A Head for Business

Bishop's Move

Lang’s toenails bit into his soles. Lang hated silences, didn’t like eye contact, so Lang put an end to it.

‘You’re asking me to kill someone. You’re not buying a settee,’ he said.

Darcy’s pencil tapped on the blotter. Lang stood perfectly still, staring at the watercolours of the Lakes on the wood-panelling, waiting.

‘OK, enough,’ Lang said, turning for the door.

Bonner coughed. He was stood in the corner of the room, leather gloved hands clasped, shoulders rolled forward a little, mindful of dirtying Mr Darcy’s wallpaper. Bonner was there to mind Lang’s Ps and Qs apparently. It made a change from squeezing rent cheques out of drunks.

‘Half now,’ Darcy said, sliding an envelope across the desk, ‘half when the job’s done. The same as we always do it.’

Lang reached and pocketed the envelope, feeling it smooth, like shirt cardboard, against his chest.

‘And we’ll want proof,’ Darcy said.

Lang nodded.

‘So we know we’ve got what we paid for,’ Darcy said.

Bonner’s brogues creaked on the woodblock, reminding Lang he was there.

‘Proof isn’t a problem,’ Lang said.

He noticed Darcy had nicked his throat, staunched it with a tear of toilet paper, but it had still pinked his collar. He had blood on his collar and blood on his hands.

‘Don’t you want to know what he’s done?’ Darcy said.

Lang shook his head. He stared where the razor had cut.

‘Picked on you on the playground, didn’t he?’ Darcy said, smirking.

Lang gnawed at his cheek, snaring a flap of gristle and snapping it free tasting the coppery blood with the tip of his tongue.

‘Gerry said you were at school together,’ Darcy said. Bonner was Gerry, the huge lump he used for debt collecting, minding his sorry collection of bookies and pizza parlours.

‘Is that all?’

Darcy rolled his eyes, said he wanted his fucking head and dismissed him. Lang took the stairs two at a time, glad to be out of there, glad to be paid. He tapped out a cigarette, cupping his hands as he lit up. ‘H. Darcy’ it said on the brass plaque beside the door. Lang didn’t know what the H was for. No profession, no explanation, just a cheese-plant and a spilled stack of motoring magazines coffee rimed and dog-eared. Lang grinned, taking a deep drag, blowing the smoke through his nostrils. He was earning but, in truth, it was a job he would have done for free.

*******

Lang breathed on a smear of mayo, buffing the glass clean with his elbow. He brushed pastry flakes from the bald upholstery.

‘Take your seats ladies and gentlemen as a full ticket inspection will be taking place shortly,’ the voice said.

Magazines and newspapers went up like windbreaks in the seats around them. Fisk insisted on taking the window seat. Lang let him have that at least so Fisk could smile at the suburban semis with their rosebushes and their twinkling patio lights. Fisk could dream. He’d wanted all that one day and he might’ve had it if he’d knuckled down and stopped scamming folk. Tricking old folk out of their hard-earned was always likely to land Fisk in hot water and then he’d gone and stolen Ethel’s Christmas club money. That had been his worst move yet. Ethel Darcy.

Folk were still shuffling up and down the train in search of a seat, too polite to tell people to shift their arses and bags. A student in an Aussie hat hovered, clearing his throat. Rainwater dripped from the brim spotting the threadbare carpet near Lang’s feet. Lang’s cheek twitched. His jaw tensed. He gripped the armrest until his knuckles turned white, bloodless. Lang watched the student, eyes like slits. He knew his type well enough: a streak of piss with an Adam’s apple like a ballcock and a shower of blond curls. His rugby shirt had chewed cuffs where he’d picked at them. The student made like he was checking the seat numbers. Lang waited him out, humming, while the student dripped.

‘Excuse me,’ the student said. ‘Is this seat-’

‘My pal’s sitting here,’ Lang said. ‘You can see that.’

The student frowned. Lang started humming again. The student scratched the nape of his neck, staring at the window seat. His skin flushed like nettle-rash. The student hefted his bag and retreated.

‘Smart choice, pal,’ Lang said, snapping his newspaper out, business-like. He sipped the over-priced coffee he’d bought. It tasted of fillings. Fisk stared out of the window, tracing shapes in the condensation like a kid. He drew a noose and a scaffold. He dangled a stick man from the rope, legs flailing. The stick man had eyes like crosses and a downturned mouth.

‘Shrink would have a field day with you, Derek,’ Lang said to Fisk.

