what I mean. I started going to that club sometimes. When my husband was away. He has to travel – to the continent – two or three times a month.’ She lay still on the bed, hands clasped. She spoke up at the ceiling. ‘And then he… this other man… Simon… Well, I suppose he was very… different and charming. It was all part of getting away. Of letting off steam. And I was an idiot – God!’
‘Don’t move, don’t move.’
‘I suppose what he thought was… I suppose he thought I was using him. I suppose I was. But, you see, no one uses Simon Taylor. Not an important man like him. No one must be allowed to get the better of him in any way.’ She sneered at the cracked ceiling plaster. ‘So he took photographs. He had a friend in the other room taking photographs. And when I tried to break it off… Well, he wasn’t going to let anyone play the fancy cat with him, walk out on him. No.’
He had to stop drawing. He was just too excited now. Reluctantly, he pulled the quaking pencil from the page. He looked up at her, his eyes were all over her where she lay. ‘Can’t you buy them from him?’
’He doesn’t want money.’
He tried to keep his voice from shaking. ‘How much can he do though?’
‘Oh! Believe me. It’s different in America: the newspapers would actually print those pictures here. My husband is an important man. The damage would be unimaginable. And my son,’ she said more softly.
He wanted to go on, to ask her other things. The details. The things Taylor made her do. And did he make her do them with other men as well? Did he still take pictures? Did his friend watch? He didn’t have the nerve to ask any of it, though. He sat staring at her, glad the pad covered his lap so she couldn’t see just how excited he was.
She did notice he wasn’t drawing any more, however. She sat up, carefully, keeping her legs together, smoothing her dress down. Her gaze wandered around the room for a moment, as if she’d just awakened in a strange place. Then their eyes met. Hers were sullen, and he could only just hold himself steady.
’All right,’ she said. ‘Now you’ve made your picture. What will you do for me?’
Benjamin’s mouth opened in surprise. ‘Oh,’ he said at once. ‘Anything. I’ll do anything you want.’
* * * *
She was supposed to see Taylor again on Friday, so on Thursday Benjamin murdered him. That wasn’t the original plan, of course. He’d been supposed to steal the photographs, that’s all. She’d given him the address of Taylor’s rather suave Notting Hill garden flat. She’d told him what she knew of Taylor’s schedule, prompted him on where to climb the garden fence and even told him which window – the kitchen window – was the likeliest to be unlocked. He did take his matte cutter with him, but only because it made him feel safer somehow. Maybe he’d be able to use it to turn a latch or something too, he thought. Good God, he never expected to actually do battle with the man.
Taylor went out around nine p.m., as Jane Abbot had said he might. Benjamin, huddled in shadow across the street, huddled in the blustery October darkness, watched him drive off and out of sight. Then he acted quickly.
The garden fence was low. He hopped it nimbly. He crossed the garden with a wary eye on the facing buildings, but it was all right. Most of the curtains were drawn, and no one was watching. Once he had lowered himself into the well under the windows, he was calmer, even oddly serene. He felt that no one could see him now. Well, he always felt a little like a phantom anyway.
She was right about the kitchen window too: it was unlocked. He slid it open. He climbed in over a counter, edging a crockery utensil jar to one side as he came. He drew the window shut behind him and dropped down on to the floor.
He’d brought a flashlight, but when he came into the living room, he pressed the wall switch all the same. Again, he felt invisible. He was sure he would not be seen.
The job seemed daunting to him at first. The flat was large, two vast rooms, and it was messy. Clothes and newspapers lay scattered on the floor. There were shelves and shelves of CDs and their jewel boxes were strewn on tables all around the stereo. He stood frozen. He did not know where to begin his search.
He began with a writing desk pushed against the far wall, and he found the photographs at once. The desk drawer was locked but he pulled out his matte cutter, pushed out the blade and worked it between the latch and the slot. The drawer popped open. There were papers in it. He rifled through them and saw a manila envelope underneath: the photographs and negatives were inside.