A guy with a beard like iron filings stumbled into their carriage, sucking on a crumpled juice carton. The automatic doors shuddered and snapped on the beard’s rucksack. He looked like a stricken tortoise. Lang laughed.

The carriage was silent, save for the tinny hiss of headphones. A woman clutched her handbag inside her cardigan. She wasn’t going to the toilet, she was changing carriage. Lang sniffed and wiped his nose on his wrist. He trailed a silvery snail-slick of snot across the seat in front. Lang drifted into sleep, remembering a time when Fisk had hurt him. They could have been back at high school. Whenever Lang pushed his luck Fisk would gouge him or strike him or burn him. It was the same all through school. Fisk always had to take charge.

The conductor waited till folk were sleeping so it gave him half the work. He could avoid doing his job and make out he was being considerate. He shuffled along, hitching his sagging waist, glimpsing at dog-eared tickets used as bookmarks or sketchpads. He was passing them when Lang thrust out a fist clutching both tickets. He’d paid walk-up price and didn’t want folk riding for free.

‘Thank you, Sir. He’s in the toilet is he?’ the conductor said, striking a pen through the tickets.

Lang frowned, puzzled. ‘Who is?’

‘Your friend,’ the conductor said, ‘the other ticket?’

Lang didn’t answer. It couldn’t be an easy job at times and this guy was clearly brain-fried. The conductor blinked. ‘Very good,’ he said, handing both tickets to Lang.

‘Best get the luggage off the seats. We’ve still got people standing,’ the conductor said, nodding at the blue box.

Lang stared at him. ‘This is my pal’s seat.’

The conductor nodded. His shift ended with a brandy; then it was someone else’s problem. Buying two tickets was hardly fraud, was it? Maybe the guy was at the on-board shop or having a crafty fag in the toilets.

Lang looped his coat around his shoulders and wriggled down into the seat. He didn’t hear a peep from Fisk. They took turns to sleep or stare at the moonlight reflecting on the flat, wet fields.

**********

Darcy was getting impatient. They had a number for Lang but it kept ringing out. Bonner begged to be let loose, but Darcy preached caution.

‘He’ll come,’ he said. ‘He’ll want more money, he always does.’

Bonner hammered his fist into his palm, liking the slap of polished leather. He was thinking he’d plug Lang in a concrete drainage pipe or bury him head first in the forest when the buzzer sounded in reception. They saw him on the CCTV, staring up at them, bug-eyed, lugging a holdall.

‘You’ve taken your time,’ Darcy said, when Lang strolled through the door.

Lang shrugged. ‘I had to find him first.’ He set the holdall down at his feet.

Darcy stared at the bag. ‘I didn’t know you enjoyed tennis, Dennis. Ha,’ Darcy said. ‘Tennis Dennis, I said. I’m a poet and don’t know it.’

‘The rest of my fee,’ Lang said, holding out his palm.

‘We had an arrangement. Proof was required,’ Darcy said.

Lang dropped to his knees.

‘And I didn’t tell you to come here,’ Darcy said. ‘You were meant to meet up with Gerry. Have you heard of text messages, emails and things like that?’

Lang unzipped the holdall. Bonner stepped forward. He reckoned Lang was unhinged, didn’t like the boss dealing with him. Lang took out the wooden box he’d carried with him on the train journey. It was painted blue and had a padlocked clasp.

‘What’s this?’ Darcy said.

Lang lifted the lid and took out a black plastic bag. Something toppled inside, weighty and bulging against the plastic.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Darcy said.

‘Patience,’ Lang said.

Lang produced the blade and slit the bag. He peeled back the plastic and set Fisk’s head down on Darcy’s desk. Darcy’s eyes widened. His chair screeched as he leapt back against the wall. ‘Jesus,’ Bonner bawled. Lang stepped away from the head, hands raised as if he’d finished a sculpture.

‘You’re crazy,’ Darcy said.

He stood back, keeping the desk between him and Fisk’s leaking head.

‘He owed you money,’ Lang said. ‘He owed me too.’

Darcy’s voice was hoarse, throaty. ‘You could’ve taken a photo.’

Fisk’s eyes were open, bloody and dark. His hair was matted with blood at the collar.

‘The head symbolised power for the Celts. If you take your enemy’s head-’ Lang began.

‘Take it away,’ Darcy roared.

‘I’ll kill him, boss,’ Bonner said.

Darcy shook his head. ‘I want him out of here, now.’