Just at this point, his calm, his armor of calm, began to disintegrate. He only glanced at the pictures briefly, but even that glimpse – of her candid nudity, of their vivid sex made pornographic by the camera – unnerved him. Waves of confused sensation washed over him, swallowed him. The reality of the photos, their easy hiding-place filled him with powerful intuitions of Taylor’s arrogance and Jane Abbot’s despair. At the same time, an aura of grandeur seemed to surround this enterprise of his – seemed to surround himself as well. After all, he was the engineer of her salvation, wasn’t he? She would be grateful to him. And he himself might well be reclaimed. The possibilities – the fair future, any future, Christ, at all – rocked him where he stood. He was desperate, all of a sudden. Desperate not to fail.
Panting, he shut the drawer quickly. He rushed to the living room doorway, slipping the cutter into his pocket unretracted, clutching the envelope in his hand. He killed the lights. He stepped into the kitchen. Almost gasping now, he moved to the counter in the dark, and to the window.
The front door opened and slammed shut. The living room lights went on. All his heroism died on the instant, a match blown out. There was no trace of calm at all, and there was sure as hell no grandeur. He felt as if he’d been transfigured suddenly into a bug, and he was almost mewling with terror as he hoisted himself onto the counter top.
Simon Taylor stepped into the kitchen and turned on the light. Just the look of him, his insolent masculinity, the sleek trench coat opened jauntily, the Italian shirt open at the throat, the black hair fallen on his brow – Benjamin was unmanned completely. He cowered on the counter top, drawing his feet in under him as if to shrink away. Simon Taylor looked at the envelope in his hand, gave a little shrug of his broad shoulders and laughed.
‘Don’t tell me you’re the best she could do,’ he said.
With a high whine of panic, Benjamin reached for the utensil jar. His fingers seemed to go off in all directions but somehow he managed to wrap them around a knife handle. He drew it out, and was heartened by the size of the blade. He gave something like a shout, and jumped down to the floor.
’Fuck you, you bastard!’ he said shrilly.
Taylor laughed again and shook his head. ’Christ!’
Benjamin advanced on him, wild. ‘Get the fuck out of my way.’
Annoyed, Taylor seemed to spit some lint off his tongue. Then, with a bored, whiffling noise, he stepped forward. Benjamin brandished the knife. Taylor slapped him, backhanded, hard, across the face. Benjamin felt the inside of his head balloon. He lost his balance and toppled over, the knife falling from one hand, the envelope flying from the other.
’Bloody ponce,’ Taylor said. He reached down and grabbed Benjamin by his coat front. He dragged him to his feet. By then, Benjamin had his hand in his pocket. Taylor yanked him forward. Benjamin pulled out his matte cutter and drove the blade into Taylor’s eye.
There was a soft pop and a blast of jelly and blood. Benjamin felt the liquid hit his cheek. Taylor’s mouth opened wide but he didn’t scream. He just crumpled to the floor, falling on to his back, one arm flung to the side. The matte cutter stuck up out of his eye socket, the handle wobbling. Benjamin gaped down at him. He wished he was a baby again on his mother’s knee. He wished he were atoms, blown into nothingness.
On the other hand, he had to get that cutter back. Choking down his gorge, he looked frantically this way and that. He saw the knife lying on the floor and swooped down, seized it. He crept up on Taylor’s body slowly, step by step, holding the knife protectively before him. He bent down, reaching for the handle gingerly.
Taylor grabbed him. His hand came up and clutched Benjamin’s wrist.
With a shriek, Benjamin fell on top of him and drove the knife into his body again and again and again.
After only ten days, Jane Abbot began to have her moments: seconds, minutes at a time, when she could put it from her mind, when the black thoughts and suicidal daydreams dissipated. It was almost then as if nothing had happened, nothing ever. There were no more stories in the paper about Simon. The police had shrugged him off as a pimp and a drug dealer, and the press had stopped covering the murder after the second or third day. Everything else went on as usual. Her husband was distracted but quietly affectionate. Her son was full of comforting babble about his childish concerns. Only once was there a phone call, after about a week. She heard a shivery silence on the line, and then the one word: ‘… Jane?’ But she hung up so quickly it was as if the phone had never rung at all.