Lang held out his hand. Darcy snatched an envelope from the drawer, throwing it at Lang.

‘Get out and take it with you.’

Lang dropped Fisk’s head into the bag, but it tumbled out where he’d cut.

‘Get out!’

Lang held Fisk’s head by the hair, like a war trophy, pocketed the envelope, and set off down the stairs.

Reading Chandler in the canteen

chandlerCan’t remember where I got this copy but it looks great. I first read Chandler at university (better to learn how to drink scotch and wear a hat than study chemistry anyway).His one liners are brilliant.

A blonde, the kind of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

He lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief.

Just reading a few choice lines made me smile. Best of all Chandler now has a new fan and he sits just across the desk from me.  The Big Sleep – good place to start, Tim.

For now I’m following the wreckage Moose Malloy has left in his wake…

Revenge Story – Bishop’s Move

Bishop's Move
Bishop’s Move

Bishop’s Move

I’d know that walk anywhere. Seven years had passed and I’d all but given up hope when Bishop tottered across the cobbles. I’d been searching for the Blues score, some bacon crisping under the grill, when that familiar figure on the screen made me freeze. I leapt from the chair, cranking the volume up.

‘One day I knew I’d find yer,’ I said. ‘Now I’ve got yer.’ I didn’t even notice the smoke alarm shrieking as the bacon burnt.

 

We’d met Mr Jervis at Hilton Park services on a bitter January night. Mr Jervis twisted and folded a serviette scoring sharp lines with a manicured thumbnail. He told us he wanted Butcher dead. He wanted to send a message. He slid a photo across the table. Butcher was leaning on a doorframe smoking, squinting up at the sun. A slab of fat hung over his trousers, each shirt button straining over a low-strung belt.

‘Plenty to aim at,’ Bishop said.

I knew he was full of it and I should’ve done something about it then.

 

Seven hours on the M6 made me as stiff as an ironing board. I saw him emerge from the pub and I ducked off the street, making out I was lighting up out of the wind. I stepped out, blocking the alley. Bishop had a carrier bag scrunched in his fist. His eyes widened. ‘Meadows?’ he said.

Bishop sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of a hand.

‘OK, let’s not mess about. Where’s the money?’

‘Meadows,’ he said, trying my name out again. ‘You’ve lost weight. I knew you’d come, you know.’

‘Where is it?’ I took out the gun. Bishop didn’t seem troubled.

‘I knew you wouldn’t give up.’ Bishop scratched his chin. ‘I was on the news, wasn’t I?’ he said. ‘That’s how you found me.’

I nodded. A random news story about film stars eating at a chippie on the Fife coast had put Bishop in a village of two hundred people. He opened a roller shutter, told me to follow him inside. It stank of fish and there were coils of rusted chain, stacks of barrels. I kept away from the walls, pointing the gun at Bishop’s gut.

‘Thing is, we didn’t complete the job,’ Bishop said.

He meant we hadn’t killed Butcher, but he’d still collected half before. He took a holdall from a barrel and kicked it across the floor. ‘What’s left is yours…’

I poked it with a toe and saw a few rolls of fifties, not nearly enough. I fired a shot into Bishop’s guts and he sank to his knees, spluttering and bleeding into the concrete. I was reaching for the holdall when something struck my neck and everything went black.

 

‘What do we do with them?’ the fisherman said.

Mr Jervis nudged Meadows’s cheek with his boot, gave Bishop a kick to be sure. He pointed out to sea. ‘They’re asleep. So let them sleep with the fishes, eh?’

 

Night Turns

I was short listed and came runner up with Ideastap for a story called Night Turns a little while back. I’m publishing it in full on my blog for the first time….

Night Turns...no escape
Night Turns…no escape

Night Turns

The car stank of onion sweat and yesterday’s takeout. Den wasn’t helping things. He had the heater on full blasting out dust and fogging up the windows. The last shift hadn’t bothered to clear their burger boxes and crumpled chip cartons from the foot-wells. Blake wasn’t shifting them on principle and crushed them with his heels. Den folded his pudgy arms, rested his chin on his chest. He was two years from retirement. His reminders of how many hours and minutes he had left to serve – a ticking clock of smugness – were as regular as his tea-breaks. They hadn’t spoken since midnight, but Den’s retirement clock was beginning to tick in Blake’s head too. He was becoming like that tramp he’d read about who never wore a watch but could estimate the time precisely whenever he was stopped. Blake fiddled with the radio, turned it on and off again. It was silent. Den shook his head. It was a bitterly cold night and any Billy Burglar with a brain cell was tucked up beneath his duvet with the central heating on turbo.

Den was pink-skinned and almost completely bald, a look that brought to mind a baby emerging from a bath. Den licked a fingertip, preening his fuse-wire moustache. He had a pair of scissors he kept alongside his cuffs and baton in his utility belt and he’d get them out and trim it. Once, Dent clipped a bristle of moustache into Blake’s chicken soup. Blake had fantasised about beating Den to death for the rest of the shift. Blake drew Den in the condensation, smirking at the bristly moustache and sagging gut. Den wriggled, reclining his chair and beginning the succession of lip-smacking and throat clearing noises he always went through before sleep.

Blake stared out at the moonlight shining on the mere. Hawthorn and privet sparkled in the hoar frost. Blake resigned himself to watching the ice creep across the mere for the next three hours. It was a popular dogging spot and a fair few headlights had pitched up, seen their marked Peugeot and reversed swiftly. When he was chosen from more than seven hundred applicants and promptly went and got drunk Blake dreamed of being a thief-taker. He hadn’t pictured himself sitting with Den Drake at popular dogging spots.

Blake’s stomach churned. Night turn always upset his guts. He couldn’t hack cornflakes at teatime – the milk sloshed in his belly for hours – and could never manage pie and mash for breakfast. Den was a bin. He ate things seagulls and foxes wouldn’t touch. Den farted noisily, did a little shuffle of his hips to liberate the gas. His shirt tugged free as he shuffled in the seat exposing a white tyre of flesh, striated where his utility belt had fought a losing battle with kebabs and Big Macs. He wafted his gas at Blake with a cupped palm. Blake cracked the window an inch, rewarded by an icy blast of wind.

‘Share and share alike,’ Den said, ‘be rude not to.’

Blake’s eyes began to water. The tabloids were predicting record lows and the thermometer hadn’t finished tumbling yet. ‘It smells like something’s died in here.’

Den lit a fag. ‘Don’t know what they put in those pasties.’

‘No, I don’t mind if you do,’ Blake said, wafting away the smoke.

‘Do you ever stop moaning?’ Den said. ‘Why do you do this job anyway?’

‘I guess it’s the stimulating chat.’

Den stared at him through narrowed eyes and blew smoke at his face.

‘Lima three-zero, Control,’ Blake said, angling the mike away from Den’s interruptions. There was a pause, a little static, before Carl on Control replied. ‘Yeah, believe it or not we’re still here, Rob. We’ve got nothing for you, I’m afraid.’

Den sat chuckling. He didn’t need to say I told you so, but Blake thought he would do sooner or later. Blake closed his eyes, prayed for calls, guilty he was wishing tragedies on people he’d never met. People getting walloped with frying pans, muggings in underpasses, shoplifting at an all-night store – any of these would offer a reprieve.

The green diodes on the dash clock flashed three am. Blake tilted the headrest, rucked up his coat around his thighs and closed his eyes surrendering to sleep. He dreamt they were pursuing a stolen car, taking the islands on the ring road on two wheels, flashing him to stop. Control said the driver was wanted for murder.

‘This’ll be one hell of a collar,’ Den told him. Blake got alongside at seventy, bossed the driver to pull over. He boxed the stolen car in with skill, killed his engine, got out and straightened his hat and belt. The driver sat with his hands on the wheel, didn’t move. Blake tapped the window. When the man wouldn’t budge he took out his baton and banged the window, threatened to put it through if he didn’t get out. The banging on the toughened glass became a thud. It got louder until Blake thought he might put the window through.

‘Shit!’

‘Rise and shine, sleepyhead.’

Blake shot up in his seat. Chief Inspector Spencer was tapping the window with his truncheon. Blake wound down the window.

‘What the hell do you think this is?’ Spencer said.

‘Sorry, guv, I….’

Den was shaking his head. ‘I should’ve kept an eye out, sir.’

Spencer folded his arms. ‘Not your fault, Den. We’re running a police force not a bloody travel tavern. Sleep in your own time, Blake.’

Blake wondered why Spencer was passing a dogging spot at three in the morning. Spencer nodded at Den. ‘You could learn a lot from Den here.’

Den grinned.

‘He’s coming up to retirement, aren’t you, Den?’

‘I suppose I must be, guv. I’ve lost track of the years.’

Spencer slapped him on the back. ‘He’s still as keen as mustard. Watch and learn, Blake. That’s if you can keep your eyes open.’