Sometimes, recalling some novel she had read, or some interview in a newspaper, she thought to herself: It really is like waking from a nightmare. Like coming out of a terrible dream.
* * * *
In retrospect, of course, that was not the right comparison at all. Those ten days: they were just like moments, actually, moments of falling to earth. The mind does that sometimes to protect itself against inevitability. It protracts the falling time until it seems you are floating in air.
On the eleventh day, the Monday, as she returned from her son’s school, almost – really for minutes at a time – almost enjoying the clear, wintry air, she saw him again. That horrible little American. Lurking like a gargoyle by the garden fence. Gazing and gazing at her with that disgusting white glaze of lust in his eyes.
She felt herself collapsing inside. But she put her head down and crossed the street, tried to walk past him. He rushed after her – rushed after her! – calling out: ‘Jane!’
He caught the sleeve of her coat. She whipped round on him desperately, pulled free. ‘For God’s sake,’ she said. ‘For God’s sake.’
‘Please,’ he whispered. ‘You have to understand.’
She looked up and down the street. There were people - other people! – walking to work, walking right toward them.
She let out her breath. Her shoulders sagged. ‘Not here, for God’s sake,’ she said sadly.
* * * *
She used her key to let them into the garden. It was artfully overgrown. Even now, with the trees almost bare, there was no seeing into the heart of it through the thick tangle of branches. At the center of the garden, there was a swing set, surrounded by hedges and with a wooden bench nearby. She took him there. The place was almost always empty during school hours.
She thought it best to speak to him with pity, but she felt no pity for him. ‘All right. What do you want?’ she said. Her breath made plumes of frost in the air.
The man’s big eyes fairly boiled at her. ‘I told you. You know,’ he whined. ‘I just want to paint you. I need to paint you, Jane. I need… to bring you back… To bring you back.’ He apparently couldn’t explain it better than that.
She stared at him – with wonder more than anything, but maybe even with some pity now too. ‘But you can’t, she said. ‘You must know you can’t. You can’t come near me any more. I can’t be anywhere near you. It would be… fatal. To both of us.’
He gestured helplessly. ‘But you wanted…’
‘No. Not that. Absolutely. Never that. Don’t put that on me.’
He ran his hand up through his greasy hair. He pleaded with her rapidly. ‘But no one knows. No one knows anything. You have to… Listen to me. Jane. You have a… a special face. It brings things to mind. Things people want…’
‘Damn it!’ It broke from her in a harsh whisper. She could even feel herself snap. ‘I told you. This…’ She moved her hand up to her cheek, but she didn’t dare touch herself. She was so frustrated she feared she would tear the skin away. ‘I’m not responsible for this! I can’t…’
‘You bitch! You will!’ he cried out suddenly. He grabbed her violently by her coat. He clutched roughly at her hair. His face, contorted, was pressed to hers. ’I have the goddamned photographs!’
* * * *
He let her go, and they both stood a moment, shocked. But she was the first one to comprehend it, to understand what it was he’d said. The despair settled down on top of her with easy familiarity, the old blanket, the old shroud. She sank helplessly under its weight and sat down on the bench behind her. She stared blankly into the grass at her feet with a dazed and ironic smile.
There really must be an end to this, she thought. Some kind of end; a little peace; my God. If she could close her eyes; if she could sleep – sleep and sleep, enveloped in an element like water… She had thought of that often in this last year. Lying in her bath sometimes. It seemed it would be easy. With pills or with a razor. She had imagined herself: floating; floating away. It was within her power, at least, she thought. That peace, at least, she could achieve.
When, finally, slowly, she lifted her face, he was standing over her, his mouth open, as if still amazed. She thought he might be wrestling with some better remnant of himself, some instinct more humane. But she had no faith in that, she had nothing but the same old heavy irony for that as well.
And she was still smiling faintly when his features set themselves at last, when he thumped his chest with his fist in a token of ferocity and resolution.
‘I have the photographs,’ he said again. And he glared down at her, triumphant.